Rock and a Hard Place: Consult

(11/18/2080)

“How nice of you to come around,” a gruff voice called out from behind me.  

Turning, I saw my dad lingering in my doorway, his usual scowl smeared across his face.  “Hello to you too, dad.”

He walked in and sat on the edge of my bed, staring intently.  “Aren’t you supposed to be in class right now?”

I turned and met my dad’s judgmental stare, “Last class was just a test and I finished early.  Shouldn’t you be at work?”

A wry chuckle escaped.  “We were sent home; boss said we shouldn’t be around while ‘the king’ came by.”

Beleth.  The bastard had been doing rounds of the industrial side of the city, likely seeing which warehouses and factories were suitable for churning out additional stockpiles of Dart.  I could see the animosity radiating from my father at the thought: Beleth was the epitome of everything he hated about Adapted.

About us.  About me. About his son.  

“Someone’s eventually gonna knock him down a few pegs,” I said, “I mean, that’s what happens, right?”

My dad’s scowl intensified, “And how many people are going to die when he faces a serious threat?  The fucker leveled a building on his own just to prove a point.”

I frowned, “It’s what Reckoners do, they fight for people who can’t.  If no one stands up to him, he can flatten any building whenever he sees fit.   Even if there is a cost, leaving it like this is ultimately worse, isn’t it?”

“Well maybe they should consider the terror everyone who can’t do the supernatural is going to feel and-“ he stopped himself abruptly, catching me by surprise.  “The last time we talked about Adapted, it got far more heated than was appropriate.”

I was caught off guard by his profound self-awareness; maybe mom had been right about dad.  There was still a decent man under there. “You aren’t wrong.”

“Instead, let’s talk about where you go.”

My good feelings vanished; sometimes I forgot that despite my dad’s coarse and callous demeanor, he was by no means stupid.  

“You show up home at odd hours, you have yet to really discuss anything about what you’re doing with Murphy and Alexis, and you have yet to disclose where you’re getting your money from.”  He nodded to the headphones I had bought, as well as a jacket, a new backpack, and some other token purchases I had made over the last handful of weeks. “You haven’t gotten anything extra from us, and you have made no mention of a job funding your new habits.  Care to explain?”

“Odd jobs,” I replied, not entirely lying.  “One-offs for a few teachers and Murphy’s instructor.”

“Instructor?”

“He goes to a fight school.  No one wants to clean blood and sweat off the floor and off the mats, so I do it for a little bit of money every now and then.”

“What else,” my dad pried, unsatisfied.

I gulped nervously.  Damned man was perceptive.  “I have done some computer work for Hosjon afterschool.  He likes seeing students gainfully employed, insists it builds healthy habits for later in life.”  

My father nodded, satisfied with that topic.  “And why you’re always tired?”

“You ever worked out with Murphy?  The dude is a monster.”

“You’re exercising until midnight several days a week?”

I paused, unfortunately affirming I wasn’t being entirely honest.  My dad was looking for something faulty, something that would warrant secrecy.  It wasn’t a good skill set to have obtained, but I’d gotten fairly proficient at fabricating excuses that fit what people wanted to hear.  And I’d learned the best lies had a bit of truth mixed in.

“We do…occasionally drink at Murphy’s place,” I confessed.  “School is a bitch, and his parents are hardly ever home, so we use the space to throw a few back and unwind.”

He cocked an eyebrow, “Is that all?”

I nodded, letting my head hang to sell the guilt I was faking.  And then, much to my surprise, he laughed.

“You aren’t mad?”

“Why the hell would I be mad?  If we were back on Earth, you’d almost be nineteen, an adult by most standards.  I was worried you were doing something more criminal like slinging Dart or something.  If all you’re doing is drinking a little, I don’t care. You still pass classes and I haven’t had to clean you up or bail you out.  Far as I see it, you’ve proven you’re responsible to handle your liquor.”

I gave a weak smile, “I have better sense than to go getting myself into too much trouble.”

He gave a quizzical glance, “Somedays I wonder about that, Nick.  Tso’got isn’t like Earth, and there’s a lot more poverty and mountains less opportunity to be your own man and independent.  I’ve known smart people who dealt drugs because it was an easy way to see a paycheck.” A sigh escaped his lips, “I guess what I’m saying is that some days I worry about you and worry what you might end up doing if you feel pressured.  You’re gone so much of the time, and sometimes it hurts a little I guess. It feels like I drove you away.”

A part of me wanted to shout that he did, but that wasn’t true.  While I was upset about the slap that had happened, that was two months ago.  Especially after what had happened with Shockwave, some family drama felt so trivial.  

I was still a little upset with my father, but it had been a one-time offense, and it paled in comparison to the horror show that was Murphy’s family.  

“You didn’t drive me out,” I assured him, “But, you’ve told me you moved out at 18.  I’m not gone, but is it so bad if I want to try and be a bit independent or at least with my peers, not so reliant on you and mom?”

He mulled the idea over, “No, I suppose not.”

Standing up, I grabbed my backpack and gave a weak smile, “But, right now I’m going to go get some coffee with Xana and then probably put in some time with Alexis on our projects.”

“Be safe,” he called out as I headed for the door, “Things have been a bit hairy downtown.”

“I’ll be fine,” I assured him, “I’ll have my escort!”

With that, I gave my old man a wave and headed out; as expected, my girlfriend was idling outside.  

“Any issues with the parental?” she asked, noting my dad’s car.  

“Nah, he did pry a little, but he seemed content to take it at face value that I just enjoyed drinking with Murphy sometimes.  No harm done.”

Xana rolled her eyes, “You realize a century ago that would have been heresy for someone your age.”

“Fortunately, a lot has changed in the last century.”

“Well, some might disagree with that sentiment,” she replied.  

It was like a slap to the face being reminded by her: this wasn’t my home world.  This wasn’t where my species had evolved and come to sentience. This wasn’t where our history was. We were visitors, exiled here because of the damned Trillodan.  

“You know how to ruin a good mood, don’t you?”

“Normally you’re the melancholic one I have to perk up,” she replied with a fake smile.  

“You okay?”

“Mom flew off the handle a bit today.  I had less than stellar marks on my last print out and she spent twenty minutes lighting into me about how I am failing to utilize my full potential, how I am wasting my time by lollygagging around with humans, etc.”  

My parents were okay with our crossbreeding, hers were profoundly against it.  I think that was part of her draw to me: a massive middle finger to her parents.  I wasn’t sure how I felt about that being part of the cause for our union, but I wasn’t about to go and ruin a good thing either.  

“At least this human you are palling around with can make himself…kinda less so.”

“Turning into a Neklim isn’t likely to win any points with my parents.”

“Hey, I don’t turn into one!  I simply grow one from my skin.”

“Yeah, that’s sooooo much better,” she replied with a smirk.  

I put a comforting hand on her thigh as she drove us to a coffee shop a few blocks away from the firm that the Rogue Sentries were going to pay a visit to.  As we ordered and sat down in a booth, I glanced out the window at the cold building. Even though it was a fairly high class establishment, it struck me as more of a prison than a chique place of enterprise.  

Steel columns ran the height of the building, spaced out evenly with tinted glass with the exception of the front door, the only part that seemed inviting.  It seemed to be me to almost be rather on the nose that the whole building was obscured; it was a front for a megalomaniac kingpin after all.

“Xana, Nick?”

Both of us perked up and looked over, surprised to see our teacher holding a steaming beverage just a few paces away.  

“Hi, Mr. Hosjon,” I said, surprised.  “What are you doing here?”

He raised an eyebrow, “I’m getting coffee.  I thought that was obvious. Actually, I’m here pretty often, but I’ve never seen you two.  May I join you?”

Xana nodded and pulled her chair closer to me.  

He gave a glance to me, “Nick, you seem a bit nervous.”  Hosjon clearly wanted to say more, but he gave a wary glance towards my girlfriend, silently checking to see what information he was allowed to dispense.  

“She knows,” I said with a nervous wave of my hands, “And yeah, we normally are downtown, not up north.”  

Our teacher nodded.  “I see, and are you over here for a job?”

“As a matter of fact,” I said slowly, wary of people around us, “I was hoping to have an interview in the consulting firm.”  

Hosjon cocked his head to the side, “In the middle of the day?  Any particular reason they scheduled your interview now?”

“He’s looking to meet up with a particular consultant,” Xana filled in, “A guy who is really good about seeing the whole picture.”

Our teacher nodded, understanding.  “You sure this is a position you can handle?  And what about people close to you,” he asked, gesturing slightly to  the other people around us, “Will they be okay with you taking a job there?”

Xana smiled, “With any luck, it is supposed to be a small gathering.  The real celebration will come later.”

It occured to me she was way better at talking in code than I was, and I was the one who seriously needed to be able to do it.  

He didn’t seem entirely convinced though.  “Some of your latest outings have been known for being a touch loud,” Hosjon finally said.  “What makes you so sure that this one will be more on the tame side?”

I frowned, “I don’t really have a guarantee, but I’m hopeful.”  

He sighed but gave a shrug as if to say ‘I understand unfortunately’.

“How long until your interview?”

“About twenty minutes, maybe a little less.”

“Excellent.  Enough time to bother my students,” he said with a more genuine smile returning to his face.  Xana was so comfortable being around the general chaos we made that it hadn’t occurred to me Hosjon wouldn’t be anywhere near as okay with the havoc we were liable to incur.  “Nick, I can’t help but notice that you have been a bit more quiet and reserved in my class for the last few weeks. Any reason?”

“Poor management of my schedule,” I confessed.  “Too many late nights, leaves me a bit ragged for school the following day.”

“I’d think you of all people have one of the more novel views on society to offer and I, for one, would appreciate you showing up a little more rested to class,” he said before turning to Xana.  “And you, you have been a bit too hostile lately.”

I gave her a perplexed look as she raised her hand defensively.  “I think Kelsey was being a stuck up prick who refused to listen to anyone else’s opinion besides her own; if she’s gonna be nasty, so will I.  And I’m bigger and louder.”

Hosjon was clearly torn between wanting to laugh and chastise my girlfriend at the same time.  He ended up finding a middle ground where he just shook his head. “Miss Aln, I must insist you tone it down a bit.  I understand you are a bit… polarized when it comes to the topic of Adapted and our social fabric, putting a poor girl in tears isn’t called for.”

“You put Kelsey White in tears?” I demanded, flabbergasted.  Xana was right, Kelsey was a bitch; to put her in tears would have taken deliberate and calculated spite.  What in the hell had she said to her?

“I simply spoke my mind,” she insisted.  

“Xana,”  Hosjon cautioned, “Time and place.”

She folded under his stern gaze and eventually mumbled a weak ‘yes sir’ as she sipped her coffee.   

Unfortunately, I couldn’t pry any more because another pair of figures approached, decidedly overfilling the table.  “Mister Hosjon, good to see you.”

Murphy and Alexis had shown up, which confused me since Murphy was never early.  

As if he could read my mind, he pointed at Alexis, “She dragged me along.  I still insist there was time for another round of Armada, but nooooooo.”

“You’d have made us late, you play too slow,” she shot back, squeezing in next to our teacher.

“Well, I finally have the whole gang in one location,” he said, “Not often I get to sit with a team like this one.”  

Alexis and Murphy weren’t surprised that he knew since he’d discerned who they were after our first fight against Shock and Awe; fortunately other people didn’t have his power of deduction.  

“We may want to recommend you leave soon, sir,” Alexis insisted, “The area may be heating up a bit.”  

“Oh, Nick told me that he has an interview over there.  I do sincerely hope you get the job,” he added to make it seem more genuine.  “Don’t worry, I’ll be sure not to linger. I wouldn’t want to be a source of any anxiety.  

Alexis smiled, “Thank you.”  

“I am going to ask something of you though,” he said slowly.  “Be careful.”

“Of course,” Murphy replied with a smirk, “Don’t tell us you don’t think we’re up to the task.”

Hosjon lowered his voice, “I know what you’re up against, and I have seen what that man can do.  Plus, his cronies are scary too and not to be trifled with. I’ve loved watching your rise to fame, but I would be sad to see it all fall apart.  Every time I hear about your actions, I have a moment of worry: what if the next one is the fight you don’t walk away from?”

He turned to me specifically, “I saw you get battered by Shockwave.  I was horrified at the thought I wouldn’t see you in class Monday. The apprehension that I had seen your execution on  film was…”

“Hey,” Xana said, “If this  idiot gets himself killed, he’ll have to answer to me.”

I gave a weak smile, “She’s a bit scarier than you are, sir.”

Our teacher washed down the rest of his coffee, smiling.  “Well, that settles that. Xana, I’m going to trust you’ll look after these other two as well.  Is that too much for you to handle?”

She gave him a glower, “Are you doubting my abilities?”  

He gave us a warm smile as he rose from the table, “Then, I am sure I must be going.  I have papers to grade. And I remind you that you all have an argumentative essay due on Monday; I am not giving any leniency despite your employment.”

As he walked away, Alexis leaned in, “Ted and the others are waiting in a store right in front of the place.  Murphy is gonna meet up with him and go inside to take a look around, see if he can find Big Picture’s office.”

“And the rest of us?”

“We’re going to hang around nearby in costume.  If something seems fishy, we siege the building and take it by storm to get them out.  Priority is keeping them alive; getting a face to face with Big Picture is a bonus if we can make it happen.”

I glanced warily at the other people in the coffee shop, completely oblivious to the group of super-powered teenagers within a few feet of them.  “And everyone else?”

“You’re the big scary guy,” Murphy said with a smile, “Scare them away.  That’s kind of your specialty.”

“I never asked to look like that,” I grumbled.  

“But we’ll make do with what we’ve got,” Alexis insisted.  “Come on, it’s showtime.”

Most buildings in Ciel were wall to wall, with space between shops or businesses a luxury that most couldn’t afford.  The only buildings you saw that were really set apart were government buildings or buildings that could afford to show off and proclaim their opulence.  Some of the bigger slums didn’t share walls, but only had a tiny alley separating them from one another.

Big Picture and his analytics firm was one of those opulent buildings that was set apart, dwarfing any nearby front as well as making them look downright cheap.  Even though I found it to be a cold building, I couldn’t deny how much brighter it was when stacked against the gray cement and brown brick of the surrounding buildings.  

Alexis dragged me over to a convenience store that seemed closed for the day,  one with a good view of the firm; Murphy split off, with his mask tucked under his shirt, just in case he needed to hide his identity on the fly.  As he approached, Ted joined beside him and the two stepped inside, each armed with a smile as they approached the receptionists desk.

“And now, we wait,” Alexis said as she slid into power armor.  

Geyser was there, as was Lightshow, both already in costume… and playing a game of cards.  “Nick, you might wanna bulk up a bit,” he said as he growled at Lightshow, her quick hand slapping cards on a pile before he could.

“Where’s Menagerie?”

He grumbled as she repeated the process, effortlessly playing circles around him.  “She’s a block away with Alexis’ car, drawing. She wanted the quiet to focus until we got going.  And goddamnit, Lightshow!”

“Too slow,” she snickered, “You really should pick a new game.”

“I’ve told you, I’m gonna beat you at least once at this,” he insisted as he shuffled and began to deal around round.

“You know the definition of insanity, right?” she asked with a smug smile.   

Listening to my teammate, I stripped down and tapped into the 200kg  I had at my disposal. For now, I kept a small coat on, enough to hide my identity.  Lately, supplying my consumption demand had been made substantially easier with Geyser take a part time job with a slaughterhouse; while the job itself was disgusting, he was tasked with disposing of carcasses and discarded meat.  No one paid attention to what happened after they were passed off, so he could easily take home huge chunks of animal protein for me to ingest later.

To help enable this deal, I had bought a freezer chest for storage, and paid him for the service.  

About twenty minutes went by with nothing happening.  Xana had taken the opportunity to go move her car to avoid a parking ticket, Lightshow and Geyser kept playing Speed (with Geyser getting progressively more frustrated with each loss), and Alexis was focused on refining a gun she had started tinkering with earlier in the week.  The only conversation I had was when I asked why the store wasn’t open in the middle of the afternoon on a Thursday: simple bribery had gotten him to close the store. The man was a known supporter of Reckoners and detested the Surface Dwellers ownership of the city. All it took was a little sweet talking from Lightshow and enough money to cover what he’d normally get in a day to buy us a front row seat to spectate.  

Though she was apparently trying to offset our investment in the place.  Lightshow hadn’t bothered holding back in terms of helping herself to the snacks readily available, evidenced by the crumpled chip bags on the floor.  

As I watched the firm, growing progressively more bored, I saw an oddly familiar figure walking towards the building: while I didn’t know the  girl with red hair beside him, the smaller guy in a hoodie was recognizable.

Why was he… oh shit.

That was Goliath before his transformation.  I had seen him outside my house two months ago in a freak run-in with Beleth.  

“Guys,” I hissed, tapping my power and demanding my suit to grow, “Parasite and Mutant have been made.  That’s Goliath, and someone else with him. Probably Pyre.”

Dragoon put on her helmet and turned to me, “How sure are you?”

“I’ve seen him once before his transformation.  So, pretty sure of it.”

“Here’s hoping you’re right, and we don’t attack some random guy heading to work,” our captain muttered, “Geyser, you’re up!”

Roger stepped out the door and stomped on the ground, a crack in the pavement opening up and shooting across the road, cutting along in front of the pair before they could get to the door.  A burst of noxious fumes were let out, but both drew away before any harm could befall either.

The two of them turned, and I felt a mix of relief and dread as the girl showed herself to be wearing a crimson mask around her eyes and across the bridge of her nose.  We hadn’t just attacked normal people, they had in fact been other Adapted.

But on the other hand, these were two of the most dangerous Adapted in the city.  

“You’re playing a dangerous game here,” Goliath shouted.  I had to collect myself after hearing him; when I heard him speak in his fighting form, his voice was like someone had gargled with gravel.  In his regular state, he sounded a lot like me, like some guy whose voice hadn’t finished changing. “Pyre will blow this whole place sky high if she wants.”  

She didn’t talk, just nodded with a smug smile.  

“There’s four of us out here, and only two of you,” Dragoon shouted back.  “You like your odds of walking away from this?”

“I think so.  But even if I don’t, how long until Beleth flattens you lot, huh?  You ready to deal with him?”

On the street, people were excited; they were watching the preamble to an Adapted confrontation, something there hadn’t been much of since Beleth’s rise to power.  

Dragoon ignored the onlookers, her focus solely on Goliath and Pyre.  “Maybe not,” she replied, “But I’m pretty damn sure we can fight the two of you.”  In a hushed tone, “You need to keep Goliath busy; I’m pretty sure she’s going to enrage and it’ll take a lot to bring her down.”

“You got it,” I muttered, letting my body go from two tonnes to something more around two and a half.  Goliath replied in kind, swelling beneath the hoodie that he quickly cast aside. Even though I outgrew him, being nine feet tall to his seven, I didn’t feel particularly overwhelming.  Most people regarded me with a degree of concern or at least apprehension; Goliath stared at me like he had a single mission: destroy.

“Pyre, do it.”

“Lightshow, now!”

Our projector raised her hand and sapped away the light from around both members of Surface Dwellers, blinding them for a moment as Dragoon gestured for me to charge.  As I approached, I was pushed backwards by a wall of heat.

Flames erupted from the void of light and Pyre darted out, her earlier expression replaced with something more fit for a feral animal.  Her eyes were literally white, her head snapping to Dragoon as our captain took a shot.

Blood erupted from the woman’s shoulder, but pain didn’t seem to bother her; a shriek left her lips as a massive ball of flame streaked towards Dragoon, missing only by a hair.  As Pyre showcased her berserker state, people began sprinting the opposite direction. She’s made enough appearances for people to be smarter than to wait around to attract her attention.  

My attention was seized as Goliath charged forward from the dusk that Lightshow had made, slamming into me, carrying the two of us away from the rest.  

His intentions were clear: keep me away from her.  

He was confident in Pyre being able to incinerate the other three all by herself.  

Despite weighing over two tonnes, Goliath didn’t have much issue literally carrying me, bellowing as he lumbered forward, eventually slamming us into the side of a truck.  It compressed like a tin can, and gave me a moment to wrap my appendages around the other Enhancer, using the barbs to get a grip and keep him from drawing his arm back to strike me.  

It was a struggle to hold him as he dug his feet in and pulled, slowly stretching my limbs out.  

And finally, he ripped chunks of his arms free to get out of my clutches.  Just like how Awe had degloved his forearm, Goliath was willing to give up chunks of bicep to extricate himself.  Though, the second he was free, layers of sinew overgrew the area, immediately compensating for the lost tissue. Several people had made the comparison between us since we were juggernauts built for a war of attrition.  The difference in how we mitigated harm was almost identical: we both over-grew our original body in excess muscle that we would do away with later.

I lumbered forward, hardening my left arm and swiping; Goliath was surprisingly quick for being a wall of muscle and ducked under, stepping in to plant a blow straight into my center of mass.  

Staggering back, I opened my right arm like a maw and tried to grab hold; Goliath gave me a  forearm and was content to land another blow into my midsection. For a moment, I felt my control waver as my physical body felt a blow against my thigh.

Goliath pushed and ripped a few layers of tissue from his forearm, leaping back nearly five meters to avoid letting me get a hold of him with both arms.  No sooner had he hit the ground than he barreled forward with enormous strides. Two steps carried him the entire distance, his obscene strength making each step more like a long jump.  

I braced myself as he collided with me, but damn he had picked up some serious speed in a short distance.  As we collided with a brick building, he pulled far enough back to strike and began targeting my midsection again; again several of his strikes were hitting me hard enough underneath to hurt the real me.  Enduring it, I changed my attack pattern and grabbed a handful of bricks to weave between my ‘fingers’.

He was expecting me to try and ensnare him again; instead I slammed the debris into his side with a satisfying crunch.  As Goliath stumbled, I opened my other arm and added a hundred kilograms to it, making it big enough to ensnare his abdomen.  

Despite him thrashing, I  fought up to my feet, holding him in the air with one hand.  

Even though he was large, he was probably only three-hundred kilograms and really wasn’t too hard to lift.  Goliath had actual super strength and didn’t need the absurd amount of size and mass I required to be so powerful.

Everyone else’s fight against Pyre was going poorly.  Lightshow had clearly been on the receiving end of a blast as evidenced by her clutching her side where her costume had been burned away. And to make it worse Pyre had ignited the air around herself, making approach for Dragoon impossible.  A few of Menageries creations had tried to get close – more of the fireproofed boars she made for Sear – but they had turned to slag. The disparity of power between the two was absurd, and something Menagerie hadn’t accounted for when she was manifesting her creations.  Around Pyre, the street had begun to melt and there were several spots of brick that were glowing after she had bathed them in heat.

No wonder Goliath had been content to run away from her; as durable as he was, it would still be hellish being near that.  

Geyser was running around, trying to make a fissure under her, but the fumes seemed to scatter when he tried to release them near her, the air being drawn to her dispersing his fumes far too quickly.    

Even seeing her was almost impossible.  Even though she’d landed a hit earlier, Dragoon was firing blind at the force of nature Pyre had become as a column of flame danced around the Projector in the center.   

Goliath growled and shot his hands to my appendage, grabbing handfuls of my growths and tearing, trying to destroy the limb holding him aloft.  I roared in his face, which dazed the Enhancer, before lifting him higher and slamming down into the pavement. To my surprise, the cement cracked before his chest did.  Lifting again, I slammed Goliath down, using my stature to my advantage. Even though he was ripping chunks of my arm free, I directed my growth to keep the area intact.

After the third slam, Goliath shot his hand down, grabbing a section of the cement I’d broken with his body; ripping it free, he threw it at my torso like a javelin.  

It grazed my ribs underneath and I lost control for a moment as pair flared;  he seized the opportunity and tore himself free, hitting the ground and scrambling to his feet, blood dripping freely down his chest.  

As I went to pursue, a fireball hit me dead center. My roar at Goliath hadn’t gone unnoticed by his partner.  

While the Neklim suit insulated me, I hadn’t manifested any mutation to cope with temperature extremes.  The heat made me stagger as I felt nearly two hundred kilograms of mass on the surface of the suit wither and die.  Before I could recover, Goliath came back with a light pole he’d ripped up from the ground, swinging it like a bat, knocking  my legs out from under me.

Behind him, Dragoon was running around Pyre, attempting to take pot shots while Lightshow alternated between blinding her with flashes of light and subjecting her to complete darkness.  The sensory assault against her berserker state was making her wildly inaccurate, but it hadn’t stymied the sheer volume of fire she was emitting.

Goliath brought down the post and I caught it with both arms, ripping it away from his grasp and sending it flying up the street.  As he tried to make distance, I rolled onto my side and swung my leg clumsily at him, catching him in the side and knocking him back several meters.

Each of my legs weighed nearly two-hundred kilograms; even though I lacked finesse, enough mass simply made things hurt.  

Getting up on all fours, let out another roar and barreled forward, hoping to get a hold of Goliath and see if I couldn’t simply break his arms.  

To my surprise, he didn’t run, but he actually launched himself at me, extending one hand with his fingers pointed like a spear.  As we collided, he forced his hand through the lattice of growths and closed his gigantic fingers around his prize.

He’d managed to get a hold of the real Eldritch.

I had both hands near his face but stopped, mortified as he smiled, “Found you.”

“That won’t kill me,” I hissed, “But I’m pretty sure if I rip your hear off that will kill you.”

“If I close my hand,” he challenged, “You’ll have some difficulty controlling your getup for a second.  Shock and Awe noticed if you were threatened under there, you seemed stunned, almost passive. I doubt you’ll be able to actually grab me.  Plus, I’m pretty sure I have a hold of your liver; do you think you’ll be able to endure that being crushed?”

My only saving grace was that Goliath had no idea that I possessed a healing factor while I was inside the growths. While Shock and Awe had armed him with information about the real me, no one knew that the growths would work overtime to heal their host.

But, I wasn’t eager to test the upper limits on its restorative powers.  Against Shockwave, the suit had endured the brunt for me, and been able to knit bones back as they were battered. Having an organ crushed, this would be entirely different, and I had no idea whether or not I would be able to mend.

“I thi-”  

And then he squeezed.  

Pain ripped through me and I roared, sinking to my knees.  But what I hadn’t noticed was why Goliath had pulled the trigger; even with panoramic vision, I had paid little mind to the bird flying straight for us.

Mid-flight, the bird transformed into a massive purple and amber beetle, slamming a massive fist into Goliath’s chest as the enforcer didn’t turn fast enough.  As he stumbled back, Mutant changed again into the wolf and bounded forward, leaving a slash along his opponent’s belly. Goliath retaliated and swung; Mutant swapped back to beetle to absorb the blow and immediately turned into something that looked vaguely human but with strange grey tentacles for arms.  They extended and wrapped along Goliath’s limb, letting my teammate pull himself to the Surface Dweller and swap mid-travel into the wolf to jam talons deep, just belong the collar bone of his opponent.

Watching the incredible dance from Mutant almost distracted me from the pain radiating from my side.  As Goliath predicted, my ability to control the suit was fairly compromised, instead survival instinct overhauled and robbed me of control.  While I wasn’t taking any aggressive action, all effort from the Neklim suit was directed to the site of my injury. Tentacles grew small, specialized arms to adjust bone and cut away dead tissue.  I felt the growths integrating with my biology, donating something that must have been like stem-cells to compensate for the liver damage and restore its function.

All the while, Mutant continued his dangerous dance, slowly bleeding my opponent in a case of speed against strength.  I had known that our shape shifter had been a Reckoner for a lot longer than the rest of us, but this was amazing to watch.

This was what a professional really looked like in action.  

I shambled back to my feet, feeling sluggish, like all my strength had been sapped by the growths having to change purpose to saving their host.  

I got upright just in time to see Mutant slip up.  Even though he managed to turn himself into the beetle, he took a hard hit that sent him flying across the street, giving Goliath a moment to catch his breath.  

Goliath turned to me, and then stopped as the air suddenly felt cooler.

As Pyre had continued blasting indiscriminately with the sensory deprivation that Lightshow kept her subject to, Dragoon had finally managed to pinpoint where she was in the vortex of flames; even though she refused to register pain in her berserker state, her nervous system was still human at its core.  A taser round had found home and interrupted her regular function, and by extension, her firestorm.

Geyser saw his opportunity and stomped on the ground, a crag opening and blasting her with a cloud of toxic gas.  Pyre got a full dose and threw herself to the side as she started sputtering, coughing, and shaking while her body couldn’t get any oxygen.

My teammate’s gas wasn’t lethal, but it certainly felt that way if you were unlucky enough to take a sample.  The best we’d been able to deduce was that it basically induced a short term anaphylaxis; even though your throat would open before you croaked, it was debilitating to say the least and could often make you black out.      

“Goddamnit!” Goliath shouted, closing the distance between him and the shuddering form of Pyre in a few massive bounds.  He scooped her off the softened asphalt and leapt away, his massive strides carrying them away at an alarming pace.

“Do we go after him?”

“No,” Dragoon answered.  “Whenever Pyre comes back to, I don’t want to test and see how much flame she has left.  Plus, Lightshow isn’t looking so good.”

Our Projector was walking slowly, trying to move as little of her midsection as possible since her entire right oblique was basically free of skin, the exposed tissue a nasty red color.  And that was just what was visible; there were likely burns across most of her torso.

Lightshow was a tough bitch when push came to shove, and she was shaking with pain.

Mutant stalked up next to us, back in his preferred wolf form.  “Parasite is inside, last I saw he was dealing with security left from Surface Dwellers; no other Adapted though.  He should be fine.”

“Come on, let’s get off the street,” Dragoon insisted, shepherding us into the building.  Menagerie sprinted to catch up with us as we walked through the door.

As expected, most people had evacuated the firm when a pyrokinetic has been bathing the street in fire.  Though, there was clear evidence of a fight as we found a number of people in security uniforms knocked cold as we walked up to the top floor.

“Sorry I wasn’t more useful,” Menagerie said softly, “I didn’t think she’d be that powerful.”

“Do you have the notebook with the medical assistant,” Lightshow said through grit teeth, “I’d kill for that right now.”

Our Peculiar-Druid didn’t started flipping pages quickly, looking for the right bit of artwork.  

Stairs threatened to break under me, but as I went to release my suit, Dragoon shook her head.  “Keep it on. In case Hive or someone else shows, I want you ready to fight. Shrink down a bit if you have to.”

“Fine.”  Letting about half of the my remaining growths decay away, I kept myself with about a tonne equipped, and still had some storage left if I needed it.

“Plus, you’re a lot more intimidating as a Neklim than a nude teen,” Geyser added, trying to compensate for the absence of Lightshow adding a lighthearted quip.  

Not having her or Parasite’s wit did feel strange come to think of it.  

“Eldritch,” Mutant whispered, “Are you okay?”  

It occured to me he had actually seen what happened with Goliath; no one else had been aware I had been actually attacked.  “I’m okay.” Physically speaking, that was true. But, it was disarming to know that Goliath had been able to simply attack the one real vulnerability of my form.

Me.

Mutant sensed I wasn’t being completely honest, but he didn’t push.  We had other things to worry about.

On the top floor, we heard a faint echo of our favorite chatterbox, rambling.

“Parasite!” Dragoon called, “You okay?”

“Just fine and dandy, back this way!”

As we followed back, we were led to a corner office where Parasite was standing behind someone in a wheelchair, a trio of guards around the room looking like they had gone ten rounds with a heavyweight champion.  

“I found our man,” Parasite said proudly, “And it looks like things got a bit heated outside.”  His shirt had a few holes that exposed the grey and red tunic underneath.

“Fuck you,” Lightshow snarled, unamused.  

While the pictures we had seen weren’t the best quality, it was strange to see the man in wheelchair…since the pictures we had seen of him showed him clearly standing.  Big Picture, Aaron Edwards, according to his name-plate on the desk, would be fairly tall if he was upright. He had a bit of a beer gut and a brown beard that matched his curly hair.  

“How do you stand?  We’ve seen you doing it.”

“Specialized leg braces let me walk if I’m careful,” he replied, his tone betraying no sense of anxiety of nervousness.  For someone surrounded by a hostile Reckoner team, he was unnaturally calm.

“Who made them for you?” Dragoon asked.  

“Does it really matter?  I get the sense that isn’t what you came here to talk about,” he replied, still maintaining that air of smug relaxation.

“You’re calm,” I hissed, “even though we just beat down Goliath and Pyre.”

Big Picture looked at me for a moment before answering.  “I’m an informant. We know Beleth pays me, but I’m not exclusively his property or underling, he isn’t going to kill me because I talked to you.  And no offense to you lot, but do you think this is the first time someone has tried to shake me down?  Besides, you’re Reckoners. Are you really going to execute someone in a wheelchair? Even if I was in costume, no one has ever seen me fight, and it’s because I make a point not to.”

“You keep yourself distanced from violent confrontations through non-involvement,” Menagerie said quietly, appreciating the delicate way he positioned himself.

“Exactly.  So, unless you can pay more than Beleth can, you’ve waste-”

Parasite grabbed him and squeezed around his throat, “We probably can’t pay more than Beleth, but we do have something very valuable to barter with: your life.”  He let go and then hopped nimbly over the desk to join the rest of us, “We’re not playing under normal rules; those went to shit when Beleth took over the city. And yeah, most Reckoners wouldn’t kill you, but most Reckoners also left Ciel once he put several of them in the ground.”  Parasite leered across the desk as the Cognate tried to catch his breath, “How about it, Picture, what’s your life worth? How much information can we buy with that?”

After coughing a few times and massaging his bruised windpipe, Big Picture grinned, “That, Parasite, is an excellent question.”

“I hate to interrupt,” Geyser said, looking out the window, “But we have a big fucking problem.”

“What is it?”

“Suppression,” Geyser said back to us, “They just pulled up outside.”  

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