“Again,” Red Shift says.
Jenny grits her teeth, narrows her eyes, and swings at him with all her strength.
She isn’t trying for finesse, and Red Shift isn’t trying to dodge. He’s moving just enough to keep his force field active, but he takes the blow square in the chest. The force of the impact staggers him, but he recovers quickly.
“Why?” She tries to conceal the frustration in her voice, but she knows it isn’t working. She doesn’t understand why he’s making her do this. She’s much stronger than she used to be, but that’s not how she should be fighting. Her great-grandfather hadn’t used brute force, he used discipline and finesse. That’s how she was trained to fight. That’s how she should be fighting.
“You need to know what it feels like,” Red Shift says.
“What are you talking about?” Jenny’s frustration boils over and her volume rises considerably. “What am I supposed to feel?”
“Your limits,” Red Shift says. “You’re in a new body, Zero. Cocooning helped you adjust to it for the most part, but the rational part of you is still thinking in terms of what you used to be able to do. You need to know what it feels like to really push your new body to its limits.”
“By hitting you?” Jenny’s still adjusting to her handle. It takes her a moment to register when Red Shift uses it—he won’t call her anything else, now—and even when she recognizes it as hers she feels like an impostor, or a kid playing dress-up.
Red Shift shrugs. “If we had more time it’d probably be a good idea to train for all kinds of scenarios. Given our situation I think focusing on fighting is appropriate.”
“My hands hurt,” Jenny says. “A lot.”
“It’s only bruising,” Red Shift says. “It’ll heal. Hit me again. You haven’t reached your limit yet.”
“How do you know?”
“So far every time you take a swing you wind up hitting harder,” Red Shift says. “Once you hit your limit that’ll change. Hit me again.”
“Masochist,” she mutters, and hits him again.
Twenty minutes pass before Red Shift tells her to stop. At that point her hands are numb and her arms feel like rubber.
“That’s your limit,” Red Shift says. “For strength, at any rate. It’d be nice to test your top speed, too, but I don’t know if we’ll get a chance. We don’t have the equipment we’d need to test you indoors, and Farraday City isn’t a good choice for running laps.”
Jenny laughs in spite of herself. “So how’d I do?”
Red Shift stares at her blankly. “This wasn’t a test, it was an exercise.”
“Not what I meant,” Jenny says. “I know what going all out feels like now, but I still don’t know what that limit is. I get it, that’s not the point, but I’m still curious.”
Red Shift shrugs. “That’s fair. Can’t help you much, though… we need equipment to measure that. I can tell you that you’re stronger than the average human being—significantly stronger, actually. I’m basing this on having been hit by a lot of different people in the course of my career.”
“Not, like, Regiment strong,” Jenny says.
“No,” Red Shift says. “Stronger than Curveball, though. You’re strong enough to break bones and cause internal bleeding. You could inflict enough blunt force trauma with a single punch to kill a man, if you had to.”
The briefest glimpse of a tight-faced, wide-eyed man staring at her flits through her conscious memory. Her mouth thins as she wills it back into a corner. “Okay. I’ll keep that in mind.”
Red Shift raises an eyebrow. “That doesn’t bother you?”
“I’ll handle it,” Jenny says.
“I didn’t ask you if you could handle it. I asked if it bothered you.”
Jenny doesn’t like the way Red Shift is staring at her. “I’m… no. It’s fine. I mean, yeah, it’s a little—”
“Let’s talk about the guard you killed,” Red Shift interrupts.
She sees the man’s face again, just for an instant. “I’d rather not.”
“He had a gun pressed up against your temple. You disarmed him and shot him in the face with his own gun. Twice.”
Jenny winces as that image flashes before her eyes. “I’m not ready to talk about this. I already told CB I’ll deal with it when I have the time to process it. Which I don’t.”
She whirls on him, fists clenched, anger flashing in her eyes. “You don’t get to—”
“I’m not a shrink, Zero.” Red Shift’s normally easygoing expression is gone. In its place is something grim and solemn.
“I’m not a shrink,” he repeats. “And I’m not a priest. I admit I’ve been pushing your buttons a lot lately, but I really don’t want to push this one. This is important, though, so if you don’t do it on your own I swear to you I will push this button over and over again until either you deal with it or you break.”
Jenny bites back what she wants to say. “Why?”
“Because waiting until you’re in a position where you have to decide whether or not to kill someone else isn’t the time to start working through that issue.”
She doesn’t answer.
Red Shift sighs. “The first time I killed a man was an accident, and it almost broke me.”
Neither says anything for a moment.
Jenny takes a deep breath. “What happened?”
“I didn’t know my limits,” Red Shift says. “I was only starting to learn how to control my speed, and I didn’t quite grasp the consequences of moving as fast as I could. I thought I understood it—I had a pretty good grasp of it on a theoretical level—but there’s a gap between understanding it on paper and using it in the real world. The fight was… intense. It was the first time I’d ever faced someone deliberately trying to kill me, specifically me, so I was… well. There was a lot of adrenaline.”
He pauses for a moment.
“I went supersonic when I hit him,” Red Shift says.
Jenny’s eyes widen. “Oh.”
“Yeah.” His expression grows distant. “Once I hit a certain speed my fist stops acting like a fist and starts acting more like a high-velocity projectile. It was… messy.”
“What did you do? How did you deal with it?”
Red Shift shrugs. “I don’t have any good advice. I was green working with two guys who weren’t. They didn’t have healthy coping mechanisms; their advice was ‘drink a lot and keep going.’ I don’t recommend it as a long-term strategy.”
“Yeah, I guess not.” Jenny looks away. “I’ll see what I can do.”
He studies her for a moment, weighing his options. “Well, let’s break for the day. We can try pushing more of your buttons tomorrow.”
* * *
Jenny’s bedroom is small, but it’s so sparsely furnished—just an old army cot and a folding chair—that it feels larger than it is. She lies down on the cot and stares at a single spot on the ceiling—a tiny white chip in the blue-painted concrete—as she tries to force herself into a state of calm.
She doesn’t want to think about this. She wants to think about anything other than this. So, for a while, she does: she thinks about how she hates being stuck in this bunker, how she’s starting to get used to its smell, and how that bothers her. She thinks about her training, but that starts to lead her toward her recent conversation with Red Shift… so she steers back into more comfortable territory and thinks, once again, holy shit, I’m a metahuman.
She’s still not used to that.
Someone knocks on her door.
“It’s CB.” His voice is muffled through the door, but even so he sounds tired.
The door opens and CB steps in, smelling of car exhaust and cigarette smoke. Jenny suppresses the urge to cough, and doesn’t bother sitting up.
“Hey.” CB shuts the door behind him, moves the folding chair so it’s sitting against the wall, parallel to the cot, and sits, sighing heavily. He looks tired—his eyes are red and watery, and his whole face droops. It’s either lack of sleep or drugs. She’s pretty sure it’s lack of sleep. “Red tells me he pissed you off today.”
“He pisses me off every day. I don’t take it personally.” Jenny thinks that over, then frowns. “Well, I do when he’s actually doing it, but later when I figure out why he’s doing it, I’m usually OK with it.”
“Yeah. He likes that about you.”
“Do you guys talk about me a lot? Because that actually pisses me off a little.”
“Of course we do,” CB says. “He’s training you. Your first day out is probably going to involve a fight with Richter and Plague. So yeah, we talk about you a lot. You’re the newbie.”
Well, I can’t argue with that.
“Anyway.” CB leans back in the folding chair a bit, stretching his legs out in front of him. “Red told me about your last discussion. For the record, I thought you were handling it OK.”
“I wasn’t handling it at all,” Jenny says. “I was specifically not dealing with it.”
“Well, yeah,” CB says. “Not dealing with it is a legitimate short-term strategy.”
“I’m serious. It’s a really bad long term strategy, but in the short term, grief is like fear—you can shove it aside and focus on something else. For a while.”
“Thanks,” Jenny says. “Seriously. It means a lot to know that you thought I was making a decent choice, at least for now. But I think he’s right.”
CB doesn’t say anything.
“When that guard…” Jenny closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and presses on. “When I knew he was the only one left, I made a decision and I acted. Logically, tactically, it was the right decision to make. I know that. But it was still a horrible thing to do, CB. It… there are things that happened—things I felt—that are going to tear me to pieces when I finally bring them out into the light. I’ll never be OK with killing someone. It might be necessary. I might have to do it again, someday. But I’ll never really be OK with it.”
“Good,” CB says. He sounds relieved.
“But it’s all still there,” Jenny says. She opens her eyes, focusing on the chip in the ceiling. “And the next time I’m in a life or death situation, what will I do if it all comes pouring out? Red Shift is right. The next time I’m in that situation I might freeze up.”
“No he’s not,” CB says. “Really. He’s not. Listen, Jenny, Red is doing good by you, OK? He really is. And everything he’s doing, he’s doing because he genuinely, one hundred percent believes it’ll help. And 98% of it is probably spot on. But he’s wrong about this. I know he’s wrong about this because you’ve already been in that situation. Richter had his fucking gun trained on you, and you decided to fight.”
Jenny blinks in surprise. “Yeah. I did.”
“Yeah, you did. So I don’t see the problem. I mean, you do have to deal with it eventually, and the longer you put it off the harder it’s going to get. But I already know what you’re going to do when your back’s to the wall. You’re going to fight like hell. That’s good enough for me.”
She can’t think of anything to say after that.
CB fidgets in his chair a moment, then stands. “I need coffee. I’ve got some things to take care of tonight. You OK?”
“Yeah.” Jenny ignores the dampness welling in her eyes. “I’m OK. Are you?”
CB hesitates, considering the question. “Yeah. I guess. Why?”
“You look really tired, is all.”
He sighs. “Yeah, well, that’s true. Haven’t been sleeping much.”
“Have you learned anything?”
CB’s eyes unfocus and he stares off into space for a moment. “Nope. Dead end so far.”
“You’ll figure it out eventually,” Jenny says.
“I guess…” CB suppresses a yawn. “Right now I need coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.”
He closes the door behind him as he leaves.
Jenny hears him stomp down the hall, then hears him rattling through the kitchen as he assembles the coffee maker to brew a fresh pot. She lies on her cot, staring at the chip in the ceiling, thinking about what he said.
I already know what you’re going to do when your back’s to the wall.
“I do, too.” She speaks aloud, and she’s surprised by the strength in her voice—not because it feels new, but because it doesn’t. “I know what I’m going to do.”
She sits up, swinging her legs so her bare feet rest on the floor. She feels the cold concrete floor seep in through the pads of her feet, and as her feet grow numb to the sensation she imagines that she is also growing numb, hardening her resolve and shoving aside her doubts and insecurities and fears and pains so that she can focus on what’s coming. They’re still there, on the periphery, and some day they’ll have to be reckoned with… but not now. She has something else to do first.
“I’m going to fight like hell.”