I had done what was needed. I had gotten Dragoon and the others to surface safely. Now it was time for me to get back what had been taken from me.
Reaching through the crowd, I singled out Interface and bound myself to them, using my gift of Farsight to see that massive metal structure lingering in the atmosphere. Another use of Teleportation took us up in the blink of an eye; it was jarring enough that Interface fell to their knees and vomited.
“Give me some fucking warning,” they begged between heaves.
I fought the urge to snap back; I knew that my own power made me angry and Interface didn’t deserve any of that hostility. They were here to help me, to provide me with some direction to finding Titan in this metal maze. The two of us were playing support staff for the rest of the Adapted who were raiding the Trillodan capital of Selir.
“Sorry,” I said finally, offering a weak apology. While Interface recovered from the rapid and unexpected teleportation, I assessed my power selection, knowing full well I’d need to fight my way to Titan. I kept my gift of Teleportation and Reach but dismissed the other six I had needed to drag the ship through space.
Taking a deep breath, I closed my eyes and seized a handful of more combat oriented gifts: Danger Sense, Annihilation, Tenacity, Expansion, and Diffuse Energy were all seized from the void and incorporated into my body. I grit my teeth as I felt those hands reaching around my wrists again, holding me fast for a moment.
“Not real,” I snarled, “That was a long time ago.” Taking another deep breath I finally took stock of my surroundings. We were at the bottom of what looked like a metal trench with dozens of floors stretching overhead. Bridges granted access across the pit that we had teleported into, and given the sounds above us, there was plenty of activity going on thanks to the ship we had just slammed into Selir. “Interface, where can we find a control console for you?”
They started reaching through the air, sampling the electric interference and wavelengths they could interact with. “Above us, about fifteen floors up. We’re a ways off, but this place is huge too. Like five kilometers across,” they guessed. “If we can get a little deeper in I can direct us better.”
“Not a problem for me. Get ready,” I said as I grabbed their arm.
In a blink we were on the fifteenth floor and greeted by a locked door that forbade entry without clearance. I rolled my eyes and raised my left hand; my Annihilate power reduced the door to shreds with a horrific scream. If that wasn’t enough for the Trillodan to know they had company onboard, the alarms started sounding. Interface looked at the ground, their eyes tracking something I couldn’t see. “Where?”
“Trying to figure-“
A group of Trillodan soldiers rounded the corner, armed to the teeth; a single use of Annihilate reduced them to piles of gore and scrap metal.
Interface turned a bit green but kept tracking the signal, rushing forward with me in tow. Any door was demolished with a flick of my hand and my Danger Sense kept us safe. I couldn’t help but grin; these were the terrors of the cosmos, the ships capable of reducing a planet to an inhospitable waste. But once you were inside, they were remarkably fragile.
Our forward progress was met by increased resistance, but my gift of Annihilate allowed me to literally rip apart every threat and obstacle they could impose. Metal was nothing but scrap that hadn’t been affected yet. Energy Diffuse made it impossible for their feeble lasers to do any meaningful damage and allowed me to be a shield for Interface. Even though they were mortified, I didn’t care. As far as I was concerned, all of these soldiers were just one more wall between me and Titan.
And nothing in this universe was going to keep him from me. Zellig had gotten under my skin and baited me, tricked me into losing control. He had exploited a weakness of mine and showed me exactly how fragile I was despite all my power. Unlucky for his cohorts, he’d shown me what I needed to guard myself against. To make it worse, he’d given me a reason to fight.
All of my time as an Altered, I had been afraid to use my power. I had been mortified by the past it made me relive. I loathed having to dig into that bottomless well of suffering I had endured so I could emerge with enough firepower to cripple a continent. The only reason I had ever willingly dove in was to help Titan.
He was the architect of this dream. I was just a tool he could employ. None of my actions were in my own self-interest; they were all a labor of love to help his dream become reality.
Since I had escaped that basement, this was the first time I had shamelessly acted in self-interest. I let that pain drive me and motivate me. I felt no remorse wading through the soldiers on board; I was going to make all of them hurt like I had. They would all feel the fear and agony I had felt.
I lost track of time with my bloody work and most of it happened in near silence. Interface hardly spoke, their mouth sewn shut at witnessing my gory display. Interface wasn’t clean by any means. I knew their hands were dirtied from carrying out missions fighting against Suppression and Snatchers back on Tso’got. Titan had utilized Interface’s ability to remain out of sight to carry out mission after mission.
But they had always been remote. They had witnessed the slaughter through a camera lens. Interface had never been in their own skin around such carnage, and certainly not this close and personal. I didn’t need to have heightened senses or boosted intuition to recognize the horror towards me. That horror kept a tense stillness between us that was louder than the constant blare of the alarm klaxons.
As we progressed inward, the ship clearly had one massive and inaccessible core to it.
“The reactor,” Interface informed me. “The whole thing is powered by something…absurd. This makes nuclear power look like a car battery. I don’t know how you could make this safely; the radiation seems like it would just melt people.”
“The whole thing was built out of orbit,” a sinister voice replied, the letters drawn out like a snake’s hiss. “T-too heavy to have come crashing down on our surface. Too many problems.”
I had seen the little snippets from Skaberen’s memory that Dragoon had shared. I knew about the mutilation that Tol had suffered and how he had been malformed. “Interface, get behind me,” I snapped.
“P-playing protector. Seems unlike you a-after watching you,” Tol said, his body still remaining imperceptible. I grit my teeth and grabbed another power: Heightened Senses. Along the floor, a thin trail of sludge leading back around a corner. He was throwing his voice to screw with us and using his bizarre physiology to spy on us.
“You’re mimicking Forest,” I growled. “Leaving part of yourself around to spy on someone while you hide.”
The trail along the group receded as the monstrosity that Tol had become stepped into the corridor with us. “And y-you’re pretending you’re human. You’re a b-bigger freak than me,” he said with a cackle, a row of metallic teeth forming in his mouth to provide a ghastly smile. “So cold, so calculated-“
I raised a hand and cut him off, blasting his torso into droplets. Still, I didn’t turn away; Skaberen had said that he was damn near immortal with this new body of his. And, sure enough, I watched the tar-like solution move on its own, collecting into a singular mass. “Interface, keep moving. Every time this-“ My danger sense screamed at me that something was going to cause a small inferno in this space; I threw myself over Interface, shielding my friend as a Trillodan in yellow armor appeared. As she materialized, rolling flames and a shockwave rippled through the air.
Even with a gift to mitigate an explosion, it still knocked me over and burned my skin. Despite my shielding, Interface fared far worse and fumbled around on the ground, blind and disoriented.
The second of Zellig’s horrible lieutenants, Salah. Of course the one with a penchant for munitions had a gift that allowed for calamitous entry. Growling, I raised a hand to Annihilate, but she vanished as quickly as she had appeared. Even with my heightened senses, I didn’t hear a second explosive burst.
There was something else to her gift, some kind of gating or requirement to trigger that destructive aftershock.
Another warning, this one promising something toxic. My Tenacity power would keep me standing but that wasn’t something I could extend to Interface. And from what little I knew of Zellig’s last lieutenant, Omec had something insidious in store.
“Interface. Guess where the damned controls are,” I snapped. I needed to get them in place before I reset my power scheme to properly fight.
Interface scanned the ground, trying to follow the maze of electrical current and signals that ran through this monstrosity of a vessel. “I, um-“
“Four hundred meters ahead. Down a corridor to the right, through another giant door.”
I grabbed my accomplice and pulled us through the nether, reappearing in a quiet hallway, right in front of a door that was labeled with Trillodan letters. Raising a hand, I blasted my way in, seeing what looked vaguely like a control console. Massive arrays of foreign readouts and a plethora of buttons, switches, keypads, and a myriad of gizmos I didn’t begin to understand. “Good guess,” I said, the pleasure of Interface being right counterbalancing the ache in my skull.
Interface looked at the massive machine and then looked back to me, “Once I’m in, I am completely vulnerable. If they kill my body, I lose the ship too.”
“I will protect-“
“Me from someone who can teleport and detonate a bomb where they show up? Fighting them in this room wouldn’t save me. I’d be swept up as collateral damage.”
I grit my teeth, annoyed that Interface had a very valid point. I took a deep breath and dismissed my Annihilation, Diffuse Energy, and Tenacity. To replace them, I plucked Barrier, Durable, and Disperse.
As my new powers settled in, I felt hands on my skin and could hear my tormentors sickening laugh, their derisive chuckles. I felt that damaged half of me clawing forward, wanting an escape. It wanted to smother, suffocate, and stifle anything nearby. “I’m here for Titan. I’m not done yet,” I whispered softly. “I’m in control of my body, it doesn’t control me.”
To top it off, I grabbed another power to round out my arsenal: Trace. That ephemeral weight pressed on me, but I withstood it, accepting the stress and strain on my body and mind with a smile. I had someone else I could direct that rage and hate at for the time being.
Raising a hand, threads of blue light wove themselves around Interface as I insulated them in a cocoon that could withstand being hit by a train. Thanks to Durable, that barrier wouldn’t erode for the next half hour. “That’ll keep you safe. Get yourself familiar with the ship, and shut off these fucking alarms,” I grumbled, annoyed at the klaxons still ringing. One last look over my shoulder as Interface slumped down on the floor, my barrier the only lifeline for them.
I turned away, stepping back out into the hall and going back towards where I had dragged us from.
“You three hurt Titan,” I growled, “You ripped up his leg. You tried to paralyze him. You paralyzed me!” My blood burned as I dug for another power; whispers started to slip into my ear and I could feel the ghosts of my past drooling on me, grabbing my hips, delighting as they indulged their seemingly infinite carnal appetite. “No,” I snapped, “Back then I was weak! Back then I let the world walk on me. Not anymore!”
Stifling the voices of my past, I seized a ninth power: Push.
Finally, my Danger Sense cautioned me. Salah was coming in with an explosive teleport.
I spun around and raised a hand, dispersing the fire and concussive force from her arrival. My other arm glowed blue as a barrier came into existence between us. Salah tried to raise a hand and fire on me, using her technology to even the playing field; I nodded forward, prompting a push that turned my shield into a projectile.
Salah’s quick reaction allowed her to get partially clear, but the impact still launched her into a wall. Before she hit the ground, she teleported away.
I blinked once, activating Trace.
A red thread hung in the air, visible only to me. No matter where she went, I could find her. Trace outlined her through the ship, putting her on display two floors above me. Using my Teleport, I appeared beside her, now in some kind of armory. My Danger Sense kicked in: a noxious fume was filling the room. I tried to Trace it, but the origin was a container that Salah had rigged. Omec had yet to show herself.
Annoyed, I used Push directly on Salah, smacking the Trillodan back against the wall hard enough to crack her armor. She had the good sense to flee before I could do it again. But no matter where she went, I could follow her.
I could tell from her breathing that she wasn’t used to this. Even for all their expertise in battle, using an Adaptation was something else entirely. It was a different kind of fatigue, one that wore as much on you mentally as it did physically. None of them had spent the years learning where that line of Overexposure lay. All they knew was that too much use of their gift could betray them.
But I was broken beyond this limitation. My power didn’t try to kill me if I abused it, it simply devoured everyone around me.
Salah tried to lure me into traps, but I had too many gifts active for her to have a chance. Gas I could Disperse. Explosives I could erect a Barrier for, and nothing was a true surprise with Danger Sense on as well. Any mechanical retaliation was met with a Push.
What was concerning was her comrades’ absence.
The alarms had stopped ringing finally, telling me that Interface was getting some familiarity with the systems of the ship. I knew they needed time to understand its workings. Even if Interface had outstanding intuition with machines, this was a complicated ordeal to put it mildly. But a basic system would be a camera and PA system. Even though the Trillodan were advanced well beyond us, those two systems were functionally simple and easy to access.
“Interface,” I shouted, “Where are the other two?”
A moment later, a speaker came to life in the ceiling above me, “Not sure. There’s a lot of places for them to hide in here. They call it a Crimson City because, well, it’s a damn city.”
I grimaced, “The rest of the soldiers?”
“Leaving, evacuating. Escape pods are being launched and getting them the hell away from you. And before you ask, I can’t stop it. Manual function, completely disconnected from the central system. Likely wanted it to be foolproof should something happen to their system.”
I should have felt a small glimmer of relief that there wouldn’t be more people for me to cut through, but I didn’t have time to be grateful for their discretion. Zellig’s three lieutenants were still onboard. Nothing was certain until the three of them were dealt with.
One thing they all shared was that they didn’t like to lose. They were never going to run or surrender. They were like Zellig in that they fought to the end.
Using Trace, I could still follow Salah, but she had been leading me away from Interface. For now I was going to wait her out; the longer that Interface was given with the controls, the more my opponents lost their home advantage.
My Danger Sense screamed at me, giving me only a moment’s notice before the whole hallway was going to be blasted to smithereens, nearly the whole way back to the control room was going to be caved in according to my Danger Sense.
Teleport dragged me down several floors and nearly half a kilometer away; even with that kind of distance the shockwave was tremendous. As soon as the explosion ended, I was given another quick warning, this time about something chemical. A whole series of chemical weapons were activated and munitions were detonated to keep driving a gap between Interface and I; as much as I wanted to go back to find them, my Danger sense cautioned me about going back toward the technomancer.
With a brief respite, I tried to teleport back into the mess, to try and get back to protect Interface; for the first time ever, my gift failed me. It simply wouldn’t teleport me back towards the center of the vessel and their central controls. When I directed my gift away, back towards the metal trench, everything was fine.
“We’ve been looking into what makes you all tick, and how we can disrupt your gifts. While not entirely possible to strip someone of their power, we can contain some. Teleportation, Telepathy, these all are inhibited by the right electrical interference. All we needed to do was lure you away from her-“
“Them,” I snapped, correcting the insipid Salah. A quick use of Trace showed her four balconies up, watching me. “And do you think I need Interface to fight you?”
“N-no,” Tol said, his body congealing a few steps away, “Quite t-the opposite. We w-wanted to keep Interface alive. We could a-avoid damaging them. You’re too volatile. Too unstable.”
Still only two of them. Where in the hell was Omec? Zellig’s lieutenants worked best as a composite, each one able to set up for the others. Tol was their point man, willing to engage. Salah was the one to break the defenses, and Omec was the quiet killer.
I stumbled forward, unsure of what had happened, and confused why there was a voice in my head, screaming out that I was about to be stabbed.
Rounding, I saw Tol lunging forward, one arm whipping down with a razor sharp set of claws. I raised my hand to construct a Barrier, trying to catch up on what the hell had just happened. There was such a delay; I should have gotten more notice about his-
The room exploded around me, my last second use of Disperse saving me from being incinerated as I found myself disoriented and off-kilter.
“Infinite, they’re messing with your brain!” Interface screamed through a speaker. “Discord’s power! Adamant had it used against him by Zellig; one of them has that device!”
I blinked and quickly activated Trace to locate Discord’s stolen power. A red line extended across the chasm, giving me the last lieutenants hiding spot. Teleporting up to her I had a cautioning about gas; upon arrival, I Dispersed everything that wasn’t oxygen. In her purple armor, Omec took a step back, shocked. My hand raised and I gave her a Push. Her body flew and turned to a cloud as she hit the floor.
The cloud of vapor turned and funneled at me, forcing another use of Disperse. As the gas cleared, Omec re-solidified mid lunge.
I stumbled back, blood spraying from my mouth as Omec’s metal glove undoubtedly cracked several of my teeth. Before she could strike again, I put a Barrier between us and shot it forward; Omec again dissolved into vapor, avoiding my attack.
Growling in frustration, I raised my hand and Dispersed the cloud.
Omec reappeared, caught off guard. A Push slammed into her and sent her tumbling back. With a prompt, I knew Salah was teleporting in behind me and could wipe away the explosion. Without that mental disruption, I could counter and throw her back into the railing with a Push. Teleporting after her, I wrapped a Barrier around her torso, compacting her armor and pushing the metal into her flesh.
An elastic arm clasped the railing as Tol pulled himself over, his body a mass of blades and teeth that I slapped aside with equal parts Push and Disperse.
With him dealt with for a moment, I turned back to Salah.
A hand pinched around my mouth and nose as some kind of vapor filled my sinuses, my Danger Sense interrupted at the most crucial moment. Rounding on Omec, she turned into vapor and retreated down a corridor. I tried to Disperse whatever she had dosed me with, but it had already mixed with my blood. My mind started to scramble as a pounding headache overcame me; it was like the migraines brought on by that thing trying to break free.
“No,” I groaned as I sank to my knees. “Not yet.”
My thought was sluggish, my brain mired in this fog as I felt my motor skills start to fade. I wasn’t sure if I was being hit with Discord’s aped power or if this was just a side effect of some fetid Trillodan drug. Deep breaths filled my lungs as I tried to stand, trying to prop myself up against the railing.
Danger Sense tried to warn me about Tol slinking around under me, going for my ankles; I was too slow to teleport away or construct a shield. I could have Pushed him away or Dispersed his unstable form but instead allowed him to rake the back of my legs.
Another warning came to me, and again I was too slow to respond to Salah exploding into existence next to me. Fire washed over me and my body slapped against the railing as I tumbled, dragged along by the shockwave.
“You are so powerful, but so vulnerable. All we have to do is fuck with your brain and you’re so fragile,” Salah said, her voice cool.
Omec solidified in front of me, stomping her metal boot down on my hand. I screamed as the network of thin bones splintered. Even through the helmet, I knew she was smiling, enjoying this sadistic pleasure.
Just like Zellig had enjoyed beating me on Vuuldar. Just like those animals had enjoyed beating me back on Tso’got.
I had been pathetic back then. I was so limited, so inexperienced, so frightened. And now, even with all the power in the universe at my disposal, I was still so weak. Salah was right; all they had to do was attack my innate vulnerabilities.
Without my brain working right, I couldn’t think of what I needed to counter them now. I couldn’t win with my current power set, but I didn’t know what to adopt to try and hold on either. If I tried to quickly run through two schemes to both mend and create a new fighting profile. I couldn’t pile more powers on top of my existing set either; that was bound to make me snap.
A trio of metal talons dug into my side and ripped out what felt like a pound of flesh. I couldn’t survive this. I was too vulnerable with my power set; I was too reliant on countering their aggression with my own. With my mind compromised, my Danger Sense was worthless which left me too exposed. I was too easy to tear apart.
But I knew someone who wasn’t. Someone who barely qualified as human.
I discarded my power set in desperation, quickly seizing a whole new ensemble: Expansion, Allocation, Self-Transmute, Sensory filter, Overgrowth, Rejuvenation, Gigantification, Formation.
An unearthly scream left my lips as my body erupted, an avalanche of branches exploding from my body as I successfully mimicked my departed friend, Forest. Standard poison wouldn’t affect my Transmuted body since I no longer had conventional organs. There was no brain to fog, no blood to remove, no bones to break. My body continued to unfurl, wrapping around the metal and anchoring my expanding mass in every little nook and cranny I could find.
Salah teleported above me and I reached an arm out, a floor of roots reaching up. She teleported away, but I continued to expand, my vision and sphere of influence growing as I continued to branch out. Even though I was one massive figure, now hovering above the abyss, I could see in every direction, I could listen down a dozen hallways for any kind of movement, and that field only expanded by the second.
Forest had told me that she could spread herself out over several kilometers and keep an eye out for any kind of movement. I used her tactic and continued to subsume the battlefield they had led me to, searching for any kind of movement.
The first one I found was Tol.
He was too small, too limited. He might have been nearly invulnerable, but he couldn’t withstand the flood of roots I encased him in. I could manipulate my body to be an airtight prison; even if he wasn’t going to die, he would remain paralyzed in a massive block of wood until I allowed otherwise.
“Two floors up, Omec,” Interface said, this time using a solitary speaker to keep the message covert.
I funneled my conscious mind to a section of my body and allowed for more rapid expansion. An effigy of me grew through the metal floor, the metal unable to withstand the unstoppable might of nature. Omec tried to disrupt my mind but Forest’s biology was too different, too aberrant to be affected by such a trivial countermeasure.
“You needed an army to stop Forest before,” I screamed, raising an arm and letting fly a renewed flood of branches. “Everywhere you run, you’re just running to me!”
Omec turned gaseous, trying to slip through my grasp. Except, I could follow her. Even when she tried to split herself and lead me down two different directions, I could give chase. Her power had a cost, mine didn’t. She would eventually Overexpose and be vulnerable once again. In desperation, Omec solidified and threw herself into the trench, trying to use gravity to give her the speed to get distance from me.
She didn’t know I had been expanding all along the trench, overgrowing each balcony to expand my effective influence.
My consciousness shifted down below her and I expanded a massive hand made of wood. Omec was too slow to state change and thudded into my palm, her armor offering limited protection from the five floor fall she had just subjected herself to. I squeezed my fingers closed around her, feeling the armor collapse as her body broke beneath it.
“Omec!” a shrill voice cried. Salah appeared on my arm, the explosion demolishing the limb and sending tonnes of wood into free fall. Still, her retaliation wasn’t going to bring Omec back. Before I could reconstitute, Salah blinked away.
I spread my consciousness out, fishing for any kind of input; I saw her reappear and threw my consciousness to follow her.
A life-sized effigy popped up from the roots and flashed a grin as I grabbed her arm. My hand turned to roots and branches that overgrew her arm and squeezed, twisting and shattering the limb in an instant. I felt her try to pull away, try to teleport somewhere safer, but she couldn’t drag me with, her power wouldn’t allow it. I was too large, too impossible to move at once. She frantically reached to her belt for a mechanical answer, but my other hand spread and fanned out, more roots wrapping around her body and constricting.
“If I remember right,” I said, forcing the words out with my new physiology, “You were the one who did the most damage to Forest on Vuuldar.” I squeezed down and felt the armor crack and fracture. The Trillodan lieutenant groaned and squirmed, the desperation starting to show in her panicked whimpers. As well trained and battle-hardened as she was, Salah wanted to keep her head.
“You didn’t show her any mercy,” I snarled. Before she could protest, I crushed her body and let the blood flow through my branches.
And then, there was stillness. Tol had quit struggling against my branches, accepting the inevitability of his confinement. There was no more movement among the ship, no one else to direct my bloodlust towards.
With a scream of frustration and mental anguish, I released the powers. A weight was pulled off my shoulders as I detached from the immense wooden entity, glad to only be seeing through a single pair of eyes again. Shifting forms had mended the gashes Tol had inflicted, though I still double checked my back to make sure I didn’t have a chunk ripped out of my kidney.
“Interface,” I said softly, my voice finally sounding like my own again, “Where is he?”
“Down the hall in front of you, there’s an elevator. Take it up to the top. Zellig has been keeping Titan on the exterior of the ship just so they could eject him into space if he used his power.”
I followed their instruction and went up, catching my breath as there was finally a respite. “I’m sorry,” I said, “For what you had to see.”
There was a pause, “I know who you are Charlotte. But yeah, it’s still…scary.”
“For me too,” I admitted.
“I think Forest would appreciate being the powers you used to kill those assholes,” Interface said, trying to inject some levity.
“Yeah, probably. But, she’d be annoyed that I figured out how to replicate her gift. She wasn’t an easy one to pick apart.”
The elevator door opened and a massive, foreboding door stood in front of me. Even though I couldn’t decipher the language printed on it, context told me this was where they would keep the most dangerous sort of person. I approached and it opened, revealing a row of transparent cubes, the vast majority of the little prisons empty.
One had an occupant in a soiled white shirt and grimey blue pants.
I didn’t have to ask Interface to open the cell for me. He stumbled forward, blinking in surprise as he saw me.
And then his shock turned into a smile as tears started to well up in the corner of my eyes. “Max, I-”
He practically fell onto me, pulling me into a tight embrace, “I know, Charlotte. I missed you too.”
For a moment, there was no war below us, there was no crisis with the Trillodan, and there was no malevolent entity trying to claw free in my mind. There was just this moment, wrapped up in my best friend’s arms.
For a moment, I didn’t have to be the murderous monster Infinite and could instead opt to be the mild-mannered Charlotte.
For a moment, I was home.