Onward: Leader

“Drag, you need to eat!” a stern voice called from my doorway. 

I groaned, “I’m working!” 

“I’m aware,” Hydra said, stepping into my room.  “However, you’ve been working in isolation for nearly twelve hours.” 

I had to glance at a clock to verify that the shapeshifter wasn’t screwing with me.  “Okay, maybe I should stop and get something to eat,” I mumbled, annoyed that I had to turn off my power.  The flow of information ground to a halt, nearly making me lose my balance as the headache rapidly set in.  I groaned and pressed a hand to my temple, “I think I’m also pretty dehydrated too.  That is not helping.” 

“You really get into your work,” the taller woman pointed out, “Maybe you should schedule someone to check in on you when you really go deep into development.” 

“I hate being interrupted,” I grumbled, “My power is like the biggest hit of Adderall you can imagine.  Breaking focus is torture because the power doesn’t like to stop immediately.  And then firing it back up is just asking for a migraine.” 

“Can’t you just have Organelle fix that?” 

“Organelle has plenty more injuries to look after than my own self-inflicted ones,” I said.  “I’m insisting that we train and plenty of people have trouble holding back by nature of their power.  I’d rather not tax her anymore than necessary.”

“Fair enough.”  Hydra glanced down at me, seeming concerned.  “When are you going to tell everyone else about your change in plans?”

I sighed.  It had been two days since I had resolved to skip going to Marn and instead charge right for the Trillodan home world.  I had meant to tell everyone, but I had been dragging my heels.  Part of my brain nagged at me, mortified that I had assigned us a final confrontation with the Trillodan and I didn’t have a suit of functional armor ready.  

How was I supposed to tell everyone else that they were marching into this meat grinder when I wasn’t ready to fight alongside them? 

“When my armor works,” I said as I grabbed a burrito from the small pyramid that someone had put on the galley table.  I stifled a laugh as I realized someone had taken the time to make a presentation for frozen burritos.  “When you have nothing but time,” I said, rolling my eyes.

Hydra sat down across from me, not bothering to grab food.  I raised an eyebrow but she smiled softly, “Ate earlier.  Just here to make sure you actually take care of yourself.”

“What are you, like the mother hen from Vuuldar?”

“Of sorts,” she confessed.  “When you consider that I’m the oldest one on the ship now, someone has to make sure you take care of yourself.”

“How-“

“Twenty-six,” she replied.  “I’m only a few days younger than Titan.”

“No shit,” I said, baffled.  Hydra was incredibly fit and looked like she could have easily passed for twenty.  Her brown skin didn’t have any kind of stress wearing like mine did, and her youthful face and pixie cut kept me from being sure of anything.  “I wonder why you didn’t get a power as destructive as his.”

“I’d argue my power is better,” she replied with a smirk, “Titan was on crutches for days after getting a chunk of his leg ripped out.  I can lose whole limbs and regenerate them within the hour.  I can make myself fly.  I can vary up my arsenal like Eldritch does with his mutations. Titan might be destructive, but I like my own power, thank you very much.”

I raised a hand in surrender, “I didn’t mean to offend.” 

“None taken,” she assured me, “But too often we assume that a fight has to be won with firepower.  Being clever and playing a bit of a long-con is also a viable strategy.”  She grinned mischievously, “You know why Adamant tends to avoid me?” 

“Come to think of it, I haven’t seen you two together very much.  Why?” 

“I beat the hell out of him a few years ago.  He had gotten a hand of his power and thought it was a carte blanche ability to win any joust.  Insipid bastard was challenging other powered people to prove that he ran the city.  I was passing through but decided to take him up on it.”

“How did you pull it off?” I asked between bites, “His gift let him fight against Zellig and nearly kill the guy.”

“His gift has a limited amount of energy, so I ran out the clock.  I started with a poisonous form, and I made sure to use a non-lethal toxin.  He had protected himself from death, but not from paralysis.  He used another declaration to overcome that, so I forced him to try and fly.  He actually compromised by throwing things at me but his strength ran out long before mine did.”  Hydra grinned and grew a layer of emerald green scales across her right arm and then shifted it back to regular skin.  “The reason people respect me is because I’m smart enough to play the long game and use all my tools to my advantage.”

I frowned, getting the sense that there was some greater message being thrust upon me.  “What’s your point here?” 

“You’re not using all your tools,” she replied.  “You’ve only told seven people on the ship that we are going to charge to Xalanni next.  But, you’re holding people back by not being upfront.  I didn’t know him as long as you did, but it sounds like you’re falling into the same traps that Titan did.  Playing things close to the vest is important when there are people who can spread secrets and blab but we’re perfectly insulated.  If the Trillodan find us, it won’t be because we said something.” 

“I don’t want to get to Xalanni before I have my armor working,” I admitted.  “The second I tell Infinite to start jumping again, I don’t know how fast she’ll get us there.  She’s motivated and that’s…admittedly a little scary.  For all I know, she’ll get us there in a single afternoon.” 

Hydra scoffed, “Do you think we won’t win if you don’t have a fancy suit of armor?” 

“Every soldier counts,” I shot back.  “We only have a hundred people on this ship that fight, if that.  Besides,” I muttered, “I won’t be a coward.  I won’t sit back while my friends fight tooth and nail for this.  I can’t do that.” 

Hydra’s expression softened, “You’re too headstrong for your own good.” 

“So I’ve been told.  It’s gotten worse since I Adapted,” I confessed.  

“Our gifts perpetuated our personalities.  If you were shy, you became more so.  Headstrong?  That much more stubborn.”  

“What about you?” I asked.  “You’re the unofficial leader from Vuuldar but I don’t know much about you or where you come from.  All I know is that people are terrified of you and that you have a nearly limitless number of forms to swap to.”  I pointed a half-eaten burrito at her, “What makes Hydra, Hydra?” 

Her cool smile vanished in a blink and my blood ran cold.  Her face had gone from caring to murderous instantly.  “When you watch your town die from a plague, you learn to endure.  You learn to adapt.  You learn to overcome,” she said, her voice almost a feral growl.  “When you survive a planet as hostile as Vuuldar, you either eat or are eaten.  There isn’t another option.”  

I nodded, reminding myself that Vuuldar was a much harsher place to live that Tso’got.  While Tso’got had plenty of problems with things like the Snatchers and Suppression, Vuuldar had harsher diseases, scarcer resources, and cyclical plagues.  If Hydra was almost as old as Titan, she would remember some of the earliest and roughest days of being on Vuuldar.  “I’m sorry,” I offered, “I didn’t mean-“

“I know you didn’t,” she replied, that animalistic rage fading.  “People ask me how I keep an edge, how I have taken so many fights and won every time.  Growing up, I got used to fighting like my life depended on it.”

“No wonder you’re so fucking intense,” I mumbled.  

She smiled and changed her teeth into a row of fangs, successfully startling me.  “Can’t be serious all the time,” she said, laughing, “You should have seen your face.”

“You, people like you are why I want to finish my damned armor,” I grumbled.  

“Oh now, lighten up,” she insisted.  “What’s the point of having these powers if we can’t have a little fun with them?” 

I rolled my eyes.  “Fine.” 

Hydra leaned forward, seeming to bore into me with those scrutinizing eyes of hers.  “Why is your armor so important to you?  It’s not just needing an extra soldier,” she said confidently.  “What is it to you to be wearing it?  Is Dragoon the armor or the inventor?” 

“Both…and neither,” I said, caught off guard. 

“Why do you need to fight?  You’re a Cognate.  Last I checked, every other Cognate avoids getting into an altercation if possible.  What makes you the exception to the rule?” 

“On Tso’got, you learned to fight and be strong or you got walked on.  And for the first fifteen years of my life, I was walked on.  I was a cowardly little girl.  Sure, I had opinions and dreams of grandeur like every kid, but I didn’t have the grit to back it up.  When Parasite, Eldritch and I became the Rogue Sentries, I wanted to prove I was strong enough to take something, to earn it, to command someone’s respect.” 

“Look at you now,” she said plainly, “You don’t have armor and you got through to the most powerful person alive.  You run the show without question.  Now, you don’t do it all single handedly, but neither did Titan.”  She pursed her lips, looking for the rights words, “Listen, I understand wanting to be stronger, but you put so much emphasis on your own ability to fight.  Being able to get everyone on board moving one direction is a strength unto itself.  You’re eighteen and you command my respect,” she assured me.  “You even command people you fought with.  Shockwave, Beleth, Psycho, they will all fall in line when it is demanded.” 

There was something strangely liberating hearing her insist that my strength didn’t have to come from the power armor.  That Dragoon could be more than just my inventions.  My leadership wasn’t tied to the machines I made but instead to the people around me.  I’d made a point to overcome my introverted nature and foster relationships with other groups when we started, and I had kept that up while on the ship with Titan in charge.  

“Thank you,” I said, smiling.  “I think I needed to hear that.”

“I know you did,” she said plainly.  “You Cognates have a bad habit of getting inside your own heads and getting stuck there.” 

“Like you have no faults,” I shot back. 

“Nope.  I’m perfect,” she replied with enough confidence to make me believe it.  Hydra laced her fingers together, “Listen, I’m not you.  I’m not the boss.  But, I think you shouldn’t let yourself get caught in the same traps and same anxieties that Titan did.  We’re all peers here.  And, thanks to him, we’re a family.  A fucked up, dysfunctional, violent family.”

“Message received,” I said.  “And, you’re right.”  I took the last bite of my burrito and stood up, stretching out my neck.  “Time to stop being afraid.  Time to start leading.”

“Atta girl!” 

“Do shut up,” I snapped playfully.  

Hydra beamed as I walked away, a new confidence in my step.  Stepping into the control room, I was a bit surprised to see Interface sitting there idly.  They turned and glanced at me, equally perplexed. 

“Yes, captain?” they finally said.  

“The intercom,” I replied, pointing at the microphone built into the console, “I want to use it.”

“I can-“

“I want to do it,” I said, making it clear that it wasn’t a debate.  Interface raised their hands and slid out of the chair, giving me the spot.  Taking a seat, I took a deep breath and let out a slow exhale, against reminding myself that Dragoon was more than a suit of armor.  

I pressed the button and began my address. 

“To every person on board the S.S. Madhouse, we are going to have a change of plans.  Our original itinerary was slated to go to Marn next, to seek out additional hands to fight against Zellig and his brand of murders.  But, with the loss of Titan, with the information that the Trillodan are making their own Adapted, things have changed.  We don’t have the time we wanted.  We can’t get around the universe instantly, even with Infinite helping.  So, we are going to take the fight to the Trillodan.  When this ship lands, we are going to be in hostile territory.  Let me be clear, we are flying into hell.  But, the alternative is that we stall and wait to die or be captured by Zellig and his legion.  This is our only real choice, and it sucks.”

I took a deep breath and continued.  “No matter who you are, no matter how insignificant you feel you might be, every one fighting will help.  No matter how little you believe you bring to the table, you are important.  We can’t all be Infinite, or Hydra, or Eldritch,” I said, highlighting the three scariest people on board, “But they can’t be everywhere at once.  They can’t do it all on their own.  They need us backing them up.”  I ruminated on Hydra’s words, knowing that people deserved to be informed.  “For those of you who think that Infinite can do it all for us, you should know she won’t be with us on the surface.  She is going to be above us, ensuring the capture of Zellig’s Crimson City.  She is going to be our backup plan; in case we lose, infinite will ensure that the Trillodan are made to experience Protocol 37 for themselves.” 

The weight of my words started to take a toll on me.  I was shaping the course of an untold number of lives.  As I felt myself start to buckle, I pushed back against that wall of fatigue.  “Thanks to the information left behind by Skaberen, we know what locations on Xalanni have to be destroyed completely.  We have some idea of what we are up against.  Even so, it won’t be pretty.  You all know what it’s like to lose someone,” I said, my mind drifting to Mutant and to Geyser.  “It’s inevitable that we’re all going to lose someone else.  Make peace with it as best you can before we get there.  None of us are doing this because we want to,” I confessed.  “We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do.  Titan isn’t here ordering us around anymore.  We’re going to beat the Trillodan because there shouldn’t be another race of exiles like us.”

My blood started to hammer as the adrenaline came flooding.  It was really happening.  We were going to go to war with the Trillodan.  “No matter what happens, the universe is going to know what we did.  Next time we meet with Zellig, we put him on the back foot.  No more running, no more hiding, no more stalling.  We are Adapted.  And what do all Adapted do?  We fight,” I said with finality.  Letting go of the button, I sat back and took a shaky breath.  

“Holy shit,” Interface whispered, looking at me with a surprised smile.  “You sounded like Titan for a second there.”

“Titan kept secrets,” I said.  “It served him perfectly on Tso’got.  You guys had to stay hidden, had to be under the radar.  The time for secrecy has come and gone. There’s no more need for duplicity.  There’s only one way this ends, and we all know it.”

Interface dared to flash me a smile, “You know, if he had gotten you in his family earlier, I think things would have been a lot smoother.”

I rolled my eyes, “Things would have been smoother too if my friend didn’t eat nearly four-hundred people in downtown Ciel.   But, it happened.  We just have to roll with the punches.”

Interface chuckled, “You keep sounding so confident and I’m going to sneak into your room one of these nights.  Gotta say, confident leadership is a hot look on you.”

I blushed, caught wildly off guard by their ribald comment.  “What, but-“

“Oh my God, it’s too easy!” they exclaimed, clapping their hands together with amusement.  I hated that they were grinning ear to ear, thoroughly enjoying how awkward I felt now.  “You and Eldritch, so easy to fuck with!”  

“I thought you were into guys,” I blurted, completely flustered. 

Interface scoffed, “Drag, seriously.  Look at me.  Do I look like someone who is really all that discerning?”

“I’m not sure how to answer that.  Either way,” I said, trying to regain control of this conversation, “Fuck you.  I need to go work on my damned armor.” 

Interface cackle followed me out the door and I was glad when a slab of metal finally separated us.  Without their energy, I started to feel the anxieties of leadership creeping back in.  What I had suggested was so simple, but there was too many variables to try and account for.  Who did I send to which location?  What kind of Trillodan Adapted would we encounter?  What sort of traps would Zellig have waiting for us? 

I walked by a door and felt a pang of remorse in my chest.  Clairvoyant had spent most of her time the last few days asleep, trying to induce visions of the future.  While Infinite had only needed Command in times of extreme stress, Command had almost completely enabled Clairvoyant.  Those two had acted like an early alarm system from Titan and had helped him elegantly side-step countless disasters.  

Right now I longed for some glimpse at what was to come.  

“We’re really doing this,” a gravelly voice said behind me.  

I turned around, seeing the shaved head and grim visage of Beleth.  A few months ago, I would have been terrified being so close to him.  Now, he instilled a strange sense of confidence.  “Yeah.  We really are,” I said in mild disbelief.  

“Your group has a fair amount of friction with me.”

“You mean Eldritch,” I corrected.  

He sighed, “Yes.”

“You executed his parents.  Do you think he’s just going to be okay with you because you two are working for the same cause?” 

“No,” he finally admitted.  “But I know that thing inside him is prone to losing control.  The last thing I want is him eating me on the battlefield because I’m vulnerable.  I don’t want to die ahead of schedule.” 

I stared at the cold, calculating gangster and scoffed.  “You’re already thinking of what you want to do after all this shit.  You’re looking out for your own skin because you want to make sure you can go back to Tso’got and go back to business as usual!”  I stepped forward, pressing a finger to his chest, “Listen, Beleth, you need to fucking get it through you head: I don’t speak for that monster.  I know my friend won’t kill you because he’s not a bastard.  He wants to see this through to the end.  But the monster, I don’t know how much of a grudge that thing holds.”  I shook my head, “I wouldn’t worry about what Eldritch wants after this.  I would worry about surviving all of this shit first.”

Beleth winced, “You have your machines to dive into.  We all have our coping mechanisms.  If we can’t think about what to do afterward, do you think we’re going to be motivated to give it our all?  Did you ever consider that I don’t want to be aimless the second we are done with this hellish affair?  Did you ever consider that maybe I’m as fucking scared as everyone else here and don’t want to think about the fact we’re almost sure to die on Xalanni?” 

I was caught completely aback.  Beleth was someone I considered most stoic, most immovable.  He was like the rock he commanded in that he never wavered.  But now, there was vulnerability.  

“Listen, he won’t eat you.  Eldritch has been working on controlling the beast.  And, you’re right,” I conceded, “I shouldn’t shame you for wanting to think about what comes after all this.  I’m sorry.  But, if you insist on going back to being a Scoundrel in Ciel, I’m going to kick you off that throne again.  You can be sure of it.”

Beleth offered a smirk as he reached a hand out.  “You’ll try.”

Returning his smirk, I reached forward and shook his hand, a mutual understanding reached between us.  As he left, I groaned and rubbed my temples.  I was gonna get more weirdness like this before we arrived at Xalanni.  More concerns and deathbed requests.  People were going to be on edge, on each others nerves, but at least we had a fight to look forward to.  

Even if it was going to be our demise, we would all gladly go charging into the fray.  

“We are Adapted, we fight,” I whispered to myself, echoing Titan’s little mantra.  

As quickly as I could, I scuttled back to my room and locked the door.  There was going to be a barrage of questions and demands from me, but I couldn’t deal with it yet.  I needed to decompress and come to terms with the collision course I had set for us.  Beleth daring to be vulnerable and scared was more than I could handle right now.    

Sitting at my desk, I glanced at my mess that was my unfinished armor and forced my Adaptation to stay dormant.  I wasn’t ready yet.  I would be distracted and end up giving myself a nauseating headache if I tried to build.  

Instead my hand shot to the metal orb on my desk.  Giving it a squeeze, the metal ball hummed to life and a projection of Skaberen appeared in the center of my room.  He took a moment to survey the area and the hologram offered me a smile.  “Dragoon.  What a pleasant surprise.  How can I help you?” 

“I need to know more about the Immortal Matron and Zellig.  I need to know how to beat them,” I said, somehow hoping that this alien’s memories would contain some kind of silver bullet.  “There has to be something I can do, something I can use that will guarantee me some kind of victory, right?  I’m not just leading all these people to their death, am I?” 

The projection’s face fell slowly and he offered a somber shake of the head.  “If there was a single trick to wiping them out, I think someone would have done it ages ago.  As it stands, I don’t believe that there is one specific tool that will guarantee victory.  I believe that Trillodan technology has simply made that impossible.”

“Am I leading all my friends to die?” I demanded, my voice cracking.  “Please.  I need to know if we have a chance.”  

The hologram nodded, “I’m not the right person to estimate odds of victory or to ponder the outcomes of battle, but I believe that there is a chance for success.  I believe that the Trillodan are vulnerable to assault because it hasn’t happened in centuries.  To compliment that fact, there has never been anything like you all before.  The Trillodan will not be sure how to deal with you.  While Zellig and his legion might be well enough equipped and trained, the common soldier won’t be.”

“But they are still the Trillodan military,” I grumbled.  “No matter if they aren’t equipped to deal with us, they are still going to have plenty of raw firepower at their disposal.” 

Skaberen’s silence was all the confirmation I needed.  

I groaned, “Great. Even though I have our alien creator onboard, he doesn’t have the answer to all my questions.”

“I never claimed I was going to.  I simply wanted us to meet.  I wanted to try and arm you with as much relevant information as possible.”

“Which, how were you getting that information?” I asked.  “None of us know how you are even obtaining information about the Trillodan.  They spy on hundreds of solar systems, not the other way around.  No one has ever been able to even find their homeworld before Almanac existed.  How-”

“Overconfidence on their part,” he replied honestly.  “They don’t think about protecting or encrypting their own immense stream of information.  One of my colleagues more versed in this sort of thing enabled us to hijack the information and keep an eye on them.” 

“You’ve been silently watching their society progress for years.  And this device,” I said, pointing to the metal sphere, “It has all the memory of what you’ve seen?  This databank essentially has every scrap of information about the Trillodan homeworld that you have?” 

“With a slight margin of error, yes.  There are things that I haven’t accessed with my mind or found irrelevant that likely weren’t appropriately transmitted.  But the vast majority-”

“I want to know everything about their Adapted.  You said they had a tremendous breakthrough.  What happened?  And, who?” I asked.  “I’m assuming it was one of Zellig’s legion who opted to be the first guinea pig.”

The projection distorted and turned into what looked like a Trillodan soldier made of tar.  His form was imperfect and there was stuff literally dripping off the limbs, like the farther it reached forward, the harder it became to hold shape.  “What, what is this?” 

“This,” Skaberen’s voice insisted, “Is what has become of his lieutenant, Tol.  Titan burned the man to a crisp and he was bound to die.  When given sufficient integration of Kelotan, this is what he turned into.  While it looks like a disaster, I assure you that his new form is decidedly more troubling than his old one.”

“Why?” 

“Remember that the Kelotan is bound to the person it bonds with and it is largely affected by their mental disposition at the time of awakening.  He was on deaths door and had been for a long time, even before being burned to death.  Tol had a condition called Exscarra, a genetic defect where his skin was hyper-prone to infection.  Unlike the rest of the Trillodan, he practically lived inside his armor because he needed the insulation from the outside world.  Without it, he was sure to die.”

“So he wanted to be free of his armor?”

“He wanted to live, at all costs.  His new form is proving to be nearly indestructible and is still coupled with that killer instinct that Tol exhibits.  He can mold some of the liquid into metal and has a regenerative factor that puts Hydra or Parasite to shame.” 

I sighed with frustration, “Great.  A hyper-regenerative Tol.  That’s what we needed.  What else do you know?” 

“At the time of this brain scan, I had found several instances of Vaneel’s work.  Notably with Zellig’s legion but there was also some testing done with additional Trillodan soldiers.  Like you all, the range varied tremendously and some were minor in the grand scheme of things, but some were more along the lines of what you’d consider an ‘a-list’ power.  A few of these-”

“Stop,” I said, raising a hand to silence the projection.  “I, I don’t have the capacity for this right now,” I realized.  

“It was not my intent to overwhelm you.  I was simply informing you of what you were up against.”

“I know,” I muttered.  I gave another glance to my mound of scrap metal and sighed. It was still so far from done and I was staring down a horde of Trillodan Adapted on the horizon.  “Skaberen,” I asked softly, “Are you proud of us?  Even though we might have delivered Adaptations to the Trillodan, do you look at us like a success at least?” 

I shouldn’t have cared about what he thought of us, but I realized that I wanted some kind of confirmation that we weren’t fuck ups.  Even though he had experimented on our parents without consent, even though he had been spying on us silently for a decade and a half, I wanted to hear this alien scientist assure me that we weren’t a mistake.  I wanted to have that semblance of approval from someone other than another one of my peers.  

As a few tears started to accumulate in my eyes, I let out a weak laugh.  For all my mature face and pragmatic decision making, I was still the same girl from Tso’got who was in way over her head.  I was still the same child who felt they needed to prove something.  After all this hell, I finally realized all I wanted to hear was that I was good enough.    

“Alexis,” Skaberen said softly, wearing that sad smile, “No matter what happens on Xalanni, no matter what I think of you, the universe is going to remember you all.  You will be the first people to fight the Trillodan, to attack Xalanni, and to seriously threaten them in a millenia.  No matter what becomes of you all, you are a tremendous success.”

Turning my head, I looked at the mound of metal.  “Thank you, Skaberen,” I said as I reached forward and clicked the orb again, shutting off the projection.  Taking a deep breath, I cleared my mind of the anxiety and looming threats of the Trillodan.  I did my best to distance myself from the battle to come and centered myself on the current.  

“Alright,” I muttered as I allowed my Adaptation to spring to life, “We have a suit of armor to finish.” 

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