“Now to motivate the most powerful person in existence,” I said as I stared at the plate of metal that kept me out of Infinite’s quarters. “No way this could go wrong. Just don’t think about the fact that she could turn you into dust with a thought if she really wanted to. Don’t fixate on the fact that she’s emotionally unstable and you have a tenuous relationship with her.”
I reached forward and drew my hand back.
“Fuck. Why did they have to take Titan? Why can’t anything be easy?”
I walked to the other side of the hall and let my shoulders rest against the wall. Truth be told, Infinite didn’t dislike me, but I was still wary of her. She had accidentally smothered me during our voyage to Vuuldar and it had introduced a bit of tension. We mostly made up, but neither of us talked much afterward. And now I was taking over for her captured boyfriend.
Yeah. This was fucking great.
A few months ago my biggest concern was whether or not I should stand up to my mom. A few months ago I had time to worry about grades and school. Hell, a few months ago I worried about where I could scavenge more materials to keep working on my armor.
Even though I hadn’t enjoyed my life on Tso’got, I missed it. I felt my throat close up as I thought about my parents. We hadn’t really been able to have a proper goodbye since they kicked me out of the house. I stifled a laugh since I was working alongside Shockwave now. And to think I was kicked out for fighting Imperium. Still, I missed my parents. Even my mom, despite her being a mean drunk.
Glancing back at Infinite’s door, I wished that I would wake up. That everything was a fever dream. That Titan had never found us and that the Trillodan had never come along. I wished for shit to be simpler, for the biggest weight on my conscience to be that I liked my friend who was already dating someone. I was only eighteen and somehow responsible for the lives of over a hundred people. And that wasn’t considering any of the Trillodan on Xalanni.
Even if the Trillodan were galactic tyrants, not all of them were militants. Many of them would be non-combatants. They didn’t have any part of this, and many of them were bound to be collateral.
“And we don’t get anything done if we just stand here like an idiot,” I growled at myself, practically dragging my protesting carcass forward. Against my better judgment I rapped my knuckles against her door. “Infinite, it’s Dragoon. Can we talk?”
The door opened which I took as an invitation.
I walked in and couldn’t help but grimace. It was littered in scraps of what looked like a ravaged journal. There were flecks of blood on the walls and on her cot which had several gouges in it as well. Infinite was pushed into the corner in an oversized t-shirt and black jeans which I immediately recognized as belonging to Titan. Her forearms were coated with tracks of blood where it looked like she had been gouging with her own fingernails.
All of my apprehensions vanished as I reminded myself of one fundamental truth: Infinite was a person, just like the rest of us.
I sat down on the floor across the small room, unsure of how to start. “Have you been eating?” was the first dim-witted thing that came tumbling out of my mouth.
“Not really,” she admitted.
Another tense silence followed. The more I looked at her, the more I watched her clutch her own arms, slowly digging another bloody track.
“You need me to get us to Marn,” she whispered. “And I’m the only one who can do it.”
“No,” I replied, a bit too forcibly. I swore at myself as I saw her wince. “No. That’s not what I need. What we need is for you to get better,” I said, trying to be as honest and gentle as possible. “There’s no getting around it, we need you.”
My fellow redhead looked up at me and then back to the floor. “I don’t think I can.”
“Don’t think you can what?”
“Get better. I don’t think that’s an option for me.”
I frowned, “Infinite, everyone can get better. It doesn’t matter what happened to you in the past. The important thing is that we keep moving forward. That’s what Titan would want, right?”
For a while, she didn’t give me any kind of reply. There was just another tense and awkward silence that lingered. I felt strangely exposed, wishing that I could be wearing armor, that I could really feel like Dragoon instead of mild-mannered Alexis.
“Did he ever tell you what happened to me?” she whispered.
I shook my head slowly. “No. Titan only told me what happened when you Altered. He warned me about what that thing is that creeps out when you abuse your power.”
Her face was perfectly flat, completely devoid of any kind of emotion or human feature. She stared at the floor with so little display of humanity that she could have posed as a mannequin for the next full minute. “Every Alteration has a cost. Being so powerful, there’s always a downside,” she muttered, talking to herself as much as me.
“All the Lunatics have drawbacks to their gift, and Parasite’s gift hurts him if he uses it too long.” I couldn’t help myself, “What is yours?”
Her gaze finally ripped free of the floor and fixed itself on me. “Most people Altered because of the Snatchers. Those shithead scientists experimented on people until they broke. It was enough to drive the Lunatics into a frenzy. Same kind of thing happened to Parasite: imprisoned and experimented on.” She finally showed the slightest smile, like she remembered an old joke, “I didn’t get anything like that. I wasn’t in some kind of surgical suite or under someone’s microscope.” Her head slowly shook, side to side, and it was becoming more and more clear that she was almost completely dissociated. Even though she was talking, even though the lights were on, no one was really home.
“Infinite,” I said, hoping I could get her to come back, “What happened to you?”
“What you really don’t realize is how much you miss your old power,” she said wistfully. “Even if it was nothing that exceptional. I used to manipulate air. I could kind of fly around, blast people with air bullets, that sort of thing.” Her gaze drifted back to the floor as she dug her fingernails into her forearms again. “I Adapted when I was fifteen. I got bullied at school and wanted to be whisked away. And for about two years, I went by the name Tempest. Not at all a big headliner, just a small scale Reckoner.”
I felt myself growing tense as she pulled her hands free of her forearms, opting to pull her knees to her chest.
“A bit after I turned seventeen, a few Zari thought it would be great fun to abduct me. They stalked me and ambushed me when I tried to go home. My power relied on using my hands to control airflow; the first thing they did was smash my fingers. When I tried to run, they stabbed me in the thigh and then threw me down a flight of stairs. I barely remember them taking me to a basement, but they strung me up like I was a fucking side of beef,” she spat, her eyes darting back and forth, now hyper-vigilant. “I don’t know how long they kept me there.”
“What did they do?” I asked, horrified.
“Depended on the day. Sometimes they used me like a punching bag. Other days I was just a toy to get their rocks off. Once they had their fun, they left me down there, all alone. After a while, I quit screaming. No one was going to show up. They probably had the place soundproofed. For a bit, I held onto hope that a friend would come looking and break me out. I hoped they would be stupid and let my hands heal enough so I could use my power. Those bastards were careful and made sure to keep my fingers shattered.” She looked at me, tears starting to roll down her cheeks. “Finally, one day, it just sank in: I was going to die there. No one knew about me. No one would ever find me. Charlotte Quinn was going to die alone, in some blood stained basement.”
“But you didn’t,” I said, stating the obvious.
She nodded slowly, some of her humanity seeming to creep back into her face, “Once I finally realized I was going to die, I heard something talking to me. I’d spent so long down there, so long without anyone talking to me, I thought I had gone crazy.” She let out an aberrant chuckle, “I guess I kind of did, didn’t I?”
I didn’t answer. I wasn’t sure what the hell I was supposed to say.
“That thing that creeps out when I push too hard, it’s not like Overexposing. I don’t really run out of power. Ever. My cost, my cross to bear with my Alteration is much more insidious.” Infinite shivered and started to tremble. “I begged for anything to get me out of there. I wanted to feel powerful again; my cost is that to access that power, I have to remember exactly why I got that gift. The more power I tap into, the more I relive my past. After seven, I can start feeling them touch me again. After nine, I can even smell them. Reality starts to blur pretty quick after that point.”
“And that thing?”
“That was my first response. My first collection of powers, all dedicated to snuffing the life out of my captors. I wanted them to die, to be as afraid as I was, to feel as powerless as I did back then. What I didn’t take into account was how powerful I’d become. So, to make it worse, I killed another hundred and thirty people who didn’t deserve it.” She mouthed a few words silently, having to try again before the next words tumbled out. “I hate this. I hate this power, so much. The only way to be useful is to relive the worst part of my life. To make it worse, you all need me!” She stretched her fingers and curled them back into a fist, “The only thing that made me worth anything was what those bastards did to me! No one needs Charlotte but everyone needs Infinite!”
I reached a hand out but drew it back slowly. I was so far out of my depth; I barely managed to keep my own head out of a dizzying dose of anxiety. I couldn’t begin to imagine what she lived with day in and day out. “Charlotte, I-“
“Titan was the only one who gave a shit about me. He was the only one who fucking cared about me beyond my powers.” She glared at me, all her terror turned to rage. “You just want me to be a fucking puppet, just some other toy to use.”
Digging deep for any scrap of confidence I had left, I rapidly expelled, “I want to go after Titan. I want to get him back.”
It subverted expectation enough to quiet her for a few seconds. “What?”
I quietly reminded myself that honesty was the best policy. Trying to sugar coat things or be duplicitous would bite me in the ass. “I want to go after Titan. I want to get him back…because we need him. You’re right, we need Infinite,” I confessed, “But I don’t want Charlotte to be forgotten either. He knows you in a way that none of us do, and frankly, right now that’s not going to change. You scare the shit out of everyone because if you fly off the handle, there is no stopping you.”
Her glare bored into me, but I held firm. She hadn’t let out that banshee wail and smothered me yet.
“You’re so hurt that it’s hard for anyone to get close to you. And truth be told, none of us are going to be able to establish the same relationship with you that you had with Titan. So, I want to go after him. But to do that, we’re going to need your help.”
Infinite’s glare softened a little. “How are you going to find Titan?”
“Skaberen left me with a copy of his brain basically, long story,” I said quickly, “Bacially we got to have a conversation and glean some insight about how to fight the Trillodan and where they would be keeping Titan. The truth is that they aren’t likely to keep him on the planet; if anything goes wrong with containment, he destroys a city before he could be put down.”
She didn’t respond beyond nodding.
“So, our Goln friend believes that Titan is going to be kept in a Crimson City. It keeps him removed from everyone else. Since Zellig took him, it would make sense for Titan to be kept on Zellig’s ship. If we attack Xalanni, who do you think is going to show up to try and stop us?”
“Which means you’ll be able to go get him back,” I replied. “And it means you won’t need to hold back since you’ll be almost all on your own.”
“Big Picture had the idea to send Interface with you. They could control the ship and prevent the Trillodan from having anywhere to run.”
Infinite nodded, that hostile edge receding. “Okay.”
I dared to let myself breathe for a moment before leaning forward, “Infinite, I don’t want to pressure you, but I feel like you probably need to find someone on board you can talk to about this stuff. Not just because I worry about other people, but because you need to take care of yourself. Even though we need Infinite, I don’t want you to forget about Charlotte.”
“Okay,” she said laconically. Even though she was looking at me, I felt like she was only half present once again.
“Are you going to be okay if I leave?” I whispered.
“I’m never okay.”
I pursed my lips, “When was the last time you ate?”
“Two days ago.”
“I haven’t had dinner,” I said, extending a hand, “Come on, let’s go.”
She backed away from my hand like it was some kind of snake. “I’m fine.”
Digging deep, I shook my head no. “You need to eat. I’m never going to totally know what’s going on with you. I’m never going to be able to understand the inside of your head,” I confessed, “But I know that no matter who you are, you need to eat. Even if you don’t say a damn word the whole time, we gotta get you something.”
Slowly but surely, Infinite nodded. “Give me a few minutes to get ready,” she requested, glancing at the bloody scratches down her forearms.
I nodded and stepped back to the door, “I’ll be waiting outside.”
As the door shut behind me, my knees buckled and a relieved gasp escaped my lips. I slumped against the wall and collapsed, my nerves finally catching up. I had been sitting across from the most dangerous person in existence and had the great idea to be bluntly honest with them while they were as raw and sensitive as an exposed nerve.
The fact I had managed to survive the encounter was outstanding. The fact I had done it without having a panic attack felt almost unreal.
Taking a few massive gulps of air, I managed to climb back to my feet right before Infinite walked out. She had kept on Titan’s pants but had donned a hoodie that was clearly for someone half again her size. But, the sleeves did cover the scratches. She followed me without making a sound, like some kind of scolded child.
In the galley people were wrapping up training and tables were being pushed back into place. A few bloody Adapted were making their way over to Organelle who had set up shop in a corner, handing the few injured patrons a tincture and sending them on their way. I caught her eye and she glanced at Infinite with alarm.
As I looked around the room, she wasn’t the only one. No one had seen or heard anything from the last of our Prime Trio, all everyone knew was that she wasn’t in a good way since Titan was taken. For her to come in looking like she had a hangover was likely making people very anxious.
I did my best to ignore their stares as we grabbed the quick-prep lasagna that had been pilfered on Vuuldar; even though the stuff was cheap it still smelled divine. I took a seat at a small, round table with Infinite and quietly dug in. Infinite hesitated but eventually took a few meager bites. I devoured the whole thing before she had gotten a third of the way through her portion and she looked like she was about to be sick.
“Not used to this,” she said softly, taking another nibble. “Not used to people caring about me. People only liked me when the chips were up. I’m waiting for people to scream at me and wonder why the all-powerful bitch isn’t fixing everything. I’m surprised someone else hasn’t come and said it yet.”
“You aren’t just a box of powers for us to exploit,” I said with a sigh. “Listen, you scare the shit out of all of us, me included. But, so did Eldritch and we managed to get over it as a group. He killed half a dozen Adapted on Vuuldar because he lost control. Not so different from you,” I said, bracing myself for potential backlash.
My fellow redhead didn’t reply but instead took another bite.
“When you hide from us, we don’t get a chance to know there is anything better about you.”
“I nearly drove you insane,” she whispered. “Why are you being so nice to me?” She looked up at me, tears starting to build in the corners of her eyes, “What did-“
I raised a hand, stopping her, “We’re family, right? We’re supposed to look out for each other,” I said, finally understanding exactly what Titan had wanted. While he might not have been the best leader, he certainly understood exactly what we all so desperately longed for. All of us were broken toys who had been through it. I’d managed to be on the gentler end of the abuse spectrum and I still had dealt with my mom nearly stabbing me at one point. None of us had ever felt like we belonged; Titan’s greatest boon to our cause wasn’t his destructive power but his charisma and community that he deliberately created.
“Thanks,” she said at length, shifting focus back onto the lasagna. “I’m glad you don’t hate me.”
I reached over and squeezed her forearm, giving this poor girl what I wish my mother had always given me.
It didn’t matter what happened in the past. Infinite wasn’t a criminal or a monster who needed to be shackled. She was a scared kid who needed to be reminded someone gave a shit, just like everyone else on this damn ship.
“If you want to make it up to me,” I said, thinking out loud, “I need some help that has nothing to do with your power.”
She lazily raised an eyebrow.
“Parasite,” I explained.
“Ah,” Infinite replied, seeming to understand almost immediately. She wiped her face with an oversized sleeve and looked back up at me, “You sure you want me to be the person he talks to?”
“I figure I have some leverage over you right now,” I said with a grin.
Infinite scoffed, “Bitch.”
Behind Infinite, Eldritch walked forward, “Hey Drag, how are-“ he stopped as he realized who was sitting across from me, “Um, am I interrupting?”
“No,” I said, “Pull up a chair.”
There was a tense silence as Eldritch sat down, looking at Infinite like some was a bomb and he needed to spot the timer.
“You don’t have to stare at me,” she whispered.
My friend blushed and looked down at his own serving of lasagna. “Sorry. You’ve been hiding for a while and I’m confused as to what’s going on here.”
“I’m eating dinner, like everyone else,” she snapped, her timid demeanor dropped for hostility in an instant. I’d managed to win her over, but Eldritch clearly hadn’t. “That’s what you’re doing, isn’t it?”
I gulped down a nervous lump; I did not want to try and come between Infinite and my best friend. Hell, I didn’t want to try and come between Infinite and anyone. That was a recipe for disaster. “He’s not trying to be mean,” I offered, “But seriously, Nick, don’t fucking gawk.”
He nodded, “Yep. Got it. My bad.” He turned his focus to me, “I don’t know if you’ve heard, but we need to-“
“Do something about Parasite,” I finished, “I know. Ragdoll talked to me about it. I’m hoping that Infinite is willing to talk some sense into him.”
I silently screamed as Nick looked at her and then back to me. She wasn’t behind a pane of glass, she could see him and hear him. “Do you think that she’s the best person to talk with him? Why not Lightshow?”
“You realize she is sitting right beside you, right?” I said, glaring daggers at Nick. “And maybe, just maybe, you don’t want to follow along with everyone else who thinks that her power makes her dangerous by default. Last I checked, you spent a while hoping that people didn’t make that assumption about you.”
The epiphany hit Nick like a ton of bricks. “Wow, I’m, um-“
“An asshole,” Infinite supplied.
“Yeah,” he admitted, putting his face into his palms. “Fuck, you’re right. I’m sorry.”
“We’ll deal with our anti-social friend after dinner. At least he isn’t causing any real problems,” I grumbled.
“Oh, you didn’t hear,” he said, almost wary. “Murphy beat the shit out of a guy. Ragdoll managed to make him go to training and he nearly killed a guy.”
“Who?” I asked, suddenly more concerned.
“Torment, some mental manipulator from Vuuldar. Guy induces visions and causes hallucinations. He made Murphy see something and…Murphy lost it. Used his gift about as agro as he could have. Goliath had to pull him off the guy and even then couldn’t put him down. Hydra actually shapeshifted and held Murphy down until he finally calmed down”
I glanced around the room, realizing that some of the people who were still gawking weren’t looking at Infinite. Hell, with the hoodie on, they probably couldn’t recognize who she was. They were looking at me, undoubtedly asking themselves why the fuck I hadn’t been there to stop my friend from nearly murdering someone during the training I insisted everyone participate in.
“Shit,” I grumbled, closing my eyes and trying to push away that creeping anxiety. “Any idea where he went?”
“Presumably he went to hide in his room,” Eldritch said. “Maybe he went to go hide with Ragdoll?”
“He won’t do that,” Infinite said softly as she took the last bite of lasagna. “He’s going to hide in his room and shut everyone else out.” She looked between us, both confused why she sounded so confident, “It’s what I would do.”
I equipped my best pleading face, “Can you help me talk to him? Try and help him realize that he’s not totally alone?”
“Eldritch kind of has a point,” she muttered, “I was doing the exact same thing until half an hour ago because you barged in.”
“So, go barge in,” Eldritch said like it was the simplest thing ever. “I remember my mom telling me that therapists worked so well because it was from someone objective. It meant they didn’t have to sugar coat things or try to dance around you being sensitive. They could be straight up with you and didn’t feel like they betrayed your trust.”
Infinite and I locked eyes for a moment, realizing how right my friend was.
“Let’s go see him,” I said. “The sooner we squash some of the crazy in this ship, the better. No offense intended, Infinite” I added.
“You’re on a boat of Adapted, there is a limitless supply of crazy,” a smooth voice said from behind me. I glared over my shoulder to see Interface saunter by, waving over their shoulder without breaking stride.
“They are always in the right place to weigh in and be sassy,” Eldritch muttered, almost in awe. “Seriously, that’s a power in and of itself.”
I rolled my eyes, “Our androgynous pilot being a quip machine is not exactly helpful. Come on.”
The three of us set off down another metal hallway, passing a few bored Adapted in the halls. Some of these sights had come to be common now: Shockwave would be smoking, Spectre would be staring out into the void of space, Hydra would be sitting on the floor half-transformed, and you were almost bound to run into one of Hive’s insect splits. Most of these people used to fight us but now they greeted me with a smile and a wave.
Less than four months and we had gotten over feuds that had gotten people killed. The only real friction I knew of from our group was with Eldritch.
I pushed my concerns to the back burner for now as I rapped my knuckles against Parasite’s door. “Murphy, it’s me. Open the door, please.”
There wasn’t an immediate reply though we could hear him pacing around which was not encouraging.
“I could barge in,” Infinite said softly, though she didn’t look enthused by the idea.
I slammed my hand against the door, no longer being polite, “Murphy Pell, open the fucking door!”
The pacing stopped, and a moment later, a disheveled teenager opened the door. Murphy looked haggard, like he hadn’t slept in the last week. His hair was a mess, his normally tan skin seemed drained of color. Bags hung around his eyes and he kept nervously flexing his hands into fists. His gaze shifted between the three of us, as if trying to assess which one of us was going to make the first move on him.
He was like paranoia made human.
“What?” he said, his words curt.
“We need to talk,” I insisted, stepping forward, assuming he’d move out of the doorway. I was very wrong and walked straight into his remarkably solid frame. He spent so much time being a jester I often forgot how strong he was.
“Can’t, not right now,” he snapped, “I’m sorry. But-“
“You saw him, didn’t you,” Infinite said, her voice barely audible. “Zellig.”
There was a crack in his hostile façade as he uttered a single syllable in reply. “Yes.”
Nick and I had the good sense to keep our mouths shut as Infinite stepped forward, an unspoken understanding clear between both of them. For all our faults, Nick and I weren’t Altered. We hadn’t seen the same levels of shit that Murphy had. Even though he was our best friend in the world, we were estranged. He had joined a community that neither of us had part in. Our attempts to understand, to empathize, they were faulty at best.
Infinite though, she knew exactly how he felt.
“You think he’s gonna put you back in one of those tubes, don’t you?”
Murphy tried to open his mouth and talk, but nothing came out. He managed to nod, tears starting to well up at the edge of his eyes.
“It’s okay,” she offered, “I’m worried too.”
Murphy massaged his arm, trying to hide how much those phantom pains hurt. “I really thought we were getting better. I thought we had a hold on this. And then… poof. Titan’s gone. Zellig just knew what we’d do. He was one fucking step ahead. He’s always one step ahead of us. And because of it,” he flipped his skin and then reverted, “I’m a FUCKING FREAK!”
She glanced back at me and Nick, seeming to steel herself before reaching forward to put her hand on Murphy’s cheek. He tried to draw away, but she followed him, stepping closer. “We’re all freaks.” She took a deep breath before continuing, “Back on Tso’got, I Altered because I was put in a basement and abused for God knows how long. When Titan Adapted, he killed his family on accident and nearly killed himself at the same time. We’re all freaks,” she repeated, digesting that truth as well.
“I can’t go back in a tube,” he expelled, shaking his head, “I can’t. I won’t. If he can put Titan in one, he can put any of us in one.”
“Not me,” Infinite said.
“He’s going to hunt us down on Marn. As powerful as you are, you can’t be everywhere at once.”
“That’s why we’re going to kill him, and all those Trillodan fucks,” she replied. “That’s why we’re going to attack them first.”
Murphy blinked a few times, trying to understand what he was hearing. “We…what?”
“We’re going to Xalanni,” I declared, “Infinite is our ticket there and I think she should get Titan back. As much as I don’t want to admit it,” I confessed, “Skaberen was right. Going to Marn is suicide. If the Trillodan are manufacturing Adapted, we only get one more encounter with Zellig and his legion before we are hopelessly outgunned. We might as well go down swinging.”
“And this way they won’t be able to bomb me from space… hopefully,” Nick added, daring to grin.
“But you need to work with us,” I said, “You can’t be beating people near death. Ragdoll is worried. I’m worried. We’re close to the finish line,” I insisted to both myself and him, “We just need to keep it together a little longer.”
He nodded and hung his head, “Is Torment-”
“He’ll be fine,” Nick said. Organelle got to him in time. Dude is gonna have a hard time walking for a few days but he’ll recover.”
“When he used his power on me, I felt Zellig choking me again. I remembered being thrown off a railing and falling nearly 10 stories onto a metal floor. I just… I-I-”
“You’re not going to have to fight Zellig again,” I promised, knowing full well that I might be lying. I did my best to sell it and felt my stomach turn at the duplicity. I didn’t like being sold a fake bill of goods and hated that I was doing it now. But as I looked at my friend, I knew he couldn’t tolerate that risk. No matter how unlikely it was that he specifically ran into Zellig, any risk would send him back into a panic, back into a murderous frenzy.
So, I lied. I smiled at my friend and watched him relax as my integrity splintered.
Murphy nodded and turned back to Infinite, “I need you to do something for me.”
She drew back, a little surprised.
“I need you to make them pay. For everything they’ve done to us. For everything they took from us.”
Infinite put on an impish grin that I was used to seeing on Murphy, “I plan to do exactly that.”