19. Unexpected Talents
“My name is Walter Cole, and I’m from Settlement 210,” begins the trainer. “I’m a classically trained martial artist in the style of Krav Maga. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be teaching you as much as I can. We’ll be starting out by reviewing hand-to-hand techniques.”
“Why do we need to know hand-to-hand stuff?” someone asks. “We have guns, and stunners and pulse bombs and a bunch of other weapons.”
Walter looks at the speaker reproachfully. “There’s this thing about weapons: they can get lost or misplaced, or you can forget to bring one with you. Imagine getting cornered by the ILG when you didn’t have a gun or a stunner! You need to know how to use your body as a weapon, if the situation were to call for it. Now, let’s begin.”
Les already knows what to do, and he sets about arranging his squadron into a square formation, ten people per row with enough space in between to allow unrestricted movement. He feels purposeful as he does it, powerful. For the first time in his life, people are in awe of him, paying attention to him, and thinking of him as someone more than Ema’s lover. Not that he’s ever minded letting Ema have the spotlight, but it’s nice to feel like her equal for once. He stands beside her now, in the center of the first row, and they turn to each other and smile.
“Let me get someone up here for a demonstration,” says Walter. “How about you, Les? After all, you’re the leader.”
“But of course.” Les steps forward eagerly, rolling his shoulders in their sockets. His muscles seem to be pumped full of energy, just begging for him to test out their new capabilities. He is more than ready to begin.
Walter leads everyone in stretches, which he explains are important because they can prevent injury during strenuous activities. In truth, the exercises are designed so that Squadron 3 can practice moving in perfect unison, thinking collectively as a group. They move through the simple motions, unsteady and stiff at first, but soon every movement is mesmerizingly smooth and coordinated. Les finds that watching his ninety-nine companions as they synchronize perfectly, even if they’re just performing something simple like warm-up stretches, is hypnotizing. Once everyone has been trained, this really will be an impressive army.
After the warm-up is the first demonstration, which is even more enthralling.
“I know that you’ve all had training information implanted into your minds,” says Walter, “so let’s see how long it takes for you bodies to catch up with your brains. Les and I will spar first, so that you can see how it’s done. Ready, Les?”
Les nods, and he and Walter move so that they are facing each other. Walter adjusts the spacing between them, before shifting his feet and straightening his posture. “This is a basic stance,” he tells the Uniters. “It’s a very stable starting place. Of course, if someone is coming right at you there won’t be time to get into stance, but you should always try for it if you have the opportunity.”
Many of the imps bob their heads in understanding, and Les takes note of how serious and attentive everyone is. He is well aware that not everyone in Squadron 3 is exactly a model citizen, but for once, no one is making trouble or slacking off. Even Lai, who is standing near the end of the first row, doesn’t have her nose stuffed between the pages of a book and her ears blocked up with music the way she usually does.
He mimics Walter’s stance, understanding on his first try where he has to place his feet and how to take advantage of his center of balance. Walter nods approvingly, advising, “When you raise your arms to hit something, always keep your elbows up and your shoulders loose. Try to avoid tensing up, no matter what. You can give yourself some nasty muscle tears if you’re tense.”
Then he sends his fist hurtling towards Les.
It isn’t a completely sudden move. Les notices brief twitches in the trainer’s face and hands that indicate the upcoming attack, and he assumes that these hints are intentional, all a part of the learning process. Either way, he thrusts out a hand just in time, redistributing his weight accordingly so that he isn’t knocked to the ground from the impact. Walter’s attack is blocked successfully.
A few of the Uniters start to clap, only half-sarcastically. Walter cracks a smile for the first time. “Good reflexes,” he praises. “Let’s pick up the pace a little.”
He pulls his fist out of Les’s palm and slides back into his earlier stance. From there, the real fight begins.
It is admittedly slow-paced. At first, Walter lazily flings out punches that are almost delicate, as if he’s dealing with a young beginner student. But Les knows a lot more than the average kid in self-defense classes – in theory, anyway, even if he hasn’t had the chance to apply his skills yet. He deflects every blow, then starts contributing his own. Walter begins to move around a lot, first ducking, then sidestepping, then trying to obtain a surprise advantage by aiming a sweeping kick at Les’s feet. Les intercepts this, and he pushes himself into a slight jump just at the right moment, landing with his feet splayed and his arm jutting out in order to block another incoming punch.
“Excellent!” exclaims Walter. “Keep it up!”
Les is amazed at how natural this seems. He hangs back a bit, allowing Walter to set the pace and tone of the spar, and soon enough he has fallen into a rhythm that allows him to match the instructor’s skill almost effortlessly. It isn’t a complete success, because none of his blows find their mark, but Walter isn’t getting the upper hand either. Caught in a perpetual stalemate, they move as if performing a frenzied dance, or a ritualistic territorial display.
Finally, Walter dodges a kick to the knee, using his momentum to propel himself out of Les’s reach. “All right, that’s enough for a first run.”
Les straightens up. His heart is throbbing fast, but he’s barely even breathing hard. Of course, even non-modified imps have unusually high stamina by a human’s standards.
“You’re good, Les,” observes Walter. “You’re very, very good. You shouldn’t be hard to train at all.”
“Thanks,” answers Les.
“Now, why don’t you take a break so that I can get your second-in-command up here and assess her?”
Les nods obediently and retreats back into the ranks of Squadron 3. The imps are once again abuzz, whispering to each other animatedly, their excitement renewed. Ema heads to the front, intentionally brushing against his shoulder as she passes, flashing him a quick smile. He gives her the thumbs-up.
“Ema, I think I’ll put you against one of the other Uniters. That way I can give pointers and directions while the two of you are fighting.”
“That’s a good idea,” says Ema. “Who wants to spar with me?”
A forest of hands is promptly thrust into the air, some flopping reluctantly, others sure and straight. Les notices that Lai in particular is vying to be selected, for she has pushed herself up on the tips of her toes, and her entire body is drawn more tightly than a bowstring. Ema must have seen this too, because she calls out, “How about you, Lai?”
The other hands descend, and Lai happily trots up to her friend, glancing behind her to ensure that she has attracted everyone’s eyes. It’s funny, Les reflects, that Lai enjoys being the center of attention so much, despite her usual loner tendencies. Being trapped inside a crowd makes her flustered and anxious, but being in front of a crowd fills her with an exhilaration that bars out even stage fright.
Of course, that’s probably because she rarely seems to feel any kind of extreme emotion. Les can count on one hand the number of times he’s seen her stir from her usual aloof smugness.
That’s certainly her mindset now as she and Ema angle themselves to face each other. Walter moves back into the basic stance, modeling it for them. Ema copies his posture exactly, and initially Lai does too, but then she inches one foot back farther after a moment of consideration.
“Ms. Lai, you’re out of stance,” Walter tells her.
“I know that,” she responds. “But I feel more comfortable this way.”
“Don’t argue with the trainer, Lai,” says Ema crossly, but Walter cuts her off.
“It’s all right,” he assures her. “Doing a little bit of experimenting is fine. This line of work is less about perfection and more about survival. Now, go ahead and spar. I want to see how this pans out.”
Ema nods and turns back to Lai, whose muscles seem to have petrified. Only her eyes still circle around the Arena, and even their movements are slight at best. Ema waits for her opponent to make the first move, and when no attack comes, she drives her fist forward in a well aimed punch.
And suddenly Lai is gone.
Les blinks as Lai drops into a low crouch, her modified stance allowing her to brace herself as she goes parallel to the ground. Ema jerks herself to a standstill, her own momentum dragging her forward by a fraction of a stumbling step. In this moment of unsteadiness, Lai springs up and delivers a swift kick to Ema’s hip.
Ema releases a shout and drops to one knee, grasping the injury. The Uniters’ voices swell as everyone contributes their opinion. “Hey, that wasn’t fair!” “Was that valid?” “Can she even do that?”
“Of course she can do that!” proclaims Walter. “You can’t act civilized when you’re fighting the ILG. They’ve already established that they don’t follow the rules. But for training purposes, I think it would be in your best interests to not kill each other.” He glances down at Lai. “Save it for the combat dummies, please.”
“Sorry, Ema,” says Lai, her lips forming their perpetual subdued smirk.
Les shakes his head, marveling at the fact that someone like Lai could have a flair for violence. He doesn’t know what’s to come, but he does know that whatever happens today is going to set the pace and tone of the upcoming conflict.
The war has nearly begun.