(Lightshow – 12/4/80)
I hated being the person out in front. Knowing that people were watching me, relying on me, it made my damn skin crawl. A few days ago I might have been thrilled to be this helpful, but for now, I wanted to be left alone.
But, Dragoon was my captain and what she said went. Besides, the girl who could see perfectly in the dark should be leading to avoid having the blind leading the blind. For me, there wasn’t much difference in how I saw the world between 12 a.m. or 12 p.m. While everyone else would fumbled around, I was completely unimpeded. Since it wasn’t just me though, we were still going slow as all hell.
About five hours ago, Exchange, Parasite, and Eldritch had come back with the probe that Dragoon had sent out; when it talked, I immediately recognized Interface’s and could see the disdain on our captain’s face that her tech had been commandeered again by the androgyny Projector. However, Dragoon was relieved to have the forewarning that Interface could supply us with.
The Trillodan weren’t just distributing weapons, they had been assigning people sections to monitor. Those bastards knew that people were too afraid to think for themselves; with some basic directions, the whole city had been put under watch round the clock. It didn’t even cost them any manpower to maintain. Even though they had guns, these people were being held hostage just as much as we were.
Our only victory was escape and the local’s only victory was to capture us; they had to try and decide if they wanted to fight us or the Trillodan more. Whoever they picked, it wasn’t going to end well for them.
Dragoon’s plan thus far had been to creep down to the ass end of the city under the cover of nightfall. Without a lot of the infrastructure that Tso’got had, there wasn’t as much light pollution and it made it easier to slink around undetected. It also was a harsh reminder to me exactly how much I missed my old power. Even though it hadn’t done anything against the Trillodan operatives without Menagerie, right now it would have simplified everything. I could have bent light away from us, making us functionally invisible as we trekked. Now, while I might be able to fight, I had lost much of my old utility.
I rubbed my stump and winced. Each time I thought about my Adaptation it felt like someone pricking me with a pin as my body reached for sensations that weren’t going to be there ever again. Just like my arm wasn’t going to come back, neither was the way I used to see things. Before Tol broke me, I saw the world through a kaleidoscope. The air around me was ablaze with colors and lights that I could mold or extinguish at will. My old usage had been so sloppy, and the end of our time of Tso’got had shown me that I needed to step up my game.
I couldn’t be the weak link in our team. I couldn’t be the reason we fell short and lost another member.
Countless hours of practice on that ship. Countless days spent replicating people from memory until I could do it with ease. I knew exactly what colors to extinguish, what lights to brighten, and how to make it all move fluidly.
Six hours on this shit planet had undone everything. Not only had it proved I hadn’t been enough, it had the audacity to take it away from me completely.
I leaned around another corner, glancing all around to make sure we were in the clear. A few Sycophants were in the way, but they were far enough away they’d miss us. I waved and we scurried across another gap between blocks. As we got closer to a new cluster of buildings, I turned my gaze to windows, looking for any disturbances or indications that people were scouting, looking for us super powered fugitives.
For now we were in the clear. Another hundred meters closer to our goal.
It was painfully slow the way we were doing things, but so far it had yet to bite us in the ass. We’d been at this nearly four hours which already made it a long night but we were far from done with the night: we still had to break Serpentine out from a Trillodan demolitions expert, somehow lose our inevitable tail, and avoid running into Kalr again. She had gone toe-to-toe with Eldritch even though the weird Neklim thing had turned all blue and crystalline; I wasn’t sure what happened, but I knew any kind of change his ‘suit’ underwent made him stronger. If she had stood up to him like that, she wasn’t a threat to be ignored. I was hopeful that our guide could help speed things up; my nerves being shot for the last ten hours was starting to wear on me.
Right on cue, a little buzzing heralded Interface and her possessed drone coming by to give us another report. “We’re getting there, but things start getting more questionable up ahead. More Sycophants are patrolling since we’re getting closer to Serpentine’s area. It looks like this crazy Trillodan bitch has about six blocks effectively rigged to blow if anyone tries to get in or out.”
“Good thing you have me then,” Distortion said, puffing out her chest a little. Bitch probably didn’t think I could see her. I honestly liked the other two members of the Lost Children, but Distortion made me want to stab her over and over. She was the worst kind of arrogant and self-congratulatory, and it was only fueled by our actual need of her. For now, our plan was to get close to the border of no-man’s land and have her warp us over, effectively ignoring whatever trip-wires had been set at the edge of her maze.
“How much farther do we need to go?” Dragoon whispered.
“Another kilometer or two would be my guess,” Interface replied, “But, I don’t think we’ll be able to do it all cleanly.”
“Why?” Adamant asked.
“Too many people out and about even if you discount the patrols. They’re scared and mystified watching the Trillodan work. Everyone now and then you hear a controlled explosion and it keeps people on their toes and interested. More people are awake and alert, peeking out windows, etc.”
Dragoon turned in my general direction, “It means it may be on your to help keep people shut up. We can’t have our cover blown too early.”
I didn’t miss Distortion’s grimace; bitch knew we had to get closer before she teleported all of us again. Her transporting all of us four kilometers nearly killed her, but she was confident in her ability to move us a single kilometer pretty safely. Distortion wanted to do more, to claim more of the credit, but she’d have to deal.
That being said, I didn’t like that suddenly there was pressure put on me. My new power was still foreign to me. I had used it in a panic and I wasn’t sure what rules I had to follow or what nuance needed to be acknowledged. My preliminary use had also been exhausting: I’d made a copy of Dragoon and Eldritch to fight off Tol but it had worn me out. However, making a wall to keep a swarm of bugs out of a room had been easy.
Even though they couldn’t see me, I could feel their eyes on me. “What do you need me to do?” I asked Dragoon. I took a look at her, longing to see the old spectrum of color that would have been radiating from her armor; now all I saw was a dull glow that warped the space around it with her every move. Most physical objects held this little aura around them, like a little wave pattern that I could…interpret for lack of a better word. My best guess was my new power allowed me to regurgitate this information, to construct a duplicate.
It didn’t explain how I had made Eldritch even though he hadn’t been present at the time of my Alteration. How would I have known about his aura since I hadn’t seen him after Altering? Too many questions buzzing in my skull to let me dip into the new power I had been bestowed. It wasn’t making me feel powerful, just inhuman.
“Make yourself another arm and slink around. When we start encountering patrols, take them out if they’re going to be in the way.”
I blinked twice, baffled by how simple a solution that was. Why be a fucking amputee when I could just conjure a whole new arm? Why hadn’t this occurred to me earlier? “Drag,” I replied, my voice shaky, “I’m not a fighter though.”
“Neither are they,” Parasite replied, “But, you’ve been trained by me. So, at least you’ve got a little bit going for you.”
Even though he couldn’t see me, the joker of our group was giving me his typical smug smirk. He knew I’d notice and likely did it just for my benefit.
That was another part of me I wanted to get back too. Normally I’d have something to say, some witty remark to toss back at him, something that would make Dragoon or Eldritch roll their eyes in annoyance or evoke a small chuckle. But now, now when I went to the well, it was empty. That reservoir of humor I once had had been drained thanks to the Trillodan and that bastard Tol.
All I felt now was envy, jealousy, and disdain for his ability to be so upbeat and chipper. Didn’t he know how much I wished I could go back to being my old self?
“Maybe grow a bigger arm,” came a hushed suggestion, distracting me from my spiral of animosity with Parasite. Behind me, Menagerie was looking around, paranoid, probably not realizing I was staring at her. She had given too much in our last fight and had been told in large part not to overdo it; she might have been able to make creatures that could see in the dark, but that would be risking pushing her back towards overexposure. “If you made Eldritch earlier, maybe you could make yourself an arm that belongs to Goliath, or Ironclad.”
“Okay,” I replied, my voice barely audible.
Now that they had planted the idea in my head, I was still wary to act upon it. There were so many things that could simply go wrong.
The rules surround Overexposure were different now.
Would I feel that creeping fatigue, or would I simply collapse in an instant? Would my new creations take on a mind of their own and free themselves from my control if I was spent? Would repeated use of my newfound power erode at my sanity?
I didn’t know. No one did. I had joined an elite few who were completely unique, even managing to set ourselves apart from the super powered youth.
We kept moving forward, Dragoon fortunately reading the situation well enough to know to give me space. Interface flew away, scouting some more and directing us as we got closer, avoiding a few of the outer search parties. The closer to the Trillodan we got, the better the equipment of the people on guard. Vuuldar was fairly unrefined in many ways, and things like flashlights were clearly in low supply.
But as we got close, people had wide beamed flashlights that lit up whole swaths of the road.
We were getting to a point where we’d need to remove some obstacles. Distortion had tried to suggest she do it, but she’d be going in blind and too many things could go wrong. If she clipped someone’s nose or cheek and they started screaming, the jig was up and everything would go on lockdown.
Dragoon would have been a fine candidate if her arm was functional. Plus, she didn’t say it, but at least I could see the fatigue in her. She had been shot numerous times and was trying to lead us still; the girl needed a hospital, not a warzone. Truth be told, all of us needed a hospital. Even Eldritch, the big man himself, had managed to sustain serious injury despite the Neklim protecting him. I’d never seen him exit the suit with as much as a scrape before today. I could still vividly see him being dumped back in front of Mother Audrey, like the Neklim suit was delivering him, as if the two of them were separate entities entirely.
At some point, we’d need to understand exactly what had happened to him and what it meant for us being close to Eldritch.
“Can you deal with them?” Dragoon asked softly.
Despite all the turmoil, I didn’t want to let Dragoon down. I had watched her take bullets earlier in the fight against Tol; she was still my captain and had done her best to keep us all intact. She had made no excuses and given her 100%; I would do the same.
I let out a slow exhale and reached into my memory banks for a different signature, a different resonance for one of those auras that everything seemed to have. My right hand traced along and seemed to pave the way for another limb to be stitched into existence. I didn’t rush this, not wanting to accidentally harm myself or graft some malevolent appendage to my body. Slowly but surely, I constructed an arm that I had seen time and time again.
It was one of Mutant’s limbs. I had created a copy of the elastic, grey tentacle that he used. It felt strangely lightweight despite the amount of wallop I knew this thing could pack.
“Wait here,” I said as I tip-toed onto the road. I had always been dexterous and agile, the byproduct of my parents teaching me gymnastics at a young age. The balance and natural sense of where my body was had stayed with me and come in handy when I became a Reckoner. I would never be able to compare to the human gyroscope in Parasite, but I was aware enough of myself to be quiet and light on my feet as I crept up on the pair of men with the flashlight.
As I got closer, I raised the arm and stopped, amazed.
It had responded just like my arm should have; for a moment I forgot that I was missing a limb at all.
Unfortunately, the two men turned around, a beam of light resting on me.
Before either could react, I swung and the tentacle slammed against one man’s neck, smashing his wind pipe. As he went down, I heaved and brought the tentacle around, hitting the other in the torso and sending him reeling. I grimaced and shot the arm forward, using its elasticity to stretch it out and wrap around his neck, squeezing down as I yanked him back towards me.
“Don’t,” I pleaded with him as I saw him reach for something in his pocket. “Don’t make me do this.”
Part of me knew that he was going to try and do it anyways; the Trillodan had already swayed him, and he was too scared to disobey. If he didn’t try to kill me, he would die by their hands instead.
It was alarmingly easy to jerk the tentacle and snap the man’s neck.
Dragoon had confided in me once that she was scared at how easy it was to hurt normal people, to break them like one might a toy or a figurine. She told me that she had savagely beaten an unpowered member of Imperium and accidentally put him into a coma when Rogue Sentries had just started out. When it happened, she had no clue she was capable of doing that sort of damage to someone.
My old power would have never let me do this to someone; the worst I could have done was blind someone. Before now, the worst injury I had inflicted on someone was likely a nasty concussion, but that was because I hit them with a metal baton, not because I was powered. Everyone could have done what I did. But now, this, this was something else.
There was a sickening and empowering feeling that warred in my mind.
I had power. Not just a gift that made me useful, not just an attribute that made me noticeable, but something that made me someone you should be afraid of. It had been easy to kill that man and knock his friend out cold. And that was what made me sick too. It had been almost effortless on my part to inflict such heinous damage. No matter what those two did, there was no stopping me, there was literally nothing they could have done.
I turned and saw everyone approaching, Dragoon in the lead. She looked at the men on the ground, and then back to me. Even though her face was obscured by her helmet, I could feel the concern radiating from her. “Lightshow, are you okay? I need to hear an answer.”
I couldn’t let her down. I couldn’t let Dragoon think less of me. I needed to be capable still. I couldn’t be broken.
“Yeah,” I lied, “I’m fine. Let’s keep going.”
While I was fuming about my actions, Dragoon assessed the situation with a more calculated head than I did. “Eldritch,” she muttered, “We can’t leave bodies and you need to be useful later.” My jaw dropped as Dragoon fired a round from her zip gun into the survivor’s head, quickly ending his suffering. “He would have ratted on us,” she said softly, as much to assure herself as she did to assure us, “This was all we could do. Let’s make it count.”
The attack with Tol and his animalistic assassin had changed her too. Dragoon had quickly developed a hard edge to her, a newfound appreciation to bloodshed and ends justifying the means. Where she had been naïve idealism, that had been tempered by harsh reality and it made her all the sharper. She was quickly becoming someone governed by pragmatism, as cruel and harsh as it could be at times. Forgiveness and compromise wasn’t likely to be in her repertoire until we made it off of Vuuldar intact. Dragoon had already lost one teammate, and she’d come close to losing her two best friends hours ago.
There was no doubt she would do whatever it took to keep us alive. It was good to know I was in good hands, but it was still scary to see her pressed against the ropes. What would happen if she cracked like me?
We only had a little farther to go before we could use Distortion to get us into enemy territory and one step closer to finding Serpentine. I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of meeting Zeal, but the guy was undeniably powerful. For better or worse, we needed more powerful people near us, be them crazy psychopaths or not.
At least we weren’t going to be linked up with the Lunatics again. This time we’d get a new brand of violent and crazy.
We dodged around another few search parties, doing our best to avoid any kind of intervention from Sycophants with flashlights. There was another incident where I had to put down two more people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The only boon was that no one seemed to look out from a window and spotted us. Killing someone in the street was bad enough; having to kill someone in their home would likely remove any illusion that I could still consider myself a Reckoner anymore.
I had the foreboding sense that too would be ripped away from me soon enough; one more thing on the pile of stuff the Trillodan had torn away from my person.
As we approached our blink site, the drone hovered back down by us to report in. “Inside is getting sketchy, and I’m pretty sure that whatever Trillodan is running the joint is onto me; there seems to be some kind of interference whenever I get too close anymore.”
“Which means she’s working out and expanding her maze,” Dragoon muttered, “That’s not ideal.”
I felt like Interface would have nodded if possible, “Zeal is probably proving hard to contain and so she’s falling back to allow for more room to work. From what I could tell, there are small walls in place that look like small force fields. My best guess is that this chick came in with generators to keep everything running because clearly she’s putting enough faith in these to hold back the whole might of Serpentine.”
“So maybe our first order of business is to get rid of those,” Adamant suggested. “No point in meeting them for a rescue if we’re just going to land ourselves in a prison.”
“These are Trillodan,” Parasite muttered, “They won’t be dumb enough to leave stuff unguarded or at least without some kind of countermeasure in place. At best it will trigger some kind of alarm the second we start poking around. And since we’re dealing with a demolitions expert-“
“It’s more likely to blow up in our face,” Eldritch finished for him.
“Yeah, so?” Distortion demanded, “We all saw you as a big-ass fucking crystal monster thing. Turn into that and smash stuff for us. Isn’t that, like, what you’re supposed to be the best at or something?”
It galled me that the bitch had a point.
“I can do it,” Exchange volunteered, “If we find something close by for me to bind myself to, I can endure the hit pretty well and break stuff down pretty well.”
“I’d rather use you,” Dragoon replied, “Eldritch might do it better, but he needs fuel for his power and we only have enough to make him big for a little bit, once. If we can conserve him for now, that’s going to be in all of our best interests.”
Exchange beamed, thrilled to be useful while Distortion rolled her eyes. As long as we had Adamant in alignment with Dragoon, she’d mind her manners and do whatever our captain told her.
“Interface, do you have any idea where there are larger groups of people or anything that might indicate where they’re hiding a generator?”
The drone turned, “About 1.1 kilometers from this point there’s what seems like some kind of structure that’s new, but I couldn’t tell you what it really is. It might be a ship that the Trillodan landed, or it could be a pile of aluminum siding for all I know.”
“But it’s at least somewhere to start,” Adamant muttered. “Dis, you good?”
“Everyone pack together as tight as you can,” she instructed, the bitch facade gone for a moment, “I’m having to guess a little and don’t want to rip anyone’s arms off.”
Everyone pushed together when that possibility was pose. Interface flew lower and rebound with Dragoon’s armor, ensuring that they wouldn’t get cut off in the transition.
I braced myself for the tiny glimpse of nowhere as I saw the air shimmer and twist around us before it all went black. As much as I didn’t care for her, Distortion wasn’t kidding that you acclimated quick to that being between planes of existence. This time the oppressive absence of light and noise didn’t make me squirm, and it didn’t seem to last a whole eternity either.
As we reappeared though, I immediately like something was wrong.
My suspicion was ratified as flood lights turned on all around us as alarms sounded. The building that we had been put next to was something we had seen before, back on Tso’got. They looked like metal slugs that served as prisoner transports for the Adapted. It was what we’d seen Geyser stuffed into and none of us had been able to stop them from taking him away.
They had brought people in, and left a way to export us; Serpentine was likely in bad shape if the Trillodan were already standing by with a prisoner transport.
“Dragoon,” Adamant snapped, “Plan?”
She looked around, “Interface can you see anything?”
For once, our talkative guide was silent. The drone remained firmly lodged in our captain’s armor, deactivated.
“Fuck, Interface was conmected through my personal network and there must be some kind of frequency jamming here. She won’t be able to sync up with my tech from a distance.” Interface had assured us she was safe because she was halfway across town; now all that meant was there was no way she could make it to us in time to help.
Good for her, bad for us.
Mutant shifted into his lizard form, flicking a tongue out as he closed his eyes to better listen. “Drag, we have company coming. Lots of it.”
“Trillodan?” Parasite asked.
“No, not metal footsteps,” he muttered, flicking his tongue out again. “Sweat, urine, blood…fear. These are Sycophants.”
Dragoon growled, “The bitch planned for outside interference and left a welcoming party for us. We’re against a master bomb maker; she’s going to be forcing people to pick a fight, and we have to assume they are rigged to blow.” Her head turned to me, “Lightshow, that means we’re going to need a lot from you since Menagerie has very little in the tank.”
I felt my throat close as all eyes turned to me. “I, um-“
“You can do this,” Eldritch said softly, catching me off guard. “You protected us once, you can do it again.”
Part of me abhorred his optimism and flagrant disregard for my self-loathing, but he had a point. I had made my Alteration work for me once while I was desperate. Maybe I could do it again. My eyes caught sight of the arm I had made for myself and a sense of purpose started to course through me, momentarily eclipsing my doubts. “Okay.”
“I still want to hold Eldritch for the big bitch, Kalr,” Dragoon muttered. “You’re going to run crowd control and try to keep people down; avoid killing them if you can. If not, we’ll deal. Eldritch, don’t try to eat them. If I’m right, people are going to be rigged to blow the second you get close; she definitely knows who you are and isn’t about to run a meal into your mouth.”
He nodded, clearly a bit perturbed at the thought.
“There’s still at least one other Trillodan specialist here we don’t know about. Adamant, Exchange, when they show up, I want you to deal with them. You two are our best candidates for taking on an unknown threat. Menagerie, use your best discretion but do not Overexpose yourself unless things look real bleak. We can’t afford to be hauling you around, and we don’t have any more tinctures to pull you back if you push too far. Mutant, you’ve danced with Kalr once, can you do it again?”
He nodded. “Still have four forms. I might not get my slug back.”
“Then don’t get hit so fucking hard by her this time,” she shot back. “Parasite, Mutant, Eldritch, deal with Kalr when she shows herself.”
“What about me?” Distortion demanded as the horde of footsteps drew closer, “What am I doing?”
“Whoever the demolition expert is, she’s going to be hanging around the fringes, watching us and likely taking pot shots where she can. If she’s all about explosives, she isn’t going to engage us directly. If you see her, remove some pieces of her. If she tries to push anything too close to us, get rid of it. You’re our best line of defense against a bomb maker.” She reached down and removed a sphere of metal from her hip, “And for now, I’ll do my best to buy us some space to run. Our first priority is to find those generators and shut them down. Mutant, anything taste particularly electric in the air?”
He flicked his tongue out a few more times, “Down this way,” he said, pointing the opposite direction of the thunderous mob.
Dragoon tossed down the orb of metal, leaving the nasty surprise for the oncoming horde as we bolted. Parasite took the lead, his legs empowered by his passenger to make him practically gallop forward.
And then, he suddenly wasn’t.
It sounded like two jagged pieces of steel being dragged together as a violent blue light shot out from the side of a building, blasting Parasite into a nearby building.
I heard the gasp from Dragoon and the subsequent swearing; she had been expecting the minefield to be within the confines of the forcefield, not outside of it. It was a layer of complication she hadn’t been expecting.
My head snapped to the side, looking through the hole in the wall to where Parasite was trying to get up; I widened my eyes when I saw that he wasn’t alone in the room. There were a trio of gelatinous figures standing over him, like oversized amoebas who descended upon him, engulfing him.
“What the fuck are those?” I whispered, mortified.
Dragoon turned and immediately snapped to action, pointing to the head of the Lost Children. “Adamant, deal with those! Now!”
I felt my eyes draw to him as the energy around him changed; where he had seemed like any other listless Adapted, now he was a warrior. I stepped away as the air around him literally started to burn. Adamant sprinted into the house, running headlong into the amoeba things, literally making them burst and cover the walls. He grabbed Parasite and dragged him back out to us.
The problem was that we had stopped moving, and the mob behind us hadn’t.
“Oh, shit,” Eldritch muttered.
I followed his gaze and saw what he was looking at: a massive blue, muscle bound figure staring back with malice in her eyes. Any trace of injury we’d inflicted had been done away with, and all that was left was a rage-fueled juggernaut.
“Welcome, Rogue Sentries,” an eerily soothing voice said over a loudspeaker that seemed to echo in every direction, “And Lost Children too. What a pleasant surprise!”
The mob rounded the corner, giving us no avenue of escape. If we ran from them, we plowed into Kalr. Our only avenue of escape was to run into the buildings that would take us deeper into the demolitionists maze which were undoubtedly full of munitions that were primed to blow.
“You are all going to fall here. Tol himself asked for me to settle the score. So, Kalr, give our friends here a little greeting.”
Right on cue, the giantess began charging forward.
“Change of plans,” Dragoon growled, glaring at Kalr, “Exchange, you and I deal with the crowd. Eldritch, Lightshow, Adamant, kill that fucking bitch.”