Planetside: Ambush

My vision expanded as tendrils erupted from my skin, shredding my clothes as I rose.  The two interlopers were both in power armor, but both dramatically different. One was a bright chrome suit that seemed to almost be a reinforced exoskeleton that looked like a metallic canine with a massive tail extending off the end, flicking around like a cat staring down his prey.  Where his face was, the suit extended into a snout with twin rows of malicious, metal teeth. Around his hands a set of four claws extended, all glinting in the sunlight pouring through the windows. What stood out as odd to me was a number of little while spots on his armor, little vials of solution dotted along his armor.  

His companion was wearing a suit the color of gunmetal with streaks of red running through it like a circulatory tract atop the metal.  While his companion was emphatically animalistic, this one almost looked like a suit of metal muscle. There were several little red nodules that seemed to have some kind of crimson fluid churning in them and the whole thing seemed to shift and rippled like something organic.  To my surprise, his head was covered by a helmet that seemed remarkably similar to the one Dragoon wore: a curved and blank plate faced out to us.  

“Hunt,” the gunmetal one demanded, pointing a finger a hand at me.  

“Mutant, take him!” Dragoon shouted.  “Lightshow, distract! Parasite, with me!” 

The one in the exoskeleton dropped onto all fours and ran forward like some kind of hunting hound, and holy hell he was fast.  He was going to get to me before I had even managed to grow two hundred kilograms of mass as a buffer.  

A bird flitted in front of me, changing into a massive insect as Mutant intercepted.  His first hit landed, knocking the Trillodan aside; the ‘animal’ rolled with the strike and pivoted, launching himself back at our Enhancer, his tail streaking forward faster than my eyes could track.  Our shapeshifter was pushed back a step, but his beetle form’s carapace kept him safe.  

Across the room, Parasite and Dragoon ran forward, and several copies of them joined alongside.  Lightshow focused intently, bending the light to effectively create holograms alongside them; what worried me was that the man in gunmetal wasn’t at all perturbed.  

He barked something in a foreign language and charged forward, striking at the proper Dragoon despite there being half a dozen copies alongside her.   Four copies of Parasite rushed forward, but he ducked to avoid the real one, ignoring all the illusions.  

“They have thermal vision!  Lightshow, help Menagerie!” Dragoon demanded as she took a swing; he slapped her hand aside and retaliated with a strike of his own.  As Dragoon was forced away but retaliated by drawing the sword off her back and coming down in a ferocious arc. The operative raised an arm to block and the sword bit into the armor.  

 It seemed to be exactly what he was after.  

Yanking back, Dragoon was dragged forward and endured a quick pair of hits to the torso.  She used the momentum to rip the sword free, but he smacked it aside with a deft slap, sending it skidding across the floor.  

Lightshow darted over towards Menagerie, hefting her up to a sitting position and snagging the notepad that had been thrown from her grasp.  The poor girl had been closest to the center of that explosion and she was by far the least protected of the group. Right now, she offered the most offensive power but, thanks to the nature of the engagement, she was also the most vulnerable.  If Dragoon had her way, Menagerie would have been a kilometer away. The Trillodan dictating the conditions of the fight had set us at a terrible disposition right from the get go.  

Mutant was having issues trying to deal with the operative who was on all fours.  The Trillodan attacked like an animal, and he was simply much faster than Mutant. While he might have been able to keep up in his wolf form, that tail was keeping him on the defensive.  Any time Mutant tried to move forward, the tail acted like it had a mind of its own, jabbing forward and repeatedly chipping at the same spot in his shoulder, slowly cracking the plate in his armor.  I could see the frustration in Mutant as he was pushed back over and over again; he was the most experienced Adapted out of all of us, and we’d seen him go toe-to-toe with heavy hitters, but he always did it by utilizing his ability to adjust rapidly.  No singular form of his was overwhelming, but trying to put up with five of them was an incredible challenge.    

The fact he was forced to stay in one form was damning. 

While his beetle was strong and protected, it wasn’t fast and his opponent was dancing back and forth, cackling as he slowly whittled away at the shapeshifter.  Each hit was a small blow on Mutant’s endurance as he withstood the onslaught and the operative didn’t show any sign of wearing out.  

If anything, the Trillodan on all fours was speeding up, smelling blood in the water.  

I willed myself to grow faster but didn’t charge into the fray yet; at one-tonne I was pretty sure I would be too vulnerable to be much help.

As Mutant continued to weather the assault, Parasite was doing his damnedest to land a meaningful hit, but the operative facing off against the pair was almost mesmerizing to watch.  Every strike that my friend threw, he was a tiny bit ahead, repositioning to block a punch from Dragoon in a constant and fluid dance. Even though his suit was horribly bulky, he moved with an alarming agility that did not bode well for my friends.  Parasite struck and was deftly countered, forced to take a step back by a quick jab; the distance permitted the operative to pivot and backpedal, avoiding a swing from Dragoon. She growled in frustration, using the laser cutter that Toolkit had helped her build, but the Trillodan in the gunmetal suit didn’t even bother trying to stop her.  

They equipped their regular foot soldiers with lasers, of course he was going to be outfitted with armor tenacious enough to withstand them.    

“Drag, left!” Parasite shouted, bounding forward, attempting to flank his opponent.  Even though she was the leader of our squad, no one knew a fight more intimately that Parasite and she wasn’t about to question his intuition.   

Murphy had told me that he warmed up in a fight, that he could slowly piece together what made his opponent strong and how he could find a weak point to exploit, a small habit or tick to leverage to his advantage.  While I didn’t want the fight to drag on, the longer it did, the more my friend would be able to read his opponent. He had spent his life fighting uphill battles, this would be no different.           

Parasite darted into the fray, ducked under the punch aimed for his head, and jammed a foot into his knee.  The operative buckled for an instant and Dragoon landed a heavy strike against his midsection. With their opponent off balance, Parasite found another opening, and Dragoon followed up, the two of them working in a surprisingly elegant partnership as my best friend kept forcing him to split his attention in two different directions.  Dragoon continued to make openings for the two of them, using the magnet on her glove to tug him slightly off balance while Parasite kept targeting the knees or elbows, trying to hinder his maneuverability.

My best friend had the good sense to know that this guy wasn’t going down quickly and the best thing to do in a long bout is to slow down your opponent.    

I was half formed now, two-tonnes of mass increasing my stature to eight feet and lessening my hold on my body.  That presence in the back of my mind crept forward, slowly wresting control away from me as we surveyed the fight.  

Nearby, Mutant was getting pulverized.  A purple ichor was oozing from a number of perforations that the other assassin had managed to inflict through his beetle’s armor.  Still, Mutant kept himself between the alien on all fours and the slowly waking Menagerie. Lightshow was the last line of defense for our otherwise helpless Peculiar, but with their thermal vision there wasn’t a lot that Lightshow could do that wouldn’t be a detriment to the rest of us.  If they weren’t distracted by a dozen figures dancing around, we could probably assume trying to blind them wasn’t going to work either.   

I could tell that Lightshow was as frustrated not being able to help as I was.  She knew trying to use her gift was wasted energy, and I knew that if I charged in recklessly I would be cut down before I could do any meaningful damage.  The truth was that she was plenty capable, but she lacked a lot of combat application when she couldn’t directly impact someone’s vision. The Trillodan’s technology kept them a step ahead, and kept us down a player.  

Across the room, the operative being pushed around by my friends barked a command in an alien tongue as he just barely ducked under a blow from Parasite’s staff.  

A high pitched whine filled the air as his companion shot his tail forward; Mutant managed to dodge to avoid taking it to his center of mass, but it sunk deep into where it seemed like his collar bone should have been, ignoring the armor plating almost entirely.  One bound later, his claws sank into my teammates sides. A cackle escaped the animal as the mechanical jaws opened and snapped down on the shapeshifter’s other shoulder.  

“Mutant!” Lightshow screamed.  

It was enough to distract Dragoon for an instant and delay her follow up with Parasite; given a split second to breathe, the other operative ducked away and raised an arm to Dragoon.  His suit moved like it was a living entity, rapidly reforming itself to something resembling my captain’s scrap gun. A mechanical whine screamed through the room as a torrent of bullets drove Dragoon back.  

She cried out, falling down and clasping a hand to her shoulder as red began seeping through the armor.  

Another hiss of laughter rang out from the operative on all fours.  He was still trying to force down Mutant, who was still on his feet, despite having claws, teeth, and tail all digging into his flesh.  The condescending laugh seemed to invoke a kind of primal rage in the shapeshifter, and he let out a scream to answer. One arm shifted to the wolf form and jammed his claws into the metal joint at the end of the tail, ripping apart the machinations that held the cruel tip in place.  With a snarl, he changed his face to the wolf and attempted to bite out the throat of his opponent who had made the mistake of getting close enough to gloat.  

Before he could clamp down, the operative vanished and one of white vials was left behind.  It dropped to the floor with a gentle ting. 

A quick flash of light and he reappeared behind Mutant.  Claws jabbed forward and drove into Mutant’s midsection as the Trillodan snarled.  In retaliation, my teammate shifted his arm to the unsightly grey tentacle of elastic muscle and gripped the severed end of his opponent’s mechanical tail, whipping it around and sinking it into the torso of the operative.  The quadruped hissed in rage as Mutant growled in reply, refusing to go down quietly.    

Across the room, Dragoon stumbled and slumped against the wall, and Parasite was pissed.  His staff was a blur, aiming for natural weak points in the anatomy of his opponent: the neck, the elbow, the knees, the hands, or his head.  It was scary to see my best friend this ruthlessly efficient, but awe-inspiring to a degree. He likely had no business standing toe-to-toe with the operative, but he made it work, utilizing his own natural acumen along with all the strength his gift could buy him.  

The operative though, was far from out of tricks. 

All the red streaks on his armor lit up as Parasite took another swing; in a blur of motion, he drove his forearm against my friend’s weapon and broke the staff in two.  From his armor, one of the little red discs discharged, like a used bullet casing. My friend was lucky to duck under the following punch, but his surprise didn’t keep him down for long.  Parasite adjusted quickly, changing the grip on the weapon and using it like a club to batter the Trillodan, not letting him make distance and use the small gatling gun on his arm that had managed to chew through Dragoon’s reinforced armor.  

But without Dragoon, he had the operative’s full attention and wasn’t going to stand for long.  For each two hits he delivered, the Trillodan returned one. Even though Parasite was adept at taking a punch, it was clear who would win the war of attrition.  

I was at three tonnes, but I moved to action as I saw Mutant finally stumble and fall to his knees, a few fresh gouges to Mutant’s carapace finally taking him down.  No more time to wait and be fully grown, I had to manage the animal before he started wreaking havoc everywhere else.  

As I lumbered forward, the quadruped shifted his attention, bounding forward to meet me; as I expected, claws slashed through my tendrils like a hot knife through butter, carving away chunks of flesh faster than I could grow.  He cackled with enjoyment as he danced around me, cleaving swaths through my arms as I kept trying to get a hold of him. Agility kept him three steps ahead as he darted under my arms to attack my legs or torso, easily dashing away to reset his distance and keep clear of my grasp.  

Despite his manic and almost deranged demeanor, the Trillodan was far from stupid.  He knew exactly what he could and couldn’t get away with and he toed the line beautifully.  

While I bought time for Menagerie to come to her senses, I kept an eye on the other bout.  Dragoon had gotten back to her feet and reached for the railgun, knowing full well how much strain it would put on her power supply; I wished she’d done it earlier, but I know why she had held off:  if she drained her battery too soon after we arrived on world, Dragoon was going to be a handicap down the line. Still, it had gotten desperate enough to prompt her trump card.  

As if guided by some extrasensory perception, her opponent turned and unleashed another volley, carving into her side before Parasite could bring the remains of his staff down on the operative’s head.  Still, it was too late. Dragoon stumbled and slumped against the wall, her shot going wild. While it punched a hole straight through the opposite wall, it missed the operative by a full meter. The operative did stumble from the blow to the head, but he ignored Parasite entirely, opting to rush forward at our captain.  Dragoon was trying to steady herself for a second shot, but it wasn’t in time. Another disc was consumed as he punched forward.  

Her armor fractured as a shockwave rippled through the room.  My captain’s body hit the ground and flipped over, skidding to a halt several meters away.    

Parasite shouted in anger, slamming the metal baton down hard enough to crack his opponents armor and likely the elbow beneath.  The Trillodan cried out and shoved my friend back far enough he could turn the gatling gun on him. Metal screamed and Parasite staggered back but threw the hunk of staff forward and left another crack in the operative’s chest plate.  Parasite was a step behind, his front unbloodied despite the peppering.

While the fine caliber rounds had drilled through Dragoon’s armor, his passenger was best when it came to mitigating tiny points of injury.  

The Trillodan changed tactics; raising his opposite hand, a wave of shimmering energy intercepted my best friend and combusted, burning away much of his costume in a flash fire that enveloped his torso.  Parasite stumbled forward blind, disoriented as the operative charged, another surge of red running through his suit.  

While my teammate managed to raise his hands and shield his face, the empowered hit destroyed his forearms and shot him across the room like he’d been fired from a cannon.  His body smacked against the far wall and he landed in a heap.  

“Eldritch, deal with him!” a new voice shouted.  It took me a second to realize who it was. In all my time of knowing her, I had never heard Menagerie raise her voice, let alone shout.  

No sooner had her command come through than the room exploded with life.  Behind me, she was sitting in a lotus position, notepad open on her lap. The air around her was illuminated with energy as the pages turned and her artwork materialized beside her.  As the pages burned, her army grew and began leading the charge towards the animal. I lumbered towards the gunslinger as a pair of things resembling lizard-men charged the other operative.  His claws cleaved through one but it winked out of existence. The second tackled him as the new stampede rushed towards him. 

Beside her, Lightshow was holding a hand forward, intently focused. 

Menagerie’s creations weren’t truly organic beings which was why I couldn’t consume them for more mass.  It would make sense that they didn’t have to have the same kind of heat signature as a mammal. Now with her awake and in the fray, Lightshow was able to participate and add to the confusion.  The animalistic one of the two was quickly overrun, having to guess which monster was tangible and which was just an illusion that Lightshow was commanding. And now that she was finally able to help, Lightshow had something to prove.  For each creation of Menagerie, half a dozen similar figures shimmered into existence alongside the deluge of monsters.  

A few broke off for the gunslinger, but he seemed cooler under the pressure.  Small bursts from his gatling gun put down some and quickly distinguished the authentic for fake from him.  Once I got closer, all his attention turned to me and the flow of monsters turned away, all converging on the other Trillodan and leaving me to avenge my friends.  Like the other operative, he wasn’t particularly put off by me or my imposing stature. He nimbly skirted away from me, using the gatling gun to try and bore a hole through to my person underneath.  Even with my cells hardening, he was tearing through me with ease.  

After enduring the animalistic operative clawing and ripping away at me, I was down to 2800 kilograms and out of material to consume.  In just a few short moments, he’d already destroyed a few dozen kilograms and he seemed happy to dance around, slowly carving the Neklim away with that gun on his arm.  

Silently I pleaded with the presence in my head to give me something to work with, something to give us an edge.  It’s response came swift as I felt my body shift, responding to the stress of the situation.

Mutation: Adrenaline.  

My speed nearly doubled as two massive steps closed the gap he had been mindful to keep; an onyx colored arm shot forward, engulfing the gunslinger’s torso as I let out a triumphant roar.  For once I didn’t try to stymie the bloodlust of the presence as it allocated more mass to the appendage, to squeeze the life from him. 

This one had hurt my friends, and for that he was going to die, and I was going to make it hurt.

The alien operative had other ideas.   

A metallic drag rang from his suit, like a slide being drawn back, and his armor erupted with energy, destroying my hand.  He bounded away, barely dodging a strike that shook the floor beneath us. His right hand raised and blasted my torso, the blasts of heat scorching dozens of kilograms per hit as he turned his gatling gun onto my legs, slowly chipping away at my mobility.  While I couldn’t see any facial expressions on him, I knew he was going to be more wary for bursts of speed. There were only so many of those discs he could use that trick to escape my grasp.    

Above me, a silver streak zipped along as the animalistic operative literally ran along the walls, leaping through the air like a twisted acrobat the cut down what he believed to be Menagerie’s monsters; a frustrated scream was let out when he hit yet another illusion.  A massive bird with a snake head slammed into him, pulling him back to the ground as it tried to dig in talons and fangs. As it landed, it’s captive disappeared and another empty vial was left behind.  

He reappeared a few meters from Menagerie and Lightshow, claws ready.  

His first attack was aimed and Menagerie, but his claws were halted by Lightshow throwing an arm in front; her scream pierced the room as he nearly cleaved through her arm.  For a moment, his claw was stuck, but he tore it free, scattering chunks of discarded muscle and bone across the ground as Lightshow fell backwards and tried to halt some of the bleeding.  Around the room, the illusions ceased to exist, their master now more worried about trying to staunch the bleeding.  

Menagerie didn’t turn, but from her notepad, a massive grey form emerged that was like a centaur if the bottom half was an elephant and the ‘human’ part of it belonged to some cave troll.  The Trillodan rolled to the side and darted around for another angle at Menagerie, and then howled as a hunk of metal found purchase in his leg; Mutant was on his feet in defiance, the hunk of metal he’d taken thrown like a knife into the operative’s thigh.  It slowed him long enough that Menagerie’s monster could get some momentum going and kick him forward, trampling the Trillodan and crushing a number of those vials that seemed to allow him to blink around the arena. The operative clawed feverishly at the monster, eventually getting it to stop crushing him.  As he rolled away a trail of blue blood was left behind.

The exo-skeleton that had kept him safe had been shoved into his chest cavity and he was bleeding profusely.  His manic cackle was gone, and he had to limp away, one of his legs dragging behind.      

For a moment the gunslinger was distracted by his companion’s plight and slow to move; while he managed to evade my grasp, the massive bird that Menagerie made slammed into his back and upset his balance, nudging him forward and back to me.  I forced another bout of adrenaline into my system and shot a hand forward, seizing his legs and swinging him up skywards before he could use another one of those red disks.  

A spiderweb of cracks appeared on his armor as I whipped him into the ground.  

As expected, his suit erupted with energy, blasting away my hand and buying his freedom.  Rolling away from me, he grunted in pain, and showed signs of weakness as he limped away, his poise and presence done away with.  I moved to follow but the second Trillodan scrambled to his comrades side, shouting something in their foreign tongue. The animal wrapped an arm around the gunslinger and in a blink of light, they vanished together.  

It was strange how abrupt the stillness was.  Where there had been clamor and chaos a moment ago, the room felt empty.  There were no illusions dancing around, no operative in power armor trying to rip us apart, and no sound of combat.  

More immediately pressing was the fact that I still had two tonnes of mass at my disposal and nothing left to fight.  

I reached for control and felt my form move, slowly, fighting my attempt to regain control.  It was hungry, and it knew that there was material easy to consume close by. Mutant and Lightshow were both so severely weakened that they could be gobbled up in an instant, their mass enough to begin fueling a rampage.  

It would be so easy to be free, to be powerful.  Do you want to really be weak? Let me go! 

“No,” I growled.  “We… need…. them.”  

Menagerie stared at me, her focus even pulled away from the wounded and still whimpering Lightshow, “Eldritch, dismiss it or I will turn everything on you.”  

“Trying,” I hissed in reply, “If… I move… do it.”

My body still rebelled, aching to be free, aching to eat.  

They are going to slow us down.  They are going to be a liability with their injury.  Better they fuel us.  

“If we struggle,” I managed to force out, “Menagerie fights.”  

The voice seemed to listen, and I could feel it taking stock of just how many creations she had conjured.  Even though the operatives had killed almost a dozen of her constructs, there were still nine filling the area, one of which was the elephant-centaur thing which was about the same size as me and eyeing me with daunting green eyes.  She still had her notepad as well; even if I could fight all her monsters, she could dip into that well while I had nothing to call upon.    

“Nick,” Dragoon said, fighting up to her feet, “Let go.  We’ll have need of your Neklim later.”  

I wasn’t sure if it was the familiar voice that seemed to let me regain control, or the promise that the Neklim would be let out later, but I seized control again and let the growths dissipate, all turning to dust as I dropped to the floor, naked as the day I was born. 

“Dragoon,” Menagerie called, “We need the tinctures!  Now!” 

My team captain grimaced and pulled herself forward, plates in the suit sliding open to reveal half our tinctures stashed; two were thrown to Menagerie who was trying to soothe Lightshow who was pale-faced, rapidly entering shock.  I ran closer and squeezed down on the gash in her arm, doing my best to act as a tourniquet, my eye’s widening as I saw the extent of the damage done.  

There was a fist sized hole in her arm and the only thing keeping it attached was a stubborn bit of skin that clung on.

“Drink,” Menagerie said softly, “Come on, Rebecca,” she insisted, “Drink.  Now.”  

Lightshow nodded, her whole body trembling.  As she drank the first one, Menagerie popped the stopper on a second.  “I shouldn’t-”she stammered.

Menagerie ignored her and poured the contents between her lips.  “You’ve lost a lot of blood,” she whispered softly, “We need you on your feet.”

Dragoon ripped off her helmet and downed one as she half ran-half shambled over to Mutant.  He had reverted to human form now, gasping, coated in blood. Even though injuries were usually diminished by his shapeshifting, he looked bad.  “Come on,” she implored, “Down the hatch, good man.”  

“Drag-” he gasped.

“Hush, slug form, now,” she demanded.  “Mend, quick as you can.”

He nodded and his body curled into a ball as it transitioned into a pile of goo that seemed to struggle to maintain the form.  

Menagerie looked to me, “We need a more permanent tourniquet.  And…” she trailed off, looking at the arm dangling by a thread of determined skin.  

While Organelle herself might have been able to regrow the skin and muscle, even a double dose of her tincture wasn’t going to cut it.  All these would do would speed up our cellular growth but who was to say if the hunk of flesh missing would reform properly, or fast enough to prevent her from bleeding out in the meantime.  Menagerie didn’t want to tell her friend, but our best bet was to cut our losses, literally. If we removed the arm, we could cauterize it and stem the bleeding for sure. 

There was too much that could go wrong if we tried to save the arm. 

“We have to,” I said, answering Menagerie’s unspoken concern.  Lightshow looked at me, panic dancing through her eyes as I did my best to apply pressure and stymie the blood loss.  “I’m so sorry, Rebecca,” I whispered, “We need to amputate it and cauterize this now, otherwise you’ll bleed out.”

Lightshow turned her head and looked at her arm, whimpering, “I don’t want to-”

“We don’t have a choice,” Menagerie told her, squeezing her free hand.  “I’m sorry.” Lightshow looked for any crack in the facade as Menagerie held her friend, but if there was one thing our Peculiar was, it was steady.  She reached a hand and gently stroked Lightshow’s face, “There, there,” she whispered, “You’ll be okay.” 

She gasped, beginning to hyperventilate as Dragoon shambled over, the sword already in her hand.  My friend closed her eyes once and took a deep breath before pressing the edge down and drawing back, severing the little bit of skin that was determined to hold on.  “Nick, Murphy was wearing a belt. Go grab it from him. Give him this,” she ordered as she handed me a tincture before taking over.  

I nodded and sprinted across the room to my friends still form, uncapping the bottle and pouring its contents down his throat.  As I yanked the belt off his trousers, a small wave of relief washed over me as a groan escaped his lips.  

He wasn’t in good shape, but at least he was still breathing.  

Throwing the belt to my leader, I noticed my friend’s arms; his passenger was wriggling through, trying to set bone that seemed… gone.

“He hit me hard enough my forearms exploded,” my best friend whispered softly, his eyes still closed, “Goliath doesn’t hit nearly that hard.”

“The big bastard will be glad to have some competition,” I replied, trying to inject some levity as I reached forward to help him up. 

He snapped at me to stop before I could lay a hand on him.  “Spine’s broken. Moving me will complicate pulling it back into place.  Legs are worthless right now, arms need an hour or two even with that stuff before I can dream about using them.  I’m basically gluing together splinters of what used to be my ulna.” His eyes slowly opened and he saw the cluster around Lightshow.  “What happened?” 

“The one running around on all fours got her arm,” I whispered, solemn.


“Dragoon had to cut it off.  Where he hit, he basically ripped a fist sized chunk of muscle and bone away.  We’re not sure if it could heal fast enough to stop her bleeding out.”

Right on cue, she started screaming as Dragoon used her laser to cauterize the wound.      

“They got away,” he said, frustrated.

I nodded, “The one on all fours teleported them out.  Menagerie and I turned the fight…just not fast enough.” 

Parasite gave me a sideways look, “Don’t shit on yourself.  Those guys were no joke and if you went in too early, you’d be in the same boat as the rest of us.  We were caught off guard and outclassed. We’re just lucky these guys weren’t aiming to kill, only maim.”  


“One of them hit me hard enough to break my bones even with the passenger reinforcing it.  He didn’t lead with that though, he only used it when he was put under enough pressure. If he’d wanted me dead, there wouldn’t have been a slow lead up.”  He let out a slow exhale, “The Trillodan don’t want us dead, they want us alive to study. It’s the only reason we’re still breathing.” 

He was right; if those two had really wanted us dead, they could have made it happen.  They could have simply blown up the building or pumped it full of bullets before making an entrance.  The gunslinger had a gun capable of ripping through Dragoon’s armor built into the arm of his suit and something told me he wasn’t lacking for a bigger gun.  And the other could have just teleported in and stabbed everyone in the neck before we knew what was happening.  

I remembered Zellig’s love of a good fight and wondered if he’d influenced that in his subordinates as well.  If that was the case, it had kept us alive, but it also meant those two would be back for a second round.     

Dragoon and Menagerie walked over, carrying Lightshow between them.  Mutant’s slug slowly dragged itself along the floor, fortunately looking more like a fully formed creature with Organlle’s tincture going to work.    

They took a seat by us, laying Lightshow down slowly though she was hardly responding.  She was normally pale, but ashen was an unsettling color to see on her. Beside her, Menagerie looked angry while Dragoon looked exhausted and like she was about to snap.  I was glad she wasn’t any more injured, but that someone managed to tear through and crush her armor was distressing. Her chestplate was resetting itself, but it looked like a broken pane of glass with the spider web of cracks running along its surface.  She wouldn’t say anything, but knowing she was still vulnerable even after all the work she did was taking a toll on her morale right now.    

“Murphy, how you doing?” 

“Paralyzed for now,” he said slowly, “And my arms are basically dust.  I need probably two hours before I can move.” 

Dragoon grimaced, not thrilled by his assessment.  The little tick of her hands wasn’t obvious, but I knew the telltale signs that she was coming apart.  “We have to move,” she insisted.  

“We have to go back,” Menagerie said softly, “We’re not fit to fight another round with those two.”  

Our captain furrowed her brow, “Our objective was to find the Lost Children-”

“Alexis,” Murphy said, forcing the words out, “Think for a second.  We were lead here to a kilbox by a local. That has some serious implications, none of them good.”

“At worst the Ellayan population has gone sycophant and we were deliberately led to a trap,” I supplied.

“Alternatively, the Trillodan might just be able to track us.  If that’s the case, we aren’t going to be able to run from them,” Menagerie added.

“Our only play is to go back up.  I’m sorry, but fuck the Lost Children.  Better we survive than lead the Trillodan to their next victims.  We’re no good to anyone if we’re captured or six feet under,” Murphy insisted.  

Dragoon groaned and ran her hands through her hair, “If they can track us, it stands to reason that they can track the Lost Children too.  Can we really live with ourselves if we leave them out here to die?” 

“We don’t know that they  haven’t swept up the Lost Children already,” I pointed out.  “Even if they haven’t we can’t do this again. I’d need to eat, and Menagerie isn’t going to be able to do as much without risking Overexposure.”

She nodded, wearing a grim expression, “Too many creations much too fast.  I am already pushing myself as is.” I noticed she had dismissed most of her monsters except the massive elephant-centaur mix and the eagle with a snake head.

“Plus, even though Mutant is going to recover, he won’t be able to shapeshift and fight anytime soon.  And are you and Parasite really going to be a full capacity even after you’ve managed to mend? Even when your armor fixes, you are going to be slower.  You’re injured and Organelle’s tincture isn’t going to remove the stress and strain of healing a handful of bullet wounds.”

“You slammed one into the floor and Mutant stabbed the other a couple times before he was trampled.  They will have injuries to see to as well.”

“They were also teleporting.  They also used a kinetic blast that felt like he hit me with a train,” Murphy sighed, “We have to assume they have some kind of technological trick for quick recovery.  Even if they don’t, I’m pretty sure there are more than two Trillodan operatives on the planet. If they want to, they can call for backup, but we can’t. The only people close enough to help are Serpentine and we don’t even have a good way to contact them.”  

“Take us back,” Lightshow whimpered, trying to sit up, “Don’t make me die here.”  

No one could argue with that.  

Alexis nodded, procuring the trinket the Relay had given to us and let out a long sigh, “Relay, take us home.”  

We waited.  Ten seconds passed, then twenty, and soon a full minute with no dramatic change in scenery.  She did it again, and a third time, her voice cracking in desperation.  

“Relay, for fucks sake,” she shrieked, “TAKE US HOME!” 

My face fell, so did Menagerie and Murphy’s; we were on our own.  Worse yet, it meant that the Trillodan had likely found the ship that was to be our ticket off this planet within two hours of us arriving.  While we might have ‘won’ the first round against the Trillodan back on Tso’got, we were losing this one. We’d barely arrived and were already cut off and stranded.  

“Dragoon,” Murphy said, firm, his voice cutting through her distress, “What do we do?”

Alexis was looking around, frantic, threatening to have a panic attack.

“DRAGOON!” he snapped, “What do we do?”

“I-I-I don’t-”

“Yes,” he pressed, “Yes you do.  You are Dragoon, leader of the fucking Rogue Sentries, a badass who just walked off getting shot and having her armor hit by the thing that shattered my arms.  Don’t you dare tell us that you can’t do this!”

Beside her, Menagerie put a comforting hand onto our leader’s shoulder, “He’s right, you can do this.  You’re our leader, so tell us what needs done.”  

Alexis glanced to me and I gave her a somber nod.  “We’re your team. We’ve survived tough scrapes thanks to you.  Menagerie is right, tell us what to do.”  

If anyone was going to think around enough corners to get us out of this alive, it was going to be her.  We needed her level headed and playing the macro-game. While Murphy was exquisite in the moment, his ability to think long term wasn’t going to be up to snuff, and I could tell from the look on his face that he knew it.  He was a fighter and a shotcaller, but not a grand tactician. Mutant might have been another option, but he was too prone to go with his gut instinct and his injury would definitely mean he wasn’t at his best. Menagerie was too withdrawn to lead, too pulled into her own imagination and the world that she gazed into that manifested itself on her sketch pad.  I was the only other person without injury, but I was no leader even before I had the voice in my head; I was a fighter and passionate follower. I would obey my captain’s orders, but I lacked the presence of mind to make the actual call.    

Dragoon had caused upheaval with the two organizations that ruled a city and completely overturned Ciel within two months of entering the Adapted scene, something that other groups had died trying to do.  She had taken us through fights with some of the biggest names among Titan’s band of misfits and we were still here, still fighting.  

More than her ability to create machines to solve problems, Alexis Trent was gifted with a kind of sight and problem solving that none of us were graced with.  If anyone was going to be able to see us through this turmoil, it was her.      

A wave of calm washed over her as she steeled her gaze and composed herself.  Where my friend Alexis had been panicking, the cool and commanding Dragoon took over, almost becoming another person altogether.  “First, we honor Lightshow’s request,” she said, “We don’t die here. We refuse to die here. Second,” she added, looking around at all of us, “We kill the pricks that came after us.  If they want to play dirty, so can we. Those fucks took Geyser and we’ve been given a chance to make them pay for it. We’re Reckoners. It’s time someone showed the Trillodan exactly what we’re about.” 

Despite being paralyzed, Murphy couldn’t help his telltale grin from creeping across his face.  “That’s more like it.” 

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