I was expecting the attack, but I’d been instructed to sit in a lotus position. Moving before my attacker stepped onto the mat would cost me points. The upside was that they had to put a foot on the edge of the mat before they could do anything else, and no matter how gently your foor is laid on a gymnastics mat, the foam will creak when you push off against it.

My legs unfolded like an origami spring under me, launching my body high into the air. Alex soared underneath me in a horizontal spear-tackle. As I hit the mat and shoved back towards her, she finished a tuck-and-roll and came back. I tried to fling her arms back, but she countered and we locked together, our arms tangled as we each tried to hook the other’s legs out from underneath. I leaned in towards her, knowing I didn’t even have a weight advantage, and the soft creamy smooth dark secret ohcrap…

I flew through the air, and failed to fly through the concrete.

Nice graze. Try not to look down her top next time.” James was grinning at me, speaking through his teeth so that only I could hear.

This was the grand routine of our days, from the second morning of the rest of our lives until the day we met Charles. The orderly orderlies – who weren’t looking so orderly now that one of them was getting up at 2am to start our training, and the other was staying up until midnight to finish it – turned out to be skilled in all sorts of things, and so we learned knife combat, three varieties of unarmed combat, fighting with a quarterstaff, and even how to use a sword, since the same tricks can be applied to anything in the right size and shape range. None of these skills were developed to the same level as our shooting, but the professor encouraged us, over a meal of warfarin-laced cheeseburgers, to practise them until we were confident. Sparring against each other was exactly as bad as I thought it would be, with Alex’s scent at close quarters – to say nothing of what it felt like when she tried to pin me on the mat, or the distraction that followed whenever she managed to get her cleavage in sight1 – almost driving me mad, and James’ enthusiasm giving me bruises. The bruises, at least, disappeared overnight in an almost miraculous fashion, and the grazes Alex gave me looked two weeks old when I woke the next morning. We ran and climbed and jumped and practised standing still in a variety of postures. James and I picked up the trick of picking locks with the same alacrity as we’d shown on the rifle range, and when Alex kept up with us there, I had even more to consider about her. We learned American Sign Language, with its one-handed alphabet, and James and I taught Alex a few signs from New Zealand Sign Language as well. I’m sure there was a lot more we could have learned from our teachers, but we were still confined to the warehouse until the day Darwin was decanted, when we had our passing-out test.

1The first time was an accident, I’m sure. After that, it was a tactic, and one that worked depressingly well.


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