“Come on, keep up!”
I huffed as I slipped on the loose hillside as Xana charged ahead of me. “I’m trying!” It came out as more of an exasperated pant as I felt my lungs burn trying to keep up with the Zari girl who was easily outrunning me.
When she looked over her shoulder at me and grinned mischievously, I knew she was enjoying herself far too much. “You’re human, you’ve gotta get stronger so you can keep up!”
“I’ll get…right…on that,” I wheezed, silently thanking the heavens that the majority of our ascent was done. I raised a hand and had to stop to catch my breath, my overeager attempts to keep up with my stronger alien girlfriend a decided mistake. Dirt crunched under her feet as my grey-toned companion came back for me, skin glistening with sweat. Xana waited patiently as I finally caught my breath.
“Humans are supposed to be all dangerous and scary,” she teased, “You guys even pissed off the Trillodan, but you can’t climb a hill?”
“Shut up,” I shot back, sharply catching my breath. Behind us loomed Ciel, the capital city of Tso’got, a bastion of industry and suffering I called my home. Some people said it felt like cities on Earth used to, but I would never know.
“Not enjoying the view?” Her question snapped me back to reality and reminded me to take another deep lungful of air.
“Occasionally I think about the fact that I’m alien to this planet and also native. It’s…weird,” I confessed.
A strong arm wrapped around my shoulder as she gave me an embrace that bordered on being too tight. “You worry too much! Tso’got is your home, so what?”
I frowned, “Less than 25 years ago, Zari and human hardly had reason to interact. Now tons of us are stuck here and people hate us.”
She flashed an unrepentant smile to me, “But if you didn’t end up here, how else would I be able to have a deviant relationship with an alien boy-toy?”
My eyes rolled, “Do you ever stop being so optimistic?”
“Never! Now keep up!” She turned and pushed forward, dragging me further away from Ciel and into the hilly and tree-spotted surroundings. Another kilometer and I had to stop, my legs pleading for rest.
I turned and appreciated the rest of what we could see. Several kilometers away from the fringes of the city, the buildings were replaced by groves and fields. Some of the more immediate area around the city didn’t have any grass growing, more like a desert with aberrant groves; still, a welcome change from the dreary cement and cold steel structures of Ciel.
The further away you got, the more plant life and vegetation thrived, as if there was a no-man’s-land between the city and the vegetation, warring factions that couldn’t co-exist. A glance at Xana showed her drinking it in the same way I did; she reveled being outdoors, a place where it felt like you could properly breathe. For me, it was more than just lack of pollution: not being nagged by my dad, not dealing with neighborhood assholes who took every opportunity to remind me Zari were bigger and stronger, and away teachers who graded unfairly because I wasn’t the same.
Right now, my girlfriend was happy and that made it easy for me to be happy.
“According to people who lived on Earth, a lot of the trees around Ciel look like Sycamores,” I announced.
“For us, we know them as Vinnel trees. I wonder if they were ever translated into universal common if they were the same.”
I shrugged, “I only know English because of my parents insisting I learn. It seems kind of silly to learn a language so few people speak anymore.” It took effort to hide a grimace; language was a point of contention between my father and I since the schools taught universal common. He demanded I learn English as well and that be the only language spoken at home.
Xana frowned, “You guys aren’t going extinct or anything. You should keep your culture. I mean, there are plenty of blank rocks that could be terraformed in the future. Plus, no offense to you guys, but I know Tso’got would love to get rid of the humans. I disagree, but I think I might be a little biased.”
“Dare say you might be a lot biased,” I teased, giving a wink.
“I said what I said,” she insisted with a smirk. I threw a light punch at her shoulder and she blocked it, shoving me in retaliation hard enough I had to take a step back to stay upright.
Zari, the native inhabitants, looked like humans for the most part, but with a few differences. There was a lot less color range in skin: where humans had all sort of pigment disparities, Zari were a more homogenous grey tone with a minute differences in saturation. Zari, in general though, were taller and denser than humans could hope to be. Xana was a bit above average height for a female Zari but would have been considered giant for a human at 6’2”. Her frame was broader than mine and she weighed 90 kilograms to my measly 75.
It was speculated that crossbreeding–the local slang for relationship between Human and Zari–came about due to our physiological similarities and concepts of beauty being nearly perfectly aligned. I was grateful my parents didn’t disapprove of Xana, it was one of the few places my dad and I didn’t butt heads.
“Come on, we’ve got all day to enjoy! Fuck Ciel for the day,” she demanded jovially as she turned and kept pressing forward, into the wilderness.
“You are insufferable,” she called back, “But come on! Don’t keep a lady waiting!”
I smiled, feeding off her infectious glee and ran to catch up.
We pressed forward a few more kilometers to ensure that Ciel was something well in the backdrop, only visible from the tops of hills, or from trees Xana would climb as a way to gauge our location.
“Well,” I proclaimed awkwardly as we took shelter in the shade of a Vinnel grove on the top of a hill, “We’re all alone now.”
No pressure and I couldn’t even pretend to be a smooth talker.
Xana didn’t miss my stumbling and snickered, “Nick, come on man, you are the worst at this.”
My cheeks flushed, “Shut up.”
A strong hand hit my shoulder as she laughed, “We’re nearly eight kilometers from any judgmental eyes…and you still suck. Hopeless!”
I moved to hit back but heard something like a small rockslide. Looking left, I spotted a neighboring hill with some loose dirt still rolling down the side, like something had disturbed it and slid down the side to hide.
But an exploratory hand from Xana told me she hadn’t heard.
I raised a hand and pointed at the hill and scrunched up my face thinking about the valley between the two I couldn’t see. “Something else is out here,” I cautioned, knowing full-well I sounded paranoid.
Xana’s hand slid under my shirt, “Afraid of someone finding us?”
My breath caught in my throat at the surge of testosterone but my apprehension and anxiety helped dampened the usual urges of a seventeen year old male. “No seriously, something’s over there, just down that hill.”
In a peculiar role reversal, Xana was hell bent on getting me out of my clothes, caring little for my risk assessment. “We’re out in the middle of nowhere, it’s probably just a liq running around. Leave it, we have better things to be doing.” Despite my protest she fished my shirt off and kissed the side of my neck, insistent.
Rational thought and logic were replaced quickly by testosterone, adrenaline, and the promise of sex. I worked to undo her shirts buttons and ran my hands along her sides…
And stopped abruptly as a quick stomping disturbed the tranquil grove. Something was charging up the hill towards us. This time, Xana heard as well and leapt to her feet.
“Holy shit, NEKLIM!”
The apex predator on Tso’got, a beast only fools went hunting, a monster almost none survived an encounter with.
Neklim were an odd looking species, their entire body comprised of tendrils of dark muscle tissue that were woven in with one another like a mesh. Each tendril was roughly 15cm long, but each Neklim was comprised of thousands; layers and layers of the muscular lattice made the things durable and incredibly strong. The growths that comprised the lifeform were each technically their own organism, each providing information to a collective intelligence that steered the greater system.
As it approached, it roared an unearthly cry that made my ears ring and vision rattle. My mind went completely blank as I panicked; I’d never been faced with sure death before, never experienced life and death terror.
The one charging after us was smaller and younger, only standing about six and a half feet tall. It had a vaguely humanoid shape, with almost trunk like configurations for legs with tendrils at the bottom biting into the ground to make each stride carry the beast oddly fast. Its arms were unrefined: instead of a hand with particular digits, there was just a flat slab of flesh like the blade of an oar. Where one would expect a head, there was just a mass of tendril wound together like a snake.
As it crested the hill and bored down on me, there was no slideshow of my life’s events. Instead, only a horrifying calm tainted with unyielding panic as my heart hammered in my chest and my muscles refused to do anything. For a moment, I felt my worries wash away as the monster charged forward, ready to rip me limb from limb. It was okay…this was okay…
Fortunately, Xana was much more level headed and reluctant to go into that goodnight. Her strong hands grabbed me under the shoulder and heaved me to my feet, the forced movement snapping me somewhat from my horrific calm. She tried to drag me with her, her longer legs setting a pace faster than I could hope to match. I discerned her intention though; she wanted to run along the edge of the hill and hope the loosely packed dirt would give way under the Neklim’s bulk, sending it careening down the steep hillside.
Her plan didn’t account for me being slow or for my body to still be reluctant to move.
One of its massive arms raised and swiped; Xana pushed me backwards and drove her heel down into the ground, throwing herself away from the monster.
Her shove did make the Neklim’s swipe miss and kept me free from the grip of its barbed tentacles, but I wasn’t ready for the ground to slip away beneath my feet. A foot shot out from under me and I reached for the distant Xana frantically; momentum carried me, the steep hillside taking me for a ride that I was powerless to stop.
A dip in the hillside tossed me in the air as I rolled into it; my body cartwheeled and came to an abrupt stop on a mass of tree roots, my leg snapping down like the end of a whip as I stopped. Fighting back up, my left leg buckled under any weight, the joint shattered from the impact.
Up on the hillside, the Neklim took a moment debating which prey to chase: I was wounded and a shoe in for a meal but Xana would be a heartier dish.
The monster opted for the easier course and started a controlled glide down the hill.
What made them the apex predator of the planet was their unpredictability and intelligence. It wasn’t just some mindless animal as evidenced by it taking its time, enjoying the hunt as I struggled to run. I was glad that it was a younger Neklim and likely hadn’t developed any kind of biological mutation yet, like acidic secretions or some kind of paralytic toxin; I’d only be dinner, not a plaything for too long.
“Gotta move, gotta run, don’t wanna be food,” I told myself, trying to stifle that sense of impending demise that had lulled me into an unnatural calm moments ago. Struggling around the side of grove I’d landed in, I looked for anything that I could use as a weapon. A big enough rock, a snapped off stick, something. All I was given was a dead liq–a creature that resembled a deer from Earth–at the base of a tree, half eaten.
I turned to try and drag myself to the next cluster of trees, but something stopped me. Like I was a puppet on strings, I was drawn to the dead animal, compelled to put my hands on the decaying tissue. The Neklim was still lollygagging, savoring the chase, glancing between the trees like some sick game of peek-a-boo.
With nothing to lose, I followed my peculiar urge and placed my palms against the flank.
Sixty-four kilograms of meat.
“What?” I whispered aloud, confused. Who had said that? What did that even mean?
I looked back down at the liq and saw the tissue desiccating, deteriorating rapidly. “What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck,” I panted as I watched the meat seem to fade into non-existence rapidly; only bones remained, and not a morsel was left on them.
Another roar of the Neklim drew my attention away from the remaining skeleton and instead to my impending doom. Vainly, I raised my hands, a desperate attempt to shield myself from the oncoming onslaught.
For a split second, reality seemed to break around me. The world seemed to slow, my brain drawing information about my surroundings at a mile a second, making interpretations about the trees, the ground, and the dead animal beside me that far exceeded anything I knew. But then, thoughts quickly flew over the Neklim that was bearing down on me, and something seemed to fixate. I wasn’t in control of my mind, something or someone else was piloting as what felt like a scanner surveyed the makeup of the predator.
In an instant I was immediately aware of its biology, how its neural circuitry worked, how the random mutations functioned, and exactly what was needed to replicate the construction.
My peripheral vision honed in on my outstretched arms, aware of my skin taking on a new life of its own, wriggling as black tendrils burst forth and wove together in a mesh, coating my arms, my torso, my everything in a blink. In a panic, I tried to scream, but all that my body emitted was one of those unearthly roars that had stunned me earlier. I felt my pants shred as layers of growth sprung forth, lifting me from a crouched position to a standing one, ready to answer the aggression of this impudent Neklim.
It seemed just as confused as I was as it hesitated a moment, perplexed by the rapid growth of its previously helpless prey.
Still my growth continued, and the predator took a swing at me, one easy to parry; even as I redirected, my own growths flared their barbs out and hooked into its flesh, holding the arm outstretched. A loud ripping and squelching sound rang out as my own limb yanked away, tearing the Neklim’s appendage in half. Additional information had been drawn from the physical contact and changed my own growth patterns. My limbs continued to enlarge, mirroring his structure but with refinement: my weave of growths tighter, more dense. The predator-turned-prey stumbled backwards, and instinct demanded I kill. Stomping forward like a drunkard, unwieldy on foreign legs, I plunged my arms forward and pierced into the Neklim’s chest with tendrils that altered rapidly, growing a harder edge.
I roared again and ripped my arms to the side, rending the beasts midsection asunder. Bits of gore and carnage hit the ground as I dropped onto the body, using my new claws to shred the remaining chunks of Neklim that insisted on struggling and trying to reform. As it died, I was prompted with another alien thought:
Three hundred and seventy-five kilograms of meat.
I didn’t turn, I realized, there was no need. I could see her, but she was off to my left, well past 180 degrees to my left. It was dizzying that I could see her and see behind me as well. Each tentacle was feeding me information, including how this Neklim tasted…which was decidedly unpleasant.
How was I supposed to communicate? I didn’t have a mouth.
Prey. Food. Meat.
My body turned, involuntarily, my legs lifting and awkwardly stumbling forward.
Within the confines of my muscle-bound prison I screamed one thought:
I stopped moving. My reforged body seemed at odds with my command but it obeyed, though not without complaint. I could feel it tugging, trying to compel me forward where a fresh supply of protein lay.
Not her, we don’t harm her.
Cautiously, Xana approached me, keeping about 10 meters between us, “Nick, is that you?”
Vocal chords were non-existent, but I had been able to roar, to make sound. I willed my body to force the sound out as I tried to speak. “’m…n…ths thng.” It was strangled, choked out, hardly intelligible but she understood.
“Nick, you’ve Adapted, and I am super excited about this,” my girlfriend said slowly, failing to fight back a smile, “But we’ve gotta get you out of that, okay? I don’t know what will happen if I get close to you.”
Still grappling with the mass of tissue I was within, I honed in on her words, letting her be my anchor to reality. I could trust Xana, she wouldn’t lead me astray. “How…do I stop?” The speech was less mangled, my body finding the action easier a second time ‘round.
“It’s your body, right? Tell it to stop growing.”
Concentrating, I projected a message to the growths on my skin:
Initially nothing seemed to happen, but slowly the most external tendrils began to wither, desiccate, and fragment into a dust-like waste. All it took was a few minutes and I found myself human again, feeling much shorter and very naked.
And all at once the adrenaline stopped flowing; I remembered I needed to breathe and was slammed with an ignored torrent of emotions.
I dropped to my hands and knees, my whole body shaking violently as I sucked in tenuous gasps of air; my lungs seemed unable to hold anything, demanding more as tears and snot streamed down my face.
Once Xana was sure I wasn’t a danger, she rushed over and dropped beside me, “Holy shit, Nick, you’re an Adapted! I’m dating a fucking Adapted,” she screamed, giddy to the wilderness.
Despite having just grown hundreds of kilograms of an alien species from my skin, the words seemed unbelievable. “Me?”
“Yes,” she teased, “You just turned into a fucking Neklim, in like, ten seconds. You were nearly eight feet tall! God, you must have weighed like five hundred kilos or something! You were immense!”
“Nine-hundred kilograms,” I corrected, unsure how I knew. “My tissues were much denser. It’s why I could rip him apart; I was just stronger than he was.”
She leaned away a little, wary, “Whoa. How do you know that?”
“I, um, I don’t know. I just, kinda, knew. There is a liq skeleton over there, it had meat on it, and when I touched it, I implicitly knew how much meat was on the bones.”
Xana looked over my shoulder, “The meat’s gone now.” A glance at me, “Nothing comes from nothing, right? So, maybe, you can convert biological material?”
“Meat, specifically. Animal protein and fat, not sugar.” How the fuck did I know this? Everything was happening so fast, knowledge I couldn’t explain, transformation I didn’t control, murderous intent I didn’t ask for, and a near death experience all in the last five minutes.
I felt like my brain was going to erupt. Was this how all Adapted felt when they changed?
“Hey, we’re gonna have to get you some pants,” Xana laughed, injecting some humor into this impossible situation. “Can’t be bringing home the newest Adapted nude!”
It was starting to sink in: I was an Adapted.
My gaze lingered on my hands as I started to reign in my breathing; I was one of those humans, that sect of people who were such a hot button issue right now. How could they not be? People with superpowers were bound to be a problem.
“Hey, sweetie, talk to me,” Xana encouraged, “Tell me what’s going on in that head of yours.”
With some effort, I swallowed the lump that had formed in my throat. “I can’t be adapted, my dad hates them. He says they are all a bunch of scoundrels.”
She frowned, “Your dad is an ass who doesn’t believe people should be more than cogs in the existing machine. Are you a scoundrel?”
“Then screw what your dad says!” She put a hand to my cheek, “You saved my life. Hour one as an Adapted and you’ve already got a pretty swell act of heroism under your belt. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll make a pretty good Reckoner!”
Reckoners, Adapted vigilantes who took to fighting against crime like old school comic book heroes.
“Could I really be a Reckoner if my power is to turn into a flesh eating monster?” I turned to Xana, wiping my face of the last of the tears and snot that had leaked.
“Bah, appearances! So what if you look like a monster? Action is what counts!”
Her relentless optimism brought a smile to my face. “I think you might be right about pants,” I admitted finally. “And I think my phone was destroyed when I changed,” I admitted as I noticed a shiny bit of debris mixed in with the shredded fabric.
“I’ll give Alexis a call and we’ll have her pick us up.”
Alexis, a friend of mine since I was a kid, another human refugee on a foreign world. “What if she thinks I’m a freak?”
Xana laughed, “Oh please, you and her have been geeking out about Adapted ever since they started to be a thing. At worst she’s a bit jealous you were one of those who actually changed.”
It was hard to remain anxious with Xana nearby as she helped me to my feet and patted me down, getting the dust off my naked form as we went back up the hill to get my shirt. Oddly enough, my ankle had stopped hurting.
Had the growths fixed it?
Putting a shirt on felt nice, but it was still awkward walking back without pants on, my junk floating in the breeze. While freeing, it became clear to me that nudism definitely wasn’t a preferred choice.
On the way back, Xana was teeming with questions that could not wait for me to settle down even a little.
“What did it feel like?”
“Did you feel anything change when you actually Adapted?”
“Did you taste the liq you ate?”
“How did you talk?”
“Did you eat the Neklim that you killed?”
As I became overwhelmed with the barraged with questions, I finally told her to stop and had to rub my temples. Closing my eyes, all her questions mulling around in my mind, I saw something…different.
It was like a room, one completely cut off from reality, one I knew implicitly only I could see. The room was like a void, the edges not having walls but instead it just faded to black, similar to how firelight faded at a campsite. The only contents of the room was a pile of meat and animal parts, ready for disposal.
Two-hundred and twenty-six kilograms of meat ready to consume.
I opened my eyes and the vision was gone. Xana hadn’t noticed, and I was just as glad. This was all so confusing, and something I would need to figure out for myself.
A vehicle approaching made me anxious, but I was relieved when I saw the occupants: Murphy and Alexis, my two best friends in existence.
Murphy was the epitome of the word imp: he was immature all the time, found an excuse to laugh at everything, and always had you wondering if he was up to no good. He was about my height but with longer arms and a better tan and brown hair that rested on the nape of his neck. Baggy clothing constantly hid his physique, but I knew the guy was oddly muscular.
Alexis was the nerd of our group who was far too critical of herself. No matter how many times Murphy and I would tell her she looked fantastic, she didn’t believe us. And we weren’t blowing smoke either, for most she’d be the ideal nerd-girl dream. Long red hair, fair olive complexion, glasses, and soft hazel eyes. Thanks to her self-esteem issues, she ran constantly and it had paid dividends for her physique.
And of course, Murphy was first to open his mouth, “Why the fuck don’t you have pants?” He hopped out of the vehicle and landed gracefully, a folded bit of fabric under his arm. Throwing it my way, I was so glad to be able to slip on a pair of pants. A little tight, but much better than being free in the breeze. “Seriously though, what the hell happened to your pants? Why did Alexis and I have to roll outside the city to run you trousers?” He glanced at Xana, a childish grin covering his face, “Dear god, you didn’t shred his pants in a lustful frenzy, did you?”
Alexis shoved Murphy and gave him a glare, “Shut up, you idiot.” Turning to face us, “But seriously, you were super cryptic, Xana, what happened?”
She looked at me, asking permission to tell. I shook my head; it was my Adaptation, I should own it and be willing to say. “We were attacked by a Neklim, literally caught us with our pants down,” I began.
Both my friends took on a more serious expression.
“I slipped, fell down the side of a hill and smashed my ankle against a tree root. It was broken so I couldn’t put weight on it, couldn’t run away.”
“And you aren’t dead…why?” He seemed oddly, expectant with that question, like he knew the answer already. Like a kid who knew what gift he was getting.
“If you shut up for five seconds, Murphy,” Alexis grumbled, “Maybe he’d tell us.”
I looked at my hand, closing my eyes a second. That room sprang to mind, the mound of meat still there, still fresh, still accessible. Reaching forward, I made a simple command to whatever entity had given me this ability:
Cover my left hand.
I felt a single kilogram of meat disperse and the transformation started, though the growth covered my hand, and my forearm as well. Tendrils sprouted and wove together, a wall of onyx tint muscle that tugged at my mind, wanting to consume more.
Alexis and Murphy both dropped their jaw. For a split second, no one said anything.
Finally, Murphy broke the silence. “I guess like attracts like.”
“What are you–” I started.
“Just, show him Murphy.”
He nodded to Alexis before turning and crouching, his legs inflating like there was excess muscle rapidly filling his calves before launching himself twenty feet into a tree. He grabbed the branch and killed his momentum instantly, his arm bunching up with the muscle this time. Dangling from one hand, he just smiled.
“Both of us,” Alexis corrected. She reached into the car and withdrew a little jar that she tossed; midair it changed into a mechanical dragonfly and began to hover. “It is a surveillance drone, but mine can do this.” As if on cue, Murphy launched himself over and smacked her drone against the ground where it shattered. Without any delay, the largest remainder of the drone dragged itself around and began reconstituting itself with the chunks that still worked, and then began to essentially melt down and recreate the broken parts as able. When it needed more, it took a small bite from the vehicle Alexis and Murphy came in.
“It repairs itself…even from scratch.”
“Genesis mechanisms,” she said proudly, blushing a little. “I’m a cognate, he’s an enhancer.”
“Druid, technically,” Murphy revised.
“And you guys never told me,” I shouted, angry and glad simultaneously. “You didn’t trust me with this?”
Murphy threw himself onto the hood, balancing on one over-muscled hand, clearly showing off. “Mate, being Adapted is borderline illegal, even if you’re a good guy. Snatchers, Suppression, way too many people crazy about people with powers. We didn’t tell you–”
“Because we didn’t want to get you involved,” Alexis finished.
I was still trying to process this; we’d all been huge proponents of the Adapted and they were both changed…and neither had told me? “When did you guys change?”
“A year ago,” Alexis confessed, “About the time I started getting very clever with machines. It all just…started making sense so I started tinkering.”
I glared at my clown of a friend who was still doing a one-armed handstand. “You?”
“About six months before her,” he replied, “Wasn’t sure how to tell you that I had a weird organism living inside my body. Not exactly your normal thing to talk about. But now that you’re Adapted, we’re all in the same boat!” Murphy sprung off the hood with the one hand and landed next to me, throwing an arm around my shoulder, “I mean, of course my boy is an Adapted! Best. Day. Ever!”
There were millions of questions I felt I needed to ask. What they had done as Adapted, what the hell was inside Murphy, how Alexis brain worked, but one thing nagged at me above the rest. “So, what now?”
Xana had been quiet but felt it time to speak up. “That part’s obvious.”
She grinned, “Yeah, you all be a badass team of Reckoners.”
Something about that statement seemed so definite, so final, like Xana wasn’t giving us a choice. And, in that moment, nothing had ever made so much sense. It was purpose, meaning, and a reason for me to have this mind boggling ability.
“Fuck yeah,” Murphy replied.
“I’m in,” Alexis echoed.
I took a second to catch my breath. My world had been turned upside down in two hours. From normal kid to Adapted and student to Reckoner, it was a lot to take in.
All that same, I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm. “Let’s fucking do it.”