Six weeks, six days before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation
Amplifier looked tired.
Not that there was anything surprising about that. Our physical conditioning tests aren’t meant to be easy and, unless a person was a physical fitness nut or a member of the armed forces before joining with the Project, there’s a good chance they’re going to find them challenging. So far, the Midwest’s newest recruit was showing pretty good marks on them, nothing out of the common way but enough to qualify for field training, if that’s what she wanted.
What was surprising was that I could see it. Thanks to my unique powers of vision, or lack thereof, the cues I use to judge a person’s mood are almost entirely nonvisual. Sure, you can get a general idea of how a person’s feeling by their posture, but most of the nuance is supposed to be in the face or other such subtle cues, which are totally lost on a person as nearsighted as I usually am.
Playing orientation facilitator, or whatever HR calls the people who train newbies these days, for Amplifier had been an education for me. While I didn’t have much of as standard to judge by I guessed she had what most people would call an open and expressive face, because just about every change of mood registered there. It matched the rest of her personality, from which I guessed hiding her thoughts or moods had never been a necessity in her childhood. I was thinking only child, reasonably wealthy family, but that’s not the kind of thing you talk about with people who’s personal history gets redacted by the U.S. government.
Regardless of how privileged her upbringing had been, it hadn’t kept her from building up enough stamina to complete a one mile run in a weighted vest and belt, designed to simulate the kind of gear we might carry into the field, in just under seven minutes. Not spectacular but enough to show promise, especially since it was the last in a string of exercises for the day. She sprawled out on her back by the track in the gym while I made some sloppily written notes on her evaluation sheet. “You can take off the gear if you want.”
“Thank goodness,” she said, sitting up with a grunt. Then she proceeded to strip the vest off and throw it as far as she could which, considering it weight about twelve pounds, wasn’t as far as you might expect.
I tried not to stare. One thing I never understood when I was younger was why my friends would say a girl was hot. I knew they saw something about her, but I was never sure what. Amp was proving to be an education in that respect, too. Like the fun in getting “hot and sweaty” never made any sense to me before.
“So,” she said, straightening her tank top as I tried not to notice. “What comes next?”
I grabbed onto the chance for innocent conversation. “Actually, nothing. You’re done for the day. For once, there’s not even any paperwork we need you to go over, I think Harriet got all of it from you before we started today.”
“That’s it?” She sounded incredulous. “What, isn’t the exhausting exercise supposed to be the prelude to some kind of crazy basic combat training?”
I laughed at that, not because it sounded preposterous but because I had assumed the same thing when I went through the process. “If my goal was to teach you wushu, yeah. But my sifu would have my head if I tried that, and besides it’s not part of the Project’s curriculum. We have employee safety standards we have to keep to.”
“Ah, right. Those pesky standards.” Amp glanced around, then back at me. “Then again, there’s no one here right now… I know I wouldn’t tell anyone if you wanted to hand out a few free pointers.”
“I dunno…” When I was seven I started studying wushu. My sifu, or teacher, assured my parents it would be a big help in dealing with the weird abilities I had and he was right, which was one of the only reasons I stuck with it for the first few years. The work is hard and the instructors are harder. But when I actually joined Project Sumter I discovered that being too far ahead of the game can actually get you as much trouble as being too far behind. My hand to hand instructors didn’t really like having to deal with me, and I really didn’t want to relearn a bunch of basics that didn’t mesh well with my natural talents. There was tension for a while.
“What, you think I can’t handle it?” Amp asked, breaking into my thoughts.
Everyone knows the answer to that question is always no. So I shrugged and said, “If you want. But take it easy, you really don’t look like you’re used to this kind of thing. Even if you feel fine now, I can bet you won’t later.”
“I hear you.” Amplifier followed me over to the exercise mats. “So where do we start?”
“We start with me reminding you of one very, very important thing.” I turned my body slightly so that the left side faced her. “Project Sumter does not exist to deal with ordinary people. While there are many exceptionally smart or skilled individuals in the world, what falls under our purview are people with abilities that aren’t fully documented or understood, and that allow them to behave in ways that defy sense. Kick me.”
She blinked once. “Excuse me?”
I hadn’t expected to have to say it twice. “Kick me. Any way you want.”
To her credit, Amplifier resisted the urge to hit below the belt. Instead she just picked up one leg and jammed her foot as hard as she could into my side, hitting me just above where the kidneys are. I could see the blow coming, a dull white point of focused motion, then it connected and Amp fell over backward. I quickly moved over and reached down to help her up but she waved me off, scrambling to her feet with a grunt.
“Okay,” I said, getting back to my feet as well. “What happened?”
“Shouldn’t that be my line?” Amp asked, indignant. “I have no idea!”
“Start thinking about it,” I said, brushing lightly at a make-believe bit of dust on her shoulder. With my other hand I tapped my jaw. “Now punch me.”
She gave me a look I couldn’t quite read, but from the way she punched me, getting a good windup and putting all her weight behind it, she was probably pretty mad. Either way it was a really good punch and when it connected she nearly knocked herself over again, this time spinning to one side and yanking the shoulder my hand was on away. She kept her feet only by hopping to one side a few feet and flailing her arms for balance.
“How did you do that?” She demanded.
“Tell me what you think I did and I’ll tell you if I did it or not.”
Now Amp couldn’t keep the disbelief out of her tone. “That’s stupid.”
“No.” I folded one arm behind my back and pointed one finger upward, mimicking a pose I’d seen my sifu use countless times before, I think because it was one of the few body language cues I could pick up on at first. “This is the most important part of defending yourself against other talents. There are sixty two different kinds of talents in the Project records. Some of them are very similar to each other, and learning to tell them apart is the difference between using an effective countermeasure and getting caught flat footed. Worse, if you confront an unfamiliar talent you’re going to have to be able to accurately describe it to someone else if you want to get more information on it. Learning to pay attention to the smallest details, even when the big picture makes no sense, is the most important skill a Sumter field agent can have. Now, tell me what you think I did.”
“It felt like you punched me,” she said, rubbing her shoulder. “Even though you didn’t wind up. Or move at all. It felt like you punched me in the shoulder at the same time I hit you.”
I nodded. “Not bad. That’s almost exactly what happened, and anyone familiar with vector shifts would guess that was my talent as soon as you described it. And they’d be right.”
“Right. It’s the ability to perceive momentum in the objects around you, and move it from one solid object you’re touching to another.” A skeptical silence met that explanation so tried a different approach. “Have you ever played pool?”
“Sure.” A shrug. “I’m not any good at it, but…”
“Have you ever seen a setup where two pool balls are touching, and a player hits one with the cue ball so that the ball it’s touching moves but the ball that was struck stays in place?” I demonstrated with my hands, holding one in place while the other illustrated the cue ball striking and the third ball flying off.
“Yeah, I’ve seen that.”
“I work on the same principle. I take momentum from one solid object.” I gestured towards her feet. “And transfer it into another.” I tapped the mat we were standing on with one foot.
Amplifier just stared at me for a minute. “You’re serious.”
“You’ve just seen me do it twice.”
“But…” She looked around in confusion, as if she expected to find a hidden camera somewhere. “Wouldn’t that mean you’re pretty much invincible?”
“Not exactly. None of us talents are, although some come closer than others.” I took a closer look at her. While they hadn’t been big hits, she had just been knocked around a bit and that after an hour or two of pretty strenuous exercise. She wasn’t fidgeting around as much as she usually did and she looked kind of deflated. So I started for the edge of the mat, talking over my shoulder. “Now it’s time for lesson number two. Most people with talents spend a lot of time thinking about how they can use them, but not a lot thinking about what kind of countermeasures people could take against them. It’s something you need to start thinking about, if you haven’t already. Based on what I’ve told you, what do you think is the best way to deal with a vector shift?”
There was a moment’s quiet as Amp thought the question over, trailing along behind me. She didn’t say anything at all until she’d gone and collected the vest she tossed aside earlier and slung it over one arm. “I guess, from the sound of things, the most straightforward thing to do would be to keep your feet off the ground. Or on something fragile, like maybe a wood floor.”
“It’s very hard to get a vector shift in the air if he doesn’t want to be there,” I said. “But you’re on the right track with the idea of bad footing. Gravel isn’t great for me, either.”
“Right, but that’s not exactly something I can count on.” She tilted her head to one side and studied me. “You said you can move momentum from one solid object to another. What would happen if I sprayed you with a fire hose?”
“It would depend on whether I saw it coming or not. But you’d probably knock me over. There’s been rumors of vector shifts that can work with liquids and gasses for years, but I’ve never met one. They’re very chaotic and hard to manipulate, if that makes any sense.” I collected my clipboard from the bench where I’d left it and gave her another look. “What made you think of it? So far as I know it’s never actually been tried before.”
She smiled. “I have the same problem in reverse. I can affect sound through air, but not liquids or solids. It moves too fast, if that makes any sense.”
Which it didn’t, but then turnabout is fair play. “Not bad. Out of the box thinking is a must if you’re going to be in the Project. Now seriously, you look like crap. Knock off for the day, take a shower and come back tomorrow.”
“Right.” She ran a hand over her face. “Will do. Should I look for you, or Helix?”
“Harriet, probably. Helix has… a meeting to get ready for. It’s actually something we’re all going to be in, but Harriet knows the most about the training process. She’s been through it more times than just about anyone else in this branch.”
“Right.” She wavered there on her feet for a second so I gave her a gentle push towards the locker room. To my surprise she jerked away and snapped, “Don’t push me around.”
“Sorry.” I held my hands up in front of my chest and backed away. “No offense meant.”
She nodded once, looking a little lost, and headed away. I watched her go, a little curious about what was going on there. But like I said, they’re good at finding stuff for me to do, too. I had just finished a quick check of the gym to make sure everything was cleared away when my boss popped her head in and yelled, “Massif!”
“Over here,” I said, waving the clipboard for her attention.
She trotted over, her voice grim. “Are you done with Amplifier’s physical tests yet?”
“Just sent her home, Harriet.” I held out the clipboard for her inspection.
“Better than normal.” She was referring to my handwriting, which is usually not that good. I didn’t think it would be great, even with the strange clearing effect Amplifier had on my vision, but it was nice to know at least some of it was because of my poor sight. “She did okay, too.”
“Not bad, I agree.”
Harriet tapped me in the chest with the clipboard. “We need to get down to Evidence. Agent Samson has something he wants to show us.”
I racked my brains for a second. “Agent Samson? Like the guy from the Bible? Supposedly ripped a city’s gates down with his bare hands? I don’t think we’ve met. Is there even someone named that in our section?”