It had been a week since Titan had officially handed over control of the crusade to Dragoon. I had been worried that there would be an insurrection from the other Adapted on-board as a result. To my surprise, there weren’t any outspoken groups who threatened the new order. While it was in large part because of her popularity, it was also because she had the emphatic support of both Titan and Infinite; it was hard to threaten someone who had the universe’s most powerful bodyguards in their corner.
With the change in leadership, things almost went back to being normal. At least, as normal as a group of Adapted this big could ever get.
If nothing else, there was a steep decline in the number of people getting their brains boiled.
A few people held out in disbelief, not wanting to accept that Dragoon was a fit leader. She didn’t have clout with a number of the heads from Vuuldar. To her surprise, Adamant came through and vouched for her. While many of the other Vuuldar Adapted didn’t seem fond of the arrogant and brash Adapted, they did respect him enough to get in line.
It actually seemed a bit strange to me that he’d bother. Adamant seemed fairly self-centered for the most part. But while we were adrift through space, he seemed fairly buddy-buddy with Dragoon.
Parasite stopped omitting himself from our group and would come by. While I understood his desire for space and alone time with Ragdoll, it felt good to have my best friend back around. He had to explain to Menagerie about why he had been so absent, but she empathized at least a little. His ability to own up to being so absent prompted her to confess that she had been furious he had come back without Geyser in tow.
The day after Dragoon was instated, Infinite began making more regular jumps. This time it was a lot smoother since it wasn’t someone else trying to pull the strings; even though this mysterious figure had helped create us, they didn’t know how to pilot us.
Even though we managed to solve our primary conflict, there was one unstoppable force that Dragoon’s leadership didn’t have a good answer to:
As much as I hated it, Titan’s outburst and divisive behavior had at least instilled a sense of conflict that we all thrived on. Without confrontation or some kind of fight to endure, we all fell into this sense of listlessness. One could only play so many rounds of Yahtzee before you started to go a bit mad.
A week after the exchange of power didn’t see any real change in scenery. Even if Infinite could pull us through one-hundred million kilometers of space every day, we were still just floating adrift in the void. It was the worst case of spinning our wheels and feeling like we were going nowhere.
Parasite did his best to kill time by helping train people on hand-to-hand combat, to help give people an edge with or without a physical Adaptation. The most perplexing figure to watch work with my best friend was Siphon, the first Adapted who had seriously kicked the absolute crap out of us. Siphon was one of Shockwave’s enforcers who sapped strength away from his opponent which had proved to be a perfect foil to my friend. Our first big loss had come when Parasite and Dragoon went out without me, trying to thwart a bank robbery. He’d been robbed of his agility, his strength, and his natural resilience and had been beaten so bad it took his days to heal.
Watching the two of them work together, it was strangely empowering to see them exchange ideas and give tips to one another. The other surprise guest to his little courses was Goliath. It was strange to think someone who could turn into an eight-foot tall wall of muscle would need hand to hand training.
Dragoon took Parasite’s idea and turned it up a notch, demanding that people get to know one another by doing what we did best: fighting. While there were a few exceptions, nearly all people were required to have a training bout at least once a day to keep themselves sharpened and to learn the strengths and weaknesses of their new allies.
It was met initially with reservations. People were afraid that there would be fatalities and serious injuries, but Dragoon didn’t share their apprehensions. She encouraged more senior Adapted to work with those who hadn’t learned to fully reign it in yet in a kind of forced mentorship.
I made a point to keep myself out of it the first day; the last thing I needed to do was show people the monster that had terrorized them and possibly eaten their friend. It had been nearly two weeks since we had escape Vuuldar, people didn’t need to relive that horrifying few hours. No one needed to see my grotesque transformation into a wall tendrils. Eldritch was eager to get loose and have some physical manifestation, but was still leery of giving him an outlet and flesh to consume.
Later, I was greeted with a frustrated looking Dragoon at my door.
“You’re skipping out on training?”
“Played hookey,” she replied as she shouldered past me.
“Most other people don’t have an Adaptation that has a mind of its own,” I grumbled. “We both know how out of control I can get. The last thing I need to do is eat a few other people.”
Dragoon rolled her eyes, “That’s a weak excuse and you know it. The only times you’ve lost control were because of extreme duress. On Vuuldar you were hit with an orbital cannon and had a literal tonne of explosives detonated under your feet. That’s not going to happen here and we’re not going to start you off with tonnes of material.”
I frowned, “And when other people see the fucked up thing that killed their friend?”
“They’ll deal with it. They’ll also see the thing that wiped out most of the Ellayan militia.”
“A fact I’m still not proud of,” I admitted, feeling a pit at the bottom of my stomach. Even though Adapted were surprisingly resilient to mental strain, that one had done a number on me. “I felt those people scream and thrash around as they died, Drag. Hundreds of them. It was just like Feast Day all over again, this time I had better direction though.”
My friend sighed and rubbed her temples, “Listen, Nick, I don’t understand how you feel. I’m never going to understand how you feel. But, I need you to appreciate that no one is going to trust you if you continue to hold yourself back like this. I’m getting murderers to train teenagers how to fight; while it’s not an ideal scenario, it is working. I need people to know that you aren’t just a monster. I need people to know that Eldritch is more than a walking, talking monument to hunger.”
“And what do you do with me if I eat someone?” I shot back, feeling my fists clench involuntarily. “I don’t want to put my friend into a corner like that! I can’t have you be accountable for me time and time again whenever I lose control!”
The words pouring out of my mouth surprised me as much as they did her. But, it wasn’t a lie. We had put her in charge which meant that the buck stopped with her. If I was to go on a rampage, there would need to be some kind of tangible consequence. The last thing I needed to do was start a mutiny because people saw her as playing favorites. No one could defy Titan and Infinite, but plenty of people could defy Dragoon.
On the flipside of that coin, I didn’t want to put her in a place she needed to have me put down like a wild animal. She had already carved me free of Eldritch once; I didn’t want her to suffer any more because of my primal Adaptation.
“There has to be a baseline trust somewhere,” she finally said softly. “We have to be willing to embrace what we have, no matter how weird or fucked up it might be. I know you don’t like your gift, I know that it’s ugly and destructive,” she said. “But, the reality is that it’s powerful as hell. You survived a laser from space that left behind a literal crater. You took on six of the most powerful Adapted and then withstood Psycho running an army of monsters into you.”
I winced at the reminder.
“But I know that you are a lot more. I remember when you were afraid to control more than a single tonne of growth. I remember watching you struggle to fight back against Shock and Awe. I remember when we were trying to figure out the rate at which you developed mutations. Other people need a chance to see you on a smaller scale, to see that there is a person beneath that wall of tentacle. People need to appreciate the person Eldritch, not just the beast.”
“I think this is a shit idea,” I said after a pause.
“And I think you and Murphy put my happy ass in charge,” she said with a smirk, “Talk to Repository for a dump of material to consume. You will be training with everyone tomorrow.”
Even with all my reservations about using my power again, I found myself in the galley that had turned into our makeshift training ground. Depending who was training, a few different fights would be going on at once, or just a single pair would have all the eyes glued to them.
There were easily four dozen people lining the outside of the room, all transfixed on the duel going on.
Ragdoll against one of the Adapted from Vuuldar. Clad in a red tunic with black pants, the stranger kept distorting the space around Ragdoll. Where a punch should have landed, Ragdoll seemed to slide backwards. A kick should have cleaned his block, but it was like something kept dragging Ragdoll back towards the center of the room.
“Who is that?” I asked, noticing Lightshow standing nearby.
“Cantrip. Seems to manipulate people’s movement somehow, like making them slip or glide backwards. From the looks of it, the more subtle the movement, the easier it is for him to pull off.”
“Seems like a shitty power,” I muttered.
“Until he does something like this,” she said. “Watch.”
Ragdoll wound up again and brought a leg around; Cantrip stepped backwards and tilted his head. Ragdoll’s foot touched down and was yanked out from under him and landed him flat on his shoulderblades. Cantrip bolted in, yanking a shiv from his sleeve. I gasped, but Ragdoll kicked his legs to build up momentum again, coming around like a human top to upend Cantrip. As he hit the ground, Ragdoll flipped over and landed on Cantrip’s chest, pinning him.
“Good try,” Ragdoll said, “But you’re too passive. You banked on making one good opening too hard. If you’re going to do that, you gotta have a backup,” he added as he helped his opponent back up to his feet.
Cantrip and Ragdoll shook hands and there was a round of applause from the ring.
“Who’s next?” someone inquired.
“He is,” a clear voice said, cutting above the rabble. I spotted Dragoon on the opposite end of the room, pointing a finger at me. “Who wants to take a crack at Eldritch?”
My chest tightened as everyone went silent, all staring at me. I hated being this put on the spot, being this singled out. But, Dragoon wanted to be fair. Everyone who could fight had to train. I had been given a hundred kilograms of material from Repository to burn, letting me have four tonnes of growth for fifteen minutes or half that size for a full hour.
While I wasn’t going to be flattening any cities, it was still enough to do some serious damage.
Finally, one brave volunteer broke the silence.
“I’ll take him on.”
From the human cage around me, one woman stepped forward and rolled her neck, getting ready to brawl. Tanned skinned and with brown hair pulled into a ponytail, she looked like she had a rough life. Her face was spotted with pock marks and scars, her hands clearly weathered and calloused. She was wearing a pair of jean shorts and black t-shirt which seemed strangely understated given some of the flashier outfits from people who had made a career out of being a Reckoner. However, that intense glare in her green eyes sent a shiver down my spine.
“And for everyone who doesn’t know you, your name?” Dragoon called.
“Overwhelm,” she replied without taking her eyes off me.
“Eldritch,” I said when Dragoon pointed to me.
“You sure as shit don’t look like Eldritch,” someone called from the side. I glared and saw Adamant standing with Exchange, a smirk at the corner of his lips. That smug bastard was enjoying every moment. Easy for him to be cocky, he couldn’t lose in a scenario like this.
I stipped off my shirt and pants, ignoring the whistling coming from Lightshow and Parasite. I opted to simply demolish a set of underwear and abstained from stripping down into my birthday suit in front of everyone. Reaching into my storage, I ignited half of my supply and called for two tonnes of material to sprout from my skin. Gasps and sounds of disgust were heard around the room as I went from being a scrawny and pale kid into a ten-foot tall mass of tentacles.
The whole room came into view as I saw through all the growths, forcing me to direct my attention to the woman in front of me who was one of the only people who hadn’t flinched while I transformed.
“And, have at it!” Dragoon shouted.
Even though I was still in control, I felt Eldritch push forward, invigorated at the prospect of a fight. It was thrilled to be animated, to have some means of expression and stimulation through its own form. For a moment, it was given the right to exist. The room seemed to fade to background noise as I lumbered forward, taking massive steps with practiced ease now.
Just a few months ago, I walked around like a drunk giraffe. Now the movement was fluid, easy to execute. I could rely on Eldritch to finesse the individual growths, to call all the swarm of Neklim to task as I guided us and strategized.
We weren’t fighting, we weren’t at war with one another. We had a clean, clear cut division of labor.
I closed the gap between us and Overwhelm and reached forward, aiming to engulf her and end the fight immediately.
As I reached forward, my arm literally bounced back. Overwhelm stepped forward and planted her feet, pushing a hand forward.
It felt like a giant fist slammed into my torso, crushing several dozen kilograms of mass and knocking me on my ass. Overwhelm took a step forward and planted her foot, swinging a hand down; another invisible hand crashed into me and tried to flatten me against the floor. I snarled and pushed back, feeling the pressure on my body alleviate a small bit.
She’s having to move too.
Sure enough, as I toiled against it, Overwhelm’s hand was slowly being pushed back, like she had some kind of telekinetic arm attached to her real arm. Overwhelm furrowed her brow and pulled her arm back, letting me sit up.
I shifted forward, allowing myself to bear crawl forward at my opponent; Overwhelm planted her foot and swung her arm. Another invisible slap knocked me down but I was able to roll with this one and orient myself to keep charging before she could pin me again. Overwhelm grimaced and drove an open hand forward; I felt like I slammed my face into a wall.
She is expending strength to hold us back. Apply pressure. Tire her. We don’t exhaust like she does.
I took Eldritch’s advice and drew an arm back, slamming it against the invisible barricade. Overwhelm sneered but kept her hand forward, keeping the wall between us intact. She steadied herself and curled her other hand into a fist and punched lower.
My right leg was shot out from under me, forcing my right arm to plant down. Intuition told me that she was going to adjust her wall and try to position for something that could do more damage; I allocated mass from my leg to arms and literally pulled myself forward, slamming my bulk into her wall. Overwhelm’s eyes widened as her firm stance broke and she stumbled back. I lurched forward, no longer impeded.
I raised my arm and came crashing down but Overwhelm was nimble when she wasn’t holding me back. She rolled to the side and spun back around to face me, throwing both hands forward. As I took a step back, the impact slid her across the floor, making space between us again. Overwhelm stomped her back foot down and established a firm base before drawing her hands together like she was going to clap.
I felt like I was being put in a trash compactor as I held back against her telekinetic limbs. Tendrils were being crushed under my own exertion as I fought to keep her from crushing me underneath. While Eldritch might have been right that we were stronger, it was too easy for Overwhelm to make it hard to struggle against her. She could adjust faster than we could and we were being punished for it.
An idea came to mind, but it required a mutation to properly work.
Burn the rest.
I reached into my storage and ignited the rest of our supply, growing another tonne of mass and extending the duration of the growths for another fifteen minutes. Overwhelm sneered as she continued to pressure me, trying to crush me. All my new growths were struggling to survive with about half of them dying immediately to her crippling hold.
Mutation: Separation. I can do this without you. Go.
Collecting two-hundred kilograms of growth that was immediately next to my person, I let my connection with the rest of Eldritch sever. The chest cavity of the monster broke as I tore myself free, my body covered in an extra two-hundred kilos of Neklim tendrils. It all wove around my limbs, acting like my own muscle as I hit the ground running.
“What?” Overwhelm gasped. She drew her hands back and tried to push me away, but I was much more agile and able to throw myself to the side. I lunged forward, my fist slamming against a telekinetic wall as she raised her hands to shield her face.
Then the rest of Eldritch came lumbering forward; two massive Neklim arms smashed through her barrier and pressed her against the floor. Before she could do anything, Eldritch engulfed her with an arm, covering all but her head in a mass of black tentacles. Overwhelm’s eyes went wide as she stared down at the arm holding her, and everyone around the periphery of the room mobilized.
“Wait!” I shouted, “It’s not going to eat her!”
I made a point to stay disconnected from the greater mass as it lifted and set down Overwhelm, putting her back on her feet. Everyone held back, but barely. The hunkling form lumbered and scooped me up next, shoving me back in the chest cavity.
I’m not a mindless beast.
I knew that, and now everyone else had been given a chance to see that too.
I dismissed away most of the growths, reducing myself down to two hundred kilograms. I would have completely dismissed Eldritch, but I didn’t want to be standing there naked in front of everyone.
Overwhelm stared at me, finally having caught her breath after what she had assumed would be a near death experience. “I don’t understand,” she finally said, breaking the tense silence of the room. “You were an animal on Vuuldar! You killed my friend, Challenger. You killed Drought. You ate four others! Why didn’t that thing just eat me?”
I moved the tendrils off my face and did my best to ignore the impending headache from using my eyes and receiving visual input through the tentacles. “It’s a part of me. It might be an animal, but it’s intelligent. It was desperate and starving. And I’m never going to let it be that desperate again. I refuse to be a mindless monster again.”
Overwhelm nodded slowly, eventually extending a hand. “Good fight.”
“Good fight,” I echoed.
“Alright, back up people,” Dragoon shouted, “Who’s next?”
I stepped out of the galley and hurried back to my room to get a change of underwear, leaving the din of our training arena behind me. As the door slammed shut to my room, I took a look at myself in a reflection from the wall, almost admiring the smaller and more refined suit I was wearing.
We don’t always have to be a massive, hideous monster.
“So often we need to be,” I replied softly to my reflection. “Most can’t do what we can.”
You struggle against me. The times we fight best are when we are together. You fear power. You fear what we are capable of.
“I’m afraid of losing control,” I corrected. “You are unwieldy when we get big. Your instinct and interests feel like they begin to occlude mine. Your hunger becomes my hunger and I start to lose sense of who I am!”
How do you think I feel when there is no growth? When there is no food for me to consume? I am a passenger, a spectator.
“And how do you think I felt on Vuuldar? I watched you eat our friends and family! I felt you fight against Clemency and Psycho. I felt you hunger for more power, for more consumption to become unbeatable.”
I didn’t want to fail and fall apart! If I was to break, we would have been captured and taken by the Trillodan or killed. It would have left you vulnerable and exposed!
I recoiled from my reflection. “You were…protecting me?”
You are my host. You can survive without me. The inverse is not true. On Feast Day, I did my best to shield you from Beleth and everyone else; back then I had never been so unrestrained or given such access to your mind. I was drowning in stimulus I didn’t think possible. That was the only time I had ever truly lost control and been an animal.
I ate them to preserve you.
As aware and sentient as Eldritch might be, it was still a Neklim. It was still a cold and calculating predator who only looked out for their own self-interest. “We can’t do that,” I said softly. “I appreciate you trying to take care of me and protect me, but you’re right. We do work best when we work together. When you started eating people, that wasn’t us in harmony.”
“We don’t know what would have happened,” I corrected. I stuck with the conviction Titan had given me, to not simply curl up and let everyone else speak for me. Eldritch needed to hear this as much as I needed to say it. “We both need to be willing to trust the others. I need you to be able to respect them like you did Overwhelm earlier.”
Eating her would have gained us nothing. It would have jeopardized our survival.
“More than that,” I insisted. “Since you didn’t eat her, she is going to be able to fight in our next battle. Because shes is able to fight, she may be able to defend someone else, like Repository, who can make us a nearly endless supply of mass to consume.”
“I’m thinking ahead. I understand that Neklim are solitary creatures, but humans aren’t. We need community, we need people to lean on and draw strength from. Think of it this way, Eldritch, if you eat any Adapted or human you are going to be harming your host.”
I felt Eldritch grapple with that idea, but I got the sense that it was finally starting to stick.
Then know that keeping me from having any physical expression for so long is maddening.
“Well, then say thank you to Dragoon for insisting that we have these training bouts every day then. For now, that won’t be a problem.”
Right on cue, the door to my room opened revealing my red-headed captain with a smug grin on her face. “Fucking knew it would do some good for you two to get back in sync with one another.”
I rounded on her and pointed at the door, “Get the hell out of my room!”
Dragoon shook her head and took a seat on my cot, turning away. “Get changed, I actually want to talk to you for a minute anyways.”
I glanced back at my reflection and shrugged. I dismissed the remainder of the growths and hastily threw on some clothes. “Okay, what?”
Her face went alarmingly somber as she took a deep breath. “This doesn’t leave this room. Understand?”
I frowned, “But, I thought we weren’t going to try and keep secrets from everyone else. I thought part of your goal in being different from Titan was to keep everything above board and honest with the rest of the Adapted.”
She winced, “This is…tenuous. Believe me, this isn’t easy to stomach for me either. But, I worry that telling everyone is going to start affecting things.”
“Clairvoyant has seen something,” she replied, and it’s a couple of specific visions that are making me concerned. Three, three, and three split, so it seems very likely that one of them will happen and exclude the others.”
I felt a chill run up my spine. Clairvoyant could see snippets of a possible future; the more regular the vision, the more likely it was to come true. “What did she see?”
“There is a Trillodan attack and one of two things happen: we either lose Titan or nearly twenty Adapted. Clairvoyant gave me names-”
I raised my hand to stop her, “A fucking disaster either way. I get it. What was option three?”
Her face fell, “The last vision was of all of us dead. All of us, that is, except for Infinite. Something caused her to snap.”
I suddenly understood why she was reluctant to tell anyone about what our soothsayer had seen. It had the potential to reignite the animosity towards Titan and Infinite that had caused Zeal to lose his head. There would be people calling for Infinite to be thrown out into the void of space. Others would demand that, when the time came, Titan sacrificed himself for the cause. Either way, it would divide the ship and there was no telling if trying to change the future would make it better or worse.
“The least bad option is to lose nearly twenty Adapted,” I said with a grimace, “That’s a huge blow, but Titan is too powerful to give up.”
“I might be in charge, but his authority behind me is what gives me credit and sway over anyone else here,” she muttered. “Right now, I’m a girl. I don’t even have a set of power armor made. I can’t fight, I can’t do anything on my own!”
With no one else watching, the stress could finally come out as she took a shaky breath.
“Jesus, Nick,” she whispered, “I don’t know how to do this. I’m trying to go forward and there’s a fucking disaster waiting just around the corner.”
I thought about my conversation with Eldritch and how much of our conflict had come down to a matter of identity. “You shouldn’t abandon who you are,” I said, “You are known for being a chick in power armor. You’re known for being the only Cognate on board who volunteers to fight. I think you need to get a new set of armor so you can respect yourself again.”
She sighed, “You aren’t wrong. But… what happens if we lose the guy who started all this? What do we do if everyone starts dying left, right, and center?”
The silence between us spoke volumes.
“Yeah,” she said, shaking her head, “I don’t know either.”