We were aboard the S.S. Madhouse for over a month before we finally arrived.
Even with Dragoon’s genius idea to have us train together, she had to add additional sources of entertainment to prevent the incubation of cabin fever. Admittedly, my friend’s next great idea to help us kill the time was a simple, yet elegant, solution.
Dragoon had Chemtrail manufacture alcohol.
Our ship turned into a veritable Valhalla as we drifted ever onwards. We developed a schedule of fighting, drinking, sleeping, and repeating. The rhythm gave us some sense of normalcy and ability to maintain a waking/resting cycle; even though Titan wasn’t thrilled to relinquish control to Dragoon, he freely admitted that she was doing a fantastic job creating the sense of unity that he had struggled to achieve.
He might have recruited us, but she was making us work together and get along in a way we hadn’t thought possible.
Getting back into the habit of practicing allowed for all of us to work on finessing unwieldy gifts. Parasite and Ragdoll found themselves training people in hand to hand combat more frequently. Shockwave and Clemency worked with Projectors and taught many of those from Vuuldar how to concentrate their gift or direct their power in a more efficient manner.
I found my niche becoming a new strength test for people. Those who wanted to seriously test their skills fought the guy who could constantly get bigger to match. On the flipside, I challenged myself to use as little mass as necessary. Some opponents required only a few hundred kilograms of growth; people like Overwhelm required at least two-tonnes to reasonably fight. One of our highlight fights was of me versus Shockwave. While it would have normally been a shoe in for him, he couldn’t go full swing without killing someone. I was confined by the fact there was a ceiling and Repository gave me limited protein to devour.
Even at six-tonnes I still lost. Shockwave was admittedly sweating bullets when I tore myself free and forced him to deal with two targets. I took pride in having at least made him work for it. Despite him being the victor, I was proud of myself; back on Tso’got, I had ‘fought’ Shockwave before Feast Day. Calling it a fight wasn’t doing it justice since it had been a one-sided smackdown I barely survived.
And then, finally, after thirty-seven long days in space, there was finally something on the horizon. We crammed into the flight deck, shoulder to shoulder, to look out and see where Infinite had been taking us all this time. As we took another disorienting jump, we found ourselves on course for what looked like a massive beige marble.
Several people looked to Infinite, like she had made a mistake.
“Almanac,” Dragoon asked, getting ahead of people, “You know where we are?”
The acne-ridden Adapted shook his head, “Uncharted planet. I don’t really have a great description for it. Far as I can tell, it doesn’t belong to the Trillodan. I tried searching for Trillodan colonies and this place didn’t come to mind.”
While not entirely reassuring, at least we weren’t going into hostile territory.
“I can get us to the ground,” Infinite volunteered.
“No. Guardian, work with Powerhouse and shield the ship as we go through the atmosphere. Interface, take over and pilot us for landing. Infinite told you where to go?”
“She gave me a set of coordinates. The ship has navigation tools that will do the rest for me.”
“Make it happen,” Dragoon said with a nod.
The androgyne Adapted saluted and took a seat, leaning forward as their body went limp so Interface could literally inhabit the ship’s controls.
“I recommend that everyone else batten down the hatches and get ready for a fun landing,” Dragoon said. That was enough prompt to get people to file out and scramble to their rooms, strapping themselves down so we weren’t pitched around the metal cabin.
We’re going to meet whoever was responsible for us.
It was a thrilling and terrifying prospect to entertain. Both Eldritch and I had spent a lot of time over the last month wondering what sort of person made us, and how exactly we came to be. Even though Eldritch was a cognizant Adaptation, it wasn’t any more informed about it’s creation than I was.
“Some people have already met them, at least a little. Something about a weird spider-humanoid thing in dreams. Plenty of people have had them.”
But not us.
“We can’t always be the special one,” I pointed out. “Besides, Titan hasn’t met this person either. We’re hardly being singled out.”
Other people haven’t eaten a militia.
“Others have definitely killed Adapted or innocent people. Very few people on this ship are blameless.”
I ratcheted straps across my chest and hips and cupped my head with a pillow as the ship started to shake.
Here’s hoping that Guardian and Powerhouse can keep us alive.
“Guardian has made force fields that dealt with Trillodan artillery,” I shouted over the roar of the ship barreling through the planet’s atmosphere. “He’ll be fine!”
The ship continued to shudder for a small eternity until quickly replaced with an unsettling sense of free-fall. My stomach settled back to its regular place as the engines kicked on and Interface started chugging through fuel. This ship was still like the hippo of the skies; fighting gravity was not its strong suit.
I really hoped Interface could keep us from crash landing and doing the Trillodan’s job for them.
It might not have been particularly smooth, but we did come to a stop and the ship didn’t explode. I decided that was probably as good as we could have asked. No sooner had we stopped than an intercom chimed to life.
“Ladies and gentlemen and anything in between, we have now safely arrived on planet I-have-no-clue! I hope you have enjoyed riding with Adapted Skylines. I’m your pilot, Interface, and I hope you choose to fly with us again soon.” Interface stopped, probably to snicker to themselves before continuing. “We’re going to have an expedition party. So, would the following Adapted please come and meet our fearless leader in the galley: Parasite, Shockwave, Beleth, Hydra, Overwhelm, Titan and Eldritch. Everyone else, get comfortable for a bit until we have the all clear. Those of you responsible for refueling this metal monster, get to work! Thank you, and have a nice day!”
I was a bit surprised to hear my name called out, but Dragoon had ensured I kept Eldritch fed and ready in case of emergency.
You idiot. She wants her friends to be with her along the way. You have all been there since the start, she wants to see it through with you.
“You shouldn’t have more common sense than I do,” I grumbled as I removed the straps and stretched, stepping awkwardly to the door and out into the hallway. Other Adapted had pulled themselves free and were talking in hushed whispers with one another. I felt a few people glare at me as I walked by; I didn’t like being singled out, but I hadn’t tried to convince Dragoon to bring me with.
I was the last one to the galley, though one more person had tagged along: Infinite.
“I want her to stay with the ship, Titan,” Dragoon insisted. “I want her to ensure that this place is unassailable.”
Titan folded his arms, glaring back at my friend. “She’s coming with. She is the one who found this place, she’s the one who heard our maker calling. She deserves to meet them.”
Hydra, a Vuuldar native, rolled her eyes. “How about we ask Infinite herself. How about the two of you stop talking for her.” Both Dragoon and Titan nodded in deference to Hydra. If Titan was the paragon for all Adapted from Tso’got, Hydra was Vuuldar’s equivalent. Her gift made her capable of mimicking and distorting organisms she had seen. Hydra could turn herself into a giant insect with four sets of arms or a dog that could breathe fire; her options were almost limitless but every form came with an incredible regenerative property. Even the ever arrogant Adamant admitted he wasn’t sure if he could beat her.
Infinite put a hand on Titan’s shoulder, “I want to come with. I can practically feel that voice calling out to me, guiding me. I want to meet them.”
Dragoon frowned, “We’re not even completely sure we’re going to meet-”
“We will,” Infinite replied.
“Fine,” my red-headed friend finally ceded. “You can come with. We should have enough power back here to stop anything too drastic from happening.”
I glanced around at our little expedition party, knowing that we had enough destructive capacity between us to level a city. Dragoon had talked about our maker as a nice person or at least as someone who wasn’t threatening to us; did we need all this power to say hi?
We trekked down to the ramp that would lead us out. The airlock opened and the nine of us stepped out onto a sandy plain. There were rocky outcroppings with the occasional tree scattered around here or there, but the landscape was otherwise desolate.
“This is where the people who made us are hiding?” Parasite asked.
“Beleth, start looking,” Dragoon insisted.
The bald man nodded and dug his feet into the sand, closing his eyes to enhance the sense given to him by his Adaptation.
Infinite pointed towards an outcropping in the distance. “It’s there. There’s a cave back there with our maker hiding in it.”
Beleth’s eyes popped open as he glanced at Infinite, a little dubious. “If we get closer, I can confirm.”
“For what it’s worth,” Overwhelm said, “I trust her.”
Without any debate, we all hurried and marched across the sand, eager to get out of the blazing sun. Going from a controlled environment to a scorching desert was definitely something none of us cared for. As we got closer, Beleth corroborated Infinite’s finding; there was a whole cave network under our feet, one big enough to house dozens of people. It was large enough to extend beyond the reaches of his extra sense.
Nearly hidden among the outcropping was a metal plate door; crude but definitely effective at keeping any kind of wildlife out.
As we approached, it opened for us.
“Anyone else find that ominous?” Parasite asked.
Titan grit his teeth and led the way, his purposeful gait practically dragging us all with him.
Immediately inside was a landing that had a wide set of stairs at the end; all of us went down, wordless but on guard. The floor below was lined with tubes that had bioluminescent bugs running around, casting the whole hallway in a soft glow. A few wires were run along the floor which made me wonder how someone was powering anything here.
“Beleth,” Dragoon prompted.
“Not much going on down here,” he said, feeling for any kind of vibration through the ground. “Besides us, I felt one source of movement down to the ri-” he stopped, turning his head, “It’s coming to us.”
All of us turned, staring down the cave as a figure stepped forward. I had to fight recoiling as I saw a ghastly and gaunt humanoid walk forward. Their eyes were massive black orbs which contrasted with their pale skin. While the upper half looked human, the bottom half was a flesh colored spider abdomen that shifted to the side as they drew closer.
Half of us were surprised, but half recognized the figure.
“You?” I spit out, “You’re the thing that made us?”
The figure smiled softly, “You have a number of questions and I have answers. Come.”
“Everyone will want to hear-”
“I’m borrowing Interface,” they replied. “Your friend is doing me a service and will be broadcasting our conversation on the ship’s intercom. They will all hear.”
Infinite winced at the figure mentioning ‘borrowing’ someone else.
“You shouldn’t be using people like that,” Dragoon growled, stepping forward and putting her foot down. “Even if you made us, you aren’t entitled to simply use us as the situation requires it.”
The figure sighed, “Ordinarily, Dragoon, I would agree with you, and your outrage is not misplaced. Unfortunately, I fear that time is going to be of the essence.”
“So we go to the ship and leave. We have this conversation in space,” Shockwave said, taking the common-sense approach.
“Most of our fuel was stashed in Collector’s storage,” Dragoon muttered. “We have to give Chemtrail and the others a chance to get fueled up before we can consider taking off again. We’re likely going to be here for an hour at least.”
Our unnamed maker started walking backwards, leading us with a wave, “Please, we can at least sit somewhere more comfortable while we talk. I also get the impression that you wouldn’t mind a few minutes off that vessel.”
No one raised a voice in protest. Titan followed them and we all fell in line.
We followed them down a side tunnel and through an arch that opened up into a spacious cavern that was brimming with broken technology. Shattered glass was scattered around the floor, massive cryo tubes were fractured, computers smashed to bits, and equipment I didn’t recognize had been melted down. The only clear spot in the whole room was one table that had been neatly set with ten places and ten cups of what looked like tea.
Tentatively, we all took a seat.
“I’ll ask the obvious question,” Beleth led, “Who the fuck are you?”
“Also, what are you?” Shockwave added.
“My name is Skaberen,” he said gently, “And I am one of the last Goln.”
“One of the last? What happened to the rest?” I asked.
Skaberen donned a sorrowful smile, “My species was the first to suffer at the hands of the Trillodan. We were the very first ones to be persecuted near extinction.”
“The first?” Dragoon said, “That would make you ancient.”
Skaberen nodded, “That’s because I am. By your estimates, I would be about sixteen-hundred years old.”
All of us stopped, unsure of how to exactly interpret that information. “But…how?” Infinite said.
“The same way that the Trillodan are living to be so old: we have learned to manipulate biology to the extreme. The Goln learned how to perfectly regenerate and repair telomeres in the cell to prevent aging. Well,” Skaberen smiled to himself, like he’d been reminded of a joke, “I’m simplifying things, but that’s the gist of it.”
“Why did you call us here?” Titan demanded, pulling the conversation back on track.
Skaberen’s smile fell, “I have been watching you all for a long time now. I had hoped that the Trillodan wouldn’t intervene as early as they did, but fortunately you thought ahead, Titan. However, you were never going to win a war game with Zellig and it has created some…complications. Vaneel is dangerously close to unlocking the secret of the Adapted; he’s even managed to produce a few promising results.”
It was like the air had been sucked out of the room. Our most valuable life-line was our importance to the Trillodan. We were only still breathing because we were valuable to them. If we became superfluous, we became vulnerable.
“Why not tell us in another dream?” Dragoon demanded, “Why divert us?”
“And sow seeds of superstition among everyone? Cause everyone panic while you are all trapped in a metal box? You think Zeal would be the only casualty?”
Parasite raised his hand, “How the fuck do you know all this? In fact, what the fuck is all this?” he demanded, gesturing to the demolished lab behind Skaberen. “Where is everyone else who had to have lived here?”
Skaberen raised his hand to stifle Parasite’s barrage of questions. “When the Trillodan destroyed our colonies, a few of us managed to escape and hide. We ended up waiting out the worst of things in cryostasis. Later, my colleagues and I found this unsettled planet, one that was survivable albeit relatively void. A new beginning that was a hollow echo of the great society we used to have.” He let out a slow exhale, “This facility was our new research and development that had one goal; we had to stop the Trillodan. The problem was how far back we were set. Even though me and my colleagues had incredible longevity, we were struggling to reclaim the basics. We had to steal and slowly rebuild our technology, all while remaining invisible.”
Hydra frowned, “The Trillodan seldom follow up hunting the species that they enact Protocol 37 on. They aren’t hunting humans, just us. Why did you have to stay hidden?”
“Back then, the Immortal Matron wasn’t in charge. Back then, the Trillodan were headed by a man known as Kardan the King. For a long time, the Goln and the Trillodan were sister species, two of the first species to overcome the series of great filters that plagues all sentient species. When we found one another, we fed off of each others development. The Trillodan had unparalleled technological prowess while our research was more aimed at biology and the study of life itself.”
“You helped each other,” I said, mystified. “But, they’re tyrants.”
“Back then, they were just another race, struggling to advance. Our integration with one another led to an explosion of development that has yet to be paralleled. The problem was that with the ramp of industry means the potential escalation of destruction. Kardan feared that the Goln would turn on the Trillodan; to avoid any potential conflict, he struck first and wiped out the six planets we had colonized. Fourteen billion dead, in a matter of hours.”
Skaberen drew his lips together in a forced smile, “Kardan’s assault on their greatest ally caused a rift within the Trillodan people. Half believed that he was right, that there could be only one supreme power. The other half believed that we were supposed to live together, working in harmony forever. That we were to be-”
“Immortal,” Titan extrapolated. “The Immortal Matron took over in his place, didn’t she?”
“Yes. She did.”
“But, isn’t she just doing exactly what that lunatic was doing before her?” Shockwave asked. “She’s still exterminating races left and right.”
Skaberen frowned, “I can’t pretend to understand all of what is going on inside my old friend’s head. However, I know that Iilena Lamak sees her doing as a form of altruism and balancing for the universe, to prevent anyone from being perfectly oppressive.”
“Wait, old friend?” Parasite said, shocked, “You know the Immortal Matron?”
“Yes. Well, I did know her. But that was…a long time ago.”
Beleth leaned forward, “So, what the fuck did you do to us?”
“To you, specifically, nothing. To your parents, we introduced an experimental micro-organism we named Kelotan.”
“Our…parents?” Dragoon asked, perplexed.
“When we discovered that Earth was slated to be subject to the Protocol 37, we distributed an aerosol with Kelotan distributed within. Our hopes were that it would ingratiate itself with the host’s cells, becoming another power supplier like mitochondria. Our hope was to observe the survivors in exile to see what had become of our experiment. Initially, we had assumed our work a failure. All your parents were…normal.”
“But we weren’t,” I said, realizing how incredibly obvious that was. “How the hell did a microorganism make us…Adapted?”
“Our initial goal was to create a quantum link with the Kelotan. They were supposed to be conduits for energy, to provide limitless energy for their host. It was supposed to make any species hyper-efficient and capable of profound accomplishment. They would have a robust immune system, have no need for rest, be able to endure stress, etc. What happened, however, was that the Kelotan ingratiated itself perfectly with the cells of the offspring and then lay dormant. With the Adapted, the Kelotan were effectively shaken to action. It’s quantum link, instead of granting energy on a cellular scale, became the ability to manipulate the elements on a macro scale.” Skaberen paused, “Essentially, each one of you is tied to another reality. Whenever you use your Adaptation, you are exhausting resources from that reality.”
“But…how?” Beleth asked.
Our maker grinned, “It took us centuries of work to create the Kelotan and another century to create a version that would self-propagate. And, while I may not be the smartest man alive, I like to think that my colleagues and I were at least some of the brightest of our species.”
“We were experiments,” Parasite said, his voice hollow. I turned and saw his face crestfallen. “You…used us. You used humanity, unwittingly! You tested on a race of unaware people. You abused your scientific prowess and quietly used a whole population.” Parasite clenched his fingers, his arm shaking. “You’re no fucking better than them. At least the Trillodan have the decency to be outspoken.”
Of all of us in the room, Parasite had been the only one to experience being tested on by the Trillodan. I had been tortured by human scientists back on Tso’got, but it was nothing like what he’d endured.
“Don’t you have an answer for yourself,” Dragoon demanded, putting an arm around our friend.
Skaberen let out a long exhale, finally looking Parasite square in the face. “We did. And nothing can undo our methods. Nothing can undo our lack of morality. Nothing I can do will atone for our deplorable actions. We were so tired of watching years spin by with limited results that for us, ends would always justify the means. It may be a hollow apology, but I am sorry.”
“Were you always going to have us throw ourselves at the Trillodan?” Titan demanded. “Were you going to always draw us together and have us fight your war for you?”
“Our war?” Skaberen said, sounding affronted. “Last I looked, Titan, your home is in shambles too. Last I looked, many homes are barren wastes, monuments to what the Trillodan perceive as ‘order.’ We might have been the first, but we are hardly the only ones who have suffered at the hands of the Trillodan.” The Goln took a breath and wrung their hands, “But, no. Ideally the Kelotan wouldn’t have made such drastic alterations to your physiology. Ideally, we could have observed how it impacted humans and had a more refined product before deliberately introducing it to a race and groom them for a fight.”
“So we are…accidents then?” Hydra demanded.
“In a sense, yes. You were more than we could have possibly dreamed,” Skaberen replied.
“Why did you call us here,” Dragoon asked again.
“I don’t believe your next stop should be Marn,” Skaberen said bluntly. “I believe that you will face an even greater defeat there than you did on Vuuldar. The Matron’s champion will now be using his own, monstrous, Adapted to fight you. If you thought his elite were bad before, they are only going to get worse. And the longer you keep engaging with Zellig, the worse each outcome will be. There is a reason the Matron has unofficially made him her champion. He is a product of near perfect engineering and unparalleled dedication. He is as determined to defend his empire and preserve it as you all are to destroying it.”
“You think we should just, battle charge the Trillodan home world?” Dragoon asked. “Shouldn’t we have more time before Vaneel can master the thing that took you centuries to create?”
“Most of our time was spent creating a quantum-entangled organism that would self-propagate. By obtaining and isolating the Kelotan, Vaneel already has the majority of our work at his fingertips. He’s now just expanding upon it.”
“But there is strength in numbers,” I said. “Even though Vuuldar wasn’t…ideal, we still ended up with more people onboard for our cause. The last thing we want to do is attack the Trillodan short-handed.”
“And you must remember, the moment they don’t need more samples to fuel Vaneel’s research, you are all expendable. They can make a targeted plague to kill you. They can flatten all of Marn to ensure there is no more Adapted resistance. These are not mindless sociopaths, the Trillodan are run by the most dangerous monarch ever. And the Immortal Matron is beset with a righteous fervor that will mean there is no reconsidering or remorse. She will act with the intent of preserving both her people and ending the threat you pose to the rest of the universe. You must-”
“No,” Dragoon said, slamming her hand down. “No. You do not control us.”
“You might have made us, you might be able to hijack our nervous system, but we do not answer to you. You will not deprive us of our agency. We have a plan to go to Marn, we have a plan to bring all of the Adapted together to siege the Trillodan homeworld. It may be ill-advised, but is it our plan.”
Skaberen opened their mouth to answer but then thought better of challenging her. “I understand.”
There was a tense silence that fell over the room. No one wanted to be the first to speak up, to lift the weight Dragoon had placed. However, there was one outspoken visitor who still had questions and cared little about the tense silence.
I want to know how we met. I want to know what I am. Ask Skaberen before someone demands we leave.
“How did we find each other?” I finally asked, my voice barely a whisper.
“Because I went looking for-” Titan started.
“No,” I said, “I mean, way before. Most Reckoner groups on Tso’got were friends banding together. Most Scoundrels were grouped up before they Adapted. How? That seems…impossible. How could we have all met by accident?”
“You didn’t,” Skaberen answered. “The Kelotan lay dormant in most, but its activation had multiple stages. The first threshold would generally show up by the time you were six or seven. And, at least in humans, the biggest indicator was stress. Most of you dealt with chronic stress.” He glanced between myself and Dragoon, “Something like fear of your parents. Or maybe their absence. For others,” he said turning to Beleth, “Poverty and constant misery pushed you.”
All of us shifted, feeling unnaturally exposed.
“You were all causing some start with the Kelotan, giving it some kind of agitation and reason to wake up. My theory is that the Kelotan is so meshed with the host that it amplifies basal truths. You are all humans, and humans have lived for ages in social groups. It would make sense that the Kelotan called for like-minded souls to form some kind of community.”
I glanced between Parasite and Dragoon, all of us unsure of how to feel that our friendship had been prompted by some alien organism that had infiltrated our body.
“So the way it manifests?” Infinite asked. “Is that tied to the host as well?”
Skaberen tapped his fingers together, “I believe that the expression of the Kelotan is more nuanced and much more imprinted. In most circumstances, I believe that it takes on an expression of what is most needed in that moment. It supplies a demand. Eldritch, you needed to become the monster to survive. Dragoon, you wanted to know how to solve the problem. Parasite, you needed a helping hand. Overwhelm, you wanted to reach a little further. Hydra, you wanted to be anything else. Beleth, you vowed to move the world. Shockwave, you wanted to fire back. Titan wanted to see it all burn. And Infinite, you were willing to do anything for the power to fight.”
All of us were aghast, our privacy violated. The nature of our power was so tied with our being, our core person, that it felt wrong for someone to point it out.
“You’ve gone too far,” Shockwave said, sounding uncharacteristically somber. “You shouldn’t be in our heads like that. We might be an experiment, but we’re still fucking people too. We are entitled to some privacy.”
Skaberen nodded, solemn, “We have been watching you all with rapt interest for the last fifteen years. Our desperation and impatience for results has made our methods-”
“Unethical?” Parasite interjected.
The Goln winced but didn’t deny the allegation. “All we can do now is move forward. I know that I will be called upon for my crimes against you all, and I will answer that when the time is right.”
“That could be now,” Beleth said. “All we have to do is think and we can kill you.”
Skaberen raised a hand, smiling softly, “I have no doubt. But, I do have something else I would like to offer. Something I couldn’t deliver in a dream. Something of substance to help you in your war.”
“What could you offer us besides these weird gifts you thrust upon us?” Dragoon demanded.
“Information about the Trillodan capital. I know where Vaneel’s research is happening, where their garrison installations are, and where the new surge of Adapted are being produced. Whenever you decide to attack Xalanni, it will all be useful to know.” Skaberen walked over to a counter covered in shattered glass and grabbed a small metal sphere, handing it off the Dragoon with a nod. “My people have spent so long watching, I think someone should finally do something with all of our surveillance.”
As Dragoon took the orb, the soft blue glow of the cave changed to an alarming red.
“What the fuck?”
Skaberen’s sad smile fell. “The reason that all my colleagues ran and we destroyed this laboratory is because we had this suspicion. We were worried that the Trillodan would follow you here, that they would find you steered close enough to a planet to trigger a proximity alert.”
Dragoon gritted her teeth, “Skaberen, come with us. We’re all leaving. You have way too many questions to answer.”
“I believe that this-”
Dragoon glared daggers at him, “You dragged us here and have hijacked our bodies on multiple occasions now. For better or worse, you’re involved. You are part of this now.”
The Goln finally nodded, “Very well, Dragoon.”
We all hurried for the exit as quick as possible, pausing only for a moment as Skaberen grabbed a lever that had been hidden amongst the rock. He took a deep breath and pulled it; below us the ground shook as dozens of explosions went off, ensuring that nothing survived for the Trillodan to recover.
Skaberen’s home for centuries was gone.
Like us, he was now adrift, on the run from the Trillodan once more.