Crime and Punishment: Animals

(9/28/2080)

“Alexis?  Alexis!”

I snapped back to reality as the teacher waved a hand in front of my face.  “Yes ma’am?”

Ms. Carn was a good-natured lady: decent, good natured, and didn’t discriminate against her human students.  “You okay? You are normally one of the students I can count on to participate in lecture but you didn’t say a word yesterday or the day before.”  She didn’t comment on me basically being asleep a second ago.

“Trouble at home,” I confessed, “I haven’t been sleeping particularly well.”  Another white lie; I’d gotten good at telling half truths.

“Well, be sure to get it taken care of, Alexis.  Now, off you go.”

“Thank you miss.”  Without further prompting I slipped out and hurried out of the building towards the parking lot.  

Of course I was a bit off my game; how was I supposed to focus on school when I was going to raid an Imperium dog fighting ring in just a handful of hours?

As expected, Nick was already waiting beside my car…and for some reason alone.  

“Where’s Murphy?  He was supposed to be here.  I find it hard to believe he’d play hookey on us.”

My friend shrugged, “No idea, just said he needed to take care of something.  Said we can pick him up after we get me all set up.”

I rolled my eyes, “Sometimes he’s more trouble than he’s worth.  Seriously, we agreed on this, what the hell is he doing?”

Nick and I got in the car, driving initially away from my home and instead towards the fringes of town.  We wanted to get Eldritch to be big, we needed him to have plenty of raw material. Besides, if there was any Adapted enforcement, the last thing we needed was him being run out of juice prematurely.  

“How much do we need to get you?”

“I would say probably 150 kilos would be more than enough.  It would let me grow at about 20 to 1 comfortably with plenty left to regenerate and stay fed for about two hours.”

“God willing we don’t need you up for anywhere near that long.”    

While Eldritch could do a full 40 to 1 conversion of meat into his growths, we had found that about half of that was optimal in terms of making the growth sustainable and giving it extra duration for a prolonged engagement.  Every time he had used his pinnacle growth rate, the stuff had started cannibalizing itself after about 15 minutes. If he did half the growth rate, it lasted nearly an hour.

A thirty minute drive got us far enough away from the city that bigger animals could be found on the side of the road.  Within half a mile we found a pair of liq; each was consumed by my friend and I shuddered as I watched the body simply de-materialize at his touch.  

For Murphy, seeing Nick transform was the weird bit.  For me, it was seeing him erase flesh from existence.

He got back in the passenger seat and relaxed, closing his eyes to check his ‘storage’.  “One-hundred and forty-five kilograms. Close enough.”

“Good, one problem solved.  A two-tonne Eldritch won’t go down easy, regardless of who’s trying…and still no word from Murphy.  What the fuck is that idiot doing?”

Nick shrugged, unsure.  “He doesn’t tell me where he goes when he isn’t at school.  Never has, probably never will.”

I frowned, annoyed.  We were his team mates, what was so bad that he couldn’t tell us?  He was literally trusting us with his life but he wouldn’t let us know where he went when he played hooky?

“Worst comes to worst, we wait a week, right?”  

I frowned and let out an exasperated sigh; the notion of waiting another week to move on Imperium seemed terrible; waiting out this week had been excruciating enough.  If Murphy genuinely ruined this for us, I was going to find a way to get through his thick skull.

As if he heard us talking about him, both of our phones chimed.  

Idiot: Sorry, had to wrap something up.  The big man all juiced up?

Nick: Good to go.  Where are we picking you up?

Idiot: I’m going to be at my place.  

“I’m gonna kill him,” I growled, “Like, what the hell is his problem?”

Nick clearly wanted to defend his friend but found himself conflicted as well.  “Maybe he was just…”

“Nothing.  He screwed up and don’t try to cover for him,” I replied with a grimace.  “Fortunately, we have our plan and all he needs to do is show up in costume.  No prep required for him.”

My friend winced at that comment; Nick hated needing to gather resources to feel useful.  Without his power he felt fragile.

Then again, I felt fragile even when I was in my armor.  Shock and Awe had been a sobering wake-up for all of us about how vulnerable we were.  

“Hey, you’re all prepped, okay?  We’re gonna be awesome tonight.”

“Sorry just…nervous.  What if we run into some of Imperium’s muscle?”

I thought for a minute before answering.  “The worst case is that we run into Ironclad and Kudzu together.  Both can do a fair amount of damage without risking hurting the other members of Imperium and Kudzu would make fighting in a closed environment a nightmare.  Shockwave won’t be there, he doesn’t ever gamble on the dogs.”

He visibly relaxed hearing that Shockwave wouldn’t be present and I couldn’t blame him.  

It wasn’t a long drive to grab Murphy who seemed like he had been in a fight already.  A cut on his lip hadn’t quite healed yet, and he looked disheveled, like someone threw him in a mound of dirt.  

“Dude, what the hell were you doing?”

Despite the obvious signs of a scuffle, he was wearing that smug-ass grin that never seemed gone for long.  “I was just busy. Don’t worry about it.”

Taking a deep breath, I put on my ‘team captain’ hat and rounded to face the man in my backseat, “We agreed on a time to meet, and you held us up.  Don’t do that to us, Murphy. Don’t just drop shit on us last minute. If we are setting up to pick a fight, you don’t bail on us or suddenly change around the schedule, especially if you don’t fucking tell us why.  Understood?”

Smile was replaced with a frown for a split second, “Okay, yeah.  Fair’s fair.” And just like that, it came back. “So what is the plan tonight, boss?”

“We’re gonna ditch my car about four blocks away and cloak up, head ourselves to the back of the building when things are in full swing.  Then, we’re gonna kick in the door and make a hell of a racket.”

“I know he’s making the racket,” Murphy replied, “But what are you and I doing specifically?”

“You’re going after money and I’m going to free some dogs.  Those poor mutts don’t need to be in cages anymore.” Thinking about it brought back a shiver.    

Nick gave an approving nod, “So what about the people who want to try and get rid of me?”

“I mean….they are members of Imperium and are attending a dog fighting ring.  I think you can smack them in good conscience. Just, not too hard. You are going to be absolutely massive.”  

“More importantly, where am I going to find the money?”

Murphy raised his eyebrows high enough I could notice in the rearview and I shook my head.  “You’ll find the money with anyone accepting bets. Generally speaking there are a couple people who handle the money, and you can find them on either side of the room wearing a bright red shirt.  Last time I scouted the place, they were wearing a belt with a bunch of pouches, those have the money. So, grab what you can.”

“What, are we robbers now?”

“No, Nick,” Murphy replied, indignant, “But we don’t exactly have patronage so we’re gonna skim a little off a criminal organization and treat ourselves.  I know Xana will put out if you buy her a dinner with illegally acquired currency.”

Both Nick and I blushed…albeit for different reasons.  In the backseat Murphy howled with laughter.

There was a pause as we got closer to the arena.

“So, what’s our excuse for tonight?”

“I’m actually a fan of piling on Nick’s alabi,” I replied.  “We’re meeting at your house to work on a project for extra rank with the school.  Your parents aren’t around to vouch against us and it is something Nick has already fed his mom and dad so it’s got credit if my parents weigh in against it.”  

“Glad to…help?”

“You’re only doing your civic duty,” Murphy teased his friend.  “And to think I normally lie because I’m a terrible person! Your deception serves an actual purpose!”

“You are an insufferable brat,” I snapped.  

“You love it.”

“I still haven’t forgiven you for earlier,” I replied.  The edge of his grin faltered.

“I definitely don’t love it,” Nick replied with a roll of his eyes, fortunately injecting a bit of levity back into the atmosphere.  

Murphy clearly was expecting me to voice objection but hadn’t prepared for his best friend to turn traitor.  “Nick…you wound me, man! I thought we were friends! Comrades in arms!”

I ignored the two of them and drove us a few blocks from the venue and parked in the basement level of a parking garage which was predominately empty.  Each of us took a cloaking device and sobered up, getting more into character. While Murphy was content changing in the back seat, I had to go back to the trunk and snag my armor, sliding each chunk over the kevsilk suit with a nervous exhale as the plates interlocked and powered up.  

In the back of my mind, there was a concern I couldn’t push aside.  My parents were going to be there tonight; they were supposed to be somewhere else, anywhere else!  Was I ready for this?

Maybe a good whack upside the head was what they deserved, but it still didn’t feel right; they were my parents after all.  

Last to go on was my helmet, augmenting my field of view to 270 degrees, distorting slightly at the fringes to help me focus on what was directly ahead and keep perspective.  I still wasn’t sure how the hell Nick put up with being able to have a panoramic view and remember which way was forward.

As my suit powered up, I felt Alexis slip away and felt a strange surge of strength that came with being Dragoon; I was a Reckoner who had gone toe to toe with Shock and Awe and lived to talk about it.  A dog fighting ring should be a cakewalk.

Eldritch and Parasite came over beside me, each of them using their active camouflage devices.  “We turn them off when we’re about a block out.” With that said, I turned mine on and went back to looking like regular Alexis; hopefully no one noticed the little pneumatic hiss of me walking around.  

We set off, walking by a few people heading to their car, most a bit intoxicated and not paying us any mind.  Us being in a group kept Zari from pestering us beyond some cat-calling directed at me; Nick turned to defend my honor but I silenced him.  The last thing we wanted to do was draw attention to ourselves.

A block away, Parasite and I discarded the camouflage.  Nick’s simply turned to a picture of someone else while he grew under the guise.  

“I look fucking stupid compared to you guys right now,” he lamented.  

Murphy smiled, “You always look stupid.”  

“I am working with idiots.  How long do you need to grow?”

“With the first layer on already, I probably need two minutes for the slow growth.”  

“Start growing, we’re here.”  

The building didn’t look like anything special; the dog fighting ring hid in a large building where that posed mostly as a gym.  Not only did the front act as a convenient method for laundering the money gained from the dogs, but it helped explain away some of the smells that lingered around the place.  About the front two-thirds of the place were open to the public, except on Thursday nights, when it was closed and they dropped the blackout curtains early. Enough hands made light work for moving exercise equipment to clear room, and they had tinkered with the floor: it was a stage set to adjust at the press of a button.  The floor would elevate towards the back and turn into an impromptu colosseum.

The only part of the building that never opened was the very back where the dogs were held, the place I had been forced to wait that fateful day.  

My heart hammered in my ears and I wasn’t sure if my memory was driving it, or if the current situation was making me a nervous mess.  

“How are we playing this?”

“You and Nick go in the front, I’m gonna loose the dogs and incapacitate anyone looking to slip out the back.  You ready?”

Nick’s projection turned off and revealed a nine foot tall form.  “Let’s do it.”

“Don’t wait, just go,” I insisted as I dropped my own projection and began sprinting around the edge of the building.  

I heard the glass shatter and the scream of the metal being torn from the frame as Eldritch made his entrance to the building, right as I reached the back door.  

A firm kick broke the frame and let me walk in.  

One man was back with the dogs, guarding the kennel and readying them for the next fight.  

Gregor.  

He rounded and pointed a handgun at me, fearless.  There was a second where we stared at one another, no one making a move.  Finally, he broke the tension, “Do you know who we are?”

“Of course I do,” I replied, “Put that down. You don’t need to lose a hand.”  

“Listen, little girl, I don’t know what you think you’re doing here, but you should take a sec and really think about who you’re fuckin’ with.  You and your friends’re dead.”

I clenched my fist; Gregor wasn’t a bad guy, but he needed to get out of my way.  People were going to be breaking through any second now, I needed to play crowd control.  

A roar from Eldritch shook the room and Gregor stumbled forward, clutching his head; I took the opportunity and rushed him, smacking the gun aside and heaving him by the collar, throwing him away.  I ripped open the door into the arena and tossed a flashbang and a stun grenade that would each trigger multiple times in six second intervals. It kept the mob at bay for now as people stumbled back, dazed and disoriented.  

A bullet ricocheted off my armor; even with the kev-silk suit, I still felt the impact.  I turned, “Don’t be stupid.”

Another round hit my helmet and forced me to take another step back.  For a moment I just stood there, dumbstruck; Gregor had protected me when I was younger.  He had saved me from being trampled in the crowd, he had tried to defend me against my mom.  

He’d just tried to kill me, no glimmer of guilt present.  

Another bullet to the chest and I took a third step back.  Rage flooded through my blood and I took two long strides and hit Gregor hard enough to throw him bodily against the wall.  Blood streamed down his face as I struck him again, dropping him to the floor.

“Why didn’t you just stand down!?”

I stomped down on his foot and none of his bones survived.  

“You were one of the better one’s!  You weren’t supposed to get hurt!”

His attempt at a rebuttal was quashed by me driving a fist into his teeth.  

“But you tried to kill me!  You. Fucking. Dumb. Idiot!”

Each word was punctuated by a hit to the abdomen.  

Underneath my helmet, I was panting, and I finally realized exactly how much damage I had just done.  Gregor’s face was almost unrecognizable, his breathing ragged and rapid. He didn’t move, he didn’t speak; the way his eyes were glazed over, I don’t think he knew where he was anymore.  

I stood up and backed away slowly, as if somehow he was going to leap to his feet and reprimand me.  But nothing happened, he wasn’t going to get up…and he might never get up.

We’d scolded Nick about it, reminded him over and over again that he couldn’t misuse his power and that people were fragile when stacked against the arcane abilities of the Adapted.  

Here I was being the biggest hypocrite alive.  

Another roar ripped through the enclosure and the dogs started baying, trying to make him shut up.  Remembering my initial goal, I ripped the cages open as people were recovering from my initial sensory onslaught.  

I reached to my waist, grabbing for another concussion grenade but then paused.  I saw Parasite and Eldritch clearly involved in a fight. Even the people at the door didn’t seem like they were eager to stay, ready to defend their turf.  No, everyone clamoring towards the door was in a panic.

No one wanted to get caught up in the crossfire between Adapted.

Still, a figure in power armor gave the crowd pause and I had to ask myself what I was going to do with them.  Were they worth restraining?

But when I saw who Eldritch and Parasite were up against, I knew they weren’t going to be worth the trouble.  

“Shit,” I snarled, “Get the fuck out of my way!”  I waded forward and most were content to get the hell out of my way.   

One tried to grab me, but a slap knocked a pair of teeth free of his face; the rest of the throng didn’t try their luck and were eager get the hell away from the conflict I was joining.  As the throng went past me, I saw a pair of familiar faces mixed with the bunch.

My parents.  

She was so close, just a few small paces for me being able to scream in her face and prove I was worth something. I yearned for the confrontation, I longed to shatter her notions about her daughter, but that wasn’t tonight.  

Rogue Sentries needed me.  

The inclined room had been leveled, the ring in the middle knocked over in the panic and mass exodus; a few bodies were scattered around, either trampled or smacked around by Parasite.  

More pressing to me was the other pair of figures still standing upright.  

Parasite leapt to the side, avoiding a blast of water that slapped against the cement wall as Eldritch tossed a figure who seemed to be made entirely of cement to the side.  

Two of Imperium’s Adapted had been in the crowd, eager to gamble: Ironclad and Mizu.  

Ironclad was an Enhancer who was able to change the makeup of his skin and muscle into some inorganic substance he could touch in ready supply.  Mizu was a projector who could manipulate and condense water from the air around him. With all the sweat and blood lingering in the place, he had a fair supply available.    

Parasite narrowly avoided another blast of water, but he couldn’t avoid Mizu retaining control; the jet of water changed direction and blasted my team-mate square in the chest and knocked him onto his ass.    

While Ironclad didn’t really wear a costume–since it wouldn’t serve him much purpose–Mizu was clad in a deep blue shirt and pants, lined with armor plates.  His face was obscured by a pair of goggles and helmet that covered his skullcap, leaving his sharp jawline and five o’clock shadow visible.

I raised my arm and fired my newest addition to my arsenal.  Mizu and Ironclad had been too distracted, they hadn’t been aware of me.  

A pair of nearly silent projectiles shot from my wrist and drilled Mizu in the side; he immediately crumpled and sank to a knee as a rib or two likely broke.  Parasite saw his opportunity and extended the staff, rushing forward, ducking and rolling to avoid Mizu’s quick counterattack. Still, the Projector split the orb of liquid and caught Parasite with half and pushed him away.

“Ironclad, incoming!”

The stone man turned to see me, incidentally ignoring Eldritch for a moment; a massive arm ensnared him and sent him flying across the room into a wall.  While that would have killed most, Ironclad got up from the impact and dusted himself off like nothing happened. As fast as he had been displaced, he charged back in and threw himself bodily against Eldritch, keeping him from advancing on Mizu.    

I fired another two shots at the Projector, one finding the mark in his shoulder.  Without the Element of surprise, he seemed less phased. If anything, it just seemed to piss him off.  

Parasite skipped around, dodging more of Mizu’s blasts and I started moving to join my teammates.  

His smile was off putting, and eerily confident like my friends, but I didn’t notice it fast enough.  

Projectors and Druids generally couldn’t interact with other people or sentient organisms as if there was some kind of built in limiter with most powers.  However, most powers didn’t stop you from tinkering with yourself.

Mizu flew at me, yanking on the liquids within his own body.

With distance from Parasite, he yanked the whole ball of liquids he had been using and shot me with it like a shotgun blast.  

It hit me hard enough to pick up my suit and throw me back a meter.  

Raising my arm to shoot, the ball of liquid turned into a more concentrated ring of rapidly spinning liquids; with a deft flick of his hand, Mizu shot the high pressure water into the housing of my gun and scrambled the workings.  

“Pathetic,” he laughed, drawing the water back and blasting me in the face.  “To think Shock and Awe lost to you punk-” He suddenly stopped as if he’d been jolted with electricity.  

A metallic clang rung out as my staff hit the floor; Mizu stumbled forward back still flexed from the impact of Parasite throwing the nine-pound hunk of metal with his supernatural strength.  Frustrated, Mizu took his focus off me for a moment and I intended to make him regret it.

My right hand gripped the hilt and ripped the blade free; Imperium’s Adapted only managed to make himself clear by a few millimeters at most.  The jet of water slammed into my hand, more to keep me from swinging again than anything else. But it wasn’t enough liquid to hold both me and Parasite at bay.  

He and I worked in a silent unison, each recognizing the other’s strength.  Parasite’s best attribute was his incredible agility and grace, letting him almost dance forward as he continued to avoid blast after blast from Mizu.  I was able to eat hits from the Adapted without taking any real damage and became a consistent pressure on the wounded enforcer.

Mizu, still, managed to hold us back, but he was slowly getting backed into a corner.  Finally he opted for a change of plans, turning his aggression on Parasite and slamming him with a narrow jet of water, attempting to bore a hole in his chest.  

While it knocked my friend back across the room, the synthetic spider silk held and the organism under his skin would undoubtedly mitigate even more of the damage.  For a moment, he was without liquid nearby and I took advantage, charging and swinging the blade again. Mizu dodged away, but staggered as Eldritch let another roar echo through the chamber.  In his moment of weakness, I planted a firm punch into his side and knocked him back a few paces.

My opponent growled and blasted the back of my knees with his water supply, bowling me over before drawing it back to repel Parasite who had leapt back into the fray.  

This was working; Ironclad and Eldritch were practically at a stalemate as they couldn’t seem to hurt one another, but if the two of us could bring down Mizu…

“Ironclad,” he bellowed, “It’s time!”  

For a moment, I was confused.  Then it made sense; they didn’t stick around for a lopsided fight, they had been stalling to ensure everyone got out.  People had been knocked aside by Parasite and Eldritch but we hadn’t noticed them slipping out.

Giving our massive friend a push, Imperium’s other present Adapted disentangled himself from the Neklim mess and ran a direction I wasn’t expecting: straight at the wall.  

“See you kiddo’s later,” Mizu said with a disingenuine salute before displacing himself, haphazardly flying towards the hole that Ironclad made.  

Parasite started to chase but a massive limb cut him off.

“Let’s go after them!”

“No,” Eldritch hissed, “Sirens, cops.  Suppression will be with them.”

It was easy to forget at times that he had exquisite senses when he was powered up.  

“That’s why they aren’t going to pick a real fight with us.  We made a lot of noise ripping our way in here and causing a panicked evacuation.  We have to go,” I insisted.

Parasite hated seeing a fight go unfinished, but he resigned himself to listen to me.  The three of us darted out the back–or lumbered in the case of our monstrous third. As we went through the room, I was grateful to see someone from Imperium had grabbed Gregor off the ground.      

Two minutes later and we had slipped back out and looked like normal kids just skulking around at night.  Walking back to my car, we were quiet, nervous as if someone was going to hop out and try to stop us, accuse us for being involved, something, anything.

One commonality between Zari and humans: no one liked sticking around when the cops were coming around.  It gave us a bit of amnesty as we hurriedly walked back to parking garage. We all felt so much safer once we climbed down a staircase and were no longer visible on the street.  

Once the car door shut, Murphy and I took the cloaking down. He passed Nick a pair of pants and finally broke the tense silence, “Alright, am I the only one who was hoping they’d actually commit to that fight?”  

“I think I was finally doing some actual damage to Ironclad,” Nick lamented, “And I was just on the cusp of getting my first real mutation; anything acidic and I destroy him.”  

“Either way, we still injured Mizu.  He can talk a big game, but I shot him and smacked him in the ribs and Murphy hit him in the spine with the staff.”

“And dragging himself around using his own blood…that can’t be comfortable.  I know a thing or two about messing with the stuff inside you.”

Nick nodded at Murphy, “We can still probably call this a win.”

“Definitely,” I replied as we slipped out of the parking lot, driving away from the flashing lights and authorities, “We got the cops dragged to their fighting ring; that makes it a dead spot.  That’s a big revenue stream cut.”

“Shame we didn’t get any of it,” Nick lamented, “I was onboard with stolen dinner.”  

In the rearview I caught a glimpse of Murphy’s sly grin creeping back across his mouth.  

“How much,” I finally asked, not wanting to see how long he’d be fucking smug about his quiet pick up.  

Procuring a stack of bills from his waistband, “About 30 large.  Only got to his one of the bookies before Mizu and other people started getting in the way.”  

Chump change for Imperium but massive windfall for us.  

“How are we going to split that?”

“I’d say do it even split, but that’s hardly fair since she’s the one making me toys and needs her own materials.  You take half we split half?”

Caught off guard by Murphy being thoughtful I just nodded.  

Fifteen thousand?  I could definitely settle up with Armorsmith and look into a better power supply to integrate with my suit.  

“Whoa, whoa, look,” Nick insisted.  

“What?  Why?”

A pair of figures skulking by the mouth of an alleyway, both wearing masks.

“Adapted, so close to the cops?”

“Thrillseekers?”

I shook my head, “Thrillseekers left Ciel and are nearly 500km away. This is someone else.”

“Vermin?” Nick suggested.

“Maybe. But I thought they were quashed a while ago.”

“If Swarm survived, he is bound to bring more people around. It isn’t impossible they are making a resurgence.”

A grimace spread across my face; Vermin was a group that thrived on chaos, capitalizing on violence and helping the damage spread out. There was no agenda for them, no desire for material gain, just a sick want to raise the body count.

Their moniker came from the fact that everyone said they were like a group of rats; their leader, Swarm, took the statement with pride and forged an infamous identity out of it.

Unfortunately, that could mean a wrench in our plan. Vermin were an unpredictable variable in the midst of all of this. They preyed upon chaos, capitalized and had zero issues with killing anyone. If they started piggybacking on our strikes against Imperium…

“Do you think they have a Cognate feeding them information?”

I frowned, “I know that Big-Picture will sell information to anyone, so they could be using him. Or maybe they were just in the right spot at the right time.”

“Or maybe not Vermin at all,” Murphy pointed out optimistically.

Both Nick and I shook our head.  “This seems like their kind of place to be.  We just attacked a gang and started significant conflict with one of the biggest players in the city.  Might as well have just set off a flare for them.”

Murphy seemed unsatisfied with that answer and changed the line of conversation.  “So what’s next against Imperium?”

“Depends what I hear from my parents and depends what I can see from my drones.  I’ve tagged a handful of the bigger names and been watching where they go to try and see if they are casing something or someone.”  

Nick nodded beside me as we pulled up to his house, “Don’t overwork yourself.  I get that this is a big deal for you, but if you overdo it, I don’t want to know how bad that could get.”  

“I’m fine,” I assured him as I continued driving.  “You worry too much about me. I’m tougher than I look.”

“Still.”  

A disapproving ‘tsk tsk’ carried from the backseat. “Nick, Nick, Nick, you have so much to learn about how to talk to women.  You gotta stop caring so much! That gets you friendzoned!”

“Should I even tell him how many dumb things are wrapped up in that sentence?”

Nick shook his head, laughing, “That’d only encourage him.”

It wasn’t much longer before we pulled up in front of his house and I gave him an awkward hug…and Murphy piled on to just make it weird.  “Good shit tonight,” I said, attempting to be affirming.

He gave us a salute as he got out of the car and traipsed back to his house; his mom was at the doorway and gave us a wave as I drove away, shepherding Murphy back to his place.  

I was a bit glad that Murphy was content to be quiet for the last few minutes of the drive, it let me ponder and dwell on if I was overdoing it like Nick expressed concern for.  

No,  not at all.  This was simply work that needed to be done.  

Murphy and I said our farewells and I took myself home, somehow beating my parents.  They must be recuperating and doing a quick meeting to sort out what they would do next to cope with this.  Truth be told, it wasn’t a huge hit to their bottom line, but a big hit to their morale. No one fucked with Imperium; Rogue Sentries had.  There was blood in the water now.

As quickly as I could, I dragged my armor upstairs and tucked it along the wall so my projection would conceal its existence from my parents.  

It had been surreal seeing them, being so close but so far at the same time.  As soon as I made sure my armor was stashed, the door downstairs was thrown open and my parents came in, screaming.  

“Fucking dumb-shit no good kids!  Who the fuck do they think they are?”

Well, we’d made an impression.  

“Did you hear Shockwave?  Nothing changes! We just make sure there is security with us!”  

“Mary, did you fucking see that thing?  It was throwing around Ironclad like he was made of paper!”  

“Of course I saw it you pussy!  Everyone saw it! Thing filled the fucking doorway!”

“And you’re fine with being on the crew for this job?”

There was a pause, and something muttered I couldn’t quite make out.  Hastily changing in my pajamas, I walked downstairs and saw them huddled together in the kitchen, “Hey,” I called out, “What’s going on?”

My mom glared at me, still assuming I was a rat.  Dad, however, gave me a warm smile, “There was some…excitement tonight at the ring.”  

“Exciting enough to warrant a shouting match this late?”  

“Some fucking punk Reckoners showed up and made so much noise the cops came too.”  

I did my best to look surprised.  “Sounds like you guys had…a hell of a night.  I’m glad you’re okay.” That was easy enough to deliver since I was glad they didn’t get caught in the crossfire.  

Mom still looked skeptical, but I was used to that being her default.  

“So, what were you guys arguing about?”

“Nothing,” my dad replied with a dismissive wave, “We were just having a little disagreement about what we’d be doing next with…them.”  

“You can say Imperium,” I said with a roll of my eyes, “It isn’t like I don’t know.”

“Tom,” she growled.

He turned to her, “My daughter isn’t a fucking narc.  If she wants to know, I’ll tell her.”

Of course he’d be thrilled I showed a modicum of interest…and of course she would be inconsolably paranoid.  “So, what are you doing?”

“We’re going to rob a bank. Tomorrow.”      

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