“First thing you have to understand: I'm not anyone's leader.”
Roland is lean almost to the point of emaciation. He has no body fat at all—just lean, pale skin and ropy, knotted muscles. He wears a dirty white tank top shirt, black jeans, and heavy work boots. His hair is cut short and dyed green. His face is angular with high, sharp cheekbones; blue eyes peer out from underneath thick dark eyebrows.
CB has seen him somewhere before. He can't place it.
“I'm serious,” Roland says. “I'm not a leader, I'm a guide. I figured out how to deal with myself a long time ago, and I managed to do it without killing anyone—which is incredibly lucky, considering what I can do. All I care about is getting you to the point where you can get a handle on what you do to the point where you don't hurt anyone, including yourself.”
“That's it?” CB doesn't bother to hide his skepticism.
“That, world peace, and the occasional cold beer,” Roland says. “Look, I won't pretend there isn't more to me than that. I have opinions and I share them. But you don't have to agree with them for me to help you. You could be a fucking Democrat or Republican for all I care, I'd still help you. That said, I have a little speech I give everyone before I start, and if you want my help you have to listen to it first.”
“He'll listen.” Joan says. She's a fierce-looking woman, her hair pulled back into a tight ponytail, revealing sharp features and scars running down the jawline on both sides of her face. They're a little like lightning bolts, he thinks, and when she locks eyes with him he feels a little tingle as if the intensity of her gaze were electric.
He tries not to look annoyed. He met her in a bar the night before, only it's more complicated than that: Joan is a metahuman girl in a bar he met the night before, and he only met her because she was looking for him. He's a metahuman, too, and if he doesn't figure out how he works he's going to go crazy.
Pull like so, then angle my body to catch her ankle, as she falls into Roland I half-roll to the right to get the Hispanic guy to his left, go for the left knee and he'll collapse on top of the other two…
CB winces as he forces the image from his mind. “Yeah. I'll listen.”
Freedom House is one of the few buildings left standing at the epicenter of Little Dresden, a miniature wasteland within New York City. It was a tenement building once, but has become one of the few bastions of civilization in a part of the city most people pretend doesn't exist. They're standing in the Freedom House basement, which has been converted into a gym. It reminds CB of the kind of gyms they always show in boxing movies: free weights, heavy bags, pull-up bars, that kind of thing. And in the center of the room is an actual boxing ring.
Only instead of being full of jocks, it's full of punks and anarchists. It's surreal.
“OK,” Roland says. “Here goes. In 1975 a hero group called the New Vanguard had a big fight with a villain group called the City Lords. The fight ended with an explosion in the East Village that left a crater the size of half a city block. You can see that crater if you go out our front door and take a left. Nobody really knows why Freedom House was left standing, but it's pretty much the only building around here that was. Everything else was blown to bits.”
CB nods. He was pretty young back then, but even he remembers that fight. He sure as hell remembers the explosion.
“Everybody says the New Vanguard saved New York City that day,” Roland says. “They're probably right... but they didn't save Alphabet City. A lot of people lived because of that fight, but a lot of people died to get there. That's what people like us can do.”
People like us.
“It's different for all of us,” Roland continues. “Me, I'm like a living battery. I can throw juice around and really tear shit up if I want to. Joan can make people do what she wants just by thinking it. Carlos here…” he slaps the Hispanic guy on his shoulder. “He can turn into solid stone. Or… well, something. It looks like stone to me.”
CB raises an eyebrow. He mentally crosses out the “going for the left leg” thing.
“Point is, what they did to Little Dresden ten years ago we could do today. And if we don't learn to control what we do, it's only a matter of time before the Big Apple has a second crater. That's why I try to help people, especially here. Nobody else will, which means the first time someone like us meets the outside world, it'll probably already be too late.”
“So you're saying there's a practical reason for your altruism,” CB says.
“Yeah,” Roland says. “Practical, because I don't want the city deciding we're a threat, coming in, and carting us off to prisons or laboratories or whatever the fuck they do to undesirable metahumans these days. But also because I remember what it was like when it first happened to me. I almost killed my mom. She was so scared of me, I ran away just so she'd feel safe again. We don't all get to be the bright and shiny superhero, and some of us had some pretty dark places they had to crawl out of.”
Roland looks at Joan. She nods.
“If you want me to help you, I will. While I do it, I talk a lot. My talk is pretty political, and I'm not ashamed of that. I don't expect you to agree with me. You can even argue with me if you want. If you walk away learning how to control what you do, and also believing I'm the biggest political nutjob you've ever met, that's cool with me. If you can't stand a guy talking politics while he works, well, it's probably not going to work out. You OK with that?”
CB shrugs. “I guess if you piss me off I'll just leave.”
Roland nods. “Nobody will stop you if you do. And if you change your mind later, you can always come back. Carlos quit three times.”
“Meant it each time, too,” Carlos says, grinning. “He's a real asshole.”
“Fine,” CB says. “Yeah, OK. Look, no offense, but I won't know what you're about 'till I hear your shtick. But right now? Right now I just want to think straight. I can't make it stop and… it really has to stop.” The last few words come out no louder than a whisper as a feeling of hopelessness starts to seep in.
Roland claps his hands. The noise is sharp and loud, breaking CB out of his angsty reverie.
“That's fine,” Roland says. “Get into the ring and show us what you can do. If you can. You say it's always on, so give us a demonstration.”
CB blinks in confusion a few times, then glances over at Joan.
Joan winces. “Maybe you should just try describing it first.”
“OK,” CB says.
He's never been in a boxing ring before. He's surprised at how stiff the canvas feels—it's not hard like a floor, but he always thought it would be like walking on a trampoline. It isn't. He stands in the center of the ring, looking around the gym. Most of it is quiet, now—the people who were exercising have stopped, all eyes on him.
“Describe it to you,” he says. “OK. I see… I see a series of actions. Like those instruction manuals that only use pictures—you know, like the ones that show you how to change a tire by drawing out each panel like a comic book. I keep thinking of it like playing pool—like you're lining up a shot that will ricochet in such a way that you don't just sink one ball, you sink all of them.”
“Interesting,” Roland says. “Give me an example.”
CB takes a deep breath. “I run toward you, grabbing the bottom ring rope with both hands. I kick the support, hard. The whole ring topples on one corner—it's impossible, I'm not that strong, but that's what I do—and you, Joan, and… Carlos, I guess? Sorry. The three of you topple to one side. There's still tension in the ropes on this end, though—a little more, actually, because the corner pole will be sagging out from the ring, pulling the ropes tighter—so I hop up, grab the top rope, and vault over. I bring my feet down on the small of your back while you're trying to get up, then I fall back and put an elbow into Joan's neck. Two down.”
Joan's eyes widen in surprise. Roland looks at CB thoughtfully.
“For the last goddamn week I've been sizing up everything as a fight. Everything. If I'm buying food, I'm thinking about how the food could be used as a weapon. Or how I could use the cash register to break the guy's arm. If I'm walking down the street I think about each person on the street and how I could fight them. At the same time. I'll watch a fight scene on TV and start thinking about how it would actually work in real life—I'm talking about the really stupid stuff that's obviously for show. It's like my brain is actually coming up with ways to make it work for real.”
Roland nods slowly. “I get it.”
But the words keep coming—he's so relieved to actually tell someone what's been happening, he can't stop talking about it. “I had to go out on my fire escape a few days ago, and my first thought is how to survive if I threw myself over the side. I'm five floors up. I saw myself bending my body in ways that—well, my body doesn't do that. Gymnasts do that, maybe. I don't. You know, Joan and I got into a fight with a bunch of Neo-Nazis last night—“
“New Aryan Army,” Joan says to Roland. “Plague was there.”
“Yeah,” CB says. “Him. Whatever. Point is, I kind of remember what I did when I was fighting, but I kind of don't, because I don't understand it. I don't understand what I did, and I don't understand how. It shouldn't be possible. Actually moving the way I did hurt.”
In two steps Roland moves to the edge of the boxing ring, grabs the top rope, and jumps. He vaults over, does a flip in midair, then twists so he lands right in front of CB, facing him. It happens so fast CB doesn't even have time to be alarmed.
“You're going to be OK,” Roland says. He claps CB on the shoulder. “You know you're a metahuman, right?”
“No shit,” CB says.
“But you actually know it, right? No denial? That's the first thing you need to get out of the way. None of this 'this can't be happening to me' bullshit. You first have to accept it actually is happening to you.”
“I know it's happening to me,” CB says. “I don't understand how it's possible, but I know it's happening. No denial.”
“Good,” Roland says. “OK, here's the good news: you're not going crazy. You're just noticing things you never noticed before.”
“Crazy-ass fighting moves?” CB asks incredulously.
Roland smiles reassuringly. “Yeah, basically. Look, your brain is always calculating things. It calculates how far away your hand is from a beer bottle so your arm will stretch out the right distance to pick it up. It does that kind of shit all the time, but you're used to it. You don't even think about it any more—it's instinct. All of a sudden your brain is calculating a new set of data, but it's not instinct—not yet. It's a new thing for you, but you're processing it the hard way.”
“The hard way,” CB says. “Is there an easy way?”
“For some people,” Roland says. “They pass out for a few days and when they wake up it all makes sense.”
“Gimme some beer,” CB says. “I can make that happen.”
Carlos laughs. Roland smiles slightly. “If it hasn't happened by now, it's not going to happen. So we're just going to have to get you so used to what your brain is doing it fades into the background as just another calculation. Until then you have to learn to focus and push yourself through it.”
“Focus,” CB says. “How?”
“I find anger helps. I bet every time you were actually using your powers you were pretty pissed off.”
CB nods slowly. “Now that you mention it…”
“Yeah. Anger is important. Dangerous—it'll control you if you don't keep a handle on it—but it's a great way to start.”
“How do I keep a handle on it?” CB asks.
“By getting angry at the right things,” Roland says. Then, slightly mischievously: “I have a few ideas, if you'd like to hear them.”
CB stares at Roland incredulously for a few seconds. Then he starts laughing.
Roland grins. “You're gonna be OK, CB. You're gonna be OK.”