Crime and Punishment: Bold Plans

4/11/2079

At the age of sixteen, most girls are busy gossiping about people they are forced into school with, not stuck in the backroom of an illegal fight venue with a gangster monitoring your every movement. “Do you have to be eating that?” I asked, incredulous that he was eating a massive haunch of meat like some kind of savage.  

The thug gave me a confused glance as he ripped another mouthful of meat off the bone.  “Gotta get the smell of meat into that little monsters nostrils,” he said, his voice gruff.  

I felt pity for the ‘little monster’ in question since it was just an innocent dog, one that had been unlucky enough to be bred to fight.  The poor pup was drooling, smelling the meat amidst the stench of shit that filled the room. “Gregor, can’t you give him a little bit?”

My chaperone for the night shook his head, “Dog needs to be hungry.  Needs to be properly motivated. A desperate animal is a more dangerous one, be careful reaching close to his cage.  Ye might smell enough like food to him he’ll take a snap a ye’.”

I withdrew my hand away from the cage as the dog continued to pant and stare at the chunk of meat Gregor was holding.  

The Imperium member was middle aged, his body lean thanks to years of continued violence.  Scars marked the tanned forearms and splits in his skin could still be seen on his face from a fight earlier in the week.  His brown hair was slicked back, and he was dressed in garb one would associate with an old biker gang from Earth: jeans and a leather vest.  

“Lexi,” he said between bites, “I know you don’t wan’ be here.  I’m not an idiot.”

I could have debated the point, but I wasn’t about to lie over this, not if he knew.  

“Your ma and pa have been members forever, and this is their way to include you.  Maybe you should just be grateful that they want you to be a part of their life. Some people aren’t so lucky.”  

Lucky?  Gregor was going to talk to me about luck when I was being forced to watch a dog fight?  

“Gregor, you’re a nice guy, but I don’t want to be a part of this life.  I want to go home and read a book. Hell, I’d rather go home and fucking scrub the floor.  Anything.”

He took the comment in stride, for which I was grateful.  “I understand. But you have to remember, you’ve seen this now.  If cops show up any time soon, we only have one person to blame. Your folks may have a fair amount of pull, but they ain’t got that much.”  

“You think I’m dumb enough to call the cops on Imperium?”

The thug shrugged, “You never know with kids.  Sometimes they get a little stupid and someone should set them straight.”  

“I know that if my parents have said anything about me, it’s that I’m annoyingly smart and you should watch out for me.”  

“Aye, that they did,” he said with a laugh.  “You’re a quick one, they made sure to warn me.  Which is why I’m gonna level with you miss.” While Gregor was as nice as they came–for being a thug–he could get frightening very quickly.  “You’re here because you mom and dad insisted you get involved with Imperium business, see if you belong here. Tonight, you’re going to follow me and do what I say, otherwise I have to make you follow.”  

“I’m not dumb.  I’m not going to get in a fight with you, Gregor.”

Satisfied, he relaxed and set to finishing the end of his dinner, taunting the poor dog who hadn’t been fed in days.  

While he was a nice enough guy, Gregor did seem to have one misconception: he assumed that my parents were decent.  

For fucks sake, they were members of Imperium, a gang whose whole principle was human superiority over the Zari.  They were an exclusive gang that praised humanity and found it faultless, a victim forced into dire circumstances by an oppressive and unjust alien regime.  

That was where their grasp on reality seemed to falter.  

Imperium was convinced that humanity was supposed to carve out their own nook of Tso’got, to resume the old ways and put humanities needs above the local population.  They abhorred the Zari and sought to undermine them at every possible turn: corruption, vandalism, robbery, murder, etc. If there was a crime that would deal a blow to the Zari, they took it upon themselves to act.  

It was just a pride issue that refused to die.  The flames of hate were fueled by a handful of people who brought around drugs, booze, and cheap entertainment.  Everyone was fed a steady propaganda diet of human superiority and told to indulge in carnal and hedonistic delights as often as possible.  

Those who were involved saw no reason to opt out; why should they anyways?  It helped them forget how mediocre life was for humans on Tso’got in most cases.

Cops should have been able to round up most of these losers, but the problem was they had some notoriously strong Adapted in their ranks.  Considering they were basically a bunch of human-centric anarchists, it was a scary thought what some of their soldiers might do if a war broke out between them and the government.  

I was snapped out of my thoughts by Gregor getting off the stool he had been perching on.  Through a door there was a loud chanting and stomping as people waited for the next dog to be brought out into the ring.  

A spike in volume as the door was opened and someone poke their head through.  “Gregor, he ready?”

“Aye, he’s a hungry bastard!”

“Bring him the fuck out!”  

The gang banger strutted over to the kennel, provoking a growl from the mutt in the cage.  “Stand back, Lexi, the bastard might go for you, you’d be the easier meal if he slips out.”  

He seemed lighthearted and carefree, but I was still apprehensive that the dog might run for me; I took a few steps back to be safe.  As the cage was opened, the dog tried to lunge but Gregor was deceptively quick for a guy his size. He snagged the collar and held fast, lifting the dog just enough it wasn’t choking, but enough it couldn’t get traction to bolt.  

“Come on, girl,” he shouted to me as he hauled the dog to the door and flung it open with his free hand.  

I followed, and was hit with what felt like a heat wave from the mob inside.  Everyone was clamoring, shouting, holding money, screaming as they placed bets.  There was a slight rise to the room so people in the back could still see the fight in the middle, but most everyone was pressing to try and be against the circle of fence that constituted the arena  for the dogs. A path was cleared and a cheer went out as Gregor brought the next challenger through; people opened the gate and he tossed the dog through, pitting him against another mutt of about the same size.  

A few steps brought Gregor back to me; while I didn’t care for his presence, he was at least someone I knew and was somewhat familiar with. He was a known evil while everyone else probably just saw me as fresh meat in the crowd.  

If nothing else, he kept me safe in this sea.  

The dogs charged each other after a few barks and a roar of approval went up from the crowd; I was the only person in the room to look away in horror.  This was…wrong on so many levels.

“Don’t look away,” Gregor insisted, “It makes you look weak.  Besides, it won’t be long. My dog is a better fighter.”

He placed a hand on my chin and dragged my face back up to spectate.  

Gregor knew what he was talking about…and that made it almost worse to watch.  He knew the outcome before the contest even started.

My vision began to swim, my ears splitting from all the noise.  The arena smelled like sweat, blood, piss, and shit all blended together in a fetid fog that hung over the venue.  I raised my hands and covered my ears, but the throbbing still sounded as loud in my brain. Bodies jostled against me and I stumbled to my knees as everyone rushed ring side, Gregor’s dog had drawn blood and the tension was amping up rapidly.  

Gregor was distracted and didn’t notice I had been brought down, and neither did anyone else.  Someone stepped on my foot, another my calf, and people walked into me, oblivious. I fell to my hands and knees, my mind going blank as the noise in the room surged though I didn’t know why this time.  The floor smelled even worse with death and decay mixed into that pungent mixture.

I added vomit as my body revolted.  

“Stop,” I begged in a breathless whisper as I continued to shake on the floor.  “Stop!” This time I screamed, but it had the same effect: none at all.

People were absorbed by the fight and it was easy to ignore a sixteen year old girl.  

It was in a puddle of my own vomit the world seemed to slow down, to change to me.  Everyone and everything went silent, impossibly so, except for one solitary clicking.  

My watch.

The tick-tock was thunderous and seemed to eclipse everything in existence, and I understood.  Machines, robots, technology, it all made sense.

But how could it?  I loved living things, biology and ecology; I wasn’t an engineer.

And yet, there were schematics and designs running through my head at a staggering pace.  

I didn’t know all this.  How could I? These were things I had never seen…

And then it all made sense in an instant; I had knowledge that was impossible because I was one of those people who were supposed to be impossible.  

I was an Adapted.  

No sooner had my epiphany come than the world resumed at normal, throwing me back into my puddle of vomit and the cacophony that threatened to perforate my eardrums.  

Gregor finally noticed that I had fallen and he heaved me up to my feet, wiping the vomit crudely off my lip.  “Come on,” he growled, dragging me from the crowd.

“I’m…” I whimpered to myself as I kept looking around, seeing places that things could be engineered, improved upon.  

Repaired most of all.  A recurring theme with every design that popped into my minds eye was that it fixed itself.  

How did I know this?  I didn’t even know what I was looking at!  It just looked like trace outlines of a schematic my brain was drawing with some imaginary pencil.  

“ALEXIS!”  My attention finally snapped back to reality; I hadn’t noticed he’d been trying to talk to me for the last few seconds.

“Yeah, sorry,” I panted, still short of breath.  

“What the hell happened?  I look away for two minutes and you’re face down in a pool of your own fucking vomit!”

Even though he knew I found it deplorable, what people were doing to the dogs, I still felt a strange amount of shame.  “I can’t deal with it. I’m not made for this. I felt sick, I just wanted it to stop.” Tears started rolling down my face as I stopped thinking about the drawings that my brain was erecting; instead I saw the dog and felt that oppressive throng of people cheering as one animal ripped apart the other.  

Gregor’s stern expression softened and he pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, tossing it to me.  “Here, wipe up.”

I muttered a quiet thanks and wiped around my lips and chin, dabbing what I could off the front of my shirt.  

Before I could return the square of cloth, a pair of figures burst through the door, the people I wanted to see least right now.  

My parents.  

“What the hell is she doing back here, Gregor?”

“Your girl threw up, Tom,” he replied honestly.  “Too much for her.”

My mom glared daggers at me, ashamed and angry at the same time.  “Lexi, you’re gonna be a part of this family, and that means learning to stomach this shit.  You understand?”

“No!”

Everyone in the room was startled, me most of all.  I hadn’t meant to say anything, but it was as if my brain couldn’t tolerate her trying to force this.  

“Why you litt-”

My dad grabbed mom by the shoulder and held her back.  “Lex, this is what we do. This is what this family does.”

I shook my head, “I don’t want to do this.”

He frowned, “If you aren’t with us, we risk you being a rat.”

“Your my fucking parents!  I’m not going to narc on my fucking parents!”

Gregor leaned forward, “All due respect, Tom, Mary, maybe Alexis in’t cut out for this.  Maybe you should just trust her.”

“Maybe you should mind your fucking tongue,” my mother snapped, her voice cold.  “How we raise our child is none of your goddamn concern.”

She looked at my dad who seemed to be mulling over Gregor’s idea.  “Lexi, you’re our daughter. We want you to share this with us.”

Tears were streaming down my face, “I-I can’t see that again.  I don’t want to hear that again.”

He sighed, “Then know that if there is ever a rat, we won’t protect you.  If Imperium believes you are responsible, it’ll get messy. Do you understand?”  

“I don’t care, just let me go home,” I pleaded.  

My dad stepped forward and gave me a hug; I could smell the booze on him from about five feet away.  The man was drunk as a skunk and it was probably why he was willing to agree to this. I didn’t care, I needed to leave, to be anywhere but in this cesspool.  

The ride home was silent, uncomfortable.  I could feel my mom’s disappointment, her misgivings and mistrust in me since I wouldn’t participate.  To her, I must have been a threat, someone opposed to her existence and her cause. My dad was a little harder to read, but he certainly wasn’t elated with my choices.  

Once we arrived at our little townhouse, I nearly sprinted upstairs to my room, fishing through my desk for a pad of paper and a pen, hurriedly writing down all the images I kept seeing, hoping to the heavens that giving it an outlet would make them stop popping up.  

I was dimly aware that my father and mother both checked in on me at some point, but my mind was elsewhere.  I jotted down more than just schematics: I started adding notes, questions to the strange bank of knowledge.

Truth be told, I wasn’t sure this fever dream of a night was anything more than a bad trip from something I was slipped.  

Sometime around three in the morning, I fell asleep on my desk.  

A mixture of horror and excitement gripped me when I came to and found the notebook still littered with drawings and formulas with my notes scribbled in the margins.  

There was no denying this anymore: I had Adapted.  Cheap floorboards creaked as my dad walked downstairs to get breakfast, reminding me I wasn’t alone; I couldn’t let my parents know what happened.  Mom would tell me that I was obligated to be on of the chosen few for Imperiums premiere task force. I would be saddled with making weapons for their grunts and helping perpetuate their misguided venture into anarchy.  

No.  My parents couldn’t know.  They could never know.

(9/23/80)

I was entirely prepared for the two of them to be on board with my plan: Murphy was a risk taker and Nicholas was a fan of drastic measures.  Surprising still was the fact that he wasn’t a fan of his own plan.

Stuff with his dad probably skewed his perspective temporarily.  He’d be back to the same idiot in a few days.

“So we get a gang war going,” Nick said, tentatively, “How many people die in the crossfire?  Ciel only has a few places we can really take a fight without risk of collateral, but Imperium doesn’t generally go up towards the industrial side of the city.”  

Murphy shrugged, “Hey man, maybe we gotta break a few eggs for this omelet.  Like you said, things are going to get worse before they can get better.”

Nick seemed to take that like a hit to the chest; maybe that fight with his dad made more of an impression than I was giving it credit for.  

If his head wasn’t on straight, that could pose a problem for us.  There were some people I didn’t like our odds against without him. Goliath and Ironclad were two we definitely couldn’t bring down without Eldrtich helping.  

Truth be told, the longer we could keep Nick in his ‘suit’, the more likely we were to come ahead on any fight.  That form of his was crazy strong, especially if he could endure long enough to have it mutate and give him some freaky biological weaponry.  

“But I lost control for like, an hour, and I still almost killed a guy.  What happens when we push Shockwave and he goes ape shit? He doesn’t give a shit about hurting some innocent bystanders.”

“He won’t,” I replied bluntly.  

Both turned to me, interested.  

“Shockwave and Beleth have been leaders of their respective gangs for years not because they fly off the handle at a moments notice.  They are experienced, used to conflict, used to a fight coming their way. Put simply, both are probably expecting an all out gang war to happen anyways.  What they aren’t counting on is an outside influence helping to tip the scales.”

“You are awfully sure about that,” Nick pointed out.  “You’re betting our asses that they don’t expect us.”  

I rolled my eyes, “You made me leader for a reason, of course I thought this through.  Do either of you know the last time that a group of Reckoners went up against either one of those gangs?”

They both shook their head.

“Surface Dwellers crushed a group called the Karma Knights–”

“What a shit name.”

“About two years ago,” I continued, ignoring Murphy.  “There were about six Reckoners who tried to stack up against Beleth and his crew; they did remove one Adapted from the picture but were otherwise overwhelmed.”

“It’s Beleth, the guy has gone toe to toe with Clemency and won.”

“He is literally known across Tso’got and not just because he has the balls to not wear a mask.”  

“Are you two sycophants done now?”

Both nodded.  

“We aren’t going to try and get a head to head fight with either of these groups.  That would be suicide; all we have to do is distract and destabilize Imperium long enough Surface Dwellers make a move against them.  Beleth and Shockwave will likely end up going for a round two against one another, and by that time we can hopefully have networked out and managed to earn favor with other Reckoners who can help us bring those two down once they have their duel.”

Murphy stroked his chin, still grinning.  “Cut off the head, the body dies.”

“Exactly.  Both Shockwave and Beleth as seen as unbeatable, unkillable monsters.  It is part of why they are reluctant to have a round two. Their first fight was a tie, and even that was a hit to either one’s reputation.  Whoever loses round two loses their stake in the city.”

Nick let his hands fall in acceptance.  “Okay, it seems like a solid framework for what to do, but how do we know where we can hit without getting ourselves killed.  I’d like to point out that either one of those syndicates has more than double the Adapted that Rogue Sentries does; seeing as the three of us had trouble with Shock and Awe, I’d rather not run ourselves into a big stack of murderous super people.”  

Even Murphy gave a solemn-ish nod, “He does have a point, Alexis.  What makes you sure that we can pull this off without getting in way over our head?”

I let out a sigh, “I chose Imperium to go after because…my parents are members.”  

A stunned silence fell over the room as Murphy and Nick tried to process what I had just said.  “But…they seemed so normal!”

“They have as much of a secret identity as we do,” I replied, “Their nights take on a whole different turn.  I actually Adapted because they brought me to a dog fight. It overstimulated my system.”

To my surprise, this seemed to almost make Nick more comfortable but it unsettled Murphy a scoche.  

“Are you gonna be able to keep your head clear?”

“What do you mean?”

He grabbed Nick for emphases, “As mentioned earlier, this guy recently lost control and nearly killed a couple unlucky dorks.  I don’t want you getting us in a place where our backs are needlessly against the wall. The last thing we need to do is get ourselves killed because you aren’t thinking properly.  Nick’s mistake was his own and only jeopardized him; yours WILL put us at risk.”

“For being someone so gung-ho about my plan a second ago, you seem oddly reserved now that you know my mom and dad are gang bangers.”  

Nick looked on, awkwardly, as Murphy and I ran opposite of one another; the only thing out of place was that we were both being serious.  

“I trust you, Alexis,” Murphy exhaled, “But that’s because I know you aren’t super impulsive, it’s why I had no trouble giving you the reigns.  I’d get us into fucking trouble for sure. But for you to want to go after the gang your own mom and dad are in…that’s personal and personal issues make people stupid.”  

I wrinkled my face in frustration; the smug bastard did have a good point.  Murphy was so obnoxiously smart…more infuriating thing was that I couldn’t figure out why he never pushed himself to be anything else.

“Murphy, you aren’t wrong, and me wanting to run their gang out of town might factor into my motivations for shutting them down…but my plan isn’t stupid.”

“Maybe you could tell us why?”  Nick had seemed to find a voice playing moderator.  

“I have been keeping tabs of where my parents have gone any number of nights.  Imperium is an easy target for me because I have inside information.”

“What keeps them from suspecting you and killing us in our sleep?”

“They’ve been proud members of Imperium by night and open with me about it for the last 4 years.  They don’t know I’m Adapted and I make a point to keep them oblivious to the fact. If the cops showed up, that would be one thing, but a group of Reckoners coming in doesn’t really scream ‘rat’, it says that someone found you.  Reckoner groups don’t go to the police because of Suppression, so it should keep my nose clean.”

He seemed to mull it over before relaxing back into the bean bag on the floor, “Alright, good enough for me.  Nick, you happy?”

“I don’t know that happy is the right word,” he confessed, “But maybe I’m just rattled by being three feet away from Goliath and Beleth without any meat to arm myself.”  

“No offense man, you aren’t exactly who I’d want to stack against Beleth.”  

I groaned, “The whole point of this is that we don’t ever have to just fight the man.”

Murphy grinned, “Yeah, but if we were going to, I’m just saying that I’d definitely have the best shot at coping with him.  I’m all bouncy and spry and shit…he’d have trouble catching me. You walk around in a suit made of spaceship metal and Nick’s mobility isn’t his best attribute.”  

“Speaking of spaceship metal,” I said with a snap, “We need to play with your new toy.  Nick, you have material?”

“Yeah, I have about 30 kilos of raw material.”  He stopped for a second, “Are you going to use me like a big ass punching bag?”

“Not a punching bag, but instead a smashing bag!  Very different bags you see,” Murphy pointed out with a snicker.  

Nick grumbled, “My power is being undervalued by a bunch of idiots.”  

“Your just jealous of my new stick,” Murphy replied with a wink.

“Don’t make me regret giving you this,” I groaned as I grabbed a dense chunk of metal from my backpack and tossed it to the Druid.  

Murphy caught it and seemed surprised by the weight.  “This isn’t as light as I thought it would be.”

“And I didn’t think you were some kind of bitch,” I shot back.  “I don’t want you swinging it so damn hard that it breaks mid-fight; it’d repair, but not instantly.”

Murphy twisted his hands on the cylinder of metal and it sprung out, narrowing slightly as it went.  The end result was about 5’ in length, and weighing nearly nine pounds. While mostly hollow, the metal I used was dense and built to endure.  And like with everything else I made, it was rigged with the little mechanisms dedicated to nothing but self reapartation.

He gave it a test twirl and a smile.  “Definitely more aerodynamic than that bloody pipe I snagged earlier.”

We all ventured out back; Murphy’s absentee parents had managed to snag a deal with their place since they had access to what neither Nick or I had.

A yard.  

His parents had erected a hell of a fence too, which kept anyone from peeking in – awfully helpful for letting us practice without anyone peeping.  

Nick shed his clothing, a little bashful still, and started to grow a coat of the tendrils, more quickly now it seemed.  After months of practice, it only made sense he could channel things more rapidly.

If only my gift was so easy to train.  

Meanwhile, Murphy twirled the staff, getting accustomed to its weight and heft, focusing intently, his trademark grin gone for a moment.

Nick had asked me a while ago if I had any idea where Murphy learned to fight and I still wasn’t any closer to an answer now.  I could only assume that was what he did when he was truant…but I still didn’t know where he went or who taught him.

“Alright, ready,” Eldritch hissed.  

“How much?”

“Six-hundred kilos,” he replied.  “Should be able to take a decent beating without hitting me underneath.”  

Murphy nodded and sprung forward, bringing the staff down in a swift arc.  Eldritch seemed to be more confident in his body, faster now as he raised an arm to block.  

The staff rang out as it collided with the hardened cells, but the metal didn’t flex or break, Eldritch’s limb instead bent around the weapon.  

Ripping it free of the growths, Murphy turned and let his grip loosen so the staff almost slipped free of his grasp; catching it at the last second, he finished the swing like he was holding a bat.  

It hit Eldritch hard enough to knock him over, and the staff didn’t break.  

“Holy hell this thing packs a wallop,” Murphy said, giddy.  “How are you doing under there man?”

Eldritch growled as he got back to his feet, “I think you broke a rib with that.  Definitely hurts.”

Murphy gave it another few spins around and jabbed it into the ground, using it like a makeshift pole-vault to leap over our gigantic friend.  As usual, his landing was perfect and he rounded quickly, smacking Eldritch in the shoulder.

“Satisfied?” I inquired.  

“Very!  What is it made of?”

“It’s a layer of titanium-carbide over tungsten-steel to give it some extra heft.  I had to use something dense so it could be mostly hollow to collapse. Unfortunately, it means if you break the thing, you’ll have to get both parts next to each other for it to rebuild.  It’s a bit too heavy for my little drones to drag the pieces together.”

“I don’t  think it’s going to break,” Eldritch replied as he began to shed off his coat, “My hardened cells can take some abuse and it cracked the outer layer pretty easily.”  

Murphy gripped the center and twisted, collapsing the staff.  “Yeah, this is gonna be a solid upgrade for me.” He regarded the weapon and looked back at me, “When are you going to upgrade your own stuff?”

I was caught off guard by the question.  “Wait, what?”

“You volunteered to make Murphy something, but you haven’t made your own upgrades.  I know you have made stuff for other teams to help a city over, but not your own suit or weaponry all this time.”

My voice couldn’t escape my throat.  

“Alexis, you gotta make sure you’re staying relevant.  The fighting is only going to get harder from here on, especially if we’re volunteering to take on some big names.  Eldritch has to eat more, I have to keep working on my fighting, and you need to use what you do best.”

“My suit sucks compared to you guys,” I muttered, despondently.  

Nick slid back on his pants and stepped forward to give me a hug.  He had no idea, but my heart nearly melted in my chest as he pressed against me.  “You need to think better of yourself,” he said gently, “Murphy and I need our third member backing us up.  I think you’re Adaptation has the least limitation of all of ours, you’ve just got to be willing to be confident in yourself.”  

While I appreciated the sentiment, something felt off about Nick saying that.

“Xana talked to you about this, didn’t she?”

He blushed and looked away, nervous.  “She…might have divulged to me about me being a simple minded male.”

“Of course she couldn’t keep her fucking mouth shut!”

Murphy just laughed, “Alright, we have a game plan, we have a goal in mind, when do we make a move against Imperium?”

I focused up, “Four days from now, that’s when their next dog fight is gonna be.  Generally kept on the down-low without any Adapted enforcement, should be an easy hit.  Crash the joint, take the money, let the dogs run, interrupt the cash flow for Imperium.  It’ll be a big hit to morale too since it has been a weekly staple for them about 3 years running.”

“Put them on edge, I like it.  What if there is Adapted security?”

“We go over-prepared,” Nick supplied for me, “I come in double-sized and clear out the place.  Alexis’ drones can scout the place and give us an idea of what we’re up against. We have the upside of surprise and environmental support due to the fact that none of their Adapted are going to be able to go too hard without maiming their own members.”

“Nick’s right,” I added, “Imperium is human-centric and very fond of its own members.  They’ll kill a rat without a second thought, but they protect and look after their own like family.  When I was there, the dog fighting ring was a madhouse, chock-full of people; if we throw a two-tonne Neklim in there and he starts roaring, they will probably destroy the place on their own without our help.”  

“I’ll make sure to eat plenty,” he replied.

“And you need to upgrade your suit, just in case,” Murphy insisted.  “Seriously, don’t relegate yourself to a support role, you can do so much more.”  

I could imagine that he knew how I felt about myself prior to this…he picked up from Nick in just a matter of seconds how rough I was on myself.  If only the guy gave half a shit…

“If I do it, will the two of you leave me the hell alone?”

“I make no promises,” he replied.  

Nick shrugged.  “Maybe?”

“Y’all are hopeless.  But okay, I’ll upgrade my damn suit.”  

With that settled, the night seemed to rapidly turn into a time to blow off some steam, to overeat and simply chill, be kids before we took on a more serious mantle.  

As the night wound down, highlighted by Murphy passing out on the couch, Nick sat next to me as I was drawing in my notebook.  “More design options?”

I shook my head, “Going to give my Adaptation a direction to steer itself.  It works better to have a concept in mind than to start from scratch.”

“Sorry about earlier,” he commented, “It was kind of lousy of me to bring up your personal stuff like that.”  

“At least you put on pants though,” I replied as I put down my pencil.  

He blushed, “Yeah, when Murphy had to break me out he gave me a hug and I forgot I come out of my ‘suit’ naked.”  

I was slow to chuckle and he noticed.  

“You gonna be okay doing this?”

“Yeah, I will,” I assured him.  “I’m just…struggling with feeling okay.  You and Murphy both smacked me upside the head with this ‘we need you to fight’ message and it scares me.  I don’t get to be huge like you, or super adroit like him, I’m just a girl in a tin can.”

“Somehow I feel like it isn’t made of tin.”

I rolled my eyes, “You’re sounding like Murphy.”  

“A weekend with the schmuck will do that,” he lamented.  “I wonder if Hosjon will notice tomorrow.”

Remembering school felt like a hit to the chest.  “I think I may take a number from Murphy’s book and play hookey tomorrow.”

Nick almost fell off the stool, “What?”

“When else am I going to get a chance to upgrade my suit?  The dog fight is Thursday night, and Monday is my lightest class load so…that’s as good as I can get.  Gives me about 12 reliable hours to work and upgrade the armor and weaponry.”

“Well, at least your grades can take the hit,” he laughed, “I’m feeding my parents a pack of lies that we are working on a project to help boost standing; what nonsense are you saying?”

“Eh, just that I’m going out with a boyfriend who I am afraid to introduce to a couple of Imperium members.”  

Nick laughed, “And they’re okay with that?”

“Honestly, they are happy to have me out of their hair more often than not.  My mom and I hate each other…and my dad usually sides with her.”

My friend frowned, “I’m sorry you don’t a boyfriend to confide in.”

If only the idiot knew…

“You and me both,” I lamented.  “You want a ride home or you gonna crash out here?”

He shrugged, “I’ll just crash here.  You heading out?”

I nodded, “Want to wake up in my own bed so I can get right to work tomorrow and use all the time I get.”

We said our goodbyes and I gave him a hug, relishing the physical contact as I got into my car and drove away.  

Part of me was terrified and the other part exhilarated: it was official, we were going to take the fight to Imperium.  

But first things first, I had to make good on my promise to the Rogue Sentries.  

Dragoon was in desperate need of an upgrade.  

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