I wasn’t sure how long I just sat there waiting outside of Organelle’s med-bay, but eventually Dragoon came out with a little more color in her face. Her arm was bound up in a cast but the rest of her seemed all considered. And fortunately for her, she’d also been given a change of clothes: a generic yellow t-shirt and pair of loose jeans.
“How do you feel?” I asked as she took a seat next to me on the floor.
“Shitty,” she said, not needing to remind me why.
“I don’t fucking think I can do this anymore,” she said, her voice barely a whisper. “I don’t think I can watch more of my friends die because we can’t fucking find any traction. I can’t watch someone else get their chest stomped in because the Trillodan have crazy super technology.” She let her head lean back and hit the wall as a tear rolled down her cheek. “And we’re going to lose more people. I’ve worked with like thirty different Adapted, talked and gotten along with so many others. If we keep going against them, I’m going to lose more friends.”
Her eyes softened as she looked down at the ground. “Fucking hell, Nick, I can’t lose you too.”
I didn’t have an honest answer to assuage her concerns. “We have to try though, right? We’re already committed.”
Alexis shook her head, “I don’t fucking know. I just…I don’t. How many more people do we need to lose before Titan realizes we can’t win this?”
“We need to keep fighting though. If we quit now, Murphy and Mutant will be lost for nothing.”
She scoffed, “Right. Fighting. I’ve got an arm broken enough that Organelle needs to see me multiple times to put it all back together. And even when I have all my limbs working, that bastard Jai dissolved my fucking armor! How am I going to fight anymore, Nick? I’m just going to build another suit?” She let out a shaky breath, trying to get a hold of herself and struggling.
“The second one was way better than the first, right?” I said optimistically. “Maybe the third will be able to go toe-to-toe with any of Zellig’s band of assholes.”
“When am I going to do it? I won’t have time to fight before we leave Vuuldar. I’m fucking done.”
I could tell from her tone that this reached farther than just her being out a suit of power-armor. She was done in every sense of the word. Alexis Trent had no more gas in the tank; Murphy being taken had been her breaking point. She was not going to be able to claw her way back, not for a while.
And nothing I could say was going to change her mind. But… there was one person who might be able to.
“I talked to Titan.”
She gave me a surprised look. “Really? About what?”
“Few things, and what he wants me to do when we end up fighting that Ellayan militia. He also told me he wants to talk to you.”
“Nick,” she said softly, “What does he want you to do?”
I pursed my lips, not looking forward to her reaction. “He’s planning to have me eat a third of them. He’s going to use me as a big enough threat so that Playlist and Soliloquy can help convince the rest of the Ellayan’s to not fight us. We just need a big enough motivator to scare everyone into line.”
“That’s fucking barbaric,” she hissed. “You can’t seriously be thinking about doing it!”
“I’m still on the fence,” I said. “There’s plenty of reason to go either way. No one else can do what I can.”
“Except Infinite. Your power isn’t Cognate based at all. She could replicate what you do. So could Spectre.”
“Spectre can copy powers but she doesn’t have all the nuance down which is why she generally takes powers from people she knows and has been around for a while. Do you really want someone getting my power for the first time and consuming that much material? And, if Infinite does it, what happens if she loses control? How do we stop her then?”
Alexis bit her tongue, visibly annoyed that I actually had a rebuttal. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, Titan was a few steps ahead of us and had reasoned out those possibilities. Using me gave the best option for control of the behemoth while still giving him a backup plan to deal with me should it be necessary.
“And what happens to you?”
My friend turned her hips to jam a finger into my chest. “What happens to you, Nick? What happens to your brain after you subject yourself to being that big again? That thing inside you, Eldritch, it got smarter after Feast Day. You changed after Feast Day. It fucked with you in a big way. And…”
I grabbed my shoulder and looked away, suddenly wrought with guilt. “You don’t want to lose me to that thing,” I said, finishing her worry. “But, how many people die if I don’t?”
“Let’s not talk about this any more,” she insisted.
She groaned and pushed herself up to her feet, “Alright, I’m going to go talk to Titan before Forest fucking shows up to drag me to him. I might as well go and see what he wants.”
I followed her and we stepped back outside and down the ramp, catching a glimpse of our head-honcho walking around the side of the ship, where it looked like it had chunks taken out.
As we joined them, we were greeted with a full scale operation going on.
“They’re already cutting out the old cryo-pods,” Dragoon muttered, “Lopping off sections of the ship we don’t need to make it more lightweight. He’s using Mizu like a fucking power tool,” she exclaiming, pointing up a few floors. Sure enough, the Projector from Imperium had basically a sawblade of water literally carving through metal as he whirled his arms around. Besides him, there were duplicates of the same girl in a pair of simple overalls and a red t-shirt with brown gloves.
Multi-task, the one woman workforce. Another Adapted who had been following Titan from the start, Multi-task could split herself into dozens of clones as long as she could assign a specific purpose to each one. With a whole ship to reconfigure, there was no shortage of jobs to complete.
“Dragoon,” Titan’s commanding voice called. He beckoned us over, watching the work progress. “I’m glad we finally get a chance to chat.”
“Big Picture had some ideas about what you would want to do. While he can’t get into the technical specifics like you can, it was an easy enough place to start. I’ve had Mizu and Forest ripping chunks of the ship free, and so far just the cryo-storages. Big Picture was sure we wouldn’t need those. What he wasn’t sure about was what else we could discard to give up more weight.”
She nodded, “So what do you need from me?”
Titan raised an eyebrow, “I need your expertise. Big Picture might be able to guess what you plan to do, but he has no idea what you do to fix the ship, he simply knows you’ll need to fix it up. The more specific the information, the less accurate he starts getting. Asking him how to fix or bolster the engine is setting us up for failure.”
“Dragoon. You are the best suited to this task. Toolkit builds upon initial designs. While she can help overhaul some of the existing technology, you and her work extraordinarily well together. You create a solution, she betters it. As much animosity as you two had, we need you to work together, and quickly.”
She stood there, silent for a moment, the din of ship repairs the only sound. “I can’t,” she finally admitted. “I can’t think straight.”
Titan opened his mouth but didn’t have a reply.
“I’m sorry, Titan, but after yesterday, I just don’t think I’m good enough. I lost my fucking suit because some idiot hit it with a vial of what was basically living acid. I watched one friend die and another be taken. My arm was shattered hard enough that Organelle couldn’t put it back together in one sitting.”
“I understand,” he said after a pregnant pause. “It’s not what I needed to hear though.”
Dragoon’s face twisted in disgust. “What you needed to hear? What the fuck is wrong-”
Her voice caught in her throat as he pulled a small syringe from his pocket. Dragoon drew away from it with a degree of disgust that suggested she was already familiar. Organelle had already been dosed with it, and it seemed like Titan planned for Dragoon to be next on the list of those give a power boost.
“I’m really sorry, Dragoon, about what happened yesterday. I heard about it from Interface. I wish I had time to let you grieve for Parasite, I really do. But,” he made a sweeping gesture to all the Adapted on the hill, “They all need you. None of us, for all our strength and power, have your brain. None of us are trained engineers or mechanics, not the way you are.”
“I…I had to leave him, Titan,” she whimpered, “I had to leave my friend behind. I had to watch Zellig walk off with him, like he was some kind of prize from an arcade. I had to tell Distortion to take us as far away as possible!”
I wanted an excuse to be mad at Titan and call him unfelling, call him monstrous; the truth was that he looked just as hurt as her. He knew exactly what she was experiencing and he was doing his level best to be empathetic.
But there was that cold pragmatism driving him forward. He hadn’t wanted to confront me and give me orders to repeat Feast Day, and he definitely hadn’t wanted to deprive Dragoon time to rest and grieve.
Still, he wasn’t wrong when he said there was no one else who could do what she did. Spectre and Infinite could theoretically recreate my power, though it was likely to be wild and uncontrolled if they did. But with Dragoon, she had worked and toiled for week and months to build her existing knowledge base and allow for her Adaptation to expand. Just as Murphy had pushed himself physically to increase his own might, Alexis had pushed her brain to allow her gift room to stretch its legs.
Infinite’s only limitation was copying Cognate powers so she was out, and Spectre wouldn’t have the same information base to work from. Even if she copied my friend’s gift, it would be like watching Dragoon try to learn from the ground up again.
When Titan said there was no one else who could do what she did, he was being literal.
“Please, Titan,” she pleaded, “I just…I can’t-”
“I can’t let everyone die. I’m sorry Dragoon, I truly am. But the longer we’re stuck here, the closer we hurtle to a future where we’re all captured or dead. Help me keep us from losing anyone else. Help us all avoid losing friends. Please.”
Tears started to well up as she looked to me for some kind of support, but I wasn’t sure what to say. As much as I wanted to take pity on my friend, Titan was right.
“I’m so tired,” she said. “I-”
His expression hardened, that cold pragmatism starting to cut through the soft empathy. “Dragoon, you can either administer the drug yourself or I can. I’m sorry, but we don’t have time to waste.”
“Titan I don’t…” I said, finally speaking up.
He silenced me with a glare, those red eyes of his driving me a step back.
Alexis looked between the syringe in his hand and Titan’s intense stare. She finally hung her head, defeated. “Give me the shot.”
He nodded, uncapping the needle as he pulled aside her shirt, exposing a shoulder. “I’m sorry for having to do this again,” he muttered. “I never wanted it to be like this.”
Before she could offer any last minute objections or voice any reservations, he jabbed the need and pressed the plunger down. Dragon gulped down any nerves she had and looked back at me, “Don’t do anything stupid while I’m busy, okay?”
I nodded, “Yeah, sure thing.”
Alexis let out a slow exhale and her pupils dilated, the drug taking effect. “Okay, let’s get to work.”
The best thing about managing to make it to the new base camp was the fact that there was actual food, and plenty of it. Apparently in the wake of the Ellayan’s militarizing, a majority of the human population had abandoned this town and driven south, getting the hell out of dodge before it all went to shit.
While looting a handful of small stores and co-ops wasn’t exactly the most noble thing to do, I wasn’t about to complain. A few of the Adapted from Vuuldar had set up a little grill on the side of the hill and were making burgers and quesadillas. While it was a bizarre mix of cuisines, I didn’t bother complaining. Collector was nice enough to provide more furniture for people to take a seat and I found myself sitting down next to the group of Altered who had once terrorized me on Tso’got.
Spectre, Bargain, and Pacifist flashed me a smile, Psycho himself just stared at his plate of food like he was trying to remember why he was supposed to be eating.
“Been a bit, Eldritch,” Bargain said as he made space for me at their table. “I hear you had a hell of a night.”
“Word spreads quickly,” I muttered.
“Doesn’t even need to spread. We saw you come up with Serpentine, and they’re down two. Everyone else is battered to shit. Plus, you’re missing two since last we saw you.”
I winced, not caring for his clinical evaluation of our groups status. “Yeah.”
“Bargain, take it easy,” Pacificist chided, “The guy’s had a hard day. The last thing he needs is to be reminded about how awful it was.”
It dawned on me that the Lunatics originally had five members. Dysfunction, the Projector who caused things to malfunction, was absent.
Bargain nodded and looked back to his food, trying to veil how much that weighed on him. “Yeah. Sorry.”
I decided to change the topic to anything else. Talking with a handful of people more broken than I was about losing friends seemed like a quick spiral into depression that I didn’t need. “What the hell is wrong with Psycho?”
He barely even registered that his name had been spoken.
“Nothing’s really wrong with him,” Spectre said. “He’s just got Cotard’s Syndrome today.”
“He thinks he’s dead,” Bargain explained. “Basically, Psycho doesn’t believe that he’s alive at all. We have to remind him to do basic activities because, well, why would a dead person need to eat and bathe? The upside,” he continued, predicting my question, “Is that Cotard’s makes him immortal. We’ve seen him get his head torn off and not stop kicking.”
“Not the best combat illness though,” Pacifist confessed. “Immortality doesn’t really help you do much against people with power armor. It was really useful on Tso’got when we fought regular humans or other Adapted.”
I nodded and ate the food I picked up, forgetting how scary powerful all of the Lunatics were. Pacifist was arguably the weakest, but her power was to basically lull people into complacency. If she was given enough time to work on a single person she could effectively put them into a coma. Bargain was capable of making himself a demigod for an hour at the cost of sustaining injury later, and Spectre could copy anyone else’s power. Plus, she could just turn ethereal and fly around for short periods of time.
And then there was Psycho and his crazy arsenal.
Just as I finished my food, I yelped in surprise as Forest materialized beside me. It was like I couldn’t get away from the Prime Trio today no matter how hard I tried.
“I need you all to follow me. Titan and Clemency want to talk with you.”
My face scrunched up in a frown, “But you-”
She glared at me, clearly not giving a damn about my objections. “Just, follow me.”
We all obliged since no one knew how to say no to someone like Forest. Back inside the ship, she led us to a room with Clemency, Titan, and Big Picture. A moment later, Beleth, Shockwave, and the head of Black Mass–Siege–joined us.
I fought the urge to say something profane at Beleth. Even though Titan had insisted we needed to put aside our differences, I loathed being in the same room as the man who had murdered my parents in front of me.
“What the hell’s going on, Titan?” Shockwave asked, not one to beat around the bush.
“We have a problem,” Titan confessed. “Even though we got Dragoon back, we’re not going to have enough time to fix the ship to leave. And, if Clairvoyant is to be believed, we’re not likely to win.”
“How bad?” Bargain asked.
“Eleven visions, eight of us being wiped clean. The other three aren’t pretty and still don’t end with us making it off world. We’re pretty sure that it just means that we’re going to be hunted down later.”
Even Psycho in his current state seemed to register that this was bad news.
“So, what are we doing about it?” Beleth asked. “I’m assuming that just running headlong into the Trillodan and Ellayans isn’t the best idea either.”
Titan turned to Big Picture, giving him the floor.
“Fighting them outright would be too dangerous. Pulling too many people away from the ship ensures that it becomes a target. If the ship goes, our clock resets at best. At the worst, we never recover and never manage to get off world. It forces us to hold the fort and leave at least a lion’s share of the Adapted present to avoid it being demolished.”
“But you got some of the strongest people here. You have different plans for us then,” Siege said. “Are you using us to thin the herd or something?”
“Not exactly. Zellig and his elite soldiers are excellent at small engagements. They each have their niche and are conscripted to deal with isolated problems. However, there are simply too many Adapted in one area to compartmentalize and control us. The last thing Zellig wants to do is send his men out to die.”
“That’s why he’s using the Ellayans,” Clemency said, as if prompting Big Picture to get on with it.
“Right, but that also means he won’t want to risk his own troops until after the Ellayan’s initial assault. As long as we can delay it, we can effectively delay the Trillodan’s push against us. You all represent the most independent group of fighters around, and because of this, we’re going to use you to sabotage the Ellayan forces.”
“Infinite has done some scouting around and has found a few weapon caches that the Trillodan have set up. Our goal is to destroy those and buy ourselves some time while they ferry more armament down to the surface.”
“So why not send her to destroy them?” Bargain shot back at Titan, “Why the fuck would you risk all of us?”
“Because he doesn’t want to kill everyone,” Big Picture snapped, annoyed at the interruption. “You might have been criminals back on Tso’got, but even you wouldn’t stoop so low as to simply cull innocent people.”
Titan sighed. “Using Infinite brings about risks. If things go wrong, there’s no telling what kind of damage she does. You are all in control. You can all mitigate your own impact.”
“What the fuck is he doing here then?” Shockwave asked, pointing a thumb over his shoulder at me. “Last I remember, Eldritch was known for losing control in spectacular fashion.” He turned and shrugged, “No offense, but you broke my leg that night. Not exactly the type of thing I forget.”
I waved, letting it go. In our time onboard the ship, I had actually gotten along pretty well with Imperium. As coarse as Shockwave was, he was at least honest and upfront. Whether you wanted the truth of not, he would give it to you.
“Shockwave’s right,” I admitted. “I’m known for losing control, Titan. Why am I here? Why not Shock and Awe or Eclipse? There are plenty of other heavy hitters you could send besides me.”
“None of them offer a panic button the same way you do,” Big Picture explained. All the people here can be surgically precise. However, if everything goes sideways, we can let you go on a rampage. We can use the fear you strike into the Ellayan soldiers as another means of delaying them.”
I frowned, “It just means I’d be eating tons of them.”
Titan nodded, “Yes.” He turned to the rest of the group he’d gathered, “Since she’s in the camp, we’ll use Distortion’s ability to teleport to get you close to the docks without any risk of detection. We’d give you a time limit of two hours before you have to make it to a rendezvous spot that Infinite will scout out; once the time limit is up, Distortion will pull back whoever is there and ready.”
“Two hours isn’t a lot of time,” Pacifist said, worried. “Are you sure we’ll have enough time?”
“We can’t afford to spare more. Given the ships we’ve watched over the last day, we can assume that two hours is all it takes for a ship of Trillodan soldiers to come down from orbit; we don’t want to risk the fight escalating between you and their soldiers. If the Trillodan soldiers engage, it becomes much more likely that Zellig and his elite enter into things as well.”
The first to break the subsequent silence was Shockwave who clapped his hands together. “Alright, let’s go blow some shit up! I’ve been itching for a good fight. Anyone else?”
One by one the others agreed to go until I was the last one to make up my mind.
As all eyes were on me, I had to ask myself a hard question: was I willing to be Titan’s killing machine? Was I willing to be his monster? Was I willing to dirty myself working beside the people who were Scoundrels back on Tso’got?
“Alright,” I finally said, “Let’s do it.”