“Just, leave me alone,” I begged as Keldan and his crew followed me, snickering as I turned to complain about their obnoxious persistence.
Keldan smiled as he stepped forward and towered over me. He was a fairly tall Zari for his age, and I was decidedly not the biggest human around, which made the disparity nearly a foot in height. “What are you gonna do it we don’t? You gonna call mommy and daddy on me?”
I could see it in his shitty smirk, he fucking knew. “Leave me alone,” I repeated as I turned around and kept trudging.
A firm hand caught my shoulder and yanked me back around, “I didn’t say we were done,” Keldan replied with a grin, “I asked what you’re going to do if we don’t leave you alone. You never answered.” He leaned forward and put his face centimeters from my own, “You of all people know exactly how much Zari hate being ignored.”
On impulse, I shoved my hands forward and pushed against his chest, trying to force him away.
It worked, but Keldan’s face twisted into a livid sneer, furious that I had touched him. “What do you think you’re doing, Murphy?”
“You what?” he demanded as a meaty hand slapped against my chest, pushing me back a step. “You think you’re better than me? Is that it?” Another push, another step.
“No,” I insisted.
“Sure fuckin’ seems like it,” he snapped as he used both hands and hit more than shoved. My heel caught an uneven part of the concrete and I fell onto my ass. Before I could get up, a foot smacked against my chest and pushed me down. Keldan loomed over me, taunting. “Is the little bitch boy gonna cry? Too bad mommy and daddy are too busy getting their mellow on to care.”
He-he knew…but how?
Keldan grinned as he towered over me, “Surprised? My cousin saw them buying. Pathetic humans need a fi-“
A foot slamming between his legs cut him off; Zari and human biology was fairly similar, and it meant some of the vulnerabilities were similar as well. Sure, they had tougher skin thanks to the harsher weather of Tso’got, but that hardly mattered when a foot slammed your nuts.
Keldan sank to his knees with a bewildered expression, caught completely off guard. I kicked him in the face to topple the ringleader before scrambling back to my feet and sprinting, frantically trying to escape his stunned entourage.
A pair of hands grabbed me and yanked me off my feet before I got far; Zari were faster and stronger than humans, of course they were going to catch me.
Panic overwhelmed me as a pair of Zari started dragging me to an alley; if Keldan got up, there was a decent chance he might kill me on accident in a fit of rage.
A hand gagged me and held firm despite me biting down. Despite my best efforts and the blood filling my mouth, no one came to help me, and no one let go. The hands holding me threw me down to the ground as soon as people on the street didn’t have immediate view of the beatdown that was about to take place.
My eyes widened in fear as Keldan walked between a pair of Zari, his face contorted with rage. “You little shit,” he snarled as he kicked me in the face.
I’d never had my nose broken before then, and didn’t appreciate how much it hurt or how much it would limit my vision. A foot connected with my sternum and I turned to my side, desperately sucking in to try and get another breath of air.
Another kick slammed into my back where my kidney should be; the area flared with pain as I curled into a ball and felt my heart hammer in my chest. What little I could see, there was only rage mixed with a frenzied glee on the faces of the four Zari who were beating me.
They weren’t going to stop…and no one was going to help me. I wasn’t a bad guy, was I? I didn’t deserve this.
I just want it to stop hurting.
….and then it did.
They were still kicking me, but the pain seemed to have abated, the blunt trauma muted as if I was wearing armor; I became acutely aware of a new sensation, something squirming around my insides. While it was strange, I was still focused on the beating I was taking.
Without the pain occluding all my senses, I felt enough courage to turn and straight kick Keldan in the abdomen. I wanted him to stop, to leave me alone.
Everyone was shocked when he was lifted off the ground and launched back nearly two meters.
In the moment of shock and confusion, I scrambled up off the ground and distanced myself from the baffled Zari. “Please,” I begged, “Leave me alone.”
Keldan got up, clearly nursing where he’d been hit while trying to save face and suppress his shock. He regarded me with a mix of confusion and trepidation before finally addressing his cohort. “I think this bitch learned his lesson. Come on, this pussy isn’t worth our time anymore.”
The others were confused by the sudden change in plans, but they followed the leader and he decreed that was enough. As they filtered out and left me alone in the alley, I felt the thing inside me move around and rush up the side of my arm. I lifted my hand and my eyes widened as I saw my hand visibly swell.
Where someone had stepped on my hand and split the skin, the thing inside me was repairing the damage, knitting the skin back together faster than someone could with needle and thread. the wound mended so well there was no indicator I had even been injured.
“Holy shit, holy shit,” I hissed to myself as I frantically hid my hand in my pocket.
Who did I tell? What did I even tell them?
My mind first went to Nick. He was a fanatic about this stuff, he loved the Adapted: the grandeur that came with their fighting, their epic conflict, and their crazy powers. But, could he keep his mouth shut if his best friend was one of them?
Normally someone would tell their parents about this, but that wasn’t a good option for me either.
I settled on Alexis. She was the smartest of us, she would know what to do.
Running to her house was…unnaturally easy. The thing inside me, I felt it empowering my strides, making them longer, making each step easier with a foreign sense of strength.
It felt awesome.
Knocking on the door, Alexis seemed confused to see me.
“What are you doing here, Murphy?”
I wrung my hands, anxious, my usual smile gone. “Can I come in?”
She raised an eyebrow, but didn’t ask anything else; my absence of humor and grin telling her something was decidedly amiss. Once the door closed she turned her attention to me, “What’s going on, Murphy? You’re making me nervous.”
I paced in a quick circle and tried to steady my breathing which was nearly impossible. “Just, be cool about this?”
“About what?” she demanded, starting to get agitated.
Glancing at her table, I willed the thing-whatever it was-inside me to empower my arm as I reached under and pushed up.
My shoulder swelled unnaturally as I lifted the dense piece of wood overhead with alarming ease.
Alexis’ eyes widened like mine had earlier and she sat down, bewildered. “Holy shit, you’re an Adapted.” She leaned forward to study me, as if I was some kind of lab rat. “What’s it like? Did you feel it happen?”
I set down the table and stood back up straight, “There was nothing that really happened, no flashing light or anything. It happened when Keldan came to beat me up again,” I disclosed.
She shook her head, “Fucking pig.”
“I kicked him in the nads but he didn’t um…take so well to that. He had his cronies drag me into an alleyway and might have beat me to death. But after a few kicks, it stopped hurting, like something else was taking the hit for me.”
Staring at my hand, I willed whatever was sliding around to fill in.
Sure enough, the skin swelled as I felt a strange amount of reinforcement to my bones and joints.
“Did you tell Nick?”
I shook my head, “Ran straight here. I don’t know that he’d be able to keep his mouth shut about this, and I don’t want to attract any more attention.”
Alexis smiled and extended a pinkie, “I’ll keep your secret.”
As I reached out and clasped her pinkie I smiled again. “It’s a promise then.”
A day before we raided Imperium’s distillery. A day before I was liable to run into Siphon again.
More than enough reason to leave me a little anxious.
School hadn’t been much help either, if anything it had just forced me to sit still and think about the fight that would break out tomorrow and the battery of unknowns we faced. Would I run into Siphon again? How many members would be there? Would there be a bunch of idiots hanging around and at risk? Would my friend lose control mid-encounter?
Most important though: would Shockwave show up?
While my passenger would occasionally tinker with my neurotransmitters, I didn’t want to be completely reliant on it drugging me to cope. Instead, there was one place I could go reliably to help alleviate my anxiety, and my friend was waiting outside.
“There he is!” Basl yelled out at me as I hopped nimbly up the last few steps. The Zari man wasn’t as imposing as many of the native residents on Tso’got, but he held himself with an uncharacteristic calm most didn’t display. Most Zari were aggressive, always posturing with something to prove. Basl didn’t and it made him more intimidating in my opinion.
“I had a bit of a…incident,” I replied with a shrug.
He frowned, “It doesn’t have anything to do with that bank robbery a few days ago, does it?”
I regarded his ashen face with a moment of caution before smiling, “Maybe.”
Basl let out a laugh before clapping his hands together, “Shit, the little man taking the fight to Imperium. What a badass!”
“Hey, easy,” I replied, “Keep it down. You rat me out, we ‘re gonna have a hard time doing business here.” I was still smiling, but Basl was clever enough to recognize when I was being serious. “So, what is the job today?”
While the man did run a self-defense studio—predominately catering to humans—a majority of his money came from hosting fights between hot headed Zari. The way he saw it, people were going to fight anyways, they might as well do it somewhere that no one was going to die. It kept police from getting involved…which was an added bonus since a lot of people liked to have bets going. Basl figured that he might as well host and make things easy for all involved, especially since it let him take a cut.
Today had a good crowd, nearly thirty people in, and I saw why. A handful of women were going to fight which drew people like a moth to flame.
As we watched a fight proceed between a pair of Zari women, Basl leaned over to me, “I see at least twelve new faces, six of them Zari men who haven’t seen you fight. Nothing different or special, but the blood is hot and people are stupid.”
I gave him a sideways glance, “Use it or no?”
He shook his head, “No gift. Beat them fair and square. I know you’re capable.”
My smile wavered; Siphon’s ass kicking still came to mind and made me doubt my own ability. He had been…so much better than me.
But, he was a trained assassin; these were just some Zari punks who wanted a fight. Basl was right about me being able to handle myself, passenger or no.
The women’s fight lasted another few minutes with an eventual submission brought on by a choke which lead to a round of raucous applause. As Basl walked forward onto the 3×3 meter square of mats, he waved me forward. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced with all the pomp and circumstance of a professional promoter, “I present today’s special challenge! My student here wants to see how his skills fare in a real bout, so I am offering him a round with any takers! Come one, come all who want to take a shot!”
Among the crowd of people, there were a few who had seen me fight and shook their head, knowing better than to take the bait. However, as Basl had mentioned, there were plenty of hot blooded and hormone driven men who were visibly overconfident.
“What are the odds?” someone asked.
“Straight bet,” Basl replied which only upped the appeal for several. In a typical fight, no human was beating a Zari. The muscle mass, the thickened skin, the sturdier bones, it was just too much to overcome. But, as I had come to learn from Basl, skill beat size every time.
A challenger finally stood up and sauntered forward, taking his shirt off and throwing it aside. He was about six inches taller than me, and probably weighed a hundred kilograms to my seventy-two. His grey skin has clearly been weathered from hard labor; he wouldn’t be a pushover, but he was clearly out of his element: back straight, on his heels, muscles all wound tight, and jittery with anticipation.
This poor bastard had probably never been in a fight that wasn’t a typical Zari slug-fest.
“What’s your name?”
“Adersi,” my challenger replied. “And I’d like to put a bet on myself. Two grand.”
Basl nodded, “Anyone else want to put money on Adersi?”
There was a clamor as several others hastily fronted money and Basl made notes before stepping forward to the ring. Some who had seen me fight before put money against Adersi, but most had trouble envisioning me walking away with a win. It helped that I made myself as unassuming as possible. With a loose white shirt, no one in the audience could appreciate that I was basically void of any fat. Despite our size discrepancy, I could bench press my opponent even without the benefit of my passenger.
Basl gave me a pat as I stepped onto the mats, reassuring. He knew this was a shoe-in, and so did I.
With a wave, the fight commenced and the brute stepped forward, flat-footed and overeager. The first swing was easy to dodge, the right cross that followed was easily pat aside. I kept stepping circling away from his backhand, giving no window for him to throw a wild haymaker.
At the edge of my mind, I felt a little tug from the passenger; it wanted to fight, to end the confrontation in a single blow. I willed it to relax, to not engage. I probably couldn’t stop it from helping absorb shock should I slip up, but I could avoid letting it help me level this poor sap.
He kept pressing forward and I was content to simply pat aside punches, letting them come close enough to make him feel like he was on the edge of victory, like he was just a few more blows away from a nice payday.
Basl gave me a nod from the sideline.
I ducked under an ambitious left hook and stepped in close, replying with a hook of my own. Unlike my opponent, I aimed low and jammed my fist just below his ribcage. While on a human, that would be a shot to the liver, Zari were structured a little different internally and that was where something like a Pancreas was.
Either way, it was still incredibly debilitating to take a near direct hit to an organ.
Surprised, he bent over a little and stumbled; I followed him and drove a fist into his jaw, snapping his head to the side and sending him to the floor. To my surprise, he didn’t stay down, but hopped back up immediately, enraged.
There was no call from Basl; the fight was still going.
His strikes were faster, but also more choreographed. More wind up, and each one threatened to rip my head off my shoulders if I slipped up. However, he was still flat on his feet and stepped forward with a shitty base.
Evading a punch, I drove my heel against his knee in a straight kick to disrupt his balance; his leg turned to avoid his knee coming apart and he stumbled. To regain his balance, his hands splayed out and left his face completely unprotected. A quick jab, a heavy cross, and a heavy uppercut all landed before he could take a step back. He was clearly rocked, but refused to go down, throwing a wild haymaker my way.
Snaking under, I ducked low and got behind my opponent, wrapping my arms around his waist. Despite the weight difference, I lifted him and dumped him to the side, disorienting poor Adersi. As soon as we hit the ground I pulled myself on top of the Zari, using my weight to help hold him down as I raised a fist and slammed it into his head. He tried to guard, but I was good at finding openings and rained a series of blows down before Basl got in the way and forcibly pushed me off.
As always, I popped right back up to my feet.
Adersi looked worse for wear as scarlet blood slowly trickled down his face, his nose clearly broken. While he glared at me, he eventually extended a hand after he caught his breath. “Nice fight.”
I accepted his hand and nodded, “Good round. Same time next week?”
He scoffed, “Fuck you.” It wasn’t a hateful comment, but no one liked getting their ass handed to them.
While there was another offer put out from Basl, no one else dared take that challenge. Adersi wasn’t a small guy, and I’d dismantled him without breaking a sweat; no one wanted to see what I could do when actually exerting myself.
However, as I took a seat around the periphery of the room, I nearly came out of my skin when my best friend sat down next to me.
“Nick? How did-“
“Our mutual friend, who is living with you, makes drones that Reckoners pay through the nose for. Usually these things are used for surveillance and stealth reconnaissance.” He gave me a condescending glare, “You really think she can’t track you?”
I frowned, “I thought I told her to keep her nose out of this.”
My best friend narrowed his glare, “Murphy, come on. You had to know that we’d eventually check out what you’re doing.”
“That doesn’t mean you should just go digging around in my personal life. I don’t pry about your and Xana’s personal issues. I don’t pry about how things are with your dad. I certainly don’t stalk you to figure out either.”
He recoiled a little, caught off guard by my abrupt hostility, “Fine, but my relationship doesn’t keep me from doing Reckoner stuff, or make me miss school regularly. Meanwhile you’re part of a fight club!”
As if on cue, Basl strolled up and cast a sideways glance at Nick, “You aren’t a regular.”
“Friend of your hustle,” Nick replied with a challenging glare. “He’s never mentioned you though.”
“Basl,” he introduced without missing a beat, “Owner of this establishment.”
“Nick. How long have you been using my friend to rob people?”
My instructor grinned, “Getting right down to business, I like it. Murphy picked up quickly, and in about six months made progress that most people don’t see in several years. So…yes,” he admitted, “I may take some liberties with his uncanny aptitude.”
“He knows,” I admitted to both. “You can both stop dancing around it.”
“Are you fucking serious?” Nick hissed, “You told someone else?”
Basl put a hand on either of our shoulders, “All due respect, but have this conversation somewhere else. It sounds like you two have a lot to figure out and I’d rather no one overhear things. Just because I know doesn’t mean everyone else should.” His comment seemed to give Nick a little reassurance, but he was still livid. “Murphy, see you tomorrow?”
“No,” my friend replied for me. “He’s busy.”
I hesitated but finally nodded, “Nick’s right. I’m spoken for.”
Basl nodded and extended an envelope to me, “I thought as much. Well, here’s your cut for the week then. See you when you have time, and good luck to both of you.”
As we walked out, Nick was practically exploding. “Are you kidding me, Murphy? You’re casually in a fight club? And you had the fucking audacity to tell the owner you’re a fucking Adapted! What in the fuck are you thinking?”
My smile vanished as I faced my friend, “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Murphy, we’re supposed to launch a raid on a fucking Imperium institution tomorrow, and you’re casually having a fist fight the night before. You risk exposure, you risk injury, you-“
“It isn’t like that idiot could have hurt me,” I replied with a laugh. “The fucker didn’t even touch me.”
“And what if he did and felt that weird shit under your skin?” he replied.
I scoffed, “Do you enjoy being outraged with your teammates? First you were angry at Alexis, and now you are all pissy with me. Maybe you’re the one we should be worried about, Mr. Self-control.”
As soon as the words slipped out of my mouth, I regretted them.
“Don’t you dare,” Nick warned with a growl, “That’s low, even for you. You know what that was, and you know why I was pissed with Alexis. This is fucking different. This is you holding out on us.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I insisted as I tried to walk past him. Nick maneuvered in the way and put his hands out to grab my arms. “And we shouldn’t get into it here,” I added quietly as I noticed a few Zari across the street looking at us. Even with the typical industrial din and noise pollution of Ciel, people still noticed conflict and flocked to it.
Nick had the good sense to relax his posture and lower his voice. “You were late once, and more concerning is that you wouldn’t tell us why. You had to know we were gonna check.”
“And I said you don’t need to know,” I insisted.
He shook his head, “Man, you can’t keep us boxed out like this.”
“Yes I can,” I replied. “Alexis didn’t tell us her parents were Imperium.”
“But she did! Can you imagine the earful we’d give her later if we learned that her parents were Imperium AFTER we picked a fight with them?”
I bit my tongue, frustrated that I didn’t have much of a foot to stand on.
“Murphy, I’m your best friend. Can you seriously not trust me with this?”
Why wouldn’t he let this go? Why did he have to keep pressing for fucking answers? “Let’s go to my house, then I’ll talk,” I finally conceded, knowing this wasn’t something that would go away.
It was two kilometers to my home, and neither one of us said a word the whole time. Nick occasionally glanced at me cautiously, like I was going to bolt and make a run for it. As we walked up to the door I sighed and let him in…feeling my throat close, the presence of my best friend making me more anxious than the prospect of fighting Siphon did.
“Out with it,” he insisted.
I shook my head as no words came out. “I…I can’t.”
Nick looked around my living room before looking back to me, “Murphy, where are your parents?”
“Murph, you told me you’d talk. I can keep this between us if you don’t want Alexis to know.”
“No, I just…I…”
Nick’s expression changed from angry to concerned. “Murphy, where is your family?”
Years of lying, years of dishonesty, years of keeping it to myself, I felt it all coming apart. Tears began to slowly trickle down my face as I looked him square in the face and replied honestly, “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, ‘you don’t know’?”
I shrugged, “I-I haven’t seen my parents in four weeks.”
My friend’s jaw dropped. “And…you have no idea? Where the hell do they go that they don’t tell you?”
Tears started falling off the edge of my chin, “My parents are junkies, Nick. Even before they were using, they were a bit disconnected. Your dad got angry, your mom’s depressed, Alexis’ parents found people to commiserate with and got violent. My parents dissociated with reality as best they could, trying to not feel…anything. I noticed when I was about six, they didn’t interact with me like parents normally did.”
Nick just nodded and let me keep talking.
“About six years ago, they started using heroin or meth, depending on what their dealer was peddling that week. Anything to feel better. It didn’t help my parents came into a bunch of money thanks to some settlement or some shit. They never told me, they just suddenly had money…well…had.”
“They burned through it in record time. It turns out that when you have tons of money, dealers like offering you product. So, my parents would make a withdraw from the bank account and disappear for days on end, enjoying a bender where they forgot who they were, or that the Trillodan had turned Earth into an unlivable slag heap. I…I guess I wasn’t worth remembering either.”
Nick reached forward and pulled me in for a hug, as if to let me know I wasn’t alone. “Fuck man, why did you tell me earlier?”
“I didn’t want anyone to know,” I admitted, glad for the little bit of physical contact while it lasted. “I’m ashamed of my parents. They’re…failures. I don’t want anyone to see me and think of them or assume I’ll grow up to be negligent shits like they are.”
It took a minute for me to compose myself and wipe my face clean as Nick pulled up chairs for us to sit down. “So, what I saw today?”
“When I Adapted, I was afraid of what I could do. I kicked Keldan and threw the guy nearly two meters; I wanted to learn control and Basl had been kind to me before…I had nowhere else to turn to learn how to control myself. I went from being a bit of a scrappy but scrawny kid to being able to set the world record in high jump overnight.”
“How did you even know him?”
“I’d gone to a few of his self-defense classes years ago but got bullied by Keldan for it and felt too pressured to show back up. Basl was nice though and seemed…trustworthy. I knew he did some shady stuff on the side, so I figured maybe he would be as good as any to trust helping me harness my gift. It wasn’t like he’d go to the cops and risk exposing himself, right? And, I needed to learn to fight, all he wanted was for me to earn my keep in another fashion.”
“He exploited you,” Nick said, disgusted.
“Yeah,” I acknowledged, “But I don’t care. My parents abused their settlement money and would still go disappear for days or weeks at a time; notices of repossession started coming in the mail and I desperately needed the money to pay the bills. Basl gave me a way to keep my home.”
“Nick, how long is a homeless human going to last in Ciel? If I didn’t freeze to death in the winter, some Zari would pick a fight with me and then I get recognized as Adapted and rounded up by Suppression or the Snatchers. I wasn’t about to let that happen. So yeah, Basl uses me. But he trained me too; he’s how I learned to fight. Lessons, training, every day of the week like clockwork for months. There’s a reason I’m so good at this stuff, and it’s because I train at least fifteen hours a week.”
He finally relented and was content to let us sit in silence for a minute. “You still should have told us. It isn’t like we wouldn’t understand. I mean, Alexis’ situation was royally fucked even before we made it worse.”
“Yeah,” I admitted. “You’re right.”
“I get it. Well…sort of. Man, family shit is such a headache!” My best friend finally donned a smile of his own, “Hey, I think we need to unwind a bit, so how about we go pretend we’re ten again and visit an arcade? We might suck less at the games now.”
It was so childish I couldn’t help but laugh as I wiped the last remnants of stress from my eyes. “Alright, fine.”
As my friend headed to the door I equipped a more genuine smile than usual. Maybe it was easier to let my friends help me than to just try and soldier on alone.
I was going to have to rely on him tomorrow, why not today as well?
“Hey Nick,” I called, “Um, thanks.”
He scoffed, “Don’t get too soft on me now.”
“Phrasing,” I quickly noted.
“God, you’re hopeless,” he moaned.
I could feel the anxiety surrounding tomorrow lift for now.
Tomorrow the Rogue Sentries would clash with Imperium. Tomorrow Parasite would risk life and limb to try and bring that group of mad men down another peg.
But for today, Murphy Pell was content going to an arcade with his best friend.
Tomorrow would come soon enough, why rush it?