Jenny tries to wipe sweat off her face with the back of her arm as she glares at Red Shift. He stares back serenely, not even the faintest trace of perspiration on his forehead.
“No I’m not,” Red Shift says. “The whole point of having ‘super powers’ is that they give you advantages. The whole point of training with someone who has ‘super powers’ is to learn how to adapt to their advantages, and to use your advantages in a way that allows you to control the fight.”
“Fine,” Jenny mutters, and lowers herself into a crouch.
Red Shift waits.
Jenny isn’t sure why speedsters don’t get more press. Red Shift has been kicking her ass all morning, and he’s not even winded. He caught a bullet. He moves faster than she can track and hits with the force of a guy three times his weight. He caught a bullet. And to top off the indignities, he’s holding back. And he caught a bullet!
“How did you catch that bullet?”
“You’re supposed to be fighting me, not chatting me up.”
Jenny glares at him. “I’m not chatting you up. I’m trying to figure out how you work. How did you catch that bullet? I know you run fast—really fast—but that’s just… nuts.”
“I don’t usually discuss tactics with my enemies,” Red Shift says good-naturedly, “but since you’re actually a student—sort of—I guess it’s relevant to what I’m trying to teach.”
Jenny relaxes out of her stance and waits.
They’re in the bunker’s living area. All the furniture is pushed down to one end, giving the two of them a reasonable space to spar in. The bare floor is covered with a number of gym mats Elliot Grady delivered the day before. Jenny is dressed in an old, third-hand pair of sweat pants and a mismatched sweat shirt. Red Shift is in his Crossfire uniform.
From a psychological perspective, Jenny has already lost the fight.
“Are you familiar with ‘bullet time?’” Red Shift asks.
Jenny laughs. “From the video games?”
“Yes. You press a button and for a while in the game everything slows down to a crawl, making it a lot easier for the character to deal with the bad guys.”
“Yeah,” Jenny says. “Max Payne. Loved that game… when I was in high school.”
“Ouch.” Red Shift rubs the back of his neck ruefully.
“Anyway,” Red Shift says, “it’s a really good analogy for how things get when I speed up. The faster I go, the slower everything else looks. And if I focus I can push it even further. When I saw Richter pull the trigger, I pushed. The world slowed down. I saw the bullet.”
“So you’re not always fast, all the time,” Jenny says. “Like, right now, you’re just a normal guy who moves at normal speed?”
Red Shift shakes his head. “Not quite, but you get points for trying to work it out. My ‘default setting’ is a little above human limits.”
“So how come you haven’t gone crazy?” Jenny asks. “I mean… sorry. It’s just that if that was my default state, I’d be so impatient all the time, waiting for people to finish what they were doing…”
“Well, I was a scientist before I became a masked vigilante,” Red Shift says. “The kind of research I was doing involved a lot of waiting before I could get on with the next bit. I’ve had a lot of practice waiting. I’m pretty good at it.”
“I’m not,” Jenny says.
“You’re great at stalling.” Red Shift flashes a grin. “Come on. Are you going to hit me or not?”
Jenny rolls her eyes. “I think we both know the answer to that question.”
“I’ll move slow enough for you to hit me,” Red Shift says. “If you try.”
Jenny growls, then crouches again.
Now that she knows how he sees the world when he’s moving, she figures it’s pointless to try to attack him head-on. He’d see all her moves in slow motion and have plenty of time to counter them.
But there has to be a way to fight him. He said he’d be moving slow enough for me to hit him if I tried. How do I pull that off?
She lashes out with her right, missing by inches. She follows up with her left, and Red Shift’s arm blurs, batting it aside. A low kick, a high kick, a feint on the left followed by a knee—every attempt fails by inches. She’s breathing heavily now—and, as far as she can tell, Red Shift is barely paying attention.
Damn him. From his perspective I’m moving so slow I’m telegraphing everything I do. I need to… trick him.
The problem with a feint is that Red Shift will, in theory, have as much time to react to a feint as he will to a straight-out attack. She’ll have to be proactive to counter that. Her mind races through all the memories of her great-grandfather teaching her to fight, and in a moment she settles on a move that, at the time, she thought was needlessly clever. She can’t remember its proper name—it sounds German, or maybe Dutch—but she remembers calling it “The Plan B.” The Plan B is a double-feint—a feint followed up by a second feint, each intended to position the target for a hold-and-throw. If Red Shift isn’t expecting her to be that elaborate, it might work.
Jenny feints with her right, and swings hard with her left. As soon as the feint stops, Jenny moves her right arm into position—much too soon under normal circumstances, but she’s anticipating the speed of his counter. The gamble pays off: he blocks the attack the way he’s supposed to, and just when she feels his arm batting her left aside, her right closes on his wrist. Suddenly she’s in control: she twists, his eyes widen in surprise, she pulls, he loses his balance, then her left locks in and she throws him over her shoulder, onto the mat. He hits the floor with a very satisfying thud.
Jenny stares down at him and grins. “Got y—”
A moment later she’s flat on her back, staring at the ceiling. Red Shift stands over her, frowning slightly.
“You didn’t hit me,” he says. “I told you to hit me.”
“I threw you,” Jenny says. “That’s better.”
“It was a good move,” Red Shift agrees. “Didn’t take me out of the fight, though. You need to take this more seriously.”
Jenny stays on her back, staring up at the ceiling.
“Ah,” Red Shift says. “Cold feet?”
Jenny shrugs. “I really don’t have a choice, do I? CB was right—I’m in the middle of this already, I have to commit. But I really, really don’t want to. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t want to until just now.”
Red Shift nods. “OK. Let’s talk about that.”
Jenny sits up and stares at a fixed point on the wall. “I grew up surrounded by it. Liberty was my great-grandfather, CB was a family friend, Grey Falcon and Regiment stopped by from time to time—not Gladiator, not as much, but I sort of thought of all of them as uncles. And all I wanted was to be like them, so I could go on amazing adventures and save the world…”
Jenny laughs self-consciously.
“I knew what kind of hero I wanted to be, too—I wanted to be just like Mental Marvel. Remember her? When I was in my teens I thought she was perfect—beautiful, powerful, could fly, read people’s minds…”
“Never met her,” Red Shift says, “but I think her story is more tragic than inspiring.”
“Yeah,” Jenny says. “That’s the point. I got older, I started noticing the other side. Mental Marvel went insane. Grey Falcon died. CB is… disillusioned, I guess. And there are people like you—no offense, you seem like a nice guy, but you and your friends spend most of your free time killing people.”
“We do,” Red Shift says. His usually cheerful, friendly voice is strangely flat and matter-of-fact.
Jenny shudders. “God, and you’re the nice one. This world is screwed up, and I’m part of it now. I guess I’m grieving, a little.”
Red Shift is silent a moment.
“OK,” he says, finally. “I guess I can see that. I don’t know how to help you through it, though. I have a philosophy that I’m pretty sure you won’t like, and I’m also pretty sure Curveball would take issue with me trying to win you over on it.”
“So what?” Jenny says, anger tinting her voice. “When did he become my lord and master?”
“I didn’t mean it like that,” Red Shift says.
Jenny stands. “Yeah, but you said it like that anyway. Just like you tried to name me ‘Miss Liberty’—I’m sure you didn’t mean any offense then, either.”
“I didn’t,” Red Shift said. “It’s just seemed like an appropriate nod to Liberty, sort of a classic—”
“A classic?” Jenny snorts. “I can just imagine my new career as ‘Miss Liberty,’ in my brand new costume. I guess that’d be a red, white, and blue thong.”
Red Shift stares at her blankly. “Thongs aren’t really practical in fights.”
Jenny rolls her eyes. “Practicality wasn’t really part of the equation for Mental Marvel’s costumes. I didn’t realize that till later, but just before she ‘retired’ most of her promo posters looked like pin-up spreads. And what about Desire? Have you seen what she wears? Also, what’s with a major hero going by the name Desire?”
“Well,” Red Shift says, “it fits. She emits pheromones that—”
“—I know what she can do.” Jenny speaks through clenched teeth. “I can read the papers. Of course, the ability she’s famous for is the one she hardly ever uses. Most of the time she makes bad guys afraid, or confused, or she overloads their… I don’t know, neural pathways or something and knocks them out. But the one time she decides the easiest way to resolve a hostage situation is to sweet-talk a guy into turning himself in, some hack from the Tribune nicknames her ‘Desire’ and it sticks.”
“Hey, I didn’t name her,” Red Shift says.
“You wanted to call me Miss Liberty,” Jenny snarls, then slugs him.
It’s a sucker punch. Red Shift’s eyes widen in surprise for the second time as he doubles over from the blow. He makes a series of quick, gasping, choking sounds. Jenny panics for a second, thinking she really hurt him, then relaxes when she realizes he’s laughing. Or trying to laugh.
“So… hey. What are we talking about?”
Jenny turns to see CB, covered in mud, standing in the hallway. “What the hell happened to you?”
“Working,” CB says. He looks at Jenny, then at Red Shift, then at Jenny again. “Everything OK?”
“Everything’s fine,” Jenny says. “We’re talking about how superheroes are a pack of sexist assholes.”
CB nods. “OK.” He looks at Red Shift again. He looks like he’s trying not to laugh. “I’m going to take a shower.”
CB stomps off down the hall.
Jenny turns back to Red Shift. He’s standing up straight now. “Uh… sorry.”
“At least I got you to hit me.” Red Shift also looks like he’s trying not to laugh. “I’d like to take credit for that, but I hadn’t planned to push buttons today. Still, it’s a start. And as far as things go, you’re not wrong. The metahuman world is subject to the same prejudices and narrow-mindedness as everywhere else. Myself included. For my part, mea culpa.”
“I thought heroes were supposed to rise above all that,” Jenny says.
“Well, you’d expect that,” Red Shift says. “But I might not be the best person to talk to about what heroes are supposed to be.”
“Right,” Jenny says. “Crossfire is not my role model. No offense.”
“None taken,” Red Shift says. “For what it’s worth, I can tell you that we’ve worked with groups that aren’t representative of what you see in the mainstream. The new groups, the unregistered groups, the… well, the vigilante groups. They’re a lot more inclusive.”
“It was bad enough at my job,” Jenny said. “Now I have to deal with the same shit, only in spandex and the ratios are even worse.”
“Ratios?” Red Shift cocks his head to one side. “What are you talking about?”
“Ratios,” Jenny repeats. “You know. Men outnumbering women in the metahuman game. By a lot.”
“No they don’t,” Red Shift says.
“Weren’t we just talking about how they did?” Jenny asks, slightly exasperated.
“No,” Red Shift says. “We were talking about public perceptions, not actual facts. And the facts are, there are probably as many women who are metahumans in the world as there are men.”
“Probably?” Jenny shakes her head, confused. “What does that even mean, probably?”
“Well no one is really sure about metahuman genesis,” Red Shift says. “Or… well, we know in the beginning people like Liberty were engineered, but at some point metahumans started showing up on their own. That’s the part we haven’t figured out. The most popular theory—one I agree with—is that there are a set of genetic traits that all need to be present in order for someone to have latent metahuman abilities. There’s nothing to suggest it targets men over women.”
“But…” Jenny shakes her head. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“I don’t know much about sociology, but I assume it has something to do with—”
“Not that,” Jenny said. “I mean yes, that, but that’s not what I’m talking about. The tests. The tests you’ve been looking at—the ones we got from TriHealth. You said the test subjects were all getting… uh… the metahuman test.”
“The Dyson-Ferris Assessment?” Red Shift asks.
“Yeah,” Jenny says. “That. That doesn’t make any sense. It made sense before, when I thought that I could count the number of female metahumans on one hand, but if half the metahumans in the world are women, how come the only people in those files are men?”
Red Shift blinks. “You’re right. That doesn’t make sense.”
“That’s weird, right?”
“Yes…” Red Shift frowns. “It’s not just weird, it’s bad science. Why limit your tests to only half the available genetic pool? Uh… I hate to cut your training short, but do you mind if I use your laptop? I need to get in touch with Street Ronin.”
“Sure,” Jenny says.
“Thanks,” Red Shift says. “Good catch. I’m kicking myself. I should have caught that.”
He heads off to the kitchen. Jenny beams.
“Think of a name, Miss Forrest,” Red Shift says from the hall. “Or I’ll start calling you ‘Miss Liberty’ till you do.”