Hana dipped her head forward, looking down the line of bodies who were all equally as curious as her, turning the opposite way to find much the same. Still unsure exactly what they were all there, they all recognized one another for the most part, though Katsura had obviously done little research and had simply recruited any gamer he found, including a handful who hadn't even been involved in the competition and were unknown to everybody present. Hana returned to her upright position, catching a snicker down the line to her right, turning slowly with inquisitive eyes.
"They even got the Rat? C'mon, what kind of shit is this?" came the voice of ANH, "I didn't know I'd be joinin' the circus."
A tepid assortment of laughs emerged from the line, leaving Hana with a fierce look on her face, "You would be right at home, wouldn't you?"
More laughs as ANH shook his head, "Keep it down, bitch."
Hana immediately swirled to his direction, ready to pounce through the few bodies separating her from the man, but in an instant, a shrill whistle broke the air, gradually quieting the increasing laughter resulting from the argument, Katsura's voice emerging soon after, "Quiet down. You're all getting paid for this, so I expect you all to act like employees. and to take instruction like employees. Understood?"
Various sounds of agreement emerged from the lineup as Katsura came up from behind them, rounding one end of the line and stopping g at the first person there with a laptop held open in his hands. The person before him watched nervously, staring at the word processing program on the screen, unsure what was wanted.
Katsura spoke up, "'Margaret's Jackalope hopped vicariously zany through our orchard'. Type it."
The man's wide eyes turned toward the keyboard, his nerves forcing his fingers to tremble as they rose slowly, finding the home row before typing, skittishly, though still as fast as a secretary or other type-focused job might. Immediately, not five words in, Katsura yanked the keyboard away, watching the man emotionlessly.
"You're not needed. Please leave."
Along the line of gamers, heads appeared as they watched, aghast, as the man quaked uncertainly, "B-But what-"
"You're not needed," Katsura repeated, "Please leave. You'll be compensated for your time."
The man lowered his head shamefully, turning toward the door they had all come in through, where Jeong stood with a checkbook, watching quietly and merely handing off checks to anybody asked to leave. Katsura waited until the man left, the creaking of the door whining throughout the warehouse as he side-stepped in front of the next person, a woman.
"'Gently streaming along the volcanous ridge, the zealous youngling quaked'. Type it," Katsura instructed.
The woman, more prepared for the task, took in a sharp breath before typing, faster than the man before her, though only three words in, Katsura pulled the laptop away, leaving the woman stared up toward him with pleading eyes.
"You're not needed. Please leave."
Hana's eyes widened in shock, wholly unsure of what was going on as Katsura slowly made his way down the line. She peered over her shoulder only for a moment, catching a glimpse of Dae-hyun as he watched the administrator of this test just as confused as she. Still, she knew he was probably happy to see such a rigorous test, or rather, an exam that she had no idea what was being searched for. She bit her lip heartily, preparing herself as she returned to watching the man side-stepping along the line, having asked all of the people who'd taken the 'test' to leave.
Her eyes curled angrily as ANH's turn came, the scoundrel of a man readily cracking his knuckles as Katsura watched unenthused, muttering quietly, "'Merely Zion was hiding precariously and quietly beneath the mound'. Type it."
"I know, I know," ANH sniveled, rotating his shoulder before setting his fingers, a furious dashing of digits allowing him to complete the sentence, the first to do so.
Katsura's eyes narrowed but a moment, "You may stay."
A sneer grew across his face as ANH turned down the line, "Get on my level, mother fuckers! Pfft, ha ha!"
A quiet chorus of groans softly echoed throughout the room, though Katsura simply side-stepped along, finding the next pair of hands to take his test, the successful contestants proving to be sparse. Only one other managed to meet Katsura's standards before he closed in on Hana, the tension beginning to swell up inside her as she returned a glance over her shoulder to find Dae-hyun's face eyeing her determinately as though silently goading her along to succeed, probably only to see her not lose to that ANH jerk. She took a deep breath, jumping in surprise as Katsura stepped before the man directly to her right, her eyes widening as she stared at Katsura's torso, the man seeming to be a mammoth now.
"'Heavenly drops of tears showered down upon the questionable line of magazines'. Type it," Katsura ordered, though it was all for naught, the man beside Hana unable to get a single word in.
Her heart jumped as Katsura stepped in front of her, her spine shaking now that she fell into his stare. His eyes tensed as he examined her, waiting for the previous competitor to leave, allowing him a moment to critique her, comparing her to the face he saw on the television that night. That face, so unwilling to fail, as her fingers moved like bullets raining down upon the keyboard.
Hana held her breath at the whining of the door, her ears desperately perking up as she readied herself for Katsura's words, the man mulling over the sentence she was to recite in type-form, an unusual occurrence given that each time before had been near instance, as though he'd been practicing.
Katsura nodded, "'Pay attention to him and listen to his voice; do not defy him, for he will not forgive rebellion, since My Name is in him. But if you will listen carefully to his voice and do everything I say…"
Hana's eyes went wide.
"…I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes. For My angel will go before you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites, and Jebusites, and I will annihilate them'."
Katsura paused for a moment before instructing, "Type it."
"The hell?!" Hana shouted in resignation, "All they had to type was eight words! That was, like, fifty!"
"Eighty," Katsura corrected, "Type it."
Dae-hyun's eyes were wide as well, though in sudden expectation. He hadn't a clue how, but this man had to have known about Hana, and known about her abilities. This wasn't a test on par with the others- he might have been testing the others' typing, but there was far more being tested in Hana's case. He felt his fingers curling along one other as he clasped his hands in breathless silence, lowering his shoulders as though this were the clutch moment of a competition.
"Type it," Katsura repeated, "or do I need to repeat my-"
Her brow furrowing with frustration, Hana's hands shot up toward the keyboard, her fingers firing like pistons as her hands flew back and forth, pecking at the keys so fast their clicking began to meld together into one continuous, droning sound. A few of her fellow gamers leaned forward in awe, watching the act with dropped jaws and wide eyes, unable to fully understand how she was doing what she was.
Katsura remained static as Hana withdrew her hands, frowning with righteous upset at being treated unfairly in relation to the others, though the man standing before her merely slid the keyboard back toward him, "I counted a word per minute of a hundred and eighty-two, give or take a-"
"One ninety-five," Hana confirmed, her voiced lined with something like a growl, though it quelled as she crossed her arms, "I had to backspace at the end. Didn't know how to spell Penzance or half of the other words."
Katsura's face appeared devoid of any emotion, though in a moment or two, a faint grin appeared on his face before stepping to the side, "You can stay."
Hana took a breath, bowing her head appreciatively before turning back over her shoulder once Katsura began with the next in line, eyeing Dae-hyun's awestruck face as she grinned proudly.
"The gingerly and old megalomaniac scrounged up seven zippers," Katsura asked of the next in line, "Type it."
By the end of the exercise, only five of the thirty-or-so people who had began remained, the cluster of them brought together from the non-existent lineup as Katsura closed his laptop, watching the five of them from over his glasses, "Alright. As promising as so many of you were, you five were the only ones I have much faith in when it comes to this project."
"Psh," ANH scoffed, shrugging, "You gonna explain this project any time soon? I blew off a hot date to be here, y'know."
Katsura eyed the young man with an emotionless stare, his eyes still peering overtop his thin framed glasses, slowly returning his attention to the group as a whole, "We're dealing with AI, artificial intelligence. It's no secret what's going on here; it's all over the news and-"
"I don't watch the news…" came the ginger voice of the only other girl besides Hana, a timid-looking young lady who went by Ruddy.
Another of the five, Soloewat, shrugged as well, "Me neither."
Katsura frowned, his eyes jumped toward Jeong, who merely shrugged in turn, shaking his head as he returned to his clipboard, shaking his head, "Don't even need a PR person…"
"Okay," Katsura began, "There are omnics attacking out shores, with flesh and blood men and women laying down their lives to protect us. They're the reason all of you are able to sleep soundly at night. but that's not sustainable. We need to be more efficient, more quick, more on-par with the omnics themselves."
Katsura turned toward the back of the warehouse, nodding to somebody out of the five's view, this action leading to a rather dramatic revealing of a machine, a mecha, from underneath a tarp that had been slid off from its frame, leading to Ruddy and the fifth of them, Malecaro, gasping in expectant surprise.
"I'm the director of the MEKA program," Katsura explained, "With humans working in tandem with AI constructs, I believe these MEKA units will turn the tide, literally; not only giving us the upper hand, but striking a major blow to the omnics' entire enterprise."
His voice dropped, "I believe these will win us the war."
Hana hadn't spoken, or thought much at all. Her eyes sparkled at the machine before her with her lips cracked in subtle awe. It was almost as though she'd been hoping for such a moment- to be in the presence of an actual robot such as this. Her brother and her had spent hours, constructing their own mechs out of cardboard, fighting off neighborhood cats, emulating the television shows that had become such a massive part of their lives.
Dae-hyun's mouth dropped, though he quickly spun to his side, staring at Jeong, who stood a few paces away, "W-Wait, you guys are-?!"
The man frowned, remaining attentive on the clipboard in his hands, "Our reputation does precede us with one of you, huh…"
"Is this about those death-traps?!" Dae-hyun asked, his voice laced with concern.
Jeong shrugged, "What is a death-trap, really? Cars are death-traps, aren't they?"
Dae-hyun watched the man worriedly for a moment before returning to Hana's group, Katsura gesturing toward the MEKA unit, "What I want to do is have you all work with five different AI programs, seeing if we can't get you to work in tandem with these machines. These AIs have something akin to personalities, so by isolating you each to your own system, I'm hoping we can get, maybe, one or two of you taking advantage of your program. Understanding how they work, how to keep them in check, so on."
"So, what, we're like their handlers?" Soloewat inquired.
Katsura shrugged, "In a matter of speaking, yes. I refuse to allow one of these MEKA units to go on without a human in there to keep it in check. Otherwise, we're operating under no better method than the omnics are. "
"W-Wait, uh…" Ruddy muttered shakily, "You w-want us inside those things?"
"As pilots, yes," Katsura nodded, as though such a thought were wholly natural.
"I-I don't know…" Ruddy replied.
Soloewat and Malecaro had much the same reaction, the former scoffing in genuine discomfort, "D-Dude! That's insane; I-! We're not pilots, we're gamers!"
"Well that's what the training will be for," Katsura replied, again, easily, "I had my best programmer on it, making the MEKA units interface just like a video game of sorts, and we can still adjust them to suit each of you. If you'd like, we can-"
"Pfft, come on, you babies," ANH sneered, stepping toward the MEKA, "It's a bit robust and stupid-looking, but this is fuckin' badass! C'mon! Get me in there- I'll show 'em what's good!"
Katsura shrugged, "Alright."
Jeong's face grimaced at his director's sudden acquiescence, returning to his clipboard to write out another observation, "Little regard…for the lives…of children…seemingly…"
His hands gripping ever-tighter to the chair beneath him, Dae-hyun watched with a mix of excitement and terror, wondering what Hana was taking from this entire endeavor. For her part, Hana remained on edge by these new developments, though wasn't sure whether or not to be enchanted by this opportunity. From what she was gathering, piloting these things seemed downright awesome, but to take them into combat? Her toes curled at the thought.
Katsura led ANH around to the hind portion of the unit, showing off the pedals with which he would enter the craft, "Just head first, like you're diving on into-"
"I know, I know," ANH interrupted, sliding into the unit and right on into the glassy cockpit, his head turning along his shoulders to examine the dome that kept him within the MEKA unit, "Shit man, this is pretty damn tight!"
Katsura asked as he rounded his way back toward the front of the unit, "Would you like to take it for a test drive?"
"Fuck yeah!" came the excited reply from the cockpit.
With a chorus of worried glances on either side of her, Hana's brow curled curiously, examining the machine as Katsura turned to face the person out of sight, nodding his insistence to turn the unit on. Dae-hyun's skin crawled as the unit lit up, a cacophony of virtual screens appearing across the glassy dome as though an operating system were beginning, the guest turning to Jeong with a worrisome look.
"A-Are you sure about-?"
"Kat has it under control," Jeong interrupted his assurance, "The dude in the machine may wet himself by the time this is all said and done, but he's got in under control."
Completely uncertain, Dae-hyun returned his attention back to the MEKA unit as ANH began piloting the machine, stepping back and forth, twist its upper body with quick movements of both yoke handles, his face agleam with childish abandon. Hana immediately felt the need to participate as well, her legs tingling as she silently wished for it to be her turn, though she gradually took notice of Katsura's expression, the older man's face remaining as stoic as ever, not at all thrilled by the ease with which ANH was taking to the machine itself.
A dull BEEP broke Hana's curiosity as she spun back toward the MEKA, ANH's face quickly falling in confusion as the globular screen began acting up, lines of code suddenly running across windows, across the glass screen itself, millions of lines overtaking ANH's vision as his excitement grew into a rapid panic, turning his head down his body to find an exit switch. Another BEEP blasted in his ears as the MEKA shook violently, sending ANH's body flying against the cockpit walls, the four others jumping in surprise, with Ruddy in particular covering her mouths, tears swelling in her eyes from the fear.
ANH's body twisted with terror as one of the MEKA's arms shot around, slamming its rotary gun right into the glass, sending a sickly CRACKLING sound as cracks shot throughout the screen. The pilot cried out, his rapid movements sending his tears flying through the air, a shrill scream leaving him at the turret slammed once more into the cockpit, another CRACK forcing ANH to cry out in panic.
Katsura, as calm as ever, turned toward the unseen assistant, nodding once again, "Cut it."
In a near instant, power was stripped from the unit, its LEDs and screen immediately shutting of as ANH scurried about, desperate to find his escape, his panic forcing him to simply start slamming his feet into the cockpit walls, trying to break out almost as Katsura approached the machine, unlocking its door and allowing ANH to slide back out, though he barely found his footing, instead falling to his ass and skittering away backward, eyes wide in horror.
"You-! You fuckin' maniac!" he shouted at Katsura, aiming a finger at the machine, "That's a fucking devil machine!"
Katsura crossed his arms, "A machine is nothing more than the one controlling it."
ANH's brow fell in confusion as Katsura turned toward the other participants, "I'm not an evil man. I may have selected you all, but I wouldn't ever ask of you any of this without explaining the risks. We don't need you to understand these AI constructs simply so you understand them. It's so what just happened, stops happening."
His head fell, "We've lost too many soldiers by praying for a solution. It's time to be proactive for once."
"Now," he went on, clearing his throat, "If any of you have any reservations, you may step out now. Jeong over there, he has a check for your time if that's the case."
It took no time at all for Ruddy to turn and nearly dash out from the warehouse, not even bothering to look Jeong in the eye as she stripped the check from his grasp. ANH was next, clawing his way back to his feet and shouting aloud as he strode toward the doorway.
"You fuckin' monsters!" he cried, scowling at Jeong as he approached the door, "Keep your fuckin' money!"
Jeong shrugged in reply, stashing the check in his pocket before looking up to find Malecaro not far behind.
Katsura turned toward a nearby desk, tidying up some paperwork so as to not pressure the last too into making a decision, though Soloewat was slowly gathering his things and preparing to leave. Hana was doing much the same, her head hung low, only at the knowledge that Dae-hyun had been right to tell her not to bother coming here. He'd probably tease her about it for the rest of the day, she figured, a sigh escaping her as she took another look at the MEKA, a sadness ever-present within her. How neat it would have been…
Soloewat turned to leave, heaving his small backpack over his shoulder, leaving Hana alone to sigh deeply, bowing her head as she followed behind him, Katsura taking a cursory glimpse around his arm to find every one of his recruits to be unsatisfactory. He frowned, but only until he returned to his endless stacks of loose papers, where nobody could see him, when he left a lifeless breath of air escape him, his brow turned with anguished realization.
The realization that his idea had proved as fruitless as all the others.