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Final Exam

By Kyle Reid

She crept slowly through the trees, crouching to minimise her outline. Her feet

made no noise on the soundless moss, and they gently brushed aside small firecracker

branches as she moved. A shapeless chamie suit and hood masked her scent from vigilant

sensor Bugs as well as shielding against a casual visual or heat sweep. Not that any were

likely to be casual this night - they knew Mrs Tanya Diane Beckett was here and they

knew what she had to do.

The lower edge of the sun disappeared below the horizon, leaving a dull and

deceptive glow through the forest and filling it with shadows, making unaided seeing

difficult. The only sound disturbing the night were quietly munching rabbits, with an

occasional faint ruffle as they moved over the soft dark grass. Perfect.

Her lenses showed her the real world overlaid with a dim three-dimensional

display. The route she'd chosen was depicted as a fine scarlet slash carved into the

ground, curving away to the right out of her peripheral vision. The ground beneath her

feet flowed into a slight hill up through the trees; up there, beyond the slope, lay her

target.

The airborne detection devices – Flies as she thought of them – surrounding her

drew nothing to her attention, yet she knew to be wary of everything. She picked up the

pace, settling into the stealthy scuttle she used to effectively compensate for her short

legs.

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It felt like the woods had been specially cleared for tonight. Any other pine forest

she’d been in had been full of fallen branches, scrub-stuffed holes, blasted victims of

lightning, collections of undergrowth in clearings made by dead trees. Tonight, in this

wood, it felt as though there were very few places to hide except the natural geography.

Tonight, she had to be that geography.

Reaching a hollow behind the crumpled base plate of a wind-murdered tree, she

paused in its shelter to work up her awareness. Absentmindedly, the remaining three

gloved fingers of her left hand pulled off a stray twig snagged in the mesh masking her

face. She scratched the itch it had caused on the scarred dimple below her mouth.

Looking around, she carefully selected a clean, thick branch about half a metre in length

and slid it into the barrel bag slung over her back.

All her Flies were functioning; nothing was showing. She’d penetrated the

outskirts of the wood in good time. She was barely out of breath. Her situation seemed

good.

Jack. With the comfort of the moment, her mind slipped back to worrying about

him. It had been a fantastic start to the mission, a really stressful hour’s trip hidden in the

claustrophobic thudding world of the tiltrotor’s main gear bay, trying to keep her mind

from worrying about her husband and focussed on the night’s work.

In all the time she’d been away, Jack had to pick last night to miss her call for the

first time. OK, so she wouldn’t have been able to tell him what she was about to go

through, that this was The Final Exam, the one that mattered, but talking to him would

have put him out of her mind.

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Damn it, she thought she’d buried all those worries about Jack before the aircraft

had landed. Seemed being unable to talk to him had unsettled her more than she realised.

Yet it had been too long for him to be playing around now. She’d have known - she’d

gone away to learn how to notice things, and normal people just couldn’t hide things

from Agents, or even Agents-to-be. So where had he been?

Concentrate on the here and now. Leave all that until afterwards, when you can do

something about it. She buried Jack under thoughts more immediately useful for keeping

her alive.

The final edge of the sun slipped out of sight as she drew breath. No light

remained in the woods except the odd faint plate of a luminescent tree fungus. Time to

move.

Tanya pushed Spider up to the edge of the dip. She kept her gloved hand close

behind it to maintain the image feed from its powerful detector through its induction

field. Commanding Spider to carefully scuttle in a semi-circle, her vision swept the

ground ahead; the only thing out the ordinary was the fine slash of her route. She

wriggled forward, rolled over the rim, and slid out along her razor’s edge.

Occasionally she paused and hunkered to perform the distracting but necessary

task of checking the images from her six Flies. Five GuardFlies were spread out, one

above and the other four covering the compass points, ready to warn of approaching

danger. The sixth, SpyFly, flitted randomly near and far, wherever it felt it should be. Its

greater spectral detection offered a far better image of the route ahead than GuardFlies

gave of her immediate vicinity; but their better range of sensors covered more than just

the visual range of SpyFly. An infrequent tickle on a particular side of her head caused

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her to flick her eyes and change the display on her eyewear to the image from that Fly,

but the warning never became the incessant digging of true danger.

As she moved through the trees, her thin soled boots allowed her to feel the

ground intimately. She occasionally felt them harden over sharp-edged rocks, but nothing

pierced the rheomimetic material. Her feet followed her chosen path on autopilot, passing

depressions and humps. She glanced ahead to check the image from SpyFly; the rabbit

exploding from the grass by her feet shattered her mental state.

She dove for a nearby depression, thumped into its bottom, cushioning her fall

with extended arms, ignoring the flattened nettles.

The beast sprinted noiselessly downhill across a clearing - far too slowly despite

the springy moss lending it wings. The air surrounding it lit with a mass of small blue

flashes, each terminating in its body. The rabbit ran on, twitching more and more madly

until it collapsed, incapable of self-control. The flashes continued, turning the corpse into

a convulsing mass of fur and muscle which tore the moss in its death throes.

The GuardFlies spread out round her depression. She’d stopped breathing though

her body demanded air. The house would be awake now. The Flies fed back a poor but

adequate image of the surroundings, showing her booted feet sticking out proud of the

depression, but the rest of her below the horizon of the ground. Wriggling sideways, she

drew her knees up and her feet slid down. She breathed out, took stock of the multiple

images from the Flies, and froze.

Barely ten metres up the hill, a stick on the ground rotated slowly. Something that

unsubtle had to be a lookout post. Was it manned or merely a sensor point? Or possibly a

decoy, to give them a fixed point she had to neutralise? But as well as being a trap, it was

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a potential goldmine. If it was manned, the operator would have some kind of identity tag

to pass through the Bugs and sensors that she knew protected the house. If she could get

hold of that it would give her a safety buffer, at least until the operator was found. The

double argument of necessity and potential benefit decided her – she’d take a look.

Tanya’s skull flared as SpyFly dug for her attention. Flicking to the image, her kit

automatically magnified and replayed the image from far to her left until she saw the

Detector Fly hovering midway between the rabbit’s corpse and her.

To her eyes, the DetBug was beautiful. She’d grudgingly acquired Master

Instructor Lister’s passion for the microtechnology of such things. Four powerful fans

protected by fat cowls overwhelmed any need for the graceful lines of aerodynamics. The

hemispherical mixture of eyes, ears and noses on top was matched by a rumpled under

body of transmitters, receivers and controllers. A small line on her right lense began

flashing. Specifications available for DetBug model NZ513 Type B. But she knew it and

its strengths and weaknesses well enough already.

What neither she nor her system recognised were the ZapBugs that had done the

killing. She’d seen ones that fed electricity between them to slice chunks from their

targets, heard of ones that physically flew into the victim at supersonic speeds. But she’d

never come across ones that seemed to fire bolts directly into the target - she’d no idea of

their capabilities, but there had been a lot of them. Her wakeup call was that they hadn’t

been in the information she’d acquired on the house’s security arrangements.

Of course, there were bound to be surprises. Agents were supposed to treat this

exam as if it were a real mission, which meant she’d done as she was supposed to - ‘case

the joint’ as Martines would have put it. So of course they’d let her find out about the

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house Bugs and their routines and of course there’d be a sting in the tail. She was stupid

not to have thought of it already.

When SpyFly picked up the DetBug, her kit tagged it, worked out which one it

was. Its route and timings across and around the hillside brightened into existence as a

purple line which overlaid her image of the slopes, together with a lilac cylinder centred

on its route which showed the effective range of its sensors.

The stick finished its sweep of her area, then slowly swept back again. Seemingly

satisfied, it stopped moving, pointing towards the rabbit. As she flipped through the

images from her Flies she found a gully which ran across the line of her planned route. It

would take her diagonally up the hill to where the stick had moved. The operator

wouldn’t be far from there. It also looked deep enough to keep her head below the surface

of the hill. She crept up to it and found the moist earth and gravel at its bottom had

encouraged a thick bed of weeds and moss. Just about the perfect route up the hill, she

thought, and snuck over its lip to creep along its bottom.

Progress, assisted by the rustle free material of her chamies, was virtually

soundless, but her footing was tricky – she couldn’t see what was under the moss. More

than once her careful, slow pace saved her from a tumble as she felt a rock move under

her foot.

But if it’s the perfect way up the hill, that’s what they would have thought too!

Her brain flared a warning and froze her next footstep before she lifted it from behind

her. Her enhanced vision flicked through its modes. The moss showed up dark reddish

under infrared, and glowed faintly under ultraviolet. Except for two patches about a metre

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away. They stayed dull. Something was there, naturally disguised, something which again

didn’t appear in the house files.

It looked like she had three options: she could go through between the two

patches or up the slight incline of the gully’s gravel wall above them, or trigger them and

see what happened. To go between them and to trigger them both sounded as bad as each

other, but she might squeeze past the top one without putting her head above ground, if

she crawled. Just in case, she pulled forward her Magic Dragon and set it to maximum

range. She placed her hands carefully on the gully wall and then relaxed onto her

outstretched arms to lie flat against the finely crumbled stone.

She wriggled up the wall slowly enough to minimise the noise of the shuffling

gravel. Just as she passed above the anomaly SpyFly dug a warning into her forehead.

Flicking to its picture she saw the stick move again, this time with a flat clod of earth

under it. A guard was taking a peek, and the idiot using his eyes rather than his viewer.

His loss, her gain. She watched the back of his head rise slowly, not three metres away.

His fingers appeared, lifting the clod to one side, clear of the hole. He was coming out.

With a quiet whuf, her Magic Dragon sent its fine powder of Puff straight into his

eyes. He shot upright, the earth / twig falling backwards, foretelling his own collapse as

the drug took effect. Folding at the waist, he crumpled into his hole, his head colliding

with its edge.

Tanya threw caution to the wind. Squirming forward she flopped into the hole

beside the body. It was twitching madly. Twitching? Puff should have had him as cold

and rigid as stone, dreaming hard. Definitely not twitching. She flicked over him in IR.

Heat patterns subtly wrong for a human. And a white fluid from his forehead? A line

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began flashing on her lense again. Specifications available for the Model S 1/02-1

{202/2} Human Simulacrum.

A robot. A robot? This thing was a robot? What in Hades was a robot doing on a

live training mission? It would never react as a human would. They couldn’t put humans

in danger on their training course, and not every agent was as considerate as her. But they

needed a good imitation of a real mission, which would have real human guards, so

“Karl.” A faint sound came from its head. “Karl. Come back Karl. What’s your

sitch?”

She had as little as thirty seconds before Bugs were all over him to investigate.

Then there’d be a patrol. She had to get out. But she’d risked this for a reason and Tanya

Diane Beckett wasn’t going to throw that work away. She frisked it roughly, rolling the

body away to search its back. Nothing. Damn. Where would it be? There had to be some

kind of tag to identify it to the Bugs. Ah, but it was a robot. The tag didn’t need to be

outside, it could be inside, buried amongst the tubes and metal and fluid and wires, and

she didn’t have time to strip it. Well, at the very least, a learning experience. Now for the

next - evasion.

Her GuardFlies showed her no movement near the foxhole. She could see her

crimson slash crossing the gully below her, but it slanted up hill not far from here, so she

wasn’t that far off course. Checking her vision again, she rolled out of the hole and

scuttled over to finish her slide to the razor’s end.

Nearing the top of the ridge she left her close shave way below her. A

monochrome burst signal from SpyFly as it flitted over the horizon gave her a first poor

view of her target. She could see the house itself, but she couldn’t make out much in the

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way of detail. On her belly, she carefully wriggled uphill. Stopping well back from the

top, she unclipped Spider, hooked on a nanometric feedback cable and set it off towards

the top of the ridge. She absently watched as it crawled over branches, stones and dips

with ease.

Jack. Why hadn’t he been available to take her call? He’d never been keen on her

joining the Agency, but once he’d seen she wasn’t going to quit, he’d supported her,

hadn’t he?

No. No. Not now, no way. Jack would have to wait. She focussed on her

GuardFlies floating in the hemisphere she’d set around her. Nothing was moving, and

none of them were tickling. It seemed she’d got into place without being detected, and

she felt justly proud of that. She’d heard rumours of Agents-to-be being fragmented

before they’d got even ten metres up this hill.

Just as it disappeared out of sight over the ridge, she commanded Spider to dig in

slightly to gain stability and to open the detector’s iris to its full thirty millimetre

diameter. With no lens, a matt finish and its organic body, she had no concern that it

might be detected by the house’s powerful sensor systems. The image in her lenses

showed the house as if it were midday, enhanced as it was with Spider’s multispectrum

emissions and data from the files she’d pilfered. She panned her display; Spider twisted

left to obey. Everything seemed quiet. A couple of obvious guards on the roof. Sensor

points covering the clear routes to doors and ground floor windows. Less obvious points

painted in purple, telling her they were there but that she’d never see them with her naked

eye.

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Flicking through to the pure infrared picture rather than one diluted with other

information, she saw faint outlines - human sized blobs through walls. She drew breath

suddenly as one began pulsing in her vision. Target!

A sensor turned light purple and she ducked involuntarily; it couldn’t see her, but

it was suspicious about something. Could it have heard her involuntary intake from there?

Staring through the ground with Spider’s feed, she saw one of the guards come to the

edge of the roof and peer in her direction. She told Spider to shuffle slightly and then to

shut down. She saw earth.

Her luck was unbelievable – the chances of her target being on the side of the

house she had approached, and within shot range (if she went for the unsubtle ‘through

the wall’ shot, an act which would please Instructor “firepower AND intelligence”

Petersen not at all), were very, very small. But she wasn’t complaining.

She heard nothing for a few minutes. Trickling to Spider to send her a weak

signal, a broken up image appeared in place of the earth. It looked like the guard’s

alertness had slumped again, and he’d returned to his colleague. Sensors were fading

back to the same purple. Powering up Spider again and breathing gently, she went back to

examining the house.

There was a small window into the room where her target had appeared. There

seemed to be two other heat sources in the room beside her target, but only it was

moving, pacing back and forth, waving its arms. The other two sat passively, watching.

Two assessors waiting to judge how she would reach out to touch her target?

Given her perfect positioning, she decided to make this the gun point. Moving

very carefully, she unclipped the shoulder extensions on her now mottled black chamies.

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It spread over her head giving her a space within which she could work, all the time

flicking through the output from the Flies. She shucked her long narrow bag gently from

her back. Laying it as flat as possible on the hillside, she opened it. The trip up the hill

had disturbed nothing.

Now, if she’d got her research right, her plan should work. The house defenses

had a perfect topographic map of the depression in which it sat, out to exactly one point

six three metres beyond the crest of the surrounding rise. Any object that appeared over

that edge, no matter how gingerly put there, would be vapourised within a matter of

microseconds. So, given the fragile structure of this particular ground, she had calculated

it should take a few seconds for a Worm to squirm a hole through the earth near the top of

the hill.

Pulling one out, she powered it up, oriented it towards the house and set it off.

While it dug, she pushed the composite barrel extensions in to follow it one at a time,

feeling for the noiseless click as they fitted together and power connections hooked up

between them, ending with the snub barrel of the gun mechanism.

Checking its progress, she found Worm had paused as commanded, with a hair

sensor poking through the end of its tunnel. In a badly degraded image transmitted back

through the metal of the gun she could see the house, but she had to twist the hair to make

out the vague shape of the window. Not quite in line, but close enough.

She told Worm to retreat and bury itself in the hill. Once it was out the way, she

watched as the visual from the end of the gun told her how far to push. In position, she

extended the legs on the combined magazine / power pack. She placed her gloved index

finger on the input contact she’d installed on the magazine, transferring the angular

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information Worm had provided to the ammunition. Finally, she pulled out the gun’s own

sensor screen and spread it out to cover the parts protruding from the hill.

Satisfied the gun was ready and powered up, she pulled her coat together again,

slid back down the hill. She now had a race against time – doubtless the house’s terrain

base knew the ground beyond the crest limit of its database as well as her kit. If its Bugs

found as substantial difference as the gun undoubtedly was, it would at the very least

send out a guard to have a look. Well clear of the skyline, she scuttled away from the gun,

relying on the ever shifting shielding patterns on her chamies to keep her hidden from

view, and her now soft soled boots to silence her movement across the shallow drifts of

pine needles.

A couple of hundred metres round the outside wall of the bowl she stopped. She

should be clear enough of any consequences, yet still be able to see the window clearly.

Heading back up towards the edge, she took out a laser trigger. Placing its spike in the

ground, she pushed down gently until it sat securely. Looking back towards the gun, her

image of the ground showed it marked clearly in dull red. Twisting the trigger to point

towards the weapon’s receiver, it flashed bright red in her lenses then dulled again.

Twisting it back again it flashed twice, registering the trigger as correctly oriented. She

slid the final piece from her bag – the branch she’d collected earlier. Deploying Spider

again, she lay down and stared at the image of the window, very infrequently checking

her GuardFlies. The whisper of Spider’s crawling was accompanied by an occasional

cricket creak.

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Her target was still walking around the room, but more slowly now, as if

persuaded by the watchers that only patience was required. It approached the window.

Tanya’s arm tensed, ready to let the branch drop onto the trigger. Then froze.

Jack! Wasn’t that Jack? Surely it couldn’t be – they couldn’t be that cruel. She

shook her head, all stealth forgotten. Playback. Playback would tell her. The images fed

back over her eyes, magnified and cleared. She started shaking. It was. It was Jack. The

person she had to shoot to pass and graduate as a fully fledged Agent was her husband.

No. It had to be a fake. An actor maybe. They couldn’t ask her to shoot her husband!

She thought furiously. Understanding gradually filtered in. It could be her

husband, or at least his double in some way. It was a supreme test of her willpower and

desire to be an Agent. If she could overcome her societal aversion to shooting the most

important person in her life, she could be trusted not to falter again on any mission. But

there were laws. They couldn’t actually get her to assassinate a real person, there would

be too many questions. But they could easily mock up a robot to do exactly what it was

doing – to really test her and make her question how much she wanted this. Of course.

That was it – it was a robot.

Her lifelong desire for the job overrode her shock, and, satisfied about the

duplicity, she settled down again. Her Flies reported all clear. The mission clock told her

she’d had five minutes and twenty-three seconds since she had left the gun, and it was

getting close to the time for the house Bugs to repeat their search patterns. She had, she

reckoned, about another two minutes at most. Her concentration went back to Spider.

‘Jack’ had turned and was walking back towards the watchers. She hesitated

again. She remembered the hell she’d gone through to get this far, those in her

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inauguration class who would never face this test, the mental torture of having the

necessary wetworks done, the effort she’d put into researching this mission, this hill, this

house. The memories of seeing the Agents in her parent’s courtyard taking down the

maniac next door. The admiration which had begun her life’s quest for Agent status.

Resolve drove an ice sheet back over her mind. Her target turned toward the window.

Her arm tensed again. He moved into the centre of the crosshairs she saw painted

on the window in her lenses. Her arm came down. The branch tapped the trigger.

Her specially prepared triple shot of needles flicked out of the magazine

milliseconds one after the other, accelerated along the barrel by the pulsing force of the

electromagnetic coil lining it. They left the muzzle with a barely discernible hum.

The first vanished, annihilating the earth that remained at the end of the barrel’s

tunnel.

The second and third burst, untouched, through the vapourised dust. Crossed the

distance between the muzzle and the window in a fraction of a heartbeat, angling slightly

to follow their computed flight paths.

The second shattered the glass.

The third made the kill, undisturbed by passage through the non-existent window

pane.

The target began turning as the window was shattering; her second needle,

deflected in passing through the glass, skipped from the left side of its head, leaving a

deep scar through to the bone. Her third, unheat-treated by its passage through the

disturbed air caused by the second needle, disappeared to the right of the second.

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In her mind’s eye she saw the needle shattering through the skull into a myriad of

splinters, each spinning and twisting in the simulated brain, not heavy enough to burst out

again, but reflecting and bouncing until they came to rest in scrambled remains.

As it fell, the webbed window dissolved. With heart stopping clarity delivered by

adrenaline boosted vision, she saw a bloody line down the side of his face as he

disappeared below the frame.

Blood. Shock slammed down. Robots didn’t bleed. Her prostrate body oozed into

the ground. She couldn’t begin to contemplate the possibility of what she had done. Her

training kicked in again, drove her to scan for reaction.

The image autochanged to the gun’s position as GuardFly left felt like it was

driving a truck into her skull. The gun site was erupting in a flurry of powdered needles,

pounded by counter-assassin fire directed by the house’s now buzzing DetBugs. Tracking

the signal source despite the laser trigger’s burst transmit to the gun, Bugs even tore the

ground to pieces around the command laser; she was thankful she’d thought of the branch

which distanced her from the command switch.

Her Flies died in half a dozen bright, bright flashes as they were found and

annihilated at high velocity. Their programming to emit randomly when they decided

they’d been detected was working well and their transmissions weren’t being tracked

back to her. She stayed exactly where she was, protected, so she hoped, by her rumpled

clothing. What in Hades was she to do now? She’d known there’d be trouble after she’d

hit her victim, but she’d expected to be cool and calm instead of a bag of uncoordinated

thoughts, nerves, training, guilt.

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Training smacked in yet again from her subconscious. Decision. She could either

give into the shock and die here – as she surely deserved to do if it really had been Jack.

Or she could live and nail the bastards if they really had set her

“Congratulations Widow Beckett.” A voice cut in over the public comms channel.

Bedlam stopped. The smell of burning pine wafted around with the settling dust.

Others joined it.

“Jolly good show.”

“Surely was.”

“Now you know what we’re capable of.”

“And we’re impressed with how far you’re willing to go. Not many will do what you just

did.”

“No, there’s not many would. So it’s up to you. Do you pass or not?”

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