“What the fuck do you mean we aren’t heading to Marn anymore?” Beleth shouted, his voice cutting through the crowd.
Almanac raised his hands defensively, “It seems like she’s going to try and take us to another solar system or something. You have to remember we are fucking hundreds of millions of kilometers from any planet. I have no idea where we’re going; I’m just along for the ride too.”
“Maybe we should hear it from our top two about where the fuck we’re going,” Adamant suggested. “They might have answers for us.”
I could practically feel the unease in the crowd, like a miasma covering the whole room. For as much collective firepower as we had in this room, none of us were able to do a damn thing about Infinite going rogue.
The beast under my skin reacted to the unrest, rearing up as if it knew I might need to tap into that power. It reminded me how much people weighed and how much mass I could pilfer per corpse.
“We should have some faith in Titan and Infinite; they are going to act in our best interest,” Clemency said, hovering over the crowd. “They have given up way too much to suddenly abandon our mission now.”
“And so have we,” Zeal barked back, the people around him echoing his distaste. “We’ve all lost our home, our friends, everything! I don’t think they get a fucking pass, Clemency. Especially since Infinite killed fucking twelve of us! She’s got a bigger Adapted body count than any of us.”
Clemency glared daggers at Zeal, “You almost sound envious.”
I could see the room splitting in half before my eyes. People who had been forced into Titan’s crusade, like Zeal, were gearing up to march on the Prime duo and demand an explanation. However, there were just as many devoted to Titan and his cause who were at odds with the insidious implication behind Zeal’s words.
There had to be seventy Adapted in this room, all of them extremely on edge; I was in the middle with no power to use should a fight break out. My heart hammered as anxiety washed over me, making me want to flee and freeze at the same time.
“We shouldn’t just follow along, blind,” Zeal growled, emerging as the ringleader for one faction. “If anything, we shouldn’t trust a fucking thing Infinite does!”
“And if it wasn’t for her, you would be a stain back on Tso’got. She got everyone off Tso’got in one piece, or did you conveniently forget that,” Clemency fired back, traces of color starting to dance around his hands.
“ENOUGH!” a commanding voice bellowed, quelling all the arguing.
In the entry was Titan himself, leaning heavily on a crutch with Playlist beside him for balance.
“For the love of Christ, shut the fuck up, all of you. It’s been four days; if we start fighting now there won’t be anyone alive when we finally land,” Titan muttered, creeping forward at a snail’s pace.
“You can’t just-” Hive started to insist.
Titan glared and shut her up. “It wasn’t my idea,” he admitted. “And truthfully, I don’t know what Infinite is doing. She… acted like someone was directing her. She grabbed ten powers on her own with no warning to me or Command. Our jumps caught me off guard just as much as it did all of you.”
“So, she’s gone rogue then?”
“No, Zeal,” Titan snarled, defensive, “She has not gone rogue. She has not put us in any danger, she has not had a sudden lapse in sanity or entered any kind of dangerous delirium.”
“If you don’t know what she’s doing, how can you be sure?” Zeal pressed.
As Titan straightened himself, I noticed a slight green aura radiating off Playlist; around me the room seemed to take a breath as we collectively relaxed. I was used to him using his power for destructive purposes; I almost forgot that Playlist could be a fairly potent emotional manipulator.
“If she had gone off the reservation, none of us would be breathing anymore.”
Titan’s cold statement quieted the room.
“But,” he continued, his face falling, “Something is influencing her.”
“Something is controlling the most powerful person alive?” Shockwave demanded. “Something is having her go millions of kilometers off course? You’re sure that something isn’t the Trillodan having a laugh?”
“If it was the Trillodan, they would have dumped us back on Vuuldar days ago. Why would they wait this long? Why let her kill a dozen of their precious specimens?”
“Why don’t we ask her?” Interface suggested, cutting in before Zeal could open his mouth and offer some cynical retort. “If Infinite is lucid, maybe we should hear from her and stop making assumptions. Maybe, just maybe, there is something Infinite can see that none of us can.”
There were some murmurings around the room, but no one spoke up to formally object.
“She’s unconscious,” Titan confessed. “She cycled powers too quickly. To avoid another eruption, she sedated herself.”
Even with Playlist actively calming the room, I could feel the unrest ripple out. “Maybe, just maybe, we should fucking kill her while she can’t fight back,” Zeal spat. “None of us can stop her,” he insisted, not letting anyone else butt in, “And she just knocked herself out to avoid smothering half of us death. I don’t care if it takes us longer to get to Marn, I want to get there alive!”
He broke free of the crowd, stepping forward, defying Titan.
“Maybe we shouldn’t just accept what you have to say at face value,” Zeal snarled, “Maybe we shouldn’t be in this fucking ship at all. Maybe we would have been better off if we never got roped into your fucking bullshit crusade.”
Titan pushed Playlist lightly; the adolescent gulped nervously but stepped back, letting Titan stand on his own.
“Look at you!” Zeal shouted, taking another step closer, “You’re fucking broken. You’re finally like one of us. No more Forest. No more being untouchable. You finally get to feel real loss! All of us, we’re expendable to you, just little fucking pawns in your galactic game of chess!”
Titan’s lip curled in frustration.
Of course, Zeal noticed. Even though I couldn’t see his face, I knew that he was wearing a manic, psychotic smile. “You think you’re so good at this little game too! You really thought you could out-wit a Trillodan general who has been doing this longer than any of us have been alive! You thought it was a brilliant idea to make a giant monster rampage through their ranks; did you think Zellig wouldn’t expect that play? Come on!” Zeal took another defiant step forward and the throng held their breath, unsure what would happen.
No one had dared pressure Titan like this. No one stood up to any of the Prime Trio before. On Vuuldar, Zeal had told us he hated Titan and how he’d lost his home on Tso’got; I had no idea he harbored this level of resentment.
“Maybe we need some new management around here!”
“And you think you’re the best that we have to offer?” Titan replied, his voice dangerously cool.
Zeal laughed, “I’m a far cry better than you and that unstable bitch you keep relying on.”
“Don’t what, huh? Don’t call it how it is? Don’t point out that she killed more of us than I have? I’m the fucking psychopath here, right? I haven’t murdered anyone since you forced me into this bullshit outfit you cobbled together. I have played nice and gone with the flow as best I can but enough is enough. I’m not letting that crazy bitch stay on this ship if she’s started going off the fucking rails!”
“Shut your mouth,” Titan growled.
“Or you’ll what?” Zeal challenged, throwing his arms to the side. “You’re going to torch me? You gonna be the big man and prove that you’re sooooooo strong? Come on, Titan, I thought you were better than the rest of us!” Zeal turned around, showing off a smug smile, “Look everyone, the guy who insisted we were family doesn’t like when someone challenges him for his patriarchal spot!”
“Zeal, that’s enough,” Organelle snapped as she took a spot near Clemency.
“No, it isn’t!” he screamed. “Don’t you get it? We can’t just blindly follow this man until we’re all locked up!” His head snapped to the side as he pointed into the crowd. “Parasite, you’ve been in one of those prisons. You wanna tell the rest of the class how it felt? You wanna tell us how it felt seeing your teammate sedated and behind glass.”
I hadn’t noticed Parasite on the opposite side of the room; from the looks of it, he wished no one had noticed him. Ragdoll patted him on the back, giving him enough courage to reply. “All those people, people I had seen and watched fight…all just stuck there. Dozens of them, just trapped. They couldn’t struggle, they couldn’t object, they couldn’t fight back and try to save themselves. I only woke up because of a freak chance; no one else is gonna get the same break I did.”
Zeal turned his attention back to Organelle, “You still think that I’m taking things too far? You think I’m the one who’s crazy here? Did this shit ever happen before Titan got involved? Did any of us end up in fucking specimen tubes? Did we have to worry about running from the universe’s most dangerous and successful tyrants?” He turned back to Titan, his rage boiling over. “You made all this shit happen! You should have left us back on Tso’got, to have normal lives! Instead, you fucking interefered! Instead, you decided that you could just assert yourself because you’re fucking Titan! No one could tell you no; you’d just turn them into ash if they denied you! So go on, Titan, prove my point! Burn me down!”
Titan stood still, trying to control his breathing.
Zeal lowered his arms, chuckling. “There’d be another twelve people alive in this room if we didn’t have her. And, you know,” he said, his laugh growing, “Forest enforced a strict no-fighting policy! Imagine what she would have done if I killed a dozen people!”
Titan’s eyes widened.
“So, in memory of our dearly departed Forest,” Zeal giggled, “I say we chuck Infinite out an airlock for her cri-”
I only got to hear the noise for a split second, that sound like an acetylene torch being spun up. The air around Zeal’s head erupted, a layer of molten silicone bathing his cranium before turning into an inert lump of silver rock. Zeal’s body toppled, slamming into the metal floor and shattering the crust of silicon that Titan had constructed around his head; inside was a flash fried human head with most of the skin cooked away to reveal a charred skull beneath.
The room fell silent.
Titan looked at us with an expression I’d never seen on his face before. He wasn’t in control anymore, not really. For the first time since Vuuldar, I felt something from Eldrtich besides hunger: a strange pang of empathy. It understood that sensation of being cornered that Titan was feeling now.
“Titan-” Organelle whispered, her voice trembling.
“Anyone else thinking about trying to throw Infinite off the ship?” he roared, taking a haphazard step forward. “Anyone else wanna remind me of how shitty this has all gone? Anyone else think they can do better than me?”
It was hard to watch, not because Titan was angry, but because he was hurt. All of us knew, we empathized with his pain; all of us felt conflicted though since the acrid smell of Zeal’s burnt brain lingered.
Titan took a second to catch his breath and some semblance of composure. “There was no getting away from this. There was no scenario where we didn’t face the Trillodan. Zeal’s delusion of a ‘peaceful’ life back on Tso’got is just that: a delusion. The Trillodan didn’t show up on our doorstep because I was making a coalition; they showed up because we made ourselves a fucking public spectacle!” He pointed a hand forward, causing the whole crowd to wince. “Beleth, tell all these people what the head of Suppression told you back home.”
It had felt like an eternity since I had thought of Suppression: the special brand of police on Tso’got dedicated to locking up and exterminating Adapted.
Beleth sighed, “The head of Suppression wanted me to put down the Rogue Sentries because they had spotted a Trillodan monitoring probe in the atmosphere. Suppression wanted the brawls between Adapted to slow down enough so they would lose interest.”
“Was that before or after Feast Day?”
“Before,” Beleth said.
Titan wobbled on his crutch as he tried to step forward, “This was happening, regardless! If Eldritch didn’t start it off, something else would have! If I didn’t have all this shit planned out, do you think the Trillodan would have been content leaving us alive on the surface? Do you think the Zari would be fine with having Adapted in their midst with the Trillodan looking for us? Do you think humanity would keep us if we brought about their second encounter with the Trillodan? I’m not perfect, but at least I’m not going to kick you out!”
“What about him?” Adamant asked, pointing to Zeal’s corpse.
“You can voice your dissent against me all you want,” Titan replied, “But the second you threaten the woman who is responsible for getting us this far, you’re dead to me. I have done my best to not rely on Infinite to avoid having her cause collateral damage and she has done her best to control herself! For Zeal to threaten her while she’s comatose without giving her the benefit of the doubt, that was over the line.” Titan narrowed his gaze and scanned over the crowd, “So, is there anyone else who thinks we should toss her out into the void of space?”
To everyone’s surprise, Interface stepped forward to the front of the crowd, their hands raised defensively. Titan himself was flabbergasted, unsure of how to react to one of his most loyal stepping out in protest.
“Titan, I’ve been with you from the beginning, but Zeal has a point. We need to hear from Infinite. We need to understand why she’s suddenly altering things. We’re living this reality too.”
“Interface,” Titan whispered, “You know she doesn’t want to hurt anyone.”
“I know that, but they don’t. They don’t have the same history with her that I do,” Interface replied. “All of us need to be on the same page, we can’t have you melting more people because of a misunderstanding.”
Titan looked like someone had slapped him, his cold and violent air wiped away. “Y-yeah.”
“So you get us back here when she’s awake and we talk about this, like fucking adults.”
Before Titan could offer any kind of rebuttal, Interface stormed past him. It didn’t take long for others to take the hint; the spectacle was over and there wasn’t going to be anything else to see. As everyone filed out, Titan motioned for me to come over to him.
“Can you deal with this body?” he asked softly, still clearly rattled by having one of his most devout put him in his place.
Most people had left, but there were still a few around, all of them looking to Titan, and by extension, me. “I’m not sure if that’s a good idea,” I confessed.
“I’m not letting his body go to waste,” Titan insisted.
While Interface might have been comfortable with verbally slapping Titan, I wasn’t about to challenge him. Wordlessly, I placed a hand on the body and watched the tissue fade away as I added it to my storage. It would spoil long before I could ever make use of it but Titan didn’t need to know.
Even if Zeal was a psychotic, murderous son of a bitch, he was still one of us. We could offer him a little more dignity than being a popsicle in the void of space.
As the last few people left, I was alone with Titan in the galley. I turned to leave, but he called after me. “Do you think I did the right thing?”
I raised an eyebrow, “By killing Zeal?”
“By…any of it. He might have hated me and what I was doing, but Zeal was right that I upset everything. I actively broke people out of prisons back on Tso’got. I helped tons of Adapted group up; maybe I escalated things. Maybe I am the reason all of this happened.”
I struggled for a second, understanding the exact brand of guilt he was coping with; I still blamed myself for the Trillodan disrupting everything since Feast Day had been the final straw to get them to come in person. “I don’t think so,” I finally said. “I think you’re right that it would have eventually happened. The reality is that we were fighting amongst ourselves for any reason. We made it into a spectacle that everyone bought into. My first night as an official Reckoner, I fought against Shock and Awe. The next day at school, I saw kids watching that fight on their phones and I felt a weird sense of pride. It was like a drug and I wanted a new fix.”
Titan gave me a soft smile, “Thanks, Eldritch.”
“We all fight. We all love to fight. Even if we had stayed on Tso’got when the Trillodan came, I don’t think we would have hid. That’s just…not how we seem to operate,” I pointed out.
He gave me a curious glance, “You’re not the same kid I pulled out a mess of tentacles back on Tso’got.”
I physically recoiled, unsure what to make of that.
“Don’t be so quiet next time,” he insisted, “Even though we just see you as a monster, you’re a lot more than that.”
“I, um, yeah,” I said, tripping over my words. With nothing else to say, I hurried outside and was surprised to see a familiar face waiting for me.
“Hey, Nick,” Murphy said.
I felt my heart rise, and sink a little; he wasn’t sporting his usual smug smirk. “Hey. Where is your plus one?”
Murphy blushed and looked down at his feet, “Ragdoll said I should probably take some time and hang out with you a little; I’ve been kind of avoiding people I know and he called me on it.”
“It has been a little weird being around you lately,” I admitted. “Competing for your attention against Ragdoll is tough; he’s way hotter than me.”
Murphy finally smiled and reached out to push me, “Shut up man.”
I led the way back to my room, debating going to Dragoon’s room to try and confront her again about her substance use; I decided against it for now. Things on the ship needed time to sit and calm down. Tensions were too high and I figured Murphy needed some time to process that the other member of our triad was drugged out of his mind.
“I’m sorry for making you play third wheel…but it’s not quite what you think.”
I raised an eyebrow, “What do you mean?”
“I-” he started, shaking his hands in frustration. “It’s hard to explain.”
“Well, try anyways,” I said.
Murphy frowned, “It’s like I’m not me anymore. There’s just something that snapped inside me. Seeing our friends in prisons, being isolated like that, it was like I had to turn into an animal. It was like I stepped into a nightmare that I can’t wake up from,” he said, his voice trembling. “And seeing you, or anyone else from the Sentries, it’s just a reminder of what I used to be, what I used to be a part of. It’s like there’s this giant pane of glass between us; I can see it, but I’m never going to properly belong again.”
“You know you’re always one of us,” I insisted.
Murphy winced as we stepped into my sparsely furnished room. “See but that’s easy for you to say: you’ve never lost your power. You don’t know how this feels man.”
“I’ve felt literal tons of flesh torn away from me and felt my own body rebel against my mind, twice. I’ve had to grow up and accept that there is a crazy, primal predator that is a core part of my identity for probably the rest of my life. I have to come to grips with the fact that I literally consumed the flesh off my parents’ corpses,” I replied, feeling a little insulted. “I think I understand a fair bit more than you give me credit for.”
“Fair point,” Murphy admitted.
“So, try to explain it,” I implored, “I want to know.”
Murphy raised his hand, looking at it like it should be doing some kind of trick. “I got used to feeling that thing under my skin. I relied on it, and I had some damn good control of that little organism. It was a part of me like my arms or my legs are a part of me.”
“And it’s gone,” I extrapolated.
“Worse,” Murphy corrected, “It was taken from me. It broke in an effort to keep me alive. And now, I have this hideous strength.” To emphasize his point, all his skin flipped from a light tan to a deep red, and then back again. “And the shittiest part of it, even with that, Zellig still beat the shit out of me. My body turned my power into a toxic, ugly thing, and it still wasn’t enough. I have phantom pains,” he admitted, “And they just happen! Just, all over! I don’t even know how to describe how bad they are, and they’re under my fucking skin! I can’t even massage the pains away; at least Lightshow can rub the stump of where her arm used to be!”
I felt my throat constrict as tears started to roll down his cheeks. “Murphy, I-”
“They get worse when I see you guys,” he managed to eek out. “I want to hide it, to pretend it’s okay and that I can be a member of the team again…but it hurts. It hurts so bad, Nick. I look at my best friend and all I can fucking feel is an ache where something used to be!”
Part of me wanted to run, to make it so he’d never see me again, to let him bury that part of himself and avoid the pain. But, the other half of me won over as I stepped forward and pulled him into a hug. For a second, Murphy pulled away from me, but then let himself slump forward, resting his head on my shoulder.
For what felt like a full minute, we just stood there.
The silence was broken with a declaration of, “Dude, you’re gayer than me.”
I let my friend go and promptly shoved him as hard as possible, “And you’re a fucking asshole.” A snicker escaped, “Or do you-”
“Dude!” Murphy said, immediately blushing, “Come on!”
Before I could continue to push this envelope on how much I could embarrass him, there was a knock at my door. I opened it and Lightshow brushed by me, “Oh, well come on in.”
“I planned to,” she replied confidently. “Murphy, good to see you around.”
She narrowed her eyes, scrutinizing him, “I half wondered.”
“Wondered what?” I asked.
“Phantom pains,” she said, “I wondered if that was why he was staying clear of us.”
Even Murphy was perplexed. “How-”
“Come on,” she said, gesturing to her missing arm, “I know how they feel, and the way that you rubbed your chest when I walked in. There’s nothing physically wrong with you, and who rubs their chest due to nerves? Wringing your hands or something you can pass off, but not massaging your pecs.”
“Who knew Altering would make you a fucking super sleuth,” Murphy said.
“Who knew Altering would finally get you laid,” she shot back with a smirk.
His blush returned with a vengeance, “Hey-”
“You deserve this,” she interrupted. “Do you remember how much shit we gave to Nick back on Tso’got? We made hundreds of shitty jokes about him and Xana’s relationship. You’re just finally paying your dues.”
Murphy glared but couldn’t clap-back with a witty retort.
Lightshow glanced at me, “Have you told him about Drag?”
“What’s up with Alexis?” he asked, concerned.
I explained what had happened earlier and how Goliath had tipped me off and how Dragoon had all but assaulted me when I called her out on it. I explained her rationale which made Murphy all the more somber.
He knew first-hand how powerful fear could be as a motivator.
“Are we going to stage some kind of intervention for her?” he asked at length.
“I don’t like the idea of her being strung out,” Lightshow said, “We need her to be clear headed when we get into a fight next.”
“I’d also she rather not melt her head,” I muttered, “She’s basically overclocking her brain; what happens when her body finally revolts against her drug abuse?”
“We could do it by force,” Murphy suggested. “She might be able to beat you in a fist fight, Nick, but she won’t beat me. No powers necessary.”
“That seems a little barbaric,” I said, “She’s still our friend. I feel like we owe it to her to at least try and go with the diplomatic route first.”
“Do you think talking to her is really going to do the trick if she was willing to attack her best friend?” Lightshow countered. “Come on, Nick. I love your optimism, but let’s be real. Shit is crazy on this ship and we need her to come back to reality as fast as possible. Titan just killed a dude, Infinite is taking us…somewhere, and we have no captain. We need her back on the level as of yesterday.”
“I can help with that,” a muffled voice called.
All of us turned to my door, surprised. “Organelle,” Lightshow finally asked, “What the fuck are you doing eavesdropping?”
I opened the door and the ship’s medic walked in, still looking a bit frazzled. “I’m sorry, I could hear you all talking and I didn’t want to interrupt.”
“What do you mean you can help with our issue?” I asked.
“And…why?” Murphy added. “Aren’t you basically running yourself ragged with people who are still injured from Vuuldar?”
“I am,” she replied, “But, detoxing someone isn’t nearly so hard as regrowing bones or undoing serious organ trauma.” She took a deep breath before continuing, “Titan is slipping.”
“You don’t say,” Lightshow interjected.
She shot a glare at Lightshow but said nothing. “Contrary to what Zeal insists, he doesn’t see people as pawns in a chess game. While he values all of us, Forest was his best friend and confidant. It was also a huge wake up call to him that they are vulnerable. Titan had gone so long effectively being unstoppable; for all of the Prime Trio to lose in a single battle rattled him more than he wants to admit.”
“Which means now the ship gets to feel his insecurities,” Murphy said.
“Exactly. What he needs is a new person to step up, someone who isn’t afraid to tell him how it is, and someone that the whole ship respects and will listen to.”
My eyes widened, “You want to make Dragoon his new right hand.”
Organelle shook her head, “Not quite. I want to make Dragoon the new head of this operation. Until Titan gets his head back on straight, he’s not going to lead well. He’s going to take risks because he’ll assume we can brute force through them. We need someone who is willing to be more cautious and more grounded. Dragoon is all of those things, and is possibly the most liked person onboard. She is used to fighting at a disadvantage which is something Titan doesn’t fully appreciate; now that he’s having to experience it, he’s crumbling.”
“It takes the pressure off Titan and Infinite if there is someone else running the show and immediately cuts the animosity between everyone who just watched Titan murder Zeal,” Lightshow summed up, giving it a nod of approval. “Man, Organelle, I would have never thought of you to be so calculating.”
She gave a soft smile, “Never count out the quiet ones.”
“Does Titan know you want to supplant him?”
“Not yet,” she confessed.
I laughed, “We just watched him kill a guy and you want us to suggest he hand over the reigns of his cause to Dragoon?”
Lightshow raised her hand, stopping Organelle before she could try and argue, “How about we get our ducks in order first. Regardless if we want to oust Titan, we need Dragoon to be clean. I think then we should stop assuming positions for her and ask for her take on this situation.”
All of us nodded, feeling foolish for getting ahead of ourselves.
“Well,” Lightshow said, far too upbeat, “Let’s go have an intervention!”