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Change Up

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Change Up

Written by Nathan Knaack, Hi-Rez Studios

I was just about to give up on the entire deal, pack my things, and head back home when there was a knock at the door of my hotel room. Sanctuary’s lodgings were famous for their personal service, which was amazing considering the city’s location atop an otherwise lonely mountain in the Himalayas, but I hadn’t called down for anything since breakfast. Brushing a hand against the heat-sensitive panel on the nightstand, I turned the flickering view screen off, not really caring for the outcome of a Laserball game that didn’t involve any of the teams I had money on, and walked over to the door, touching a similar panel there to unlock it.

It whispered open to reveal a tall, clean shaven man whose UV glasses hid his expression just as effectively as his neatly-trimmed suit covered all of his numerous tattoos. The latter detail I inferred from how my contact had described the agency to me a week before, after another friend had given me his contact information for an impromptu meeting back in the desert. Seven days and several thousand miles later, I caught myself staring at a real life recruitment operative for The Cadre, one of the world’s most elite organizations.

Stepping aside, I offered, “Come in.” The agent shook his head slowly, his face a mask of tinted lenses and emotionless adherence to his duties. Gesturing with an outstretched hand, he directed me down the hallway to the open and waiting elevator. I grabbed my windbreaker and stepped out ahead of him, reaching out to lock the door behind me as I asked in as comfortable a voice as I could muster, “Where are we going?’

Rumbling up from deep in his chest, the agent’s voice came out with the obvious modification of genetically augmented lungs, tracheal filters, and the telltale reverberation of metallic bone replacements, “Your appointment is scheduled at the Steel Path dojo in fifteen minutes.” He leaned forward, reinforcing the already obvious difference between our heights before adding, “Being late would reflect poorly on your application.”

Not needing elaboration on his insinuation, I took up stride ahead of him en route to the elevator and stepped inside. He loomed in behind and turned with his back to me as he pressed the lobby button. I waited for a few moments, but when it became apparent that he had no intention of turning to face me to engage in any sort of casual conversation, I cleared my throat and asked, “How long have you been with-“

He interjected suddenly, cutting me off with, “I would prefer not to discuss business matters at this location.” The rest of the elevator ride passed in silence before the doors opened to reveal the spacious lobby of the hotel, its vaulted ceiling soaring above the lush foliage dangling from the balcony of every suite with an internal window. The hanging garden motif brought an air of biological imagery to a city that was otherwise dominated by computers, chrome, and the ubiquitous cybernetic implant technology that had put it on the map. Security guards bore the telltale signs of limb replacements, every clerk had at least one artificial eye, and even the bellhop had hydraulic knee augmentations that whined with high-pitched servos whenever he bent over to hoist more luggage than any normal human should be able to carry. It was a marvelous city for its architectural splendor and picturesque landscape, along with the often startling modifications to its citizenry, but all of that stood in stark contrast to the compound resting at the far side of the alpine valley, where we were going.

Although probably once the defining feature of the mountaintop location, the ancient wood and stone structures high on the opposite rise were a snapshot of history among the modern concrete platforms, glass windows, and metallic trim that comprised the rest of Sanctuary. The twisting and overgrown cobblestone trail leading up to the painstakingly groomed front garden is what gave the place its original name, the Green Path. Nestled into the natural wilderness at the base of a serene waterfall, the buildings themselves were meticulously maintained, bearing most of the original woodwork and decorations first set in place centuries before by Tibetan monks.

World renown for producing some of the best martial artists to ever live, the dojo served as living quarters and practice chambers to its students and masters alike. Its influence on the population of the rest of the city was obvious, with the school’s inhabitants walking casually among the modern citizens and visitors that flocked to the area with the parent corporation responsible for bringing mass society to the remote location. Metal Arms Laboratories, a global economic superpower that derived most of its wealth from the research, development, production, and distribution of cybernetic technologies, had relocated its headquarters to the area for what appeared to be symbolic reasons, as their specialty cybernetics were widely used to enhance physical capabilities. One glance at the average city security officer revealed that his augmentations were largely intended to achieve the pinnacle of combat prowess. Rumor had it that the CEO himself was so dedicated to bringing cybernetics to the forefront of human modification that he personally arranged for extensive tests that pitted the latest technology against the oldest techniques.

Though rarely mentioned within Sanctuary itself, the union of the two groups was referred to as the Steel Path School elsewhere in the world, a combined philosophy that valued success in combat over all other ideals.

It wasn’t Metal Arms that I was interested in, however, and it certainly wasn’t the Green Path. Both factions seemed to be exclusively interested in recruiting the best combatants they could find, and to them I was just another technical specialist. Struggling to keep up with my escort’s titanic stride as we made our way through the common areas of the city, I found myself consciously staying in the wake he left through the throngs of pedestrians. “I’m sorry, but I didn’t catch your name.”

He didn’t look back, “That’s right.”

“Oh,” I paused, but nothing else was offered, “we’ll it’s nice to meet you anyway. I’m Anthony-“

“Devore. Yes, I’ve reviewed your file and correspondence.”

“Oh,” I paused again, suddenly aware of how often I used the expression as a delay.

As we made our way across one of the many covered bridges that linked the various tiers of the city, all made up of massive concrete disks suspended above a serene pond of crystal clear mountain water, I caught a twitch in my escort’s manner. Anyone who’s job wasn’t intricately involved with picking out irregularities in minute details, like lines of monotonous code, would have missed the gesture, but to me it was plain as day. The emotionless facade and stoic pace of the recruiter skipped a beat as we passed the midway point on the bridge, with his posture stiffening subtly as he glanced to one side. Following the direction, I caught the eye of two citizens standing outside a vendor’s booth, who looked away quickly and began talking loudly to each other as a distraction. We were being watched and probably followed, a hint my companion had realized as well.

The base of the Green Path dojo’s plateau looked like it hadn’t changed much in a thousand years aside from just enough trimming of the ambient undergrowth to let people know that there was still a narrow stone walkway up the side of the hill. The society and technology of the city sprung up just a few meters from where the ancient stones left off, but the boundary was meticulously respected by both eras. The agent motioned for me to take the lead up the trail, filing into step behind me as I carefully moved hanging branches out of the way in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the wooden buildings above as I walked.

We climbed for a few minutes before emerging into a clearing about halfway up the rise, from which most of the city was visible below, its lights and communications spires reaching up into the frigid mountain sky. The center of the treeless area was dominated by a shallow pit ringed with a two-step stone incline, circular in shape, with a floor of fine white sand. Arrayed around at even intervals were holes bored into the rock made to support standards, usually wooden cross posts with tabards hung to identify combatants engaged in the arena. At that time, however, one of the flags on display whipped in the wind while hanging from a wooden stand and the other was a solid steel pole that supported a holographic image projector; the former bore the ancient crest of the Green Path and the other proudly displayed the Metal Arms logo.

We weren’t alone anymore, either. About twenty spectators had gathered and were calmly chatting amongst each other, but as my companion ushered me towards the edge of the ring, I was able to examine one of the participants before the duel began. At one end of the stone ring was a cybernetic monstrosity; it was the only possible way to describe the being who I was sure only technically qualified as human by the thinnest margin. His skin was stretched in some places and compacted in others to accommodate the chrome plates that made up the bulk of his exterior. Two natural arms were overgrown with augmentations and supplemented by a second pair of entirely robotic appendages emerging from halfway down his torso. Each pair cracked its respective knuckles as the beast twitched in anticipation of the match. The topknot of hair tied at the center of his otherwise shaven head seemed to intentionally showcase his cybernetic eyes, ears, jaws, and temple-mounted data port. As he leaned back and forth, shifting weight from one leg to the other, the hydraulics were easily audible from where I was standing about five meters away, the powerful machinery working to compensate for the hundreds of extra kilograms added to his body mass. He grinned, showing off two rows of steel teeth, and glared across the ring at his opponent with eager aggression.

I followed his gaze to what had to be the arbiter of the encounter, a thin, middle-aged man wearing only a linen robe and handmade sandals. His bald head was hereditary, not shaven, while his bowed posture and folded hands broadcast a respectful humility. Leaning forward to stand on my toes, I searched the crowd at the other end of the ring for another monster to rival the first, but no one emerged to challenge him. I looked up at my escort and shrugged. “Did we miss the fight?”

The agent shook his head and nodded forward, indicating that I was to watch the ring.

Turning back around just as his metallic voice erupted from his tortured body, the cybernetic nightmare bellowed his intent, “I don’t have all day!” With that, he stretched out all four of his arms in a powerful display of muscle and machinery, then abruptly dashed forward at the referee. My unfamiliarity with the region or its traditions aside, I knew that something wasn’t right. He led with two of his mighty fists straight at the smaller man’s head, a maneuver I was sure would have split mine into halves like a ripe melon. Cringing, I prepared for a horrendous image to be burned into my memory.

Somewhere between the old man’s seventeenth and eighteenth spin kick to the mechanical beast’s face, crushing bone and metal with equal ease, I realized that he probably wasn’t the judge but the other participant. A few moments later, the fight was over and all of the money I would have lost had I wagered the “safe” bet was lying in a shattered pile of flesh and chrome on the arena floor, bleeding and sizzling with electrical discharges. A stray piston was still pumping somewhere in what used to be his chest, pressing up and down under a layer of skin in a way that made my stomach churn. It turned out I was to be treated with an unforgettable mental image after all, just not the one I had expected.

“That was-“ I began awkwardly, thinking that my companion had brought me to witness the event in order to gauge my fortitude. He interrupted me, though.

“Collect yourself, Mr. Devore.”

Looking up to see what he was talking about, I discovered that he was watching a man in a white business suit approach. Once I was sure my breakfast was going to stay down, I gathered up my best smile and presented it.

“Is this him,” the man began with a salesman’s smile that put mine to shame, “this is the one I’ve heard so much about?” He offered his hand like a game show prize and shook mine like he'd been looking forward to it all day. Immediately stepping along side me, he wrapped his arm around my shoulders and pressed us into stride together. “Anthony Devore, may I call you Anthony?”

“I guess you-“

“Great, my name is Theodore Bailey, but you can call me Theo.” He nudged an elbow into the stoic agent’s stomach playfully, adding, “But this guy never will, isn’t that right Jimbo?”

If I had consciously tried, I couldn’t imagine something being more offensive to my previous escort. His jaw tightened noticeably at the overtly familiar behavior of his employer, folding his arms behind his back to hide his clenched fists. I found myself imitating Theo as we both grinned at the agent.

“Ahh, never mind him. Let’s head up to the school and find a place to chat, alright Tony?” James, I’m sure his name actually was, walked behind us like a domesticated animal from that point on, clearly aware that his boss had dispelled the aura of potency and secrecy he had taken such great pains to establish. “Did you enjoy the fight?

“Oh,” I began, but the question turned out to be rhetorical.

“They aren’t usually that short, but there’s at least one every day so you won’t have to wait long for a rematch.” Amused by his own wit, Theo chuckled and shook his head. “I tell you, the gang that runs this town is as entertaining as it is useful, if you know what I mean. So Metal Arms rolls in a few years ago and turns this old monastery into a thriving city, building the most advanced cybernetics in history, but the monks, you see, the monks don’t leave.” He waved his free hand around at the ancient surroundings and scenery, “Seriously, these guys live without electricity and plumbing half a kilometer from the most advanced research laboratory on the planet.”

“Yeah, I-“

“And you saw the fight, I mean seriously! One side packs computers and metal and armor and God knows what else into these poor lads, then a little old man that’s spent his whole life shuttling buckets of water from the lake to the barn steps into the ring and murders the former without breaking a sweat.”

“It sure was-“

“It was fantastic, that’s what it was! I tell you, Tony, you work all around the globe, you meet all kinds of people, you see amazing things, but nothing prepares you for watching someone’s grandpa do a number like that on a robotic juggernaut. If nothing else, Sanctuary is worth the trip just for the show!” He burst into a fit of hysterical laughter, which I tried to fake and Agent James tried to ignore.

When the commotion had died down somewhat, I ventured a change of direction in the conversation, “So, with regard to my application, I-“

Theo patted me on the chest and shook his head, “No, no, no. No business yet. Let’s get some tea and do that thing where we sit on the floor in here,” he said, nodding towards the ancient wooden dojo we had been approaching but I had been too distracted by his extroverted behavior to notice. “You think I’m joking, but I’m not! You sit on the floor but it’s clean, seriously. They’ve got tables only yea high off the ground and they bring you hot tea.” He shrugged sympathetically like he was miming out my mental reaction for me. “Seriously!”

We climbed the few steps up to the sliding paper doors and a young monk opened them for us to enter; Theo, his arm still wrapped around me tightly, surged forward into the main room of the school. “Look at this place! The ceiling is all original, Tony. What is it, like, a million years old? I mean, come on!” If I was only mildly amused by his antics and Agent James was much less entertained, then the monks appeared to be even further removed. They carefully walked around the three of us, not wanting anything to do with Theo or anyone associated with him. He either picked up on the vibe and exploited it or was completely unaware of their contempt, “And watch this: You can just wander in here anytime you like and they don’t say a word.” He caught a passing monk by the arm and commanded, “Hey, we’re going to have a seat in that room over there; bring us some tea, would you?” The man nodded and wandered off to comply. Looking back at me with astonishment, Theo balked, “See?”

The adjacent room was much smaller than the main training area, a cozy arrangement of antiquated artwork circling a low wooden table, where Theo finally disconnected himself from my side and sat down heavily on the rice mat. Trying to take in as much of my surroundings as possible, I maneuvered into a position at the other end of the table and struggled to get my legs folded properly underneath. “This place is amazing… really.”

Theo nodded at Agent James, who took the queue and stepped back out of the room, sliding the door closed behind him. His tone changed as soon as we were alone. “The Cadre isn’t a social club, alright? We don’t pick names out of a hat for potential members, so you’re d*** lucky you had a reference.”

“I-“

“They don’t allow any technology in here, which is why it’s the perfect place to conduct meetings like this, so don’t waste my time with small talk.” Reaching under his lapel, Theo produced a single sheet of folded paper, sliding it across the table to me while intently staring at the door. “Read this quietly.”

The form was written in SHEL, the universal hexagonal language introduced by the Commonwealth only a few decades before, an easily identifiable font that had been forced on the rest of the world to standardized written communications. I scanned the hieroglyphics slowly and assembled the images as intended. Theo knew exactly when I’d finished, probably from my nervous body language. He was about to say something serious when the monk we’d met earlier shuffled in with a pot of tea and two tiny glasses. Setting it down politely and bowing to each of us, a gesture Theo returned with an elaborate flourishing nod, he began pouring it for us.

“Do you actually know what SHEL stands for?” Theo’s socialite behavior had returned, filling the silence with small talk in the presence of an audience.

I mulled the letters over in my head as I pushed the paper back to him, “Actually, no.”

“Standardized hexagonal equivalent linguistics, doesn’t that seem a little ironic to you?”

“Why is that?” I followed his lead and pretended to be engaged in meaningless banter.

“Really, only those Commonwealth stiffs could invent an artificial language intended to make communication simpler, then give it a ridiculous antonym.”

Frowning, I caught his mistake and corrected him, “You mean acronym.”

“Do I?”

The first genuine humor of the day escaped me in a burst of laughter and I had to take a sip of tea to rein it in and prevent making a fool out of myself in public. Theo bore no such inhibitions and bellowed with a mirth that I’m positive was heard throughout the dojo, interrupting lessons and meditations alike. The monk smiled weakly and excused himself without a word.

My host dropped back into his serious tone without skipping a beat. “Do you understand the process?”

Nodding, I took another drink of the aromatic tea, then replied, “It’s not going to be a problem.”

“If I thought there was going to be a problem with you,” Theo began wryly, “I would have arranged for an accident during your journey here.” His grin was entirely different now, not detracting from his ominous comment but backing it up with a devilishly serious intent. “We don’t extend offers to security threats; going over our paradigm with you is only a formality.”

“So I’ve been accepted?” Nervous sweat collected on the back of my neck briefly. I was about to take a huge leap from scraping by on mercenary hacking to a full-time position with The Cadre.

He downed his tea in one gulp and held the glass up, “You were accepted the moment Agent James laid eyes on you long enough to scan you for transponders; we’re familiar with your work history and needed only verify your identity in person. And that’s that.” Theo got up to leave, but signaled for me to stay seated as he approached the door. “Stay here for five minutes, then leave and return to your hotel room. You were followed here and this will give them the impression that we rejected your inquiry. We’ll contact you within the week about your first operation and someone will provide you with a meeting location.” He turned his friendly demeanor on like a light switch and beamed his smile at me once again, “Welcome aboard.” Sliding the door open and bursting into the next room like the life of the party, he vanished around the corner and all I could hear was his boisterous voice as he accosted a nearby monk with questions about the day’s Laserball scores.

“Oh,” I responded much too late and quiet for him to have heard. I sat alone on the dojo floor for exactly three hundred seconds.

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