Feeling your organs stop was a truly horrifying experience.
You really aren’t aware of your digestive track functioning, but when it stops, there is a sudden cessation of activity that leaves you wildly uncomfortable. The next was my respiratory tract coming to a halt as my diaphragm and lungs gave up the ghost.
As my body burned for air, I felt my heart slow to a crawl. My normal resting pulse was 64 beats per minute, but now, if I was lucky, it was a whopping 20. And I felt it slowing despite my bodies best attempt to pump adrenaline into my veins.
It felt like I was burning alive, trying to fight this spreading paralysis.
On the edge of my vision, I watched Infinite herself since there was nothing else for me to do. When she had been pulling everyone through space, she seemed so confident and in control, so sure of herself. Now, she was affected by a serious palsy as she tried to keep her hand pressed to my face. I could feel her shaking and hear her sobbing, her intentions at odds with her bodies actions.
“Charlotte,” a distressed voice came sounding as the door opened. The voice was a familiar one, but the concerned and daunted tone one I didn’t attribute to the man leading our crusade. The only person who could seem to control her, the one she glued herself too constantly, of course it would be Titan who showed up. “Charlotte, let her go, okay?”
Her palsy seemed to worsen, but she refused to let go. I felt myself losing sensation in my limbs and I felt the world begin to close in around me. My skin went cold as the nerves seemed to just shut down.
Whatever Titan was doing, I yearned for him to speed it the hell up.
“I just wanted to help,” she lamented, “But Dragoon pushed me. She yelled at me. She was angry, Max. She said that I raped her.”
I heard Titan step closer, though the sound was warped, my senses affected by my near inability to breathe. “Charlotte, sweetie, you’re going to kill her. Please, let her go. For me, okay?”
Breath rushed back into my lungs as her hand lifted off my face and the paralysis undid itself in rapid order. Infinite drew away from me as I rolled onto my side, sputtering and curling into a ball as all my muscles seemed to do a stress test, contracting violently.
“She knows,” Titan assured her, “She understands too well what it’s like when people lose control.”
I looked to Titan and saw a break in his usually commanding façade as he looked back at me. He silently implored for me to play along, to not do anything rash. As powerful as he was, she was something else entirely and it was clear he wasn’t going to try and push her.
And the truth was that he wasn’t wrong: I wasn’t angry, I was terrified. But, in a twisted way it all made sense. I had pushed her, Infinite had just pushed back in the only way she knew how.
“I’m okay,” I gasped, “And we’re…okay,” I managed to say at length. “I know you didn’t mean to hurt me,” I said, silently praying that her eyes would return to normal soon.
Titan knelt down beside her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. “See, Charlotte, she’s okay. You didn’t hurt anyone. It’s okay.”
Finally, the massive black orbs that had been Infinite’s eyes up to this point returned to a state of normalcy making me so much more relaxed. She still had tears streaming down her face, but now her expression wasn’t so strained and twisted into a terribly flat mask. Now she looked like a distressed girl who was curling into Titan’s shoulder.
Her behavior almost made her seem like a child.
“I’m so sorry, Max,” she muttered, still shaking and afraid to look at either of us due to shame.
He wrapped an arm around her shoulder and gave her a reassuring squeeze, “It’s okay. Listen, Charlotte, Dragoon is still breathing. She’s rattled, but she’ll be okay. Isn’t that right?”
This had been a mercy, or at least an attempted mercy at Infinite’s hands. I had been like her a few days ago, subjecting myself to horrible and crippling shame. Infinite—Charlotte—had legitimately tried to be nice to me and do me a great kindness by removing it entirely. There was no reason to persecute her for trying to be nice. Ever so slowly I pulled myself up so I was sitting facing them. Extending a hand, I smiled softly, “I have panic attacks too. I know you weren’t trying to hurt me. I know you only meant the best, okay?”
She nodded, silent, still leaving her head buried against Titan’s chest. But after a moment, she reached out and took my hand. “I shouldn’t have fucked with your head. I’m sorry.”
“Let me know next time,” I said, politely but firm, “Those kinds of surprises are less than ideal.”
Infinite nodded again and pulled her hand away slowly. “I think I’m going to go wash my face,” she muttered softly, getting up and walking away.
I debated going after her, but Titan shook his head no. As soon as she was out of earshot, he sighed with relief. “You’re lucky Forest was keeping an eye on you.”
As much as I didn’t care for her spying on the entire ship, it was the only reason that Titan had gotten here so damn fast. “Why didn’t she just intervene? If she was close enough to listen in, she had to be able to produce enough mass to help me.”
Titan scoffed, “You shouted at Infinite and she nearly stopped all your vital functions. What do you think would happen if Forest physically accosted her?”
I pursed my lips, both unable and unwilling to ponder the potential ramifications for causing distress to someone so powerful. Even if Forest had managed to subdue her, what kind of damage would she have inflicted first? “What is her deal, Titan?” I asked softly. “She isn’t normal, I can say that for sure. None of you three are, honestly. You make the most sense, but your danger sense is a part of your kit that seems…off.”
He narrowed his eyes on me, “She told you about Forest?”
The scariest part about Titan to me wasn’t how much capacity for violence and harm he had, it was the fact he wasn’t an idiot. What made Beleth so much more damaging than Shockwave was his ability to think around corners and Titan was a cut above the head of Surface Dwellers in that regard; just forgetting to mention Forest specifically cued him in that she was less of a mystery. “Yeah. Well, she told me what she knows anyways.”
Titan rolled his neck and managed to get a few satisfying cracks out of it. “Infinite is an Altered.”
My eyes widened, “I’m sorry, what?” The only people I knew of being Altered were the Lunatics. While there were undoubtedly others onboard who had been forced to suffer like them, they had been quiet about it.
“I don’t know how, I don’t know why or what caused her to break, but something happened to Infinite ages ago and it has rewired her.”
“How do you know she is Altered if she has never told you?”
“Altered don’t Overexpose in the same way we do,” he said plainly. “Bargain, for example, can’t Overexpose. He could kill himself as a price for power, but he could push his body well beyond natural limitations. Psycho can abuse any form without a care, and one of his forms offers literal immortality. Spectre tried to use Clemency’s chain to hold back Eldritch when he was massive but she didn’t Overexpose, she simply fatigued from physical strain.” He gave a grim smile, “As powerful as that Adapted are, the Altered are much more so in so many ways.”
But that power came with a price. Altered were fractured people who had been broken over and over again; what they were now was incomplete, tarnished, hungry for validation and would often be labeled as mentally ill. “And Infinite uses power that makes theirs seem paltry by comparison,” I extrapolated, putting the pieces together. Titan was likely onto something, but one piece didn’t add up. “How do-”
He shrugged, “No one has managed to tack down exactly what happens when people Alter, but it seems to be brought on by prolonged torture and confinement. That’s why it was most common with the Snatcher victims, and why I burned those places to the ground when I found them. No one should suffer like that.”
I paused, my thirst for knowledge stymied. While I wanted to know more about what made them tick, Titan was right that people shouldn’t be subject to such monstrous conditions. Still, one thing nagged at me. “Despite your outward animosity, you should thank the Snatchers since they helped you recruit so many,” I muttered, a bit disapproving. “For being someone who touts autonomy, you do a bad job putting people in a position where they can reasonably disagree with you.”
There was a hint of a smirk at the corner of his mouth, “How else would I make an army?”
I had to admire his pragmatism and manipulation, as underhanded as it might have been. “You know, in some ways you are just as bad as they are.”
His good humor dropped abruptly, “Careful, Dragoon. She might have taken a shine to you, but don’t think I’m one to tolerate accusations like that.”
I raised a hand to stop him. “We’re going to have the Trillodan on our ass in a hurry once we arrive at Vuuldar, and you’re banking on their known menace to drive the Adapted into your waiting arms. It might not be kidnapping, but it’s a form of imprisonment all the same. One way or the other, they have to give up what life they had before you showed up.”
“Everyone loses that choice when the Trillodan get involved,” he muttered, “We number in the hundreds, but we can do the damage of millions. If not us, then who?”
I glared daggers at him, “So you vote then to remove people’s choice on a principle they had no say in?” There was an awkward silence as he returned my glare, refusing to back down. Eventually I caved and looked at the floor. “Maybe you should change what you’re preaching then,” I whispered. “The whole message of autonomy thing, it’s a lie. A fabrication. It might have been somewhat realistic on Tso’got, but at this point it’s an empty offer. Don’t lie to the people on Vuuldar that they have a choice. They have to join us or be swept up by the Trillodan because you decided to involve them.”
Titan thought about it for a moment and nodded, “I think you’re right. With all due respect, I am going to want to make sure that Infinite is good and stable.” He stopped halfway to the door, “Besides, don’t you have a suit to test?”
I nodded, debating chastising him about leaving me out to dry on that issue, but now wasn’t the time to get into it. He made it quite clear he was done talking and I wasn’t going to push my luck, especially since he had saved me just minutes ago.
“Hey, Alexis,” he called over his shoulder before leaving.
“Yeah?” I replied, surprised by the use of my name.
“Thanks for being honest. Thank you for not being afraid to tell me the truth.”
I smirked, “Someone should put you in your place, right?”
“Pushing it,” he cautioned with a smirk as he turned around and slipped away.
As soon as I was free of his company, I felt my whole being relax; even when they weren’t trying to kill you, the Prime Trio had a horrifying intensity to them based on reputation if nothing else.
Going back to my little corner of the common space felt in many ways like going home. It helped I saw Armorsmith giving the suit a last application of her gift. According to her, her Adaptation worked in a set of three. The first application made it harder to break, the second increased the armors ability to disperse energy, and the third application made it nearly permanent. It took a lot out of her to apply all three layers of her gift, but she had agreed to grant me this.
Unlike a lot of the people onboard, I had no built in defenses. If the armor failed, I was a softie. I hoped I never had to truly test the armors true tenacity, but I got the sense that wasn’t up to me.
Armorsmith nodded, pulling her hands away from the chest plate. “We’re ready to make you a proper cataphract now,” she replied as she fell back on her ass, holding her head. “Ooh, light headed.”
“How much abuse can it take?” I asked, hopeful.
“Someone like Awe ought to be able to wail away on it for a hot minute and it should hold up pretty well. Goliath, or someone of his caliber, hitting it will do damage to you beneath it, but it won’t be a one hit K.O.,” she assured me. “But I mean, we still have to have a proper stress test, right? It seems like a missed opportunity to not give it a proper go considering who we have onboard.”
Armorsmith had a point; even though a great number of people had helped and my project had bought some social stability for a few days, people were still itching for a fight, something to satiate that primal demand we had for conflict. On top of that, there was only one way to see if everything worked as intended; if it was to fail on me when I needed it most, that would come with lethal consequences.
“Problem with that is that the provisions against violence,” I muttered. “Forest nearly killed people today because I made the mistake of antagonizing Parasite.”
My friend frowned, “I heard there were…words exchanged.”
I contemplated telling her that Infinite had tinkered with my brain, but opted against it. “Dumb friend drama I shoved way too far. I’m going to have to fix that problem, hopefully sooner rather than later.” I wasn’t looking forward to taking my lumps, but Mutant and Menagerie had both pointed out that I had to be captain of our little squad.
Sometimes that meant making the painful choice.
“It’ll work out,” Armorsmith assured me, “You guys are a good lot. Plus, if Ragdoll has his way, we’ll work with you guys a lot on Vuuldar.”
I frowned, “Doubt it. I’m guessing Titan is going to split us up by group to make sure we cover plenty of ground. We will be on a time limit after all.”
Armorsmith pouted, “But I want to pal around with you guys!”
“You’re cute when you’re frustrated,” I teased, “But we’ll have to see. I’m sure he’ll let us know sometime before we get there…whenever the fuck that might be.”
She gave me a final pout for dramatic effect and then turned back to the suit, “Well, we can test the attachments and make sure it all fits before we put you inside.” She didn’t bother adding that if they failed or were calibrated wrong, it could try and bolt itself into my skin.
I held my breath as I placed the sections of armor next to one another and turned it on. The proximity triggers were switched, and the metal ‘sleeves’ quickly extended and joined together in fluid fashion. After they had all bolted themselves together, I checked and couldn’t help but smile seeing that all had gone according to plan.
“Thank God,” I muttered, “I have a functional suit.” The little diagnostic tool giving a readout was coming up all green; making my first suit had been so much more harrowing than this which left me in an almost euphoric state.
It was finally done. I was ready to fight again.
“Now we just have to find for you a victim to try it out on,” she said a bit too gleefully.
“I could give it a shot against Blitz maybe,” I suggested.
Armorsmith frowned, “Speedster would be a good test for your durability, but not your strength. How about Awe?”
I felt myself pale a little, “I’m not sure if I should be having a fight with anyone from Surface Dwellers. We still haven’t worked out all our shit.”
Armorsmith opened her mouth to make another suggestion, but she was interrupted.
“How about me?”
Armorsmith and I spun and saw Murphy glaring back. There was still that hard edge to him; he had not forgiven me for earlier, not yet. But, despite his clear anger, there was something else behind his expression, something not born from animosity. Murphy had told me that fighting was cathartic for many men; guys who hated each other could have a drink and laugh as friends once they had beaten the malice out of their system.
This was the best way he could speed up the forgiveness process on his end.
“You want it tested, right? I could demolish your last suit if I let myself go. Let’s see how that one holds up.”
There was a menace in his eyes that assured me he wasn’t lying. But there was something beyond that anger and rage: there was a need to make this right. Violence was a means of expression for Murphy; for him, this was the best he could manage to repair the bridge between us.
It was time for me to be the captain of our team and own my faults.
“Let’s make it happen,” I replied.
Titan was strangely receptive to the idea of a duel between Murphy and myself though he did insist that not use my new gun; he wasn’t keen on the idea of me punching holes in the hull of the ship. Otherwise, he was fully in favor of our little cage match.
He even announced it to the whole ship and literally everyone came to watch. Collector snapped up much of the furniture she had pulled from her storage to clear a fighting floor for Murphy and me. Armorsmith had reinforced the floor and one wall that we had been put close to in order to vary terrain a little. Otherwise, there was a ring of Adapted surrounding us. Eighty-two onlookers in total, all of them grinning ear to ear at the show.
Even Forest betrayed a smirk as she manifested a body to be part of the mob.
The only person who wasn’t smiling was Murphy as he waited from across the human cage for me to get my armor on. I felt a sense of security as the plates locked together, the suit responding well to my movement. Taking a deep breath, I put the helmet on and heard it secure itself in place as a display blinked into existence. Across the cage, I saw flex his fingers in a pair of metal gauntlets; he’d borrowed the gauntlets I had loaned to Awe the night we escaped Tso’got in an attempt to save his fists some of the trauma of bashing metal.
It begged the question of whether Murphy had paid attention to what kind of armaments I installed into my suit.
Clearing my mind, I took a few steps forward, getting used to being in armor again. It felt good to properly embrace my namesake again, to genuinely feel like I belonged.
I was Dragoon. I was captain of the Rogue Sentries. And I was ready to kick some ass.
“Alright,” Titan shouted over everyone, “I want a good fight and one without collateral. Dragoon, Parasite, if you guys manage to hurt anyone in the crowd here, there will be consequences.” He paused a moment for both of us to acknowledge before continuing, “If you get too into it, Forest will end the fight. Understood?”
We both nodded.
Like everyone else around, he unveiled a bloodthirsty grin, “Alright, have at it.”
Murphy wasted no time and took to the offensive, rushing forward to close the distance between us, knowing that I had numerous options for fighting at range. A fist fight though, that was where he excelled.
Months ago he had fought against Siphon who was regarded as one of the best fighters on Tso’got, and Siphon had years of additional training over my friend; Murphy still held his own and he had never stopped training since that day. On the ship I had seen him sparring with Siphon to keep honing his skill set.
The only way I won this was utilizing my arsenal and avoiding a straight fist fight with my friend. That was a contest I would never win. Even though my suit would let me hit harder and take more abuse, it didn’t matter if I couldn’t get a hand on him.
I raised my right hand and pulsed the magnet, yanking my friend’s gauntlets to upset his balance. Murphy took an awkward step forward but quickly adjusted, letting me drag him forward as a leg shot forward and struck me in the chest.
Even through the reinforced armor, I felt that.
As my hand came down, Murphy moved with alarming speed and agility, shuffling his feet and driving his heel forward, straight into my guts. I was forced back another step and planted, ready to block his next kick to my midsection; the next attack went low though, attacking my knee.
Armor or no, my joints were still the most vulnerable point to strike and Murphy knew exactly where to kick to force me to take an awkward step.
Having to catch myself upset my balance and brought my hands down for a second, enough time for him to step forward and strike twice, a quick jab-cross slamming into my helm and rattling my brain. Wanting to remove his edge, I quickly turned on the magnet again. As his arms were yanked down, he allowed himself to follow the motion, ducking under my punch and reaching forward to seize my other hand.
One hand wrapped around my wrist and the other shot forward to my elbow, both pulling me a step forward. As he upset my balance, he tried to twist my arm and strain my shoulder in order to isolate a joint.
Planting my feet, I reached over and slammed a clenched first against his forearm, meeting resistance from his passenger. Still, it was enough to remove his grasp.
He was quick to counter with a heel driving into the back of my knee. I swung and arm wildly, but it was easy for him to duck under my feeble attempt; another three strikes found my helmet and knocked me onto my side. Desperate to stymie his assault, I raised the magnet, but his foot kicked my wrist aside, not giving me the chance to pull his hands again. Murphy dropped onto me, pinning my arm to my chest with his knee, both hands raining blows down on my head.
Even with Armorsmith reinforcing the helmet, it was bending against his assault, the display warping as he pummeled me, ruthless.
“Get off!” I shouted, shoving out with my free arm. The strength from the suit launched Murphy backwards, throwing him easily meters away.
Unfortunately he didn’t stay down.
Murphy’s Adaptation granted him near perfect balance and bodily control; as soon as he hit the ground, he rolled and was back on his feet, closing the distance I had granted myself.
I wasn’t getting back up to my feet before he could reach me, so I reached over my shoulder and drew my sword, taking a swing.
There was a gasp of surprise from the throng of onlookers, but Murphy didn’t waver. He twisted to the side and changed his target from me to my weapon. His left hand smacked the center of the blade downward while his right slapped the tip skyward; the steel failed to hold up against the pressure and snapped.
I tried to redirect my swing with what little sword was left, but his angle of attack changed; his left foot caught my kneecap and nearly upended me. I sank to my hands and knees to avoid faceplanting and lost grip of my sword. BeforeI could look back up at Murphy, his foot came into my field of view as he tried to punt my head off.
Throwing myself back, I avoided my whole helmet collapsing, but I was on my back and vulnerable again.
Frustration was building as he approached; he still wore the blank expression, that damnable calm. I’d pulled a sword on him and he wasn’t even frazzled. I’d managed to hit him once, but that hadn’t done any real damage.
I wasn’t going to win this by trying to play his game. Murphy was a brawler and a boxer, he liked to keep people at striking range.
To have a chance, I had to exploit the brute strength afforded me by the suit. I needed to grab hold of my friend. To do that, I needed to bait him closer to me and let him think that he had me on the ropes.
Fortunately, that wasn’t going to be a particularly hard sell since he was handily kicking my ass.
As I tried to kick him backwards, Murphy shoved my legs to the side and letting him take a step forward to stomp on my side. Before I could, I threw myself towards him; I fully exposed my torso to take the hit, but my arms were in place to snag his leg immediately after.
My armor dented again and he might have cracked a rib, but my hands snagged his ankle before he could rip away. In a quick twist, I felt the joint give way. Murphy let out a quick yell, but I wasn’t done; my friend was obnoxiously tenacious and knew exactly how much punishment he could endure. A broken ankle would only keep him down for a few seconds; if he stressed his passenger, he could likely fix it in the time it would take for me to stand back up.
For now, his balance was compromised. Swinging my left arm back, I knocked his legs out from under him and dropped him on his ass.
Rolling up to my knees, I reached forward, not wanting to let Murphy crawl away and create distance between us. He shot his right hand down to his hip and swung back, something glinting in his hand.
Pain ripped through my arm as he slammed the collapsed staff into the underside of my forearm and managed to crack the plate of armor. He took a swipe at my face, forcing me to retreat for an instant; it was all the time he needed to get back up onto his feet. His face contorted with pain as he foot snapped back into place with a sickening crack. It wasn’t a perfect fix, but it was functional which was all he needed.
I raised my hand to draw the staff out of his hand and let out a gasp of horror as I finally noticed a blinking red Offline in my display; Murphy had deliberately gone for that wrist to smash the mechanism and nullify that tool.
About the time I managed to find my footing, Murphy extended the staff and unleashed hell. The first hit was aimed right for my head; I blocked but he was expecting me to do as much. He pivoted and slammed the opposite side of the rod into my side. I tried to rush him, but a straight jab with the staff to my chest pushed back a pace.
With sufficient distance, he let the grip slide on the staff, like he was wielding a massive bat. The strike came for my midsection, giving me no good outlet to evade without falling back down. Curling to the side, I absorbed the blow into my arm and groaned as I could already feel my bone bruising from the impact already. I tried to snatch his weapon, but he ripped it away and continued his assault.
Murphy was efficiently leading me, knowing I could block a hit or two before he could create an opening. Every time I tried to step forward, he would jab me back or attack the arm I was leading with. First he landed a shot to the ribs, another to the side of my thigh, a third into my armpit, and then he finally managed to catch me upside the head. My helmet bent and pressed against my head, a trickle of blood dripping down my ear as I staggered to the side, wildly out of control.
My opponent saw vulnerability and exploited it; a wide arcing swing hit my ankle and sent me crashing to the ground.
I rolled to face him as he bared down on me, smelling blood in the water as his staff crashed against my midsection, adding to the injuries I was sustaining. I tried to get up and move closer, but the tip of the staff pummeled my torso and shoved me down.
Across my display, I watched a continued diagnostic readout for my suit informing me of the damage I was sustaining and of the systems that were online. I kept my head covered to endure the avalanche, hoping that my stupid maintenence protocols would come through for me.
“Come on,” I hissed to my suit, “Fuck fix it!”
As if it could hear me, the magnet changed status from Offline to a green Online.
The next swing down, I activated the electromagnet and pulled the staff to my hand, seizing it and yanking forward; he had gotten so hellbent on his pummeling me into the floor that he didn’t think to let go immediately and stumbled forward.
It put his leg just close enough for me to reach. A hand snaked behind his ankle as I let go of the staff and drove my other fist into his knee. He shouted in pain and surprise, hobbling back as I stumbled to my feet. He took a swing with the staff, but I was able to close to close the gap this time, using my momentum to slam my hands into his chest, launching him back at the wall. Murphy flew into the unyielding metal surface and collapsed in a heap; before he could set his knee and mount a proper stand, I charged and let myself endure a hit from the staff.
As soon as I grabbed one of his arms, I knew it was over.
I drove a fist against his side, over and over again until I felt the ribs give way. As soon as the bone collapsed, I swung higher and caught him upside the jaw. A jab crushed his nose, a cross bloodied his mouth, and a hook sent him staggering to the side. He caught himself and tried to gain footing with one leg. I scoffed and seized him, enduring three hits to get a hold of his torso.
Lifting him, I squeezed and drove him against the wall, driving all the wind from his body as I heard him gasp. Letting him go, I took a step back and started swinging for the fences. A few strikes penetrated his guard and it only took a few extras to knock him senseless while I used as much juice as possible for my actuators. A fifth hit connected and Murphy’s head snapped to the side, his whole body dropping in a heap right after.
The audience held their breath as Murphy groaned and I took a step back, giving him room as he seemed to come back to. He rolled his neck before looking back up at my helmet.
“We done?” I asked.
His scowl softened as his trademark grin crept back across his face, “I think we’re done here,” he said with a pained laugh.
I extended a hand and he gladly accepted the help back up to his feet. “Sorry about your leg,” I whispered.
He scoffed, “Bitch please, I tried to take your fucking head off. Fair is fair and what not.”
The crowd cheered as Titan come between us, taking my hand and raising it to the ceiling as if this was a proper venue for a cage match. “Ladies and gentlemen, your winner by TKO, DRAGOON!!”
Every hollered and clapped appropriately as I raised my other arm in celebration. To help ham it up, Murphy dropped his head and wept playfully. As Titan dropped my arm, the spectacle quickly lost its magic and people soon were filing out so Collector could re-furnish the room.
A group of four other miscreants came up to Murphy and I, herding us away from the ‘cage’.
“I think it’s time we had a talk,” Nick said softly, “Don’t you?”
It took a bit to remove my helmet since it wasn’t entirely repaired, but I ripped it free and faced my friend, my hair still matted in blood and face already starting to bruise. “I think you’re right.”