I felt myself pale; a literal mob was coming for me. Zari were prone to violence, but this seemed over the top, even for them. More concerning was how quickly this was coordinated.
And I wasn’t the only person who had this thought. “How in the fuck did they get enough people so fast?” Ragdoll demanded. “The city is on fire, homes have been evacuated, but people still group up to make a mob within an hour of him being spotted?”
“It isn’t just a few people either,” Transport said, “It’s like a hundred. Some are even armed, but at least no formal firearms. Instead a lot of people with pipes, pieces of wood, and blades.”
“We could stand up to them,” Soliloquy suggested. “I could quell the unrest a bit and instill some fear if you smack a few around. We might be able to get them to disperse before it can get too big and start doing serious damage.”
Murphy shook his head, “We’re Reckoners, and these people aren’t guilty of anything other than being swept up in a huge mess. People are afraid and angry, they aren’t thinking straight.”
Ragdoll and Mr. Magnificent nodded. “But, what do we do about them?” the leader of the Flagbearers asked.
“I think we run,” I replied to Ragdoll. “If we stand our ground, someone will figure out you’re all Adapted and that will only make things worse for the lot of us.” There was a solemn silence that fell over the group; even though I was the reason for the rage, it wasn’t unlikely that all Adapted as a whole would end up blamed for Feast Day.
“You guys have Mr. Magnificent,” Xana pointed out, “Can’t he make you all run, like, way fucking faster than normal?”
“Hard to do it for five, and I can’t give myself the boost. Someone would have to carry me.”
My best friend shrugged, “You aren’t too big; I could do it.”
“What about her?” Transport asked, “I don’t think Titan is planning for us to bring a plus-one. Not trying to be a dick or anything but-”
“I get it.” I turned to Xana and felt my heart drop. “Xana, I-”
“I know, it sucks. But I guess my parents will finally get their wish and say ‘I told you so’ about me being too good for you. And I suppose at least I got to date the most notorious bad boy in Ciel’s history, so I’ve got that going for me.” She seemed awful cavalier, but I could see the cracks in her chipper facade.
A weak laugh escaped my lips, catching me off guard. “Not how I imagined our relationship would end. I really thought-”
Xana put a finger to my lips, shushing me. “I got to date a super cool Adapted, piss off my parents for months, and I don’t regret it for a second.” She hit me in the shoulder, “So stop being so damn morose, I’ll be fine. Now, get the hell out of here.” Her head turned to Murphy, “Take care of this idiot for me?”
He grinned, “Of course. And I’ll try not to steal him from you.”
“I’m not too worried,” she said with a roll of her eyes. Xana gave me one last look, “Go.”
Before I could open my mouth, Ragdoll put a hand on my shoulder, “She’s right, we need to bail mate. I’m sorry.” He was right; the mob was getting awfully close now. A glance over my shoulder showed me Xana running across the street, trying to distance herself from us to avoid being caught up in the frenzy.
And just like that, one more familiar staple from my life was gone.
I wasn’t given much time to dwell as Murphy grabbed my arm and dragged me away, reminding me that there was an angry mob headed after me, intent on claiming my head. As we ran, I was abruptly aware of something: running was amazing.
Normally it felt like work and a bit of a struggle, but for some reason it was like I was getting an instant and extreme runners high. My eyes turned to the man Murphy was carrying; even through the mess of hair that his Mr. Magnificent’s face, it was easy to tell that he was concentrating on diverting his power to all of us here.
For us, outpacing the mob was a breeze. We were probably running faster than I could normally sprint and it felt refreshing. The lot of us ran easily two kilometers in five minutes, getting us close to our relay station and lifeline back to Titan and his makeshift army.
“I need to take a breather,” Magnificent said with a wheeze. A sudden wave of fatigue crashed over me as the power drained out from all five of us. “Sorry, but granting speed to five after tonight, I can’t hold that for long.”
“It’s alright,” Ragdoll insisted, giving his teammate a pat on the back after Murphy set Mr. Magnificent down, “You got us here and away from an angry mob of Zari.”
“That’s still bothering me,” Soliloquy said with a shake of his head, “How the fuck did a mob form? Not the why, that makes sense. Eldritch crashed half of downtown flat.”
“Not intentionally,” I mumbled.
He raised his hands in apology, “I know, and we know that, but not everyone else does. You have to admit there is a decent enough reason for them to form. My question is how. Someone had to be giving information to everyone to guide enough people towards us.”
“But who would even be able to do that?” I replied, “There are probably some Adapted who could do it but-”
“Government,” Ragdoll said with a snap of his fingers. “Think about it, who didn’t show up at all to try and help put you down?”
“Suppression,” I realized, my eyes opening wide. “Do you think they’d really turn the whole city on its head looking for me?”
“Absolutely,” Mr. Magnificent replied, “After what happened tonight, they probably got approval to send mass messages to everyone who owns a mobile phone. The only reason they probably don’t have boots on the ground over here is because you fucking demolished a lot of the roads and caused more traffic accidents than Ciel sees in a whole year.”
Since the government was predominantly run by industry moguls, Mr. Magnificent’s idea was not far fetched. “Great, every Zari on the planet is likely looking for me.”
“Well, at least for now we’re all alone,” Murphy said in a feeble attempt to brighten the situation.
We had taken a bit of a roundabout way to circle towards the city and move slowly out of the more residential area; the shops and sidewalks all still being empty was all the more unsettling. Though as I looked down the street, I swore I saw someone looking at us. I blinked a few times and what I thought was a possible hallucination became a clearer outline of a person.
Was he wearing a gas mask?
“Um, guys,” I said, nervous, “Anyone else see that guy down there?”
“Magnificent, vision,” Ragdoll demanded with a snap, staring down the road.
Mr. Magnificent raised a hand towards Ragdoll and closed his eyes in concentration; the leader of the Flagbearers recoiled as he was given a better view down the road. “Snatchers!”
The man we’d spotted waved his arms and a faint whistle was heard for just a moment; a canister landed just in front of us and exploded, leaving a cloud of blue smoke that quickly engulfed us. From across the street, several men in gas masks materialized from behind cars or showed up in the windows of the nearby store fronts. There was easily twenty people surrounding us.
If there were reports going out about us to everyone in Ciel, of course the Snatchers would have the information too. The general discord and chaos of the city would make it easy for them to move around unnoticed and unhampered; all they had to do was set a trap based on which direction we were running.
We had even stopped for them to make it easier.
All of us ran into the road, making distance from the gas cloud; we didn’t know what it would do, but there was no way it was beneficial. One man on a rooftop wound up and pitched another metal sphere into our midst, spawning another blue cloud of smoke that quickly spread, forcing us to scatter.
Mr. Magnificent was slower than the rest of us to get out and sank to his knees, shaking uncontrollably before finally keeling over onto his side. Transport paused for a split second to use his gift of displacing inanimate objects and put a metal bat in his hand as people started closing in, the Snatchers armed with what looked like cattle prods or riot shields. From a few blocks down, what looked like a reinforced van started driving our way, likely packed with more goons. As Transport readied himself, a pair of Snatchers charged him; while one took a heavy hit from a pipe, the other found his mark with the prod.
Soliloquy opened his mouth to try and calm the crowd, but another canister landed beside him and Ragdoll, giving each of them a heavy dose of the gas. Ragdoll managed to stay on his feet, albeit shaky but his teammate went down quickly. Several men with the prods rushed Ragdoll; despite being drugged, Ragdoll managed to mount a decent counterattack and swing himself around, hitting two of the Snatchers hard enough to break teeth before someone made contact. As the prongs touched skin, he went down, twitching.
People started circling around Murphy and myself, the last two Adapted standing.
Even though I wanted to help, I had no mass to burn. Functionally I was just a regular human. Still, people were a bit hesitant to get closer after Ragdoll knocked two people out cold and instead opted to throw another trio of gas canisters our way. I took one last big gulp of air and turned to Murphy, horrified as my vision began to swim.
But as I collapsed to my hands and knees, he knelt down in a controlled manner beside me.
“I can still breathe,” he whispered as I did my best to stay awake. “My passenger is keeping my lungs free of this shit. I’m going to get help and come back for you guys, okay?”
As my vision swam, I nodded and fell to the ground about the time the van pulled up and another six men jumped out to begin carting people away. There was some outcry and shock as Murphy vaulted over people, sprinting away with alarming speed, but there was no chase given. The Snatchers had caught eighty percent of their quarry.
And given how I saw so many people looking at me, they had gotten the big ticket item of the bunch.
“…subject one-one-six, AKA, Eldritch. Subject has demonstrated the most variability in furthering the power, and subject seems only bound to mass of consumed material. As evidenced by the events of Feast Day, subject one-one-six is unbound by restriction of Overexposure. Question: Does the ability to avoid Overexposure also affect his capacity for chronic stress and Alteration? Procuring initial tissue samples now.”
I was barely conscious, but a needle stabbing into my elbow snapped me to full alertness quite quickly. Looming over me was a middle aged man with a turtleneck, lab coat, and surgical mask, his eyes betraying a little surprise in me waking up on the table. On instinct, I tried to pull myself away but the leather cuffs around my wrists and ankles kept me held good and tight.
“Where am I?”
The man drawing blood reached over and killed the mic he was recording with before turning back to me. “You lot call them Asylums.”
I felt my blood chill; even before we’d met the Lunatics every Adapted was horrified of Asylums, but after having them defined by Bargain these institutions were the things of nightmares. “You’re making a big mistake.”
“Attempting to gain the power of the Adapted for all humanity to use?” he said with an eyebrow raising, “That sounds like a mistake?”
“If you’re trying to make more people like me, yes.” Taking a moment, my eyes flitted around the room, finding nothing in the sterile medical suite that would tell me anything about where I had been carted to. From what I knew about Asylums, I was likely underground and well hidden.
“I think now of all times it is especially important to have more people like you.”
Something about the way he said that sounded desperate, like he knew there was a timer on the Trillodan coming. But, how could he know that without being put in the loop thanks to Clairvoyant?
“How do you know?”
He didn’t reply as he finished taking a blood sample and then removed the needle from my arm. “We keep tabs on Suppression. As much as they want to dispose of all Adapted on the surface of Tso’got, we want to harness their gifts. The Zari government is scared and prone to take drastic measures that might ruin our precious samples.”
“We are more than samples,” I said, aghast at his callous description.
“Lately there has been a lot of chatter about the Trillodan scout vessel that has spent the last few weeks in orbit, observing, inactive. Tonight, thanks to you,” he said with a sneer, “There is movement from the probe. We can only assume that means the owners are going to come and take a closer look.”
“Then you need to let me go,” I insisted, “Please.”
“You’re too valuable a specimen to not study. Someone who can stand in front of Titan and endure his fury; why the hell would we let such a valuable sample go? Imagine if we can unlock what makes you work.”
The prospect of multiple versions of Eldritch running around was a horrifying one. “You really don’t want more than one of me…if even that many. Whatever you think you might benefit,” I cautioned, nodding towards the vial of blood on the metal tray, “I can guarantee that it’ll be so much worse than anything you can imagine.”
“Anything I can imagine? I don’t have to imagine the worst thing ever, I lived through it.”
I was familiar with this particular brand of rage; my father was particularly prone to anger and resentment about what had happened to humanities home. “Listen to me-”
“No, you listen you insolent boy,” he snapped as he ripped the surgical mask away from his mouth, “You listen to your elders. For the first time in history, there is a power that the Trillodan are worried about enough to actually take a closer look. I want to turn it on them and make them pay for what happened to our world.”
“So you want to be responsible for Tso’got being subject to the same treatment?”
He curled his lip, “At least we’ll finally prove that the Trillodan can bleed.”
How could he be so shortsighted about all of this? “You’ll get everyone killed! Is that really your master plan?”
He didn’t reply but instead took the blood sample and walked out of the room, leaving me bound to the operating table and stuck staring up a bright fluorescent light. It didn’t take long for a panic to start setting in.
The Trillodan were coming in mere hours and I was shackled to a table. I was the one they were looking for; they wouldn’t just quit until I was aboard one of their ships and then no one knew what would happen to me. Most people didn’t even know what the Trillodan looked like, let alone what kind of technological marvels they posses. While the Snatchers might be able to conceal these installations all over Tso’got and keep them hidden from the Zari, I wasn’t going to hold my breath that the Trillodan wouldn’t be able to find me.
And all because I lost control. None of this would have happened if I was able to control my power and contain the growth.
But you wouldn’t be here without me. You’re nothing without me. You need me.
My blood turned to ice as I heard that voice, clear as day in my head. The same voice that had before only relayed information about how much mass was available. The voice that told me what mutations were developing while I maintained the Neklim suit. The voice that, until now, I had only heard when I was tapping into my gift.
“You’re not real,” I muttered, “You’re just in my head. You can’t speak. You’re just a byproduct of my Adaptation.”
That’s what I used to be.
“You’re not different. Feast Day didn’t change you. You’re not real,” I insisted, becoming more unsure by the second.
Tell yourself what you need to.
I was suddenly taken back to being in the mass of Neklim, the monster that I was nothing but a battery for; I remember feeling myself drift away and feel something creep into my brain. The Neklim wasn’t smart because of some kind of mutation but instead because it took advantage of my presence. It incorporated my human intelligence into the hive mind.
“You dug into my brain,” I realized aloud, “You took advantage of the human brain you were plugged into. You copied me.”
I wasn’t sure whether the silence that followed was comforting or more daunting.
“It’s okay,” I promised myself vainly, “It is just your Adaptation. As long as you’re in control, it can’t dictate your actions. As long as you don’t have mass to burn, it can’t do anything to you. It is at your mercy.”
Testing the restraints, I gave up and did my best to relax, though it was difficult to do on the unforgiving operating table. Craning my head back, I could see the door and just barely see through a small window dead center of the block of metal. Given how sturdy that door was, this operating room was to double as a holding cell for me.
It figured that the Snatchers weren’t going to let us stick together.
I tried to concentrate and pull what information I had about the Snatchers from talking with Alexis and Bargain. Their whole goal was to unlock exactly what made Adapted tick, find a way to replicate and then mass produce the powers for all to use. It made sense that their overarching goal would be to see the Trillodan bleed. In a twisted sense, they had the same goal that Titan had, but their way of going about it was founded on inhumane experimentation. From what I knew about Adapted as a whole, none of us had ever been manufactured by Snatchers either.
Did they really think that they could suddenly succeed and mount some kind of offensive when the Trillodan arrived in just a few hours? Were they really that delusional?
Footsteps approached my door and I craned my head just in time to see it open and let in half a dozen men in lab coats and gas masks. Each of them were holding what looked like a biopsy needle, except they were a much larger gauge than you’d typically see.
“What are, what are you guys doing? Someone already got a blood sample.”
“No anaesthesia?” one asked, completely ignoring me, “Are we out or something?”
“Apparently Josh really didn’t like this guy,” one replied, giving a glance to the last man who came into view. It was the same bastard who had drawn blood from me earlier. “Did he stepped on your apartment or something.”
Josh didn’t reply, content with glaring down at me.
“Up first, liver,” a third said as he stepped forward and palpated my midsection. He was the first to look at me and talk to me as a person, but it was only to tell me, “Don’t fucking move.”
I nodded, doing my best to brace myself. I’d actually had a medical biopsy performed once in the past, but this hurt so much more. The larger needle with lack of pain killer just made it feel like he was jamming a knife into my torso. A tortured scream echoed around the room as I began to struggle and was immediately pinned by three of the men present. The needle was kept in for a little while before it was removed, a small chunk of my liver coming with.
“Next up, deep muscle tissues. One from the quad and one from the glutes.”
Despite my protests, my pants were pulled free and the process was repeated as a small chunk of muscle was harvested for study. They didn’t even bother to sanitize the area, clearly hurrying to get the job done and move on.
“While we’ve got his pants off, let’s do the bone marrow, yeah?”
“No, no, please!” I begged, my whole body on fire from the three biopsies.
“Here we go,” one of their order replied, grabbed a large blue needle, feeling around before shoving it into my hip. My fingers curled in pain, but he didn’t even seem to notice as he removed a small tube from inside the need to let the marrow flow free into a collection vial.
The process was repeated for my lungs, my kidneys, and a lymph node. At the end, the only blessing was that I wasn’t really feeling any more pain, I was just numb.
Samples of my body were put into foam lined cases and piled into a crate labeled ‘subject 116’. To them I wasn’t a person, or even a Reckoner anymore; I had been reduced to a number within hours of capture.
I did perk up when one of the doctors suddenly wasn’t wearing his gas mask.
“Josh, Transport is awake! He was in a room close enough to see a security tablet and he swiped it! He can see all the cameras!”
From beyond the door, a thunderous slam rang out through the facility. Then another, and another in an almost rhythmic fashion. All six men looked between one another, alarmed. “Who drugged Ragdoll?” Josh demanded.
“We gave him a full dose of propofol-”
“Goddamn Mr. Magnificent must have done something to him. And now he probably has a mask too! You want to explain to people why we can’t just gas down one of the more dangerous Adapted in the city? And which idiot let Transport get access to a window?!”
I felt a small glimmer of hope; the Snatchers were scrambling just like everyone else in the city and Ragdoll was good at thinking on his feet.
“Transport nabbed his own security key and a gas mask as well. No one can get in there and we can’t smoke him out either.”
Josh huffed, “If there was ever a day to not cock everything up it would have been tonight. We can’t afford to let these guys get back out. Unless you want to go run out into that warzone and try to procure more samples, we need these five!”
One of the other five dared to talk back, “Well, we weren’t expecting to have to do a rush job with five different Adapted, especially since one of them was the guy responsible for Feast Day. I’m sorry if we gave less attention to Ragdoll’s crew.”
As they argued, I almost cried out in shock as a scalpel materialized in my hand. Glancing up, I could see a camera pointing down. As long as he access to security feeds, Transport was able to cause plenty of chaos and help facilitate an escape by moving tools around. Doing my best, I finneagled the scalpel to press against the leather band holding me against the table before slowly drawing the edge back and forth.
Beyond my cell, the repeat slamming against metal changed to an immense thudding; given the alarm that all of the six men in my room showed, Ragdoll had broken free.
“He needs to be contained!” one hissed.
“You’re supposed to be head of security, Bradley,” Josh spat at one, “This is on you to fix.”
An alarm sounded as I managed to cut my first restraint free. Making as little movement and noise as possible, I moved to the other cuff and undid the clasp. I was glad that all six of them were mesmerized with the damage that Ragdoll was inflicting and assumed that I would be unable to much on my own. Both hands free, I started to unbuckle my ankles, and then one of them finally turned back to me.
“Hey, what the fuck!”
Hastily ripping myself free, I seized the scalpel from the table and swiped at Bradley. “Fucking stay back!” I shouted.
All six raised their hands, all hesitant to irritate the desperate man armed with a scalpel. “What are you planning to do with that?” Josh asked slowly.
“I’m gonna make you to let me out, or I’m gonna fucking cut someone’s throat.”
Bradley shook his head, “If we open the door, Ragdoll won’t leave us alive. And, there are six of us and one of you. And since you haven’t grown yet, I’m pretty sure you’re not able to produce any Neklim tissue.” Extending his hand he beckoned for the scalpel, “So, how about you give that to me and this goes nice and smooth.”
My mouth dropped, “Are you serious? You think I’m going to just assume you’re willing to talk to me? You just stabbed me and took samples of my organs without consent and without the courtesy of some fucking painkillers. You are fucking Snatchers; you’re lucky I can’t use my power otherwise I’d fucking rip you guys apart.”
Through the door, there was audible screaming and I saw a blur as Ragdoll threw himself around, attacking whatever security forces had been dispensed to put him down.
“Or, if I just wait, there is a decent chance Ragdoll will just break down the door.”
Badley shook his head and grinned, “Josh, I think I have a solution for our Ragdoll problem. I wonder if a hostage would stop his rampage.” Without another word of warning, he charged forward, shooting a hand forward to restrain my wrist to keep me from jabbing the scalpel deep into his side. For an unassuming looking guy, Bradley was surprisingly strong and had no problem isolating the scalpel. Being stabbed repeatedly left me feeling weak and I stumbled before the second man approached to grab my other arm. Both limbs restrained, I kicked frantically to struggle free; one of the other men hit me in the face half a dozen times to stop my lashing out.
As I was getting pummeled, Bradley stripped away the scalpel and passed it over to Josh.
“Whatever you think you’re doing, whatever you think you’re going to accomplish, it’s high time you kids let the adults take over. Open the door,” Josh snapped to one of his cronies. “Time to clean up your mess.”
Bradley glared at his superior but didn’t talk back.
I was steered to the door and the metal slab opened to reveal an open room with massive doors lining the wall around the floor. Above us, there was what looked like a control room that oversaw this little commonspace and likely had control over the flight of stairs that had been pulled up to the ceiling thanks to a network of cables. One of the doors had been knocked off its hinges and around the room there were handfuls of security guards who looked like they had been in a car accident.
In the center of the room was the man himself, clad in only pants, a gas mask, and his hand wraps; around the periphery were more men in black body armor with plexiglass shields and tasers or clubs, but all were clearly reluctant to go against the leader of the Flagbearers.
Ragdoll was an Enhancer who seemed to be super strong, but the truth was he could manipulate the mass of his limbs. While on the surface that didn’t seem like much, hitting someone with a hand that weighed sixty kilograms would do enough damage to kill people. His ability to selectively adjust his mass also gave him a peculiar means of movement where he could just use the momentum of one limb to launch himself around like a drunk acrobat.
Hence the name Ragdoll.
“Ragdoll,” the lead Snatcher called, “This stops now.”
He stared down the Snatcher and then looked to me and saw the unbridled panic on my face. I had no tools to get out of this, no power to draw on. Despite being the most powerful person in the city hours ago, I had been reduced to the weakest man in the room. As Ragdoll looked at me, his face fell. “You don’t look so hot, Eldritch.”
“Hey, stop talking!” Bradley snapped.
Ragdoll looked up from me and glared at the head of security, “You might be able to kill him, but do you think you’d be able to stop me. Tight spaces, and no way to gas me this time. I could kill you and everyone else in here.”
“But you won’t,” Josh replied with a frightening air of authority. “You’re a good man who wouldn’t want to condemn a fellow Reckoner to his death. Or, was I wrong about your character?”
“You’ve got a big pair of balls on you, I’ll give you that.”
Josh ignored his comment, “On your knees, hands behind your head. Don’t move as the men approach.”
Ragdoll obliged, glaring past me at my captor, an intense fury boiling in his blue eyes. “Just so you know, even if you lock me up, I’m going to break out again.”
“That’s if we let you wake up again.” Josh waved Bradley forward who snapped his fingers.
Six security guards blitzed forward and grabbed Ragdoll, putting his arms to his sides and injecting something into his arm.
“I’m sorry,” I said meekly.
“Me too,” was all he managed to get out before his eyelids closed and his body went limp. He was scooped up and dragged into a different cell as the rest of the security force visibly relaxed. I had the opposite reaction as it dawned on me that Ragdoll was our only ticket out of here. While Transport could get us things, he couldn’t deal with the dozens of security guards present. Mr. Magnificent could help close the gap, but if he went down, his gift would fade quickly, and Soliloquy was likely kept in a soundproofed room so he couldn’t influence people.
“Now, override Transports fucking cell door and get him sedated, now!” Josh shouted at the remaining security guards. “I will not have him trying to enable another break out.”
My heart fell as I saw a handful of guards approach the cell and get the door open; five men stormed in and I knew there was no way that he was going to stand a chance against them. He had started a decent prison break but it had all gone wrong because he’d tried to free the most powerful person in the city.
“Come on, Eldritch,” one of the guards muttered, “Up we get. Back into the cell. We’ll have more tests for you soon enough.”
I let myself be dragged away; even though I was the second strongest Adapted according to Titan, I had never felt so damnably powerless.
It was made worse when an all too familiar voice chimed in:
I told you that you were nothing without me.