Vuuldar was to be a stain on my record.
It had been another half measure, another round of tip-toeing forward instead of leaping down and crushing our opponents. Many of the Adapted had been clever and used the fact that we were fighting to capture as an advantage. They were wise enough to exploit that fact and take risks, knowing that extermination was antithetical to our goal.
We now had fifty-eight specimens in tubes. Another dozen had been captured during our climactic battle; we would have wrangled more but Infinite’s outburst had caused more collateral damage than I had expected. We had brought a few cadavers for Vaneel to pull apart but they weren’t going to be nearly as useful.
I heard the steps and could distinguish the owner before Salah even knocked on the door. She was going a little more slow than normal, likely on her way to deliver bad news. Likely an official report for our campaign on Vuuldar.
“Enter,” I instructed before she knocked.
My lieutenant entered as instructed, her yellow skin finally free of the power armor. She hesitated, reluctant to deliver the bad news. “Our losses on Vuuldar are not insubstantial sir,” she finally said, “We lost seven-hundred and twenty-four soldiers. Seven of your legion were killed in combat as well.”
“Nearly a third on either front,” I muttered as I sat down on a rigid metal chair. She took a spot across from me.
“You’re going to take the blame for this,” she said. “The Eternal Council is going to come down on your head and shoulders for such an extreme loss of life.”
“The Matron will support us,” I insisted.
Salah hid it well, but there was doubt. I could hear the slightest catch in her breath, the slightest acceleration of her heart as she suppressed the emotion. “If she doesn’t?”
“We can show off the footage of Forest to convince those stuffy politicians that our mission is one worth pursuing.”
“No one likes dead soldiers, Commander,” she replied. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a motion to strip away your title. We both know that they have wanted you gone for a long time now.”
“You think watching Forest rip apart a hillside won’t scare some sense into them? What about Titan laying waste to a city? Mizu conjuring a tsunami? We have more than enough to convince them these children are worth studying.”
“I think they’ll be more upset that we don’t have any profound headway made with replicating the Adapted,” she answered, averting her gaze. Salah was, in some ways, my most loyal lieutenant, almost to a fault. She was afraid of disappointing me and it would almost drive her to being duplicitous. I had a hunch that she wasn’t speculating about them as much as she was voicing her own disparaging opinion of our mission.
It had cost her one of her best friends, with Kalr being beheaded. They hadn’t been able to stop Bargain while he was at his most powerful; even though we had avenged Kalr’s death, Salah was still distraught. She refused to acknowledge it, but I could see the telltale signs of her pain.
“Salah,” I said with a sigh, “I know you had to abandon Kalr. I know how much her death means to you. I understand if you have doubts about me or my mission in the light of that. You are not a machine, you don’t need to act like one. I am your Commander, but I’m not heartless.”
I saw a flicker of shock from my demolitionist, surprised to be approached in such an empathetic manner. “I wonder if they are worth pursuing, if they are worth the risk of capture,” she finally confessed. “We are having to fight at a disadvantage so that Vaneel can get his precious samples and that is costing us friends and family. I don’t want to have to explain to grieving widows and parents about why their loved ones are gone. I don’t want to have to feel the guilt of lessening our already dwindling population, Commander.”
“You are not at fault, Salah,” I assured, “You are simply following my orders.”
She winced, angry at herself, “I am beginning to question whether or not those orders are worth following, sir.”
I reached forward and raised her head. “There is no shame in questioning leadership. There is shame in being a blind follower. You have every right to question me and my drive for this mission to continue,” I assured her.
“Commander Zellig, why is this so important? Why haven’t we simply cut our losses and engaged Protocol 37 or used a more comprehensive arsenal to destroy them? We are bleeding troops at a rate that we can’t endure indefinitely. We are playing with fire allowing them to continue struggling. They are a threat that is unique and determined to exterminate us. They pose a threat to the Trillodan people; surely they of all people warrant being purged from existence.”
“Valid points,” I replied, “But I urge you to think beyond the Adapted for a moment. What is the greatest threat to the Trillodan?”
“Besides these super-powered children?”
“Our inability to make offspring. All the latent effects of gene-driving and genetic sabotage that we inflicted on ourselves in our civil war,” she answered after a moment’s deliberation.
“Correct. We are horribly infertile and unable to completely correct the damage done to our genetic code. Millions of hours of work and research have gone into fixing this over the cycles and we still have the same problems nearly a millennia later. Our attempts to correct the issues with technologic correction have had some positive impact, but our frail genetics leave us prone to illness and defect. Even with our vast resources and knowledge, we haven’t undone the damage.”
“Like Tol and his Exscarra,” she said, citing the auto-immune issue that left the white blotches along his skin. “He was supposed to die a long time ago. Any small infection should have destroyed his body.”
“Correct. Tol’s disorder was supposed to kill him within a cycle. The fact that he’s managed to survive two was a testament to his determination and Vaneel’s ingenuity. His skin should have rotted off ages ago but hasn’t with the armor that Vaneel made. Without the disinfection protocols and anti-microbial measures built in, Tol would have succumbed to an infection long before now.”
Salah frowned, “What do our frail genes have to do with the Adapted?”
“Like you said, they are super-powered children. They represent the promise of the impossible. They are introducing phenomena that we have never even entertained the idea of; there is possibility that they will be able to solve our issue regarding our weak biology. If we can harness the array of powers they have at their disposal, we can overwrite our own shortcomings.”
“You want to use them to fix our species?”
I nodded. “Salah, I watched my son die. I watched him gasp for air as his lungs refused to develop. We kept him alive with machine intervention, but that was no way for a child to live. It was no way for anyone to live. He tried, valiantly, to grow for fourteen years. But, his body grew, and the lungs simply didn’t. We attempted to transplant, but his body rejected the new organs.”
Salah didn’t say a word. My lieutenants all knew I had a child who had died, but none of them had ever asked for more information. None of them dared inquire about my greatest loss out of respect.
“I threw away my color and my standing among the public because I wanted to prove the efficacy of Vaneel’s research. I wanted to create a space where we wouldn’t have to watch our own people die to illness we were unable to fight. We could, however, surpass biology with engineering and make it a more consistent part. Some would inevitably perish, but at least those who survived would be unaffected by the ravages of our weakened genome.”
“You would have seen our race turn deeper into cybernetics,” she said, shocked.
“Yes. I would have it so no one had to watch their child die on a table, unable to do anything but pray. No parent should have to bury their child,” I said, my hands starting to tremble. “I don’t need a perfect memory to remember Maki. I can still see his perfect, crimson skin. He was gorgeous, a ray of light in my dark life. I was a mass killer, a bringer of destruction. I spent my life knee deep in suffering and death; little Maki had been a reminder to me that I was capable of bringing life as well. Like his father, he was a fighter until the end. Little Maki tried, so hard,” I croaked, my throat tightening as tears began to run down my face. “I spent weeks at his bedside with his mother, praying for a recovery, for a donor’s organs to work. For a printed pair of lungs to be accepted. For just one thing to go right.”
Salah reached forward, putting a hand on my forearm; for a moment she wasn’t my lieutenant anymore. For a moment, we were two fragile people, mourning the loss of our own kind.
“The last year, Maki started falling apart. His body couldn’t grow and develop properly and his heart started to weaken. Vaneel had some radical ideas he wanted to impose, but Liara and many others advocated against his intervention. I was torn between my mate and my best friend. While I was in favor of doing anything to save my child, Liara insisted that her son would not be a machine. If he lived, Maki would be a proud Trillodan.” I bared my teeth as I let the grief wash over me. “Maki never got the chance to be a proud Trillodan. Maki was never able to walk on his own, never able to see all the wonders of the universe, never able to enjoy our species longevity. When he finally passed away, part of me died in that hospital bed with him.”
Salah’s yellow skin darkened as she empathized with me, allowing herself to feel the weight of my loss. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“When the Eternal Council decided to reject Vaneel’s advancement and discourage the strides in cybernetics that he could have brought about, it infuriated me. It was why I allowed Vaneel to experiment on me, to make his perfect prototype. Even though Liara begged me not to throw away my color and dignity as a Trillodan, I did it anyways. I swore that I would bring about a new age for my people, one where we don’t watch our children die. And yet, I was cast aside. Councilman Baarl would have seen me disassembled, reduced to ash; the Immortal Matron instead sided with me and recognized my unwavering resolve.”
“The Adapted are your second attempt to bring about a new age for our people,” she concluded. “You want to find an organic measure to rectify the weak genome of our race that the council will not reject.”
“But you must know that it is costing so much for so many,” Salah pointed out. “You aren’t the only one suffering because of your mission. If anything, you are suffering the least.”
I sneered, “Do not accuse me of being callous and indifferent to my men’s suffering and death. I may play the part of monster but we both know I’m far from that. We both know Tol practically became my child when I took him under my wing. Do you think I’m not hurting knowing that he had half his body burnt away? Do you think I am incapable of empathizing with all those out there losing a child because of my convictions? Do you think I can’t understand the pain of losing a mate?”
Her skin paled in shame as I rebuked her. “No, Commander Zellig, I apologize.”
“The reality is that the Trillodan are a flame that is slowly being snuffed out, and the Eternal Council is holding us back. I am willing to go against the grain to ensure we survive. I will take the hatred, the sorrow, the blame for all the casualties. I will be the monster they desperately want me to be. I already sacrificed my body for our people; I will do it again, and again, as many times as it takes. Am I understood, Salah?”
“Yes, Commander Zellig.”
I rose and walked to the door with Salah quick to follow. “I’m going to check in on Vaneel and Tol; make sure the rest of the legion is set to depart.”
My lieutenant nodded and marched away.
I saluted soldiers I walked past, most of them shying away from me as I marched through the bowels of the ship towards the medical wing. Truth be told, I was feeling markedly apprehensive as I approached the room that had been set aside for Tol.
As I drew closer, I heard Vaneel muttering to himself. He was standing outside the medical bay, looking in on the battered and maimed body of Tol. My lieutenant had been stripped of his armor and prosthetic arm for the surgeons and it left him looking like half a man. His skin oozed pus, the perforations in the armor and burns in his already fragile skin having exposed him to a myriad of foreign infections. There were several holes where the molten silicon had burned straight through my lieutenant and the medical strips over the top looked like an insufficient half-measure to address the problem.
“How bad?” I asked Vaneel as I took my place beside him at the window.
“You know that he was fragile thanks to his Exscarra. He wasn’t even supposed to survive a full cycle, let alone two-“
“Don’t,” I snapped. “I know that an infection should have killed him a long time ago since he is severely immuno-compromised. I know his skin should have peeled away. I know he’s ultimately a fragile individual who is living on borrowed time. Do not patronize me.”
Vaneel kept looking at my lieutenant, still studying. “He’s out of options, Zellig. He was exposed to a Vuuldar-specific bacterium called Milignum which, on its own, was nasty enough. Even though I managed to get it carved out of his leg, it left his already weak immune system in a state of shock. Tol needed time to heal and rest; he shouldn’t have gone back out after losing his arm and nearly losing the leg.”
“How bad,” I demanded, getting frustrated by Vaneel’s lengthy answer.
“One lung has been burned through, completely. A drizzle of molten silicon bored through it. The holes in his armor exposed him to dust and bacteria that was remarkably robust; the fact it was given access to mucus membranes beneath his skin only exacerbated the issue. Surgeons had to carve off sections of skin and several sections of organ tissue to remove bacterial breeding grounds. Not only that, but he lost a lot of blood. Frankly, Zellig, Tol has beaten the odds up until now, but he’s inoperable. He’s too unstable to carve him open to give him a prosthetic or printed lung. He’s hanging by a thread and isn’t liable to bounce back.”
“Kalr’s regenerative gel?” I inquired, “Can’t we douse him in that?”
He shook his head, “The gel I made for her was driven by nanites attenuated to her specific anatomy; I’d need weeks and weeks of development back in my own lab to create something similar.”
“What about what you made for me?”
Another shake of the head, “Too lengthy, too intrusive. If we cut into him, we risk his heart simply folding. The fever he’s running is slowly cooking him alive; the only positive outcome is if he miraculously doesn’t have lingering infection make its way to his heart. When I say he’s fragile, Zellig, he’s made of glass.”
“That is my finest soldier,” I growled, “Have some respect.”
“I would lie, but you hate that too,” he replied, finally turning to remind me that Vaneel was the only person on this ship not intimidated by me. “All the respect in the world won’t change how battered, broken, and fucked your subordinate is. If he didn’t have Exscarra, maybe he’d live. As it stands…” he trailed off.
“One in a thousand, if that,” Vaneel replied with a sigh. “Believe me, Zellig, I’m in his corner too. But, he’s a product of our weakened genes. I do mean it when I say that he should have died in his first cycle. Most with Exscarra live to be forty years old, maybe. The fact he lived to be 203 is incredible.”
I raised a hand to quiet my friend. “How long?”
Vaneel shrugged, “Hard to tell. The surgeons did the best they could, but it’s a mess. If he lives through the night, he’ll maybe have a day or two left before his heart simply fails or his brain cooks.”
“Can you store his memory?”
He shook his head, “You know as well as I do that is illegal. The council doesn’t exactly like the idea of people being properly digitized. I could technically do it back home but I don’t know if I could get it done before he croaks. Even if I had my equipment, I think his fever would disrupt some of the scans.”
I clenched my fist, furious. I had enough firepower at my fingertips to level a planet but I couldn’t save my lieutenant who was just a few meters away. “Is he awake?”
“Somewhat. He’s fading in and out. Should I go?”
“Stay,” I said, “I want to talk to him and then discuss options with you.”
Vaneel’s purple color darkened with remorse as he reached forward and put a hand on my forearm. “He’s not Maki. You know that.”
“I know,” I replied. “It doesn’t make it hurt any less.”
“You don’t have to feel any of it,” Vaneel reminded me, “You can-”
“No,” I snapped. “I will not mute my emotions to make it easy. Tol is important; I will not dishonor him by refusing to feel grief.”
“Of course,” my friend said quietly, turning back to look through the glass.
The door slid open and I gave a nod to the medical staff as they quickly hurried to the next injured soldier. They gave a quick salute but didn’t bother with pleasantries and I didn’t insist on it; they had their work cut out for them thanks to my decisions.
Tol looked even worse up close, and worse yet was the smell. I could smell the rancid infection warring against my lieutenant even though the medical staff had done their level best to carve it away. A few steps away, I could feel the heat rolling off his body as his fever raged. He squirmed, unable to be comfortable, constantly groaning. My lieutenant had been green with those white splotches along his skin, but now all his flesh was blistered and discolored.
“You poor man,” I said softly.
My voice seemed to wake up my lieutenant and his head snapped my direction, his body stilling. “Commander,” he hissed out softly. “I failed. I-“
I raised a hand, quieting him. “Save your breath, Tol. There is no need to project; Vaneel gave me my ears for a reason.”
What little of his skin still had color brightened with shame, “Titan escaped. Assumed he was paralyzed. Tricked me.”
“He is a crafty one. I’m still unsure how he managed to deal with a neural block.”
Tol’s lips curled in what seemed to be a weak smile, “Heard Forest died.”
“She did. She cost us a grave number of troops, but one of Titan’s inner circle is gone. Salah and Omec took point against her; it was a bloody affair.”
“How many dead?”
“Seven hundred and twenty-four,” I said.
Tol’s head fell to the side; I stepped closer and knelt beside him. “Medical. They say I’m dying.”
I felt a pang of pity as he looked at me, his eyes showing a kind of fear I hadn’t seen in him in a long time. Part of me debating lying to him, giving him false hope, but he was a soldier. He had done enough to deserve the truth. “I spoke with Vaneel. He says your organs are crumbling and that you are dying of a massive infection. Your brush with Milignum earlier, that blight shit, it left you vulnerable. The fact that so much infection was given access to your body is doing you in. That and Titan turned one of your lungs into a pile of ash.”
Tol let out a rasp that was likely meant to be a laugh. “Explains why it’s hard to breathe,” he wheezed. “How long do I have?”
“Vaneel isn’t sure if you’ll live out the night,” I confessed.
My lieutenant slowly wet his lips, trying to process that death sentence I had placed over him. “I’ve heard I’m dying before,” he defied. When I didn’t offer words of encouragement, his smile fell.
“I wish I had better news, I really do.”
“Don’t want to die like this,” he mumbled, his hand shaking in agitation. “Don’t want to die in a bed. Don’t want to die worthless.”
“You will not die worthless,” I snapped, frustrated he could think so low of himself. “You were a champion for our cause.”
The look in his eyes changed from fear and panic to that look of steely determination I was used to seeing in my underling. “I lived in hospital beds when I was a boy. I won’t die in one. Get Vaneel.”
“Please,” he said, clearly frustrated.
I raised a hand and waved to the glass, ushering the scientist in.
“Vaneel, you have the stuff that makes Adapted, right?”
As I relayed the whisper, Vaneel raised an eyelid, curious. “I have managed to isolate it in a raw form, but it’s hardly refined. We have managed to mimic some powers, like Discord, but that is a fairly niche thing. Our hope is to manipulate the microorganism with time and make the results predictable but I’m a long ways off.”
Tol raised a shaky hand and pressed it to his chest, “I’ll be your first test case.”
Vaneel’s eyes widened, not needing me to relay it to him. “Tol, no. That’s…that’s almost surely suicide. Whatever this stuff is, it proliferates and it’s invasive. We already know that it evokes almost unpredictable changes in the hosts, and we’re vastly different in terms of genetics. There is no telling what it will do to you.”
“I’m dead, aren’t I? Want to be useful,” he insisted, making a point to raise his voice even though it prompted a coughing fit.
“The danger isn’t just to yourself,” Vaneel replied, “The Adapted have shown to have some instability. Emotional volatility can prompt powers to go haywire. Right now, you’re compromised in several ways. I don’t know how violently the microorganism will work to save its host and what that might mean to you. It could completely and fundamentally change your biology. You might not be a Trillodan when it’s done.”
“Put me in a cube,” Tol wheezed. “If I’m dangerous, eject me.”
I nodded thoughtfully. Cubes were our prison cells aboard the Crimson City and were designed to be jettisoned to space should we lose control for any reason. “Those cubes are sturdy enough to hold me,” I pointed out to Vaneel, “It would likely be good enough to contain him. And they are hermetically sealed. We’ve had Omec test them.”
“And if he becomes something like Forest?” Vaneel shot back. “You want her suddenly manifesting onboard?”
“There would be about six of them that a cube couldn’t contain. Six out of nearly a hundred and forty. Do it,” I demanded, “Get him prepped and moved to a cube.”
“Not a request,” I said to my friend.
Vaneel coordinated with the medical staff, getting Tol moved within the hour. His whole bed had to come with, making him the saddest looking prisoner we had ever detained. Omec and Salah joined me, both anxious to see the fate of their fellow lieutenant. While Salah clearly had reservations, Omec had no such issues with my plan. It made sense to me that her background as a renegade made her more willing to embrace a brutally pragmatic approach while Salah wanted to honor her peer with a dignified death.
My friend entered the cube and set up an IV drip with a dark green solution. Tol glanced at the bag and mouthed a silent ‘thank you’ to Vaneel as the scientist nodded and quickly departed the cube.
“How long do you think it’ll take?” Omec asked, her face betraying morbid curiosity.
Vaneel shook his head, “No way to tell. For all I know, it might do nothing. Whatever this was seemed to skip the parent generation in humans. It might do the same thing for us or it might make him light on fire. I might have been able to isolate the organism and get it to grow in a vat, but I’m far from understanding it or how it works.”
“Regardless, Tol’s body will provide decent insight,” I said.
“Still a maybe. The Adapted have to have some kind of episode to unearth their powers. Tol might be too far gone to have one. Age could be a kind of stipulation for all I know. The greatest insight I’m likely to get from Tol is during an autopsy,” Vaneel said frankly. “I will get to see how the organism proliferates and whether it manages to invade cells and how much saturation his body obtains in a short time.”
“He wanted his death to have meaning,” Omec said, earning a glare from Salah.
“You say it like his life wasn’t enough,” Salah shot back.
I didn’t partake in their bickering; I kept my heightened senses focused on my underling, searching for any kind of change. I waited for his skin to alter, his breathing to shift, his body temperature to adjust, anything at all. I didn’t pay attention to the lieutenants behind me, or my friend, tuning myself out to the world around me. For now, I would honor Tol and stand watch until his body quit on him.
Salah and Omec eventually departed, both having duties to fulfill and preparations before we left Vuuldar. Vaneel scurried around, maintaining his other experiments and periodically checking back in with me. Several of my infantry officers approached and had me sign off on preparations before we opened a Void Door and head back to Xalaani.
It must have been nearly a dozen hours before something started to happen.
An almost imperceptible black line appeared on Tol’s skin. It nearly blended in with the scar tissue, but I had spent hours staring and cataloging exactly how my lieutenant looked.
“Vaneel,” I called into a communicator, “Something’s happening. Get up here.”
Another little black line etched itself into Tol’s flesh, this one on his shoulder stump. Exactly three minutes later, a third line. Two and a half minutes later, a fourth appeared, this one across his cheek.
Tol began to squirm, his pulse starting going thready and accelerating out of control. As I reached to unlock the cube, a stern voice snapped at me.
Vaneel sprinted beside me, smacking my hand away from the keypad. “We don’t know what is happening to him. For all we know, he’s turning into a living bomb. He could be gestating a plague that Omec doesn’t know how to reverse engineer. If you open that door, you could kill hundreds.”
“I can’t watch my lieutenant die,” I growled.
“Yes, Zellig, you can,” Vaneel corrected, refusing to budge. “He wanted his death to have meaning; if you kill dozens of soldiers because of your lack of willpower, you will tarnish his final wish. Tol knew the risks and he volunteered.”
I clenched my fists and ground my teeth in frustration. Vaneel was unquestionably right. There was nothing I could do but watch.
The lines popped up at an accelerating pace, each one a little longer than the last. His whole torso seemed to be under siege as a fractal design creeped into existence. Tol shook more and more violently as we watched, a silent scream deafening me. I put my hand to the reinforced glass, feeling my guts twist as I was powerless to do anything.
I would watch another child of mine die in a hospital bed, and I was powerless to stop it once again.
The lines in his skin began to spread, oozing what looked like tar. In desperation, Tol tried to rise from the bed, looking to the window in a panic as his body started to fall apart. I heard bone snap as he tried to place weight on one foot, his body landing in a disorganized heap that shattered his ribs. Tol pushed against the ground, but his arm gave way as he became more and more of a literal puddle of that viscous black fluid.
He looked up to the window as his face dissolved.
The whole process took twenty, agonizing minutes. I wanted to step into the room and run at the same time, repulsed by what I had seen. Vaneel was mumbling to himself, cataloging the whole episode. I loathed my friend in that moment, being so painfully objective and clear headed, but in a way I know that he was doing my subordinate justice by being a professional.
I looked again at the puddle and drew a sharp breath in surprise.
“It’s not losing temperature,” I said softly, mystified. “It’s maintaining his body heat.”
“That ooze,” I said, pointing to the puddle, “It’s not losing heat. It’s creating its own. Whatever that is, it’s still alive. If it was inorganic, it would begin to steadily transfer heat into the metal floor.”
Vaneel frowned, “You’re sure? This isn’t wishful thinking?”
“You designed my eyes. I can see in an infrared spectrum and that thing hasn’t lost any heat.”
“It could be a fluke or an optimistic wish,” Vaneel said, trying to reason with me. “Psychological prompt could easily-”
“I’m not delusional!” I snapped, slamming my hand against the glass to shut him up.
The ooze sprung to life, literally shooting itself forward, slamming what almost resembled a hand against the glass; the digits were composed of some chrome colored metal but I had no idea where they had come from. As Vaneel and I stood there, still as statues, the ooze stayed still as well, holding a vaguely bi-pedal form.
My surprise and alarm changed to curiosity. I slammed my other hand against the glass; it was met with the same attempted counterattack, another hand equipped with sinister claws replying. I leaned closer to the glass, and so did the ooze, almost copying my movements.
“What the fuck,” Vaneel muttered, his heart still hammering out of his chest. “What is that thing?”
I grinned, “I don’t think we killed my lieutenant, Vaneel. Isn’t that right?” I said loudly, staring into the inky figure.
It shuddered, like it was struggling against some invisible force. Slowly but surely, a line of teeth began to appear where a face should have been. “C-c-commander,” it whispered in a ghastly hiss. “W-what am I?”
A smile spread across my face at the confirmation. “Congratulations, Tol. You are the first Trillodan Adapted.”