It was a whirlwind of a week.
Iilena had been as good as her word and relinquished the office of Matron over to Baarl; his first act had been to dissolve it entirely. He argued that there was no reason for them to have such an appointment anymore since it had been created in a time of turmoil and military strife. With things as they were, there was no pending threat.
The only people who were a threat to the Trillodan had already made it clear that all they wanted to do was go home. The Adapted had no further stake in the Trillodan’s projected trend as a society.
Two of the Crimson Cities had been fully decommissioned and destroyed after plenty of raw material was salvaged. One lone monument to the Trillodan’s violent past remained since they were going to deliver the Adapted back home to Tso’got and Vuuldar. Afterward, it would face destruction as well.
More and more of my colleagues and friends had been showing up on Xalanni. After Iilena stepped down as Matron, I prompted the hidden Goln to come back. To our surprise, there wasn’t any latent animosity but instead a blessed reunion between our species. I established my good friend Melkion as the lead on creating a plan to undo the damage that the Legacy Ender had inflicted on the Trillodan genome. While he was surprised I opted not to lead, he didn’t hesitate getting to work.
I had been worried about getting research from Vaneel since he was the last hurdle, but he gave away his notes and findings about the Adapted and the Kelotan without a fight. It seemed that Zellig dying had broken his spirit. While I felt some empathy for the poor scientist, it wouldn’t do to see a mind that sharp not gainfully employed. As soon as Melkion started, I insisted that Vaneel work on his team. Even if genetics wasn’t the Trillodan scientist’s forte, he was too bright to not utilize.
This morning was a special day: today the Adapted were to finally be taken home. Those who had been critically injured were stable, and leadership among the Adapted was confident that the Trillodan weren’t going to revert to their tyrannical ways. Dragoon and Titan had spent a fair amount of time overseeing political handoffs; meanwhile the rest of the Adapted had been drinking themselves into oblivion and having a full week rager in celebration.
I didn’t fault them for their hedonism. God knows they’d earned it.
I’d set a routine of visiting the Adapted in the morning, in part to check in and in part to take a few last notes on their behavior. As usual, most were still out cold. The few that were up were hungover but still polite enough to give me a wave. One that stood out to me was Psycho; he was standing by himself in a corner and only gave me a response when prompted. I assumed he had Cotard’s today in his ever spinning wheel of mental affliction.
“No,” I said to myself, “You aren’t here to study.”
As I expected, one Adapted I very much wanted to talk to was up early. I frowned as I approached, noting that she was still confined to a wheelchair.
“You are still refusing medical treatment,” I noted as I stepped up beside her.
Dragoon’s eyes were fixed on a little orb that she had taken apart and was tinkering with. “I know,” she said, her eyes glued to her work, “And I’m not going to get help from the Trillodan.”
“Out of spite?”
She shook her head, “No, I just…” she sighed and put down the tweezers she had been using to manipulate delicate wiring, “At first I didn’t want to feel beholden to the Trillodan. You know, I wanted them to be these crazy, evil people. And Zellig sort of was, but the Matron isn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to indulge in their insane science.”
“Couldn’t. Past tense?”
“So, what’s keeping you from doing it now?” I inquired.
She fell back against the chair, “I keep playing what you and the Matron told me, over and over. I’m too dangerous because I can affect the whole curve of society. I’m not constrained by my power being temporary or just confined to me. I mean, Eldritch can eat a city but that’s pretty much where his power stops. Toolkit is kinda close in that she can constantly improve stuff, but she can’t be the origin of its development.”
“You two did have quite the mutualism between you,” I noted.
“But she can’t do what I can. She can’t…change the course of technology like me.”
“No,” I agreed. “She can’t. Not even close.”
“So I have to stop making weapons. But, I know that I can’t just shut down and stop building things. It has become so integral to me. That line between Dragoon and Alexis is blurring heavily; if you asked me to stop tinkering, to stop engineering, I couldn’t. I’d lose my shit.” She took a deep breath, “I’ve done some serious thinking in the last week and finally come to the conclusion that I want to start doing medical work. I want to make inventions to benefit people, not kill them. I’m not letting the Trillodan fix me because I want to be motivated. I sure as shit don’t wanna be stuck in this chair forever, but I want to earn my mobility.”
I was a bit surprised at her response. “You’re going to be okay giving up on fighting? You have made a point to be on the front lines, to prove that you can duke it out with the best of them as it were.”
“I’m not going to miss that,” Dragoon said with a laugh, “Fuck no. Zellig reminded me that I don’t have that same natural affinity for violence like Parasite does. I’m…okay in a fight. My biggest boon is that I could make tools to shore up my own shortcomings. But, there’s always going to be someone stronger. Besides, I’ve had enough fighting for a long time. Maybe I’ll change my mind later. But, for a while, I’d rather sit out.”
“The Rogue Sentries aren’t going to be missing their leader?”
“Rogue Sentries are going to dissolve,” Dragoon said. “Eldritch is in the same boat as me and wants to take some time off; it turns out that losing that beast inside of him really did a number. Geyser was one of the samples that Vaneel took apart. With him gone, Menagerie has said she’s going to hang up the mantle and work with Charlotte from now on. Lightshow and Parasite are going to work with Ragdoll and what remains of the Flag Bearers.”
“And you won’t feel left out?”
“Nah. I’ve got my claim to fame and a good enough purpose moving forward. Besides, I’ve finally discovered that not all Adapted have to fight to be valuable. How lost would we have been without Almanac or Big Picture? Without Relay, Titan could have never coordinated around Tso’got so well. Without Forest to scout, Titan would have never found all of us.” She shrugged, “I guess the more I’m around so many different people, the more I appreciate that violence is only one facet of power. Sure, it’s important, but there’s more to it.”
I smiled and nodded, “I think that is a good message to take with you.”
“What about you?” she asked, “What are you going to do once we’re gone?”
“I spent the last century working on the Kelotan and testing with your generation; I think it would be in my best interest to simply take a vacation and relax. I spent a lot of time living in a cave. Why not enjoy the high life of Xalanni for a while?” I said with a laugh.
Dragoon offered a smile that started to falter, “Skaberen, about the Immortal Matron-“
I raised a hand to stop her. “You have nothing to apologize for.”
“But she’s your friend,” Dragoon said, her voice falling, “And she’s not a monster or anything. She’s just-“
“The person who caused an untold number of deaths,” I inserted. “Iilena is my friend, and has been my friend for several lifetimes, but that doesn’t change what she’s done. And, for what it is worth, I don’t disagree with you. She is a force of charisma that can’t be allowed to persist. Over a dozen centuries of leadership; she can change Xalanni with a mere suggestion. Even if she steps down, the Eternal Council wouldn’t be able to overcome her influence if she ever chose to wield it.”
“I’m still telling your friend that she has to die,” Dragoon said, her voice hollow. “I hate knowing that I’m executing someone like this. Killing Zellig was hard. He had to actually prompt me to do it; the bastard lunged forward so muscle memory would have me pull the trigger. But with the Immortal Matron, she was so willing to do what was best for her people and surrender so amenably. Are you sure it’s the right thing to do?”
I offered a sad smile, “I’ve learned that second guessing yourself constantly is a recipe for anxiety and shot nerves. I personally don’t think that asking for anyone’s death should be easy, and I understand that you’re going to have some sleepless nights about this. But, I don’t think you were wrong. From a practical standpoint if nothing else, Iilena Lamak wields a dangerous amount of social influence. You’ve seen her speak. If she wants something, she’ll make the universe move around her. She’s mastered the art of social presentation and manipulation.”
“She is…crazy intense,” Dragoon confessed. “Even though she had surrendered to me, it didn’t feel like it.”
“Personally,” I offered, “I think people like her and myself have been alive too long. We’ve lost so much perspective because of how old we are. Whole civilizations have risen and collapsed during our lifespan; that warps what you consider normal or acceptable. We were able to simply pull the trigger on shaping whole planets. I think we should take a page from your book and be more concerned about the impact of calling for a solitary execution.”
Dragoon smiled, clearly out of words.
“Y’all are loud,” Shockwave groaned as he sauntered forward, a pack of cigarettes in his hand.
“Where did you manage to find cigarettes?” Dragoon asked, perplexed.
“Vaneel made ‘em,” he said as he stuck on in his mouth, “Apparently, pretty simple for him to synthesize. They aren’t great, but it’s better than nothing,” Shockwave muttered as he took a drag. “You two talking about fixing the world?”
“Not exactly,” I said, finding it a tad awkward to see the human artillery wearing ratty jeans and a tank top. It was a far cry from his crimson suit and golden mask that I attributed to him. “But I feel I must tell you that you’re going to give yourself cancer with how intensely you smoke.”
“So what?” he asked, “Who gives a shit if I die in twenty years? I’m alive now and I want a fucking cigarette.”
There was a weight on his voice, like half of his mind had never come back from the fight in Selir. “Living on borrowed time won’t work indefinitely,” I said, trying to be as neutral as possible. “At some point you will have to be more present and accept things as they are.”
For a moment, I thought he was going to turn and hit me given the glare in his eyes. But, it softened and his shoulders sagged. “Yeah, probably. But right now, I just… don’t give a shit. Every night I go to bed, all I can think about is the fact that Toolkit and I are the last Imperium reps here. And the icing on this shitty cake is that I watched Zellig literally rip my friend in half.”
“I’m sorry man,” Dragoon said.
“For what?” he said with a laugh. “You fucking shot Zellig in the head, you did your part. Hell, I couldn’t stop him either. We needed Eldritch to fucking smash the place to have a chance. It just…doesn’t make it any better to know that most of my friends are dead.” He took another long drag, “Even though I was a criminal and knew I’d have to bury my teammates…I just didn’t think it would be so fast.” He shook his head and looked at his hands for a moment, like he was waiting for them to somehow reply. “So, because of that shit, I’m gonna smoke. A lot. At least until I managed to come to grips with shit.”
“If I might make a suggestion,” I started.
“You have spent so much time fighting everyone and only being a tool for destruction.”
“Why not try being something different? Not to sound crass, but your team is dead. You have no ties binding you to Imperium anymore and could start with a new lease on life. When you return to Tso’got, why not change things?”
Shockwave took another long drag on a cigarette and shrugged, “Maybe that’s a good idea. Maybe we all could use a new lease on life. The problem is that we’re all a bunch of violent shit-heads who live for conflict. We live for strife. Without conflict, we get restless. The shit you put in us, it was built to make us fighters in one sense or another.”
I blinked a few times, caught off guard by his remarkably astute observation. “You don’t strike me as an intellectual,” I said, the words slipping out.
He actually smiled, “Silence doesn’t make you stupid. I don’t talk when I know other people will. I’m a fighter, I know my spot. Doesn’t mean I can’t watch and learn. There’s a reason I managed to fight Clemency, Beleth, and all the other big names without losing my head.”
“Then I assume you’ll be smart enough to find yourself a new occupation where you can sate your need for conflict while abstaining from anything too damaging,” I challenged.
Shockwave chuckled, “I see your game, old man.” He looked past me to Dragoon, “We’re off world in four hours, right?”
“Yes,” she replied, already nose deep back into what she had been tinkering with.
“I’m assuming that you’re not coming with us.”
“No,” I replied with a soft smile, “I have much work to do here. Besides, you all have outgrown me. I would simply be slowing you down at this point.”
He extended a hand, “Then, it was a pleasure.”
I nodded and took his outstretched hand, “Likewise, Shockwave.”
As he left, I glanced again at Dragoon and knew she was too focused to want any kind of interruption at this point. I only had a few hours before the Adapted were gone and there were still a few more I wanted to see one last time.
The members of the Rogue Sentries were gathered around a table, all of them drinking coffee and giggling amongst each other. As I stepped into the doorway, Lightshow waved me in. “To what do we owe the pleasure, oh dear maker?” she said with too much pomp.
I smiled as I approached the table and stood between her and Parasite. The two Altered of the group, and they had dealt with it in such profoundly different fashion. There were still bags under Parasite’s eyes but Lightshow looked refreshed and in an almost manic state. Both had a long way to go in terms of recovery before the damage inflicted by the Trillodan would quit haunting them. Though, Eldritch and Menagerie were clearly not out of the woods either. While their psyche hadn’t undergone the same trauma, both had withstood profound loss.
“I am doing my best to come around and see you all off. I’m not one for large addresses, so I am seeing a few groups before you all go.” I glanced between Eldritch and Parasite, “And I wanted to see how you two were holding up.”
“You never realize you’re going to miss a voice in your head until it’s gone,” Eldritch said with a weak laugh. “I finally got along with Eldritch, and the damn bastard had to go and sacrifice himself. I can still feel my power in there, can still see my storage and everything. But, that counterpart who had a voice… long gone.”
I suppressed my urge to continually probe with questions: Eldritch was another unique case among the Adapted where the Kelotan had managed to almost infect him and hijack part of his body. The fact he had two entirely different beings sharing space somehow could yield all kinds of interesting results surrounding the ideas of quantum entanglement and shared identities. But, as quick as the impulse came, I shut it down. I was done studying these children. The time had come for them to be left alone.
“You have my sincerest condolences,” I said, “I admit that you have managed to find a bit of tragedy I can’t completely empathize with. While I’ve lost many friends, I’ve never lost someone who was a part of my very being.”
He scoffed, “I’m pretty sure I’m in a small group who have.”
“If my imaginary friend dies, does that count?” Lightshow asked.
“Doubt it,” Menagerie muttered from beside her friend. “Plus, you’ll just make a new one.”
“Don’t ruin this for me,” Lightshow said, glaring at her melancholic comrade.
I felt a pang for Menagerie, and for so many other Adapted who were never going to see their lost teammates. After Vaneel had started creating his rudimentary Kelotan, he began to dissect the Adapted samples he had to try and accelerate the process by harvesting it from their bodies. Of the eighty or so that the Trillodan had captured, only a dozen had been recovered.
“Skaberen,” she asked softly, “Does it ever get better?”
She didn’t have to specify. I knew the pain she was talking about. “Yes,” I assured her, “It does. It hurts, for a long time, but it does get better. For better or worse, Geyser is gone. And even with all of my know-how, I can’t cheat death.”
She swallowed a lump in her throat and nodded. “Thank you.”
“I understand that you’re going to work with Charlotte,” I said, trying to direct the conversation to a more positive place.
“Yeah. I figure it’d be good to help her out. Supposedly she’s going to make some kind of shelter for kids who were like us. Try to help guide and make life less shitty for others on Tso’got.” Menagerie shrugged, “Since she’s not Infinite anymore, I figure she could use a little muscle. Just in case.”
I smiled, “I think the two of you will get along perfectly.” My attention finally turned to Parasite who had been uncharacteristically quiet, “And you, how are you feeling after all of this?”
“Scared shitless,” he admitted, “I’m going to go home and find…what? My neglectful parents doped up? My house in ruins? Is it even going to feel like home anymore? We can’t go back to school, not for a while at least. Even though we just fucking beat down the Trillodan, we’re still a bunch of criminals. There are still going to be Snatchers who are hunting us down. There will still be Suppression who have the sole goal of killing us where we stand.” He shook his head, “It’s like trading one war for another.”
“Cynicism isn’t necessarily wrong,” I conceded, “But if all you do is look for the wrong in a situation, you’ll never find yourself enjoying anything at all. While all of what you’ve said is true, you are going back with friends who will care for you, a boyfriend who would die for you, and you’ve managed to overcome the greatest hurdle that this galaxy will ever know.”
He tried to grapple with that reality, trying to rationalize and somehow hold both the negative and the positive viewpoint in his head. “I hear you, and I know you aren’t just blowing smoke up my ass, but I can’t accept it yet. It’s like I don’t know how to hear good news.”
I nodded, a dour smile lingering, “Time heals all wounds. You have survived a hell of an ordeal, Parasite. You endured isolation that most can’t imagine. You faced death head on more times than I can count. And you are still standing. You’re still here. Your friends are all still with you. Take some solace in that,” I encouraged.
He offered a weak grin, “Fine, but only because you are being so damn pushy.”
Lightshow smiled from ear to ear and raised her mug of coffee, “If that isn’t reason enough to drink, I don’t know what is!”
All of her teammates raised a cup and took a greedy gulp.
I waved and took my leave, thrilled that they were going to be okay.
There was hardly enough time to see everyone off before the Adapted were given displacement charges and ferried away to the Crimson City that would take them home. In their absence, the few buildings that had become their lodgings seemed so lifeless and hollow.
“My best work,” I said to myself in the stillness, “Most definitely.”
Scuttling outside, I took stock of the sounds of Selir. I had spent hundreds of hours watching footage of Selir and other cities on Xalanni, noticing how dead the place felt. The dwindling population had left a sense of emptiness to the whole society; with the Goln showing up there was conversation and bustling activity.
Dragoon had been right. Trillodan and Goln needed each other.
Wordlessly I stepped into my little apartment and reached down into a cabinet, grabbing a crystal bottle. Clutching it to my chest, I stepped back out into the calm afternoon and ventured off to see my old friend.
With everything handed over and the political sphere stable enough, Iilena Lamak was now officially on house arrest until her execution. The two garrison soldiers nodded to me and let me pass as I approached. The former matriarch was seated inside, waiting for me in her common room. I smiled and joined her, sitting opposite from her as a cube of stone acted like a table. Setting down the bottle, she eyed it cautiously and then glanced at me.
“It’s that time?”
I wasn’t terribly surprised that she knew. If anyone was going to clue in, it would be her. So, I didn’t try to deny it. “I’m afraid so.”
“Keeping it nice and quiet and civil. I’m just an old woman dying off in her sleep,” she said. “Did Dragoon put you up to this?”
“No. I put myself up to this,” I replied. “I decided that there was one last thing I could do for my friend. As good as your chemists are, I dare to reckon that I can make a better bottle of Lathi than they can.”
She let out a chuckle, “You were never one to be outdone.”
“Of course not. What is life without a little competition?”
A crimson colored hand clasped the bottle. As she peered through the crystal at the beverage, I caught her looking through to me. “And what are we celebrating?”
“Lathi is traditionally a celebratory drink. What are we celebrating?”
“The life and work of the Immortal Matron,” I replied.
She scoffed, “The crimes against the universe she was culpable of you mean.” Her face fell, “While I appreciate you trying to inject a little levity into this, Skaberen, we’re here because I caused enough damage someone saw fit to come ensure that I signed a treaty that functioned as my death warrant.”
“Perhaps now isn’t the greatest time to reflect and ruminate on what you might have done wrong,” I insisted as I passed the bottle to her.
“If not now, when?”
“Never,” I said plainly. “I have personally found that when we dwell on what might have gone wrong or what we should have done differently, we lose sight of the decency before us.”
She scoffed, “He says as he passes me poison.”
“I don’t think you should end your great legacy dwelling on what should have been done differently.”
“You and I both know that isn’t going to happen,” she said with a laugh as she lifted the bottle and again inspected the contents. “We both know I’ve been alive far too long to not spend my last moments reflecting on all that went horribly wrong.”
I sighed, “I hate to say it, Iilena, but I think you’re stalling.”
She didn’t answer me for a moment, peering through the translucent container. “All of my life, I have spent so much time ordering for the deaths of others. I stared down Titan, and my pulse was steady. I knew I could live through it. I’ve spent so long, so long knowing I can withstand anything. And now, I’m finally here. There’s no getting around this,” she said, finally looking away from the bottle.
In all my time knowing her, I had never seen her distressed. The greatest tyrant in history, afraid.
It sent a shiver down my spine.
“Will it hurt?” she asked softly.
“No,” I promised. “I made it myself. It will be as easy as going to sleep. You will fade away and simply never wake back up.”
With shaky hands, she pulled the stopper free and let out a slow exhale. “Well, to old times,” she said before taking a swig of the tainted Lathi. She set the bottle down and let a nervous laugh escape, “You’re right, your batch is better!”
I laughed as well and smiled, doing my best to silently tell her that it was going to be okay.
“I’ve been wracking my brain, wondering what’s going to happen to my people in my absence. I’ve never thought of a society without me that it’s…daunting,” she confessed as she pushed the bottle back into the middle of the table. “All my life, I’ve simply tried to do what I thought was best for us.”
“I know. I understand that weight, not quite as heavily as you, but much of the Goln restoration and recovery fell to me.” Leaning forward, I reached out and took the bottle.
Her eyes widened in alarm and confusion. “What are you doing,” Iilena said, her voice barely a whisper. “Skaberen, don’t-”
I drew the bottle to my lips and took a swig myself. Taking a deep breath, I set the bottle back between us, letting a smile creep along my face.
“Why would you do that?” Iilena demanded, finding her voice again.
“I meant what I said at our last reunion,” I answered, my voice startlingly calm. “We’ve been alive too long. We’ve lost perspective and a sense of where we belong.”
“You have so much work to do! You have so much more you can give to your people! You aren’t the monster that I am! You aren’t responsible for genocides!” Iilena balled her fists and slammed them against the table, “Damn you, Skaberen, how could you-”
I raised a hand and stopped her. “I’m not blameless. I experimented on a whole planet without consent. I watched my experiments die and endure torture while I sat back and took notes about what their suffering did to them. Besides them, who is to say how much I could have saved if I hadn’t been a coward. What would have changed if I dared to talk to you, centuries ago? How many races could I have helped save by being your confidant and counsel? How many died due to my apathy?”
She took a deep breath and composed herself, “I still hate you, but it seems you have given this some thought.”
“You aren’t the only one to dwell on past transgressions,” I said with a laugh. “The way I see it, this is the best time for both of us to shuffle off. The younger generation needs a chance to grow without our oppressive influence.” I nudged the bottle of Lathi back to my friend, “I figured that the two of us should go out on good terms.” I laughed and shook my head, “You and Titan said it all: at some point we have to decide it’s time to stop.”
Iilena took the bottle and took another swig. “You know, after Kardan, I was mortified. I’d lost friends, lost my family, lost everything. For so much of my life, it has just been a blur with little blips, little moments where I felt awake. The last few months, I’ve honestly felt more alive than I had for several cycles. Seeing your work in the Adapted, wondering if you were somehow alive, the possibilities thrilled me.”
I smiled and accepted the bottle back from her. “I was terrified at the prospect of meeting you again. There was a lot of time apart, a lot of time where you were the Matron and no longer the emissary I had known. But, I wish I had done it sooner.”
“Me too,” she said.
A moment of silence lingered, but not one either of us hurried to break. We were both happy to be here, happy to have each other in the last moments.
“Do you think I did a good job,” Iilena finally asked.
I shrugged, “I’d love to say yes, but how would I know? I think you protected your people zealously, and there’s something to be said for that.”
She scoffed and laughed, “In my final moments, Skaberen still tries to put a positive spin on everything.”
“I am nothing if not consistent.”
Iilena yawned and slumped forward slightly. “This is really it,” she realized aloud, giggling.
“It really is,” I said as I stretched my arms and relaxed, not bothering to fight my poison.
“Do you think my people will be okay?” she asked.
“We’ve overcome everything in the past. I think that our people are going to be just fine. But, we don’t know. And that’s the great part of it,” I said. “We get to let them have their own mystery.”
She smiled and shook her head, “I hate it.”
I laughed, “I know you do.” Reaching out, I took her hand in my own, giving her fingers a squeeze as her eyes started to close. “But I have faith in those we’re leaving behind.”
My friend rested her head on her arm, looking up into my eyes, “You aren’t going to keep me waiting long, are you?”
I shook my head no and laid against the table, “I wouldn’t dream of it.”
She nodded as her eyelids drew to a close. “Goodbye, old friend.” A moment later, her fingers went limp in my hand.
I let out a shaky breath as my own eyelids felt heavy. I let myself go and rested my head by hers. “Goodbye, old friend.”