The newbies were sitting on the shiny wood floor in the center of the large room, next to several black mats. They turned away from the instructor to look at us, their faces tight with fear. It looked like no one had puked yet.
“Don’t look at them,” Manny One-nineteen barked. He was in charge of wrangling the newbies their first few days here. He’d been doing it for longer than I’d been here, and I figured it was because he was bitter about missing the opportunity to be a trainer by one minute.
All the newbies focused their attention on Manny except Twenty-two, who gave me that weird smile before turning around.
HARC medical personnel were lined up against the wall behind Manny, holding their clipboards and some tech equipment I couldn’t begin to understand. There were four of them today, three men and a woman, all dressed in their usual white lab coats. The doctors and scientists always came out to observe the newbies. Later, they would take them down to one of the medical floors to be poked and prodded.
“Welcome to Rosa,” Manny said, arms crossed over his chest, eyebrows low like he was trying to be scary. Didn’t fool me. Not now, and not when I was a twelve-year-old newbie.
“Your trainers will pick you tomorrow. Today they will observe you,” Manny continued. His voice echoed across the gym. It was a giant empty room with dingy white walls that had been stained with blood many times.
Manny began listing off their numbers and pointing for our benefit. The highest was One-twenty-one, a well-built older teenager who probably looked intimidating even as a human.
HARC coveted the higher numbers. Me, above all. My body had had more time than most to adapt to the change, so I regenerated and healed faster than anyone at the facility. Rebooting only occurred after every bodily function shut down. The brain, the heart, the lungs—everything had to go before the process could start. I’d heard the number of minutes dead referred to as a “rest,” a time for the body to regroup and refresh and prepare for what was next. The longer the rest, the better the Reboot.
Today was no different. Manny paired off newbies and ordered them to go at it, giving them a chance to impress us. One-twenty-one picked up the fighting quickly, his partner a bloody mess within minutes.
Callum Twenty-two spent more time on the floor than standing in front of his shorter, younger partner. He was clumsy and his long limbs went everywhere except where he wanted. He moved like a human—as though he’d never Rebooted at all. The lower numbers didn’t heal as fast and they had too much leftover human emotion.
When humans first began rising from the dead they called it a “miracle.” Reboots were a cure for the virus that had wiped out most of the population. They were stronger and faster and almost invincible.
Then, as it became apparent a Reboot wasn’t the human they’d known, but a sort of cold, altered copy, they called us monsters. The humans shut out the Reboots, banished them from their homes, and eventually decided the only course of action was to execute every one of them.
The Reboots retaliated, but they were outnumbered and lost the war. Now we are slaves. The Reboot project began almost twenty years ago, a few years after the end of the war, when HARC realized putting us to work was far more useful than simply executing every human who rose. We didn’t get sick; we could survive with less food and water than a human; we had a higher threshold for pain. We might have been monsters, but we were still stronger and faster and far more useful than any human army. Well, most of us anyway. The lower numbers were more likely to die in the field, making training them a waste of my time. I always picked the highest number.
“I give Twenty-two six months,” Ross One-forty-nine said from beside me. He rarely said much, but I got the feeling he enjoyed training as much as I did. It was exciting, the possibility of shaping a scared, useless Reboot into something much better.
“Three,” Hugo countered.
“Wonderful,” Lissy muttered under her breath. At One-twenty-four, she was the lowest of the trainers, and therefore got last pick of newbies. Twenty-two would be her problem.
“Maybe if you trained them better all your newbies wouldn’t get their heads chopped off,” Hugo said. Hugo had been my trainee two years ago, and he was just ending his first year as a trainer. He already had an excellent track record of keeping his newbies alive.
“Only one got his head chopped off,” Lissy said, pressing her hands against the messy curls that sprang from her head.
“The others were shot,” I said. “And Forty-five got a knife through the head.”
“Forty-five was hopeless,” Lissy spat. She glared at the floor, most likely lacking the courage to turn that glare on me.
“One-seventy-eight!” Manny called, motioning me over.
I walked across the gym floor into the center of the circle the newbies had made on the ground. Most avoided eye contact.
“Volunteer?” Manny asked them.
Twenty-two’s hand shot up. The only one. I doubt he would have volunteered if he had known what was coming.
“Up,” Manny said.
Twenty-two bounced to his feet, a smile of ignorance plastered on his face.
“Your broken bones will take five to ten minutes to heal, depending on your personal recovery time,” Manny said. He nodded at me.
I grabbed Twenty-two’s arm, twisted it behind his back, and cracked it with one quick thrust. He let out a yell and jerked the arm away, cradling it against his chest. The newbies’ eyes were wide, watching me with a mixture of horror and fascination.
“Try and punch her,” Manny said.
Twenty-two looked up at him, the pain etched all over his face. “What?”
“Punch her,” Manny repeated.
Twenty-two took a hesitant step toward me. He swung at me weakly, and I leaned back to miss it. He doubled over in pain, a tiny whimper escaping from his throat.
“You’re not invincible,” Manny said. “I don’t care what you heard as a human. You feel pain; you can get hurt. And in the field five to ten minutes is too long to be incapacitated.” He gestured at the other trainers, and the newbies’ faces fell as they realized what was coming.
The cracks reverberated through the gym as the trainers broke each of their arms.
I never liked this exercise much. Too much screaming.
The point was to learn to push aside the pain and fight through it. Each broken bone hurt just as much as the last; the difference was how a Reboot learned to work through it. A human would lie on the ground sobbing. A Reboot didn’t acknowledge pain.