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Day by Day
Yesterday’s test of the GP45 had gone very well for the young racer.  She’d put in times exactly in line with what the engineers requested and for the final five laps they’d told her to open it up a little.  She ended up four tenths of a second off race pace.  There’d been more in the tank too, so to speak, but Nika was not about to destroy a multi-million dollar machine unless a podium was on the line.  Her job was simply to find the optimal set up; find the speed.  She was very good at her job.  The tyres felt good, suspension was dialed in for Alex’s weight, not hers, and they’d managed to put in three different base settings for the electronics package.  A good day.

While her full-time ride in MotoGT was on a completely different bike; the commercially-available Ducati Panigale Hayden Speciale 1100 tuned for racing versus the one off purpose-built racing machines of MotoGP, she had been serving as Alex Castori’s test rider for three years now.  On his MotoGP bikes.  MotoGT was an insane mix of track and street courses whereas MotoGP ran strictly on the premier race tracks of the world.  That’s why there was training though and no one trained harder than Nika.  Maybe that’s why she’d won every series she’d ever contested and why she was set to defend her second MotoGT title this coming season.  No one had ever won it twice, let alone three times which was the way her own fans thought saw it.  A rival fan’s incursion onto the race course had ended that year’s title run though.  Such was racing life.

After the Ducati test she’d relaxed in her condo until the Atherim had called.  That had turned into a late night.  A restless night.  

Nika’d allowed herself more time in the morning to reset her mental game.  Her alarm went off at 7, scant hours after she’d poured herself into bed following last night’s emotional rollercoaster.  All that work only to find a murdered murderess and a mystery that really wasn’t hers to solve.  Not her area of expertise.  The Atherim had people for that, she was certain, but she was not it.   

The assassin slept clothed but didn’t have a specific memory of dressing for bed; light pajama pants and a matching button up shirt because Nika didn’t use sheets.  Or blankets.  Nothing on top of her, she couldn’t stand it.  Your past never truly went away.  

Bare feet negotiated the stairs of her lofted bed.  She preferred a morning shower and lingered longer than necessary.  Her palms splayed on the tile and braced her body as the hot water ran downward.  Cleansing.  She told herself the water took the bad dreams away...washed her clean for a new start because dwelling on the past distracted from the now.  

It was a work in progress.

Nika toweled off post-shower and then took her morning coffee and breakfast wearing nothing but a pair of micromodal trunks as she reviewed her schedule.   

While she’d inherited her top floor condo from her parents; the level below had been her own acquisition.  Half that floor served as a garage for her toys and the other half, well, that was accessible only through her flat.  Via secure stairwell.  Cleverly hidden.  Because Nika watched too many spy movies from before she was born.

Virtual Reality had taken off in the ‘20s.  For a time, an unstoppable momentum of funding and developmental resources flooded the industry.  Significant advances were made in medicine; interest in education saw a revival as well.  Users could visit any place, any time...literally do or experience anything at all that could be imagined and programmed.  It was utterly amazing in every sense of the word. Systems became so refined, so perfect, that VR was indistinguishable from reality (with the proper accessories)...and those were the civilian models.  The gaming and entertainment industries exploded.  Movies and games were remastered and truly participatory. You could go for your morning run across the surface of the moon, lip sync onstage to sold out mega concerts, play Madden 365 as a sparkling vampire or be the shark in JAWS.  Limitless...

The problems started small; malnutrition, dehydration, truancy from work or school but snowballed at an alarming rate.  What quickly became a worldwide public health crisis reached its pinnacle at a tragic mass suicide event involving over 63,000 people in an online role-playing cult called ‘AugWorld.’

Change, for once, came swiftly.  Despite the money involved, the VR industry enacted fast and real solutions.  Prompts and permanent warning popups were required in-game or in-movie; by default a pink and red ribbon but later customizable per user preference.  Animated VPets were particularly popular.  Resolutions were dialed down, time limits and cool-off breaks were hardwired in.  Interest waned a little, then a lot more as generations frequently don’t pursue the same hobbies.  Still, all movies have the VR Mode (now called WorldMode) along with 4D, Birds-Eye, Standard and Widescreen formats.  Cinematography is truly an art form now, especially for easter eggers.

Nika’s model was, naturally, lacking all default safeties.  She’d liberated it from the American military machine -through backwater channels- as one of her hobbies seemed to be acquiring military tech and weapons for personal use.  

As it was markedly less expensive to train troops via VR/WM/AR, that industry still was booming.  The well-off countries had been training this way since all the way back in the 1980s, although it was crap then.  Her model, while not the latest and greatest (even she couldn’t have gotten away with stealing that broken or not), was more than adequate for her needs.

Training.  Relentless, purposeful training.  It was one of the secrets behind her mastery of both creed and Higher purpose.
The assassin made her way downstairs, coffee cup in-hand.  Her VR was its own sizable room.  It had taken her a full three months to build and another three months to work out all the bugs.  A few years back during an extended hospital stay she’d started engineering courses, those had really helped.  She’d kept it up little but little as time allowed and now was a few credits short of an advanced degree.  As a joke with herself, as she didn’t have any friends, she’d decided to go all the way for a doctorate. However long it took.  Would her parents have been proud?  She hoped so.  Hope died last.

The VR room had a ‘mud room’ as she called it, which was simply a storage area for her accessorials.  Countless guns and other weapons of various sorts lined the walls, all serviceable pieces but disabled for safety’s sake.  Each had been weighed and modified to match what she’d carry in the field, for authenticity.  Her gear was either ‘retired’ from her war room upstairs or was being tested for future use.  She was very particular about her war kit.  

Today Nika had planned on shooting in the morning followed by a run through The Gauntlet, which was a close-quarters battle simulator used by the SBS, Shayetet 13, SEALs and the like.  She had a date to get her ass kicked by the unarmed combat simulator and after that a HIIT workout, assuming she survived the former.  Tomorrow she’d simulate a race on her MotoGT bike at Silverstone, which was where the first race of the season would be held.  Busy bee.

Suited up in her familiar tactical assassin evening wear, the woman double checked her internet lockout.  Archaic as it sounded, her VR had to be manually connected via actual LIspeed fiber to connect to the web.  All of her programs were local only for her safety; Gillian wasn't even integrated.  As her unit was both a combat model and hacked, it could actually injure her.  It had actually injured her before and undoubtedly would do so again.  She preferred it that way for a couple of reasons.  The threat of pain was a valuable motivator and she felt she was sharper with tangible consequences hanging over her head.  It was also impossible to hack what wasn’t there.  No connection=no connection.  Right?  She opened up the wallet-sized glass door on the wall, flapped the wires to verify they weren’t connected and left her empty coffee cup in the space, per habit.

Nika grabbed a sniper rifle, stepped into the room and called up a program via voice command.  “Load Program OLY.”
The  room’s blacked out interior exploded to life.  It was an indoor venue; a long rectangular room accommodating a crowd of 3000.  The spectators sat on one end followed by a group of competitors and then a long space of nothing; everyone intently focused in the same direction toward the far end of the room where white targets lined the wall.  One for each shooter.  

It was July 26.  Los Angeles, California, USA...the 2028 Olympics.  The event: 50 Meter Rifle,  Women’s 3 Position.  Standing, kneeling, prone.  The target was the size of a US dime, which had seemed big to then five-year-old Nika.  She’d said so when her mom had placed it in her hand and the elder woman laughed in response.  From where the competitors were to the targets it was not a big area to hit at all and later Nika would wonder, also aloud, who thought to make the targets so far away.  ‘Can’t you move them closer?  That would make it easier.’  Her mom had laughed at that too.

All around her shooters wore their strange outfits of stiff canvas, designed to minimize the natural movement of the body which greatly affected the accuracy of a shot.  Even something as mundane as the beat of your heart rippled outward to your muscles, even if the average person was unaware of it.  In shooting one had to pay attention to everything; breathing, heart rate, heart beat.  It was an incredible exercise of control.  There were more factors too; gravity, muzzle velocity, air resistance, altitude, temperature, trajectory, weather, etc.  Shooting indoors was completely different from shooting outside, naturally.  Olympic shooting was different from so called ‘sniping’ in some sort of combat, hunting, or whatever you wanted to call the scenario. 

Nika was something called cross dominant.  In shooting terms, this meant she was right handed but left-eye dominant.  Her mom’s answer to that had been simply to teach her to shoot with both hands.  As the Atharim assassin spent a lot of her time training; it was a part of her daily routine that she mixed VR and actual shooting from an average of one to three hours a day.  She’d vary both the weapons and time in which she practiced.  Sniper rifle, assault rifle, pistol, trick shots...long range, close quarters, defensive, the woman practiced it all; fresh at the start of a day, mid-way through and exhausted after long bouts of exercise and the like.  Perfect practice made perfect.

The venue itself was brightly lit and decorated with the Olympic rings as well as the soaring angel logo of this particular Olympics.  Nika was down on the competition floor.  Options allowed her to delete the other competitors, judges, crowd, etc.  If she left the crowd on, she’d see her five year old self next to her father in the stands.  As a child she had tried very hard to sit still so as not to be a distraction.  There had been a picture taken of her at the 10 meter air rifle event four days prior in which she was captured with the overly-exaggerated intense stare of a child, both fists on her chin, as though she was willing her own mother to win.  Someone had captioned the photo, “Italian coach drives Raskov to Gold.”  The Italian Team had plastered it up in their section of the Olympic Village on the UCLA campus and apparently it had amused them to no end.  NBC had gotten hold of a copy and made sure to keep an eye on little Nika during the next event.  She had not disappointed.  It had been hilarious and adorable and a great feel-good story as her mom had also ended up winning gold in the 50 meter 3 Position.  Ultimately Nika ended up with a lot of footage with which to build this particular program.

She was right next to her mom, having replaced an athlete from China.  Both kneeling first, Nika settled in, chambered a round and started her breathing exercise.  Downrange the white target seemed very small.  She aimed, cheek resting on the rifle’s stock.  Slow breath, as though she could will the molecules around her to stillness; fired.  The score on screen read 10.2, a good shot but her mother was ahead with a 10.4; she had all the scores memorized.  Nika ejected the spent casing and glanced sideways.  A 10.6 would come next followed by an incredible three successive 10.8s that the crowd went wild over.  Her eyes remained on her mom.  The other woman fired again.
Drawn, Nika watched her.  Blonde hair in a careless bun, a shooter’s visor held the shorter strands away from her face and blocked the glare from lights.  She was so beautiful.  Nika could remember the way she smelled and how she spoke.  Lea Raskov was a native Swede and it was a family pastime to tease the woman about the number of times she said ‘yah’ in the course of a conversation.  Her daughter later on had particularly loved the peculiar way she rolled her Rs.  A lump formed in the back of her throat.  Nika swallowed and closed her eyes.  Last night had been difficult.  The flashback.  She opened her eyes to see her mom’s smile.  Three 10.8 shots in a row.  The lump in her throat would not be subdued this time.  Nika felt her own mouth pull down.  Her eyes welled.  She choked on an ambitious sob and paused the program, her mother froze mid-smile...she was glancing toward the stands where her husband and daughter sat.  

The rifle slid to rest butt-first on the floor and she clung to the barrel two handed as though it were the only thing supporting her in the entire world.  Because it was.  Hot tears spilled down her face like a broken dam.  Lea was three feet away yet nowhere at all.  Nika shook as unbidden grief tore her to pieces.  Empty, so incredibly alone.  She wanted nothing more at that moment than to be held again.  Loved.  To be loved...but her family was gone forever.

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