“This looks like a good spot,” I said confidently. “We’ll go ahead and camp out here for the night and then spend tomorrow training.”
John sighed. “We weren’t kidding about not having a lot of food, Jordan.”
“We can forage.”
“That isn’t the point.” He turned to look at me. “I’d rather go to town before doing anything like that. I’d rather sit at a table when you’re teaching me that crap.”
That crap. Right. A small spark ignited in the back of my head, but I pushed it down fast. “Alright, first of all, it isn’t as simple as a class. I need to give you all a crash course in pretty much everything. You’re used to brawling in bars and stuff, but with what we’ve faced so far, that isn’t going to be enough. I need to teach you positioning, teamwork…”
I looked to Emi. “And how to use your powers effectively in battle. And confirm a thing or two about them.”
She opened her mouth, no doubt to ask what I meant, but I was already moving on. “That means getting up, moving around, all that jazz. I’d also like to teach you all some katas, so–”
“You’re supposed to be taking it easier,” Kathy interrupted.
“I am. I’m going fucking insane here, and I can feel my skills getting rusty. That’s not hyperbole, I mean that in the literal sense.” This was our second day on the road, and they hadn’t let me do anything.
“See, it’s fine to do at least a little every day, so long as I have a decent rest cycle. I’d let you do the same, believe it or not. But it also depends on what exactly we’re doing. In this case, it’s katas, not sparring or anything. You do katas slower than you would a regular fight for a good reason — you’re teaching your body how to move with precision, not with strength and speed. If you can master the precision, then it becomes an automatic thing in a fight.”
“Muscle memory,” Brenda said across from me in the wagon, nodding sightlessly. “I get it. So, like, you don’t have to think about it, you just do it. And you do it slow so that your body can figure it out.”
“Exactly. So you go slow, you go careful. It isn’t a high stress thing. You keep it gentle on your body so that you can just focus on learning. But because of that, uh, mindfulness on your body, you increase your overall focus, balance, and general health.”
“Didn’t you say that you blew out your kneecap doing that?” Emi asked.
I sighed softly. “My first martial arts instructor wasn’t exactly a martial artist. He was a combatant. My training didn’t start off slow and steady — I was learning combat maneuvers at a rapid pace, full speed, full power. Sometimes I’d learn two or three new kicks and strikes a day, and then at the end of the week I had to chain everything that I learned.
“Everyone commented that it was a miracle that I made it through the first week, let alone years of it. I shouldn’t have been able to keep up, especially since he was only teaching me the advanced stuff. It wasn’t until after my knee and a few other things that we finally started teaching me martial arts properly.”
“No wonder you’re so psycho about it,” Kathy said, pulling the horses to a full stop at last. “I mean, you gotta be crazy to have Greg training you, but it explains a lot. To you, going all out like that is normal, isn’t it?”
I smiled a little. “That’s just it. The only time that I actually go all out is in a fight. Otherwise, I’m always holding back, maybe just a little.” Truth be told, I was still holding back in a fight — I knew 47 ways to break someone’s neck, and could probably improvise more.
“Alright,” Emi said, being the first one to hop off the wagon. “You said something about confirming something about my power?”
“Sure. Can you do me a favor first?” I pointed at a cove of coniferous trees a good ways away. “Could you check and see if those are pine trees, and if so, grab us a whole slew of needles?”
She made a face. “Why?”
“Uh… Tea?” Really, I would have figured that it should have been obvious to her.
Emi blinked at me a few times. “Uh, Jordan, you realize that when I was surviving in the wilderness, most of the time I didn’t have a single clue as to what I was eating, right? I was just trying to keep myself from starving to death.”
I blinked at her. “Oh. Uh, no. No I didn’t. Sorry.”
Kathy snorted. “She didn’t know the first thing about wilderness tooth care, either. We had to find a real dentist in Bet to break up the stuff that had grown on her teeth. It was a lot harder without a teleporter, believe me.”
Oh, well. That… Okay, time to shift gears. “Right, so. Pine needle tea has a lot of vitamin C in it. If I we can scrounge up some other goodies, I’m pretty sure that I can get us going good tea to help prepare us for tomorrow.”
Emi nodded. “Cool. Vitamin C. When I get back, I want you all to sit down and tell me what that stuff actually does beyond fighting scurvy.” She began to walk away. She seemed mildly irritated. Dang it. I’d screwed that one up.
“Does anyone here actually know what vitamin C actually does ‘sides fighting scurvy?” Kathy asked in a whisper.
“It’s an essential nutrient,” I said with a confident smile. I nodded once. “That’s all I got.”
“Better’n me,” John confessed as he rolled a cigarette.
“I’ll tell you all when we’re traveling again,” Brend said with an amused grin. “Something to pass the time.”
Good. I was glad to have that settled. Quickly, I moved to Kathy, speaking in a low whisper. “I’m going to do a test with John and Emi, but I want your help to test variables.”
“Should I be hearing this?” John asked, putting the cigarette in his mouth.
Kathy ignored him. “Whatcha got?”
“I’m just going to have her teleport from you to John. I need you to stand behind her and use your power. Quietly.”
She frowned a little. “I can do it quiet, but it won’t produce a beam that way. Not without something being used to fuel it.”
Huh. Interesting. “We’ll do some testing with your power later tonight,” I said, not sure if sudden ideas as to her power would work or not. “For now, do that, then.”
She nodded, and Brenda held out her hand, motioning for help out of the wagon. I hurried over, taking her hand. “I have a basic idea as to what you’re doing,” she said in a whisper. “A possible you mentioned it before, but from what little I picked up before that possibility was negated, you wanted me to help test… something about it?”
I frowned. “Yeah, that’s probably smart. I don’t know how it affects passive or active. Okay, yeah, stand next to John with your eyes on.”
She frowned a little. She wasn’t any more fond of his smoking than I was. Emi and Kathy didn’t seem to mind, but I got the feeling that they both had been around smokers more than Brenda and I.
It was a few more minutes before Emi returned with a large bundle of needles. I took them from her with a smile. “Alright, we’re going to do a simple test. Nothing too fancy, so don’t worry too much.”
“And now I’m worried,” Emi said flatly. “Thanks.”
I smiled apologetically as I set the bundle on the wagon. “Alright, uh, Kathy? Could you stand, oh, here, with me? John, could you and Brenda go stand over there, by the dead tree? And, uh, when you get in position? Could you increase your weight and hold it there?”
John blinked curiously, but nodded. They moved over to a tree, but I waved them on to a further one. That only made him annoyed, but he lead Brenda there without a complaint. As I grabbed Emi by the shoulders and lead herr to Kathy, I could hear dead roots cracking under his augmented weight.
“Alright,” I said as I turned her to look at the other two before leaning down to whisper in her ear from behind. “Here’s what we’re going to do. He’s changed his density, but I want you to startle him. You should distract him enough that he can’t maintain it.”
“But he’s expecting me,” Emi said softly.
“Yeah, but you’re a little miss badass. You’re good at this. Trust me, you can do it. I have full faith in you. Take a deep breath through your nose and hold it.” She did. “Count to three and let it out your mouth slowly over five seconds.”
As she did that, I glanced to Kathy. Very carefully, she held up her hand oddly. This was probably too weak to be able to use air to create the beam. Good. I slowly guided Emi back until I was standing next to Kathy.
“On the count of three.” I let go of her shoulders. “One. Two. Three.”
She blinked out, reappearing instantly in front of John. Unfortunately, the pull of the air collapsing around where she had been a moment before made me stagger, unable to directly catch anything more than her yelling “Boogada!”
“Holy shit,” John yelled. “That’s fucking weird!”
I didn’t let myself smirk as I looked over at them. “Brenda?”
“Nothing,” she called back.
Damn. I was hoping… “Alright, John, change your weight upwards this time.” I looked to Kathy. “You?”
She shook her head. Crap. “Alright, again.”
John wasn’t shutting up though. “This is really fucking weird. Like, crazy weird.”
Emi turned to look at me. “What’s going on?”
“Patience, grasshopper. I need another test. This time, I need you to teleport in a way that will break everyone’s concentration — Brenda, John, and Kathy, all in a single teleport.”
“What the fuck, Jordan?” She put her hand on her hips. “Come on, don’t leave me hanging here!”
“It’ll be easier to explain once this test and one more are done, alright? John, let me know when you’re ready.”
There was a pause before he flashed me a thumbs up. “Whenever you are.”
I looked back to Emi. “Alright, at your leisure, go ah–”
Emi was standing before me instantly, this time the pressure from the displaced air pushing against me instead of pulling me. This time, it was Kathy’s turn to curse. “What the actual shit?”
“About half!” Interesting.
Emi glared at me. “This had better be worth it. Tell me you’re learning something.”
“A lot,” I confessed. “You back up, John?”
“Almost instantly my good sir! Sending her back our way?”
“In a sec.”
“Nothing again,” Brenda announced, before I could ask.
Right. We’d better finish this before she started to feel the burn. “Alright, Emi. You’re doing great. Last time, and then you get answers, I promise. Teleport back, but this time I want you to get as close to Brenda as possible to mess her up, alright? Mess up John at the same time, but focus on her.”
“I don’t know which way this will go,” Brenda confessed, sounding a little worried.
“That’s fine, we’re here to help if need be.” I looked back to Emi. “Quickly now.”
She spun around and was instantly gone again — at least this time I had myself braced. Immediately, Brenda pulled her headband over her eyes. “Nothing.”
Crap crap fuck.
John was grinning as he gave me the thumbs up again. “Completely down! That’s freaky. Need another?”
“No,” I said slowly, frowning. “There’s a lot of variables still, but I’ve got as much info as I think that I’m gonna get.”
Emi turned back towards us. “Thank–” She blinked in front of me again. “–God. C’mon man, what was that all about?”
I smiled warmly at her. “You’re a Trump, Emi.”
There was a pause of confusion before she looked to Kathy, then back to me. “Whiskey tango fuck?”
What? No, I’d ask her later. I couldn’t help but grin. “I’m dead serious, and it makes sense. You triggered from an intense need to get away, but in this case it was getting away from a Warden.” A Warden who got what she fucking deserved.
“And that makes Trumps?” she asked, curiously.
“To varying degrees. At least, that’s the current theory, data points are a little hard to track precisely. It’s really complicated, alright? But from the start, I always thought that there was something more to your power than what you knew. That isn’t all that uncommon, honestly — most folks don’t even know how to run their power through the proper tests, or what to do from there.”
“So we only know the main effect of our powers?” Kathy asked, paying close attention.
“Pretty much. Your passenger gives you the ability to control it, but it’s like… Broad strokes. You can use something without knowing the fine details, all the cool additional things that it can do. It’s the same with powers.”
“Right,” Emi said. I looked back to find a wide grin on her face. “And so I’m a Trump that does… What, exactly?”
“M’dear,” John said as he approached. “You disrupt people’s powers when you teleport.”
“Somewhat,” I added quickly. “You didn’t affect Brenda at all, but her power couldn’t predict accurately what was going to happen. That could mean either that it was having an effect, or that it wasn’t sure and couldn’t run the simulation.”
“I was getting both a blank and one where it didn’t do anything,” Brenda added. “As soon as she teleported, a bunch of the predictions had you calling her over and sending her back to us again, and that time there was nothing.”
Right. Maybe her passenger had missed the Trump aspect somehow and needed to analyze the data to make better predictions? I wasn’t sure. Precogs, especially ones as unique as her, were hard to do a full analysis on.
No matter. “Alright, so, basically you can do an interrupt on powers. When you teleported from Kathy to John the first time, Kathy didn’t have a change. I think that you were just focused on him, so… Yeah. What I find interesting is that it took a few moments for him to get his powers back… Which actually makes sense, honestly. Given everything that I’ve seen and all.”
“A moment is actually a minute in a half,” John interrupted. “It would be better to say–”
“Nobody likes a pedant,” Kathy snapped. She looked back to me with a slight grin. “Keep going, man. This is pretty interesting.”
I smiled bashfully. I wasn’t keen on having them all so focused on me like this, but I didn’t mind them being so eager to learn something that I had to share. “Alright… Um, okay. So. The second time, John’s powers drained by… half?”
“Give or take,” he said with a nod.
“That’s what surprised me, I expected it to be an all or nothing.”
“Wait,” Emi said, raising a hand to stop me. “You had to expect it to do something. Why else would you ask me to do that?”
I coughed gently. “When I was a kid, I took a look at the standard testing procedures and tried to come up with my own. We just did a stripped-down, bare-bones version of it. I’d like to do the full, but we don’t have everything that we’d need.
“Anyway, it’s a little bothering that you can’t affect Brenda. I’d like to get more people to test it with, but… Either it doesn’t work on Thinkers, that there’s something that I can’t account for with this test, or… I think that it only works on active powers and not passive powers.”
Emi frowned. “Explain.”
I licked my lips. “Okay, it’s like… Like… Okay. That last fight. I’ve been thinking about what little I saw of it, the fallout from it. Let me guess, the Brute seemed like the biggest immediate danger in your eyes, so you were teleporting to try and keep ’em off balance, right?”
Her eyes went wide and she tilted her head. After a moment, she giggled nervously. “How, uh… How do you do that? Are you a Thinker or something.”
“I wish,” I said, careful to keep my voice exactly the same tone. Fortunately, the pain disappeared into the void quickly. “See, if that’s a passive Brute effect, it might not have done anything at all, even though I’m willing to bet that you were teleporting all around ’em to try and keep them off balance.
“But if I look back… Heck, the first fight, the first time that I saw you. With the Shaker. She should have instantly had you in her field, hurting you, but she didn’t.”
“Because her Trump power disrupted the Shaker’s powers,” John said with an appreciative grin.
I snapped my fingers and pointed at him. “You got it. ‘Xactly. She couldn’t respond, because her power had been suppressed by Emi’s.” I looked back to her. “I’d like to do some more tests, telling the disruption range and learning particulars, but… Yeah.”
“Cool,” she said, flexing her arms comically. “I really am a badass!”
“And cute,” John said with a smirk.
“I’m fuckin’ adorable! And a classy lady!”
Kathy was far more serious, though. “I think I know what you want to do tonight. Talk over the fight, see what we did, then give us some stuff to think about?”
I tapped the side of my nose before nodding. “You read my mind. But for now…” I looked around. “John, Kathy, would you be so kind as to get some firewood and start a good one while Emi and I do some foraging?”
It was almost seven when Brenda started to stir, the first one up. Already I had the fire going, a pot boiling on it. The night had been long, full of noises as I kept my guard up.
They’d all been nice and let me sleep for a while after dinner so that I could take night watch. I hated not doing anything, but it let me have time to exercise in peace now that they were keeping my activity to a minimum. When I wasn’t exercising, keeping an ear and eye out for wildlings or other natural predators kept my mind occupied.
“Morning,” she whispered as she moved to the fire. She lifted her headband to glance in the pot that I had going, then looked to me in surprise. “Is that meat?”
“There’s also eggs in there,” I whispered back. “I had to refill my water last night and practically stumbled across a carrier pidgin nest. Good eating.”
“Flying nuisance,” she snarled quietly. “I’m glad to see some dead.”
I smiled a little. Unfortunately, even with our whispering, it seemed to be enough to wake up John and Kathy, who had taken to sleeping in the wagon — sleeping on the ground didn’t agree with their gentle constitution, apparently. Well, considering that John was in his 30s and was used to a comfier lifestyle than being on the road, I wasn’t too terribly surprised.
John blearily looked at the pot. “Breakfast, huh?”
“With meat,” Brenda said, louder than I would have liked.
“I’m up,” he said in a much more jovial tone, climbing down from the wagon.
That was enough to wake Emi up, too. She’d been smart and had put a layer of leaves down under her. It wasn’t much, but every bit of insulation and separation from the ground helped out in the wilds.
They were content to be quiet as we went through a morning routine of relieving ourselves away from the river and eating breakfast. And John with his two cigarettes, always frowning over how much tobacco was in his pouch. Good, hopefully he’d run out before we got back.
After almost an hour, though, everyone was much brighter and aware.
“Alright,” Kathy said slowly. “Last night, we went over the fight and what we should have done differently. You said that we were going to do more talking before we got into it today.”
“Right,” I said, heading for the box in the wagon. “Before we do, though…” I got out five vials and began distributing them to everyone. “Later, we’ll be doing some katas. This is a mild restorative that Nexus is going to be paying for. It’ll work throughout the day and into the night, so we don’t have to worry about anything.”
Kathy downed hers in one gulp, making a face. “Tastes like…”
John lowered his from his lips. “Milk of Magnesia.”
I smirked a little, but I felt like a heel. I didn’t like lying to them, but they might not be so accepting if they knew what it really was. I wasn’t sure if it would help in intellectual learning, but learning how to use an alien appendage was a lot more taxing to the brain than learning some katas. I was hoping that it would help them learn more quickly.
“Alright. I know that I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. There’s no such thing as a fair fight. Fighting is brutal in its very nature — you want to hurt someone, or someone wants to hurt you. There’s nothing fair about that at all. So the first thing that you need to learn is to abandon one traditional bit of honor. And I’m going to teach you how with a demonstration.
“Emi, would you be willing to do a bit of slow tumbling?”
“Sure,” she said, hopping to her feet.
“Alright, go over there. John, could you follow behind me, please?” Slowly, he rose as Emi got into position. “Now, we’re going to do this slowly. Half speed on your end, even less on mine. I’ll walk towards Emi, and she’ll come at me as if to attack with a punch. John will follow as I demonstrate a very effective combat technique.”
We nodded, and then began to walk towards each other at a leisurely pace. As she drew close, Emi lifted her fist and swung in slow motion. With equal slowness, I deflected her punch, grabbing her wrist and turning as I dropped to the ground. I felt her against my back until her feet left the ground from my leverage before letting go of her wrist.
“Alright, if you could change your position and lay on the ground like I’d just tossed you?”
As soon as Emi was in position, I looked around to everyone else. Brenda had her headband up, only occasionally opening her eyes before closing them again. Good.
“So. Often times, people think that it’s only proper to engage one at a time. However, the best maneuver for me from here would be to…” I let go of her wrist and moved to continue walking. “There could be other combatants that I need to face. I just put Emi on the ground, though. She could get back up. So what’s the appropriate response?”
“For me to kick her,” John said thoughtfully.
“Exactly. Remember what I said about fair fights. You don’t attack one at a time unless there’s a good reason not to. And there’s no good reason not to set an opponent up so that someone else can take care of them. In fact, it’s more efficient that way. Emi’s focus would be on me at that point, if she wasn’t completely confused by that toss.
“John’s more open to take her on at that point than I am. Meanwhile, I’m left free to take on another opponent.”
“Wait,” Kathy said. “Isn’t that still taking on a person one at a time?”
“Yes and no. If, say, you were right there with Emi, you might take advantage of my flipping her to attack. If I keep my focus entirely on her when John can take her on, then I’ve just left myself open unnecessarily.
“Plus, combat is partially about psychology. There’s something mildly unnerving about someone who tosses a foe and then keeps on walking towards their destination, even if someone else takes on the person that was tossed. You’re putting psychological pressure on your opponent. The more pressure that you put on them, the easier it will be for them to make mistakes.”
Kathy nodded, seeming to accept that.
“I normally don’t believe in flash when fighting, but there’s a time and a place for it. I will break limbs quickly and cleanly most of the time, but if there’s a group of people, I might make the person hurt even more as I do it. Most of the time, it isn’t necessary, and I don’t like hurting people more than necessary. But if it keeps me alive, if it makes someone second-guess attacking me, then I won’t hesitate for a moment.
“Back in the days of capes, of heroes and villains, there was a huge emphasis on the show of it all. A lot of times, the Protectorate wasn’t trained in efficient combat styles — they were subtly encouraged to use a certain degree of flash. Even Armsmaster, who was very efficient, was guilty of this. He would incorporate unnecessary flips into his moveset, and those are… Well, let’s just say that they’re dumb for a variety of reasons.
“But as much as I stress that it’s stupid, there are times where it can be handy. Unfortunately, knowing when it is and isn’t… That’s something that I can’t teach readily. I’ll have to trust your judgement on the matter. Is it better to potentially leave yourself open to an attack in order to psyche out your opponent, or is it better to be efficient?”
“Oh,” John said slowly. “Or, sometimes, being efficient might be a way to psyche out your opponent.”
“This is also true,” I said with a nod. “I can tell you these things until I’m blue in the face, but I can’t replace actual experience. Experience that, that I’m guessing that you might already have.”
Emi stood up. “Hey, uh… You’re in armor, so can I, uh, can I do the one flip I remember from school?”
I blinked at her in surprise. “You, uh, you never mentioned…”
She rolled her eyes. “Hello? We all got taught a little judo. I just, uh… Well, by the time I met up with these guys, I’d forgotten most of it, and when I was training with you, I was… Well, I was kinda afraid that I’d fuck it up. But if we’re all learning from scratch anyway…”
She was remembering our routine in Haven, her pointing out useful things and asking questions. Sometimes she’d ask something and I had to correct her, but it was still a positive learning experience for everyone. Good! I was glad for that. “Alright, what do you want me to do?”
“Come at me. Grab my arms. Not at full speed, but, uh, with a bit of movement.”
I already knew exactly how this was going to go down. “Right.” I moved to her, and her hands grabbed my shoulders as I grabbed her. Instead of pushing me, she used my own momentum to drag me forward as she dropped on one leg, her other foot pressing up into my groin and extending. Using the momentum, leverage, and the fulcrum of her foot, I went up and over her, crashing onto the ground nicely.
I laid there for a moment before I realized… that was that. Okay then. As I made my way to my feet, she was already bouncing up, grinning from ear to ear.
“Yatta!” she yelled, jumping for joy and pumping her fist into the air.
I couldn’t help but grin, especially as a polite round of applause was given to her. I regretted what I was about to do. It wasn’t much, but I didn’t want to put any damper on her good mood at all.
“You did it almost perfectly, and with how long it’s been? I’m impressed! The only thing that you could do better is to tuck your chin a little more. You don’t want my head coming down on you. We’ll have everyone toss me a few times like that, but I also want to add something else into it.”
She tilted her head curiously.
“I want you to use the momentum of that flip to roll yourself on top of me. That way–”
“I can elbow you in the face!” She was far too pleased with herself for making that leap.
“Right.” I grinned right back at her. “Ready to do it again?”
“I’m gonna go to the steam and freshen up.”
Everyone nodded as I made my way to my feet and walked into the dying light. They were focused on their food, enjoying a good meal from a long day of both training and education.
I’d been right, more than I could have hoped. They all picked up the katas that I taught them in record time, faster than I ever learned anything, and people were always impressed by that. John finally got the perfect form for his punch down pat, too.
But they’d also picked up on the lessons as well with frightening ease. I felt far more comfortable about fighting alongside them now than I had even two days ago. The doctor had created an elixir without thinking of the full use of it. Some day, I’d have to let her know. I’d have to keep the rest of those elixirs in reserve for if I encountered another martial art I’d never been exposed to before.
To be fair, I’d found myself improving rapidly as well. Not only had a shucked off the rust that I’d built up in the past few days, but my accuracy had improved dramatically. I’d go through a kata slowly at first so that they could see it, then show them what it looked like at full speed. Each time, I noted that I was better than I probably should have been.
I ran my hand through my hair from the back, and then over my face, feeling the stubble there. I’d have to shave again. Of all the things that Riley had to give me like my old body, it had to be my hair. I wouldn’t have minded if she had gone a little more normal with that, or not given me facial hair at all.
No matter. I was just happy right now to look like my normal self. Sometimes I could just very barely make out a pattern on my skin, a record of what had happened to me in that corridor. Not often, and only if I was looking close when the sunlight was just right. I doubted that anyone else would notice it most of the time.
Today had been a good day, though. I almost felt like my old self again.
In the back of my mind had been a nagging doubt that I couldn’t quite lay to rest. One that refused to let form completely, leaving it just a strange unease that wouldn’t quite go away. It was worse when I worked with Kathy. I wasn’t sure why. I wasn’t sure why I wasn’t allowing it to form completely, either.
I reached the stream and squatted next to it. This portion was running pretty fast, which was good. I couldn’t hear shit except for the water, but I still liked it. Plus, I had to worry less about it being cruddy.
I spent a moment washing my gloved hands in the water, trying to relax my brain enough to let that thought fully form. Carefully I cupped my hands and splashed water on my face, rubbing it. It felt a little odd with my armor, but it didn’t matter.
It didn’t matter because it suddenly hit me why I had been feeling uneasy. I closed my eyes and let out a sigh, tilting my head back.
Something cold and metal pressed into it.
“Twitch the wrong way and you’re a dead man,” a man’s voice hissed behind me. “Raise ’em nice and slow.”
I did as I was asked.