They Are the Tide
Tash McAdam © 2019
All Rights Reserved
Sometimes I think all I have ever done is hide.
I hid in the Institute, shielding my memories, my soul from those who wanted to take it from me. Now I hide here, from those who want to help me. They want to help me, but they’re also afraid of me. I had a reputation before I was “saved.” Their thoughts call me “the Hunter.” Even though they try to cover them, I catch their fear and distrust echoing in the air all around me, and in the slant-eyed gazes they throw at me. They don’t know I can still hear them. I’ve always been stronger than people predict. I understand why they feel this way, but it burns me still. So, I avoid them as best I can.
I’m sitting alone in the lush garden that circles the new ARC headquarters. It’s beautiful here, a swathe of luscious green studded with vivid color, trees and flowers in carefully designed paths that lead around a low-slung, glittering white building. The whole area is sheltered with cunningly joined transparent sheets that filter out the worst of the dangerous sun. If you squint, you can see the shape of them, hexagon upon hexagon, tessellated together. Last week they were tinted dark for the brutal summer months, now they’re clear and nigh-on invisible. This used to be the Governor’s house, but he fled during the fall of the Institute and took a lot of the military police with him, leaving the city reeling. ARC stepped in, stepped up, tried to retain normalcy, but the shiny surface of city life has worn thin. The power vacuum caused by the disappearance of most of the higher-ups is exacerbated by the growing discontent of the township peoples. Without the Institute dampening them down, hunting for the worst of the malcontents, the slums are rumbling, and the people of the city are frightened and confused.
Several of the factories that produce luxury items for the Citizens have gone on strike, the poor workers no longer numbed to the imbalances in their lives. ARC has worked in secrecy for so long they don’t know how to take charge like this. There’s no direction, and that is frightening. Shivering, I turn my thoughts away from such darkness, and I look up into the bright-blue sky.
I can’t get enough of being outside. Simply sitting in the air is still incredible to me. Several nights I’ve been woken by Toby or Darcy shaking me gently, urging me to go inside to escape the heavy chill of the night. I don’t have nightmares when I’m outdoors. I seem to have developed a sort of claustrophobia that makes me edgy and jumpy when in a closed environment. Strange, when I lived below ground for years, to think that now I’m free, the walls press on me.
It’s been two months since I tried to kill Cassandra. Looked her in the eye and stopped her heart inside her chest but failed to end her. My thought-blind brother carried me out of the wreckage of the Institute, not knowing what he couldn’t see. That she didn’t die, not really. I bear her with me, a nebulous tumor nestling in the secret place that was once my salvation. The bunker I built to save my memories from the Tank, from the wipes that would remove my personality and feelings. She hides in there; I know it. For two months I’ve fought her for possession of my mind, control of my body. The fear is with me, always, but it lessens when I’m outside. I like to sit under the apple trees most of all. The fresh, sharp smell permeates the air, and I fill my lungs until it feels like they must burst from the strain. The filtered sunlight bathes me, trickles honey warm down my spine and soothes my troubles until I can almost forget them.
But no one here wants to forget what I’ve done. The few people who I don’t feel the need to hide from are Toby’s personal group of close friends. They accept me as he did, unquestioningly. Their shields are strong enough that I don’t get inundated with their private thoughts against my wishes, and their open faces tell me they trust me not to pry. That trust is an incredible thing. It feels tangible. I treasure it, as though I can cup it in my palms and feel a tiny heartbeat. The smallest act could snuff it out. I keep the tightest lock on my powers possible. Awareness of that trust helps me control myself and win the fight that always tears at the back of my mind.
Darcy is my favorite. There’s something about her that soothes me. She’s so calm and accepting. In a strange way I feel mothered by her. She always checks in on me, makes sure I’m managing but never makes me feel like I’m not enough, not trying hard enough or being normal enough. She doesn’t mind that I’m quiet. Sometimes she’ll come to sit with me and draw while I think. I love watching her draw, watching a thick black line roll over a blank screen and seeing pictures come alive.
I’ve tried to draw. I’m able to produce accurate technical sketches, one of the many skills the Institute has written through the core of me—regardless of any innate ability—but I don’t know how to take what I see of beauty and translate it into an image. My drawings are dead. And really, it’s the stillness of Darcy’s consciousness when she draws that I envy. I want to find the thing that stills me, settles my heaving insides. There must be something. My brother doesn’t rage inside as I do. Which is a blessing, I suppose. If he did, with his power, everyone would feel it. We’d probably die from it.
Toby is… Toby is Toby. His naiveté often dazzles me. His shields are firm for the most part, having pinned them down, knowing how dangerous it is to be open, but he still projects this aura of hope, of trust. He believes that people are good, and pure, and they all deserve to be safe and happy. He’s been so untouched by loss, disregarding the past year of his life, that he’s still untarnished by the harshness of existence. As well, being unable to read protects him from the more bitter realities of what lies below the surface. It’s a beautiful thing, and I know I’ll do anything to protect that in him. Not a day goes by when I don’t regret my choice. Not Cassandra’s death itself; the woman was, and is, a poison. Now one that seeps inside me, which I believe is better for the world. I regret the innocence I took from my brother, and the price I pay is for that.
My penance is clear; carry Cassandra inside me and never, ever set her free from the prison she is trapped in. Never allow her to take hold of me, or find a way out. I’m her jailer as she once was mine. It seems like a fair trade.
The soft material of my shirt scratches the short hair at the nape of my neck, tickling, and I rub it for a moment, allowing my thoughts to drift across to the training rooms where I know most people will be at this hour. Toby and his friends. I like them well enough, but I find Serena too loud and abrasive to spend long periods of time with; she grates on me, although I know she means well. She’s an explosion of energy and sound, too wild to contain. I’m happy for her swift recovery, and grateful she’s around, but she sets my teeth on edge. Too much, too friendly, too loud. As for Jake, who seems to think himself my honorary brother, he has more energy than I know what to do with. He’s fascinated by the Institute, and asks me questions all the time, which wears me down. He’s become good friends with Damon, Gamma 26, the little boy I pulled back from a coma.
In a strange twist of events, Damon turned out to be Serena’s half brother. I get the story in bits and pieces, coded thoughts and sentences. Damon was taken when he was just five years old. They had him for five years, and he’ll never get those memories back. Not that he’d want them. I know Serena is working with India and Oman to reconstruct his memories of the time before he was taken. I can’t help but feel a little jealous that for him there was a before. For me, my everything has been the Institute. Sharing Toby’s life may have saved my mind, but it’s not the same as a real past.
Damon still seeks me out, preferring my quietness over the edgy energy of ARC, but less and less as he settles in. I like spending time with him, when he wants to be silent together. I think that alone cemented me on Serena’s “team” as she describes it. There is a level of “debt” that ties me to this strange family, but the harnesses don’t sit comfortably on my thin shoulders.
At least I can go where I want to. I’m sure I could even leave, if I chose. For now, here, I’ve taken to spending a lot of time with Kion, one of ARC’s operatives, a quiet, accented man in his midtwenties or thereabouts. He was born in the deadlands and recruited to ARC after an Institute team tried to take him in from the townships, not realizing that—as well as being a powerful telepath—he made his income by street fighting, or that he had a loyal gang of friends who weren’t going to stand by as he was dragged into a hovering elec-car. He’s an interesting guy, the sort who doesn’t say a lot, but when he does, it’s worth putting credit on. He’s been teaching me self-defense and helping me put together a training regime. It’s working pretty well. Regular exercise combined with endless amounts of food have made me unrecognizable as the birdlike human who once lived underground. I have curves and swells of muscle where before only nubs of bone and stringy tendons were visible. My skin has darkened, no longer looking gray and thin, and my hair has grown in, to the extent that my Institute tattoos are hidden. I like to run my fingers through it, but I can’t deal with hair longer than an inch or so yet. It makes me feel panicky and off balance, but I’m working on it.
As I sit, comfortable on an ancient and worn marble bench, I swing my feet and contemplate my outfit. I’ve taken to wearing smooth and slinky UV proof cloth, it’s a little shiny and feels luxurious against my skin. My shirt is blue with a raised collar snug around my throat and long sleeves that I can tuck my hands inside. I have a nanofiber-reinforced vest over it, white, to reject the heat from the sun. It’s stab proof, and quite expensive. A present from Serena. She left it on my bed without a message, but the days I spent tracking her essence have tuned me to her. I knew who it was from as soon as I touched the ridged material, and she didn’t go to great lengths to conceal it. My trousers are standard issue combat style, meaning they have dozens of pockets to keep things secreted away. I like to keep my possessions on me. Having things that belong to me is so unreal I hate leaving them anywhere. In my left hip pocket, my datapad is snug against my thigh, my Ident and credit card are tucked into the side of my waistband. A heavy-duty combat knife with a sharp blade and a ridged section for sawing through things is locked into its sheath on my right thigh. The blade is impossible to remove from the black aluminum casing without my thumbprint on the hilt, making it a secure weapon to carry without fear of it being lost or stolen. I trail my fingers down its spine.
Toby hates that I carry a knife, but he has no idea what it’s like to be helpless. It’s ironic that he feels that way, as he himself is a weapon more powerful than any I could carry. I’m getting stronger, faster, better at squirming away from Kion’s tight grips and locks, but I’ll never be powerful. And I would rather die than be captured again. Cassandra whispers that if only I would take Toby’s power, stream it out of him and fill myself to the brim, then I’d never have to be afraid of anything again, not even her. I could use that power to expel her into the nothing space, she murmurs happily, tormenting me. I crush her down as best I can, distracting myself with the rebellion and training.
According to Sander, ARC’s computer tech, there are descriptions and files on all of us floating around the other Cities. We’re wanted terrorists. They’ve yet to mount a full-on assault, but we’ve been dealing with attempted infiltrations and several stealth attacks. My file says I should be brought in at all costs. No harm to come to me. The knife on my hip will stop that from happening, if ever it comes to it.
The sharp scuff of leaves crunching on my left breaks me out of my idle thoughts, and I turn to see who’s approaching. Jake is hovering off the ground, running and flipping over in random directions; he looks like a floating gymnast. Damon tries to evade him, scurrying backward on his hands and feet with a wide grin on his face. Jake whoops and waves at me before diving toward Damon and for a moment they’re just a blur of ridiculousness and laughter. A smile creeps over my face watching them. Damon seems to have recovered well from the ordeal of the Institute. Oman and India have been working themselves into the ground with all the sheep they pulled out, and most of them are doing okay. They’ve lost the empty, vacant look completely, and they squeal and run and act much like the kids who grew up the normal way. They’ll never get their memories back, but who would want them? Now they can build new ones, start fresh. They don’t need to know what a bone saw drilling into their temple feels like. No one does.
I’m an exception, I suppose. My memories haven’t been blotted from me, so I can’t just move on from them. If I didn’t remember, though, who knows if Toby and I would have connected the way we did? We could have both died down there, with all of the others. Trapped. I give a mental shrug and lean against the cool stone of the bench, pulling my legs up underneath me and enjoying watching the children messing around. Totally worth it. I’m managing, after all.
As I watch, the distinctive, stocky figure of Kion appears from around the side of the building. He zeroes in on me and raises a hand; he has a large bag slung across his broad shoulders and I know what that means. I slide off my bench and pad across the grass to meet him.
“Hey, Thea. How’s it?” My new name sits awkwardly in my ears, still. I chose it myself, after reading a book of ancient myths. I haven’t told anyone the origin, but sometimes I whisper it to myself. Prometheus, eternally punished for stealing fire from the Gods. In some myths Hercules saves him. Someone could still save me. Taking a mythological name, in the style of the Institute, might feel odd to the others, but it makes sense to me.
Kion watches me with a gentle expression. His gravelly voice always makes me laugh. He’s two inches taller than I am and has an open boyish face, teeth flashing white against his dark skin. He’s about three times as wide as me, though, and he speaks calmly and sparsely. He reminds me of the images I’ve seen of bears, soft-looking but with immense amounts of power and an aura of danger. He rakes his banded dreadlocks out of his face and grins at me.
“Hey, Kion. Can’t complain. Just watching the monsters.” I jerk my chin at Jake and Damon who are sprawled in the grass poking each other in the face for no reason other than that they’re young.
He grunts, squinting at the wriggling forms, and gestures toward the low outbuilding that has been turned into a training area, and I nod in agreement.
We try to train every other day at least, but Kion often has to go out on missions, and I work with Marty or Serena instead. Marty is still raw with grief over his partner’s death, his face so stark sometimes I can’t stand to look at him. He doesn’t say much, but he’s a good trainer, patient and skilled. Serena and I don’t click so well; she likes to banter and chat while I prefer to focus and stay quiet, which makes her uncomfortable, and in turn she talks more, making me shut down even further. She knows a lot about fighting, though, even if the way she uses her power will never be something I can do.
Kion’s the best. I don’t know why he’s training me—he has much better things to do as he’s the head of the ARC operations branch—but I don’t ask him ’cause he’d just grunt in response. I never realized how expressive a grunt could be until I met him. I’ve started counting them and giving them numbers. I might print a translation guide for people.
We amble in companionable silence over toward the training rooms, and I once again marvel at the efficiency of the ARC personnel. They train people to shield in a different way than the Institute does. For a start, there’s no punishment if you lose concentration and drop your shield, so the fear factor is absent. The minds here are ordered and closed down, as a general rule. I still pick up a lot of stray thoughts and feelings, but when I lock myself down, which is nearly all the time now, I get to relax in the privacy of my own mind, without others intruding. A lot of the people here don’t seem to believe that I’m not sifting them, but that’s fine. I don’t need a lot of friends, or any, maybe. I’m happy to just be left alone. I prefer the still quiet.
We slide the heavy door open, Kion with telekinesis, me with my bare hands, new calluses scraping on the metal, and head into the large room. There are changing areas at either end, but Kion insists we train in whatever we’re wearing and change into clean clothes after. He’s told me time and again it’s no good learning to fight in tight-fitting operative clothes if you’re not going to be wearing them.
I smile at the men and women who are already training. Jamal is pummeling a heavy bag in a corner while Zeb holds it in place, and Grace is running wind sprints down the edge; all of them spare a momentary sign of acknowledgement for me. There’s a few others scattered around, working weights or training in pairs on the floor mats. A loud drop makes me wince on behalf of Daine, a skinny blond guy who’s just been slammed to the ground by Ria, one of the female soldiers. She’s one of those people who look pretty thin and fragile until you see her without long sleeves and realize every inch of her is rock-hard. Also, she’s a fierce Projector, which helps even the scales in terms of strength.
When I train with Kion, it’s always a battle not to draw on Toby’s power to help me, but I’m trying not to do that. It still happens when I get scared or lose my focus from pain. Johan has been very clear in our meditation and shield-building sessions about the negative effects of drawing Toby’s power out of him. He might be bursting with it, have so much he doesn’t even notice me pulling a little off, but if I take too much, I could kill him. Also, if I’m reliant on that connection between us, if I ever can’t access it, from distance or something, I might panic and not know how to handle myself without that crutch. I’m not sure I believe him, but the fact that Cassandra seems to think taking his power is a good idea is enough to put me off.
Kion heads to a free floor pad and begins loosening up, expecting me to follow suit without any idle conversation. One of the reasons I like spending time with him so much; there’s no unnecessary chatter. I’m unused to small talk, and the social nuances escape me. I often end up fumbling for words and find myself hot and uncomfortable. Another interesting fact I had no idea about. I’ve never been in a position to experience social embarrassment before, but it turns out both Toby and I blush easily and far more often than either of us would prefer.
We stretch out for fifteen minutes, warming our muscles and then Kion turns to face me, bouncing on the balls of his feet. I take a deep breath and find my center of balance, bending my knees and lifting my hands. Sometimes we wrap our hands up, which means we’re focusing on hitting, but on days like this, when we’re just facing off, it means grappling and holds.
Two of the male operatives stop working out on weights and start shaking their muscles out, watching with interest. It’s become a sort of running joke that Kion and I fight pretty brutally. The Institute unarmed combat lessons focus on pressure points, and I have been drilled in them over and over. I asked him early on not to go easy on me because I’m weak and not a Projector. The enemy won’t, so I need to learn to react properly. My training is for war, not for fun or because I have to. He tries not to break my bones, but it’s a rare day for me to leave without some nasty bruises.
He feints left and then comes in hard for a leg sweep. I read it on him, a split second before it would have been too late, and lift my foot, aiming a wicked stamp down toward his knee. He reacts fast, sliding a little on his braced foot so my strike bounces off the rubbery muscle of his thigh. It won’t have hurt him. I don’t have enough power to damage a full grown man unless I hit a delicate point. Elbows, knees, throat, eyes, groin, feet, wrist locks and arm locks. Kidneys. A strike to the nose will slow down someone untrained, but a soldier will walk right through a broken nose. I’ve seen Kion shake off blows that would have landed me in the hospital with cracked ribs. It’s physiology, not something I can change except by building more muscle where I can. My main advantage in fights is my reading of intent, and that’s what I concentrate on. Sometimes Kion makes me fight him blindfolded to work on that, perception of surroundings, blind vision, they call it. A Reader as strong as me should develop accurate 3-D awareness that Projectors just can’t match. I should be able to fight in the pitch dark, if necessary.
I jump back, fast, avoiding the follow-up. Another thing I have learned is he’ll strike back immediately, so don’t back off—it cedes the advantage, lets the opponent dictate the pace of the fight. I wait again, my fight is reaction not aggression. I use his movements against him, his weight and power my advantage. He grins at me, eyes narrowed in mock anger. He flows forward again, moving as smooth as oil.
When Kion fights with other people, he uses his Projector strength. In training fights we don’t use our power to hammer our blows harder, as we’d just injure our opponents all the time. We use it to drag their feet out, trick them into blocking a ghost blow, hit in dozens of places at once so they have to shield their whole bodies. Kion likes sparring with me because it makes him “inventive.” He can’t simply cycle through dozens of well-practiced sets of movements, designed to complement one another. As I read his intent, I know where he will be exposed, where I can slide an open hand in, jabbing my stiff fingers into his kidneys. I know the split-second moment his throat will be exposed. With me, Kion has to fight without thinking, which is something strange to him.
I slip away from him, my hands hovering in a guard in front of me. My technical skills are still developing, and reading Kion’s subconscious analysis of my stances and guard provides me with better information than just being told. I feel him clocking the three-inch gap behind my left elbow, where a swift roundhouse kick will knock the wind out of me, and tighten my guard. He grins wryly, acknowledging it. His hand snakes forward in a lightning-fast jab toward my nose, but I’m ready, and I block it with a butterfly grip, pulling him off balance and slamming my knee into his ribs and following with a double fist to the meat of his arm, knocking him off balance and giving me space. Then I back off fast. He’s too dangerous to try to chase down unless I strike a crippling blow that will put him on the floor.
He tensed his muscles in time to take some of the power out of the hit, but I have bony knees and a double blow from my hands is pretty hard. He’s thinking, ruefully, that he’ll have some bruises. His thoughts skitter through moves, trying to hide his intent as he comes at me again, and I miscalculate, falling for a feint and taking a powerful fist to my solar plexus for my trouble. I go down, gasping for air that doesn’t exist. The fight is won, but Kion is not smug as he crouches down to check on me. He always worries he’ll hit me too hard. But I want to learn to fight through it. There are worse things than pain. I’m sure that’s the only way I can ever be a successful fighter.
My lungs spasm uselessly before he thwaps me on the back, shocking my body back into breathing. The air burns my throat, and I hack a few times before collapsing onto the mats and smiling up at him.
“Ugh. I hate you.” The more time I spend with Toby and Serena, the more I start to speak like them. He grins and flicks his hair back. He’s not even sweating properly; our fight lasted less than a minute. My aim is to stay viable for three, but I’m nowhere near being able to hold him off for that long.
“You’re still falling for feints.” His voice is mellow and non-accusatory as he helps me up.
“Yeah, well. Usually people aren’t trying to lie to me and hit me at the same time.” I find my feet and shrug. I’ve got a lot to learn, but training every day is helping in a myriad of ways. Cassandra even remains quiet while I’m fighting. I don’t know if she feels the pains of my body, but she doesn’t seem to want to distract me into getting punched more than necessary.
I rub my upper stomach and wince as I feel the swollen heat beneath my skin. The corner of Kion’s mouth dimples, the closest he’ll ever get to gloating, and he chucks me on the shoulder affectionately.
“Stretch, then light weights.” He means “Go and do a proper cool down. I’ll see you later,” and I grin at him, heading for the weights area, before starting to stretch my body out so my muscles don’t cramp.
Kion hooks his hands behind his neck, biceps bulging even through his shirt, and spreads his legs. While he waits for another sparring partner, he forces his head down so his nose touches his knees. I pull a face involuntarily. I can, after four months, just about touch my toes with the tips of my fingers.
Ria was doing crunches in the corner, Daine having retreated after his ignominious defeat, and she gets to her feet and saunters over to Kion, lifting a foot to poke him in the rear. He says something to her from between his own legs and then straightens and the two square off. I reposition myself so I can see them more comfortably, and start doing some light bicep curls. I love watching Ria and Kion spar. She’s brutally fast, even though he’s stronger and more thoroughly trained.
Their match is, as I predicted, a good one to watch. They’re both bleeding after the first flurry of blows—Kion from a split lip