“Come on,” Parasite whispered as he continued driving his hands down, keeping a consistent rhythm of one-hundred beats per minute. It had easily been five minutes since Parasite had started compressions. Five minutes of time for people to wander over and look at me, to see him desperately trying to keep my system running even if it wanted to quit.
Sweat was pouring down Parasite’s face as he did his best to regulate his breathing. Giving CPR was taxing work, and knowing him, he wasn’t using his passenger to help him. If I knew my teammate, he was going to be doing his best to save me using only the strength that he had worked for, not something gifted by some cosmic fluke.
While Parasite had been hammering away on my chest, Eldritch had wandered over beside us, holding a hand above my mouth and on my neck to see if I started breathing again or gained a pulse of my own somehow.
“Come on,” Parasite grunted, “You can’t quit on me like this! Don’t you fucking dare!”
I was still completely rag-dolled, a prisoner in my own body, watching him struggle attempting to resuscitate me. I could see him toil, but I couldn’t tell him to simply give up, to let me die. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t open my mouth and insist that this would be better for all of us if I was to simply fade away. I could die on a high note, saving everyone. For the first time in my life, I felt powerful and done some genuinely good for the group. Copying Titan was the greatest feat I was ever going to manage and I wanted it to be the last thing I did for the Rogue Sentries.
Others had their moment in the sun and I finally had mine. I silently pleaded for him to stop concerning himself with me and just let me expire. But damn it all, the bastard was determined. Just when I thought he was going to tire and stop, he kept at it.
“Come on!” he yelled, getting desperate after another few minutes of effort, “Come on God damn it! Wake up! I know you’re in there! Wake, UP!”
“Murphy-“ Nick whispered, his face just out of my field of view.
“No,” he snarled, “Don’t you dare. She isn’t cold yet and she won’t be. I don’t care how long it’s been. When I run out of strength, then I’ll fucking stop. Until then, I’m keeping this stupid bitch alive!”
A tear started dripping down Parasite’s cheek as he looked on my limp face, “No. I will not give up on her. I will not be the only joker for this group. I will not let that happen. You fucking hear me, Lightshow,” he screamed, his voice breaking, “Never gonna happen!”
No, no, no. Parasite needed to let me go. He needed to quit wasting his energy. Who the hell knew when the Trillodan were going to come back? The team would need all the strength they could get; the last thing we needed was a fighter who was gassed out. I begged for him to stop, to let me fade, to just leave me in the road so they can keep running. Didn’t he know that there were so many people who could use his help besides me?
Instead, he refused to stop hammering away on my heart. He wouldn’t listen to my silent imploring. The prick was being just as stubborn as I was and I hated him for it.
“Come on,” he begged, “Come on, Lightshow. Come back. I know you’re in there! Come on, Rebecca! Stay with us.”
If my lips could move, I might have told him that Rebecca was long gone. After what had happened today, after losing my arm, after the incident with Tol, after what I’d done to Overexpose, I wasn’t sure who Rebecca was anymore. I wasn’t sure if that same girl still existed in my head or if she’d been shattered entirely.
I used to understand my identity. For a time, I was confident enough with my own personhood. Even after I Adapted, even once my life was thrown for a spin after my foster family kicked me out, I still held tight to a shred of my identity. Sure, I kept it well guarded and refused to share my true self with the world, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t sure of who I was. I hid my authentic self behind a wall of snarky humor and little quips that kept people from digging too deep into what I was or where I came from.
It’s why I had gotten on so well with Parasite; we were birds of a feather in that way. Neither of us wanted to show how vulnerable and raw those nerves were. We were both orphaned in a manner of speaking. I wasn’t sure which was worse: losing your family to a car accident or having them fade away from your life because they were unrepentant drug addicts. Both of us had an unspoken bond that neither enjoyed thinking about. For better or worse, it was a chord that tied us together and shaped us on a fundamental level as kids. Each of us had felt alone at home for years and for each of us, the Rogue Sentries had become a new family.
As much as I hated him for it, I knew why Parasite was refusing to let me die.
“Let me,” a new voice said softly, “Come on man, catch your breath.” It was strange to hear Adamant speak so softly, like he was someone else for a moment. Every bit of harsh edge and toughened survivor faded away to display a strangely gentle caregiver as he placed his hands and gave Murphy a chance to rest. “Talk to her,” he insisted as he began compressions, “If she’s there, she needs a friend to help coax her out.”
I would have paid anything for him to quit. Hadn’t I endured enough? Couldn’t this be the capper for my legacy? Couldn’t I just die having saved my friends?
At the periphery of my consciousness, I knew that Parasite was squeezing my hand, trying to convey some life back into me. “Please,” he whispered, shaky, “Please don’t leave me. I don’t want to lose my sister.” He leaned closer to my head, his voice dropping to a barely perceptible level, “They quit on me. Please, please be better than them.”
Something inside me stirred, wishing I could reply.
Parasite, damn him, was right; I couldn’t just abandon him, or any of them. As fucked up as we all were, we were our own little family and the last thing I should do is abandon them like Murphy’s parents had. We owe it to each other to be there for one another…even when we didn’t feel like we could get up again.
All of us were broken, all of us were seeking someone to cling to for strength. For all our powers and prowess, we were all so weak and helpless on our own. It was why we clung together so passionately, it was why Murphy kept hammering away on my chest even after he was driving himself to the point of exhaustion.
For the first time since that Trillodan fuck cut off my arm, I wanted to live. I didn’t want to leave Parasite alone, and I didn’t want to abandon my friends. I will my body to respond, to scream, to cry, to make a joke, to slap him, to do anything. But, even with my change in heart, I was still completely paralyzed. Nothing responded no matter how loud I could try to protest. In a cruel twist of irony, I could actually see the edges of my vision fading away, crumbling as my view of the world narrowed.
No, no, no, no! I finally wanted to live! Why the hell would this be taken from me?
My vision narrowed to a single needlepoint of light, and then it all dimmed.
“Parasite!” I screamed. I nearly jumped at the sound of my own voice, baffled that my vocal chords worked again. My arm shot up, reaching out, and I was surprised that I could see my arm. I turned my head, perplexed; I could see just fine but there was nothing to see here. I wasn’t with my team anymore and I had no idea who or what had taken me.
The closest thing I could liken it to was Distortions little in-between; there was nothing here but me and my thoughts in an infinite void.
I felt my chest tighten as I looked on in desperation, forlorn, infuriated that I’d slipped away. My fingers clenched down into my palms until my hands hurt as I screamed in agony; it was like losing my parents all over again.
Why had I let myself lay there and want to die? Why had I been okay with fading away when I could see how much it was going to hurt him? I craned my neck, looking into the void above me, “Fuck you! I want to go back! Do you hear me?”
“I certainly do,” a quiet voice replied.
I whipped around, bewildered that there was someone standing behind me. Whoever this was, they weren’t human. They had four legs protruding from what looked like an insect abdomen that was covered in folds of grey skin. Towards the front of the lower section, there was a humanoid torso that stuck out, like some kind of alien centaur. The top half seemed to have an almost human skeleton if you were willing to discount the fact that they had four arms instead of two. What stood out to me though was the fact that they looked gaunt, wizened, and like someone who was treading on the edge of collapse and had been for a long time. Their long hair occluded their face even though it was thinning and greyed and their hands looks arthritic and worn down from decades of hard work.
Despite the ghoulish appearance, I didn’t draw away. Even though this being seemed like a monster, there was something strangely reassuring about them, like a euphoric sense of deja vu. As if someone I’d already met this thing before.
“Who are you?” I whispered aloud. “Where are we?”
The figure reached up and pulled the hair out of their face, revealing a pair of gargantuan blue eyes on a face that otherwise looked like it belonged to a human. “For now, I’m afraid I can’t be giving out my name. Things are too…volatile shall we say.” Despite their appearance, the voice that came from the alien was a warm and gentle voice, like one might expect from a nice, middle aged guidance counselor.
“What do you mean?”
Their lips curled into a soft smile, “The Trillodan are hardly a friend to freaks like us, are they? Anything they can’t control, they burn.”
“One of your group has actually met me,” the wizened alien told me, “A girl by the name of Dragoon. Well, her Adapted name I suppose. I believe her real name was Alexis Trent.”
Dragoon had an incident before we set out where she woke up and was raving about seeing the people who made us, the people who created the Adapted. I hadn’t spoken up and discredited her, but I had to admit that, at the time, she sounded like she was off her fucking rocker. But now, seeing this, experiencing this, I have to admit that I was wrong.
“So, you’re the person who made us?”
The figure slowly shook their head, “Yes, and also no. You, especially, we did not make. You, my dear Lightshow, are something that we had not foreseen in our wildest dreams.”
“We,” I echoed, “There’s more than one of you?”
“There are a few dozen of us still alive. What made you all was something we worked on for a long, long time.”
I frowned, “But you’re being awfully hush-hush about it since I was one of the damned recipients of your project,” I pointed out. “If you can tell me anything about myself, it’d be awfully helpful. I didn’t exactly come with a fucking instruction manual.”
“Unfortunately,” the alien said slowly, “The Trillodan have ways of pulling information from someone’s head.”
I laughed, “I’m here at death’s door, and you think I’m going to talk? You think after all I’ve been through that I’m going to break for them? What more can they take away from me? The other arm?”
“Rebecca,” he said softly, “You misunderstand the nature of your opponents I fear.”
Hearing my name coming out of the mouth of some unnamed alien set my teeth on edge, “How do you know who the hell I am?” I snapped. “And you still haven’t answered the question of where we are or what the fuck this is!”
It was a little unsightly to see his legs carry him forward, his torso doing a peculiar bobbing motion as they approached. “My dear girl,” they said softly, “I have lived so long and seen so much pain, and I know exactly how you feel right now. I remember seeing my family die, and I remember seeing my friends burn to ash at the hands of the Trillodan.”
The rage in me, the hurt wanted to lash out, but something held me in check. Whoever this was, I knew they weren’t pulling my chain. There was an authenticity in their voice that was impossible to fake. Whoever and whatever this person was, they knew how I felt. They had experienced my anger, experienced my agony, and they had managed to pull through it.
“When I say the Trillodan can pull information from you, you assume I mean through some barbaric kind of interrogation. While their champion does seem to border on the psychotic, he’s not a fool. You are a perfect example of why he wouldn’t dare tamper with such heinous methods,” he pointed out, pressing a bony finger to my shoulder. “Look what you did to two of their finest soldiers. You were a girl who created illusions; now you are a girl who can create demigods.”
“Holy shit, you’re right,” I muttered. “If the Trillodan interrogate us or torture us, they risk Alteration and whatever mess that brings with.”
They nodded, “The only constant that we’ve observed is that it’s never contained. In many ways, you had one of the cleanest Alterations we’ve ever seen.”
“How have you been watching us this whole time?” I wondered, reluctantly starting to trust my visitor. “How is it possible that you’ve been able to watch over hundreds of us for so long to even know our names? How… just how?”
That soft smile crept across his lips again, “I’m afraid I can’t let you know for now. If I were to tell you, it’d put us at risk. Even if you don’t remember, the Trillodan will find ways to evoke it from your unconscious.”
“How do you know so much about them?”
“Soon, but not yet,” he whispered. “It’s why you’re going to come see us. We have so much to tell you about yourselves and about this war that you started.”
“That Titan started,” I corrected.
“No,” he whispered, “That someone else started long before him. He’s just the most recent champion against them.”
Something else nagged at me, a question trying to make its way out. “Dragoon said that you made us, but she didn’t tell us why.” I paused, “Did you just make us to fight the Trillodan?”
Their smile vanished, replaced by a mournful expression instead. “Truthfully, you children are both our best success…and our greatest mistake. I can share this, since I have no doubt the Trillodan will come to a similar conclusion: you were the result of an experiment. All of you were the byproduct of a secret test we issued prior to Protocol 34 being enacted on Earth. We were expecting to see results in the survivors, and expecting results that we could have some control over… and instead we now have the bizarre phenomenon known as Adapted.”
“That didn’t answer my question,” I shot back. In truth, it only raised more questions about what in the hell he was talking about.
They sighed, “No. We didn’t make you to fight the Trillodan. Not exclusively. What we did to you, what we did that ended up making the Adapted was supposed to be a trial run, a first attempt at making a force who would be capable of fighting the Trillodan. However, you were more successful than we could have possibly imagined. Without our prompt, you all decided to take the fight to the Trillodan.”
“Titan did,” I shot back. “He didn’t give us a lot of choice.”
“There are always choices,” the alien replied. “You could have opted to hide on Tso’got. You could have declined Mutant’s invitation to join the Rogue Sentries. There are plenty of ways you could have avoided meeting Titan and entangling your life into this war.”
“This coming from the person who used a whole planet as a testing ground.”
They didn’t waver despite my accusation. “Lightshow, child, you have much to understand about the unique position that you are in, and about the Trillodan as a whole. It is my hope that I can help you all in your crusade.” There was a pause before the figure continued, “In the future, you need to be more careful with your newfound gift. Alterations are powerful, but they are dangerous to the user.”
“Why? What do you know about them?” I demanded, suddenly craving knowledge about myself. No one knew anything about Alterations except what prompted their genesis. If I could get any information about myself and what I’d become, maybe, just maybe, I’d be more okay with who I was now.
“Adaptations are largely based on the user and the situation that prompts their true transformation. The changes adjust your physiology and mentality slightly to accommodate the stressors responsible for the untenable situation. I know that you all have some kind of implicit knowledge that seems to come from nowhere; it is granted to the bearer to make them more capable of handling the gift they are given.”
“Alterations are taking that a step further. What prompts the initial Adaptation is a small organism that integrates into your body; when you Alter your survival instinct becomes so overwhelming that it prompts a sympathetic response from the microorganism. It no longer thinks entirely of its host and becomes somewhat self-centered. It means that there are fewer restraints on what the microorganism can do, and unfortunately it means often that the well-being of its host isn’t taken into account.”
“It’s why my heart stopped so abruptly instead of the power simply giving out first,” I muttered.
“Correct. Overexposure is magnified since there is a lessened buffer between you and the organism.”
I shook my head, chuckling at the joke that the universe had seen fit to play on me. “Great. I’m finally powerful, and bound to kill myself.”
The alien gave me a weak smile, “Maybe. But, for now, I think it’s time you go back.”
“What are you-“
Their hand reached forward, lightly pressing a finger against my forehead. Before I knew what had happened, I was back on the ground, coughing violently as Parasite pulled away from me, letting me sit up and spasm. My body burned and ached as I did my best to catch my breath. Still, movement was excruciating since Parasite had jammed down hard enough to crack what must have been all of my ribs.
“You could have been a little fucking lighter on that,” I groaned, glaring at him. It caught me off guard to see him actually crying. His face lit up as I clutched at my chest and stared daggers his way; it was as if he had been waiting for my reproachful stare for all his life and it was the most ratifying thing in the world.
“Welcome back,” he said softly.
It dawned on me that most people were around me: Dragoon, Eldritch, Adamant, and Exchange were all looking on and had clearly been waiting for me to perk up and come back to life. Dragoon’s suit was working again and she’d taken her helmet off, showing off a bruised face and messy hair, but she looked at me with a bit of pride as I kept working to catch my breath. But not everyone was here around me, around the spectacle of Parasite and Adamant bringing me back.
“Where’s-“ I started as I turned my head; my voice caught in my throat as I saw Menagerie kneeling beside a familiar figure who was laying in the dirt, still in human form. Adrenaline surged through my veins as I scrambled to my feet and flew over to them, disregarding Dragoon’s words of caution and demand that I slow down.
Once I saw what had become of my friend, I was mortified. His entire midsection was a massive, black bruise. You could see where his ribs were broken and a trail of breaks in his skin that was slowly seeping blood. His breathing was incredibly shallow, and for the first time, Mutant looked genuinely weak. I’d seen him beaten half to death before, but nothing ever quite like this.
“Mutant, holy shit,” I whispered as I took a knee beside him. His fight against Kalr had ended poorly for him and with him taking a stomp from the Trillodan giantess before I had resolved to conjure a copy of Titan.
His eyes slowly tracked over to me as blood started oozing out of his mouth. Mutant spat on the ground and tried to prop himself up, only to grimace and fall back down. “Hey, Lightshow,” he wheezed, “I saw what you did.”
“It nearly killed me too,” I said, my voice wavering. “But, I couldn’t let you guys go.” My voice caught in my throat, “I’m sorry I didn’t do it any sooner.”
He shook his head, “Don’t. None of that.”
Dragoon was the last to join us, drinking in the situation with a grimace, “How bad, Mutant?” she asked softly.
His attention turned to her. “I think this is it for me, Drag. Deflated lung, tons of internal bleeding, and I’m too weak to shift.” His eyes drifted around, looking slowly to the group coalescing around him. “I left myself one last form, but I can’t get myself to change to slug. I, I really tried,” he whispered. “My body is quitting on me. I’m all tapped out.”
“I can carry you,” Parasite said, optimistically. “It really-“
“You’d be pushing chunks of his own rib cage into his organs,” Menagerie muttered. “Running is out of the question too. If he stumbles or we accidentally push a sliver of bone into the other lung, that’s it for him.”
“But we can’t stay here,” Adamant said, reminding all of us of the unshakable truth. The Trillodan know we’re here, and they will be back to settle the score and collect us. There was bound to be another fight and much more travel before the night was over. For all his tenacity, Mutant had endured beating after beating after beating today. Eldritch had pointed out that even before we left from Mother Audrey’s clinic, Mutant wasn’t entirely healed. He was still beaten and bruised thanks to Kalr’s heinous strength.
He’d already been fragile when she had literally stomped him into the ground. It was amazing it hadn’t killed him honestly, especially considering that she had been using those steroids.
“We can’t just leave him,” Eldritch declared. “I mean, he’s one of us, right?”
Dragoon looked down at the battered Enhancer and knelt beside him, “We’re out of tinctures, otherwise I’d pour one down your mouth. So, Mutant, what would you do?”
We all knew Mutant was exceptionally pragmatic. He confided in me that when he Adapted, it had changed some of how he thought. Many human emotions and nuances were lost on him since he thought more like an animal. He was straightforward, direct, and always believed in doing what was most practical. While it could make him short-sighted sometimes, he had no trouble making difficult decisions.
Mutant sighed and tried to get up again, failing a second time. “You can’t bring me with,” he whispered, “I’m going to be a liability.”
I was the first to truly understand what he was insinuating. “No, no, no,” I fired back, “We can fix this.”
His eyes turned to mine, “Lightshow, it’s okay-“
“I can make Organelle,” I replied, already digging for the right frequency to conjure the Adapted who could heal the shapeshifter. “I can create her and she can-“
“No!” he snapped, immediately coughing up blood afterward. “Parasite, help me up,” he requested.
His fellow Enhancer threaded an arm under his shoulder and gently helped him up to his feet. Once they were up, Parasite extended his staff and gave it to Mutant to lean on so her could try and remain upright on his own. “Lightshow,” he said slowly, “I saw what you did. And I know what happened to you.”
“If you conjure another Adapted so soon after a fucking heart attack, who knows what will happen to you? If you die, again, and she fades away, what good is that? We’ll have just lost two people for nothing. For better or worse, you’re far more powerful than I am,” he said bluntly. “Lightshow, they’re going to need you a lot more than they’re going to need me.”
“I’m still untethered,” I whimpered. “I’m still terrified of what my power can do! I need you around to-“
He raised his free hand to stop me. “Rebecca,” he said, slowly, “You know I’m not a quitter. You know I wouldn’t abandon you guys. But…”
I looked into his eyes and, for the first time in a long time, truly saw the man hiding behind them. Mutant spent so much of his time thinking like an animal that it was almost foreign to see him as a person who had feelings and wants. He didn’t want to die, but he wasn’t going to let his own ego supersede our own needs. Mutant was loyal to his friends and he was not going to allow himself to be responsible for any ill to befall them.
And it meant nothing I could say would change his mind. He knew he was dying and he wouldn’t allow any of us to put ourselves at risk to attempt to save him. It wasn’t worth the risk.
“You found me when I was all alone,” I whispered, “I can’t just let you go.”
He offered a weak smile before coughing up more blood, “You’re not alone anymore.” Mutant reached forward and gently pressed a hand against my stump, “My arms, use all of them,” he insisted. “I want some part of me to live on, yeah?”
I nodded, tears welling up at the edge of my eyes.
“And Menagerie, I want a couple drawings too,” he demanded, flashing a weak grin.
Our quiet Peculiar nodded and swallowed a nervous lump. “You’ll get an excellent portrait, I promise.”
As he turned away from her, he turned to face Eldritch, his grin fading to a more somber expression. “Eldritch, I don’t want you to leave behind anything for them to find.”
“Nick,” Mutant pressed, “These are the Trillodan. They will study my corpse just as thoroughly as they would a living body.” He took as deep a breath as he could, clearly struggling to stay upright. “I will not be used by them. I will not be their experiment. Once I go, I want you to eat every scrap of me so they can’t have it. Understood?”
Eldritch nodded, slowly, swallowing a nervous lump of his own. “You got it.”
Mutant sighed as if mentally checking off one more thing from his list. “Dragoon,” he muttered, his voice getting more hoarse by the second, “You finish this.”
She nodded, clearly trying to suppress her own emotions. “We’ll take it from here. Don’t you worry.”
He gave her a last smile and turned to the Lost Children who were hanging back a few steps away; Adamant clearly knew that this was not his party and was willing to give us the time to say our goodbyes. “Adamant, you keep my friends safe.”
“You have my word,” the leader of the Lost Children replied, candid.
The last person he turned to was Parasite, “Make it quick for me,” he said, his voice shaky. “I think it’s time to go.”
“I don’t think I,” Parasite started.
“Yes you can,” he replied. “Murphy, you’re doing me a favor. Please,” Mutant implored, a tear sliding down his cheek, “Put this wounded animal down.”
There was a moment of tense silence, but Murphy finally nodded, “Okay. It’ll be quick,” he said softly, taking a step behind Mutant.
My friend gave me one last look to myself and Menagerie, right before Parasite’s hands blurred forward and yanked his head violently to the side. It was less than a second and the sickening snap of his neck being broken seemed to echo down the whole street.
Our shapeshifter dropped to the ground in a heap, lifeless.
“Eldritch,” I snapped, “Keep your promise. Nothing for them to find.”
Wordlessly, we all watched as Eldritch placed his hands on the corpse of our fallen friend and removed any trace of him ever existing.