Something was very wrong.
While I was glad to be reunited with Infinite, I didn’t let us linger long. Dragoon had sent her with Interface; with the trio of lieutenants out of the way, we had full control of the Crimson city.
And then, Interface fell silent.
They had been talking to us via the ship’s speaker system and then abruptly cut off. It might have just been Interface breaking connection with the machine to reclaim their sense of self, but something seemed wrong. After spending half of my life on the run or in a fight, I learned to trust my gut and the voice in the back of my head. As we tried to move back towards the command center, we were met with a wall of metal; half of the ship had been demolished, the wreckage keeping us apart.
“Infinite, can you get us to Interface?”
She shook her head, glaring towards the center of the ship. “Zellig found a way to create some kind of interference.”
“Can you-“ I stopped as I saw the pain in her eyes. She was close to tipping, close to losing control. Fighting Zellig’s lieutenants had pushed her closer to the brink than she wanted to admit. “It’s okay,” I said, quickly pivoting, “I can carve through to Interface.”
I’d been trapped in a prison cube for the last month. The whole time I was unable to use my gift for fear of being ejected into the void of space. It was a secure enough cell that the Immortal Matron had come to visit me herself.
But now, I was out and felt the threads in the air respond to my call.
I reached back and placed a hand on Infinite, extending my heat resistance. Dragging my hand through the air, I tugged at the ephemeral strings and felt my power respond. Air fused and molten silicon flowed around me, quickly forming a ring. Stepping forward, I increased the volume of the molten substance and intensified its flow; the vortex carved through the mound of steel like a hot knife through butter.
Even so, it was exhausting to march forward and control my power for what must have been a whole kilometer.
I couldn’t fathom how the hell such a monstrous vessel was built, let alone how someone would ever learn to navigate such a maze.
The path forward seemed to be never ending. For all I cleared away, there was another wall to carve through, another pile of debris to turn to slag. While this was a small part of my potential, keeping it active for nearly half an hour started to wear. Especially with a month of not being able to use my gift, I felt weaker than normal, like my Adaptation had atrophied.
And then the ship lurched, like someone had kicked the thing.
“What was that?” Infinite asked, her timid voice barely discernible against the flow of the molten metal.
“Don’t know, don’t want to find out,” I insisted as I continued to blaze a trail, following Infinite’s direction.
Finally, we were graced by another voice.
“Hey! Stop fucking cooking me in here!”
I clenched my fist and immediately chilled the slurry; pulling a few threads, I melted down a wall on my left and effectively burrowed into the command center of the ship. Despite the panicked look on their face, I charged forward to give my friend Interface a massive hug.
“Titan, I love you buddy, but not the time,” they insisted, shoving back against my embrace. “Seriously, we have a big fucking problem.”
I frowned, annoyed that there was one more problem to cope with. “What is-“ I glanced at one of the displays and saw exactly what the issue was: we were creeping towards Xalanni. The ship had been in a stable orbit; that lurch had been the engines breaking us out of that stability. “Oh, fuck. Well,” I glanced at the technomancer, “Fucking do your thing. Fix it.”
Interface glared at me, “Do you think I’d be panicking if I could fix this shit?”
“You were just interfaced with the machine. What do-“
“They kicked me out! I’m not sure what the Trilodan have done, but they have a way to block me. It’s like some kind of firewall or bullshit security system. Zellig had it on his body and it looks like they found a way to put it on this ship.”
Infinite stepped forward, looking at the display, “But why would the Trillodan want to crash the ship?”
“Zellig has it lined up to land on Selir. It’s going to crater the city and all the Adapted who are down there,” Interface said, their face falling, “And we’re already falling. Depending on the angle we’re taking, we could come crashing down in about the next twenty minutes.”
“Well then just use the controls! You have gifted intuition with machines, right?”
“Sure, I know how to natively pilot planes and shit, but this is a fucking spacestation with over a hundred different systems and engineering stations! Do you have any fucking idea how complicated this shit is? Besides-”
Right on cue, the lights flickered.
Interface sighed, “The core has been rendered inert. I’m not going to pretend to understand how that happens because I’m not a physicist. Basically, we’re in a big, steel box that is going to crush all of our friends once we land.” They glanced at Infinite, “That is unless you can do something about it.”
Infinite’s eyes widened. “I’d have to compete against gravity. That was hard to do even with a ship that was a hundredth the size of this one. And we’re falling and I have to fight the momentum and…and….”
“Not accidentally kill us,” Interface said, nodding. “You have had to cycle powers a lot. I know.”
Infinite looked at me, her eyes pleading. She didn’t want to do this. She didn’t want to go to that place anymore, to look into that horror where she drew her powers from. “If I lose control, I kill you two and still can’t stop the ship from falling. I-I can’t-”
I reached forward and squeezed her hand, “Charlotte, you have to try. You might be able to survive the fall, but Interface and I won’t. I know it isn’t fair to put such a burden on you, but we need you to try at the least.”
She looked between me and Interface, her gaze extending beyond the room as she reached for powers; as soon as it had started, Infinite staggered backwards and clutched frantically at her face. “No, no, no, no,” she whimpered, “No, I can’t do it! I can’t! I can’t go back there! Please, Titan, don’t make me!” Tears streamed down her face as she tripped, pulling her knees to her chest, “I don’t want to feel that anymore.”
I held my tongue, wanting to scream in frustration. Of all times for her to break down, it had to be now.
Of course it was, I realized. This was what Zellig had planned. He had been willing to sacrifice his three lieutenants to ensure that she didn’t have the moxy left to salvage this situation. Her only limiting factor was having to change power assignment; Zellig had set her up to fail, to be unable to perform when it mattered most. Worse yet was that I couldn’t logic her into action; bringing up that her apathy doomed us all would only add to the stress she felt.
The clock continued to tick as I felt the ship begin to lurch forwards, a faint screaming from the friction already audible.
“Charlotte,” I said, kneeling down beside her, “Please, look at me.”
She quietly obliged.
“You’ve done so good. I mean that. And I know it isn’t fair,” I said as gently as I could, “And I know it’s hell for you to do, but we have to try.” I reached and took her hand, “I’m going to be with you every step of the way, okay. You won’t be alone.”
She shook her head, “I…I can’t grab enough. I’d need at least 10 powers. That would tip the scales. I can’t do that to you two.”
I pushed my frustration to the back of my mind, knowing it wasn’t going to help. But, I refused to accept that as the final nail in the coffin. There had to be another way around her power limitation. Some other way to supply fuel.
“Could you do eight?” I asked, daring to be hopeful.
“I can be your battery. If you use something to absorb heat energy, I can be a pretty potent energy source. Thermal storage and something to drag this ship back up.” I offered a weak smile, “I don’t think we’re going to get a better choice.”
She took a few deep breaths as she slowly rocked back and forth, “Max, I can’t.”
“Yes you can,” a dead-pan voice said from behind me. Interface stepped forward, looking down with a look that couldn’t have been more annoyed. “Last I fucking checked, your name was Infinite, not Finite. You’re the strongest bitch in the universe, and not because of your powers. You’re the strongest bitch because you look at all the horror that you lived through and you don’t crumble. You stare into the face of that bullshit and get back up.” Interface extended a hand to Infinite, “So, what the fuck are you waiting for, Charlotte? Get up.”
I held my tongue, alarmed at Interface’s blunt approach; to my shock, Infinite reached up and took their hand, invigorated.
She took a long breath, getting her bearings again. “I can do eight, Max. You’re gonna have to make it hotter than normal though. You’re going to have to let some bleed through.”
My stomach sank at the prospect but I didn’t argue; now was not the time to try and negotiate. If she needed it, I would make it work. “Okay. We can’t do it anywhere near Interface without cooking them.”
“Yeah please don’t do that. I’d be far too stringy to really enjoy for dinner.”
A nervous laugh slipped out and I turned to glare at my long-time friend, “Shut up, Jamie.”
“Let’s go,” Infinite said, her voice turning markedly cool. Her eyes had changed color again, now a fiery orange with little streaks of blue radiating out from the pupil, like bolts of lighting. She marched through the tunnel I had carved until we managed to find a decent sized room to plant ourselves in. I made a wall of silicon, plugging the tunnel behind us, hoping to prevent any kind of spillage from reaching Interface.
“Do it,” she said, her eyes fixed well beyond the confines of the room.
I swallowed my nerves and followed Jamie’s example to trust Charlotte. She had seen and endured far worse than this.
The sound of an acetylene torch filled the room as a tornado of molten material spun to life around her. Infinite raised her hands and I felt the whole ship shift; my knees almost buckled as our fall was slowed.
“Hotter,” she demanded.
I put a hand against the horrific patch of scar tissue on my chest and quelled my own nerves. As I pulled more strings, I consciously let in more of the energy of the fusion reaction; my demand for self-preservation screamed at me to stop. All my life I had learned to keep this energy cut off, inaccessible, removed from my surroundings. It had slipped through once and mutilated me and forever changed my life.
I did away with thoughts of self-preservation; even if we could survive, I didn’t want to do it without the family I had amassed. Victory without them wouldn’t be worth it.
The room began to swim as waves of heat and radiation came spewing from my palm. I grit my teeth as my skin started to peel back and my shirt started to burn away. I sank to my knees but I kept letting the energy bathe Infinite. She drank it up like a sieve and continued to fight against gravity. Grunting from the exertion, her hands shook as she pressed forward, redirecting all the atomic output into magnetic energy to drive the ship back into stable orbit.
Panting, I grabbed my own wrist to stop from shaking as I continued to be her battery, ignoring the pain as blood started to trickle down my forearm. My pants started to melt and fuse with my skin despite my own natural resistance to heat. I could tolerate nearly four-thousand degrees celsius without batting an eye; with letting some of the excess energy of the fusion through, I was blasting Infinite with nearly double that. Even with her drinking it up, the metal in the room was turning to soup.
After a few merciless minutes, Infinite put her hands down, turning to smile.
I let the reaction stop and stumbled backwards, my body burnt and bloody from all the runoff I had been exposing myself to.
“Oh my God, Max!”
Infinite sprinted to catch me before I fell, trying to find any patch of skin that wasn’t horribly mutilated. I grimaced as I held myself upright, taking an agonizing step forward. “Don’t fuse your pants to your legs,” I said, “I don’t recommend it. The convenience isn’t worth it.”
“Did what was necessary,” I said for her. “Don’t feel pity for this shit. Organelle can fix me up. Thanks to you, she’s still alive to do it.”
The ship suddenly shook like something had slammed into the side. Both of us turned and did our best to run back to Interface in the control room. As soon as we limped back in, they pointed at the tunnel we had carved, “Titan, plug that hole. Now!”
I obliged, not bothering to ask why.
“What’s happening?” Infinite asked.
Interface pointed to a monitor and my heart sank: another Crimson City had shown up and was firing on us.
“We didn’t crash, so they’re going to make sure we don’t survive,” I said, my face twisting with rage. “Always one more thing, one more hurdle. One more way to try and kill us.”
“And we don’t have long before they do,” Interface said, their voice grim. “These things might not have a ton of weaponry on the inside, but holy shit does it have plenty on the outside. Even though this ship is like, five kilometers across, it isn’t gonna last for long.” Interface glanced between us, “Honestly, the only reason we’re alive is because this room is air-tight. Once a hole is punched, the void of space will do the rest.”
I glanced at the wall of silicon I’d put back up, not fond of the fact that was all that stood between us and sure death.
“Let me guess, we have no way to fire back,” I assumed.
“Fuck, FUCK! Okay, okay, we can’t fight from out here. We just need to get onboard. I could punch a hole through the hull if needed. Is there an escape pod or anything we can use?”
“Titan, even if there was, do you think the Trillodan wouldn’t blast it out of the sky the second we left the main ship? They might not know exactly where we are inside here, but I’m sure they’d find us if we stepped outside. Besides, the Trillodan soldiers took all the escape pods earlier when Infinite was cleaning house.”
“And we don’t have engines available to simply drive at them. Fuck.” I turned to Infinite and sighed, “Charlotte, I know that-”
She raised a hand to shut me up, “I can get us there, but I can’t fight. If I did, I’m sure I’d kill you both on accident. You can’t ask me to do that.”
I shook my head, “I won’t. Get me on board, I’ll take care of the rest.”
Charlotte took a deep breath and grabbed the two of us, blinking us out of existence for a moment. The next second we appeared back in a maze of metal hallways, this one not ravaged by demolition.
“Interface, point me in the right direction.” As soon as they did, I spun up a vortex of molten material and started literally carving a path to my destination. I refused to be led into a trap or baited anymore. I refused to play by the rules and constantly find myself one step behind Zellig anymore.
Soldiers moved to positions to try and stop me; they were simply caught up in the ever growing ring of liquid metal around me. My one-second warning was more than enough to silence any opposition that dared rise up. We crashed into the laboratory where a brigade of soldiers were set to open fire on me.
Their lasers couldn’t tear through the literal wave of death I threw at them.
As we cleared into a longer hallway, I braced myself for another bout with soldiers, but was caught off guard by there being a solitary figure standing at the end of the corridor, waiting patiently.
I stopped and cooled the slurry, turning to face the lone woman who didn’t flinch as I glared at her. She had come to see me in my prison cube to satiate her curiosity about who had been leading the Adapted in their fight. Her weathered crimson skin seemed muted when compared to other Trillodan, but the sheer presence she wielded was undeniable.
“Matron,” I said, my voice saturated with vitriol.
“Titan,” she greeted, “I see you found your way onto my ship.”
“Ours was past its prime,” I said, letting out a crazed chuckle as my blood boiled. “Alright, no bullshit, why don’t I kill you?”
The Immortal Matron didn’t even blink at the looming threat. “You think I would show myself if I didn’t have leverage?”
My smile turned to a sneer, “All I have to do is think and I turn you into liquid. All I have to do is visualize your body in a molten cocoon and it happens,” I growled. “And you have the balls to come see me face-to-face? I’m not confined by that cube anymore,” I reminded her, doing my best to control my breathing.
She didn’t flinch. “I’m no idiot, Titan. I won’t pretend I have a weapon capable of stopping someone like you. Fighting you is like fighting a hurricane; you just don’t do it head-on. You plan around the hurricane, you have preparations made well away from its destructive path.” She paused and took a confident step forward, “If you kill me, Commander Hel’t will blast Selir until all that is left is dust. And, to ensure that you three pose no further threat, will use a Void Door and transport this ship straight into the nearest star.”
“You’d kill us alongside your soldiers?” I said, aghast.
“I would make any sacrifice necessary to protect my people from the likes of you,” she responded. “Unless I miss my guess, you were going to use the threat of Protocol thirty-seven to hold Xalanni hostage until I had given myself up and surrendered.”
I didn’t answer.
“Just as you have your pride as Adapted, I have my pride as a Trillodan. You won’t be taken prisoner again, and I won’t kneel to the destructive whims of a madman.”
My body shook with rage, “I’m the madman? I’m the terrorist? You’re responsible for the deaths of billions! You’re the reason I don’t remember my own homeworld! You’re the fucking reason I’m an exile!” I took a few deep breaths, doing my best to calm down. “You have pushed us to the brink, and this is what happens. You finally have someone who can stand up to you, Matron. What happens when someone else takes my place? Is your only option to wipe them from existence as well? Is that your only solution, to kill us all?”
“And here you are, threatening to kill me,” she pointed out, “Are you exempt from your own rules? Did you give a single thought to the soldiers you cut down out there? What about what they wanted, what about their thoughts and motivations?”
“Don’t you dare,” I growled, “Don’t you dare pretend it’s the same! We didn’t burn your home to the ground and leave you begging for scraps!”
“And you’ve never had to watch worlds burn,” she responded, finally showing a sign of stress behind that mask of steely confidence. “You don’t bear the weight. You haven’t seen what comes from someone unhinged with the power I wield. There is no telling how many worlds I have saved from greedy warlords or tyrants left with no checks on them. For all you know, humanity was only allowed to develop because I culled another population!”
“And I should be what, grateful that my future was bought by the blood of billions of innocent people? I should be grateful for your generosity?” I shook my head, “Fuck you. Fuck your grace and your magnificent provision. Skaberen told us about Kardan, about the shit you saw. And all I think is that you were scared shitless by the actions of one madman. Guess what, one madman doesn’t represent everyone else!”
She took another confidence step forward, “You can think whatever you like, Titan. I’ve lived nearly twenty life-times and seen people like you who only know their own vantage point. From where you sit, I’m the enemy, the prime evil. So, if you think it’ll solve all your problems, kill me. Strike me down!” She raised her arms to the side, practically welcoming the blast, “Show me exactly how powerful Skaberen’s work is! Prove why you deserve to be the conquerors of the Trillodan!”
My body shook as an arm slowly raised. I could feel the threads in the air, just aching to be pulled. It would be as simple as swatting a fly. She had no defenses, no way to fight back. She had put me in a prison cube. She had enabled Zellig to hunt us across the stars. She was responsible for the desolation of so many planets.
“I’ve given up my life for this,” I said, starting to laugh involuntarily, “I accidentally vaporized my brother at fourteen. I started recruiting people at sixteen with this goal in mind. I spent all my time on the run, hiding from authorities because I looked forward to being able to stop you. And now, here we are. I spent so long dreaming of this moment that I wasn’t sure it would ever come.”
“Titan,” Interface said behind me.
My whole body shook, racked with pain, fatigue, and rage. “And you have the fucking audacity to taunt me!”
“Titan, stop!” Interface shouted. I rounded on the technomancer, furious at the interruption. “Titan, if you kill her, you make her immortal. Proper Immortal.”
“Right now, she’s a person. She’s a matriarch, sure, but she isn’t more than that to the Trillodan. For them, she’s a person. To us, she’s a symbol of oppression, but the same can’t be said for them. If you execute her, she becomes a symbol to them that the other planets out there need to be controlled. You ratify all of her claims. And you’ll give the Trillodan the perfect excuse to mass produce Adapted soldiers. You’ll prove they need bigger, stronger weapons to fight people like you.”
I turned back to the Immortal Matron slowly, looking for something, some kind of tell. There was nothing to discern from her face; if Interface was right, the Immortal Matron had the best poker face in the universe. If she was willing to be a martyr, she had no fear, no trepidation about it in the slightest. But, it made sense.
“At some point,” Interface said, “We need this to stop. All we’re doing is fighting, and violence can only go so far. We’re finally here, Titan. If you do this, you aren’t fighting a soldier, you’re killing an unarmed civilian. If you do this, she’s right. We aren’t better than them. We’re just another brand of monster. Your war has to stop.”
My breath caught in my throat: how long had I just been fighting? How long had I simply been going from one conflict to the next, assuming the end was something completely unattainable? Had I simply given up the notion of peaceful resolution?
I studied the Immortal Matron’s face, yearning for something. I had spent my life surrounded by killers and thought I had gotten good at reading intent; this matriarch proved I had so much to learn. “There is no ending this quietly,” I said, “I can’t just stop; you’re holding a gun to my family down there. As long as I let you live, you can pull that trigger.” I groaned and sank my head into my hands for a moment, “But Interface is right. So, completely right,” I said in anguish, “There has to be a point where we just…quit the fighting.”
Strength started to fade from my limbs as my arms dropped to my sides. The adrenaline that had kept my propped up was faltering and Overexposure was starting to set in. “You’re right, Matron, I can’t surrender and be put back into a cell. And you can’t kneel to a man hellbent on killing your people. So, we need to meet in the middle. But, I can’t! I can’t help but think this is one more trap that Zellig has set up for us, one more pitfall I’m going to stumble into. I can’t keep losing when people depend on me; I’ve lost too many of my family to your right-hand.”
The confident facade cracked for a moment due to sheer surprise, “Zellig Ak’aan is dead. He died thirty-seven minutes ago. Dragoon put a bullet through his skull.”
Hearing those words was a shock to my system. “What?”
“You didn’t know,” she said with a laugh. “Titan, don’t get it twisted, Zellig was the architect of the campaign against the Adapted. However, I didn’t answer to Zellig, he answered to me. When I tell you that my ultimatum isn’t his idea, I mean that. Zellig underestimated Infinite’s tenacity and assumed that the ship would crash.”
I swallowed a lump that was forming in my throat. “I want to believe that, but how can I trust you?”
The Immortal Matron raised a hand and waved; around the corner, a familiar six-legged figure crept out. “Skaberen has known me for a long time and knows that duplicity isn’t something I’m prone for. I have been in power for nearly sixteen-hundred years; after a while, all you have is your own integrity. If you aren’t trustworthy, you don’t hold power for long.”
I shook my head, not following. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Skaberen will be an intermediary to help decide a treaty between us. He has experience with the Adapted and a history with the Trillodan people as well. He will be the neutral party that can broker peace between us and help concoct a plan moving forward.” The Immortal Matron’s face relaxed and she looked at me, like she knew me better than I knew myself. “You’re right, the senseless violence needs to stop. There is more than enough blood on either side; it will only stop when we say enough.”
A raucous laugh escaped my lips, “You were fucking testing me!” I sank to a knee as fatigue washed over my body. Pain shot up through my limb, reminding me that my whole body was close to shutting down. “Before I black out, I need a show of faith on your side. I need you to call off your soldiers. I need my family to be safe,” I demanded.
The Immortal Matron nodded and stiffened her posture, assuming that regal poise she had spent centuries perfecting. “Commander Hel’t, please relay the following message to the surface using Protocol forty-one. I, Ilena Lamak hereby cede authority to the Eternal Council and abdicate responsibility to the majority representative: Councilman Baarl. My final action as Matron is to order a cease-fire between the Trillodan and the Adapted. A formal treaty and terms of our surrender is to be drawn up with Skaberen Karth as intermediary and final approver.” She let out a sigh, “And Hel’t, send me a medical team for our guests, immediately.”
I dared to smile as Infinite sat down beside me and gently held me as I started to black out.
“Relax, Max,” she whispered to me, “You did it.”
Everything I had devoted my life to fulfilling, all the sacrifices I had made along the way.
We had finally stopped the Trillodan war machine.