I walked into the brightly lit training area, clipboard in hand. The large, cube-like location had been cleared of its obstacles and training edifices, creating space for each of the recruits filing into the room. Amid some yawns and chatter, the soldiers were stretching and getting ready for a new day's worth of training. James Hale, leader of the CIA, stood next to me, back straight and hands clasped tightly behind his back. To his right, a tall figure wearing an impeccable suit stood soberly, his strong jaw lined with a splash of facial hair.
With just one word, he called his soldiers to order. They stopped chatting and joking instantly, falling silent and forming one straight line at attention.
The man standing to Hale's right took a step forward and began speaking to his employees.
"Freelancers," he began. "Welcome to another hard day's work. You all, so far, have done relatively well. Your skills have improved in both combat and intelligence. You are not the petty children you once were.
"However, this is not enough. Not by a long shot. I employed you to be the best fighters an army can have, and I must say... I am disappointed." His southern drawl mixed with his tone of contempt sent chills up my spine. "You must try harder. I will reward those who do well, and punish those who cannot stay ahead. Today, your training becomes much more difficult. We are at a new level, ladies and gentlemen. Expect to hurt. Expect to tire. This is no longer a game.
"As you can see here," he said, indicating me and Hale, "I have decided to form a certain partnership with the Central Intelligence Agency. These two will be watching your training closely and taking notes. They will track your performance and investigate your backgrounds for their own files. I have allowed this to occur only on the terms that each performance rating passes through me first. We will begin the day, as usual, with roll call. Mr. Hale here and his Agent will be in charge of getting certain information from you. I expect you all to cooperate. Good day."
The Director left the room without another word, I knew, to go and watch the proceedings from his private area above us. The tinted windows on the third story let the Director watch what occurred without being seen.
"We will speak to you individually, in alphabetical order," Hale called to the Freelancers, who still stood obediently, even though their main superior had left. "Continue to stand at attention."
Hale pushed me forward, and I approached the recruits. I wondered what they were thinking as their eyes followed me. They were probably sizing me up, wondering how much of a threat I was to them. If I were worthy to be standing here with them, maybe. Or if I were at a level of responsibility above or below their rank.
"I will take your name, ID number, and basic height and weight information," I called down the end of the line more confidently than I felt. "When I am done with you, you are dismissed."
I wasn't sure if I had the authority to tell them they could leave, but I glanced over at Hale and saw him nod a fraction of an inch.
The first Freelancer was a tough girl a little shorter than me, but much stronger-looking. We were probably around the same age. She watched me closely, not sure if she should respect or berate me.
She gave me her ID number and other information cautiously but without complaint, so, when I dismissed her, she left without another word. The other Freelancers were whispering quietly among themselves, glancing at me appraisingly every few seconds. They pretended not to pay attention to me as I asked information from each soldier, but I could tell they were still sizing me up. I just didn't know how I looked in their eyes.
This place was cutthroat. Anyone was seen as competition, as a challenge. I had nothing to do with their Freelancer training; I was a budding CIA Agent myself, and was going through specialty training completely separate from this. I was no super-soldier, but I could hold my own in a fight.
I wondered if they saw that as they watched me continue to extract their information. Each Freelancer I spoke to was not necessarily rude, but reserved. Not cold, but cautious. I wondered if they were just as curious about me as I was of them. We were both receiving similar training, but for entirely different purposes. I was trained for field work and intelligence. They were there to kill.
I continued down the line of soldiers and was almost at the end.
I looked up sharply into a young man's face.
"Why do I have to give you this information?"
I was taken aback. "I don't believe you have the authority to question me, Agent."
The Freelancer sighed and crossed his arms, watching me with a slight smirk. "So, what happens to me if I don't feel like giving it up?"
I scoffed, though inside I felt nervous. "What happens is that I get your ass kicked out of this program."
The soldier sighed. "So... what are you going to do for me in return for this information?"
"How about this," I said, smiling darkly but wondering how much trouble I'd get into with my uncontrollable sarcasm. "I won't beat you senseless."
"Is that a challenge?" he asked, raising his eyebrows. "I'd take that bet."
"For God's sake, man, shut up and give her the damn information!" the Freelancer at the end of the line said, irritated. "My breakfast is waiting in the mess hall!"
"Jesus, calm down, Wyoming," the Freelancer in front of me replied. He gave me an appraising stare. "You've got spark, I'll give you that. The name's Wash. Agent Washington."
He gave me the rest of his stats and I dismissed him, completely nonplussed.
The next Freelancer introduced himself as West Virginia.
"...But I go by Wes," he added. He must have seen that I was still preoccupied by Agent Washington's interruption. "Don't worry about Wash," he told me seriously. "He's a great fighter, but sometimes he thinks he owns the place. At times, he's completely serious about everything, and then, other times, it seems like he just wanted to join this program for kicks. But every guy has his own reasons, I guess."
I thanked him politely and sent him on his way, finally finishing off the last few Freelancers.
"It's about time," Agent Wyoming said when I told him he was free to go. "I've got to go and beat Wash senseless now for holding up my breakfast."