Crime and Punishment: Unwinnable

(9/29/2080)

Murphy and I stood there, baffled.  “What do you mean you can’t be Eldritch tonight?”

Nick sighed, “I mean as in it all went bad!  I can’t consume rotting meat, it doesn’t let me grow!  You can’t, make new muscle with a corrupted food supply!”

I put my head in my hands and groaned—we needed this win to keep our momentum going.  We knew the threat, we knew the location, and we had the element of surprise. Having Eldritch with us would make it easy to cope with Siphon and leave Collision to flounder in a two versus one scenario.  

Without him though, I didn’t like either Murphy or myself against Imperium’s infamous assassin.  

“Can we get you some new stuff?” Murphy asked.  I was sure he had come to the same conclusion as I had.  

I frowned, “We don’t have time.  They are supposed to be hitting the bank and its closer to downtown than not.  If we got out to fetch him material, we might miss our chance to interrupt them.  And the best way we can hamstring Imperium is to cut their income and morale.”

“No criminal likes a hit to the bottom line.”

Both of us turned back to Nick, “We need to know what we’re doing here.  You don’t have any material to use?”

He shook his head.  “I’m sorry, but I have to sit this one out if we don’t have the time.  I only have five kilograms of useable mass. I’d be a detriment.”

Unfortunately, Nick wasn’t wrong.  With so little to draw from, he could only a 200 kilogram Neklim for 15 minutes at most.  While that would be a fearsome predator for a normal person, the Adapted in question would tear through him.  

“Come on, let’s go,” I said to Murphy.  

He seemed as surprised as Nick.  “We’re going without him?”

“We can’t give up this opportunity.  We know the fight we’re in for, and we don’t need to stay around for long.  We just make enough noise that the cops show up unprompted and force Imperium to scatter.”

Nick and Murphy both looked uncomfortable; we couldn’t call the cops because my parents had told me about their heist.  If police showed up first…suspicion was bound to come my way in a big hurry. This had to be done by Rogue Sentries, not an anonymous tip since it was almost inevitable they had ears within the police department.  

“Alexis,” Nick started.  

“Murphy, let’s go.  We can do this.”

Murphy was visibly torn.  His bravado and machismo almost demanded he sign up, but his logic and intellect screamed that it was a bad idea.  With the trademark grin wavering, he looked to his best friend, silently trying to communicate and come up with a conclusion.  “I think this is a bad idea. We can get another shot at Imperium later.”

“This will have serious impact.  Denying them two huge paydays back to back will cripple morale and faith in their leadership.  We need to make them weak enough for Surface Dwellers to take interest, a single disruption won’t do that.  Constant pressure is the best answer.”

Nick looked between us and finally hit his friend in the shoulder.  “Go on man, you two got this.”

Albeit tainted with clear sign of anxiety, Murphy’s trademark grin returned and he nodded.  “Let’s go stop a heist.”

As Murphy turned and went to my car, I gave Nick a nod.  “Thanks.”

He narrowed his gaze, “Don’t make me regret this.”

“I won’t.”  

While I would have loved to stay and discuss with Nick about my motivations, time was definitely of essence; Murphy was already slipping into costume as I got into the car and put my foot to the floor.  It was late, meaning plenty of the usual riff-raff was out of the way, letting me comfortably speed.

Despite all his misgivings, Murphy couldn’t fight how the adrenaline was making him feel.  He exhaled slowly, getting set, getting ready for a brawl. “So, crowd control?”

“My specialty, I’ll take care of the rest of the crew if they bother interfering.  Given who they are bringing, I think they want the crew to exclusively empty a vault; we’re likely just going to be occupied with Siphon and Collision.”  

He hesitated, “They aren’t going to just go down from a flashbang, especially since we showed our hand with the dog fighting ring.  You confident in your new tricks?”

Generally when Adapted groups went to war against one another it wasn’t settled in a big climactic brawl.  It was generally won over a series of skirmishes, testing the others and seeing who could, simply put, adapt better.  I’d done it twice now, using flashbangs and stun grenades to help subdue people; while normal thugs wouldn’t be equipped with gear to deal with me, their Adapted would.  

In many instances, power discrepancies between Adapted and a regular person were almost insurmountable, especially if the normal person didn’t get the drop on the Adapted in question; even with a fully automatic rifle, there wasn’t likely to be any real damage dealt to me under my armor.  If I didn’t miss my guess, the rest of the crew would pack to be mobile and make the job as expedient as possible. The Adapted were there as security, not to facilitate the robbery. While the other people weren’t likely to interfere, Collision and Siphon wouldn’t be distracted either.

Still, I now had a firearm and a sword that doubled as a taser.  That was bound to make an impression, or at least I certainly hoped it would.  

“I think you’ll fare better against Siphon than I will,” I postulated.  “You’re ability to brawl is better than mine, you’ll just do better in a straight fight.  I’m a little worried he’ll try to suffocate me in my suit if I tangle with him; if he managed to disconnect my battery pack, he could literally entomb me in the armor.  Plus, my suit should help me cope with Collision.”

Murphy pursed his lips, “That makes sense I guess.  You deal with being hit by something larger than I do.”  

“True,” I acknowledged.  Murphy’s passenger was most efficient when it could localize itself and stay in a clump or in a single area; if his entire body was taking a hit, the thing would try to cover all the vital areas which spread it thin.  Try to stab Murphy though, you didn’t get much farther than skin deep.

”I just need to get what, five meters away from him?”  

“Ten,” I corrected.  “And the longer you stay in the pocket, the worse the effect will be.”

He patted his chest, “Hopefully it doesn’t affect the little guy.  If it doesn’t, I should be able to manage for as long as you need to deal with Collision.”

Deal with Collision.  I admired his confidence.  Even more suspect was Murphy’s hope.  But it begged the question of whether Siphon’s Adaptation affect an alien living within my friend or not?  It hadn’t even crossed my mind that Murphy might have the best answer to the assassin out of all of us.

Still, it was a longshot, at best.  

Three blocks away, I parked my car and hopped into the backseat, sliding my kev-silk suit on and grabbing the pieces of my armor.  Each section was its own isolated piece but all interlocked to help maintain the integrity of my armor as well as the flexibility while leaving as few weak points in the finished product as possible.  My gun had already been loaded thanks to a hunk of scrap metal being fed to the assembly, and the sword rested on my back, the weight becoming a familiar and pleasant reassurance.

Even in renovated armor, I still felt nervous, antsy.  What if it wasn’t enough protection? Without Eldrtich, we lost a lot of our overwhelming force and presence.  Collision was Imperium’s newest addition in their Adapted line-up, but he was still as dangerous as anyone else I’d heard of.  His power was a peculiar form of Telekinesis; he could apply force on an object but only in a singular direction. If he tried to manipulate objects that were in motion, it took an extraordinary toll on him; like most projectors, he couldn’t manipulate organic matter and fling that around willy-nilly either.  

Instead, he shot chunks of rock, debris, street poles, or sometimes even cars at people like bullets from a gun.  There wasn’t any real way he convoluted his power. In a way, I liked the simplicity and straightforward nature of his gift.  

Simple but still incredibly effective.  

As we rounded the corner, the bank was in sight…and so was the crew.  They had already parked and were now looking to gain access to the building.  On the ground by the door was a pair of figures laying face down on the ground, unmoving.  Guards, undoubtedly. And given the fact that we hadn’t heard gunfire or any loud clanging, it was likely the work or Siphon.    

Now breaching the door, I counted seven people for the job, all in black with bandanas covering their mouth and nose to help obscure identity.  Still, two people stood out to me in the crew and I felt my heart drop.

My parents.  

Twice now they would be put in harm’s way because of my actions.  Twice they would unwittingly hate their daughter for interfering with their plans.  

Murphy seemed to cue into my distress, “You’re good?”  

“Yeah,” I replied, “Just, I see my mom and dad in the mix.”

Murphy pulled down his mask, taking on the mantle of Parasite.  “They brought along the thugs so they don’t have to fuck with us.  Plus, we have our own mountain to climb. If we get to the point we have to deal with them, the hard part is over.”

“Yeah, I guess,” I acknowledged as I discarded the identity of Alexis and donned the persona of Dragoon.  I wasn’t the trimid high schooler with a crush on my best friend, I was a badass Reckoner with a job to do.      

A little distance apart from the group I saw our main challenge.  Collision had a green armor-plated vest with a red reticle spray painted on rather crudely to the dead center of his chest.  His helmet looked almost like a modern welding mask, though the sides seemed to be more open to not impede his vision so much.  

Siphon could have almost belonged with the rest of the crew since he opted for mostly black getup.  Without the streetlamp illuminating him, the only parts of him I would have noticed were the steel gauntlets he wore that had been painted white.  His costume was less bulky, sacrificing durability for speed as he was more sprite-like, similar to Parasite. Along his belt was a ring of knives, a handgun at his side, and a small hammer on the ground beside him.  His mask covered three quarters of his face, leaving the left side of his jaw exposed. It was a molded piece of black metal with the eye-slits highlighted in white paint.

Taking a deep breath, I stalked forward and entered the light of the street lamps around the edge of the property and was immediately spotted by Imperium’s members.  Parasite stood beside me and no one spoke, everyone just stood still.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”  I looked to Siphon who had seemed to take point.  For an assassin, he had a surprising amount of stage presence as he sauntered forward confidently, now twirling the hammer casually.     

Defiantly, I walked forward.  “I think that’s pretty fucking obvious.”  

He let out a laugh, “Just the two of you?  You kiddos sure you’re up for this?” For how arrogant he sounded, I was amazed at how suave his voice came across.   

Still, it felt a little insulting being called a kid by someone who couldn’t be much older than twenty, if that.  “Ask Ironclad and Mizu how they feel.”

Collision laughed, the big man’s voice gruff, “All they did was serve as distraction so other members could get out before the cops showed up.  You let people run right past you to help them, and you had your third member; where’s the big freak anyways?”

Beside me, Murphy bristled, pissed at the insult.  

“Besides, the two of them walked away just fine.”  Siphon leered forward, “What exactly are you proving?  That you can fail harder as a broken collective?”

I was glad my helmet didn’t show emotions as I grit my teeth, angry.  Have Eldritch present carried weight since he was literally so large you couldn’t ignore him.  Parasite and I didn’t have the same presence or clout, not yet anyways.

Parasite stepped forward but I put a hand out, I wouldn’t let him answer for me.  “You seem to be confused, thinking we need him to kick the shit out of you.”

Siphon leaned back and laughed, turning back to us to shout at the crew, “You lot, finish up.  I want to be ready to go in ten minutes. Collision and I will deal with them.”

He turned back to us, enthused there was a reason for him to be present.  Most people wanted to avoid fights with Adapted; Siphon was so confident that he smiled as he stepped forward, eyeing the two Rogue Sentries present.  

“Be careful,” I cautioned, “I think you have the more dangerous option.”  

“I’m pretty sure I do,” he replied with grim determination as he extended the staff and twirled it around.  

“Not too late for you to turn tail and run, just let this one go,” Siphon invited as he twirled the mallet casually.  “I guarantee you and your buddy there will be better for it.”

I ignored him and turned my attention to Collision, knowing he couldn’t be ignored.  Projectors weren’t people you could leave sitting unopposed; the only way to really deal with them was apply pressure, keep them moving and force them to stop functioning as a turret.

Gulping down my anxieties, I started walking forward, breaking away from Siphon and trying to head as straight as I could for Collision.  

Siphon debated moving to intercept me, but my friend flung himself forward, swinging the staff down in a powerful overhead blow.  Forced with a decision, Siphon raised a gauntlet and blocked, quickly driven back by an empowered kick as Parasite pressed the attack, demanding his attention.  The two of them fell out of my field of view as I picked up the pace and rushed the other Adapted present, keeping an eye out for anything moving around me, getting ready to dodge.  

I wasn’t expecting something to hit me in the back.  

Adaptations were metabolic functions and therefore had some kind of inhibitor limiting their use.  For most cognates, we had to balance use with the risk of overloading our brain and getting migraines.  Projectors were limited by range, the farther they had to reach meant more strain and more fatigue that would gnaw at them.  

Collision knew I was expecting the first blow to come from in front of me, something sensible.  He was aiming to shatter my expectations, prove himself. He was posturing still, trying to prove himself to be of value to Imperium and relay to me exactly how outclassed I was.  

Just like me, he had a lot riding on this fight.  

The unexpected impact had me falling over as a pair of metal poles landed nearby.  He laughed, “Get the fuck out of here. You aren’t good enough to play in the big leagues.  You’re nothing. Worthless.”

A wave of rage ripped through my body, my heart hammering as I hopped back up to my feet.  

Everyone insisted I was incapable.  Everyone insisted I wasn’t good enough.  Gregor had believed me worthless. So many Zari thought I amounted to nothing.  My mother and father thought so little of me. I was done being worthless, done being lesser.

I screamed as I got back to my feet and charged forward, my brain and body in agreement over one thing: I would make Collision eat his fucking words.  

Blindly charging, I almost missed the motion as Collision lazily swiped his hand in front of himself.  I turned and my eyes widened as a parked car launched at me. Too big an obstacle to avoid, I tucked my chin and shielded my torso with my arm, bracing for impact.  

The momentum carried me into the side of the bank and the car bent around me, effectively ensnaring me in a metal net.  

“No,” I growled in defiance.  I would not go down like this; I would not be casually dismissed.  With a strain, I tested the strength of my renovated suit and folded the roof of the car, giving myself and avenue to climb out of the wreckage.  Vaulting over, I landed and raised my arm, firing twice at the criminal.

A two meter section of pavement ripped itself up from the ground and shielded him; it subsequently came hurtling towards me at a breakneck speed.  

Unlike Mizu, Collision was a more straightforward opponent; his projectiles were just that, projectiles.  However, the complication came with the fact that he was able to use damn near anything he could yank off the ground to assail you.  

After the block of concrete, a light pole was ripped from the ground.  No sooner had I dove over that, than another car came hurtling my way. While I was able to keep myself from being hit by anything, I couldn’t make any forward progress towards actually catching Collision.  He wasn’t tiring fast enough for me to win the war of attrition, and especially with the fight Parasite had on his hands, we didn’t want this drawn out.

A glance showed me that things weren’t going well for my teammate and friend.  

Siphon’s Adaptation was something along the lines of vampirism in that he stole energy from people around him, slowing their metabolism and reactions the longer they stood within his range of influence.  At first it was subtle, but if you didn’t put him down quickly, you simply weren’t going to win.

Parasite was doing his best to try and break some bones with the staff, but what was winning out for Siphon was better training.  Every move my friend made, he was always a step ahead. In reality, Awe had been a crude fighter, relying solely on strength and speed which allowed him to simply outshine anyone nearby.  Siphon, however, was expertly trained; he was beyond a proficient killer even without his Adaptation feeding him burgled speed and strength.

I watched for a moment as he casually deflected a staff strike with his gauntlet and stepped in, striking twice in rapid succession before my friend could make distance and allow for better use of his range.  

If Parasite went down, there was no way I was fighting both.  And the same for him if I faltered. While Eldritch could have covered us and given us room to breathe, I had made the dumb choice and insisted we come without him.  

Murphy had been right: I was emotional about this and I’d let it make me stupid.  I’d lead us knowingly into a lopsided fight, and I’d bullied him into coming along.  

I owed it to him as the leader of this team to keep us alive.  

Ruminating over my failures had tapped my focus for a moment and I grit my teeth as a smaller street sign collided with my shoulder and made me take a knee.  Taking advantage of my posture, I raised my arm and steadied, firing another two round burst, forcing him to rip up another slab of concrete from the sidewalk around the bank.  

His shield put me in a blind spot.  As fast as my feet could carry me, I leapt to the side and began sprinting, running an arc around him, trying to close the gap.  The slab of concrete shot to where I had been, and he didn’t seem alarmed.

Behind him, there was a pile of bricks left by a construction crew, another detail I had overlooked tonight.  

A handful shot forward, like a claymore going off and peppered my body and forearms as I shielded my face.  

I was grateful for the kev-silk that Armorsmith had made for me; without it I think I would have been rife with broken bones.  As it was, each impact was bending the plates of my armor and driving me back a step until I tripped.

Before I could get back up, the car he’d used to pin me against the building came to life, carrying my body into the street with a clatter.  Groaning, I picked myself up and threw myself to the side as Collision sauntered into the middle of the courtyard, keeping me within his effective range.  A car beside me flipped and I only managed to avoid it squashing me by a hair’s breadth. A mailbox sprung loose from the cement and slammed into my chest, knocking me back over as the Projector laughed.  

“Is this the best you can do?  Endure? I want a fight, you pussy!”  

I snarled as I reached to my belt and threw a stun grenade towards him; it was shot out of the air by a manhole cover.  The detonation was nowhere close to him, and he just kept laughing, taunting me. I stood and fired; one shot found his chest, but once he knew where I was, the car in front of me shot backwards and clipped my hip.  I landed hard after doing a full pair of rotations in the air, the fall hurting despite my layers of protection.

“Do better, Dragoon!”

Actuators sprung to life and I pushed myself up to avoid another car sliding forward; another leap and I avoided slab of pavement that bent the frame of another innocent vehicle.  Springing up, another car slid under me and bashed into another vehicle.

I needed to get off the street, I was just sitting in a minefield where Collision had an endless supply of heavy object to slam into me.  Even though my armor was doing its best to mend, it wasn’t close to keeping up with the damage he could deal.

Leaping away from an animated light pole, I grabbed a manhole cover of my own and tapped my suit for all its additional strength as I threw it like a discuss.  A slab of cement was thrown straight upward, deflecting the steel; but he didn’t have a way to stop me firing a half dozen shots from my zip-gun. Without the huge squares of concrete to turn up as a shield, he had no way to cope with the incoming fire.  While he tried to drag a car in front of him, the damage was done.

One bullet found his leg and a vulnerability in his armor.  He swore as he stumbled, dragging himself back towards the middle of the courtyard, back towards the entrance and where he had that convenient pile of bricks.  I tried to take a few other cheeky shots, but Collision was smart enough to keep displacing cars and refused to make the same mistake and give me a clear shot again.

As soon as he was comfortable with the distance between us, the cars stopped lurching at me and sat still.  Sure, I’d now ‘escaped’ his range, but we were back to square one. He was a Projector and I needed to apply pressure; the wound in his leg limited mobility but he could still fight, and I was the one with a time crunch, not him.          

But since our fight had started, I had space to think about what to do.  Charging headlong into Collision was fruitless. He was too well situated with open area between us and had too many things he could use to impede progress.  Besides, there was no hurry for him and no reason to be sloppy or go for a risky tactic.

Eventually Siphon would beat Parasite, or the rest of the non-Adapted crew would finish up the job and be ready to make their escape.  All he had to do was keep me at bay, away from them.

Taking a breath, I focused, relying not on bloodthirsty instinct but on something much more potent: my own intelligence.  

“Collision put himself next to those bricks for a reason.  If I can apply pressure, he is able to just rely on those to quickly deter me.  He can grab from a consistently close source and fling them with reckless abandon before gathering them back up.”  Even now, I could see them zipping back to the pile, his way to re-load.

A plan came to mind, not a great one, but it was leagues better than my prior strategy of being obnoxiously headstrong.  

My removed vantage let me catch a glimpse of Parasite and his protracted duel with Siphon and it…wasn’t going well.  

Siphon’s effect was building, and my friend was slowing; our hope that his alien traveler would remain immune to the draining effect appeared to be entirely wrong.  Instead, Siphon moved with renewed vigor, mimicking much of the zany acrobatics that Parasite did with his incredible gymnastic ability.

Siphon swung down with the mallet, and Parasite struggled to get the staff up to block fast enough; even so, the hit was strong enough to force my friend down to a knee as he grit his teeth and grunted.  The assassin immediately changed his angle of attack, jamming a kick between my friends elbows, slamming his heel into Parasite’s solar plexus. He toppled and should have been able to easily bounce back to his feet.

He managed to roll and regain his footing, but not fast enough and his hands were needed to balance.  Without the protection, Siphon brought the mallet down and slammed it into Parasite’s clavicle with a painful crack.  

My friend screamed, and Siphon shut him up by driving a gauntleted hand into his jaw.  With visible effort, Parasite retained some composure and countered, swinging the staff in a fluid motion and creating a little space between them.  Still, the form was rough around the edges and Siphon sprung backwards with agility that rivaled a cat.

Parasite wasn’t just losing strength and speed, he was losing dexterity as well.  As Parasite tried to run and escape the effect–to reclaim some of his lost ability–Siphon bounded after him, taking unnaturally long strides, refusing to alleviate the pressure.  

“Shit,” I muttered.  Collision waited patiently, in no hurry; he also got to see the fight between the other two and appreciated that I was the one under pressure.  He could wait by his pile of bricks and in the middle of a courtyard with objects on all sides to throw at me.

Still, I took a moment to breathe, to collect myself and center.  If I fucked this up, I would be damning Parasite. “I am a Reckoner, I help those who can’t help themselves,” I said quietly, feeling a strange calm wash over me.  This was doable, he was beatable. If I got close to him, Collision would be a pushover with his bum leg.

“You might want to hurry,” he shouted, “Parasite doesn’t look so good.”  

I didn’t reply, not wanting to give my adrenaline fueled brain an excuse to engage.  Instead, I used the gloom of the street to my advantage and dropped my spider drone; it went one way and I ran the other, advancing in an arc and firing another quartet of projectiles.  

Another square of concrete from the courtyard was ripped up out of the ground to intercept the projectiles, almost making a kind of moat around Collision where packed dirt was left behind.  

Using the cover, I rushed forward again and cut straight towards him, waiting for the inevitable toss of the slab.  As it hurtled my way, I lunged to the side and shot a tube of adhesive compound at the pile of bricks. He seemed confused and his body stiffened, bracing for impact.  Then, he seemed confused: the projectile wasn’t nearly on target to hit him. And then compound expanded and landed, binding the pile of bricks together and gluing it all to the ground.  

Collision growled as he understood my intent; no more quick projectiles, no more safety net for when I got closer.  

Another light pole was ripped from the ground, narrowly missing me as I charged forward in the ever dimmer square.  Without my rage driving me, I was getting used to his general method of attack and evaded another chunk of metal as well as the road sign he had first hit me with flew by.  He tore one of the doors off the bank, but it missed as my drone hopped up and started binding his hands together.

A power tool left sitting out by the thieving crew animated and clobbered my drone, but it had served its purpose of letting me get closer and ensuring he’d be agitated, enraged, and, more importantly, predictable.  

Another feint and I baited him to launch a car in the wrong direction.  Raising my arm, I peppered him again with a volley, except I had moved to where he’d already torn up the immediate concrete slab, leaving him no immediate wall to erect.  

Before he could drag one into place, two shots found his chest and he let out a satisfying grunt as his armor plating cracked visibly.  Launching myself to the side, I evaded a nearby slab being thrown, again reading his attack pattern. I couldn’t help but smile, I was making headway, getting closer.  Each little avoidance was wearing on him, grating the nerves, making him more and more agitated, a marvelous and self-perpetuating cycle.

And then I saw something flying at my face.  Thanks to him tearing out several of the streetlamps around the courtyard, the thing hurtling forward was nearly invisible in the gloom thanks to the titanium carbide it was coated in.

Parasite’s staff; he’d dropped it and Collision took full advantage of the collapsed staff.  

The metal rod slammed into my helmet and my face mask crumpled around it.  Unlike most things that he had thrown at me, this was made from a metal dense enough and hard enough to not give around my armor.  First to go was my display, the screen giving me output cracked and went black as it crumpled in towards my face. Next was my balance as I was lifted off my feet, my head snapping back so hard I thought it almost broke my neck.  Last, I hit the ground with a clang and my vision blurred as something sticky ran along my cheeks.

My breathing went shallow and my heart palpated as I was thrown into darkness.  The world was ringing and my head continued to bleed as I couldn’t seem to get enough air into my lung.  Spots dotted my vision and I felt like I was still falling even though I had hit the ground already.

“I’m a Reckoner,” I panted, my words sounding hollow.  “I’m a Reckoner,” I repeated, more definitive. “I help those who can’t help themselves.”

And right now, that was my friend.  

I knew what needed doing, but I hesitated.  Identity was one of the few things Adapted had and all agreed it was important to protect.  It was an unspoken area of sanctity between Reckoners and criminals; we didn’t unmask one another and didn’t rat each other out.  But, my parents would recognize their girl and I would risk indirectly identifying Murphy and Nick the second I showed my face to the world.  After all, they weren’t bound by the same code.

But I couldn’t fight if I couldn’t see, and I wasn’t about to let my friend die because of my carelessness.  Even if there was indirect risk, I needed to take it. I needed to fight.

No, I needed to win.    

The clasps undid as I engaged an override and threw my helmet to the side.  I stumbled up to my feet and Collision seemed surprised that I would dare take my helmet off, baffled an Adapted would risk identity.  However, his body language didn’t scream recognition or rage; he didn’t know I was a traitorous girl from a loyal Imperium family.

Around me, the world seemed to waver, the hit to my head having done more than I would have reckoned.  Still, his surprise ran out and he gestured again, launching another car at me.

Logic went out the window, no longer trusting my faculties entirely, I relied on muscle memory and instinct to carry me forward now.  

Collision wasn’t expecting me to sprint straight at him after enduring a hit like that and I saw him take a step back, surprised.  I raised my arm and fired the laser at the visor on his mask, getting a moment of him turning his head, caught off guard by the change in heat.  

His visor was made to deter light from my flashbangs, but my lazer would still have some impact despite the polarized lens.  

My arm raised, I fired twice and caught him in the chest both times, knocking him down to his ass; a chunk of the banks doorframe flew past me thanks to his aim being skewed from the tumble.  Using the enhancement of the suit, I leapt forward and drew the sword from its sheath, swiping down for his torso.

Collision threw himself away so all I could catch was a little bit of his shin.  The cut itself didn’t do much, but the electricity along the blades surface made him spasm violently.  Before he recovered, I stomped on his chest and placed the blade to his throat, my position clear. “Don’t you fucking move,” I growled.  

No witty remark, no shit talking this time.  

Movement caught my eye as I saw the rest of the crew departing the bank, duffel bags in tow.  Two of them stopped in the doorway, the pair I was waiting so long to confront, the pair I’d been wanting to get to notice me for so long.

Now they noticed, and none of us said a word.  

I waited for them to say something, to identify me, but neither talked, they just stared for a moment.  A tense silence passed between us, and to my surprise they didn’t shout or exclaim who I was. No one else from the crew inside made mention or pointed, they just stood off to the side, not wanting to get too close.   

“Little girl, I think you want to let him go.”  I was almost grateful for Siphon giving me something to think about…until I saw the mess he’d made of my friend.  

Parasite was bloody, all over.  While the synthetic spider silk should have kept him safe from a knife, it seemed that Siphon—after stealing enough strength—was able to perforate his suit.  Numerous cuts bled slowly, and my teammates jaw hung open limply, and the grey of his suit completely turned red. The only thing keeping Parasite off the ground was Siphon holding him up by his hair, a knife to his neck, putting us in a standoff.

“How about you put the money back and we deal?”

Siphon showed half a smile, “I think you don’t appreciate your position.  If I kill your friend here, I keep his strength for about a minute. Do you think you’ll manage to hold out against me for that long?  I saw that hit you took, you’re looking a little shaky.”

I was spent, dizzy, and the only way I could possibly beat Siphon was a lucky hit…but if he had all of my friends strength, there wasn’t a guarantee that shooting him in the chest, or even the face would bring him down.   

“Give me back Parasite,” I finally demanded.

“Give me back Collision,” he replied calmly.  “We keep our money, everyone keeps their head.  Otherwise, you will go one for two and we’ll still walk away with our payday.”  He lifted Parasite like he was no heavier than a paper bag as Siphon pressed the knife against his jugular.  “Dragoon,” he said, acknowledging me, “You and your friend put up a good fight, but you should learn to quit when you’re ahead.  You have three seconds before I kill your friend…and then you.”

“Fine!” I shouted and lifted the sword a fraction.  “Put him down, I move away from Collision.”

Siphon nodded and dropped the ragdoll; it was disconcerting that Parasite hit the cement with a wet thud.  

Was he even alive?

“Step away from him,” I instructed.  

“You first,” Siphon replied, snide.  “At some point, you’re going to have to trust me.”  

“I don’t trust you, assassin!”  

“Well, now’s a good time to start.”  He knew he held the cards and I had to listen; more posturing, more appearances to maintain.  Unfortunately, I lost my ability to talk back; Siphon knew exactly how much leverage he had.

Reluctantly, I walked away from the cowed Collision and put my friend’s life, and my own in the hands of a cutthroat.  

“Relax,” he said with a light chuckle, “You’re human.  I don’t like you, but I do respect you. You’re a fighter and I’ll keep my word.  Besides, you made tonight enjoyable.”

I felt my stomach shift uncomfortably as he talked; it shamed me to know that we were both seen as the same thing by so many people.  We were Adapted, and people like him reinforced we were all monsters. Scooping up my helmet and the staff, I walked towards the still form of my friend and scooped him off the pavement, wishing that he an I weren’t lumped into the same group.  

“Have a good night, Rogue Sentries, I’m sure we’ll do this again!”

I ignored Siphon’s last call and dragged my friend away, both of us bloody.  

It was…disconcerting to see Murphy lose.  Even against Shock, Parasite had been bouncing around and seemed nearly untouchable, hard to pin down.  At the end, there was determination and grit that kept him on his feet. In any fight at school, it wasn’t a contest, and every time I tried to spar with him it felt unfair.  

Seeing him like this was a painful reminder that we weren’t the cream of the crop.  There were people so much stronger than us, and there were people more powerful than them.  

“Hey, Murphy,” I whispered, “Come on man, wake up.”  

He didn’t stir; the fact he had a pulse was the only reason I knew he was still alive.     

“Come on you stupid thing,” I hissed, lighting hitting his chest, “Fix him.  Keep your fucking host alive!” I couldn’t take him to a hospital since that would make us account for our actions and risk exposure for Murphy if Imperium had any taps in hospital records.  Siphon was a ruthless assassin; I didn’t dare risk giving away information.

That was presuming my parents didn’t rat us out already.  

No…they would have done it earlier, right?  Unless they were too stunned to confront me there.  

I threw off the shackles of doubt and got Parasite back to the car, focusing on the present and removing his spider-silk tunic to inspect the damage beneath.  

A hand stopped me.  “Alexis,” he wheezed, “Water.”  

Frantically I grabbed a water bottle from the front console and opened it, pouring slowly over his lips.  “Murphy, I’m so sorry. You were right, I should have listened. I got emotional, I got stupid, and I put you against the worst fight possible.  We didn’t even really stop them.”

His swollen eyes cracked just enough that I knew he could see me, “Home,” he managed to whisper.  

“You’ll heal from this?”

Ever so slightly, he nodded.  

“Murphy, you’ve been fucking stabbed six times and have like…a dozen broken bones.  Are you sure?”

He nodded again.  

“I’m so sorry,” I apologized again, feeling futile.  “I’m so sorry.”

A bloody hand touched my cheek as he nodded.  There was no verbal communication, but I felt his intent.  

He forgave me.  Bleeding, broken, and half dead in my back seat, he forgave me.

I stripped off my body armor but left the gauntlets and metal sleeves on; I was paranoid about Imperium coming after me and wanted to have a small layer of defense available should they show up.  Murphy’s house was about thirty minutes away thanks to the lack of traffic, and about halfway home he sat up, still looking delirious.

“Murphy?”

“Alive.  Water.” I passed him the bottle and he chugged the rest.  “It needs liquid to make more blood,” he explained as he tossed to the bottle aside.  

“Murphy, I shouldn’t have made you fight Siphon.  I should have let you take Collision.”

He shook his head slowly, “I wasn’t going to be of much help against those two.  I don’t see you doing any better against Siphon than I did. I was just…a bad match against either of them.  We needed him,” he said weakly as he laid his head back.

“Yeah, we did,” I confessed.  Eldritch would have been able to simply overwhelm Siphon and nullify his martial arts expertise or endure an onslaught from Collision since blunt force trauma took a long time to do any real damage to his Neklim suit.  

Murphy nearly fell over as I took a turn which gave me a start.  It was still disarming seeing him so beaten, so damaged. “You’re sure you’ll heal?”

“It stimulates cell growth and can supplement my blood production.  I’m already done clotting and it can feel it setting bones. By morning I should be intact and pretty well mended.”  He frowned, “It was weird. For a while, I was going toe to toe with him, even getting a few hits in here and there. But…then I just got slower, and it got slower.  It couldn’t move fast enough to keep up with the strikes I was taking and give me enough strength to fight back…”

It occurred to me that Murphy had never been beaten that badly either.

“Are you going to be okay?”

For a moment, I saw Murphy at his most vulnerable.  He wasn’t the joker or even the badass fighter I was friends with; he was a scared kid.  “I…I think so. I don’t even know how I’m still alive at this point honestly. I remember being choked out and then I woke up as you laid me in the back seat.”  He started a little, “The staff?”

“I grabbed it.  After you dropped it, it collapsed and Collision hit me with it.  Broke my helmet.”

“Your parents-“

“They saw,” I replied.  

A moment of silence before he lurched forward awkwardly, grabbing both front seats to stay stead, “Did they sell us out?”

“Not yet at least.”  

We finished the drive in silence and I parked in front of his house, “Your parents?”

“Gone, as usual.  I don’t think I can walk yet, help me inside?”

I opened the backseat and dragged my friend with me, forgetting how dense he was when I wasn’t wearing my power armor.  I opened the door, seeing nothing had changed from the usual mess, like no one else was living in his space.

Where the hell were his parents all the time?

“What do you need me to do?”

“Set me on the couch.  In the fridge, meat, sugar, and more fluids.  I need to get more fuel for my friend.”

Putting a jug of fruit juice down alongside some leftover meatloaf, I took a step back, feeling guilt eating at my insides.  “Murphy, I’m really-“

“Alexis, stop,” he insisted.  “We made mistakes, but we’re alive.  We get to try again. Just…don’t do this again.”

It stung, but he was right.  Beating myself up wasn’t going to help anyone.  We had already started our campaign to undermine Imperium, I needed to be clever about where we struck and make sure we wouldn’t be fighting bad odds. “I won’t.”  

“Alexis,” he muttered weakly between bites, “I think I am gonna get some sleep.”  

“Yeah,” I replied, still feeling a pang of guilt at seeing him so battered.  “I should probably go home and deal with them.”

“Maybe wear the armor,” he suggested.  “Just in case.”

I wanted to scoff at the idea, but if there was ever a time my mom might try to kill me, it’d be tonight.  “I think you might be right. I’ll leave the gauntlets on, give me a little extra kick and the zip gun for emphasis.”  

“Hey, whatever happens,” he panted, “Don’t give up me or Nick.  If they don’t know, don’t give them an idea.”

I rolled my eyes, “Siphon must have hit you harder in the head than I thought.  I’m not giving up my friends.”

Murphy relaxed, laying back onto the couch, careless about the blood that would stain the cushions.  His eyes fluttered and closed, his body lapsing into a small coma.

Paranoia nagged and I hovered my hand over his mouth to make sure he was breathing before I finally got back into my car and sat down.  

With no one around me, no one to console, I fell apart.  

Tears streamed down my face as I shook, gripping the steering wheel, struggling to find enough breath to fill my lungs.  Everything came slamming me in a flash, and I felt a wave of fatigue collide with my body as I finally let go of the wheel and screamed, hoping I wasn’t too loud as to be heard by a neighboring house.  Either way, I didn’t care, I needed to let it out.

That mess inside, that horror show I had put Murphy through, I was responsible.  I had fucked up so bad it almost cost my friend his head. I still saw that satisfied grin from Siphon as he held my friend hostage, knife to his throat like he was having fun.  That sound of my teammate hitting the ground like a wet lump of meat.

I was responsible, I was accountable.  This was on no one’s head but my own.  

I wasn’t sure if it was just a few seconds or several minutes before my breathing finally calmed.  

“I’m a Reckoner,” I said aloud, “I help those who can’t help themselves.”  

But given how tonight went…was that really what I was?  I thought about calling Xana and asking her, but then I’d have to tell what happened.  Of course she would tell Nick, and I couldn’t face him right now if he was equipped with the knowledge I nearly got his best friend killed.

He’d find out eventually, but not tonight, not yet at least.  

I had my own issue to deal with.  

Taking a deep breath, I ensure the gauntlets still had their auxiliary power available; I’d made each piece of my suit to have a small battery backup in case I had to do away with my central power core or it was damaged in a fight.  

It meant I would have about five minutes of access to my firearm should I need it.  Even though I was only protected to the elbow, there was at least something available.  

A glance showed my helmet in the passenger seat had already fixed itself from the damage Collision inflicted earlier.  “At least you’re working as intended,” I muttered as I drove home.

Another repetition of my mantra in the driveway.  Another repetition of my mantra as I put my key into the door and unlocked the house.  

Inside I saw several boxes of metal scraps and resources I utilized when making drones and my suit all piled up beside the door.  Farther back, my parents were standing by the kitchen table, both staring intently.

“I think we need to talk,” my father insisted, his usual, warm tone absent.  

I nodded, “I think we do.”     

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