“What you feel for her makes you weak.”

It was always something to watch Sergei commit himself to full physical combat. Vikram was aware that sparring partners had always been somewhat elusive for his companion. It wasn’t until the Vory had begun his formal training that he’d acquired some real experience against skilled opponents.

It was just the two of them in the USS Walsh’s combat training gym. As with much of the equipment on board the aircraft carrier, this rig was a prototype, an MIT- developed combat simulator that could be skinned with the countenance and physique of anyone registered in the Neurocommand. In reality, it was a tactile illusion laid over a titanium armature, held together by powerful magnets that were stabilized by a magnetic matrix built into the sprung floor beneath their feet. 

Vikram had set the manikin to reflect a generic version of a human man, programmed to show flushes of red in its gray flesh wherever Sergei’s fist or foot contacted it. He watched, amused, as the two of them circled like boxers, Sergei’s broad muscular torso bare from the waist up. He was dense and hard as a tank, but glossed with sweat. The simulation was holding its own quite easily against him. 

It had a benign aspect that seemed to mock with its passivity until Sergei made a jab at its chin. It countered smoothly and delivered a heel-handed blow to its human opponent’s left collar bone. Sergei grunted and backed off a step, taking advantage of the distance to recalibrate. He feinted, punched the analogue in the jaw and sent it stumbling back. A deep flush of red indicated the blow would have dislocated the jaw bone — a debilitating hit. 

“Good,” Sergei said, directing his words to Vikram but keeping his eyes on the analogue. “What else can it do?”

“I can set it to learn from you,” he said as he moved around the edge of the magnetized area. “I can set it to mimic the physical combat style of real crew members. I can assign it to be purely defensive, or purely offensive.” He shrugged. “I could tell it to kill you.”

Sergei grinned at him, pale blue eyes lighting up at the prospect . “You think it could?”

“Yes,” Vikram said simply. “But a brick to the skull could kill you. It’s just physics.”

He gestured, sent a mental order to the simulation. It reset into a guard position, and Sergei planted his feet. He considered the hovering entity, moving in a dynamic pattern identical to his own, shifting its weight. He moved fast, powering a brutal kick towards his opponent. It evaded the blow so quickly that the graphic had a difficult time keeping up, and its humanoid aspect blurred, revealing the stacked, articulating magnets that made up its real physical force. 

Effortlessly, it caught Sergei’s foot, and pushed, sending him flat on his back. The entire exchange took less than two clocked seconds, it amused Vikram tremendously to see Sergei gasp for breath as he lay sprawled, disoriented by the sheer inhuman speed enacted on his body.

“Fuck,” he laughed as he sat up, and ruffled his hair. “Was that the program or just you?”

Vikram stalked along the edge of the combat area, enjoying the view of Sergei gasping for breath, sitting now with his forearms propped on his knees. He held up a hand, allowing the pins and needles feeling to collect in his palm as he accessed the neurological field that connected every human’s brain activity to the ship’s operating system. 

“Let’s play a game.” 

Sergei looked warily at him, but he was visibly intrigued. “What kind of game?”

“A rematch. This time, a fair fight.”

Vikram held out his hand, drawing the analogue into a relaxed standing posture. At the forefront of his mind’s eye, he drew the image he wanted to manifest, forming the command as he silently spoke the name. The organic matrix of the invisible network rippled, contracted, pulling the data from the ether and creating a neurological reaction that the senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell and even taste perceived as full reality. 

As with everyone he’d ever encountered, he had a perfect memory of Hudson Ford, including the memory of his gut stabbed corpse laid out on the sky burial ground, but the NCOM’s record of him was beyond perfect. He’d been the executive officer of this ship, and had engaged constantly with the OS for three years. It rendered him exactly over the magnetic armature, showing him bare chested in gi trousers, as he must have preferred to train when using it. 

Sergei’s reaction was difficult to read. He rose from his crouch and looked the figure up and down, his eyes flicking over to Vikram as he cocked one golden brow. Vikram gave him an empty smile, and nodded towards the Hudson Ford figure. It watched Sergei with a mild, indifferent expression, neither offended nor concerned. 

“Is it really the same?”

“Hudson Ford clocked four-hundred-sixty-three hours training here, ranked eighth out of fifty-two logged users. The NCOM’s profile is total.” 

Sergei’s lip twitched a little as he reached out and pushed against Hudson’s hard shoulder with two fingers. The analogue responded by seizing his forearm in a wrap, pulling him forward into a driving knee. The blow winded Sergei, but it wasn’t enough to fell him. He bent reflexively, then used his shoulder to knock the analogue off its footing. 

Warming to the challenge, Sergei backed off a pace, defending himself against his smaller opponent as he allowed it to take the offensive, feeling out its technique. Vikram was interested to see how the experiment played out, but he knew from long experience that Sergei didn’t need to rely on strategy or subtlety. All he needed was an opening. 

The corporeal ghost of Hudson Ford made the inevitable mistake, dropping his guard, allowing Sergei to reach out, seize him by the throat, locking his grip as he bore his opponent to the ground. He snarled gleefully, showing his teeth as he crushed the throat against the floor, fractured the hyoid bone, causing blood to flood from Hudson Ford’s mouth. 

The last was Vikram’s addition, as the NCOM’s combat program did not include such theatrics. Sergei, panting and dripping sweat, grinned up at him.

“The other one. How does he rank?” 

“Third in overall combat, fourth in physical strength, first in victories against his own weight class.” 

Vikram snapped his fingers, and the armature’s skin reconstituted itself into Delaware Ford. Before Sergei could get his bearings, the larger, stronger brother got an arm around the one pinning him, twisted his torso and was able to force Sergei’s bulk to the side and break his grip.

Neither of them made it back to their feet, and the tussle was less playful. Where his brother had a traditional approach, Delaware’s analogue didn’t hesitate to fight absolutely dirty, head butting, and even biting where necessary. It was clear to Vikram that the former captain of the Walsh had a clearer understanding of the purpose of such exercise — to kill, and to win. 

Even after Sergei effectively fractured his opponent’s arm, the Delaware analogue fought on, doing what he could until the simulation decided that the pain would disable him. Sergei fell back, took a deep breath, then rolled up on to his feet and shook himself from head to foot. 

“You think I won’t just cut you?” he spat, evidently forgetting that it wasn’t truly Delaware Ford. He could be forgiven for that, because the simulation was accurate down to the man’s pores. 

He turned away, taking a deep breath, wiping the sweat from his face. He snatched a water bottle from outside the ring and took a deep draught before turning around and finding himself face to face with Rachel. 

Sergei looked over at Vikram, dumb animal hurt in his expression. As though Vikram had betrayed him, hitting him below the belt. As though he had not stalked and tormented his sister with obsessive cruelty for more than a decade. 

Annoyed by this show of shallow affect, Vikram gestured, sending a command to the magnetic armature that wore his sister’s form. Before Sergei could react, it swept his legs out from under him, then put a slender brown foot on his throat. His hands instinctively went to it, trying to shove it away, but it was proof against all of his strength. 

“It’s not her most recent combat profile, obviously,” Vikram said as he walked to the edge of the practice area. “But the point stands.”

“What point?” Sergei said in a strangled growl, still trying in vain to get the foot off his throat.

“What you feel for her makes you weak.” 

“Get it off me.”

Vikram considered, then shrugged. The image of Rachel dissolved. The magnetic armature collapsed, falling on Sergei like steel raindrops. He rose slowly, massaging his throat, his face beet red with rage. He stepped off the platform, his fists clenched, a tick going in his cheek. 

For an instant Vikram really thought he’d done it, thought that the blow would come, but Sergei just barked out a dismissive laugh. He took a step back, as though being close to Vikram’s hypocrisy burned him, then stalked off, leaving a trail of sweat behind him.