“Nick, you need to calm down,” Xana said again, “Please?”
I didn’t reply, I just sat sullen in the passenger seat. My face still hurt from where my dad had hit me, my pride still hurt from his verbal assault, and I was so fucking angry with what he’d said.
He’d rejected his son, in front of his girlfriend! What kind of asshole fucking did that?
My breathing was uneven, ragged. It felt like I was somewhere between having a panic attack and trying to scream simultaneously. Except, no sound came out, only this inconsistent and sharp inhale and exhale instead.
I finally centered my gaze on the woman driving. “Nick, sweetie, you need to calm down. You need to take it easy.”
A hand rose to my face, touching where the skin was still red, starting to bruise. “He hit me,” I snarled. “He called me a freak!”
“He doesn’t know,” she whispered.
“Don’t you dare defend him!” I saw her cringe; she was stronger and faster than me, but still scared.
She was afraid of what I could become.
Thirty-seven kilograms ready to consume.
I could make myself weigh a tonne. It would be short lived, but long enough to do some damage. “Let me out of the car,” I growled.
“Nick, what are you going to do?”
“Just let me out, Xana.”
She shook her head, still terrified. “That isn’t a good idea. I know you’re looking for a fight, you want someone to feel like you do. But you can get bigger and stronger than anyone else. You’re might kill someone!”
It felt almost alien as I turned to her and growled, “Then let me out so it isn’t you.”
Fear radiated from the driver’s seat, but Xana grit her teeth and kept driving, “I’m not gonna do that. You’re angry, but you won’t hurt me.”
My teeth clenched, infuriated that she had the nerve to call my bluff and that I had tried to make it in the first place. Even with her confident rebuke, I could still see her nervous glances at me, seeing if I was going to shift in her car. I let her worry a little longer, seething.
But eventually, my conscience nagged. This was Xana, my girlfriend who had gotten me away from my dad. She didn’t deserve this. I needed to get away from her, somewhere I could let loose without hurting her.
“Fine, I won’t do it here,” growled. A slow down in traffic gave me the perfect opportunity to throw myself from the car. I landed and rolled clumsily, something Murphy would have chastised had he seen it.
“Nick, wait!” she called after me, frantic.
But it was too late, I was leaving, determined.
I started walking quickly towards the slums of Ciel, sure I would find someone who deserved a good thrashing. While the capital had an active nightlife, people living in the slums hid indoors because of the rampant violent crime among the impoverished of the city. There’d be some common criminal stealing something, beating someone, right?
My power seemed to almost shift under my skin, trying to weasel out. It was urging me to grow, to be angry, to show my dad why he should respect me.
“Call me a freak,” I growled. I walked down an alley between massive, run down apartment buildings that all looked the same if you ignored the graffiti. As expected, it was quiet except for a few people looking to hastily make it back indoors. A few hushed exchanges–likely for drugs–were happening in the shadows of these monolithic buildings, but otherwise it was uncomfortably quiet.
Still, I pressed forward and listened intently for conflict, for unrest, for anything…
And finally found exactly what I wanted.
“No, listen, I can pay you next week!”
Leg breakers. A perfectly punishable profession.
“Big boss said you needed to pay tonight,” a massive Zari growled. “You don’t look like a guy who has what we need.”
I peered around the corner, it was by the back of a corner store that was adjacent to one of these massive slums which made the store look almost child-sized. Still, two Zari were pressing a human against the dumpster as he shook and threatened to piss himself.
Clothes fell to the cold ground as I relayed an instruction to my power.
Five hundred kilos. Full coat.
My power was eager to comply, getting some outward expression at 30 kilograms were consumed to make a massive layering of flesh. I was now seven feet and a half feet tall and coated in a nearly seven-inch layer of growths. As usual, I donned the humanoid form like the Neklim that had caused me to Adapt.
“Leave him alone,” I hissed as I tromped around the corner.
The two turned to me, initially alarmed. “The fuck,” they both exclaimed in unison as I lumbered forward.
Surprise was replaced with frustration quickly though as both brandished a blade. “Man, ain’t no fuckin’ Neklim in the damn city. That shits a hologram.”
With a plausible enough explanation, his friend’s confidence rose as well. “Yeah, and Neklim don’t fucking talk neither! You’re just some asshole with a modulator.” He turned to the human who was still shaking, “Fucking stay put while we deal with this loser.”
He nodded, petrified, unable to do more than cower.
They were close now and felt it was time to charge. I let one kick me and the other stab me. Both were baffled as they actually made contact and didn’t fall through what they assume to be a lightshow.
“My turn,” I hissed. My arm wrapped around one’s torso and lifted him off the ground, the other I simply backhanded; he flew almost two meters before he hit the ground, landing in a still heap.
The Zari I was holding fought and struggled, terrified. He repeatedly stabbed me, but I hardly even registered it, the cuts all too shallow to threaten any real damage. “Holy shit, holy shit, let me go! Let me go you fucking freak!” he screamed as he started kicking as well, vainly seeking escape.
Freak. That word again.
Another dose of rage, like someone heaping fuel onto a fire. I turned and launched him into the dumpster nearly six meters away; he hit the side hard enough it bent.
“You think I’m a freak?” I fought the urge to roar since it would call attention I didn’t want. “Is that what we are to you, freaks?” He struggled to get off the ground, so I let my hand flow over his chest, ensnaring him as I lifted and held him aloft. “Answer me you piece of shit!”
“Eldritch, put the guy down.”
Parasite landed behind me, skidding to a stop. His usual smile was gone, never a good sign. “Come on man, the dude is a leg breaker and you probably broke half the bones in his body. He gets it. That’s enough.”
I continued to hold him as my friend nudged the first man awake, prompting him to run. “Why are you here?”
“She sent me after you. Said you were gonna do something stupid.”
She. Xana. She must have called him the second I jumped from the car. I should have been happy she cared, but I was just angry she had ratted on me. “It isn’t your problem, or hers!”
He frowned, “I’m your teammate, Eldritch. What you do, affects me. Come on, put him down or I will make you.”
“Just let me go man,” the leg breaker pleaded.
“Shut up!” I hissed at him, lifting him higher.
“Seriously, shut up,” Parasite echoed, “But Eldritch, let go. Let’s not complicate things here.”
I didn’t move.
“Eldritch, don’t do this,” my friend warned, deadly serious.
I squeezed harder on the leg-breaker, feeling his ribs flex as he grunted and struggled.
“Damn it,” Parasite growled as he bounded forward. I let go and swung around with my now empty hand; too slow, Parasite ducked under and pivoted, jamming an empowered kick into my midsection and pushing me back a meter. He snagged the battered man and dragged him away. “Run you fucking idiots!” he commanded without taking his eyes off me.
Both leg-breakers and their victim were eager to oblige.
“Come on, undo your stuff.”
It was strange, because I forgot that Murphy was my friend and that Parasite was my teammate. All I saw in him was that one word from my dad.
He was a freak and needed to be gotten rid of.
I swung around at him again, still too slow to connect as he leapt away, raising his hands in a non-threatening gesture. “Goddammit, don’t make me do this.”
Abandoning all logic, I just charged recklessly. Another swipe came up empty as he bounded away. Blindly I pursued, knowing that I needed to get a hold of him to do any real damage. Parasite waited with grit teeth, waiting until I was almost on top of him before dropping down, knowing my momentum would keep me moving forward. He spun and pushed his hand against the ground, launching his feet into my midsection.
The impact was enough to throw me onto my side.
“Come on, Eldritch, you aren’t big enough to fight me. I’m gonna be doing damage to you underneath and I don’t want that. Neither do you.”
I growled, pushing myself back to my feet; my arm dragged across a split in the pavement and scooped up a massive handful of debris. As I turned back to Parasite, I threw the pile of rock shrapnel and followed behind.
Several chunks found their mark and were disorienting enough for me to catch him. The end of my arm snagged his wrist and pulled, dragging him in.
My friend responded by going with the movement, driving an empowered kick square into my chest. Ribs cracked and I stumbled back, my concentration lost as I tried to think about commanding the growths and not worry about my human form underneath. In that momentary delay, Parasite ripped his hand away, though it looked like he had to break his wrist to get free.
About the time I regained control, he bounded away and snagged something from beside a dumpster: a length of pipe.
“Alright, fuck stick,” he snapped, “I don’t have any foam to hold you down, but I know that this’ll make a fucking dent.” Even with the loose clothing he wore, I could see the shift of material into his arm, preparing to swing. “You’re getting the hell out of that, even if I have to make you.”
Don’t attack him.
But I still felt myself charging forward, defying my own instructions.
I SAID STOP!
There was a stumble as my body tried to halt, my mind at war with the growths I had generated. But Parasite couldn’t tell and swung the pipe, aiming low and slamming my forms foot; he knew that I was suspended slightly off the ground and he wouldn’t be obliterating my ankle.
Growths still fought against him, the pain snapping them back to attention and quelling my hold over them. Another swing at his head, another dodge away. This time, as soon as his foot touched down, he leapt back into the fray, coming with a downward swing. His weapon found my shoulder and crushed alien and human muscle alike.
And back out he leapt, carefully navigating his dance with me. Parasite knew exactly how strong I was and was cautious; what I wasn’t equipped with was speed, a tool he had two years learning the limits of.
In and out, each time finding a new place to strike and bruise, crushing muscle tissue and causing some damage to me below. Several to the arms, one to my side, and a couple to my legs. Each time the organism piloting became more and more angry, flustered by this little whelp causing such damage. The mounting agitation kept inciting more and more foolhardy and animalistic ideas.
Unlike Awe, I was someone Murphy could read and anticipate as my movements became more and more simple.
Another series of bludgeons and I finally felt something slip, the monsters control wavered and I seized back control, tired of being a passenger.
“Stop,” I called to Murphy as he readed another swing. “It’s me, again.”
He relaxed but didn’t lower the pipe and I can’t say I blamed him.
“Get rid of the stuff,” he demanded.
The layer of growths over my skin dispersed and I raised my hands, breath ragged.
Murphy still wasn’t smiling, “Can I drop this now?”
I nodded taking a moment to compose myself, “Yeah, yeah. Sorry about your wrist.”
He dropped the pipe with a clatter and visibly relaxed as his posture slumped. “I’ll heal,” he said, “But, you wanna tell me what the fuck that was about? You wanna tell me why Xana had to fucking call me?”
This was the first time I had ever seen Murphy angry. I had seen him disappointed or sad, even incredibly depressed at times, but never angry. Frustrated, determined, but never…this. “My dad,” I trailed off, falling to the ground, aware of the rough cement against my bare ass.
Murphy scooped up and threw the pipe with a little extra juice, “What the fuck did he do that warranted nearly crushing a guy to death?”
“He, he just wouldn’t shut up…”
“And so you were gonna shut up those guys permanently?”
“HE HIT ME!” I screamed. Murphy closed his mouth as I shook, overwhelmed with the emotional torrent I had tried to deny. “He called Adapted freaks, and I got angry at him, and so I called him a coward…and he lost it. He hit me in the face, right in front of Xana. I lost it and just needed to fight, needed to feel respected? I don’t know.”
He stepped over to me and wrapped his arms around me, giving me a hug. “I won’t make this awkward if you don’t.”
I blushed and shoved him away; I’d almost forgotten I was naked. “Goddammit man, get my clothes.” As out of place as his heckling seemed, I appreciated how good the normalcy felt.
He obliged, his smile back in place. “Damn it, Nick,” he growled as he took his mask off, “Now I feel guilty for hitting you!” He removed his tunic as well and rolled up his costume, putting it under an arm, confident no one would notice.
“We’ve known I could lose control, and I guess now we know extreme emotional volatility makes it a lot easier to slip. Thanks,” I muttered as he tossed my discarded clothing at me.
“And we also know a pipe is a good countermeasure for Neklim.”
I let out a weak laugh, “Please don’t turn it on me again, I hurt so much right now.”
“Don’t be an asshole and break my wrist next time,” he teased as the organism had already set to fixing the bones.
My throat felt tight as I started talking, “Xana?”
His grin faded. “She’s okay, shaken up though. You’re gonna owe her for this. She said something about your threatening her.”
“I told her to let me out so I wouldn’t attack her.”
He dropped his jaw, “Dude…”
“Not my finest moment. She knew I wouldn’t, but I could still see how much it rattled her.”
Murphy shook his head, “Man, we have these crazy fucking gifts, of course she is gonna be scared when you start flying off the handle. And hey, I get it,” he added, “You had reason to be upset. You dad smacked you around and called you a freak; anyone would be upset is that shit happened. But, this, not cool. We’re Reckoners, and you went way out of line. And this is from me, you know it’s bad when I have to say something about this.”
It stung being the immature one in this situation. Normally it was me harping on my friend for minding his manners or shutting up after he made an inappropriate joke. “Yeah. Hey man, you mind if I sleep at your place? Not gonna piss your parents off or anything?”
He shook his head, “Nah, it’s fine. It does mean we should probably run by a store or something so there is food in the house.”
I frowned. Murphy had always been reluctant to talk about his home life; all I knew was that it was lousy at best. His parents seemed to perpetually be gone and he was left to struggle on his own. Even when asked directly about them, he never divulged much information.
Come to think of it, had I ever met his parents?
“But come on, I called Alexis, she’ll take us to my place.” We stepped out onto the curbside about the time she pulled up in a chrome-colored car. All it needed was a slight blue hue and it would have looked like a custom vehicle for Dragoon.
Murphy took the passenger seat and I got into the back, immediately feeling her glare in the rearview mirror.
“Thanks for this,” I muttered.
She sighed, “Nick, what the fuck were you doing? First Murphy calls me and says I might need to help put you down, and then Xana calls me in fucking tears.” Alexis turned on me, scarlet hair flipping around wildly. “What the hell were you fucking thinking?”
My cheeks felt flush with shame, “I wasn’t. I was just, angry.”
“Alexis, enough,” Murphy said calmly, “He got it from me. Nick’s had a bad enough night, he doesn’t need you tearing him a new one.”
She looked at him and he nodded, still oddly somber. I couldn’t tell what they silently communicated, but her abrasive nature faded as she looked back to the road. “What happened?” she finally asked.
“My dad called Adapted freaks. I disagreed with him. He hit me. “
“Whoa,” she replied, caught off guard, “Shit,” she swore, “I’m sorry.” She frowned, “Xana will be okay with you, just give her a night to cool off. You really scared her.”
I nodded yes, words failing me. I was ashamed of my actions and being rash, but the fact that I had threatened her with a power made me feel hollow, despicable. It reinforced that I was a freak like my dad had said.
“I mean, you can get a little monstrous at times,” Murphy said with a giggle.
“Are you fucking SERIOUS MURPHY?” Alexis shouted at Murphy as he came apart and started laughing; to my terror, she let go of the wheel entirely to slug my friend. “I don’t care if that stupid thing won’t let me hit you! You. Gigantic. Ass!” Each word was punctuated with a strike that he simply absorbed, refusing to sober up.
His bad taste aside, it felt good to feel the vibe in the car return to something more normal. The two of them bickering playfully, this felt normal.
Normal felt so amazing in light of the last two hours.
“Hey, Nick,” Alexis called back, “What are you gonna do about your dad? I hate to kill the vibe here,” she added, “But should one of us make you up a bedroom for a while or what?”
So much for that feeling.
“He’s gonna stay with me for the weekend,” Murphy replied on my behalf, for which I was grateful. “I know where my parents keep liquor, and they are out of town. We’re going to engage in some therapeutic teenage hedonism and then he’ll go home and face his dad. But for the next couple days, that clown can fuck off.”
“That sounds nice,” I affirmed.
A sickening pop was heard as Murphy let out a happy sigh. “Oh thank fuck, finally! Wrist snapped back into place,” he explained.
I looked to his hand as the bulge slipped away up his arm. “How do you actually not feel that thing moving around inside you?”
“Oh and you’re any more normal Mr. I-grow-aliens-on-my-skin? The only normal one of us here is Alexis, and she dreams of machines all day.”
“Correction: I don’t dream of machines, I can just kind of flick a switch in my brain and start conceptualizing how I could make a robotic tool based on what I am focused on.”
“Speaking of,” I offered, “I think you should make Murphy a staff.”
Murphy turned to me and Alexis glanced in the rearview mirror. “Why?” they both asked in unison.
“Gives you some range, and gives you a little extra punch through against armored targets or bigger targets. If we run into Goliath for example, you’re gonna want to be able to hit him harder and ensure some of the damage sticks. Plus, I think you know how to use a staff like a pogo stick and bounce around.”
Murphy scoffed, “I’m not gonna go running around with a big metal staff everywhere. Plus, what happens if I want to get all acrobatic and bounce around? Can’t do that with a big steel rod in hand.”
“I can make it telescoping,” Alexis immediately countered. “I could rig it to extend when you twist your hand in a specific way so you don’t accidentally collapse it mid fight. Plus, the metal I make should hold up pretty well; at worst it breaks and you have to give it a minute to repair itself.”
“Gives you a way to deal with me that is more dignified than a lead pipe,” I offered. “Plus, against someone like Awe, you need a way to fight someone stronger and faster; range would help cut that difference.”
As we pulled up to the store, he clearly mulling it over. “Do you have time to make me something? I don’t know how much metal you have left.”
“I managed to get some more ordered. I actually sold some of my drones to a few other Reckoners over in Manda. Guys desperately needed some help with surveillance and had the bankroll we didn’t.”
“We should talk more about the fascinating topic of money later,” Murphy announced as he opened the door, “But for now, he and I need to grab some food and I need to get him sufficiently libated in order to forget tonight. Come along.”
Alexis and I glanced at each other and I shrugged; it wasn’t like I could exactly say no.
“Let me know if you guys need anything, like a sober person,” she grumbled. “I don’t want you running off doing anything else dumb tonight.”
“He gets it, mom,” Murphy groaned, “Come on, Nick, out of the damn car.”
“I’ll be okay,” I promised as I slid out of the backseat and slammed the door, “We get up to much and I’ll let you know, alright?”
“You’d better.” She drove off with a scowl, leaving me alone with the miscreant.
“Alright! I have a limited budget, but I feel like my man needs a steak.”
“Steak? I was thinking something more along the lines of pasta. Nothing I have to fight with,” I did wish I hadn’t missed out of my mom’s spaghetti.
Murphy rolled his eyes, “God you are boring! Tell you what, we get some liq steak and add that to a big vat of pasta. Does that sate his majesty?”
“Why the protein pushing?”
“It all works best when I feed the beast,” he replied casually, thumping his chest. No one else was going to catch the little ripple under his shirt as the organism moved. “Besides, when is the last time we got to properly bro-out? Scotch and steaks! Try and tell me that isn’t exactly what you need right now?”
“Alright, fine. When you’re right, you’re right.”
“Bitch please, I’m always right,” he reminded, widening his trademark smirk.
Food acquired, we tromped our way through the crisp evening to his home. Similar to mine in terms of layout, though his was a bit of a mess. There were clothes scattered around the house, and it didn’t seem like anyone had vacuumed in a while. A few bean bag chairs were tossed around, as well as a cloth sofa. His family opted to put their dining table behind the kitchen in that one nook not visible from the front.
“Where are your parents?”
He frowned for a split second, “Out, somewhere. Working late? I don’t know honestly, we don’t keep in touch.”
I frowned, “You said they were gonna be gone all weekend.”
“Because they are,” he assured me. It wasn’t bluster either, he believed what he was telling me. “Listen man, on another night, we can get into it about my parents. But not tonight, yeah?”
He was giving me a place to stay and feeding me, I wasn’t going to push boundaries. Very few existed with Murphy; I’d respect those he made a point to mention. “Sure thing man.”
“But come on, make yourself at home. I’ll cook stuff and you can take a drink.” He dropped the bag on the counter and opened a cabinet, procuring a bottle with a large ‘A’ emblazoned on the label. “Not the best stuff ever, but still Scotch.”
He poured me a shot and slid it over the bar between the living room and kitchen. I took it and hesitated for a moment before slamming it back.
Dear Lord did that burn.
My friend laughed as I wheezed and choked from the abrupt burn of the liquor. He took his own shot with a lot more grace than I managed and poured us a second round. “Come on, Nicky, don’t quit on me now.”
“F-fuck you,” I choked out as I grabbed the second shot. God it hurt, but I wasn’t about to be outperformed by my clown of a friend.
A second one down the hatch. A refresher for the burn ripping through my throat. “Man that is bad,” I sputtered as Murphy started filling a pot with water.
“It’s Scotch, the stuff isn’t meant to be gentle,” he laughed as the water was put on to boil. “Because for some reason, when the asshole on Earth made this stuff, he decided that it needed to feel like you were chugging fire.”
“Humans are assholes,” I muttered as he thankfully passed me a glass of water.
“I’ll drink to that.” He poured himself a third shot and glanced at me.
“Oh fuck you! You know I have to take another!”
He grinned, “Of course you do! I calculate my actions more than you think.” As he’d done already, he poured and slid the shot glass back to me with that shit-eating grin. “Bottoms up!”
This one hurt less, the alcohol already dulling my sense of pain. That or I was better adjusted now.
Murphy was content to be quiet and focus on cooking for a little bit while I studied the bottom of a shot glass and thought about my night. “Hey, Murph,” I started.
He shot me a sideways glance as he began to fry the steaks on the grimy stove-top.
“Do you think we’re freaks?”
“Nah,” he said with a dismissive shake, “I think we’re a bunch of oddballs. Freaks? Nah. I think your guilt is talking and that shit needs to stop. Last I remembered, Nicholas Weld was a fun drunk.”
“Nicholas Weld doesn’t normally do something so dumb,” I replied as the alcohol really began to set in. “He normally doesn’t threaten his perfect girlfriend with a fucking superpower.”
Murphy groaned, “Oh come on man, everyone has bad days! Get over yourself already! She won’t hold it against you, and you said some dumb shit after a really bad dinner. We both know you and Xana are great together; she’ll forgive you, probably give you some shit, and that’ll be that. Now, get happy damn it! Don’t make me get another pipe,” he threatened.
He mentioned a pipe and I cringed; I was glad the alcohol was masking the pain of the abuse I had suffered earlier. “I’m down on myself, not threatening to grow. Besides, I only have like eight kilos sitting around, I couldn’t do that much damage even if I wanted to.”
He stared at me intently, “Could you eat yourself?”
“You eat mass right, to convert?” I nodded. “So, you’re made of meat. If it was really desperate, could you just steal your own muscle and fat to bulk up for a bit?”
I shuddered at the thought, “I don’t want to start digging into myself, that sets a scary precedent. Besides, all I can eat is dead stuff. I tried eating living tissues once and it didn’t do anything.”
He shrugged, “You’re the owner, maybe you’re like a weird exception?”
“All the same, I’m not gonna try it out. Taking kilogram sized chunks out of myself doesn’t sound great. Plus, if I started devouring myself, idk how I would stop. Generally I eat all of something, not parts.”
“I’m not saying just do it all willy nilly! But, like, if shit went very south, it might be an option. You never know when we might need a little extra kick, ya know?”
“Shut up an’ pour us another round, you lightweight,” I said with a shake of my head, “I’m not nearly drunk enough to find you entertaining.
His grin turned to a giddy smile, “There’s the fun loving Nick I know!”
“I said pour!”
Murphy obliged and we both slammed the shot.
Pouring a jar of sauce over the pasta, he cut up the liq steak and threw it into the mix. “In hindsight, we probably should have had you eat before drinking; you are gonna be so fucking smashed in a bit.”
“Well, you did say you wanted to get me sufficiently libated, right?”
He grinned, “I do suppose I did.”
We were content to eat quietly for a second, Murphy standing across the bar from me while I perched on a barstool.
“Hey Murphy,” I started.
The fork hit his plate as he looked up, indignant. “So help me, if this is another spiel about your melancholy for your actions…”
“No, it isn’t.”
His mood lightened, “Oh, go ahead.”
“I was thinking about the discussion we had in class this morning. Do we make things better? I mean, I know the gangsters are just causing damage thanks to turf wars. But Reckoners, do we really help? If we beat down Surface Dwellers, does Imperium just fill the void? Are there criminal versions of us: small timers who want to be a big name? Is this just bound to be a cycle?”
Murphy mulled the idea over a minute, “I think you’re getting too withdrawn man. You’re dreaming way too far out, way beyond what we control. There was that old saying from Earth: all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. We know of some evil bastards, so we’re doing something about it. Simple.”
He was right, but still, something felt wrong to me.
It may have been the booze talking, but I felt like life was never going to be simple again.