Growth: Proving Grounds

9.20.2080

Grow, first layer only, no face.  Don’t tear anything.

Five months.  Five months since my life was turned upside down.  Five months since I learned I could grow these tendrils.  Five months of learning how to control and contain my gift.  Five months of training with Murphy on how to fight and move around with alien limbs.  

Five months, and we were finally ready to make our debut as Reckoners.  

I was just glad that it didn’t take Alexis five months to build me an active cloaking device that masked my horrifying appearance.  

While my contribution had been learning to control my gift–as my Adaptation was the newest and hardest to harness safely–the other two had been snooping around and looking into production of the newest drug craze: Dart.  Hyper-addictive, cheap, and all made by one cartel that operated within Ciel: Surface Dwellers. This was a bold move on our part, especially since it was going to be our first real appearance; Surface Dwellers was led by a man named Beleth, the only Adapted who didn’t wear a mask.  

The man was strong enough he broadcast his face to the public and cops were still scared approach him.  Rumor had it that Suppression had taken a shot at him and lost six agents in the process.

We’d all agreed that if we ran into Beleth, we were running.  

My muscle continued to grow across the top of my skin, weaving into that living mesh.  Grabbing a hoodie and pair of sweats, I covered the vast majority of the stuff. I willed the growth to dial back on my hands as I picked up a change of clothes and threw them into my backpack and headed towards the front door.

Of course, as I headed to the door, a bark stopped me.  

“What do you think you’re doing?”

I turned and looked at my dad who was lounging, watching TV.  Our home was a one-story flat with cement flooring and no yard to speak of.  It was basically an open space between the front door to the kitchen with the living room in-between.  Immediately as you walked in were the rooms that afforded little privacy thanks to the paper-thin walls.  

My father turned and glared at me, his face weathered with hands that matched.  His hair was slowly receding but the jet black color hadn’t greyed at all, which was astounding.  

“Heading out for a little bit,” I replied, “I’ll be home by midnight.”  

“You have class tomorrow,” he reminded, as if I had somehow forgotten.  

It took effort to not roll my eyes.  “Aware. The inquisition done now?”

“Where you heading?”

“Xana wanted to meet up,” I answered in half truth, “Some little place near the school makes drinks and she felt like getting one.”  

Mention of my girlfriend immediately changed his demeanor; while he was a pain in the ass, he was proud that his son was dating someone he liked.  There were so many ways he would be considered old-school but an aversion to cross-breeding fortunately didn’t make the list.

“Well, make sure she keeps you out of trouble,” he heckled.  

I did roll my eyes this time and gave him a weak laugh, “Alrighty, fine.  And yes,” I added as he tried to interject, “I will be home on time.”

With dead air between us, my dad turned back to the program he was watching and I opened the door, heading into the cool evening.  

Ciel was a cesspool, plain and simple.  The government was essentially driven and by a few tycoons of industry who hoarded resources.  They feared that growing technology might attract the Trillodan so any form of creative industry on Tso’got had suffered the tycoons exploiting their lofty position, all in the name of protecting the planet.  

As automation became more common place, the number of people out of work ballooned and homelessness continued to be an ever-growing problem.  However, people in their ivory towers refused to deal with the problem because they were unassailable. They just paid more for police to keep the riff-raff down to a minimum and ensure their industries were protected.  

The horrifying discrepancy in socioeconomic status was one of the huge factors for Dart’s rampant surge.  After all, dealing with this shit, everyone wanted a bit of a pick-me-up.

However, the gang wars that were happening over Dart outside of the Dweller’s turf was causing problems, especially between Imperium and the Surface Dwellers.  The chaos brought the antagonistic and opportunistic group, Vermin, out of the woodwork. They were an odd bunch who didn’t seem to have an agenda other than causing harm and spreading the madness.  Where there was conflict, they found a way to make an appearance and make things worse for all involved.

In an effort to stop these gang fights, we were going to raid one of the Dweller’s Dart storehouses and gimp their supply chain.

Our initial meeting spot was about ten blocks away where Xana was waiting with our ride.  Murphy and Alexis were there waiting by Xana’s car. We’d finally come to conclusions about our names in Reckoner character: Murphy was Parasite, Alexis was Dragoon, and I was Eldritch.  

“Come on,” Xana prompted, giddy, as she waved me forward.  

“And finally, the Druids outnumber the Cognate!”

While Adapted were few and far between overall, there had been categories made to help sort out how powers worked.  Far from a perfect system, it was more like a guideline to know how to label people.

Supposedly Suppression forces had made the listing as a way to know what sorts of threats an Adapted posed when they pursued them but that was just hearsay.  

Druids, the class Murphy and I fit under, were people who could manipulate organic matter or the life around them.  Alexis, a Cognate, had been given some kind of knowledge that was basically inexplicable. Cognates were weird ones too because some of the augmentations to how they thought became odd.  

Enhancers were people who had augmented physical attributes.  Conjurers literally made things out of thin air. Projectors generally dealt with projectiles and making temporary objects like fire or shooting ice from their fingertips. Travellers had some kind of ability to move around supernaturally.  And then there were Peculiars who didn’t quite fit into any category and had strange powers that seemed to warp reality a bit.

Many Adapted had a bit of a crossover between families.  Murphy would be considered a Druid-Traveller where I would be a Druid-Enhancer.  He was light on his feet and had a twenty foot vertical, I was strong enough to lift a car when grown enough.  Alexis fit neatly in one category since all her powers came from the machines she developed.

“Place is about ten minutes away,” Alexis said as she slid on her armored gloves.  Over the last few months she had been designing a combat suit to put her power to work; armor that repaired itself on the fly was valuable and the fact it made her hit three times harder than normal was nice too.  Her final design was a fairly form fitting layer of cobalt-colored metal that flexed easily as she moved around. Her helmet was a smooth sphere of the same cobalt material that was designed to give her a panoramic view like I had; adjusting to the different vision was a struggle for her and she had asked me for tips on staying focused.  The metal of her suit was denser on her forearms and shoulders, places she often found herself getting hit when sparring with Murphy. On the back of her wrist was a lazer gun as well as a small tube filled with a gel that would rapidly expand and solidify.

Designed as a countermeasure should I lose control.  

As complicated as her costume was, Murphy’s was much more straightforward: a red and grey swirl pattern on a mask that covered the upper half of his face while the rest of his body was covered in a loose tunic and trousers, both having the same color scheme as his mask.  In reality, they were made of synthetic spider silk that Alexis had managed to get us; while they would have been more effective being snug to his skin, Murphy insisted the suit he wore be loose so his passenger could slip around unfettered.

“Hey, you seem underdressed,” Alexis, now Dragoon, observed as she nodded to my face.  “Ought to at least grow a layer now.”

“I have most of one, just need a last bit for my base layer.”

Layer across the face, thin.  

Another morsel disappeared from my pile to accommodate.  

Zari held a low value of animal life, many of the younger adults actually making a sport hitting animals with cars.  While I abhorred the practice, it did provide me with a fairly steady supply of meat to consume.

Right now there was 66 kilograms ready to consume.  Over the last five months we had worked to see how much extra mass I grew: the answer was up to a 40 to 1 conversion rate, but that came with some drawbacks.  The more I forced out, the more desperate for additional material it was. My growths would rapidly cannibalize one another unless I continued to funnel them resources.  If I opted for a less efficient growth rate, they were less starved out the gate. I could make my stash keep me at the size of one tonne for about an hour before the growths ate each other.  

Plenty of time.  

“Dear God that is so weird to see,” Murphy cackled as a layer of tendril overtook my face and rendered my unrecognizable.  “Never gonna get used to it.”

“I’ll hold off on the rest because I don’t think Xana’s car would care for a one-tonne passenger.”  Even with just the little bit covering my face, a vocal distortion was in place, adding a strange warble to my voice.    

“Yeah, please no,” she said from the front, “Plus, I’d rather you not shred my upholstery.  Those things have a lot of teeth.”

“Mm, kinky,” Parasite teased; Dragoon reached over and hit him but it didn’t stop his manic giggling.  To her credit, Xana didn’t take the bait and just rolled her eyes.

“Can we be a little serious about this?” Dragoon implored.  “We are about to go raid a storehouse that belongs to the most dangerous cartel in the damn city.”

Parasite grinned and leaned back in his seat, “You worry too much.  It’s a warehouse and most of the Adapted enforcement has moved into Imperium turf to make sure their product isn’t seized.  Plus, we’ll scout it out with your drones and then know what we’re up against. If Goliath or another big hitter is there, we sick our massive monster on ‘em.  If it’s someone slower, I go dance around them. You’ve got crowd control down to an artform, so any extra hired hands aren’t gonna be a threat. Easy peasy.”

I often forgot that despite Murphy’s childish and immature demeanor, he was a clever bastard and a hell of a fighter.  I wasn’t sure how he learned to brawl so well, but even without his gift he was a handful.

Dragoon’s anxiety showed through as the pair continued to bicker. Xana was driving, enjoying the music blasting and I watched the world go by on all sides.  

Ciel was unpleasant to look at most of the time, not because it was dirty or stained, I could look past that pretty easily.  The issue was that so much looked the same. So many apartment buildings sandwiched next to each other. Townhouses sharing walls, like this weird mirror trick.  Only thing to tell places apart was the different pockets of homeless people. Twenty-seven percent unemployment and nine percent homeless. Times were tough for everyone.  

My dad had me listen to an old song from Earth: Little Boxes.  It was eerie how much the lyrics applied to Ciel.

Apartments faded into a more industrial side of things, but still that same layer of uniformity.  Big warehouses were all a similar model, even similar color. Smaller storehouses had a little more variety to them as we turned down a side street, but it was blending together for me.  Without Dragoon’s guidance system, I honestly don’t think I could have found the place.

The destination was a small rectangular building and likely 2000 square meters with no real distinguishing marks other than a half-assed coat of red paint.  

As Xana pulled over a block away, I removed the cloaking device from my pocket.  I activated it and the world took on a strange flicker for me as I was inside the distortion.  For everyone else, I just looked normal although my movements were a little bit out of sync. A hoodie, shoes, and sweats appeared from the illusion as I discarded them, not caring for my clothing to be a casualty.       

As we hopped out, Xana blew me a kiss and drove off, finding a spot to hide as our getaway driver.    

“Alright big guy,” she said, “Suit up.”

One tonne total.  Full coat.

Of my initial 66 kilos, 21 remained, 45 consumed to finish my foot-thick muscle suit.  Like the Neklim that attacked me months ago, I maintained a humanoid shape with a mass of growths like a peculiar ‘head’ that was entirely for looks.  At this weight I was just over eight feet tall and my hide was about a foot thick.

“You good under there?” Parasite asked as dragoon pulled a few orbs from her suit’s belt; she tossed them and they morphed into her little dragonfly probes.  With a pre-programed route, they flew around the building, finding a high window and slipping through a break in the pane of glass.

The building was roughly two stories tall, a metal framework holding the roof in place.  Down below, the probes scanned over a small assembly line where the green powder form of Dart was being cut and bagged up, ready for distribution.  

Dragoon’s display also highlighted where armed subjects were.  

Two at the front, behind the chained up, sliding, steel slab of a door that we were maybe 20 meters from.  Another quartet of armed gunman were at the back, hanging around some pallets and crates where, presumably, the stash of raw product was lingering.  Three humans and three Zari were working the line for packaging, all stripped down to ensure they weren’t skimming. Probably not willing to fight back in their underwear, but I hoped Dragoon didn’t overlook them.  

More concerning was a back room we couldn’t see into.  Thermals from the drone showed a pair of figures, but no other details.  From the size, they looked to be human.

“Maybe just managerial types, ensuring productivity,” Parasite suggested, hopeful.  

“Still a pair of unknowns,” I hissed.  

He shuddered, “Dude, it is fucking weird hearing you talk like that when I’m looking at regular you.”  

I ignored him, “Dragoon, you’re the boss, call it.”  

While initially a point of contention, we had to decide who called shots; we ended up electing Alexis because she was the most likely to keep us out of trouble.  Murphy would be prone to lead us into risky situations and if I lost my cool, I lost control. Dragoon might shy away from a fight, but she wasn’t likely to get us killed.

“I go to the back, wait for you to rip the doors off and make a lot of noise.  Once you do, I throw in a handful of flashbangs to cover my entry. I stun the gunmen and shepherd everyone into the corner.  Parasite goes for the two guys in the office and keeps them in a bottle. Questions?”

“Just tell us when,” Parasite said, an impish grin sneaking across his exposed mouth.  

Dragoon’s suit gave a slight hiss as she took off, running with augmented strides, carrying her around the corner quickly.  With a panoramic view, I was glad to see few people on the street, most people either home for the night or the few that were out clearly had somewhere to be.  

After all, who the fuck wanted to hang out around a bunch of warehouses?  

“Alright,” Dragoon’s voice came over the speaker she built into my cloaking device, “Let’s do it.  Make some noise big guy.”

I let go of the cloaking device and revealed my true self to the world, grateful there was no one to see.  Parasite took the orb from me and put it in a pouch under his costume before bowing and gesturing to the slab of metal in our path.  “After you.”

My right ‘hand’ hardened as I wound back and thrust.  Metal warped as it came off the slide. A second blow from my left hand smashed its twin in as I tromped forward, my weight tearing both doors entirely off the slide.  Everyone inside just stared at me, dumbstruck for a moment, unsure how to process it.

Then I roared.  

In a confined area, a 130 decibel roar was enough volume to induce a migraine nearly instantly.  The mostly empty space had nothing to absorb the sound, and the only people with hearing protection were Parasite and Dragoon.  Alexis had designed earplugs for the two of them that allowed sound to reach a 90 decibel threshold before cutting out other excess noise.    

While we trained, we’d contemplated my ability to make noise as an extra little bonus to my power.  People undervalued how jarring overwhelming noise could be. However, it did stress my body and made it feel like I was out of breath for several seconds afterward.  In our trials, we’d stress tested my growths and found that it actually started to harm my form, weakening the lattice work of muscle; the vibration and strain from the roar fatigued the growths on the outer layer and made them uncoordinated.  If I limited to roaring every now and again, there weren’t such ramifications.

As everyone was reeling from the sound, Parasite sprung forward, smacking the first gunman with a kick that sent him about ten paces back before leaping to the second.  The man tried to raise the assault rifle but was denied the chance. Parasite slapped it hard enough that it went flying and wound up his arm, hitting the Zari in the midsection so hard he doubled over and lost his dinner.  Still not done, he grabbed him by the collar and launched him towards the assembly line.

The men at the back tried to return fire, only for a dizzying shockwave and blinding flash to envelop them.  The door was thrown open and Dragoon sprinted in, hitting the one gunman who was still on his feet. As we discussed, Parasite vaulted across the room to the office while Dragoon tossed out her largest drone: a weird spider looking bot who’s whole purpose was to bind people with a plastic wire that could withstand crazy amounts of force.  

I lumbered towards the center of the room, letting my voice ring out for the terrified and mostly naked people on the line.  “Don’t fight and we won’t hurt you. Just let-”

Parasite cut me off by being launched across the room.  He flew nearly five meters and slid along the ground for at least that far again.  A bolt of lightning flew from the doorway and hit Dragoon’s gizmo, blasting it into smithereens.    

“Oh boy, you kids have stepped in it now,” a condescending voice called out.  The two unknowns stepped out and I felt my heart stop a moment. Matching tracksuit-looking costumes, one blue with a white lightning bolt in the center, the taller one with the inverse color scheme.  Both wore what looked like slimmed down motorbike helmets, the face plate with the same lightning bolt color scheme.

These two were Shock and Awe, Beleth’s lieutenants and enforcers.  The shorter one, Shock, shouted to the room, “Everyone, out!” People sprinted for the closest exit and Dragoon didn’t try to stop them; they were no longer the threat.    

All three of us had been nerds about this Adapted stuff, even before we changed; while we might have been in over our heads, we at least knew the mountain to climb.  Most Adapted who were in a big name gang for any amount of time were figured out, their powers posted on the internet for all to see. But, most of the people who lived that long were badass enough that knowledge didn’t give you enough edge.  

Shock and Awe worked in perfect tandem taking a front line and support role respectively.  Shock was a projector whose power was to collect energy he could output in the form of electric discharges which took on all sorts of shapes.  His twin brother, Awe, was an enhancer who was normally stronger and faster than the average human. However, when he was given a charge of electricity, it raised the ceiling on his strength and speed dramatically as well as granted a healing factor.  They worked as a great duo: Shock could remain a turret and a battery while Awe chased targets down and intercepted fire for him.

Parasite hopped up to his feet, his trademark smile wiped clean from his face.  “Eldritch, get Awe’s attention, we’ll handle Shock.”

As they stepped out into the room, none of us missed the bolt of blue electricity hitting Awe in the shoulder and arcing across his skin.  

“What the fuck, a Neklim?” Awe growled, his helmet turning towards me.  “Which do you want?”

“Give me the little two, you go for the big guy.”  

While I was glad they played into our plan, they’d survived fights with Imperium, Vermin, and the Yellow Maniacs–and the last was no longer a gang.  Their lack of concern was daunting.

Was this a fight we could win?

Taking the initiative, Awe charged, giving me little time to react and harden my exterior.  A gloved hand met my wall of muscle and drove me back. Before I could find my footing, he pressed forward, striking again and again rapidly.

In reply to his onslaught that pulverized my midsection, I threw an arm around like a big hook.  My lumbering swipe was easy for him to dodge; even before I could put my arm back to a neutral position, he kicked and made me stumble to the side.  Another swipe, another egregious miss. Skirting around my flank, he put a rapid quartet of punches into where my oblique looked like it ought to be.  Even with the hardened exterior to my tendrils, he was causing internal bleeding, demanding repair and taxing my reserves.

Still, there was one thing he couldn’t outrun.  

I roared again, doing my best to direct it like a cone at Awe.  While it didn’t hit him full on, it was clearly enough to daze and disorient, if only for an instant.  

One of Murphy’s lessons: do not let up if you’re winning, finish the fight.  

My arm flattened to widen out, maximizing surface area as I slapped and caught his arm.  Barbs dug in, tearing through his costume and finding purchase in the skin and muscle beneath.  Awe tried to rip his arm away and drag me with, but I was too heavy. In a sheer strength match, I had him beaten.

What I was not prepared for was him to deglove his upper arm without hesitation.  Stunned, I didn’t react to him stepping forward and driving his heel into where my pelvis was.  The force threw me back and into the table at the center of the room. Instead of chasing me, Awe ran back to the wall and leapt, springboarding off the wall to grab one of the iron beams.  He grabbed and flipped forward like a gymnast, before planting his feet and shooting himself back down at me like a missle.

His un-maimed arm drove through my forms head and – fortunately – not mine.  While the force toppled me, it also made Awe stop for a split second. My growths constricted around his forearm that had gone through me, though this time he was quick to rip free but not quick enough to get out of reach.  One of my limbs stretched towards him, grabbing and ankle and pulling him flat on the floor before he could speed away. He turned, getting to his side as I tightened my hold on his joint; twisting his body, he drove his other foot into my center of mass hard enough my real body felt the impact–and not in a subtle way.  

Still, I held the limb.  

Rolling over, I brought him along for the ride, slamming him against the ground.  I heard bones crack as I hadn’t thought to temper my strength.

A bolt of electricity hit the center of my limb and exploded, killing 25 kilograms of growth and recharging his brother as the electricity traveled the length of the tissues.  Another pair of bolts hit my shoulder and torso, killing 36 and 64 kilograms each respectively. Forced back, I moved to the table, grabbing it and hoisting it like a shield.

Parasite and Dragoon were not doing well against Shock.  The guy seemed to have charged the air around him, making attack nearly impossible for Parasite.  Even thrown objects seemed to build enough friction to create a static discharge, skewing their trajectory.  Dragoon was trying to pepper him with blasts from her lazer gun, but his armor seemed suited to taking those hits and didn’t have any more effect than a light punch would.  Still, whenever she tried to aim for his head and work for some meaningful damage, he could fire back with a much more impactful assault.

Parasite bounced around the walls, bolts of electricity hitting just behind him.  Dragoon had to drop and roll to avoid taking a blast from another bolt that lit up a beam along the wall.  She grabbed a pallet, and a bolt of lightning ripped it apart as she ducked into the office they had emerged from, another blast leaving a burn scar on the doorframe.  Just as quickly as he’d given attention to Dragoon, Shock rounded and unleashed a trio of bolts in rapid succession, one finally tagging Parasite and knocking him off the wall; my friend hit the floor in a heap, staggering forward but not fast enough to avoid another blast to his side that threw him against the wall.  

Dragoon popped up in the window and fired the adhesive in a little tube that expanded mid-flight.  As if he knew it was coming, the smaller twin rounded and put both hands together; a mesh of electricity shot forth and intercepted the wall of adhesive and erupted in a small blast, scattering the goo and leaving him unscathed.  Through the chaos, another streak of energy flashed and caught my armored friend, throwing her against the back wall of the office. While her suit seemed to keep her from getting electrocuted, the concussive hit seemed to have her down for a moment.     

While my right arm regrew, I gripped the table like a peculiar discus and let it fly at Shock, hoping a big enough object wouldn’t be moved by his static field enough to miss entirely.  Distracted by Parasite getting back up, the table clipped Shock in the shoulder, lifting him bodily and throwing him free of his cloud.

For me, there was no time to celebrate.  My let up on Awe had given him enough time to recover from what should have killed a person.  A kick my forms leg made me sink sink to a knee. I swung, but he wasn’t daring to get within my grasp again.  His arm was entirely mended and there wasn’t even any evidence of broken bones; he was a little slower, though he still had enough charge to be faster than a world-class sprinter.  But he wasn’t flanking this time. Instead, he sprinted back to the gun that Parasite knocked away. Picking up the firearm, he turned it on me.

Normally, Neklim were fairly resistant to bullets since they were entirely comprised of the growths; unlike most Neklim, I had a squishy middle that wouldn’t hold up.  I turtled up, pulling my arms in front of my torso to let them take the most of the abuse, keeping me safe.

Unfortunately, it tipped Awe off that I wasn’t a creation or a puppet but that I was vulnerable.  

“Shock, center of this one.  Blast it.”

Before I could turn around, a pair of bolts drilled me in the back, making me lurch forward as another 87 kilograms were cooked.  I forced more growth to cover myself, trying to keep a thick enough coat between me and the twins that I couldn’t have my real body damaged beyond repair.  

Of the initial 66, only 9 kilograms of meat were left in my reserve to build with.  

Another bolt ripped by me, aimed at Awe whose battery was reset, again.  He darted forward, kicking my knelt figure and throwing me onto my back. With his renewed inhuman speed, he zipped to my side and drove a foot down on my center; nowhere for momentum to transfer but into my human body, and I felt a pair of ribs break.  

I roared at him again, this one less directed.  Awe staggered back, and I could see Shock stumble a moment.  Keeping with his own teachings, Parasite leapt in and planted a cross into Shock’s midsection, sending him flying into a pile of pallets that broke under the impact.  Attention drawn away from me, Awe sped across the room; Parasite noticed to late, and couldn’t get enough vertical elevation to escape the enhancer.

A hand wrapped around my best friends ankle and whipped him back into the unyielding floor.  Stunned for a moment, Parasite was helpless to dodge as Awe kicked him in the ribs hard enough to throw him into the far wall, nearly 15 meters away.  

“Parasite!”  Dragoon ran back out the door, firing a pair of lasers that didn’t do more than mildly annoy the enhancer as they forced him to take a step back.  Another shot of the adhesive, but he was far too fast to get caught by that. The goo expanded and solidified on the floor as he sped forward.

I lumbered towards them, but not as fast as Awe could.  A big haymaker slammed into her faceplate hard enough to bend it.  She was thrown down and he stomped on her torso, cracking her armor.  

Murphy had taught us that as people got angry, their fine motor skills suffered.  Behavior became more animalistic, primal, aggressive. Awe fit that description, and his attack pattern was simple, theoretically easy to read.

The problem was he was going too fast for us to stop.

His foot came down again, but was stopped by a blinding flash of light; Dragoon had activated one of the flashbangs on her belt and he had been staring straight at her.  Even with the tint from his helmet, he staggered and held his hand up, trying to alleviate his seared retinas.

Dragoon remembered Murphy’s instruction too; as Awe stumbled blindly, she triggered another gizmo on her belt and tossed it towards him.  Her stun grenade triggered and distorted the air around it and dropped him to his knees.

I blindsided him and grabbed his midsection with both hands, running him into the door where Dragoon had entered, slamming him against the slab of steel.  He thrashed, punching and kicking, but without his momentum, he couldn’t do enough damage to really stop me. Slamming him again, I pressed my body forward, applying as much pressure as possible. Ribs cracked under my bulk as he struggled to breathe.  After I felt six ribs cave under my hands, I let him hit the floor. An arm hardened as I hit him with a 50kg appendage; his helmet didn’t do nearly enough to diminish the impact.

“Brother!” From the remains of the pallets, Shock was furious as he got up.  A pair of bolts hit Dragoon hard enough to throw her back several body lengths and a trio of blue-tinted arcs fried 113 kilograms of mass off.  

My reserves were now gone after having to heal from the slow damage of Awe and the charged onslaught of his sibling.  

In his hand, a little bolt of lighting collected from each finger tip and made an orb he threw at me, like a pitched baseball.  I tried to evade but it tracked me like a homing missile. Once it was close enough, it detonated and a pocket sized electrical storm expanded, shredding and frying 296 kilograms.  The abrupt shift in weight and muscle imbalance made me stagger, having to correct by balancing on one arm. A bolt tore through the center of my arm and had me drop forward.

Dragoon still hadn’t gotten up, and I was going to run out of mass in a matter of seconds; both Parasite and she had means to not being cooked immediately, but I wasn’t so lucky.  If he torched through the external layers, the real Nicholas Weld would die if a single one of those bolts tagged me.

Shock readied another one of those tempest orbs and had it discharge in his hand as something hit him in the head. The distraction made the orb dissipate as he stumbled.  

It had been a piece of wood, thrown with superhuman strength.  

Shock turned around, but not quick enough as Parasite closed the distance and kicked him just above the pelvis, upending him and having him faceplant hard enough to knock him cold, even with the helmet on.  

Parasite, for his dramatic entrance, wasn’t looking too good.  His costume had several holes burnt in it, his skin red and swollen underneath, and he was holding his right ribs, in extreme pain.  It was almost surreal seeing him without a smile; instead he had a deadly serious look that made him almost unrecognizable.

Staggering back up, I felt my growth beginning to eat itself, the metabolic demands I had given it too high for what little mass I had come with.  Dragoon was slowly getting to her feet, her suit working frantically to repair itself, but she was clearly rattled and banged up underneath. Her movements were unsteady, erratic, and made it seem like a strong breeze would have her fall back over.  

“How about we call this a draw, kids.”  Awe had gotten back up, torso seeming to not bother him at all.  More worrisome was the massive taser in his hands. “I can get a good last charge out of this, and we can see what happens, or we can all just walk away.”  No one spoke for a moment as he turned and evaluated the three of us, “You let me grab my brother, we all walk away.”

Dragoon straightened her posture, doing her best to look strong despite how feeble she must be feeling.  “We’re gonna burn your product.”

Awe cocked his head, “You all don’t look so hot, and he looks a lot smaller than when we started,” he said, nodding at me.  “You sure you want to risk another bout?”

“You might be able to kill us, but the big guy can take your brother’s head off before you get close.”  

Parasite looked at Dragoon, both of us caught off guard by her cold gambit.  Admittedly, I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of her bluff; we didn’t become Reckoners to be cold-blooded killers.  

“Fine,” Awe conceded.  “Step away from him, I toss you the taser.”  

“Count of three?”

He nodded.  

I felt an enormous wave of relief when both parties obliged.  

As Awe threw his brother over his shoulder, he gave us a nod.  “Next time, I won’t be an idiot and go for the big guy,” he warned.  “Who are you idiots anyways?”

Again, Parasite turned to face our leader, not wanting to speak for her.  This was something we hadn’t agreed on, but we couldn’t just not have an answer.  Every organization needed an identity, something people could call them.

“I’m Dragoon, he’s Parasite, and the big fucker is Eldritch.  We’re Rogue Sentries,” she finally said.

Awe chuckled, “Alright, Sentries, we’ll call it good for now.  But in the future, stay the fuck out of our way. If my brother and I run into you again, you won’t be walking away.”

I believed them too.  If Awe had opted to call Alexis’ bluff, I don’t think we could have stopped him.  Down nearly half of my mass, I don’t think I would have held up under his assault.  After the beatdown they had endured, Parasite and Dragoon definitely weren’t going to hold up.  

Like everyone else had earlier, Shock and Awe exited out the back.  A woman of her word, Dragoon turned her lazer on the boxes of Dart and set them aflame, the stimulant burning to nothing in seconds.  

“Cloak me,” I said to Parasite.  He nodded and fished the orb out of his pouch.  It took a minute to finish repairing itself from when he was thrashed against the wall and then the hologram flickered to life.  

Disperse.

The rest of the growths turned to dust and fell to the floor like a pile of ash as the hologram took over, hiding my nude form beneath.  Parasite yanked the mask off and wrapped his costume into a ball, his shirt underneath looking worse for wear. “I have a coat in Xana’s car, that should hide me well enough.”  

“Good,” Dragoon muttered as she lead the way out.  Using her own cloaking device, she put on the appearance of herself in jeans and a plain red red shirt.  “Xana, come pick us up. There shouldn’t be anyone else here.”

We didn’t have to wait much longer for her to pull up.  We piled into her roomy SUV and all let out a collective groan of fatigue.  I grabbed my pants and slid them back on, letting the hologram drop.

Another upside of my power was that it functioned as a healing factor while engaged.  For the Neklim I turned into, I became the hive mind and primary vector; the entire entity worked to alleviate injury since all the growths were networked in with my actual body.  

Even so, there was some bruising on my midsection that my growths hadn’t managed to heal.  As Alexis discarded her armor, she had a black eye and lifted her shirt to check a hand sized bruise from where she’d been kicked.  

Murphy had taken the biggest beating of us all though.  Four spots on his torso were burnt from Shock, he had a clear shoe print on his stomach, and his back was mottled with bruises at irregular intervals.  Still, my tan friend seemed ecstatic as he messed up his medium-length brown hair. “Holy shit!” It was refreshing to see his usual immature grin back in place.  

“We’re alive,” I said with a weak laugh as Xana pulled over and turned to face us in the back.  

“Someone gonna fucking tell me what happened?”

Alexis turned to face her, “Shock and Awe were there.”  

Xana’s eyes went wide as dinner plates; she had gotten very into this stuff since she was now dating an Adapted and had learned two friends were as well.  “And…you’re all alive.”

“We called it a draw,” I supplied.  “Awe left on his feet, and I don’t know if we could have fought him with another charge up.  We’re all pretty spent. In my case, literally.”

Murphy gave me a glance as he checked his limbs for extra damage, “You were out?”

“Out.  Shock shredded my growth.  If we fight them again, they will change tactics.  We only made it out of this because Awe wanted to show off, not realizing how bad he matched up against me.”  

Even Murphy sobered up a bit at the thought, but it was true.  They were experts and their carelessness still only gave us a draw.  We had a long ways to go, figuring out how to fit into this arena.

“But we have a name now,” Murphy announced happily.  

“Oh?”  Xana returned his ecstatic smile.

“Stampede,” Alexis announced.  “I hope you like it, it was hard to think of something appropriate.  But, I figure a lot of our strategy is going to involve overwhelming people.”

“And Nick is basically a wild animal,” Murphy observed.  

“Eat a dick,” I said with a chuckle.  

“Maybe I will,” he replied with a faux-competitive expression.  

I laughed at his scrunched up face and laid back against the leather upholstery.  “No one told me it’d be this draining being a Reckoner,” I groaned. “I feel like I’ve just gone running for a day.”  

“Getting hit takes it out of you,” Murphy noted as he stretched his arm out.  I could see the bump of his organism moving under his skin, helping to repair the internal bleeding and circulate blood to alleviate the bruising.  

“Do you feel that thing,” I asked bluntly, “Like, I can see it moving.  Do you feel it just slipping around your insides?”

He glanced at his arm like I wasn’t making sense.  “I mean, I guess? Gotta remember, it’s been a part of my physiology for two years now; I’m just accustomed to it hanging around.”  

Alexis smirked, “You do realize your name is ironic for your power, right?”

“Maybe he named himself that because the rest of his IS a parasite,” Xana offered.  

The entire car erupted in laugher; Alexis and Murphy curled in pain from trying to laugh.  “Oh God, stop with the humor,” Alexis pleaded, “This shit hurts.”

“Well, if I can’t have a laugh at your expense,” Xana thought aloud, “Then I think victory dinner is in order!”

The members of Stampede gave a cheer as she climbed back into the driver seat.  

“Hey guys,” I said as we rode on by the slough of nearly identical warehouses, “We’re fucking Reckoners.”  

“Not just Reckoners,” Murphy added, “We’re the Rogue Sentries.  And this isn’t the last time people will be hearing about us.”  

Alexis turned to face the two of us in the backseat, a fire in her eyes, “You’re damn right it isn’t.  We’ve got a name to make for ourselves.”

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