It has been one month since Howard Prophit made Jaxon Teaque a proper and official Equalizer with BEAM's AvA (Anomaly vs. Anomaly) department. He's barely spoken to his partner Charlie in that time. They're supposed to be skirmishing daily. They're not. And Charlie is not particularly fond of people wasting her time...perhaps a task just boring enough to force them to talk is exactly what their partnership needs to get going.
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The contents of this episode were 100% written by me, MJ Dooney. I did use AI created voice filters, but any likeness to a real person was NOT intended. I would one day love to do this with proper voice acting, but currently lack the resources (and/or connections) to do that with fidelity.
There was a lot of stuff I hated. I hated people who were late: punctuality came naturally with near instantaneous grouping. I hated people who whined too much or talked to much or breathed with their mouths, people with an overabundance of friendliness…most people I guess, really. I was generally easy to annoy. But above all else, I hated it when somebody wasted my time.
Two hours of skirmish with Jaxon—it had been written into my schedule every single day for the last month. Ever since the day he got here, signed on to be an Equalizer, I was supposed to spend two whole hours fighting him to test his combat skills, get him working on the instincts he’d need once he actually got into the real gritty fieldwork stuff. And every single one of those skirmishes, thirty-one straight from the day he showed up, had been canceled.
It would have been one thing if I ever got any warning of it. Guess I should have started just assuming they weren’t happening, because every time it was the same thing: I would group to HQ, on at least one occasion smack dab in the middle of a pursuit, find Jaxon, always in the same place—Phyl’s lab running some test or something. I’d tell Phyl it was my time, he’d absent-mindedly hand me some slip of paper signed by Murphy or Howie or even both saying our skirmish was off, and I’d exhaust my limited willpower and self-control not hitting him on the spot. Then the next two hours I’d sit around idly, because it was too late notice to do something else productive.
Needless to say, I was done. When I grouped into Phyl’s lab, and he instinctively reached that slip of paper over his head to me, telling me yet another two-hour block had been vacated in my agenda, I finally resorted to physical action to get my grievances heard. I grabbed Phyl by the shoulders and wheeled him away from the computer he was sitting at, diligently mashing a single key every five to ten seconds.
“Charlie!” he whined, wiping off the tears in his eyes from not blinking enough and staring at a monitor for however long he had been, “C’mon, let go! We gotta finish this!”
He pointed to a sealed off glass chamber about ten feet in front of him, in which sat Jaxon, holding an exasperated forehead with one hand, while the other clenched and unclenched into a fist, squeezing little chunks of various compounds hovering in front of him, crushing them, discarding them, then waiting for Phyl to slide the next one in. When a new sample didn’t come, he looked up hopefully, probably wishing the ordeal was finished. He waved and smiled, exhaustedly, and I leaned in to the microphone next to Phyl’s computer, “Take five, JT. I gotta talk to Phyl.”
I spun around and crossed my arms, my little green friend still fuming that I’d interrupted his clearly riveting research. I waited for Jaxon to get in the elevator before I spoke, “You know what today is, Phyl?”
“It’s Jaxon’s one-month anniversary. He’s been with BEAM one month today.”
“Oh! Hey, how ‘bout that! What is there like…a cake or something? Yeah, alright, we can pause for cake, sure.”
“Phyl, talk less. There’s no cake, you jackass. Do you realize that in thirty-one of thirty-one days, during the two-hour block I have set aside to skirmish with him, every single day for a month, you’ve kept him in this lab running tests?”
“Yes. Trust me, I know; you have no idea how far behind I am on literally every one of my other projects. I haven’t charged the back-up gens in three weeks, Charlie. We are a bolt of lightning and a power outage away from a mass breakout in the Dungeons.”
“Oh come on, Phyl, that wouldn’t be so bad for you. You could see your old man! Everyone loves a little family reunion.”
Phyl was one of the several genetic experiments of Doctor Kovorski, the same guy who popped my brain out back when I started. His “father” currently resided in our subterranean Dungeons after we busted him a month ago. I liked to remind Phyl of his shitbag daddy whenever he got too annoying, which was frequent.
He grimaced, rolling his chin from side to side, massaging his temples. “Right. In any case, Papa Kovorski would be the least of our problems if that happened. Big Purple’s still down there.”
“I could kill Big Purple,” I coldly insisted, fingering Guillermo on my hip.
He shuddered, and tried to change subjects, “Incidentally, I wonder if he’s ever stopped to appreciate the irony. My dad, that is. He built an ultra-efficient, living solar panel, gives it to BEAM to look the other way, and two years later I’m the power source that runs the facility in which he’s imprisoned. It’s like…a sword smith getting stabbed by his own sword or a guy accidentally grabbing the cup he poisoned, or something.”
“Not sure that’s actual irony,” it seemed like the right thing to say to indicate I was listening, but didn’t actually care about what he was saying. Who really understands what irony is anyway? “My point is you need to share Jaxon with me. I’m sure he’s fun for scientific reasons or whatever, but I’m getting real sick of sitting around from two to four every fucking day not skirmishing. Besides, one month later, what could you possibly still be learning?”
“Oh, buckets of stuff!” He gushed, and I groaned too softly for him to hear. “You would not believe the discoveries I’ve made about how he does it…the telekinesis that is. Uh, just a sec, actually,” he overzealously grabbed a stack of papers. He had this tendency to need his research data right on hand as a security blanket prop before he explained anything—even though usually he’d make zero reference to it anyway. Phyl opened his mouth to get into it, but paused momentarily, “How…is your knowledge of particle physics?”
I narrowed my eyes and glared at him with as much disdainful exasperation as I could work up, which tended to be quite a bit. “Tepid.” I finally responded.
“Uh…right. Sorry. Anyways, so, basically there are the four fundamental forces of nature, right? There’s the weak and strong nuclear forces, then gravity and electromagnetism. And each of these forces are, theoretically anyway, carried out by some virtual force carrier particle. Nobody’s found the one for gravity yet, we speculatively call them gravitons. But then there’s W and Z bosons for the weak force, gluons for the strong force and photons for electromagnetism.”
“My attention span has like four seconds left,” I warned him calmly.
“Right, sure. Anyway, I wasn’t really thinking he was controlling any of these forces. But just to be thorough, I ran some tests anyway. And in a sense I was right: it’s not one of the four forces. Except it’s a new one, a completely new fundamental interaction of nature that he controls—one as of yet undiscovered.”
“A fifth fundamental force?”
He nodded, “Yep. He’s so strong, Shayde, when you get him beyond his natural human inhibitions and really push him, it’s downright terrifying! Getting stronger too! See, look here, just in this month he’s almost tripled his output on…”
“Phyl, I mean…I’m not saying you’re wrong? But wouldn’t someone have seen this before? Somewhere? A fifth fundamental force doesn’t seem like the sort of thing physicists would just miss, not notice for decades.”
“Mm! But it is! They never could have found it; nobody else ever will find it! Because the force carrier particle, the gluon or photon or graviton for this new fundamental force, it didn’t exist until he showed up! He generates the force carrier, Charlie; he physically creates the particles from the cells all over his body and then just…emits them, radiates them out and destroys them, when and how he sees fit! Jaxon controls the whole particle field. The new force—I’ve been calling it the Teaquic Interaction, by the way—but Teaquic Interactions didn’t even occur until he started filling up the universe with the bosons to mediate it! And I’m calling those Jaxons. Get it? Photons, gluons, Jaxons?”
“Uh huh,” I scoffed with palpable sarcasm. “I do get it, it’s just incredibly unfunny.”
“Hey, shut up, alright? I’m allowed to be corny; this is big shit here!”
He frowned just sadly enough to temporarily wear away my gruff exterior. I threw him a bone, “Yeah, as much as I love making fun of you, it really is. This is like…Nobel shit, right?”
He smirked, “Yeah, well. Probably. BEAM pays me better not to publish, though. Anyway, while I have you borderline intrigued, I’ve already started adapting the discovery into something. Check this out.”
He snatched a remote off his desk and pushed a big red button in the middle of it, and one of the garage doors along the walls of his lab began to lift up, revealing some sort of dunk tank looking thing. Big, acrylic cylinder, with all kinds of cords and gizmos hanging off of it, attached to some sort of computer module full of dials and switches and knobs. Phyl wheeled his chair over to it, peeling off his shirt, and grabbed one of the cords off the ground. He flicked a switch to open the panel in the ceiling above him, letting the sun shine onto his chloroplastic, green skin. There was a reason Phyl’s lab was on the top floor. He plugged the chord into his belly button—which had long ago been adapted by his father into the output jack for his proficient energy production—and the machine powered on. Phyl leaned over to the control panel, contorting his body so that most of it stayed in direct sunlight, as he turned some dials and flicked some switches, calibrating settings way outside my realm of comprehension or ability to give a shit. The plastic tube began to vibrate and whir, but was otherwise unchanged physically.
“Alright, ready?” He asked when he was finally satisfied and pulled a pen out of his pocket. He tossed the pen into the top of the cylinder and it fell about halfway down before bobbing back up to the center of the tube—suspended in midair. “I call it ‘the Catch.’”
He grinned at me like an idiot for a good ten seconds, and once it was clear I wasn’t biting, “You uh…you’re supposed to ask, ‘what’s the Catch?’”
Any sentimental pity I felt toward him a moment ago vanished in a flash as I snarled slightly. “I will not ask you that.”
He laughed, “No, but for real! It’s using the Teaquic Interaction to float the pen! I collected a thin layer of cells from Jaxon, made a biofilm on the bottom of the Catch, stimulated it with the right amount of energy, and boom! Granted, I can’t manipulate it or change it the way he can. The Jaxon fields he creates are incredibly dynamic and multidirectional; this one’s just straight up and down. But yeah! Imagine how valuable this thing could be in the field, catching falling Equalizers or bombs and what not.”
“Yeah, sure. You show it to Howie? I think it’s got military contract potential.”
“Heh, yeah it probably would. But they don’t have the energy source,” he blushed as he finished powering down the Catch and unplugging his belly button, shutting the sun hatch in the ceiling, putting his shirt on, and wheeling back next to me. “We’d have to package me with it.”
“It takes that much power?”
He nodded, “I can’t even come up with a battery to run it for any longer than a couple of seconds: the Catch drains them way too fast. Jaxons are so high energy, I myself am the only thing that will power their creation, even that’s too unstable to do anything more than straight up and down. His cells are literally running at my wattage, higher even. Any less and you couldn’t notice the effect at all.”
“Damn. I mean, if that’s the case, how is he generating the Jaxon field?” I ignored his wry smirk at me using his ridiculous nomenclature. “You’re telling me he’s putting out as much energy as you in full sunlight?”
“That I haven’t been able to figure out yet. I thought it had to be nuclear power, but I couldn’t find any plutonium reactors in special organs or anything like that. He puts out almost no heat; it’s not solar—he does it indoors no problem. I have honestly no idea where the energy is coming from.”
I shrugged, “Guess it doesn’t really matter.”
“Yeah, for now anyway. One more mystery for me to solve, somewhere down the line.”
Oh, shit, I had almost forgotten why I was there in the first place. “Yeah, way down the line, buddy. This is good stuff, but I really still think he needs some time actually learning how to fight!”
“Charlie, seriously. I would love nothing more than to release him to you. Like I said, there are about forty people in the building just looking for my signature, not to mention all the other shit I’m supposed to be doing. Howie insists I get through this entire catalogue, though. We’re very close, but he won’t let me quit until I’m done. And we’ve been doing it for a week!”
“Why is it so important?”
“New protocol for incoming AvA agents. I think he’s checking for holes in his coverage. Like if there’s some substance, or alloy, or polymer or whatever that the Teaquic Interaction doesn’t work on, Prophit wants it on record up here. I guess in case Jaxon goes Tanaka and we have to shoot him with something, this will tell us what our best option is.”
“Yeah, if we ever manage to leaf through the week of data to figure it out,” I scoffed, nodding at the stack of paper next to him.
“It’s basically the worst, most boring thing I’ve ever done,” Phyl sighed. “Push a button, Jaxon squeezes, computer records results, repeat. It’s driving me bonkers, honestly, the monotony.”
“Well, you said you’re almost done. I could power through it with him. Give you a break to run around and finish all your other shit.”
He cocked a perplexed eyebrow, “You’d do that for me?”
“No, I’m not doing it for you,” I roundly denied him. “I’ll do it because I can’t stand another two-hour gap in my schedule. You and…”
“Okay, awesome,” he interrupted, immediately accepting my offer and brushing up a stack of papers, examining them, discarding them, then grabbing another that was apparently the proper stack. “Yeah, you just mash that button every ten seconds until you finish the catalogue. Anyone could do it; you can’t mess it up. You don’t even need a brain.”
“Cute,” I rolled my eyes and shook my head. The brainless jokes were, by now, the oldest thing.
“Thanks again, Charlie,” he grunted as he bustled toward the door like I hadn’t said anything.
“Hey! Don’t thank me, you jackass. I told you, I’m not doing it for you!”
“Uh huh,” he distractedly returned, eyes swimming with some other task he was diligent to accomplish as he vanished behind the elevator doors. It was like something dawned on him in a moment and when it did, nothing else could divert him from it. Sort of typical of the way Phyl transfixed on things, and were we at all close, I may have asked him what it was that so immediately occupied him. The trouble was I didn’t care at all, and he wouldn’t have told me anyway, so I let him be, kicked my feet up and waited for Jaxon to return.
I had ulterior motives for helping Phyl that were a bit to awkward and personal to express out loud anyway, all of them concerning Jaxon Teaque. He’d been here a month, my colleague living literally one story away from me, and excluding pleasantries and nods as we brushed by each other in the halls, I’d said all of four words to him since I beat him up and tried to equalize him. This wasn’t abnormal—it was probably more civil and friendly than I was with ninety percent of the building. The trouble was Jaxon was in my department—he was an Equalizer in AvA and thus, we were eventually going to be partners someday. Whether I liked it or not, I begrudgingly had to make some bit of nice. And I was shit at that. Even if we had been skirmishing daily like we were supposed to, I’d imagine our interactions in the Arena would only strain our personal relationship. You know, kicking his ass and all. This was probably a good neutral chance to interact, even if it was a bit forced. Maybe forced cordiality was all I had in my wheelhouse at that point.
But like I mentioned before, I wasn’t exactly fond of people showing up late.
“Jesus, JT,” I scolded when the elevator doors spread apart and he shuffled back inside. “When I said take five, I meant five minutes.”
“Heh…yeah sorry,” he sheepishly made his way back to the seat of his monotonous torture chamber in front of my monitor, “I um…kind of got lost? I tend to do that a lot, actually. My sense of direction sucks, and this place is huge.”
“Sure,” I grumbled, utterly disinterested. Couldn’t relate—my sixth sense made it hard to get lost.
“Where’s Phyl?” he asked when it became clear I had nothing else to add.
I leaned into the microphone as the glass door shut behind him, and he popped his knuckles to get situated. “Gave him a breather, too. He had a bunch of other stuff to take care of around the building. Figured I could push this button as well as he could. Ready?”
“Nope,” he smirked, “But apparently it’s necessary to get through it, so…bring it on, I guess.”
We ran through about thirty-five of them without talking at all. Just button, crunch, button, the way Phyl was doing when I walked in. Couldn’t believe I had signed up for this, but it was better than sitting in my apartment, even if just barely so. And I was sure eventually he’d start talking if I waited long enough.
Guess I felt for him. I guess objectively BEAM HQ was a big building to navigate. True, Phyl’s lab was the only thing on the top floor, so it was just a matter of finding an elevator, but even that could be tough when you’re the new guy. It wasn’t like he could ask for directions too, what with the bizarre sort of individual who would voluntarily seek employment here. Half of them were flat out psychotic, the other half harboring some ingrained vendetta against Anomalies, working out their vengeance bureaucratically by pushing pencils and pretending they were a cog in the machine. Being that Jaxon was an Anomaly in a place that was working to get rid of them, I doubt anybody would be too keen on helping the guy out. I’d experienced it myself when I started here, but then I was a lot tougher than he was. And it wasn’t like they were intentionally giving him a rough time—he was still telekinetic, and therefore a little menacing. Worse yet, bullying would be to invite Howie’s retribution, given AvA was his whole master plan, Jaxon his prophecy of hope. Still, it was little stuff: I’d walked past the cafeteria a few times and caught a glimpse of him eating alone. Brought up some bad memories, high school and such. Shallow as they may have been, my sympathies went out to JT. And while I was not the kind of person who sought new friendships, it was still tough for me to watch him drown like that. Tough enough that I decided to try to chat first, throw him a life line so to speak.
Plus, if I had to pick a friend, he’d be the most tactically beneficial option.
“Bit of advice, JT?”
“Yeah! Sure, anything, I’d love to hear it! I’m…just kinda crushing chunks right now, but yeah what’s up?”
Coachable and eager, I reminded my pessimistic judge of character, not insecure and obnoxious.
“Stop using your hands.”
“Your hands. Every time you crush something or move something, you point at it or gesture how you want it to go.”
“Oh, heh,” he blushed a little, slapping his outstretched hand back to his lap, scratching his leg, “Yeah, I guess it helps me focus when I do it. Moving my hands around is a lot less foreign than just floating or crushing things by thinking it, I guess.”
“Well, right but it also tells me exactly what you’re going to do. Telegraphing your actions is really bad for fighting. I guess it’s fine for this, but I wouldn’t practice bad habits like that.”
“No, no, you’re right. Good tip. Thanks.”
Three more times, he silently crushed whatever was placed in front of him. He did it with his hands down, but he still sort of twitched and winked instead. For an astute opponent, this would be as much telegraphing as waving at it was. Baby steps, I supposed.
“God, this is boring,” he scrubbed his eyes a bit. “You remember doing this?”
“Nah. I didn’t do it.”
“Really? Phyl said it was standard protocol for AvA agents.”
“Yeah, apparently it is now. It wasn’t when I joined; there wasn’t even an AvA before me. So all of this logistical stuff, these ‘standard protocols,’ you’re kind of pioneering them. I got in with none of that.”
“Oh yeah, duh. Lucky you. How long ago was that, by the way? When you started?”
“Eh…two years ago? Give or take a month.”
“Hey, same as Phyl! Right?”
“Just about, yeah. I was a little before Phyl. His dad is the guy who took my brain out actually.”
“Really? Oh yeah! Howie told me a little about that the day we met, Doctor…something with a ‘K.’”
“Kovorski. But we actually call him Doctor K for short.”
“Hey, I’ve heard that around here, Doctor K. People seem all…dodgy about him. What’s up with that? You ever meet him? Kovorski, I mean.”
“You ask a lot of questions, buddy.”
“Sorry, sorry…I’ll shut up.” He blushed and averted his gaze to the floor, humbly crunching samples without his hands, at least to the best of his abilities. I sighed. Answering his questions was part of connecting, and he was pathetic enough to overcome my aversion to conversation.
“Yeah, I met Kovorski.”
“What’s he like?” his face lit up a bit as he raised it again. “I heard he’s crazy smart.”
“He’s crazy smart and smart crazy, you know? Like, it’s crazy how smart he is, but then also, he’s so smart it makes him seem crazy?”
“Why is everyone so anxious about him?”
“Because the freaks he’d pump out kept us in business for a while.”
“You mean like…he made Anomalies?”
“A factory,” I nodded, “and the worst, most dangerous atrocities—brutal fighters with the weirdest abilities, not like Phyl. I’m sure about half the monsters you saw BEAM bag on the news the last few years were Doctor K’s ‘children.’ He kept the general public scared shitless, though, which I guess was good for the cause, in a weird sort of way, right? Anyway yeah, we busted Doctor K maybe three days before you showed up. He’s chilling in the Dungeons now, right where he belongs.”
Jaxon frowned, “Why’d it take so long to get him? Was he just super elusive or…”
“Nope. He wasn’t hiding; we knew where he was the whole time. It just took that many Anomalistic incidents to overcome all the fucking bribery. I mean, between Phyl and me, Kovorski basically handed Howie a perfect energy source and his most potent Equalizer, you know? That was more than enough to make Howie ignore it while he constructed abominations and played God.”
“Hm…I didn’t take Howie for the type to accept a bribe from a dangerous person like that.”
I scoffed, “Howie? Yeah, dude, totally the bribable type. I mean, come on, he was a senator before they gave him BEAM. You can take the politician out of Congress, but you can’t take the Congress out of a politician, right?”
Jaxon frowned some more, obviously struggling through some false illusion about the type of man Howard Prophit really was. Idiot…but no, I had to remember to be nice. It was easy to get snowed by Howie. Super easy. Real smooth talker, and the best liar on the planet. I wanted to offer some condolences. Tell him I used to have that same illusion, tell him smarter people than both of us had bought his act, too, and that doing so didn’t make him a schmuck or anything. But then I also didn’t really want to keep talking about the Doctor K bust and was pretty sure he was a schmuck either way, so I opted just to let the topic die.
“Hands, JT,” I reminded him. His arm had lifted about six inches off of his thigh, and his fingers were again twitching with each crunch. “I know it’s tough, but trust me. You don’t wanna fight like that. I always used to turn and face the direction I wanted to group; it got me into more trouble than you’d believe.”
“Sorry, sorry…Hey, Charlie? Can I actually ask you something about grouping?”
More questions. At least we were talking. “Shoot.”
“How does it work? How do you like…do it?”
“Man, I dunno. I think about grouping and then I group. Does it matter? How does walking work? Your brain tells your legs to walk and they do.”
“Right, but when you walk your spinal cord isn’t particle dust. When you’re ungrouped, your brain can’t communicate with your body, so how do you piece it back together? All the radio paraphernalia on your nervous system, hell, your entire nervous system is gone! Right?”
“Huh! Yeah I guess so. Never thought about it too much. It sort of just happens, mostly instinctual at this point.”
“Maybe you control the sixth fundamental force. Shaydons, or something like that.”
I snorted, “Sure, JT. Maybe.”
“I’m sure Phyl could find out if you wanted to. He’s pretty good at this stuff, plus he has all the technology. He figured me out in a few days.”
“No thank you,” I sneered.
He seemed a bit taken aback. “Aren’t you a little curious?”
“Not curious enough to submit to this. All this stuff you’re doing here, all this crushing different things to find the gap in your coverage? Someone’s going to use this information to kill you one day. I’d rather have none of my weaknesses on record, even if it meant I don’t know exactly how I do what I do.”
“Yeah but wouldn’t it be beneficial to know your limits? What if you accidentally regroup into a wall or something?”
“That won’t happen.”
“Because, sixing. When I’m ungrouped my sixth sense is still intact. I know where I am, where my pieces are, exactly where they reassemble, because I can still six them.”
His eyes went wide with excitement, “That still works when you’re ungrouped? Can you see or hear?”
“No, dumbass, because I don’t have eyes or ears when I’m ungrouped. Sixing doesn’t have an organ it’s just…I innately know all the details of my body’s immediate surroundings, even in ungrouped particulate form. And I guess farther than right around me really, if I focus on it a lot for long enough. It gets stronger when I ungroup, too. Like how you hear better with your eyes closed, sensory deprivation or whatever. When I’m ungrouped, I six so clearly, it’s ridiculous.”
“What’s it like? Sixing, what’s it feel like?”
“Hmm…” I contemplated momentarily. “Hard to explain, really. Answering that is like trying to tell a blind guy what color is. I just kind of know the physical specifics of things—dimensions, locations, distances, where stuff is relative to other stuff, it’s just inherently in my brain, like a schematic. I guess it sort of feels like imagining it? Only I know all the stuff I’m imagining is real because…I sense it to be more real than my imagination. I dunno. Like I said, hard to explain. It just kind of works out I guess.”
“Cool,” he genuinely smiled, marveling at my half-committed explanation.
“I guess it is kind of cool,” I smiled back. “That’s why it’s impossible to sneak up on me. And why I don’t ever end up in walls. And how I know that you’re using your hands without looking up from the monitor.”
“Crap! Sorry again, I didn’t even realize. Hey, I’ll put them in my pockets, then I won’t be tempted, maybe. So Charlie, do you ever get nervous you’ll regroup yourself wrong? Inside out or forget your jugular vein or something like that?”
I shook my head, “Like I said, it’s pure instinct at this point. Kind of like when a master pianist plays a song so many times that he doesn’t even think about how he’s playing it, or like when an artist draws a perfect image of what she sees from memory. Those are amazing, flawless, spot-on reproductions of things dependent on weak perceptions like sight and hearing and touch. Sixing is so much deeper than that, so much more thorough. I have such an intricate, detailed, perfect impression of my body burned into my brain from sixing it for so long, subconsciously, I’d have to focus on intentionally messing it up to forget a piece or do something out of place.”
As he stroked his chin, deliberating over which direction to take the conversation next, for some reason it dawned on me how weird and rare it was for someone to take a genuine interest in my little idiosyncrasies without then wanting to utilize them as a means to some end. Typically by now some other asshole would have asked me to rob a bank for him, or spy on his ex-girlfriend or something. Jaxon had no ulterior motives; he just actually wanted to know. And it was kind of flattering that he’d obviously been thinking about the mechanics of what I did, wondering about these little issues, without some self-serving purpose beyond actual interest. Maybe that’s why I found myself answering his constant stream of inquiries so freely now. Normally when someone asked me this many questions, I’d brand them as annoying. Hell, I already kind of started to. But there was something so authentic about him and his curiosity, the way his face lit up like a little kid when he thought about how cool I was. I felt like I couldn’t squash it. Nobody had looked at me that way in a long time.
I actually…shit, I kinda liked him. And I didn’t like anyone, at least not right away. But damn it, I liked Jaxon Teaque after a few minutes of easy, random conversation without any specific justification for it.
“Alright so, I’ll buy that,” he excitedly proceeded with his investigation, “You’d probably been sixing yourself forever without really realizing it. It makes sense that by now your subliminal knowledge of yourself is good enough that you can just pop back together on raw instinct. But what about your gun and your clothes and stuff? You group all of that right along with your body. So can you basically group anything?”
“Theoretically, yeah. I mean, not just any random thing. Like I can ungroup just about anything and not put it back together again. There are two basic limits though. First of all, bigger things take me longer and whack out my body a little—nausea and numbness and just general gross feelings. I call it OGS: over-grouping syndrome. So there’s the OGS factor, and then the range. I can’t just ungroup a random, specific banana in Tanzania right now; I’d have to be touching it, ideally, at least be close to it or looking at it.
“As for actually grouping, like full process un- and re-grouping something, I’d have to spend some amount of time focusing on it intently, sixing it up and down, forward and backward, getting a perfect conceptualization of it to my brain so I could regroup it just by habit. I’ve tried doing random things, just out of the blue ungroup-regroup, and it never turns out quite right. It’d be like that pianist from before playing a piece by ear after hearing it one time. I have enough basic grouping talent to get it close, but I’m still prone to mistakes. Sometimes they aren’t pretty ones.
“Actually, it’s funny you mention clothes. When I first got my brain taken out, I could only group naked.” He abruptly glanced up from crunching a rock, some tungsten alloy, and accidentally pulverized it more emphatically than he’d intended. It popped really loudly, and he blushed beet red. I pretended not to notice, because it somewhat irked me, “It’s easier that way. Still is: less for my subconscious to keep track of. But once I sat down and sixed a set of clothes for a while, I figured out how to take them along for the ride. Used to be just this,” I stood up from the seat momentarily, removing my trench-coat to demonstrate my standard combat uniform—a sports bra and bike shorts. I caught him glaring at my exposed abs for a little too long for it to be considered polite, then growled, snatched the coat off the chair and tossed it back on before punching the button for the next sample. “And that’s exactly why I added the trench-coat.”
“Sorry,” he winced. “You’re uh…in amazing shape, Charlie.”
“Yeah, thanks,” I sneered.
“I really, honestly didn’t mean to stare,” he earnestly and sincerely apologized. “You caught me off guard a bit is all. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” I grunted, mostly wanting to get over it.
“No seriously,” he insisted, which almost annoyed me until he kept going. “I made you uncomfortable, that sucks. I’m not that guy. I don’t want you to think that I’m that guy.”
Somehow, I knew by the look in his eye he wouldn’t allow me to say anything else until he believed that I forgave him. It was naïve yet noble enough to squash any lingering distaste in my mouth. Again, I couldn’t put my finger on why he had this effect on me, this disarming ability to make me trust him so easily. But…I did. “It’s fine, JT, really. We’re good.”
“Yes,” I snapped, but quickly softened my tone. “At least you’re my age, right? It was much grosser when I was seventeen and thirty-somethings were fucking…ogling me.”
“That sounds awful,” he empathized so easily.
“Anyway,” I again tried to move us past it, although this time in admittedly better spirits. “I spent a few weeks sixing up this trench coat here, now it’s part of the uniform. It slows me down like crazy, but nobody’s quick enough to detect that difference but me. Took forever to work it into the grouping repertoire though, because I really hate it.”
“Why does that matter?”
“Sixing is just like any other sense, you know? You don’t look at things that are ugly or smell stuff that stinks. I six things I like, usually without realizing it. Take these boots: I love ‘em, so it only took a few days to work them into the grouping spiel. Guillermo took a few hours. But like, bullets, ugh. Bullets took me a month and a half to get right. Because who cares about a bullet? I’d just sit in my apartment, not sleeping or eating for days and nights, holding it in my hand sixing every angstrom of it. Then I’d ungroup it, regroup it all wonky and start over again. Worth it though, in the long run.”
“Well, that was the whole point. I spent so much time sixing my unfired bullets, I can shoot ‘em now and then group the pieces right back into Guillermo, fully assembled and prepped to fire again!”
“Yup. Unlimited ammo, given I don’t shoot something super far away and out of grouping range. Pretty useful.”
“Yeah, for real. So wait…if you can fire a bullet, ungroup the pieces and regroup it back to its original form, could you do that with anything? Like say you got wounded, could you regroup yourself to how you were before the wound?”
“Eh…technically? Probably? I wouldn’t ever try it though. If I screw up a bullet trying to regroup it, it’s just whatever, it’s a bullet, throw it out. Like I said, grouping my actual self works best when I leave it to instinct, my subconscious and such. Healing a wound would require too much concentration, too much cognizant thinking, and that’s when things get sketchy. Besides, between my sixth sense and my blazing speed, I don’t sustain too many injuries. So I regroup as I ungroup, for safety reasons. Don’t try to fiddle with changing stuff anymore.”
“What uh…what do you mean by anymore?”
“Oh yeah, heh,” I chuckled in slight embarrassment, “I…went through a reckless and stupid phase for a while, right after sexism and social pressure forced me to add the trench-coat, where I was always trying to modify my actual body in order to group less stuff, group faster. That’s why the locks. It goes a lot quicker when I’m not doing individual hairs like that. Can just kind of clump them up and let them fall however they do. I also um…took off my little toes and my pinky fingers?”
I wiggled a four-fingered hand in the air, “Faster without them. No fingernails or toenails, either. And no body hair! Don’t have to shave and shaved a full microsecond off my grouping time.”
“Holy crap. You did all that for a microsecond?”
“Yeah, like I said: stupid. I mean that’s just the external changes. Internally? I took out my appendix, six feet of intestines, a kidney, my spleen. And I’d forget to group closed an artery and get internal bleeds and have to sit in the Med wing while they worked it all out. Eventually I realized if I really got down into it and wanted to group faster, I could still lose the trench-coat in an emergency, you know? No need to risk my own health for a hundred millionths of a second.”
“Good call, I guess,” he shrugged, crushing the next sample and whipping it into the bin beside him.
I lazily slammed my fist into the button to bring in the next one, but nothing came. Upon a second and third press, still no new sample, and I glanced up to see the excitement stretch into a grin on his face. I chuckled, shaking my head as I tried to confirm on the computer screen that our catalogue was complete. There really wasn’t any sort of indicator, so I pushed the button about fourteen times rapid fire just to make sure. “Uh…I think that’s it, my friend.”
“Finally!” he declared, soaring off his stool and flipping in the air while I searched for the proper button to raise the glass. They weren’t labelled or anything, so I impatiently started pushing the biggest ones. The first one lowered his stool into the floor, the second just made a dinging noise like when you mash buttons on a computer. The third one deployed some sort of emergency chemical shower, drenching him in what was probably frigid cold water given the girly shriek he let out as he fell on his ass. I laughed in spite of myself. Then I realized the buttons actually were labeled on a little panel to the left of them.
“Oops,” I uttered to myself as I located the one for the glass. The water shut off as the capsule started lifting, and he found his way to a seated position, drenched and sputtering.
“There we go!” I ignored his stupefied, wet condition. “Congrats, you’re done! We’ll start actually fighting tomorrow, then.”
I got up, and at first I was going to just leave, even got as far as turning my back to him. But strangely, I felt this urge in the pit of my stomach, this bizarre desire to continue our interaction. Conveniently, he called out to me, “Wait, Charlie! One more question. What about a person. If you sixed them for a long time, could you group another person?”
“Probably could,” I shrugged, turning to face him. “But again, I’d never try it.”
“People are a hell of a lot more complex than boots and guns. It took me seventeen years before I grouped the first time, and even then I was scared as hell. I wouldn’t subject somebody else to it. Even if I ever found someone who actually trusted me not to mess up.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Not at all.”
“Then I’d trust you,” he smiled earnestly, still dripping wet and shivering.
“Ha! You don’t even know me, JT.”
The worst part was I believed him. He totally would trust me, after that fifteen-minute conversation. I wouldn’t let him hold my wallet; he’d let me tear his body down to molecular dust and try to piece it back together again. I both respected and envied his capacity to see the good in people. But I was also terrified for him and how somebody with that capacity would play out in an organization like BEAM. Good people didn’t cope here, at least not forever. I’d seen it before, and it ended pretty tragically. Jaxon Teaque would need someone to watch his back, someone he could rely on to keep him from getting hurt or hurting himself.
Me? Why the hell not. I already liked him more than most people here anyway. Maybe it’d be a good distraction. Maybe it’d be just the subtlest twinge of atonement.
“C’mon, you hungry? Let’s get some dinner; I’m starving. Could use the company.”