Remnant: Dependency

Four days since our war on Vuuldar.  

Four days since my latest lapse of control.

Four days since Forest had sacrificed herself to ensure our escape.  

So many of us had come back injured that it had overwhelmed Organelle and Lightshow.  The most critical injuries had been treated, but at the cost of Overexposing our medics. 

Even though there were more people on this ship, it felt so empty.  The Ark vessel was immense, capable of comfortably holding five hundred people.  If you didn’t want to see anyone, it was easy to find your own metal clad room to hide in.  The first two days I had kept to myself almost exclusively, terrified about what people might think of me.  

I had eaten four Adapted and assimilated their powers.  I had killed two more of the six who tried to put up a fight and prevent me from eating anyone else.  Surely everyone had to loathe me and want to see me ejected out an airlock.  

But to my surprise, people hadn’t been too upset.  Unlike Feast Day, there was some precedent.  There was worry about me lapsing into a frenzy and ripping things apart; while no one was thrilled I had eaten their friend, it didn’t care the same toll that Feast Day had for many.  

Where the rage ended up being directed was at Infinite.  

She had snapped and had an episode, snuffing the life out of a dozen of our allies in a blink.  Even so, no one spoke up against her.  We all needed her to leapfrog us through space when she was finally up to it again.  Infinite was the only person who could take the six month voyage and turn it into a three week voyage; pragmatism demanded we all keep our mouths shut and leave her be.  But, for now, she hadn’t been seen much, instead hiding out with Titan. 

As I trudged into the galley for some breakfast, I caught sight of our fearless leader and involuntarily winced.  Thanks to Organelle being Overexposed, his legs were still broken.  Our normally tall and proud general was confined to a wheelchair.  Where he used to look so in command and confident, he was downtrodden.  He had seen so much death and desolation that we had all assumed he was just numb and immune to the sting.  But, losing Forest, it had finally cracked something in him.  

We all knew that pain of loss, but we needed him to rise above it, to show that it was possible to overcome.  With him still in the dumps, it set a dangerously morose tone for the rest of the ship.  

I took my plate of conjured protein and gave a quiet ‘thanks’ to Repository.  

One-hundred and seventy-four grams.

My blood ran cold as Eldritch read out exactly how much mass I could consume if I simply fed them the plate.  It was enough to make four kilograms of material.  Enough to make a sleeve of tendrils and fight from there.  For a moment, I swore I  saw the smallest of growths manifesting on my forearm.  

I shook my head, clearing the notion away like a persistent cobweb.  More and more of those impulses and hallucinations had been cutting through after the fight on Vuuldar.  I kept seeing things through a predatory lens with my power making suggestions.  When I looked at people, I felt a small impulse to devour them.  I felt an itch to use my power, like some kind of junky who was after his next fix.  

“I am Nicholas Weld, not Eldritch,” I reminded myself as I sat down.  

There were a few people in the galley, but most of them were keeping to themselves, idly dragging forks along plates and staring at the protein paste we had.  A few quiet conversations were the only thing that kept it from feeling like a mausoleum.  

“Mind?” a gruff voice asked from behind me, nearly making me jump out of my skin.  

A shorter man in a tattered hoodie and frayed jeans.  It was hard to believe that this rather unimposing guy was the musclebound juggernaut Goliath.  

“Uh, yeah,” I replied, a bit nervous.  Pyre had been one of the unlucky few in my way when I lost control.  Pyre had also been Goliath’s fiancée.  I felt a nervous lump form in my throat as he sat across from me; while he didn’t look enraged, Goliath was known for being even-keeled and hard to read.  His lack of emotion honestly made me more anxious.  

He took a bite and then looked up, studying me.  “You know,” he finally said, “When Feast Day happened, I wondered what kind of monster was responsible.  You fucked up Beleth, you fucked up half of Ciel, and you put a living tumor in my arm.”

“Listen I-“

He glared and I shut my mouth.  “When we all saw you, most of us weren’t sure what to think.  You were just… some kid.  Some asshole.  Some Reckoner twat who was in over his head.”  Goliath took another bite and I stayed silent.  “Then we come here, and we have a fucking repeat.  We see this monstrous, black, thing just start eating everyone.  This time, we cheered.  We were thrilled to see our monster kicking ass.”

“I-“

“But then, hey, lasers from space.  That’s fair,” Goliath said with a chuckle.  “You lost control.  You went ape shit.  You were more like a wounded dog than anything else.”  He took another bite and stared at me while he chewed.  “We can rescue some of the Adapted, at least according to Parasite.  They are alive in tubes being studied.  But, thanks to what happened, I’m never going to see Pyre again.”  Goliath’s hand trembled as he squeezed his fork hard enough to bend the metal.  “The shitty thing is, I can’t blame you.  I want to be angry at you, Eldritch.  I really do.  I want to just tear your head off.”

I took a nervous gulp and felt the color drain from my face.  I had no mass at my disposal by design; if Goliath wanted to kill me, there was literally nothing I could do to stop him.  

He waved his hands, “I’m not going to.  I know you wouldn’t hurt her if you had a choice.”

“For what it’s worth, I’m really sorry,” I said, wishing I had more to offer.  

Goliath shrugged and took another bite.  “I know you are.  I just wanted to find you and be the mature one here and say that I forgive you.  We all knew the risk that was posed when you went supersize.  Hell, we all knew the risk that came from joining up with Titan when we heard his fucking cockamamie plan.”  He shook his head and let out a long sigh.  “In a way, I guess we earned this.  Well, the Surface Dwellers.  Beleth killed your parents so you killed one of his.”

I frowned, “I didn’t try to single her out.  I just…grabbed whatever was in front of me.  I just wanted to get big and strong again.  Pyre was just in front of me.  She was at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“Wrong place, wrong time,” Goliath echoed.  “What a fucking shitty reason to go.”  

There was no arguing with that.  

“Did you just come here to bring up how I accidentally killed your fiancée?” I asked after a few moments of silence passed between us.  

“Partially,” he confessed, “Though I wasn’t meaning to guilt trip you too hard.  I’m sure you’re doing enough of that to yourself.  The other thing I wanted was to give you a heads up.”

“A heads up?  To what?” 

Goliath frowned, “Your captain, Dragoon, she’s not in a good way.”

Dragoon had been keeping herself busy with modifications to the ship as we flew and doing last minute maintenance.  Purportedly she had also been locking herself away and working on designs for new armor since her last set had been trashed by one of Zellig’s elite.  “What’s going on with Drag?” 

“She’s been visiting Chemtrail a lot lately.  I could be wrong, but I’m pretty damn sure she’s getting more of that power boosting shit that he makes.”

“But she hates that stuff.  She complains about it giving her migraines.”

He shrugged, “And no alcoholic likes a hangover.  It doesn’t stop them from drinking,” Goliath said bluntly.  “It’s not my place to interfere.  I just thought you should know.” 

In some ways, this made me feel sicker to my stomach than reliving devouring a handful of Adapted.  “Thanks, I think.”

Goliath took the last few bites of his protein paste and gave me a nod.  “See you around.”  

I gave a halfhearted acknowledgment but I was quickly running through how this sort of thing could be happening.  Dragoon had been so adamantly opposed to drug abuse after watching her parents smoke and drink their money away.  She had so much animosity for her dead-beat mother that I would have thought she’d be almost allergic to drug use.  But, then again, addiction was almost hereditary.  And right now was the most frantic and desperate time of our lives.  It wasn’t out of the question that Alexis would want an edge to help keep her and her friends alive.  

“Fuck me,” I muttered. 

Seventy-eight kilograms of meat.

I had a little start at the cold readout.  I hadn’t even really noticed that I was glancing at another Adapted.  One of the people we had picked up on Vuuldar, clad in green and blue, and glaring back at me like I had gone nuts.  Blushing, I took the last bite and bussed my tray, wishing I hadn’t been caught staring.  

In the hallways, I found myself still looking around for little vines or roots tucked in the little nooks and crannies.  It still seemed so impossible that we had lost Forest.  She had been so overwhelming, a literal force of nature that had retaliated against the entire Trillodan infantry on her own.  They had blasted her with that orbital canon and enough explosives to level a city and she had kept fighting.  

No matter how hard I scoured the dark corners, there was nothing.  No trace of our ever-present watcher.  She was truly gone.  

Our Prime Trio had been cut to a duo.  

“Nick,” a familiar voice called out.  Leaning against the wall with his hair wet and slicked back, it looked like Shockwave had just sauntered out of his shower for a cigarette.  

“You ever going to cut down on smoking?” I asked.  

As if to prove a point, he took a long drag.  “Fuck do I care.  I figure the air in here is like 75% nitrogen thanks to Repository.  Since we aren’t in an oxygen rich environment I see no reason to stop.” 

Shockwave was the epitome of someone I shouldn’t judge by his cover.  On the surface, it seemed like  Shockwave was an absolute sociopath, someone who seemed hellbent on being self-serving.  The reality was that he was passionate to benefit his own group.  He had essentially piggybacked on Imperium to buy a high quality of life for all of his fellow Adapted enforcers.  Shockwave only fought so furiously because neglecting to do so would have jeopardized his groups standing.  

Even with the hell we’d put Imperium through, Shockwave didn’t harbor a grudge.  If anything, he had started looking at everyone onboard like a member of his own clique.  

“How are you doing?” I asked.  

Shockwave shrugged, “Shitty, just like everyone else.”

“Yeah,” I muttered.  Even though he was practiced at wearing a straight face, there were telltale cracks in his mask.  Watching Mizu be frozen had shaken the former head of Imperium.  To make matters worse, he’d lost Collision when Infinite had gone unhinged.  I leaned my back against the wall as he took another drag.  “Goliath told me that Dragoon might be dosing herself with that drug.”

“Wouldn’t put it past her.  I’ve had to make a point to talk Toolkit away from it.  Stuff’s most dangerous for Cognates.”

“Why?” 

He scoffed, “What the fuck am I going to do with a power booster right now?  Punch holes in the ship?  All the extra firepower in the universe does me fuck all right now.  I can’t use any of it.  But Cognates, they just think.  They can create an infinite amount of weapons or ideas at any time of day.  There’s no time when they can’t use their gift at least a little.” 

“Maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing ever,” I thought out loud, daring to play devil’s advocate.

“Dependency is dependency.”

I shot him a quizzical glance, “For someone who doesn’t claim to be smart, you usually have stuff well thought out.”

He smirked and gave a nonchalant shrug.  “Maybe I’m just not arrogant about it like some people are.”  His eyes went down the hallway as a half-dressed woman started making her way down the hall.  “While I love catching up, she gets more of my attention than you,” he said as he turned and strutted down the hall.  

“Everything has gone to hell and he’s still somehow getting laid,” I muttered, jealous as I watched a door shut behind him and Toolkit.  

The rest of the trek to Dragoon’s room was uneventful, though I noticed people giving me a sideways glance; a few even whispered apprehensively as they passed me.  I did my best to not read into it too much, reminding myself that the Adapted who joined from Vuuldar had never seen a 15 meter tall Neklim.  After all, it was a truly terrifying sight.  

What was obnoxious was the occasional cut in from Eldritch, informing me how much people weighed and how much material we could print if we consumed them.  Even when I hissed at that voice in my head, they didn’t respond.  No matter how much I pushed, it seemed to have reverted to a cold, clinical, evaluative presence.  While I had been upset with its first gain of intelligence, now I missed having that extra voice in my head, that extra bit of input and mental grounding.  

I put it aside, knowing I would have plenty of time for mental exploration and adjustment as we slowly trekked to Marn.  

“Dragoon,” I called as I rapped my fingers against a metal door.  “It’s Nick.”

It took a second, but the door opened and my childhood friend stood in the doorway, wearing a white tank top and sweats.  There were bags under her eyes and she looked a bit disheveled, like she hadn’t taken a shower or slept in a few days; I reminded myself that a lack of hygiene didn’t mean drug addiction.  There were plenty of people onboard not taking care of themselves because of the depressed vibe that persisted.    

“What’s up?” she asked, her words a bit hurried. 

“Mind if I come in?” 

She stepped aside and I stepped in.  I wasn’t really surprised to find tons of paper strewn about, much of it littered with designs and schematics for things she wanted to build.  Though, as I looked closer, some of them looked alarmingly familiar.

“Is this one-“

“Tol’s armor,” she replied, sitting on the edge of her cot.  “I’ve had Siege replicate it for me to study.  I’m pretty sure I can make a version of it with enough time and resources.  I need something that I can purposefully fragment; I can’t let that bastard liquidate my entire set of armor in one shot next time.”

The last time Dragoon had fought with the Trillodan was when we had lost Parasite.  Even though we had gotten him back, she hadn’t forgotten how one of Zellig’s operatives, Jai, had turned her armor into a pile of green slag.  I had to remind myself that for Dragoon there wasn’t a way for her to fight without her armor.  For her, getting a new suit meant that she could contribute again.  Unlike other Cognates, she was determined on being in the thick of it.  She refused to simply hang back and play it safe.

“How long has it been since you’ve slept?” I dared to ask.  

She frowned, “I got a couple hours of sleep yesterday.  I’m fine,” she insisted, her words curt and snippy.  “Why?”

I let out a slow sigh, “Goliath talked to me this morning.  Told me you keep visiting Chemtrail.”

“Guy’s a dope chemist and knows a fair amount about how to better make a power supply.  Why wouldn’t I talk to him?”

“Is that all you’re seeing him for?”

She scoffed, “What?  What, do you think I’m going to him to get laid or something?”

As quick as I could, I scrubbed that image from my mind, wishing I hadn’t thought about a zit-pocked nerd groping my childhood friend.  “No, no.  I more mean that stimulant-“

I stopped as Alexis glared at me, deathly serious.  “Nick, don’t.”

“Alexis-“

“Nick, I’m serious.  Don’t push this.  I’ve done so much to keep people from killing you in the past, don’t you dare fucking press this.  You owe me.”

“You’re on it now, aren’t you?” I asked softly, wishing I was wrong.  

Her silence was damning.  

“You said you hated that shit.”  

“You know what else I hate?  I hate having my fucking power armor melted off my body.  I hate watching my friends die.  I hate-“

“Oh, stop,” I implored, raising a hand to stop her.  “Whatever your reason, if you’re just non-stop drugging yourself, you’re an addict!  Alexis, you can’t do this to yourself!  I mean, do you know what kind of prolonged effect it might have?  I’m pretty sure that Chemtrail didn’t exactly run clinical trials.”

“Jesus Christ,” she muttered, shaking her head, “Wake up, Nick!  Who gives a shit, huh?  We lost like forty people on Vuuldar.  As long as it doesn’t kill me in the next couple weeks, who cares what this shit does to me.”

“The Rogue Sentries do!  Murphy does!  I do!” 

“And I’m sure a lot of people wish you’d stop eating our friends!  I’m pretty sure Goliath wishes you didn’t fucking eat Pyre!” 

I felt Eldritch squirm inside me.  Their voice reminded me that Alexis had fifty-eight kilograms of meat on her that I could consume if it came down to it.  “He actually forgave me,” I replied, my voice cold.  

“Good for Goliath,” she shot back.  “That’s awesome!  I’m glad he’s able to be such a big man about it.  But you know what, he doesn’t have to worry about going into a fight without his power.  You think these fucking designs are going to help me?” she shouted, grabbing a handful of papers and throwing them at me.  “You’re right, I hate this shit!  But you know what, I don’t think I can afford to stop!  I don’t think I can risk my own head being fucking ripped off my shoulders!” 

“Let other people help you then!  It smells like you haven’t left this room this whole time!”

“And maybe someone should learn to help you control your fucking feral impulses.”

I glared at her, knowing that this wasn’t her.  This was an addict defending their habit, no matter how caustic they had to get in the process.  No matter what I said, she wasn’t going to budge as long as she had another fix waiting.  “Where is it?” 

“Fuck you, Nick.  Just, go.”

“No,” I insisted, looking around the barren room for where she might have contraband stored.  “I’m not just going to let you-”

A firm grip squeezed around my elbow.  “Nick, get out of my room or I’m going to throw you out.  You don’t have any mass to grow and I’ve spent a lot more time training hand to hand combat than you have.”

She had a point and that primal determination in her eyes was enough to dissuade me from pushing any further; I didn’t want to get in a fight with my friend, and she would probably beat me half to death before feeling any remorse.  

I took a step back and raised my hands.  “Fine.”

Before I could turn around and argue any more, she shoved me out and had the door slam shut.  As soon as it did, the wind fell out of my sails.  Part of me felt like I had somehow failed, that I should have been able to convince her that constantly being strung out wasn’t going to help anyone.   But I also understood her, at least somewhat.  Her heart was almost in the right place, but our team couldn’t afford her to be so self-destructive; too many people relied on her.  Beyond just our group, no one else could fix up the ship if it started coming undone.  Many other Adapted relied on Dragoon and Toolkit to make them tools or weapons.  

Dragoon had always done a good job networking and had made herself an invaluable player among the Adapted.  The whole ship likely needed her clean but there was no way I could get through to her on my own.  

I wandered through the labyrinth of hallways trying to remember exactly where Lightshow and Menagerie had set up shop.  The two of them had opted to share a room, neither of them really wanting to be isolated for our voyage.  Lightshow was still on edge and prone to lashing out thanks to what Tol had done to her on Vuuldar and Menagerie had quietly sunk more into herself.  While she wouldn’t own up to it, Parasite coming back without Geyser had only made Menagerie more depressed.  Even though Murphy had apologized and done everything he could have, Zellig was still Zellig and nearly impossible for most of us to fight.  

Lightshow answered the door before I knocked, catching me off guard.  “Um, hi.”

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost or something.”  She waved me in and let the door shut behind us.  Their room was more cramped with it housing two cots and a desk.  As I expected, Menagerie had her notepad open and a pencil in hand, sketching rapidly.  

“Eldritch,” Menagerie greeted without looking up.  

“Hey,” I said back, taking a seat on one of the cots.  “We need to have a talk.”

“About what?” Lightshow asked, sitting across from me.  

“Dragoon.  She’s hooked on Chemtrail’s stimulant.”

It was shocking enough news to get Menagerie to lift her head from her notepad.  “The power booster stuff?”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “Titan had her dose up with it when he was trying to get the ship in ready order.  I know she was using basically constantly then, but I assumed that she had stopped when we had taken off.  I had no idea it had continued.”

“You avoided her for three full days?” Lightshow asked, clearly dubious.  “You seriously couldn’t tell that she was wired up on that stuff?”

“I… no,” I finally replied.  “No, I’ve been avoiding people again.”

“Isolating isn’t a good look for you.  You’re the last person we want unstable.”

“You even have Parasite back onboard man,” Lightshow pointed out.  “There are a hundred and sixteen people onboard; might as well hang out with someone.  No one on board hates you.  I even talked to Beleth; he’s not upset and you killed one of his guys.”

I grimaced, “I keep seeing people and getting a weight from my Adaptation.  It keeps telling me how much people weigh, how much mass I could gain if I ate them.  I’ve been avoiding people because I’m afraid of it trying to act out.”  While I hated vocalizing my concern, it felt good to finally get it off my chest and distribute the stress it had been putting on me.  “I know people don’t hate me for what happened on Vuuldar, but I’m not sure what’s going to happen now with my power.  After Feast Day, it was suddenly smart and communicative.  And now it seems to have reverted.  I have no idea what it might do next.” 

Menagerie closed her notepad and set her pencil down on the desk.  “That isn’t good.”

“No shit,” Lightshow replied, gently massaging her stump.  “Maybe you managed to find a way to sort of Overexpose?” she suggested.  “Maybe you used so much of your power that it made it kind of hibernate?” 

“I don’t think so,” Menagerie muttered, inspecting me more closely.  “Eldritch’s hallmark has always been his limitless ceiling as long as he can eat.  But, consider what happened to you.  You were blasted by that cannon twice.  You had a whole minefield go off around you.  You had six of the most powerful people fight you and blast you to pieces.  Psycho ran an army into you.  And then Infinite made a custom power to literally dissect you.”

“Thanks for summing that up,” I mumbled.  

Lightshow’s eyes widened, clearly cueing into something I didn’t.  “Yeah that actually makes sense.”

“What does?”

“Your power had a voice and mind of its own, right?”

I nodded.

“So, after being subject to all that, maybe it finally cracked.  Who is to say that it can’t be experiencing some kind of psychological trauma?  You said that it pulled from your intelligence and memory, right?” Lightshow pressed, leaning forward, way too interested in this for my comfort.  

“Yeah.”

“Imagine if all that stuff happened to you.  How would you be doing?” 

“Terribly,” I said.  

“The last thing you need to be doing is making a more hostile environment for your own power,” Menagerie added. “If you isolate, that thing inside you is isolated too.  I would have thought you would be hanging out constantly with Parasite.”

“Murphy’s been wrapped around Ragdoll lately,” I divulged.  

“Hot,” Lightshow replied with a smirk.  

I shuddered, “Ew.  I don’t need the literal image.  The two times I tried to hang out with them I felt uncomfortably like a third wheel.  I didn’t have anything to offer  a conversation so I just, kinda, gave up,” I confessed. 

Lightshow rolled her eyes, “God, you are such a pushover.  Grow a pair man.”

“I feel like we’ve gotten woefully sidetracked from the fact that our captain is addicted to drugs and nearly assaulted me when I tried to call her out on it,” I said, trying to pull attention away from myself.  

“It wouldn’t be the craziest thing if she’s using,” Menagerie said, strangely calm about the whole thing.  “Back on earth, people used drugs during wars and would simply quit when it was all over.  It isn’t unheard of.”

“It’s clearly making her volatile if she’s ready to start swinging at her best friend when called out on it,” Lightshow replied, taking my side.  “We need her to be on her A-game the next time we find ourselves in a scrap.  If she falls apart, so do we.” 

“Well,” Menagerie said, raising her hands in defeat, “Maybe-”

The ship suddenly lurched, inducing a strange sense of vertigo before everything was thrown around  the room.  Before I could figure out what happened, another wave of centrifugal force slammed me back, tossing me off the edge of the cot and onto the metal floor.  

I had felt this before, but it had felt like an eternity ago that Infinite had been jumping us through space.  And last time, we had been warned that we were going to jump so we could all brace ourselves.  Not to mention it hadn’t been so rough the last time around.

“What the fuck,” Lightshow groaned, nursing her stump.  “Why the fuck are we suddenly jumping?”

“I don’t know,” I mumbled, opening their door.  Like us, dozens of Adapted were pouring out, all of them equally confused as to why we were abruptly ripping through space without any kind of heads up.  

The three of us joined the flow of people who made their way down the galley, all of us muttering between each other, no one having a sure answer.  To make matters worse, there was no sign of Titan or Infinite amidst the throng.  With no one else taking charge, Clemency levitated above the crowd, giving all of us a point to direct our attention.

“Clemency,” Beleth called out, “Do you have any idea what’s going on?”

“None,” he replied.  “But I’m assuming it’s a good thing if we’re teleporting again.  It means Infinite is back in fighting shape.”

“But she did it without me,” Command shouted, calling attention to him.  “She’s never done any jumps without using me to help stabilize her.  Titan didn’t ask me to help; I was just as blindsided as any of you.”

“And there’s a bigger problem,” a nasally voice added.  A scrawny guy wearing glasses stepped out from under Clemency, getting all eyes turning to him.  I hadn’t seen much from Almanac since Titan had revealed his secret weapon back on Tso’got; Almanac was an Adapted who knew where everything was and was the only reason we could navigate the stars.  “We were on a course to Marn but Infinite changed direction.”

“What?” Clemency asked on behalf of everyone else listening.  

“She’s taking us…somewhere,” Almanac said, “But I have no idea where.  All I know is that she sure as shit isn’t heading to Marn anymore.”  

Previous Chapter – Next Chapter

Warbringer: Martyr

It had been one week since our campaign ended on Vuuldar; six days since the Void Door had given us a quick ticket home.  Being back on Xalanni was a breath of fresh air for all my troops.  Not being confined to power armor was liberating and seeing family was a thrill for most.  And after such a harrowing campaign on Vuuldar, my men had earned their liberty.   

Chasing after the Adapted with Infinite’s ability to warp their ship an indeterminate distance was a futile effort.  I had decided to make use of our interstellar surveillance system; we had over a hundred solar systems monitored and all were scouting for the Adapted ship.  Most of our eyes were fixated on Marn, the last refugee planet for humans.  I was torn on whether or not Titan would lead them to the last stronghold for humanity given his experience on Vuuldar.  

Either way, it had required nearly three weeks for the Adapted to traverse travel from Tso’got to Vuuldar.  All I had to do was wait for them to surface.  Until they did, there was nothing to do but wait. 

Unfotunately, I didn’t enjoy being home the way my men did.  

Xalanni had lost its appeal to me in many ways.  While I had a spacious home and plenty of luxuries, I didn’t feel like I belonged.  Being in a soft bed reminded me of what I used to be and how I used to share this space with someone else.  Even though there was plenty of entertainment and art created by the residents of Xalanni, I found myself disinterested.  It felt wrong for me to sit still, to have no war to fight.  This was a world that I was no longer really a part of.  

In that regard, I empathized with the Adapted.  After reviewing numerous memories, it seemed all of them were driven by conflict.  They thrived in it and had some kind of resilience when it came to the psychological toll of bloodshed and conflict.  It was a touch ironic that I had more kinship with my enemy than my own people.  

What did help pass the wait was my new roommate. 

With his transformation, we had deemed it necessary to keep Tol isolated and confined.  His new body was highly volatile and reacted violently insisting that we keep him incarcerated.  Tol had no intent on killing anyone or harming any of his fellow Trillodan, but his augmented body had a mind of its own.  I had voiced the idea of leaving him with Vaneel at his laboratory, but Vaneel discouraged the notion since he still had some understudies who weren’t likely to be as accepting or understanding.  

Unfortunately we were fairly sure that Tol’s own family wasn’t going to be accepting or understanding either. 

Having some firsthand experience, I didn’t want him to endure the same backlash I had when I had undergone my transformation.  For now our official story is that he had stayed behind to continue surveillance on Vuuldar.    

For the last handful of days, Tol had been living in my home. Even though he was confined to eighteen cubic meters of space, I refused to let him relax.  If he was lazy, Tol simply turned into a blob; that was something I could not tolerate.  So he and I had regularly rehearsed his presentation.  Hours and hours went by with him trying to figure out his new anatomy and hold shape. While he would default to a humanoid shape to attack something, no other action caused him to hold form.  He would simply flow along the ground if allowed.  

Initially Tol was frustrated, but eventually he started to get the hang of controlling his oobleck-esque body.  After the second day he started to add more detail to his presentation, but that took effort.  He couldn’t seem to maintain detailed appearance and intelligible speech.  As he became more used to his body, speech came naturally as did his ability to deliberately manifest blades across his body.  Neither Vaneel nor I was quite sure how he was making a metal but I didn’t bother asking why. 

I was going to work with what I had.  

His new body had done away with need for food or sleep, which left Tol in a peculiar state of frustration.  He wanted to eat and rest, but he was literally incapable.  The best he could do was relax his form and allow himself to be a blob on the bottom of his cage. 

This morning though, he was alert without any kind of prompt.  

This morning, the Immortal Matron was going to pay a visit to Vaneel’s laboratory.  

Before the city stirred properly, I pushed Tol’s cage outside.  Tapping a keypad on the prison, I activated the mesh of active camouflage; Xalanni wasn’t ready for Tol in his current state.  There would be a panic if people saw him.  Fortunately, no one ever approached me as I escorted my invisible companion.  

Kasarn, the capital of Xalanni, felt strangely desolate to me.  Beyond the fact that all people avoided me like the plague, there simply wasn’t enough people to make the city feel alive.  Kasarn had immense buildings made of custom stonework with designer windows; so many of these buildings felt like tombs.  Thriving metropolises were their own unique organism; Kasarn had not had quite the same feel in several cycles.    

The Trillodan populace that wasn’t militarized found solace with a deep delve into artistry.  Sculpting, writing, architecture, etc.  Menial tasks had been automated and day to day maintenance was moderated by a small group.  The vast majority of the population didn’t need to worry about food or drink; those issues had long been solved.  Xalanni was a paradise for all who lived there.  The city was a gorgeous and glistening monument to opulence and material decadence with no two buildings looking alike.  Glass spires and ornate stone work greeted you on every corner.  Most of them were homes, some art studios, others likely being used for filming the newest show to entertain our aging population.   

Even with all of that, the only ones who were out this early were tutors heading to their personalized charge.  Some in the military didn’t see the necessity behind the personal educators who scurried around the city, seeing to their charge.  I found it admirable at how we tried to foster ideas and instill a sense of wonder in our youth.  What was painful to contemplate was how many seasoned educators there were as compared to properly developing youth among the Trillodan species.  The reason there weren’t schools was because there weren’t enough children to fill the seats.  

“I-it’s quiet,” Tol hissed, “Not used to being out in the m-morning.”

“You used to be quite the night owl,” I replied with a small chuckle.  

“Y-yes,” he replied, his voice void of emotion.  “I miss sleeping.  M-miss being normal.”

I felt a pang of sympathy for my lieutenant; he’d been grappling with the repercussions of his transformation and decision to be a living experiment.  “The things you take for granted suddenly become so important,” I acknowledged.  “At least neither of us truly need to sleep,” I pointed out.  “Besides, it does allow for a gross amount of media consumption while you’re on leave.”    

A strange hiss escaped the cube which I was pretty sure was his attempt to laugh.  “What will V-Vaneel do today?”

“He’s going to show off all the positive aspects of you that we’ve identified,” I replied blithely as I approached a building whose approach was met with a black wall of glass.  Vaneel was rather simple with his architecture, believing that form was second to function.  All he wanted was to sate his paranoia and ensure no one could be spying on him.  Inside of his black cube he had created a small labyrinth to keep people from finding him too quickly which had driven away some research hands in the past.  While this building didn’t look like much compared to the gilded spires and ornate stone work of the surrounding buildings, some of the greatest mechanical advancements of the last few cycles had come out of it.  

Glass panes slid aside as I approached and guided the personalized prison forward through the dimmed hallways.  Some would have bothered to decorate beyond the black slick-stone that made up his floor and walls but Vaneel didn’t see any point in the additional decoration.  This was where he came to work, not to impress anyone with aesthetics.  One glass door parted for me, leading to a well-lit room where a larger prison cube was waiting.  It even had a gate to hook our personalized cage; a two door system to ensure that Tol couldn’t slip out and run wild through his laboratory while we changed his accommodations.  

While I was sure my lieutenant wasn’t going to tear free and forsake his duties, there was a level of unpredictability that had come with his new body.  If it was just me, I might risk trying out allowing him freedom; with the Immortal Matron on her way and Vaneel already present, I dared not take any risk.  

Tol trudged around his new enclosure, getting a feel for his new confines and peering around the laboratory.  

    “How long?” I asked Vaneel as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes.  

    “Apparently now,” he muttered as an alarm chimed.  Reaching over to a console, Vaneel opened the door and the Immortal Matron walked in, her crimson skin practically glowing with anticipation.  

    I took a knee out of respect.  Tol tried to, but he ended up turning his legs into a mess.  She waved us up and looked past me to the fluid figure in the prison cube.  “Oh my,” she muttered, “You didn’t do his transformation justice.”

    “It’s a hard thing to put into words,” I replied, watching with my hands behind me back as she drew closer.  

    “Vaneel’s initial write up described him as ‘displaying violent and uncontrolled retaliatory behavior.’  He doesn’t seem particularly violent now.  Care to explain?” 

    I raised a hand and slammed it against the glass; Tol’s body reflexively leapt across the cage, a trio of claws trying to gouge through the polymer that kept us separate.  “Sudden movements or bursts of stimulus often evoke a violent reaction,” I explained.  

    Tol reformed a mouth and shuffled to face the Matron.  “I-it’s like a reflex.  C-can’t control it.”

    “Yet,” the Matron corrected.  “You are doing your best to hold a Trillodan form, aren’t you, Tol?”

    “Y-yes, Matron.”

    “Do you normally puddle if you’re allowed?”

    “Y-yes.”

She cast a glance in my direction, “He’s responsible for your dedication to appearance, isn’t he?”

Tol curled his metal teeth into a grin, “O-of course he is, M-matron.  Zellig has h-helped drill me on keeping a proper form.  I-insists that I keep m-my dignity.”

Iilena peered closer into the cube at my lieutenant.  “Vaneel, what have you tested with our newfound friend here?  I assume even though he’s been stashed with Zellig you’ve made plenty of visits.”  

“Yes, Matron. Tol’s body has been completely disassembled, though the sludge he’s made of seems to be a slurry made mostly of his original components.”

“Mostly?  You aren’t sure?”

“We’ve tried taking samples from him, but his new anatomy is rebellious.  Whenever droplets are separated from the greater body, they literally struggle to return.  It’s like there is some kind of magnetic or attractive force that binds his whole mass together.  The few times we tried to isolate the smaller particles, they simply combusted.  Nothing but ash and water vapor left behind.  Even when we tried to split out a substantial portion of Tol, it didn’t remain stable on its own.”

“Is he still missing substantial pieces of his anatomy?”

“No,” I replied.  “Tol’s new body seems to have incredible regenerative properties.  We managed to isolate about a third of his anatomy and pull it aside; he had regenerated all the missing mass in twelve seconds.”

“Prison cubes are air tight.  How did he get the extra mass to recreate himself?” 

“I’m not sure,” Vaneel confessed.  “However, it is in keeping with abilities that other Adapted have displayed.  At least eight of them seem to be able to defy the law of conversation; it seems appropriate that Tol is able to defy it as well.  Though, there seems to be constraints.  He can’t simply generate mass; he is bound to his original body weight.  No matter how much he loses or shifts around, he always remains at seventy-two kilograms.”

“And the metal he makes?” 

Vaneel frowned, “I’m guessing that it’s a derivative of carbon steel but I haven’t been able to confirm that.  My current hypothesis is that Tol likely has the ability to manage molecular arrangement and bonds within his own body.  Adapted, as they age and grow more familiar with their powers, seem to gain control and aptitude.  I’m assuming that Tol will follow the same path and be able to control what compounds he is able to manifest with time.”

The Matron turned her attention back to the man in the cube.  “And what do you want to be able to do with this newfound body of yours?” 

His response was immediate.  “F-fight again.  I’m s-still a soldier for the empire.” 

“And what does Zellig think of his lieutenant being like this?” 

“I think that Tol had the courage to take the first step towards our next stage of evolution,” I replied with pride.  “I think he has more honor and dedication to the cause of our people than anyone else who has served under me.”

The Immortal Matron glanced quizzically between me, Vaneel, and finally Tol.  She didn’t seem to be in a rush or even remotely perturbed by the whole situation.  Even with my heightened senses giving me a profound knack for reading little cues and ticks, I wasn’t able to glean much about what was going through the matriarch’s mind.  

“Vaneel,” she finally said, “How long for you to refine the process?”  

He frowned, “Impossible for me to tell.  The material I’m using are so-“

“I need a time,” she interrupted.  “At least an approximation.”

“It could be months.  It could be years for all I know,” he confessed.  “I believe that Tol is a fluke and we can’t exactly replicate the exact settings that brought about his transformation.  Even if we could, we don’t want to liquidate our species.  I’m not sure if animal testing will be of much value but-“

She raised a hand, silencing him.  “Two months?” 

He struggled to find a reply.  “Matron, I’m only one scientist.  I simply can’t do enough in two months to even pretend I’d have a refined serum ready.”

“If I gave you the entire scientific assembly?  Would two months be sufficient?” 

Both Vaneel and I were stunned at her idea.  “Matron, that would require majority consent of the council.  Baarl is still opposed to this, and I don’t believe that Tol is going to be met with warm reception.”

She gave me an annoyed glare like one would give a child.  “I will have no issues convincing the council this research is worth pursuing.”

“H-how?” Tol asked, practically pressing himself against the polymer cube in intrigue.  “I-I’m revolting.  Trillodan will see me as a monster.”

I turned to reprimand Tol for diminishing himself, but the Matron shot me a glare.  “Yes, Tol, you are monstrous.  You are a nightmare if I’m being quite honest.  You are a sentient sludge that manifests metal blades and seems to be practically indestructible.  You are a show of what science unhinged looks like,” she declared, stepping up directly in front of my lieutenant.  “And that’s exactly what I plan to show them.  Because,” she added softly, “It will show exactly how outstanding the promise of refinement will be.”

“How?” I asked, unsure of where she was going.

“While the council may not appreciate the direction of Vaneel’s research, they don’t doubt the efficacy of it.  You are viewed as a monster by most, but you are a damned efficient one.  Baarl may hate you most, but he’s not a fool.  If Vaneel can do one thing, it’s produce results.  So, when he has his new monster fight the old, it’ll be a compelling argument for the profound potential that is locked within that serum.”

“M-matron, n-no I can’t d-do that!” Tol protested. 

“Yes he can,” I insisted, stepping close to the cage.  

“Y-you a-are my commander.  I-I can’t-“

I grinned and slammed my hand against the cage to force a reflexive response.  “You can, and you will.  We are going to need to convince them that your life was not forfeit and that there is reason for all the suffering we have endured chasing the Adapted.  Besides, you aren’t going to kill me,” I insisted, having faith in Vaneel’s work.  “We’ll put on a good show and see what your new body is truly capable of.”

Tol seemed reluctant, but finally nodded his head slowly.  “Y-yes, commander.”

Vaneel’s laboratory felt smaller as the Eternal Council piled in.  All thirteen members of the council seemed annoyed, agitated to have been roused so early in the morning and summoned with such urgency.  

But it was at the Matron’s insistence; no one said no to Iilena Lamak.  

“What’s the meaning of this, Matron?” Councilman Baarl asked, clearly agitated.  “I was looking forward to a day with my child, so I do hope you have a good reason for delaying my plans.”  I noticed his little glance in my direction as he mentioned his progeny; I stifled the urge to lunge over and rip his head off his body.  

Fortunately the Immortal Matron took charge quickly.  “Rest assured, this is not a waste of your time, and I do apologize for the short notice, but I think you’ll find all of this rather…extraordinary.”  She turned towards the cube and clapped.  “Tol, form.”

The inky puddle on the floor of the prison cube coalesced into a vaguely Trillodan shape, much to the horror of all the council members.  Cries of ‘what is that!’ rang out as confusion proliferated among the group of thirteen.  

All rallied behind Baarl as he took a step forward and pointed a finger at my lieutenant.  “What in the hell is that… thing?”  

For all his bluster, the Matron hardly batted an eye.  “That is what has become of Lieutenant Tol Rysklei.  Tol was brave enough to volunteer himself as the first Trillodan to be exposed to the organism responsible for the genetic aberrations that we know as ‘Adaptations.’  This was the result.”

Another round of perturbed whispering, and again Baarl took charge and fanned the flames of outrage and alarm.  “I assume that Vaneel is the one responsible for doing something so irrational and illegal?”

“He is,” Iilena replied, still totally composed.  

“Then he should be tried for treason!  He had no such authorization, no such clearance to experiment on Trillodan!  We have standards for this sort of thing, we have rules that even you are bound by, Iilena!” 

I clenched my fist, my disdain for the insipid councilman growing by the second; his lack of respect for the greatest leader in history was more treasonous than Vaneel’s behavior.

“We have rules to preserve life and the currently surviving Trillodan. However, Tol here had Exscarra and was slated to die.  Tol offered his body for scientific progress on his own volition.”

“You risked everyone on the expedition,” Councilman Baarl fumed, his rage now turned to me, “You should have never endangered the other soldiers with your wild experimentation.  We know what the Adapted are capable of; you would dare make an unstable monster like that nearby dutiful soldiers?” 

I steeled myself before I replied.  “We had him isolated in a prison cube.  Should there have been any showing of volatility, we were to eject him into space.  If there was a breach of the cube, it would have automatically flushed the deck; the only people who would have died would have been me and Vaneel.  I think you can agree the two of us were worth the risk,” I shot back, practically daring him to disagree and undermine his own spiteful stance about the two of us.  

“It’s still a dangerous precedent to set,” he said with a sneer.

“And if I had deemed his actions reckless, I would have him stripped of resources and title,” the Matron replied, taking control of the room.  “However, I am going to back Vaneel, and I think the thirteen of you will afterward as well.”

Baarl glared at me and then back to the Immortal Matron.  “Are you going to use your brute to threaten us?”

For the first time, her composure softened and she let out a light chuckle.  “You think so lowly of me, Councilman.  No, not at all!  Instead, I’m going to showcase exactly how dangerous and how promising this research is.”

“How?”

“Why, I’m going to have the monsters fight,” she replied, like it was so obvious.  “As we all know, Zellig is the pinnacle of our bio-medical engineering and mechanical integration.  While you may have ethical disagreements with what has been done to him, I can’t imagine any of you would say he’s a weakling.”

Even Baarl held his tongue. 

“So, let’s see how the Trillodan goliath fares against the first Trillodan Adapted.  And then, if you all determine that it’s a hoax or completely useless, we cancel the program.”

I felt my heart speed up; she was willing to wager our whole expedition on this one little bout.  While she had a perfect poker face, I wasn’t sure if she was bluffing.  Vaneel and I only had theoretical notions about Tol’s new aptitude for violence.  Neither of us had exactly crawled in beside him to see how much damage he could do.  

Hunkering down, I stepped into Tol’s personal cube and had it seal behind me.  The second door opened and I could finally stand up straight, now imprisoned with my reformed legionnaire.  Tol had pressed himself into the opposite corner, keeping as much distance between us as possible.  Just from how he was holding himself, Tol was still anxious.  

I smiled and stomped forward, forcing a reaction.  

Tol shot forward like a snake, his form devolving to a mess of inky ligaments holding a storm of blades.  While there wasn’t a concentrated point of attack, Tol flowed like a river, using my skin like a canvas to paint a gruesome picture.  My attempt to seize him was futile; he flowed through my hand and regrouped, constantly moving and striking in a frenetic cyclone.  

I changed tactic and tried to strike his core but had very limited success.  Even though there was some impact and I could scatter him, Tol immediately drew back together.  My assault was met with a frenzied and savage reprisal.  The blades Tol created continued to sharpen and elongate, as if the fight was refining his new body.  

Even with all of Vaneel’s work into reinforcing my skin and body, it was clear who was taking the brunt of this exchange.  

To make matters worse, my lieutenant’s inhibitions seemed to melt away.  The attacks became more strategic and turned from a reflexive and rushed action to a coherent battle plan.  Inky arms started to ensnare as Tol took advantage of his newfound flexibility and blades began to attack from impossible angles; soon I was being backed into a corner because there was nowhere safe for me to turn.  Even when I put my back against the wall, my lieutenant pressed himself flat and slid behind me.  

In an instant, he had wrapped himself around my torso; my instinct to protect my neck was the only reason Tol didn’t slit my throat with a dozen different blades.  

“Vaneel,” I bellowed, “Freeze him!” 

My friend quickly slammed a button on his console, flooding the cube with a deluge of liquid nitrogen.    

A pained hiss escaped my lieutenant as parts of his body immediately froze and fell to the ground, shattering.  Taking the opportunity, I tossed myself through the door and heard the airlock seal behind me.  Another door opened and I stumbled out, covered in a layer of frozen blood.  I caught my breath and looked back into the cube, a pang of guilt in my chest as I watched Tol struggle to try and reform himself, his body reflexively throwing itself against the walls to try and escape the bit of liquid nitrogen that was still in the cage with him.  

Iilena Lamak however, had a grin on her face.  She had been banking on me losing, and I had not disappointed.  She had wagered on Tol’s liquid body being unbeatable in a cage match and had been right on the money.  

The Eternal Council seemed unsure of what to say, what to think.  While their initial revulsion had been shocked out of them, it hadn’t been the landslide acceptance that the Matron had hoped for.  

“I believe that you all understand why I believe we should support Vaneel’s research,” the Immortal Matron said, turning to face the council.  “Look at the state of Commander Zellig.  Imagine what a refined version of this experiment will be capable of!” 

Council Baarl was the first to find his voice.  “And think of what horrific consequences it could have!  Imagine if someone gets this kind of power and decides they want your spot, Matron!  Who would stop them?  Even your top man could stand up against him!” 

“Councilman-” 

“Matron,” I interrupted, reverently taking a knee, “If I may?” 

She bowed and gestured to continue.  

“Councilman, there are monsters far scarier than Tol with those children.  And, for better or worse, they are going to come here.”

“Impossible,” he shot back.  “We are on a mobile system.  We have never been found before by far more advanced societies.  Humans lack the ability to find us, and none of their refugee planets had the technology required to locate us either.”

I had to not roll my eyes.  “In all of the memories of the Adapted, we have uncovered a specific person that Titan had the good sense to keep hidden on Tso’got.  He found an Adapted by the name of Almanac; Almanac has the ability to locate anything.  No matter where we run, he will find us.  He will be able to sniff us out like a hound, regardless how much we move Xalanni.  For better or worse, we are going to have to deal with this threat.”

“A threat you should have initiated Protocol 37 on back on Vuuldar,” he replied, curt.  “A threat you have lost hundreds of lives pursuing.  And so far, all you have to show for it is a monster more horrifying than yourself!” 

I started to see nothing but red as Baarl had the gall to insult Tol but the Matron raised a hand, pulling my attention.  “Councilman Baarl,” she said, her voice taking on a bite, “You are allowed to voice dissent and disagreements all you please.  You are allowed to criticize my actions as you see fit.  You are allowed a great many liberties; one I will not endorse is tarnishing and diminishing the sacrifice of a truly noble soldier.”  She looked over her shoulder to me, “Zellig, if Councilman Baarl dares utter another uncouth and slanderous word about your lieutenant, kill him.”

“You can’t-”

“I can!” she roared, her crimson skin turning a darker, more dangerous shade.  “And I will do what I deem necessary to save my people!  Tol sacrificed himself for our people, for the sake of progress!  I will face whatever consequences your peers might bring, but I will ensure that insipid, cowardly bastards like yourself will not see whatever the future holds for our people.  Am I clear?” she demanded of the council.  

All of them nodded, silently.  

“There is a grim reality we need to face,” she said, slipping back into a calm and collected demeanor like it was a glove.  “Regardless of the Adapted and the inherently variability they represent, we have to acknowledge that the Trillodan are slowly dying off.  As our race failed to procreate and fix our tainted genetics, we must result to drastic measures.  These children are impossible wonders that we are so close to harnessing!”  

Her skin shifted from the dark, foreboding shade to a calm and lighter tone, something more empathetic and compassionate.  “We can have a future where we don’t dread our spawn dying.  We can have a future where illness is eradicated.  The only thing holding us back are our own biological faults; the Adapted are the chance to fix it.”  She raised her arms to the council, “And now the fate of our people rests in your hands!  Are you going to have the courage like that brave, young officer and pursue a brighter future?  Or, are you going to be content with the slow death that comes from our prolonged stagnation?” 

After a pregnant pause, one councilman stepped forward, “I vote in favor of supporting Vaneel’s research, Matron.”

With the dam broken, the rest of the votes came through in a hurry.  Nine voted in favor of Vaneel’s research, giving the majority needed to permit his continued work.  

And all the while, I couldn’t help but smile.  

The last obstacle internal obstacle had been removed.  All that was left to threaten my empire was an obstinate group of children.  

Previous ChapterNext Chapter

Warbringer: Toll

Vuuldar was to be a stain on my record.  

It had been another half measure, another round of tip-toeing forward instead of leaping down and crushing our opponents.  Many of the Adapted had been clever and used the fact that we were fighting to capture as an advantage.  They were wise enough to exploit that fact and take risks, knowing that extermination was antithetical to our goal. 

We now had fifty-eight specimens in tubes.  Another dozen had been captured during our climactic battle; we would have wrangled more but Infinite’s outburst had caused more collateral damage than I had expected.  We had brought a few cadavers for Vaneel to pull apart but they weren’t going to be nearly as useful.  

I heard the steps and could distinguish the owner before Salah even knocked on the door.  She was going a little more slow than normal, likely on her way to deliver bad news.  Likely an official report for our campaign on Vuuldar.  

“Enter,” I instructed before she knocked.  

My lieutenant entered as instructed, her yellow skin finally free of the power armor.  She hesitated, reluctant to deliver the bad news.  “Our losses on Vuuldar are not insubstantial sir,” she finally said, “We lost seven-hundred and twenty-four soldiers.  Seven of your legion were killed in combat as well.”

“Nearly a third on either front,” I muttered as I sat down on a rigid metal chair.  She took a spot across from me.

“You’re going to take the blame for this,” she said.  “The Eternal Council is going to come down on your head and shoulders for such an extreme loss of life.”

“The Matron will support us,” I insisted.  

Salah hid it well, but there was doubt.  I could hear the slightest catch in her breath, the slightest acceleration of her heart as she suppressed the emotion.  “If she doesn’t?”

“We can show off the footage of Forest to convince those stuffy politicians that our mission is one worth pursuing.”

“No one likes dead soldiers, Commander,” she replied.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a motion to strip away your title.  We both know that they have wanted you gone for a long time now.”

“You think watching Forest rip apart a hillside won’t scare some sense into them?  What about Titan laying waste to a city?  Mizu conjuring a tsunami?  We have more than enough to convince them these children are worth studying.”

“I think they’ll be more upset that we don’t have any profound headway made with replicating the Adapted,” she answered, averting her gaze.  Salah was, in some ways, my most loyal lieutenant, almost to a fault.  She was afraid of disappointing me and it would almost drive her to being duplicitous.  I had a  hunch that she wasn’t speculating about them as much as  she was voicing her own disparaging opinion of our mission.  

It had cost her one of her best friends, with Kalr being beheaded.  They hadn’t been able to stop Bargain while he was at his most powerful; even though we had avenged Kalr’s death, Salah was still distraught.  She refused to acknowledge it, but I could see the telltale signs of her pain.  

“Salah,” I said with a sigh, “I know you had to abandon Kalr.  I know how much her death means to you.  I understand if you have doubts about me or my mission in the light of that.  You are not a machine, you don’t need to act like one.  I am your Commander, but I’m not heartless.”

I saw a flicker of shock from my demolitionist, surprised to be approached in such an empathetic manner.  “I wonder if they are worth pursuing, if they are worth the risk of capture,” she finally confessed.  “We are having to fight at a disadvantage so that Vaneel can get his precious samples and that is costing us friends and family.  I don’t want to have to explain to grieving widows and parents about why their loved ones are gone.  I don’t want to have to feel the guilt of lessening our already dwindling population, Commander.”

“You are not at fault, Salah,” I assured, “You are simply following my orders.” 

She winced, angry at herself, “I am beginning to question whether or not those orders are worth following, sir.” 

I reached forward and raised her head.  “There is no shame in questioning leadership.  There is shame in being a blind follower.  You have every right to question me and my drive for this mission to continue,” I assured her. 

“Commander Zellig, why is this so important?  Why haven’t we simply cut our losses and engaged Protocol 37 or used a more comprehensive arsenal to destroy them?  We are bleeding troops at a rate that we can’t endure indefinitely.  We are playing with fire allowing them to continue struggling.  They are a threat that is unique and determined to exterminate us.  They pose a threat to the Trillodan people; surely they of all people warrant being purged from existence.”

“Valid points,” I replied, “But I urge you to think beyond the Adapted for a moment.  What is the greatest threat to the Trillodan?” 

“Besides these super-powered children?”

“Besides them.”

“Our inability to make offspring.  All the latent effects of gene-driving and genetic sabotage that we inflicted on ourselves in our civil war,” she answered after a moment’s deliberation.  

“Correct.  We are horribly infertile and unable to completely correct the damage done to our genetic code.  Millions of hours of work and research have gone into fixing this over the cycles and we still have the same problems nearly a millennia later.  Our attempts to correct the issues with technologic correction have had some positive impact, but our frail genetics leave us prone to illness and defect.  Even with our vast resources and knowledge, we haven’t undone the damage.”

“Like Tol and his Exscarra,” she said, citing the auto-immune issue that left the white blotches along his skin.  “He was supposed to die a long time ago.  Any small infection should have destroyed his body.”

“Correct.  Tol’s disorder was supposed to kill him within a cycle.  The fact that he’s managed to survive two was a testament to his determination and Vaneel’s ingenuity.  His skin should have rotted off ages ago but hasn’t with the armor that Vaneel made.  Without the disinfection protocols and anti-microbial measures built in, Tol would have succumbed to an infection long before now.”    

Salah frowned, “What do our frail genes have to do with the Adapted?” 

“Like you said, they are super-powered children.  They represent the promise of the impossible.  They are introducing phenomena that we have never even entertained the idea of; there is possibility that they will be able to solve our issue regarding our weak biology.  If we can harness the array of powers they have at their disposal, we can overwrite our own shortcomings.”

“You want to use them to fix our species?”

I nodded.  “Salah, I watched my son die.  I watched him gasp for air as his lungs refused to develop.  We kept him alive with machine intervention, but that was no way for a child to live.  It was no way for anyone to live.  He tried, valiantly, to grow for fourteen years.  But, his body grew, and the lungs simply didn’t.  We attempted to transplant, but his body rejected the new organs.”  

Salah didn’t say a word.  My lieutenants all knew I had a child who had died, but none of them had ever asked for more information.  None of them dared inquire about my greatest loss out of respect. 

“I threw away my color and my standing among the public because I wanted to prove the efficacy of Vaneel’s research.  I wanted to create a space where we wouldn’t have to watch our own people die to illness we were unable to fight.  We could, however, surpass biology with engineering and make it a more consistent part.  Some would inevitably perish, but at least those who survived would be unaffected by the ravages of our weakened genome.” 

“You would have seen our race turn deeper into cybernetics,” she said, shocked.  

“Yes.  I would have it so no one had to watch their child die on a table, unable to do anything but pray.  No parent should have to bury their child,” I said, my hands starting to tremble.  “I don’t need a perfect memory to remember Maki.  I can still see his perfect, crimson skin.  He was gorgeous, a ray of light in my dark life.  I was a mass killer, a bringer of destruction.  I spent my life knee deep in suffering and death; little Maki had been a reminder to me that I was capable of bringing life as well.  Like his father, he was a fighter until the end.  Little Maki tried, so hard,” I croaked, my throat tightening as tears began to run down my face.  “I spent weeks at his bedside with his mother, praying for a recovery, for a donor’s organs to work.  For a printed pair of lungs to be accepted.  For just one thing to go right.”  

Salah reached forward, putting a hand on my forearm; for a moment she wasn’t my lieutenant anymore.  For a moment, we were two fragile people, mourning the loss of our own kind.

“The last year, Maki started falling apart.  His body couldn’t grow and develop properly and his heart started to weaken.  Vaneel had some radical ideas he wanted to impose, but Liara and many others advocated against his intervention.  I was torn between my mate and my best friend.  While I was in favor of doing anything to save my child, Liara insisted that her son would not be a machine.  If he lived, Maki would be a proud Trillodan.”  I bared my teeth as I let the grief wash over me.  “Maki never got the chance to be a proud Trillodan.  Maki was never able to walk on his own, never able to see all the wonders of the universe, never able to enjoy our species longevity.  When he finally passed away, part of me died in that hospital bed with him.” 

Salah’s yellow skin darkened as she empathized with me, allowing herself to feel the weight of my loss.  “I’m sorry, sir.”

“When the Eternal Council decided to reject Vaneel’s advancement and discourage the strides in cybernetics that he could have brought about, it infuriated me.  It was why I allowed Vaneel to experiment on me, to make his perfect prototype.  Even though Liara begged me not to throw away my color and dignity as a Trillodan, I did it anyways.  I swore that I would bring about a new age for my people, one where we don’t watch our children die.  And yet, I was cast aside.  Councilman Baarl would have seen me disassembled, reduced to ash; the Immortal Matron instead sided with me and recognized my unwavering resolve.”

“The Adapted are your second attempt to bring about a new age for our people,” she concluded.  “You want to find an organic measure to rectify the weak genome of our race that the council will not reject.”

“Exactly.”

“But you must know that it is costing so much for so many,” Salah pointed out.  “You aren’t the only one suffering because of your mission.  If anything, you are suffering the least.”

I sneered, “Do not accuse me of being callous and indifferent to my men’s suffering and death.  I may play the part of monster but we both know I’m far from that.  We both know Tol practically became my child when I took him under my wing.  Do you think I’m not hurting knowing that he had half his body burnt away?  Do you think I am incapable of empathizing with all those out there losing a child because of my convictions?  Do you think I can’t understand the pain of losing a mate?” 

Her skin paled in shame as I rebuked her.  “No, Commander Zellig, I apologize.” 

“The reality is that the Trillodan are a flame that is slowly being snuffed out, and the Eternal Council is holding us back.  I am willing to go against the grain to ensure we survive.  I will take the hatred, the sorrow, the blame for all the casualties.  I will be the monster they desperately want me to be.  I already sacrificed my body for our people; I will do it again, and again, as many times as it takes.  Am I understood, Salah?” 

“Yes, Commander Zellig.” 

I rose and walked to the door with Salah quick to follow.  “I’m going to check in on Vaneel and Tol; make sure the rest of the legion is set to depart.”

My lieutenant nodded and marched away.

I saluted soldiers I walked past, most of them shying away from me as I marched through the bowels of the ship towards the medical wing.  Truth be told, I was feeling markedly apprehensive as I approached the room that had been set aside for Tol. 

As I drew closer, I heard Vaneel muttering to himself.  He was standing outside the medical bay, looking in on the battered and maimed body of Tol.  My lieutenant had been stripped of his armor and prosthetic arm for the surgeons and it left him looking like half a man.  His skin oozed pus, the perforations in the armor and burns in his already fragile skin having exposed him to a myriad of foreign infections.  There were several holes where the molten silicon had burned straight through my lieutenant and the medical strips over the top looked like an insufficient half-measure to address the problem.

“How bad?” I asked Vaneel as I took my place beside him at the window.

“You know that he was fragile thanks to his Exscarra.  He wasn’t even supposed to survive a full cycle, let alone two-“

“Don’t,” I snapped.  “I know that an infection should have killed him a long time ago since he is severely immuno-compromised.  I know his skin should have peeled away.  I know he’s ultimately a fragile individual who is living on borrowed time.  Do not patronize me.”   

Vaneel kept looking at my lieutenant, still studying.  “He’s out of options, Zellig.  He was exposed to a Vuuldar-specific bacterium called Milignum which, on its own, was nasty enough.  Even though I managed to get it carved out of his leg, it left his already weak immune system in a state of shock.  Tol needed time to heal and rest; he shouldn’t have gone back out after losing his arm and nearly losing the leg.”

“How bad,” I demanded, getting frustrated by Vaneel’s lengthy answer.

“One lung has been burned through, completely.  A drizzle of molten silicon bored through it.  The holes in his armor exposed him to dust and bacteria that was remarkably robust; the fact it was given access to mucus membranes beneath his skin only exacerbated the issue.  Surgeons had to carve off sections of skin and several sections of organ tissue to remove bacterial breeding grounds.  Not only that, but he lost a lot of blood.  Frankly, Zellig, Tol has beaten the odds up until now, but he’s inoperable.  He’s too unstable to carve him open to give him a prosthetic or printed lung.  He’s hanging by a thread and isn’t liable to bounce back.”

“Kalr’s regenerative gel?” I inquired, “Can’t we douse him in that?” 

He shook his head, “The gel I made for her was driven by nanites attenuated to her specific anatomy; I’d need weeks and weeks of development back in my own lab to create something similar.”

“What about what you made for me?”

Another shake of the head, “Too lengthy, too intrusive.  If we cut into him, we risk his heart simply folding.  The fever he’s running is slowly cooking him alive; the only positive outcome is if he miraculously doesn’t have lingering infection make its way to his heart.  When I say he’s fragile, Zellig, he’s made of glass.”  

“That is my finest soldier,” I growled, “Have some respect.”

“I would lie, but you hate that too,” he replied, finally turning to remind me that Vaneel was the only person on this ship not intimidated by me.  “All the respect in the world won’t change how battered, broken, and fucked your subordinate is.  If he didn’t have Exscarra, maybe he’d live.  As it stands…” he trailed off.

“Odds?”

“One in a thousand, if that,” Vaneel replied with a sigh.  “Believe me, Zellig, I’m in his corner too.  But, he’s a product of our weakened genes.  I do mean it when I say that he should have died in his first cycle.  Most with Exscarra live to be forty years old, maybe.  The fact he lived to be 203 is incredible.”

I raised a hand to quiet my friend.  “How long?” 

Vaneel shrugged, “Hard to tell.  The surgeons did the best they could, but it’s a mess.  If he lives through the night, he’ll maybe have a day or two left before his heart simply fails or his brain cooks.”

“Can you store his memory?” 

He shook his head, “You know as well as I do that is illegal.  The council doesn’t exactly like the idea of people being properly digitized.  I could technically do it back home but I don’t know if I could get it done before he croaks.  Even if I had my equipment, I think his fever would disrupt some of the scans.”

I clenched my fist, furious.  I had enough firepower at my fingertips to level a planet but I couldn’t save my lieutenant who was just a few meters away.  “Is he awake?” 

“Somewhat.  He’s fading in and out.  Should I go?” 

“Stay,” I said, “I want to talk to him and then discuss options with you.”

Vaneel’s purple color darkened with remorse as he reached forward and put a hand on my forearm.  “He’s not Maki.  You know that.”

“I know,” I replied.  “It doesn’t make it hurt any less.” 

“You don’t have to feel any of it,” Vaneel reminded me, “You can-”

“No,” I snapped.  “I will not mute my emotions to make it easy.  Tol is important; I will not dishonor him by refusing to feel grief.”  

“Of course,” my friend said quietly, turning back to look through the glass.

The door slid open and I gave a nod to the medical staff as they quickly hurried to the next injured soldier.  They gave a quick salute but didn’t bother with pleasantries and I didn’t insist on it; they had their work cut out for them thanks to my decisions.  

Tol looked even worse up close, and worse yet was the smell.  I could smell the rancid infection warring against my lieutenant even though the medical staff had done their level best to carve it away.  A few steps away, I could feel the heat rolling off his body as his fever raged.  He squirmed, unable to be comfortable, constantly groaning.  My lieutenant had been green with those white splotches along his skin, but now all his flesh was blistered and discolored.    

“You poor man,” I said softly.  

My voice seemed to wake up my lieutenant and his head snapped my direction, his body stilling.  “Commander,” he hissed out softly.  “I failed.  I-“

I raised a hand, quieting him.  “Save your breath, Tol.  There is no need to project; Vaneel gave me my ears for a reason.”

What little of his skin still had color brightened with shame, “Titan escaped.  Assumed he was paralyzed. Tricked me.”

“He is a crafty one.  I’m still unsure how he managed to deal with a neural block.”

Tol’s lips curled in what seemed to be a weak smile, “Heard Forest died.”

“She did.  She cost us a grave number of troops, but one of Titan’s inner circle is gone.  Salah and Omec took point against her; it was a bloody affair.”

“How many dead?”

“Seven hundred and twenty-four,” I said.

Tol’s head fell to the side; I stepped closer and knelt beside him.  “Medical.  They say I’m dying.”

I felt a pang of pity as he looked at me, his eyes showing a kind of fear I hadn’t seen in him in a long time.  Part of me debating lying to him, giving him false hope, but he was a soldier.  He had done enough to deserve the truth.  “I spoke with Vaneel.  He says your organs are crumbling and that you are dying of a massive infection.  Your brush with Milignum earlier, that blight shit, it left you vulnerable.  The fact that so much infection was given access to your body is doing you in.  That and Titan turned one of your lungs into a pile of ash.”

Tol let out a rasp that was likely meant to be a laugh.  “Explains why it’s hard to breathe,” he wheezed.  “How long do I have?” 

“Vaneel isn’t sure if you’ll live out the night,” I confessed.  

My lieutenant slowly wet his lips, trying to process that death sentence I had placed over him.  “I’ve heard I’m dying before,” he defied.  When I didn’t offer words of encouragement, his smile fell.

“I wish I had better news, I really do.”

“Don’t want to die like this,” he mumbled, his hand shaking in agitation.  “Don’t want to die in a bed.  Don’t want to die worthless.”

“You will not die worthless,” I snapped, frustrated he could think so low of himself.  “You were a champion for our cause.”

The look in his eyes changed from fear and panic to that look of steely determination I was used to seeing in my underling.  “I lived in hospital beds when I was a boy.  I won’t die in one.  Get Vaneel.”

“Why?”

“Please,” he said, clearly frustrated.  

I raised a hand and waved to the glass, ushering the scientist in. 

“Vaneel, you have the stuff that makes Adapted, right?” 

As I relayed the whisper, Vaneel raised an eyelid, curious.  “I have managed to isolate it in a raw form, but it’s hardly refined.  We have managed to mimic some powers, like Discord, but that is a fairly niche thing.  Our hope is to manipulate the microorganism with time and make the results predictable but I’m a long ways off.”

Tol raised a shaky hand and pressed it to his chest, “I’ll be your first test case.”

Vaneel’s eyes widened, not needing me to relay it to him.  “Tol, no.  That’s…that’s almost surely suicide.  Whatever this stuff is, it proliferates and it’s invasive.  We already know that it evokes almost unpredictable changes in the hosts, and we’re vastly different in terms of genetics.  There is no telling what it will do to you.”

“I’m dead, aren’t I?  Want to be useful,” he insisted, making a point to raise his voice even though it prompted a coughing fit.  

“The danger isn’t just to yourself,” Vaneel replied, “The Adapted have shown to have some instability.  Emotional volatility can prompt powers to go haywire.  Right now, you’re compromised in several ways.  I don’t know how violently the microorganism will work to save its host and what that might mean to you.  It could completely and fundamentally change your biology.  You might not be a Trillodan when it’s done.”   

“Put me in a cube,” Tol wheezed.  “If I’m dangerous, eject me.”

I nodded thoughtfully.  Cubes were our prison cells aboard the Crimson City and were designed to be jettisoned to space should we lose control for any reason.  “Those cubes are sturdy enough to hold me,” I pointed out to Vaneel, “It would likely be good enough to contain him.  And they are hermetically sealed.  We’ve had Omec test them.”

“And if he becomes something like Forest?” Vaneel shot back.  “You want her suddenly manifesting onboard?”

“There would be about six of them that a cube couldn’t contain.  Six out of nearly a hundred and forty.  Do it,” I demanded, “Get him prepped and moved to a cube.”

“Zellig-”

“Not a request,” I said to my friend.


Vaneel coordinated with the medical staff, getting Tol moved within the hour.  His whole bed had to come with, making him the saddest looking prisoner we had ever detained.  Omec and Salah joined me, both anxious to see the fate of their fellow lieutenant.  While Salah clearly had reservations, Omec had no such issues with my plan.  It made sense to me that her background as a renegade made her more willing to embrace a brutally pragmatic approach while Salah wanted to honor her peer with a dignified death.  

My friend entered the cube and set up an IV drip with a dark green solution.  Tol glanced at the bag and mouthed a silent ‘thank you’ to Vaneel as the scientist nodded and quickly departed the cube.  

“How long do you think it’ll take?” Omec asked, her face betraying morbid curiosity.  

Vaneel shook his head, “No way to tell.  For all I know, it might do nothing.  Whatever this was seemed to skip the parent generation in humans.  It might do the same thing for us or it might make him light on fire.  I might have been able to isolate the organism and get it to grow in a vat, but I’m far from understanding it or how it works.”

“Regardless, Tol’s body will provide decent insight,” I said. 

“Still a maybe.  The Adapted have to have some kind of episode to unearth their powers.  Tol might be too far gone to have one.  Age could be a kind of stipulation for all I know.  The greatest insight I’m likely to get from Tol is during an autopsy,” Vaneel said frankly.  “I will get to see how the organism proliferates and whether it manages to invade cells and how much saturation his body obtains in a short time.”

“He wanted his death to have meaning,” Omec said, earning a glare from Salah.  

“You say it like his life wasn’t enough,” Salah shot back.  

I didn’t partake in their bickering; I kept my heightened senses focused on my underling, searching for any kind of change.  I waited for his skin to alter, his breathing to shift, his body temperature to adjust, anything at all.  I didn’t pay attention to the lieutenants behind me, or my friend, tuning myself out to the world around me.  For now, I would honor Tol and stand watch until his body quit on him.  

Salah and Omec eventually departed, both having duties to fulfill and preparations before we left Vuuldar.  Vaneel scurried around, maintaining his other experiments and periodically checking back in with me.  Several of my infantry officers approached and had me sign off on preparations before we opened a Void Door and head back to Xalaani.  

It must have been nearly a dozen hours before something started to happen.  

An almost imperceptible black line appeared on Tol’s skin.  It nearly blended in with the scar tissue, but I had spent hours staring and cataloging exactly how my lieutenant looked.  

“Vaneel,” I called into a communicator, “Something’s happening.  Get up here.” 

Another little black line etched itself into Tol’s flesh, this one on his shoulder stump.  Exactly three minutes later, a third line.  Two and a half minutes later, a fourth appeared, this one across his cheek.  

Tol began to squirm, his pulse starting going thready and accelerating out of control.  As I reached to unlock the cube, a stern voice snapped at me.  

“Don’t!” 

Vaneel sprinted beside me, smacking my hand away from the keypad.  “We don’t know what is happening to him.  For all we know, he’s turning into a living bomb.  He could be gestating a plague that Omec doesn’t know how to reverse engineer.  If you open that door, you could kill hundreds.” 

“I can’t watch my lieutenant die,” I growled.

“Yes, Zellig, you can,” Vaneel corrected, refusing to budge.  “He wanted his death to have meaning; if you kill dozens of soldiers because of your lack of willpower, you will tarnish his final wish.  Tol knew the risks and he volunteered.”

I clenched my fists and ground my teeth in frustration.  Vaneel was unquestionably right.  There was nothing I could do but watch.

The lines popped up at an accelerating pace, each one a little longer than the last.  His whole torso seemed to be under siege as a fractal design creeped into existence.  Tol shook more and more violently as we watched, a silent scream deafening me.  I put my hand to the reinforced glass, feeling my guts twist as I was powerless to do anything.  

I would watch another child of mine die in a hospital bed, and I was powerless to stop it once again.  

The lines in his skin began to spread, oozing what looked like tar.  In desperation, Tol tried to rise from the bed, looking to the window in a panic as his body started to fall apart.  I heard bone snap as he tried to place weight on one foot, his body landing in a disorganized heap that shattered his ribs.  Tol pushed against the ground, but his arm gave way as he became more and more of a literal puddle of that viscous black fluid.  

He looked up to the window as his face dissolved.  

The whole process took twenty, agonizing minutes.  I wanted to step into the room and run at the same time, repulsed by what I had seen.  Vaneel was mumbling to himself, cataloging the whole episode.  I loathed my friend in that moment, being so painfully objective and clear headed, but in a way I know that he was doing my subordinate justice by being a professional.

I looked again at the puddle and drew a sharp breath in surprise.  

“It’s not losing temperature,” I said softly, mystified.  “It’s maintaining his body heat.”

“What?” 

“That ooze,” I said, pointing to the puddle, “It’s not losing heat.  It’s creating its own.  Whatever that is, it’s still alive.  If it was inorganic, it would begin to steadily transfer heat into the metal floor.” 

Vaneel frowned, “You’re sure?  This isn’t wishful thinking?”

“You designed my eyes.  I can see in an infrared spectrum and that thing hasn’t lost any heat.”

“It could be a fluke or an optimistic wish,” Vaneel said, trying to reason with me.  “Psychological prompt could easily-”

“I’m not delusional!” I snapped, slamming my hand against the glass to shut him up. 

The ooze sprung to life, literally shooting itself forward, slamming what almost resembled a hand against the glass; the digits were composed of some chrome colored metal but I had no idea where they had come from.  As Vaneel and I stood there, still as statues, the ooze stayed still as well, holding a vaguely bi-pedal form.  

My surprise and alarm changed to curiosity.  I slammed my other hand against the glass; it was met with the same attempted counterattack, another hand equipped with sinister claws replying.  I leaned closer to the glass, and so did the ooze, almost copying my movements.  

“What the fuck,” Vaneel muttered, his heart still hammering out of his chest.  “What is that thing?”

I grinned, “I don’t think we killed my lieutenant, Vaneel.  Isn’t that right?” I said loudly, staring into the inky figure.  

It shuddered, like it was struggling against some invisible force.  Slowly but surely, a line of teeth began to appear where a face should have been.  “C-c-commander,” it whispered in a ghastly hiss.  “W-what am I?”  

A smile spread across my face at the confirmation.  “Congratulations, Tol.  You are the first Trillodan Adapted.”  

Previous Chapter – Next Chapter

Battle for Vuuldar: Forest 2

For the first time that I could remember, I saw fear on Titan’s face.  When he had gone after Infinite, he was determined, but not afraid.  Rescuing her had been something to accomplish; the threat of losing me was something he wanted to avoid.  

“Forest, hang on a second,” he said, trying to get to his feet, “Clairvoyant’s visions are just approximations.  There’s bound to be scenarios she hasn’t seen.”

“Staying and fighting sure as shit isn’t an option,” I replied.  “More than five visions showing the same outcome is almost a guarantee.  Sure, we could try flying away, but so far that hasn’t proved to be good either.  Given how close they are, we don’t have time for Command to put her into another trance to see what else she can see.”  

As Titan wrestled with that rebuttal, I let my vision shift perspective as Adapted sprinted back towards the ship.  Down the hill, ordered ranks of Trillodan soldiers advanced.  They were methodical, efficient, and being careful.  I watched them scan the ground as they crept our way, undoubtedly searching for me.    

My focus shifted back into the Ark ship, as Titan was helped up, Command acting as ballast since Titan’s legs were still maimed from his encounter with the lieutenants.  “Forest, this isn’t negotiable.  You’re too valuable.”

“And everyone else is what?  Expendable?” 

He winced, like I’d slapped him.  “I didn’t-“

“Might as well have,” I said, refusing to budge.  “Titan, you’ve lost control.  This has gone really far off the fucking rails.  The Trillodan are racing up behind our friends and laying siege to our hilltop; the only thing slowing them down is fear of me.  They are looking for roots to cut; pretty soon they are going to find some.”

Organelle walked over and put an arm under Titan’s other shoulder, “I think you should listen to Forest.”

Titan pulled his arm away, acting uncharacteristically bratty.  “Forest, please.  We have to try something else.”

I gave him a sad smile and reached over, taking Titan from Command.  “I’m going to borrow him for a moment.  I’ll bring him right back.”

As I dragged him across the hall, I could feel something between anger and desperation catching in his throat.  He wanted to scream, but he just wasn’t sure what to say.  Once a door closed behind us, he finally found his voice.  “I can’t lose you, Forest.  I rely too much on you.  I would have never been able to do this without you!” 

I dared to smile and show a little pride, “I know.  Still, it wouldn’t have hurt to hear it before now.”

“Without you, this never would have happened.  I would have just been running around, melting down Snatcher labs back on Tso’got and wishing there was something more for me to do.”  He slumped against the wall and slit to the floor, “It’s all because I saw what you could do, how much you could watch, how much information you could relay. You were the reason I even thought about expanding my mission.”

“You found me,” I recalled as I took a seat next to him, “Out there, in the wilderness, when I was still afraid of myself.  You weren’t scared, you weren’t horrified.  You saw value in me.  You gave me a place to call home. To you, I wasn’t just that ugly, grimy, homeless orphan.”

Tears began to well up in Titan’s eyes, a strange contrast to his harsh, red irises.  “We still have another world to go to.  We still have others to find.  I can’t do it without you.”

“Yes you can,” I replied as I reached a hand forward to his cheek.  “You’re going to finish what we started.  You’re going to bring the universe to its knees.  But,” I said, “Regrettably, I’m far too slow to keep up.  Back on Tso’got, we had no time constraints.  I could slither around and scout out whole cities for you; what have I done here?  Guard a ship?”  I let out a chuckle, letting all those repressed emotions show, “Come on, I haven’t carried my weight as a Prime Trio member.”

“Don’t say that.  Forest, you’ve put your-“

“Max,” I interrupted.  “Max, stop.  It’s okay.  You gave me a new lease on life; time to let me return the favor.”

His hand shot forward, grabbing my wrist.  “I can’t lose my friend,” he said, tears streaming down his cheeks now.  “I can’t.  I can’t be strong for everyone without you.  I need someone who has the balls to tell me how it is.  I need someone around me who isn’t scared of me.  I can’t do this without you, Delilah.”

My heart did go out to him, but the first words that slipped out were, “When did you become such a pussy?”  I flashed him a massive smile and laughed and was glad he followed suit.  “Of course you can be strong for them.  Everyone is losing someone and finding a way to fight through it.  Why should you be exempt?”

The verbal slap seemed to help him center at least a little bit, but he was still unable to hold back the tears.  “Maybe I’m not so strong after all.”

“Max, you just torched a huge chunk of a city.  There’s a burn scar left behind on this unfortunate city.  You aren’t weak.  You’re so close to the end; just grit and bear it, okay?”

His smile faltered as he shook his head, “Delilah, you know that a single Clairvoyant vision is hardly conclusive.  You can’t just go throwing your life away because of a glorified hunch.”

“We can’t stand and fight,” I countered, “Her having half a dozen of the same visions is almost a guarantee.  The best hunch we have to go off of is that I can be a perfect sacrifice to buy us all enough time to run.  I’ve been holding this hill down for us; I’m literally why we set up the base of operations here.  Zone control is what my power makes me best at.  I can answer all the advancing soldiers, I can reach into the sky and pull down ships who get too close.  I’m the best option for this.”  I let out a sigh and shrugged, “Come on, Max, it might just be a hunch, but you and I both know it’s the best we have to go off of right now.”

I let my vision focus outside of the ship, seeing how much forward progress the infantry had made: they were about a kilometer out now, fighting off the rest of Stampede and Menagerie’s monsters but it wasn’t going to be long now before they swarmed our hill.  

“We can still try something else,” he said softly, refusing to listen to my pragmatism for once in his life.  “Guardian can probably shield us enough to get us off the ground and on our way.  We can have Powerhouse juice him up so we can get all the way to the atmosphere and let Infinite warp us away, out of their range.”

My face fell: Powerhouse was already spent and was comatose.  She couldn’t lend out more powers if she wanted to.  Titan was grasping at straws, doing anything to keep his friend and confidant alive.  He was desperate enough to suggest literal impossibilities.  

“We could try,” I replied, “But we won’t.”

I let my form disperse and allocated a swath of roots to overgrow the door, locking Titan inside.  “Forest!” he screamed, slamming his fist against the obstruction, “Forest don’t do this!”

For a split second, I thought about listening to him and reappearing to him, to talk it out and see what other options we had.

Instead, I manifested a form on the other side of the door, looking at a mortified Organelle who was lost for words.  “Organelle, do not let him out!” 

“But-” our medic said, unsure what to do.  “Forest, I-”

“I love him, but Titan isn’t fit to lead right now.  Trust me.  Get people tied down so they aren’t thrown around.  It’s going to be a rough takeoff.” 

I pushed Max from my mind and said a quiet goodbye before manifesting a new form beside our lead engineer.  

“Forest,” Dragoon said, surprised. 

“Dragoon, we need to get this ship off the ground, now.  We have about two minutes until everyone is onboard, and about ten minutes until all of the Trillodan are firing on us.  How fast can we be ready to fly?”

The slender redhead bit her lower lip in thought as she looked over the vessel she had spent so much time refurbishing.  “We need more time, Forest; Armorsmith hasn’t been able to reinforce the whole thing yet.”

“Guardian will do his best to keep the Trillodan from punching holes in the fucking ship.  I need a time, Dragoon.  How long?”

“We don’t have enough fuel to make it out of the atmosphere,” she confessed.  “Chemtrail is working his ass to make the last batch of fuel, but we aren’t ready to fly yet.  This thing is still heavy as shit.  Getting it off the ground is going to be too taxing to really get anywhere too quick.  We’re slanted down; to correct our angle will cost too much fuel.”

An idea popped into my head.  “Is getting it off the ground the biggest problem?”

She nodded, “Initial momentum and angle is the big hurdle.  We’re going to be grinding the bottom as we try to get going.  I didn’t get a chance to make a kind of jack to counteract our angle.  I could maybe-” she started to mutter to herself, her brain still going in overdrive; I could tell from her dilated eyes that she was still wound up on Chemtrail’s stimulant.  

I raised a hand to stop her and refocus her attention. “Leave angling the ship to me.  I can get us off the ground and get us pointed the right way.  Make sure everything is ready to go.”

The engineer frowned, “But how could you do that without-“

“Not up for discussion,” I snapped.

She bristled at my aggression, “Titan was supposed to be telling me when to fire everything up.  Is he going to be okay with this?”  Even though she was hopped up, she had put two and two together.  Even though she didn’t like me, I saw that look of concern; she wasn’t about to get between two of the most powerful people alive.

I debated lying to her, keeping Titan’s weakness a secret.  But, Dragoon had been a surprisingly powerful ally, one that Titan would need in the future.  The last thing I wanted to do was poison the well for him.  “Titan is afraid to lose me, but according to Clairvoyant, this is going to be our best course of action.  He won’t make the call, so I will.”

My relationship with Dragoon had never been great, but she was someone who could respect pragmatism and selflessness.  “Toolkit and I will make checks and get everything ready to fly.  We can be ready to ignite in five minutes.  Forest,” she said, having a strangely clear moment, “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

Clasping her shoulder, I gave her a soft grin, “Shit happens, but we’re still family.  Yell when you’re ready.  I’ll take care of the rest.” 

My form dispersed, and I sent a signal through my entire anatomy, rousing my whole body.  At any given point, I only used a small fraction of my entire mass; using everything was inviting sensory overload. Back on Tso’got, I had learned how to meter my body, how to selectively shut down chunks of myself to not take too much in.  During Feast Day, I had managed to move nearly 20% of my mass into place to fight with Eldritch.  I used about a third of my body to stall the Trillodan from capturing us as we fled Tso’got.  

But I hadn’t used 100% of my body since the day I Adapted.  

I had only used my entire body when I had snapped and lost control.  A Zari thug and his friends who thought it would be fun to bring a homeless human girl out to the wilderness for a little ‘playtime’ were the first victims of my full might.  

Using all of my body was intense.  I could see everything.  I could hear everything.  I could feel everything.  I saw snippets from thousands of eyes, heard the sounds from thousands of ears, and felt the sensations of a thousand different hands.  I wasn’t bound in a small form for travelling; I was ready to strike, ready to show what I was made of.  

I was the hill, and the Trillodan weren’t so much advancing on the ship as they were threatening to tread on me.  My focus shifted out from the Adapted onboard the Ark vessel to the Trillodan army.    

Saws began to bite into my outermost fingers, and I responded with roots overgrowing a few of the closest soldiers, pulling them underground.  There was a reply with fire and increased aggression, but my violent display on numerous fronts would buy us extra time.  

I watched every Adapted limp onboard, many of them looking defeated.  Many were injured and dripping blood.  Many were weeping for a friend that had been claimed by the Trillodan.  Morale was shot, the despair of defeat quickly falling onto our brethren.  We were Adapted and we lived for conflict; being beaten so badly in our own arena was a slap in the face of our very nature.  

The Trillodan changed tactics after I crushed another handful of their infantry in my verdant grasp.  They were setting up turrets and missile towers, forcing me to respond by threatening the Ark vessel on all sides.  Either I do something to stop them, or my family’s method of locomotion would go up in smoke. 

More of my mass flowed down the hill, extending my domain; the Trillodan assumed they had the edge being out of my reach, but none of them knew exactly how far I could extend myself.  Titan’s dedication to keeping me hidden had never allowed them to gauge how immense I truly was, how much mass I could shift around.  Machinery was undone and pulled into the ground, reduced to scrap in seconds as the battalions scurried backwards to regroup and reassess.  

And all the while, I was dimly aware of my best friend speaking to me.  The little barrier I left behind to keep him inside was still part of me.  It was another set of eyes and ears.  

“I know you’re doing this for everyone,” he said, his voice garbled as he tried not to cry.  “I know you’re making the hard choice because I can’t.  I’m greedy.  I want my friends with me.”

I wanted to answer, to reassure him, but the Trillodan were changing their tactics.  I recognized the figure in yellow who started to take charge: Salah, the Trillodan demolitionist.  She barked orders in an alien tongue and munitions were fired into the hill; an attempt to blast me apart.  

There was too much of me to move away from the first round of submerged explosives.  I felt five percent of my roots die off, burned to ash.  My vision narrowed in scope as I retreated back to the top half of the hill, condensing my mass, not allowing more reckless loss of my body.  As I retreated, the lieutenant specializing in bio weapons made an appearance, firing a missile from the base of the hill.

I used a quarter of my body, erecting a massive wall around the Ark ship, absorbing the blow and smothering whatever toxin Omec had tried to barrage us with.  However, it hadn’t been meant for them, it had been meant for me.  

Omec had created some kind of herbicide for me specifically.  I let the afflicted part of me die, severing my connecting and feeling the sting of another six percent loss of my body.  

With a mass appearance, the Trillodan had a target to bombard; explosives and lasers bit into the wall I had erected around the Adapted ship, chewing away at my flesh and burning away my limbs.  I devoted another quarter of my body to repelling them, sending a small avalanche of roots and vines cascading down the side of the hill, crushing the infantry and tanks trying to advance forward.  

It had been enough of a reply to push them back for now.  I was sure that soon there would be a change in tactic; laying siege against me was a losing battle and the enemy would realize that before long.  The only way they were going to take this hill from me was turning it to ash, and they couldn’t do that without killing all their precious Adapted samples.  

Information gathering had been my purpose on Tso’got, to be the quiet and unseen spectator around cities, directing recruitment, and identifying threats.  Here, on Vuuldar, being the true force of nature that my name implied brought me much more fulfillment.  

For a split second, I directed my attention inward, double checking to ensure that all the Adapted had made it onboard. 

Right on cue, a single voice cut through screaming my name.  

I manifested a form next to Dragoon, responding to her summons.  “You’re ready?”

“Yeah, we’ve done our last checks.  This is as good as we’re going to manage,” she said with a nervous smile.  “Engines are warming up and going  to burn in thirty seconds; you’re still going to be able to get us elevated?” 

“I will,” I replied, “Thirty seconds, make sure everyone is strapped down!” 

I dispersed my form and let my consciousness expand through the rest of my being, initiating a recall, pulling every strand of my being back to the upper section of the hill. I knew that my next stunt was going to be my real action of any importance; I figured it was time someone could respond to the melodrama that Zellig seemed to adore.  

For a moment, everything stopped.  

For a moment, I wasn’t on the hill battling for my family and was instead floating in a white expanse of nothing.  

For a moment, I was human again.  I was the small and frail Delilah, with my chubby hands and lazy eyes.  My heart hammered in my chest as I felt so small, so narrow in scope, so alarmingly human again.  It had been a sensation I had almost forgotten about.  My lungs burned; I hadn’t had lungs in nearly a decade.  I hadn’t needed to breathe or think about things like hunger for nearly half my life.  

In front of me, the strange figure that people kept seeing in dreams; an emaciated humanoid with an almost insect-esque lower half.  They gave me a sad smile as they stepped forward, reaching forward to my hands in theirs.  I didn’t pull away; I knew they weren’t a threat.  

“Delilah,” they said softly, “I’m sorry we’re never going to get to meet in person, but I wanted to give you a bit of reassurance before the end.”

“How did you do this?  How did you know?” I asked, my voice garbled.  It had been so long since I had this voice affect.  It had been so long since I had Adapted and done away with this imperfect body.  

“I know so much about all of you,” they said, “I helped make you all.  I have been watching you all for quite some time.”  They paused and squeezed my hands, silently reassuring me, “I’m going to look after your friends.  I promise you, what you’re doing, it will not be for nothing.”

“Please, take care of Max,” I pleaded, a tear cascading down my cheek, “He’s going to need it the most.”

They smiled and squeezed my hands again before pulling me into a hug.  “I will.  You have my word.”  

And just like that, I was back on the hill.  I was the immense Forest again and no longer the small, frail Delilah. 

With a strange sense of peace instilled in me, I let my entire body unfold.  The top of the hill erupted in a mess of vines and roots as a spire of wood grew under the ship, literally pushing it up, angling it heavenward as the engines roared to life.  Flames scalded me as Chemtrail’s rocket fuel propelled the immense Ark vessel.  Exhaust roared as the ship took my friends and family far away from this chaos.  

I had one last purpose: ensure their escape.  

Explosives, plasma, fire, lasers, all of the Trillodan arsenal raged against me.  Dead wood and burnt sections of my body fell to the ground as I shifted the roots into immense arms, taking a page from Eldritch’s playbook.  I became a towering torso atop the hill, a wooded colossus that would draw all their fire.

I lashed out with my newly formed limbs, going on the offensive.  Many of their infantry were too slow to retreat; the soldiers’ power armor did nothing to stop the weight and strength I wielded.  Their tanks crumpled like tin cans as I raged against Zellig’s army.  

As I had assumed, ships gave chase to the Ark vessel; a few flew too close to me and were pulled to the ground, their occupants ground up and discarded.  The few that made it by were quickly blasted away, explosions and beams of light driving back to the Trillodan armada.  I was overjoyed that Dragoon had the foresight to add some way to fight back as they tried to escape.  

The sky turned red again for the fourth time today; moments later the laser from the Trillodan’s Crimson City tore a rift through the center of my body, compromising my structure.  Wood groaned and splintered as I collapsed on myself, unable to keep a vaguely humanoid form. 

I answered quickly, slinking into the ground and ripping apart the layers of dirt and rock, creating a landslide.  I rode with the fabricated disaster, letting the shift in landscape drag me right into the Trillodan ranks.  Most fled, but a few were too slow to get clear and were smothered and subsumed by my body.  

Another surge of energy filled the air as the teal beam fired down from the ship in orbit, the same one that had turned Mizu’s tsunami into ice.  Nearly half of my remaining body was flash frozen.  I had to tear myself free of the wreckage, and found myself on the end of a massive salvo.  Fire and brimstone rained down on me as Salah took charge, ordering missile strikes over and over.  

My view of the world narrowed as my body was reduced to ash.  Forty percent, then thirty,  then only five percent remained.  

And soon, I was down to less than one percent.  

Amidst the crater that Salah had created destroying me, a lone effigy stood.  I kept my modern form, the slim girl with corrected features and no garbled speech.   A form I was happy with, one that better represented the girl I had dreamed of being as a child.  

Despite my death being imminent, I smiled.  

I would die being useful to my best friend.  I would not die a monster and freak, despite what everyone told me back on Tso’got.  

I would die a hero.  

A lone figure approached the edge of the crater.  He was tall compared to his comrades, and didn’t bother wearing power armor.  There was no fear as he approached, no wariness or trepidation; the grey-skinned interloper moved like he owned the place.  

I could see now why Zellig had intimidated Infinite.  There was a certain amount of pride and confidence he carried that was unnerving.  

“You are quite the specimen,” he said, smiling as he drew closer, bowing his head out of respect.  “I am sorry I never got a chance to properly introduce myself to you before now.”

I smiled, not bothering to mask my emotions in these last moments.  I was so narrow in focus, it was impossible for me to suppress the rampant emotions I was feeling.  “If you had introduced yourself before now, I would have crushed you into a pulp.” 

He laughed, sitting down, putting himself eye to eye with me.  “I’m sure.  You made quick work of my men and our technology.  A testament to the power of nature?”

“I didn’t get my name for nothing.”

“More literal that I would have thought,” he mused.  “Though, now you seem to have been through quite the forest fire.”

“You’re not funny,” I rebuked, stepping forward. 

He chuckled, “No, I’m not.  So, how about I be serious then,” he said, his smile vanishing.  “You are done.  There is no more of you left to fight us with.  You sacrificed yourself to prevent your friends being captured; I respect your tenacity and dedication to the cause, but it ends now.”

“I’m okay with that,” I replied.

“Are you going to come quietly?”

My smile wavered as the weight of the situation finally caught up with me.  This was it, the last few seconds of my life.  I was incapable of crying, but I wanted to as I quickly saw the original group that Titan had gathered: Infinite, Almanac, Clairvoyant, Playlist, and Interface.  Just a handful of us had worked tirelessly to see Titan’s plan put into motion.  

“I’m not going to come with you at all,” I defied.  

Zellig didn’t get angry like I expected.  Instead, he calmly rose to his feet and towered over me.  “Forest, I am sorry to sully your sacrifice, but you will serve the Trillodan empire.”

I shook my head and dug a foot into the charred ground.  I started to disperse what little bit of me was left, spreading it out thin enough that there wasn’t anything large enough to be a sentient core.  “No, I won’t,” I replied as my legs folded, my body coming apart like a tapestry being undone.  “All you’ll find are roots, nothing special about them.”

Again, I expected rage from Zellig, some kind of anger in response to my defiance; it surprised me that the last thing he did was raise his hand in salute.  “Very well.  You, Forest, have earned my respect.”

For a moment, I debated stopping the process, trying to be sly and keep myself clinging to life, but I knew better.  Even though Zellig walked away, someone else would watch and ensure I finished the job.  Otherwise, they wouldn’t let such a valuable specimen go to waste.  

My torso came unravelled and the lights began to dim.

“Good luck everyone,” I whispered as I looked to the heavens one final time.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Battle for Vuuldar: Titan

I had lost contact with Infinite after she engaged with Eldritch.  We had all watched, pensive, as Eldritch came apart at the seams; Infinite had taken Big Picture’s advice and made a power suited for Eldritch specifically.  It all seemed to be going so well until the beam from the Crimson City came crashing down.  

For a moment, I had been worried it might have killed her, but then Eldritch appeared next to me.  The terrified kid told us Infinite had sent him away and stayed behind to brawl with Zellig himself.  As soon as I heard that, I started looking for Distortion, despite the protest of Big Picture.  

“Titan, you shouldn’t throw yourself out there!  Infinite is a bigger danger to him than he is to her.  You and I both know what she’s capable of!  She would flatten the city before she loses to him.”

“It’s not a fight I’m worried about,” I muttered as I picked up my pace, stomping down the ramp and towards the little cabana where Distortion was sitting, “Zellig has been playing mind games with people for years.  She had to undo a huge power set and rebuild one to save Eldritch.  Two full power sets without Command to help her; she’s going to be vulnerable.  Zellig is going to know to exploit her fragility!” 

“And how do you know that he’s not just using her vulnerability to sucker you away from the ship and away from all the defenses we have erected here?  Zellig would also be smart enough to exploit your affection and seize an opportunity to attack the head of the snake.” 

I wanted to shout at Big Picture, but he had a valid point.  “Are you insinuating that I can’t hold my own?”

Big Picture looked offended as he pulled his wheelchair right beside me.  “Of course I’m not saying that.  However, it’s still the Trillodan.  Do you think that even with a one second warning, you’ll survive that orbital cannon?  Do you think you could ensure a whole city block rigged to blow?  You aren’t invincible, Titan.”

“No. But I’m much more expendable than she is.  I’m just a big gun you can point at something.  Infinite can do fucking anything we need her to do.  I’m absolutely-“

I didn’t finish my sentence because the world glowed red again, another blast from that cannon laying waste in the city.  This time, there was an answer to the electricity and power in the air, a chill that seemed to creep along your skin.  

“No, please no,” I whispered.  A split second later, a black cloud consumed a massive chunk of the city, suffocating anyone too close.  When she had altered, Charlotte had killed everyone within a city block; this was several magnitudes larger.  “Pic, how bad?”

He gulped down a nervous lump as he looked at the lingering cloud, “I’d guess a full kilometer around her.”

A mass of roots sprouted from the grass as Forest materialized beside me, “Tell me you aren’t going down there,” she demanded, looking cross. 

“Forest, if she lost control that means she won’t have any powers at her disposal.  She’s vulnerable.”

“And you don’t know if you can breathe that air,” Forest replied.  “I’m not about to let you go kill yourself.  Way too many people need you, you daft idiot!”

I shouldered past her only for her to pop back up in front of me.  “Titan, the reason we didn’t send you out is because Zellig will throw everything at you once you’re away from me.  I can’t protect you if you go down there.  I move too slow.”

“Get out of my way!”  I tried to push past her again, but a mass of tree roots grew around my arm.  

“Titan, if you die, we’re without a leader.  That’s a power that Infinite and I don’t have.”

“If we don’t have Infinite, we can’t get away from them.  They will chase us down and blow our ship to pieces without her to get us clear of that fucking Crimson City.  I can’t lead a dogfight in space!”  I glared at the mass of roots around my arm, “Forest, let go.”

“Max,” she said, using my name like a cautionary measure.  

“Delilah,” I shot back, letting her know I wasn’t going to budge.  “I will not leave Charlotte down there.  We need her.  Even if you don’t trust her, we need her.”

She sighed and released my arm.  “Be careful.”

I nodded as her form dispersed.  Big Picture was still nearby, looking like he had something he desperately wanted to say.  “Out with it.”

“Infinite can survive the beam, but you can’t.  I think the Trillodan might be trying to sucker you out and away from the rest of us to kill you.  Forest is right: without you we flounder.  We’re too disparate and self-serving.  You’re one of the few objective members among us who can think beyond a selfish goal.”

I let out a wry laugh, “Well, Zellig has me by the balls then.  We can’t live without Infinite.  While Dragoon can make the ship run, we need Infinite to get clear of the Trillodan.  Unless you’ve got another idea up your sleeve that we can use in the next few hours.”

Big Picture shook his head.

“In that case, keep track of things here.  I want to know how bad it is once I get back.”

“Understood.”

Taking a deep breath, I walked up to the perpetually displeased Distortion.  Her irritable façade cracked for a moment as I got close, displaying some nerves.  She was still afraid of me, or possibly just jumpy after the trauma of her first encounter with Zellig and his cohorts.  

“What-“

“Get me as close as you can to her,” I demanded.  “Dead center of where that cloud originated.”

“That’s nearly three kilometers away.  Even with Powerhouse giving me extra range, I’m pretty well spent.  I don’t want to leave part of you behind.”

“Just do it,” I growled, not bothering to try and filter my anger.  Everyone was trying to keep me slowed down, costing me valuable time that I would need to retrieve Infinite.  

Distortion at least had the good sense to shut her mouth after my first rebuke.  

“I’ll get you as close as I can,” she promised.  

A second later, I was in that void of nothingness, and then I found myself amidst an eerily still city.  For a single moment, I felt a pang of guilt as I could hear others fighting the Trillodan in the distance.  

I pushed it from my mind; I had my own war to fight.  

My focus shifted to the threads that hung in the air.  Visible only to me, they were the ignition for my power; all of them could be pulled and turned into a trigger for my reaction. Reaching out, I grabbed and pulled a few together.  A sound reminiscent of an acetylene torch echoed through the quiet as I boosted myself into the air on a column of molten silicon, using the height to search for my companion.  I landed on one of the few buildings that survived Eldritch’s rampage, feverishly scouting.  

“Come on, Charlotte,” I muttered, my own anxiety growing.  “Come on, come on, come on, where are you?” 

Over and over I boosted myself around, trying to think of what to do once I found her.  These episodes were followed by a short period where Infinite was stripped of her overwhelming power.  For a few moments, she was reduced to being just Charlotte.  The only way around that was for Command to be present, to smooth out the conflict in her psyche.  

“I shouldn’t have let her go without him,” I growled at myself, wishing there was someone else to blame.  “I shouldn’t have let her go alone.  I shouldn’t have been so fucking stupid.” 

I landed on a heap of rubble this time to scout for her and give my Adaptation a rest; again it was a bust.  But, just before I took off, I heard something that caught my attention.  A metallic thudding, like heavy metal shoes tromping down the street.  

While there was the sound of metal clashing in the distance, this was far too close.  

I gave myself another boost and finally found Infinite, and three figures in power armor bearing down on her.  

“Get away from her!” I roared, firing a molten salvo to drive them back.  I sprinted forward and slid in beside Infinite, putting a hand in front of her mouth to ensure she was breathing; she was, but only just.  “What did you all do to her?” I snarled.

“Neural disconnect.  We need to keep her asleep to transport her.  Don’t want to risk her equipping more powers, do we?” the one in the gunmetal suit answered.  All three of them began to fan out around me, their unspoken coordination telling volumes.  And the authority he spoke with, it suggested rank.  

Zellig’s inner circle.  Even a mastermind like himself had a need for additional manpower; who better to reclaim the most dangerous and unstable enemy?  I’d heard enough about Salah, Omec, and Tol to have at least a general idea about their arsenal and skill sets.  Salah was in the yellow, a demolitionist who specialized in traps.  Tol was in the gunmetal and seemed to manipulate his suit on the fly to be either a marksman or brawler depending on the opponent.  Omec was a wildcard who made her own biological agents.    

“We have been waiting to meet you in person, Titan,” Salah said, “We’ve heard so many things about you.  Seen so many things as well.”

“You’re been ripping memories out of people’s heads,” I muttered reproachfully.  

“You make it sound so barbaric,” Omec said, clicking her tongue beneath the helmet.  “We simply stimulate their hippocampus and allow a machine to interpret the data that comes pouring out.  They never feel a thing.”

I reached under Infinite’s arm, throwing her limp form over my shoulder.  “If you’ve pulled memories out of people’s heads, you know what I can do.”

“We didn’t need to do that to know what you are capable of.  We saw footage of Feast Day,” Tol replied.  “We know exactly what you can do.  Zellig wasn’t sure if you’d come along.”

“What Tol is trying to say is,” Salah added, “We were handpicked to kill you if you decided to come rescue the damsel.”

“And you didn’t disappoint,” Omec concluded.  I got the sense she had a bloodthirsty grin under that helmet.  

As they all got situated around me, I pushed the demands of leadership out of my mind.  I cast aside my worries for anyone else, for anything else except this moment.  I was at a disadvantage having to carry Infinite; I had to keep a hold of her otherwise I couldn’t extend my heat immunity to her.  All of them were vulnerable but all three of them were going to work in perfect harmony.  They had all been fighting alongside each other since before I was born.  

First things first, I needed to get back within Distortions range and let her take Infinite away.  The cause could survive without me, but it couldn’t withstand losing her.  If these three were willing to chase me after I managed to get Infinite clear, I could turn the fight around on them.  Zellig had dared to send his lieutenants after me; how often would we get a chance to take all three of them out in one fell swoop? 

Before they could attack, I swiped my hand through the air and pulled those invisible strings; a stream of molten metal filled the space between me and Tol while the other two picked up the pace circling around me.  

Behind you, something explosive.

I clenched my first as I tossed Infinite over a shoulder.  A wall of molten silicon appeared, turning solid to absorb the explosion.  Debris went flying as I turned and started to run.  

In the air.  Something toxic. 

Omec tossed a vial my way that sent black vapor streaking towards me.  I waved my hands, pulling more strings, creating a small whirlpool of molten silicon around me.  The vapor burned away and I shot a hand, diverting the red-hot slurry.  She was quick on her feet to avoid the deluge.  

On your left.

I glanced left, seeing Tol reconfiguring his armor, turning one sleeve into a makeshift rifle; a wall of material solidified as he let out the first round.

All around you.

I wanted to return fire as Tol repositioned, but I had to deal with the next miasmatic cloud that Omec had unleashed.  More material quickly whipped around me, like some kind of protective bubble as I made sure to keep a hand on Infinite.  Tol and Omec took turns to test my defenses, never giving me a chance to attack.

As long as I had to carry her, I couldn’t reply in time.  

Above you.  On your flanks.

I looked up in response to my danger sense, but I didn’t see a cloud of gas like I expected.  I saw a glint of steel as something flew down at me; I diverted my created material upward to intercept the explosives that had been lobbed.  As soon as I did, Tol charged forward and Omec threw a vial near my feet. 

They had synced up their attacks, preventing me from answering all of them.  

I grit my teeth and forced some strings to pull together without my hand, smothering whatever biological weapon she had thrown; if I took a single breath of whatever she had prepared, that was the end for me.  I tried to repeat the process and blast him, but Tol closed the distance in a wild leap.  His suit was lit up red, a network of crimson making him so much faster than I expected.  

Before I could bring the torrent of silicon on his head, his fist drove into my guts.  Blood filled my mouth as I felt all my organs compress.  Stars appeared in my eyes as I fell and slid backwards, hearing something crunch as Infinite’s limp body added to the impact on my shoulder.  Tol gave chase, bearing down on me as I tried to sit up.  I raised my free hand and blindly released a torrent of molten silicon; the Trillodan lieutenant quickly pulled back.  

Underneath. 

The ground fragmented as an explosion made my ears ring.  Chunks of shrapnel cut my fingers and pelted my armored coat but the worst part was the concussive wave.  My ears rang and my head throbbed as I tried to get back up, haphazardly conjuring a moat in an attempt to buy myself space.  

In the air.  

This was never going to work with me attempting to moderate and keep everything in  perfect control.  This trio was too good at coordinating a combined assault to ensure I endured some damage.  They knew all they had to do was hit me a few times and I was done for.  I had no healing factor or inherent toughness; the only defensive edge I had was my danger sense giving me a little bit of heads up.  

To hell with being composed and controlled.  Trying to be as efficient as possible wasn’t working; I would be better served playing to my strength.  I was one of the Prime Trio and it was time to show why.   

I clutched Infinite close and swiped my left hand forward, pulling every small thread in the air.  For an instant, stars clouded my vision again, but I had just doused a four-meter ring in liquid metal.  I dragged my hand in a circle, whipping the metal in a vortex around me.  Flicking my wrist up, the metal formed a full bubble around the two of us.  With a grunt, I thrust my palm forward; the protective sphere erupted, firing lances of molten metal out at random.  

With my covering fire down, I ran.  

Tol and Omec had to duck into buildings to avoid having holes punched through them; I raised my hand over my shoulder and let fire a deluge to set fire to the building Omec had hid inside.  

I hadn’t gone but twenty meters before my danger sense chimed in. 

From the left. 

I didn’t bother waiting to see what was coming for me; I pivoted and let fire a cone of molten material that engulfed a single-story home.  Swinging my hand down, I directed  the flow to the sides, the slurry greedily devouring the nearby structures as well.  

Behind you.

I rounded to see Tol charging, arm raised as the armor began to shift again, changing to another type of firearm.  Another weight settled on my shoulders as I yanked a handful of threads, flooding the street with a wave of metal.  

Underneath.

Pointing my palm down, I used my power to propel myself upwards and avoid the mine that Salah had set.  As I carried Infinite and myself, I started to feel that fatigue setting in; using my power without both hands to help direct the energy was challenging, and extending my resistance to heat had its own tax as well.  If I was going to be able to fight, I needed to be unrestrained.  If not, I was going to Overexpose before long.

“Distortion, do you still have the tracking gift from Powerhouse?” I asked as I turned on my earpiece. 

“Yes,” she replied after a split second.  

Finally something according to plan.  “I need you to take Infinite from me.  She’s unconscious.”

There was a moment before a reply.  “What about you?”

“I’m going to stay here.” 

Another pause.  “Forest is glaring at me.  She says that’s a shit idea.”  

“Tell her I don’t give a damn!  Just take Infinite!  I can deal with these three if I can use both my hands!” 

“Set her on the ground,” Distortion said, “Make sure she doesn’t move for a second.”   

“She’s had one of those things put on her neck,” I said into the earpiece as I watched the air shimmer around her limp form and whisk her back to the ship, “Get it cut out quickly.”

“We-” Distortion was abruptly cut off as the earpiece hissed and sputtered.  I turned around, seeing the three lieutenants in a line, staring down the road at me.   

“No help, no reinforcements,” Salah said, wagging her finger as she tossed aside some spent device.  “We wanted to fight you alone.  It won’t do for you to phone for friends.”

“I was half expecting you to die when I hit you,” Tol said, sounding almost gleeful, “I would have been disappointed if you were so fragile.”

I didn’t tell him that my abdomen was still throbbing with pain and that I could still taste blood I’d vomited up.  I didn’t bother saying anything at all.  I was done entertaining their melodramatic tendencies.  

Pulling my fingers into a fist, I pulled a handful of threads to start the reaction.  I raised both hands, flooding the street in molten metal, driving all three of them to the side like insects running from a rainstorm.  Waving my hands, I diverted the flood to the sides, giving chase, melting down structures and vehicles with reckless abandon.  

With my left hand, I started a new reaction, creating a whirlpool beneath my feet, creating a column to elevate me and let me look down on the lieutenants.  

Coming up from the right.

Another molten salvo eradicated Omec’s miasmatic assault as I continued creating more and more material, constantly churning every bit of metal into a maelstrom around me.  I caught sight of Tol trying to get a good vantage for a shot; all the molten flood diverted and washed an entire cluster of buildings out of existence.  

On the left.

Salah had thrown a handful of what looked like small grenades towards me; they were reduced to dust before they could get close enough to detonate.  

I dared to smile as I continued to conduct my storm from my makeshift platform, dumping more and more metal into the slurry to expand my domain.  Omec and Salah tried to interfere, but all of their weapons and tricks could be burnt away.  Any threat they posed could be reduced to ash with the flick of a wrist.  

To expand my reach, I moved material from the center of the storm out to the edges, creating a ring that reached a whole city block, leaving a charred trail behind me as I gave chase.  One hand  kept it churning and one hand kept my column of molten metal intact.  I saw Tol run again, buildings being swept out from under him as he still couldn’t get a good shot.  Salah and Omec were constantly on the back foot as well, unable to find their mark with an attack.  

A sick part of me was glad they dared to stay and fight.  I hadn’t been able to unleash my powers like this ever.  Even during Feast Day, I had to restrain myself and try to avoid some collateral damage; now I had no such inhibitions.  I did not feel pity for the residents of Vuuldar, I felt only burning passion for my crusade.  

These three were a threat to the well being of the universe.  They were like a virus, and I was a fever here to burn them away.  

My smile turned manic as I pushed my ring of desolation out further; even though I couldn’t see the lieutenants, I would just remove any place they had to hide.  I added more and more material to my inferno, admiring the charred landscape I left in my wake.  I had lost track of how far I had chased these three.  The burn scar behind me seemed to stretch on for ages though.  It had been so long since I had been able to use my gift like this, to just be the human calamity that people had feared back on Tso’got.  

I was Titan.  I was the first Adapted on Tso’got.  I was the nightmare to villains like the Snatchers.  I was the first real threat to the Trillodan in centuries.  I would march my dysfunctional family to their door and dethrone those tyrants.  

Just watching these three flee was an affirmation to my identity and purpose.    

Below you.

I was on a column of molten metal nearly eight meters high; what kind of explosive could Salah have left in the ground that would threaten me?  I glanced down to see it wasn’t anything from the demolitionist; Tol was standing there, taking aim.   

“How-” I started to whisper, unable to make sense of what I was seeing.  

Tol fired a sliver of metal from his sleeve that ripped into my right leg.  Muscle and sinew gave way and my concentration fell apart as pain dragged me out of my adrenaline fueled glee.  

With my loss in focus came the loss of control for all the material I had conjured.  Tons of molten metal splashed down, flowing aimlessly across the street; I managed to release a jet of molten silicon and slow my fall.  My landing was still rough and I put too much weight on my left leg, shattering my ankle on impact.  

At the edge of the moat, Tol waited, patiently.  As soon as this silicon cooled, he could step forward and claim his prize.  He was in no rush.  

“How-”

“Tunneled.  Ran ahead of your ring and found a home with a small basement.  Blasted deeper into the ground and waited for Salah’s to tell me you had dragged your ring over me.  You weren’t paying enough attention.  Seems someone got overconfident.  You let your ego get the better of you.  Rookie mistake.”

I groaned as I tried to get up, but my mobility was shot.  My right leg was gushing blood from the trench in my thigh.  Even though he hadn’t hit an artery, Tol had done enough damage to let blood loss do its job.  He could wait for my residual material to cool enough for his two cohorts to join him without risking me running.  

Alongside your spine.

Tol wasn’t just waiting for his comrades, he had tagged me with one of those neural disconnects.  He was waiting until I was mechanically sedated before bothering to risk life and limb.  I had, at most, a second before it squeezed around my neck and turned me into a ragdoll. 

But how was I supposed to burn this away?  I created molten silicon from the air and I was near immune to thermal changes; I couldn’t just bore a hole into my neck and rip it out.  

However, there was air in my mouth I could manipulate.  

I set my jaw as molten metal filled my mouth; I made a small sliver cool into silicate crystal, using it to punch a hole through my esophagus and allow the rest of the molten material outside of my mouth to intercept the cord that would turn me into a mannequin.  

Still, I let myself fall backwards and played paralytic.  As I hit the ground, blood began filling my mouth as the silicon began to harden around my spine.  To make it worse, I couldn’t cauterize the perforation I had made and began to choke on blood.  I laid there, trying to abstain from panicking; the threads were fading from my eyes, a telltale sign that I was running out of strength.    

I forced myself to stay still, willing Tol to approach and claim his prisoner, praying I had enough left in the tank for one more attack.  Metallic footfalls greeted my ears; as fast as I could, I sat up and raised my hand, letting out a cone of molten metal.  

Even with all the training he had, Tol was too slow to entirely avoid the scattershot.  He let out an animalistic howl as he hit the ground, globs of molten metal boring through his suit and eating into the flesh beneath.  Steam rose as he writhed and screamed, the Trillodan reduced from commanding to crippled in a blink. 

“Tol!” 

Omec and Salah had finally made it to us, both of them brandishing a new weapon.

I almost laughed at my danger sense screaming at me that there was a threat incoming; what was I going to do about it?  Fight the two of them while bleeding heavily and unable to breathe thanks to the blood in my mouth?  

I took solace knowing that I was at least taking one of them with me.  Zellig would feel the loss of his lieutenant.  I  hoped it would haunt him for all his days.  

“Kill him!” Tol screamed, still writing in pain, his body still melting slowly.  

Omec and Salah advanced towards me, neither of them rushing.  They knew how dangerous I was, even in my weakened state.  They split up, slowly circling around me, ensuring that I couldn’t hit both with one attack.  

I debated laughing at them; their caution was egregiously unnecessary.  I wouldn’t be able to fight a foot soldier, let alone one of their most elite.  There was no more energy for me to tap into, no more fight in me.  

My lips parted and a cascade of blood washed over my lower lip, “Even without me, my family is going to come for you all.  We’re not going to stop.”

“We know,” Salah answered, her voice filled with venom.  

“We’re counting on it.  Once Vaneel has his work done, we can finally kill the rest of you.  We’ll be doing the universe a favor.”

I turned my head to Omec, showing off my bloodstained teeth with a smile, “I think the universe would be quick to disagree.”

Salah let out a frustrated click.  “You think too small, Titan.  You don’t see everything like we do.”

On your sides.

She clicked the top of the vial and rolled it towards me while Salah tossed some kind of explosive my way.  I closed my eyes, spending my last second wishing I had listened to Delilah and that I had just stayed with Charlotte.   

And then, I was no longer on the battlefield; I was on the ship, in our improvised medical bay.  

In front of me, Infinite was on her knees, a nervous smile on her face.  “I wasn’t too late,” she said with relief.  Behind her, Command was sitting, concentrating, keeping Infinite’s personality from fragmenting.  Organelle laid a hand on me, immediately patching the hole in my mouth.

“What in the hell do you have on your spine?” she whispered, horrified. 

I spat out a last mouthful of blood.  “Worry about it later.  What’s going on out there?”

“It’s all gone to shit,” a curt voice answered from the doorway.  Forest shook her head, her face betraying no emotion.  “Infinite’s eruption killed a dozen different Adapted.  With Zellig’s elite causing some serious problems, everyone is falling back to us as quickly as possible.”

It has been a failure on all fronts: Eldritch had been turned against us, Infinite had been defeated, and our fellow Adapted were faltering in the face of the Trillodan military.  I had tried to fight against Zellig; the Trillodan commander had proved exactly why his name was so feared.  I had thought so highly of myself and my scheming.

In the end it meant nothing.  Clairvoyant, our soothsaying Adapted, had tried to warn me about this outcome and I had been too proud to listen.  

“Command,” I whispered, “Do you know what Clairvoyant sees next?” 

“Nine visions,” he recalled, “Six of them, we stayed to fight and were all slaughtered or taken prisoner.  Two of them we try to fly away but are shot down.”

“And the last one?” I dared to ask, growing more and more anxious.

He turned to look at Forest in the doorway before looking back, “Clairvoyant sees us escaping, but…”

“But?”

“In the vision she saw, I die,” Forest said, finishing Command’s thought.  


Previous Chapter – Next Chapter

Battle for Vuuldar: Infinite

I had been watching the whole time.  I had seen the others struggle against Eldritch, doing their best to put him down.  There were simply too many people in place for him to devour, too many stubborn or scared  Ellayans there for him to gobble up. Four of the greatest contenders from Tso’got went up against Eldritch and were coming up empty, hard-pressed to stop this juggernaut we had made.  

Psycho nearly turned the tide, showing exactly why that Altered maniac was so feared.  I watched his endless horde rip away nearly a third of Eldritch before the beast ran to the coast where Mizu’s trap had awaited; it would have been a spectacular wash out if the Trillodan hadn’t frozen his tsunami.

With two powers allotted, I could actually see it hovering in the atmosphere, like some kind of massive bug just waiting off the side of the planet.  I had considered telling Titan that I could shoot it down; the problem is it would have taken me at least ten powers to do it; at that point I was just as likely to blow up everyone around me as I was to shoot a ship out of the sky.  

Titan kept me close to him, deliberately away from the conflict.  He could have settled this whole affair without ever using Eldritch, without letting anyone else go out onto the battlefield.  I could have snapped my fingers and obliterated the city. I could have waved my hands and turned this place into a sheet of glass.  

What was uncertain was how much collateral damage I would cause.  Titan didn’t want me spearheading anything because I became volatile and violent the more I used my Alteration.  

But as I looked out on the city ravaged Eldritch, there was no way anyone was stopping him.  He had gorged himself on the Ellayan militia and towered above the plain buildings, now nearly sixteen meters to the shoulder.  

“Infinite,” Titan said over the earpiece, “You sure you can do this without Command?” 

I drifted away from the ship, getting a little closer to observe Eldritch.  “Trickiest part is to make sure I don’t kill him. Otherwise, nine powers. I can control that.”  

Titan’s silence spoke volumes.

“I’ll be okay,” I insisted with a laugh.  “I’ll let him get a little closer before I rip him apart so I can bring him right to the ship.”

“Let me know if you need anything,” he said at length.  

I landed on a rooftop closing my eyes for a moment as I reached outside myself, acquiring a new power.  

Farsight.

Even though he was a few kilometers away, my view of Eldritch was crystal clear, giving me a full view of all his gruesome details.  The whole body was covered in nightmarish mouths that drooled acid or let off steam. Wood and metal had been woven into the growths, like a layer of spiked armor to repel any attackers.  I saw Eldritch swipe an arm forward, grabbing the last few stragglers and incorporating them into his immense bulk.  

And then, he headed towards me.

I closed my eyes, discarding my power of flight, grabbing a new pair of gifts. 

Transmit.   

“Big Picture,” I asked into my earpiece, “Give me your evaluation.”  

In retrospect, I should have asked him if he minded me transmitting what I saw directly to his brain, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he was expecting this sort of thing. 

“Blasting him apart is going to be challenging, even for you.  He’s gotten to a point where standard weaponry won’t put him down thanks to how many mutations he’s developed.  I’m willing to bet that orbital cannon wouldn’t do too much at this point.” 

That actually caught me off guard.  “So, how do I get rid of him?”

“You might be able to nuke the whole city and kill him, but you’ll kill Nick and us in the process.  A more reasonable option would be to engineer some kind of power for the Neklim itself. Brute force is something he’ll be able to endure.  Don’t play to his strength, play to yours. Be creative.”  

I dismissed the Transmission and Link powers I had picked up.  “Thanks for the insight.” 

“Do let me know before you plan to hijack my eyes next time,” he muttered, letting annoyance slip through.  

I wrung my hands, admittedly feeling guilty.  “I’m sorry, Pic. It won’t happen again.” 

Mulling over his advice, I tried to think of the best way to take apart a beast like Eldritch.  My usual approach would be to try and blast him apart in the same manner that Shockwave might. I minded Big Picture though; that Cognate was going to know more than I could.  At the root of it all, he was a massive Neklim, a huge hive of small organisms bound together.  

All of them were anchored to Nick.  Even though he could split the existing growths and let them run around on their own, the whole thing hinged on the kid in the middle.  

“So how do I get you out without killing you?” I whispered, compulsively itching the back of my hand.  Nerves were starting to get to me as I watched the monster trudge forward, kicking down buildings on accident.  “I don’t want to kill you or anyone else,” I reminded myself, feeling that horrible presence in my mind rearing in anticipation.  Every time I reached for power, I risked letting that thing slip out and have a few minutes of agency.   

Alterations had a cost, usually at the expense of the wielder.  Meeting the Lunatics and watching others Alter only affirmed that suspicion: Bargain’s power had been self-destructive, Spectre’s power cost her a cohesive identity, and Psycho was only strong when he was insane.  The only one who hadn’t shown a downside to their power was Parasite, but I was sure something would crop up soon enough. I wasn’t sure if I was lucky or unlucky at the tax my power took: the more stress and strain I submitted myself too, the more I had to push back that dark voice in my head.

Whenever it slipped out, I let out that black mist, suffocating everything nearby.  

I shuddered as I looked forward, Eldritch looking more and more disgusting as he got closer.  Doing my best to steady myself, I reached into the limitless void I drew my powers from, equipping myself with a new set of tools:

Flight, Dismantle, Expedite, Magnify, Proliferate, Danger Sense, Quickness, Projection, Annihilation.    

   My knees buckled for a moment as I adjusted, my head throbbing as I pushed away that voice’s whispers.  I felt phantasmal hands grab me, pull me back, but I shook them off. “They aren’t real. That happened a long time ago,” I said to myself on a loop.  

Taking on a big dose of power was rough.  It would be easier for the rest of the day once I was stable.  But, right now, I had to pull myself out of the visions that came with too much power.  I had to ignore the phantom sensations of the chains around my wrist, the burns on my back, the hands around my throat.  I forgot how taxing it was without Command to help reduce the mental strain that came with this many gifts. While each gift was an exponential amount of growth, it made enduring the headache and mental stress that much worse. 

“It isn’t real, it isn’t real, it isn’t real.  I’m not on Tso’got anymore. I’m on Vuuldar now.  It was a long time ago,” I whispered to myself, but I was slipping.  I could hear the voices of those three, laughing, taunting me, and enjoying themselves at my expense.  Tears started to roll down my cheeks as I clasped my hands to my head, feeling myself spiral out of control.  I was just starting and already losing control. I was already failing everyone… 

“Charlotte,” a calm voice said, cutting through the fog, pulling me back.  “You can do this.” 

Titan had no way of knowing that he probably saved everyone by anchoring me.  “Thank you, Max,” I replied. I wiped my face and took a few deep breaths, the ghost of my past put away for now.  I looked down at my hands as they were now brimming with energy specifically tailored for dismantling Eldritch. In a way, it was remarkable that he was the first thing to ever need a power custom made to put up with him.  

Dismantle was a power I had only used twice before, both times to deconstruct something mechanical, but it would have the same effect since Neklim were composed of small parts.  Magnification would provide a boost to all my active powers, Proliferation would spread the disconnection through parts of the greater system, and Expedite would accelerate any active gift I used.  Once he started to fall apart with Dismantle, I would be able to use Annihilate to kill swaths of growths and keep him from reforming.  

Ignoring the pounding headache my power brought with it, I shot myself forward, funneling power into my right hand as I got close enough to the beast.  The closer I got the more horrific he became. Not just the appearance, but I hadn’t appreciated the smell of death and decay that came with him.  

“One chance, Eldritch,” I shouted as I levitated thirty meters in front of him, “Let him out, or I rip you apart.  Don’t make this tougher than it needs to be.”

All of the mouths opened, letting out a discordant chorus screaming, “No!”

It did not help my headache.  

Enraged, I channeled the power to my fingertips and let out a ball of energy that collided with his front, left leg, dispersing itself among the growths.  The monster tried to barrel forward, but lurched to the side. A confused roar went out as his limb fell apart, the communication and bond between his tentacles failing.  Nothing stuck together, sending his hive mind into a panic as I poured power into my hand and fired another ball of energy into his other front leg.  

I peppered his torso, adding more sites of collapse as Eldritch tried to simply force everything back into place, but it was costing him a cohesive form.  The mighty hound-like form was quickly turning into an amoeba. Mouths sagged as Eldritch floundered, unable to conjure a mutation to counteract my power. Eldritch was able to withstand extreme trauma and mutate as a collective entity; it was a pity I didn’t allow it to remain a single being.  Without the connection to its core, the disconnected tendrils were weak. 

“Stop!” the Neklim screamed at me, only adding to my frustration.  It was so loud, so frustrating, so problematic. It would just be better if this thing was gone.  Then finally it might shut up.

I shifted power, putting the Dismantle on a backburner, now taking Annihilation.  Red lines of power lit up across my skin, like a new circulatory system devoted to allocating raw, destructive energy.  I sneered at the floundering monster as I unleashed a cone of desolation, cutting through the disorganized heap of material.  

Without the cohesive structure and communication, Eldritch was weak. He couldn’t harden the cells to resist Annihilate.  He tried to respond and throw explosive clumps of tendrils at me, or breathe fire, but it was all for naught. I had Expedite and Danger sense; everything that threatened me had plenty of forewarning.  His actions were too telegraphed and simple. Even though Eldritch was intelligent, he was still just a monster.  

All the time spent and problem with Eldritch, all this pain and death, all this destruction due to this simple monster.  I worked with some truly weak people.  

Ten minutes of Dismantle and Annihilate left Eldritch tiny.  His gargantuan glory cut down to an eighth of what he had been.  He had tried to run, but Flight and Expedite gave me more mobility than he could compete with.  Eldritch had searched for other food, but the few stragglers he found I turned to dust with Annihilate.  It was better I give them a mercy killing rather than let them fuel this monstrosity.

“Let’s try this again,” I growled at Eldritch as I landed, forcing him to put his back against a wall.  “Let Nick out, or I rip him out.”

Eldritch was slow to respond but I was quick to hit him with another dose of Dismantle.  The Neklim screamed as he came apart, pale flesh finally revealed beneath. The growths tried to pull back to their source, but I Annihilated them away, refusing to allow him to continue this lopsided fight any longer.  I had made a power specific for him, he should at least take pride that he warranted such measures.  

Nick’s eyes snapped open as he was finally free of the Neklim body, gasping for air as he seemed to come back online.  Before I got a chance to say anything, my danger sense screamed at me.  

That massive weapon they had used on Eldritch, they were going to use it on me.  

I couldn’t grab Eldritch and fly away fast enough and Titan had told me to save Eldritch, not kill him.  I couldn’t just leave him here to die, but my current power set wasn’t built to protect anyone but myself.  

Rapidly ejecting every bit of power through my fingertips, I hastily cobbled together another set of gifts to protect us.  

Barrier, Energy Dispersal, Energy Absorption, Toughness, Martyrdom, Regeneration.  

A shield of blue energy went up the instant before we were bathed in the red laser.  I felt a sympathetic tether reach out to Eldritch, my power of Martyrdom diverting all harm he endured to myself.  My barrier held through the first half of the beam’s duration, then my other five powers had to tide me over. 

I started to burn for both of us, my gift of Energy Dispersal trying to slough off the heat and pressure that was destroying my body.  What I couldn’t shrug off, I tried to absorb; that did its best to feed into my Regeneration but it was having trouble keeping up with the sheer destructive power of the Trillodan weapon.  My vision blurred as my eyes began to deteriorate, the world blurring as one of my senses gave out.  

It felt like my blood was boiling as the beam finally stopped.  Eldritch looked at himself, mouth wide open in confusion. “You, you saved me?” 

“Of course I saved you, you fucking ass,” I hissed as my skin regrew and shed layers of burnt tissue.  “If I wanted to kill you, I would have torched you earlier. Or I would have flown away and let you die due to that shit.” 

To my shock, a reply didn’t come from Eldritch.  “And we couldn’t have that, could we?”

I directed my Regeneration to fix my eyes next so I could confirm that voice belonged to the Trillodan commander himself.  Sure enough, that massive grey bastard was strutting forward, lips curled into a smug smile. “You have a lot of spring in your step for someone who is supposed to be dead.”

Details became more clear as he bared some of his fangs.  “Lucky for me, Adamant kills clean. Replacing a heart is simple.  Vaneel has plenty of backups just for that sort of thing.”

I gritted my teeth, reaching into the well for another pair of powers: 

Relocation, Extension.

In a flash, Eldritch vanished, his body ripped through space and dumped back at the ship.  I couldn’t look after that little piece of shit while dealing with this pompous alien jackass at the same time.  Still, having cycled through so many powers was wearing on me, and the throbbing behind my eyes was only getting more intense.  

“Going to run?” Zellig asked, sounding strangely disappointed.  “Going to go fleeing back to the man who let you come out here alone?”

I sneered, “Count your blessings, you fuck.  I could snap my fingers and turn you to dust.”  

Zellig laughed, “Oh, I’m sure.  You are quite the specimen after all.  It’s a pity that you allow a man like Titan to do all the thinking for you.  You hang on his every word, every little prompt. You are governed by a coward who is afraid to let you truly show off.”

I knew I shouldn’t listen to him, I knew that Zellig was a practiced hand at this, and I knew that he’d say anything to drive a wedge between us.  But, those whispers in my head, that insidious voice agreed. Titan governed me, like I was his tool to use, his little fix-it ticket. If my earpiece had survived the orbital cannon, I know he’d be telling me to retreat, to fall back, to avoid his trap.

He wouldn’t tell me to fight the big Trillodan fuck and put him in his place.  He would fear for me even though I was the most powerful person alive.  

“He doesn’t allow you to really strut your stuff, does he?” Zellig asked, almost consoling as he stepped closer.  “He keeps you prisoner more than he protects you; but you don’t need protecting, do you?” 

It was like he knew what I was thinking, and it made the throbbing in my head so much worse as it tried to rip out of my skull.

“How many powers did you use to kill Eldritch?” he asked, his voice betraying genuine interest.  “I have only a vague idea of how your gift works from the memories we ripped from Parasite.”

“Nine,” I said.  

“And how many powers would it take to beat me in a fight?” 

“Six,” I replied, confident.

The Trillodan commander cracked his neck and stretched, getting ready for a fight.  “Well, come on then. Prove it. Pick your six.” 

A third full complement of powers without Command was extremely dangerous.  That pounding headache, that insidious presence in the back of my head was getting almost too much to handle.  I was going to snap soon if I kept this up.

But fuck this guy.  Zellig wanted a fight and I was going to give him one.  I ejected my current powers through my fingertips again and groaned as I reached back into the void, arming myself once again.  

Might, Quickness, Prowess, Regeneration, Reflex, Tenacity.  

“Atta girl,” he said with a laugh as he spread his arms, inviting me to take the first shot.  “I can’t wait to see what you have-”

I cut him off, tired of his insipid banter.  Might empowered my muscles, letting me close the gap between us in a single bound.  Quickness made me a blur, but Zellig was still ready to block. He was quick to counter with a hook; I was quicker to duck under with Reflex being my guide through the fist fight.  I planted my feet and drove a fist into his side, Prowess letting me mimic the finesse I had seen from the likes of Parasite and Ragdoll.  

Even though he was dense, my blow sent him sliding back across the rough road.  In a blur, I leapt after him, pressing the offense at a relentless pace.  

Zellig blocked the first three strikes but wasn’t fast enough to avoid the fourth.  Again he went sliding backwards though it didn’t seem to trouble him. Another exchange went the same, Reflex keeping me almost untouchable as I danced around him, slowly denting his dense anatomy.  

“This is all you are going to do?  I was really hoping six powers would provide more of a ‘wow’ factor,” he chided as I drove him back again.  “I was really expecting something more novel!” 

I growled as I landed another pair of hits into his torso, determined to wipe that smug grin off his face.  

“Instead it seems the only noteworthy thing that you managed to do was slowly dismantle Eldritch!  Here I offer you a chance to fight me properly and you are making a mess of things.”

Impact.

My next hit found Zellig’s side, the force of my punch multiplied by my addition of a seventh power.  Ribs cracked and the grey-skinned commander was launched into a pile of rubble. A cloud of dust kicked up and a moment later so did his manic laughter. 

“That’s more like it!” 

I heard the faintest electronic whir and Zellig came leaping back out of the dust cloud, a frenzied bloodlust on display for all to see as he pursued me, his fist nearly tearing my head clean off.  I dashed around his next strike, trying to slip behind the commander; Zellig surprised me and spun around, slamming a leg into my chest and knocking me across the street.

As I tried to get up, he snapped his fingers.

The ground around me exploded, a wave of blue plasma washing over me and searing my flesh.  My Regeneration kicked in immediately and my Tenacity helped mitigate the damage, but the pain was bad enough I barely noticed Zellig charge forward.  A massive fist connected with my chin and sent me tumbling, my mouth filled with blood and shattered teeth.  

Another snap of his fingers, and the ground exploded around me once again.  This time strands of wire shot up, ensnaring my limbs and anchoring me to the ground as they sent an excruciating current across my skin.  Tenacity barely kept me conscious through the voltage, but I couldn’t get myself to react in time for Zellig’s kick to my sternum. I was launched free of the snare, the wire degloving my feet and forearms.  

That throbbing in my head threatened to spill out, to wash over everyone nearby.  

“Not yet,” I muttered as I forced myself to ignore the pain.  Ribs snapped back into place as I dodged the next blow from Zellig, buying time to allow my Regeneration to mend me.  

As I backed away from his onslaught, he snapped his fingers again.  

A piece of rebar shot out from a heap of rubble like it had been fired from a rifle.  Before I could react, it tore a hole through me, from one side to the other. I gasped for air as my Regeneration tried to desperately fix my diaphragm and lungs that had just been ripped apart by the invasive piece of metal.  Zellig didn’t slow down though, adding insult to injury by backhanding me to the ground.  

“When we met the first time,” he said, stomping down and breaking my knee, “I saw that bit of instability in you.  I saw your eyes narrow, that rage inside you when you turned on your gifts.” A quick movement and my other knee broke. 

I tried to scream, but there was no air in my lungs.  

“I knew that you were Titan’s ace in the hole, his unavoidable and indomitable weapon.  Eldritch is scary, but you, you’re in a league of your own. But, you have a fatal flaw,” he said, grabbing around my throat, lifting me like I was nothing.  “You, Infinite, are so mired in emotions. The cost of your power is control; the nice thing about a volatile person, is they are easy to provoke. Once I could make you angry,” he chuckled, “I could control you.  All the power in the world, and look at you.”  

As my lung and diaphragm were patched up, Zellig threw me down the street; another wave of plasma torched my skin and forced a silent scream out of my lips again.  

“I just had to let you chase me.  I let you believe you had the upper hand; sure, I was never going to win a fair fight against you,” he admitted, “But who said I played fair?  Salah ensured that this place was littered with mines. All I had to do was bait you close to them. A single surge of battery power from me and I could ensure you were wounded enough not to follow up with that seventh power of yours.  Honestly, a few more hits of that I was done for. However, you opted into a fistfight with me. No matter how good your gift makes you, there’s no training like experience.”

Zellig stomped down, shattering my ankles.  

“The biggest moment of concern for me, really, was that you might have a moment of clarity.  I saw that look in your eyes, the indecision. You wondered what Titan would tell you to do.”

“Shut up,” I gasped.

“You and I know he would have said to run, to avoid engaging with me.  He knows I wouldn’t endanger myself like this, not without reason. All I had to do was nudge that bit of insecurity and you were putty.  If you’d had the good sense to teleport away, this all would have been for naught.”

His words were like little daggers being jammed under my skin, each utterance another little drop of gasoline for the thing trying to break free.  “But, you were after Eldritch. I got him away.”

Zellig barked out a laugh as he picked me up with what little remained of my hair.  “I can control Eldritch. Getting him as well would have been an added bonus, no question.  But no. Infinite, my dear, this was all for you. Titan was never going to let you be vulnerable, he was going to keep you close to the vest for good reason.  All Eldritch was, was a means to an end. I needed something that would require you to be sent out.  Once Eldritch was off a leash, I watched him work, knowing that if he wasn’t stopped, he’d be out of control.  Titan thought that Mizu would be able to wash him away with a tsunami; of course I realized how absurd it was to fight with a hydro-kinetic near the ocean.  I hadn’t overlooked that detail.”

I bared my teeth, throwing myself at him, forcing him to take a step backwards.  “I’m not going to be a prisoner!” I screamed, my head threatening to burst.  

“Say what you will,” he said with a shrug,  “But you will serve the Trillodan Empire, Infinite.  That I promise you.” He raised his hand to the heavens, snapping his fingers.  In his other hand, he procured a white vial and crushed it. Zellig vanished right as the world began to glow red again.  

Through my rage, fear broke through.  Zellig had made a point to break my ankles and knees to keep me from running.  All his actions were to limit my movement and leave me immobile for another blast.  

My only choice was to add more powers, to put more pressure on my mind to preserve my body.  

Power Absorption, Reservoir, Expedite.

The air energized and the beam came down a moment later.  Energy Absorption again drank up as much power as it could, fueling my Regeneration.  Still, even with Reservoir to hold much of the excess, it was too much. Regeneration fueled with Expedite was trying to replace skin and tissues as fast as they were being burned off of me and not quite keeping up.  

All the while, my mind began to fracture.  

For a moment, I was back on Tso’got.  I was back in that basement, the chains were wrapped around my ankles again.  I couldn’t see, I could only listen with dread as the door swung open, the squeal of the hinges giving it away.  There were heavy footfalls and rough hands touching me, careless and indifferent to the tears on my cheeks.  

And then I was back on Vuuldar, the orbital beam finally drawing to a close, but the damage had been done.  

Too many powers, too many cycles, and no Command to mitigate.  Taking on nine gifts without him had been ill-advised and I had taken on ten after two full resets.  I could feel that presence creeping forward, unstoppable now. I felt the pressure in the front of my head as my eyes turned into a pair of black orbs; a blood curdling screech left my lips and black particles were ejected from my skin, bathing as far as I could see in a thin black mist that suffocated all who were unlucky enough to be nearby.

Pain overwhelmed my senses, my adrenaline fading as I rose to my feet.  

I wasn’t sure how long I wandered, my whole body hijacked by that fragment of my mind.  It didn’t speak as we wandered, my conscious mind only a passenger through the silent wasteland.  Regeneration fixed most of my body, but there were plenty of burns that hadn’t been addressed that were sapping strength.  

And finally, I was given control again.  My eyes returned to normal, and all my powers faded, forcibly removed.  Without my Tenacity, I collapsed again, my system shocked into submission.  

“Titan,” I whispered as I started to cry, “Titan, I’m so sorry.” 

I felt a slight sting in my shoulder, like someone had shot me with a pellet gun.  Right after, I heard the march of power armor.  

I rolled over in time to see three figures slowly bearing down on me.  One clad in a suit that looked like gunmetal, one in sleek purple armor, and the last sporting a yellow suit that was loaded with munitions.  

Fear closed my throat as they advanced, taking their time; they had shot me with one of those neural blocks.  They were waiting to make sure I couldn’t acquire more powers and fight before getting too close.  

All at once, my body went limp, the device finally in place around my spine.  

I was supposed to be Titan’s ace in the hole, and I had just failed his whole cause.  

And when my beloved Max had needed me most, I had failed.        

Previous ChapterNext Chapter

Battle for Vuuldar: Spectre 2

I wanted to be the optimist, to believe that things could have gone well, that Titan’s plan to use Eldritch as a war machine was a great idea.  

All we’d done was create our own doom. 

The longer Eldritch was in his Neklim form, the harder he became to kill.  We’d made a point to keep him safe, keep him fed, all in an effort to ensure that the Ellayan’s and Trillodan on the ground had no way to put him down. 

Of course, Zellig had been a step ahead of us.  The Trillodan Commander was expecting this. Feast Day had been the final thing that got attention from the Trillodan; why wouldn’t we try to harness the city crushing behemoth?  

I fought down my nerves as I took flight away from Eldritch, racing as fast as my body would allow to reunite with Clemency and the forward guard.  We needed to get people out of the way. If this was going to be anything like Feast Day, he was going to attack the largest source of food available.

But between Eldritch and the Ellayans, there were nearly thirty Adapted fighting for their lives; they would be swept up and devoured as collateral damage.  We only had until Eldritch had reconstituted and recovered from the minefield.

Ahead of me, Ellayans scrambled backwards to the impromptu battlements that had Trillodan turrets mounted on them.  Shockwave and Beleth were helping lead the charge, the duo almost single handedly destroying the defenses in an oppressive march forward.  Trillodan soldiers had started to bolster the Ellayan ranks, collecting them into lines to engage, but additional pyrokinetics like Pyre and Calamity were forcing them to break rank and continue to fall back.  

Clemency saw me flying down and dropped to a rooftop.  “What the fuck is happening back there?” 

“Eldritch has lost control.  The animal is running the show now.  The Trillodan had that whole area rigged to blow; it drove him over the edge.”

“Fuck,” Clemency whispered under his breath.  “Okay. We need to get everyone out of the way.  The last thing we need to do is feed him. The only perk is that Zellig ripped off a lot of his mass.  We need to keep him small.”  

Clemency reached up and turned on his earpiece, “Beleth, Shockwave, Challenger, Drought, fall back.  Tell everyone to head East and cut behind Psycho. We need to get clear of Eldritch’s path forward. Be sure to avoid Psycho though: he’s not stable.”  

In the single moment of stillness, I dismissed my existing powers.  Determination and Devotion both vanished, opening my eyes to the sea of emotion that Clemency’s gift permitted.  I reached back for Fear, reclaiming my ability to create explosive icicles. The next option I seized was Desperation.  For Clemency that would make hard-light projections he could form into almost anything; for me, it was limited to creating hard-light weapons.    

“Oh hell,” Clemency gasped.  I followed his gaze and saw Eldritch begin to stomp forward, his frame just visible over the tops of buildings.  “We haven’t had enough time. Spectre, we need to stop him!” 

Both of us took to the air, splitting apart to flank the lumbering Eldritch.  

I minded my distance, wary of those elastic limbs as I conjured a volley of volatile icicles.  I fired down at his shoulder as he barreled forward. Each shard exploded, freezing the joint, but it wasn’t enough to stop him.  On the opposite side, Clemency created dozens of hard-light chains that wrapped around his front leg and a column to anchor them too.  Feeling outclassed, I created a quintet of sawblades and had those all whir to life, carving into his other front leg.  

Eldritch roared in annoyance, the chains and saws slowing him down to a crawl.  He steadied himself, shifting balance and heaving his leg, ripping free of Clemency’s chains, barreling forward, not bothering to try and reach us.  

Instead, he swung one limb and demolished a house, his tendrils literally eating the building materials.  The wood and metal shifted along his outer layer, all finding places like he was building a layer of armor while he moved forward.  Clemency dismissed the other emotion he was holding, his hand taking on a dark green hue; a cloud of that same color rested upon Eldritch and the monster visibly started to slow.  

Another one of those emotions Clemency had kept up his sleeve: Defeat.  He was literally draining the energy from Eldritch to slow him down.  

I worked as hard as I could to bombard his legs with icicles and Desperation blades, trying to limit his mobility as the others evacuated.  As Eldritch lumbered and growled, his speed reduced to a snail’s pace, I dared to feel optimistic about getting everyone clear.  

Eldritch snarled and suddenly surged forward, like he’d had an infusion of adrenaline.  

“Run!” Clemency shouted, his voice being drowned out by the cacophony of Eldritch bearing down on the nearby Adapted, ripping through a few buildings to approach the active warfront.  More wood and metal wove itself in with the mass of onyx growths, making it harder and harder for my icicles to find purchase.    

The ground rippled as Beleth pulled people underground, yanking them away from the massive, elastic arm that came sweeping through.  Still, several were seized by the Neklim. Shockwave did his best to quickly blast people free, but four Adapted were pulled into the living mass to be crushed and consumed.  

For a moment, Eldritch shuddered, like he’d eaten something that didn’t agree with him.  Part of me hoped that the Adapted he’d grabbed was going to rip themselves free; instead gargantuan sets of teeth manifested across Eldritch, somehow making the monster even more horrifying.  I knew that power, it was impossible to forget the disgusting nature of Maw’s Adaptation. Small tongues of flame escaped from a dozen mouths he’d placed on his body, and acid began to drip from the others.  

Not only was he mutated into a terrifying predator, Eldritch was able to devour and absorb Adaptations.  

I turned on my earpiece, immediately beset by the frantic voice of Beleth mid lecture.  “He grabbed Maw, Pyre, Acid Splash, and Instability. If he starts throwing chunks of himself around, he’s going to literally be making fucking bombs, Clemency.”

“We can’t let him get into the Ellayans,” Shockwave insisted.  “He gets too big, we all fucking die.”

“Soliloquy, Playlist,” Clemency snapped, taking charge, “Reposition, start making the Ellayan’s afraid, get them to run away as fast as possible.  Shockwave, Beleth, Challenger, draw his attention and keep him moving towards the bay. We can’t have him turning around.  Drought, Spectre, you’re both going to help me slow him down.  We need to debilitate this big bastard. Challenger, pressure’s on you.  Go big.” 

“Can do,” a gravelly voice rumbled in reply.  

Eldritch had started moving forward, invigorated by his meal.  A wall of rock erupted around his front legs as Beleth glided by, being very mindful of his distance.  A few buffets of flame rolled from a mouth on Eldritch’s leg but not enough to drive Beleth away. As the monster tore free, a massive hit of kinetic energy slammed into its center, leaving a small crater.  Shockwave stood defiantly down the road from the super-powered Eldritch, goading him forward.  

A roar shook the air as the beast lumbered forward, staggering as Beleth shifted the ground under its massive legs mid-step.  From the side, a figure ran straight at Eldritch, growing larger with every step. Initially six feet tall, Challenger grew to eight, then twelve, then nearly twenty feet tall; his immense form turned to grey stone as he collided with Eldritch and sent the beast stumbling into another building that immediately folded.  

Clemency rested his cloud of Defeat on the stunned Eldritch as the air seemed to come alive around the monster, a localized slipstream wicking away moisture and desiccating the top layer of tendrils.  I spotted Drought nearly a block away, likely testing the out limits of his range. I couldn’t blame him for wanting to avoid getting anywhere close to Eldritch.  

Still, despite all that we had just hit him with, Eldritch rose from the rubble, his body integrating more and more metal and wood into his skin.  Challenger charged forward, but he was reminded that he was out of his weight class by a huge, adrenaline fueled swipe. The stone giant was launched nearly ten meters backwards, falling down amidst the torched rubble the other Adapted had left in their wake.  

Eldritch’s attention turned to Clemency, swinging a limb and releasing a deluge of rubble that he had picked up.  Clemency made a shield for himself with Desperation, but the impact still launched him skywards. Shockwave answered with a salvo of Kinetic blasts to the leg, but they didn’t do more than annoy Eldritch and prompt him to spit a geyser of acid at the Projector.  Before he was dissolved, the ground shifted and Beleth yanked Shockwave underground, bringing him back up to the surface a few meters away.  

“Need to hit him harder,” Beleth said, his earpiece still live.  “We know he’s already got some kind of kinetic dampening on his list of mutations.”

“Beleth,” I thought out loud, “Can you pull him underground?” 

“Can’t risk getting too close until he’s used some flame,” he replied.  “He grabbed Pyre; the longer he goes without using that pyrokinesis, the more it builds.  If we don’t prompt him to use it soon, he’ll just torch the whole damn block.”  

I bit my cheek as I quelled my nerves, “If we can hit him hard enough, he’ll use the flames to drive us back.  Challenger should be able to endure the heat.”

“Get ready to hit him then,” Clemency growled over the earpiece.  

“Challenger, get his attention again,” I insisted. 

The stone giant rose from the rubble, drawing the ire of the immense quadruped.  Eldritch turned, several of the mouths on his body opening to let out an eerie scream.  Challenger clapped his hands together and bellowed to answer. I felt concern as I really appreciated the size discrepancy: Eldritch was probably eight meters tall on all fours and Challenger was a full meter shorter on two legs.  

As they drew close, several sets of teeth opened to let out a flood of acid; right before it hit, a slanted wall of purple energy appeared between them, diverting the acrid substance.  Clemency dive bombed, bringing with him a massive spire of purple energy that he drove through one of the immense mouths on his back. Eldritch reared, howling, right as Challenger slammed into him.  

Beleth glided closer, pulled the ground out from under Eldritch’s back legs while Shockwave let out a thunderous clap and sent a kinetic blade of energy cleaving into the monster’s midsection.  

Buildings shook as Eldritch fell on his side, and a second later, flames rolled out.  Just like Beleth had predicted, all the pent up flame from Pyre’s devoured Adaptation came pouring out in an uncontrolled inferno.  Beleth was quick to react, pulling himself underground and slipping away. Clemency shielded himself with more Desperation projections.  Drought, Shockwave, and I were all too far away but we could still feel the wave of heat crash forward, sending tongues of flame jumping to any standing buildings nearby.   

Challenger was the only one caught in the inferno but it seemed his stone skin gave him enough protection. 

The writhing air from Drought’s gift faded as he scrambled off his rooftop, the fire quickly making its way to him.  Clemency was quick to put back on his gift of Defeat, slowly sapping energy away from the juggernaut as it shifted limbs to get back up.  It seemed a little more wary of us, but Eldritch still continued forward, drawn to the massive source of meat.  

“We need to do more than knock it over,” Drought said, “Even with me draining it, it’d take hours for me to kill the whole thing.  There’s too much there.”

“Once it steps free of its inferno we can tangle with it,” Beleth said, taking charge.  “Clemency, keep it slowed down. Spectre, if you can try to freeze and hack at his legs, I need time to set a trap.  Drought, focus on dehydrating his legs; even if you can’t kill him, you can make him slow down. Challenger, if Eldritch gets too close to Shockwave, you need to stop him.  I’m going to rip the ground out from under him and paralyze him for a moment. Shockwave, be ready to axe the legs.”

Beleth dove underground, setting up his trap while the rest of us sprung to action.  Clemency doubled the output from his Defeat and started making chains to constrict around his legs.  I unleashed volleys of hard-light saw blades to create divots for me to launch volleys of the explosive icicles into.  The ripple in the air shifted to focus on the front legs, Droughts power having a more pronounced effect as he sapped the water from the tendrils, reducing the outer layer to dust.  

Eldritch roared and tried to bombard Clemency and myself with acid, spat from several of the mouths on his back and shoulders; Clemency was quick to make more projections and deflect the caustic barrage.  A few breaths of flame were let loose, but it wasn’t anywhere near the inferno we had witnessed a moment ago. When we didn’t falter, the beast instead went for the brute strength approach and charged forward with a burst of adrenaline, closing the gap between him and Challenger in a few bounds.  

A massive limb wound back, ready to swipe the stone colossus out of his way, but I manifested a massive guillotine blade, cutting through the desiccated tip of his limb.  Clemency projected walls to slow Eldritch’s swipe, and I doused his entire arm in icicles to delay the impact even longer. While the blow still displaced Challenger, he was able to plant a foot.  He even dared to reach forward and grab some of the manifested teeth. With a grunt, he tore a few of the fangs free.

Behind him, Shockwave continued to build energy in his hands.  They were already a dazzling white and still getting brighter. Challenger held firm, using the teeth as handholds, enduring an acid bath for the sake of the cause.  Clemency and I continued to whittle away on his limbs in unison with Drought, waiting for Beleth to spring his trap.  

The ground split open, fissures spawning around each of Eldritch’s legs, each hole nearly three meters deep.  As the beast fell, Beleth emerged from the ground, bringing with him a pair of massive spikes that drilled into Eldritch’s flanks, anchoring him in place.  The beast roared, spitting acid on the spikes to try and pull itself free as Shockwave took a few steps forward, his hands now literally blinding to look at.    

“Challenger, move!”      

Our stone brawler needed no additional prompt, throwing himself out of the way as Shockwave turned his hands sideways and clapped.  

A blade of energy crashed forward, cleaving straight through Eldritch’s front legs.  Gore and rubble was thrown everywhere as the wave of energy continued to the hind legs, erupting into a cone of desolation that completely severed the limbs.  Beleth waved his hands and the pits that held the beasts legs closed off, ensuring nothing could be re-attached. The torso of Eldritch collapsed to the ground with a thunderous slam and a scream of agony.  

Despite the damage, the body was already reconstituting, shrinking the torso to extend the limbs.  I felt a glimmer of hope as Eldritch rose on to two legs, but more mouths manifested as it let out a feral roar.  Looking closer, I felt a wave of nausea seeing that most of those mouths were using rusted metal as teeth.   

While the monster had been eight meters tall on all fours, we had reduced its size to seven meters tall on two legs.  But now, the ever-evolving biology of Eldritch was going to fight back. And given how much energy they had used, Shockwave and Beelth were going to need a moment to catch their breath.  Challenger wasn’t going to be able to simply stand and endure having acid dumped on him time and time again either. Maintaining this sort of size was bound to Overexpose him sooner rather than later.    

“Spectre, keep attacking his joints,” Clemency called.  “Drought, keep on his legs. You and I need to keep him slowed down while Beleth and Shockwave catch their breath.  Challenger, defend the two of them. If he tries to make a break for it, catch up and tackle him. For now, we need to avoid-“

Clemency was cut off as Eldritch swung an arm, throwing a clump of tendrils towards the cobalt-clad Adapted.  Midair, the mass glowed red and exploded, the concussive force sending Clemency spinning through the air and crash landing into a nearby heap of rubble.  

The last Adapted that Eldritch had consumed, Instability, could charge herself up and become a living bomb.  We had hit Eldritch hard enough to force another mutation out of him; able to split his anatomy, Beleth’s fear had come to fruition.  

I conjured a barrage of saw blades with my power of Desperation, giving them all a spin as I threw them at Eldritch’s legs; he answered with a trio of explosive mounds of flesh being thrown my way.  A few of my projections found their mark, but many were shattered by the ensuing detonation. I flew around, dodging another few more throws, answering back with my icicles. Eldritch decided I was too much effort to pursue and instead turned his attention to Shockwave, letting out a bone-chilling scream as he charged down the avenue.  

Challenger rushed to meet him headon, gritting his teeth as the monster bathed him in acid before they collided.  Even with the reduced size, Challenger couldn’t stop Eldritch from moving forward, advancing towards Shockwave. The stone giant dug his feet in, but raw, feral determination drove Eldritch onward.  

I dug deep into my well of power, creating a whole wall of icicles, my vision blurring as I kept creating more and more.  I embraced the weight and strain I was putting on myself, knowing full well that this was going to tax me for days afterward.  But, all I had to do was let my mind drift to Bargain for a moment; the emotional burn was enough for me to create one-hundred icicles. All the length of my forearm, all primed to explode like a small, endothermic hand grenade.  With an exhausted scream, I sent them all hurtling forward.

Eldritch tried to get himself out of the way, but he was too tangled up with Challenger to evade.  

Almost all of them found their mark along the beasts back, sinking halfway in and erupting in a blast of super-chilled air, flash freezing the tentacles in the immediate vicinity.  Eldritch screamed again, all those mouths of his letting out a cacophony that forced me to press my hands to my ears. Challenger rallied, pushing the massive Neklim back and even finding the strength to strike our opponent’s torso a few times.  

“Just, go, down!” Challenger bellowed, pressing the attack, like a boxer backing his opponent into the corner.  Clumps of tendrils came free, invigorating the stone giant to continue fighting Eldritch almost on his own. “Fucking fall!”   

“NO!” Eldritch shrieked in reply.  It wasn’t an incoherent cry or animal utterance, but a clear, enunciated proclamation.  

Challenger stopped, suddenly unsure of what to do; in that moment, Eldritch replied and shot an arm forward, shifting most of his remaining mass to bolster that single limb.  It engulfed Challenger, the stone giant was overrun and unable to properly utilize his immense strength. I wanted to cut him free, but I had exhausted myself with that volley of icicles.  Even though I had probably destroyed thirty percent of his mass, Eldritch was still strong enough to match Challenger with his burst of adrenaline.  

With a roar, Eldritch turned and threw Challenger aside, the stone giant slamming into a small mountain of rubble.  Eldritch pushed onward, his body shifting back to normal. Shockwave blasted him a few times, but didn’t have enough charge to do any serious damage.  On the rooftop, Drought tried to expedite his power; Eldritch roared in annoyance and threw a quintet of explosive blobs his way. There was a scream over the earpiece before the clusters exploded, flattening the building he had been perched on.

“Drought!” I cried, hoping for a reply on the earpiece.

Silence.  

We were losing, badly.  Eldritch wasn’t down and we were falling like flies.  I wanted to lay down and cover my head, hoping that would somehow make it stop.  But, I had a job to do and there were still people I could help save. “Shockwave, get out of the way!”  I shouted, pulling myself out of the spiral.  

Eldritch hurried his advance, not giving the Projector time to retreat.  Eldritch knew that the man in the crimson suit was his biggest threat; he would not give him time to retreat and regroup.  

A wall erected itself between Eldritch and Shockwave as Beleth ran forward, creating obstruction after obstruction to slow down the monster.  “Spectre, grab him!” Beleth shouted over the earpiece. “Now!” 

Eldritch rounded on me this time, reallocating his mass to have one grotesquely long arm, swinging it and allowing it to stretch, his reach catching me off guard.  The last few tendrils on the end of his arm began to glow red as his reach came within spitting distance. At the last second, I turned ethereal and avoided being ripped apart by the explosion.  Turning corporeal, I dove for Shockwave, barely slowing as I grabbed him. A few explosive growths were thrown after us, but Shockwave blasted them away.  

I saw Eldritch turn for Beleth, furious; the head of Surface Dwellers dove underground, getting himself out of harm’s way.  

Looking over to the wake of destruction that was left by Challenger being thrown, I spotted a small man in tattered clothing lying amongst the rubble; his power had been taxed to its limit.  We had lost our only front line for dealing with Eldritch.  

“Clemency,” I called, praying that he was still alive.  “Clemency, we need you!” 

A breath of relief left my lips as I saw the glint of his armor lift up from the rubble, making his way back to us.  

My hopes were dashed as I spotted Eldritch.  Without us running interference, he charged forward, unimpeded.  There were Trillodan and Ellayan stragglers, keeping a line established; they were victims and fodder for the unrestrained monstrosity.  We had managed to reduce him to five meters in height, and he was quickly working on doubling that after finding a dozen victims to consume.  

All our hard work, undone in seconds.  

“How do we stop that thing,” Shockwave asked as I landed on a rooftop.  Clemency landed nearby and Beleth boosted himself up with a spire of rock.  

“We don’t,” Clemency said, clearly nursing a few broken ribs.  His armor was cracked in several places, his usually clear and composed appearance completely gone as blood dripped down his face.  “We need to get him close to the ocean, let Mizu deal with him.” 

“We still can’t let him get too big.  If he gets back to the original size, I don’t think a tsunami will actually wash him away,” Beleth pointed out.  “And, I’m just gonna say it, we can’t keep fighting him. Drought’s dead, Challenger’s down, and we’re all spent.  We could maybe do one more big push, but he’s already regrown what we took off him.”

“And who knows what he mutates next,” I said.

Shockwave turned and had a little start, “How about we use that?”

We had been driving the Ellayan’s straight backwards, back to their beachhead; since they hadn’t fanned out, they hadn’t encountered the army that Psycho had constructed all this while.  His frenzied rate of production had never slowed, and a host of neon-tinted nightmares followed him. My leader was marching with his own private parade that coated a two block radius in phantasms.  

“I know he’s fucking crazy right now, but maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world,” Shockwave said.  “We might as well do something good with all that shit he’s made.” 

“Spectre,” Clemency started.

“On it,” I replied, knowing none of them wanted to go anywhere close to him.

Forcing my tired body to hurry, I flew over and steeled myself for the horde that Psycho had amassed.  His Schizophrenic state was prone to lashing out, but the constructs he made were extensions of his own perturbed psyche; as long as he didn’t deem me a threat, they wouldn’t attack.  Still, I slowed down as I got close, making no sudden movements as I flew around the harpies and demonic griffons, approaching the delusional mess in the middle of this throng. While time was of the essence, hurrying a volatile Psycho would just end with me in a body bag.  

Psycho’s head snapped up to me, a whisper on his lips as he continued to talk to the voices.  I raised my hands slowly, showing that I wasn’t here to threaten him. “Hey, Psycho,” I said softly.  “It’s me, Spectre.” 

“I know who you are, you stupid bitch,” he snapped.  “You’re in the way.”

I had been sworn at enough when he was like this to ignore it.  I politely stepped to the side and fell in step, “Psycho, I know you’re hurting.”

“She doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” he snapped, his head turning to answer a voice that wasn’t there.  “She thinks to gets it. She doesn’t. You fucking don’t get it!” 

More projections coalesced from the fog that hovered around his feet.  Even though there wasn’t any conflict for him to respond to, even though there wasn’t anyone prompting him to action, he was so hurt that he needed to defend himself.  Two golems joined his ever-expanding rank of abominations that were all clearly itching for a fight.  

“Psycho, I watched it happen.  I miss him too.”

Psycho’s eyes widened as he had a moment of lucidity, a single instant where I knew he understood.  But, as soon as it had come, it vanished. “Fuck you. You’re a stupid bitch. You don’t know a fucking thing.”  His head snapped to the side, scrutinizing something that only he could see.   

I ignored his outburst and did my best not to feel threatened by the manticore that manifested beside me.  “If you come quick, I can show you who is responsible for him dying.”

Psycho stiffened.  “Bullshit. You don’t know a fucking thing.  You’re an idiot, Jessica. You’ve always been a fucking idiot.  You and everyone else just want to see me fail. You’re always in it for yourself, selfish bitch.”

Him using my real name actually got me to wince; all the projections around me turned, several of them baring razor sharp teeth at my show of weakness.  I reminded myself that Psycho had just lost his best friend and partner in crime and that his anger wasn’t really for me, I just happened to be close enough for him to take it out on.  

“You remember Eldritch?” I asked softly.  “He’s why Bargain’s dead. And, if you hurry, you can help kill him.”

Psycho was too far gone to see through my obvious duplicity.  It didn’t matter that Psycho knew exactly why Bargain died; the paranoia and whispers he heard made him suggestible.  He latched onto the idea that our massive Neklim was responsible. He needed a direction for his aimless rage, something to hate.  Dozens of projections materialized as Psycho began to take short breaths, his bloodlust almost tangible.  

“Where is he?” 

“He’s-”

“Fuck you!  You’re not helping!” he shouted at a voice I couldn’t hear.  He straightened himself, as if he was getting ready for a formal meeting.  “Jessica, take me to him. NOW!”

I obliged immediately, wrapping an arm around Psycho’s waist and carrying him above the buildings, his whole horde following rapidly behind.  I hid my dismay as I saw Eldritch was back up to eight meters in height, and back on all fours. Clemency was flying around Eldritch, trying to slow him, and Siege had joined their fight in the short time I was gone and was using some kind of gas to try and hinder the Neklim.  

“There he is-” 

I didn’t even finish my sentence before Psycho pointed and his horde charged. As quick as I could, I turned on my earpiece again, “Get the fuck out of the way,” I hissed.  

They all scattered like roaches as Psycho’s army crashed into Eldritch. 

It was like watching a bear war against an endless army of ants.  Eldritch spat acid and threw globs of explosive meat into the thick of the horde, but as soon as they fell, Psycho made more, his Alteration kicked into overdrive with a reason to fight.  The neon-colored monsters washed over Eldritch, only to be repelled by many of the mouths breathing flame. After the fire was exhausted, Psycho simply made more and more and more to continue the assault.  Even though Eldritch crushed dozens, others swarmed and began ripping small chunks off the beast. Eldritch crushed them and tried to consume them, but they were insubstantial. There was no meat to devour, no power to consume, and seemingly no end to the horde.  

I knew that this was necessary, but I felt a pang in my chest for pitting Psycho against Eldritch.  I was playing with the emotions of a deluded man and turning his misplaced bloodlust toward a boy who had lost control.  Even if Psycho could cut Eldritch down, this wasn’t a win for us. All we were doing was stemming the bleeding. 

Beyond the war between hunger and insanity, I saw vessels coming down from the sky.  The militia had fulfilled its purpose of weathering the initial storm of Adapted; the next step was to bring in the real army.  We were going to have to fight against a more regimented, better armed force and we were already spent.  

I spotted Clemency on a mound of rubble, watching the battle rage between Psycho and Eldritch.  As I landed next to him, I saw pity in his eyes. “Do you think he can do it?”  

“The reason Psycho managed to spring any of us from the Snatchers is because he does things like this.  We can’t explain it, but he won’t Overexpose, no matter how long he fights. The crazier he gets, the more powerful he becomes.  If he’s ever actually in control of his faculties, he’s pretty weak.” 

“Insatiable hunger against endless madness,” Clemency said with a sad chuckle.  “Is that what we’ve been reduced to?” 

I opened my mouth, but I couldn’t answer.

Clemency took a deep breath and winced as he straightened his posture.  “Siege tried using some biological agents against Eldritch that he borrowed from  the Trillodan; it didn’t do much. But, he did hit the nearby Ellayan’s with a fear gas to send them scrambling.  As long as we can push Eldritch back to the coast, Mizu can do the rest.” 

“Let’s just get this over with,” I said, my stomach turning as I watched the continued battle between Psycho and Eldritch.

Clemency and I took to the air both reluctantly closing in on the showdown between these two monsters.  I was starting to see some slow to Psycho’s creation, but the legion still swarmed Eldritch, biting and hacking the tendrils away; Eldritch had already lost nearly two meters in height thanks to the constant deluge.  Clemency used his power of Defeat and sapped more speed and energy from Eldritch while I bombarded his arms with more blades created from Desperation. Eldritch tried to throw rubble and explosive growths our way, but Clemency was not about to be caught off guard again.  Hard-light walls kept those at bay, allowing us to distract and allow Psycho to push Eldritch back.  

“Mizu, get ready,” Clemency said.  

Shockwave and Beleth joined the fray, giving what little energy they had left to drive the beast backwards, getting closer and closer to the bay.  

Finally, Eldritch decided that he was in over his head trying to fight Psycho’s army and the four of us at the same time.  He turned and ran, shambling towards the Ellayan beachhead where there were scores to consume.  

“Do it!” Clemency snapped.  

I looked to the ocean, my jaw dropping.  The whole bay was alive, slowly spinning as Mizu worked a huge body of water into a whirlpool.  It picked up pace, rising into a massive waterspout, looming over the city.  

“Idiot’s shouldn’t have fought us near an ocean,” Shockwave said with a bit of pride in his voice as he watched his underling work.  “Mizu never got a chance to show his stuff on Tso’got. Place was too damn dry.”

As I watched the column of water rise and build, I had to agree.  This was truly awe-inspiring to witness.  

A few blocks down, Eldritch stopped running forward, as mesmerized by the immense wall of water as we were.  He stood there, like he knew that it was all for him, and that there was no getting out of this one. Even Psycho stopped charging forward, his schizophrenic projections slowed to a crawl as Mizu’s display evoked some lucidity.  

Finally, the wave crested and the man-made tsunami advanced.  

From the sky, a teal beam hit the wave before it could make landfall.  Just like earlier, the whole city was bathed in light and the air was alive with electricity as the vessel in orbit took part in our conflict.  In an instant, the whole bay was transformed to a massive sheet of ice, the tsunami abruptly locked in position, looming above the coast.  

Shockwave was the first to react, taking an almost drunken step forward.  “Mizu,” he gasped, “No, no, no, no, no, NO!” he screamed. Beside himself with grief, Shockwave sank to his knees, unable to catch his breath.  “He was in all that,” he said, his voice shaky, “He was in the middle of all of that!”

“Come on,” Beleth said, grabbing Shockwave and hauling him to his feet.  “Come on, Curtis. You can’t get even if we stay here. We have to keep moving.”

As bad as that was, Mizu’s display had slowed Psycho’s production of phantasms.  Eldritch however was quick to snap out of his stupor and continue seeking food. It wasn’t hard to see the ships flying around the city, ferrying Trillodan troops to the periphery, away from Eldritch.  Once he devoured the remainder of the Ellayan’s, he’d turn around and seek the next food source.  

Psycho looked over at me, alarmingly lucid, his eyes wide with panic.  He and I both knew that his return to awareness meant that we had lost our only viable contender for holding back Eldritch.  

“We can’t stop him,” I said with a sense of dread.  “Psycho’s too lucid. Eldritch is going to eat and be even bigger than he was before.”  I turned to Clemency, “We don’t have a choice.”

Clemency swore under his breath as he turned on his earpiece.  “Titan, we’re out of options. We need to send out Infinite.” 

“God have mercy on us all,” Beleth said.  

Previous Chapter Next Chapter