Battle for Vuuldar: Forest

Early mornings were always my favorite time of day, the one time when most people weren’t moving around.  It was a nice dip in stimulus and noise I had to sort through. It was one of the few times I allowed more than twenty percent of my body to rest and shut down.  Truth be told I envied everyone else who could actually sleep; even while we were on the ship coming over to Vuuldar, I had only let half of my body truly rest.   

Most of me was networked around the hill, reaching out nearly two kilometers into the town.  I didn’t have enough of me there to do anything substantial. It was just feelers to see if Zellig’s cronies were going to try and do anything cheeky as our inevitable conflict drew closer.  

Titan’s initial plan to sabotage the militia that Zellig recruited had been a smashing success.  We had stalled their progress and bought ourselves back a few desperately needed days to continue work on the ship.  Even with Adapted working round the clock, there was so much to do. I had started devoting around twenty percent of my body to help with removing the clutter Mizu was cutting away.  

It helped speed things up, but not by enough for my liking.  

The others were okay with this planet, not really noticing the differences, not like I did.  They didn’t move around with half their body buried in the dirt that was fundamentally different from the soil on Tso’got.  I wasn’t used to tasting this many metals in the soil, or having to fight through this much clay as I tried to network myself under the city.  Truth be told, with enough time I might come to like the way it tasted more than the polluted soil on Tso’got, but at least that was familiar.  

A small sliver of me was left watching over Titan, keeping an eye on him to see when he’d wake up.  He hated that I did this, but like every other Adapted, I was paranoid. Most people just couldn’t keep an eye on you at all hours of the day but I could.  I was his surveillance system, his network for information gathering, and that wasn’t exactly a gift I could really shut off.  

Sure, I was powerful in a fight, but that wasn’t my greatest strength.  If things needed to die, Infinite was a far better tool.  

Just like I kept an eye on Titan, I kept an eye on her too.  

Charlotte was too dangerous and too volatile to be left alone.  If Titan was to go berserk, he could kill a dozen people before I could intervene and isolate him; if Charlotte went berserk, we all died.  Titan had done a good job not relying on her for too much thus far, but I worried that eventually he’d have to use her.  

The other person I made a point to watch constantly was Eldritch.  He was intended to have been a panic button for Titan’s little expedition into the militia’s war front.  Instead, he had been cut down and nearly captured along with several others. Having to be saved by Bargain was weighing on him.  Without any of his immediate teammates to really share with, he had been recessed and withdrawn.  

Isolated Adapted were the ones who Altered in my experience.  The last thing I wanted was to be surprised if he snapped. His Neklim form was already performing absurd mutations thanks to duress; I wasn’t thrilled that Titan’s biggest key for the inevitable battle was a mentally destabilized teenage boy who was spending most of his time walking in a circle, talking to the voice inside his head.

Admittedly I was biased. I wasn’t thrilled about seeing him enabled to replicate Feast Day, especially after his Neklim counterpart had started developing more and more deadly biological weapons. Trying to restrain Eldritch had been impossible then; how much harder would it be if he was made of crystal or spitting out some kind of targeted acidic gas?  

“Forest,” I heard, “You around?”

I changed my focus, letting the other twenty-five points of vision fade to the background, instead adjusting my focus to Infinite who had called out for me.  Shifting a little bit of my body, I sprouted my ‘form’: a girl dressed in a white shirt with baggy brown pants. “I’m always around. You should know that by now.”

Infinite smiled nervously, “I know I should, but stil, seems rude to just assume you’re always watching.”

“What do you want, Charlotte?”

People assumed that I was terse because I was rude or didn’t understand the proper bounds of social etiquette.  Truth be told, I understood fine, but I was constantly listening to dozens of voices and watching dozens of streams of visual input, trying to process it all.  Even though Titan and Big Picture were pretty sure that my Adaptation changed the way I see the world, so much information was dizzying.

I kept everything short and sweet just so I didn’t risk missing something important.  

Even though I’d known Infinite for as long as Titan had, the two of us were always a bit disconnected from one another.  We recognized how important the other was, but I was worried about how unstable she was while Infinite saw me as unapproachable.  

“I’m just worried, and I wanted to talk with someone who might get it,” she confessed. 

“Worried?  Why?”

“It’s…it’s finally happening, you know?  This isn’t going to be some small scrap between a few people and the Trillodan elite.  This is going to be us really taking on the Trillodan. We’re going to go to war with Zellig Ak’aan.”  She shuddered, “I’m worried that we might not make it out of this okay.”

I fought the urge to roll my eyes.  “Charlotte, you realize how absurd that statement is coming from you?  You of all people are the least vulnerable or likely to be exposed. Titan won’t send you out there if he can avoid it.” 

“What if he can’t?”

I shrugged, “Then you go out and kill a bunch of people.”  I got a flash of movement as Titan rolled over in his sleep, muttering something in his sleep.  Blinking slowly, I put my focus back on my conversation with Infinite.”Listen, Titan’s smart and he’s got a lot of good tricks going for us.  Ideally, there isn’t a big fight and everything goes according to plan.”

“Plans never survive contact with the enemy,” Infinite replied, “I mean, if things were according to plan, I’d still be in orbit around Vuuldar.” 

“But we’ve made it this far, so stop being so damn nervous,” I insisted.  “You’re Infinite. You can do damn near anything. Stop being so scared of a little conflict and let yourself be a badass bitch.  If we manage to burn through all of Titan’s plans to end the conflict quickly, you’ll be up.  If you’re right and things go south, you need to be ready.”

She nodded, seemingly a tad invigorated, “Okay.  I can do that.” 

“Good.  Now-”

I stopped as something came into view that was impossible.  At the base of the hill, I saw a familiar figure approaching.  

“Forest?  What is it?”

“Parasite,” I whispered, switching my visual focus to better look at him, “He’s here.”  Even though reclaiming one of our own should be a good thing, something was so very wrong.  His body language was off and he was moving slowly, like he was heavier or burdened by something.  Instead of his head raised, he was practically staring at his feet. If he escaped the Trillodan, he should have been elated, not cripplingly morose.  “I’m going to wake up Titan and see Parasite,” I told Infinite as my form withdrew.  

I quickly made a form by Titan and one a few meters in front of Parasite.  Adjusting focus, I spoke through the form next to Titan as I shook our leader.  “Sorry for having to wake you, but something’s happening. Parasite’s back. I’m going to talk to him.  Infinite is awake and on the flight deck overlooking things now,” I said, preempting him asking where she was.  

He nodded and I dispersed that form, diverting focus back to Parasite who had come a few steps closer but was being unusually cautious.  “How?” I asked. 

“I was let go,” he said, tentatively, like he was waiting for me to crush him.  “I need to talk to Titan.”

I folded my arms as I looked back at him, “That’s not going to happen unless you can give me something much more convincing.  The Trillodan haven’t let anyone go. Why are you suddenly the first? For all I know, Parasite, Zellig put a bomb in your chest that will go off when you get close enough to the rest of us.”

“No!  It’s not like that at all,” he promised sincerely.  “Zellig sent me back, he said that he had a message that I needed to give to Titan.”

Part of me wondered if I shouldn’t just smother him now to avoid any kind of interference that Zellig had sent with him.  His talk about a message was at least interesting, and I wouldn’t put it past the Trillodan commander to do something like that; ever since he’d started leading the charge against us, he and his troupe had a bit of a flair for the dramatic.  

“Follow me,” I said as I led him up the rest of the hill, glad that there weren’t too many people out.  Parasite was fairly popular with the rest of the Adapted, so the few who saw him were elated. Ragoll literally launched himself into our path, demanding a big hug from his fellow Enhancer.

“But you’re back,” Ragdoll said, still trying to process that information.  “What happened up there?” 

Parasite tried to put on his usual grin, that affable and frustrating look that he always wore… but it faltered.  He managed to finally put on a good face but it took too long to be authentic. “A hell of a lot. I need to talk to Titan, but maybe I can tell you afterward?” 

“Of course!” Ragdoll said enthusiastically, giving him another pat on the back, “Do what you gotta do.” 

I continued leading him into the ship, past a handful of other Adapted who were thrilled to see him back.  Most didn’t seem to notice his change in demeanor, but a few people did. Psycho saw him, as did Lightshow.  Even though Lightshow rushed to him and gave him a hug, she knew something was wrong. Psycho seemed to regard him with a new kind of respect almost, like they had some unspoken bond.  

Something must have happened to Parasite to make him Alter.  Such a niche experience that seemed to bind some onboard together.

“Where’s Nick and Alexis?” Parasite asked as we approached the flight deck.  

“Dragoon is getting some sleep.  She’s been working overtime getting this ship ready. Eldritch has been locking himself away, and you’ll likely want some time with him. After we talk with Titan, you should go see Eldritch.”  While I was still suspect of Parasite’s miraculous reappearance, getting some stability for the boy who was walking around in circles talking to himself would be very welcome.  

As we walked in, I saw that same glimmer of recognition from Infinite, all but confirming my suspicion.

“You managed to make it back!” Titan said with a smile.  “But, I think I speak for all of us when I admit that I’m curious as to how.”

Parasite looked between all three of us, clearly unsure how to start.  “I-um, uh-”

“Don’t worry,” Infinite said, her voice full of sympathy, “Take your time.  I know how hard it is.”  

Ever the quick witted and intuitive, Titan glanced at Infinite and saw the way she was looking at Parasite, picking up the same cue that I had.  “Parasite,” he said, his voice a bit softer, “What happened?” 

“They’re keeping us in fucking tubes,” he said, his voice shaky, “So many of us, just sitting there, asleep.  They keep us sedated so we don’t Alter while we’re being experimented on. They keep us under with some kind of neural blocker thing that basically puts us in a coma.  I only woke up because the thing inside me ripped mine off. I woke up while they were operating on me, trying to dig my passenger out.” 

Infinite shuffled a little, unable to stand still.  “That isn’t what made you Alter though, is it?”

Slowly, he shook his head, his stare going well beyond the confines of the room.  “Zellig came for me. I took his scientist hostage, but they got him away from me.  I tried to fight him but-but-”

“It’s okay,” Titan said, stepping forward to pull Parasite into a hug.  “You did the best you could.”

For a moment, the only sound was Parasite trying to stifle a sob as he clutched on Titan’s shirt.  After a moment of open vulnerability, he straightened himself and wiped his nose. “Zellig sent me back with a message, but I don’t know that you want to hear it.  The more I think about it, the more I realize it’s just mind games.”

Titan frowned, “What did he say?”

Parasite gave one more nervous look to the three of us, as if we were going to attack him.  “He said that before we leave Vuuldar, he’s going to take one of you three.” 

I shifted my focus outside of the room, looking through the majority of the ship and surrounding area to ensure that no one had followed Parasite.  To my surprise, everything was as it should be: people were still asleep, the Ellayan camp had no new activity, and no one was approaching the hill.  Parasite was truly alone, not some kind of decoy. Unless, of course, there was something left on his person.  

“Infinite, search him,” I insisted.  

She nodded, her eyes flaring green as she allocated a few powers to search for any kind of threat against us.  “He’s clean. There’s really nothing on him that would threaten us.”

Titan frowned, “Zellig doesn’t seem like one to simply make threats aimlessly, but then again he also recognizes the value of causing panic.  If he makes us overly cautious or overly aggressive, we could be playing right into his hands. I wouldn’t bother worrying too much about this.”

Parasite wrung his hands, “Are you sure you should ignore his threat?  Are you sure that you’ve got everything planned well enough?” 

Titan turned to Infinite, “Is he clean of bugs?” 

“Yes.  Nothing mechanical on him or in him for that matter.  If there was even a screw in his knee, I’d know and I’d be able to read you the serial number on it,” she snapped.  

“Parasite,” he said, “You haven’t gotten a chance to see or hear what we’re planning.”

“You’re going to use Nick, aren’t you?” he asked even though he already knew the answer.  “You know what that is going to risk, right?”

It was Titan’s turn to sound a bit insulted.  “No, I forgot about having chunks of my arm ripped out.  I forgot how much it hurt being lobbed onto a car’s windshield.  Of course I know how dangerous Eldritch is. That’s why we need to take advantage of him.”

Parasite glanced at Infinite and then at me, “Why not one of them?”

“I’m too slow.  As big as I am, I’m spread out to spy and listen in on everything.  If I get all of myself bunched up, it’s still not a particularly fast moving organism.  If I condense myself down to move, I risk being killed because I’m localized. Eldritch is more mobile and more regenerative.  Plus I’ll do a better job ensuring no one can sneak aboard our ship during the chaos.” 

Infinite bristled as attention was turned her way, “I’m too unstable.  If I go all out, I’ll kill everyone.” 

Titan grimaced, noting the brusque tone of voice.  She got irritable when she started using more than three powers: scanning Parasite should have only required two.  Odds are that she was still giving herself heightened senses to play lookout. He didn’t say anything about it though.  

“What happens if he isn’t enough?” Parasite asked.  

“If he can’t help control the militia that Zellig has whipped up, we get Mizu down to the beach to flood the place with the whole damn ocean.  We juice him up and let him wash away those who insist on fighting.” Titan offered a soft smile, “Parasite, I know that things have been harrowing for you while you’ve been up there, and I know that everything is on edge right now, but please have a little faith in me.  Have a little faith in everyone else too! We’re going to make it through this, I promise.” 

I quit paying so much attention to the rest of the talk he insisted on having to assuage Parasite’s paranoia and instead looked around the ship again as people started to wake up.  Most people were relaying the fact that Parasite had come back, and several people were overjoyed at the thought.  

And then something else spliced into my vision, like a still image that filled my eyes for a moment: a gaunt humanoid torso on top of what looked like a spider’s abdomen.  They didn’t say a word but just beckoned me forward, like they were waiting for me to answer this siren call. 

My form twitched, shaking me free of that interjection.  It wasn’t the first time I had seen that little partial vision, and I wasn’t the only person who had seen it either.  About a dozen people had reported seeing that figure and talking with it. Supposedly it was the person responsible for the Adapted, but none of us had any idea of a name or even what species they were.  The only thing that seemed to be clear was they supported us and were expecting to meet with us soon enough.  

I assumed I never got the full vision since I was never entirely asleep.  Only a few chunks of my mind could take it in, instead spitting out little snippets and still frames.  Even though I heard people talking about our mysterious creator in secret around the ship, I had never bothered to ask anyone about it.  I figured that if there was something I desperately needed to know, someone would tell Titan or just tell me.  

Parasite and Titan spoke a little while longer, and then he asked to see Eldritch.  I made a point to watch him as he entered a room with his friend, the two of them overcome with emotion as they embraced one another.

“How do you think Zellig is going to take one of us?” Infinite asked now that it was just the Prime Trio.

“I don’t think he can,” Titan replied.  “Not as a point of pride or arrogance, but I don’t see how he’s going to be able to isolate any of us.  The two of you are going to stay back and I’m not going to involve myself much in the fighting if I can avoid it.  He won’t have an opportunity to corner us. Neither Zellig nor his cronies can fight us individually.”

“No,” I said, “But he’s not limited to just his cronies.  He has a ship in orbit. God knows what kind of tricks it might bring into play if he really wants to get nasty.”

“If he’s using a Crimson City to rain fire down on us, he’s going to kill us.  Our biggest advantage is that we’re wanted alive. It means they have to fight with restraint and we don’t.  As long as you two stay here, it means you aren’t going to be subject to any kind of nefarious weaponry he has tucked out of reach.”

“What about Eldritch?  If he’s eating that many people, he’s going to make himself a massive target.  Literally,” I pointed out.

“And he can recover.  There won’t be a shortage for him in terms of food supply.  If he hulks out and devours the whole Ellayan militia, I can’t imagine that he’s going to go down without a hell of a fight.  As long as he isn’t pointed at us, the Trillodan will have to expend a lot of resources to deal with him.”

“He’s been unstable,” I said.  “The last few days he’s been isolating himself and talking to the monster that lives inside his head.  Are you sure you want him to be our first countermeasure? I could start moving myself now; as soon as the fight starts, I start ensnaring the whole Ellayan militia.”

Titan shook his head, “You’re too valuable to lose, and you don’t present the same way that Eldritch does.  He’s a literal monster. He’s a thing you see and shit your pants over. No offense to you, but you are a living mass of wood.  I know how strong you are, but you don’t inspire fear the way he does. Besides, he can regrow and undo damage, your body is inherently limited.  While it’d take hours to hack you to pieces, you can be hacked to pieces.  As long as he has food, Eldritch can sustain a theoretically infinite amount of damage on our behalf.  If we’ve got someone who has no theoretical ceiling, we might as well utilize it.”

“And his deteriorating mental state?” Infinite pried.  “I mean, is Parasite going to help now that he’s Altered?”

“Eldritch should be substantially improved by the surprise appearance of his best friend.  Even though Parasite’s Altered, the two of them have known each other for ages; a familiar face will do wonders for both of them.  If anything, Zellig gave us a massive edge in the fight thanks to him returning the boy.” 

“That’s still nagging at me,” I grumbled, still keeping an eye on the two of them as they sat down and started talking.  “I’m watching Parasite and wondering when something’s going to go wrong. Zellig wouldn’t just hand him back. They don’t give anything up, so why give up a prisoner that Big Picture deemed to be of high priority for them?”

“Maybe his Alteration made him less valuable?” Infinite suggested.  “We know that Alterations are more dangerous and volatile; maybe his new power made keeping him locked up too much of a liability?” 

It wasn’t a bad idea, but it still felt wrong to me.  “Maybe, but it still feels suspect. Zellig plays to win.  Most recently we actually had a serious win against him with Bargain and Eldritch killing three of his elite.”

Titan furrowed his brow, “You’re right that the timing is…too convenient.”

“But there was nothing mechanical stashed on him,” Infinite said.  

“One of Zellig’s elite is focused on targeted biological agents,” he said, his eyes widening.  “They made customized toxins to specifically search out Adapted. There could be a designer toxin stuck on his skin that Parasite wouldn’t even know about.”

Infinite looked between us, “But, none of us are sick.  So, not us?”

“I’m immune to a common infection.  Comes along with being not human anymore,” I said with a shrug.  “Titan?” 

He gave himself a little pat down, “No.  I can get checked by Organelle, but her stuff seemed fast acting.  Zellig must realize we’d think of this; he wouldn’t send something slow acting.”

“But, if it’s made for a specific person, they must have been able to get a sample of their genetic material to customize the virus.  It’ll be a single person onboard. Forest-” 

“Already looking,” I said as I shifted myself and woke up the rest of my body.  The first place I double checked was Eldritch: perfectly fine. The construction crew were just now getting to work, everything as it should be.  Fortunately Almanac, Big Picture and the other Cognates weren’t in any danger since they had never scrapped with Zellig’s elite. “None of our key components,” I relayed to Titan as I kept searching around the ship.  

Titan was trying to approach this from a different angle, thinking out loud about who they’d be targeting.  “Eldritch is no good, he can simply grow the Neklim and heal. He’s lost organs before and walked away without issue.  They wouldn’t try to poison him if they found him valuable, even if he’s dangerous. Dragoon is dangerous but too valuable for them to thrash.  Psycho is a bit of a wildcard and a challenge to restrain due to his shifting power scheme.”

“Bargain beat the shit out of them with ease,” Infinite said softly, “And right now he’s seriously weakened.  Bargain doesn’t have a gift that would make him particularly valuable to the Trillodan either.” 

“Which makes him expendable,” Titan said, getting to his feet. 

Another vantage point gave me a good view of Bargain, who had been completely still the last few days since he’d driven himself into a coma as a cost of using so much power.  Now, however, he was squirming, like he was trying to shake free of something. 

“It’s Bargain,” I confirmed.  “I’m getting Organelle.” My focus shifted again to Organelle’s room.  I dispersed my form by Titan and Infinite, dedicating almost my entire focus to our ships medic.  “Organelle,” I snapped, “Get to Bargain, now!”

She got up and hurried towards the door, knowing that I was not one to ever raise an alarm without good reason.  In the thirty seconds it took for her to dart down the hall and into his room, he had gone from squirming to thrashing around violently.  “What the-” she whispered, “He’s supposed to be in a coma!” 

“The Trillodan left a gift for him on Parasite.  He likely didn’t even know he was transporting it,” I informed her.  “Some kind of personalized biological weapon.”

Organelle nodded and knelt beside the Altered, having to dodge an arm as he continued to seize.  “Forest, hold him still!” 

A mass of roots erupted from under the bed, constricting around his limbs and holding him down.  He was burning up, his skin already starting to collect beads of sweat as Orgalle pressed a hand to his chest. “It’s attacking his lungs,” she whispered.  “Like it’s deliberately rupturing the cells in his lungs.”

To add weight to her words, Bargain coughed up a mouthful of blood, staining her sleeve. 

“Can you fix him?”

“If he wasn’t so weak I’d say yes.  My power builds on existing biological processes and the cost of him being so powerful is that his whole body is slowed to a crawl.  I’ve already done a lot to make sure he lived through the first night since he was barely breathing.” 

Titan and Infinite ran into the room, minding their distance from Organelle to not disrupt her.  “Organelle-”

“I’m on it, Titan,” she insisted.  “I just told Forest how banged up he is.  I can’t just recycle his lungs while his metabolism is going at a third its regular speed.”  She closed her eyes, pressing her hands to his chest as he coughed up another mouthful of blood, convulsing and struggling more as he started to asphyxiate.  “Infinite,” she snapped, “I need you to snap him out of his coma. I need you to undo his cost or something so that he’s awake. If his body can start working on it’s own, it’ll do the job.” 

Infinite balked, “You want me to fuck with his nervous system?  You want me to try and mess with an Alteration that I don’t entirely understand?”

“It isn’t like you’re going to make it worse.  He’s going to be dead in a couple minutes if we don’t try!  Forest, turn him on his side so he doesn’t aspirate!” 

I pivoted my roots, hoisting him up onto one arm; sure enough a steady flow of blood began seeping out his mouth.  “Now what?” 

“Get me Spectre and get me Lightshow.  I need every bit of help I can get.”  

Nodding, I diverted attention to the rest of the ship, finding the both of them and relaying the message.  Both hurried to join us, their frantic stomping prompting a few people to follow, curious what was happening inside.  

One of which was a very angry looking Psycho.  

As soon as Spectre and Lightshow made it inside, I put up another form in front of Psycho, cutting him off.  “I’m not sure you want to see this.”

From the looks of it, Psycho was in a Schizophrenic state today, which meant that him losing his cool would mean dozens and dozens of neon-colored monsters running around our ship, trying to eat everyone in sight.  “Forest, let me see him.”

I shook my head, “Not a good idea.  You have to trust that Orgalle and everyone else is going to do their best.  You need to get the fuck outside in case you start losing control and making projections.”  He sneered, opening his mouth to make some kind of threat and I enlarged my form so I filled the entire corridor, reminding him exactly who he was talking to.  “Psycho,” I insisted, “I will let you know the second I know anything. But I’m serious, go the fuck outside. Wait there.” 

Psycho sneered but didn’t talk back, storming outside to brood.  Shifting attention, I looked inside to the sudden bustle around Bargain as people tried to frantically keep him alive.  Infinite was trying to jumpstart Bargains metabolism so his own cells could better respond to Organelle’s gift, but overriding his imposed infirmity was proving to be impossible, even for her.  Lightshow had created a duplicate of Organelle, but having another copy wasn’t making an attempt at treatment effective.  

“It’s moving past his lungs now,” Spectre said, pressing a hand to Bargain’s guts.  “This thing, it’s eating the rest of him.”  

“Organelle, can you undo it?  Can you reprogram some of his-”

“No, Titan,” she snapped.  “Bargain almost killed himself and so nothing in his body is working.  If his bone marrow was working I could overdrive his blood production and reprogram some of his red blood cells to eat this stuff.  But, I can’t!” Organelle looked at Infinite, “Unless you can literally make him a whole new set of internal organs, I can’t do anything for him. He’s going to bleed to death, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” 

“We could force him to have more clotting factor,” Spectre suggested.  

“Then we’d just be clogging up his circulatory system.  His blood is basically sludge as is. Infinite, this is beyond what I can do.” 

All eyes went to her and she focused, his eyes turning red as she pressed a hand on  his chest. A glow started to spread across Bargain as Infinite pushed more and more power into him; it wasn’t long before he started thrashing against my roots again.  This time more frantic than earlier.  

“What are you doing to him?” Organelle demanded, horrified.  

“Burning it out of him,” she said softly.  “As long as he has this stuff inside of him, anything we do is going to be undone.  We have to get rid of whatever he was dosed with, right?”

Organelle put a hand to his skin and withdrew it like she’d touched a hot stove.  “Infinite, he’s running a fever of 106! Stop! You’re going to cook his brain! He’s too fragile for this!” 

“I can’t make it worse, can I?” she asked sincerely.  “We have to try, right?”

Organelle looked like she wanted to protest, but she didn’t have a better plan of action to give Infinite.  Even though she was our de facto healer, she was at a loss and out of her element, just like the rest of us.

Spectre knelt by her teammate and gently stroked his cheek.  “Come on, big guy, fight back. Please. You can do this.” All of a sudden, Bargain stopped struggling and went limp, his neck going slack and pulling away from Spectre’s touch.  “No. No. No,” she whimpered, “Bargain, please! Please don’t leave us.”

I searched for a pulse, for any kind of breathing, for any kind of sign he was alive, all to no avail.  “I’m sorry, Spectre,” I said softly, “I can’t feel anything.”

She nodded, “I know.  I felt his heart stop too.”  

“Fuck,” Titan hissed.  “Fuck. He traded Parasite for Bargain.  He needed some way to get his tailored virus close enough.  We let it walk through the fucking front door.” He turned and slammed his hand against the metal wall with a resounding boom.  “Fuck!”

Organelle ran her hands through her hair.  “I-I just couldn’t do anything. I needed his body to work and-”

“I know,” Titan said, quickly composing himself.  “You never half ass things. I know. It just… I gotta tell Psycho.”

“I’ll do it,” I said.  “I’m already beside him.”  

“Thanks.”

I nodded and dispersed that form, creating a new one beside Psycho as he looked down at the city.  He gave me a glance, hissing through his teeth when I didn’t volunteer any kind of good news. “Bargain’s dead, isn’t he?” 

“Yeah.”

Psycho drew in a long breath, like someone would take a drag off a cigarette.  He held it for a moment before letting out a sigh. “In a way, the Trillodan gave the poor guy what he’s always wanted,” he said, “I mean, I’ve had to stop the bastard from killing himself half a dozen times now.  Fatalistic son-of-a-bitch finally managed to haul off and die on me.” 

I frowned, surprised that I was finding him so lucid.  Schizophrenia was one of his harsher forms, more prone to making him unhinged or volatile; he was so composed in the face of his teammates death I wasn’t sure what to say.  

“You know the reason that I had to rescue Bargain, back on Tso’got?” he asked, turning to me.  

“No.”

“He was afraid of himself.  He was afraid of hauling off and destroying everything.  Bargain wasn’t someone who knew how to hold back. If you told him to get the job done, it got done.  But he was afraid of how many people he’d kill if he let loose. All he needed was for me to take him off the leash.  All he needed was a little direction and encouragement with his newfound power. The reality is that he was the best out of us; I’m the only reason he was ever called a monster.”  Psycho gulped down the lump in his throat. “He might have been a Lunatic, but Bargain was one of the nicest bastards you’d ever meet.”

“Organelle did everything she could.  They all did. He was too weak from his cost.”  

“Yeah,” he said, letting out another long sigh, tears starting to well up in his eyes.  “I know she did. And I know he was. We’ve never been able to counteract those costs of his.  Those were absolutes.”

“He took two with him,” I said, hoping that would offer some comfort. 

“One for him, one for Dysfunction.  Thanks to Bargain, the Lunatics might be the only group here that’s actually settled up on body count.”  Around us, a mist started creeping out and brightly colored monsters began to take form. “But you know what, I think I’m done with going even.”

“Psycho,” I cautioned as more and more monsters began to take form.

“Relax,” he insisted, the corner of his mouth twitching into a distrubed smile, “These aren’t for you or anyone else up here.  All these, they have a purpose. Besides, we don’t get time to grieve. Look,” he said, pointing down the coast.  

A rise in movement and population density that I’d missed; the frantic scenario around Bargain had distracted me from my outer roots and kept me from noticing the gathering earlier.  The Ellayans were coming out of the water and joining the Trillodan on the surface. From the looks of it, there were going to be at least a couple thousand in this militia.  

“Bargain at least chose a good day to die,” Psycho whispered, letting himself start to spiral into insanity, “I’m at my best when I’m under pressure.  Those fuckers killed my friend, so I’m gonna kill ‘em all.” He turned to me, flashing a maniacal grin as another dozen neon creatures began to coalesce into existence.  Even though I knew he wasn’t a threat to me, there was something so off putting about the self-assured head of the Lunatics and his peculiar brand of charisma.    

I dismissed that form and made two more: one by Titan, and one beside Eldritch.  

Both of them relayed the same message.  

“It’s starting.” 

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