It had been one week since our campaign ended on Vuuldar; six days since the Void Door had given us a quick ticket home. Being back on Xalanni was a breath of fresh air for all my troops. Not being confined to power armor was liberating and seeing family was a thrill for most. And after such a harrowing campaign on Vuuldar, my men had earned their liberty.
Chasing after the Adapted with Infinite’s ability to warp their ship an indeterminate distance was a futile effort. I had decided to make use of our interstellar surveillance system; we had over a hundred solar systems monitored and all were scouting for the Adapted ship. Most of our eyes were fixated on Marn, the last refugee planet for humans. I was torn on whether or not Titan would lead them to the last stronghold for humanity given his experience on Vuuldar.
Either way, it had required nearly three weeks for the Adapted to traverse travel from Tso’got to Vuuldar. All I had to do was wait for them to surface. Until they did, there was nothing to do but wait.
Unfotunately, I didn’t enjoy being home the way my men did.
Xalanni had lost its appeal to me in many ways. While I had a spacious home and plenty of luxuries, I didn’t feel like I belonged. Being in a soft bed reminded me of what I used to be and how I used to share this space with someone else. Even though there was plenty of entertainment and art created by the residents of Xalanni, I found myself disinterested. It felt wrong for me to sit still, to have no war to fight. This was a world that I was no longer really a part of.
In that regard, I empathized with the Adapted. After reviewing numerous memories, it seemed all of them were driven by conflict. They thrived in it and had some kind of resilience when it came to the psychological toll of bloodshed and conflict. It was a touch ironic that I had more kinship with my enemy than my own people.
What did help pass the wait was my new roommate.
With his transformation, we had deemed it necessary to keep Tol isolated and confined. His new body was highly volatile and reacted violently insisting that we keep him incarcerated. Tol had no intent on killing anyone or harming any of his fellow Trillodan, but his augmented body had a mind of its own. I had voiced the idea of leaving him with Vaneel at his laboratory, but Vaneel discouraged the notion since he still had some understudies who weren’t likely to be as accepting or understanding.
Unfortunately we were fairly sure that Tol’s own family wasn’t going to be accepting or understanding either.
Having some firsthand experience, I didn’t want him to endure the same backlash I had when I had undergone my transformation. For now our official story is that he had stayed behind to continue surveillance on Vuuldar.
For the last handful of days, Tol had been living in my home. Even though he was confined to eighteen cubic meters of space, I refused to let him relax. If he was lazy, Tol simply turned into a blob; that was something I could not tolerate. So he and I had regularly rehearsed his presentation. Hours and hours went by with him trying to figure out his new anatomy and hold shape. While he would default to a humanoid shape to attack something, no other action caused him to hold form. He would simply flow along the ground if allowed.
Initially Tol was frustrated, but eventually he started to get the hang of controlling his oobleck-esque body. After the second day he started to add more detail to his presentation, but that took effort. He couldn’t seem to maintain detailed appearance and intelligible speech. As he became more used to his body, speech came naturally as did his ability to deliberately manifest blades across his body. Neither Vaneel nor I was quite sure how he was making a metal but I didn’t bother asking why.
I was going to work with what I had.
His new body had done away with need for food or sleep, which left Tol in a peculiar state of frustration. He wanted to eat and rest, but he was literally incapable. The best he could do was relax his form and allow himself to be a blob on the bottom of his cage.
This morning though, he was alert without any kind of prompt.
This morning, the Immortal Matron was going to pay a visit to Vaneel’s laboratory.
Before the city stirred properly, I pushed Tol’s cage outside. Tapping a keypad on the prison, I activated the mesh of active camouflage; Xalanni wasn’t ready for Tol in his current state. There would be a panic if people saw him. Fortunately, no one ever approached me as I escorted my invisible companion.
Kasarn, the capital of Xalanni, felt strangely desolate to me. Beyond the fact that all people avoided me like the plague, there simply wasn’t enough people to make the city feel alive. Kasarn had immense buildings made of custom stonework with designer windows; so many of these buildings felt like tombs. Thriving metropolises were their own unique organism; Kasarn had not had quite the same feel in several cycles.
The Trillodan populace that wasn’t militarized found solace with a deep delve into artistry. Sculpting, writing, architecture, etc. Menial tasks had been automated and day to day maintenance was moderated by a small group. The vast majority of the population didn’t need to worry about food or drink; those issues had long been solved. Xalanni was a paradise for all who lived there. The city was a gorgeous and glistening monument to opulence and material decadence with no two buildings looking alike. Glass spires and ornate stone work greeted you on every corner. Most of them were homes, some art studios, others likely being used for filming the newest show to entertain our aging population.
Even with all of that, the only ones who were out this early were tutors heading to their personalized charge. Some in the military didn’t see the necessity behind the personal educators who scurried around the city, seeing to their charge. I found it admirable at how we tried to foster ideas and instill a sense of wonder in our youth. What was painful to contemplate was how many seasoned educators there were as compared to properly developing youth among the Trillodan species. The reason there weren’t schools was because there weren’t enough children to fill the seats.
“I-it’s quiet,” Tol hissed, “Not used to being out in the m-morning.”
“You used to be quite the night owl,” I replied with a small chuckle.
“Y-yes,” he replied, his voice void of emotion. “I miss sleeping. M-miss being normal.”
I felt a pang of sympathy for my lieutenant; he’d been grappling with the repercussions of his transformation and decision to be a living experiment. “The things you take for granted suddenly become so important,” I acknowledged. “At least neither of us truly need to sleep,” I pointed out. “Besides, it does allow for a gross amount of media consumption while you’re on leave.”
A strange hiss escaped the cube which I was pretty sure was his attempt to laugh. “What will V-Vaneel do today?”
“He’s going to show off all the positive aspects of you that we’ve identified,” I replied blithely as I approached a building whose approach was met with a black wall of glass. Vaneel was rather simple with his architecture, believing that form was second to function. All he wanted was to sate his paranoia and ensure no one could be spying on him. Inside of his black cube he had created a small labyrinth to keep people from finding him too quickly which had driven away some research hands in the past. While this building didn’t look like much compared to the gilded spires and ornate stone work of the surrounding buildings, some of the greatest mechanical advancements of the last few cycles had come out of it.
Glass panes slid aside as I approached and guided the personalized prison forward through the dimmed hallways. Some would have bothered to decorate beyond the black slick-stone that made up his floor and walls but Vaneel didn’t see any point in the additional decoration. This was where he came to work, not to impress anyone with aesthetics. One glass door parted for me, leading to a well-lit room where a larger prison cube was waiting. It even had a gate to hook our personalized cage; a two door system to ensure that Tol couldn’t slip out and run wild through his laboratory while we changed his accommodations.
While I was sure my lieutenant wasn’t going to tear free and forsake his duties, there was a level of unpredictability that had come with his new body. If it was just me, I might risk trying out allowing him freedom; with the Immortal Matron on her way and Vaneel already present, I dared not take any risk.
Tol trudged around his new enclosure, getting a feel for his new confines and peering around the laboratory.
“How long?” I asked Vaneel as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
“Apparently now,” he muttered as an alarm chimed. Reaching over to a console, Vaneel opened the door and the Immortal Matron walked in, her crimson skin practically glowing with anticipation.
I took a knee out of respect. Tol tried to, but he ended up turning his legs into a mess. She waved us up and looked past me to the fluid figure in the prison cube. “Oh my,” she muttered, “You didn’t do his transformation justice.”
“It’s a hard thing to put into words,” I replied, watching with my hands behind me back as she drew closer.
“Vaneel’s initial write up described him as ‘displaying violent and uncontrolled retaliatory behavior.’ He doesn’t seem particularly violent now. Care to explain?”
I raised a hand and slammed it against the glass; Tol’s body reflexively leapt across the cage, a trio of claws trying to gouge through the polymer that kept us separate. “Sudden movements or bursts of stimulus often evoke a violent reaction,” I explained.
Tol reformed a mouth and shuffled to face the Matron. “I-it’s like a reflex. C-can’t control it.”
“Yet,” the Matron corrected. “You are doing your best to hold a Trillodan form, aren’t you, Tol?”
“Do you normally puddle if you’re allowed?”
She cast a glance in my direction, “He’s responsible for your dedication to appearance, isn’t he?”
Tol curled his metal teeth into a grin, “O-of course he is, M-matron. Zellig has h-helped drill me on keeping a proper form. I-insists that I keep m-my dignity.”
Iilena peered closer into the cube at my lieutenant. “Vaneel, what have you tested with our newfound friend here? I assume even though he’s been stashed with Zellig you’ve made plenty of visits.”
“Yes, Matron. Tol’s body has been completely disassembled, though the sludge he’s made of seems to be a slurry made mostly of his original components.”
“Mostly? You aren’t sure?”
“We’ve tried taking samples from him, but his new anatomy is rebellious. Whenever droplets are separated from the greater body, they literally struggle to return. It’s like there is some kind of magnetic or attractive force that binds his whole mass together. The few times we tried to isolate the smaller particles, they simply combusted. Nothing but ash and water vapor left behind. Even when we tried to split out a substantial portion of Tol, it didn’t remain stable on its own.”
“Is he still missing substantial pieces of his anatomy?”
“No,” I replied. “Tol’s new body seems to have incredible regenerative properties. We managed to isolate about a third of his anatomy and pull it aside; he had regenerated all the missing mass in twelve seconds.”
“Prison cubes are air tight. How did he get the extra mass to recreate himself?”
“I’m not sure,” Vaneel confessed. “However, it is in keeping with abilities that other Adapted have displayed. At least eight of them seem to be able to defy the law of conversation; it seems appropriate that Tol is able to defy it as well. Though, there seems to be constraints. He can’t simply generate mass; he is bound to his original body weight. No matter how much he loses or shifts around, he always remains at seventy-two kilograms.”
“And the metal he makes?”
Vaneel frowned, “I’m guessing that it’s a derivative of carbon steel but I haven’t been able to confirm that. My current hypothesis is that Tol likely has the ability to manage molecular arrangement and bonds within his own body. Adapted, as they age and grow more familiar with their powers, seem to gain control and aptitude. I’m assuming that Tol will follow the same path and be able to control what compounds he is able to manifest with time.”
The Matron turned her attention back to the man in the cube. “And what do you want to be able to do with this newfound body of yours?”
His response was immediate. “F-fight again. I’m s-still a soldier for the empire.”
“And what does Zellig think of his lieutenant being like this?”
“I think that Tol had the courage to take the first step towards our next stage of evolution,” I replied with pride. “I think he has more honor and dedication to the cause of our people than anyone else who has served under me.”
The Immortal Matron glanced quizzically between me, Vaneel, and finally Tol. She didn’t seem to be in a rush or even remotely perturbed by the whole situation. Even with my heightened senses giving me a profound knack for reading little cues and ticks, I wasn’t able to glean much about what was going through the matriarch’s mind.
“Vaneel,” she finally said, “How long for you to refine the process?”
He frowned, “Impossible for me to tell. The material I’m using are so-“
“I need a time,” she interrupted. “At least an approximation.”
“It could be months. It could be years for all I know,” he confessed. “I believe that Tol is a fluke and we can’t exactly replicate the exact settings that brought about his transformation. Even if we could, we don’t want to liquidate our species. I’m not sure if animal testing will be of much value but-“
She raised a hand, silencing him. “Two months?”
He struggled to find a reply. “Matron, I’m only one scientist. I simply can’t do enough in two months to even pretend I’d have a refined serum ready.”
“If I gave you the entire scientific assembly? Would two months be sufficient?”
Both Vaneel and I were stunned at her idea. “Matron, that would require majority consent of the council. Baarl is still opposed to this, and I don’t believe that Tol is going to be met with warm reception.”
She gave me an annoyed glare like one would give a child. “I will have no issues convincing the council this research is worth pursuing.”
“H-how?” Tol asked, practically pressing himself against the polymer cube in intrigue. “I-I’m revolting. Trillodan will see me as a monster.”
I turned to reprimand Tol for diminishing himself, but the Matron shot me a glare. “Yes, Tol, you are monstrous. You are a nightmare if I’m being quite honest. You are a sentient sludge that manifests metal blades and seems to be practically indestructible. You are a show of what science unhinged looks like,” she declared, stepping up directly in front of my lieutenant. “And that’s exactly what I plan to show them. Because,” she added softly, “It will show exactly how outstanding the promise of refinement will be.”
“How?” I asked, unsure of where she was going.
“While the council may not appreciate the direction of Vaneel’s research, they don’t doubt the efficacy of it. You are viewed as a monster by most, but you are a damned efficient one. Baarl may hate you most, but he’s not a fool. If Vaneel can do one thing, it’s produce results. So, when he has his new monster fight the old, it’ll be a compelling argument for the profound potential that is locked within that serum.”
“M-matron, n-no I can’t d-do that!” Tol protested.
“Yes he can,” I insisted, stepping close to the cage.
“Y-you a-are my commander. I-I can’t-“
I grinned and slammed my hand against the cage to force a reflexive response. “You can, and you will. We are going to need to convince them that your life was not forfeit and that there is reason for all the suffering we have endured chasing the Adapted. Besides, you aren’t going to kill me,” I insisted, having faith in Vaneel’s work. “We’ll put on a good show and see what your new body is truly capable of.”
Tol seemed reluctant, but finally nodded his head slowly. “Y-yes, commander.”
Vaneel’s laboratory felt smaller as the Eternal Council piled in. All thirteen members of the council seemed annoyed, agitated to have been roused so early in the morning and summoned with such urgency.
But it was at the Matron’s insistence; no one said no to Iilena Lamak.
“What’s the meaning of this, Matron?” Councilman Baarl asked, clearly agitated. “I was looking forward to a day with my child, so I do hope you have a good reason for delaying my plans.” I noticed his little glance in my direction as he mentioned his progeny; I stifled the urge to lunge over and rip his head off his body.
Fortunately the Immortal Matron took charge quickly. “Rest assured, this is not a waste of your time, and I do apologize for the short notice, but I think you’ll find all of this rather…extraordinary.” She turned towards the cube and clapped. “Tol, form.”
The inky puddle on the floor of the prison cube coalesced into a vaguely Trillodan shape, much to the horror of all the council members. Cries of ‘what is that!’ rang out as confusion proliferated among the group of thirteen.
All rallied behind Baarl as he took a step forward and pointed a finger at my lieutenant. “What in the hell is that… thing?”
For all his bluster, the Matron hardly batted an eye. “That is what has become of Lieutenant Tol Rysklei. Tol was brave enough to volunteer himself as the first Trillodan to be exposed to the organism responsible for the genetic aberrations that we know as ‘Adaptations.’ This was the result.”
Another round of perturbed whispering, and again Baarl took charge and fanned the flames of outrage and alarm. “I assume that Vaneel is the one responsible for doing something so irrational and illegal?”
“He is,” Iilena replied, still totally composed.
“Then he should be tried for treason! He had no such authorization, no such clearance to experiment on Trillodan! We have standards for this sort of thing, we have rules that even you are bound by, Iilena!”
I clenched my fist, my disdain for the insipid councilman growing by the second; his lack of respect for the greatest leader in history was more treasonous than Vaneel’s behavior.
“We have rules to preserve life and the currently surviving Trillodan. However, Tol here had Exscarra and was slated to die. Tol offered his body for scientific progress on his own volition.”
“You risked everyone on the expedition,” Councilman Baarl fumed, his rage now turned to me, “You should have never endangered the other soldiers with your wild experimentation. We know what the Adapted are capable of; you would dare make an unstable monster like that nearby dutiful soldiers?”
I steeled myself before I replied. “We had him isolated in a prison cube. Should there have been any showing of volatility, we were to eject him into space. If there was a breach of the cube, it would have automatically flushed the deck; the only people who would have died would have been me and Vaneel. I think you can agree the two of us were worth the risk,” I shot back, practically daring him to disagree and undermine his own spiteful stance about the two of us.
“It’s still a dangerous precedent to set,” he said with a sneer.
“And if I had deemed his actions reckless, I would have him stripped of resources and title,” the Matron replied, taking control of the room. “However, I am going to back Vaneel, and I think the thirteen of you will afterward as well.”
Baarl glared at me and then back to the Immortal Matron. “Are you going to use your brute to threaten us?”
For the first time, her composure softened and she let out a light chuckle. “You think so lowly of me, Councilman. No, not at all! Instead, I’m going to showcase exactly how dangerous and how promising this research is.”
“Why, I’m going to have the monsters fight,” she replied, like it was so obvious. “As we all know, Zellig is the pinnacle of our bio-medical engineering and mechanical integration. While you may have ethical disagreements with what has been done to him, I can’t imagine any of you would say he’s a weakling.”
Even Baarl held his tongue.
“So, let’s see how the Trillodan goliath fares against the first Trillodan Adapted. And then, if you all determine that it’s a hoax or completely useless, we cancel the program.”
I felt my heart speed up; she was willing to wager our whole expedition on this one little bout. While she had a perfect poker face, I wasn’t sure if she was bluffing. Vaneel and I only had theoretical notions about Tol’s new aptitude for violence. Neither of us had exactly crawled in beside him to see how much damage he could do.
Hunkering down, I stepped into Tol’s personal cube and had it seal behind me. The second door opened and I could finally stand up straight, now imprisoned with my reformed legionnaire. Tol had pressed himself into the opposite corner, keeping as much distance between us as possible. Just from how he was holding himself, Tol was still anxious.
I smiled and stomped forward, forcing a reaction.
Tol shot forward like a snake, his form devolving to a mess of inky ligaments holding a storm of blades. While there wasn’t a concentrated point of attack, Tol flowed like a river, using my skin like a canvas to paint a gruesome picture. My attempt to seize him was futile; he flowed through my hand and regrouped, constantly moving and striking in a frenetic cyclone.
I changed tactic and tried to strike his core but had very limited success. Even though there was some impact and I could scatter him, Tol immediately drew back together. My assault was met with a frenzied and savage reprisal. The blades Tol created continued to sharpen and elongate, as if the fight was refining his new body.
Even with all of Vaneel’s work into reinforcing my skin and body, it was clear who was taking the brunt of this exchange.
To make matters worse, my lieutenant’s inhibitions seemed to melt away. The attacks became more strategic and turned from a reflexive and rushed action to a coherent battle plan. Inky arms started to ensnare as Tol took advantage of his newfound flexibility and blades began to attack from impossible angles; soon I was being backed into a corner because there was nowhere safe for me to turn. Even when I put my back against the wall, my lieutenant pressed himself flat and slid behind me.
In an instant, he had wrapped himself around my torso; my instinct to protect my neck was the only reason Tol didn’t slit my throat with a dozen different blades.
“Vaneel,” I bellowed, “Freeze him!”
My friend quickly slammed a button on his console, flooding the cube with a deluge of liquid nitrogen.
A pained hiss escaped my lieutenant as parts of his body immediately froze and fell to the ground, shattering. Taking the opportunity, I tossed myself through the door and heard the airlock seal behind me. Another door opened and I stumbled out, covered in a layer of frozen blood. I caught my breath and looked back into the cube, a pang of guilt in my chest as I watched Tol struggle to try and reform himself, his body reflexively throwing itself against the walls to try and escape the bit of liquid nitrogen that was still in the cage with him.
Iilena Lamak however, had a grin on her face. She had been banking on me losing, and I had not disappointed. She had wagered on Tol’s liquid body being unbeatable in a cage match and had been right on the money.
The Eternal Council seemed unsure of what to say, what to think. While their initial revulsion had been shocked out of them, it hadn’t been the landslide acceptance that the Matron had hoped for.
“I believe that you all understand why I believe we should support Vaneel’s research,” the Immortal Matron said, turning to face the council. “Look at the state of Commander Zellig. Imagine what a refined version of this experiment will be capable of!”
Council Baarl was the first to find his voice. “And think of what horrific consequences it could have! Imagine if someone gets this kind of power and decides they want your spot, Matron! Who would stop them? Even your top man could stand up against him!”
“Matron,” I interrupted, reverently taking a knee, “If I may?”
She bowed and gestured to continue.
“Councilman, there are monsters far scarier than Tol with those children. And, for better or worse, they are going to come here.”
“Impossible,” he shot back. “We are on a mobile system. We have never been found before by far more advanced societies. Humans lack the ability to find us, and none of their refugee planets had the technology required to locate us either.”
I had to not roll my eyes. “In all of the memories of the Adapted, we have uncovered a specific person that Titan had the good sense to keep hidden on Tso’got. He found an Adapted by the name of Almanac; Almanac has the ability to locate anything. No matter where we run, he will find us. He will be able to sniff us out like a hound, regardless how much we move Xalanni. For better or worse, we are going to have to deal with this threat.”
“A threat you should have initiated Protocol 37 on back on Vuuldar,” he replied, curt. “A threat you have lost hundreds of lives pursuing. And so far, all you have to show for it is a monster more horrifying than yourself!”
I started to see nothing but red as Baarl had the gall to insult Tol but the Matron raised a hand, pulling my attention. “Councilman Baarl,” she said, her voice taking on a bite, “You are allowed to voice dissent and disagreements all you please. You are allowed to criticize my actions as you see fit. You are allowed a great many liberties; one I will not endorse is tarnishing and diminishing the sacrifice of a truly noble soldier.” She looked over her shoulder to me, “Zellig, if Councilman Baarl dares utter another uncouth and slanderous word about your lieutenant, kill him.”
“I can!” she roared, her crimson skin turning a darker, more dangerous shade. “And I will do what I deem necessary to save my people! Tol sacrificed himself for our people, for the sake of progress! I will face whatever consequences your peers might bring, but I will ensure that insipid, cowardly bastards like yourself will not see whatever the future holds for our people. Am I clear?” she demanded of the council.
All of them nodded, silently.
“There is a grim reality we need to face,” she said, slipping back into a calm and collected demeanor like it was a glove. “Regardless of the Adapted and the inherently variability they represent, we have to acknowledge that the Trillodan are slowly dying off. As our race failed to procreate and fix our tainted genetics, we must result to drastic measures. These children are impossible wonders that we are so close to harnessing!”
Her skin shifted from the dark, foreboding shade to a calm and lighter tone, something more empathetic and compassionate. “We can have a future where we don’t dread our spawn dying. We can have a future where illness is eradicated. The only thing holding us back are our own biological faults; the Adapted are the chance to fix it.” She raised her arms to the council, “And now the fate of our people rests in your hands! Are you going to have the courage like that brave, young officer and pursue a brighter future? Or, are you going to be content with the slow death that comes from our prolonged stagnation?”
After a pregnant pause, one councilman stepped forward, “I vote in favor of supporting Vaneel’s research, Matron.”
With the dam broken, the rest of the votes came through in a hurry. Nine voted in favor of Vaneel’s research, giving the majority needed to permit his continued work.
And all the while, I couldn’t help but smile.
The last obstacle internal obstacle had been removed. All that was left to threaten my empire was an obstinate group of children.