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 yawns and chatter, the soldiers stretched, preparing for a new day of training. Malcolm James Hale, leader of the UNSC reconnaissance team, stood just in front of me, back straight and hands clasped behind his back. To his right, a tall bespectacled figure stood soberly, his strong jaw lined with a splash of dark 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 day. 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 UNSC. 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 pass 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 superior had left. "Continue to stand at attention."
Hale nudged me forward, and I approached the recruits.
"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 finished 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 young woman a little shorter than I. She watched me closely, her helmet in hand, her eyes narrowed in suspicion.
She gave me her ID number and other information cautiously but without complaint, and when I dismissed her, she left without another word. The other Freelancers whispered to each other and pretended not to pay attention to me as I asked information from each soldier, but I knew better.
Each Freelancer I spoke to was not necessarily rude, but reserved. Not cold, but cautious. Some Freelancers seemed to take no notice of me, while others had a challenge burning in their eyes.
It was evident: I was not welcome here. Perhaps some of the soldiers would brush me off, realizing that my threat status was minimal. As for the rest, I was competition—a challenge. As a UNSC reconnaissance Agent, I had nothing to do with them. I was trained for diplomacy and self-defense—they were trained to kill. However, my single command—my single utterance allowing them to leave—had been a challenge to their authority. I had done them wrong within my first ten seconds of speech.
I continued down the line of soldiers, almost reaching the end of the line.
I looked up sharply into a bright purple helmet with green lining.
"Why do I have to give you this information?"
I was taken aback. "Are the Director's orders not enough?"
The Freelancer put her hands on her hips, tilting her head. "So, what happens to me if I don't feel like giving it up?"
I swallowed. "What, do you really want to bring your boss into this? I don't think he'd be happy that you're not cooperating."
She scoffed. "Hiding behind authority. So typical of you UNSC Agents."
I growled. "Name and information." I had a slew of comebacks running through my mind, but I wasn't about to get fired on my first day.
The woman chuckled, said nothing, and my face burned.
"For God's sake, just 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 snapped. She turned back to me grouchily. "I'm Agent South Dakota."
She gave me the rest of her stats icily and I dismissed her.
The next Freelancer introduced himself as North Dakota.
"...But I go by North," he added. He must have seen that I was still preoccupied by Agent South Dakota's interruption. "Don't worry about South," he told me seriously. "She's a great fighter, but sometimes she thinks she owns the place. You just can't let you know she's gotten to you." He chuckled, his laugh a softer version of South's but undoubtedly similar. "After being stuck with her since birth, I've been able to learn a few tricks."
Oh. Twins. 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 South senseless now for holding up my breakfast."