For the first time that I could remember, I saw fear on Titan’s face. When he had gone after Infinite, he was determined, but not afraid. Rescuing her had been something to accomplish; the threat of losing me was something he wanted to avoid.
“Forest, hang on a second,” he said, trying to get to his feet, “Clairvoyant’s visions are just approximations. There’s bound to be scenarios she hasn’t seen.”
“Staying and fighting sure as shit isn’t an option,” I replied. “More than five visions showing the same outcome is almost a guarantee. Sure, we could try flying away, but so far that hasn’t proved to be good either. Given how close they are, we don’t have time for Command to put her into another trance to see what else she can see.”
As Titan wrestled with that rebuttal, I let my vision shift perspective as Adapted sprinted back towards the ship. Down the hill, ordered ranks of Trillodan soldiers advanced. They were methodical, efficient, and being careful. I watched them scan the ground as they crept our way, undoubtedly searching for me.
My focus shifted back into the Ark ship, as Titan was helped up, Command acting as ballast since Titan’s legs were still maimed from his encounter with the lieutenants. “Forest, this isn’t negotiable. You’re too valuable.”
“And everyone else is what? Expendable?”
He winced, like I’d slapped him. “I didn’t-“
“Might as well have,” I said, refusing to budge. “Titan, you’ve lost control. This has gone really far off the fucking rails. The Trillodan are racing up behind our friends and laying siege to our hilltop; the only thing slowing them down is fear of me. They are looking for roots to cut; pretty soon they are going to find some.”
Organelle walked over and put an arm under Titan’s other shoulder, “I think you should listen to Forest.”
Titan pulled his arm away, acting uncharacteristically bratty. “Forest, please. We have to try something else.”
I gave him a sad smile and reached over, taking Titan from Command. “I’m going to borrow him for a moment. I’ll bring him right back.”
As I dragged him across the hall, I could feel something between anger and desperation catching in his throat. He wanted to scream, but he just wasn’t sure what to say. Once a door closed behind us, he finally found his voice. “I can’t lose you, Forest. I rely too much on you. I would have never been able to do this without you!”
I dared to smile and show a little pride, “I know. Still, it wouldn’t have hurt to hear it before now.”
“Without you, this never would have happened. I would have just been running around, melting down Snatcher labs back on Tso’got and wishing there was something more for me to do.” He slumped against the wall and slit to the floor, “It’s all because I saw what you could do, how much you could watch, how much information you could relay. You were the reason I even thought about expanding my mission.”
“You found me,” I recalled as I took a seat next to him, “Out there, in the wilderness, when I was still afraid of myself. You weren’t scared, you weren’t horrified. You saw value in me. You gave me a place to call home. To you, I wasn’t just that ugly, grimy, homeless orphan.”
Tears began to well up in Titan’s eyes, a strange contrast to his harsh, red irises. “We still have another world to go to. We still have others to find. I can’t do it without you.”
“Yes you can,” I replied as I reached a hand forward to his cheek. “You’re going to finish what we started. You’re going to bring the universe to its knees. But,” I said, “Regrettably, I’m far too slow to keep up. Back on Tso’got, we had no time constraints. I could slither around and scout out whole cities for you; what have I done here? Guard a ship?” I let out a chuckle, letting all those repressed emotions show, “Come on, I haven’t carried my weight as a Prime Trio member.”
“Don’t say that. Forest, you’ve put your-“
“Max,” I interrupted. “Max, stop. It’s okay. You gave me a new lease on life; time to let me return the favor.”
His hand shot forward, grabbing my wrist. “I can’t lose my friend,” he said, tears streaming down his cheeks now. “I can’t. I can’t be strong for everyone without you. I need someone who has the balls to tell me how it is. I need someone around me who isn’t scared of me. I can’t do this without you, Delilah.”
My heart did go out to him, but the first words that slipped out were, “When did you become such a pussy?” I flashed him a massive smile and laughed and was glad he followed suit. “Of course you can be strong for them. Everyone is losing someone and finding a way to fight through it. Why should you be exempt?”
The verbal slap seemed to help him center at least a little bit, but he was still unable to hold back the tears. “Maybe I’m not so strong after all.”
“Max, you just torched a huge chunk of a city. There’s a burn scar left behind on this unfortunate city. You aren’t weak. You’re so close to the end; just grit and bear it, okay?”
His smile faltered as he shook his head, “Delilah, you know that a single Clairvoyant vision is hardly conclusive. You can’t just go throwing your life away because of a glorified hunch.”
“We can’t stand and fight,” I countered, “Her having half a dozen of the same visions is almost a guarantee. The best hunch we have to go off of is that I can be a perfect sacrifice to buy us all enough time to run. I’ve been holding this hill down for us; I’m literally why we set up the base of operations here. Zone control is what my power makes me best at. I can answer all the advancing soldiers, I can reach into the sky and pull down ships who get too close. I’m the best option for this.” I let out a sigh and shrugged, “Come on, Max, it might just be a hunch, but you and I both know it’s the best we have to go off of right now.”
I let my vision focus outside of the ship, seeing how much forward progress the infantry had made: they were about a kilometer out now, fighting off the rest of Stampede and Menagerie’s monsters but it wasn’t going to be long now before they swarmed our hill.
“We can still try something else,” he said softly, refusing to listen to my pragmatism for once in his life. “Guardian can probably shield us enough to get us off the ground and on our way. We can have Powerhouse juice him up so we can get all the way to the atmosphere and let Infinite warp us away, out of their range.”
My face fell: Powerhouse was already spent and was comatose. She couldn’t lend out more powers if she wanted to. Titan was grasping at straws, doing anything to keep his friend and confidant alive. He was desperate enough to suggest literal impossibilities.
“We could try,” I replied, “But we won’t.”
I let my form disperse and allocated a swath of roots to overgrow the door, locking Titan inside. “Forest!” he screamed, slamming his fist against the obstruction, “Forest don’t do this!”
For a split second, I thought about listening to him and reappearing to him, to talk it out and see what other options we had.
Instead, I manifested a form on the other side of the door, looking at a mortified Organelle who was lost for words. “Organelle, do not let him out!”
“But-” our medic said, unsure what to do. “Forest, I-”
“I love him, but Titan isn’t fit to lead right now. Trust me. Get people tied down so they aren’t thrown around. It’s going to be a rough takeoff.”
I pushed Max from my mind and said a quiet goodbye before manifesting a new form beside our lead engineer.
“Forest,” Dragoon said, surprised.
“Dragoon, we need to get this ship off the ground, now. We have about two minutes until everyone is onboard, and about ten minutes until all of the Trillodan are firing on us. How fast can we be ready to fly?”
The slender redhead bit her lower lip in thought as she looked over the vessel she had spent so much time refurbishing. “We need more time, Forest; Armorsmith hasn’t been able to reinforce the whole thing yet.”
“Guardian will do his best to keep the Trillodan from punching holes in the fucking ship. I need a time, Dragoon. How long?”
“We don’t have enough fuel to make it out of the atmosphere,” she confessed. “Chemtrail is working his ass to make the last batch of fuel, but we aren’t ready to fly yet. This thing is still heavy as shit. Getting it off the ground is going to be too taxing to really get anywhere too quick. We’re slanted down; to correct our angle will cost too much fuel.”
An idea popped into my head. “Is getting it off the ground the biggest problem?”
She nodded, “Initial momentum and angle is the big hurdle. We’re going to be grinding the bottom as we try to get going. I didn’t get a chance to make a kind of jack to counteract our angle. I could maybe-” she started to mutter to herself, her brain still going in overdrive; I could tell from her dilated eyes that she was still wound up on Chemtrail’s stimulant.
I raised a hand to stop her and refocus her attention. “Leave angling the ship to me. I can get us off the ground and get us pointed the right way. Make sure everything is ready to go.”
The engineer frowned, “But how could you do that without-“
“Not up for discussion,” I snapped.
She bristled at my aggression, “Titan was supposed to be telling me when to fire everything up. Is he going to be okay with this?” Even though she was hopped up, she had put two and two together. Even though she didn’t like me, I saw that look of concern; she wasn’t about to get between two of the most powerful people alive.
I debated lying to her, keeping Titan’s weakness a secret. But, Dragoon had been a surprisingly powerful ally, one that Titan would need in the future. The last thing I wanted to do was poison the well for him. “Titan is afraid to lose me, but according to Clairvoyant, this is going to be our best course of action. He won’t make the call, so I will.”
My relationship with Dragoon had never been great, but she was someone who could respect pragmatism and selflessness. “Toolkit and I will make checks and get everything ready to fly. We can be ready to ignite in five minutes. Forest,” she said, having a strangely clear moment, “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”
Clasping her shoulder, I gave her a soft grin, “Shit happens, but we’re still family. Yell when you’re ready. I’ll take care of the rest.”
My form dispersed, and I sent a signal through my entire anatomy, rousing my whole body. At any given point, I only used a small fraction of my entire mass; using everything was inviting sensory overload. Back on Tso’got, I had learned how to meter my body, how to selectively shut down chunks of myself to not take too much in. During Feast Day, I had managed to move nearly 20% of my mass into place to fight with Eldritch. I used about a third of my body to stall the Trillodan from capturing us as we fled Tso’got.
But I hadn’t used 100% of my body since the day I Adapted.
I had only used my entire body when I had snapped and lost control. A Zari thug and his friends who thought it would be fun to bring a homeless human girl out to the wilderness for a little ‘playtime’ were the first victims of my full might.
Using all of my body was intense. I could see everything. I could hear everything. I could feel everything. I saw snippets from thousands of eyes, heard the sounds from thousands of ears, and felt the sensations of a thousand different hands. I wasn’t bound in a small form for travelling; I was ready to strike, ready to show what I was made of.
I was the hill, and the Trillodan weren’t so much advancing on the ship as they were threatening to tread on me. My focus shifted out from the Adapted onboard the Ark vessel to the Trillodan army.
Saws began to bite into my outermost fingers, and I responded with roots overgrowing a few of the closest soldiers, pulling them underground. There was a reply with fire and increased aggression, but my violent display on numerous fronts would buy us extra time.
I watched every Adapted limp onboard, many of them looking defeated. Many were injured and dripping blood. Many were weeping for a friend that had been claimed by the Trillodan. Morale was shot, the despair of defeat quickly falling onto our brethren. We were Adapted and we lived for conflict; being beaten so badly in our own arena was a slap in the face of our very nature.
The Trillodan changed tactics after I crushed another handful of their infantry in my verdant grasp. They were setting up turrets and missile towers, forcing me to respond by threatening the Ark vessel on all sides. Either I do something to stop them, or my family’s method of locomotion would go up in smoke.
More of my mass flowed down the hill, extending my domain; the Trillodan assumed they had the edge being out of my reach, but none of them knew exactly how far I could extend myself. Titan’s dedication to keeping me hidden had never allowed them to gauge how immense I truly was, how much mass I could shift around. Machinery was undone and pulled into the ground, reduced to scrap in seconds as the battalions scurried backwards to regroup and reassess.
And all the while, I was dimly aware of my best friend speaking to me. The little barrier I left behind to keep him inside was still part of me. It was another set of eyes and ears.
“I know you’re doing this for everyone,” he said, his voice garbled as he tried not to cry. “I know you’re making the hard choice because I can’t. I’m greedy. I want my friends with me.”
I wanted to answer, to reassure him, but the Trillodan were changing their tactics. I recognized the figure in yellow who started to take charge: Salah, the Trillodan demolitionist. She barked orders in an alien tongue and munitions were fired into the hill; an attempt to blast me apart.
There was too much of me to move away from the first round of submerged explosives. I felt five percent of my roots die off, burned to ash. My vision narrowed in scope as I retreated back to the top half of the hill, condensing my mass, not allowing more reckless loss of my body. As I retreated, the lieutenant specializing in bio weapons made an appearance, firing a missile from the base of the hill.
I used a quarter of my body, erecting a massive wall around the Ark ship, absorbing the blow and smothering whatever toxin Omec had tried to barrage us with. However, it hadn’t been meant for them, it had been meant for me.
Omec had created some kind of herbicide for me specifically. I let the afflicted part of me die, severing my connecting and feeling the sting of another six percent loss of my body.
With a mass appearance, the Trillodan had a target to bombard; explosives and lasers bit into the wall I had erected around the Adapted ship, chewing away at my flesh and burning away my limbs. I devoted another quarter of my body to repelling them, sending a small avalanche of roots and vines cascading down the side of the hill, crushing the infantry and tanks trying to advance forward.
It had been enough of a reply to push them back for now. I was sure that soon there would be a change in tactic; laying siege against me was a losing battle and the enemy would realize that before long. The only way they were going to take this hill from me was turning it to ash, and they couldn’t do that without killing all their precious Adapted samples.
Information gathering had been my purpose on Tso’got, to be the quiet and unseen spectator around cities, directing recruitment, and identifying threats. Here, on Vuuldar, being the true force of nature that my name implied brought me much more fulfillment.
For a split second, I directed my attention inward, double checking to ensure that all the Adapted had made it onboard.
Right on cue, a single voice cut through screaming my name.
I manifested a form next to Dragoon, responding to her summons. “You’re ready?”
“Yeah, we’ve done our last checks. This is as good as we’re going to manage,” she said with a nervous smile. “Engines are warming up and going to burn in thirty seconds; you’re still going to be able to get us elevated?”
“I will,” I replied, “Thirty seconds, make sure everyone is strapped down!”
I dispersed my form and let my consciousness expand through the rest of my being, initiating a recall, pulling every strand of my being back to the upper section of the hill. I knew that my next stunt was going to be my real action of any importance; I figured it was time someone could respond to the melodrama that Zellig seemed to adore.
For a moment, everything stopped.
For a moment, I wasn’t on the hill battling for my family and was instead floating in a white expanse of nothing.
For a moment, I was human again. I was the small and frail Delilah, with my chubby hands and lazy eyes. My heart hammered in my chest as I felt so small, so narrow in scope, so alarmingly human again. It had been a sensation I had almost forgotten about. My lungs burned; I hadn’t had lungs in nearly a decade. I hadn’t needed to breathe or think about things like hunger for nearly half my life.
In front of me, the strange figure that people kept seeing in dreams; an emaciated humanoid with an almost insect-esque lower half. They gave me a sad smile as they stepped forward, reaching forward to my hands in theirs. I didn’t pull away; I knew they weren’t a threat.
“Delilah,” they said softly, “I’m sorry we’re never going to get to meet in person, but I wanted to give you a bit of reassurance before the end.”
“How did you do this? How did you know?” I asked, my voice garbled. It had been so long since I had this voice affect. It had been so long since I had Adapted and done away with this imperfect body.
“I know so much about all of you,” they said, “I helped make you all. I have been watching you all for quite some time.” They paused and squeezed my hands, silently reassuring me, “I’m going to look after your friends. I promise you, what you’re doing, it will not be for nothing.”
“Please, take care of Max,” I pleaded, a tear cascading down my cheek, “He’s going to need it the most.”
They smiled and squeezed my hands again before pulling me into a hug. “I will. You have my word.”
And just like that, I was back on the hill. I was the immense Forest again and no longer the small, frail Delilah.
With a strange sense of peace instilled in me, I let my entire body unfold. The top of the hill erupted in a mess of vines and roots as a spire of wood grew under the ship, literally pushing it up, angling it heavenward as the engines roared to life. Flames scalded me as Chemtrail’s rocket fuel propelled the immense Ark vessel. Exhaust roared as the ship took my friends and family far away from this chaos.
I had one last purpose: ensure their escape.
Explosives, plasma, fire, lasers, all of the Trillodan arsenal raged against me. Dead wood and burnt sections of my body fell to the ground as I shifted the roots into immense arms, taking a page from Eldritch’s playbook. I became a towering torso atop the hill, a wooded colossus that would draw all their fire.
I lashed out with my newly formed limbs, going on the offensive. Many of their infantry were too slow to retreat; the soldiers’ power armor did nothing to stop the weight and strength I wielded. Their tanks crumpled like tin cans as I raged against Zellig’s army.
As I had assumed, ships gave chase to the Ark vessel; a few flew too close to me and were pulled to the ground, their occupants ground up and discarded. The few that made it by were quickly blasted away, explosions and beams of light driving back to the Trillodan armada. I was overjoyed that Dragoon had the foresight to add some way to fight back as they tried to escape.
The sky turned red again for the fourth time today; moments later the laser from the Trillodan’s Crimson City tore a rift through the center of my body, compromising my structure. Wood groaned and splintered as I collapsed on myself, unable to keep a vaguely humanoid form.
I answered quickly, slinking into the ground and ripping apart the layers of dirt and rock, creating a landslide. I rode with the fabricated disaster, letting the shift in landscape drag me right into the Trillodan ranks. Most fled, but a few were too slow to get clear and were smothered and subsumed by my body.
Another surge of energy filled the air as the teal beam fired down from the ship in orbit, the same one that had turned Mizu’s tsunami into ice. Nearly half of my remaining body was flash frozen. I had to tear myself free of the wreckage, and found myself on the end of a massive salvo. Fire and brimstone rained down on me as Salah took charge, ordering missile strikes over and over.
My view of the world narrowed as my body was reduced to ash. Forty percent, then thirty, then only five percent remained.
And soon, I was down to less than one percent.
Amidst the crater that Salah had created destroying me, a lone effigy stood. I kept my modern form, the slim girl with corrected features and no garbled speech. A form I was happy with, one that better represented the girl I had dreamed of being as a child.
Despite my death being imminent, I smiled.
I would die being useful to my best friend. I would not die a monster and freak, despite what everyone told me back on Tso’got.
I would die a hero.
A lone figure approached the edge of the crater. He was tall compared to his comrades, and didn’t bother wearing power armor. There was no fear as he approached, no wariness or trepidation; the grey-skinned interloper moved like he owned the place.
I could see now why Zellig had intimidated Infinite. There was a certain amount of pride and confidence he carried that was unnerving.
“You are quite the specimen,” he said, smiling as he drew closer, bowing his head out of respect. “I am sorry I never got a chance to properly introduce myself to you before now.”
I smiled, not bothering to mask my emotions in these last moments. I was so narrow in focus, it was impossible for me to suppress the rampant emotions I was feeling. “If you had introduced yourself before now, I would have crushed you into a pulp.”
He laughed, sitting down, putting himself eye to eye with me. “I’m sure. You made quick work of my men and our technology. A testament to the power of nature?”
“I didn’t get my name for nothing.”
“More literal that I would have thought,” he mused. “Though, now you seem to have been through quite the forest fire.”
“You’re not funny,” I rebuked, stepping forward.
He chuckled, “No, I’m not. So, how about I be serious then,” he said, his smile vanishing. “You are done. There is no more of you left to fight us with. You sacrificed yourself to prevent your friends being captured; I respect your tenacity and dedication to the cause, but it ends now.”
“I’m okay with that,” I replied.
“Are you going to come quietly?”
My smile wavered as the weight of the situation finally caught up with me. This was it, the last few seconds of my life. I was incapable of crying, but I wanted to as I quickly saw the original group that Titan had gathered: Infinite, Almanac, Clairvoyant, Playlist, and Interface. Just a handful of us had worked tirelessly to see Titan’s plan put into motion.
“I’m not going to come with you at all,” I defied.
Zellig didn’t get angry like I expected. Instead, he calmly rose to his feet and towered over me. “Forest, I am sorry to sully your sacrifice, but you will serve the Trillodan empire.”
I shook my head and dug a foot into the charred ground. I started to disperse what little bit of me was left, spreading it out thin enough that there wasn’t anything large enough to be a sentient core. “No, I won’t,” I replied as my legs folded, my body coming apart like a tapestry being undone. “All you’ll find are roots, nothing special about them.”
Again, I expected rage from Zellig, some kind of anger in response to my defiance; it surprised me that the last thing he did was raise his hand in salute. “Very well. You, Forest, have earned my respect.”
For a moment, I debated stopping the process, trying to be sly and keep myself clinging to life, but I knew better. Even though Zellig walked away, someone else would watch and ensure I finished the job. Otherwise, they wouldn’t let such a valuable specimen go to waste.
My torso came unravelled and the lights began to dim.
“Good luck everyone,” I whispered as I looked to the heavens one final time.