“I was right to be suspicious of you, you little rat,” my mom snapped.
“You raise your gun, I will fucking end you,” I warned, “I beat Collision; you really want to fight?” I growled as I curled my fingers into a fist.
My dad shook his head, “Enough, let’s calm it down.”
“And why should I be calm, Tom? Your fucking daughter is an Adapted and living right under your nose. She beat Gregor into a coma! Maybe I shouldn’t be calm, maybe I should shoot her in the fucking face for going against Imperium!”
As her voice raised, so did my arm, pointed dead center of her chest. “Mom, for once in your fucking life, SHUT THE FUCK UP!”
Her eyes widened and she recoiled, used to her daughter being soft spoken and easily walked on. I was done being walked on, I was done being her whipping post, and it was time she figured out.
“Lexi,” my dad whispered, “If we throw away our guns, will you take off the armor.”
“No,” I replied, blunt. “Two of you, one of me. I want insurance.”
He bit his lip and shook his head with indecision a moment before throwing his gun down and kicking it away. “We’re not here as members of Imperium. Ditch the gun, Mary.”
“If she won’t-”
“I SAID DITCH IT!”
Both my mom and I were started at my dad raising his voice; I’d never seen my dad be truly angry, only disappointed occasionally. Hearing him snap like that, it added another level of weight to the situation.
Even now, he cared.
My mother reluctantly complied, dropping her gun to the floor but didn’t kick it away like he had.
“I’m going to sit down, and I suggest you do the same. We need to relax and talk like adults. That’s what you want, isn’t it?” he asked.
“Good. Sit at the table with us and we’ll listen. I think you have some explaining to do.”
My mom wanted to say something snide, undermine me, belittle me, but she was still cowed from that outburst my father had let out.
Slowly, we all approached the table and sat down, my mom glaring at me and my dad still unsure how he should be presenting himself. It was nice to know he still gave a shit about me, but it almost made this more unpleasant.
“So,” he asked finally, breaking the awkward silence, “How long?”
“The night you guys dragged me to the dog fight,” I replied, “I Adapted right there, and no one noticed. I was almost trampled that night because I fell over and threw up; the only reason I didn’t die was because Gregor picked me up off the floor.”
“And you still beat him into a coma,” my mother growled at me. “Maybe he should have let you die.”
“Why didn’t you tell us,” my dad said quickly, speaking over her again. “Why wouldn’t you confide in your parents?”
I glared at my mom, returning every ounce of poison she was sending my way, “Because mom is a dumb cunt and would have reported me to Imperium. I didn’t want to be another Toolkit and be making weapons for psychopaths. The second you two learn I’m Adapted, Imperium knows and I have to work for them or they threaten to kill me and my friends. Why the hell would I want to work with a bunch of supremacists and anarchists?”
“We aren’t anarchists,” she snarled, “You’re just too naïve to understand that.”
I set my jaw and glared at her, “Mom, do yourself a favor and close that stupid mouth of yours before I break every fucking tooth in your face. I’m wearing metal gauntlets that I can effectively make into a taser. All I have to do is touch you and you won’t be fighting back.”
She closed her mouth but her glare intensified.
My dad shook his head in frustration, “Stop threatening your mother, Alexis.”
“Don’t call me that,” I snapped at him.
He withdrew a little, caught off guard. “That’s your name.”
“No, that’s my proper name. That’s what friends call me. You call me Lexi, you have for years, and now isn’t the time to change that.”
Even my mom seemed to feel the impact.
“Lexi,” he started over, “You don’t know for sure whether we would have sold you out to Imperium. We are still your parents, and we care about you.”
“No, you care about me,” I corrected, “That bitch beside you only cares about herself and the gang she works with. I’ve been a second-rate citizen to her for my entire life because I had the audacity to make a Zari friend or two.”
She sneered and exposed a canine to me, “You watch your mouth!”
“Or you’ll what?” I snapped back at her, “You’ll go for your gun and shoot your daughter? You’ll wake up the neighborhood with a gunfight a bit after midnight? Grow the fuck up.”
“And you wouldn’t? You threatened to shoot me too you cur! You’d sully your precious Reckoner status with a gunfight?”
I grinned and shook my head, “My gun is powered with a small air compressor. It makes about as much noise as a nail gun and wouldn’t wake up anyone sleeping upstairs. If you’re going to threaten me, at least know what I’m bringing to the damn table. You saw me shoot Collision, but you should have noticed it didn’t make an awful lot of noise.”
“Enough,” my dad growled, growing more and more frustrated by our prattling. “Mary, threaten Lexi again and I’ll drag you away from the table. She’s right, be a fucking adult. This is important enough for you to stop with all the fucking dramatic posturing. We aren’t impressing anyone, and we aren’t about to win a fight with an Adapted who is still wearing part of her power armor. If our daughter really wants to hurt you…” he trailed off before letting out a huff, “I’m not going to get in the way.”
I should have been more satisfied that he’d opted to side with me, that he had finally stood up to my mother and chastised her for being so unrepentantly mean to me.
But…what did it say that it took this long for it to finally happen?
“Even if you’d never sold me out, she would have,” I said solemnly. “If Imperium knew I was an Adapted, do you think they would have ever stopped monitoring me if I had declined helping them? Or, would they have ever even gave me a choice?”
He looked down at the table, crestfallen. “No. If they knew what you were, that would have been enough prompt for them to invade your life. If you aren’t with Imperium, you’re against them.”
It dawned on me his wording, ‘If they knew’.
They still didn’t. He hadn’t ratted me out.
“Why haven’t either of you told them?”
My dad let out a weak laugh, “You’ve attacked Imperium twice now; if I told them who my daughter was, the two of us would be killed for being insubordinate.”
I frowned, “You didn’t know though. I never told you. They’d still kill you?”
To my surprise, my mother answered. “They’d say we should have paid more attention to our children, should have made sure that we’d been attentive parents.”
“Well, at least they have some sensible parenting advice,” I muttered.
She growled and my dad put a firm hand on her shoulder before turning back to me, his blue eyes drilling into me. “Lexi, stop antagonizing. If you want to talk like adults, be one.”
As I looked at my mother, I felt myself mirroring her glare. We hated each other, we had all this time, and yet there was so much of her in me. My defaulting to baser instincts, my impulsive and foolhardy decision making was all inherited from her. Taking her proclivity for rage, for anger, for mistrust, it was poisoning myself and it had almost cost me a friend.
My mother was responsible for giving me the worst parts of myself.
But, she’d also given me the killer instinct that had let me push through the pain, let me fight through the fog of the concussion Collision had inflicted two hours ago. For better or worse, she was part of me, a dangerous part, and always would be present.
However, in the end, my dad was right; I didn’t want to be like her, I didn’t want to be a feral child who lashed out at everything. If I was forced to emulate my parents, I would choose to be mature, to be able to give a shit about people, to be more like him.
“Fine,” I replied, collecting myself. “And, thank you for not turning me in.”
“As much as you and your mother can’t get along, you are still our daughter. We aren’t just going to hand you over because you are one of them.”
I winced involuntarily as he referred to me as something else, something foreign. Nick was right, it stung being thought of like some kind of outsider.
“I’m just as human as you are,” I replied defensively.
“Are you?” I turned to my mother, caught off guard by a tone that wasn’t so much accusatory as it was questioning. “I don’t know a lot of humans who can move a car, let alone through one with their mind like Collision. I saw Eldritch at the dog fight, I don’t know a lot of humans who can turn into a massive Neklim either.”
“I still have to eat, breathe, and sleep like you guys do.”
“And you still are wearing power armor you made by yourself. You designed a system to literally project a hologram to disguise your workbench that you made in your room, all with no formal education in terms of electrical work let alone robotics.”
I wanted to argue with my dad’s comment, but he had a point. “That doesn’t change that I still bleed red when you cut me.” As if for emphasis, I moved my hair to reveal the split in the skin on my forehead. “Adapted aren’t inhuman, we aren’t monsters or freaks, we’re just…different,” I said for lack of a better way to define us.
“The Zari are different too,” my mom replied.
“Every sentient species on another planet is different,” I shot back, “That isn’t enough reason to hate them.”
My dad raised his hand to quell my mom’s retort. “We aren’t here because Imperium told us to be. We don’t need to rehash this argument for the thirtieth time,” he growled. “We need to talk about what happens next.”
A lump formed in my throat; I was dreading him saying it. I knew my mom would be thrilled to find an excuse to get rid of me…but he was dad. He’d want me to stay, right? I’d come to the conclusion that this part of my life may well be ending, but he’d prove me wrong and have me stay.
With effort, I pushed the lump down and managed to talk. “What needs to happen next?”
He let out a slow exhale, his hands trembling slightly. This was as difficult for him as it was for me. “Are you planning to attack Imperium again?” He looked up and stared me in the face, silently pleading for me to say anything but yes. In that moment, I was sure he’d have killed someone to hear me say no, that I’d put aside our campaign against their criminal empire, that he could keep his daughter home, that everything could go back to how it used to be, that all this madness could be undone like a bad dream.
But, I couldn’t lie to him or to myself, I couldn’t poison the well between us. I owed it to everyone here to be honest, to own my actions.
“We’ve started our fight, and I’m not going to end it on a loss,” I replied weakly. “We’re not done fighting Imperium, not until they are gone.”
That feral rage returned to my mother’s face in an instant but my dad squeezed her shoulder, keeping her in check. “Why?”
“Imperium is a blight. It makes everyone more violent and spits out as much drugs as the competition does. Surface Dwellers are at least controlling and don’t endorse reckless violence; Imperium preaches xenophobia and a complete disregard for anyone who isn’t ‘with them’. It is an unsustainable philosophy. All you accomplish is tainting the image of humans for the populus and make your own views on the Zari a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course they hate us with you guys killing security guards and robbing banks! Plus, how many tens of thousands of dollars in property damage did Collision cause while smacking me around?” I demanded. “He threw like a dozen cars at me, and massive slabs of cement. A lot of innocent people are going to have to try and figure out why their ride is broken and then try to deal with insurance, and Zari are not known for having good bureaucratic systems!”
My mother clearly wanted to scream, but she deferred to my father; I don’t think she could stand losing her composure if her daughter was able to keep it together and outshine her.
“You don’t understand how miserable things are compared to how they used to be,” he said in a whisper. “It’s hard for us to not want the old glory days back when we were on Earth. But, when you see the world die, when you feel it begin to burn, you change,” he said plainly. “And maybe you’re right, maybe we are a bunch of assholes running around and causing chaos.” He flashed a sad smile, “But we can’t just walk away. The rest would see us as a liability, people who know too much.”
I nodded slowly, understanding. Of course he couldn’t walk away, Imperium wasn’t about to allow loose ends.
“Things were…different back then,” he continued. “When we came to Tso’got, so much of life was the same. The Zari mimicked a lot of human’s technology, in large part because we are so similar in a lot of ways, in terms of biology. Once communication was established between our races, their technology and culture became an even closer copy,” he conceded. “But, even with so much being like it was back on Earth, it feels different. It feels wrong, incomplete. And that sense, that gnawing knowledge that nothing will ever be the same, it haunts you. It changes you.”
“You joined Imperium because they were angry like you were,” I realized aloud. “You didn’t join because you were criminals or monsters, you were just….hurt.”
“Exactly,” he confessed. “It was like finding a new family, all with a collective identity. A small tribe who missed the old days and hated this false world we were stuck in. You’ve grown up here so you don’t truly understand what it feels like to be in exile, to know you can’t go home.”
Even my mom’s anger seemed to be replaced by a vulnerability, the harrowing experience still shaking them to their core.
I was expecting more violence, more screaming, more of a fight from my mom; instead I just felt sad. For so long I had assumed that I was the product of a pair of angry individuals who were completely unjustified. They were supposed to be lunatics, people I found it easy to hate and run away from. When I had suggested we fight Imperium, I knew that it would inevitably come to this.
But now with my mother’s anger quelled, there wasn’t hate, just disappointment and loss.
“But I made my choices,” I finally said, “And so did you guys. We can’t go backwards.”
He nodded, solemn. “I know. Tonight you’ll need to go.”
I thought I had been prepared to hear that: I wasn’t, not even remotely.
My mom stood up nodding curtly and walking away from the table, leaving my dad and me alone. For a moment, I waited, unsure of what to say, what to do, or even how to feel. Should I feel guilty? Should I feel relief that it was over?
“I’m sorry it came to this,” he finally said in a hushed whisper. “I’m sorry we weren’t better parents to you. Even if she’ll never say it, I know she is too.”
“She sure has a funny way of showing it,” I muttered with a wry laugh.
He reached forward and grabbed my metal gauntlet, “I’m glad you’re not working for Imperium. I’m glad you aren’t angry like us.”
“Yeah,” was all I had ability to say in reply.
“If we run into you…”
“I know,” I acknowledged. “Be smart and don’t get in the way. Eldritch is the scary one and might accidentally crush you. Me and Parasite are a little better contained. Less collateral.”
He nodded, squeezing as tears welled up in his eyes, “Where are you going to go?”
“Probably to Murphy’s house,” I replied, “His parents are almost never there. It’ll be a place to hide out until I can make enough money to afford my own place.”
“How are you going to-“ he stopped himself. “Maybe better I don’t know. Plausible deniability and all that.”
I chuckled, “Yeah, definitely better you don’t know about what I’ll be doing, and probably best for you not to tell me anything. I was using you guys earlier,” I confessed, “And it was part of why I chose to go after Imperium.”
My dad nodded, “It makes sense. We told you about what we did with Imperium, you only used information that was freely given. So few people Adapt, it would be absurd to think our own daughter was one.”
“Machines,” I explained, “Self-repairing machines. General purpose, no singular specialty like others have. No physical component either, pure Cognate.”
“Are your teammates good people?”
I remembered what Murphy had asked and took a minute to answer carefully. “They are good people. I think if you ever met them, you’d like them.”
A bit of motion caught my eye as I saw my mom come back into view, her gun in hand. I hadn’t notice her scoop it up off the floor when she had left earlier. “No physical ability, that means no protection without your suit.”
“Mary, what the hell are you doing?” my dad hissed, but he didn’t raise his voice.
“Mom,” I growled, feeling my anger bubble up, “Put down the gun.”
“Imperium will reward us for bringing you in, alive or otherwise,” she said, cold. “If you’re going to work against us, even after you leave, you need to get out of the way.”
I noticed a slight tremor in her hands as she stared me down; this wasn’t rage driving her, this was something else entirely. She wasn’t herself, and it was making me more nervous since I didn’t know what might set her off.
Slowly, I folded my arms and face her, subtly tapping the button in my armor to activate their auxiliary power supply.
My five minute timer had started.
“Are you really going to do this? You’ll have to explain what exactly I was doing in your house,” I cautioned.
She shook her head, “We move you somewhere else, say we tracked you down. As much as your father doesn’t want me doing this, he isn’t going to turn me in and risk his own skin.”
This time it was my father without words. He just sat there, silent.
“Mom,” I said slowly, “Put down the gun. I’m not coming after you guys.”
“You heard him, Imperium is family to us. You are going to come after them, you are going to dismantle all of what we built. I have the chance to stop you, to stop any potential damage you inflict to us. Why wouldn’t I?”
Still, that shake. She was anxious, maybe even afraid. I’d told her exactly what my gantlets could do; was she afraid of my arsenal?
“But are you really going to shoot your daughter? Are you going to stoop that low for the sake of a bunch of gang-bangers who you don’t really know?”
Her lip curled in a sneer, but that hand continued to tremble. I set my jaw and slowly pushed the chair away from the table.
“Goddamn it, Alexis-“
“NO!” I snapped, “You don’t call me that. Don’t you dare.”
In the moment she was stunned, I raised my hand and fired my zip gun. A pneumatic hiss rang through the room and my mom jumped way, my shot embedding itself into the wall. Getting up, I seized the chair and swung, the actuators helping me finish the motion; I didn’t hit my mother, but one of the legs caught the barrel of her gun and threw it free.
While my arms were to the side, my mom charged at me, striking and catching me in the cheek. I stumbled back against the table, raising my hands but my mom had already adjusted her next attack. A blow found my side and I groaned.
All the abuse I had taken from Collision, it felt like I was trying to drag myself through tar to move.
I swiped a hand to grab her, but my mom was quick, uninjured and she’d had more time fighting than I did. While Murphy was a good teacher and remarkably well trained, little did better for the art of combat than repeat exposure.
She’d been in Imperium for years, getting more and more acclimated to violent confrontation.
As she backed away from my swipe, I raised an arm to use the zip gun and she reacted quick, ducking low and shooting forward, slamming her shoulder into my legs. I toppled and my back slammed into the table, making me cry out.
“Mary, stop!” I hear my dad shout. I glanced at the sound and saw him holding his gun now, training it on her, but that didn’t stop her from hitting me in the face.
I debated grabbing her and turning on the electric output of my gauntlet, but that would just tase me as well since she was sitting on my chest. The actuators wouldn’t help me hit harder, just the density of the gauntlet would add to my striking power.
But I did have increased grip strength thanks to the armor.
My hands reached up and fastened around my mother’s arms just below the shoulder, halting her ability to strike me as I squeezed.
While I didn’t have my friends strength, I had almost five times my own power thanks to the armor, and my mother wasn’t much bigger than me.
Her eyes widened as she realized exactly how much pressure I could apply, bruising the muscle and the bone beneath as well. Through gritted teeth, I pushed her to the side, letting go with one hand to let me strike her abdomen.
The unforgiving metal gauntlet cracked a rib and let me shove her body to the floor. Scrambling away from her, I stood up and pointed my arm at her torso. “Mom, stay on the floor.”
I didn’t let her know that I only had two more minutes of power on my armor.
She nodded slowly, shaky, “I needed to know.”
“Needed to know what?” I spat.
She wouldn’t answer, she just lay there, shaking.
I looked over to my dad, “I think it is high time I go. I’ve clearly overstayed my welcome.”
He nodded, “Let me help take this stuff to your car.”
“I’ll go grab some clothes from my room. And don’t give her gun back,” I muttered, still staring down at my mom who was…was she crying?
With a shake of my head, I went upstairs and started throwing clothes into my backpack before I turned off my hologram and make sure he grabbed all the pertinent materials of mine. They’d been thorough in scouring my workbench; hopefully neither took any pictures to share with Imperium, but I doubted it.
“Lex,” I heard as a whisper while I was loading my backpack.
Spinning to the door, I saw my mom standing there, looking dejected. “What the fuck do you want?”
She couldn’t look at me, instead stuck staring at the floor. “I wanted to say I’m sorry.”
I laughed, “It took this many years for you to finally say you’re sorry? It took me having to leave to say you’re sorry? And you have the gall to apologize after attacking your daughter.”
“I had to be sure,” she whispered.
“Sure of what?” I demanded. “Sure that my machinery worked? Sure that Collision hadn’t lost to a complete pushover?”
“I had to be sure you could stand and fight! I had to be sure my daughter was going to survive!”
My jaw almost dropped as I laughed. “You saw me get hit by a car with Collision, more than once. That wasn’t enough of a test?”
“I had to know for myself!”
“Get the fuck out of here,” I snapped at her, “Just, go! I’m done with you!”
I’d wanted to say it for so long and now that I finally did, the words felt empty almost. And despite my yelling, my mom didn’t scram, she walked forward. It was a tense few seconds while she cross the room to me, tears adding a sheen to her cheeks as she reached up and wrapped her arm around my shoulders. “Be safe, be strong,” she whispered.
For the first time in as long as I could remember, I hugged my mother and realized how long we had been at each other’s throats over the pettiest stuff.
And I’d never get a chance to see what could have been if we had this moment earlier.
As the moment ended, my mom turned around and left me to finish packing up the essentials into my backpack; luckily my parents had missed the money stashed at the bottom of my beds fitted sheet.
Outside, my dad had loaded the boxes of my tools and metal scrap into the trunk of my car and was waiting for me. I threw my backpack into the seat and looked at him awkwardly.
“She told me,” he said before I could open my mouth about mom. “She doesn’t hate you, Lexi, she just doesn’t know how to love you either.”
I nodded, “I think I get it…but at this point does it really matter?”
He frowned, “I think it might. But, don’t worry about us, you take care of yourself and your team.”
We met for an awkward hug as tears began to stream down my face. “I’m going to miss you, dad,” I sobbed as I squeezed tighter.
“I’m gonna miss you too.” He cried too, not bothering to put up a manly façade as he embraced his daughter for what might be the last time. “You’re going to do good things kid,” he assured me as he let go and placed his hands on my shoulders, looking me up and down, “You’re gonna do so much more good for the world than your dumb parents ever could.”
I sniffled and nodded, “Of course I am.”
We gave each other one last hug before I had to say those dreaded words.
His voice caught in his throat as tried to compose himself. “Goodbye, Lexi.”
Tom Trent waited for me to drive away, watching his little girl leave and give up claim as his daughter. Our lives had to separate, and it hurt so much more than the damage Collision had caused earlier.
Driving back over to Murphy’s house, I felt numb. I thought the rough point of my night would be fighting Collision or even the pressure exerted by Siphon; turned out the hardest point was having to accept that Alexis Trent was more than just Dragoon.
Being human had turned out to be so much more difficult than Adapted.
I pulled up to Murphy’s house and staggered up to his door with my backpack in hand, trying to open the door like I lived there. Surprisingly, it was locked. I thought my friend would have still been down but clearly he’d been up.
“Murphy, open up,” I begged as I hammered on his door. I hadn’t even realized I was still wearing my gauntlets as he opened the door, balancing with the staff and barely standing. Still, he looked better compared to where I left him an hour ago.
Largely in part because he had ditched his bloody clothing and was just in a pair of boxers. Still, all the stabs in his torso were on display, not completely closed and the regions still swollen. I could see where his ribs were broken and the discoloration around his midsection. Despite all the injury, he looked more energetic and had more color though he was panting with the exertion of having to get to his door.
“I wish the staff weighed less,” he lamented as I walked in. “It doesn’t do well as a walking stick.”
“Here,” I said, forgetting about myself for a second and putting his arm over my shoulder to help walk him back to his room.
“It…it didn’t go well, did it?”
I shook my head. “I’m officially homeless.”
“Do they know about us?” I hated that he had to ask, but he still had to look out for himself and his best friend.
“No. And my parents won’t rat on me; Imperium might drop the axe on them if they learned about me turning traitor. Their lack of a tolerance policy is keeping us in the clear.”
Murphy nodded, clearly relieved. “I had to tell Nick,” he informed me, “He asked me what happened, I couldn’t lie to him. He’d find out eventually.”
“You’re fine, and it’s better he hear about it from you.”
As if on cue, my phone chimed and I saw a text from our third member; I ignored it for now. I wasn’t about to deal with additional headache for the night. There had been enough upheaval in my life.
“Mind if I crash on your couch?”
He waved casually, “What’s mine is yours.”
Leaving Murphy in his room, I fixated on a couch and the prospect of sleep. I threw my backpack down by the armrest and flopped down, the emotional and physical fatigue that I had been pushing to the back of my mind coming to the forefront.
My eyes slowly closed as I replayed the last words my father would ever say to me.