(Eldritch – 12/4/80)
No one really spoke, and no one had for hours it felt like. The only bit of conversation we had was right after Distortion teleported the lot of us nearly four kilometers away. It was only thanks to Zeal’s power that she hadn’t killed herself in the process. From there, it was just a matter of finding a set of wheels and getting the fuck out of NaMein. That shitty city had taken enough from all of us; all of us were eager to be free of it.
Now, we were all jammed together in a truck, quiet as a group of church mice. Interface was passed out in the driver’s seat, operating the truck with an Adaptation as opposed to just driving like a normal person. Lightshow was riding shotgun with her legs pulled to her chest, and she’d been that way for easily an hour. Menagerie had been sitting on Lightshow’s lap for a while but had let herself slink down to the floor by Lightshow’s feet to give herself room to draw for now. In the backseat, I was pressed against Dragoon and Exchange and we were doing our best to not step on Adamant who we’d laid on the floor.
In the bed of the truck, the members of Serpentine were all secured down against some pallets of wood so they didn’t bounce out and onto the road. Gnaw and Dancer were still breathing, but just barely; thanks to Zeal’s power providing durability, they had managed to survive and we’d done a crude job stopping the bleeding via cauterization. The head of Serpentine, Zeal, had lapsed into a heavy sleep after we’d managed to excise the Trillodan device that cut off nervous impulse; Warden had managed to cut into him right before it began ensnaring his spine. Unfortunately, loaning power to so many others had Overexposed him. For now, he was out of commission and we had no idea for how long.
Trample was weakened from her own self-inflicted blood loss and Warden was fatigued, but neither was in such critical state like Gnaw or Dancer were fortunately. Distortion was back with them, remaining unnaturally quiet. After Dragoon had torn the device off her neck, she had lost much of the control of her left side; her arrogant and bitchy demeanor had crumbled when Exchange had to help her hobble into a truck bed. Our hope was that the real Organelle could help undo whatever damage Dragoon had inflicted in her haste. We had debated having Lightshow conjure the Adapted medic, but without Zeal to steady her, we dared not risk sending her into cardiac arrest again.
Even though I wasn’t wounded or maimed like so many others, I felt a dull throb throughout my whole body. It was like a constant gnawing, a reminder that I had watched Zellig pick up Murphy like he was some kind of reward.
Every time my eyes closed, that image flashed to the front of my brain and shocked me awake. We had been so close to overpowering Zellig, so close to beating down the Trillodan for once, and then it was snatched away from us. It had only taken seconds for everything to crumble and break down. Zellig had suckered us into a fight that he knew he’d win; even though Interface had made it difficult for him to fight, the Trillodan commander had managed to isolate himself and be free of their influence.
What wore at me was that I hadn’t done all I could.
I hadn’t been able to develop a second mutation to become resistant to the electricity that Zellig was slinging around. I hadn’t been able to grow enough to endure the blows from his tesla cannon. I hadn’t been able to make myself crystalline and nearly indestructible again. It had been easy for him to rip me apart…again.
And it meant I hadn’t been able to save Murphy. It meant I watched as we were forced to abandon my best friend in the world.
Part of me wanted to hate Dragoon, wanted to scream and bite and kick at her because we should have done more. But, the rational part of me knew that she was right to get us out of there. We’d lost. Again. Fighting was only going to make it worse.
But, looking at her now, she felt the same way. She was doubting herself, wondering if there wasn’t more we could have done. If she was right to make that call.
“It still doesn’t feel real,” I said.
“No,” she agreed.
“Do you think we’ll be able to find him? To rescue him?”
Alexis shook her head, “I don’t think so. Not if we’re being real. They brought a massive ship here; Murphy’s on his way there if not already up in captivity. The only saving grace is we know they won’t torture him.”
My gaze went to Lightshow; her Alteration likely made the Trillodan forces nervous. She had gone from someone negligible to the most damning and dangerous multi-purpose tool among us. She could conjure anyone which allowed her to do just about anything. Hell, she had conjured Titan. It was probably what prompted Zellig himself to attack us.
He wasn’t going to let himself lose his precious elite soldiers due to one weird outlier. He would see the problem dealt with himself. Instead of dealing with Lightshow though, Zellig kept his guaranteed prize. I half wonder if he planned to sucker us back in by using our best friend as bait.
It was for the best that Alexis could be cold and pragmatic; if I were in charge I would have gotten myself captured alongside him.
“We have to try and find him,” I whispered, not wanting to accept reality. “If they aren’t torturing him, then that means-“
“Nick,” Alexis said, “He’s gone.”
It felt like a kick to the sternum to hear her say it so bluntly. “How is your arm doing?”
She gently massaged the discolored and limp arm, wincing at the touch. “It’s a mess. I’m going to need Organelle to sort it out for me. Hopefully there won’t be too many lasting effects of it being jerked around and bounced around while broken.” Alexis laid her head back, “What a fucking day.”
“It might not even be over,” Menagerie said from the floor, “Who knows if the Trillodan are tracking us as we drive.”
“Doubt it,” a voice replied through the truck’s radio. “If they were tracking us, we’d already have been caught. Zellig wouldn’t let us go. If they can track us, I’m sure they can find anyone else. No reason to let us get close to other people and group up.”
“Well, small miracles,” Alexis muttered. “At least something will go right today. Interface, how much farther can you take us before you need more gasoline?”
“Another two hours,” the radio replied, “Then I’ll need Lightshow to conjure Chemtrail or someone else who can make gasoline.”
There was a small nod from Lightshow and Dragoon didn’t push it. She felt just as guilty as we did about losing Murphy, especially since he was the one who refused to quit on her when her heart stopped.
“I kind of assumed we’d live through this as a team,” I said. “We’d stood up to Beleth and Shockwave and managed to avoid dying.”
“Me too,” Alexis agreed. “But, the Trillodan, they’re something else entirely. Zellig is something else entirely.”
I didn’t have any kind of satisfying response to that. She was right: we were so far out of our element.
“On Tso’got,” Interface said, “We had a lot of surprises to pull out, and a lot of framework set up. Titan planned for years and worked pretty quietly to gather people to his cause. That was why we managed to escape so easily. But now, we’re all out of our comfort zone. We don’t have that kind of control or set up.”
“And that’s why we’re losing,” Lightshow whispered.
“Drag, stop. Mutant and Parasite, in a single fucking day! And what kind of damage have we done? We claimed a couple limbs?” Lightshow snapped, “Be honest. We sure as fuck aren’t winning.”
To my surprise, our captain didn’t have a reply. Alexis didn’t have a reason that Lightshow was wrong. She didn’t have a pragmatic answer to quiet Lightshow’s frustration. After enduring every obstacle and pushing us through the most hellish nightmare, my friend was finally out of stamina, out of drive to keep pushing. Dragoon, Alexis Trent, my friend and captain, was done being the relentless and driving voice that kept us all motivated.
In some ways, she’d lost the most. The rest of us lost a friend but Alexis lost her friend and lost her own skin. She’s put blood and effort into making that suit, and Jai had turned it to a puddle of slag with a single bullet. The only part she had managed to salvage was her railgun. Without her suit to power the thing it was just a fancy paperweight. She had also sustained some of the worst injuries, and she didn’t have a way to heal. Beyond the arm being shattered, she’d had several holes punched in her by Zellig’s lieutenant, Tol. Dragoon was likely fighting infection, fatigue, excruciating pain, and grief all at the same time.
That she hadn’t caved before now was impressive.
“You have us at least,” Exchange croaked, his throat still raw thanks to whatever Jai had thrown in his face. “You lost two but gained three.”
“And Serpentine went even in terms of gained and lost,” Interface said.
“Still not a great record,” Lightshow grumbled.
“At least I did some damage to Jai,” Exchange said. Forever the optimist, I was a bit glad we had Exchange riding with us. He was still wildly uncomfortable with the two members of Stampede and insisted that he’d rather stay next to Adamant. While the hero worship wasn’t healthy, we were all too exhausted to argue. But his relentlessly positive demeanor was a good foil to Lightshow. “No matter how you twist it, I felt things break under his armor.”
“It’s just a shame we didn’t kill him,” Dragoon groaned, “He’s a big fucking nuisance for us. It’s like he was made to be disruptive.”
“They’re all nasty in their own way,” I said, “But I don’t think he’d be any better to deal with than Tol or Kalr.”
She shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t know. Either way, I don’t want to fight someone who can liquidate my suit with a single bullet. I’d rather have Tol punch me full of holes again instead. At least that won’t take me days to rebuild. Now I’m fucking useless in a fight and I’m vulnerable. Just terrific.”
“Speaking of useless and vulnerable,” I said, “What do we do about the guy on the floor? I don’t think Adamant would like any of us trying to operate on his spine.” While we had gotten the Trillodan spinal-snare out of Distortion and Zeal, Adamant was still paralyzed thanks to that insidious little contraption. But, in the aftermath of what happened to Distortion, we had held off on possibly paralyzing Adamant.
“We take him to Infinite,” the car replied, “Organelle could probably play doctor well enough to get it out, but she’s not a surgeon and if we can avoid nerve damage, we should. Infinite can probably make some power combination to melt the stuff away.”
“Couldn’t you possess the thing?” Menagerie asked.
“Maybe. But things are easiest to control when I know their function. Piloting machines isn’t like walking around, I have to know what I’m doing at least to some degree; if I take control and try to move the wrong direction, I dig those cords deeper into his spine and God knows what kind of damage I end up doing.” Interface filled the void when no one kept talking. “You know, you guys can get some sleep. I’m not going to pass out at the wheel or anything; I don’t need to sleep when I’m controlling something.”
“Thanks, but I don’t really want to close my eyes anymore,” I said.
“Same,” Dragoon echoed.
Exchange was arguably the smartest person in the cab and began lightly snoring a moment later. Not too long afterward, Menagerie’s head dropped forward and rested next to Lightshow’s thigh.
“I’m sorry,” Lightshow said after a while.
Dragoon shook her head. “I know. It’s okay.”
“I just… I just wish I had managed to do more, you know?” she said. “I just wish that I’d been stronger. I wish I could have pushed myself a little bit farther. I wish we could have done something for him.”
I knew that Lightshow was talking about herself, but I felt like those words were pointed at me. I was fucking Eldritch, the unstoppable monster who was responsible for Feast Day. I was the only person who had stood up to Titan and Forest and lived to talk about it. I was supposed to be this colossus, this unstoppable wall of muscle…and I had done shit all. Gnaw and Dancer had killed or injured probably ten soldiers without me. I’d managed to kill half a dozen of them and then ended up bulldozed by that weapon that Zellig had.
What fucking good was I?
I reached back into my mind, digging for the monster under my skin, knowing full well that Eldritch was there. I turned my frustration towards it, prompting it to move, to answer for itself and let me know why the fuck it hadn’t dug deeper into that well of power I knew existed.
I screamed internally, demanding to know why the hell we’d held back.
Because we weren’t going to die there.
I sank my teeth into my lip to avoid screaming out loud. How could that possibly be justification? How could letting my friend be a viable option?
We preserve the host. We ensure that you survive and fight. What happened with the crystalline structure was out of desperation. It was foreign, painful, something else that we don’t want to experience. We did it because you put both of us at risk. Your friend’s well-being isn’t our concern, it’s yours. We are the passenger, you are the host. We do what is necessary for you.
If there was no one around, I would have cussed out loud Eldritch. I would have vocally condemned it for being so selfish and stingy. But, it was a Neklim. It was a predatory animal that was used to fending for itself. The best I could do was shout internally that my friend’s survival is paramount. Without them, we would die, no matter how big we managed to get.
I got the sense that Eldritch was bristling at the idea of needing to give a shit about anyone, but I didn’t care. I was done being influenced by something that was mine to control. The swirling mass of black tendrils was right: I was the host. It did not exist without my say so. Eldritch starved without me.
Eldritch was mine to wield, mine to control.
“You think Titan knew any of this shit was going to happen when he started planning?” Lightshow asked. “Do you think he knew what kind of resistance the Trillodan would bring or how huge this would all end up being?”
“Doubt it,” Interface said. “Most of his plan involved getting Adapted together on Tso’got and getting people all drawn to a common banner. I think he was expecting to have another month or two to squeeze information out of Big Picture and Clairvoyant before any kind of war started happening. I think he’s flying blind, just like the rest of us.”
Dragoon glanced at the limp body in the driver’s seat, “Interface, do you think that devoting yourself to Titan’s cause was worth it?”
There was an uncomfortable silence that followed her question. Interface was quick witted and always able to throw out a reply, but this had confounded her. “A long time ago,” they finally said, “I remember him talking about timelines. I remember him saying that eventually this was going to happen. We were too hot a commodity, too unique a novelty for the Trillodan to ignore us forever. All it would take is one spectacular fight and it would finally pique their interest.”
“Is that something Clairvoyant saw?”
“Different versions,” Interface answered. “Clairvoyant always saw them coming, but as to what prompted their arrival varied dramatically. A fight between Psycho and Beleth, a massive clash between Serpentine and Black Mass, or several different people being Altered. For a long time Titan was terrified because the most common vision was Infinite wiping out a swath of a city again.”
“Again?” I asked, “What do you mean again?”
I had no idea that a pick-up could sigh up until that point. “Infinite, when she Altered, killed a hundred and thirty-five people in fifteen seconds. Dragoon was almost a victim of the same kind of phenomenon.”
“That black mist,” Dragoon whispered, aghast, “What-”
“When she Altered, she flooded a whole block with the stuff. The whole surrounding area was quarantined because people assumed it was some kind of biological attack. As powerful as Infinite is, she’s unstable. If she loses control, she kills everything around her like some kind of nervous response. Whatever that shit is, it basically causes organs to fail. For a long time, Clairvoyant saw Infinite wiping out a big chunk of some city–we were guessing Manda.”
“Instead you got me,” I said.
“Instead you were the trigger,” Interface agreed. “About the time you guys started fighting so brazenly with Imperium, Clairvoyant started seeing you in her visions.”
“And no one stopped me. Why didn’t Titan do anything to stop me if I was such a threat?”
“Because he was tending to Infinite,” Dragoon realized. “That’s why it took him and Forest so long to show up on Feast Day, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Interface replied. “Clairvoyant saw three visions of you and three of Infinite. Titan gambled and went to Infinite, knowing full well that if she went off the reservation she could kill an entire city on her own.”
“Instead he let me eat all of downtown,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief. “Why didn’t he tell me? Why wasn’t there any warning? Why didn’t he get involved earlier?”
“Titan never interfered with our lives,” Alexis said, “It’s part of why we liked him. He never foisted himself on others. He wasn’t going to change your life forever on a possibility.”
“What good would knowing do?” Interface asked. “Would it be better if Infinite had been the one to kill people instead of you?”
“Yes! No? I don’t know!” I said, exasperated. “I just…I wish we didn’t always seem in the dark. As much as I don’t trust him, I think Zeal had a point: Titan doesn’t give us the whole picture. He never lets us know everything.”
“Probably intentionally,” Dragoon said. “If we all know everything and someone gets caught, the Trillodan have access to that information. If the vision Rebecca had is true, then the Trillodan can literally extract memories from us.”
Lightshow rubbed her stump, “I believe that weird alien personally. And hopefully, unlike Titan, he provides us with some answers when we finally get to meet.”
There was admittedly a little bit of jealousy on my part since they got to have premonitions and engagements with the person who was responsible for creating us. I wanted to get some kind of insight into what the hell we were, and why my power was so different compared to everyone else. Why was there a divide between ‘Eldritch’ and the real me? Why had that divide even come into being?
“Nick,” Alexis said softly, “I know I shouldn’t ask but-”
“You’re afraid of me losing control again,” I acknowledge. “No. I don’t have anything to burn anyways.”
“Maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing,” Lightshow said, “All we have to do is point him at the Trillodan and let the monster do its thing. Maybe we should have you just fly off the fucking handle, except this time we help you, not hinder you.”
“Everytime we up the ante with the Trillodan, they raise the bar too,” Alexis replied, “I don’t know that repeating Feast Day will go so well for anyone. Sure, he’d kill a whole lot of stuff, but what would they do in response? Call down some kind of artillery strike from orbit?”
“When Zellig and his cronies attacked the ship in orbit, Guardian could only take about three hits from the Trillodan artillery before blacking out,” Interface said, “And I get the sense that if they wanted to do more damage, the Crimson City that Zellig and his murderous crew came in on can probably do more. I hate to be the voice of restraint, but even if they can’t bring Eldritch down, they can simply enact Protocol 37.”
No matter how big a weapon we had, they had one bigger. Even if Infinite or I went completely berserk, Zellig had an answer.
“Worrying about it isn’t going to help anyone,” Alexis said, letting out a yawn. “We’ll figure something out later.” She leaned forward, resting her head against my shoulder; she was asleep in a few seconds, injury and fatigue finally too much for her to simply push aside and ignore. Part of me was a little uncomfortable with her leaning against me, but I didn’t bother disturbing her. Our weird romantic entanglement was way down the list of priorities.
Another slow and steady breathing signified Lightshow finally passing out. I felt a little awkward being alone with Interface, but I wasn’t as tired as everyone else; unlike them, my Adaptation didn’t leave me drained. I was still too hopped up on adrenaline to sleep.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t do more for your friend,” Interface said. “I really did try.”
“I know. We all did. We just…we were never going to win. I think the only way we could have beat Zellig is with me being way bigger, or with Adamant on his feet. But, Zellig planned around us. And we’re just out of our element. This is what they do, right?”
“I guess so.”
The silence that followed was almost painful. “So,” I said, reaching for anything to fill the void, “How did you Adapt?”
“Weirdly personal and out of left field,” Interface replied.
“Dude, I’m just-”
“You’re going to assign a male gender pronoun to me now?” Interface harped.
I felt my cheeks turn red. “Sorry.”
Hearing a car chuckle was odd. “Don’t worry, I’m just fucking with you, Eldritch.”
“But speaking of pronoun-”
“Depends on the day,” Interface replied. “Some days I’m a guy. Some days, a girl. And some days, I have no fucking clue. It’s like I wake up in a different skin every morning.”
“That sounds exhausting.”
“It is,” Interface said. “Eventually, I quit giving a shit. Trying to fit into boxes someone else made was just too time consuming. I’m just Interface now. Or Jamie if we’re close.” They paused for a minute, “Part of the reason I dedicated myself to Titan’s cause, he got it. Tso’got was not the most friendly for any kind of queer person; Titan didn’t give a shit. That was refreshing. Years of spending so long exhausting myself being someone I’m not and then along comes this guy who didn’t give a fuck one way or the other.”
“He just cared about you being you. He didn’t care about all your weird baggage,” I said, relating immediately. “After Feast Day, everyone looked at me like I was a monster. The only people who didn’t were Murphy and Alexis, but they’re my best friends. They were going to have my back. But Geyser, Lightshow, Mutant, even Menagerie, they all looked at me like I was a monster. And then, Titan just walked in, and told everyone else that I was cool.”
I had never seriously thought about how much that meant to me. For someone to be so radically accepting even though I had nearly killed him. I was the first person who had nearly killed Titan, as far as I knew, and he didn’t care.
“I think that’s what makes Titan so powerful…” Interface said, alarmingly somber, “It isn’t his actual Adaptation. But, even though he’s so powerful, he still gets it. He totally understands how we feel. He knows what it’s like to be rejected, to feel beaten up, to feel broken. But, he knows how to rise above it all too. He knows how to reach out and incorporate others. Instead of just being content with a little clique like everyone else, he dared to ask what would happen if we all fought together.”
I thought about how I thought the girl sleeping on my shoulder had been too ambitious when we started out as Reckoners. Back then, I thought it was a wild idea to stand up to Imperium or Surface Dwellers. I thought she had been crazy for getting us involved in those fights. But, Interface was right: Dragoon’s line of thinking hadn’t expanded beyond our own clique. We were fighting for our little city. That was it.
Rogue Sentries had dared to dream about cleansing a city. Titan had dared to dream about cleansing the cosmos.
“I wish he didn’t leave us in the dark so much,” I said at length. “I hate feeling so left out of things.”
“He can be bad about that,” Interface admitted, “I mean, he is Adapted like the rest of us. Even for as ambitious and clever as he is, he has trust issues and quirks. Even though he’s well adjusted and mature, there’s still plenty wrong in his head.”
“Weird to think about. He seems so…perfect almost when you talk to him.”
“Gang leaders know how to look intimidating and in control constantly. Titan taught himself to always look composed. It made him a lot more approachable because he seemed confident but not hostile.”
“Never would have thought about the distinction,” I said, “Why have you spent so much time thinking about this sort of thing?”
“I’ve been working with Titan ever since I adapted at sixteen. I was a runaway, and, well, I spent a lot of time hanging on his every word. After a while, I started asking why I was doing it.”
“Do you think he can pull it off?”
Interface thought about it for a while. “I think if anyone can, he can. But, we’ll see.”
“I hope he can,” I said softly, “Because if he can’t…”
Interface didn’t add anything, both of us content to simply sit there in silence. On the edge of the horizon daylight started creeping over, slowly ushering in a new day.
Our first day on Vuuldar had cost us two of our teammates. It had cost Lightshow an arm, left Dragoon battered, and crippled several of our new Adapted comrades. The day had cost us our escape plan and any real hope that we were ahead of the Trillodan. It had brought us face to face with our nemesis once again, and once again Eldritch and I had felt powerless against the Trillodan commander.
What was scariest was that I didn’t know if today would be worse.
I wasn’t sure how long I stared out the window until I started to slump forward, resting my head against the glass, eventually fading out.
All I saw was a nightmare: Zellig was holding my best friend up like some prize. Eldritch and I reached out, a massive tentacled limb stretching, and never quite able to reach my friend. We kept sliding away, screaming and begging for Murphy to wake up, for Dragoon to tell us to fight, to do anything.
Instead, we saw him get ripped away again.
I sat bolt upright, my heart hammering as I slammed a hand against the back of the driver’s seat, remembering where the hell I was. There was no more Zellig for now, it had just been a flashback, a distorted memory, a nightmare. That was all. I was in an overstuffed truck driving towards Titan and his inner circle of Adapted. The sun was much higher in the sky meaning I had actually managed to get some sleep, restless as it might have been.
Lightshow turned and gave me a nervous glance. “You okay?”
Looking out the windshield, I saw what looked like the outskirts of another sprawling city, much like NaMein. “Not really,” I answered, “But I will be.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Interface’s voice crackled through the speakers, “Over the water, to our right. Way off in the distance.”
“What the-” Lightshow whispered. Below her, Menagerie poked her head up to take a look.
“Oh, shit,” Menagerie said. “That’s a lot of them.”
“Uh-huh,” Interface agreed, “It doesn’t bode well.”
“What are you guys-” I started, interrupting myself when I finally saw what they were zeroing in on. Around the bay, there was a small fleet of ships flying around, and droves of aquatic vehicles were arriving on the beaches to greet them. “ Oh fuck.”
The Trillodan’s next move was going to take their Sycophants a step further. Instead of handing out guns and giving general instructions, the Trillodan were going to make them into a proper militia.
Zellig’s next test was our conviction. Could we stomach killing thousands of innocent people, or would we crumble?