The room was tense to say the least; even though we had been looking for the Lost Children, having them show up abruptly made us cautious.
They hadn’t been exposed to Titan or subjected to his ideology; for all we knew they could be hostile the second we gave them an opening. After all, Adapted weren’t always prone to getting along; we played nice because in large part because no one dared oppose the absurd power that Titan and his two fellow forces of nature wielded.
I was the only person who had stood up to them before that was still alive to talk about it after all, but that was when they found me at the tail end of Feast Day. Never mind that Infinite hadn’t shown her face.
We were also on guard because we were all spent, wounded, unable to fight, and the smile their leader was wearing made me uneasy. It was something reminiscent of the smile Shockwave wore when he was fighting: it was bloodthirsty, the smile of someone itching to kill. Since all we had to go off of was two sentences of reassurance they weren’t here for a fight it wasn’t exactly a calming face to see looking back at us.
Parasite extended the staff and jammed it against the ground to balance as he looked back at the man in front. “Names?”
He put a hand to his chest, “I’m Adamant, the girl here is Distortion, and the smaller guy is Exchange. And you guys?”
“Parasite, the monster man you saw is Eldritch, girl with the tea is Lightshow, the quiet one is Menagerie, Mutant is hidden in a back room to regenerate, and the sedated girl is Dragoon. She normally runs the show, but for now Eldritch and I will manage.”
Adamant’s smile fell a little bit as he looked over at Dragoon, “What happened? All we know is what we heard earlier and that people started turning on us. But those were just regular people, no one capable of fucking up a group of Selected.”
“Trillodan special forces basically,” I replied. “We don’t know how many there are, we just know that they can get around fast, heal quickly, and they are armed to the fucking teeth. Each one of them packs enough firepower to level a building or twelve.”
“Then you guys aren’t dead because?” Distortion chimed in. I knew right out the gate she had a superiority complex. She spoke with an air of arrogance, like a bratty child who was so used to getting her way. She wasn’t ugly, but she wasn’t the prettiest person ever with the pock marks and asymmetrical spattering of freckles on her tanned face. My guess was that her arrogance stemmed from her power.
“They want us alive,” Parasite answered. “We’re better to study if they have a live specimen.”
Exchange seemed mortified, Distortion oddly unconcerned, and Adamant was strangely invigorated. Adapted were conflict driven; what better conflict to partake in than one like this?
“Even if they want us alive, they can’t take us,” Distortion scoffed, “We’re fucking super powered. I don’t care what the Trillodan have going on, they aren’t gonna do shit.”
Adamant cast her a sideways glance, “Don’t get ahead of yourself, Dis, we saw Eldritch earlier and he didn’t look like someone we’d want to tangle with.”
She rolled her eyes, “Speak for yourself, Adamant, I could have taken big boy apart. No problem.”
“What do you guys do anyways?” Exchange asked, fortunately stopping Distortion from making more obnoxious claims. “We saw you be, well, a monster, but we don’t know the rest of you or what you can do.”
“I have an organism under my skin that makes me stronger, heals me, and gives me perfect balance. Mutant is a shapeshifter who can pick five forms out of his arsenal of ten and swap between them at will. Dragoon can set her mind to fix a problem and create machines that are capable of self-repair.” He paused and let the other two speak for themselves.
“I bring my drawings to life,” Menagerie said, keeping it straight to the point.
Lightshow winced, “I’m not quite sure what I do anymore. I think I create copies of things or people that I know.”
Adamant’s smile was replaced with an inquisitive expression, “Anymore? It changed?”
“She’s an Altered,” I replied, “Adapted, or Selected as you call them, put under enough duress can have another break and it changes their power. Lightshow used to manipulate light and create illusions but, like two hours ago, she Altered. We’re still figuring things out.”
I noticed her squirm, shifting uncomfortably and massaging her stump. Even though Mother Audrey had been smart enough to pull her from being isolated, Lightshow had a long way to go before she was anywhere close to normal again.
“The arm,” Adamant asked, “did you just lose it?”
She nodded, looking down at the floor awkwardly. “Yeah.”
He nodded, his bloodthirst gone for a moment. “We’ll make them pay.” There was a small pause and his smile returned as he tapped himself, “I turn on my gift and I can’t be stopped. If I keep moving forward, things either get out of my way or I break through them. Exchange binds himself to stuff and shares impact and his selective weight with them. He tires quickly depending how many binds he makes, but he’s dangerous and hard to keep a hold of. Distortion selectively takes snippets of reality and moves them after a tiny delay. Think basically aggressive teleportation,” he said after a moment of thought.
I regarded her with a little more caution; teleportation was something incredibly powerful no matter how you cut it. The fact that she could retool her gift to do damage made some sense why she had a superiority complex. It made me wonder why she was so respectful to Adamant. If she could simply teleport his head off his body, it seemed like she won most fights nearly instantly. Even if nothing could stop him, I was willing to bet that a supernatural guillotine was a strong contender for shutting him down.
Still, one could never forget the importance of perception and relationship. I followed Dragoon and trusted her intuition even though I was, from a power standpoint, much more of a force to be reckoned with than she would ever be. While she was coming into her own in many ways, I had an incredibly high power ceiling. Especially with the Neklim itself Adapting, I had more questions about what I was truly capable of and where that ceiling was. I had been hoping to get some time to myself to converse with the beast within but the appearance of the Lost Children had stymied that quickly. I wasn’t about to let myself be distracted while around new Adapted who I didn’t trust.
Mother Audrey had been uncharacteristically quiet, but she finally broke her silence. “I would appreciate if you all took your show somewhere else,” she insisted to the trio who had so rudely popped in. “You are looking for a fight, and I’m not about to let you pick one from here.”
Distortion glared at her, “And you’re going to stop us?”
The nun was not intimidated, “I do not fear you, girl. And I wasn’t talking to a petty underling like yourself, I was talking to your superior.”
While I couldn’t help but be concerned for Mother Audrey’s safety, I did appreciate seeing Distortion fume. It was bad enough that Adamant actually put an arm out, stopping her. “Sister-“
“Mother Audrey to you,” she corrected.
“Mother Audrey,” Adamant continued respectuflly, “We’re locals, we know not to fuck with public services. We know you make medicine, and we’d like you to do that for as long as possible. Isn’t that right, Dis?”
The tanned girl eventually shook her head no. “Yes, of course.”
He turned back to the mother, “The second the swarm lets up, we’ll be on our way. You do good work here from what I hear, and who are we to interrupt such a generous mission. We’ll do our best to allow you to remain uninterrupted.”
“By attacking the planet-demolishing aliens? By provoking them through violence? You think they’ll just be happy with that?” The mother superior asked as she continued to work on Dragoon.
For as level-headed as he seemed, Adamant seemed at a loss.
Parasite took the chance to fill the vacuum, “The second the swarm ends, there’s going to be a horde of people outside who want us subdued and gift wrapped for the Trillodan. I’d rather not kill a ton of them if we can avoid it; they’re just people scared out of their wits.”
“They’re siding with the Trillodan instead of standing up for what’s right,” Adamant shot back, “I don’t respect cowardice.”
“And you never saw your world burn,” Mother Audrey replied. “These people have experienced a trauma it is almost impossible to wrap your head around. The benefit of the doubt isn’t such a large ask.”
“All the more reason they should rally against them,” he insisted, “They should remember exactly why they hate the bastards. Anyone who can’t stand up for themselves doesn’t really deserve our help.”
“That’s hardly a reason to kill anyone either,” I countered. “They are making one bad decision; shouldn’t people get a second chance?”
Distortion rolled her eyes, “You were the badass monster we saw a bit ago? Jesus fucking Christ-“
Mother Audrey slammed her hand on a table, “Do not use the Lord’s name in vain in my building. I will only tolerate your insolence so long.”
Distortion clenched her fingers and a second later the table legs simply fell off, reappearing a few paces away. The table clattered to the ground and the few surgical instruments on top of it scattered around. “I could fucking do that to you, you old hag!”
To her credit, Mother Audrey didn’t blink.
Adamant, however, was livid. He turned and backhanded Distortion, nearly knocking her to the ground. “Dis, she’s a fucking doctor! Seriously? Are you out of your fucking mind?” Distortion stood back up, sneering and she clearly debated raising a hand, but Adamant glared her down, raising an eyebrow, “I say the word and Exchange beats you silly. We know you can’t fight him, not indoors. Now, be a good girl, and fucking play nice.”
The whole room went silent, no one daring to breathe as the two Lost Children stared each other down.
“You will not strike her again in my presence, and you will mind your language as long as you are under my roof,” Mother Audrey demanded, regaining control of the room. “Am I clear?”
He turned and reverently nodded, “Yes, ma’am. I apologize for our poor conduct.”
It was now becoming clear to me how their group dynamic worked, and it seemed to almost be a bizarre mix of the old concept of mind: Id, ego, and superego. Distortion was id, driven entirely by her own self-interest and entitlement. Exchange was altruistic and polite, kind even, by far the most affable if not a bit underspoken. Adamant held them together and was the best at navigating social situations. He functioned as limiter for Distortion’s arrogance and haughtiness while being the instigator for Exchange to act. Exchange and Distortion rallied to him because they knew they needed the rounding out even though their relationship wasn’t necessarily the most healthy.
I regarded the teleporter with some caution; she had a short fuse and I didn’t want to incur her wrath. While there were likely limitations on what her ability could do, she was quite sure of her ability to dissect things. Even though I could probably regrow an arm, I didn’t want to find out how much it hurt to lose in the first place.
Parasite took a step forward, “When the swarm stops, we’re not killing anyone. Not if we can avoid it.”
Adamant directed his attention to my friend, “And if I think that’s not our best course of action?”
“I’m not offering a choice. You want to help us out, you’re going to play by our rules.”
Adamant stepped forward, sizing up Parasite, “You’re looking worse for wear, friend. Are you going to enforce that rule of yours?”
Parasite shifted the passenger into his arm, effectively swelling it with muscle, “Even though I’m in shit shape, I’m still able to take care of myself. Besides, Lightshow and Menagerie are the really scary ones. You don’t know what kind of things they could cook up and you definitely don’t want to be on the receiving end. Besides,” he added, “Picking a fight with other Adapted is going to make a lot of noise and pull the Trillodan here. The best thing we can be right now is clandestine. Once Dragoon is as good as she can get and we lose whatever tail we’re going to incur, we avoid conflict. We’re going to want to lay low as long as possible and come up with a plan and rest up.”
The leader of the Lost children weighed his words and eventually shrugged, “Fair enough. We’ll play it your way for now, but if people decide to make trouble for us, we’re not going to hesitate to get messy.”
There was a moment of stillness, only interrupted by the thudding of insects against the side of the building as the swarm continued to plague the city. Parasite and Adamant continued the staring match before both looked away, clearly coming to a silent understanding.
“How did you guys even get here?” Exchange asked, clearly not enjoying the tense stillness.
“A few Adapted made a gigantic ship over like two years; we all took it from Tso’got,” I answered.
He blinked a few times, “You guys just made a spaceship and piloted it all the way to Vuuldar? Shouldn’t that have taken you years to do?”
“One of the people we’re with was teleporting us along the way,” Menagerie supplied. “We call her Infinite because there seems to be basically nothing she can’t do.”
The talk of teleportation caught Distortion’s attention. “Wait, you have a bitch with you who can teleport an entire spaceship? How far?”
“She was jumping like 20 million kilometers at a time or something like that,” I replied.
Even Distortion was visibly impressed by hearing about Infinite’s feats. “If she is so powerful, why can’t she just kill all the Trillodan on the planet?” Adamant asked.
Lightshow frowned, “The more powerful she gets, the more unstable and dangerous she gets. Odds are she doesn’t want to accidentally muder everyone instead of just the Trillodan. She’s not a surgical instrument, she’s more like a bomb.”
“Is she running the show?” Adamant asked.
I shook my head, “No. Titan is.”
Exchange’s eyes widened, “I’ve heard of him! Yeah, he’s the molten metal guy, right?”
“Yeah. How did you know that?” I asked, surprised he knew anything about Adapted from another planet.
“I read a report about humans on other planets and he was referred to as some kind of government scourge. Apparently he burned down prisons and laboratories and stuff like that.” Exchange paused, putting on a slightly worried expression, “You guys aren’t all like dangerous convicts or anything, are you?”
“Us personally? No,” Parasite informed. “And neither is he, not really. The places he burned down were basically torture chambers and illegal holding facilities where people kept Adapted shackled, sedated, and routinely tortured. Titan’s big thing was freeing people so that they could make their own choices.”
“I hate to but in,” Mother Audrey said loudly as she threw another chunk of bullet from Dragoon into a bowl, “But I am afraid we are going to quickly run out of time to be together.”
I hadn’t noticed, but there was no longer any noise in the background. The swarm was no longer outside and NaMein was no longer under blight.
Now instead of a swarm of insects, we had a swarm of Sycophants on the way.
My attention went to Dragoon still on the table, still sedated. “Mother Audrey, can we move her?”
The nun frowned, “I need to cast her arm before you take off otherwise it’s inevitably going to break, and it won’t be clean.”
“That’s going to cost time,” Adamant noted, “If we stay too long, you’ll be guilty by association. Caregiver or not, Mother Audrey, you’re going to have hell to pay for helping us. And not just you but everyone else here is going to face accusations for sheltering them.”
Sister Sara paled beside Lightshow, not wanting to speak out of turn, but Adamant’s words were clearly directed to her. Despite her indecision, she stayed quiet, looking to the mother superior and deferring to her judgment.
“Sister Sara,” the mother said, “Take off your habit. Run. I will not have you being swept up in this mess. If I live and this place resumes operational, God will hardly mind you taking off your vestments for a moment and neither will I.”
Even Distortion realized the weight of what Mother Audrey had just proposed.
“Whoa,” Parasite said, “Let’s not be too-“
“Young man,” she insisted, “One day you will learn to be quiet and respect your betters. When I told you I saw God in you, I was not about to ignore that sign. Now, as both a healer and a believer, I am honor and duty bound to fix your friend as best I am able. If the last thing I do in this life is seeing you leave in the best shape I can, then I will die with a smile.”
I managed to pry my lips apart to comment, “You don’t have to-“
She sighed and cut me off, “Eldritch, sweet boy, no one is making me stay. I am choosing to do this.” She was working furiously, mixing grey plaster in a bowl. “I only have one request for the lot of you.” She paused for a moment and looked up at all of us, “Beat them. The Trillodan have made far too many people too scared for too long. So, crush them. It may be a sin for me to wish for it, but I want you to make the bastards who burned my world pay for what they’ve done.”
Parasite put on his trademark grin for the first time since we’d shown up at the clinic, “We’ll do what we can.”
She let out a contented sigh and wrung her hands as she looked down at the unconscious form of my friend, “Well, I guess there is just one more thing for me to do.”
“I hate to interrupt,” Exchange said, “But um, we have company coming.”
Parasite glanced over his shoulder at me and I shook my head; while I would be a huge deterrent and threat if I was massive and monstrous, I had no mass to burn. I’d consumed all the corpses that Mutant had made earlier, and even then it had only just been enough to get Murphy and me back from the clutches of Kalr and Tol.
We needed some other way to stall the incoming mob.
A faint ripping of paper got my attention as Menagerie sat down. The pieces of art dissolved and a pair of things that looked like snakes made out of obsidian slithered towards the chunk of wall Lightshow continued to maintain. Our Altered grunted and let the rocky reptiles could slither through as though the wall was no more than an illusion.
Another facet of her reconstructed power: she could selectively change the solidity of her constructs now. While I wasn’t happy about what had happened to her, seeing the changes to her gift was interesting.
Outside there was a cacophony of screams and obscenities let out; it seemed four meter snakes made of stone made people question whether or not we were really worth attacking.
“Where’s Mutant?” Parasite asked. “We need him awake.”
“He’s in the back,” Mother Audrey said as she kept working. “You have about five minutes to get him awake and get out of here.”
“I’ll get him,” I told Parasite. As my legs hit the ground, I nearly buckled; the bullet Tol had shot through my thigh hadn’t entirely healed and it felt like my thigh simply refused to engage. It was a struggle to get myself moving, but I eventually found a stride and dragged myself back and opened the door, spotting the grey slug that was our shapeshifter. I reached forward and pressed a hand against him, noticing a little bit of movement in response.
“Time to go.”
It seemed to take a moment to register, but the grey flesh donned a pink and then white color as arms grew out of the lump and legs took form as well. The slime on his form seemed to wick away magically as he stood up and bumbled forward, clad only in a pair of boxers. Even though he’d had time to heal, Mutant was still battered. He had plenty of cuts and bruises and one massive bruise on his side stood out since it was essentially just a black patch of flesh that covered his entire right rib cage.
“You okay?” I asked, horrified.
He grunted and grabbed a shirt, hastily throwing it over his head. “I’m alive. I’ll heal. That’s what matters, right?” Mutant saw my eyes transfixed on that one spot as if I could see it through the fabric. “Where Kalr kicked me, still quite broken. I didn’t manage to swap to my beetle fast enough. It’s not important,” he insisted, annoyed. He glanced at me, “Did you get him back?”
I nodded, “Yeah.”
“Good,” he said, curt. “I was worried that neither of you were going to make it back. I’d miss you two.”
“That might be the nicest thing you’ve ever told me,” I said, caught a little off guard.
“Grab the bag,” he said, reverting to be all business as he threw on pants. “That’s all the medicine and stuff that Mother Audrey is giving us.”
I strained with effort and sank to a knee as I tried to lift the duffel bag; my leg simply couldn’t stand the strain and the rest of me felt so pitifully weak after having just had bullets removed less than an hour ago.
Mutant looked me up and down, concerned. “You’re always healed when you come out of the thing.”
“It couldn’t mend me properly this time,” I replied softly, “There wasn’t enough time.”
The shapeshifter frowned, “How bad?”
“I got shot five times. The Neklim was nice enough to fix my spine so I wasn’t paralyzed once it finally turned to dust.”
Mutant bit his lip and nodded, grabbing the bag and offering me a hand up, “We’re going to have need of that big beastie of yours again. It can finish fixing you then.”
As nice as it was to have a little bit of a moment with Mutant, we were on a serious time limit. “Lost Children found us, don’t do anything to them. One of them is a bit nasty, but she’s a teleporter and we need her to like us.”
He nodded as we stepped out.
The clamor of the incoming mob was getting louder, but a glance through a window showed that the snakes Menagerie had made were doing a good job maintaining a perimeter at least for now. I gave another glance at Mother Audrey and felt my heart sink, “Are you sure you don’t want us to bring you with?”
She shook her head as she continued to form a cast, “No, Eldritch, I don’t believe this is my fight to partake in. I’m a medical practitioner, and enough people are liable to have the good sense to let me live so I can keep them well when shit hits the fan. If you take me with you, that means I’m around when the Trillodan hunt you down again and I’d just as soon avoid that.” She let out a weak laugh, “No, no, after seeing what you all do, I’d rather be as far away from that as possible, thank you very much.”
I couldn’t help but worry that she was projecting optimism for our benefit; I was pretty sure that she knew she wasn’t going to walk away from this. For her, fixing Dragoon’s arm so she could fight later was more valuable than her own life. She had only met us a handful of hours ago and she was willing to sacrifice herself for our cause. None of us were charismatic juggernauts like Titan, none of us had the chops to convince her that we were a group worth supporting.
Hell, I don’t think Titan could have convinced Mother Audrey of anything; she did what she believed in and that was that. What hurt was knowing she was another good person who was likely to be caught up in the avalanche that was our crusade against the Trillodan. Someone so good and altruistic was going to be collateral because of the ambition of a few kids.
Mengaerie let out a huff, her façade of strength starting to waver. She had kept Steve alive for hours before this and animated half a notebook in our first fight against Tol and the animalistic operative. That dragon she had pitted against Kalr was massive as well and capable of withstanding huge amounts of damage. Menagerie hadn’t told anyone that she was spent and that her projections were about to fail because she was going to black out.
“Adamant, who is best at crowd control?” Parasite asked, noticing the same thing I did. “Her snakes are about to disappear.”
The head of the Lost Children looked over at the skinny blonde kid and beckoned towards the door, “Exchange, put on a bit of a show. Don’t kill anyone. Just some clean fun.” He turned to Lightshow, “Pull down the wall for him. It’ll add some gravitas to his entrance.”
While I wasn’t a fan of him making demands, I have to admit I liked his flair for the dramatic. As he stepped out, I saw him touch the wall and what looked like a golden thread trailed from his fingers for a moment. He kept walking forward as the snakes faded into smoke.
Right before he was swarmed by a few dozen members of the mob, he reached inside his waistline and touched something, leaving behind another trail of golden threads.
“What the hell-“
Exchange moved fast enough that my words caught in my throat. He bounced around like he was as light as a feather, shoving people into one another and knocking them on their ass; he was a blur among the mass, fast enough that no one could lay a hand on him. Panicked shouts and cries of alarm rang out as people stopped moving forward, scattering away from the human whirlwind that had appeared in their midst.
“What the hell is he doing?” Parasite asked, finishing my earlier question.
“Exchange binds himself to a couple objects within a hundred meters<” Adamant explained. “He can selectively choose the weights of the item to replace his own. So, right before he shoves people, he makes himself as heavy as that wall. When he’s running around, he makes himself as light as the piece of paper he keeps tucked in his trousers. The extra nifty thing he can do,” Adamant said with a bloodthirsty smile, “Is that he can redirect damage. If someone lands a hit on him, they’ll be effectively punching that wall instead of a fifteen year old kid.”
“What breaks the tethers?” Mutant asked, studying Exchange as he darted among the scattered group of people, shoulder checking and pushing people around to maintain the chaos.
“Fatigue usually. The only way that they can properly ‘snap’ though is if he takes enough damage that the item is malformed. So, if something hit him hard enough that the wall was bent out of shape, that could snap the bond. Exchange’s ability to defer harm isn’t perfect either; we’re guessing it is about 90% of the energy transferred over, but enough that he usually doesn’t care. So, you could theoretically hit him hard enough that he goes down too I suppose.”
I was glad that the Lost Children were working with us instead of against us; all three of these sounded incredibly difficult to fight against. Even if we weren’t fatigued and battered, I didn’t know that we could necessarily fight them while on even footing.
“And we’re done,” Mother Audrey said, gingerly setting Dragoon’s arm down. “Make her leave the damn thing on for at least a day otherwise she will break the stupid bone.”
Adamant shouted something and Exchange bounded back to us, a few little scratches on his face being the only injuries he sustained while running interference.
Parasite and I turned to Mother Audrey, neither one of us knowing how to say goodbye appropriately.
“Thank you,” Lightshow said for us, “For helping us.”
She gave a warm smile, the very corner betraying a little bit of the fear that she harbored, “Of course. Now, time’s up. Off you go.”
“Dis, home,” Adamant commanded, “And no one move, not if you want all the pieces of you to come with. Make sure you get all her armor,” he added to the teleporter.
She rolled her eyes, “As if I’d forget.”
There was a shimmer in the air, and a second later, there was an instant of horrifying and inky blackness. For a blink, for a single heartbeat, I was nowhere. There was no one around me, no extra noises, no extra sensations, nothing. It was the closest thing to non-existence I could fathom.
And, fortunately, it ended as quickly as it started.
We found ourselves in a flat that was furnished with cushions and bean bag chairs, as if it had been someone’s college dorm once upon a time. There was a small refrigerator in the corner, and from the looks of it, a bedroom adjoining this living space. It was spacious enough and with little enough clutter that the room still felt open despite there being nine people crammed inside.
“What…was that?” Menagerie panted, looking rattled. She must have been witness to the same horrifying void. “Where the fuck did we go?”
Distortion laughed maniacally, “Nowhere. Literally. For a fraction of a second, the stuff I move around doesn’t exist anywhere. Don’t worry, after the third of fourth time you get pretty used to it.”
“It’s true,” Exchange affirmed with a weirdly cheery grin. “Initially it gave me a panic attack. I’m okay with it now.”
Menagerie didn’t look reassured at all. “Please tell me that we’re not doing it anytime soon,” she pleaded.
“We won’t,” Adamant assured. “Distortion just moved us about four kilometers and she doesn’t normally do nine people with baggage; if she tried to do that again she’d turn us into mincemeat and put herself in a coma. For now, you’re safe.”
Taking a look at Distortion, I could tell he wasn’t joking. For all her tough act, she was drained of color and taking shallow breaths. The only other person I had met who had any kind of teleportation, discounting Infinite, was Relay. He had been able to move tons of people with ease, but it was only to set locations, and his gift seemed to have no real offensive capacity and instead strictly utilitarian.
It seemed the flexibility of Distortion’s gift made it much more taxing.
“What is this place?” Parasite asked.
“Our hideout,” Adamant said proudly. “We pooled our resources and bought the place outright. We made a point to keep it so no one could ever follow us here.”
“We only enter with Distortion teleporting us here,” Exchange explained, “We never use the door. There are some people in NaMein who have started looking at Selected, er Adapted as you call them, and are looking to study us.”
Parasite and I frowned; we’d been in a Snatcher laboratory before and knew exactly how hellish those places were. If people were just starting to follow the trend, hopefully they weren’t organized into a dangerous network of desperate scientists.
A groan came from Dragoon who had been placed on the floor. The Cognate groaned as she tried to sit up and found herself unable. Her right eye was still black from Tol hitting her hard enough to break her helmet, and her whole torso was wrapped in bandages thanks to her being riddled with small bore bullets earlier. “Where-“
“Safe,” I answered. “The Lost Children found us.”
Another unintelligible groan as she tried blinking, “Murphy?”
“I’m here,” he replied, slumping to a knee beside her, “I’m okay. Nick got me back.”
Her eyelids parted for a moment, as if to confirm he wasn’t an imposter before she lapsed unconscious again.
“Not to spoil the moment,” Adamant said slowly, “But we are going to have to figure out what we want to do moving forward. Considering what we’re up against, we are going to be found out eventually. Either someone is going to use the chaos as an excuse to raid our home or the Trillodan use some fancy technology to locate us.” He turned to myself and Parasite, “How many of you are on Vuuldar, and what exactly was your plan?”
I felt Menagerie and Mutant bristle, reticent to trust someone they didn’t know yet, but Parasite and I knew that we needed the manpower and that there would have to be risk required. Should the Trillodan fight us again, we were dead. We were all tapped for resources and beaten to the point of infirmity. We needed reinforcements, and Adamant wanted the information.
He’d held up his end of the deal and avoided killing anyone. He’d helped get us to safety. Whether we wanted to play ball or not, Adamant was as good as his word. He was involved now and needed to know what we did. He’d definitely earned this.
Parasite and I explained what had happened towards the end on Tso’got and the hellish night that had eaten Ciel before we left with Titan and all the Adapted he’d amassed. We divulged Titan’s plan to try and make a small army of Adapted to march against the Trillodan home world since Almanac could locate it, no matter where it was. We told them about his overpowering right-hands who were likely more powerful than he was in the grand scheme of things. We talked about how we got here and were blindsided by the Trillodan and ambushed. When we had tried to return to the ship, Relay was non-responsive and for all we knew, it wasn’t in the sky anymore.
We were stranded and our closest group of allies was a murderous group of Adapted in the south end of the city. Joining forces with Serpentine wasn’t exactly high on our list of wants, but Parasite and I agreed that survival was definitely on the top of the list of priorities. If there was anyone capable of surviving, it was Zeal and his band of bastards. He was one of the oldest Adapted at 25 and had been in more fights than Beleth and Shockwave with arguably more dangerous opponents. He was the cream of the crop if you excluded the prime trio. Our shared anxiety was whether or not he’d help us since we had injured and may well slow him down in whatever venture he had.
Parasite and I were being more optimistic and assuming that Titan, Infinite, and Forest were all somewhere on the planet, looking to engineer a way for us to leave. Still, Zeal might not share that opinion and assume that we were stranded; if that was the case he was likely to dig in and go down swinging. None of us were sure if he’d be happy bringing along wounded people into his fold, especially without Titan helping to keep the peace between factions.
I didn’t mention it aloud, but when we discussed the possibility of getting back off Vuuldar, I remembered that Dragoon had taken an interest in the old evacuation ships that Sister Sara had mentioned but I couldn’t figure out why. My parents told me about them and how they were massive, made to withstand a crash landing but not to ever escape orbit again. They were designed to relocate a mass number of people a single time. Several Awakened planets built them as a means to avoid extinction in the case of Protocol 37, but it was a one-way ticket off world.
It would be so much larger than the ship that Multi-task had made that I wasn’t sure if Infinite would be able to get it off the ground. Even if she did, would it have functional life-support or engines?
I wished our leader wasn’t so injured and doped up. Parasite and I weren’t good at planning the long term, and I was remiss to give reigns over to Adamant. While he knew the area infinitely better than we did and he’d bought some good will from us for sheltering us, I was still wary. It might just be from a history of fighting other Adapted, but I couldn’t bring myself to let my guard down around him.
Adamant was polite, listening intently as we talked. Around the room, other people began winding down and finally relaxing after the last few hellish hours. Mutant shifted back into a slug and pressed himself into a corner, Menagerie laid on a beanbag and promptly passed out. Lightshow took the corner opposite Mutant and pressed her back against it, massaging her stump while her eyes constantly flicked around the room. I knew that no matter what I told her, she was going to be looking for a threat. Adapted seemed incredibly resilient to the stresses of fighting and injury but I knew Lightshow was going to need time, help, and patience to get over what had happened to her.
Distortion found the conversation boring after a while and retired to a bedroom but Exchange hung around, sitting politely and listening in.
“So, Adamant,” Parasite said, “What do you think?”
His eyes flicked towards Dragoon, “I think this would be easier if she was awake. No offense to you, but you’re fighters and not planners. She’s going to have the answers we need. I might be good with people and getting my way, but Trillodan aren’t people who barter, and people turned Sycophant aren’t either.” He wrung his hands, “I hate to say it, but I think we need to up our game a little and scare people away the next time we’re confronted with insurgency. Word of mouth spreads, and if we can scare a lot of people into being docile, I think we’ll have a better time while we’re in NaMein.”
I frowned, “Are we not going to try and avoid people?”
He shook his head, “Best bet is that we move down south and try to meet up with Serpentine. If this ‘Zeal’ character is as hardcore as you suggest, we want him nearby. Even if he’s a killer, he’s got bigger fish to fry than us. You may not like it, but you may have to be okay with him killing a handful of people in order to keep him happy for now. Mother Audrey understood that sometimes sacrifice is essential.”
My stomach turned at her being compared to a mass murderer, “Not the same kind of sacrifice,” I growled.
He raised his hands defensively, “If you want to live, you have to be around the biggest baddie you’ve got to offer.” he turned and looked at Exchange, “The reality is we need to come with you. We’re powerful, but we’re bad at being responsive as a group. We set traps well, rig fights to be almost unwinnable for another party. That’s where we’re strongest. You guys are more malleable and still had trouble dealing with these Trillodan operatives; I worry if we get caught off guard, we’re paying the high price.”
I was going to say something, but all four of us drew back from Dragoon as she sat up violently, eyes snapping open as she started panting, shaking as if someone had electrified her whole system.
Before anyone could ask, she grabbed my leg, “Nick. They want to talk to us. We need to get out of here. W-w-we need to get off Vuuldar! We have-”
“Calm down,” Parasite insisted, taking a knee beside her, “What the fuck are you talking about? Who the hell is ‘they’ anyways? Do you mean the prime trio?”
She shook her head, “Not them, not Titan. Whoever ‘they’ are, they’re the ones responsible for us.” She looked around at the sleeping figures before turning back to us, “Whoever reached out to me, whoever sent me a message in a dream, they made the Adapted.”