“You all right?”
I jumped, quickly turning away from Callum to find Addie next to me, a concerned expression on her face.
She frowned and made a face like she was going to say something, but Micah was strolling in my direction, Riley next to him. Addie squeezed my arm gently and I shook her off, not wanting to encourage her to talk to me. I didn’t want another person looking at me like I was crazy.
“Good morning.” Micah smiled at me as Addie walked away. “You ready?”
“I’d like for you to take whoever seems like they need the most help. I’m thinking only a couple weeks until we go in to the cities, at most. We need to kick it into high gear.”
I swallowed. That was soon. I expected more time to figure out what to do. Leaving was risky, given what happened to the group that split off. Staying meant going along with Micah’s plan, and dealing with Callum trying to recruit the reservation Reboots to help the humans. Staying also meant training with the reservation Reboots, many of whom would turn around and use those skills to kill humans.
My eyes darted over the crowd I was supposed to train. So many of them looked young. Many were around eleven, twelve years old.
“They look young,” I said, pointing.
“Everyone twelve and up is participating,” he said.
By “participating” he meant “ordered.” Twelve was also the HARC age for training. I glanced at Riley, who also seemed uncomfortable.
I couldn’t keep my mouth shut about this one.
“Sixteen,” I said.
Micah raised his eyebrows. “Sorry?”
“Sixteen and up, not twelve.”
“I think twelve is fine.”
“I died when I was twelve and was put into HARC training right away. I don’t think you realize what that’s like,” I said, realizing too late that of course he understood. I wasn’t used to dealing with an authority figure so similar to myself.
“I died when I was seven, and also started at twelve, so I understand fine,” he said. “The training process won’t be the same here anyway.”
“I’m not training twelve-year-olds for war.”
Silence fell over the crowd, and many Reboots stared at Micah nervously. One girl vigorously shook her head at me behind Micah’s back, fear plastered on her face.
I took in a small breath, watching the faces of the rest of the crowd. Callum was right about them being scared. And not just in the way they were scared of me. What exactly did they fear from him?
Micah’s jaw moved as he studied me. “Thirteen.”
I caught Callum’s eye and he gave me a look I thought meant he was proud. Next to him, Isaac winced.
I whipped my head back to Micah. “Fifteen.”
“Fifteen.” I’d trained too many young kids in my time at HARC. I wasn’t doing it again.
He paused, narrowing his eyes at me. The silence stretched out between us for so long I saw Jules start to shift uncomfortably behind him.
I scanned the rest of the group behind Micah. Kyle stood with them, as well as Riley, and about fifteen others. They were apart from the rest of the Reboots, mostly One-twenties or close, and none of them appeared to be scared of Micah. In fact, a few were glaring at me.
“Fine. Fifteen.” Micah’s face relaxed and I could almost feel the crowd doing the same.
“Everyone under the age of fifteen, back to camp,” Micah said. He cast a quick glance back at me. “For today.” He cocked his head like he dared me to say something about that. I stared at him.
I turned and headed in Callum’s direction. Maybe I’d train Under-sixties. I could use some of their optimism and talkativeness today.
“So.” Micah’s voice made me stop and when I turned around, he clapped his hands together and grinned at me. “Want to do a demonstration first?”
“A demonstration?” I repeated.
“Could be fun, right?” he asked, a challenge behind every word. “Show them how it’s done?”
Excitement zipped through my chest as I met his gaze. It had been a long time since I’d sparred with a Reboot so close to my number and skill. Not since Riley left.
“Of course,” I said. Micah’s smirk grew bigger, but I could see the gleam of satisfaction in his eyes. He was sure of his ability to win. I pushed back a smile of my own.
He pulled off his sweatshirt and to reveal a T-shirt underneath, and the Reboots immediately began to move back. They left a huge, wide space for us.
“No weapons, no neck breaks,” Micah said. “Everything else is fair game. We go until one of us is down for five seconds.”
I nodded, taking a quick scan of the crowd. There was a hint of excitement in the air, but several Reboots looked worried. They couldn’t have been worried about us getting hurt, so it was something else bothering them.
Micah walked closer to me. Some of the excitement was gone, his brow set in a hard, firm line. He was serious about this challenge.
For a moment, I considered letting him win. He clearly needed to solidify his place as leader in the reservation, and proving he was a better fighter than me would go a long way toward that goal. It might even help me gain some of his trust.
But I’d never let anyone win. I’d rarely lost at all.
I stretched out my fingers and then balled them into fists. I didn’t want to lose today, either.
“Riley? Want to count us down?” Micah asked without looking at him.
“Three . . . two . . . one. Go.”
Neither of us moved. I’d been waiting for him to rush me, so I could sidestep him and possibly grab an arm to break. A corner of his mouth turned up. He’d been waiting for the same thing.
“It’s not a staring contest,” Riley said from behind me, his voice tinged with amusement.
Micah took a swing at me, like he thought I’d be distracted by Riley’s voice. I smiled as I easily ducked it.
He took a step back before I’d even had a chance to fully straighten. His strength wasn’t his speed or force, it was his patience and ability to assess the situation. He hadn’t underestimated me because of my size.
I took one quick step forward, throwing my left hook into his face and heading for his stomach with my right fist. He blocked the former and let out a slight wheeze as I connected with his gut.
His hands were up and he began throwing punches hard and fast, matching mine. I ducked and blocked and almost hit the dirt when he connected with my cheek. He had the second-hardest punch I’d ever felt. The number one honor still belonged to Riley.