Not a lot of IS-ing going on, not yet anyway. Fair bit of talk about it though which should hopefully convince you that this is still, technically, set in that same universe.

Project Vulkan

Chapter Four: Trainees

The line of people stood before me in a neat little line, Claire stood a respectful distance away, dressed in a smart blouse and blazer despite the heat. Back when I was in boot camp I'd always wondered how it looked from the DI's perspective. Now I knew. Nothing to write home about really, I'm just staring at a line of people selected to take part in one of the most ridiculous exercises man has conceived since the unveiling of the IS unit – in my own opinion – and further proof of our unending collective desire to kill or dominate one another.

I scratched the back of my head, not entirely sure of what to say just yet. Reynard had sprung the heart of the project on me two days ago and I was still reeling from it. I'd asked him (somewhat in awe to my chagrin) if his team had actually cracked the secret of the IS cores. Reynard had thrown his head back and laughed.

'Naw, but we did get some extremely useful pointers.'

Yesterday he'd approached me and asked me to take charge of thirty men and women taking part in the project – that is, those who had been marked as potential pilots for the Vulkan Combat Superiority System. I'd almost shaken my head at the name when I'd checked out the armaments.

Don't get me wrong, it was an impressive package if you were going up against any modern armed force today, sure: a shoulder-mounted guided missile rack, infra-red and night vision tracking capable of locking onto a man's beating heart from more than two miles away, and armour crafted from alloys so durable and so thick that even modern battle tank armour-piercing rounds wouldn't so much as dent it. From there you had several choices in 'standard armament', the first of which some juvenile in the R&D staff had dubbed 'The Penetrator' which was a blocky twin-barrelled assault rifle with a high-frequency bayonet attached to the lower barrel that fired 1" depleted-uranium rounds.

Next up was a railgun of all things which would decimate anything in front of it but was a little large and bulky and had to be fired from the shoulder like a rocket launcher. Coupled with the size of its batteries and its power consumption meant even with an extended loadout you'd never have more than fifteen shots maximum. Finally was a much more compact weapon which appeared more like a submachine gun in the Vulkan's massive paws that fired exploding flechettes. Boring to be sure, but no less effective I'd wager.

In addition to all that was chaff to scramble the guidance systems of incoming missiles and a limited stealth system (which only really worked provided the machine was travelling at less than 200kph and had not engaged its weapons systems) as well as LADAR and a HUD that provided all the necessary intel a soldier would need without feeling cluttered. If that wasn't enough it could accelerate to Mach 1 in under a minute.

Yeah, a few of these machines would rip through any army on Earth.

But, as I flew against Claire Eckhart, comparing my beast to hers, the difference was all too clear.

The IS Inertia Canceller meant the worst she ever felt was a sharp nudge even if she ploughed into a cliff at max speed, the Vulkan had state of the art shock absorption tech but even that could only do so much before it gave. There was no barrier or shielding system of any sort, just good old fashioned titanium alloy plating keeping the hurt at bay. There was no hyper sense, meaning anyone piloting this thing would have to rely on the external sensors and LADAR, which were good, but required far too much attention, and in a combat situation I predicted that stress levels would shoot through the roof in minutes with the constant checking just to see what was going on around you.

To make things even worse was the fact that the thing was just too damned slow compared to the IS, which could shoot off like a bullet from the word go. The Vulkan took a little less than a minute to reach Mach 1 speeds, which was barely half the top speed of a typical Second-Generation IS unit. In a duel, the Vulkan was a turtle without its shell, and in my experience if you weren't at least quick you were most assuredly dead.

I couldn't understand why Reynard and his company had even greenlit this project if this was all they had to show for it. In every way the Vulkan was inferior to its sleeker, faster, more compact, heavier hitting counterpart. Yet it went ahead all the same. Even when I'd voiced my thoughts to Reynard he'd given me a little smile and said 'it's still very much a work in progress.' Naturally I was far from satisfied, and even further from impressed, but I'd stayed around in the end, mostly for a lack of options where escape was concerned and Claire Eckhart following me around all the time. I was by now convinced she had been tasked to keep an eye on me.

Then he'd handed me the dossiers and told me to babysit the pilots-to-be, or recruits as I'd termed them. Now here I was standing on the beach in a plain white T-shirt, tan camouflage cargo shorts and bare feet with thirty trainees of about ninety in total, all standing in a line before me of varying shapes and sizes, men and women, though all seemed – thankfully – to be in a reasonable state of physical health.

Making sure to shout from my stomach and not my throat, I put on my best DI voice and began the introductions, such as they were.

'Okay ladies and gentlemen. I hope you can all hear me because I will not be repeating myself. The powers that be have decided in their infinite wisdom that I should be utilising my talents holding your hands through a physical training regimen today instead of getting you experience in the tin buckets they've cooked up in their workshops.

'I'm going to start this little farce by going down the line and asking you to sound off. Names only, I don't want any goddamned life stories. Then we'll start with a lovely long jog on the beach. My name – if you don't know it already – is Elliot Grayson, nothing more, nothing less. You scraggy lot can call me Grayson, or "Sarge" if I'm in a good mood.'

I heard a muffled snicker. I wheeled on my trainees in a heartbeat, secretly glad for the opportunity to vent.

'The little jester will fess up in the next ten seconds or I will have you all run around the coast until you drop from exhaustion, at which point–'

'Spare us the lecture jefe, you'll tire yourself out.'

Red was all I saw for a moment, but, fortunately, I just managed to reel my boiling temper in before I lashed out at the wrong person.

I marched over steadily towards the ballsy joker, making sure to measure my pace and take my time. A good DI knows how to keep in control regardless of whatever state of mind he's in. I had to keep reminding myself of that as I closed in on the smirking munter who'd run his mouth.

He was probably the sort of person you'd expect to see featuring in his own comic book. Well built, handsome, clean shaven, a cocksure grin that had probably charmed the knickers off many a fair maiden. His bronze skin tone and even darker hair marked him out as Hispanic. I knew this bloke, as I knew everyone else in this little party. He flicked a glance at Claire and puckered his lips. I didn't check her reaction, hell for all I cared she probably found it attractive.

Jacob Hernandez, twenty-two years old, 75th Army Ranger Regiment since his nineteenth birthday, supposedly one of the hardest of the hard. Exemplary combat record in various tours of duty in the Middle East and even one in Far East Asia. Record of mouthing off to his superiors every now and then which pretty much scuppered his chances of ever rising above the rank of Corporal. He stood before me now actually daring to meet my smouldering gaze with his little smirk that reminded me too much of Reynard and Claire.

I didn't say anything at first; embarrassingly because I was so enraged I couldn't actually think of anything to say. Fortunately I don't think anyone else realised and must have assumed I just wanted the funny man to stew under my gaze for a few moments. Hernandez seemed unfettered.

'Think you're fucking funny boy?' I asked him in a level tone of voice.

'Only as funny as my double act chief,' Hernandez replied. Little bastard was actually looking right at me, meeting my gaze with his own.

I lapsed into silence; his psych profile indicated deep-rooted issues with authority, someone who normally would have been booted out of the services had it not been for his exemplary performance in practically every field. I could bark at him like a DI for hours but that'd probably as effective as trying to soundproof a live concert. That certainly wasn't ever happening.

Then I had an idea. It was sadistic, and I'd admit later to forming it mostly because I just really, really wanted a punching bag to vent on, but if it worked I might just have this guy's respect.

'Cadet Hernandez, front and centre,' I barked. Hernandez raised an eyebrow in amusement, and then made a show of glancing at his fellow recruits as if asking them if he should indulge his crazy-eyed instructor.

Yep.

I was going to enjoy this.

He took three solid steps forward, posture good despite his cocky smirk. He knew what was coming. Every man who had tried to earn this man's obedience had tried strong-arming him with a full contact, anything-goes sparring session in front of his platoon, a humiliation tactic, and a damned effective one at that. Hernandez, however, had practically destroyed every man pitted against him.

I read off the rules – no eye gouging, elbows, groin attacks et cetera; all the usual rules you'd see in tournaments and any Western full contact sparring session. I could see Hernandez relax and his smirk grow wider. Guy thought he had this in the bag, against anyone else he probably would have. Hernandez took a low stance and started to move, shifting from one foot, gliding forward and planting his other foot forward, and then hopping back onto the other.

Capoeira. I'd seen it in action only once before but that once was enough. It got a lot of flak from most practitioners of various conventional combats like karate or judo because of its primary roots in Afro-Brazilian dance. To them it's not much more than a bunch of preening and hopping and rolling. I know better. It's a beautiful, almost mesmerising thing to watch, and I have a great respect for anyone who can pull it off and pull it off well because it is a very difficult art to master, relying entirely on constant, shifting movement.

Jacob Hernandez here – who I only had the tiniest iota of respect for at that moment – had studied Capoeira since he was eight years old. No tournaments, but from the way he moved, I was convinced he would probably have done very well.

'The spar will last until one is unable to fight,' I intoned heavily, 'Miss Eckhart, would you be so kind?'

Claire actually seemed to pause for a moment, unsure of herself. I wasn't surprised. She was an IS pilot, not military. She seemed to know enough about what was going on to at least make an effort though.

Sauntering over (and ignoring some of the stares of a handful of those recruits with less self-control), she stood an even distance between me and the dancing Hernandez. She cleared her throat and, putting on her best American accent (which fluctuated between Bostonian and Texan with every few syllables), she raised her voice.

'The following match is scheduled for one fall! In the red corner we have the dancing recruit! In the blue corner we have our very own Mr Angry Eyes Elliot Grayson! Contestants, begin in three! Two! One! Ding, ding ding!' She finished by mimicking the starting bell and clapping her hands. I wasn't surprised to hear she didn't know Hernandez's name, despite the fact she was supposed to read the same files I was. Hernandez took it in stride though, giving her a playful wink and blowing her another kiss. To her credit, Claire didn't react, stepping well away from the two of us, aware that it was probably about to get violent.

'So, jefe, you do this sort of thing before?' Hernandez asked conversationally, still bouncing from foot to foot, waiting for me to make the first move. He was in for a long wait, and I wasn't wasting energy talking back to him, much as I wanted to.

'Quiet type huh? S'cool, s'cool. I had a DI just like that when I went into Boot Camp. Heard that sort of act gets some tail from the chicks who dig a bit of mystique. I can't do that myself, I just ain't that kind of guy, no I tend to be more active!'

He made the first move by hopping forward and surprised me by planting his hands on the ground and performing a handstand before twisting his hips and splitting his legs and slicing his foremost leg towards me with the intention of shattering my collarbone.

I swerved to the side but didn't attack. Hernandez recovered instantly, hopping back onto his feet and resuming the triangular footwork that constituted the ginga. That smirk was still on his face. I dearly wanted to sandpaper it off.

I didn't have to wait long for my moment. True to his own description, he was certainly active, and he launched himself forward, still managing to keep up that deceptive ginga technique before stretching his fingers out and lancing his straightened hand towards my solar plexis. I realised with a start that I had severely underestimated him. He was fast.

But not quite fast enough.

I swerved aside just in time, his outstretched fingers grazing my torso. I stepped in as he continued on, realising his mistake and desperately correcting his balance and he swayed underneath the savage left I threw at his face. Both of us were open, I had my entire left flank exposed but any conventional technique he could throw at me wouldn't do any real damage.

So Hernandez dropped convention.

He abandoned his fanciful movements and concentrated solely on throwing the hardest hook he could into the side of my ribs with the intention of staggering me.

Then I hammered my elbow into his face.

My punch was bait; if it hit him, fantastic. If it didn't though, I had every confidence he'd avoid it in a showy manner that would leave him wide open in a perfect way for someone like me to take advantage of. All I needed to do was check my blow, and hammer down. A tournament referee would have disqualified me then and there. Whistle blown, bell rung, game over, you lose, go home.

What happened instead was Hernandez ate sand, blood streaming from his broken nose. I punted him like a football and then rolled him over with my other foot before placing it on his throat and pressing just hard enough to make breathing rather more difficult, dissuading him from getting any funny ideas. He glared up at me, his breath wheezing and nasally through a combination of his ruined nose and my boot pressing on his windpipe.

'Pendejo! You said no elbows!'

'I lied. Boo hoo. You going to cry if the enemy kicks you in the nuts or pokes your eyes too? I got a newsflash for you asshole: combat isn't a fucking sport. I fight to win and I don't honestly give much of a crap how I do it,' I turned my gaze upward towards the rest of the recruits, who were riveted by my sudden takedown. 'And neither should you. Most of you are from some branch of the armed services, and those few of you who will have seen active duty should know whoever you've fought – be it terrorists, insurgents, cartels or gangbangers, whatever – rarely fight fair. So why should you?'

With that I removed my foot, letting him roll onto his front where he caught his breath and clutched at his bloody nose, groaning at the pain it caused him. He shot me another baleful glare, but his body language was a lot less challenging than it had been before my little manoeuvre. I'd taken him down in front of the entire body of recruits in moments without him being able to touch me. That would sting his pride, and while he certainly wouldn't be my friend the next few weeks or so while his nose healed, with some luck, some thought on his part and some more time it might just win me his respect, not that I really cared for it.

'Get cleaned up,' I said to Hernandez, who picked himself up and stalked towards the main building. Claire didn't escort him; her gaze was fixated on me and the recruits, a curious smile on her face. I turned away, honestly I didn't know what I had expected from her, some form of outburst? Laughter? She had iced that SAS assassin pretty brutally back in Yar, not that I had any room to talk; my combat history was practically caked in gore, a lot of which wouldn't be suitable even for 18-rated films.

For the remainder of the afternoon I entertained myself by tormenting the recruits, forcing them to run a full lap around the island, including Hernandez once he returned, and again because I couldn't think of anything to do afterward, and then another because I was bored. I was probably a tyrant in another lifetime. Claire followed, not running with us of course, that would mean she'd have to muck in with the rest of us. No, she hovered over us at a low altitude, watching over us as we did our laps, chuckling both times I sent the wheezing recruits on another tour of the coastline.

Eventually the sun began to set and I decided I'd had my fill of fun and told the thirty of them that their PT exercise for today was over. Tomorrow would be a hands-on session with a de-fanged Vulkan unit the techies had outfitted for them while I took another group of thirty out on a stroll by the beach.

I signed into the staff building and was about to hit up my room for a shower, but decided against it, instead opting to take myself to the third floor, which held various gym facilities and the pool. I really needed to cool down after all that jogging so I took myself up and waltzed into the training room, ignoring the pointed stares and whispers of a handful of the recruits who hadn't been a part of today's session.

Several units of equipment – all standard fare: treadmills, weights, even a few rowing machines, the works – were dotted around the gymnasium that sat just beside the pool area. Some were even occupied, none, I noticed, by the group I'd just taken out. All collapsed on their beds probably. I changed into a dull grey set of swimming trunks with the heavily stylised 'SW' of StoneWall emblazoned on the right, grabbed a towel, showered to get the worst of the grime I'd accumulated over the day off, and hit the pool.

It was curved, more like a luxury pool you'd find in a high-class hotel than one you'd expect to see in… well, a secret facility run by corporate executives. The three hot tubs that sat within a comfortable distance from the poolside and the light blue tiles made even brighter by the sun shining through the glass roof hanging over the pool gave it a soothing impression. It seemed so informal, and the water was kept at a constantly pleasing temperature that wasn't hot or cold. In the immortal words of Goldilocks, it was "just right".

I slid into the water and just stood upright, leaning against the edge, letting the pool water flow over me. I shut my eyes and imagined I was drifting off on a cloud, far away from this place and any talk of secret weapons that were laughably ineffective against the things I presumed they had been built to fight. Unless this was all just prototyping, laying the groundwork for the real Project Vulkan, which would only be able to come with advances in technology.

I frowned and shook my head. No, that couldn't be it, or at least, not entirely. Innovations in IS tech were being made every few years, hell they were already talking about cracking out Fourth Generation IS units. Unless advances were made every couple of months, I couldn't see these Vulkan units realistically outpacing their smaller, sleeker counterparts in terms of technology.

I was distracted from my brooding by the sound of footsteps. I cracked an eye open a fraction, and at the other end of the pool, just exiting the women's changing room, was Claire Eckhart, dressed in a deep, sea green bikini that left few of her curves to the imagination, her strawberry-blonde hair done in a neat ponytail. She must have thought I was napping because she stifled a giggle before gently, soundlessly sliding into the water.

Contrary to my expectations though, she did not make a beeline for me, not immediately anyway, appearing content to perform a few lengths gliding silently through the water. It was only after she finished her eighth that she appeared to grow bored, and made her way over to me, leaning her forearms on the edge of the pool and propping her chin atop them.

'So,' she asked, 'how was your first day on the job?'

'Third,' I corrected her, 'pretty sure the first day or so getting the hang of that bucket of bolts and the combat practice with you is a part of my job too.'

'Oh is that what that was?' she jabbed; I could picture the Cheshire grin on her face. 'I thought that was just a little warm-up exercise, something to stretch my limbs out.'

Cheeky bitch. But that brought me back to the Vulkans, and even more specifically…

'What are you doing here?' I asked her, opening my eyes fully.

'Same as you chief,' she chirped.

'No, I mean really, what are you doing here? What does an Australian IS pilot see in this little shindig? You ladies could pretty much start and end a war inside of a day and lord knows it's seen your sex go up more than a few rungs on the life ladder. Not my place to comment, being a manly man and all,' that dug a grin, an honest grin, out of her, 'but if this thing actually does end up being the equalizer it's toted as, it seems you and everyone like you – IS pilots that is – will probably have a lot to lose.'

To her credit, Claire took her time answering, a thoughtful expression plastered across her flawless features. After a minute I thought I wasn't going to get a reply and she was just stringing me along, but then she surprised me. She looked at me, measuring me, and then she gave me her answer.

'I didn't want to be an IS pilot,' she said.

That certainly did surprise me. I wanted to say as much but she continued:

'It was shortly after Tabane Shinonono introduced the IS cores and the First Generation IS units. She distributed them equally, and my homeland – like so many others – whipped up a storm trying to figure out exactly what constituted an IS, and when that proved impossible, they started an aptitude drive – girls with high aptitude for operating an IS who chose to enrol in the IS Academy in Japan got special benefits for themselves and their families.'

Ah. I could see where this was going.

'I actually wanted to be a racer. Motorbikes were my thing; I'd spend hours, days and weeks grabbing bits from junkyards or pawning them off people, getting back home and just experimenting with them until I found something that ran. I was good at it too, damn good.' A melancholy look that was entirely at odds with the image I had of her clouded her expression.

'Then came the IS, and all of a sudden we women were on top, given all this power, real, physical, destructive power. It was exciting at first, and I bet the feminists still get off to the memory of the day it all changed, but then came the probing, the testing… and the discrimination.' She was looking at me now, but she couldn't see me, dug deep in her memories, her eyes glazed over.

'I have three younger brothers, my ma died shortly after the youngest – Max – was born, and God bless him for a Saint, my dear old dad never left us, always worked for us, gave us the best he could. Honest to God, you could never meet a better man, a better person.' She sighed and her vision returned.

'My brothers were bullied at school just because they came from Mars and not Venus. Crazy. None of the bitches would probably ever have been able to pilot an IS in their life and yet each and every one of them acted like they and every woman worldwide had access to one – or someone who could fly one. Eventually dad went in to try and sort it out, he got frustrated and accidentally tripped one of the mothers of the bullies.'

She took a breath; I was hanging on her every word by this point.

'The mother made it out as an unprovoked assault; and that same person… happened to have a sister who was at that point Australia's IS Representative candidate for the Mondo Grosso tournament. That harpy pulled some strings with her and, well, my dear old dad had no chance in court. He's still doing time... just for sticking up for my family.'

Wow.

'I–' I started, but she cut me off.

'It went both ways too. Some of the guys in my class began to isolate me just because I had a high aptitude. "Snooty", "snobby" "elitist" "stuck-up bitch", all labels I was stuck with throughout my school years until I reached the IS Academy just because I had aptitude.' A hollow smile spread across her face.

She stayed like that for a while, mopey and brooding. Where was the tease? Was this an act? No, I mentally slapped myself for even thinking that was the case. This was real. This was all her. So then what was with the happy-go-lucky attitude she walked around with? A defence mechanism? A mask?

Then she looked at me for the first time since starting her story. I hadn't asked, but damn if she hadn't given it to me, and if nothing else I guess it provided a sort of insight to how she worked.

'I'm here, Elliot, because I hate these bloody machines. They're not something any one gender should own any more than one person should rule a country. The world would be better off without them but since that won't ever happen, I can at least try and help balance the equation a little.'

In a twisted kind of way, what she was saying made sense. None of that, however, changed the fact that, in her heart, all she wanted was revenge against the machines that had incited the discrimination that had torn her family up.

Not that I could talk.

Hell, the fact that she told me all of this, and I still couldn't find it in myself to truly like her, should probably tell you what a shitty human being I am. Hell, if you hadn't figured that out by now, then obviously you need to invest in contact lenses or laser eye surgery.

On the other hand though, I don't think I disliked her even half as much as I had when I'd been brought here.

But then there it was: I wasn't here out of my own desire. Claire had given me a choice: join the project or die. I had no idea whether or not she really would have let me fall to my death because I'd caved and chosen what I thought would get me out of that situation alive. In the end though I was effectively a prisoner here – a paid prisoner, almost ridiculously well considering the secretive nature of what was being done here – but a prisoner nonetheless, and while I think Claire is an exceptionally attractive woman, and perhaps a lot deeper than I'd initially credited her for, I doubted I'd ever really forgive her.

That was pretty uncomfortable thinking though, even for me, so I decided to shift the topic in a different direction.

'What happened to that IS Candidate? The one who–'

'Oh I took her spot. Humiliated her even. Not a moment I'm proud of, but in place of the bitch who charged my dad with assault I took it.' Her answer was immediate.

I didn't have a response ready so I simply grunted. Eventually I said, 'I'd probably have done the same.'

She chuckled humourlessly. 'No Elliot, I think we both know what you would have done.'

I didn't have a reply for that either, so this time I said nothing.

We stayed there by the edge of the pool for a good few minutes more in silence. Eventually she pulled away and resumed her lengths, performing an elegant backstroke, slicing through the water like a knife.

'One thing I do like,' she said aloud, 'is the flying… I love that feeling. It's not that different from swimming if I'm honest. You feel almost like you're… floating, you know?'

I didn't, but I nodded anyway. She completed a few more lengths before finally she got herself out and towelled herself off. She gave me a friendly little wave as she entered the changing rooms.

'See you tomorrow Elliot.'

Despite being the bastard that I am, I waved back and offered her the tiniest of smiles. It was the very least I could do after she'd gone through all that and no doubt revisited some pretty shitty memories. She paused a moment, perhaps not believing her eyes, before shaking her head and exiting stage right, out of my view.

I stayed where I was for a few minutes longer, reflecting on everything Claire had said to me. Eventually I decided to stop brooding on it and did a few lengths to clear my head. Then I did a few more; and some more, until the sun set and the automated lighting kicked in. By then I'd spent at least three hours in there.

I showered and dried myself, and then went down to the second floor for a particularly well made grilled steak dinner with the rest of the staff. Claire was there too, and she gave me a conspiratorial wink, back in her bright'n'bubbly persona. I simply nodded in acknowledgement and finished my dinner. Sometime or other, Reynard showed up, and he gave a little speech. It was pretty dull, and I blanked him out almost as soon as he started speaking so I waited until he was done, clapped politely like everyone else, and then I went upstairs to hit the hay, ready for the next series of trials this island would invariably bring.

-X-

Backstory, woo!