Illuminate: Stranded

Everything seemed to drag.  Everyone in our little party couldn’t take back anything that had happened; they couldn’t rewind and prevent the tragedy we had suffered.  

None of us could bring back Mutant, no matter how strong we were.

Parasite and Eldritch were arguably the most distraught out of all of us, but for different reasons.  Parasite had been the one who mercifully put Mutant out of his misery, and Eldritch was the one who stripped the flesh away, leaving nothing for the Trillodan to study.  Dragoon had left a small explosive charge to char and scatter his bones to the wind.  

His dying wish was that he wouldn’t be used as a tool for the enemy.  He would not be one more source of information for them, and we had honored his request, no matter how hard it was.    

As sad as I was, I wanted someone to be angry with.  Mutant had been my friend! He was the one who had found me and pulled me out of my shell, introduced me to the Rogue Sentries and given me a place where I belonged.  Even though my life had turned into a shit storm, at least it had some purpose now. Despite everything that happened to me, I’d still probably prefer this to hiding in a darkened apartment, watching reruns of shitty shows.  

The one person I could probably be mad at for all of this was Titan, but he was hundreds of kilometers away.  In reality, he was the one to blame for us going to war with the most powerful beings in the universe. I could have screamed at Dragoon for letting Mutant fight that Trillodan giant, Kalr, but I knew that someone had to do it.  He had known the risks, and he’d done his best.  

It just… hadn’t been good enough.  

The only person I found the strength to be angry at was myself.  I had conjured Titan a few seconds too late. If I had just started with that, everyone would have been okay… or at least alive.  The only people now who weren’t worse for wear were Parasite and Eldritch. Even though Parasite had taken an explosive to the chin, his stamina had let him bounce back.  All his due diligence with exercise and training had made that passenger of his all the more resilient.  

And Eldritch was still Eldritch.  The suit of Neklim always did its best to restore the host.  

We continued forward, with Dragoon leading the way towards where we hoped the generator for the force field was waiting.  Our captain had quickly tinkered with her helmet to let her screen for booby traps that might have left for us, compliments of that Trillodan demolitionist who had been fighting alongside Kalr.  It was slow going, but the last thing we needed was someone who didn’t have a healing factor taking an explosion to the jaw before we were free of this cage. Once it was down, we’d have a way out of here and we could bring Serpentine along with us.  

I still wasn’t thrilled about the idea of being around Zeal, but we really didn’t have a choice at this point.  Adamant’s group was strong, but they weren’t well designed to withstand an ambush. Worse yet, Vuuldar hadn’t been the tumultuous crucible of conflict that Tso’got was; the Lost Children simply weren’t battle hardened in the same way as a lot of the Adapted from Ciel were.  Adamant was the exception, but Distortion and Exchange simply weren’t of the same caliber.  

I rubbed my stump, grimacing again.  Every time I worried and dwelt on the negative, my body liked to remind me that my arm had been taken off my body about fourteen hours ago.  The muscle bunched up around my stump and I winced, doing my best not to scream while I massaged the knots out as best I could. It was hard to believe that it hadn’t even been a full day since that Trillodan asshat had mangled my arm bad enough that Dragoon had to sever it.  If we’d been back on Tso’got, I’d still be in a hospital bed, not running around and fighting like a maniac.  

                If we didn’t have those restorative tinctures from Organelle, I wouldn’t have lived through that ordeal.  Now that we were out of our healing potions, injuries weren’t impermanent. Without Mutant, we’d lost one of our fellows with a healing factor to absorb damage for us.  

I cursed softly as my arm tightened again, the thought of the hole Mutant left on the team aggravating the muscle around my stump.

                We’d only been on this planet for twenty hours and it had been harrowing.  We’d been subject to multiple ambushes, a literal plague, visions in dreams, and the loss of one of our own.  Even though we’d had a small measure of success in finding the Lost Children, we were all in desperate need of sleep and another good meal.  We’d had a little bit to eat at Adamant’s safe house but since then we’d also been walking for hours and had to fight a retinue of Trillodan operatives.  

                We didn’t dare enter buildings for fear of traps put in place by that demolitionist, even though we were sure that some places had to have food stored.  Adamant offered to retrieve some since he could make himself bomb-proof, but Dragoon wasn’t about to have him expend strength to get us some snacks; it was starting to get to the point that I wanted to scream at her to stop being so stubborn.  it had been a hell of a day, and we were all tired and hungry. Right now, creature comforts would have gone a long way in terms of bolstering morale.  

But, I knew she was trying to keep us focused after the death of Mutant. There was a chance she was making a face under her helmet, but we’d never know if she was hurting or not.  Knowing Dragoon, she was deliberately being the voice of logic and pragmatism because that was the only way she could cope.  

                “I think we found it,” Dragoon muttered, pointing to a glowing pylon.  It looked like a massive generator had been attached to a piece of purple colored quartz that hummed with energy.  Even though we were easily three hundred meters away, we could feel the electricity in the air and practically taste the energy it was letting off.  

“It’s going to be rigged to blow,” Parasite pointed out.  “The whole point of them keeping it inside their own forcefield was to stymie outside interference.  That bitch would make damn sure one of Zeal’s group couldn’t walk up and smack it aside.” He winced and sucked in a hiss of air, “And I don’t know about you guys, but I’m not about to walk through a futuristic minefield.”   

Without warning, Adamant stepped forward, unafraid of whatever traps had been left for him to trigger.  “It’s okay,” he replied, turning his head to flash us a confident smirk, “As long as I get to dictate, I can’t lose.”   He took a deep breath and rolled his neck, getting in the zone. “I will reach and destroy that generator safely.”    

The air around his body glowed green as he walked at a brisk clip forward, leaving us all tense, waiting for something to detonate.  As expected, the ground erupted with fire, electricity, and jets of purple plasma. The ground shook and debris went flying in every direction as Adamant continued to stride through the hellish no-man’s land that the demolitionist had constructed.  

However, it had all been deliberately placed to stop anyone from disabling the force field’s generator.  With a goal that was diametrically opposed to his, all those munitions and advanced weaponry might have been rubber bands and water balloons.  The only ‘damage’ he took was his hair getting messy and his clothes being stained with dirt and ash. As Adamant approached the generator, he pressed a hand forward and it crumpled like a tin can under a hydraulic press.  Even though it was clearly made to endure tremendous abuse, it didn’t stand a chance against Adamant.  

Adamant, as if guided by external sources, reached forward and grabbed the crystal, crushing it in his fist; the thrumming stopped and the energy vanished, leaving silence.  As soon as he set the hunk of, now inert, rock down, Admant’s glow faded and he gave us a smile.  

He was right; as long as he got to choose his fights, he couldn’t lose.  But he was only powerful in incredibly narrow scopes; even if he could hold his own in a fight with Infinite, he had no way to accomplish the insane feats she was capable of.  No matter how hard he wanted to, I couldn’t see him warping a gigantic vessel through the void of space. I also hoped he wasn’t capable of replicating the phenomenon that Dragoon had described where Infinite almost suffocated her because she was too stressed. 

It made me worried about what would happen if I ended up too stressed.  Was I bound to kill someone when put under pressure?

“Fuck,” I hissed under my breath as my stump tightened again.  

Still, thanks to Adamant, we had our first real win all night.  Escaping and evading capture didn’t really feel like a win, especially with the death of Mutant.  But this… this was genuine damage inflicted against our opponents that would take time and resources to remedy.   

“So, now what?” Distortion asked, her snarky demeanor making a resurgence.  The only positive about Mutant’s death was that it had managed to shut her up for a little while and buy us a few hours of being snark-free.  I got the sense that grace period was expiring.  

“We go find Zeal,” Menagerie replied, “And we group up with whoever Serpentine has left.  We need the extra numbers, and hopefully something to eat.”  

“Amen to that,” Parasite grumbled, “But it means we are going to have to go deeper into the demolitionist’s thicket of doom.  Even if we don’t go into a building, we’re going to go past dozens of those charges from every which way. I’m assuming,” he continued, looking to Adamant, “That you can’t use a purpose indefinitely.”

He shook his head no.

“Okay, so he can’t be our eternal blast-proof man.  The next best thing would be to use Menagerie and Lightshow to make decoys.”

“But I’d rather not have you give me another round of CPR,” I muttered, massaging my chest.  The cracked ribs still hurt like hell and I was reminded of that fact every time I took a deep breath.  “And Menagerie is already way too pale to keep pushing herself. We can’t have her lapsing into another coma.”  

Despite her being the quietest among us, Menagerie was arguably the most fanatic.  This wasn’t the first time she’d nearly done herself in either: back on Tso’got she had thrown herself into a two-day coma because she animated all her drawing in a notebook to save us from Beleth and his gang.  I knew that if I didn’t remind her, she’d gladly knock herself out to try and avoid another loss. Even though we’d spent three weeks in space, Menagerie still felt the loss of Geyser like it had been yesterday. Between losing him and losing Mutant, I knew that Menagerie was willing to go all the way to keep our team alive.  

The last thing I wanted to do was lose another friend because she got stupid and hot-headed.  If I couldn’t risk using my power for fear of killing myself, neither could she. If I was going to have to live and be miserable, so would she.  Her glance back at me told me that she’d gotten my message loud and clear. Whether she liked it or not, I didn’t give a shit. Today was rough enough, and I wasn’t about to see someone else kill themselves.  

My visit with…whoever the fuck that alien was, had done a strangely good job of settling me down.  Where I had been panicked earlier and ready to just curl up and die, that thing had somehow reminded me it was okay to be alive and that it was okay to struggle and get up.  They said they knew my pain all too well and they had clearly recovered from that crippling loss. If that thing could manage it, why couldn’t I?

I knew it was an optimistic mode of thinking that was bound to take a huge hit in the coming hours, but for now I figured I might as well try not to be entirely fatalistic and hell bent on getting myself put into a shallow grave or into Eldritch’s meat storage.  

All eyes turned to Dragoon for leadership, and I could tell she was struggling. 

She was saved by a familiar voice calling after us, “If you want, I think I can help!” 

We all rounded, ready for a fight, but instead surprised to see the remarkably androgyny Interface sprinting after us.  

“How did—“

“I can sense electronics and the flow of electricity,” Interface explained, interrupting Dragoon, “Besides, obviously, I lied about how far away I was.  On the off chance someone was listening, I didn’t want them to know I was actually pretty close. Besides, I’m no good in a fight, not like what you guys have been doing.”  She glanced over at Adamant, “And, that guy set off like fifty different bombs. It wasn’t exactly hard to figure out where to go.”  

“How can you help?” Dragoon pressed, trying to keep Interface on task.  

They grinned and pointed a thumb backwards, “A few blocks back there’s one of those slug ships that the Trillodan were using as prisoner transports.  I can take it over and fly us over the place. Even if they rigged the buildings and ground to blow, I’m willing to bet they didn’t rig the sky to detonate since none of Serpentine can fly.”  

“It seems too good to be true,” Menagerie pointed out.  “Like we’re being suckered into a trap.”  

“Trillodan can be victims of oversight, too,” Parasite countered.  “As stupid powerful as they are, they sure as fuck aren’t perfect. Arrogance does make people prone to doing some dumb shit.”

“But this is a huge oversight,” Adamant countered.  “These are people who have been destroying planets for generations.  Surely they know a thing or two about prolonged engagements and war campaigns.”   

“But they weren’t expecting us to be in the shield,” Dragoon muttered, thinking out loud.  “They didn’t know your powers, but they knew ours. We were televised and recorded, put on display for everyone to marvel at.  But on Vuuldar, the infrastructure isn’t there. The information isn’t as readily broadcasted, and the Trillodan don’t have it.”  She looked up at Interface. “You sure you can pilot the thing?” 

Interface nodded. “Positive.  It has circuitry for me to entwine with and control.  As all powerful as they are, the Trillodan still use the same name-brand electricity to make their shit run.”  Interface looked at Dragoon as if they could see through her helmet. “I can feel the explosives that are hidden around here.  As good as that sensor in your helmet is, I’m going to be more accurate. Everything has to be open to receiving a signal and I can feel that.”  They waved their hands around, frustrated they couldn’t explain it any better. “Just, trust me. I can avoid walking into any kind of trap that the purple bitch left for you.”

“And since that crazy bitch melted one of them,” Distortion muttered, “They’re probably too pussy to come back and try again.”

Adamant gave her a sideways glare but didn’t admonish her.  She had a point; I had literally conjured a duplicate of Titan and melted away a third of the Trillodan juggernaut, Kalr.  It was likely giving them pause and making their approach much more cautious. The upside of not knowing much about my Alteration meant that they didn’t either.  

“Interface, grab that ship for us,” Dragoon declared after a moment.  

“Great!  That being said, I still don’t know where Zeal is,” the androgyny Adapted cautioned.  

“All we have to do is navigate towards the middle and see where there is an absence of explosives.  If we can find a void, we can probably assume that Zeal has set up shop.” 

Interface nodded, satisfied and took a deep breath before sprinting back up the road.  

“This feels suspicious,” Eldritch muttered, “Like way too convenient.  Why would they leave a prison transport parked towards the fringes of their own labyrinth?”

“It’d keep Zeal from smashing it,” Exchange said, speaking for the first time in a while.  “If he’s as strong as you guys say, putting anything near him is a good way to just cause damage.”

I shrugged. “Maybe they’re just arrogant and knew he’d never get a chance to waltz out here and take it.  Parasite isn’t wrong about them being arrogant… I mean, over confidence has been a pretty common thing for the Trillodan we’ve encountered.  They think they’re better than us, and they’re kind of right in some ways.” I debated mentioning body count, but that seemed like a slight against my dearly departed friend. 

Even without expounding further, the message was well received.  So far not one of us had been able to go up against those operatives.  Even fighting them two on one hadn’t yielded us much success. We’d managed to claim a few arms, but knowing the Trillodan, they were going to be able to have a new one before the morning.  We might have super powers but they had technology and experience closing the gap. The only insurmountable spikes in power we’d managed involved Eldritch burning the mass from ten people and me taxing my body so hard that I lapsed into cardiac arrest.  

And right now, neither of those abrupt spikes in power was available to us.  Adamant could likely set himself to win against one of the operatives, but I wasn’t sure if he could make himself immune to two or three at once.  

The conversation was cut by a thrum disturbing the otherwise still night as a ship zipped over to us.  Inside, Interface’s body was unconscious in the driver’s seat, strapped in to make sure they couldn’t go flopping around while they flew. 

“All aboard,” a speaker squawked at us, “And do hold on.  Trillodan technology is a little bit finicky. Using a standard combustion engine is easy enough, but this fucking thing uses electromagnetism to stay aloft.  It could be a little bumpy while I figure it out.”

“Thank God it’s built like a tank then,” I replied.  I couldn’t help but smile a little; making a quick jab like that felt so strangely normal and so much more like me given the last few hours.  It was ruined by Interface making a wobbly ascent and sending me tumbling into a wall; I slammed against my stump and nearly screamed as pain shot through the left side of my body.  My teeth grinded together as I clenched my jaw to endure, to bear with the pain. Dragoon still believed in me even with the Alteration, and Parasite had exhausted himself to revive me.  

They couldn’t know how much pain I was in.  I couldn’t let them worry about me. Nobody had time for that shit.

While we hovered above the city, I looked on with morbid curiosity at the still form of Interface.  Taking a few steps forward, I poked their shoulder, expecting some kind of automatic response from the vacant shell of a body.  

“Weird, isn’t it?” a quiet voice asked from the ships speaker.  I noticed that Interface only used the speaker right above my head, still keeping the conversation private.

“Definitely.  You ever worry someone’s going to kill your body while you’re inside a machine?” 

“All the time.  But, you learn how to hide yourself when you’re me.” 

I looked down at the figure, still trying to discern exactly what gender Interface was.  It was beginning to irk me that I couldn’t get a read on them.  

“You can try,” that voice laughed quietly, “But you’ll be guessing for a long time.”

“How did you know?” I asked, unsure of where I looked to ‘make eye contact’ with Interface.  I finally settled on the dashboard of foreign controls.  

“You think I don’t notice the way people scrutinize me and try to decide what kind of person I am?  Please, people have been doing it since I was fourteen.”

I glanced at the figure, realizing that I couldn’t determine their age either.  “And you’re…how old now?”

“Twenty-two.  I know, I look like I’m still sixteen.”

“Some people pay good money to keep looking young,” I pointed out as I took a step forward and looked out through the ships forward display.  The Trillodan vessel didn’t have any windows, instead opting to have a camera feed input to simulate what a pane of glass would reveal. It was a bit chilling to look out and see this whole swath of city just…desolate.  No activity, no one driving around, nothing. Even though the clusters of buildings would be considered slums back on Tso’got, the disconcerting bit was how lifeless it all was.  

I couldn’t help but wonder how many other innocent people had been used as fuel to make those insidious slimes the Trillodan had used against us.  We’d seen easily forty people melted alive to construct one massive ooze, but those people could have all come from a single block or two. The force field was a six block radius; how many other innocent people had been dissolved because the Trillodan wanted another weapon to throw at Serpentine and Stampede?     

Interface wasn’t flying straight but instead doing a slow spiral in, using their own natural detection to try and pinpoint any location that wasn’t riddled with explosives to signify where our Adapted comrades might be.  

“So, you nearly died, and recently too,” the voice said through the speaker with alarming confidence. 

I glared back at the limp form strapped to the chair. “How?”

“I just kind of…know.”  

My glare intensified. “Doesn’t answer my question.”  

There was a pause as the ship dipped for a moment before pulling back up. “Sorry, though I might have found it,” Interface announced to everyone before cutting back to the single speaker near me.  “I recognize when people are different.”

“That doesn’t have anything to do with your Adaptation,” I countered.  “Your thing is about detecting electricity, isn’t it?” 

“True, but it does have to do with my personality.”

I wanted to call the Projector ridiculous, but I remembered what Exchange had said about the person from Stampede who had known that he was going to become an Adapted.  She had apparently been neurodivergent and that had been adjust when she had undergone changes thanks to Adapting. It wasn’t too big a stretch that Interface had experienced something similar.  

“Growing up, I learned how to spot people who were hiding something they were ashamed of: trans people, homosexuals, adulterers, criminals, or any other reason you can be self-loathing.  Bad or good, I knew how to spot people who were not being true to themselves. Part of the reason I’m so fluid is because I don’t know who I want to be. When you aren’t happy in your own skin, you learn how to spot it in others.”  

“I’m—“

“I’ve spent a lot of time around Infinite,” Interface said, their generally upbeat tone of voice entirely flattened.  “There’s things she’s done that are only possible BECAUSE she’s Infinite…but that doesn’t mean she likes who she is.” There was a pause as Interface lowered the ship, again resulting in a disappointing result.  “She isn’t the only Altered I know, and I’m well aware of what kind of threats an Alteration can pose to you. She might not almost kill herself, but she’s nearly killed several people around her. Infinite, at her core, is a sweetheart who was given the biggest weapon in history and she’s afraid of it.”

Interface didn’t have to announce the parallel to myself for me to understand their point.  “But, how do you know I almost died,” I whispered. 

“Too upbeat,” Interface replied, “You’re too happy given what happened to Mutant and for what happened to you.  I wasn’t expecting you to crack a joke at all, and you’ve made several in my presence. You’re doing your best to counter balance and trick yourself into believing you’re okay.”

“You say it like it’s a bad thing.”

There was another pause as the androgyous Projector thought about what to say. “No.  But, it’s dangerous. When push comes to shove, don’t be dumb and get a hero complex.”

I shook my head. “I won’t.  And you’re not wrong, but it isn’t just nearly dying that woke me up.  I…saw something. Dragoon saw it too earlier: the person who made the Adapted.  Or, at least the guy who played an integral part in creating us.”

For once, something seemed to completely baffle Interface.  “Wait…made us? What? How… I mean, what?” 

“Tell you later,” I said, “Because I don’t want to have to repeat myself to Titan and everyone else.  You know he’s going to want to know.” 

I felt like I could feel Interface pouting through the machinery, but they didn’t offer me a rebuttal.  Instead, our pilot addressed the whole ship. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are finally here,” Interface announced over the speakers of the ship, setting us down in front of what looked like people’s attempt at making a school. 

Made of cheap wood that was rotting and paint that chipping away, this building looked as much like a drug den as it did a place of education. But the little play structures in the yard around it, the little murals, it was clear what the people here were aiming for. My parents told me that they would give so much for things to feel familiar again. Sure, the kids didn’t know, but they remembered all too well how things differed.

Even though kids had never seen a school on Earth, the people who built it wanted to preserve that little bit of their culture. It was unfortunate that it had gotten so little maintenance over the years and had fallen into disarray. 

As the ship set down, Parasite was pushed forward, and I saw why. 

Someone rushed out at us at a blinding speed; what was disarming was that his whole torso had been contorted into a massive mouth. It was as if his ribs had been bent out of shape and formed into a fucked up set of jagged teeth.

“We’re friendly!” Parasite shouted as he rolled to the side, avoiding a massive chomp. “We are the Rogue Sentries,” he exclaimed, narrowly evading a bite that would have torn his arm clean off, “We are here to see Zeal!” 

“Gnaw, enough!” A commanding voice boomed from the front of the school. 

The man with the teeth in his torso stopped and stumbled forward as if he had been smacked upside the head. As soon as he seemed to be in control of himself again, his chest twisted and reset itself with a series of nauseating crunches. 

When his torso wasn’t a twisted mass of teeth, Gnaw was actually fairly well put together. He was average height and a bit stocky, but it was clear that there was plenty of muscle to pack a punch there. His face was strangely thin despite the rest of him being a bit thicker, and his voice was chain-smoker scratchy as he muttered a quick apology to Parasite. 

“You must be Zeal,” Dragoon said, stepping off the ship and stepping past our fighter.

“And you must be Dragoon.”  My attention turned to the man lingering in the doorway. He was tall, slender, and I could feel the magnetic confidence from 20 meters away. He had the chiseled jaw, the long blonde hair, and somehow a dapper look that made you want to listen to him. While Gnaw wore a pair of shorts and not much else, Zeal was wearing a dress shirt, slacks, and what looked like a reinforced peacoat.

How the fuck was he still so clean? There wasn’t a spot on the man, like he was magically impervious to dirt and grime. 

Zeal regarded Dragoon with a bit of suspicion as she staggered forward.  “You’re injured, and you were never supposed to end up coming here. You must have had quite the day.”

“Same goes for you.  I’m sure that you’ve noticed we are stuck here for now,” Dragoon replied, stopping about ten paces away from the leader of Serpentine.  “Interface, let them know what happened.”  

The androgyny Projector waved. “Zellig paid a visit to us up on the ship.  It was um…less than ideal. Turns out the ship that we made wasn’t built to withstand the Trillodan shelling it over and over again.”  

Zeal grinned a little, which was peculiar given what Interface had just told him.  “But, let me guess, our overlord Titan survived?”

Interface frowned, clearly perturbed with his choice of words. “Titan wasn’t on board when the ship was attacked.  Infinite was, but she couldn’t save the people with her and the ship itself.”  

“And we’re going to do what now?” Zeal asked as a woman walked out of the door behind him.  She was slender and wearing a bodysuit that had a few armored plates protecting her vitals. The woman had an intense stare, her eyes flicking between everyone behind Dragoon, as if she was looking for some reason to pick a fight.  “Does Titan have a plan, or is he ready to accept that this is too big a game for him to be playing?” Zeal said, his face curling into a sinister smile.  

I was finding him much less attractive now.  

Dragoon took a step forward, surprising the head of Serpentine. “Interface knows where Titan is.  We are going to get there and figure out a way off this shitty planet.”

“And how—”

“The evacuation ships,” Dragoon interrupted, answering his unfinished question, “I can repair them.  They were made to be damn near invincible, but they were built at the top of a space elevator and left hanging out in orbit on purpose.   If they were ever to touch down, they weren’t going to escape a planet’s gravitational pull; however, they will survive the impact and stay pretty damn intact.”

Zeal was curious enough not to interrupt or inject his own cynical musings as she paused to take a breath.  

“Most of the weight from those ships was due to cryo storage.  Heavy pods, tons of space required to seal most passengers. We can cut that out since we don’t need prolonged stay in transit.  It took people up to two decades to get to Marn but, thanks to Infinite, we can do it in a matter of weeks.”  

“Your plan is to just reduce the weight to make it able to fly?  That seems rather optimistic of you. I thought you were supposed to be some kind of master engineer.”

Dragoon shook her head. “You’re thinking too narrow.  I’m planning to cut the weight and recruit other Adapted to make it work. We’ll need rocket fuel, and Chemtrail can make fuel that would melt a modern engine.  Even though I can overhaul and engine to be efficient and durable, I will take advantage of Toolkit to make it as close to perfect as possible. And to make sure nothing melts , Armorsmith will use her ability to make metals durable and resistant to heat.”  Dragoon took her helmet, wincing as she tucked it under her bum arm for a moment. “But lastly, I’m going to need your help.”

Zeal raised an eyebrow. “Me?  Why?” 

“Because I know that your gift can make people withstand Overexposure for a lot longer than normal.  I know that Armorsmith will exhaust herself long before we can get a fully fortified ship; I need you to come with us to see this through and get us off world.” 

Zeal barked a laugh out, like some heckler in a crowd.  “You think I have any interest in going back with you? You think we want to keep losing our people thanks to Titan’s shitty war?”  His smile turned to a sneer. “So how about you take your naive idealism and get the fuck out of here. I’m plenty happy standing by myself.  Unlike you all, I don’t feel a need to be at that self-aggrandizing windbags beck and call.”

Serpentine had five people when we had showed up on Vuuldar; the fact we only saw three was damning.

“If Titan wants me to come with, he can come get me himself.  Until then, piss off.”  

As Zeal turned around, dismissing us, Parasite stepped forward and raised his voice, “How about you stop being a coward?”

The woman in the doorway glared daggers at Parasite, her first words to us a  banshee’s shriek. “How dare—”

Zeal stopped her with a raise of his hand. “Enough, Dancer.”  He took two large strides towards Parasite. “I know of you and your little band of misfits.  I know what you do,” he muttered, reproachful, “Think twice before you open your fucking mouth again.”  

Everyone on our side of the line was mortified when Parasite started laughing.  “God you’re fucking pathetic,” he cackled. “Such a big man, content to hide like a pussy.”    

Zeal was so baffled it looked like he was about to have an aneurysm. 

“I mean, just hiding out here, in a fucking run down school?  That’s the legacy you’re going to leave behind here, Zeal? This is where you’re making your last stand?  What a joke!” 

“You fucking—”

Parasite stepped past Dragoon, making sure all eyes were on him.  “You are such a pathetic, washed up, worn out, sad sack waste of space.  And normally I wouldn’t waste a second on a loser like you. But, Dragoon says she needs you to do something.  So, Zeal, if you’re not too big a pussy, how about a little wager. You and me, man to man. When you lose, you and your idiot cronies come with us.”  

Zeal’s face literally twitched with rage as he replied, “Fine by me.”

I glanced at Dragoon, and saw a surprisingly calm expression on her face.  Parasite was by far the least injured among us, and this was his arena. Zeal was an Enhancer who adjusted his own attributes at the cost of his sanity, but he was always forced to engage in a fist fight.  What made him so dangerous was that he could infect others with his power; Serpentine as a group were all gifted with mild Enhancer powers beyond whatever they had previously. That was what set them up so well as a collective.  

Parasite had been clever enough to play to his arrogance and nullified one huge aspect of Zeal’s power.  Despite his penchant as a jester, Parasite was a clever bastard. He’d just suckered Zeal into a fight with a handicap and he’d already managed to put him on emotional tilt before they had even started.  

But, even though I’d seen him go toe-to-toe with some heavy hitters, I’d also seen him beaten to shit more than once.  And Zeal…well, you didn’t get a reputation like his for nothing. He was a monster who had been doing this for almost as long as Titan and been incredibly successful doing it.  There were plenty of bodies in his wake and one more wasn’t going to bother him a single bit.  

As I watched Parasite square off against him, I was worried that our fighter had bitten off more than he could chew. 

Knowing Zeal, if he won, he wasn’t going to make his victory clean, and Parasite definitely knew the wager he had made.  

Either Parasite could knock out Zeal, or we were about to watch another teammate die.    


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