I grumbled as I glanced at my last pack of pilfered cigarettes. “Twenty more,” I grumbled, “Why didn’t I grab another case on Vuuldar?”
“Because you should keep your lungs in working condition,” Yessi mumbled from the floor without looking up. She had been working hand in hand with Dragoon on the design of her new suit and arsenal. Thanks to her power being in high demand, she and I hadn’t spent much time together in the last week.
Other people needed Toolkit more than I needed Yessi.
I stepped out into the hallway and pulled a cigarette free of the carton. On the third flick of a lighter, a tongue of flame graced the end of my cancer stick; a deep breath in pulled the flame and started that beautiful orange glow. Holding it in, I savored the feeling and taste of the menthol before letting out a long puff.
“We’re nothing if not creatures of habit,” a dangerous voice said beside me.
“If that’s your way of asking for one, you can piss off,” I replied as I stared out at the stars. Beside me, the bald Beleth stepped closer, smirking. “It’s my last pack. I’m not sharing these with nobody.”
“And?” I shot back. “We’re about to wage war on the Trillodan. I figure if I live through that whole ordeal, I’m on borrowed time. These things are the least of my worries.”
Beleth’s smirk faded, the telltale signs of worry and anxiety plain as day to anyone who knew what they were looking for. Back on Tso’got, the two of us had been masters of bluffing, hiding the concerns and anxieties. To look weak was to invite challenge. Inviting a challenge meant risking losing one of your crew or your whole operation.
He didn’t need to say anything, not to me.
As much as we had been at each other’s throats, we understood the other. I was reckless, a volatile missile. I lived for the fight, to destroy as much as possible. My gift made me feel alive, made me feel strong. Every duel was a competition to see if I could blast someone into submission before they managed to answer my volley. Beleth was all about control. He manipulated the battlefield and ran a tighter operation than I ever had. He strangled the competition, he stifled opposition with a kind of grace and elegance that one had to admire.
But now that he didn’t have semblance of that control, he was adrift. He was in my preferred realm, and he hated it.
“We’re gonna make it through this,” I assured him.
“No we won’t, Curtis,” he said softly. “We’re going to their home turf. We’re going against Trillodan with our gifts and their technology. We’re a hundred strong against how many?”
I sighed and opened my pack of cigarettes, extending it to him. “Just to shut you up, fucking take one.”
He hesitated but eventually accepted my offer.
“You gotta have a little faith in us,” I said. “We might be few in number and all, but there’s still a lot of firepower on this ship. You, me, Clemency, Hydra, Eldritch-“
“Stop,” he insisted, “Just, stop, Curtis. I know exactly who is on this ship. I feel everyone walking. I know exactly who is onboard. I know exactly what people can do and… and…”
“You don’t want to think about who isn’t going to be on the ship at the end,” I said, solemn.
I didn’t push the issue, instead allowing the silence to settle while I took a long drag. It was probably a full minute before I finally decided to do anything besides smoke. “Tony,” I said, “Listen, when we go down there, I’m going to pair up with you. The two of us are going to show those tyrannical pricks exactly who we are. We’re the goddamn kings of Ciel, right?”
He didn’t reply.
I turned away from the window and punched my competitor, “Right?”
He grimaced and shoved me in reply. As soon as he did, he finally smiled. “Right.”
“We have a fucking score to settle, and we’re gonna fucking settle it.”
I felt a pang in my chest; Kudzu, Collision, and then Mizu had all been casualties of our war with the Trillodan. Of my original team of seven, only three of us remained: Siphon, Toolkit, and me. Beleth’s crew had only lost one man with Pyre, but I knew he still felt that same gnaw in his chest.
“My only loss is to a monster we brought with us,” he muttered. “A monster that still probably wants to eat me.”
I scoffed, “If he wanted to eat you, he’d have done it already. Eldritch may not like you, but he’s not out to kill you anymore. We’ve been through enough and you’ve proved it to him. I was there too when we fought the swath of Zellig’s legion and he didn’t turn on us, even when under duress.”
Beleth nodded, “Fair point.”
“Stop getting too inside your own head and worrying about everything you can’t control,” I said with a laugh as I took another drag. “Worry about the future after we win. No matter what happens, we’re still Adapted. We’re still going to go back to Tso’got and be fucking kings. Until then, live in the moment. Enjoy what we can.”
My frenemy dared to give me a tepid smile. “Thanks for the cigarette.”
He walked away, leaving me alone with the remainder of my smoke. Once I had burned it down to the butt, I stomped it out and flicked the remainder into the little windowsill. I’m sure Yessi was coming by and cleaning it off. She was a bit of a neatfreak over the strangest things. At this point I left clothes in a heap and cigarette butts laying around to drive her crazy for the fun of it.
If she really wanted something from me, she’d tell me. Until then, I was going to enjoy my little games. I had to stay sane somehow.
Walking down to the galley, I smiled as the scents of blood and sweat rushed to my nostrils. A fight was already underway in our little training arena: Psycho vs. Goliath. Psycho was in his narcissist form today, a seven foot tall adonis that was incredibly tenacious. Even though he was bleeding, every injury you tried to inflict on him only managed to be skin deep. The muscle on his form was like hitting a solid wall of steel. He boasted being invincible while in this state and I hadn’t seen anyone disprove that theory yet.
I had to occasionally remind myself that man was the second most dangerous man on this ship when push came to shove. Even Eldritch had almost succumbed to his schizophrenic state at full swing.
Poor Goliath didn’t really stand a chance against Psycho. Even though Goliath was a foot taller and covered in muscle, he didn’t have nearly the same speed. Psycho ducked and weaved, zipping in and landing combos over and over again. For each punch Goliath landed, Psycho answered with six of his own. While Goliath slowly tired and his muscle fatigued, Psycho seemed to get more and more invigorated, the bloodlust clearly getting to him as the fight continued.
I quickly scanned the crowd, frowning when I didn’t spot Adamant. He was Dragoon’s quick referee since he could stop anyone from continuing a fight. And, the more I watched Psycho, the more I saw murderous instinct.
Goliath stumbled and Psycho landed a heavy cross into his opponent’s jaw. Goliath went down, clearly unable to fight. It didn’t stop Psycho from lunging after him like a wild animal.
“Fuck,” I hissed, forcing energy into my hands. My bones flexed as kinetic energy built and then escaped my fingers. I grit my teeth as the blast slammed into Psycho and tossed him away from Goliath; his bloodthirsty gaze immediately switched to me.
“How dare you!” he bellowed, planting a foot and launching himself straight at me. Everyone around the ring hesitated to intervene, and I couldn’t blame them. No one wanted to get between Psycho and his prey. Lucky for me, him being nearly invincible meant I didn’t need to hold back.
Energy flowed through my veins, building in my hands. As Psycho planted his foot and took a last leap toward me, I focused it into my fingertips and fired a quintet of kinetic bolts into his face. Four didn’t make too much impact, but one found a soft spot. Blood exploded out from his face as he cried out, suddenly missing his right eye. The distraction cost his attention as I raised my other hand, blasting him in the chest point-blank with the built up energy store.
With both hands expelled, I forced more power downwards, causing my hands to glow. Psycho hit the ground and rolled, finding his feet more quickly than I would have liked. He glared at me, an eye already rebuilding in the empty socket. “You little fucking rat!”
“Now, now,” I cautioned, “You get nasty, I’ll take your other eye out too.” That wasn’t the idea; I just wanted to entertain his penchant for monologuing. The upside of his narcissism state was that he did the sound of his own voice. The longer he talked, the more energy I could charge into my hands.
“You do and I’m going to rip your fucking arms off.”
“Hey,” I called, “That’s not very nice! I don’t have a healing factor like you do!”
His eye was mostly regenerated now which was enough reason for him to barrel forward and end our banter.
I grinned as he launched himself forward. He was quick, but I brought my hands up to clap just before he could get a hold of me.
The mass of energy fused and fired from my hands in a thin line, detonating on Psycho’s chest. The incurring blast actually pushed me back a few meters but it sent him sailing across the room and slamming into the wall, denting the metal. I got back to my feet as several other people intervened, grabbing hold of the Altered and restraining him while he got a hold of himself.
A mechanical thudding got my attention as our fearless leader strutted in, wearing her new power armor. It was a suit that almost seemed alive as it constantly adjusted to remain flexible while she moved, like it was some kind of second skin. The metal looked like it had been spray painted a light purple though little bits of grey and silver poked through and the surface shifted. Unlike her previous models, this suit had actual slits for her eyes, giving a more human appearance. To my surprise, it gave her an extra foot of stature but she moved with incredible ease. One thing that I noticed wasn’t all together yet was her arsenal. There was a gun built into her left wrist but there was plenty more that she’d given to Toolkit to fine tune.
“What the fuck is going on here?” she demanded.
“Psycho’s power went a bit overboard,” I said. “Bloodlust from his narcissistic form got him a little too fired up.”
Across the room, Psycho had calmed down. In part because Hydra had shifted to a monstrous amphibian with dozens of tentacles to ensnare his limbs, but also because Pacifist was quietly pouring energy into him, dimming his hostile inclinations. Other people wouldn’t notice, but a little perk of my Adaptation was that I could trace energy transmission; Beleth had always wondered if I had a danger sense since he never seemed to be able to catch me in his traps. I’d debated telling him but felt like playing my extra benefit close to the vest.
“I’m fine now,” he said, annoyed. “I underestimated how fragile Goliath was.”
Dragoon nodded and Hydra let go of Psycho, letting the Altered storm off to vent his frustration elsewhere.
“Nice suit,” I said as the Cognate walked by me.
“It’s taken me enough time,” she grumbled, “Replicating Trillodan technology has been a massive pain in the ass. I don’t think I could have done it without Toolkit. Make sure she knows how grateful I am for all her time with this.”
I shrugged, “She’s glad to have something to do. She’s been a bit annoyed at having no work, so you’ve given her a fun challenge.”
There was a long pause from Dragoon as a pause fell over the arena, people waiting to see who was going to take their place in the middle next. With Psycho going ape-shit it had thrown a serious wrench in the flow of our usual proceedings. Taking charge, I stepped forward into the center of our makeshift battleground. “Dragoon,” I said, answering the unspoken question of who I wished to challenge, “I think we should give your suit a little stress test, don’t you?”
Even though I couldn’t see her face, I could practically feel the shock at being challenged, but she obliged. She stepped forward as I quietly started dumping energy into my hands.
“How hard?” I asked politely.
“Give me fifty percent,” Dragoon answered. “I want to make sure I can take a good beating in this thing.”
“Understood.” Without offering any warning, I pushed the energy to my palm and let a sheet of kinetic energy fire out. Dragoon raised her arms to block, but she still went tumbling backwards. Before she could screech to a halt, I raised my left fist and fired a ball of energy, drilling her downed body and slamming her all the way across the room. People on the fringe of our makeshift pit scattered as I continued to pressure her suit with a constant barrage of energy blasts, refusing to relent and let her find her feet. My veins kept lighting up as more and more energy flowed through my body, all flowing into my hands.
I knew some people would look at me like I was some kind of bastard for this, but the Trillodan weren’t going to pull punches.
Dragoon tried to push herself up, using the wall as a backstop. She allowed herself to endure the frontal trauma so long as she could regain her footing. A bloodthirsty smile crept up along my face as I concentrated energy into my fingertips and flicked my wrist, whipping a bright bolt of energy into the side of her knee. It erupted once it made contact; Dragoon cried out and sank but I gave no reprieve. She was going to have to do better than this, if she wanted to fight alongside us.
Pain and frustration started to change to rage for Dragoon and she finally made her move. A hand slammed against the wall and she pushed forward, rolling away and cutting to the left. Her suit let out a mechanical whine as she took massive strides, circling around me and forcing me to pivot, caught off guard by the burst of speed. Planting her foot, she turned and cut in towards me, running in slants to avoid me getting an easy read on her pathing.
I backpedaled, building up my charge as she closed the gap between us, knowing that she wasn’t going to be able to dodge once she got within striking distance.
She knew it too and raised her wrist, the minigun whirring to life.
I turned my left hand flat and let the charge fly through my fingertips; a thin, white line of energy fire forward right for my opponent’s knees. Dragoon had the presence of mind to dive and roll over the top, but it left her no recourse for the charge stored in my right hand. As she rose to her feet, I thrust my arm forward and let a ball of energy fly; upon contact, it erupted and hit Dragoon with the kinetic energy of a car crash.
Dragoon’s body bounced off the floor and flopped backwards, dragging and clattering along the ground. For a second, I was worried I hit her too hard. However, her fingers flexed and she got back to her feet, staggering around as her equilibrium settled.
“You alright in there?” I asked.
“I think you bruised my sternum, but otherwise not bad,” she replied. She ran her fingers over her armor, but as far as I could tell there was nothing wrong with it. Despite my onslaught, it had held up remarkably well. “How hard was that?”
“Last hit should have been something like twenty-thousand newtons, enough to rip somebody’s arm off,” I said with a shrug. “You barely seemed to give a shit.”
“I mean, it hurt,” she said with a laugh, “But my last suit would have cracked.”
“Sounds like a profound improvement then.”
The metal swam away from her face, her whole head covering dissolving into a stream of metal sand. Dragoon’s face plate split down the middle and came to rest over the top of her shoulders.
It was strange seeing the redhead’s face exposed while the rest of her was encased in a suit of steel, but I couldn’t stifle my smile.
This was the girl we agreed to follow into the fray. This was the frustrating and brilliant engineer who had brought Ciel to its knees in a matter of months. Eldritch might have been the monster of Rogue Sentries at first glance but she was the real demon pulling the strings. And now that she was dabbling into Trillodan technology, there was a good chance that she was rapidly becoming more powerful than the majority of the people on this ship.
“Grab Beleth,” she instructed as she stepped closer to shake my hand, “We’re getting close to the end of things, and we all need to have a talk.”
I could practically feel the adrenaline pumping already at the prospect of the fight to come. “Understood.”
There were twenty of us present. Twenty people who were going to help spearhead this whole foire into the abyss. Twenty people who represented the most powerful and most influential among the Adapted that were still standing.
It felt strange being among them. I never really thought of myself as all that profound a leader. Back on Tso’got, I had mostly been enforcement for Imperium, I had never really been the head of the organization. Even though I had plenty of sway, I just wanted to secure a good place for me and my own.
Dragoon had just shown us the contents of Skaberen’s last gift to us; a talking hologram who could show us the pain points we needed to hit on Xalanni. He had been generous enough to explain a little bit about the Crimson Cities as well and the threat they posed to us if able to be leveraged against us.
Around me I could see a wide spectrum of emotional responses: terror and dread was matched with plenty who exuded confidence. There were just as many who were petrified of meeting the challenge as there were those who yearned to rise to it.
“Four spots to attack,” Hydra said, finally breaking the silence after Skaberen’s hologram was shut off. “You intend to split us up, evenly?”
“No,” Dragoon replied, “I do not. I want to try and place everyone with those they can harmonize with to get the most out of their powers. For example, I won’t need everyone to assault the garrison because I’m going to dump Eldritch at it.”
“You’re putting that animal next to a massive food supply, again?”
“Yes,” Dragoon replied to Siege, shooting him a glare. “You have all seen him train, seen him prove time and time again that he has control over his gift. The only reason he lost control was because he was pushed time and time again with that damned orbital cannon blasting him. There won’t be such grand displays of destruction here, not if we are fighting in their capital city, Selir.” She sighed, “Besides, we all know we’re up against the wall, and we all know that he is at his best when he’s allowed to feast. We might not like it, but we all got our asses kicked by him during Feast Day. We need all the firepower we can get.”
“Who’s going with him?” Hydra asked. “He’s going to be vulnerable to start and even someone that big should have someone watching their back.”
“I’m planning to send Playlist and most of Titan’s Children with him,” she replied. “I think that they will do a good job protecting his flank.” Dragoon turned to Adamant, “I’d like you and the Lost Children to go with him too. If they have some kind of giant threat to Eldritch, you can take care of it. Exchange and Distortion should do well running interference as well.”
Adamant nodded, “You got it.”
“The hall of the Eternal Council should be fairly low priority for the garrison soldiers given Eldritch will be on a hell of a rampage, but I still think I’m going to assign a fair amount of manpower into this. The quicker we get the job done, the quicker we can allocate resources to helping with the remaining garrison troops or dealing with that doomsday shelter they call the Arms Discovery. Beleth, Shockwave, and Seige, you’ll be responsible for flattening that place to the ground.” She turned to the man who had seen fit to put back on his cobalt colored armor, “Clemency, I’m going to entrust the demolition of Vaneel’s laboratory to you and Stampede.”
He gave a nod and locked eyes with the woman who could conjure animals from her own blood; the two of them gave each other a nod but didn’t bother saying a word. I couldn’t help but chuckle: I’d never seen Clemency so quiet before. The self-righteous Projector too often wanted to add his opinion to the conversation. .
“That means the rest of us are going to war against whatever abominations Vaneel has cooked up. If what Vaneel has done to Tol is any indication, some of them are going to be a nightmare to kill. My hope,” she said, glancing to Psycho, “Is that you’re going to be in a combat form that day and can help us lead the charge.”
He scoffed, “I’ll be able to lead the charge regardless. Vaneel’s miscreants aren’t going to stop me.”
I rolled my eyes at the wall of muscle, half-hoping he saw.
“What about me?” Infinite asked meekly from the back. As all eyes turned to her, she seemed to shrink back into her seat some more. It had always perplexed me why someone so powerful like her would be so shy and frightened of people. Then again, some of us had more horrific pasts than others.
“You’re taking a Crimson City with Interface. Once it is secure and Interface can gain control, they can bombard the surface and provide support to Eldritch against the garrison or maybe blast the Arms Discovery to speed up that process. While you’re there, you’ll get to spring Titan.” Dragoon sighed, “If it all goes to hell and they rally, you’re going to pivot your role and defend the ship while Interface engages Protocol 37 to torch the surface.”
“Why aren’t we starting with that?” one of the Vuuldar representatives asked. “They are so dangerous and they’ve killed dozens, if not hundreds, of worlds. Why should theirs survive?”
“Because we aren’t fucking terrorists,” Hydra snapped, her death glare boring a hole into the man. “Because we aren’t mindless freaks who delight in destruction and the mass murder of innocent people. I’m sure that every person on Xalanni isn’t a combatant, and they didn’t have a damn thing to do with Zellig’s actions or the destruction of Earth.”
“She’s right,” Dragoon said, stopping Hydra from getting any more wound up. “We don’t want to just be a different brand of the Trillodan. We want to make a point to be assertive but not merciless. This is our chance to send a different message to the cosmos, to show that there can be a different way.”
“And what happens when things go tits up?” I asked. “We both know that Zellig has been a step ahead of us at every juncture. While you might think differently compared to Titan, you know that big, grey bastard has been doing this a lot longer than you.”
“Shockwave, I don’t think that you’re giving her enough credit,” Ragdoll said, glaring at me.
“He’s right,” she said over the top of the muttering that was starting to ripple around the room. “Zellig has been doing this for literal centuries and that’s why he’s so damn dangerous. Aside from all his strength and speed, Zellig is smart. Shockwave, to answer your question, we’re going to try and give ourselves and edge and be in touch. Every time we go into a brawl, we’re disorganized. We immediately cut out our Cognates because they aren’t combat focused. It’s why I’m working on a small implant I can give to everyone to enable quick communication.”
“A crowd of voices in my ear at all times is going to be distracting,” Beleth pointed out.
“I’m aware. That’s why Toolkit has been helping me narrow the focus and engineer a way to specifically target someone else to communicate with instead of just a global channel.”
“And what about people who don’t have a power strong enough to fight against their grunts? All of them are still wearing power armor.”
“I’m working on making a prototype line of weapons that Multi-task is going to be able to replicate and mass produce for us. Basically a high-powered rifle capable of punching a hole through their armor,” Dragoon explained to Strychnine, one of the few big names from Tso’got I hadn’t gotten familiar with. From what Clemency told me about him, he was a real piece of work.
“When will we get there?” Beleth asked, his voice booming over the other few scattered questions.
Dragoon turned to Infinite, “Your guess?”
Infinite stared forward, like she was peering through the wall of the ship, assessing the void of space surrounding us. “Two weeks should be enough,” she replied slowly, “Give or take a few days. I can slow us down as we get closer.”
Just hearing that time frame was enough to bring the room to life. Those who had been silent and still started to stir. The prospect of a fight was like a dose of caffeine to all of us.
Even though we were marching in with no real way to retreat, we were all excited. People like Beleth have their concerns and reservations but I knew he was eager for a chance to flex and demonstrate exactly why he deserved to be the king of Ciel when we managed to return home.
I felt another thrum of energy in my chest as our little war room planning wrapped up, a sense of purpose washing over me.
There was a war for me to fight.