11/24/80 (Zellig Ak’aan)
They thought I didn’t notice: the shifty glances, the wary looks, and the subtle turns to make themselves less visible to me, even the little drops of the head.
These soldiers were intimidated by me.
Even as battered and marred as I was, they were terrified. I towered above the rest of my species, and I was the only Trillodan who could tolerate the surface of this planet with no armor. Tso’got had bred a markedly tenacious people in the Zari; we weren’t so fortunate to be as durable and immune to the elements as they were.
Walking back was challenging since my bout with Clemency had earned me a hip that was shattered into dozens of small fragments, all too damaged for my body to try and reconstruct. As a result, every step was a reminder that my leg was being held together by muscle tension and nothing else.
I refused assistance and showed no pain as I shambled forward; I would not be seen as weak by these soldiers. I was Zellig Ak’aan, commander of the Expeditionary arm of the Trillodan army. I was a living weapon that had been fighting for centuries; I refused to show weakness. Even if they feared me, I would be the unyielding pillar my soldiers could rally behind.
Still, my lack of functional joint had made my inspection around the Adapted build site take much longer than I had hoped. Even as thorough as I was forced to be, there was no lingering energy signature and no evidence of a power supply. Faster than light travel had only been attained by the Trillodan in the form of a Void Door, but those required an enormous amount of energy. Somehow, without one, the Adapted ship simply vanished. We had scans out as far as the two moons of Tso’got, and nothing triggered a sensor.
These Adapted had mobility that none besides the Trillodan should possess.
I lumbered back onto the dreadnought I had arrived on, forcing my left leg to work for me a little longer. Soon enough Vaneel would be able to put me back together. Once onboard, I felt my skin drink up the moisture from the air; even though I didn’t need to remain wet like the rest of my kind, my skin still appreciated the humidity. Other soldiers were glad to be able to strip free of the armor and show off their colors now that they were finally free of the harsh atmosphere.
Vivid green, blues, even a few red skinned individuals chattering amongst each other, a harsh contrast to my lifeless grey. While I knew they didn’t mean to regard me like some kind of crime against nature, they failed.
Fortunately there was one person aboard who would treat me like something other than a freak.
It took a few minutes of dragging my charred body down the corridors that I came to a science suite most of the soldiers lacked clearance to enter. As I drew close, the slabs of metal slid open, welcoming me inside to where my best friend was waiting.
Vaneel, chief researcher for the Immortal Matron, the brilliant mind who had assembled me, and my best friend.
He turned to me, his purple skin brightening in surprise as he was greeted by the sight of his thoroughly damaged friend. “What the fuck did you do?”
“Gave your work a stress test,” I replied as I dragged myself over to a gargantuan table and fell on top of it. Agony screamed through my body, every fiber of my sensitive nervous system painfully aware of each and every injury I had sustained over the day.
Vaneel dropped what he was doing and rushed over to me, glancing down and letting out an exasperated sigh, “What the fuck did you do?” he repeated, no longer flustered; now the scientist was annoyed.
Thanks to the work Vaneel had performed on me decades ago, I was as much machine as I was Trillodan. He had sought to create the perfect mix between metal and flesh, a soldier that would never tire nor be left at a profound disadvantage should there be need to fight off world. None were brave enough to be his test subject so I volunteered. When he inevitably succeeded, my decorated military history would help give his research the credit it deserved.
As an unfortunate side-effect, it robbed me of my color and my smooth skin. While I had been made so much more functional, I was quickly branded a freak and a monster. The council cancelled the project believing that the preservation of beauty and our culture was more important than creating super soldiers. After all, we regularly turned planets to inhospitable wastes. What use was there for high-powered foot soldiers?
Vaneel pulled over a workbench that hovered a meter off the floor, a myriad of tools specific to fixing me strewn across the top. “You’ve done a lot of damage to yourself,” he grumbled, “Even managed to break two nanite housings. So, you’re going to be vomiting metal in a few hours once some of the machines fail and drop out of your bloodstream.”
“Nothing I haven’t experienced before,” I replied.
While it was true that Trillodan seldom fought a proper war, the Expedition was often involved in small skirmishes. Our primary responsibility was locating Awakened planets-those who had discovered they weren’t alone in the universe-and providing them with Universal Common. Even though we refused to let other people possess our ability to travel faster than light, we encouraged community between worlds. However, there were some relatively advanced species who took it upon themselves to rebel if they found one of our mining settlements scattered through the stars. Despite any kind of statement they might try to make, we made sure no one ever learned about their opposition. As far as the rest of the cosmos was concerned, no one could or would stand up to us.
Unlike other Trillodan commanders, I fought alongside my troops even before I was enhanced. I would never dare hide behind my soldiers like a coward. Being turned into an unstoppable brute only made me more eager to lead the charge.
“Just because you know you can survive a lot of punishment doesn’t mean you should go seeking it,” Vaneel sighed as he hooked a few sensors to my skin and took a look at two screens displaying both my biological and mechanical readings. “Remind me why I bother letting you out at all if you’re just going to break my work.”
I smiled as he grabbed a scalpel shimmering with energy; Vaneel had to design specific tools to carve me open for maintenance as my skin reflexively hardened if threatened.
“So, Zellig,” he said as he cut into my leg, pulling muscle and skin apart to reveal the non-existent chunk of hip, “What are we even doing on Tso’got anyways?”
I winced as he dug around but I didn’t let him see my discomfort. “The Matron didn’t tell you?”
He shook his head, “She sent me to provide care for her investment and to see to my project. But she didn’t exactly tell me why you came down here. And as expected, soldiers aren’t willing to talk to me, so no. I have no idea why we are here. All I’ve really heard about is some irregularities with some of the exiles here.”
“Humans,” I informed him, “And some of them are displaying remarkably unique abilities.”
Vaneel looked up from his work as if checking to see if I was kidding. “You’re telling me that a human did this to you,” he asked with a laugh as he dipped my wrist into a gel solution; it began taking the form of my missing hand and I refrained from wincing as nerves reconnected. “How would that even be possible?”
I reached over to the workstation and grabbed one of the tailor made devices; as it slotted into a small nook on my head, a screen lit up and played out my fight with Clemency as I had seen it. My friend gawked as he watched Clemency destroy the Gauss cannon and subject me to the entire explosion. I removed the device after it showed Clemency throwing me through the air before he and the other Adapted ran off.
“Not sure,” I confessed, “That is why we’re here.”
“But they’re…so ordinary! He’s making hard light constructs. Those…those take extraordinary amounts of energy! How can he do that without any kind of access to a power grid?”
“No one is sure,” I replied with a grin, “That’s what makes them so fascinating.”
Vaneel looked back down to his work and I felt a burst of pain as he dug around, fishing out shattered fragments of my skeleton. “I heard some whispers about casualties over the day. Over three hundred around Ciel.”
“Yes,” I replied, “Three-hundred and twenty-eight total that I’m aware of.”
“Those kind of losses with little to show for it would almost always warrant Protocol, right? I mean, we are Trillodan, we don’t lose right?” He looked up at me, “Why haven’t you ordered it yet?”
I smiled, “Oh my shortsighted friend-“
“Stop with the posturing. I solve the problems in front of me; right now that is fixing your annihilated hip. Tell me what you’re planning and don’t be snide.”
Despite his agitation, I smiled. It was refreshing having someone snap at me and call me on my quirks. “I took the fight with Clemency on purpose. For the last week we’ve been monitoring the surface and I took it upon myself to dig around for information about the Adapted. As luck would have it, Zari and humans alike were all in favor of the violent spectacle that was watching the Adapted fight. A few stood out above the rest.”
“Like this Clemency fellow?”
Vaneel rolled his eyes, “And your thought is to fight him on his home turf?”
“It went perfectly as intended.”
“You were reduced to an invalid,” Vaneel scoffed, “That was your intent?” When I didn’t answer, he tilted his head to look up at me. “You really did mean to lose? Why?”
“Let me ask you something, Vaneel, do I ever lose a fight?”
He stopped fishing bone out of the surrounding muscle tissue for a moment to ponder the question. “No, you don’t. You are willing to take risks if I’m nearby to fix you, but even when you took a rocket to the chest you didn’t let yourself lose.”
“I took a risk, clearly. But I knew I was walking into a losing fight once Clemency arrived. He even offered to let me stop and opt out.”
“You chose to fight instead, even though you knew you weren’t going to win?”
I propped myself up on my elbows, watching him work and straining to keep my face neutral as he finished snagging the last few pieces of my shattered hip free. “Correct. I took the fight and recorded it.”
My friend cocked his head to the side, “You deliberately recorded yourself losing. Not exactly a good bit of publicity for my work.”
“But it does set a frightening precedent. For all the flack your work has taken, it has never been about the efficacy. Even Councilman Baarl can’t argue with your results; his only gripe with your work comes from a cultural point of contention.”
Vaneel turned aside and spat on the floor, “Fuck Councilman Baarl! He should know he’s holding us back with his precious ideals. But, what does this have to do with us being here?”
“You don’t understand how Clemency was able to create hard-light projections, correct?”
“But we have concrete evidence he can, and that he can do it to a degree that he threatens the strongest Trillodan alive. Regardless of the Eternal Councils thoughts on the morality of your research, there is no denying its efficacy,” I said with a sweeping gesture.
The scientist grimaced, “But they’d insist that you proved the existence of a threat that would warrant a use of Protocol. Why haven’t you?”
My smile extended, showing rows of dangerously sharp teeth, “Why have we used the Protocol in the past?”
Vaneel opened a drawer on the workstation and pulled a block of blue tinted metal out, setting it on a forming plate; after a few commands input to the computer, laser cutters began carving me a new hip. “Historically we have used Protocol to quell anyone who is hitting a critical point in technological development. Usually it has to do with cracking faster than light travel since that kind of mobility brings about the most potential for retaliation. Still, we have done it simply to exterminate those who drew blood from us. People who can fight the Expedition are generally quite advanced.”
“But those are threats we are familiar with since they always rely on technology. Technology is something we can acquire, study, and ultimately understand. But Clemency wasn’t using any kind of mechanical means to bolster himself. So, how exactly did Clemency create hard-light projections?”
“I…I don’t…,” he said aloud, realizing my plan. “You want to study them.”
“I want YOU to study them,” I corrected. “I might have a mind for strategy, but you’re the scientist. I want you to figure out what makes them tick.”
Vaneel shook his head, “While what they did is remarkable, we both know that Councilman Baarl isn’t going to allow this sort of research. He would simply say that there must be some kind of hidden machination that allows him to accomplish this feat. It wouldn’t be the first time there was technology developed in secret that caught our military a bit off guard.”
“I figured you’d say that,” I replied, pressing the device to my head again and procuring two more segments of memory. The recording of Eldritch growing and fighting off waves of Adapted, and then the Adapted’s unwieldy vessel simply vanishing.
“How…how can either of those be possible? That’s…they used a Void Door. But there was no energy signature or power surge. And he..he made so much material from so little. How…”
“I’m hoping you can tell me,” I replied with a grin.
Vaneel reached back over to the workstation and grabbed the chunk of recreated hip. It took him a minute to move aside muscle before eventually jamming it back into place.
My façade wavered and I grunted in pain.
“Your pain is still on,” Vaneel hissed, “What the hell is wrong with you?
As he reached over to workstation to override my nervous system, I shot a hand out to stop him. “I will not be a machine,” I insisted, “I will not feel nothing while soldiers under me suffer.”
“And I’m not going to carve into my friend while he feels every last bit of sinew giving way! I have to basically replace organs, Zellig! Do you think I want you to experience that kind of pain? I can’t drug you like I could any other Trillodan. The machines in your blood, they filter out anything I can give you for the pain!”
I glared at him, unyielding. “You will not turn it off. I won’t give them the satisfaction.”
“I’m not the Eternal Council,” Vaneel pleaded, “I just don’t want to hurt my friend.”
“You built me to endure so much worse,” I promised, flashing a smile, “Cut away.”
He didn’t share my smile. “Dull the pain at least. Please, for my sake if nothing else.”
Every bodily system was operated via neural impulse; Vaneel had set me up for fine control over how acute my sensory input could be and pain was its own unique sense. When my friend had proved the efficacy of his work to the Eternal Council, Baarl had been the first voice of opposition, proclaiming that it wasn’t right for someone to do away with sensations, that doing so was an affront against nature. He claimed I would abuse my newfound ability and essentially do away with being made of flesh and bone, that I would be simply ‘other’.
It was the one setting I never adjusted. I endured because I knew I could. As much as this hurt, I knew I would survive.
But for my friend’s sake, I dulled my pain by about half.
“Fifty percent disabled,” I informed him.
Vaneel nodded, still upset. I didn’t need to be able to hear his heartbeat or breathing to understand how livid he was. It was written on his skin.
In so many ways, the Trillodan were an inferior specimen in terms of physicality. If we were left on Tso’got, we would die off in a matter of days. The arid climate would leave a trail of shrivelled amphibious corpses to be cast to the wind. We weren’t necessarily that strong either. The humans, were physically stronger than most of us when we were without mechanical help.
What we did have that set us apart was our skin.
Our ancestors had survived extinction by using our ability to change the pigment of our skin as a means of camouflage and a way to communicate with one another. Relaying basic information about danger had allowed our species to survive to a point where technology could start giving us an edge. Since there was no more biological necessity, our skin was no longer a means of stealth, but a means of personality.
Every Trillodan had gorgeous coloring across our wet skin. Having been to many planets, I could attest to how few amphibious species attained sentience and as such, the Trillodan took pride in their distinction. While its historic function had faded, our skin was still a measure of emotional response. Colors would brighten with happiness and contentment but they would darken with stress and anger.
To date, there was only one of my kind who didn’t have such display: me.
“I’m not angry,” Vaneel eventually muttered, “Just frustrated. You’re enduring things for no reason. You have endured enough pain for several lifetimes; why let yourself experience any more when you have the option to not?”
“Because others aren’t so lucky. I will not ever diminish my soldiers’ suffering by suppressing my own.”
“They aren’t subject to the ridicule and judgment that you receive simply for existing. It isn’t like you can go back to being a normal Trillodan; there is no clean way for me to remove all that I put inside you, Zellig.”
As if to add emphasis, he cut a slit in my side and removed a sphere of metal that had a massive fracture along the side. Retrieving an undamaged duplicate from the workstations, he plunged his hand back into my side and clicked the new nanite housing back into place behind my ribcage. Even with my pain cut by half, that was excruciating. Doing it a second time didn’t make it any more bearable.
The last thing Vaneel insisted on looking into was my spine where Clemency had broken me against the building; to his surprise it had actually the nanites were already repairing the damage inflicted thanks to the resurgence from the two renewed housings.
Eventually I was given the go-ahead to rise from the table and performed a few quick tasks to show Vaneel that all was working as intended. Motor functions were fine, skeletal system was holding, and my sensory inputs were all up to snuff.
As my friend turned back to his lab, I grabbed his shoulder and spun him around. “Come along, I have something for you.”
My friend followed me without another word; as soon as I showed him what we had managed to snag off the planet, his mouth hung open.
In the other science wing aboard this dreadnaught there were a series of stasis cells I had asked for deliberately. Seven of them were holding the limp body of a captured Adapted, floating in a light green solution. “I figured you could use an early start.”
Vaneel stalked forward and looked into a few of the holding tanks, scrutinizing every detail about them that could be gleaned from appearance only. “Even on closer inspection,” he muttered, “They seem ordinary. You’re sure it isn’t some kind of technological phenomenon?”
“None. I fought with half a dozen of them up close and personal. No tech to enable them,” I insisted.
“I’m going to need samples.”
I laughed, “This whole wing is yours.”
“And the Council-“
I shook my head, “The Matron has already promised to protect us on this. Let me handle the Eternal Council and what might come of our taking prisoners. For now, you do what you do best,” I invited with a sweeping gesture to all seven prisoners. Even before I was out of the room, Vaneel was completely ensconced, dictating details regarding any sort of minute abnormality in appearance.
Now I had to make good on my promise. It was true that the Matron had given me a promise to protect us from the Councils inevitable backlash, but she hadn’t counted on me losing so many soldiers. Trillodan lives were precious since we procreated a tragically slow rate.
Losing as many as I had for seven prisoners would be a hard sell as something worthwhile. But the proof of the Adapted’s power would help balance the consequences and warrant the drastic actions.
I marched through the halls of the ship, my massive frame occupying most of the space as men made way for me and bowed in recognition as I made my way back to the bridge. With the Adapted vessel vanishing, there was limited reason to be on Tso’got. While I was sure that Titan didn’t get nearly all of the Adapted to follow him, the Adapted respected identity; until we knew what set them apart physically, we had no way to rapidly locate them. Sticking around to go on a wild chase was pointless.
There were a few officers of the vessel onboard who all rose when I entered, all bowing respectfully. One man approached with a solemn expression, “Commander Zellig, how may we serve?”
“The other search parties?”
“No additional results, sir. The ones you told us to look out have all either gone to ground or left with the rest of the Adapted.”
I nodded, unsurprised. Titan, the man coordinating everything, had years to plan and had been clever enough to hide a great number of his tools. The man who could teleport everyone around, the woman who could extend the tree roots and listen in on an entire city, and whoever was able to conjure enough power to pull off that vanishing act. He’d taken advantage of the Trillodan writing off humanity; it was not a mistake he would be able to exploit further. Ultimately, his preparation overcame our military might. But wherever he was heading to now, he wouldn’t get nearly the same head start.
“We return to Xalanni then,” I informed the bridge, “There is nothing left for us here on Tso’got.”
The captain stepped aside as I approached a console and input a command to start the charge on a Void Door.
Even to move a vessel this size, it would take nearly a full hour to power. Someone under Titan’s command had the capability to move that unwieldy vessel in an instant without being in a zero gravity environment. I glanced around the Trillodan officers on the bridge; they were competent soldiers but I was going to need my legion back for this fight.
I had lacked a proper reason to call back all twenty of them in nearly a century but this would provide enough impetus to get the Matron to approve my request.
I glanced back down at my hand that was still reforming, adding definition and detail; a smile crept across my lips as I looked back out into the emptiness of space, excited at the thrill of a proper campaign.
“Round one goes to you, Titan,” I whispered, “But you’re new to this game, and I’ve been playing a long time.”