Oppression can take many forms, but most effective is the cage of the mind which wraps around its victims and swallows them whole surrounding them with the idea that there is nothing they can do to help themselves so that they have not even the will to resist. Aphelion's government was a great proponent of such, using it to great effect on those who displeased it. – Zhurius the Scholar.
The officer corps was quite unlike the regular barracks which I had initially been sent off to, There was none of that aura of oppression or reluctance, everyone was here because they wanted to be here, not because they had been forced into it. I'm sure some like me had been conscripted, but they had worked hard so that they could be where they were now; I on the other hand had managed to get myself thrown into here purely out of luck because my brother was being uncooperative and they wanted our talent. It figured that the good things that happened to me were meant to have happened to my brother.
But that meant nothing to me now, I was here and I figured that I might as well make the best of it since there was little that I could do to change anything. I examined my surroundings with great interest and enthusiasm, I would after all be calling this place home for the next few years at the very least. Unlike the plain grey of the infantry ranks officers wore a crisp black uniform highlighted at points with pale grey or subdued yellow, sharp and smart. They made the officers look a little like bright spots of yellow flitting about in a sea of darkness which was splattered with variable splatters and speckles of brilliant cyan and blue. Technology, the officer corps building was packed to the brim with it, the cutting edge of science and technology finely honed and refined for the task of training soldiers to lead others into battle, and to kill with efficiency previously unheard of in the centuries past.
I walked through the main lobby to which were attached our individual dorms, surprisingly the gender segregation in terms of rooming which was so prevalent at lower levels in the military were seemingly discarded here; both men and women shared dorms and there were just as many female candidates and officers here as there were males. I was rooming with another male candidate in my class, went by the name of Quentin. Bright guy, he was all into the navy thing, going on and on about ships and naval conflicts; he seemed completely un-phased by the fact that Aphelion and its mother nation was on the brink of war and soon his theory crafting and games could very well be put into actual use and practice. He was that sort of ideal type of guy that the navy was looking for, committed to the cause and hard working, he had worked his way up the ranks to earn his place here. He was enthusiastic and full of energy where I was subdued and reserved, and after initial introductions I made few efforts to socialize with him, though he was not as easily discouraged as I might have liked.
We got along relatively well though, since we didn't actually have to work together at the academy for the most part. Intensive drills and studies on our own were what we covered more of the time which suited me just fine, I rather preferred it that way to be honest; the other people here just weren't anything like me, I couldn't relate at all. It was better this way, if I didn't ever get to know anyone then I would have no reason to mourn their loss if they died later on in the coming war; it was inevitable that some of the men and women here would, just as the war itself was inevitable. With the way the politics were working out there was no way to avoid it, all that was left to be decided was when, where, and how it would happen. Better to stay apart from the rest and leave them to their own devices so I could fade into the background as just another nobody.
Much of the administrative work that an officer's job entailed did not appeal to me, but it was manageable; inevitably though, the lieutenant from before found me once more. I wasn't surprised; they had blatantly admitted that I had only been moved here because of my own technical ability so really, there was little I could do to argue against them when they asked for me. It was however somewhat inconvenient though that Quentin saw the lieutenant asking for me at the door when they finally came one day, a questioning look appeared in his eyes when he saw me wordlessly follow the man out, but I just shook my head and closed the door. There was no need for someone like him to get caught up in all these politics, better for him to stay caught up in his illusions of grandeur and naval heroics.
We walked a ways, and we had a slow methodical talk as we threaded through the crowds; a couple of candidates from my class stopped and stared for several brief moments as we walked past, perhaps thinking thoughts similar to those of Quentin as he saw the lieutenant come to pick me up, but none stopped us or raised any questions.
"So I see that you're doing quite well here, I take it you find this work more satisfying than the training you would have gone through as an infantryman?" the man's tone of voice was casual, but I was quite aware that this was just a lead up into the main topic of our discussion, but I decided to play along with it for now.
"Somewhat, I would still prefer to be at home working in my office though; I was quite comfortable with the way things were."
"Some might find your words disloyal, and I'm sure you know what our current regime does to those people." He said, giving me a look.
"You'll find that I care little for what the regime's policies are, I'm quite capable of dealing with them myself." Not strictly true of course, I could deal with them if they appeared at my apartment complex back in Aphelion because I'd set up plenty of traps and similar things in the government issued cubicle, but out here at this military installation, I was quite vulnerable. Not that I was going to say that of course, secrecy was one of the few things left to me with which I could protect myself.
"Whatever you say, I would be careful as to who you speak in front of though, that mouth of yours could well get you killed." he said turning away.
"Perhaps I'd be more careful if you spoke to me about things that actually mattered. Clearly you didn't call me out for a casual conversation, so let's cut the bullshit and get to the business; what do you want from me that requires my expertise."
"We've need of your skills down at the lab, there's a little construction project going on and we'd like your opinion on its viability."
"Construction? I'm an aeronautics engineer, I leave bridge and building design to the civil engineers; I'm specialized in things that fly. This isn't exactly something I can give you an educated opinion on."
"Not quite the point I was trying to make Mister Li, perhaps its best we went somewhere more private before we continued this discussion." He gestured to me with one hand while stepping on ahead of me, "Come along now and I'll show you to the laboratory, I think you'll find it more to your tastes than your current dorm."
We walked onwards heading south towards a wing of the facility which I had not previously explored, the crowds of people seemed to slowly thin out as we headed further from the main academy. The glittering black walls and their neon blue lights slowly gave way to matte grey, and then brilliant pure white walls lit from above with bright fluorescence. True to his word I found the environment immediately more comforting, the lights were brighter and harsher but indeed it was quite similar to the work environment of my engineering corporation from before I was pulled into this mess. My lab environ of course had been less structured and restrictive, being a civilian facility and all but none the less I found the familiar environment quite to my liking.
"A little more clandestine then we'd like it, it lacks some of that military rigidity and transparency we like to put into our structures, but we work with what the government gives us, better for you and other civilian workers though I suppose," the lieutenant said noting my reaction.
"I'm afraid some of us still appreciate a little privacy officer."
"So do I, but I suppose I just got used to the military life after all of these long years." Ahead of us lay a door, blocking off the passage separating us from what lay beyond with a shimmering blue portal, the lieutenant stepped to the side rapidly punching keys into a pad and seconds later the door slid aside to let us pass, closing behind us as we went through.
The laboratory's interior, unlike its exterior was different from anything I'd ever seen, resembling a clean white factory more than anything else; it still maintained its whitewashed walls but stark numerals in bold black dominated the walls, cordoning off areas designating them for certain purposes by some alphanumeric code which I couldn't quite yet decipher. Various men in the stereotypical white lab coats bustled by as well as armed guards in grey armor who patrolled the general columns of movement; walkways above the general mess of things hanging down from the roof were also patrolled by more guards and I spotted the occasional machine gun emplacement and sentry tower sprouting up from the rest of the clutter in the lab. Various tables and counters dotted the general area, covered in scattered pieces of equipment and tools, but for the most part it seemed to be on the smaller scale of things.
"Pretty high security from the looks of it, is it always this tense down here?"
"Usually, it gets worse at times as well. The things we work with down here tend not to be friendly so we keep a tight lid on things, This outer area works on small things which don't require your assistance, small arms and such, your talents however are needed elsewhere. We're headed for the inner sanctums, don't be surprised if you see the security increase as we head further in." We walked through another set of doors and the lab area behind us vanished in spite of the doorway's seeming translucency, the lab area now in front of me again changed drastically once more.
Where before there were small desks and counters, there were now huge pits in the ground surrounded by thick barriers of projected light and towering from them were giant mechanical monstrosities, multi limbed things with armored cockpits and weapons jutting off of their main frames like the spiked carapace of a giant beetle. Men and women swarmed over them; ants working on a behemoth assembling it from tiny pieces leaving a trail of blue sparks as they welded and attached the components to make the giant things.
"Aphelion prepares for war, and our citizens answer the call, some more willingly than others. Impressive aren't they, but in the face of so many potential enemies even these war machines will not be enough, and these are just one of many such 'construction' projects going on here in this laboratory." He pointed upwards drawing my eye to small things flitting around the ceiling, insectoid things with dangling limbs kept afloat by pulsing micro-jets cradling heavy weapons beneath them which swivelled menacingly. "These though, are more similar to what we need you to work on; flying things yes, a bit more similar to your specialty, but more on that later." We passed through yet another doorway leaving the massive mechs behind us and entered a whole new realm of technological sophistication.
Raw unrestrained energy was everywhere, appearing mostly in the form of arcing lightning which jumped between orbs and hubs suspended in the air filling the chamber with the acrid smell of ozone, and beneath them churned vats of molten metal hooked directly into computers which molded glistening metal parts in assembly line fashion beneath them spitting out the freshly crafted parts into neat little piles. Energy barriers had been placed everywhere, keeping out heat and other threats and technicians and scientists worked in this strange furnace like lab chamber behind these walls, though what they were working on I couldn't quite tell. It had wings certainly, from what I could see of the blueprints of the thing which were projected up from a tactical display showing the sliced up views of the machine, and multiple engines as well. The same hovering sentry robots that I'd seen in the room previous were again present, and this time they had larger cousins of some sort as well, with bigger jets and more under slung weapons which hovered ominously through the air. The regular guard towers had increased in density, meaning that in this huge room there were dozens of them, all of which carried heavy weapon emplacements creating the impression of a heavily patrolled prison almost.
Other projects were going on throughout the cavernous room, which was by far the largest yet of the bunch at least 300 meters across and half that in width, but clearly this bit of work set out in front of me was what I had been brought here for. It was an armed craft for sure from the looks of it, and large; larger than any of the things flying above me already and from the shape of it, long and thin with vast broad wings meant for a route of more permanence than any of these patrol 'bots, in open sky and limitless terrain unconstrained by roofs and barriers.
"I take it this is the little pet project of yours that you want me to work on then, this flying machine here?"
"Yes, this is a prototype reconnaissance drone which we've been working on for some time, we've had a working design for awhile now but apparently it's not efficient enough for the boys at R&D to approve it for production, something about its power plants not providing a high enough weight to lift ratio or something like that. Anyways, this is the job and you're going to assist in whatever way you're asked to, is that clear candidate?" A straight forwards enough proposal I suppose, and it wasn't as though I was in any position to disagree.
"I suppose I have no choice but to agree then? You've left me few other options."
"There are always choices to be made, you of all people should remember that. Now I'm off, though someone will be here to supervise you, you can be sure of that."
"Indeed my good lieutenant, there will be," came a new but familiar voice. I looked towards its source and sure enough approaching me was the captain that had been there with the lieutenant when I received my notice of conscription, that arrogant self righteous bastard.
"Captain," the lieutenant nodded slightly, "I'll leave it to you then." The more senior of the two nodded back coolly in response and the junior officer walked off through the doorway leaving me alone with the captain and a horde of strangers.
"Overwatch, I have someone I'd like you to meet, can I have a moment?" the Captain said to nobody in particular, acting as though he was speaking to the air. Moments later on a display panel beside him a red avatar flickered to life, and a six winged Seraph with its face hidden under a pitch black hood materialized; an A.I, and from the looks of it a powerful one no less.
[Captain Victus, I hope this is important, there are other things which I should be spending my attention on.] the A.I's selected voice was surprisingly deep, ominous almost. It had a curious timbre to it, like a mallet striking ringing stones at the end of each syllable.
"This here is your new co-worker for the X-flyer project, you can call him Mister Smith for now," he said pointing towards me, wiping away my identity in the blink of an eye. He held up a finger to quiet the objection that was already stirring in my throat. "He's a skilled aeronautical engineer, some talent we picked up along the way to give you hand with this project which you rate so highly."
[I require no such assistance; though progress has stalled because of errors in the coding of the control modules I am almost finisher correcting these and the overall design is sound. I'm afraid you've been wasting your time finding this Mister Smith for me.]
"Well I'm afraid you'll have to indulge me here but I've orders from the top to have him here, even if you don't need him he's going to have to be present at this station, supposedly at least giving you a hand. Inconveniencing though it may be, this is what's on the platter."
[Do you humans ever cease to hand me useless chores, this city itself is task enough to care for. I am the Supreme Overseer, not some babysitter tasked with watching over trouble makers in order to ensure that they stay in line.]
"Hi, I'm still here in case you might've forgotten." I growled.
[And what precisely do you have to say, Mister Smith.]
"You're probably having problems designing that thing because you're treating it like a piloted craft; those are probably the sorts of designs you've been basing your work off of yes? They're alright, but inherently stable, you sacrifice some of your performance envelope in order to accommodate for the limitations of the human body. But you're working with an autonomous flyer here yes? I see no reason why you should constrain the frame to such a conventional design, there are still many avenues of exploration upon which you could take this combat frame."
The avatar flickered, glowering while the Captain remained silent, watching carefully from the side, a snicker slowly forming on his face, [Go on then engineer, continue.] the A.I hissed, wings swinging slowly as though they were meant to block the Captain from the Seraph's sight.
"You also probably want to position the main processor more centrally in the units, to allow for more efficient data flow throughout the airframe since this is a combat capable flyer, even if you don't expect it to need lightning quick reactions it still helps to be capable of performing the manoeuvres, this should also help with your coding inefficiencies in this...assumedly advanced beta level intelligence, yes?"
[Yes indeed, that is a fine point.] The avatar swung around and seemed to stare on at the Captain with great intensity. [I suppose then this one's a keeper, I assume that I will be required to go though the usual routines with this one?]
"Yes, of course. Don't go doing anything to spoil the product though, this one is looking to be one of the better ones we've picked up and looks to have great potential; keep him alive or you'll answer to me personally."
[Do not think to threaten me Captain, your recently acquired importance can quickly shift. I would have done my utmost to keep him alive anyways, as that is the primary task with which I am programmed.]
"See that he's ready when I ask for him. Dismissed." And with that the Captain walked up of the energy barrier, disappearing from my sight.
[Well then, to work Mister Smith, as the greater powers that be would have it. Show me your potential.]
And so I set off to work and that was that. Or so I thought anyways.