My eyes flicked open, greeted by a dark room. I sat up, lost for a moment, wary of my surroundings.
Then I remembered I was in my cramped little room aboard the Ark ship, the S.S. Madhouse as Interface and others had branded it. I took a deep breath, collecting myself and staving off the perpetual wave of anxiety that kept threatening to wash over me with the slightest provocation.
It had been three days since we had met and lost Skaberen. Three days since we had our run in with Zellig. Three days since we had seen Titan abducted.
Three days since the second member of our Prime Trio had fallen.
What made it worse was knowing that Titan being taken was the best case scenario. We managed to lose him without Infinite blowing a gasket and killing everyone. Still, it wasn’t exactly what I considered a win.
I clapped twice and the light turned on, illuminating the mess of metal and tools that my room was littered with. Building a new set of power armor was an ongoing project and had not been given the dedication required to truly see through. While I needed a new set, I needed to make sure it was something that couldn’t be immediately dismantled by Trillodan technology. To that end, I had started gleaning information from some of the Trillodan power armor.
Since Siege could replicate Tol’s power armor, I had been studying that and working to create my own version.
Every time I looked at the mound of metal, I had half a mind to ask Chemtrail for some of his stimulant but I shook off that urge. Being forced through detox was an experience I didn’t want to replicate. Besides, with Titan being taken, things had gotten tense in a big hurry. Even if he wasn’t our leader anymore, he had been a pillar of stability on the ship. To make matters worse, Command being killed meant we had lost our two people who could help handle Infinite.
I needed to keep my head clear to keep the peace.
No one was outspoken about her like Zeal had been weeks ago, but there was no shortage of dissent among the ranks. People were scared and we all knew that our clock was ticking. If the Trillodan were already starting to unlock the power of Adaptations, how long until we started fighting superpowered Trillodan? How long until they had their own version of the Prime Trio? How long until they had someone like Alamanc who could find us no matter where we went?
I groaned and rubbed my temples. Being the leader was a non-stop migraine.
Glancing at the bits of foreign technology, I felt my power stir in the back of my head. As quick as I could, I looked away. It was far too early to try and work on that mess. First thing I needed was coffee.
I was glad that Shockwave and a number of the Adapted from Vuuldar had the good sense to bring a bunch of supplies on board. Even though it was mostly stuff drowned in preservatives or dehydrated, it beat having to just eat the protein slop that Repository could conjure. Instant coffee wasn’t good, but it was at least a nice hit of caffeine. As I went to get a cup, our little galley was empty, making me wonder exactly what time it was.
Hydra had the good sense to set a clock to keep everyone on a schedule since looking out into space really screwed with your normal rhythm.
“Four in the morning,” I mumbled to myself. I had only gone to sleep three hours ago. I considered going back to my cot to try and get a little extra sleep, but there was no way I’d be able to relax enough to rest.
Too many problems, and never enough time to get to them all.
“Can’t sleep?” a gentle voice asked.
“Three hours is enough, isn’t it?”
Pacifist scoffed and took a seat beside me. “You of all people should be getting a full night’s sleep. You need to be clear headed. The rest of us are supposed to be the crazy ones.”
“How fitting coming from a Lunatic,” I noted. Pacifist was one who always perplexed me. Most of the Lunatics seemed… off. Spectre was unnaturally withdrawn. Psycho was a different personified mental illness every day. Dysfunction had been unnaturally aggressive. Bargain had been so willing to sacrifice himself. But then, there was Pacifist. While maybe a little withdrawn, she wasn’t a mess like the rest of her group.
“I’ll assume that wasn’t meant to be offensive,” she replied with a raised eyebrow.
“No. Sorry,” I said, realizing just how on edge I really was. “Shit is very trying.”
“I’m well aware.”
I was expecting more but she stopped there. “Did you have something you wanted to talk about or…?”
Pacifist sighed, “I’m never good at this sort of thing, but I wanted to address the issue you are having with Infinite.”
“The fact that she’s a ticking time bomb or the fact that everyone else is freaking out that she’s still onboard?”
“Both,” she replied. “We need a new handler for her.”
“Understatement of the month.”
“I think I can do it.”
“You do? Why? I thought all you did was stifle action and intent. You make people inert and docile.”
“That’s…mostly right. My gift, when turned up all the way, lulls people into a small coma almost. If I wanted to Overexpose a bit, I could probably keep someone from breathing.”
“Wow,” I muttered, suddenly wary of the woman beside me.
“But, I should be able to mimic Command’s influence on her, at least a tad. I’ve been thinking that Infinite loses control, and from the sounds of it, that thing that comes out is almost like another person.”
“And you think you can keep it in check,” I intuited.
I shrugged, “It’s worth a try. Even just having something theoretical to help suppress Infinite should push come to shove would alleviate a lot of concern around the ship.”
She offered a smile, “Glad to help. I’ll go talk to Infinite about it then.” Without another word, she got up and walked away from the table, her bare feet making the slightest sound as she walked away.
“At least that should help with one problem,” I muttered. Stirring a second cup of coffee, I stared into its murky depths and slowly let my power creep in, daring to think about my power armor and the adjustments needed.
Within the minute, I was interrupted by someone else taking a seat beside me.
“Is there a sign on my back saying ‘please come to me with your problems?’” I demanded as I turned to glower at Ragdoll. I regretted my snarky comment as I saw the dour look painted on his face.
“We need to talk about Parasite.”
I frowned, “Rags, I don’t want to get between you two. Relationships aren’t something-”
“No, not that,” he said quickly. “He’s slipping and I’m worried. He skipped training the other day and when I woke up this morning he was gone. He’s not talking to me, he’s barely eating, and he’s avoiding Eldritch and anyone else from your original team.”
“He was finally in a good place what would-” I cut myself off, realizing I knew exactly what would prompt him to slip back into a depressed spiral. “Zellig.”
“Even if he never said it, Parasite looked up a fair bit to Titan. Everyone did. He watched the guy who beat him nearly to death capture an idol. He won’t listen to me, Drag. I need you to help talk some sense into him, before he hurts himself.” Ragdoll was normally a proud figure. He was as fit as Murphy was, and he carried himself with a confidence I envied. But now, now he was like everyone else.
“I’ll get with Nick and do my best. But, you have to know that I’m not the best for this. I’m not an Altered,” I said honestly. “The best person to probably talk to would be Lightshow or one of the Lunatics. They get this shit in a way that I just can’t. We’re all fucked up, but not like that.”
He shook his head, “I don’t think that we should try to defeat insanity with insanity.”
“They aren’t insane,” I snapped.
He glared at me, “You talked to Psycho recently?”
I scoffed, “Psycho aside, the rest aren’t insane. Someone who has PTSD isn’t crazy, they’re afflicted. There’s a difference.” I met his glare, refusing to yield this to him. I wasn’t about to let a divide come between Altered and Adapted on my ship. Most were wary of Altered because of Infinite, but she wasn’t the only one. The other Altered didn’t deserve the undue prejudice.
Ragdoll’s gaze softened, “You’re right. I’m just… I don’t like what happened to him. I don’t like that he thinks of himself as broken. As ‘one of them.’ I don’t want Murphy to brand himself as something he isn’t.”
“For better or worse, he is one of them,” I replied bluntly. “We can’t undo an Alteration. The only person who might have known how to do that went along with Titan. All we can do is accept that fact and move on. He has to do it too.”
“And what if he doesn’t?”
“I don’t know,” I said quietly. “I’m doing my best here, Ragdoll. At a certain point, Parasite has to accept that he’s different. He has to accept that his power is different. He has to come to grips with the fact he was in a tube and couldn’t rescue his friends. There’s nothing we can do but move on. It’s a shit answer, but it’s a shit situation. No real way to sugar coat it or get around it.”
“Yeah,” he finally replied, leaning forward and putting his head in his hands. “I really like him, you know.” He gave me a weak smile, “It’s not just a fling or something situational. I really think he’s something special.”
I smiled, “Good. We should have something good come out of all this shit. Besides, Murphy deserves to be with someone who gives a shit about him. It also means that if you break his heart I sic Eldritch on you.”
Ragdoll let out a laugh, “Harsh.” He looked me up and down, noticing me now staring back into my second cup of coffee. “How are you holding up?”
“I’m holding. That’s about all I can say,” I said. “People want Infinite dead. Right now we aren’t using any kind of fast travel so we’re just kind of floating around in space. We lost our weird alien maker before he could answer all our questions. And, to top it off, I have to figure out whether or not to listen to Skaberen about going straight to Xalanni or trying to see who else we can find on Marn.”
“Maybe you need to find someone for a good fuck to get your mind off things for a few minutes,” he suggested. At first I thought he was kidding, but the bastard was actually serious.
“Thanks, but no. What will make me feel better is if I can finish my damn power armor and know I can fight when the time comes. It’s coming along, but not quick enough for my tastes.”
“Toolkit and Armorsmith helping you?”
“Toolkit has given me some places to edit and refine but I haven’t tapped Armorsmith yet. I figure I will have her buff the suit of armor once it’s actually a full suit of armor. There’s a good chance I scrap some pieces of this shit before I’m done.”
“Well, let her know,” he insisted, getting out of his chair, “I’m going to see if I can find where Parasite hid himself and try to talk some sense into him.”
“Thanks, I’m going to need it. And Dragoon, for what little it’s worth, I think you’re doing a good job with everything. Most people would have broken down already.”
As Ragdoll went away, I sighed and did my best to recline in the straight-backed chair. Despite Ragdoll’s praise, there were too many people, too many problems, and too few solutions. “What we need on this damn ship is a full time counselor,” I grumbled as I took the last drink of my coffee and stood up, stretching and cracking my neck. This room would be cleared out for training around ten, but there was nothing immediately pressing until then.
“Six hours of work time then,” I said to myself. Back in front of the heaps of metal, I closed my eyes and envisioned the suit I had drawn dozens of schematics for. On cue, my power activated, like a lightswitch being flicked on. Information streamed into my brain like water from a firehose, giving me a million different instructions at once. Taking a deep breath, I narrowed my focus and concentrated on the sleeves of the armor.
Still too much to think about. Tol’s armor had been a matrix of thousands of moving parts that could shift on command.
“I need that inner working first,” I said, guiding my power. The machinations in my mind’s eye fluctuated and finally gave me something to work on. A lattice of magnetic suspension that would guide the individual metal pieces into place. Rigged to a neural mesh, it would let me adjust and manipulate the armor’s layout at will.
Even though it was tedious, it felt good to be building. I layered the lattice of magnetic cord over my kev-silk suit, making it the foundation for my new power armor. For a few blissful hours, there was nothing obstructing me, nothing else to worry about. There was only me and my armor, a series of technological hurdles to work through with my own hands.
“Dragoon?” a voice called, in interrupting my process and immediately earning my ire. A glance at the clock on my desk told me that I had been working straight for nearly four hours. While not the full six I wanted, it was at least solid progress.
“What do you-” I shut up as I saw Big Picture loitering in my doorway. “What can I do for you?”
“I think we should talk about what to do moving forward,” he said softly.
“We have. The problem is that we need Infinite to do anything and we’re kind of paralyzed with her being so volatile. Pacifist thinks she might be able to help but we’re going to have to play that one by ear. Psycho’s girlfriend has experience controlling Altered, but I’m still a little wary.”
He wheeled himself in, parking his wheelchair near my cot. “With all due respect, I think we have not considered every option, or at least not with all the information that we should.”
My eyes flicked to the lump of metal on the corner of my desk. The little metal sphere that Skaberen had given to me, insisting that it would help us fight the Trillodan. According to him, it contained schematics and maps for the capital city of Xalanni. I had avoided it, not wanting to think about the Trillodan homeworld. I didn’t want to simply fall in line and acquiesce to Skaberen’s demand that we attack them next and avoid Marn entirely.
“You know I don’t want to deal with that.”
“And I know that you know that you have to. You know that to be responsible you must deal with this unknown sooner rather than later.”
I grit my teeth. “I don’t want to simply fall in line and do what some bastard said.”
Big Picture wheeled himself a little closer, giving me a plaintive look. “Listen, Dragoon, I understand that you don’t want to just follow along. I understand that you want to lead, to be responsible and to ensure we are taken care of. But, we still need to use every edge. We need to analyze every piece of information at our disposal. Information is power and we’re neglecting a piece of it that the Trillodan don’t know we have.”
“For all we know they ripped the information out of his head already,” I snapped.
“They didn’t,” Big Picture replied with confidence. “He knew too much, had too many trade secrets in his mind to allow them to do that. My guess is that he had some kind of countermeasure to prevent them from scanning his brain. If he didn’t, Skaberen wouldn’t have simply waltzed forward and volunteered to go with them.”
I glared at the paraplegic, “You are infuriating to talk with at times, you know that?”
He smiled, “Titan told me the same thing.”
Mention of our old leader made me long for his presence. If nothing else, he’d ensure that order could be kept. “Why am I running this fucking show when you have all the answers anyways?”
“Because I have all the information, I don’t have the keys to making the best decisions. Plus, how would a guy like me get involved in a fight?” He picked up an atrophied leg and let it slap down against his wheelchair. “Every queen needs a good advisor, right?”
I scoffed, “Don’t ever refer to me as a queen. I never want to be that pretentious.”
“No matter how you cut it, you’re the one in charge. You’re the one we trust to make the best call. My job is to help you know what the best call is. And, in my opinion, the best thing we can do is at least see what Skaberen left for us.”
“He experimented on us. I don’t give him any more of the benefit of the doubt than I do the Trillodan. I have no interest in following his plan. We had a plan to get every Adapted we could before we fought the Trillodan.”
“And we both know that Zellig having his own Adapted to run at us would likely be an unwinnable scenario,” he said bluntly. “Let’s face it, Drag, we have to consider the fact that our time is running out. Getting to Marn, even with Infinite’s help is going to take weeks. We have to ask ourselves if we have that kind of time.”
I frowned, “You seem unnaturally zealous today. What aren’t you telling me?”
“I think that I have a possible solution to our Infinite problem, ” he replied.
My eyes widened, caught completely off guard. “How the hell do you think we can manage that?”
“Adapted demand conflict. We need that struggle. Without it we feel lost. The other thing we all need is community; like Skaberen said, the organism driving us drew us together because of our own intrinsic need for a group of peers.”
“What does this have to do with Infinite?”
“Who was the focal point of her community? What relationship mattered more to her than anything else in the world?”
“Titan did,” I said. “She defined herself with him. She clung onto his every word and whim because she didn’t trust herself to act without accidentally killing everyone nearby.”
“Exactly. And, presuming that Vaneel’s research is bulking up, they are going to want to study Titan since he is one of the few Adapted who can reliably alter the states of matter. He represents a theoretically limitless supply of power.”
“Get somewhere with this,” I demanded.
He nodded, stopping himself from going too far down the rabbit hole. “Right now Infinite has no drive, she has no one to bind herself to. She has no real meaningful relationships and is becoming more and more reclusive because of it. Even if Pacifist can help, she won’t be able to stop Infinite lashing out if she spirals. Instead of looking to control Infinite, we need to direct her, we need to nudge her so she has purpose. If we give her something to work toward, we help her mood and make everyone on board safer.”
It finally all came together for me. “You want to rush the Trillodan because it means we can dangle Titan in front of Infinite. You want to use him as a means of incentive to keep Infinite properly motivated.”
“Exactly. Instead of looking to limit her, we should try to incentivize her. Pacifist might be able to control the dark part of her, but we need the ‘Charlotte’ part of her as focused as possible.”
“Do you think that avoiding Marn would be wise? Do you think we’ll be able to fight against the Trillodan without the extra manpower?”
“I have no idea,” he confessed. “I don’t know what kind of defensive measures are present in the Trillodan capital. However, Skaberen’s message will likely give me some insight. We can work from there.”
I looked at the metal orb, feeling my blood boil. “I don’t want to be controlled like this. I don’t want to-”
“You aren’t being controlled,” Big Picture said, exasperated. “You are choosing to take his advice. He is not pulling the strings. Skaberen can’t force you to do a damn thing!” He wheeled himself beside me, “Please, Dragoon, you need to let go of that demand for control. The best thing we can do in this situation is take the best choice available to us and own it. If that means we do what he suggested, so be it. The reality is that, as it stands, we are going nowhere fast. That is something we can’t afford. The more time we waste in obstinate defiance of Skaberen, the longer we give Vaneel and Zellig to manufacture an army of Adapted.”
I wanted to shout at him, to tell Big Picture that all the insight his Adaptation afforded him was completely off-kilter and wrong.
Instead all that I said was, “Goddamnit.” My fingers curled around the metal sphere which immediately began to glow. A moment later, it projected an image of our departed maker.
“This isn’t a schematic of anything,” I muttered, confused.
The hologram turned to me, those massive orb eyes seeming to peer into my soul. “Dragoon. A pleasure to see you. Presumably for a second time.”
“What the fuck is this,” I whispered, stepping closer to the hologram, passing my hand through it, half expecting it to have substance. “How-”
“This is an imprint of my brain from five days ago,” the hologram replied. “Given that you have activated this, something happened to the real me. I made this to help provide information for you should something compromise my person.”
“You were taken by the Trillodan. Well, you voluntarily went with them to prevent Infinite from blowing a gasket,” Big Picture said.
The projection of Skaberen looked between us, fishing for the next words to say. “What did I promise you that this would be?”
“You said that this orb would contain schematics and information about key locations in the Trillodan capital city that we needed to destroy. I did not agree to go to Xalanni next,” I insisted before the hologram could reply, “But Big Picture insists that we need to have all the information possible before making a final decision. Right now we’re just floating, not really going anywhere quick without Infinite’s assistance.”
“What is wrong with her?”
“Titan was taken. Command was killed,” I said curtly. “And now, she’s unstable.”
“So, key things on Xalanni we have to hit?”
The projection of Skaberen faded and was replaced with a landscape projection of a sprawling city. Four points in the city lit up red, making them stand out from the rest of the blue tinted diagram.
I glanced at Big Picture, “You going to remember all this?”
He tapped a hand to his head and grinned, “I remember everything I see. Don’t worry.”
“Okay,” I said, turning back to the projection, “What are these places? What are we going after?”
The diagram zoomed in, shifting focus to the first highlighted building. It was a massive structure that looked to be made of ornate stone and metalwork, “This is the Tillodan garrison and it boasts nearly ten-thousand soldiers who are stationed with the explicit purpose of defending against foriegn assault on Xalanni. Even though all of them won’t be present at the onset of the fight, they will use displacement charges to join the battle for the capital. However, if you manage to blitz this building fast enough, you will disrupt their acquisition of armaments and buy yourself some precious time.”
“One down. What next?”
The image shifted and brought up black cube of a building that seemed strangely simple given how ornate the garrison looked. “This is Vaneel’s laboratory. While he has likely upped production, this will be the nexus of their information about Adapted. If everything is going wrong and you find yourself losing, destroying this building will cause their progress with Adaptations to falter drastically.”
“So we can leave that building alone since we’re going to crush them,” I said with faux confidence.
The projection paused, as if debating offering a witty remark but then thought better of it. Next structure showed was a massive ziggurat that looked like it was built with the intent of surviving a nuclear apocalypse. It was coated in armor and was littered with turrets; I assumed there would be security measures that weren’t showing on the projection as well. “This is the Trillodan Arms Discovery. Effectively their version of R&D, and it will be where their monstrous Adapted are being produced and contained. Once you begin laying siege to the city, they are going to be unleashing whatever they have cooked up.”
“It looks like this place was meant to withstand the end of days,” I muttered.
“It was,” Skaberen replied succinctly.
“Great,” I mumbled. “What other impossible building do we have to attack?”
The last building was a domed structure that seemed rather pedestrian considering the oppressive nature of the Arms Discovery. “This is the site of the Eternal Council, basically their government’s headquarters. Even though the actual council won’t be sticking around when the battle starts, taking control of it will be impactful. The Trillodan live so long that things become symbolic, and so is the act of laying waste to it.”
While that sounded impractical to me I figured that it would be easy enough to have Beleth flatten a building. Anything to help us get a psychological edge.
“So if the government people are going to vacate, how exactly would we ever capture the Immortal Matron? If the Eternal Council can flee and use their displacement charges to escape, how do we really win?”
The image faded and shifted back to Skaberen’s image. “Displacement charges only take you so far. They are generally fairly short range in terms of cosmic placement. Most of the time they are used to relocate on a planet’s surface or to quickly retreat to a ship that is lingering in orbit.”
“Like a Crimson City,” I muttered. “Which, if we go to Xalanni, it means that Zellig brings his ship to the planet and leaves it in the atmosphere.”
“It means that people retreat there,” Big Picture pointed out, “How do you exactly plan to assault a spaceship? We aren’t exactly armed to the teeth on this vessel. The best thing we managed to do was allow for a few Projectors to have makeshift gunnery ports. We can’t fight a Crimson City.”
I raised a hand, shutting up my advisor for a moment. “Skaberen, if they were to capture Titan, where would they take him? Would they want to put someone so dangerous on the surface?”
“Likely no. They don’t have a reliable way to contain someone like him. They probably have some insight to his gift and realize that any small failure of security or sedation means he’d break loose. Odds are that they would keep him in a Crimson City, effectively distanced from their society.”
“Which means that he’s on board Zellig’s ship,” I replied with a grin.
“We still can’t go engaging in space warfare,” Big Picture reminded me.
“We can’t,” I admitted, “But Infinite can. Imagine how motivated she’d be to rip that thing apart.”
He shuddered at the thought but I could already see his intuitive Adaptation spinning. “With her onboard, it would deny the residents of Xalanni a quick way out. In fact, if you sent Interface with her, we could leverage their own ship against them. We could threaten Protocol 37 to lure out the Immortal Matron and her council.”
I glanced at the projection of Skaberen, hating that I was starting to find myself agreeing with his plan to skip Marn entirely. Especially with Infinite in the mental state she was, pointing her like a guided missile was beginning to feel like the only correct move. I reached over and tapped the metal orb, ending our little chat session with the imprint of Skaberen’s brain.
“Okay,” I said, shaking my head, “Next stop, Xalanni.”