Rock and a Hard Place: Scattered

“Suppression?” Dragoon asked, alarmed.  “How-“

“You guys were lighting the street on fire,” Parasite pointed out, “It wasn’t like that didn’t call attention.”

Even in the most dire of situations, my best friend was still a sarcastic ass.    

Geyser stepped away from the window, “So, what do we do about him?”

Eyes turned to Big Picture who seemed to still be markedly calm.  “Well, you’re going to take me with you,” he stated as if it was a known fact.  

“Why would we-“

“You really should listen to him.”

Everyone, even Big Picture seemed startled by the interjection by an unknown voice.  All eyes turned from him to the phone sitting on his desk, which had started talking on its own.  

“Am I the only one who heard the phone talk back to us?” Lightshow asked.  

“Definitely not,” I muttered.  

“Um, and you are?” Dragoon asked.   

Despite there being no light up from the phone to indicate it was on a call, a voice emitted from the speaker.  “My name is Interface. I’m here to help you lot get out of there.”

I could practically feel Dragoon’s suspicion: Adapted tended to run the hell away from Suppression, not voluntarily approach when things looked hairy.  

“And why should we trust you?”

“Because,” Big Picture said slowly, cautiously even, “Interface is working for Titan.”

Even Menagerie was shocked at that conclusion.  “Is he right?”

Interface paused,  “Big Picture is correct, I am working for Titan.”  

The phone was suddenly regarded as if it might be made of C4.  Titan was the most powerful man on the planet, and yet he was someone who seldom involved himself with the common activities of Adapted.  He was part of no criminal schemes, Reckoner raids, etc. The only times he seemed to make an appearance was to thwart Suppression and Snatchers whenever they showed, but those were things HE did.    

I’d never heard of him recruiting, and I followed the guy’s doings almost religiously.  Who didn’t want to know more about the most powerful being on Tso’got?

“Why would Titan send you to help us?” my best friend asked, voicing the question we all needed the answer to.

“Because,” she replied to Parasite, “Everyone hates Suppression and Titan looks out for his fellow Adapted.”

While it was a  nice sentiment, something felt wrong.  The response time on this was…unreal. It was like whoever this ‘Interface’ was had been watching us, waiting for something to go wrong.  But for now, we’d go along with it. If Suppression was taking on a team as large as ours, they were coming armed to the teeth; we could use all the help we could get.  

“How are you planning to get us out of here,” Dragoon asked, impatient.  “You’re a voice on the phone; that hardly seems adequate.”

Raising an arm, I used my peculiar visual field to look outside and saw the situation getting darker by the second.  There were dozens of men in black and red body armor swarming around the building, each of them toting an automatic rifle.  There was a small blockade of SUVs forming along with a pair of large armored transports, undoubtedly meant to contain us should they take us alive.  

Snatchers were less threatening in some ways: they needed to take you alive to experiment on you.  Suppression’s only goal was to silence you and restore order. They weren’t opposed to using lethal force; there was no potential for fallout since the puppet government wasn’t about to hold them accountable for getting rid of the ever disruptive Adapted.  

“How about I show you.”

“How are you going to do that?” Geyser inquired, incredulous.  

There was silence from Interface.  And a moment later, we heard a huge clamor and a grinding of metal from outside.  One of the armored transports had come to life and proceeded to drive straight into various vehicles and knock them aside while running over several unlucky enough to be in its path.  

“There,” Interface said, coming back over the phone.  “That will stall their entry into the building and keep them guessing for a while.”  

“And him?” Dragoon asked.

“Bring me with,” Big Picture insisted firmly.  “I’d rather not stick around while they rip apart my building; it isn’t like I’m going to be able to run.”   

“We don’t give any of our own to Suppression,” Mutant said.  “We take him with us. We still need what’s in his head anyways.”  

Menagerie nodded, “Mutant is right.  We can’t abandon him.”

Big Picture visibly relaxed at hearing their resolve.  “Let’s go then,” Dragoon snapped, “Eldritch, take point.”

To my surprise, one of Dragoon’s little drones activated on its own and hovered around us, “It looks like there are a few different teams sweeping the floors, getting security guards out of the way and trying to set up dead ends for you lot to run into,” Interface announced.  

Dragoon turned, clearly agitated some commandeered her tech without asking.  

“Stairs,” Mutant said in his wolf form, his ears perking up, “Plenty of them.”

“Turn left,” Interface said, “No one coming down this hallway, at least not yet.”  

We followed her lead, relying entirely on her scouting and Mutant’s wolf-ears picking up what we couldn’t hear.  

“We need to go down and face them eventually,” Big Picture said softly, “Interface, there is an enclosed stairwell that can take us to the ground-“

He was cut off by bullets shredding through the floor below us.  Menagerie let out a surprised shriek, and Geyser shouted as he recoiled, holding his arm.  Parasite yanked Big Picture away, protecting our quarry as a few bullets pinged off Dragoon’s armor.  

I had been worried I was heavier than the building was built for; thanks to the structural weakness made, I felt the floor giving out from under my massive feet.  

“Back up!” I hissed as it finally gave way.  

I fell and slammed against the third floor.  The quartet of shooters who had heard my clomping above them were bewildered as I landed in their midst; they were more shocked as their footing gave under my momentum and dropped us down to the second level.  The avalanche I had started carried the lot of us to the first floor in a plume of dust and debris.

“Eldritch!” Dragoon shouted down, “You okay?”  

I didn’t have time to respond: the men around me were getting up to their feet.  

Still, she shouted down to me, “We’ll manage, just get yourself out of here and we’ll meet up later!”

With my marching orders, I prepared to fight.  I had sloughed off plenty of mass since my fight with Goliath but I was still eleven hundred kilograms of dense muscle, and these poor idiots were within my reach. The men around me were trained, but that hardly mattered.  

    Before the four could men could get to their feet, I hauled myself up and lurched forward, flaring open my hand and grabbing him by the arm, easily throwing him into one of his companions.  

    The pair of them went sliding down the hall.

    Sharp little nodes of pain lit up along my back as one Suppression agent got to his feet, spraying at the monster he found himself trapped beside.  

    Grabbing a fistful of debris, I spun and threw it at him, skewing his aim and distracting him while I bear crawled forward; we collided and I smashed the man against a wall, pushing him through into someone’s office.  

    Pulling away, the last had the good sense to run and make distance before emptying the clip.  

    My cells hardened, keeping most of the damage from going too deep and possibly finding me, but it still stung and punched holes in a number of growths.  While it didn’t kill much, losing about ten kilograms of mass wasn’t ideal.  As he went to reload, I roared and let the enclosed space act like an echo chamber.  While his helmet helped muffle the sound some, it did clearly intimidate the lone soldier.

    As he turned to run, I seized the assault rifle from his fallen companion and let the growths mold over the gun, almost incorporating it into my arm before pulling the trigger.  

    Several bullets found his legs and sent him to the ground.  

    “Eldritch!”

    I saw the commandeered drone flit around me, as if surveying the damage.  

“Is everyone else okay?”

“They’re fine,” she replied as a firefight came to life above me.  “Seriously, I’ll get them out, just like I’m going to get you out of here too.  Since you came through the floor, there are two groups looking to collapse on you, each with like a dozen people.  Their hope is to keep you isolated and bring you down before the rest can get down here. It wouldn’t’ surprise me if they are viewing you as the biggest threat right now.”

“Flattering.”

If Interface appreciated my sarcasm, I couldn’t tell.  “Here’s the plan, you’re going to break through a wall and attack the backup force waiting outside for you, okay?”

If I was capable of frowning in my Neklim suit, I would have.  “You want me to charge the firing line outside?”

“Waiting means you are subject to a horrible crossfire indoors where I can’t help you.  Believe me, you want to charge the back. If you fight outside, I can use their cars against them.  If you can get out of this building, I can help. Inside here, I’m no more than a pair of speakers and eyes.”

I turned and lumbered forward, my footsteps betraying my movement, hating that I didn’t have a better choice but to trust Interface.  One downside of my power: I was not made for small spaces. I felt graceless as I smacked against walls and clipped doorways that I was simply too large to fit through.  Going out to the men waiting for me would mean I was vulnerable, but it would also mean I could maneuver freely. If I got caught in a tight corridor, I would be unable to grow and replace mass too quickly for fear of wedging himself in.  

All the while, I continued hearing a firefight above me.

“They’re okay?” I asked the drone as I flew back beside me.  

“Mutant, Parasite, and Dragoon in close quarters.  I almost feel bad for Suppression. I’m going to direct down towards the back as fast as possible.  If all goes according to plan, we should be able to get them outside and put you lot in one of Suppression’s SUVs to make distance from the place.”  

“All that has to happen is I have to make it out of the building, fight the dozen guys waiting to fill me with lead, hope the rest of their force doesn’t come around the side after me, and pray we don’t get tracked when we leave, all with only twenty kilograms of extra mass to consume?”

“Turn into this room,” Interface insisted, ignoring my negativity.  “You’re going to bash your way through the glass.  Upsides of this building being so gaudy is that you can break out just about anywhere.”  

Looking through the glass, I could see movement distorted by the glass, but i could tell there were plenty of guys behind an improvised barricade of cars, another armored vehicle waiting to take us away.  “How fucked am I if I wait for the guys inside coming after me?”

“If the guys inside find you, they mark you and everyone will collapse on you.  And I need to be able to see the stuff I’m going to possess the first time; if you stay inside, I’m useless to you.  Once you breakout, you’ll need to hold on for about a minute before I can start using their cars against them.”

“And you can’t take the door to get ahead of me because?”

Interface scoffed, which sounded staticky over the little speaker in  the drone, “They’ve sealed the building up tight; the only way out is to punch a hole in the side.  The second you slam your hand through, they know where you are. At that point, you’re just as well off to fight them.”

“If I stay inside-”

“And they deem you too big a threat to capture, they light the building on fire or rig it for demolition while you and your friends are still inside.  Please, Eldrtich, I need you to trust me on this. Fighting them is going to be better than hiding. Zari understand a fight, and they will only get agitated when things don’t go as expected.”

I still hated this plan, but damn if Interface didn’t have a point.  “Fine, we’ll do it your way.”

Curling my hand into a fist, I smashed the glass and walked through the shower of shrapnel…and immediately felt the sting of bullets.    

Around me, a dozen operatives were peppering me with three round bursts, each one claiming a kilogram or two of my growth.  Even though I had twenty kilos left to consume, they were going to chew through it quickly.

Eight hundred, use all of it!  Protect the center!

My power replied to my command, churning out as much new growth as possible, with the full conversion rate of 40 to 1.  

It would decay in just a few minutes due to starvation, if it survived.  

“Bring this freak down!” someone shouted as a grenade detonated beside me, displacing me and catching the drone that was trying to gain elevation and survey the area.  As it shattered, I swore I heard Interface scream, as if right there beside me.  I staggered, off kilter as a new sound reached my ears.

There was a turret atop the armor truck, winding up.  

Another explosion, this one hitting closer to center and ripping away fistfulls of growths.  I didn’t get a chance to steady before the turret whirred to life and began shredding my torso, each bullet coming dangerously close to ripping into the real me underneath.  

I wasn’t a human, or even a person in their eyes… I was just a freak and a monster who needed to be put down.  

Well, this freak wasn’t going to go quietly.  

Turning to face the turret, I began running forward, keeping my arms in front of my torso to keep me from being shredded by the automatic fire.  By the time I got there, the semi-circle of men firing on me had shredded away the eight-hundred kilograms I had constructed as a buffer, the turret being responsible for the lion’s share of the damage.

As I got close to the transport the turret was sitting on, the operator quickly tried to get clear as I slammed against the side, letting momentum roll the vehicle onto its side as I roared, enraged.  

Most of those close to the gunner had scattered but one pair hadn’t run away; both went flying and slapped against the pavement some ten meters away.  One had dropped his gun nearby and I coiled my tentacles around it, emptying the rest of his clip and testing the body armor of a few more men as bits of hostile metal chewed away at my protection.  But now that I was behind their barricade, there was less target for them to prey upon; it was my turn to inflict some pain.

All the same, I was down to 850 kilograms of muscle piled onto my body, protecting me from the storm of lead.  Grabbing one of the unmarked cars, I rolled it onto its side, giving me the most unwieldy tower shield in history. Pushing forward, I picked up speed as the metal screeched and screamed.  

These men wanted to kill me, then they needed to understand exactly what they were up against.  

Giving it a last shove, I sent it rolling forward at an alarming speed, sweeping up two Zari soldiers who were unprepared.  

Reaching over, I ripped the bent fender off another unmarked car and whipped it at one operative, embedding the jagged piece of metal into his side.  One man went to grab his fellow as I kept running forward; I kicked the good samaritan and felt his ribs break. Seizing the wounded man, I threw him at a trio who were still peppering me.  

It didn’t connect, but it made them stop and relocate.  

“You think I’m a freak?” I screamed as I kept chasing.  All I could see was red as I grabbed a car door and ripped it free, throwing it like a discus at another operative who opened fire.  

His armor did little to mitigate it as his chest caved in.  

More chunks were ripped free, reducing me to 650 kilograms now, my suit doing less and less to mitigate bullets from hitting my actual person.  The only upside was my increase in mobility; another Suppression troop wasn’t ready for me to sprint straight at him, grabbing each of his arms and yanking them out of socket before casting him aside.  

Another grenade detonated by me, shredding one arm that I raised to protect my torso.  I hadn’t had time to solidify the cells; I was down to 600 kilograms.  

“Light him up,” I heard behind me.  

There were four men, all dressed in the same black suit but with purple accents as opposed to red; the firefight had drawn reinforcements from the front of the building.  I spun and felt a sting as one shot me with what looked like a modified harpoon gun.  It speared through my suits forearm, and then the cable it was connected to lit up with a massive dose of electricity.  

Pain seared through my body as I lacked the mass to disperse the electricity away from my real body.  Instead, I felt the real me convulse as control was pulled away from me; the only action that I could perform was to scream.  

Another modified harpoon gun was shot into me, this one piercing my leg and brushing against my own calf.  More electricity, more pain, and less control. I hit the ground, kneeling as a third electric barb speared my other arm; two Zari pulled and dragged me, stretching my arms out and forcing me to prostrate myself.  

“We’ve been working on countermeasures for huge brutes like you.  It seems to be working pretty well, don’t you think?”

I could swear he was grinning under his helmet as he loaded another grenade into the rifle and fired at my center of mass.  

More chunks of meat ripped free from around my spine, and my lack of control was allowing some of the most distant growths to die: 450 kilograms remained.  

“Shit, I think I can actually see someone in there!” their leader said with an air of arrogance that grated on me.  My suit refused to entirely concede though and tried to struggle, a few more kilograms turning to dust as more muscle mass fatigued.  

The leader approached me and procured a massive handgun, pointing it at my center, each bullet tearing into the person beneath the muscle.  I felt my ribs endure a quartet of impacts, each definitely cracking the bone beneath.

But my healing couldn’t start; there was no coordination while being subject to this voltage.  

“You’re the best humanity has to offer?  You lot are the supposed best variations of biology?” the Suppression officer laughed, “You’re just a ragtag group of freaks.”  

I wanted to reply, to fight, to do anything; my body denied me; my first priority was to mend the damage to my core but even that was an unattainable goal.

From what sounded far away, I could hear the rest of my team engaging the other Suppression soldiers.  Gunfire rang out, letting me know at least there was some fight in them still. But they were so distant, so removed…

They would never get close enough to save me.  As if to add insult to injury, one group of the Suppression soldiers who had gone into the building after me, joined the officer and his cronies, the lot of them slowly encroaching on their prey. Even if I could rip free of these voltaic tethers, I didn’t have enough mass to endure ANOTHER dozen men riddling me with bullets.  Not a chance.

Dread overwhelmed me; I hadn’t felt this helpless since my duel with Shockwave.  

The leader of Imperium’s enforcement had been able to blast me back and demolish me, he showed overwhelming might that I was simply too small to fight against.  This was different in some ways; I’d endured hundreds of bullets ripping apart chunks of meat off my body and slowly torn apart little bit at a time. Goliath had been able to find my vulnerability, though at great risk to himself, and left me vulnerable; my team had been there to salvage that situation.  

But now, now I was alone, isolated.  My team was fighting for their own survival.  Even my mysterious guardian angel seemed out of commission since the drone had been shredded while being controlled.  

“We were going to try and take you lot alive,” the officer spat as he approached, keeping a safe distance from the writhing mass that surrounded my torso, “But whoever was possessing stuff left us a banged up APC and you rolled the other one.  Well, I guess we’ll just have to do the world a favor the old fashioned way.”

He tracked my exposed arm to approximate the location of my head and loaded his hand cannon as two cronies approached beside him, both glaring down at me while holding assault rifles.  Fourteen men were going to watch the execution of a seventeen year old, and none of them would be held accountable for this. I was done fighting, there was nothing I could do but sit there and slowly bleed to death.  As long as those tasers were connected to me, I would eventually bleed out, even is this guy didn’t execute me.

But, I was dimly aware of being able to see another figure walking forward who was decidedly not enforcement.  He looked…like a kid my age with a tank top and shorts, a purple bandana wrapped around the lower half of his face.  

“One less freak for the rest of us-“

The Suppression troops saw the lone figure approaching.  

“Shoot him,” the officer insisted without pause.

A cacophony rang out as the clips were emptied, hot shells landing atop the mound of growths and burning me beneath.  But the kid in the tank top kept moving forward without injury, though he refused to do more than purposefully walk.

And once he was close enough, he swiped his hand to the left: one of the Suppression operatives shot backwards and splattered against the side of a mangled car.  Another gesture and the other followed suit.

The captain turned to run, but another gesture sent him flying; unlike the others, he didn’t splatter on impact.  

Other Suppression troops added to the hail of bullets headed his way but he gestured with both hands, ‘pulling’ forward with some effort.  Whatever telekinesis this guy possessed dragged the dozen soldiers closer to him. Another gesture and he smashed them all against the ground, literally flattening all at once.  

Finally my body could mend since I was no longer being zapped within an inch of my life.  The growths immediately turned inward, fishing out chunks of invasive metal and sacrificing their own mass to reconstitute the damaged tissue in my torso.

The officer growled and got to his feet, unloading the magazine from his handgun into the interloper, still to no effect.  He reloaded hastily, his jittery movement betraying panic and fear as the figure approached.

Confidently, the kid took the gun and put it to his forehead, pulling the trigger.  Smoke escaped, and the bit of metal hit the ground as he moved the barrel aside.

“You’re damn right we’re the best that humanity has to offer, Captain Velar,” the kid said. Without additional warning, he swung, his fist obliterating the Zari’s helmet and his bottom jaw beneath in a mess of blood and shattered teeth.  Captain Velar collapsed in a heap, though he was still alive from the looks of it. The newcomer to the party walked over to me, taking the harpoon in my leg and yanking it free.

“W-who are you?” I said, my original voice bleeding into the voice of my Neklim suit.  

He tugged the bandana away to show a clean shaven jawline and almost childish smile, “I’m a friend.”

Around him the air seemed to shimmer, taking on a slight blue hue as he seemed less…empowered for lack of a better turn.  He zipped beside me, his slow but purposeful walk replaced with blinding speed and he dashed between my arms and ripped the remaining spikes free with clear strain.  

“Are you with Titan?”

“Everyone is with Titan if you think about it,” he said with a shrug, “But yes.  Less philosophically speaking, I am working for the guy. Interface said I should come find you after the drone blew up; seriously did a number to the poor bastard.”

“And the-”

“Suppression sent a hell of a lot of guys after you lot but don’t worry, the rest of your team is fine.  Interface is finally up and working again and leading them down to you. All you gotta do is stay put and let Dragoon get one of these SUVs running.”  

“Why did Titan send you guys?” I asked as he turned to leave, “why would he risk you two for us?”

He smiled before tugging the bandana back over his mouth, “Maybe it was the right thing to do.”

And in a blur of motion, he sprinted away, leaving me alone with my frustrations.  

I’d needed to be saved, again.   

——————————————

“Alright, Big Picture, let’s talk,” Dragoon said as we took all circled around the man in the wheelchair while inside Murphy’s house.  We had put a bag over his head; while it felt markedly criminal, we didn’t want to give him too much information about where we had been hiding out.      

“A bit out of the norm for a Reckoner group to black bag someone,” he growled as he surveyed us.

As a group, we were definitely looking worse for wear: Geyser had been shot in the arm earlier, Lightshow was being treated by an ethereal nurse that Menagerie had conjured, Dragoon’s armor was marred, and I’d had to reconjure a small layer of growths to both hide my identity as well as finish mending my torso.  The only people who seemed fine were Mutant and Parasite.

Big Picture took a moment to collect himself and straighten up in his wheelchair.  “You lot have ruined my life.”

“Don’t be so-”

“Melodramatic?  Hardly,” he snapped at Parasite.  “You brought Suppression to my place of legitimate business; they are given amnesty from the government.  Since there is video of you guys escorting me out, I will be silenced under suspicion. When they torture me and inevitably get me to crack and confess to collusion, what do you think happens then?”

All of us felt some of the weight of his words.  He was right, we had just demolished his civilian life.  

“It isn’t like we wanted to bring them with us,” Geyser grumbled.  

“And yet, here we are,” he insisted, annoyed.  

“No one plans to bring Suppression along.  For what it’s worth, we’re sorry,” Dragoon insisted, “But we still need information from you.”

“Take off your masks,” he said after a pause.  “You used information about my identity to find me, fair seems fair.”

“I’m not-”

Dragoon answered by taking her helmet off and putting it under an arm.

“Drag!” Parasite hissed, “What the hell are you doing?”

As the Cognates stared at one another, I could feel a mutual understanding being reached.  “This is about trust. We have his real identity, but we aren’t going to spit it out. He deserves to have equal leverage.”  

Ted was the first to take action, shapeshifting back to his human form.  I dismissed the layer of growth on my face, and the others took off their mask; everyone was exposed to a man whose whole gift was to be able to expound upon existing information.  If anyone in the city could identify us from a single glimpse of our face, it was this man.

I hope our captain knew what she was doing.

“So remind me,” Murphy muttered, “What’s keeping us from extorting you and holding you prisoner here?”

“Mr. Pell,” Big Picture said, “I said that I was willing to entertain your price of my life.  It has a dollar value, and right now I’m going to declare it to be three-hundred thousand dollars.  I will not give information over that; I’m still a man of integrity, I assume you are as well. I assume you don’t claim to be a Reckoner in name only; even for those more bloodthirsty, holding a paraplegic man captive seems low.”  

My best friend was fairly cowed with that lashing.  

“First things first,” Dragoon said, “How did you know those were Titan’s goons and why did he send them?”

Big Picture rolled his eyes, as if that was so simply a kid should have  known. “Titan has a habit of keeping free of our commonplace squabbles; he’s far too powerful to be involved in any kind of conflict since a single appearance quashes any conflict.  Even against the likes of Beleth or Shockwave, he makes them look downright pedestrian. What he does seem determined to do it thwart Snatchers and Suppression.”

“We know that,” Alexis replied.

“What you don’t know is that an underrated value of Titan is that the man is markedly amenable and charismatic.  It seems only appropriate that he has followers who are interested in the preservation of Adapted. As powerful as the man is, he can’t be everywhere at once.  It makes logical sense that he would leave sleeper agents and recruits hidden around other cities on Tso’got to carry out his mission while he is moving around.  The man seldom stays anywhere for too long.”

It was true.  People reported spotting the Projector every now and then around different city clusters like some kind of divinely powered vagabond.  

Dragoon sighed, “Next: do you think we can fight Beleth?”

“No,” he replied, blunt.  “I can’t imagine a really good scenario for your team against him.  If you were to stack up against someone like Shockwave, you’d have a chance.  But Beleth is almost tailor made to rip your group to pieces.”

“Why?”

“Lack of flight for one.  You don’t have an aggressive enough Projector, and both you and Eldritch lack the mobility to be a serious threat.”  

Man, this guy was blunt.  

“How much money would you say that we’ve spent on our available tab?”

“About fifty grand down, Ms. Trent,” he replied.  “So far these have been fairly softball questions.”  

“Fifty grand?” Lightshow snapped, “Fifty grand for speculation on shit we already knew?”  Despite the spectral nurse helping our light manipulator, she was still clearly in a terrible amount of pain given her absence of humor.  

Big Picture wasn’t put off by her aggression fortunately.  “You must understand, Rebecca, that I am asked for information because I’m also a source of confirmation.  Plus, that second question was expensive because you’re asking me to effectively betray information about my regular customer.  While I am not loyal to Beleth specifically, I do make a point to not be turncoat too readily.”

Alexis raised a hand to stop our teammate’s next objection.  “Where can we find Beleth’s primary Dart manufacturing?”

Big Picture frowned, “Going after his financial assets.  I see. You do realize this will just about be worth the rest of the credit you have with me?”  

“I understand,” our captain said.

He procured tablet from a small sleeve put on the side of his wheelchair; after tinkering with it a moment, he pulled up a map of Ciel.  “Everyone know that the old hunting ground for Surface Dwellers was up in the north end of the city. As a result, it made sense that people would spot one split of Hive here and there; it was Dweller turf so it made sense for her to be skulking around.  Well, she wasn’t just skulking aimlessly. She was keeping an eye out for any people sniffing around and digging for their supply. Given a few places she was spotted,” he zoomed in on the map and marked down little points with his finger, making a loose ring stretching about six blocks in radius, “We can assume that she wasn’t protecting the turf as much as a specific building within this circle.”

“Beleth’s greatest financial gain,” Roger muttered, “She’s been playing guard duty since she can cover so much area and perfectly coordinate on her own.”  

“I’m not quite done.  A few chance sightings of Shock and Awe can take you a little closer into the radius,” he added, noting a  few more points, narrowing the locale to a four block radius. “Shock and Awe are generally used as offensive tools more often than not, taking the fight and leading the charge against other organizations.  For them to be within the confines of whatever Hive is guarding, it must be something both valuable to Beleth and vulnerable.”

“Shock and Awe are seen all over though,” Ted countered, “Seeing them on Dweller turf doesn’t mean a whole lot.”

“It does when you consider the dates they were spotted in costume.  About five months ago, a month before that, and about eight weeks ago.”

The last one had been when tensions were high with Imperium; if there had ever been a time they would have lashed out and done something irrational, it would have been then.

“The previous two occasions,” Big Picture filled in, “All relate to dates when the two heads of their respective organizations were planning to fight.  Lines between territories were blurry, and Shockwave wanted to move on the Dart facility as well.”

Alexis frowned, “He never told you where it was?”

Big Picture shook his head, “Of course not.  I’m an informant; if I was given information like that, it would be up for sale by default.  Though, Beleth isn’t foolish. It is more than likely he will assume you have obtained this information since Goliath and Pyre saw you at my office.”

“Is Shockwave still alive?”

Big Picture cocked his head, “You’d ask about the other tyrant this city saw?  Why?”

“If we overthrow Beleth, I must assume he is planning to come back and reclaim what he deems to be his.  Imperium may be beaten back and quieted for now, but they won’t remain dormant forever. Do we have to worry about a resurgence from Shockwave and his lackeys?”

Big Picture pondered for a moment, “He isn’t dead.  From the footage I saw and based on eye-witness accounts, he was injured by a blast from Rig, and subject to a number of injuries thanks to shrapnel embedding itself in his body.  But he was still up and fighting for a long while with Rat. If he was coherent enough to fight with someone at the pinnacle of his powers, despite being having suffered a blast, there are only one reasonable conclusion we can come to: the injuries were relatively superficial.”

“He had a chunk of metal in his thigh,” Parasite said, “I  saw it jutting out the top of his leg.”

“Embedded in the quadricep, while it would be painful, wouldn’t lead to copious amounts of blood loss.  That being said, I’m sure that the prolonged engagement would leave him weakened and possibly susceptible to a complicating circumstance down the road.”

“Except when you consider Toolkit,” I thought aloud.

Big Picture nodded, “She has some medical training and likely has something up her sleeve in case her superior was injured.  Whether or not he is in fighting shape, I can’t say. However, I can safely conclude that he’s alive. My guess would be that he is laying low in another city within the cluster until he is back to fighting form and ready to come home.  I believe that he has some ties in Manda, but those have never been confirmed.”

“What is Beleth going to do about us?” Dragoon inquired.

Big Picture shook his head, “That question will cost more than you can afford.  Again, betraying information from my primary employer is going to come at a steep premium.  I would suggest asking information pertaining to someone besides Beleth.”

Menagerie raised her hand as if she was in a classroom, not wanting to interrupt.  

Alexis rolled her eyes, “Go ahead Yuki.”

“What are Surface Dwellers planning to do with Vermin?”

Big Picture thought for a moment, “I believe that Beleth intends to hunt them down.  While he hasn’t voiced much concern, he is likely wary of Rat and his group of psychopaths.  Even though he didn’t care for Shockwave, he still respected the man as a fighter; since he saw a worthy adversary weakened, he’ll want to make sure that the same can’t happen to him.  However, given Vermin’s lack of clear agenda, I don’t think he’s dedicating many resources their way. More than likely, he’ll wait until you guys are done in to move against them and put any real effort forth into locating and dispatching Rat.”

“Alexis,” I ventured, “I have a question.”

She waved permission to me.  

“What is Titan planning?  If he’s networking, he’s clearly trying to do more.”

Big Picture leaned forward, “Have you ever met him?”

We all shook our head no.  

“I have been in the  same room with him once, and it was clear to me that there was something he had planned, but kept secret.  Everyone knows his objective to stymie the government and the mad scientists who seek to control the Adapted, no question there.  While that aim is still there, I believe his scheme to network out indicates to me that he’s planning some kind of revolution.”

“I’m sorry, what?” Roger asked in disbelief.

“If you think about it, Titan is the embodiment of an anti-establishment power.  Where he shows up, he leaves slag and corpses for those who would dare harm those he decrees to be his own kind.  Would you argue that doesn’t sound like the work of a revolutionary?”

The Cognate did have a point.

“Fine,” Alexis admitted, “But to what end?”

“In my short interaction with him, he mentioned that something big was coming in the future, something he’d need every extra hand he could get his hands on.  While that was a year ago now, I still remember that conversation, clear as day, and not just because I have perfect recall. I believe that Titan has intention to carve out a space for the Adapted on the planet,” Big Picture concluded.

Ted shook his head, “He’s never moved against the government except against Suppression.  If he was to do this, he’d be changing his operating in a huge way.”  

“And how many people on this planet are truly happy with the current state of affairs and being subject to the whims of industrial tycoons?  If Titan is recruiting, he may be looking to make a big enough show of force that there needs to be limited bloodshed to get his way,” he hypothesized.  “But, I can only make so many inferences with limited information.”

“So why isn’t he stopping our fight?”

Big Picture turned to Roger and let out a chuckle, “The same reason that he lets all sorts of gang violence continue across the planet.  He doesn’t involve himself in Adapted power struggle because that would be suppressing the autonomy of those he shares kin-ship with. Titan wants us to have all the freedom we can have; allowing us to brawl and fight to carve out our little nook is just an expression of free will.  He will likely never stop that.” He let out a sigh, “Well, I believe that is all you can afford for now. With all due respect, I’m going to call my driver and head home. Today has been…more harrowing than I was expecting.”

“One last thing,” Alexis said, a firm edge to her voice.  “What are you going to tell Beleth?”

“Why do you think I made you take your masks off?  I will tell Beleth the truth: I was meeting with a group of distressed youth who desperately wanted to know what was going on after the fire bombings downtown.”

As Big Picture began heading for the door, I was surprised when Alexis called after him.  “Do you think Beleth should be running the city?”

He turned around in his wheelchair, a sad smile on his face, “I’ve quit wondering about things like that.  I’m not a fighter, Dragoon, I don’t ask whether or not someone should be running things. Whether or not I want him in charge, I’m unable to threaten him.”

“But you must have an opinion.”

He sighed, “I think that there should be someone who can threaten him.  I think things are going to get worse and worse the longer he remains unopposed.”

Murphy opened the door for him and we watched Big Picture leave as a car pulled up to take him home, wherever that was now.  

There was a silence over the whole group as we looked to Alexis; Big Picture had dropped way more information than we had bargained for, notably that we probably couldn’t win against Beleth, and that Titan may be setting up a  coup of the government. We all felt small, almost insignificant in the grand scheme.

But still, Ciel was our home; even if our conflict wasn’t as grand as whatever Titan had planned, this was our fight.

“So,” I finally asked, “Now what?”

“Two days,” Alexis said, “Two days and we see if Big Picture is right.  Two days, and we’re going to kick fucking Beleth’s door in.”

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