[NO LONGER UPDATING] Ceres's Chaos: A Tragic Space Opera
“Okay, quick introduction to the Gladius for your ‘probational’ mentor, we do training for everything combat related. That means any supporting industry as well, which include medical training, battlefield equipment repair and so on.” Vice-Manager Fye spoke as she walked with the two kids into the elevator, bringing them down to the lobby.
“Now, people here, near the border of the Loeric Empire as we are, usually straddle the line between legal and illegal, so try not to poke around. Second rule of the Gladius.”
“We’re going to head to the weapons training section first. This whole section we’re in right now is just the office wing. Stay close, and don’t run away, I won’t go after you if you get engrossed in something.”
The lift doors reopened to show the same scene of the lobby, bustling with activity.
“Don’t you get in trouble with the enforcers for this sort of stuff? Sounds like you’re training active criminals.” Ceres piped up. He wasn’t particularly against the idea of illegal activity, seeing as he had been participating in riots sort of illegally too.
Some rules were just meant to be broken, but he was trying hard to not involve himself in anything that could jeopardize him too much right before the competition.
“We’re a clean business, kid, we don’t ask the first shit about the person’s background and his intentions, hence plausible deniability. All we care about is the money and doing our jobs; what the person does after they are trained is on them, not us.” She snorted as she walked straight to one of the three large gates behind the receptionist desk, the two teenagers behind them trying to keep up with the fast pace.
“You can’t expect a gun manufacturer to be responsible for who their customers shoot, especially when bought legally.” Ardan explained further.
“Okay, first stop, weapons training.” The large gate was close to three storeys high and Ceres was anticipating the gate to open like some majestic hanger bay.
Instead, Vice-Manager Fye led the group to skip a long queue that had formed in front of a smaller door to the bottom right of the gate.
“Some people can’t afford the booking fee, so they usually try their luck and queue up early for the off-peak slots. Sometimes they get in, sometimes they don’t.” She shrugged.
Using her credentials, they easily entered past the door, getting into the weapons training section.
The ceiling was as equally high as it was in the atrium, ten storeys tall, except that it wasn’t a glass ceiling but a metal dome. The entire place looked exactly like a hangar bay meant to store large starships, but it had been retrofitted to fit the needs of the trainees that came.
There were various types of exosuits of all sizes and classes, even including a two-storey tall mechsuit that was placed like the main attraction near the front gate.
Hundreds of trainees or instructors filled the bay standing in separate groups, while the center of the hangar featured a floating ship right in mid-air, levitating over a platform that hummed loudly.
All the three sections were interconnected together, forming a large sprawling hangar bay that had no division between the respective categories, allowing people to mingle across easily.
“Holy shit, I’ve never seen one of those before. Wait you have a starship simulator?!” Ceres jaw dropped at the amazing sights, seeing technology that he had never expected to see in the outer Zones, especially a “shithole” like Zone 17.
How in the world did an outer zone training center get this kind of equipment? It either meant that Ardan’s family lineage was extremely loaded, or unsavoury means were employed!
“Hey, I know that look on your face! We didn’t steal anything, it’s called legitimate salvage. This mech suit is one of the only ten on this planet! And the starship simulator is hand rigged ourselves. I even worked on it for a while!” Ardan’s chest puffed significantly as he stood in front of a full-sized imperial patrol ship that was placed, though any signs of its emblems and legion affiliation had been stripped down.
Featuring three medium-sized autocannons and a single large energy turret, it was levitating in mid-air despite it being close to 10 meters long and about two storeys high, allowing it to rotate freely.
Right now, it was undergoing a training course, with the full crew of four people in it screaming as they experienced a harrowing virtual scenario somewhere in space. Ceres was immediately captivated by the idea!
Ceres was about to bolt off to try to enter the starship simulator, before a large hand grabbed his head. “Kid, I won’t say this again, but if you run off you can consider the mentor deal off. You can just pay the full price for a regular trainee.” Vice-Manager Fye said.
Gulping, Ceres nodded vigorously before being let go. She continued explaining the categories.
“Weapons training means everything, not just guns on the ground. That means exosuit usage etc. The people taking repair courses generally come here too to fix the damage or fatigue of the equipment, so you’ll get your chance here soon enough, nothing is going to run away. Though seeing as you don’t have a nerval jack installed yet, there’s no point in actually being anywhere near the starship simulator.”
She was right, nerval jacks had become the de facto standard for utilizing large scale weaponry now. Many starships and exosuits now required the pilot to have a nerval jack in order to operate, as it lowered the requirements and hence cost.
It was inefficient to try to make a physical interface for every section of the starship, which was the case for the ancient humans who needed thousands of hands to man just the engineering section of a capital ship.
These days, even a single human could use a nerval jack and control the entire patrol boat himself, assuming he had the capability to do so.
They walked along rows of exosuits that were propped up standing, which were way more exosuits than Ceres had ever seen, only counting completed ones. His workshop didn’t count, seeing as most of it were either dismantled or modified terribly.
The group stopped in front of a giant white knight model, about 2.5 meters tall. It featured a large kite shield that had no symbols nor engraving on it, looking more like a default blank template.
“Who can actually wear this exosuit? Aren’t exosuits meant to be quite close to human height? And what’s a NEIR?” Ceres looked at Ardan, who was revering the exosuit and imagining himself piloting it, despite being 1.6 meters. He noticed that there was a warning sign reading “NEIR > 2”
“You’ll be surprised. You don’t see it a lot on this border system, but we’ve had a few genetically enhanced humans come in before. This exosuit is currently purely for display purposes. As for your second question, I’ll leave Ardan to explain to you, mentor.” Sighing, Vice-Manager Fye continued walking down the hangar bay, while Ardan excitedly ran up next to Ceres.
“Didn’t you learn about the nerval jack installation procedure in school? NEIR stands for nerval interaction rating! It’s basically a measure of how well your body can handle data input or output! The higher your rating, the more you can utilize the weapon or exosuit you’re handling. Some of the legendary admirals have been said to be able to control an entire capital ship themselves!”
Ceres couldn’t believe he was getting schooled by a 1.3 meter tall kid, but Ardan actually listened in class while Ceres didn’t.
He really could give less of a shit on the rating in the past, seeing as he still didn’t have a nerval jack, but now that the competition was coming and all these exosuits were in front of him, he felt an urge to know now.
“The ratings are from 0 to five, with the scale being exponential. A NEIR rating of 1 means that you feel it as part of your body, as though it was an extra limb. If you had a rating of 2, it means that the amount of information you can handle is close to five times more! Most humans have a NEIR rating of 0.6-0.75 at their natural state, unless they were genetically engineered or attached additional parts to their bodies.”
Ceres now had a better understanding of why the warning sign on the exosuit was there. With its enormous size, multiple armour plates, huge range of sensors and weapons, the amount of information streamed back to the pilot would destroy the brain of anyone who wasn’t prepared or trained for it.
If the exosuit had such a limitation, then what about the towering mechsuit and the imperial patrol ship he saw?
“KIDS GET OVER HERE!” A bellow came from afar, making Ceres and Ardan jump and scamper over quickly to Vice-Manager Fye. “Next section, bodybuilding! This section combines everything unarmed. For anyone who wants to strengthen their body alone, this is the place.”
However, it looked nothing like how Ceres would imagine a normal gym. Instead, there were rows and rows of large human-size pods, where people were sleeping in! Weren’t they supposed to be training?
Nearby, there were a few boxing rings where a group of older buff men were screaming and yelling at each other, along with hundreds of rows upon rows of various different metal weights for lifting!
“The pods here are all VR pods. People here will train physically maybe only thirty percent of the time, while the other seventy percent they are either eating or mentally training in the VR world. We have our own private server where they can train any combat style they want.”
Ceres almost palmed his face, watching groups of men take turns to lift each other, while another was walking around while carrying tons of metal plates strapped to his body. He could clearly envision this as Braton’s heaven. “Yea… this isn’t the place for me.” Ardan nodded vigorously in agreement.
“If you ever need unarmed combat training, this is the place. You won’t need to actually physically be here, any VR pod in the training center is hooked up to the local server. Final section, the repair section.” A glorious sight graced upon Ceres eyes, with a huge workshop with at least fifty workbenches armed to the teeth with tools of every sort in order to fix any weapon.
Students from other schools were also touring the place, being given lectures by older trainers who had retired to this planet. This was leagues above whatever his workshop had!
A sizable crowd had formed in the middle of the workshop, with people watching intently and taking notes. Large holo-screens were levitating in mid-air, showing exhibition matches between exosuits in different arenas.
“They are doing a repair and modification competition now. The Gladius has all sorts of competitions available for you to win. Kid, you’re on probation now, but I’ll make you full-fledged if you win any competition in the Gladius.” Vice-Manager Fye explained.
“Ardan, from now on I’ll be the best mentor you’ll ever have. Let’s start straight away!” Ceres again was grabbed by yet another large hand before he tried to dash, forcing him to face Vice-Manager Fye.
“This isn’t your stop. Now that you know what you got here physically, it's time to go. Ardan dear, bring him to the VIP room please. I have another meeting to attend, and I don’t have time to watch you flail about preparing for a boring newcomer competition.” She let go of Ceres, turning and walking away briskly as though she was finally off the clock.
Leaving the hangar bay and entering the lift to the third floor, Ceres had a few questions that had been bugging him since that whole meeting began. He started off by asking the most important question first.
"Alright Ardan, why do you get to call her Aunt while I'm forced to call that 50-year-old hulk Little Melody? I can’t even bring myself to say it!"
"You know, there are microphones in the lift and she can hear you."
"This is an absolute violation of my personal data and privacy, maybe I should take legal action."
"You’re in the Gladius, they own the building, you don’t. And you really think you can win a lawsuit against her?”
"On second thought, I think Little Melody is probably the greatest role model I've met so far."
The third floor was essentially multiple corridors that led to specific rooms. People were queuing up in front of certain rooms that held specific training equipment, while Ceres followed Ardan, wondering where they were headed.
People kept staring at them weirdly, while Ardan walked nonchalantly along. “Why are they staring at us like that? Where the fuck are we? Why are we not using the workshop below?” Ceres whispered to Ardan in a hushed voice, afraid the staring onlookers would pounce on them.
“You’ll see. It’s not every day you get to enter where you’re about to go! If you thought that workshop below was amazing, wait till you see this!” Finally reaching the end of one of the hallways, a black sliding door slid open, revealing a luxurious room within.
The room had five human-sized VR pods docked vertically on the wall, with a long table and a multi-interface in the middle, fitted with two elegant sofas facing each other.
In the corner of the room, there were five fridges containing nutritional paste that could feed a man for two years as well as a water cooler and a door indicating the toilet.
It seemed like the perfect place for an unemployed individual to live in forever. Ceres would have done that too if it wasn't for the fact that he had rent to pay and couldn’t skip the curfew of the military orphanage.
“Holy shit, you’re one of my best friends from now on.” Ceres couldn’t keep his eyes away from the workshop benches outfitted at the side, having at least three fully kitted ones equally if not more impressive than the ones he saw in the repair section.
He almost did not need to even go down to the main hangar bay anymore – he could just stay here!
“Welcome, VIPs. This room is equipped with an AI host that can manage everything you need.” A holographic butler appeared in the middle of the room, bowing to them.
“A message from Vice-Manager Fye: Ceres is only allowed to use the room as long as he wins the probational tournament for exosuit repairers.”
Ceres nodded. Was this the beginning of his main character arc? However, he felt bad that he was supposed to teach the younger Ardan, but he did not know anything about teaching at all!
The way he was taught by Uncle Dawn was more of a ‘do-whatever’ kind of method, and he could already tell Ardan was not that type.
“I’ve already loaded up one of the default VIP training plans into the AI before you came, it’s a crowdsourced training plan from others in the Gladius who had been preparing for their nerval jack installation. I’ve been following such a plan since two years ago!” Ardan said proudly as he quickly pulled up a holographic image, showing the details.
“I feel like you’re more my mentor than am I yours. Why do you need me even? I don’t have any experience with all these expensive stuff.”
“You’ll get the hang of it easy! Honestly, being a mentor was kind of a lie to get Aunt Fye to agree. Don’t get me wrong! I still want to learn stuff from you, and I admire how practical you are when dealing with repairs in the riots! But I really felt that we bonded during the riot, right? I don’t have any other friends, my aunt chases all of them away like how she tried to do the same to you, so this was the only plan I had left. “Ardan sat down on the sofa, browsing a virtual menu.
Ceres couldn’t bear to tell the young kid that it was obviously a one-way ‘bond’, so he just went with it. “Sure, let’s be friends! What’s the training plan like?”
“Well first step, we stuff our faces with paste!”
The training was simple: stuff their faces full of the best nutritional paste, digest for thirty minutes, jack their body up on expensive enhancers meant to improve their NEIR level, then train in the VR pod, and finally end with a physical session.
The enhancers were not the best in the city, not even in the inner zones, as despite the seemingly rich and haughty attitude of Ardan family, they were nothing compared to the upper-middle class citizens in terms of both wealth and reputation.
The Gladius was the largest training center in Zone 17, and the zones further out would come here to train, but they still weren’t the best training center in the city.
Ceres followed the AI instructions after having a hearty meal, laying inside the pod with the lid automatically closing on him.
Placing his body nicely into a human-shaped slot, the slot readjusted to fit him better, while a scanner performed a check on his body.
"Welcome to Athersa Virtual Pod II, Gladius Customer: Ceres. What would you like to do today?"
"Follow the training procedure automatically, and please for the love of god disable any notifications, actions or advertisements related to any additional purchases." Ceres said that as a prewarning.
Consumer software like this VR pod was generally plagued with consistent advertisements or paid software updates across the known galaxy.
"Sorry, the second command will require the purchase of an additional hardware component as well as post-sales software updates. Would you like to browse the options available?"
"Forget it, just load up the training procedure."
"Confirmed. Executing enhancer injection of 2x nerval capacity boosters by Virlo Pharmas. Confirm?"
Ceres nodded with his head, his body sinking further into the slot and almost being fully enveloped with only his head visible. Multiple nozzles stabbed in precise locations around his body, with white liquid pumping into his blood vessels.
His skin gradually became more and more sensitive, where even the slightest touch of a fly would have felt as though someone had tapped him with the tip of a stick
The nerval capacity boosters were aimed at increasing his sensitivity that was supposedly correlated to an increase in synchronization rate for the nerval interface. The higher the data rate through the nerval interface, the higher the NEIR level.
There wasn’t a required NEIR level, and even people low on the scale could live a decent life. However, if you intended to fight using the latest equipment for the competition, having a low NEIR level could overwhelm them.
He started to feel a burning sensation as the nozzles have resided in his body for far too long, causing him to clench his teeth in agony.
He couldn’t imagine doing this every two days, he didn’t even know what his NEIR level was right now, seeing as he doesn’t have a nerval jack installed yet.
A humans’ NEIR level wasn’t fixed from birth: humans could still train it, but the younger they start, the better. Fortifying his mind, Ceres held out till the procedure was over in a total of 3 mins. Stepping out from the pod, he saw Ardan stumble out from the pod opposite to him.
"Well that wasn’t so bad was it? I couldn’t really stand it when I started, but now it feels like nothing." Ardan gently massaged the nozzle wounds that dotted his body.
Ceres didn't reply, only making a mental complaint that he only started doing this about thirty minutes ago thanks to his new friendship with Ardan. The effects of the booster tapered off as humans grew older, requiring adults to get more and more expensive boosters to keep up the same enhancement rate over time.
Only the lucky ones get to do it up to 40 years old, most stop at 30 when it became economically and practically unviable for the vast majority of the population. Comparing himself to Ardan, he was considerably way behind everyone else in this rat race.
Ceres couldn’t imagine how far ahead the citizens living in the inner zones or even the capital of the Loeric Empire were. “Not just the Loeric Empire – probably the higher-class star states around us are even better off!”
They spent the next 30 minutes eating different stocked flavours of nutritional paste and drinks, revelling in their increased sensitivity of taste receptors, despite having already eaten once.
It was a known fact that many used such boosters to increase their efficiency and happiness in certain bedroom 'battles', but Ceres considered the existence of a girlfriend to be a myth and if true, an extremely low-grade investment that had unlimited risk and zero returns.
They then entered a different pod each that only had a VR headset in it, with nothing to jack into. It was a training model designed for use with people who didn’t have a nerval jack, allowing Ceres and Ardan to access the VR.
Instead, a tube extended from the interior of the pod, feeding him paralyzing liquid, while the VR headset rested like a helmet around his entire head.
This enabled the user to log in into a VR world and move without actually moving their real limbs in real life, reducing any risk of hurting themselves. This wasn't possible in the orphanage, only Gladius had such a good VR pod within the outer zones of the city.
If Ceres hadn't met Ardan, he would've had to make do with mechanical straps from the orphanage that stopped his body from moving clumsily, reducing the effectiveness of the time he could spend in the VR world.
"Welcome Gladius Customer: Ceres. Which server would you like to join?"
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