Maintaining your sense of body clock and regular schedule in space is strangely challenging. While there were plenty of chronometers that told me it was four in the morning ,it was challenging to differentiate from four in the afternoon. There was just artificial lights or the vast emptiness of space to try to use to gauge time.
Neither helped to provide a sense of normalcy.
Anxiety and depression had made sleeping regularly a bit challenging and now without a consistent daily light cycle, I was barely sleeping at all. Over the last forty eight hours I’d maybe slept a total of five. It didn’t help that every time I closed my eyes I was gifted with a deluge of guilt-inducing imagery of my parents. Between them and the confrontation with Toolkit, I couldn’t bring myself to close my eyes for longer than an hour or two if I was lucky. The last four days had been a haze where I wasn’t quite awake, and not quite asleep either.
The whole time I hadn’t dared tap into my gift; I knew that I would work myself into the ground attempting to cope with making a suit that could meet both my power requirements, mobility needs, and durability demands. Despite people addressing me as Dragoon, I had never felt so powerless and out of place.
Murphy had suggested that I just ask Infinite to make me tools. Even if Infinite could conjure me tools I needed, she couldn’t adjust her brain to help beyond that. She wouldn’t know how to better the power consumption on a machine like Toolkit would.
“Another sleepless night?” a soft voice asked from beside me. A slender figure in an oversized shirt and sweatpants sat down next to me, notepad in hand.
“Hey, Menagerie,” I muttered to my teammate. “How are you doing?”
She didn’t answer because we both knew she was doing awful; Geyser had been captured back on Tso’got. Despite all her effort to help liberate the Adapted who were taken hostage by the Trillodan, he hadn’t been among those rescued.
“Eldritch told me about your talk with Toolkit. He said you had a panic attack a few paces outside her room.”
I let out a heavy sigh, “Yeah.”
She glanced up from her note book, “Why did I have to hear it second-hand days after?”
“Because it’s my problem to deal with; I shouldn’t be troubling everyone else with my personal garbage.”
She frowned and looked back to her sketchpad, drawing as she replied, “If I said that about losing Geyser, you’d call me stupid for trying to shoulder it all on my own. Why shouldn’t your rules apply to you too?”
“We can help with your grieving though,” I replied weakly, “No one can help me overcome the bad blood I have with Imperium.” I glanced over at her notebook and saw what looked like a monstrous elephant taking shape on the page. I’d noticed lately she had been making things that were supposed to be bigger, stronger, more able to take a beating before turning to dust; while she hadn’t said anything about it, Menagerie was setting herself up to Overexpose once there was a conflict with the Trillodan.
She noticed my spectating and glanced sideways at me, “You’re worried about me, aren’t you?”
“You’re making drawings that are going to be the size of a car or larger. I’ve seen you drive yourself into a coma once and I’d really rather not see that again. He wouldn’t either.”
Menagerie took a sharp breath in, “I’m sure he wouldn’t want the captain of our little troupe wallowing in self loathing and doubt either.”
I let out a wry laugh, “I’m not our leader anymore. In case you missed the memo, Titan is running the show now. I’m just along for the ride.”
“Every army has a general, but every army has officers too.” She set down her pen for a moment and turned to me, giving her full attention; even though Menagerie was a fairly small person and very soft spoken, there was something intense about her stare. “Me being broken only really affects me. If a crisis comes, no one is going to look to me for orders. I’m the quiet girl with a notebook who provides support. They will look to you though, the knight and officer in shining armor. You need to be ready to lead when that time comes, Dragoon.”
I wasn’t sure what I could say back to that, so I didn’t say anything. She seemed so sure of her answer that it made me wonder whether my crippling self-doubt and loathing were appropriate.
I lost track how long we just sat on a couch in silence as the rest of the ship slept, the only sound the scraping of Menagerie’s pen filling in her monstrous drawing. “Do you think we’re going to be able to pull this off,” I finally pondered aloud, “Titan’s whole idea of fighting the Trillodan? Do you think we can?”
“We have to,” she whispered, “I can’t bury another teammate.”
She shook her head, shutting me up. “I know that I don’t know him like you, but when Eldritch lost control, I was terrified. He’s still my teammate and he was in so much pain. He was taking out his suffering on everything nearby until he wasn’t himself anymore.” She set down the pen again and turned to me, “When I look at you, I see you crumbling, like he did.” She placed a comforting hand on my shoulder, “Can you at least tell me why?”
A tear rolled down my cheek and I wiped it off, “Titan talked to me about my suit and warned me that if I didn’t upgrade, there was no way I was living through this. Trillodan have weapons that would punch right through it. But, if I’m going to make a bigger suit to fight in, I need help. I can’t make it work on my own. The only person who can help me onboard is Toolkit and she…hates me. I did so much damage to her that she’d rather let me die than help me.”
She nodded, gently squeezing, “I can’t pretend to understand what you know or how your brain works…but can’t you make something without Toolkit’s help?”
“The problem comes down to power,” I explained, “Even right now, my suit isn’t very great in terms of efficiency. It’s good for a single prolonged fight and then it just becomes a tin can I’m stuck inside of. If I seriously work the armor and push it, I burn through all my available power in about forty minutes. If I took the suit I had now and fought someone like Shockwave, it’d get ripped apart in seconds; to make a suit strong enough to fight him, I need it to be larger which ups the power demand.”
“So you need a bigger battery?” she asked, attempting to simplify the problem.
“Exactly. But if I’m using a massive battery, I have to accommodate the weight. And if my suit shuts down and I’m carrying a ninety kilogram metal suit around, I’m gonna be a sitting duck.”
Menagerie frowned and turned back to her notepad, “I’m sorry I can’t help more, but maybe someone like your friend could help. Maybe you can make something in the middle?”
I shrugged, “Maybe Armorsmith and I can work something out, but it’ll be a challenge.”
“Before you get started on talking about anything technical I’m going to ask you to save it and take it up with her,” she insisted as she looked more intently at her notepad, “You’re just going to talk over my head.”
I debated saying more, but she was lost in her work. Just like when I was entrenched in construction, there was no way I was getting her attention back without royally pissing her off. It was probably for the best that we had stopped talking as a few extra Adapted began milling around the common area, waiting for Repository to wake up and provide that sweet, sweet, protein paste.
After a week of it, eating had started to become a chore more than anything. An obligatory function if you wanted to keep living comfortably. It wasn’t helping anyone’s mood onboard. Even though it had only been a week, what Titan had worried about was coming to fruition: people were incredibly malcontent and bored. Bored and powered were not a good combination of traits.
One character caught my eye in particular: Collision. I paled when I saw the telekinetic and turned away, ashamed. I muttered a hurried goodbye to Menagerie but I don’t think she heard given how engrossed she was in her drawing. Back I went to the room I shared with Murphy and Nick, and to my surprise he was actually awake.
Given the pale color of his face, Nick wasn’t up by his own volition.
“More nightmares?” I asked softly, not wanting to disturb Murphy.
He nodded, “I felt him ripping me out of the suit again, Alexis.”
While all of us had come to be afraid of Zellig and what he represented, no one felt it quite like Nick did. The first time he had used his power since Feast Day and it was yanked out from under him. For someone who was so desperately seeking control, it had crushed my friend.
I sat on the other lower bunk and the two of us leaned forward so we could whisper. “And next time, you’ll kick the shit out of him.”
Nick shuddered, “To that I’d have to be…at least twice the size and I don’t know when I’d start losing control.”
I reached out and patted his knee, offering a weak smile. As strange as it was, it felt good to comfort my friend, to forget about my own problems for a moment. “Nick, we’re here for you and it isn’t going to be like last time. We will be able to help so much faster.”
“I don’t want to hurt anyone again.”
He looked confused as I took a hand of his between mine, “Have a little faith in us being able to help, please? I was there when we had to cut you out; I know exactly how far gone you were and I know that wasn’t you hurting people.”
“That makes it better?”
I sighed, “You are blaming yourself for the wrong thing. You didn’t hurt anyone, Nick. Whatever is inside you, that strange doppelganger that your Adaptation made, that’s what hurt all those people. Worry less about you and maybe try to negotiate with it in the future?” I suggested with an awkward shrug, “As far as I know, there’s no way to get rid of an Adaptation; you might as well make peace with it, right?”
He nodded and gave me an understanding smile, “Okay.”
There was an awkward pause; the last time we had been alone like this I’d divulged how much I liked him and kissed him. Even though it felt like a lifetime since that night, that infuriating awkwardness lingered between us. I wasn’t sure whether I should address it and see where we stood or whether or not I should just let the tension remain.
“Oh for fucks sake, will you two just make out already?” a groggy voice growled from the bunk above Nick. A mop of disheveled brown hair poked up as Murphy glared down on the two of us as we frantically moved away from one another. Until he chimed in, I had almost forgotten I was still squeezing Nick’s hand.
“I didn’t think you’d wake up,” Nick stammered, blushing.
“We’re super-powered fugitives on the run from the most oppressive tyrannical group of aliens in the cosmos. Not to mentioned we’re in a fucking metal box with people that we were trying to kill two weeks ago. Do you really think I’m going to be sleeping heavy?” He dropped down to the floor, landing with the grace of a cat.
Even when the prick was tired he was perfectly coordinated.
“Where are you going?” Nick called after his best friend.
“To see if breakfast is available, and to give you idiots some space. If you get up to something questionable, leave a sock outside or something.”
As the door automatically closed behind him, Nick and I were left with each other, blushing furiously.
“We’re going to have to talk to him about that sort of thing sometime,” I muttered.
More awkward silence as we stayed put, unsure what to do; it would have been easier if we could just pretend Murphy hadn’t thrown a wrench in our conversation but there was no way we could unhear what he’d said.
“Are…are you doing okay?” Nick finally asked. “You’ve seemed really off kilter whenever anyone sees you or talk to you since that day where I found you. I don’t want-“
I shook my head, “I’ve been sleeping less than you.”
“Not ideal,” he replied with a wince on my behalf.
“Um, no. Not at all,” I admitted, “But I had a nice talk with Menagerie earlier. She isn’t doing so well… but that is somewhat to be expected.”
More awkward silence. More oppressive reminder of the strange tension between us that refused to die. Eventually, I cracked. “Nick, listen, that night… I don’t regret what I did back on Tso’got. I, um, I’ve always liked you and-“
To my surprise, his face twisted with an emotion he seldom exhibited: anger. “Are you…are you fucking serious, Alexis? Now is when you do this? We leave Tso’got a week ago and you’re already trying to just replace Xana like she meant nothing to me?”
“What? No!” I replied, caught off guard by his sudden hostility.
“And you use Murphy making a shit joke to be a convenient lead in for you to try and schmooze up to me?” He clenched his hands, his knuckles turning bone white, “Do you have any idea how much I miss her? Were you just hoping that you could take her place, just like that?”
“That isn’t what I was trying to do at all!” I insisted, my brain reeling as blood pounded in my ears. I could already feel my chest tightening, my vision blurring around the edges. “I just don’t want to be alone, and I don’t want you to be alone either!”
His jaw dropped as he shook his head, “So it’s about me? It’s about making sure Nick is good and stable, that he isn’t going to listen to the voice in his head that demands to eat everything around him. He needs to be sated so he won’t try to kill everyone on board! Let’s make sure that the fucking volatile psycho stays happy to he doensn’t eat anyone else!”
“Nick,” I whimpered, “You know that I don’t think that. I’ve been your friend for how long?” I snapped back, my terror shifting into righteous indignation. How dare he assumed that I was out to screw him over and be an insensitive cunt when I was just trying to care for my wounded friend?
“Then what are you doing, Alexis? What the fuck are you even trying to do?”
“I’m only-” I said, stumbling over my words as crippling doubt and anger warred in my mind.
“Just what? Spit it out!” he snapped, leering forward, challenging me.
The scales swung the way of rage thanks to his display; I didn’t care that he was my friend who I desperately wanted to be with. Right now, I wanted him to hurt for being such an immense jackass. I was only trying to help.
“You sound like your fucking dad right now. Like father like son, huh?” I snarled.
No sooner had the words left my mouth than I regretted them.
Nick paled and his rage went to despondency immediately. “Don’t talk to me, Alexis,” he muttered, getting up and leaving the room without another word. I debated calling after him but it didn’t matter, the damage was done.
I had successfully managed to push away my best friend when I needed him most.
Just one more way I proved I was an abject failure.
“Hey, Drag,” Ragdoll greeted as I rapped on the door. He shared a room with Mr. Magnificent, Soliloquy, and—the one I was most interested in—Armorsmith. The leader of the group waved me into their living quarters where just he and Armorsmith were sitting now. “I assume you’re just looking for her?”
I gave him a nervous smile, “Not trying to step on your toes or anything, Rags, but you can’t quite do what she can.”
He laughed, “Why do you think I keep her around?”
“Oh shut up,” she chastised from the corner of the room, “Go find Parasite and spar with him or something.”
Ragdoll waved his hands in surrender, “Alright, alright, I can feel when I am unwanted. I’ll take my leave.”
As soon as he shut the door, Armorsmith’s face fell. “He might know the physics of launching himself around, but Ragdoll sucks at reading people sometimes. What happened?”
I felt myself choke up, “That obvious?”
“I notice vulnerability and weakness, kind of a quirk of my Adaptation,” she confided, “And it’s written all over your face and in your body language that you are off your game.” Armorsmith patted the bed next to her and waved me over, “So, come on, what’s going on?”
A sob tried to escape but I pushed it down, “I fucked up everything, Armor. Everything that happened in Ciel, what became of Tso’got, it’s all because of me and what I got us to do.”
“Bit full of yourself, isn’t it?” she countered playfully, trying to lighten the mood a little.
I gave her a smile, as if to show I noticed her attempt at levity. “My suit’s going to break the next time I get into a fight. We saw what the Trillodan are capable of, and we definitely haven’t seen all of their technology.”
She looked perplexed, “That shouldn’t be that big a hurdle for you. You just make a new suit then; you have Repository and Multitask to help out with the actual construction.” When I didn’t brighten up, Armorsmith knew something else was wrong. “Drag, what’s going on? And don’t give me that half-truth that you’re freaking out over making a suit. I watched you make drones to spot weld a spaceshift in a matter of hours. You are more than up to the task.”
I shook my head, “I needed Toolkit for that. The drones I made would have been passable but clunky.”
Armorsmith winced, “Don’t shit on yourself like that, okay? You aren’t some bitch pushover who didn’t deserve a seat on this ship. Do you think Titan would have picked up you guys if he didn’t deem you all worth keeping around? There were supposedly 200 Adapted on Tso’got and he only brought around 80 onboard. That means something.”
That should have offered a fair amount of reassurance, but I felt very little. “Without Toolkit, I don’t think I can design a suit that will be energy efficient enough for me to use. I’d need to likely double the thickness of the metal to make it hold up and that’d be so much extra fucking weight that I’d almost be unable to move once it ran out of juice.”
“So ask Toolkit. Everyone is bored to shit and wants something to do. It’s why people are sparring or why Shockwave of all people made a fucking cribbage tournament. People need something to do.” She laughed and shook her head, “Who would have guessed that the fucking head of Imperium was such a massive fan of card games?”
“We trashed Imperium,” I whispered, “It was one of the first big things we did as Reckoners making a name for ourselves.”
Armorsmith pursed her lips, “Ah, now I’m starting to get a clear picture. Toolkit is still holding a grudge?”
I nodded. “I’m pretty sure even if you reinforced my existing suit it wouldn’t hold up. Even before you think about what kind of weight weapons might add, the sheer amount of metal I’m going to be carrying around is gonna add up in a big hurry.”
“Or maybe use a harder material…. but making a fucking suit out of Osmium or something would be heavy as hell,” Armorsmith thought aloud, shaking her head. She frowned, “My gift would let me reinforce something to take about triple the stress it can normally withstand. You’re sure that won’t do for your current getup?”
“For heat capacity and dealing with their laser weapons it would be great, but I’m thinking explosives and impact. Right now, Goliath would tear through my suit with no problem and Zellig was just as big and strong as he was…but faster. They all have that golden glove that mimics a weak Shockwave power, who knows what else they have. Right now, Murphy–Parasite–can break the plates or armor and he isn’t nearly as big or strong as Goliath. I’m pretty sure if Ragdoll gave me one of his signature tornado kicks he could cut me in half.”
She frowned, “I’m not sure what to tell you. I think your old suit might hold up better than you think with my help.”
I shook my head, “I’m sure of this one, Armorsmith.”
There was doubt in her eyes, but she quit pressing me on it. “Okay, well then yeah, you’d need a better battery pack, but that is going to be unwieldy at best and make you markedly dependent on a strangely vulnerable spot. Unless you tried to integrate it around your shoulders…but that means more metal which means more weight.”
“That’s where my problem is. Right now the suit weighs 22 kilograms and is a bitch to move around without tapping the battery. Doubling the weight means I’d almost be trying to move around while lugging around my body weight. Even if I only up the plate thickness by half, that still provides a ton of strain on me or on my power consumption.” I shook my head, “Murphy might be able to run around wearing his weight in armor but I sure as hell can’t. I’d sweat to death in an hour or two.”
A reassuring hand grabbed my shoulder, “Hey, listen, just because you’re suffering a setback doesn’t mean you’re out, huh? Maybe we can ask Infinite or-”
“Infinite can’t help with Cognate stuff. It’s the one kind of power set she doesn’t have access to.”
Armorsmith raised an eyebrow, “How the fuck do you know that?”
“Talked to her one morning because she wanted to know about Eldritch and how his power worked.”
My friend paled, “Seriously hope you told her not to use that one.”
I nodded, “Yeah, not a power I want anyone else playing with. Especially not someone else who could add other stuff to the power. Can you imagine if Eldritch had the ability to breathe fire when he was devouring everything in front of him?”
She closed her eyes and shuddered, “It’s a scary image.”
“No kidding. I’m not eager to try and cut anyone else out of that mess again.” I noticed a little grimace from Armorsmith and raised an eyebrow, “What?”
“I heard about Zellig attacking the rescue party and about his ripping Eldritch out of the suit. The fact Clemency couldn’t just bring him down immediately worries me. Besides our Prime Trio, no one else could reliably go toe-to-toe with the cobalt-clad bastard.”
Our Prime Trio, the three who stood a cut above everyone else onboard by an unfair margin: Forest, Infinite, and Titan. Some people would argue that Eldritch should be up there with them, but his power was so circumstantial we kept him off the list.
“Beleth has won a round with Clemency, and so has Shockwave.”
She shook her head, “They’ve all lost to him too, and more than once. Beleth won a skirmish because he was clever and lured Clemency to a nearly empty part of town so it diminished his power; Shockwave got a lucky hit but otherwise doesn’t have the tools to fight his varied arsenal.”
“Zelling is the head of a whole branch of the Trillodan military,” I pointed out, “But if you look at the standard footsoldier it is a lot less threatening. Hell, even your group killed a couple. I heard Ragdoll straight kicked someone’s head off.”
Armorsmith laughed, “You should have heard how proud he was when he talked about it. One of the first people to fight back against the Trillodan and he beheaded one. It was all I could do to stomach his preposterous ego for the next three days.”
I laughed, glad to forget about my trouble for just a moment, to just lose myself in some pleasant distraction.
Right on cue, Transport opened the door and gave an apologetic smile, “Hey, Dragoon, didn’t mean to interrupt, but I need to borrow Armorsmith for a bit.”
She gave a shrug, “Work is never done, right?” Before she left, she gave me one last look over her shoulder, “Is it just the armor that’s getting to you?”
“Yeah,” I lied, my voice going quiet, “I’ll figure it out.”
“Hey,” she said with a shake of her head, “None of that self pity. Go be honest with Toolkit, you can do this. Remember, you’re on the ship for a reason.” The door slammed shut behind her and I was left alone in their room.
I sat there for a moment, wishing that I could stop thinking about all the reasons that Armorsmith was wrong.
I didn’t belong on this ship, I didn’t deserve help from Toolkit for so many reasons, I deserved to die when we fought against the Trillodan and no one should try to interfere.
It was my own fault that all this horror had happened. I had single-handedly condemned the planet to Trillodan subjugation; I couldn’t even fathom what sorts of horrors were being wrought upon the surface of Tso’got as I sat here, a fugitive.
Hell, I had displaced so many Adapted from their homes and for what?
I wasn’t sure how long I sat there dwelling but I eventually got up and walked out the door, trying to control my breathing as I climbed down a little staircase to lead to the other corridor of living spaces. My heart was already hammering in my ears; there was no way that Toolkit was going to accept my request, and why should she?
I had gotten Ironclad killed, I helped ensure that Geyser was gone, and I hadn’t been there when Nick needed me most.
To top it all off, he hated me now.
I could see Toolkit’s door down the hall and I stopped, my whole body rigid, paralyzed with anxiety. She wasn’t going to help me, she wouldn’t even if she knew it would get me killed.
But that was…okay. I deserved to die, didn’t I?
This time I didn’t have Nick to come find me sprawled out on the floor as a horror struck mess. Instead of knocking on the door to Toolkit’s room, I walked away, accepting the fact that I didn’t deserve better.
I had gotten so many people killed, why did I deserve to live?
I wasn’t sure or exactly how, but fate would come and claim me soon enough. I wouldn’t bother anyone afterward and that was a plus as far as I could see.
Eventually I would be forgotten, and everything would be better that way.