Interlude: Hostage

Don’t move.  Don’t open your eyes.  Don’t take a breath through your mouth.  

I had to force myself to lay there, unmoving, playing the unresponsive victim while I tried to figure out where I was.  At least two people were around me speaking in a foreign language and I couldn’t risk alerting them that I was awake. Not until I had a better idea of what was going on.    

The last thing that I remembered was being in a fight and getting a dose of Zeal’s power which made me feel like I was able to fight God himself.  I remembered fighting Zellig and actually doing pretty well against him for a while. And then…lightning. Tons of it. After that, I vaguely remember seeing Eldritch blasted apart and then nothing else.  

I must have been knocked out and taken captive.  That meant I was probably aboard the Crimson City, hovering in orbit around Vuuldar.  

I pushed down the urge to wince as an acute pressure shoved into my side; I dared to ever so slightly open my eyelids and look at what was happening; two Trillodan were hovering over me, one cutting into my side and digging around, as if fishing for something in my body.  I didn’t know their language, but frustration had the same inflection regardless of what tongue you spoke. As fingers and medical instruments dug around my insides, I felt something else squirm away.  

They were digging for my passenger, and it was wriggling away every time leading to the worst feeling game of hide and seek ever.  

I felt a little shift in my brain, numbing the pain and keeping my heart rate steady, my little internal companion doing its level best to keep the Trillodan unawares that I was awake.  Daring to crack my eyelids a second time, I tried my best to use my peripheral vision and check for restraints; nothing around my wrists and hopefully nothing around my feet either.  

From the tone of the two people hovering above me, one was clearly a lackey while the disgruntled one was clearly leading the floundering endeavor to secure my passenger.  

Glancing to my left, I saw machines reading out what appeared to be my vitals.  There were no needles in my arm for anesthetic. But, these were the Trillodan after all; odds were they had some device that had been keeping me comatose.  They did have something that put Adamant down immediately, maybe they had used the same sort of thing on me.  

Either way, I was free of it now.  But what the hell was I going to do on an alien ship?  There could be other Adapted onboard, but it was called a Crimson City; if that was at all indicative of the size, they could be impossible to find.  The longer I stayed onboard, the longer I was going to risk being captured and more properly secured. While the Trillodan were arrogant and stupid to leave me unrestrained, they weren’t going to repeat a mistake twice.  

I had one shot at making this count. 

The two scientists rolled me onto my side, cutting down my oblique and tried to use some tool to paralyze my passenger.  I risked a glance and made sure neither of them were looking at my face as I clenched my teeth. I was worried that my response was going to trigger an alarm, but my passenger continued to keep my pulse steady to avoid detection.  

Another frustrated exchange passed between them and I heard something that sounded familiar.  

It sounded like the lackey was apologizing.  What stood out was the name Vaneel. We had heard about him from the Trillodan on Tso’got and Titan had mentioned him as a point of frustration before.  Vaneel was the Trillodan head scientist, the one who was responsible for studying us and figuring out what made us tick.  

Which meant he would be an incredibly valuable hostage.  At least, he would be if that was in fact Vaneel. If they were just two people who worked under him, I was going to lose my window of opportunity grabbing someone who was expendable.  Still, I was bound to slip up and be noticed eventually; this was the best chance I was likely to get.    

The two of them laid me on my back again, discussing their next plan of attack to better carve my passenger out of me.  I kept my breathing slow, steady, not daring to let them know that I was getting myself ready. As I felt a pair of hands press against my abdomen, I opened my eyes and sat up in a blur.  Before the lackey had even registered that I was up, I had two hands around his throat. A strangled scream was cut off as I snapped his neck.  

Vaneel tried to pull away, but I grabbed his wrist and pulled him forward, my passenger allowing me to easily overpower the terrified and perplexed scientist.  I yanked him back and pressed a hand to his throat, not squeezing hard enough to do any real damage yet.  

“Don’t scream,” I commanded, “Or I’ll break your neck as easily as I did his.”

The purple-skinned Trillodan nodded slowly, cautiously, avoiding any sudden movement.  

“Am I in the ship above Vuuldar?” I demanded.  

“You are,” he said in perfect Common.  

“You’re Zellig’s head scientist, Vaneel, correct?”

“I am.”

I breathed a sigh of relief that I had actually managed to snag a valuable hostage.  While it did not get me out of here, it at least gave me leverage.  

While I was trying to think through my next steps for escape, Vaneel was trying to understand exactly what had allowed my flight to start.  “That thing, under your skin, do you know what it is?”

“No.  No one does,” I said.  

He frowned, hoping for an easy break in his pursuit.  “My initial hypothesis is wrong it seems,” Vaneel said, thinking aloud, far more interested in this discovery and its implications than his own immediate peril.  “I assume it was some kind of mass of aberrant cells that responded to nervous input. When it continued acting despite your nervous system being paralyzed, I assumed it was a simple organism that operated in benefit to the host.  But this,” he said with an off putting smile, “This thing inside you is intelligent. It hid part of itself and destroyed the neural suppressant. It kept your heart steady despite the pain. Fascinating.”  

“Fascinating as it might be,” I muttered, “Do remember that it’s what gives me the ability to tear your head off.”

Vaneel glanced down at my hands, clearly wary.  He would have read up on me and what kind of feats I had performed.  He’d know I wasn’t bluffing. “What are you hoping for, Parasite? Where are you going to go?  It will only be a matter of time before someone comes to check on me.” 

Looking over at the tools they had been using to cut me open, I grabbed what looked most like a scalpel.  I grabbed it and pressed it to his neck, forcing him to lean away. “Tell me how to get off the ship.”

“Do you think-“

I let go of his wrist and instead cupped the side of his head with my left hand, pressing a thumb to his eye socket.  “I’m sure you can make more of these, but I’m pretty sure you don’t want to have me rip them out.” I let my trademark grin creep across my face, “Think I won’t?  What do I have to lose, Vaneel? The way I see it, if I kill you, I give Titan and the others extra time before we become expendable. The second you understand us and how to replicate our powers, we’re useless to you.  So,” I let my voice drop to a whisper for emphasis, “I think it’s in your best interest to give me what I want. Don’t you?” 

His silence was all the answer I needed.

“You’re not one of Zellig’s fanatics.  You haven’t been spouting drivel about a willingness to sacrifice yourself, so I get the impression you want to live. Well, so do I.  And I want off this fucking ship. You’re going to help me.”

Vaneel sneered, “I may not be a fanatic, but I’m not a traitor either.”  

I pressed my thumb flush against his eye, “No.  But pretty soon, you’re going to be in a lot of pain.  And if you start screaming, I’m going to have to shut you up.  You might be a hell of a lot smarter than I am, but I’m built to fight.  Are you?” I let that reality simmer for a moment. “Now, let’s try again.  How do we get off this ship?” 

“There are pods that could take you down to the surface.  Though I doubt you know how to fly them.”

“I probably don’t.  Good thing you do though.”  I jabbed the sharp instrument against his neck, shutting the Trillodan scientist up.  “You value your life. I’m sure Zellig will understand your actions.”

It seemed even his own desire for self-preservation could only tolerate so much insult to his pride.  “How dare you!”

I grabbed his lower mandible and squeezed hard enough to stress the bone.  “Your kind has medicine that can fix an awful lot of damage. All it’d take me is a second and I make it so you can never be put back together.  You say one more fucking thing out of line to me and I make sure they never find all your pieces.”  

His rage and rationality met somewhere in the middle as he let out a frustrated, “Understood.”

“Good.  Where are my clothes?” 

“Discarded.  You weren’t going to be needing them.”

“Fair enough.  I’m going to borrow your assistants,” I said.  “Take off his pants and pass them here. Don’t do anything stupid,” I insisted.

Vaneel did as instructed, stripping his deceased assistant’s pants and passing them to me.  I could tell he debated trying to bolt for one moment where I was quickly slipping them on, but he thought better of it.  It was probably ten meters to the door and he knew that I could cover that whole distance in two quick steps.  

“A shuttle.  Where am I going to find one?”

“In the shuttle bay, where else?” he said as if that was the dumbest question possible.  

“Pretend I’ve never been onboard a fucking Crimson City,” I growled, “How do I get there?” 

“It’s at the base of the vessel.  There is an elevator that can take us down there.”

I grabbed him by the collar and pushed him forward, ensuring he could feel the blade in my hands.  “Lead the way.”

Vaneel complied, taking us out of the sterile lab we’d been stashed in.  I did my best not to gawk at the cavernous ship. Outside was a hallway cold metal that overlooked a massive drop.  Across the pit was a mirror set of walkways and there were easily ten floors above and below us. At scheduled intervals, there were bridges placed between either side of the abyss with seemingly very little movement going on.  I spotted a few figures running around, but all of them clearly had a purpose and a place to be. Vaneel squirmed, clearly debating yelling but kept quiet for now.   

“Holy shit,” I muttered, daring a glance over the edge.  The only thing separating us from the drop was a guard rail that came up to my ribs.  All it would take was one good push and someone would tumble into that abyss.  

Vaneel continued to walk, keeping quiet.  We went by several rooms that seemed to all be dedicated to some kind of research, leading me to guess that function was separated by floor.  If that was the case, I wondered how many other Adapted had been procured for study. “Where are the others?” I demanded, constantly glancing over my shoulder to make sure no one was behind us.  Despite its immense size, the ship was strangely vacant.  

“Adapted storage is upstairs.”

I winced as he referred to us like objects.  “Is it guarded?” 

My hostage bit his tongue but finally fessed up.  “No, but it’s monitored well. If you show up there, you’ll be recorded and it will sound the alarm.  Everyone on board will know that an Adapted is loose.” 

Truth be told, the second I killed Vaneel I was likely to meet my own demise.  No matter how clever or strong I was, the Trillodan had the advantage here. Since I wasn’t fond of the idea of trading my life for Vaneel’s, the next best thing I could do would be to deny the Trillodan their research samples.  “Take me to them,” I said, changing plans. 

“Zellig will come for you,” he warned.  

“He’s still on board?”

“Yes.  And so are several of his legion.  If you sound the alarm, they will all converge.  You won’t stand a chance.” 

“Nonsense,” I said with a smug grin as we kept walking.  “I have you. No one would dare put you at risk. Not if you’re half as valuable as people have made you sound.  It’s part of why you aren’t volunteering to die,” I added, twisting the proverbial knife, “If you die, there is no replacement.  The Trillodan need you alive.” 

He bared his teeth but I ignored him.

“Why aren’t there more people here?”

“Many have gone down to set up the war front with the Ellayan people.  Infantry and lower officers are readying to march against the Adapted.”  Vaneel dared to turn his head and give me a smug grin, “If you wait a day, you’ll be able to see all of your friends again.”

I stifled the urge to break his neck.  

We continued on in silence, finally reaching the promised elevator.  Part of me expected there to be a small group of soldiers waiting on the other side of the rounded metal doors, but we were still alone and undetected for now.  I shoved him in and looked at a keypad, the input using a completely unfamiliar language. “Take me to them,” I said. 

Vaneel tapped a few keys and we began ascending.  Every now and then he gave me a cautious look, waiting for me to do something brash.  For now I was still in control and preferred keeping things quiet. He was expecting me to be searching for a fight or some kind of revenge, but I wasn’t going to be that shortsighted.  

If Vaneel wasn’t lying and the Trillodan were pushing the Ellayans to fight us it was going to be a bloodbath. Even if I couldn’t get down to the surface with all the other Adapted prisoners, I could help neutralize the threat of this ship looming in the atmosphere.  If I could get a dozen Adapted free and we could wreak havoc, it might disrupt some of Zellig’s plans.    

Still, my heart was hammering in my chest.  All it took was one person to notice for this to go sideways.   

The elevator came to a stop and I grabbed Vaneel by the collar again, marching us out as I kept the blade pressed against his spine.  “Where to?”

He pointed to our right and led the way, taking me by several empty storage rooms that each had a cluster of pods with amber-colored glass and tubes sticking out.  Each of them had a series of displays nearby, all of them zeroed out and waiting for meaningful input.  

“Those are what you’re keeping us in, isn’t it?” 

“Yes,” Vaneel said.  

“Why are you doing this to us?” I whispered, feeling a surge of anger.  “We have yet to ever attack you.”

“But you will,” he replied, confident.  “Everyone who has any kind of power attacks us.  Everyone wants to get rid of us.”

“Can you blame them?” 

“Yes.”

I knew that he was a loyal Trillodan, but it was so strange to hear someone so analytical and logical be so…misguided.  “How can you possibly blame people for standing up to you? You turn planets into wastelands. You exterminate billions of people regularly.  Trillodan are the greatest group of psychopaths in the fucking cosmos and you still blame us for being rebellious?” 

Vaneel bristled, turning his head to glare back at me, “We are not psychopaths.  We are not senseless murderers. We do not kill for sport. We maintain order on a scale that you fleas can’t begin to understand.”

“Order?” I said, confounded, “In what fucking universe do you bring order?  Have you seen what’s left behind when you scour a planet?”

He scoffed.  “You are too young and too near-sighted to understand what we do for everyone.  You have no idea what things would be like without us.”

“You’re right, I don’t.  I didn’t get to grow up on my own fucking planet because of you,” I snarled, again reminding myself that he was way more valuable alive than dead for now.

After the fifth room of empty tubes, I noticed a few had occupants.  One of them caught my eye immediately. Taller with dark skin and a sturdy frame, a familiar face I hadn’t been blessed with seeing in weeks.  “Geyser,” I whispered, a rush of pity and sorrow washing over me as I looked at my sedated teammate. Even though it had been less than a month since he’d been taken, I felt like it had been an eternity since I had seen him.  My heart went out to Menagerie as I looked at her boyfriend floating there, made inert by the scientist beside me. “This one,” I said, steering Vaneel toward what looked like a keypad on the door, “Open it.” 

The Trillodan scientist begrudgingly pressed a few buttons and the door slid open with a pneumatic hiss.  

Looking beyond Geyser, I realized I knew a couple of the people that were in this room.  Kudzu from Imperium, and Dysfunction from Lunatics. “How many of us do you have in cages?” 

“Forty-six so far,” he said.  

I shoved him into the room and followed, pointing to the amber prisons.  “Free them, now.”

Vaneel turned around, finally daring to be defiant.  “No.”

My lip curled into a sneer.  Just like I had been making a gamble that he’d commit to self-preservation, Vaneel had been gambling too.  He’d waited to stick up for himself until we were inside a part of the ship that was well monitored. While he was risking my wrath, he’d put a clock on it.  Someone was going to notice us before long.  

“Do it.  Now,” I demanded.

“And I said no. I’m no traitor.”

His eyes widened as I grabbed his collar, turning and throwing him against the wall with ease.  He groaned and fell to the ground in a heap, nursing his dislocated shoulder. “It wasn’t a request,” I reminded him as I grabbed around his throat and hauled him up to his feet.  “You might be infinitely smarter than I am. You might have unlocked the goddamn mysteries of the universe. But you, you personally, are not suited to endure pain.”

I slammed my head forward into his, cracking the bone beneath his slick skin.  Vaneel cried out and fell again, blood streaming from the slits he had for nostrils. 

“Open the-“

“No!” he interrupted, doing his level best to be courageous.  

“You might make monsters,” I growled, leaning down to jab the edge of the blade under his collarbone, “But you aren’t one of them.”  I wiggled the harsh metal around, holding his mouth closed while I did to stifle his screaming. “Last chance, Vaneel. Open the cages or I use your head to try and break them out.”

He shuddered as I pulled the metal out from under his skin. “No.” 

I bared my teeth in agitation but took some solace in the situation; even if I couldn’t free anyone else, I would at least be able to rob the Trillodan of one of their greatest minds and slow down the research into what made us so unique.  I would have bought Titan and everyone else precious time where we weren’t simply expendable.

Even if self-sacrifice wasn’t at the top of my list, it wasn’t going to be a bad way to go.  

“Suit yourself,” I said, grabbing him by the collar and dragging him towards the cages.  He did his best to struggle even though it was pointless. Even without my Adaptation, I was stronger than Vaneel.  I grabbed around the back of his neck, shoving him into the tube.  

As expected, Vaneel put his good arm out to stop me outright crushing his head against whatever reinforced glass he’d used to contain us.  His arm absorbed some of my force, but his head still smacked against the glass with a dull thud.  I did it again, this time meeting less resistance and the Trillodan scientist sagged, losing consciousness thanks to repeated trauma.  I managed to smack his face a third time, this one audibly cracking his skull.  

“Enough!” a voice bellowed as thunderous footsteps approached.  

I spun around, dragging the limp form of Vaneel with me, my hands clasping around his throat and drawing him up as a shield.  Zellig filled in the doorway, filling with his gargantuan, grey frame. “Don’t,” I warned, “You know how easy it’d be to rip his head off.”  

“Poor choice putting yourself in a corner,” Zellig said with a click of his tongue.  “You’ve made a worse choice grabbing him as a hostage.”

I glared back and the Trillodan commander, knowing that I was holding onto someone far too valuable for him to do anything brash.  “I’m pretty sure I grabbed the perfect hostage.”  

“The same reason he’s a poor choice,” Zellig said in a growl, his unusually upbeat demeanor gone now, “I’m going to kill you for what you’ve done.  Whether Vaneel lives or dies, Parasite, you are already dead. Am I clear?”

“We’ll see,” I challenged, leaning Vaneel’s head one way, illustrating how easy it would be for me to do irreparable damage.  “But I know he’s way more valuable than I am. So for now, Zellig, you’re going to do as you’re told. I know you want me dead, but you and I both know Vaneel isn’t replaceable.”

Zellig actually cracked a smile, showcasing this razor sharp teeth of his.  “You’re smarter than you let on.”

“I find it best to be underestimated.  It makes it all the better when I win.”

“You still aren’t getting out of this alive,” he assured.

“We’ll see,” I repeated with a smirk.  “Now, get out of the doorway.”  

He didn’t move.  “For someone so clever, you don’t just think I’m going to kowtow to you, do you?  You’re an eighteen year old boy; martyrdom and altruism are hardly words in your vocabulary.  You and I both know that the second you kill Vaneel, you’re done for.”

I let go of his throat with one hand and jammed a pair of fingers into his eye socket, feeling the little vitreous orb pop.  Vaneel became alert enough to scream and claw at his face in the aftermath while I glared back at Zellig. For someone so unflappable, he gave me the best bit of leverage; Zellig reacted.  He’d seen men ripped apart, disintegrated, eviscerated, etc. He’d seen it so often it was normal. It wouldn’t make him blink to see someone lose an eye.  

Unless he cared about them. 

   “And now I know he’s your friend,” I said as I grabbed around Vaneel’s throat again, stifling his cries of pain.  “You don’t want him to suffer, do you?” 

In my little bit of experience with Zellig, I had seen a fairly narrow range of emotions.  I had seen delight during the fight and a cold, calculated side of him as well. I’d heard of Nick describe him as stalwart and unnaturally composed, undaunted by any kind of adversity.  Even when he’d come face to face with Infinite, no one had ever talked about him looking enraged or uncontrolled.  

His face twisted with rage, his teeth bared no longer in a jest but instead in carnivorous display.  “You will pay for every bit of-“

I interrupted by adjusting my hand and squeezing Vaneel’s mouth hard enough to destroy his teeth.  “I’m sorry, you were saying?” 

He stood there a moment, growling, clearly visualizing exactly how to rip me apart.  Zellig’s animosity was palpable, filling the air around us like a mist. “What do you want?” 

“Right now?  I want to get the fuck off this ship.  That’s what I want.” 

“Bottom floor, shuttle bay,” Zellig growled.  “If you do any more damage to him-“

“I’m already as good as dead,” I laughed, “What are you going to do to me?  Torture me?”

Zellig silently backed up from the doorframe, leaving me an avenue to pass.  As I approached, he kept backing up, being mindful to avoid any sudden movements that might make me jerk my hands and tear Vaneel’s head clean off.  On the bridges, a few infantry were gathering, many of them training a rifle on the door, waiting for a clear shot at me. Zellig raised a hand, holding their fire.  

On our walkway, a few soldiers were standing resolute with Zellig, but all of them respected his command to stand down, at least for now.  

I moved slowly, dragging the limp form along with me, constantly looking over my shoulder and ensuring that the Trillodan commander wasn’t trying to pull anything sneaky.  I knew that if he saw so much as a glimmer of an opportunity, he wouldn’t hesitate. The best thing I could do was keep him angry and on edge, hopefully clouding his mind and stymieing his ability to make a decent decision.  

Vaneel’s feet were basically just dragging as we slowly crept towards the elevator.  I needed to make it past two more rooms of empty prisons and then I would be able to head down to the shuttle bay.  

I heard the pop of a gun being discharged too late.  Something connected with my arm, managing to make a small puncture despite my passenger trying to halt anything.  Despite how quickly my passenger pushed the dart out, it had already delivered enough toxic payload to deaden my arms for a single instant.  

And Zellig knew it.  

With the sudden short in my muscle, I lost all strength in my right arm.  I couldn’t tear his head clean off with just my left arm. Even if I broke his neck, they’d probably be able to bring Vaneel back.  But, I was still strong enough to send Vaneel off the side of the walkway, and there was no way they’d be able to reanimate anyone who took that drop. 

I shoved as hard as I could; Zellig leapt over and grabbed his battered scientist as he started to topple over the lip.  The soldiers behind me opened fire, a few lasers burning my skin but not doing much more than that as my passenger took the heat for me.  With the little space I had made, I ran to the edge and hopped up, pressing my feet against the barrier to vault across the gap. I descended three floors in the process, but managed to avoid splattering myself against the dark metal the ship was constructed out of.  As I threaded the gap, I rolled and tried to slow myself on the slick surface. I ended up colliding with a wall, but it wouldn’t do more than just bruise my shoulder.  

And then an immense form crashed through the barricade, embedding itself in the wall a few meters away from me.  

“Oh fuck,” I whispered in a panic.

Zellig extricated himself from the crater he’d created, glaring daggers at me.  A malevolent smile spread across his face as he looked down at me, now with no pesky obstruction between us.  “Going somewhere?”

Adrenaline surged through my system, helping my passenger rapidly deplete whatever some sniper had tried to dose me with.  The reality was that I couldn’t fight Zellig. Without Zeal to power me up, it wasn’t even a fight. Clemency had failed to kill this guy.  There was no way I could do enough damage to him to even slow him down.  

My only option was to run.  

I pressed off the wall to jump start my momentum, hopping up again and launching myself away from Zellig.  I felt the whiff of his hand just barely miss my ankle as I descended another three floors, this time landing a touch more gracefully.  Before I could turn around to leap again, Zellig crashed down, this time not landing right behind me. His momentum carried him through a solid wall, but he recovered immediately and stomped towards me, not giving me a chance to keep jumping down towards the bottom of the ship.  

As he advanced, I swore to myself that if I was going to die, I was at least going to out swinging.  

I dodged away from his first blow, letting our size discrepancy work to my advantage.  Since Zellig was nearly seven feet tall, it made it relatively easy to dodge under his punches.  The second was closer, his speed still surprising me. The third swing made me drop all the way to the ground, relying on my natural agility to catch me.  Twisting, I spun around to dodge Zellig’s kick and drove my feet into his guts.  

It forced him back a step, but that was all.  Hitting Zellig was like hitting a mountain of metal.  

Springing off my hands, I turned around to face him again.  I kept low to evade the first swing, but the second one was already heading my way before I could correct my positioning.  My head snapped to the side as I sailed, hitting the metal floor and slamming into the barricade. Before I could find my feet, Zellig had closed the gap and grabbed my throat, turning and throwing me through one of the massive panes of glass that led to what seemed to be an armory.  

Fighting through the pain, I rolled to my feet and grabbed one of the laser rifles off the well kept shelves; Zellig slapped it out of my hands before I could take a shot.  Instead of trying to dodge his swings, I went on the aggressive. My passenger powered my legs and I launched myself off the wall like a human missile, driving into Zellig’s legs.  He hopped backwards, easily compensating his balance on a single leg. Snarling, I let go of the Trillodan’s calf and rolled to the side, trying to get access to his back.

A hand caught around my arm and threw me straight up into the reinforced ceiling.  Zellig had read my intent and acted a step ahead of me. Again.  

I curled into a ball, letting my shoulder take the brunt of the impact as I fell back to the floor.  Before I could get up, a massive foot connected with my ribs and shot me back out onto the walkway, again slamming into the unyielding barricade.  My shoulder popped out of its socket and stars filled my vision as my head smacked against the wall; I grit my teeth and forced the limb back into place, doing the best I could to clear my head as Zellig charged me again.  

Pushing off the wall, I rolled under his outstretched arm; my eyes went wide as Zellig’s elbow yanked itself out of socket so he could reach backwards to grab my hair.  “Never fun to do this,” he confessed, “But you’re a slippery little bastard.” His elbow snapped back into place as he lifted me off the ground.  

Crying out, I tried to peel his hand off, but instead I was dragged around, thrown back into the small armory and onto the bed of broken glass.  Before I could find my feet, an immovable hand gripped around my throat and hauled me up, pressing me against the wall. My passenger pressed itself around my throat, protecting my windpipe but Zellig’s iron grip was still cutting off circulation to my brain.  I grasped his hand, but without the power of my Adaptation helping me I would never make him budge.    

“You know, I respect you, Parasite.  You have such a knack for violence, such an affinity for combat and a mastery that so few have, especially for one so young.  I’ve watched some of your fights from back on Tso’got. Always the one with something to prove, and you always delivered. No matter what, you picked yourself up, you kept fighting.”  

I gurgled and continued thrashing, trying to use my whole body to leverage his hand off my throat to no avail.  

“When you fought me, I was impressed.  Even with Zeal corrupting your mind, your technique was exquisite.  You punches were crisp. You always kept yourself defended. Your breathing was controlled.  All despite Zeal’s insanity. Don’t think that your prowess wasn’t noted.”  

I tried to attack his elbow by digging my heel into the divot, trying to get his arm to fold so I could get myself off the wall.  No matter how hard I struck, Zellig didn’t even seem to register that I was doing anything.  

“Even now,” he said with a sincere admiration, “You continue to fight.  You don’t lay down and give in. You have found yourself presented with an unbeatable opponent and you refuse to yield.  That on its own is commendable. You are even managing to try and formulate a plan to work your way back into this fight,” he said, nodding to my foot vainly digging into his elbow.  “You are a fighter, through and through. Know that you have my undying respect for that.”  

His grip tightened and the world started to lose color as even my pitiful gurgling was silenced.  

“But you hurt my friend.  You ambushed him, took him hostage, and maimed him.  You dared to threaten the advancement for my empire and for all those under our gaze.  That, Parasite, is not something I can excuse. You were a valuable specimen, and one that we had aimed to keep alive to study.  But, we will carve that ‘passenger’ of yours from your cold corpse. Even in death, you will still be of great use for the Trillodan Empire.” 

Zellig’s hand ratcheted down like a vice, crushing my throat despite my Passenger trying to repel him.  No matter how strong or durable I was, I couldn’t compete with the pinnacle of Trillodan engineering and biological manipulation.  

“It’s almost fitting,” Zellig said as my vision began to narrow,  “I saw your fight with Imperium. I saw Kudzu nearly smother you in a mass of tree roots.  You were only saved by your friend Eldritch pulling you free at the last second. How fitting that you’ll be going out the same way.  Choked for air, helpless to save yourself.”  

For a moment, I looked in Zellig’s eyes, taking my focus off his arm and my pitiful attempts to free myself.  I knew that look, that specific brand of glare that Zellig had in his eyes.  

I’d fought enough killers to know that he wasn’t going to stop until I quit kicking.  It didn’t matter that I was a valuable specimen, it didn’t matter that my passenger might die with me.  There was no one here to stop him. No Trillodan here to argue that I was worth keeping alive for study.  No Adapted here to draw his attention and threaten him.  

He was right: this time there was no Eldritch to save me.  There was no monster to break me free.  

I need to be my own monster.

Strength flooded through my body, and Zellig’s elbow folded, letting me slide off the wall and rip myself free from his previously unbreakable grip.  I hit the ground and hopped back to my feet, caught off guard by how easy it felt, like I weighed a fraction of what I had previously.  

And then I saw my hands.  

Instead of my tanned skin, there was dark red tissue with pronounced black veins running along the surface.  Where there had been skin, it had been replaced with tightly knit muscle tissue.  

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Zellig said, his cold rage replaced by surprise.  “You really are a fighter to the end.”

“What-” I panted, looking at my hand in horror, “What the fuck!  What the fuck is this?!” I glanced at the sheet of glass I hadn’t been thrown through to get a look at my reflection, mortified by what looked back at me.  My whole body was a grotesque and dark crimson color, a network of inky-black veins and arteries running over my ‘skin.’  

When Dragoon and I had tried to figure out exactly what my passenger was, we’d tried digging into my skin, only to see that lump of tissue fuse with my muscle.  I wasn’t sure how I knew, but I was finally getting a look at what my passenger looked like. Under enough threat, it snapped, taking over my anatomy.

Just like that, I was Altered.  

My distraction was costly as Zellig wasn’t nearly as put off by my transformation.  A massive, grey fist collided with my cheek and sent me flying back onto the floor. While earlier that hit would have knocked me cold, now it just dazed me.  I picked myself up and tried to mount a defense against Zellig’s continued onslaught. I parried his first blow and ducked under his second punch, caught off guard by the kick I had exposed myself to.  

Again a step ahead of me.  Again I was the one being knocked on my ass.  

I rolled and planted my feet, like a runner on the starting blocks.  Getting as much traction as I could on the slick floor, I shot myself forward, aiming for the Trillodan’s legs.  

Zellig jumped, floating over my gasp as he twisted in the air.  He came back down, landing on the small of my back, driving an elbow into my spine.  Even though his weight snapped a disc out of place, my new body immediately popped it back into socket, refusing to stay broken.  It was the same kind of healing that my old gift had offered, but now greatly empowered.  

But Zellig hadn’t been trying to paralyze me, he’d just been trying to get a hold of me.  Struggle as I might, my newfound strength still wasn’t up to snuff when compared to Zellig.  He’d torn Nick out of the suit. He’d fought Shock, Awe, and Goliath all at the same time and had no real trouble beating them all senseless.  Even though my whole body had the strength that my passenger granted, the Trillodan juggernaut was on another level. He had to work for it, but he eventually got a hold of my arms and pulled them down to my sides, smothering me in a bear hug.  

Zellig dragged me out of the armory, despite my struggling.  I screamed and lashed out as he lugged me to the ledge, his ears deaf to my protests.  And then, he tossed me off, sending me plummeting into the abyss.  

I flailed, as if something would magically appear to stop my fall.  As I fell, the whole world seemed to slow around me, my body readying for its imminent demise.  After the seventh floor had passed by, I took a breath and twisted, trying to put my legs under me as I braced for impact.  

My legs slammed into the ground a few seconds later and all the bones in my legs sheared into several pieces.  The impact sent a shockwave up through the rest of me and made my eyes swim as I fell forward. I managed to turn my head before I face planted, fortunately avoiding crushing my nose.  A small mouthful of vomit mixed with blood escaped my lips as my legs recomposed themselves violently.  

I wasn’t dead, but I felt like I should be.  

This new well of strength in me was running dry.  I looked at my outstretched arm and its aggressive coloring, wishing for my body to return to normal.  I didn’t want to look like this, like some kind of monstrosity. I wanted to be back in my own skin again.  Responding to my mental impulse, my passenger receded. A literal ripple of flesh flowed out from my core as the new tissue folded under, my skin being put back into place.  I pulled myself to all fours and watched my skin finish reverting to normal. Fighting to my feet, I searched for that usual bit of strength I could rely on from my passenger, that extra little push to fight through.  

It was gone.  And it was gone for good.  Just like Lightshow, something had broken inside me.  

Zellig landed a few meters away from me with a thunderous slam on impact.  I stumbled backwards, falling onto my ass as the Trillodan commander stalked forward, looking down at me with a smile.  

“That was a thirty-five meter fall onto metal.  And look at you. Already healed.”  

He crept closer and I didn’t bother running.  That well of strength was expended from the abuse I had endured and from the frantic healing my body had subjected me to.  

“You’re done fighting?” Zellig asked, legitimately curious why I wasn’t doing anything.  

I nodded, “Everyone has limits.  I’ve found mine.” 

Zellig nodded, clearly understanding. “A pity, Parasite.  But, don’t worry, I have a new plan for you.” He grabbed my arm, hauling me to my feet.

I was leery to ask about what the hell the commander of the Trillodan offensive had planned.  Curiosity eventually got the better of me. “What do you mean? What happened to killing me?”

“Things change.  Now, I need a message delivered to Titan.  And you, Parasite,” he said with a viscous smile as he pressed a finger to my chest, “You are going to deliver it for me.”  


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