Interlude: Ambush

Of course they had found us.  

They were the Trillodan.  They were aliens responsible for somehow monitoring hundreds, if not thousands, of species among the stars.  Of course they would find us once we landed somewhere.

We hurried back to the ship, people already in a panic.  Thanks to Skaberen’s use of Interface to broadcast our conversation, everyone at least knew that the Trillodan were somewhere in orbit above us, undoubtedly preparing to come down and lay waste.  I was half expecting to be cut off before we could rejoin the other Adapted; nothing gated our advance. 

“Titan,” Dragoon said as we arrived back at the ship, “If anything happens, I want you to be the one to fight.  I don’t want Infinite using her power.  If we need to blink away, she’s the only one who can get us clear.”

“And having her cycle gifts gets dangerous when she’s using that many powers,” I said.  “If it comes down to it, I’ll deal with it.”

Dragoon gave me a nervous look but I didn’t dwell on it.  Anyone under this kind of mental strain was bound to have some slips.  I ran a hand through my hair, wishing there was more I could do to help.  I would be lying saying that I didn’t miss the control.  People would still listen if I made a demand, but that would be beyond my station at this point.  Instead of loitering, I opted to quickly check in on one of my favorite and most loyal family members.  

They could definitely use a friendly face since our maker had hijacked their nervous system.  

Interface was where we had left them, still sitting on the flight deck.  Instead of being limp, they had pulled their knees in close, like they were chilled to the bone.  

“Interface,” I said, kneeling beside them.  

“Who, the fuck, did that to me?” 

“I did,” a gentle voice called from behind us.  I was surprised how quietly Skaberen could move around on his pointed legs; there was hardly any sound as they moved close and hovered near Interface.  “For what little it is worth, I am so very sorry that I did that.”

“You fucking should be,” Interface snapped.  

Skaberen nodded, wringing their hands.  “It was never my intent to be so harsh or mistreat you all so horribly.  I suppose that being alive so long has made me rather…daft in some ways,” they admitted.  “Being so old, so many things seem trifling to me that are so appalling to you.”

I almost opened my mouth to chastise him for being condescending, but Skaberen wasn’t being facetious.  Their perception had been warped by centuries of survival and planning.  They had spent lifetimes working for this one moment, this one chain of events.  Thinking about an individual’s privacy would be dwarfed by such a grand design. 

“How did you even do that?” Interface asked.  

Skaberen shook their head, “Can’t tell you.  If either of you were taken, the Trillodan would learn my trade secrets.  Things are already going to be rough enough for you in the future as it is.  We best not give them another advantage.” 

“You think there is going to be a future for us?” I asked, dubious.  “If Vaneel is getting close to mastering the potential of the Kelotan, what is stopping Zellig from turning this ship to dust?” 

“Living so long encourages a number of bad habits, and one of which is a predilection for being slow and agonizingly thorough.  While Vaneel might be able to complete his research without more samples, there is a chance that capturing additional people might yield new data, unlock new possibilities.  Zellig is going to want to secure as much as possible before he finally deems you expendable.  The Adapted are something that is unfound in nature and it makes you inherently valuable because you promise benefit for centuries to them.”

“Thank the Lord that he’s thorough,” Interface mumbled, not exactly elated by that revelation.

“If they live so long, why aren’t there more of them?” I said.  “If you gave the Trillodan the ability to live for such absurd durations, why aren’t they overpopulated?” 

Skaberen shifted his legs awkwardly, like he was regretting the next words he had to say.  “As I mentioned, the Trillodan were masters of machinery.  As a species, they relied on tools to survive.  They created mechanical solutions.  If you look at the vast majority of their weaponry, you see that kind of emphasis reflected.  Their default is to wear power armor, to manufacture massive explosions, to blast things with lasers, etc.”

“The Goln instead focused on biology, and you all invented biological weapons,” I surmised. 

“You can still see some of our influence on their technology,” Skaberen said, “One of Zellig’s lieutents, Omec, has a proficiency for biological weapons.  Most of what she has thrown your way comes from our school of thought.”

“Wonderful,” I said, “But that doesn’t explain why there are so few of them.”

Skaberen donned that sad smile again, “One of our most insidious concepts was a toxin known as the ‘Legacy-Ender’.  It was strictly a Goln thought experiment, a purely theoretical weapon that would cause malformations in gamete cells.  The idea was that you could set a whole species up for extinction and they would never even know they had been poisoned.  We had invented functional immortality, we were willing to be patient.” 

“Well,” Interface said, their face pale, “That’s fucking horrifying.”

Skaberen didn’t disagree.  “Like I said, it was limited to a concept.  A theoretical weapon that we struck down and vowed never to make.  When Kardan the King annihilated the Goln, the fractured Trillodan society was incensed.  The ‘Immortals’ thought it would almost be poetic to use Goln weaponry to undo Kardan and put one of their own in charge.  What they didn’t foresee was how ferociously the toxin could spread and how long standing the effects could be.  Even though they gassed Kardan and his cabinet, they assumed that it would disperse and be harmless.  Instead, they poisoned the entire capital of Xalanni, the most population dense area for the Trillodan.”  

“Why haven’t they been able to undo the damage?”

“It was never tested which meant that no one knew how long it would last, or knew that it would persist in the body indefinitely.  No one could have expected that the damage offspring could carry traces of the toxin with them.  Finding completely untainted Trillodan is nearly impossible now,” Skaberen explained, “And without our knowledge of biology, Trillodan science isn’t managing to solve the problem fast enough.”

“Why not grow Trillodan in test tubes?” Interface asked. 

“Culture,” the Goln explained.  “Trillodan are too damn proud to allow themselves to be vat born.  That’s another issue with living too long: you end up far too attached to the way things used to be.  Their longevity is ultimately hampering the Trillodan.  One of their few true pioneers is Vaneel; the Matron is smart to use him so aggressively because she knows Vaneel will get results no one else can.” 

“And Zellig is fiercely loyal, willing to commit atrocities in the name of the Matron without blinking an eye,” I said.  “Wonderful pair she has working for her.”

“How come there isn’t anyone else like you guys?” Interface asked.  “How come there aren’t other super-societies that have the power to destroy planets?  Why just two?”  

Skaberen shrugged, “One of the first great filters that sentient life needs to overcome is their own destructive nature.  Technology and culture clash, and once you have the ability to annihilate immense swaths of land, things get tenuous.  The Trillodan and Goln found numerous ruined civilizations that failed to pass this filter.  There may be other civilizations who were as advanced, but we never found them.” 

“And now, thanks to the Matron, there won’t be more.”

“Unfortunately,” Skaberen agreed.

I tapped my foot, impatient.  I hated this inaction, and the longer we sat there, the less and less it made sense.  “Why would the Trillodan approach if they weren’t going to do anything?” I thought aloud.  “They can see us, and they must have noticed the mad scramble we are now engaged in.  Surely Zellig would recognize the telltale signs of an evacuation.” 

“He would,” Skaberen confirmed.  “The Matron’s champion is no fool.”   

“So, why aren’t they stopping us?  Violence is Zellig’s hallmark and he has the perfect option to rain death down on us.  He could warp a battalion in for crying out loud.  We’ve seen his elite use those displacement charges; I have to think he should be able to rapidly get people down to the surface.”

Interface’s eyes widened.  “Violence is Zellig’s hallmark, but not lack of restraint.  He gave us back Parasite just to deliver a toxin to kill Bargain.  He wouldn’t risk a full out assault on us because Infinite is here and stable.”

“You think he’s going to gas us?” 

Interface shook their head, “No, there’s enough of us who can cope with gas.  But, one of Zellig’s elite is a guy who specializes in stealth.”

“And people are running around in a frenzy; he could sneak on board.  If he takes out Almanac we’re flying blind.  You and Skaberen stay here,” I ordered, running at the door, “Let everyone know!” 

I thundered down the hallway, racing to where I knew Almanac was holed up.  The only upside was that he was prone to isolate; no one was likely to have gone in or out since we landed.  Overhead, the speakers quickly explained that we could have someone onboard and to take shelter in their rooms and lock the doors.  A few people tried to get my attention as I sprinted down the corridors, but I was too focused.  

We needed three people on board to survive.  Only Infinite was able to get us through space.  Only Interface could be trusted to pilot this mess of a ship.  And only Almanac could find a planet that was prone to moving.  

I wasn’t entirely sure how the Trillodan planet Xalanni was able to move, but it wasn’t stationary.  Everything fell apart without him to get us there.  Even though Skaberen had spied on them, I doubted he knew exactly where his old friend had taken her home.  I skidded to a stop in front of his room and hammered on the door.  

“Almanac, don’t open the door!” I bellowed, “I just need you to talk to me.”

I felt a slight vibration as he tapped the door, “ What’s going on?  Are they really onboard?” 

A relieved sigh escaped my lips when he replied.  “We think so, but I don’t think they can phase through walls.  Have you opened the door since we landed?” 

“Just once, but not since we heard about the Trillodan appearing.”  

I looked up and down the hallway, unsure of what I was looking for.  Would there even be anything to tip me off?  Would I get any kind of forewarning from my danger sense if the threat wasn’t directed at me?  I could use my gift and flood the hallway with molten silicon but God only knew what kind of collateral damage I would cause.  

“Almanac, you do not open the door for anyone until we are off this planet.  Am I clear?” 

“Crystal!” 

With Almanac secure, I did my best to think three steps ahead, to think who else Zellig would target.  Even if Almanac was the primary target, he wouldn’t send his operative onboard with only one goal.  He’d give him a list of high priority targets.

I could cross myself off that one.  Danger sense made me too hard to assassinate in confined spaces like this.  Infinite was also a dangerous option: at best she grabbed a power set to regenerate and then hunted the operative down but at worst she destroyed all of the Trillodan samples by smothering the ship.  For a moment I wondered about Dragoon; she didn’t have a finished set of power armor but Zellig wouldn’t know that she was the new captain.  She would be safe for now.  

Organelle was a prime candidate.  Our resident medic had pulled a number of people back from death’s door and allowed us to keep fighting after we were bloodied and bruised.  Distortion would be a prime candidate to hamper our mobility, and same for Relay.  For all I knew, Zellig might send his assassin after various group leaders to try and sow discord.  

I needed someone smarter than me to help me figure this out.  

Down four doors, I slammed my knuckles against the wall.  “Pic,” I shouted, “Don’t open it, but I need your insight.”

“You want to know who an assassin would be targeting,” the Cognate called, already three steps ahead of me.

I bit the inside of my cheek to stifle a smart ass response.  “Yes.  Exclude Almanac.  He’s in his room with the door locked tight.  My next guess was Organelle and Distortion.”

“Organelle is safe.  If the Trillodan are indeed on the decline, they will want her gift to regenerate.  They wouldn’t kill her.”

“Would they attempt capture?” 

There was a pause, “I don’t think so.  Organelle is insurance that we can keep more samples alive for them to harvest later.  If we operate under the assumption that Zellig believes he is bound to win, why not ensure that as many of us live as he can?” 

His line of cold logic sent a chill down my spine but I didn’t have time to fret.  “Distortion?” 

“Possibly, but I think you are playing too narrow and too far ahead in some ways.  You’re thinking of us on Marn, but I don’t think Zellig wants to let us get there.”

I shook my head, “Infinite is a dangerous gamble on his part.  If he sent her into a rage, there’s a chance she kills all his sample or tries to direct a dozen powers at the Crimson City above us.  If she really let loose, she could turn it to dust.”

“But who enables Infinite to regularly abuse power sets?  Who ensures that she doesn’t fly off the handle at a moment’s notice?” 

My eyes widened, “Command.” 

I bolted again, nearly sliding around a corner as I thundered towards his room.  While not one of the most powerful Adapted, he played a pivotal role in enabling Infinite to swap her power sets more often and more safely.  He was the only one who could outright undo her frenzied states where she smothered everything.  And, due to his power being mental manipulation, it wasn’t going to be something the Trillodan needed.  

He was expendable.  

I roared at anyone in my way as I sprinted down the hallway, skidding to a halt in front of his door.  “Command!” I shouted, slamming my hand against the door.  

No response. Even after I hammered my fist against the door a few more times.    

“Fuck it,” I growled, raising a hand and grabbing a few of the invisible threads that triggered my power.  The air erupted with energy and a small column of molten silicon melted through the door; as soon as I could climb through, I cooled the silicon and prevented it from boring through the floor.  “Command-”  My words were strangled as I saw a lifeless body in the corner of the room, his throat cut.  His clothing was coated in blood, and some was still lazily oozing from his neck.  

It was a kick in the stomach seeing a member of my family dead.  He had trusted me, he had signed on early into my crusade because he believed he could help us defeat the Trillodan and I had let him die.  

Setting my jaw, I stared at the blood slowly seeping from his neck.  Zellig’s assassin had been here recently.  This unseen agent was aiming to impose limitations on Infinite, to make her unstable. Zellig was going to force us to be reliant on Infinite and endanger ourselves.  If she was too tapped, we wouldn’t be able to run.  

“Who do we have that is one of a kind?” I mumbled, climbing back out into the hallway, “Who would Zellig force her to mimic?” 

It wouldn’t be something destructive.  He couldn’t risk that kind of unbridled power pointing the wrong way.  It wouldn’t be some kind of Enhancer power; too many people could mutate into something.  Organelle was unique, but I trusted Big Picture’s judgment.  Infinite’s only limitation was an inability to mimic Cognates.  She couldn’t be Dragoon.  She couldn’t be Toolkit or Chemtrail.  

“Projector then,” I said, praying I wasn’t wrong.  “Who is a defensive Projector?”  I blinked twice, “Guardian.”

I took off but Guardian was across the whole ship.  Even if Command had died just a minute ago, that was a tremendous head start.  

“Emergency situations, Infinite always puts on heightened senses first,” I realized.  I took a deep breath and yelled as loud as possible.  “Infinite!  Get to Guardian!  Protect him!” 

With my message relayed, I charged.  Even if she could protect him, I wanted to at least be in the right vicinity to try and catch this bastard.  We couldn’t let him continue to run amok.  Though, as soon as Infinite was involved, I felt some pity for the poor operative.  There was no escaping her.  

“Titan,” a stern voice snapped.  Dragoon’s voice managed to stop my charge. 

She sounded uncharacteristically frazzled.  If there was one thing consistent about her it was that she was level headed.  

In all my charging around the ship, I had managed to come back to the flight deck, our one spot for looking out of this steel deathtrap.  “Wha-”

She didn’t need to answer because I could see the answer through the display.  Zellig was standing outside, waiting patiently.  “Interface told me about our assassin situation,” Dragoon said, cutting straight to the point.

“Infinite should be handling that.  What do we want to do about him?” 

Dragoon shook her head, “I…I’m not sure.  He’s crazy, but he’s not stupid.  If this is a power move, what is he trying to prove? How many of us he can fight?”

Skaberen was still idling in the flight deck, still waiting with Interface and he seemed just as perplexed as the rest of us.  “I have never been one for war and for combat.  I was a scientist.  Zellig has turned war into more than just brutal math, he has turned it into an art form.  I don’t know what he aims to gain from this, but he’s not an idiot.  He’s not bold enough to simply launch himself into an unwinnable confrontation.” 

“The hell he isn’t,” I said.  “Dragoon, send me out.  I either force him to flee or I burn him to ash.”

“And if the Trillodan fire back?  Infinite doesn’t have Command to be a safety net.”

I turned to Interface.  “Favor.  Get on the intercom and tell her to establish a neural link with me.  It should cost her one power but if she has to rapidly swap powers, I can talk to her,” I explained to Dragoon.  “I might not be Command, but I’m a good ballast for her mental volatility.” 

She frowned, not liking how I talked about her so objectively but she finally relented.  “Fine.  Go say hello.” 

Halfway out the ship, I felt a little ping inside my skull as Infinite reached out to me.  

You’re going after Zellig?

Of course I am.  How is Guardian doing?

Injured but alright.  The assassin came back to try and finish the job.  I grabbed an energy blade power set to fend him off.  Pretty sure I maimed him.

Well done.  Make sure Organelle sees to Guardian as soon as possible.  Be ready to swap powers soon.  I get the sense if I melt Zellig, the Trillodan won’t be happy about it.  We’ll want to get out of here quick.

You got it, Max.      

I stepped down the ramp and glared out across the sand to Zellig, still trying to figure out what exactly he had to gain from doing this.  He wasn’t going to beat me in a fight.  What was most galling was that his smug smile seemed to broaden  when he saw me.  How the hell could he be happy that I had come out to confront him?    

“What do you think is going to happen?” I called out.  “You think you can just waltz in and fight us?”  As I slowly closed the gap between us, I felt the threads lingering in the air.  All I had to do was pull them and ignite the reaction; he was just far enough away I couldn’t ignite the air around him.  I could make a and bring it crashing down around him, but he’d have enough time to use one of those distortion charges and get away.  He wasn’t moving.  It would just be a few more seconds until he was within my range.  

“Infinite found your assassin on board,” I called out, “Looks like you’re going to lose another one of your legion!”   

Zellig raised a hand and waved forward, as if telling an army to charge.  

Above you!  

That wasn’t Infinite, that was my danger sense.  My eyes involuntarily flicked up, involuntarily.  I had been given a two-second warning because I knew that he had just called a bombardment down on the ship.

This hadn’t been a ploy to get us killed or to unleash Infinite.  This hadn’t been an attempt to even cripple our ship.  Zellig had exposed himself because he knew I would take the bait.  With Guardian wounded and Infinite watching over him, no one else could save the ship from a blast of that orbital cannon.

My power was meant to be destructive, to turn the world to ash, and Zellig knew it.  And he knew I had to try and change my role.  

I grabbed every single thread I could reach and pulled.  My vision narrowed and the wind was sucked from my lungs as the space between Zellig and I was turned into a river of molten silicon.  Swinging my arm, I directed the liquid metal to raise and form a massive column between us and the impending blast from the orbital cannon.  Yanking back, the column turned into a tsunami that hovered over the ship.  

Clenching my other hand, I cooled it, leaving a metal glacier around the vessel.  

And right then,  the sky turned red as a massive laser slammed against my makeshift barrier.  It cracked and crumbled, but it managed to withstand enough of the assault that it didn’t rip the ship in half.  Even though debris rained against the ship, the work from Dragoon and Armorsmith held up.    

I sank to my hands and knees, gasping for air as the threads retreated from my grasp.  I’d done way too much, way too quickly.  But, it had kept them safe.  Overexposure was a cost I was willing to pay to ensure everyone else’s safety.  

“So noble,” a menacing voice announced.  A second later, a massive hand grabbed my shirt and hauled me up like I was weightless.  I had never been face to face with Zellig before, only having dealt with him in abstract.  

Now that I was a few centimeters from him, I understood why he scared everyone.  There was no fear in his eyes, only relentless determination.  He had put himself within arms reach but knew he was untouchable.  Zellig had been one step ahead of us, again.  

And  this time I was the cost.  

“Did you think I was going to just sit here and let you turn me to dust?” Zellig asked, sounding far too happy.  He smiled, showing off a row of razor sharp teeth, “Cut off the head, the body dies.” 

I couldn’t help but laugh in his face.  He didn’t know.  He had no idea that there had been a change of management. “Wrong head,” I wheezed.  

Zellig’s smile fell as he raised his head, glaring at the ship.  

Dragoon was standing there, glaring at the two of us as the engines started to spin up.  

“Interesting,” Zellig muttered.  “Do you really think she’s going to stand a chance?  Or, did you just set her up to fail?  Did you endanger your precious family?” he asked with a sneer. 

I forced my head to stay up so I could manage a defiant glare.  “She is going to rip you apart, with or without me.”  I smiled, “Besides, it was worth it.  Just to see this fucking look on your face.”  

He let out a chuckle.  “We’ll see ab-”

“TITAN!” 

Both Zellig and I turned just in time to see an orange blade of energy slice through the air; Zellig tried to evade but his right arm was ripped clean off his body.  Without hesitating, Zellig adjusted his grip, squeezing around my neck and lifting me high to show off exactly what he had caught.  “Infinite, be careful,” he bellowed, “You do that again, I rip his head off.” 

Infinite was halfway down the ramp, the air around her literally glowing with energy.  She had to be at least at eight powers selected, if not nine.  Dragoon was torn between trying to get close to her but terrified to do so.  I couldn’t blame her.    

Titan, I can get you away from him.

Zellig glanced to her, and then to me.  “Infinite, you move a muscle, I rip his head off,” he said.  “If you manage to pry him away from me, I will have the Crimson City fire upon this vessel without restraint.  Do you think you’ll be able to change power sets without killing everyone else here?  Do you think you’ll be able to save Titan in your rage?” 

Her lips curled like a wild animal.  “Give.  Him.  Back.” 

Zellig smiled, feeling empowered again, “I don’t think I will.”

Infinite, listen to him.  Don’t waste power getting me.  Use it to get everyone else away.

His grip around my neck tightened, “Stop talking to her.  I can feel that little frequency you two are using,” he whispered.  “Say another word, I crush that windpipe of yours.”

“Without me talking, she’s going to kill you,” I gurgled.  

Zellig’s smile broadened, “Then I die a hero, and all of you die with me.  I can think of worse things.” 

For a moment, the world seemed to stand still as energy literally kicked up sand around Infinite.  And then, Skaberen came crawling forth from the ship.   Dragoon raised a hand to try and stop him, but he politely shook his head and walked on by.  The Goln smiled and offered something to Dragoon before stepping down the ramp to Infinite, putting a hand on her shoulder and whispering.  The energy around her faded and her shoulders slumped forward, defeated.  

Whatever Skaberen had told her, it had confirmed that I would be taken.  

Zellig himself was perplexed by our newfound alien comrade, his stoic face actually betraying surprise.  

“Who are you?” he growled as Skaberen got closer.

Despite the urgency of the situation, Skaberen didn’t seem to be in any particular hurry.  He simply plodded forward, still wearing that sad smile on his face.  “Oh my,” he finally said when he was closer, “You are a truly magnificent piece of work.  I will have to ask Vaneel how exactly he managed to get so much nanite work done in such a neat package.  It’s so seamlessly integrated into your physiology.  Near perfect honestly.”

Zellig was at a loss for words.  

“Rest assured, big man,” Skaberen said politely, “I’m not here to deter you from taking Titan.  I’m coming with you to make sure he’s treated well.  Besides,” he added with a sly smirk, “I have been waiting a long  time to see my old friend.”

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