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“And now we move on to the latest. She's new and up for review with the board. What do you think of her?”

“Wow. I mean, really, just... wow! Okay, tell me something. Uhh, with all due respect... where the hell did you find this one?”

“We didn't find her, Topher. She was a walk-in.”

“And how did she find us? Didn't you say that she was a, uhh...” Topher grabbed the file, eyes skimming over the details. “A hairdresser?” He scoffed, hand flopping to his side, file still clutched in it. “A hairdresser? Seriously?”

“She didn't say. Maybe you'll find that out when you do her scan. I have a feeling that this one... she has a lot of secrets.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” Topher said dryly, lifting the folder again to read one particular section. “Says here she was under investigation by the LAPD? For a murder case? What's that all about?”

“Accidental death, apparently,” DeWitt replied. “It was standard procedure. I've spoken with our contact in the sheriff's department and they've assured me that she's in the clear. No culpability that they could determine.”

“According to this, there was another hit on her record from 1996,” Topher said as he took a seat on the edge of the desk, grabbing a fistful of sunflower seeds from a jar sitting by his keyboard. He tipped his head back, eyes rolling downward so that he could keep reading even as he poured a few of the seeds into his mouth, chewing them as he spoke. “Soliciting? Geez, she was only...” he paused just briefly, doing the calculation in his head, “sixteen?! God. Okay, so you mean to tell me... that this girl got brought up on charges when she was sixteen years old.” Glancing over at DeWitt, he arched his eyebrow, a doubtful expression. When DeWitt said nothing, he gave her a verbal nudge. “For prostitution.”

“We're not here to judge, Topher. Not the clients and not the Actives,” DeWitt reminded him calmly. “We're here to give them sanctuary and fulfillment while at the same time appeasing our client base.”

“You sound like a PR brochure,” Topher replied, wrinkling his nose with distaste, popping a few more sunflower seeds into his mouth. “Or one of those... you know, pharmacological companies trying to sound soft and fluffy and reassuring in their commercials while, at the same time, they're warning you that the drugs you buy from them might cause anal seepage.” He made a great show of shuddering at that. “Ugh.”

“Be that as it may,” DeWitt said, an undertone of firmness winding through her words. “I'd like for you to add her to the roster as soon as possible. I expect her to be processed and ready for her first engagement as soon as she gets the green light from the board.”

Hearing that, Topher nearly choked on his sunflower seeds. “Why?” He managed through his coughing fit, his eyes starting to water. “I mean, don't get me wrong – I know, I know, that's what you pay me for – but seriously, what's the rush, here?”

“We have a considerable backlog, for a start,” she explained, folding her hands behind her back. “Too many clients on the waiting list for engagements and not enough Actives to serve them. It's supply and demand.”

“Right,” Topher said, his tone making it clear that he still didn't quite understand the urgency. “Well, I umm... I can have her ready by Friday night, but I can't promise anything sooner than that. The procedure can be --”

“Traumatic. Yes, I'm aware,” DeWitt interrupted calmly.

“No, see, it's not just that, it – it takes a while for these guys to settle in, you know? I mean, funny, right? How hard is it to settle into being a blank automaton?” Topher said with a smirk, which soon made way for a more sincere, concerned expression. “Their personalities get wiped and replaced with this basic architecture and that's a lot of work for anybody's gray, squishy stuff to recover from. So... yeah, it's ... it's tough.”

“Oh, I don't think you'll have to worry much about that,” DeWitt assured him with a serene smile. “For as checkered as her past might be, Topher, this young woman has certain qualities that I think will prove invaluable to us.”

“Yeah? Like what?” Topher asked, frowning a bit as he grabbed another handful of seeds and poured them into his mouth.

“She's a survivor. To be left at loose ends and be forced to survive on the streets takes cunning, adaptability and a gift for improvising. To not only overcome such hardships but thrive as a result of them is the mark of a truly exceptional individual.”

“Well, I don't know so much about 'thriving',” Topher broke in, wincing a little as he returned his attention to Shane's profile. “If what these preliminary psych sheets say is true, it sounds like our girl has some, uhh... issues. Big ones. Like, 'gonna need a bigger boat' big ones.”

“Any potential hindrances will be irrelevant, once you've completed her orientation,” DeWitt said evenly, reminding him, a small smile curling her lips.

“Right,” Topher said again, sounding no more certain than he had a few moments ago.

“Walk with me,” she said, drawing one hand from behind her back to crook her finger, beckoning him along. “I want you to see something.”

“Sure.” Topher's confusion was evident, but he closed Shane's file and tossed it on his desk, brushing the sunflower seed crumbs from his palms as he stood.

DeWitt ushered Topher out of his office and up to the bridge, down to a shadowed entryway that led to a door secured by a card key lock, which she opened using a coded card she produced from her pocket. “This will be your first time in this wing,” she noted, grabbing the door as the lock let out a minute beep, an LED on the keypad flashing green briefly as she opened the door and held it for him. “Please.”

Topher hurried inside ahead of DeWitt and she soon followed, making sure the door was shut securely behind them both. The solid sheet-metal walls were painted a drab gray-blue and the floor was uninspiring poured concrete, the overall affect reminded Topher of a prison or a mental hospital. He'd never been inside either of those kinds of places in his life and after being in the hall of this wing for barely thirty seconds, he resolved that he'd never do a single thing that would lead to him winding up in a place like this one.

“This way,” DeWitt said, unknowingly interrupting his train of thought as she guided him down the hallway, which came to a quick end, branching off into two other halls just as depressing as the first one that led off into completely opposite directions. Pocketing her key card, she led him down the right fork and Topher noticed what looked like giant portals built into the walls on either side. Each portal was four foot by ten or fifteen feet, almost reminding Topher of the observation windows at an aquarium.

As they came upon the first set of portals, Topher looked to his right and found two men seated on blue mats inside, seated in the classic lotus pose, hands resting, benignly, palm up on their knees. They were dressed in blue sweatpants and gray tank tops, their feet bare. In the room on the left, he could see a blond woman in a similar set of workout wear, her hair pulled back into a ponytail which bounced and whipped about as she attacked a heavy, hanging punching bag, kicking and pummeling the thing with her fists while a man with brown spiky hair watched nearby.

“Oh wow,” Topher mumbled, reaching up to scratch at his head. “This is – these aren't – they're --”

“This is our testing wing,” DeWitt supplied for him, casting a Sphinx-like smile in his direction as she gestured further down the hall. “She's in three.”

“She's --?” Topher began, blinking at her but still following along.

As they approached, the sounds of low, rhythmic grunting and the sounds of impact could be heard. The fighty bits weren't exactly Topher's area -- he couldn't say who was hitting what or how – all he knew was something was apparently hitting something else. He soon found out what, though, as they finally reached the window overlooking the third testing room. Blue mats, like in the first room, as well as a series of punching bags and pads and a laptop set up on a rolling stand with what looked like a few wires and electrodes laid out next to it.

Dressed in a gray tank and blue sweatpants like the other trainers and potentials, she wore a pair of simple white running sneakers and ankle socks, the elasticized hem of the right leg of her sweatpants, rather inexplicably, pushed up to her knee. Her hands were wrapped to the wrists and she was wearing sparring gloves. She wasn't exactly tall, but not short, either. Taller than average for a girl, maybe, but just by a little bit. If Topher had just given her a quick glance – and hadn't known she was a she beforehand – he would have assumed that he was watching a teenage boy being put through his paces. Her hips were so narrow as to be almost non-existent and the same thing could be said for her breasts, very nearly. Not that he was looking at those, because that would be unprofessional.

Slender, verging on scrawny, though the only thing that kept her from getting tipped into the 'scrawny' pile were the noticeable toned muscles along her arms and bare shoulders that flexed and bunched each time she drew her right hand back and then swung it forward in a tight, contained punch. Her fist landed squarely in the center of the square pad as it was secured to the heavy-gauge stand, the blow making a surprisingly loud smack. Topher jumped a little at the sound and then grimaced to himself, shoving his hands deeply into the pockets of his jeans and casting a quick smile at DeWitt.

“Okay, that's good, Shane,” the burly slab-o-meat trainer in the room with the dark-haired young woman was saying, nodding encouragingly as he did so. Topher couldn't remember the guy's name, but he distinctly remembered that he was former military. A Marine or SEAL or something to do with water and army-type stuff. His scans had gone into the id matrix because DeWitt had felt his tactical and disciplinary talents would come in useful for certain engagements. “Take a breather. Get some water.”

Relaxing from her fighting stance, Shane stood up straight, giving her head quick roll on her shoulders to relax the muscles there as she reached up, using the cloth wrapping on her wrist to wipe away the perspiration that had gathered over her upper lip and forehead. Her hair was medium length, cut in some kind of choppy, piece-y style that Topher guessed was meant to be the latest fashion. But what did he know from that kind of stuff? He was a geek and a guy, on top of it all. As best he could tell from his vantage point, her hair was pulled back into a spiky ponytail, with jagged fringe falling across her brow and longer pieces framing her face.

Topher was just in the process of wondering what her face looked like as Shane turned around, walking towards the window and bending down to retrieve something. She straightened, her piercing, dark eyes staring right into Topher's eyes for a moment before she buried her face in the towel she'd picked up, scrubbing away the drying perspiration from her skin. Tipping her head back, she lifted a sports-style water bottle and gave the bottle a squeeze, water squirting in an arc into her open mouth.

“She can't... see me, right?” Topher asked, uncertain, as he looked over at DeWitt.

“She can't see or hear,” DeWitt answered, hands folded harmlessly in front of her, eyes unerringly fixed on Shane as she replaced her water bottle and began pacing around the training room, dark eyes flicking from wall to wall to wall. Her circuits were aimless, just giving her muscles a chance to recover, but even then, she still seemed to move forward with purpose. Determination. “We built this wing so that the members of the board could observe potential Actives first-hand and vote accordingly, but this also makes a suitable pre-screening lab. For the most part, the graders and potential Actives are the only ones who have access, but I wanted you to see her for yourself.”

“She's like a tiger in a cage,” Topher observed quietly, watching with DeWitt as Mr. Meatslab the Trainer beckoned Shane over to where he was standing near the rolling cart. Still wiping at her face, Shane sauntered over to him, listening intently and nodding as he explained some things that neither of them could make out, her expression intent and almost severe. “What's wrong with her, Doc?”

“She's... impatient,” DeWitt said, voice hushed, the words coming at the tail end of a sigh. “It seems as though what she most wants in the world right now is to just simply disappear. I suppose she thinks that offering herself up to us is the best way to make that happen.”

“Disappear,” he echoed her, brows furrowing as he frowned.

“I think she wants to die, Topher,” DeWitt murmured, eyes trained steadily on Shane as she allowed the trainer to affix a couple of electrodes to her chest, standing still with the same kind of hesitant grace a long-legged doe might upon hearing a hunter's boot cracking a tree branch a hundred yards away. “But since she's too frightened to take things into her own hands, I suppose she feels this is the next best thing.”

“Oh, Jesus,” he sighed and raked a hand through his hair. He turned to DeWitt imploringly. “Look, are you sure about this? I mean, seriously --”

“I'm not sure about anything,” DeWitt said in that same maddeningly mild voice, though there was a definite hint of exasperation there, underneath everything else. “That's why you're here. Do you think you can make this work?”

“Wha – her?!” Topher asked, pointing at Shane through the window. “I -- man, I – I don't know. I don't know, Doc. I'd have to take a look at her comprehensives again, but --”

“Okay, Shane,” Mr. Meatslab was saying inside the training room, “now that we've got these 'trodes on you, what I want you to do is approach the pad just like before, only this time, I want you to punch it as hard as you can. I wanna get some of this data onto the computer for our records, okay? So the guys with the big brains and big pocketbooks can see what you're really made of.”

Shane sighed and it looked, for just a split second, as though she might refuse, but instead, her shoulders slumped, head hanging forward – chin nearly brushing her chest – she nodded. Giving her face one last scrub with the towel, she balled it up and tossed it back over towards the window before circling back to the sparring pad on its stand.

“I can give you a few practice hits, if you need 'em, but I don't think you do,” Meaty Boy was saying as he punched a few buttons on the laptop's keyboard. “You ready?”

“Yeah,” Shane said as she sank into a fighting stance, spreading her legs a bit and bending her knees as she curled her fingers into fists and brought her fists up into the standard protective position. Her voice was quite deep and husky and the sound of it took Topher by surprise but he barely had a chance to mutter a snappy comment before she spoke again. “Tell me when.”

Meatmeister glanced at his laptop screen, pressing a few more keys before he looked back up at Shane. “Okay. When!”

No sooner did the word leave his lips did Shane's right hand shoot out with all the quickness of a viper strike, her fist connecting with the pad with a resounding THWACK. Shane drew her fist back, shifting her weight back to her right foot, fists lifting into that defensive position again. “Again?” She asked, eyes still fixed on the red circle in the center of the blue bullseye pattern painted on the pad.

“Yeah, keep it up. I wanna see what you've got,” Meaty McThickneck said distractedly, nodding as he eyed the laptop screen, fussing with more keys as he spoke. “Hard as you can.”

“Kay,” she replied, almost too quietly for the response to be heard by Topher and DeWitt, before her arm shot out again, catching the pad right in the center of the red circle. Topher could see the resulting force of the blow from the way the padding caved, conforming to her fist in that brief moment of impact before she drew her hand back again, only to drive her fist into that exact same spot.

Again and again, her arm shot out and her fist connected with the bullseye and DeWitt and Topher could both see the way that Shane tried to follow Meaty's instructions, the muscles from shoulder to forearm tensing and bunching beneath lightly tanned skin each time she swung. Whoever this girl was, she knew what she was doing, and Topher was almost afraid to look at her file again to see how she came to know how to do what she was doing so very well.

Topher looked over at the grader, eyes widening as he watched the measurement software at work. Pretty standard stuff, designed to calculate pounds-per-inch of pressure focused on a single point. Baseline control measurement, which was probably what Meaty had been testing before with having Shane hit the pad over and over again before. Now, though, Meaty was getting her to open up the throttle and work and, judging by the way the baseline kept sharply spiking each time Shane's fist connected to the pad, she was working it pretty hard.

THWACK! THWACK! THWACK!

“Okay, Shane, that's good. You can take five,” Meaty was saying as he stopped the measurement series and saved the results.

THWACK! THWACK! THWACK!

“Shane?” Meaty glanced behind him, almost startled as he saw that Shane had not followed his instructions and was still wailing away on the pad.

Topher and DeWitt both transferred their attention to Shane, who seemed to have gone into some sort of deep trance, dark eyes fixed on the bullseye despite the sweat trickling down her face and into her eyes. One punch after another, each one connecting harder than the last, if the effects on the pad itself were any indication. Her face was shrouded by a look of spyglass-in-sunlight focus, lips pursed into a firm, white line of a frown.

“Shane, I said you can take five,” Meaty said, raising his voice a little as he turned to face her, big, ham-sized fists settling on his hips as he watched her with growing concern. Frowning, he tried a harder, more authoritative army-guy voice on for size. “Shane! I said THAT'S ENOUGH!”

Just like that, as though a switch had been flipped, Shane relaxed again and straightened up from her fighting stance, chest heaving hard with each panting breath she exhaled and dripping with sweat. She didn't acknowledge Mr. Meatpie, just ambled back over to the spot where her water bottle and towel were sitting. Scooping them both up, she patted at her face - now flushed from exertion – with the towel and took a long drink from her bottle of water.

“She's intense,” Topher whispered, a little unsettled.

“She's perfect,” DeWitt said quietly, smiling like a cat who'd just noticed that canary was on the menu.
Chapter End Notes:
"Disturbia" by Rihanna - 'Romeo is Bleeding' theme song.

"Girl on TV" by Bradley - As Topher and DeWitt reach the third training room.

"Precious" by Depeche Mode - Outro, as Shane finally relents.

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