“In all my years knowing him,” Dragoon muttered as she continued to tinker with the hologram projector that had been crushed during the fight, “I’ve never seen him so zen.”
Parasite shot her a glare since he was stuck in a lotus position as his bones were sufficiently reassembled. The tincture from Organelle had sped it up, but there had essentially been nothing left of his forearms after the massive hit he endured. As impressive as his healing factor was, it was still a hell of a beating he went through. Maybe not quite as bad as the near-death experience he’d endured at the hands of Siphon, but still a devastating blow against our unapologetically chipper fighter.
“And in all my time knowing him, I’ve never known Eldritch to be such an exhibitionist,” my friend replied with a sideways glance at me.
I still had my hands tucked around my privates, still very uncomfortable with my nudity in front of five other people. Even though it’d been a few hours since the attack by the Trillodan operatives, we’d refrained from going outside. There was a chance that our Ellayan guide hadn’t been lying and there was a biblical plague ready to sweep back through the city; going outside meant risking exposure and that seemed like an abysmal choice while we were still severely limited in terms of mobility.
The other large reason we hadn’t moved was because Menagerie’s magnum opus could keep us protected. Her hulking half troll, half elephant monstrosity had been given the elegant name ‘Steve’ courtesy of our paralyzed Enhancer. Parasite wasn’t necessarily hyperactive, but he didn’t sit still very well either.; to compensate he had been running his mouth for almost two hours straight, likely talking twice as much as normal to alleviate the void from Lightshow being uncharacteristically quiet.
Menagerie had been playing field medic since she was strangely well versed in first aid, helping rip chunks of metal from Dragoon’s side and shoulder after she made sure to get the bleeding stopped for Lightshow. Even with a double dose of Organelle’s tincture, our illusionist was looking frail and spent, and her usual wit and the absence of her sarcasm was felt more than I might have thought it would be. Even though Parasite tried, it wasn’t the same without her acting as his comedic foil.
Before now though, no one has ever considered how much her and Parasite riffing together had kept the morale of our little group bolstered. Without it, there was an undeniable pressure placed on all of us, a stifling need to win the next bout we had with the Trillodan operatives to make sure we couldn’t lose more of what made our group ours.
The one who seemed most inoculated against this sensation was Mutant.
He’d finally managed to depart his slug form after about an hour and looked decent all things considered. While there was a new scar just below his collarbone, he hardly seemed to notice. Dragoon had told him to get some sleep and restore some of his strength as well as reset his pool of forms to select; since Lightshow and I were going to be incapable of fighting for now, we needed to have those who could fight at their best. Likely a mixture of exhaustion and his own pragmatic nature had let him fall asleep despite the hard floor.
“Menagerie, you really should have made Steve more anatomically correct,” Parasite said, glancing at the behemoth who was standing guard; it actually turned its head for a moment toward our paralyzed jester which only made his grin more pronounced. Of course he would be thrilled that it was responding to the name he gave it.
Our quiet Peculiar glanced at her work and back to my friend, “Really? I didn’t know Steve was up your alley.” The trace of a smug smirk wasn’t missed and I wondered if she was even aware that she was filling in for Lightshow to inject some levity back into the group.
“We’re on an alien planet, it has been a while for me, and when you consider Eldritch has copulated rather frequently with an alien I figured I might need to one up him. Logical progression is maybe I should hit up some monster D. You know, can’t let the nerd of the group be more eccentric and out there than I am.”
“Please don’t rope me into this,” I begged, knowing full well that would only encourage him.
“How much longer do you need, Murphy?” our leader asked, saving me from whatever my sadistic friend had in store. While we had been resting and healing, she had been doing her best to repair the hologram projector since it had been destroyed in the scuffle. More than that though, it was her returning to something she was good at; even with our support there was likely some second guessing going on for her. For her, working with machines and tinkering was going to keep her level headed.
He slowly curled his fingers and let out a groan of relief, “The arms are decent enough now to at least use. My spine should be sorted in another few-“ My friend stopped talking and his face contorted in pain. A loud snap echoed through the room as he pulled his legs to his chest, hissing as he tried to fight through the pain. “Or, right now!” he forced through gritted teeth.
Our captain gave him a look, “How long?”
“Few minutes,” he grunted, “However fucking long it takes the shooting pains stop really.”
Uncomfortable with just listening to him forcibly breathe and struggle through spinal surgery with no anaesthetic, I spoke up. “So, now what?”
Dragoon frowned, taking a seat beside the pile of her dumped armor. “We can’t escape the planet, and we have no communication with anyone for now,” she summarized.
“For now?” Menagerie pried.
“I sent a drone south to see if it could locate any members of Serpentine and deliver a message. If they haven’t been attacked or if they don’t realize they are cut off, maybe they can find us and we can join up. Strength in numbers and what all.”
Lightshow dragged herself up beside me and sat down, still clutching a hand to her stump. “We can’t wait for them here, can we?”
Our captain shook her head, “No. Our best bet is to go try and find the Lost Children. I’m willing to wager they aren’t thrilled that the Trillodan are here and would fight with us out of necessity. If they can help us, we’ll at least have a full roster to brawl with next time those guys show up.”
“I think one of them is down for the count,” Menagerie said with a surprisingly eerie smile, “I believe Steve here managed to seriously damage that animal operative.”
“Don’t be too optimistic,” Parasite cautioned, “Even if he’s damaged, there’s likely more soldiers they can throw at us.”
“Zellig himself can always show up too,” I muttered, admittedly being pessimistic, “I’m willing to bet that he trained these guys personally. They seemed bloodthirsty in the same way he was when I met him. He won’t sit out for long given how eager he was to scrap back on Tso’got.”
“It’s still a big planet, and there’s a lot of Adapted scattered around,” Dragoon countered. “If he shows, I use the railgun and punch a few holes in him. As tough as he might be, I don’t think he’s going to stand up well to that.”
I didn’t argue with her about the efficacy of her railgun. But even though she could probably punch a hole through him, I’d seen him instantly correct a snapped spine and shrug it off. He’d outmuscled me when I was three tonnes in size and endured the beating from Clemency when he was wielding the desperation and terror of an entire panicked city. As dangerous as the operatives had been, he was in another league and he had a weapon that none of us had in our arsenal: experience. Even with Steve kicking around for now, if Zellig came after us, it was only going to end one way.
“Now assuming Murphy can move, where do we go?” I asked, trying to change the subject and stop thinking about the impending storm that was Zellig.
“We move back into the city. We try to find you a new source of food so we can have access to Eldritch when it comes time.”
Her word choice wasn’t lost on me. It wasn’t a case of ‘if’ we’d need Eldritch to fight, it was ‘when’ we’d need him to fight. She wasn’t going to pretend that we could get off Vuuldar without another battle.
Beside me, Murphy managed to finally stretch himself out, wiggling his toes and testing out his regained mobility as the grimace slowly faded from his face. “Well, I guess I can move now but my passenger is fairly tapped out. If we get into a fight, I’m gonna be a bit limited.”
“Controlled Overexposure,” a groggy voice muttered. Mutant didn’t bother getting up but instead dragged himself over to us, still blinking away fatigue. “If we get in a fight, you should force it to fight.”
Menagerie glanced his way with a hint of concern, “That seems… unwise.”
“I’m with her on this,” Dragoon replied. “That seems like a horrible idea if we’re going to be trapped on the surface for any length of time. If we go too far down that rabbit hole, we won’t have enough tinctures to draw people back from the edge.”
To everyone’s surprise, Lightshow was the one who answered, “I agree with Mutant. We need to be willing to push farther. If we try to drag out a fight, we lose.” As if to remind everyone of the cost of losing, she gently massaged where the skin had bound over her stump, her face twitching in frustration.
“We have three people who can Overexpose,” Mutant said slowly, “Myself, Parasite, and Menagerie. Lightshow, you can, but right now you’re having to play support for Menagerie.”
“If you can use your gift at all,” Dragoon added, somber.
Lightshow frowned, her face falling. She had never been in love with her gift, never enjoying having to explicitly play the role of support. While Geyser had been a bit of a support character for our group, he was capable of getting into a scrap and holding his own. Lightshow wasn’t extra durable or able to stand toe to toe with anyone if it came down to it. She was nimble and light on her feet, sure, but nothing she could do would have put a dent in the armor of those Trillodan operatives. Even her ability to project illusions was a great feat considering back on Tso’got all she could do was screw with someone’s vision by plunging them into darkness or blinding them.
If we were fighting with a group of Scoundrels back on Tso’got, she would have been invaluable and all the time she had spent bettering her control of her gift would have been so beneficial. Truth be told, her illusionary gifts would have likely let us take the fight with people like the Surface Dwellers and win. But, Trillodan technology was rendering her inert. All her personal dedication and work was now restricted to helping one of our members.
The fact that she was so injured seemed to be like salt in the wound that was her self-worth right now. It wasn’t hard to tell that she was feeling worthless. She wouldn’t say it, but I could see the despondent look in her eye, the knowledge she was worthless chewing on her. It was something I had felt the entire time we had been on our way to Vuuldar, something agitated by the looks and wary glances that were cast my way.
Even though our reasons were very different, I understood feeling out of place and burdensome.
“We nearly lost two from our initial scrap,” Mutant stressed, gesturing to Lightshow and Parasite. “We’re fortunate that we had those tinctures and that two of us have a natural healing factor. If one of us had Overexposed right at the start, we would likely be dealing with one person completely down for the count as opposed to everyone being somewhat injured and exhausted.” He ran his hands through his hair, the first real sign of stress he’d shown so far, “Dragoon, the reality is that we can’t pull punches.”
She nodded, not liking the option he’d provided to her, but knowing we didn’t have much left at our disposal anyway. “Okay, fine. We’ll do it your way, and you’ll be first since you’ve gotten a little sleep and reset your forms.”
“I still need food, either way,” I muttered. “No offense to you, Mutant, but even if you Overexpose yourself, if I’m not a participant, I don’t like our odds. I’m the only one here who doesn’t fatigue.” I abhorred being arrogant and flaunting my powers peculiar advantages, but the truth was that we needed to use every bit of an advantage that we could snag.
“Well, we won’t find you anything here,” Dragoon replied, putting her armor back on.
Parasite looked warily at the door, “And the plague?”
“We still aren’t sure whether or not the Trillodan have turned people sycophant and if the plague is real or not. What we are sure of is that the Trillodan do know where we are, and that they won’t be happy until we are either dead or captured. For now, we risk the elements and try to avoid the guaranteed problem.”
Mutant let out a huff, “As much as something seemed off about our guide, I don’t think he was lying about the Milignum. I hate to admit it, but I think I’m just paranoid and on edge. This planet feels wrong to me, but it’s more likely that it isn’t what I’m used to. The upside is that Lamesh wasn’t leading us here to die.”
“Good, at least we have that,” Dragoon said slowly, finding it hard to be optimistic that we’d still be contending with a literal plague that could hit the city at some point.
Menagerie pulled out a notebook and pen, setting to drawing while our leader contemplated our options. I was a little surprised to see ‘Steve’ look over her shoulder, as if inspecting what his inevitable replacement might be. I leaned over and Menagerie lowered the notepad so I had an easier time seeing what she was preparing for our inevitable next encounter.
This thing looked like it was going to be a massive dragon covered in quills. I could see her setting it up to have three heads and likely three tails. “And here I thought Steve was a scary customer,” I muttered.
Our Peculiar artist smiled as she kept working. In a strange twist, this was the most energized and alive we had seen from our soft spoken illustrator in weeks; without Geyser she had turned incredibly far inward with no reason to pull herself back out of the depressed spiral. Dragoon had been right when she observed how much the Adapted needed conflict or some kind of goal to work toward. Even though we had our backs against the wall, she was alive and thriving in a fashion. There was something for her to do besides mourn her boyfriend’s capture and create instruments of demise.
“Hospital. We go there. Odds are they would be fortified against any kind of plague that the fucked up insects of Vuuldar would bring around, and we can look for antibiotics to hopefully stave off any kind of infection we might have been exposed to.” Our captain finished putting her armor on and rose, giving Lightshow a hand up and helping support her as she was still a bit shaky for now. Dragoon was nice enough to pass me the restored hologram projector so I could avoid going au natural for now.
That didn’t make it any more comfortable on the walk back the way we came.
My shoes had been destroyed in the explosion of growth that was my Adaptation, and I wished that I’d at least had the good sense to quickly kick off my shoes before telling the Neklim mass to effectively obliterate my outfit. Hindsight being 20-20 only made me feel more like a fool of course.
Our trek was slow going due to Lightshow and Parasite still being a bit shaky and unstable. It did nag at me and cause some concern that we weren’t getting anywhere too quickly; given how intensely people were staying sequestered, it wasn’t a stretch to assume that treatment was either non-existent or not reliable. While we had a few leftover tinctures, we were likely going to need them for another scrap since there was no way we were that lucky. I still harbored a fear that Zellig was bound to make an appearance; he said he had sought me out specifically on Tso’got and I assumed he didn’t take failure well. This time I wouldn’t have Clemency to bail me out.
Back in Ciel all of us were within a handful of kilometers of one another; on Vuuldar we were thousands of kilometers apart. Even though Serpentine was theoretically close, they might as well still be in orbit.
To call our destination a hospital was being a bit generous. Back on Tso’got, the hospitals had managed to set themselves apart by having a modicum of color to at least signify their importance. Instead of just being a grey monolith like every other cement building downtown, hospitals were painted white with red crosses on the side; according to my dad that had been a human color pattern the Zari had simply taken a shine to. It had been quickly co-opted and used to designate all medical care facilities within a decade of humans ‘washing up’ onto their home world. And with the influx of population, the need for medical facility had skyrocketed; hospitals in Ciel and all over Tso’got had been massive structures, capable of housing hundreds or even thousands of patients at a time.
This seemed more like a temporary installation that had ended up becoming permanent on accident. It was four metal sided, rectangular buildings arranged in a square to create a makeshift compound in the middle, as if they were once tents that people had set up. Dragoon suggested that the people who erected the tents likely realized that their services were always going to be needed and created a more permanent institution based around their existing facility. While their more permanent location didn’t scream hospital to us, the red cross painted on the side of the building was evidence enough.
But as we approached, we were given anything but a welcoming greeting; the door opened and a pair of armed guards stared back at us, automatic rifles held at the ready.
“Who the fuck are you?” one barked. It dawned on me that we’d likely met with a lot less scrutiny if Dragoon had kept the hologram projector; approaching with someone clad in power armor was rather threatening. Then again, if she hadn’t passed it to me, I’d be showing up naked which would raise its own concerns.
“We’re from off world, we’re from Tso’got,” Dragoon said slowly.
The guard who had barked the question shook his head, disapproving. “I didn’t ask where you’re from. I asked who you all are.”
Beside him, I realized his second was his twin brother, and that the slightly smaller twin was shaking. While both were tanned, tall, and clad in old military green garb, the older brother held a better musculature and much more poise in the face of adversity. His sibling was barely holding fast, but the point man was steady as a rock.
“My name is Alexis Trent, or Dragoon if you want to use that title instead,” she replied as she removed her helmet. The display of non-violence helped some, but they weren’t letting their guard down. “We aren’t looking for a fight, we’re just looking for a place to wait out the Milignum and get our friend some help.” She gestured to Lightshow who was fading fast. It was a good thing Mutant was holding her up because I seriously doubted she could manage on her own.
A crisp voice cut through from behind the pair of guards, “Adam, Samuel, let these people in!” Both men quickly lowered their guns and stepped aside reverently as a woman in a nun’s habit stepped forward, giving each of them an incredibly disapproving look. “We are to help the sick and injured, not point guns at them. Yes, please come in,” she said to us in a tone somewhere between an invitation and a demand.
“I’ve only heard stories about nuns and seen them portrayed in old shows,” Parasite whispered beside me, “What do you think she will actually be like?”
“I have no idea,” I replied as Dragoon led the way forward, not looking the gift horse in the mouth. Regardless how our host acted, she had at least let us enter without contest; even though Dragoon had talked a big game about taking what we might need, she didn’t want to do that if it could be avoided.
“My name is Mother Audrey, and I am the head of this little station. We’re here as a hospital of sorts, a neutral ground for all the disparate clans surrounding us. We offer safe haven and aid for all who need. Still, it is…unusual to see people like you,” she confessed as she inspected our leader’s power armor with some clear reservation.
As we got inside, she took Lightshow from Mutant and steered her forward, beckoning for another nun to take charge of us. I could see Menagerie debate objecting with her separating us from our Projector, but Dragoon stopped her: Mother Audrey was clearly all business and would diligently see to Lightshow. There was no doubt our teammate would be in good hands.
Our new guide took us to one of the other buildings which weren’t quite connected. There was only about three steps between the end of one building and the corner of another, and all had a door in the center that deposited the occupants into the makeshift courtyard which had laundry lines hung up and what looked like a small pool.
Vuuldarian settlements were nearly all made near the coast to provide easy access to water, and their plumbing was likely fantastic to help accommodate any of the Ellayan people who wanted to reside above ground for an hour or two.
“My name is Sister Sara and I would like to welcome you to our little cooperative, humble as it is,” she introduced sweetly. “I apologize for the behavior of Samuel and Adam, they are wary of strangers. And um-“ she trailed off, a bit embarrassed.
Dragoon laughed, “Yeah I can see how that would be a concern. I would have hidden the armor, but,” she activated one of the controls underneath her arm, disabling my illusion.
“Oh heavens!” she exclaimed, turning aside immediately. “Yes. Well, we can find you some clothes!”
“Thanks,” I said with a glare at Dragoon. “You could have told me you were going to do that!” I was glad that there was a laundry bin nearby; the sister darted over to a shelf and snagged me a pair of white linen pants and a shirt to go with. While I didn’t care to be dressed up like someone in a psychiatric ward, it beat being naked.
Dragoon let out a laugh as I fumbled trying to get dressed as fast as humanly possible, “And spoil the fun?”
“More pressing though,” Mutant said, “Sister Sara, we are looking for antibiotics, bandages, all the medical supplies you can spare us.”
“The Reverend Mother will see to your friend,” she replied as opened a door, revealing a room with a few cots and a small table in the middle, “I’m sorry we don’t have any more room to spare, but there’s always so many people to care for.”
A glance around told me that she wasn’t kidding. Even in the hallway, there was a handful of people in white linens. I glanced into another room that had the door ajar and saw a pair of people on cots, and another propped up in a chair. The only thing they had in common besides the patient garb was that they all were busy keeping to themselves. People on Vuuldar had been pushed to be tribal and to make themselves stand out when they were among disparate people was likely a dangerous habit, even here it seemed. It was amazing how well they simply blended into the background. Despite the animosity hanging in the air, no one dared act on it; if disease was so rampant here, the last thing you wanted to do was get kicked out of the clinic.
“Excellent,” Dragoon replied, “But we were hoping that we could get some for us, for use in the future.”
Sister Sara frowned, “I’m not entirely sure I understand why. Most youth who come in here that are drug seeking are looking for painkillers, not antibiotics. But,” she added, looking at us with a new sense of caution, “Some people are willing to barter outside of here for such medications.”
Our captain exhaled slowly, clearly taking a moment to select the right words, “We need them because we’re about to be in a hell of a fight.”
“We aren’t going to enable violence,” Sister Sara replied, surprisingly harsh given her otherwise polite and gentle demeanor. “There are plenty of people suffering because Vuuldar is a challenge to live on in the first place. We are not going to endorse or provide remedies for your own barbaric actions. You will have to take your brash behavior someone else.”
“That’s just it, we won’t get a choice,” Dragoon replied. “The people coming for us, they won’t relent. We came here to see our friend cared for, and to see if we could make preparations before our backs were against the wall.”
She scoffed, “And who would be stupid enough to chase down a group of Selected?” There was a moment of pause as she clearly contemplated her own question before continuing. “If you are planning to have a fight with other Selected you can-”
“The Trillodan,” Parasite interrupted, closing the door so others wouldn’t overhear. “Sister Sara, don’t scream, but we are on a clock here.”
Our intermediary’s eyes widened to dangerous levels as she took a few steps backwards, pressing herself into the corner before fervently crossing herself and muttering a prayer for protection. “You would bring those monsters here?” she whimpered at length, “Why? What have we done to you? What would possibly make you do that?”
It wasn’t anger or judgment behind her words, it was despair. I knew from her expression that she remembered what Protocol 37 did to earth, and she remembered it vividly. She was one of those who had survived and managed to escape, managed to try and forge a life for herself on a hostile world. She looked maybe late thirties, and if that was the case she would have seen the world go up in smoke as a child. It would have scarred her, been branded into her memory.
The Trillodan were the wrath of the heavens come to life. They were the stuff nightmares are made of. And for Sister Sara, that wasn’t just an expression. For her, they were undoubtedly the thing that haunted her, that caused her to look over her shoulder, that always nagged at the back of her mind, reminding her that there was something to be afraid of.
“You haven’t done anything wrong, Sister,” Menagerie said softly, “It is simply something that is.”
“They’re hunting us,” I added, “Because of what we are. We don’t intend to stay any longer than we have to. The instant we have what we need, we’ll be out of your hair and take the trouble away.”
She slowly shook her head, “They’ll burn the sky, again. And this time there will be no ships to escape in.”
To my right, I saw Dragoon’s eyes widen, an idea taking shape in our engineer’s brain. “Sister,” she said slowly, trying to draw the nun out of her spiral towards dissociation, “What happened to the ships you came in?”
It was enough of a conversational left turn to momentarily abate her collapse. “The life boats are where the settlements started. You-you can find them on the outskirts of cities generally. But,” she added, her stare going well beyond the confines of this room, “they won’t be able to ferry us away from them. Not this time. They are too big to get off the ground.” The nun took an awkward step backward and clasped a hand to her chest, “No, not again, we can’t-”
“Hey,” Dragoon said, reaching a hand forward, “Sister Sara, you’re having a panic attack. Tell me what’s around you.”
“Huh?” she whimpered.
“What’s in this room right now?” she demanded, “Objects, people, anything.”
Her eyes darted around nervously as we took a step backwards, giving the pair of them space. While the others watched Sister Sara list off the linens, cots, and the tacky poster, I was more interested in watching my friend. A week ago I had found her on the floor of the ship, in the thralls of a momentous panic attack herself. Now, she was coaching someone through her own as if it was something she’d been doing for years.
Murphy had been right to push her into taking command again. When Alexis Trent was at her best, she was damnably capable.
As Sister Sara managed to draw away from the precipice of a panic attack, there was still a new look of mistrust in her eye as she looked at us. “Why are the Trillodan coming for you?”
“We’re different, special,” Mutant replied without tact. “We are something they can’t explain. They want to take us apart and see what makes us work.”
“But no one has been able to figure that out.”
“If anyone can though, it’ll be them,” I said. “They have technology that ends planets, it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have something that can work small scale too.”
Parasite stepped forward and put a comforting hand on Sister Sara’s shoulder. “But hey, it’s okay. We’re going to make them pay for what they did. We’re going to take the fight to them.”
She looked at my best friend as if he’d spoken in tongues. “But…how?”
“Probably best if you don’t know,” Dragoon answered before Parasite could add more. “It’s one of those things, Sister, where the less you know, the better. Trust us, please. And, keep this quiet. The last thing we need is a panic brewing among you patients. So far, the Trillodan haven’t made themselves known, and there’s no reason to worry everyone ahead of time.”
I could see our leader’s logic immediately: the last thing we wanted to do was create a frenzy. While eventually the Trillodan would be more public, if we caused chaos ahead of time people would get in our way and try to hand sabotage us to save themselves. The more time we were given to operate with minimal scrutiny, the better. Given how much the people on Vuuldar had suffered, there was no way people didn’t turn sycophant on us when push came to shove; the longer that could be avoided the better.
“Of course,” Sister Sara replied, slowly nodding, as if convincing herself that it was a good idea. “Of course.”
I was almost glad that the stern faced Matron Audrey opened the door. She walked in, glaring at all of us with an expression I was having trouble reading; it was as if she was somewhere between bemused and furious, and I’d never seen someone attempt such a combination.
“You children have some explaining to do.” While her initial welcoming was warm and polite, now there was nothing there but a cold-steel mask of authority and distrust. Even though we were all Adapted, she was the one with all the power. This was her domain, and she knew it.
“Mother Superior,” she corrected. “You are naught but children and you will address me with my proper title, am I understood?”
“Mother Superior,” Dragoon replied, a little bit cowed, “What do you want to know?”
The middle aged nun wrung her calloused hands, letting out a pensive sigh. “First things first, what are a group of Selected-”
“Adapted,” Parasite corrected. “That’s what-”
“Young man,” she snapped, “Mind your tongue. You maybe be special, you may have powers, but you came to me for help. You are in my house only on the virtue of my good graces. You are outsiders and we welcomed you, but do not think for an instant I will not throw you back out on the street. Am I clear?”
I almost laughed with how fast Murphy’s face fell as he frantically nodded, regretting speaking out of turn.
“Your companion just lost her arm, and somehow it was already healing over. That should be a process that takes days, but there are no suture marks. No skin grafts, no nothing. The only way I could tell that the injury was recent was because of the lingering symptoms of shock and the fact that her blood pressure was damnably low.” She walked over and took a place beside Sister Sara, “What violence are you bringing to my door?”
“If we can help it, none.”
“And if you can’t, what then?” she replied, not giving Dragoon an option to weasel out of an explanation.
“They will bring the Trillodan with them, Reverend Mother,” the sister whispered, crossing herself again.
To her credit, the Mother Superior didn’t even blink. “Is this true? Is Sister Sara speaking in hyperbole?”
Our captain nodded, slowly, a bit guilty. “Unfortunately, yes, Mother Superior.”
“Tell me why I don’t ask Adam and Samuel to remove the lot of you forcefully. Selected or not, I’m sure that hot lead still makes an impact.”
“I dare you to try,” Mutant challenged, narrowing his gaze at the authoritarian woman.
Dragoon turned and shook her head, “Don’t-”
“Boy,” the Mother Superior said, speaking over Dragoon, “I lived through the world burning. I have seen hell come to earth, and I endured it. As gifted by God as you may be, I am not afraid of you. I have watched wars eradicate landscapes; I did not blink then, and I will not blink now. I’m sure that nothing short of divine intervention could keep you from cutting me down, and I’m sure you’re eager to rip my head off.” She smiled and stepped forward, putting her hands behind her back as she looked over Dragoon’s shoulder. “But I’m not afraid of you. Unlike you, I had to learn how to see through the guises that people wear and discern what lay beneath. I was given no gift that would ensure my survival, that could protect me in a fight. If you couldn’t see ill-intent at your doorstep, you were a dead woman. And child, I have been alive long enough to be damn good at it. See, I already knew you were an animal, and that she holds the leash,” she concluded, turning her attention back to Dragoon. “Fortunately your handler has a cooler head than you, otherwise all your friends would be in trouble.”
Parasite and I exchanged a look, both unnerved; how the fuck could she be this perceptive? We hadn’t been read like a book since we’d been next to Big Picture, but he had a fucking Adaptation that gave him such insights.
Maybe my mother had been right when she’d told me there was no better teacher than experience.
“Mutant, enough,” our captain snapped as he tried to open his mouth. “And, Mother Superior, he’s right. Three of us really wouldn’t be harmed with a conventional firearm. And, if you were to open fire on us, a massive monster would come crashing through after about two minutes. While my ‘animal’ may be hot headed, I would ask that you not provoke him.”
Menagerie had left Steve about half a kilometer away, hiding in some power substation that seemed like it was woefully behind on maintenance. We’d agreed that he was far too strong an asset to lose. While it would slowly drain our Peculiar, she could keep him animated for another few hours before there were serious side effects.
“That neglects to answer why I don’t attempt to have you removed. If you are bringing world enders to our planet, why should we offer you asylum? Why should we bother helping you at all? Would it not be better to do away with you, to preserve this place so it can continue to help wayward souls for years to come?” Mother Superior Audrey stepped forward, utterly undaunted despite the power armor Dragoon was wearing.
Despite the force of presence this woman commanded, Dragoon held strong and stood her ground, setting her jaw with a determined grimace. “We need your help so we can take the fight to the Trillodan.”
Still no flicker of response from Mother Audrey. “And what makes you capable of doing so? One must assume others have tried in the history of the cosmos; somehow those demons are still zipping around the stars, doing as they please. Do you think your little tin can is going to make a difference?” she demanded, rapping a fist against her armor.
“We aren’t operating alone,” Dragoon replied, keeping her best poker face equipped. “We are working with dozens of others to recruit our fellow Adapted from Vuuldar to add to our march against the Trillodan. We aim to put a stop to the world enders and their tyranny.”
“Oh, so it is simply because there are more of you? It’s a numbers game then? How many souls do you think have raged against those monsters only to be thwarted, beaten down, forced into obscurity or non-existence, hmm?” There was a split second where the Mother Superior showed a modicum of grief for her old life, but it faded fast. “You will not endanger the people here because of a childish and vain notion. I will not allow your ignorance and idealism to jeopardize so many others. I’m sorry, but we must-“
“We can find them,” Menagerie said softly. “Others have failed because they can’t locate the Trillodan. One of us can.”
Mother Audrey turned to Menagerie, her facade showing a crack, this time betraying surprise. “Is that so? And that will make all the difference?”
Menagerie nodded slowly, “You can’t fight someone if you don’t know where they are. And they can’t destroy the planet if we’re on their homeworld. They will have to fight us on a relatively even playing field.”
Unlike the rest of us, Menagerie had been quiet this entire time, and the Mother Superior felt the weight of her words. While our quiet and petite Peculiar seldom had much to say, she rarely spoke without valuable point.
“Please, Mother Superior,” Dragoon implored, “We don’t want to put anyone in harm’s way, but we need all the advantage we can get if we are going to go to war against-“
“Silence,” she snapped. “Do you really think you stand a chance against them?”
“Yes,” Parasite replied, his humor and grin gone. “If anyone has a chance against them, we do.”
Her piercing glare snapped his direction, “And why should you lot be the ones to bring down a world ending regime that has been operating centuries before our modern society existed? How can you children possibly think you stand a chance?”
She is afraid of the consequences, not your campaign. She fears their wrath, she just disguises it as rage.
I blinked a few times, surprised that the voice in my head could or would say something so insightful and strangely helpful. “Mother Superior,” I interjected, “they aren’t coming to torch the planet. There won’t bring Protocol 37 here.”
Her piercing glare nearly drove me back a step; I’d heard the expression glaring daggers, but this was the first woman who could. “And in your infinite wisdom, you know this? You’re sure of this? You’d wager the lives of everyone on this planet on your hunch?”
I swallowed the lump that formed in my throat, mustering up every bit of confidence as she stared me down. “Yes.”
She cocked her head to the side, surprised by my confidence, but the glare didn’t soften. “Explain yourself.”
I was glad Dragoon filled in for me, taking lead as I felt my throat closing under her scrutiny. While the voice steered me in the right direction, I didn’t have a convincing argument in place. “If they wanted us dead, they’d have killed us already. The reason our friend lost an arm is because they aimed to take us alive. If their aim was to ensure we died here, the sky would already be ablaze. The Trillodan answer to no one, so why would they worry about what the residents of Vuuldar think? They don’t obey the same laws that we’re subject; the only thing they serve is their own self-interest. Why bother fighting if you can simply exterminate everything?”
Cold logic was something that she could understand, something that resonated for her. Plenty of people who had survived Earth burning had trouble responding to sentiment or idealism, but unyielding logic was something that held sway. “It doesn’t explain why you think you can win against them. Knowing their location is one thing, but fighting them is another I would reckon. They have the technology to simply be anywhere and to reduce planets to cinders. How does one combat that amount of power?”
Dragoon looked towards me, “You haven’t seen what some of our bigger names can do. The reality is that this guy,” she gestured to me, “is theoretically unstoppable.” She briefly explained what my power can do, which only added to the terror of Sister Sara who was practically hiding in the corner already; I gave her a nervous smile which didn’t help alleviate any of her fear directed at me. Mother Audrey nodded with cold deference, acknowledging and not giving me any indication whether she was impressed, mortified, or bored by Dragoon’s explanation.
If she was impressed or concerned about my volatility, she didn’t show it. I wish we had time for me to ask pointers about how she maintained such a tremendous poker face.
When Dragoon finished explaining about what I could do, and giving a quick overview of what everyone else was capable of, the Mother Superior let out a slow sigh and her expression softened just a tad. “Sister Sara, there is a case of Sulfanitran that I would like you to fetch for these people, as well as a rucksack that can store a few changes of clothes for this young man,” she added, waving a hand at me. “They will need bandages, rubbing alcohol, and as much gauze as we can reasonably part with. Give them something preserved as well; if they are going to be fighting, they can’t be doing it hungry. An army marches on its stomach after all,” she said wisely.
We all blinked a few times in disbelief as Sister Sara nodded and scurried out the door to fulfill the Mother Superior’s request, just as surprised as we were.
“My dear boy,” she said, interrupting Parasite, “I have been alive longer than most of you put together, and I know a sign from the almighty when I see one.” She allowed her grimace to soften some more into something resembling a sad smile, “I apologize for being so harsh, but I had to be sure and test you. I had to be sure that you were the real deal.”
“What would you have done if we weren’t?” Mutant asked, still a bit guarded.
“Sent you on your way with a bag full of placebos,” she replied with a dismissive wave. “I’m not unaccustomed to people strong-arming for resources and influence. We aren’t foolish enough to believe that we could win a fight, but that doesn’t mean we will simply roll over and be exploited.”
“You make sulpha drugs here, don’t you?” Dragoon asked. “It’s why no one would try to ransack this place: they need you to keep making the stuff. On a planet with horrifying disease, antibiotics are worth their weight in gold.” She paused for a moment, looking at the Mother Superior, noticing something I missed. “In fact, you make the drugs yourself, don’t you?”
“I do,” the Mother Superior replied proudly.
“What pharmacologist turns nun?” Parasite asked, bluntly.
“What foolish boy turns superhero?” she shot back, punctuated with a raised eyebrow. “I have always been a devout catholic, and religion does not preclude science. Just because I choose to honor the lord, I should abandon my schooling and knowledge gained there? Back on Earth, I worked with doctors without borders and other kinds of institutions, helping test medication and for a while I was running a lab.” She smiled, much like how my mom used to when she was remembering how things used to be. “I’ve always loved helping people, and there is no shortage of sick and needy on Vuuldar. The planet was harsh, and it demanded I be harsh. Even though much religion has been snuffed out, I would not abandon my faith.”
“You kept it alive by making yourself necessary, and making its presence undeniable,” Menagerie extrapolated. “You made yourself instrumental in the survival of the surrounding tribes by being a safe haven and place of healing. You used your knowledge of medicine to provide a positive outlet to spread your religious influence.”
The corner of the Mother Superior’s lip curled into a sly grin, “For someone so quiet, you’re quick to put things together. You should teach this boy a few lessons in observation skills,” she added, gesturing to Parasite.
I stifled a laugh but Dragoon didn’t manage to.
“Why do you think that we’re of God?” Mutant blurted out.
The question actually was the first thing that seemed to genuinely catch the Mother Superior off guard, though not for long. “My boy, are you familiar with the bible?”
He shook his head, “Religion was largely suppressed on Tso’got, and my parents never practiced anything.”
She pursed her lips, annoyed with his report. “Many people will disagree, and many have different views on the divine. But, in my mind, God is not a force of nature that comes like a storm and wreaks havoc. Nor is he a specific being like you or I either. God is more abstract, more intangible, but always present, lingering in the details. So many people waste their life believing that God will come to them in an earth-shattering vision or some kind of epiphany amidst a dream, they need to have some kind of concrete proof that such a being exists.” She shook her head, “No, that is just not the case save for a few lucky ones. Short of using some psychedelics, you’re not likely to experience that sort of phenomenon.”
“So, what is he?” I asked.
“God is the force of preservation in this universe. He is the voice that whispers in your ear to get back up, to try again, to keep on keeping on. God is the little reminder that things can get better, and that nudge that brings people together. God is the beauty in the details, and the artistry in nature. He is the change we want to make, and the energy to keep going. God is the astral mathematician who set the universe to spin, watching as his creation presses onward. I personally don’t believe the God intervenes much, but I do believe he helps nudge his creation back onto the right track.” She reached forward and put a weathered hand on my shoulder, “I see God in you lot. You have a fight in you that I’ve never seen, and it would be irresponsible for me to not honor his call.”
Mutant blinked a few times, confused. “This seems, absurd.”
The Mother Superior actually let out a laugh… which admittedly caught us all off guard. “It is,” she confessed, “And it isn’t. The Almighty leaves fingerprints everywhere, you just need to know what you’re searching after. This may be a bit of personal bias, but I am glad that he has enabled you young folk to fight back against the Trillodan. Whether or not you are strong enough to succeed, I’m glad that he has given you the tools to try. If I can be of help then, damn it all, I’ll help.”
There was a strange weight to her words, one that none of us could quite wrap our head around. “But-“
“Do I believe that the Trillodan are agents of the devil?” she interrupted, “Maybe. I can’t be sure that they are truly evil, I’ve never had a conversation with them. However, do I believe that a race with so much technological prower is prone to dreams of megalomania and an unhealthy disconnection with other species? Absolutely. Whether or not you want to make this conflict a war between divine entities, there is clear imbalance among the stars. I believe that is something the Almighty would see fit to correct. When you consider how many factors had to line up for you all to be standing here now, it is a bit mind boggling. Somehow you all obtained arcane abilities, somehow you all found each other, somehow someone managed to recruit a small army of you lot, and somehow you all made a ship capable of travelling the cosmos. To think all of that is complete coincidence is a little… absurd, don’t you think?” She turned to face me, “Does that answer your question?”
As I opened my mouth to demand an answer out of her, a new voice cut in, interrupting me and lowering the temperature in the room by ten degrees.
It wasn’t so much noise so much as if a voice was speaking directly to my brain and it wasn’t just me who was hearing it; given the expression of horror we all wore, I wasn’t the only one hearing Zellig speak.
“There are vermin on your planet, denizens of Vuuldar. You call them Selected, and some call themselves Adapted. There has been an influx today, and they are fugitives, nothing more. If you aid in their capture, we will reward you handsomely. This planet has no need to burn, but if there is resistance, we will cull your population like cattle, burning the innocent and guilty together. There is no need for such waste. Stage a bonfire to signal us and we will give you amnesty, we will ensure you survive. All you must do is comply.”
I gulped as I kept reminding myself that he wasn’t behind me, he wasn’t there, he was using some Trillodan tech to broadcast to the whole planet. He couldn’t hurt me, not yet. Still, no matter what I told myself, I could feel him ripping me out of the growths. I could still feel his fingers around my throat.
“Those of you who feel a need to shelter the heretics will be butchered alongside them. Make no mistake, we are not interested in disturbing your planet; we come here with a singular goal and then we shall leave you to live in peace. If there is anyone to blame, turn your anger against the freaks among you. Surrender them to us, save yourself.”
You could have heard a pin drop as we all looked between each other, none of us sure what the hell to say. Even the stoic Mother Audrey was alarmed and caught off guard, unsure how to react.
And then, outside we started hearing the tampling of footsteps as people came to life, spurred on by Zellig’s address to the whole planet, and it dawned on me that we were down a man. The Trillodan had just turned Vuuldar against us, and our most injured member was on her own, now surrounded by a desperate and cornered enemy.
Lightshow wasn’t at risk of the Trillodan killing her, she was at risk of being devoured by the mayhem that Zellig had drown the planet in.