“So, you just want me to do my usual workout?” They were making no secret of the fact that they were rushing the process. I’d expected a couple weeks to settle in, but they were moving at a rate suggesting I would see deployment in days.
“I want to see your maximum performance.” Phoebe’s husky voice was better suited for cheesy porn dialogue than normal conversation, or even a normal attempt at seduction. “Have you ever tried to see what your absolute max was before?”
So that’s two things Phoebe gave me to think about.
One tract of my mind was still locked on understanding Phoebe’s behavior. Knowing she got her powers right out of the gates of puberty and spent the rest of her life in state custody put her behavior in a new light. It was possible her only practical understanding of human sexuality came from pornography and those daytime dramas that somehow managed to be even trashier than the porn. I wasn’t a psychologist, but I couldn’t imagine that was healthy.
The other thought process went over my maximum performance, as she put it. In high school, I was a jock more by accident than intent; I studied hard, but working out had always been how I dealt with stress in my life.
Even as a freshman I was bigger than most of the seniors. My coach was always on me to stop working out so much, so the muscle had time to heal. I came from a more relaxed place and time, without the same pressures they put on high school athletes these days.
It wasn’t until basic that I was ever pushed hard by someone else, and then only for the first month. After I’d acclimated, everything became rote. I always did what my instructors demanded, and they just assumed I was putting in the same effort as everyone else. Looking back, it seemed obvious that was when I got my powers, but it was so easy to miss. There were so many clues adding to the inevitable conclusion, yet I somehow missed them all.
“No, it never seemed important, before.” Of the two thought paths, that one was easier by far to answer. “Say, while we’re on the subject, is it normal to be able have multiple trains of thought in your head at the same time? How many can normal people handle?”
“Depends on complexity,” Professor Abernathy answered, to Phoebe’s disappointment. “But if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say on average it’s less than one. How much are you capable of?”
I chuckled, more to be polite than because I found the joke funny. In the corner of my eye, I saw the twitch of a frown on Phoebe’s lips. “Three, I think. Understand, I managed to go two and a half decades without realizing I had powers to begin with. Clearly, I’m not the best judge of human capabilities.”
“The easy way would be to ask my power, but that would be an almost criminal waste of resources.” Despite speaking as if it was a rejection, the professor managed to make it sound like it was an offer on the table, as a favor.
I may not be a great judge of human capability, but I was an accomplished judge of character; if I allowed myself to owe Abernathy, she would find a way to collect. At the same time, I didn’t want to insult her, so a hard no was potentially even more damaging in the long run.
I selected the easiest path through the minefield: pretending I didn’t notice it existed. “Well, guess that means I’ve got one more test to do. Maybe I can read and listen to the radio at the same time?” Phoebe’s smile returned, which I took to mean I succeeded, in part, if only for a moment.
“I’ll leave a note for one of my assistants to research options,” Professor Abernathy had become all business. “We’ll start with running speed, then move on to upper body strength. Those should give us a baseline for what to expect.”
“You have room enough in the base for running?” I wasn’t an expert on space bases, but it was my understanding that every inch of space was costly.
“The artificial gravity’s new,” Phoebe jumped in before Abernathy could. “Muscle and bone degeneration isn’t as fast in lunar gravity as it is in microgravity, but exercise is essential to maintain one’s health.” She arched her back in a move meant to show off that she did, indeed, keep herself in shape. “Oh, and in case you’re wondering? I earned it. I only cheat by knowing my optimal diet and exercise routine.”
“The gym also serves as an emergency buffer between the secondary and tertiary hulls, in the unlikely event of a major asteroid collision.”
In retrospect, that should have been obvious. “Waste not, want not. Speaking of, you’ve got me curious to find out exactly what I can do.”
“Right this way!” Phoebe darted off, walking as fast as she could without switching to a jog. After it became clear that no, I was not about to run after her, she slowed her pace to something that the professor could keep up with. She didn’t try to hide that she was showing off her legs, while I did my best to pretend I didn’t notice.
The trip to the gym was easy enough, with an elevator not far removed from the mess hall. Phoebe was already inside, bouncing on the balls of her feet. I refused to ask why she still hadn’t put on shoes; I wasn’t sure what that was about, but assumed asking would only encourage her. She reached for my shirt the moment I was in the elevator, trying to pull it up.
I grabbed the upper part of her arms. “Listen, it’s not that I’m not flattered.” I’m not, but the real reason is because I’m not the kind of person who takes advantage of the mentally ill.
She glared at me, with an anger I would have sworn was real if her foot wasn’t busy caressing my leg. “What kind of girl do you take me for?” She turned her hand over, revealing a handful of small electronics. “I have to put these sensors on for your tests. Baka.”
I didn’t know what that last word meant, but something told me looking it up would only confuse me more. I released my grip on her arms. “I can’t put them on myself?” At this point, Professor Abernathy had caught up to us.
“Are you a doctor?” She didn’t wait for me to answer before she was once again pushing up my shirt. “Oh, wow, get me a couple sticks, I wanna learn to play the xylophone. Oh, don’t get self conscious now. By this time tomorrow I’ll know what every inch of you looks like from the inside.”
Oh, right, that. “Right. Replacing my skeleton with that Blue Steel stuff.”
More than a little. “I was already up here when I was told about the process.”
Professor Abernathy shifted. “We can reverse it in the future, when you’re ready to retire.”
“I know.” I didn’t expect to live long enough to retire, but this job had one hell of a benefits package I’d arranged to go to my sister and niece when I bit it. “It’s just, it makes me wonder if I still count as human when half my body mass is machine.”
“Don’t be silly, of course you’re still human. Lots of people get in accidents and lose body parts. They don’t change species, and our Gadgets won’t change that.”
“Do you have any? Cybernetics, I mean.”
“Nope. I’m all natural,” Phoebe slipped into her exaggerated idea of flirtation. “I’m the only one who can do the surgery, and it’s hard to perform surgery on yourself. Besides, I’m not the main character, so I don’t need the cool gear.”
And we’re back to this. I reminded myself to be patient with the girl. “I can see where that would be a problem.”
“You aren’t going to back out now, are you?” Phoebe looked up at me with eyes that puppies would have been jealous of. “You can’t. We need you.”
“She’s right, we do need you.” If Abernathy was uncomfortable about the scene, her voice carried no sign of it.
There’s meat to this conversation. “For? Doctor Patil spoke only in generalities, no specific threats.”
Professor Abernathy sighed. “That’s because there are no specific threats. Every year sees hundreds of new Imbued across the country. Almost half are criminals, or vigilantes that often turn out worse than the criminals they fight. Most of those are nuisance crimes like petty theft or illegal stunts. Some are absorbable, like gang violence or drugs. Then there’s the roughly ten to twenty turn out to be utter monsters, ruining countless lives before they’re finally put down. This project exists to put them down faster than ordinary law enforcement can.”
It happened to her. I wouldn’t care to hazard a guess when or how, but the bitterness in her voice was one that came from personal experience. “I’ve seen it. Not in the States, but Iraq, after Manticore…” I trailed off, remembering some of my own nightmares from the worst days of the Iraqi civil war. “Don’t get me wrong, Saddam was a rat bastard, but I wouldn’t wish the way he died on anything.”
“Or Baal,” Abernathy spit the name. “For an example that’s a bit closer to home.”
I blinked. “Or Baal.” Is that where her anger is coming from? It wouldn’t surprise me, the man was easy to hate. An ugly reminder that our country wasn’t quite as sane as we liked to pretend. He stayed mostly under the radar, and we left him alone for fear of a repeat of Waco, only far bloodier for the unfortunates who tried to take him out. “Do you think we’ll be going after him?”
“Not any time soon,” she said. “Perhaps not ever, but there will always be another psycho with the delusion that they’ll be the one that gets away with it.”
“It’s the way the plot is driven.” Phoebe, her voice soft and childlike, spoke up. Part of me wanted to be angry at her for turning this into support for her delusions, but I let it be. “Of the top ten percent most powerful Imbued active at a given time, approximately one in every five will be a violent criminal. This number has remained consistent since the late twenties, when criminologists started keeping detailed records.”
“Whack-A-Mole villains.” I recalled similar numbers when looking at the Imbued warlord groups that fueled the Iraqi civil war. There was no doubt that power and insanity were linked, only a debate over which one was the chicken, and which was the egg. Case in point, this girl who thinks we’re a work of fiction. “When you say it like that, it sounds like we shouldn’t even try.”
“No!” Phoebe’s nails dug into my skin. “You can’t say that! You’re the hero! You have to be! If you’re not, I’ll… I…” She broke down into incoherent sobbing.
Here less than six hours, and already I’ve made a girl cry. Twice. I brought my hands up, an awkward attempt to comfort her by touching her elbows. “I’m not saying I won’t do it.”
She looked up, the tears still flowing in a way that even most children would be self-conscious of. “Really?”
“I got over my wide-eyed idealism a long time ago. I don’t believe I can save the world. But,” I hastened to add when it looked like she was going to break down again. “Just because I can’t save everyone doesn’t mean I won’t try. Even if I only save one person, to them that’s as good as the whole world.”
Phoebe’s face transformed into a smile we could used to power the base. “I knew it! You’re perfect!” She jumped up, trying very hard to kiss me, but my reaction speed trumped hers.
If I was perfect, I’d have a solution for this situation. “How about we find out what the tests say before we start declaring anybody perfect, if that’s okay?”
I stepped backward out of the elevator, which had been waiting for us to leave for a while now. The exercise area really was huge, and full of greenery. An indoor park, though from the look of it there was no flowering plantlife and the roof was far too low to allow trees.
“Okay!” Phoebe nodded with an energy more appropriate from a hopeful eight year old. “The track’s over there, the whole thing is a full kilometer. We already know your endurance is off the charts, so we want to see your top sprint and how long you can maintain it.”
“See you in a couple minutes.” I jogged to the the track, just to get the blood pumping. A quick series of stretches that I was no longer certain I needed, and I bolted down the track at the best speed I could manage. All my life, running had been an endurance game, going at a rate I knew would push me but not wear me out before that final burst near the finish line. Today, I started with that final burst, and kept going along the whole track. I barely felt winded by the time I got back to where Phoebe was clapping in her childish way.
“Well, the good news is you just ran a kilometer in ninety one point two seconds, which shatters world records.” Professor Abernathy was less enthusiastic. “The bad news is you’re not qualified.”
I took a breath. “If I was qualified, then I’d be competing against other Imbued, some of whom can get close to the sound barrier.”
“Able to maintain full sprint with no sign of muscle fatigue nor anaerobic respiration,” Phoebe said to an unseen microphone. “Possible aspect of regenerative ability? Perhaps all subject’s enhanced abilities are tied to aspects of regeneration?”
“It’s possible,” Professor Abernathy agreed. “Also could serve to explain the mental advantage. Even if his brain only grows new tissue at the standard rate, but the death of older tissue is prevented by his power, then it would imply a slow, but never ending increase in ability.
“Ooh! And it would explain why the mental gains aren’t as obvious!” Phoebe dropped her attempt to sound professional for the recorder. “Human nerve tissue does replenish naturally, but at a snail’s pace compared to almost any other tissue type. You’re even perfecter than I imagined!”
“Well, certainly beats a sharp stick in the eye, but why does it make me better?”
“As you know, Blue Steel uses Imbued powers as an energy source, which is the fuel for its more exotic properties.” Abernathy beat Phoebe to the punch. “We were operating on the assumpion that anyone enhanced with it would see their powers reduced to almost nothing. But if your powers are side effects, then it’s likely you’ll keep all of them.”
“Except the regeneration itself, if that’s your core power,” Phoebe corrected. “You’ll no longer heal as fast, and you won’t get the same slow and steady improvements. You get to have your cake and eat it, too. Isn’t that just perfect?”
If it keeps me alive in the field, I’ll take it.