Interlude: Unrest

(Titan – 12/15/80)

It was causing visible concern for others that my façade was slipping despite my best efforts to ignore the unrest and stress.  I noticed the little uneasy glances when people thought I wasn’t looking.  

Everyone got antsy when the leader was nervous.  

It was a welcome distraction when one of Multi-tasks duplicates marched up towards me and Infinite to deliver a report on her progress with the ship.  She and Mizu had been doing a fantastic job clearing through and cutting away inessential chunks of the vessel in an attempt to make us a functional ship even though they’d only had a few hours to work.    

I’d been surprised how well Multi-task had done with the hydrokinetic from Imperium; the two of them had made a very close team who worked in fantastic harmony.  That being said, Shockwave’s gang of Scoundrels had softened a bit when they weren’t actively fighting for control of Ciel; it seemed that being wrapped up into my big family had done some good for them as far as wearing down those rough edges.  Shockwave himself had been surprisingly mellow and amicable since I had demanded an end to his and Beleth’s blood feud. Sure, there was still that hunger for battle that stayed under the gangsters skin, but that was in all of us.  

It was the only real constant between Adapted: we all felt a need to fight and prove ourselves.

   The more time I spent around other powered people, the more I realized that there had to be something driving that desire.  Whatever made us Adapt clearly affected our neurology and psychology in a uniform way. Most of us had been in at least one near-death experience but we seldom had any serious consequences of PTSD.  The exceptions were Altered, but they had been through more than the rest of us; even so, the Altered were still largely functional while most who survived such an ordeal would have been committed to a rehab facility for years, not sent to a battlefield.  

“How are you doing?” I asked as Multi-task got within ear shot.  

She turned, looking at the behemoth space shuttle she and her other forty copies were working on, “Well, it’s going.  I’m going to see if Mizu and I can shave off another cryo wing before the sun sets, but my clones are starting to run out of time.  And pretty soon we’re going to need more technical expertise than I have to offer. The ship I made was lucky to work, and I was starting with fresh pieces.  Without Repository here,” she shook her head, “I just can’t vouch for the state of a lot of the material.” She glanced at the redhead behind me and then back to me, “You’re sure we can’t send Infinite to go pick up Dragoon?” 

I shook my head, “Too risky.  Too many power sets for her recently and it’s taken a toll.  That and Powerhouse’s donating her long range teleportation made for some… questionable interactions.”  

Multi-task frowned but nodded, “Okay.  Well, I’ll do what I can for now.”  

“Good.  Let me know if you need anything.”  

As she left, I let out another sigh and took a set on a rock that Forest had grown a canopy to cover.  “You know people can tell, right?” 

“I know,” I muttered as a girl clad in white materialized next to me, “They aren’t stupid and have to know that things have gone horribly wrong.  I think pretending that I’m hyper confident would be a worse crime than accepting we’re playing from the back foot now.” 

Forest sighed, “I hope you’re right.  Do you want me to listen in and see if people are hoping for anything different out of you?” 

I shook my head, “No, no spying for now.  I need you to move yourself somewhere else and be my eyes in the city.  I need to know what the Trillodan are doing and what kind of activity might be heading our way.  Besides, there are supposed to be another Adapted or two in Lek’iel,” I said, making a sweeping gesture to the city that sprawled out down the hill from the ship.  “How much of it can you scout through at one time?” 

“About half if I spread myself thin.  Give me a day and I can take a thorough look through the whole place for anyone who stands out.”  

“Do it,” I encouraged, “We have more than enough eyes up here.”  

Forest glanced over at the redhead and back to me, “Everything okay with her?” 

“I’m fine,” Infinite replied meekly, speaking up for the first time in a while.  “I’m just… Powerhouse didn’t agree with me.”  

As powerful as Infinite was, the nature of her gift made her tricky to fully utilize.  Her Alteration was difficult to truly unleash because she was too dangerous to cut loose, and her power didn’t play well with others.  Some Adapted had a gift that would empower others; her Alteration made her try to reject them. Even though Powerhouse could imbue her with essentially any extra ability, it was like pouring fire into her body.  

Infinite wouldn’t say it aloud, but she was still in tremendous pain from utilizing Powerhouse’s gift earlier.  While it allowed her to transition her power from illusions to teleportation without delay, it wasn’t without cost.  Generally she needed time between choosing power sets to avoid putting undue stress on her already fragile emotional state.  For now, it was going to be best and safest for all parties to keep her close and monitored to see if she started to destabilize.  

It felt a bit peculiar to be monitoring her…since we were in a relationship.

Well, as much as we could afford to be in a relationship.  I probably spent more time ensuring she wouldn’t flatten a city than I did being romantic.  Still, we spent long hours together and that I made a point to be vulnerable and open with her; Infinite had latched onto me and I had to be sure to not push her away.  When I met her, she was alone, isolated, and nearly divorced from reality. She viewed me as an anchor to her sanity which had been a bit of a recipe for codependency.

  Truth be told, I liked her a great deal, but Infinite was a handful at times.  I wasn’t about to tell her that; I’d seen her literally change landscapes. What would she do is she was worried I was threatening to dump her?   

“Don’t push yourself,” I encouraged, “You swapped power sets three times in less than twenty-four hours.  That’s rough on you.”  

She pouted, kicking at the loose rocks around us before flopping down on the grass.  “I don’t like feeling useless. I can still fight, Titan. And I heard Multi-task; we need to go get the Sentries.  Dragoon is the best mechanical mind we have.” 

I shook my head, “The last thing we need you doing is overloading and accidentally asphyxiating a bunch of people.  Especially with Command healing, we need you to rest and get a proper reset. It’s a miracle you didn’t accidentally start killing the others onboard,” I said, being honest to the point of abrasive.  

“Titan-“

“Charlotte,” I said, using her real name, “Please, trust me on this.  We have to put some faith in the others and that they can handle themselves.  Dragoon and her team are no pushovers. They can take care of themselves, and Interface has gone out to help them.  I feel bad for anyone who has to try and fight against them.” 

She bit her lip, annoyed.  Like the rest of us, Infinite desperately wanted to help and be useful; it was especially pointed since she had accidentally lashed out at Dragoon while we were in transit and nearly killed her.  One thing I kept hidden was that Infinite, for all her power, was fragile. Emotional distress could invoke a small psychotic break that ushered in that asphyxiating power on top of whatever else she had manifested.  

No one besides Forest and myself even knew where it came from and we had every intent to keep it that way.   No one else knew that when Infinite had Altered, that was the first power she used to kill the men who had held her captive for weeks on end. When she Altered and was blinded by pain and rage, everyone within a city block died; that section of Leisel was still under quarantine due to the assumption that there must have been some kind of biological agent released.  She had killed a hundred and thirty-four people in about fifteen seconds and the majority of them were collateral damage. The fact that kind of power lingered in her, waiting to be accidentally released, was horrifying. Command had helped drastically in keeping her in control, but I still feared for the day she lost control and we all had to flee because she turned the air around her to death.  

“I’m still worried that we should just rush it and make sure nothing can happen to them.”  

I groaned, “If there’s someone who does best navigating dicey scenarios, it’s Interface.  That bastard has a knack for getting into trouble and slipping out.” The technological Projector who could jam their conscience into machines and bend them to their will; it seemed like an underwhelming power but Interface found a way to be incredibly resourceful.  With a little nudge from Powerhouse to help track them down, we had used the last dose of Infinite’s teleportation gift from Powerhouse to send them off to find the Rogue Sentries.  

That being said, I wasn’t worried.  People would continue to underestimate Interface, but they had a rather unforeseen gift thanks to the Trillodan: those idiots had brought fancy gadgets.  Interface could simply make them all fail or backfire. I was sure I would hear a giddy retelling about how Interface had seized control of a Trillodan dropship and started firing into a crowd. 

Forest stepped over beside me, “Titan, it’d do well if people saw you relax a little.  You look like you’re ready to melt someone. If you’re on edge, it puts everyone on edge.  People might be afraid of Infinite and me, but they know we answer to you.” 

“Heavy is the head that wears the crown.”  I muttered, dialing back my grimace. “Okay, fair enough.  Here is Titan, relaxing,” I stated as I sat down on the damp grass.

“And maybe,” a new voice suggested, “Let’s run into town for some food.” 

Shockwave gave me a nod as he approached, hands wedged into his coat pockets.  He had brought out his old getup with his crimson suit, though he only seemed half dressed without the golden mask he had worn.   “Come on Titan, people are hungry, and we’re tired of eating protein paste. Some real fucking food, some real drinks, it’ll help a lot of people take the edge off.  If we’re going to be here a while, we need to eat anyways. Repository is with Blast and Ifrit anyways. An army marches on its stomach, right?” 

I had been reluctant to let anyone out of my sight, but there was someone whose vision stretched a lot farther, “Forest, you have enough city covered to find a decent place to eat?” 

Her eyes flitted around, looking at things we couldn’t before nodding, “Yeah, few restaurants down here.  We don’t have money though, and us raiding a place will attract attention from all sorts of people.”  

A part of me wanted to wait until it was dark, but we likely had another few hours of light since days on this planet were damnably long.  “Shockwave, if you can take a few people and look ordinary enough to not attract attention. Relay can pull you back, so take stuff from a store or something but not a restaurant.  We have to make the food ourselves.”

He nodded, “Fine.  With the Trillodan showing up, people are likely to do a little light looting anyway.”

Forest shook her head, “Nope.  People are too scared so they’re staying rigidly within the lines.  It doesn’t help that the Trillodan are arming them. People are more and more apprehensive of one another, and starting to look a little trigger happy in my opinion.”  

Shockwave shrugged, “They have big scary guns, but scared people are going to be happy pretending they can’t see us. If they don’t have to pick a fight, they won’t.” 

I wanted to agree with his optimistic outlook but I couldn’t allow myself that. “Take a couple people and a totem to get back here. Don’t take too long though; being back before dark would be best.” 

He nodded and scratched at his arm a bit, “Forest, I don’t suppose you can see if anyone is selling cigarettes, can you?” 

She laughed, “You walk, I will let you know.” 

He waved over to Collision and Toolkit and brought them along. I knew that a hole was felt through Imperium since they had lost two members in the last three months: Ironside had been claimed by Rat and his gang and Kudzu had been taken by the Trillodan in the madness that had ensued after Feast Day.  In the face of it all, Shockwave was doing a much better job of maintaining appearances than I was; maybe I should spend some time with him and Beleth to discuss keeping up the right look. That was something I had never had to deliberately train on Tso’got where they had more experience. 

Following Forest’s advice, I let myself fall onto the grassy hill and at least look like I was able to relax. It felt inappropriate, but for now there wasn’t a whole lot for me to do other than wait.  I was playing guard duty and that meant I was essentially here as an insurance plan. Until something went wrong, my presence was fairly unimportant. 

Fortunately, we were likely to be left alone for now.  Zellig had seen all three of us in action; unless he destroyed the whole city the Trillodan commander wasn’t going to have a chance at removing us.  He was going to flex his influence somewhere else for now and take the lower hanging fruit while the Prime Trio was all in one spot.  The upside was it meant that anyone near us was safe. Not having to worry about Foresight, Almanac, or Big Picture had helped calm me down.  My plan hinged on having information that only those three could supply me.  

I was actually waiting to speak with Big Picture to try and glean every scrap of information I could, but he had taken the changes in gravity and living space very hard thanks to his paralysis. For now he was resting and I wouldn’t interrupt that.  The last thing I needed to do was agitate one of the men I desperately needed open communication with.  

“You do a bad job relaxing,” a familiar voice chided as an olive skinned man sat down beside me.  It was hard to recognize Clemency without his armor on since the cobalt color was so branded to his identity as a Reckoner.  However, it was hard not to recognize his fantastic figure. He made a point to be in alarmingly good shape, and had somehow bulked up despite our time in space.  Apparently he’d spent a lot of time exercising with Parasite who was a known fitness fanatic due to his power’s interaction with his own musculature. It made me a bit jealous that the Projector could have been a model in another life.  

I felt strangely intimidated by him as I noticed Infinite’s eyes linger in his direction.  

“I haven’t relaxed in the last two years,” I replied.  “Tso’got always had conflict, always had something for me to be doing.  Another Snatcher nest to melt down, another group to save from Suppression, something!  But this, playing guard duty, it’s strangely out of my element. I didn’t have a huge network working for me until the very end on Tso’got and now-“ I trailed off.

“Worried you’re letting everyone down?” he inquired, more intuitive than I care for.  

Clemency was an incredibly powerful Adapted, and much more versatile than myself.  I was relatively simple all things considered, I’d just gotten very clever with how I used my power, and it was one that was difficult to defend against.  Clemency had dozens of options at his fingertips, his only weakness was having to rely on a power source besides himself. The man was also one of the few Adapted who’d worked alone for an extended period of time, and it’d made him incredibly perceptive since he’d had no one to function as backup.  It endeared me to him, but at times I didn’t like how well he could see through me.  

“Inactivity doesn’t suit me,” I complained, “I want something to do, something to fight!  But, if I leave, I know Zellig is going to sweep in and do what he does best. And every person we lose is one more person he has to study.”

“Trillodan being able to copy our gifts wouldn’t be good,” he conceded, “But would it make them any worse than they already are?”

My eyes went to Infinite, “If they learn how to mimic someone like her, yes.  Things could get worse.”

“Even so, they already can race around us in space and they have the ability to kill planets.  What more do they really need?”

It was a question I had been mulling over for days since we’d been stuck drifting through space.  “The only place they lack is the small scale. They are good at demolition on a galactic scale, but search and seizure, annexation, that is something that is not perfected.  If they get access to our powers who knows what kind of trend that could create. Instead of destroying planets, would they start subjecting them to slavery and create dystopic societies all over?” 

Clemency shrugged, “You could argue they already do that.”

“Yes, but not directly.  They influence civilizations by existing and by showing up to remind people they exist when they deem a race advanced enough to gift Universal Common to.  If there was any additional intervention, it would be so much worse.” I swiped my hand through the air, feeling the energy that was lingered at my fingertips.  For all my destructive ability, I was still petrified by a man I’d never met. “Clemency, what did you think of Zellig? Most only know about him in abstract, but you actually fought him.”  

The handsome man’s face turned somber, “He’s… different, Titan.  He’s a different breed of monster than any of us. We fight for self-preservation, but he doesn’t.  Zellig was utterly unafraid of injury, unafraid of the harm I could dish out. He knew the power of his arsenal and was inflappable.  It doesn’t help that he is seemingly immortal.”

“I heard you snapped his spine and he shrugged it off.”

“Hooked him with a terror chain and swung him around into a pillar of concrete; his spine hit right on the corner and he bent at a ninety degree angle.  Ten seconds later, he snapped himself back into place like nothing had happened.” 

“I tried to crush him,” Infinite added, “Basically pressed him down with like fifty tonnes of force and he didn’t crumple.  It bent the floor of the ship though,” she added. 

“What makes him so different?” I inquired.

Clmency looked up and bit his lip, digging for an apt descriptor.  “He’s unnaturally determined. There was something you could see about him, something you could almost feel when he spoke.  Zellig was there to triumph, like his existence depended on it. He was enough of a zealot that he didn’t care about his own well-being, not really.  He takes risks, and he’s talented and enabled enough to walk over any competition, and he knows it.” Clemency twisted his face in disgust, “He’s a bit like you in the way he motivates people, except he’s clearly spent a lot more time handling that level of charisma.”  

“And of course he’s not dumb enough to come for me directly,” I muttered.  I was the known variable, the destructive force that could surely kill him.  He’d had men come to the surface wherever the teams went, but no one near me or Forest.  “But he didn’t know Infinite, so he was bold enough to meet her first hand and form his own opinion.”

Infinite shuddered, “He just knew…like he could see things that we couldn’t.  I feel like Zellig could see inside me or something and understand how I was wired.”  She paused, wringing her hands, “I think he knows that Command helps me stay stable.”  

“I wouldn’t put it past him,” I agreed.  It was something I had considered since he had been on the ship, especially since Command had to calm her down and pull her back from the edge.  We couldn’t afford to lose Command, not if we were going to be able to reach Marn. Infinite took our trip time from years to weeks. Even though Dragoon could add fantastic technological advancements to a ship, it wouldn’t do nearly as much as the supernatural.  

“Titan,” Clemency cautioned, “Don’t just think of him as a monster either.  Zellig seemed hurt that we’d killed his soldiers. As much of a monster as he is, we have to remember he’s not delusional or deranged.  If he’s capable of empathy-“

“He’s capable of getting inside our heads too,” I extrapolated.  “He already found our ship, and likely already had a number of Adapted captured too.”  I ran my hands through my hair, “Well, at least things are going to stay interesting.”   

“I don’t envy you,” Clemency laughed, “But I do admire your ambition if nothing else.  You let me know how I can help and I’ll do it.”  

While on the surface it was a polite invitation, I could hear the desperation underneath that statement.  Clemency was a fighter, a doer; inaction was just as hard for him as it was for me, if not harder. I at least had social balances to navigate and to keep an eye on Infinite to make sure she was calm and stable.  Clemency was forced to keep his feet on the ground like some bird who had their wings clipped.  

He excused himself to go talk with Multi-task and Mizu, likely looking to see if he could be of any help to them, and it almost prompted me to follow suit.  Something to do until Big Picture was awake, anything to occupy my time and mind from the incessant boredom.  

I sighed and fell back down, annoyed, furious at my own insecurities.  The nagging concern that I head led everyone to their demise was an ever present fear of mine, and the first day on Vuuldar was definitely making me question my own dedication.  

A soft hand tapped my head as Infinite pulled herself beside me, “Clemency is right, you’re bad at relaxing.”

I rolled my eyes, “I’m leading an army of kids against the universe’s most oppressive tyrants.  Forgive me for being a little stressed.”

She started walking a hand down my chest, slowly, a touch seductive, “I mean, if you’re just killing time…there’s plenty of vacant rooms in that ship over there…”

I tilted my head back to look her in the face, “Charlotte, as much as I appreciate the invitation to blow off some steam, I’m just not feeling it.”

While Infinite was like an armed bomb in our midst, there were certain aspects of her that definitely appealed to me, both personally and professionally as it were.  Even though people like Shockwave or Psycho had influence and clout, they were prone to defer to me on principle. None of them wanted to pick a fight with me because none of them would win.   

Forest had been a friend of mine for a long while, and she was a great resource, but she was always a little distant and removed.  Most of it was because she was literally inhuman at this point; none of us could guess what had caused this strange anomaly, not even Big Picture had been able to shed any light on it.  His best guess was some kind of genetic anomaly, but he couldn’t explain why she would have Adapted prior to puberty.

Her exceptionality had turned into a bit of a barrier between Forest and everyone around her; it made her fabulous at being objective and pragmatic but not necessarily the best for personal comfort or sanity checks.  She still had vulnerabilities, but they were few and far between if she had anything to say about it.  

Infinite on the other hand was almost paradoxically riddled with insecurities and almost childlike on first impression.  As she grew more comfortable with people, she opened up and was willing to abandon some of the childlike veneer; with me in particular it had let out a bit of a clingy teenage deviant.  There were times I was a great proponent, but sometimes I had to remind her that things had a time and a place. Still, I appreciated that she was at least as authentically herself as possible around me.

Infinite shrugged, “Your loss.”  

I reached a hand up and wove my fingers in with hers, “I’m sure we’ll get another chance before long.”

She giggled, “Good.  You always smile more after.”  Infinite perked up and her head snapped to the right, like a dog who heard a branch snap in the distance.  

I hadn’t heard anything, which meant that Infinite hadn’t disabled all her powers.  Generally speaking, she had one or two running at all times; she usually had some kind of limited danger sense or heightened sensory functions enabled.  Since she had been taken hostage once via ambush she was hellbent on never letting it happen again.  

“You can turn those off,” I promised, “We have plenty of people here who can keep an ear out.” 

“That obvious?” she said, a bit embarrassed. 

“I know what to look for.  Besides, I want you to completely reset and unwind.  If you keep hold of a few powers, you’re going to be a bit on edge.  Have some faith in the other people here; they are our family after all.”

“I’d rather not think of you as my sibling,” she shot back. 

One of the few things that we all had in common was a shit home life.  Trying to find a single Adapted who had a pleasant home life was nearly impossible.  Most of us had been rejected by our families and friends, especially when people learned what we were.  It was why we bound up in cliques: even though we could withstand trauma time and time again, no one wanted to be alone.  I just thought we should just take it a step further and replace the hole we all had.

If none of us had a family, why not make our own?  Why not choose who we called our brothers and sisters since society rejected us?  

I was saved having to explain nuance as I saw Big Picture being led down a ramp off the ship.  “Sorry darling, I have an appointment,” I said with a smile, glad to have something to do.  

Big Picture was someone I knew I needed alongside from the get go, but he had been markedly difficult to get close to thanks to Beleth playing the role of overseer much of the time.  Between him and Shockwave, getting an edge in anywhere in Ciel had been a challenge. I had been forced to hold off making my presence known for quite a while; in truth, it had been the Rogue Sentries who had helped burst that bubble for me and break the tense power struggle between the two factions.  

It had opened the door for me to get a hold of Big Picture and make a sales pitch; I’d made a point to do it right after he’d been accosted by Psycho and his Lunatics because I knew exactly how desperate he’d be for protection, a service I was happy to offer in exchange for information.  

One of the few good lessons my dad had ever taught me: If you have something they want, make them earn it.

Part of what kept me awake at night was because I was trying to fight a war of information against Zellig.  While I had Cognates answering to me, he had a virtually supernatural infrastructure to call upon. I couldn’t fathom how much surveillance the Trillodan had scattered among the stars, but now that we were under the lens, it seemed it was greater in scope than I had thought.  I was hoping that Big Picture had some idea of how to skew the playing field at least a little in our favor.  

“I could have come to you,” I called as Multi-task wheeled him closer to me.

He waved the notion away, “No, no, I could use to get outside for some fresh air.  That ship is still damn musty,” he muttered. “So, Titan, what can I do for you?”

I laughed as I sat down on the boulder, “Actually, I’m pretty sure you already know.”    

“You’re anxious about Zellig’s presence and the general Trillodan oppression and sphere of influence.  You’re feeling overwhelmed by their ability to be essentially omnipresent, and you believe that you’re failing us as a whole.  To rub extra salt in the wound, you’re trying to run a small military campaign and you’re stretched thin with no way to reach out and communicate with the people you deem yourself custodian of.”  

“That about sums it up,” I muttered. 

“You’re wanting my insight on Zellig and how he thinks, and what kind of technology I know they will have so you can avoid it.”

“Two for two.” 

There was a tiny twitch at the corner of his mouth as he seemed to look beyond me, letting his Cognate brain get to work.  While Big Picture had a reputation of being ever the professional, he loved to be useful the way that all of us did. “First things first,” he said after a moment, “You need to consider who Zellig is going to want access to.”

“Why?”

“For right now, Zellig and the Trillodan don’t understand us or how we work anymore than we understand ourselves.  From their point of view they assume that each person has a power that is unique to them; by capturing that person, they can unlock that classification of gift.  Some are going to be inherently less appealing while others will warrant more investment.”

I had assumed that they were going to target Adapted based on perceived threat.  Adapted generally measured our own value on raw firepower and combat prowess. To hear I was misguided was disarming.  “So, what will they deem most valuable?”

He rubbed his temple in concentration, “The Trillodan are still mostly bound to the laws of physics, even if their technology seems to defy it.  So, they will want access to things that outright ignore the fundamental laws of creation. People who can create matter from nothing, like you, are going to be in high demand.  You, Repository, Eldritch, etc. Anyone who can seem to make limitless material is of tremendous value. If your gift can be obtained, there is no war of attrition they can lose ever again.  Endless material for an already peerless empire would expand their reach even farther.”

I frowned, “A daunting thought.”  

Big Picture kept talking, blowing by my idle thought, “You aren’t going to be a high priority target.  Eldritch and Repository will be. Zellig has studied up on us since we had so much footage taken on Tso’got; given that he’s partially robotic, it’s safe to assume he has a way to remember everything about us.  Every time we encounter him, he’ll know more about how to undo us.” 

Infinite shuddered, not liking the implications.  

“Repository is likely a lower priority though since he’s with heavy heaters like Ifrit and Blast.  Besides, a man who can simply create a wall of metal is hard to capture. It’s likely that Zellig will leave him for later when he believes he has enough upper hand to wait him out since Repository is designed to win a war of attrition.  Eldritch, however, he’s going to want as quickly as possible. Zellig will know that our big Druid has had limited time and access to feed his gift and is therefore vulnerable. A silver lining is that Infinite damaging the Trillodan commander means he likely didn’t hunt Eldritch personally.  For now, he’s likely safe since Dragoon had the good sense to make him save up some storage before they went off world.”

“But multiple fights are going to exhaust his supply.”

“Correct.  And given how sprawling the cityscapes are and how much less population dense Vuuldar is, Eldritch wouldn’t have the tools required to engage in quite the same rampage as he did back in Ciel.  He’s never going to have that same level of power. Him aside, he’s with several others who Zellig is going to want to get his hands on because of the possibilities they represent.”  

I raised an eyebrow, caught off guard.  I had assumed the only real powerhouse of their team was Eldritch; I wasn’t about to question Big Picture’s intuition though.  There was a reason people paid top dollar for his insights back on Tso’got.  

“Dragoon represents unparalleled advancement in technology.  She is able to learn at incredible rates and simply draw information from what she encounters.  She has no formal education in machining and robotics and yet look at what she constructs. Her first suit was made from scraps, the second suit was a dramatic improvement and she was adding more advanced weaponry.  When you consider how young she is and how little time she’s had to hone her skill set, it sets a frightening precedent for the Trillodan. In a decade, what kind of mechanical monster will she be able to make? But, inversely, what if they can get access to her brain?  Imagine if the Trillodan had the ability to learn like she does. What new heights could their technology soar to then?” 

“And the second?” I asked.

“Parasite.  While Mutant poses a decent gift in the form of shapeshifting, Parasite offers a bafflingly well rounded physical boon.  It rewards effort and functions markedly well as both shield and sword. Even without knowing about the Flag Bearer’s talk with a Trillodan soldier, you could tell they are simply dependent on technology to sustain them.  In many ways, they are physically inferior to many species and are reliant on specific environment conditions. Their grasp on technology has leveled the playing field, but how much more threatening would they be without that kind of limitation?” 

I was beginning to regret only sending Interface to help them now.  However, I had trusted Interface and I had yet to be disappointed. I just hoped the trend continued now when the stakes were highest.  

“So why is Zellig spreading himself out?” I asked.  “Why not blitz group after group?” 

Big Picture scratched the top of his head, “I’m not entirely sure about this since I never got a chance to see or meet the brute, but I’m guessing there’s a couple reasons.  First off is that he loves a good fight; how often is there any competition for the Trillodan elite after all? Second, we are something he doesn’t understand and their scientists don’t either.”

“How do you know that?” Infinite asked. 

“If they understood us, Infinite,” he explained, “They wouldn’t be risking men to catch us.  They would simply exterminate us and everyone else unlucky enough to be on Vuuldar right now.  We have no immediate way to leave; it’d be like shooting fish in a barrel.” He turned back to me, “Because we are unknowns, he’s being cautious.  He utilized standard foot soldiers on Tso’got and a number of them were cut down. The men he’s sending out are elite soldiers though. They have special armor, special training, and they are likely informed about their specific quarry.  Each one of his hand-picked are sent after a specific person for a reason. My guess is that Zellig is trying to draw out the conflict for as long as possible and keep us on the back foot the whole time. If he makes it so we can’t sleep, by the end of the second day, we’re going to be sloppy and make mistakes.”

“A war of attrition.”

“Yes.  And when he is sure of his victory, he will march troops in and take over.  Another guess, but he is likely going to hold off on using Trillodan regulars until the second or third day.  He will use them to contain us, to make barricades and box us in. Zellig’s special forces, they are the ones who will take the risks and get close to collect.”  

“Why?” Infinite asked.  “If they love war so much, why is he being stingy with troops?”

Big Picture mulled it over for a moment, “I believe it would be because of a lack of population.  With technological advancement like they have, there is a good chance that they could have nearly driven themselves extinct once upon a time and their population never quite recovered.  It’s fairly speculative, but you’re right and he definitely has a reason for it. Best guess though is that within about three days he’ll start employing all hands.”

“What do you think he’ll do if I can relocate most of the Adapted here, with us?”

  The Cognate grimaced, “I’m not sure…but it will be bloody for all parties.  My assumption is that he’ll employ more heavy handed artillery to keep you busy,” he said to Infinite.  “He’s seen first hand what Forest, you, and Infinite are capable of, and he’ll prey upon your desire to preserve the Adapted over killing the Trillodan.  If he’s capable of removing you from the arena, I don’t really like our odds. We have plenty of powerful people, but if they are threatened, the Trillodan have plenty of technology to use that makes a bigger splash.”  

“What if we simply kill Zellig?” Forest asked, materializing beside me.  

Big Picture nodded to her, “I wondered when you’d chime in.  If we kill Zellig, the planet is torched, immediately. Even his elite are a far cry below him in terms of battle prowess; if he dies, we will be deemed too difficult to obtain and they will then most definitely cut their losses.  Everyone on Vuuldar will become collateral.”  

“Well, shit,” she mumbled.  

I looked out over the city down the hill and found myself saying a quiet prayer for the people out there.  We weren’t in a place I felt we could start rescuing them, not yet.  

For now, they just had to hold on and withstand the assault.  The only victory was escape, and our window was going to close soon.    

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