Excerpt--Learning to Breathe, Book Two: A World Apart
© Carole Cummings
This, Nathan decided as he dodged a lethal-looking splash of kinetic energy, was not going at all like he’d hoped.
“I’m telling you—” He had to pause to force the implant in his left knee to do as he said so he could back up and out of the way of a quick stream of fire heading right for his chest. “God damn it, will you just—” He rolled, heard a fizz he knew didn’t exist coming from the base of his spine—phantom noise from the microscopic wires connecting muscle to nerve to transmitter—then came up with fire of his own, fat jets of it he threw right at the colonel’s head.
The colonel dodged easily, because of course he did. Colonel Caesar Almenara was probably the same person, the same talent, the same bloody-minded alpha male in every world out there. Ever. And he’d never been known for his listening skills.
“I’m telling you, I’m Nathan Duffy!”
Nathan slid neatly to the side and threw up a shield at the same time to avoid a blast of honest-to-God lightning that crackled and buzzed all around him, lighting up his nerve endings and making every single bit of metal inside and out burn hot and humming.
The braces from hip to ankle went from skin-warm to searing. They dug into his calves as he tried to angle back and away from something big coming at him in his peripheral vision that didn’t take on knowable shapes until it whizzed two inches from Nathan’s nose and crunched against the wall behind him. Nathan gaped.
“Did you just throw a printer at me?”
Well, two could play at that.
Nathan yanked at the rusted desk in the corner of the facility’s basement, and flung it toward the colonel. It screamed half a foot past his shoulder, shedding drawers as it went, and hit the wall with a clanging thud that shook the floor.
The colonel didn’t even flinch.
“Nathan Duffy died eight years ago.” The colonel’s eyes weren’t quite blank as he advanced; more flat and flinty, but with a cold detachment and determination behind them that sent genuine shivers up Nathan’s backbone. “Along with my son.”
Okay, that was anger in the colonel’s snarl as he whipped his hand out to his side, palm open. A welter of power that was nearly tangible reached out and—oh crap, the colonel was summoning something.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Nathan, I swear to God, if you’d just lis—fuck!”
Jesus Christ, whatever the colonel had summoned looked like freaking Mjolnir. The geek in Nathan kind of paused and thought Oh my God, that’s so awesome! as the thing hummed and shot out from the colonel’s hand with an almost subaudible whistle. Nathan wanted to stop and touch the thing, swing it like a five-year-old playing superheroes, but it was coming right at his head so he didn’t. He dodged, but he could feel every single implant all through him rebel at whatever was coming off the hammer-thing that didn’t so much crash into the column behind which Nathan had slid—more like it hit then stuck there, vibrating, like it was trying to push its way through the steel and cement to find its target.
The exposed ceiling joist atop the column creaked. A strut cracked right in half, the nails at its ends popping out and chiming down onto the cement floor at Nathan’s feet.
“Just what the hell kind of weapons are you people working on?” Nathan croaked, then flung himself down and away as the whole column rocked.
Cam would go absolutely apeshit over this thing. He’d probably want to take one home with him. Another time, another place, Nathan would likely agree, but right now….
He wasn’t going to win this, he could tell. He was tired. The implants were taking too much power and concentration, and he couldn’t fight back effectively. Whatever that hammer was, it was throwing off swathes of energy that were messing even more with the implants, and Nathan’s legs weren’t doing what he told them to fast enough. He could only hold a shield long enough to avoid major impact before his knees started to give.
And now he could feel the colonel pushing into his head, asking out loud, “Tell me who you really are,” and commanding Nathan on the inside to Drop your shields, stop fighting, give up, and convincing part of Nathan’s mind he wanted to do exactly that. Nathan fought it, pulled power from the physical and pushed it into the mental, throwing up a barrier between his mind and the colonel’s.
The colonel pushed harder, projected with too-proficient skill and resolve. Nathan pushed back, shoving everything in him at the No! he conjured like a wall around his brain and mortaring it against the colonel’s seeking tendrils of intent with every bit of will in him.
He knew the second he lost. The disrupting energy from not-Mjolnir was small but persistent, and it was fucking with his focus. Too late and almost from outside himself, Nathan felt the talent that was fueling the implants slip from his grasp, rushing out and away with a mind of its own to support the defense against the colonel’s mental commands. Nathan was stretched too thin. Between the shield, the colonel’s mental push, and the goddamned hammer, there wasn’t enough talent left to keep up with the onslaught.
Nathan’s knees went first, both of them at once. They hit the floor so hard Nathan heard the thud and felt it jar up into his ribs. Pain shot up his left leg from knee to thigh and out through his hip. The right leg felt next to nothing.
His whole body started to shake and heave with the failure of each implant as it all cascaded through him, one then the next and the next, all along his legs and spine then up to his brain. The lower half of his body just gave, and he slid sideways to his ass, just catching himself from going over completely prone at the last second. He couldn’t even sit up straight. When he tried to move his right leg and couldn’t, when he tried to feel the pain of the fall and couldn’t, Nathan admitted defeat and help up his hand.
The hammer-thing was still juddering against the column, but had shifted when Nathan did, down and to the side. Now it was push-push-pushing against the corner of the column, skidding against the steel it had exposed but shoving right through the concrete that was beginning to give way to physics at the angle. Dust and chunks of concrete rained down as not-Mjolnir tried to drive through what was between it and Nathan. The disruptive energy that bled from it got thicker, gaining focus as Nathan was losing it.
Not a hammer, Nathan could see now that he was too fucking close. Tiny lights winked on and off all over it, and he could see where exposed wires snaked from the circuitry in the handle to the matte metal of the head.
Didn’t make whatever it was doing to Nathan’s talent any less unpleasant, though.
“Wait,” Nathan panted, hand still up in the air like a white flag. “Wait!”
The colonel didn’t. He advanced, looming over Nathan with his shiny shoes and his hard eyes, and flicked his fingers toward not-Mjolnir. It hummed in response then shifted free of the column altogether, hovering in the air between the colonel and Nathan. The colonel cocked his arm back, and not-Mjolnir followed the motion.
“Tell me who you are,” the colonel said coolly, “and I won’t smash your skull into the floor.”
It looked like that thing could do it too. Easy. It looked dense and heavy, and seeing the way it nearly pile-drove through a concrete-over-steel support column wider than Nathan, there didn’t appear to be any problem with gathering enough thrust for a killing blow in the six-inch space between it and Nathan’s head. And it was still fucking with every bit of talent Nathan was trying to redistribute to the braces and implants so he could freaking move.
He was too scattered. He couldn’t concentrate. And he was pretty sure it was not-Mjolnir’s fault.
Nathan would likely never know who came up with this one, but the nerdy little boy that still lived inside him would now probably be forever annoyed that someone had literally taken Thor’s beloved hammer and made a talent killer out of it. It felt weirdly like… cheating.
“Colonel….” Nathan had to blink sweat out of his eyes. His talent was backfiring all over the place, glancing off the implants like a pinball then shuddering out along muscle and sinew before just fizzing out altogether. He tried to gather enough into his palm for a simple ball of fire, and… couldn’t. It sputtered like a match in the rain. “Colonel, wait, I can’t—”
“Say the words, or I let it loose.”
Nathan believed it. And it scattered him even more. The colonel was scary on a good day. This colonel, with his ruthlessness and his calm command and his talent that was still trying to find a crack in Nathan’s mental defenses so it could slither in… this colonel was fucking terrifying.
Again, Nathan gathered his talent, coaxing it then snagging hold and reeling it, forcing and throttling what he could into a living wad of energy bubbling over his palm. Fire was easy, Nathan told himself. It had always been the easiest for him. He tried to shut out everything around him for the split-second it would take him to do just this one thing right.
He could do this.
And he did.
The glob of energy in his hand swelled, fat and bright. Nathan willed it bigger, stronger, and sparked it to ignition with a determined push.
Fire bloomed, rearing up and out, a great billowing gust of it that seared the air in Nathan’s lungs and spangled his vision. Green blotches floated in front of his eyes as he directed the flames higher and hotter, long tongues of it reaching out, slicking toward the colonel, aiming to hit hard this time, to hurt, because Nathan was pissed, and he could do this, he could—
He lost it. One second the flames were widening and stretching like a fist unfurling, driving out hard and fast enough to make the colonel stagger a step to the side, and the next they just… weren’t. They fizzled in Nathan’s palm like defective fireworks, the jagged remnants of his talent spattering through him and funneling out again to try to power the implants like they were supposed to.
“Colonel.” Nathan stuttered in a heavy breath, and tried one last time to leave enough talent to support his mental wall while siphoning some toward the implants and interlocking braces so he could freaking move. He couldn’t do it. He could barely spare enough focus to think. “Colonel, I can’t—”
“Then you die. All I have to do is let this go.”
“Wait, just wait a second, I’m trying to tell you I can’t rem—”
“You tell me nothing.”
“If you’d just let me—”
“Say it or—”
“I can’t remember the safe word!”
The hammer-thing’s humming stopped. The push inside Nathan’s head stopped. The crackle in the air drew back so abruptly it felt like it sucked all the air with it.
Nathan sagged, holding himself up off the floor just barely by locking his elbows. His talent perked up, tentative, and it took far too much attention for Nathan to slide it back into place with the microscopic transmitters and transistors feeding it into the implants embedded in muscle and bone. The sensation wasn’t even a little bit pleasant as feeling rolled through Nathan again, traumatized tissue directing nerve endings to carry pain alerts to his brain and let him know he’d done himself some damage.
“Jacqueline!” he finally wheezed. Because, of course, now he remembered the damned safe word. His own mother’s name, and Nathan had forgotten it. He’d never hear the end of this one if his mom found out. Or Cam, come to think of it.
He was still trying to get his breathing under control when the colonel’s hand came down in front of Nathan’s face. He looked up into the colonel’s rueful smirk and tried not to growl.
“Come on, get up,” the colonel said. He was holding not-Mjolnir, dead and dark now, in his other hand like it weighed no more than a plastic toy. “We’ll debrief once you pull yourself together.”
Nathan wanted to tell the colonel he could fuck right off with his suddenly kind and recognizable eyes and his fatherly tone and his comic book weapons that Nathan was still pretty sure were cheating. Instead, he took the hand and let the colonel help him to his feet.
* * *
“You’re still too easily distracted when it comes to a Subjective attack.” The colonel took away Nathan’s empty water bottle and absently planted a new one in front of him. He nodded toward the second sandwich at Nathan’s elbow. “Eat that too. You used up a lot of energy.”
“Yeah, no shit,” Nathan muttered, then winced and gave the colonel an apologetic shrug. “Sorry, sir.”
The colonel rolled his eyes. “You spend too much time with Camilo.”
Nathan took a hurried bite of his sandwich so the colonel wouldn’t see the smirk. And yeah, because he’d used up a ton of energy, and his body wasn’t done with him. It was still busy burning up calories even while he refueled, talent settling back into the places it had abandoned when confronted with a threat more dangerous than the physical.
“You’re too miserly with your talent.” The colonel shook his head, a file folder open on the desk in front of him.
Readings taken and graphed out in the training session, Nathan knew. Because this was his life now. Various specialists giving him academic instruction on specific aspects of his measured disciplines on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. Practical applications training in a controlled setting on Thursdays. And then on Fridays, there was “lab study.” Which was basically polite code for spending an afternoon getting his ass handed to him by the colonel and whatever new toy the wonks in the weapons development division let the colonel play with. Then sitting down in the colonel’s office—if Nathan even could sit after having the shit kicked out of him—so he could see every single way in which he’d failed.
And sometimes, the colonel even brought a friend or two. Ostensibly it was to “interview” candidates for the point position on the LP project by a) testing their practical use of talent against an active opponent in mock combat, and b) seeing what their command style looked like in practice. Nathan was of the firm opinion it was more to add to his humiliation, though he admitted he was perhaps slightly biased. Which may or may not have something to do with the number of bruises he sported the next day.
His pre-med course was a distant, wistful memory now. He’d leave his training with a proper education, but not the kind that could go in a frame on the wall. And lunch across the desk from the colonel was about as exciting as Nathan’s social life got these days. He only saw Cam about every other weekend, depending on Cam’s own offsite training and course load, and he hadn’t seen Andi in… God, it was probably going on months now. Nathan was basically back living with his parents like a loser while the colonel had his way with Nathan’s health, education, and life in general.
So Nathan had stopped being interested in analyzing the reports and graphs and pie charts when it became clear that knowing what he was doing wrong, and how far off the “right” scales he managed to get, didn’t help him correct it. Though it certainly didn’t stop the colonel from telling Nathan, in great detail, how many ways he’d failed on any given day.
Once a week for the past eighteen months, Nathan had been getting a very intense, very close-up look at what it was like to have Colonel Caesar Almenara expecting great things from you. It was just as shrinking as Cam had always said it was.
Nathan owed Cam such an apology.
…Well. Provided Nathan ever told Cam as much.
“You must always reserve enough talent to drive your implants and mechanisms to enable you to escape if you have to. You can’t throw everything at defense the way you do, because there will come a day when the threat won’t be me. Or even the me you know. And a safe word is going to mean nothing, even if you manage to remember it.”
The colonel lifted an eyebrow at Nathan, clear reprimand, gentle though it might be. Nathan sank a little into his seat. He didn’t stop eating, though. He wondered if the colonel might be moved to find him a third sandwich.
He swallowed and said, “You threw me with Mjolnir, sir.” Nathan shrugged, still miffed. “I don’t know who you’ve got designing your weapons, but that one was kind of a dirty trick.”
The colonel looked down and actually—and quite clearly—tried to hold back a snort. He almost succeeded, but it didn’t make Nathan feel any less annoyed.
“I believe,” the colonel said, composed now and peering again at the reports in the folder, ostensibly bland, but the corner of his mouth was turning up, “if you put your mind to it, you could take a very informed guess as to who came up with that one.”
Nathan paused in midbite. It was all he could do to stop his mouth from dropping open and letting chewed-up sandwich splatter all over the colonel’s shiny walnut desk.
The colonel set his lips over his teeth and bit down. He stared more intently at his reports. Dear God, he was trying not to laugh.
“No!” Nathan refused to grin. He refused. “Oh my God, that absolute asshole!”
He was going to kill Cam. He was going to kill him. Fucking Mjolnir!
“Yes, he thought you might like it.” The colonel’s sarcasm was both hilarious and aggravating as hell.
“That’s….” Nathan couldn’t decide if he was amused or outraged. He accidentally clenched his sandwich tight enough to squeeze a few blobs of mustard onto the colonel’s desk. He wasn’t sorry. “That’s cheating!”
And Nathan was going to throttle Cam for helping the colonel do it.
“We all just want you to be as prepared as you can possibly be, of course.” The colonel sounded far too smug. “You need to learn to expect absolutely anything. Including weapons out of comic books, if the engineers don’t stop taking suggestions from my son.” He allowed an indulgent smile for all of two seconds before he shook himself out of it and leveled Nathan with a stern gaze. “You let it throw you.”
“It’s a talent killer! It felt almost as unsettling as an EMP only without the pain. And that’s not even considering the part where it could obviously have crushed my head in if it hadn’t gotten stuck behind that column. I’ve never seen a weapon that could manage a physical attack simultaneously with an attack on talent. You pulled that out of your a—I mean, you pulled it out of nowhere, sir. I’ve never trained against a weapon like that, and it doesn’t seem fair to—”
“I dearly hope you’re not going to accuse an enemy in a combat situation of being unfair.”
Nathan snapped his mouth shut. Because that was kinda where he’d been heading, yeah. And okay, it was stupid, and he was glad the colonel had cut him off before he could actually say it out loud. But he was still annoyed, and refused to be cowed. So he lied.
“No, of course not. It’s just….”
He couldn’t say that either. Because he didn’t think “impugning the character of Mjolnir by turning it into an anti-talent weapon” was a very good argument either, even in his own head, and admitting that that was what had thrown him was probably a very bad idea.
He really was going to kill Cam. Pranks were one thing, but using Nathan’s lifelong crush on Thor against him was just low.
“I was trying to shield against an unfamiliar weapon while at the same time trying to keep you out of my head. I had to pull from the physical, or you would’ve gotten in.”
“We’ve calibrated, and recalibrated, and then calibrated again. You’re powerful enough to, at minimum, hobble away from a dangerous situation while still holding both physical and mental shields and mounting at least a distractive offense. You’re stronger than what you showed me in that exercise. I shouldn’t have been able to get you down like I did.”
Nathan set down the crust of his sandwich, a scowl settling hard between his eyebrows. He couldn’t say a word. Everything was abruptly locked up tight at the bottom of his throat. Maybe a third sandwich wasn’t such a good idea.
The colonel sighed. “We’ve been over this, Nathan.” He shut the file and folded his hands atop it. “Your days of holding back are done. You can’t afford it now. This knee-jerk clamping down you do is going to get you—”
“I know, sir. I know.”
Nathan didn’t want to hear it again, the going to get you and those depending on you killed, because Nathan knew without a doubt who the colonel meant by those depending on you. As if it hadn’t already taken up residence in Nathan’s nightmares.
“If it helps,” Nathan said, slow and careful, “I think my talent has already decided, several times, who it’s going to protect if it comes down to a choice between me and anyone depending on me.”
It wasn’t meant to be glib or arrogant. It was just how things were. How they’d always been, before Nathan was even aware of it. And it wasn’t like Nathan wanted things to be any different. Nathan would always choose Cam. He was just glad his talent apparently felt the same way. Nathan would think it should be at least a small comfort to the colonel.
But the colonel looked away, mouth pressed tight. He was silent for quite a long time, rigid and blank, before he finally shook his head.
His “Dismissed, Mr. Duffy” was oddly defeated.