Chapter 14:

The Outer Sect IV - "Every Breath You Take"

Destiny Marine

Since the goal of today was to practice breathing techniques, Isaac recounted his options. He hadn’t seen the cultivation fields mentioned by the training video yet, but he suspected they were behind a row of buildings in the southeastern corner of the base. The subterranean chambers also sounded promising - they reminded Isaac of home. And yet - this was a great, brand new city that Isaac had all day to explore. Though it still felt alien, this urban life, he wanted to make it more familiar.

Still unsure of what to do, he decided to ask Babs. It might be nice to get to know her, too - they would be working together, after all.

Babs maintained her usual pose and popped another gum bubble. “I talked with Dan about you,” she said. “He mentioned you came from a small mining town.”

Isaac wasn’t sure how he felt about Dan just giving information away like that, but the truth would come out soon enough, anyway. And it’s not like he gave the town’s name, either. Arcadia was filled with small mining towns.

“I grew up in Narragansett,” Babs informed him, pointing at herself with a proud grin. “This base is too stuffy for me. I got a nice green space in mind we can breathe at - want to check it out?”

Once again, Isaac would be stepping into the unknown. But this time, he felt ready.

“Let’s get it.”


Rather than heading back to that underground chamber from last night, Babs took him to the elevated rail station closest to the base. No moving stairs this time - he walked up metal steps that took him to the platform. A handful of people milled about; Isaac followed Babs’ lead and truly did as the locals do this time by depositing a quarter through the turnstile.

Though it was only a quarter, Isaac’s wallet grew lighter by the day. The dollar he spent last night took a significant chunk of his fortune. It could've been worse, though - Reed no doubt paid less than they owed. Isaac wished he could’ve been like one of those people with fancy bank accounts or even money beneath his mattress, but everything he made at the mines went toward rent and food (and the occasional magazine subscription).

If this kept up, he would be on the verge of bankruptcy soon enough. But before he could ask Babs if she knew when cadets like them got paid, the train rolled by, steam billowing around it as it came to a halt. The two stepped inside and found a booth in a relatively empty car. The train started up again, and once it got past the platform; Isaac’s eyes widened.

Everything they said about the ocean was true. It stretched to the limits of Isaac’s vision in either direction and then some, and it went on for miles and miles until meeting the lighter blue of the sky. Silver-colored destroyers and PT boats mingled in the harbor with fishing boats, tugboats, and huge freighters stacked high with cargo. Plumes of smoke drifted from all of them as they moved slowly across the blue expanse.

Isaac kept his eyes glued to the window until skyscrapers blocked the view of the ocean. He could catch glimpses of men and women in suits and ties through the array of windows; every one of them had their own lives, worries, and wants. Isaac felt something rise in him, something that told him this was a great, big country full of people.

As they passed through several stations, Isaac’s thoughts drifted back to his own life. “Hey, do you know when we get paid?”

A bubble popped. “We get paid ten dollars every two weeks. But it's rigged. Going out to eat costs about five dollars, right? Civilian clothes and the like are the same, even more. So, those ten dollars are best for buying cultivation pills and herbs and books at the Navy base.”

She gestured at him with a finger. “Pills and herbs and books that the Navy sells us, mind you. So, they recoup some of the money spent on them by having us buy it from them. It’s a great, big racket. That’s what this country really is.”

What happened to not speaking out about the government? Nobody in the car was there with him, but Isaac still felt on edge. But if Babs really grew up in the city with its much greater government presence, then she probably knew when and where to speak her mind. Maybe the spiral-galaxy-anchor patch on her jacket gave her more confidence, too.

The skyscrapers gave way to shorter apartment complexes and public parks filled with people taking early lunches. Isaac wondered if they would cultivate there, but Babs kept them on the train for a while longer. Eventually, those apartment complexes and commercial areas gave way to the seedier side of Narragansett. Dozens and dozens of factories let out black smoke into the sky, which simply seemed grayer in this part of the city. And then, down below, Isaac couldn’t believe his eyes - every narrow street was cramped with tent cities and shantytowns. Barrel fires gave people in ragged clothes warmth; feral dogs roamed and barked.

To Isaac’s surprise, this rundown part of the city is where they got off. Babs stepped onto the elevated platform, Isaac behind her, and approached the fence that lined the edge with her arms spread wide. She turned around and smiled. “Welcome to Neponset, Isaac. This is my hometown.”

A look through the window confirmed more of the same - an impoverished city filled with impoverished people. When they stepped down to surface level, the smell of urine radiated off of homeless people sitting with glazed eyes near the landing of the stairs. The grass here grew in yellow and brown tufts within cracked streets. Rows and rows of tenement halls surrounded them; they walked through foul-smelling tent cities.

“Between the industrial revolution and the military and Rddhi families buying up huge tracts of agricultural land, there’s been a huge migration from the countryside to the cities,” Babs explained as they passed by people sleeping on stoops and stairs. “There’s not enough work in the countryside, but it’s not like there’s enough work here, either. Factories are closing down; my own family originally lived here and still lost their jobs.”

Isaac followed along, the collective misery in the area making it tough to breathe. “You said there’s a green space to cultivate here?”

Barrel fires flickered as they followed several side streets. “Well, maybe it’s a yellow space.” And when they got to a little park, it was indeed yellow. A gate once blocked the way in, but it had rusted away, allowing entry inside. Surrounded by brick buildings, the “green” “space” couldn’t have been bigger than a two minute walk across in either direction. The few remaining benches were occupied by sleeping migrants.

We can’t really cultivate in a place like this, right?

Babs must’ve realized the same thing, since the usual smile on her face had turned into a downcast look. “I used to come here as a kid. I mean, it was just as bad then as it was now, but I guess part of me thought it couldn’t be this bad. But I doubt we can cultivate here in peace. Sorry, Isaac. Guess I took you here for nothing.”

A homeless man shifted in his sleep. Isaac scratched his nose. “No…I think it’s good you took me here. I didn’t know things like this existed. That people could live like this.”

Suddenly, a group of five had assembled behind them, all dressed in rags. The oldest couldn’t have been more than Isaac’s age; the youngest was the same age as the street urchin from yesterday, someone who hadn’t even hit puberty. The oldest kid flicked open a switchblade.

“Rddhi swine left their pens,” he taunted, waving the knife menacingly. A military uniform should’ve made someone think twice before trying to mug them, but these were desperate people. They likely just migrated here, had no job, and wanted money and valuables so they could simply get something to eat. Isaac and Babs were facing cornered rats.

Babs raised her hands defensively, though her narrowed eyes reminded Isaac of a wolf about to pounce on its prey. “Back off, the lot of you. I’m from Neponset. I’m a local. You know Old Bob, down at his dance hall? We go way back.”

The mugger looked unimpressed. “Old Bob’s been dead for years, and he lived in the rich part of town. Joining the military? You’re nothing but a sell-out. The Restoration will bring you to justice.”

The five arranged them in a semi-circle to block the only way out - through the gate they came in. In addition to the main mugger’s knife, the others pulled out wrenches, baseball bats, and metal pipes. Somehow, the array of weaponry only made Babs display a wolf’s smile to match the one in her eyes. Isaac wasn’t about to hand over his money, either. All that remained was - who would strike first?

"A sell-out?" Babs questioned, red lights erupted up and down her body. "I'm not a sell-out, I'm Babs fucking Morang!"

She spat out her gum right as her cultivation powers activated, dousing her in an explosion of red lights. The gum landed squarely on the forehead of the main mugger. Before he could react to that, Babs leapt from her spot and landed a flying front-kick in his face. The force knocked him backwards to the ground; she landed right on top of him and pummeled his head in. Two others charged her; a sharp gust of wind cut through the park, swirling around Babs. The breeze knocked one mugger over entirely while the other was stuck in place. Babs laughed as she brought both hands together and delivered a final blow to her opponent on the ground. "I fight for justice and never stop. I'm a |Force of Nature|!"

So that's her Foundational Technique - she can control the wind around her with breathing. While she clobbered her opponents, Isaac dealt with the other two. The muggers screamed as they attacked; Isaac’s fist bristled with red-energy as he activated his |Eightfold Fist|. He stepped forward and swung first, breaking the nose of the mugger with the wrench. A powered backfist then knocked him backwards, the wrench scattering away into some shrubbery.

But that exposed Isaac’s back to the last mugger, who jumped on his back and tried to choke him out with a greasy bike chain. The metal dug into Isaac’s throat; he clawed it at, but couldn’t free himself. He stumbled around, starting to see black spots, so he decided to reach up and grasp at his assailant. His nails tore into flesh until he finally found a collar to grab; Isaac leaned forward and pulled with all his might until he flung the mugger off of him. The attacker landed in a heap, but still held onto the chain. As Isaac caught his breath, the mugger stumbled back to his feet and swung the bike chain, intent on using it like a whip.

Isaac side-stepped his attack, and the chain kicked up patches of dirt as it struck the ground. Isaac closed the distance between him and the mugger; his fist flared with energy as he reared back, intent on ending things.

But then he got a good look at the mugger. This was the pre-pubescent one. Yes, this kid just tried to choke him out, but he was at that age where his only concern should be baseball scores. No kids should have to work in mines; no kids should have to rob just to survive.

Could I really…could I really beat up an eleven-year-old?

During his moment of hesitation, Babs answered for him. She delivered a flying sidekick to the kid’s temple, sending him crashing into a bench. She landed cleanly on her feet, the breeze following behind her. The eleven-year-old realized the jig was up and fled through the gate, followed by the other two muggers who were still conscious.

That left two unconscious bodies and two cultivators still standing. Isaac breathed unevenly as the adrenaline left him. Compared to the fight with Alfie, the Zhanghai samurai, and especially the State Police officers, this was much faster and easier, but it left Isaac feeling much emptier, both physically and morally. He didn’t think he himself was in the wrong here. But a government that could allow something like this to happen, a government Isaac was now technically obligated to fight for - that left him with a sour taste in his mouth.

“To the victor goes the spoils,” Babs said happily as she searched the two unconscious opponents. After ruffling through their jacket pockets, she flicked a quarter over to Isaac, who felt dirty as he placed it inside his wallet. He never robbed his opponents in Patuxet brawls; usually they just went to the saloon together afterwards.

Babs grinned as she finished searching the pockets of the other one. “Our lucky day.” She held out her palm to Isaac, holding two tiny red pills in it. “These are Saint Grass pills,” Babs explained. “They were common for cultivators during the days of the Wachusett Sect and Arcadia’s founding, but the military stopped using them once they found more powerful alternatives. Yet the Zhanghai still make them and they often arrive over here.”

Babs popped hers in her mouth. There was a brief spark of red as she swallowed it. “In a few minutes you’ll be feeling a burst of Rddhi inside you that’ll make it easier to cultivate. It’ll be good for our breathing technique.”

Perhaps it was because he was still reeling from being choked and all the misery around him, Isaac popped the pill before realizing that taking strange pills in the dangerous part of the city might not have been the greatest idea. His mouth tingled from the electric spark as he swallowed.

“Wait…I thought we couldn’t cultivate here. Why did we take them just now?”

Babs led the way out of the park. “The fight gave me an idea. We’re still going to cultivate, just in another area that I know. I’ll be great. We can even get milkshakes.”