“The endocrine system’s enhancements are less impressive than you’d think. While not many of your organs are original, those few that we did transfer to your new body required some modification to prevent rejection from the new body systems without the use of immunosuppressants. Your pancreas was one of those, and it ran a heavy long-term risk of cancer. While Riley was fixing this, which she would have done anyway, she included a series of systems to ensure that everything would work together nicely, without anything running the risk of either cancers or developing various hormonal imbalances.
“However, certain improvements were possible, some of which were also necessary for the other modifications. I’ll give examples of that later. However, most of the enhancements affect regulation of these systems, improved function under stress when triggered by the sympathetic system, improved blood-calcium control, and improved control over your metabolic rate.
“I’d also like to note that the reports of you entering a, um, a state where time appears to slow down shouldn’t actually be affected by this. Epinephrine will still be pumped into the amygdala, making it seem like time had slowed down significantly as you enter a reactionary mindset.
“The oxygen and lactate pumps work in conjecture with the endocrine system and the artificial muscle fibers. The fibers themselves are likely to give the wrong impression by their name. They’re a singular strand in each muscle group that assist with the polarization and depolarization of the muscles, helping to achieve a better transfer of calcium within the muscles without actually affecting the muscles themselves. It does this by improving the calcium exchange rate.
“This doesn’t actually increase strength, but it does make the muscles work more efficiently. You should notice an increase in stamina during times of physical effort, though your muscles may still send the signals of the strain. In the long term, this will help you increase your muscle mass, and will help stave off rhabdomyolysis. Which I’d like to point out, we found signs that your body had-”
Dr. Alcomb paused as I flew through the air. Already I was assuming the proper crash position for this particular situation, landing on my back and immediately encouraging the sideways roll to minimize the impact. Four rolls, one more than was necessary from the throw, and my feet found their place under me. My head snapped up to stare at my opponent as I panted.
“Really,” the doctor said slowly, an irritated tone in her voice. “I can do this another time.”
“No,” I said between breaths. “This is good. I’m learning a lot.” Despite a certain ache, both her speaking and the fighting was good for me. “What… What’s rhabdo…?”
“Rhabdomyolysis,” she said, crossing her arms. “Your muscles had gone through periods of such intense usage that they’d began to die. Maybe you’d remember. Swelling of the limbs, dark urine, muscles that never work quite as well afterwards, or never feel quite right…”
I nodded a little. “Nine years old. Spent a week in medical, got healing that entire time. Didn’t let me have a soda once. I was pissed. Never said anything, though. Had to decrease my training for a while. Took me years to get back.”
“And, if overexertion caused it, what was the factor in this case?”
“I tripled my personal best… in several categories. Doubled others. All in one day.” I swallowed. “Push ups, lifts, you know.”
She gave a short nod. “I do know. We see this in several kinds of training methods, yes. You permanently scarred your muscles as they began to die, and damaged your kidneys in the process. The fact that your physique was as impressive as it had become is a testament to your dedication… and risk of having it happen again. If it happens once, then your body can’t handle the same strain. And while I suspect your healer may have mitigated the damage somewhat, you should never bank on healing powers.”
I stood up fully, lifting a hand. “Okay, yeah. I get what you’re saying. I pushed myself too hard-”
“And too often,” she interrupted. I noted that her hands were gripping the clipboard a little tighter. “Tell me, did you ever wear a backpack with a lot off weight in it? Perhaps while running?”
I winced, and apparently that told her everything she needed to know. “When I reconstructed what remained of your chest so that we could build your body, I found signs that your sternum had started to separate. More accurately, the cartilage of the cosochondral joints that connect your ribs to the sternum were showing signs of great strain and damage. Some of them appeared to have separated multiple times in the past, and it’s rare to see someone where all the joints that are on the cusp of giving out.
“That backpack wasn’t the only cause. Violent impacts, violent twists like what I just saw you perform, even coughing violently can cause it to happen.”
“I understand,” I began, but Dr. Alcomb cut me off almost instantly.
“No, you don’t. I know people like you, and you latch onto almost any reason you can to keep up your extreme lifestyle. You’d come up with justifications. I’m willing to bet that you’re already thinking of your bone enhancements, yes?”
My head couldn’t duck any lower at this point.
“Exactly. Those enhancements do help your joints almost as much as they add extra precaution against bone breakages, but that doesn’t mean that you should rely on those enhancements. Your bones aren’t unbreakable, your joints aren’t invulnerable. What it does mean is that you’ll be able to handle joint locks with far less pain, people trying to purposefully dislocate your joints are going to find it a lot harder, and it will take twice as much force to break a limb.
“However, it won’t protect against a fracture of the cancellous bone. In other words, you can still get bruised bones. Anything more than microfractures of the compact bone layer will also take significantly longer to heal, with certain exceptions. It was decided that extra care should be taken with your nose, for example.
“Yes, the adaptive brain cushion will eventually help protect you from more brain injuries, but it isn’t an immediate process, and you’ve already taken more than your fair share of concussions. If your reptile brain wasn’t the most adapted mess I’ve ever seen, you’d probably have a lot more trouble with your motor functions. Thank your healer for that one.
“The stents will help protect you from strangulation and loss of blood flow due to pressure, something your sister begged for. The kidney enhancements have glaring holes in them, so that you can enjoy things like painkillers and alcohol.”
“I’m not old enough to drink,” I said quickly.
That made Dr. Alcomb pause and stare at me. “You’re nineteen years old, Jordan. There’s a lot of places where you are allowed to drink Some where you’ll be expected to.” She shook her head a little, and when she spoke, it was with a lost tone. “I… I can’t believe this. I have an adult patient, a mercenary, who’s never had alcohol. Who’s older than I was the first time that I had it. There’s something severely wrong with this.”
She shook her head quickly, clearing her head and dropping back into her authoritative tone. “Moving on, your organ sheathing is nothing compared to what Riley has installed in her. It’ll help protect against ruptures, but your organs may still be bruised or damaged. Don’t go around thinking that you can survive getting bisected or anything.
“And yes, even with your subdermal mesh, you can get bisected. It will provide some resistance naturally, but it strengthens as it gets damaged. Even as it strengthens, it’s still under the skin. Blades will still slice your skin, possibly deeper if strong enough, and you might get infections as well. So, no, with all of that, you can’t charge in and expect everything to protect you completely. With the adaptive measures, if you continue punishing yourself at the rate that you have been over the past few years, you might, might count as being a Brute 1 within three years.
“Except you’re far more likely to end up dead or permanently brain damaged by then.”
I nodded slowly, thinking over what all she’d said. “So, in other words, I’m not at parahuman levels, but the upgrades offered me are basically… human plus twenty percent?”
“More like ten percent,” she said, finally relaxing her grip on her clipboard and letting her muscles unclench. Her fingers had to hurt. “But, and I mean this, if your brother comes through on the promises that he’s made, then Riley is willing to overhaul the systems that she’s implanted in a year’s time. That would offer you better protective measures and perhaps even more systems.”
“That’s fine,” I said with a smile. “I don’t mind if I’m left at this level.”
“Well, no matter what, you’re going to have to come in for regular checkups. She’d like to see you every three months over the next year, so that she can make sure that everything’s taking properly, that your body isn’t suffering any rejection, and to run further tests on you.”
“Makes sense,” I said with a nod. “Lemmie guess: all of this, while maybe not as powerful as what she’s used to working with, is divergent technology. It uses methods that her passenger has offered her which are new and unique, and that aren’t battle tested yet. She isn’t completely sure how often she’s going to need to perform maintenance, so more regular checkups are better than letting something go wrong and possibly hurting me.”
The doctor’s lips curled upwards. “That’s most of it, yes. But if you’re going to be a smart boy like that, have at it.” She gestured to my opponent.
I blinked at her, then glanced at my opponent, then back to her. “Excuse me? Didn’t you just yell and tell me to take it easy?”
“I wasn’t yelling,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “And it’s fine for now — you have a medical professional watching you, to ensure that you don’t push yourself too hard. This is also a controlled setting where, if something does go wrong, we can get you into the OR in minutes. So go on. Do your thing.” She made little shooing motions at me.
My opponent laughed softly, muffled by the padded helmet they wore. Their entire body was encased in padded armor, making their profile harder to read. “Alright, again, same as the last time. More flash at the end, and come at me.”
I nodded, took a deep breath, and charged. The first blow that I landed was jump kick, making the opponent stumble back. Almost instantly, I was charging in close again, lashing out with a series of punches, elbows, and palm strikes.
The goal here wasn’t to go at full power. Strength and speed weren’t the main issues, it was accuracy. I needed to be able to move my body, to duck, to swing, to strike where I wanted to. Just because I could stand up and run didn’t mean that I could do it in the ways that I needed.
As I got into the more minute motions, the more stressful motions, the progress slowed significantly. A punch or an elbow strike, I could get into the approximate area that I wanted with relative ease, and precision targeting with a bit of concentrated effort. Turning an elbow strike into a backfist, mutating that into deflecting a counterattack, turning that deflection into a joint lock… These more precise maneuvers and combinations were requiring effort and training.
I made a snap kick to my opponent’s side, light enough that I didn’t have to worry. Another to the head. My next kick was a feint, switching halfway from a kick to the side into a kick to the head. That made my thigh burn a little. Strange.
My next kick was caught, but I’d been expecting that. A left cross to the face, and then a right. My opponent caught my right cross with their free arm, and the next thing that I knew, I no longer had any connection to the ground. There was spinning, and then a release. I felt that wonderful, blissful moment of weightlessness, before once again slamming into the ground and tumbling.
As soon as I hit the ground, I was tumbling again. Four rolls, only this time I pushed up, forcing myself onto my feet… facing the wrong way. Without pause, I began to spin my arms, using that as a distraction as I repositioned myself and fell into a crouch, one leg extended far in front of the other.
I was sure my current position had a name, and I was sure that it must serve some purpose in some martial art, but it was completely against my core fighting style. What it was, however, was flashy. Most of the time, flash didn’t belong in a fight, and was more likely to get you hurt than anything. However, psychological warfare was still warfare, and doing a bit of flash to psyche a person out could be more effective than anything else.
I didn’t rest for long, though, before charging back in. Two face strikes, duck under my opponent’s swing. Two more face strikes, reposition my foot and this time lean back from the counterattack. Snap my body forward with a straight palm strike for added power, landing it smack dab in the center of the chest. It was strong enough to force them to stagger back.
I adopted a boxing stance and began a little footwork as my opponent and I closed again. A few quick jabs, and my opponent began to swing. With how it was telegraphed, I saw it coming early enough to duck down underneath it, raising an arm up to snag my opponent’s arm. I was lucky that I caught it like this; otherwise I would have been left wide open to a world of pain.
As soon as I caught, I used my position to move my leg just enough to snag theirs. Like this, I was able to use my center of balance against them, slamming them into the ground. For the briefest of moments, a sliver of a second, I was tempted to put them in an arm bar, but decided against it. Instead, I went on top of them, digging my knees into their armpits and crossing my arms against their throat.
As soon as the word escaped them, I was on my feet and offering them a hand up. My opponent took it graciously, and as soon as they were up they were pulling off the helmet.
“I’d like to say that wasn’t too shabby,” Sarah said. She’d barely been doing anything, but was panting and sweating. Maybe she was the one who needed it.
“But?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
“But…” She smiled weakly at me. “You can do better. We both have done better. You were close, but you would have hit all the exact same points both times. You’ve still got some ways to go before you’re back up to speed. But then again, I’ve still got to work my way up to where I was, too.”
I grinned and looked to the doctor, only to find her with another doctor. He was a big guy in scrubs, a white mask over his mouth. Meanwhile, she was looking at a piece of paper. After several moments, she said something to the doctor; I could almost make out what was said, but it was just barely beyond me.
The other doctor, surgeon I guessed, wandered off and Dr. Alcomb turned to address us directly. “It looks like word has gotten out that the both of you are up and ambulatory. I need to go talk to some people, so please, take a break. Both of you. We can resume after I return.”
“Thank you,” I said with a smile, offering her a wave. She gave me a strange look before quietly making her departure, her lab coat flowing behind her.
“Holding up good?” Sarah asked.
“Yeah,” I said, bouncing a little on the balls of my feet. “It’s frustrating, but I’m getting the hang of it rather quickly.” We hadn’t had the chance to really talk, just the two of us, so I figured that I’d take the chance while I had it. “How are you? How bad was it?”
Sarah frowned a little as she moved to sit on the floor. “I’m fine. Apparently, the portal cut off part of my face as it was forming, then one of my feet and an arm. Nothing that couldn’t be reattached with a little glue.” She smiled at me, trying to reassure me.
It didn’t help, really, but I returned her smile. No need to make her feel bad just because I did. “I still don’t know what happened, not exactly.”
“The teleporter didn’t form at the usual range. Instead, it made a bunch of… I dunno, cuts, right? The first one was a teeny bit bigger than the teleporter itself, and each one after that was bigger than the last. All real quick-like, bam bam bam in under a second. Since you were pretty much at point zero, you got completely shredded. On the last cut, the teleporter finally did its thing and brought all of us here.
“Unfortunately, it also brought a huge chunk of Agamemnon with it. A huge chunk that slammed into the many slices of Jordan. The doctor said they never would have been able to put you together again if you hadn’t been all sliced up so perfectly like that. Some bits of you ended up as a fine paste.”
I nodded a little. “I kinda figured that would happen. The paste bit, I mean. I saw what became of those who took a direct hit. There wasn’t enough left to save, and even when there was, hydrostatic shock probably destroyed their brains. I’m really surprised I’m standing here, to be honest.” I paused for a moment. “Just like I’m surprised that you were willing to ask Riley to tinker with me.”
Sarah winced. “I was waiting for that.” She leaned back until she was leaning on her elbows. “I didn’t actually talk with Riley myself. Chris and I dealt with Dr. Alcomb. She’s a good half-pint, really.”
“She’s older than either of us,” I observed as I settled down next to her.
“Maybe. If she is, she’s well-preserved, and I dunno if she’s triggered or not, so who knows?” She shrugged a bit. “Anyway, we did the usual. Offered money, begged, Chris offered a bunch of stuff. She went off to deal with Riley, and when she came back, the old chirugeon had agreed.”
I had no idea what that word even meant. Instead of asking, I tried a different tactic. “So you didn’t see her?”
“Bro,” she said with a chuckle. “It’s Riley. She’s probably either afraid of scaring people, or people coming after her from her time in the Nine.” Which made sense, really. Any member of the Slaughterhouse Nine had more enemies than a person could count, and Riley being the last technically surviving member left her a lot of people who might like a shot at removing her head from her body.
“Subject change,” Sarah said quickly. Her face twisted into a grin. “How was she?”
“I… Vad?” What the…
“Oh, c’mon. Both Dad and I heard you two going-”
She was still talking, but I was burying my head in my arms and blushing. I could hear her cackling over me trying to hide. When she finally calmed down, I slowly lifted my head. “That bad?”
Sarah relaxed, offering me a comforting smile. “Not really, no. Dad and I ran interference. We had to tell the doctor, but she just smiled a little and wandered off. Still, it seemed like you two were going at it for a while.”
“Kinda?” I wasn’t convinced my face wasn’t absolutely glowing. “I mean, uh… There were, um… repeat, uh…”
Her eyebrows raised sharply. “Bro! Nice job! How many in total?” I lifted up three fingers, and she slapped my shoulder, her face in a wide grin. “Nice! Damn! Didn’t think you had it in you!”
There had been lengthy pauses in between, at least a half an hour each, but I wasn’t going to say anything at this point. “I don’t see what the big deal is. You had more partners in Twain.” Which was why she’d wanted separate rooms when we’d gotten back. Each day, she’d dragged someone different back with her. I’d still kept an eye on them, and made regular passes outside her room, just to make sure she hadn’t chosen the wrong person. I’d also made sure they had protection.
“Yeah, but this is you.” She grinned again. “No wonder I haven’t seen Amy today. She’s probably having trouble walking.”
“Actually…” I lowered my head. “She’s not here right now. She left with Chris back to New Brockton.”
That made Sarah’s frown drop like a hot stone. “What?”
I winced a little. “Well, she didn’t have work while we were in St. Louis, and then in the two weeks I was down, she didn’t work either. So, uh… You know. Finances being tight and all, she and Roger had to get work or lose their house, you know? A girl’s gotta eat.”
She frowned a little. “Yeah, okay, I guess I can see that. But, uh… I still think that ain’t cool. Chris woulda loaned ’em the money. Hell, I would have straight up given her the money if she’d of said anything to me.”
I shrugged a little, lowering my head again. “They probably didn’t want handouts, you know? They’re used to working for it, not… asking for it.”
Sarah smiled a little. “I hear ya. Too proud to bend their knees, yeah.” She shook her head, her smile turning sad. “Still sucks, Bro.”
“It does.” Especially with how much gravity Amy had in her voice during the last goodbye.
There was a period of silence that I didn’t like. Of me just sitting there, trying not to replay the last night’s conversations in my head, to feel only the positive of what had happened. I wasn’t very successful on either front. Sarah, meanwhile, was just smiling sadly at me. That didn’t help matters in the slightest. Not in this moment that just seemed to drag on and on.
She was the one to break the silence, thankfully. “You’ve been awake now for two days, and are already you’re up and fighting. If you would have waited to come back from the dead for two more months, it coulda been a Christmas miracle!”
I grinned a little, but she gave me one piece of information that I desperately needed — it was October now. That was a comfort, at least. Now I knew where I stood on time. Not that it was on my side, but that it was still progressing as it should.
A weird thing to feel comfort in, but I wasn’t going to argue anything that gave it to me.
Instead, I changed the subject. “Why did Chris take off? Amy mentioned he was leaving today, but didn’t say why, and, uh, I didn’t have a good chance to ask.”
Sarah smirked a little. “I would think not.”
I flopped onto my back with a groan as she let out a devilish laugh. Quickly, though, she sobered up. “Our armor was pretty much fragged. While Dr. Frankenstein was making you out of spare parts, Chris got a suit together for me. He got all the materials together for you, but decided to wait; we weren’t sure how you were going to come out, if you could come out at all. Herr Doktor-”
“She isn’t German,” I said quickly.
“Whatever,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “Alcomb gave Chris a 3D model of your body, apparently completely accurate. Mom and Pops went with him to try and help speed up the process a bit. Mom’s insisting that you walk out of here armored up.”
That made me frown. “They usually don’t like to give him a hand.” They said it felt unnatural to be helping a Tinker with their work. But they were born and trained in the old age — even with twenty years for times to change, you couldn’t expect them to give up all their old views.
Sarah flashed me a lopsided grin. “Mom’s pretty proud of you, you know. Both of us, but especially you. You pulled your weight well, found ways to make yourself useful, and when it came time, you tried not to leave anyone behind. To you and me, yeah, it’s non-thing. We did our normal, no big. The only difference is that we got a huge boost to our rep in the process.
“But them? They’ve never really seen how we operate, yeah?” She tilted her head a bit and pushed her hair from her face. “She said that Grandma would have loved you. She said that after that, she would have been chomping at the bit, frothing at the mouth, demanding that you be recruited ASAP. Offered you the moon if she had to. She said we did everything right, every little damn thing that we could have done, we did. Grandma would have called it… uh…” Sarah sqinted, trying to remember the words.
“An exemplary demonstration of the unilateralist forces of the PRT and the Protectorate,” I finished for her.
Sarah grinned a bit. “There were a couple of different words before the unilateral bit, but yeah, pretty much. Anyway, she said Grandma probably would have made you a liaison between the PRT and Protectorate, or when they started forming it, she would have fast-tracked you for the Dragon’s Teeth. Just think, Bro, today you’d be a commander.”
I chuckled weakly. “With my luck, these days I’d be in charge of training instead of front lines. Ugh, pass.” I chuckled softly. “Can you imagine me trying to be in charge of the entire Dragon’s Teeth?”
“I think every meal would be whiskey,” she admitted with a laugh.
“Which would be completely against all the efforts I’ve made towards keeping him alive,” the doctor said as she reentered the room. “As a medical professional, I cannot stress strongly enough that you refrain from having a diet that consists entirely of alcohol.”
Sarah was laughing as she made her way back up to her feet. I wasn’t far behind her. “Are we continuing the way that we were?”
“No,” Dr. Alcomb said quickly. “As a matter of fact, I’d like to push up your training a little bit. I’ve gotten a couple of opponents for the two of you to face.”
“You think I’m up for that?” I asked hesitantly.
“You’re going to push yourself eventually,” she said with a mildly irritated tone. “Again, I can control the situation and end it if I think you’re going too far.” She paused to toss a set of the padded armor onto the ground. “Part of that is making sure that you won’t get hurt.”
I frowned as I moved to pick it up. Sarah was quick to pipe up. “It shouldn’t affect your mobility, Bro. You’ll be fine.”
I nodded a little as I straightened back up, looking from the armor to the doctor awkwardly.
“What?” Alcomb asked after a moment. “Jordan, I’ve seen you naked. I’ve had a hand in building every part of your anatomy. I can safely say that I know more about your body than your mother or your girlfriend. Now is most definitely not the time for you to be embarrassed.”
She made a point. She made a very good point, even if I was cringing inside from her choice of words. Sarah, at least, had the courtesy to turn her back to me, but I could feel her grin without having to see it. Even still, I turned my back to the doctor and changed out of the sweatsuit I was wearing as quickly as humanly possible.
As soon as I was ready, the doctor collected my sweatpants from me and lead the way out of the room. As we walked down the halls, I decided to take a chance. “So, our opponents probably know a lot more about us than we do about them. In the interest of fairness, can you tell us anything?”
“Hmm.” The doctor frowned for a moment. “I suppose that’s fair. One is a Blaster and Breaker, the other isn’t. I don’t think that either one is too familiar with a pugil stick any more, so that’s going to be the main form of combat in this exercise.” She glanced at me. “Is that acceptable?”
“If one’s another Blaster, we’ll probably end up in a shooting match,” Sarah observed. “I’ll keep my power down to a minimum, so I don’t hurt them.”
“I’m less concerned about you hurting them as I am you causing damage to the facility,” the doctor said, looking at Sis. “I’ve seen the videos from the fight.”
Sarah grinned from ear to ear. “I’m good! Trust me, I usually don’t go anywhere near that hard. It was as much of a first for me as going up against an S-Class. You don’t have to worry.”
The doctor, though, had told me plenty, probably without having have meant to. Our opponents had most likely been chosen specifically to test our individual strengths. She wasn’t worried about them causing property damage, trusting in their skill and restraint. Both were combat-tested, with enough time since their initial training that if they had practiced with pugil sticks, that time had passed.
I was willing to go out on a limb and guess that our opponents were in their late twenties to early thirties. Sarah’s was a Warden, while mine was a trooper with the Dragon’s Teeth. That suited me just fine. I could handle this. I could easily handle this.
As we walked further, a pair of white-masked orderlies rounded a corner, pushing large carts overflowing with flowers. They automatically adjusted themselves to hug the wall as we approached each other.
“Hot damn,” Sarah said. “Someone’s getting love.”
“That would be Jordan,” the doctor said with a playful smile, looking at me. “Like I said, people now know that you’re living, so we’re getting quite the load.”
“What the crap,” I muttered under my breath, my eyes going wide with horror. Why would anybody feel the need to send me flowers, let alone that many?
The doctor smirked. “This isn’t that uncommon after a good show against an S-Class threat, to be honest. That said, in special cases like yours our staff goes ahead and organizes the flowers and gifts for our patients. Those from people who obviously know the person go in front, those from important people go behind, then general well-wishes, and finally trite things like marriage proposals and the ilk.”
My eyes felt like they were about ready to fall out of my eyesockets. “M-marriage proposals?!”
“Some people are just that pathetic,” she said with a shrug. As we passed the carts, she snagged one note and offered it to me. “This one, however, we thought it important that you see.”
Hesitantly, I opened it and began to read the rather poor script inside.
My power told me that we’d probably speak again, but it didn’t
say that it would be after your death. I am glad that it wasn’t
I only have a little advice for you. Riley is fine, but there is another
woman that you shouldn’t trust. I know it isn’t your family, but
beyond that I am unsure. I hope this information will serve you well,
despite its vagueness.
I quickly closed the card and hurried to put it on the cart. I flashed everybody a small smile of false reassurance. “It’s all good. I got this.”
Sarah narrowed her eyes a little, but didn’t say anything. Dr. Alcomb, thankfully, pushed onward. “A good portion of them, from my knowledge, are from people you fought with against Agamemnon. I will admit that I noticed there was a message from Valkyrie there. I respected your privacy not to read it, but I’m curious.”
I turned my head to look at the retreating carts. “You aren’t the only one, Doctor.” Not by a longshot.
“Mm.” She looked to Sarah, and while I couldn’t see her face from this angle, I could hear the smirk in her voice. “You’ve gotten quite a bit as well. Only half of the marriage proposals, though.”
“Lucky you,” I said, forcing an irritated snarl into my tone.
“I’m not surprised,” Sarah mused with a grin. “I’m not the one who had a goddamn front page photo op.”
“I’m just worried, you know?” They both looked at me. “I… I dunno. I got lucky, we got lucky when we hurt Agamemnon. Sure, that’s great for our rep, but I’m worried that…” I frowned, trying to find the right words. Instead of the right words, I went with the first ones to come out of my mouth.
“I feel like people might be scared of me. Like I’m a monster or something.”
“What?” Sarah’s voice carried down the halls as she halted in her tracks.
Dr. Alcomb, though, simply stopped to regard me for a moment. “Jordan. I’m going to tell you something, so listen closely, alright?”
I nodded, trying not to look at her.
“I might not have been a doctor then, but I helped people during Gold Morning. I helped as many as I could, if they were civilians, Dragons Teeth, heroes, villains, or even people released from the Birdcage. Every day, I look Nilbog in the eye as I make sure he’s taking his medication.”
I opened my mouth, but she raised a hand to silence me. “I can call him Nilbog. Riley may be earning her redemption, but not only does he refuse it, but he doesn’t even see why he would need it.
“Anyway. Every day, I see people in here, from the celebrities to the lowest of the low, when they can somehow get the money for it. I see great people, and I see terrible people. I’ve treated Wardens, and I’ve treated those from Fyrtorn. I’ve seen the best that humanity has to offer, and I’ve seen the worst. I know monsters, and I can safely say, you aren’t a monster.”
She took a breath. “When I look in your eyes, I’m reminded of the people worthy of respect during Gold Morning. The people who were scared of Scion, who knew that fighting him would be suicide. The people who willingly went into battle against him, the people who fearlessly walked into Khepri’s mind control aura. Not because they were giving themselves up to someone who would allow them to fight without guilt or fear, but because they saw a person with a plan and were willing to sacrifice themselves for that plan.
“I won’t say that I see greatness in your eyes, because that would be a lie. But what I do see is a young man who is willing to put the world on his back and charge into danger because he feels there’s a need. Who doesn’t actually care about his reputation, but cares about doing what has to be done, even if he doesn’t he knows he’ll be in tears over it later.
“I see a man who knows exactly how lucky he is, but would cast it all away at a moment’s notice if he thought it would do some good. Who knows how to push past his limits. And that’s all that I need to see. So you might worry, but I know you aren’t a monster. And if anybody thinks it, all that they’ll have to do is spend some time dealing with you, and they’ll change their tune.
“So knock it the fuck off already.”
I laughed by her sudden vulgarity. After the seriousness of her words and the strange gravity her voice had held, how could you not laugh at that?
Sarah shook her head, grinning a little. “What she said. Seriously, Bro, of everything you should be stressing, that shouldn’t be one of them. If you’re worried about that image in the papers, the one of you staring down Agamemnon, just release a statement saying that you were worried about the injured, that I was hurt, and the teleporter wasn’t working. I think everybody will understand that.”
I forced myself to smile for her sake. Honestly, neither of them were actually helping, but they were trying. That counted for a lot, and not at least pretending to feel better would be an insult to that. “Right. Sorry. Besides, we have training to focus on.”
“It’s cool.” Sarah moved to hook an arm in mine, guiding me into motion again. “Now, I’m thinking we should go with animals to communicate, but we got, what? Three variations of them?”
Four, but I wasn’t correcting her. “Let’s go flora and fauna. Do you remember that one?”
“Can’t forget it,” she said with a grin.
Dr. Alcomb lead the way into another room. This one was a lot larger, almost an auditorium or ballroom or something. Big enough that there was already a large number of people hanging around, clustering near the walls. Most of them were patients, I was guessing. As we entered, they glanced at us and fell silent.
In the center of the room, though, were two men. I could tell by their heights, builds, and the crotches of the armor. One was a little taller, and even with wearing padded armor and a helmet, I could tell he had the lean athleticism to him. The other one had a more sturdy build. His build suggested that he was a man used to having to push his body. The way that he held the long pugil stick furthered that one; he was a person used to melee weapons.
As the doctor moved to get us our sticks and helmets, I glanced to Sarah. “Cat.”
Her head jerked in a curt nod. “Dog.”
Good, we were on the same page. She’d take the guy on the left, I’d take the guy on the right, who I guessed would be the Blaster. That way, if he decided to cheat and go ranged, she’d be able to counter to some extent.
Neither one of the guys moved to greet us as we donned our helmets, but that suited me just fine. I didn’t like this helmet. I was protected, sure, and airflow was fine. What bothered me was that my peripheral vision wasn’t the greatest. Oh well, I couldn’t win them all.
“Chupacabra?” Sarah asked. A creature from one of her games. It took me a moment to recall the meaning.
“Griffin,” I responded, and she nodded. Okay, I guessed right. At least our approach would be synchronized. “Twenty paces?”
“Sure,” she said, testing the heft of the pugil stick.
I tested mine as well. It was light, but felt sturdy. I hoped that hers was the same. Being on equal grounds would help us. There were a lot of pugil sticks in racks on the walls. All of them were the same size, but they were bunched in groups by the colors of the heads. The ones that the four of us were using had yellow heads.
Most likely, these were used for combatants coming out of physical therapy, ready for some training to get them back into the swing of using their bodies in stressful situations. Start off light with heavy padding, combined with the padded armor, and then work a person up from there until they were back up to speed.
Dr. Alcomb nodded at the two of us, now that she was sure we were garbed properly. “Good luck, you two. And have fun.”
Our pugil sticks in hand, we turned as one and began to march towards the two men. Despite our differences in height and stride, we were mirror images of each other. She held her pugil stick in her right hand, mine in my left. Our backs were straight, our heads were high. We had no idea what we were going into, so we were beginning the psychological warfare early.
Nothing speaks danger quite like synchronization. It speaks of training, of trust, of unity. It made an opponent cautious, careful. Scared, sometimes. A person could manipulate fear in a fight. Synchronization had other advantages before a fight. It built expectations. Expectations made a person more predictable, and gave you an opening.
At twenty paces, we stopped in unison before bowing towards our opponents and rising as one.
Our opponents weren’t synchronized as they returned our bows. That was fine. Not everybody trained together as hard as the two of us did. We’d already found our opening tactics, and had a shorthand to communicate tactics on the fly. For now, though, we had a show to put on.
“One for the money,” I barked. It lost a little something under the helmet.
“Two for the show!” Sarah took up a proper stance, giving her pugil stick a small spin before settling in.
“Three to get ready!” I did the exact same as her, only mirrored. This felt good, being on the balls of my feet, my heart racing, my body ready to move. I was ready. What I’d done with Sarah before had been fine, but this came with a level of uncertainty. We’d planned out our previous sparring session, but this would be completely improv.
I could enjoy this.
“Four to go!”