Four days since our war on Vuuldar.
Four days since my latest lapse of control.
Four days since Forest had sacrificed herself to ensure our escape.
So many of us had come back injured that it had overwhelmed Organelle and Lightshow. The most critical injuries had been treated, but at the cost of Overexposing our medics.
Even though there were more people on this ship, it felt so empty. The Ark vessel was immense, capable of comfortably holding five hundred people. If you didn’t want to see anyone, it was easy to find your own metal clad room to hide in. The first two days I had kept to myself almost exclusively, terrified about what people might think of me.
I had eaten four Adapted and assimilated their powers. I had killed two more of the six who tried to put up a fight and prevent me from eating anyone else. Surely everyone had to loathe me and want to see me ejected out an airlock.
But to my surprise, people hadn’t been too upset. Unlike Feast Day, there was some precedent. There was worry about me lapsing into a frenzy and ripping things apart; while no one was thrilled I had eaten their friend, it didn’t care the same toll that Feast Day had for many.
Where the rage ended up being directed was at Infinite.
She had snapped and had an episode, snuffing the life out of a dozen of our allies in a blink. Even so, no one spoke up against her. We all needed her to leapfrog us through space when she was finally up to it again. Infinite was the only person who could take the six month voyage and turn it into a three week voyage; pragmatism demanded we all keep our mouths shut and leave her be. But, for now, she hadn’t been seen much, instead hiding out with Titan.
As I trudged into the galley for some breakfast, I caught sight of our fearless leader and involuntarily winced. Thanks to Organelle being Overexposed, his legs were still broken. Our normally tall and proud general was confined to a wheelchair. Where he used to look so in command and confident, he was downtrodden. He had seen so much death and desolation that we had all assumed he was just numb and immune to the sting. But, losing Forest, it had finally cracked something in him.
We all knew that pain of loss, but we needed him to rise above it, to show that it was possible to overcome. With him still in the dumps, it set a dangerously morose tone for the rest of the ship.
I took my plate of conjured protein and gave a quiet ‘thanks’ to Repository.
One-hundred and seventy-four grams.
My blood ran cold as Eldritch read out exactly how much mass I could consume if I simply fed them the plate. It was enough to make four kilograms of material. Enough to make a sleeve of tendrils and fight from there. For a moment, I swore I saw the smallest of growths manifesting on my forearm.
I shook my head, clearing the notion away like a persistent cobweb. More and more of those impulses and hallucinations had been cutting through after the fight on Vuuldar. I kept seeing things through a predatory lens with my power making suggestions. When I looked at people, I felt a small impulse to devour them. I felt an itch to use my power, like some kind of junky who was after his next fix.
“I am Nicholas Weld, not Eldritch,” I reminded myself as I sat down.
There were a few people in the galley, but most of them were keeping to themselves, idly dragging forks along plates and staring at the protein paste we had. A few quiet conversations were the only thing that kept it from feeling like a mausoleum.
“Mind?” a gruff voice asked from behind me, nearly making me jump out of my skin.
A shorter man in a tattered hoodie and frayed jeans. It was hard to believe that this rather unimposing guy was the musclebound juggernaut Goliath.
“Uh, yeah,” I replied, a bit nervous. Pyre had been one of the unlucky few in my way when I lost control. Pyre had also been Goliath’s fiancée. I felt a nervous lump form in my throat as he sat across from me; while he didn’t look enraged, Goliath was known for being even-keeled and hard to read. His lack of emotion honestly made me more anxious.
He took a bite and then looked up, studying me. “You know,” he finally said, “When Feast Day happened, I wondered what kind of monster was responsible. You fucked up Beleth, you fucked up half of Ciel, and you put a living tumor in my arm.”
He glared and I shut my mouth. “When we all saw you, most of us weren’t sure what to think. You were just… some kid. Some asshole. Some Reckoner twat who was in over his head.” Goliath took another bite and I stayed silent. “Then we come here, and we have a fucking repeat. We see this monstrous, black, thing just start eating everyone. This time, we cheered. We were thrilled to see our monster kicking ass.”
“But then, hey, lasers from space. That’s fair,” Goliath said with a chuckle. “You lost control. You went ape shit. You were more like a wounded dog than anything else.” He took another bite and stared at me while he chewed. “We can rescue some of the Adapted, at least according to Parasite. They are alive in tubes being studied. But, thanks to what happened, I’m never going to see Pyre again.” Goliath’s hand trembled as he squeezed his fork hard enough to bend the metal. “The shitty thing is, I can’t blame you. I want to be angry at you, Eldritch. I really do. I want to just tear your head off.”
I took a nervous gulp and felt the color drain from my face. I had no mass at my disposal by design; if Goliath wanted to kill me, there was literally nothing I could do to stop him.
He waved his hands, “I’m not going to. I know you wouldn’t hurt her if you had a choice.”
“For what it’s worth, I’m really sorry,” I said, wishing I had more to offer.
Goliath shrugged and took another bite. “I know you are. I just wanted to find you and be the mature one here and say that I forgive you. We all knew the risk that was posed when you went supersize. Hell, we all knew the risk that came from joining up with Titan when we heard his fucking cockamamie plan.” He shook his head and let out a long sigh. “In a way, I guess we earned this. Well, the Surface Dwellers. Beleth killed your parents so you killed one of his.”
I frowned, “I didn’t try to single her out. I just…grabbed whatever was in front of me. I just wanted to get big and strong again. Pyre was just in front of me. She was at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Wrong place, wrong time,” Goliath echoed. “What a fucking shitty reason to go.”
There was no arguing with that.
“Did you just come here to bring up how I accidentally killed your fiancée?” I asked after a few moments of silence passed between us.
“Partially,” he confessed, “Though I wasn’t meaning to guilt trip you too hard. I’m sure you’re doing enough of that to yourself. The other thing I wanted was to give you a heads up.”
“A heads up? To what?”
Goliath frowned, “Your captain, Dragoon, she’s not in a good way.”
Dragoon had been keeping herself busy with modifications to the ship as we flew and doing last minute maintenance. Purportedly she had also been locking herself away and working on designs for new armor since her last set had been trashed by one of Zellig’s elite. “What’s going on with Drag?”
“She’s been visiting Chemtrail a lot lately. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty damn sure she’s getting more of that power boosting shit that he makes.”
“But she hates that stuff. She complains about it giving her migraines.”
He shrugged, “And no alcoholic likes a hangover. It doesn’t stop them from drinking,” Goliath said bluntly. “It’s not my place to interfere. I just thought you should know.”
In some ways, this made me feel sicker to my stomach than reliving devouring a handful of Adapted. “Thanks, I think.”
Goliath took the last few bites of his protein paste and gave me a nod. “See you around.”
I gave a halfhearted acknowledgment but I was quickly running through how this sort of thing could be happening. Dragoon had been so adamantly opposed to drug abuse after watching her parents smoke and drink their money away. She had so much animosity for her dead-beat mother that I would have thought she’d be almost allergic to drug use. But, then again, addiction was almost hereditary. And right now was the most frantic and desperate time of our lives. It wasn’t out of the question that Alexis would want an edge to help keep her and her friends alive.
“Fuck me,” I muttered.
Seventy-eight kilograms of meat.
I had a little start at the cold readout. I hadn’t even really noticed that I was glancing at another Adapted. One of the people we had picked up on Vuuldar, clad in green and blue, and glaring back at me like I had gone nuts. Blushing, I took the last bite and bussed my tray, wishing I hadn’t been caught staring.
In the hallways, I found myself still looking around for little vines or roots tucked in the little nooks and crannies. It still seemed so impossible that we had lost Forest. She had been so overwhelming, a literal force of nature that had retaliated against the entire Trillodan infantry on her own. They had blasted her with that orbital canon and enough explosives to level a city and she had kept fighting.
No matter how hard I scoured the dark corners, there was nothing. No trace of our ever-present watcher. She was truly gone.
Our Prime Trio had been cut to a duo.
“Nick,” a familiar voice called out. Leaning against the wall with his hair wet and slicked back, it looked like Shockwave had just sauntered out of his shower for a cigarette.
“You ever going to cut down on smoking?” I asked.
As if to prove a point, he took a long drag. “Fuck do I care. I figure the air in here is like 75% nitrogen thanks to Repository. Since we aren’t in an oxygen rich environment I see no reason to stop.”
Shockwave was the epitome of someone I shouldn’t judge by his cover. On the surface, it seemed like Shockwave was an absolute sociopath, someone who seemed hellbent on being self-serving. The reality was that he was passionate to benefit his own group. He had essentially piggybacked on Imperium to buy a high quality of life for all of his fellow Adapted enforcers. Shockwave only fought so furiously because neglecting to do so would have jeopardized his groups standing.
Even with the hell we’d put Imperium through, Shockwave didn’t harbor a grudge. If anything, he had started looking at everyone onboard like a member of his own clique.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
Shockwave shrugged, “Shitty, just like everyone else.”
“Yeah,” I muttered. Even though he was practiced at wearing a straight face, there were telltale cracks in his mask. Watching Mizu be frozen had shaken the former head of Imperium. To make matters worse, he’d lost Collision when Infinite had gone unhinged. I leaned my back against the wall as he took another drag. “Goliath told me that Dragoon might be dosing herself with that drug.”
“Wouldn’t put it past her. I’ve had to make a point to talk Toolkit away from it. Stuff’s most dangerous for Cognates.”
He scoffed, “What the fuck am I going to do with a power booster right now? Punch holes in the ship? All the extra firepower in the universe does me fuck all right now. I can’t use any of it. But Cognates, they just think. They can create an infinite amount of weapons or ideas at any time of day. There’s no time when they can’t use their gift at least a little.”
“Maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing ever,” I thought out loud, daring to play devil’s advocate.
“Dependency is dependency.”
I shot him a quizzical glance, “For someone who doesn’t claim to be smart, you usually have stuff well thought out.”
He smirked and gave a nonchalant shrug. “Maybe I’m just not arrogant about it like some people are.” His eyes went down the hallway as a half-dressed woman started making her way down the hall. “While I love catching up, she gets more of my attention than you,” he said as he turned and strutted down the hall.
“Everything has gone to hell and he’s still somehow getting laid,” I muttered, jealous as I watched a door shut behind him and Toolkit.
The rest of the trek to Dragoon’s room was uneventful, though I noticed people giving me a sideways glance; a few even whispered apprehensively as they passed me. I did my best to not read into it too much, reminding myself that the Adapted who joined from Vuuldar had never seen a 15 meter tall Neklim. After all, it was a truly terrifying sight.
What was obnoxious was the occasional cut in from Eldritch, informing me how much people weighed and how much material we could print if we consumed them. Even when I hissed at that voice in my head, they didn’t respond. No matter how much I pushed, it seemed to have reverted to a cold, clinical, evaluative presence. While I had been upset with its first gain of intelligence, now I missed having that extra voice in my head, that extra bit of input and mental grounding.
I put it aside, knowing I would have plenty of time for mental exploration and adjustment as we slowly trekked to Marn.
“Dragoon,” I called as I rapped my fingers against a metal door. “It’s Nick.”
It took a second, but the door opened and my childhood friend stood in the doorway, wearing a white tank top and sweats. There were bags under her eyes and she looked a bit disheveled, like she hadn’t taken a shower or slept in a few days; I reminded myself that a lack of hygiene didn’t mean drug addiction. There were plenty of people onboard not taking care of themselves because of the depressed vibe that persisted.
“What’s up?” she asked, her words a bit hurried.
“Mind if I come in?”
She stepped aside and I stepped in. I wasn’t really surprised to find tons of paper strewn about, much of it littered with designs and schematics for things she wanted to build. Though, as I looked closer, some of them looked alarmingly familiar.
“Is this one-“
“Tol’s armor,” she replied, sitting on the edge of her cot. “I’ve had Siege replicate it for me to study. I’m pretty sure I can make a version of it with enough time and resources. I need something that I can purposefully fragment; I can’t let that bastard liquidate my entire set of armor in one shot next time.”
The last time Dragoon had fought with the Trillodan was when we had lost Parasite. Even though we had gotten him back, she hadn’t forgotten how one of Zellig’s operatives, Jai, had turned her armor into a pile of green slag. I had to remind myself that for Dragoon there wasn’t a way for her to fight without her armor. For her, getting a new suit meant that she could contribute again. Unlike other Cognates, she was determined on being in the thick of it. She refused to simply hang back and play it safe.
“How long has it been since you’ve slept?” I dared to ask.
She frowned, “I got a couple hours of sleep yesterday. I’m fine,” she insisted, her words curt and snippy. “Why?”
I let out a slow sigh, “Goliath talked to me this morning. Told me you keep visiting Chemtrail.”
“Guy’s a dope chemist and knows a fair amount about how to better make a power supply. Why wouldn’t I talk to him?”
“Is that all you’re seeing him for?”
She scoffed, “What? What, do you think I’m going to him to get laid or something?”
As quick as I could, I scrubbed that image from my mind, wishing I hadn’t thought about a zit-pocked nerd groping my childhood friend. “No, no. I more mean that stimulant-“
I stopped as Alexis glared at me, deathly serious. “Nick, don’t.”
“Nick, I’m serious. Don’t push this. I’ve done so much to keep people from killing you in the past, don’t you dare fucking press this. You owe me.”
“You’re on it now, aren’t you?” I asked softly, wishing I was wrong.
Her silence was damning.
“You said you hated that shit.”
“You know what else I hate? I hate having my fucking power armor melted off my body. I hate watching my friends die. I hate-“
“Oh, stop,” I implored, raising a hand to stop her. “Whatever your reason, if you’re just non-stop drugging yourself, you’re an addict! Alexis, you can’t do this to yourself! I mean, do you know what kind of prolonged effect it might have? I’m pretty sure that Chemtrail didn’t exactly run clinical trials.”
“Jesus Christ,” she muttered, shaking her head, “Wake up, Nick! Who gives a shit, huh? We lost like forty people on Vuuldar. As long as it doesn’t kill me in the next couple weeks, who cares what this shit does to me.”
“The Rogue Sentries do! Murphy does! I do!”
“And I’m sure a lot of people wish you’d stop eating our friends! I’m pretty sure Goliath wishes you didn’t fucking eat Pyre!”
I felt Eldritch squirm inside me. Their voice reminded me that Alexis had fifty-eight kilograms of meat on her that I could consume if it came down to it. “He actually forgave me,” I replied, my voice cold.
“Good for Goliath,” she shot back. “That’s awesome! I’m glad he’s able to be such a big man about it. But you know what, he doesn’t have to worry about going into a fight without his power. You think these fucking designs are going to help me?” she shouted, grabbing a handful of papers and throwing them at me. “You’re right, I hate this shit! But you know what, I don’t think I can afford to stop! I don’t think I can risk my own head being fucking ripped off my shoulders!”
“Let other people help you then! It smells like you haven’t left this room this whole time!”
“And maybe someone should learn to help you control your fucking feral impulses.”
I glared at her, knowing that this wasn’t her. This was an addict defending their habit, no matter how caustic they had to get in the process. No matter what I said, she wasn’t going to budge as long as she had another fix waiting. “Where is it?”
“Fuck you, Nick. Just, go.”
“No,” I insisted, looking around the barren room for where she might have contraband stored. “I’m not just going to let you-”
A firm grip squeezed around my elbow. “Nick, get out of my room or I’m going to throw you out. You don’t have any mass to grow and I’ve spent a lot more time training hand to hand combat than you have.”
She had a point and that primal determination in her eyes was enough to dissuade me from pushing any further; I didn’t want to get in a fight with my friend, and she would probably beat me half to death before feeling any remorse.
I took a step back and raised my hands. “Fine.”
Before I could turn around and argue any more, she shoved me out and had the door slam shut. As soon as it did, the wind fell out of my sails. Part of me felt like I had somehow failed, that I should have been able to convince her that constantly being strung out wasn’t going to help anyone. But I also understood her, at least somewhat. Her heart was almost in the right place, but our team couldn’t afford her to be so self-destructive; too many people relied on her. Beyond just our group, no one else could fix up the ship if it started coming undone. Many other Adapted relied on Dragoon and Toolkit to make them tools or weapons.
Dragoon had always done a good job networking and had made herself an invaluable player among the Adapted. The whole ship likely needed her clean but there was no way I could get through to her on my own.
I wandered through the labyrinth of hallways trying to remember exactly where Lightshow and Menagerie had set up shop. The two of them had opted to share a room, neither of them really wanting to be isolated for our voyage. Lightshow was still on edge and prone to lashing out thanks to what Tol had done to her on Vuuldar and Menagerie had quietly sunk more into herself. While she wouldn’t own up to it, Parasite coming back without Geyser had only made Menagerie more depressed. Even though Murphy had apologized and done everything he could have, Zellig was still Zellig and nearly impossible for most of us to fight.
Lightshow answered the door before I knocked, catching me off guard. “Um, hi.”
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost or something.” She waved me in and let the door shut behind us. Their room was more cramped with it housing two cots and a desk. As I expected, Menagerie had her notepad open and a pencil in hand, sketching rapidly.
“Eldritch,” Menagerie greeted without looking up.
“Hey,” I said back, taking a seat on one of the cots. “We need to have a talk.”
“About what?” Lightshow asked, sitting across from me.
“Dragoon. She’s hooked on Chemtrail’s stimulant.”
It was shocking enough news to get Menagerie to lift her head from her notepad. “The power booster stuff?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Titan had her dose up with it when he was trying to get the ship in ready order. I know she was using basically constantly then, but I assumed that she had stopped when we had taken off. I had no idea it had continued.”
“You avoided her for three full days?” Lightshow asked, clearly dubious. “You seriously couldn’t tell that she was wired up on that stuff?”
“I… no,” I finally replied. “No, I’ve been avoiding people again.”
“Isolating isn’t a good look for you. You’re the last person we want unstable.”
“You even have Parasite back onboard man,” Lightshow pointed out. “There are a hundred and sixteen people onboard; might as well hang out with someone. No one on board hates you. I even talked to Beleth; he’s not upset and you killed one of his guys.”
I grimaced, “I keep seeing people and getting a weight from my Adaptation. It keeps telling me how much people weigh, how much mass I could gain if I ate them. I’ve been avoiding people because I’m afraid of it trying to act out.” While I hated vocalizing my concern, it felt good to finally get it off my chest and distribute the stress it had been putting on me. “I know people don’t hate me for what happened on Vuuldar, but I’m not sure what’s going to happen now with my power. After Feast Day, it was suddenly smart and communicative. And now it seems to have reverted. I have no idea what it might do next.”
Menagerie closed her notepad and set her pencil down on the desk. “That isn’t good.”
“No shit,” Lightshow replied, gently massaging her stump. “Maybe you managed to find a way to sort of Overexpose?” she suggested. “Maybe you used so much of your power that it made it kind of hibernate?”
“I don’t think so,” Menagerie muttered, inspecting me more closely. “Eldritch’s hallmark has always been his limitless ceiling as long as he can eat. But, consider what happened to you. You were blasted by that cannon twice. You had a whole minefield go off around you. You had six of the most powerful people fight you and blast you to pieces. Psycho ran an army into you. And then Infinite made a custom power to literally dissect you.”
“Thanks for summing that up,” I mumbled.
Lightshow’s eyes widened, clearly cueing into something I didn’t. “Yeah that actually makes sense.”
“Your power had a voice and mind of its own, right?”
“So, after being subject to all that, maybe it finally cracked. Who is to say that it can’t be experiencing some kind of psychological trauma? You said that it pulled from your intelligence and memory, right?” Lightshow pressed, leaning forward, way too interested in this for my comfort.
“Imagine if all that stuff happened to you. How would you be doing?”
“Terribly,” I said.
“The last thing you need to be doing is making a more hostile environment for your own power,” Menagerie added. “If you isolate, that thing inside you is isolated too. I would have thought you would be hanging out constantly with Parasite.”
“Murphy’s been wrapped around Ragdoll lately,” I divulged.
“Hot,” Lightshow replied with a smirk.
I shuddered, “Ew. I don’t need the literal image. The two times I tried to hang out with them I felt uncomfortably like a third wheel. I didn’t have anything to offer a conversation so I just, kinda, gave up,” I confessed.
Lightshow rolled her eyes, “God, you are such a pushover. Grow a pair man.”
“I feel like we’ve gotten woefully sidetracked from the fact that our captain is addicted to drugs and nearly assaulted me when I tried to call her out on it,” I said, trying to pull attention away from myself.
“It wouldn’t be the craziest thing if she’s using,” Menagerie said, strangely calm about the whole thing. “Back on earth, people used drugs during wars and would simply quit when it was all over. It isn’t unheard of.”
“It’s clearly making her volatile if she’s ready to start swinging at her best friend when called out on it,” Lightshow replied, taking my side. “We need her to be on her A-game the next time we find ourselves in a scrap. If she falls apart, so do we.”
“Well,” Menagerie said, raising her hands in defeat, “Maybe-”
The ship suddenly lurched, inducing a strange sense of vertigo before everything was thrown around the room. Before I could figure out what happened, another wave of centrifugal force slammed me back, tossing me off the edge of the cot and onto the metal floor.
I had felt this before, but it had felt like an eternity ago that Infinite had been jumping us through space. And last time, we had been warned that we were going to jump so we could all brace ourselves. Not to mention it hadn’t been so rough the last time around.
“What the fuck,” Lightshow groaned, nursing her stump. “Why the fuck are we suddenly jumping?”
“I don’t know,” I mumbled, opening their door. Like us, dozens of Adapted were pouring out, all of them equally confused as to why we were abruptly ripping through space without any kind of heads up.
The three of us joined the flow of people who made their way down the galley, all of us muttering between each other, no one having a sure answer. To make matters worse, there was no sign of Titan or Infinite amidst the throng. With no one else taking charge, Clemency levitated above the crowd, giving all of us a point to direct our attention.
“Clemency,” Beleth called out, “Do you have any idea what’s going on?”
“None,” he replied. “But I’m assuming it’s a good thing if we’re teleporting again. It means Infinite is back in fighting shape.”
“But she did it without me,” Command shouted, calling attention to him. “She’s never done any jumps without using me to help stabilize her. Titan didn’t ask me to help; I was just as blindsided as any of you.”
“And there’s a bigger problem,” a nasally voice added. A scrawny guy wearing glasses stepped out from under Clemency, getting all eyes turning to him. I hadn’t seen much from Almanac since Titan had revealed his secret weapon back on Tso’got; Almanac was an Adapted who knew where everything was and was the only reason we could navigate the stars. “We were on a course to Marn but Infinite changed direction.”
“What?” Clemency asked on behalf of everyone else listening.
“She’s taking us…somewhere,” Almanac said, “But I have no idea where. All I know is that she sure as shit isn’t heading to Marn anymore.”