Rock and a Hard Place: Coalition


Two-tonnes, full coat.  

I was grateful to the Neklim suit as it grew around me, insulating me from the biting cold as we approached the ramshackle complex surrounded by barbed wire and cement walls.  

While Ciel was a fairly modern city, the outskirts took on a rough tone.  It was like the wild west, or so I was told by my dad. What was certain was that police no longer came out this far and it was for a number of reasons.  

First off was the Adapted.  Inside of Ciel, the Adapted were fairly metered with occasional exception.  People looking to flex influence wanted to leave something left to lord over; while many ruled with fear, they knew the balance between scaring people into submission and making them panic.  There was general respect paid to government agency and it kept a decent amount of the warfare between syndicates to a minimum. But when you escaped the zone where police would interfere, the only contender besides other Adapted was Suppression and Snatchers who had no jurisdiction.  Out here, there was no oversight and no rules.

And since it had been this way for a few years, it wasn’t likely to change.    

The second reason was the environment.  While Neklim were the apex predator of Tso’got, there were plenty of other monstrous things outside the city limits.  Since most predatory species on the planet were solitary hunters, none typically ventured near cities since it was too large a gathering of people with too much noise; out here with a lot less light and population density, they felt more free to approach and see if they could find a lone human or Zari wandering about.    

It was why most of the cities on Tso’got were made within a day of one another: traveling for a day was safe, but traveling at night was often a death-wish.  Often referred to as city clusters, there were a dozen or so around Tso’got, each one consisting of half a dozen massive cities within a day of driving. However, to get between cluster, you had to take a flight.  There weren’t even roads between clusters.

“Ready big guy?”

I didn’t need to turn to see the little disk floating beside me, one of Dragoon’s newest additions.  While the others could wear the earpieces to communicate and stay coordinated, I wasn’t so lucky. We tried once, and it had gotten chewed up by the growths, seen as something impinging on the host.  Dragoon’s alternative was to create a little drone to follow me so she could relay instructions quickly It was programmed to trace me specifically, so even if it was damaged, it would fix itself and zip back to me, keeping me in the loop.  

“Ready,” I hissed as I felt myself reach full size.  I had another forty kilos of meat ready in my supply, meaning I could easily grow back nearly half of my size should it get maimed and chewed up.  

“We’re ready for you to make an entrance.”  

I stomped forward, the frozen ground rumbling with each heavy stride of mine.  Beside me, a pair of monsters strolled forward, each looking like a boar from back on Earth but covered in metal plates with literal flames coming from their nostrils.  

She had seriously outdone herself this time.  

Leaning forward, I formed my appendages into fingertips to get better traction as I effectively bear crawled forward, lumbering at the wall to this complex, building up a head of steam before colliding.  

The poorly made concrete was no match for a two-tonne battering ram.  

Inside the complex was a pair of small buildings that had the lights on with a generator beside each one.  These guys were completely off the grid, and rather deliberately.

As we’d expected, two figures came out from each abode.  Unlike us, they weren’t in costume, but we knew they were Adapted.  One clenched his hand and flames began rolling out, illuminating the compound and melting away the snow on the ground by him.  Beside the bastard was a girl with a shaved head and a ton of tattoos covering head-to-toe. From the other shelter came another couple, though they seemed role-reversed.  She was substantially taller, nearly seven feet tall with the immense stature of a bodybuilder; the guy next to her wasn’t small, but he seemed meek by comparison as he stared intently at me.  

“What the actual fuck?” the pyrokinetic growled as he opened his hands and let fire begin to network out, tracing lines in the around him like a massive spider web.  

“I recognize him,” the man next to the massive woman exclaimed, “that isn’t a Neklim!  That’s that Adapted, Eldritch!”

“Now,” Dragoon’s voice hissed beside my head.  

I was ready for there to be a sudden change in lighting, but they weren’t.  The compound flooded with a burst of light, like someone ignited the planets largest pile of magnesium.  All four of them had to cover their eyes, blinded.

Now unseen, I trampled forward and let my hands reconstitute, giving up digits for a spreading maw at the end of my arm to let me sink my teeth into more of the skin of the giant woman.  She went by the alias “Strongarm” and was a known mercenary who had no issue doing dirty work for others. Her Adaptation was one that essentially never turned off: she simply WAS massive and strong.  

But, strong and big as she was, I was much stronger and larger.  She was able to lift cars above her head, but I weighed twice what most vehicles did, and I fought back.  Strongarm strained, but I had put her on the backfoot from the get-go, and I refused to relent.

Increase the legs.  Grow six inches. Eighty kilograms per.  

The tree-trunks I called legs grew in size and gave me a little extra elevation, letting me push her into the ground, her knees buckling as I let my bulk pin her against the cold ground.  

My target was dealt with; now to watch.

The two boar things charged the pyrokinetic, who went by the name Sear.  While he directed jets of flame to engulf the creatures, they were made to be heat resistant. One gored him and threw the disoriented man into the side of the building, the other hit him a second time to ensure he wouldn’t be tempted to get back up.

Beside him, the woman got her bearings and tried to leap away, jumping an enormous height and landing on top of a building.  As soon as she had landed though, she leapt away as Parasite popped up on the roof beside her. Lithe, as she was known, had better acrobatic skill than our resident gymnast and a strangely divine knowledge of timing.  She was always around when people were vulnerable, and always knew the opportune time to strike.

It made her tricky to pin down but, we’d planned for her to slip away from Parasite; it was why Mutant was waiting in his travel form on the other roof.  Despite looking like an ordinary bird, as she was midair, he changed into his scorpion form, stinger at the ready.

She was helpless to avoid a quick sting.  

The last man faded from existence and showed back up behind Parasite, kicking him off the rooftop before disappearing again.  As he materialized at the back of the complex, there was a cry of surprise and a zapping sound.  Popping into existence a stone’s throw from me, a fissure split along the ground and he screamed before having a coughing fit as a blast of noxious fumes spewed in his face.  

From the other side of the complex, Dragoon came along in a bulkier suit, flanked by one of our newest additions, Geyser.  He was in a grey outfit with white streaks running along the length from head to toe, his mask covering his whole face and looking like a fractured rock.  

Parasite grabbed the Traveler, hauling him to his feet and twisting an arm behind his back.  “Enough running, Blink. We’ve got someone who wants to say hi.”

Geyser stepped closer, and another pair of figures slowly made their way into the complex.  One was wearing a thinner suit, very similar to Parasite’s old costume, but hers was a checkerboard of black and white with a mask that covered all of her face but her mouth and chin.  Beside her, a small girl came forward, wearing a coat and jeans. However, there was a plain black mask obscuring her features which seemed odd with her lack of costume.

Lightshow and Menagerie.  Our Projector who could manipulate light, and a Druid-Peculiar who could bring her artwork to life.  The fire-proofed boars were her design.

Blink, the man being held hostage by my best friend, was why we were here.  

Mutant had been in touch with a number of people he knew in Ciel, and these three had agreed to join us.  Lightshow had been a bit of a single act for a little while after her team had been killed by a gang over in Manda.  Ciel had been a bit of a clean slate for her outside of the odd little Reckoner act here and there. She was more than happy to join up with a formal team, hungry to do something worthwhile.  

Menagerie and Geyser had originally be part of a quartet, but that was before Blink had killed the other two.  It had happened while they slept, and the guy had the nerve to firebomb their shared living space once they woke up to resist.  

The fire had burned dozens of notebooks for Menagerie.  Months of prep work for her Adaptation, up in smoke. Literally.  

They had joined us on the condition we could make a pass at Blink.  While Dragoon was hesitant to accept, they had proposed that we ambush him, just like he had ambushed them.  Especially since he was far removed, it was easy enough to pull off. Blink had to bring anything touching him with, provided it wasn’t much bigger than he was.  While he could have teleported away from me, he definitely couldn’t get away from Parasite without having to drag him along. Our captain was willing to okay it, provided we didn’t do unnecessary damage to anyone else besides Blink; they were criminals and mercenaries, but that didn’t mean we should stoop to their level.    

My buddies suit glinted as Lightshow illuminated the whole compound in a soft light; just like how Dragoon had buffed her armor, she had done some overhaul for Parasite’s garb.  There were small armor plates woven into the silk, and it was more form fitting while still giving enough room for his passenger to move around easily. Around the fingers of his gloves were little metal plates that could give him improvised spikes which let him climb on walls more easily.  

Now held captive, Blink was unable to do much as Geyser and Menagerie walked forward, neither one saying a word, letting the terror work him over first.  

Reckoners fighting with Adapted criminals led to an interesting question: what did you do if you won?  There were no police to hand them off to; if you were to give them over to the cops, you were handing them to Suppression.  That would be tantamount to putting a kill order on yourself since Suppression and Snatchers were a different and completely heinous kind of evil all Adapted could despise in harmony.  

Often times, it became about depriving the villain in question of material goods since financial gain was what motivated many gangsters.  However, Reckoners weren’t like comic book heroes and many had no problem getting their hands dirty as long as the ends could justify the means.  While Dragoon was not one to advocate an eye for an eye approach, she wasn’t going to deprive Menagerie and Geyser of what they wanted. Blink was a killer, and from all accounts a despicable mercenary who was willing to do the unspeakable for a quick payday.  

Geyser and Menagerie had made a point to set up this mission with Dragoon to replicate that sense of dread and panic that had befell them when they woke up to the sounds of their friend screaming.  They wanted Blink to be afraid, to experience that distress.

I had felt it when we’d fought Shockwave six weeks ago.  That hadn’t been a fight; that was a drawn out execution interrupted.

That panic and being blindsided at two in the morning had kept blink off his game, unable to properly capitalize on his Traveler abilities.  After all, Adaptations were only as strong as you could make them; most people didn’t think well after a rude awakening. We had counted on that and Dragoon had planned, knowing exactly where he was going to run.

After all, who the fuck wanted to run towards a gigantic monster?  

“Remember us?” Geyser snarled.  

“Remember what you did?”

He turned to Menagerie, whimpering and wincing as Parasite kept the pressure on his shoulder.  “I-“

Geyser screamed and swung, slamming a Kevlar studded glove into his cheek.  Blink’s head snapped to the side, blood staining the snow as Geyser hit him again, and again, and again.  

Parasite let the man fall, still holding his arm to ensure he couldn’t teleport away.  

“You fucking stabbed them, in their sleep!  You coward!” Geyser screamed, now resorting to kicking the Adapted in the stomach, repeatedly driving the toe of his boot against his torso.  Blink was well beyond being able to give a cogent reply, blood drooling from his mouth, his eyes glazed over. Parasite had taught the man how to throw a punch, and even though he wasn’t an Enhancer, Geyser was very strong.  

Eventually, Menagerie reached forward and grabbed his shoulder, pulling him away gently.  It was clear Geyser wanted to beat Blink to death but he moved so she could kneel by the delirious Adapted.  

“You’re never going to kill anyone else again, do you understand?”  

It almost looked like Blink nodded, but it was hard to tell if the movement was deliberate.  

“And we’re going to give you a reminder.”  From her pocket, she procured a switchblade sharp enough to cut through the bone in his thumb cleanly.  The sharp pain seemed to buy some clarity for Blink who managed to focus as he screamed.

“I’m gonna, make you, pay!”  

Menagerie didn’t reply, she just took his other arm and pinned it against the ground with Parasite’s help before cutting off his remaining thumb.  “Geyser wanted to kill you; I talked him out of it. But Blink, if you go around killing more people, we’ll find you again.” The fact she said it as a solemn whisper made it more intimidating than the loud rage coming from Geyser.  

Blink had the good sense to stay quiet this time.  

Dragoon stepped into the middle of the pack, turning her head to get a look at the rest of the Adapted we were restraining.  “We have no problems with the rest of you, we were just here for him. You come after us, you won’t win.”

“Fine,” Strongarm growled, “Just get this big fucker off me!”

Our captain nodded and I let go, removing myself and taking a step back.  “You’ll want to make sure he doesn’t bleed out,” Dragoon suggested, “He took a hell of a beating.”

“We’ll deal with it,” Lithe responded, “Just call off your animal here.”  

Another nod and Mutant stepped away, pulling his claws away from her throat.  Sear wasn’t willing to give an answer, but he didn’t object as we walked away from them, the boars that Menagerie had made slowly backing away and then fading out of existence much the same way my growths did when dismissed.  

After 10 or so minutes of walking, we all relaxed and I finally let my suit fall off, grateful to Parasite who was ready with my clothes.  

“That went well,” Dragoon said, pleased.  “Geyser, Menagerie, how are you guys?”

The couple gave each other a look as they took off their masks.  She was cute and had an Asian complexion as both her parents had lived in Japan before the Trillodan slagged Earth.  Her black hair was kept short on purpose, her features petite and graceful. Beside her, Geyser was the tallest of us now that Mutant shifted back down.  He kept his head shaved and almost worked out as much as Murphy did; with dark skin and piercing green eyes, it seemed to exaggerate his already impressive height.  

“I think we’re okay,” he said, giving a look down to his significant other for a nod.  He often spoke for them as a couple since she was so soft spoken and quiet. Often she would tune us all out, turning to a notebook with a box of pencils and pens, drawing for hours without interruption.  Roger – Geyser – had warned us about interrupting her: Yuki got dangerous if someone interrupted her drawing, especially after Adapting.

It apparently had some of the same consequences like Alexis and building.  Once a project was started, it had to be finished.

Lightshow crept up beside Roger and took off her mask, shivering a little now that our groups adrenaline was spent.  “I should have been smart like Yuki and just come in a coat.”

Rebecca – Lightshow – was nearly a polar opposite to Yuki.  Like Murphy, she was a complete chatterbox who couldn’t help herself when there was an inappropriate joke to be made, a snide comment to mutter, or a sarcastic rebuttal to throw around.  She was a little bigger than Alexis, with black hair she always kept in a braid. Initially there had been a bit of friction between her and our other resident jokester, but now the two were getting along thick as thieves.  

Ted was still quiet and withdrawn a fair amount.  While he was undeniably the most experienced Reckoner among us, he was content to let Alexis lead.  Instead, he seemed intent on looking after the team, ensuring our well-being between fights and such.  Whenever we were simply around one another, he was content to people watch most of the time. Even now he lagged a step behind and hand his head down, quiet.   

“I was an idiot and got rid of mine,” I whined.  Even back in my sweats, the initial cold shock of being in my birthday suit hadn’t faded.  

“But at least you’re girlfriend’s dreams of an exhibitionist boyfriend are coming true,” Murphy said with a grin.  

I spun and shoved him; the guy barely moved.  Sometimes I forgot exactly how strong he was.

With taking new people on, Alexis had mandated that everyone learn basic close quarters combat with our expert since Murphy was the most experienced by far.  Even Mutant was made to do it, despite his forms giving him odd tools and rather unconventional means for close quarter combat. Menagerie was given the lightest duty, but she was generally a block or two away when we actually moved on a location, controlling several of her animated drawings from a safe distance.  

If she ever had to use the training Murphy gave her, we were in deep shit.  

Rebecca smiled, pointing at me in the gloom, “Monster boy is blushing!”

“You guys pick on him way too much,” Roger said with a playful scoff, “It isn’t fair to pick on someone who can’t stand up for himself.”

“Bastard took hits from Shockwave.  A little ribbing from us should be easy to withstand,” she replied, animated as always.  

I wanted to deny Rebecca’s statement that I was blushing, but she had perfect night vision.  Everyone would, and should, take her word for what she saw. “I still have some mass left,” I threatened.  

“But then you’d have to get naked again,” Alexis pointed out as we approached a trio of vehicles parked on the side of the road.  “And then you’d be putting on a show for Xana as well as us.”

Our one Zari member, Xana was our emergency driver and helped serve as a good devil’s advocate at times when we discussed about plans moving forward.  The rest of us were Adapted which inherently altered how we saw the world; Xana was a valuable voice for reminding us how regular people felt when we showed up.  While the other newcomers were initially suspicious, it was hard not to find her likable. She embarrassed me regularly to amuse Lightshow, helped Roger with his mask to give it a more unique aesthetic, and bought high-grade colored pencils to win Yuki’s favor.  

With Murphy essentially owning his own house, we had utilized the space regularly as a ‘hideout’ and it had served as a hostel for Rebecca and Ted initially.  Roger and Yuki had their own apartment towards the downtown area that we had never seen; the two of them were paranoid about their living space since their last home was firebombed.  

We didn’t press the issue.  

Even though I didn’t see much of it, having four Adapted under the same roof had been a little stressful for all parties. Fortunately, we managed to plunder a small gang’s headquarters and get enough money to put Rebecca and Ted up for a while in their own space and get them off Murphy’s floor.  

It wasn’t before we’d run into his parents last month; just as he had expected, they only came back when the money had run out and they’d sobered up.  Murphy gave them some of his earnings from the fight club, finding it easier to effectively send them away than to try and help them deal. I had been there when it happened, along with nearly everyone else of the Rogue Sentries.  A few of us had tried to suggest he do something else, but we’d been talking to a wall, and honestly I could understand why.

His parents hadn’t even asked who we were.  We were like furniture to them, nothing to care about.  They saw him like a coin purse, a thing of convenience to look into when it was needed.  He didn’t say it, but I was pretty sure Murphy quit seeing them as his parents at this point.    

That had been three weeks ago, and it was just now Murphy was finally sounding like his old self.  For a while he’d been quieter than Ted, and spent more time than usual working out, shutting us out.  Having an assignment like this had brought him back out of his shell, which I was grateful for; I’d missed my best friend.    

“Hey, are we meeting back up at his place to talk things over?”

“And for victory pizza,” Alexis added.  

A small roar of approval went up from Roger and Rebecca.  

We split into our respective vehicles based on living space: Rebecca and Ted, Yuki and Roger, Murphy, Alexis and myself.  Xana was waiting in the driver seat as we got in, Alexis taking the back where the seats had been put down to give her room while taking off the armor.  

“So, how did it go?”

“It was a cinch,” Murphy replied, stripping off his spider-silk top, “I was a little worried about Blink getting away, but our captain read him like a book.”

“I mean, he is going to want to get away from the massive Neklim; easiest way to make distance is go the opposite direction.  All I had to do was hit him with a taser round and screw up his neurology a bit. I knew he wouldn’t wasn’t going to get far while he was that discombobulated.”  

“Geyser hitting him with the fumes sealed the deal,” I added.  “That shit hurts to breathe in.”

Geyser was a Projector of sorts.  His gift let him stomp down and create small fissures in the ground that expelled noxious fumes.  The harder he stomped, the more range and greater number of cracks he could create. However, they did fade over time; the ground would simply reset after a few minutes if he didn’t keep actively making new crags.  He was a little bit stronger than your average person, but I wasn’t sure if that was just because he was a big dude or because he actually had augmented strength.

Murphy was pretty sure he had a slight tweak on his strength, but not enough to seem superhuman: along the lines of 1.4x as strong as he should be.  

I trust his intuition with these sorts of things.  Still, he wasn’t the one we wanted really engaging in a fistfight.  His role, one he excelled at, was making any kind of staging area wildly advantageous for us.  That being said, Roger was more that happy to stun someone with his fumes and move in with his kevlar-lined gloves or sometimes he carried a metal baton and a taser.    

“I’m just happy you guys are getting along as a team.  Since it was just the three of you for a while.”

“You say it like we can’t make other friends,” I said at my girlfriend, a little hurt.  “We don’t bite.”

“You bite all the time,” she replied without hesitation.

Even Alexis let out a surprised chuckle.  I glared and she pretended not to notice as she folded her armor into more manageable pieces.  After our encounter with Imperium, Alexis made a point to bulk up her armor, and make it so the damn thing could collapse and better fit into a duffel bag.  She added a second gun with non-lethal ammunition – notably electric rounds – and upped the output of her actuators. Now she could stress her system to give her an 8x multiplier on kinetic output.  While she lacked the speed and agility of Murphy, she was finally able to come close to hitting as hard as him.

“You also bite other people all the time,” Murphy added, “Just a little bit ago, you were biting Strongarm.”  

Xana reached over and punched me in the shoulder, “You lecherous man!”

“What the hell!”

“Am I not big and muscular enough for you?  For shame!” she chided.

I gave her a flat expression, “I’m not going to win this, am I?”

“Oh, definitely not,” she replied with a beaming smile.  “Accept defeat, mister monster man!”

Rolling my eyes, I shook my head enough so everyone could see in the dimly lit interior.  “Fine, but only this once.”

It was a decently long trek back into town, our little convoy fortunately unimpeded on our way back to Murphy’s home.  We got back around three a.m., and the fatigue was starting to show, though people’s faces brightened since there was pizza waiting for us on the doorstep when we all piled into his living room.  Being the considerate host he was, Murphy poured drinks for people as we all looked to Alexis.

The others would have likely gone home for some sleep, but she wanted to meet up before we split for the night.  

“What’s up, boss?” Rebecca asked as Yuki finally sat down, all six of us now giving her our undivided attention.  

Alexis put on a more serious expression as she took a swig of some soda.  “Well, first off, I want to compliment everyone on tonight. Our coordination, it’s gotten way better, honestly.”

“Oh, why thank you for noticing!” Murphy called out, “I’ve been rehearsing my dance routine.”  

“And I think it’s time we talk about what we’re doing next.”

The jovial tone immediately died out from the room.  

All of them knew that we intended to go after Surface Dwellers, but it didn’t make the prospect any less daunting.  

After that day with Imperium, Alexis’ prediction had come true.  Beleth and his cronies had asserted themselves and taken over in decisive fashion.  The morning after, the head of Surface Dwellers had leveled the Imperium distillery to prove a point; the few remaining Imperium gang bangers tried to take a shot at him, but Goliath had literally torn six people in half.

Both actions sent the same message: They owned the place now, end of story.

A small crime family had tried to fight back with a few hired Adapted, only to discover how overwhelming Shock and Awe were.  No Reckoners had been dumb enough to step against Beleth and his crew for the simple fact that he now controlled the strongest group of Adapted in the city by far, in fact many had fled the city.  The only other gang who might have stood a chance, Blue Quills, bailed out of town. With Beleth on the warpath, they didn’t dare step up and risk a visit from his terrifying crew.

There was limited information about the damage done to Imperium with Vermin’s attack, but a few tidbits had gotten out.  Ironclad was dead, that one was certain. He’d had his head ripped off by Rat, sacrificing himself to ensure Shockwave had a chance to get away.  Rumor had it Mizu been spotted in a hospital getting surgery for the arm that Parasite had demolished; it was speculated that his shoulder being destroyed had likely messed up his ability to use his power.  Shockwave was alive as far as we all knew, but we’d seen him take the hit from Rig’s explosion, seen the bloody stains in his suit from the shrapnel finding weak spots in his armor.

Adaptations were almost always tied to your well-being and current state.  If you were tired, it was hard to utilize the gift. If you were injured, it became more taxing and you wore out substantially faster.  Shockwave wouldn’t be at full capacity for a long time; there was nowhere for him to go in Ciel so we were pretty sure he had fled to Manda or another city in this cluster to go to ground.  

“Surface Dwellers are a far cry from the guys we hit tonight,” Roger pointed out.  “Beleth aside, they are packed with heavy hitters. Even though they don’t have the biggest roster, they don’t need it.”

“Shock and Awe took out four Adapted on their own,” Ted muttered softly, “And I’m not sure if they scare me more than Goliath…or Hive.”

Hive was a Peculiar, arguably a Peculiar-Enhancer, who could split herself into three distinct insect forms.  Each one had a specific role that it played: one was durable and strong – not unlike Mutant’s beetle form, one was built for speed, and the last was a flier that could vomit out acid.  Hive was fairly underrated in my mind; while she didn’t do anything flashy like Goliath and his ripping people in half, she had beat Siphon in a duel and had tangled with the leader of the Blue Quills and walked away.  

“I won’t deny they have a lot of heavy hitters,” Alexis conceded, “But they don’t have a lot of utility players.  Besides, there are pretty distinct limitations on what they can bring to the table. Hive is an expected value, Goliath is a fairly expected value, same with Shock and Awe.  The only wildcard in terms of power is Pyre.”

A pyrokinetic who stored flames over time and had an interesting quirk with emotional involvement.  While people like me needed to be level headed to stay in control of their Adaptation, Pyre deliberately let herself go crazy; her output skyrocketed if she went into a berserk rage… but she didn’t seem able to distinguish friend from foe.  Because of this, she generally operated alone or with Goliath since the massive Enhancer could withstand the heat.

“Sure, Lightshow can blind them,” I admitted, “But for her trying to keep that many people blinded would be impossible. There’s effectively nine people on their side to keep track of, too many moving pieces.”

Rebecca flicked her head my way, mouth full of pizza, “You sayin’ I can’t do it?”

“He’s right,” Yuki whispered, “You can’t keep everyone selectively blinded if a brawl breaks out.”  

She pouted, but quit protesting.  

“We, however, have more wildcards,” Alexis replied.  “For example, what happens if Yuki empties a notebook?”

Roger scowled, “She could lapse into a coma for weeks.”

“I’m not saying we go that extreme, but she CAN do it if needed.  Surface Dwellers have no way to predict how much firepower she can bring.”

“Or how big the monster man gets,” Murphy added.  “We’ve made him as big as six tonnes with pretty good control.  As strong as Goliath is, I favor the guy in our corner.”

I felt a bit flush as so many eyes turned to me.  Xana put a reassuring hand on my shoulder, encouraging me.  “Six wasn’t too bad. A little awkward to get used to, and I’m getting better about making sure my legs are large enough to move around more quickly,” I said reassuring, feeling a strange need to prove I was up to snuff.  “I also have the mutations which are inherently unpredictable. And they don’t have a Cognate like Toolkit to plan for contingencies.”

“They do have Big Picture though,” Ted countered.  “I’d argue he is more of a problem.”

Rebecca scoffed, “He’s a precog, but he isn’t that accurate.  He sees trends and can extrapolate, but he doesn’t have exact outcomes.  So what if Beleth knows we’re coming for him, he won’t know where we’re gonna show up.  Lighten up, roomie.”

Ted scowled at her, “You’re underestimating how insightful he can be.  Beleth pays a high premium to keep him on the payroll, and there’s probably a damn good reason for it.”

“That’s why we’re going to snag him first,” Alexis said, speaking over them.  

Roger frowned, “We’re going to hit Big Picture?  How?”

“Big Picture is an information broker, working on the north end of town at the consultant firm Analyst inc.”

Everyone fell silent; information about an Adapted’s personal life was almost taboo to have.  Identities were sacred and something we didn’t betray; that was the rule.

“How do you know this exactly?” I asked.  

“Lot of drone activity, keeping an eye on him and Beleth over the past few weeks.  It seems like Beleth owns the whole company and uses it to launder money and provide a valid front for his information brokering.”

While Imperium had essentially been anarchists and societal dissidents, Beleth and Surface Dwellers were more focused on the control and pulse of the city.  It was well known that Beleth made a point to keep hold of people’s secrets. He employed people like Big Picture to ensure he kept good information, and he was known to pay a lot of civilian informants as well.  He knew about every Adapted in the city, ensuring he could never be blindsided by a visitor who came to take his throne.

The thing was, no one knew exactly where he’d operated from; he’d been careful to keep his shady dealings under wraps which was no mean feat since Beleth refused to hide his identity.  

People like information brokers were in a strange neutral ground for Reckoners and scoundrels alike: both of us wanted the information, so it became more of a bidding war to buy their services.  However, the one’s worth their salt never talked about how they sold info to. If they did, at best their reputation was ruined forever; at worst they pissed off a hot-headed Adapted who would feel betrayed.   

Not a great plan to ensure job stability either way.   

“So even if we know where Big Picture is and where his day job is, are you saying we go storm the building in broad daylight?  We’d look like terrorists!”

“I hate to be a buzzkill,” Murphy added, “But Roger’s right.  We be effectively unmasking him, and that’s a big no. Even if we don’t, we’d appear to be attacking a perfectly normal business.  That is decidedly not what we should be doing as Reckoners. If we hit a drug warehouse, that’s one thing. But hitting an actual business-“

“A front,” Alexis corrected.

“Still, if the public see us – which they will –  they will see us raiding an office.  Thanks to the last two months, we aren’t a small name; we don’t need to lose face like that or give the cops a reason to pursue.  I’m all for being flashy and putting on a show, but that’s one I’d rather not star in.”

While police would get involved with Adapted sometimes, they tried to leave Reckoners alone as much as possible; many cops were content to let us go after known criminals and do their dirty work, especially when it came to dealing with other powered people.

Alexis bit her lip, “I know it isn’t ideal.  But, I’m pretty sure that one of two things will happen if we go through with this.  The first option is that Beleth has been loaning him some enforcement. If that’s the case, we are immediately vindicated in the public’s eye; Surface Dwellers are VERY well known around Ciel right now.  Damage caused by Reckoners fighting with a criminal empire is pretty standard and won’t draw any additional attention. If there is no enforcement, we can keep things quiet. Ted and Murphy do well in close quarters and won’t set off any alarms walking through the door.”

Murphy perked up and talked with a mouthful of pizza, “He won’t be wearing a mask.  How are we supposed to find him?”

“I have pictures of him out of costume.  I figured he is looking for big trends and changes to occur, little minutia like a persistent dragonfly won’t bug him.  I was right.”

To my surprise, Rebecca was first to reply, “Don’t get me wrong, that’s great.  But, should we be going after this dude when he’s at work? That seems really underhanded.  Aren’t we supposed to be better than that?”

“Becca, we just ambushed people in their pajamas at two in the morning, we clearly aren’t entirely above some underhanded tactics.  Plus, Beleth has driven away a lot of Reckoners because the only guy who could reasonably fight him is holed up two hundred kilometers away.  Now Beleth can make appearances all he wants since Shockwave isn’t around to challenge him. I’m not thrilled about using this information, but someone needs to take them down a peg, and if we want to keep our heads doing it, we are going to have to play dirty.”

She opened her mouth to object…but instead slowly inserted a crust of pizza.  

Xana waved to get Alexis’ attention.  “Do you want me to weigh in on this?”

“Of course.”

“I think you guys should do it.  Surface Dwellers own the city, but their Adapted enforcement hasn’t expanded.”

“All thanks to Beleth being paranoid,” I noted.

“Exactly.  You guys are going into this…a little outgunned.  I don’t want to discredit any of you, but he fought Shockwave, he’s fought Rat, and he’s fought Clemency.  Standard rules shouldn’t be what stop you from helping to depose him. People are spooked by him and his brash attitude; at least when Imperium was around, they acted like a check and balance for each other.  This is one of those few times where I think he really should go, no real argument against it.””

Yuki nodded, “I agree with Xana.  We’re fighting an uphill battle. We should take what we can for free.  Big Picture probably won’t expect someone to come to his office.”

Ted and Roger didn’t like the answer, clearly, but neither voiced an opposing opinion.  Rebecca seemed fairly neutral as did Murphy. A few eyes turned to me.

“What do you think?”    

I frowned, “I don’t like the idea of taking someone hostage or confronting them out of costume, but I don’t like the idea of him being able to feed information to Beleth as soon as we start moving against them.  And hitting a place where he launders money would be a blow to his organization as a whole. As scary as he is, people don’t work for free and Beleth still needs manpower to make Surface Dwellers run. Sure, his Adapted enforcement is scary, but the money comes from people making and running his drugs.”  

Alexis turned to everyone, “It’s gonna be rough, but Beleth has done a good enough job pushing everyone else out, that there is no one who is going to be able to immediately fill the void.  If we can depose Surface Dwellers, I genuinely think we can hold the city long enough for other Reckoner teams to help us.”

“We also might be able to pay some people enough to be Reckoners,” Murphy noted, “A lot of people are after financial gain; Beleth is rolling in drug money right now.  If we can take that, we could buy loyalty from some for a minute.”

“Won’t we then just be the new tyrants?”

Alexis turned to Ted, “No, definitely not.  We won’t be peddling drugs and secrets for copious amounts of money in order to extort and control a vulnerable population.”  

He seemed satisfied enough with that answer for now.

“But, it’s late as fuck.  Let’s go home, get some sleep, and tomorrow we’ll make some more formal plans.”

There was a murmur of agreement as yawns began to escape.  Nearly 3:30 a.m., people were fading fast. Taking a spot on the couch, I relaxed, trying not to worry about what the next few days would entail.

We were taking on Surface Dwellers, and this time we had no tricky plan to pit one kingpin against another.  There wasn’t going to be any competition for the throne; Rat had seen to that unfortunately.

This time we were going to war against the current regime for the good of everyone in Ciel.  

I hoped we were strong enough to survive the storm we were heading into.  

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