Onward: Leader

“Drag, you need to eat!” a stern voice called from my doorway. 

I groaned, “I’m working!” 

“I’m aware,” Hydra said, stepping into my room.  “However, you’ve been working in isolation for nearly twelve hours.” 

I had to glance at a clock to verify that the shapeshifter wasn’t screwing with me.  “Okay, maybe I should stop and get something to eat,” I mumbled, annoyed that I had to turn off my power.  The flow of information ground to a halt, nearly making me lose my balance as the headache rapidly set in.  I groaned and pressed a hand to my temple, “I think I’m also pretty dehydrated too.  That is not helping.” 

“You really get into your work,” the taller woman pointed out, “Maybe you should schedule someone to check in on you when you really go deep into development.” 

“I hate being interrupted,” I grumbled, “My power is like the biggest hit of Adderall you can imagine.  Breaking focus is torture because the power doesn’t like to stop immediately.  And then firing it back up is just asking for a migraine.” 

“Can’t you just have Organelle fix that?” 

“Organelle has plenty more injuries to look after than my own self-inflicted ones,” I said.  “I’m insisting that we train and plenty of people have trouble holding back by nature of their power.  I’d rather not tax her anymore than necessary.”

“Fair enough.”  Hydra glanced down at me, seeming concerned.  “When are you going to tell everyone else about your change in plans?”

I sighed.  It had been two days since I had resolved to skip going to Marn and instead charge right for the Trillodan home world.  I had meant to tell everyone, but I had been dragging my heels.  Part of my brain nagged at me, mortified that I had assigned us a final confrontation with the Trillodan and I didn’t have a suit of functional armor ready.  

How was I supposed to tell everyone else that they were marching into this meat grinder when I wasn’t ready to fight alongside them? 

“When my armor works,” I said as I grabbed a burrito from the small pyramid that someone had put on the galley table.  I stifled a laugh as I realized someone had taken the time to make a presentation for frozen burritos.  “When you have nothing but time,” I said, rolling my eyes.

Hydra sat down across from me, not bothering to grab food.  I raised an eyebrow but she smiled softly, “Ate earlier.  Just here to make sure you actually take care of yourself.”

“What are you, like the mother hen from Vuuldar?”

“Of sorts,” she confessed.  “When you consider that I’m the oldest one on the ship now, someone has to make sure you take care of yourself.”

“How-“

“Twenty-six,” she replied.  “I’m only a few days younger than Titan.”

“No shit,” I said, baffled.  Hydra was incredibly fit and looked like she could have easily passed for twenty.  Her brown skin didn’t have any kind of stress wearing like mine did, and her youthful face and pixie cut kept me from being sure of anything.  “I wonder why you didn’t get a power as destructive as his.”

“I’d argue my power is better,” she replied with a smirk, “Titan was on crutches for days after getting a chunk of his leg ripped out.  I can lose whole limbs and regenerate them within the hour.  I can make myself fly.  I can vary up my arsenal like Eldritch does with his mutations. Titan might be destructive, but I like my own power, thank you very much.”

I raised a hand in surrender, “I didn’t mean to offend.” 

“None taken,” she assured me, “But too often we assume that a fight has to be won with firepower.  Being clever and playing a bit of a long-con is also a viable strategy.”  She grinned mischievously, “You know why Adamant tends to avoid me?” 

“Come to think of it, I haven’t seen you two together very much.  Why?” 

“I beat the hell out of him a few years ago.  He had gotten a hand of his power and thought it was a carte blanche ability to win any joust.  Insipid bastard was challenging other powered people to prove that he ran the city.  I was passing through but decided to take him up on it.”

“How did you pull it off?” I asked between bites, “His gift let him fight against Zellig and nearly kill the guy.”

“His gift has a limited amount of energy, so I ran out the clock.  I started with a poisonous form, and I made sure to use a non-lethal toxin.  He had protected himself from death, but not from paralysis.  He used another declaration to overcome that, so I forced him to try and fly.  He actually compromised by throwing things at me but his strength ran out long before mine did.”  Hydra grinned and grew a layer of emerald green scales across her right arm and then shifted it back to regular skin.  “The reason people respect me is because I’m smart enough to play the long game and use all my tools to my advantage.”

I frowned, getting the sense that there was some greater message being thrust upon me.  “What’s your point here?” 

“You’re not using all your tools,” she replied.  “You’ve only told seven people on the ship that we are going to charge to Xalanni next.  But, you’re holding people back by not being upfront.  I didn’t know him as long as you did, but it sounds like you’re falling into the same traps that Titan did.  Playing things close to the vest is important when there are people who can spread secrets and blab but we’re perfectly insulated.  If the Trillodan find us, it won’t be because we said something.” 

“I don’t want to get to Xalanni before I have my armor working,” I admitted.  “The second I tell Infinite to start jumping again, I don’t know how fast she’ll get us there.  She’s motivated and that’s…admittedly a little scary.  For all I know, she’ll get us there in a single afternoon.” 

Hydra scoffed, “Do you think we won’t win if you don’t have a fancy suit of armor?” 

“Every soldier counts,” I shot back.  “We only have a hundred people on this ship that fight, if that.  Besides,” I muttered, “I won’t be a coward.  I won’t sit back while my friends fight tooth and nail for this.  I can’t do that.” 

Hydra’s expression softened, “You’re too headstrong for your own good.” 

“So I’ve been told.  It’s gotten worse since I Adapted,” I confessed.  

“Our gifts perpetuated our personalities.  If you were shy, you became more so.  Headstrong?  That much more stubborn.”  

“What about you?” I asked.  “You’re the unofficial leader from Vuuldar but I don’t know much about you or where you come from.  All I know is that people are terrified of you and that you have a nearly limitless number of forms to swap to.”  I pointed a half-eaten burrito at her, “What makes Hydra, Hydra?” 

Her cool smile vanished in a blink and my blood ran cold.  Her face had gone from caring to murderous instantly.  “When you watch your town die from a plague, you learn to endure.  You learn to adapt.  You learn to overcome,” she said, her voice almost a feral growl.  “When you survive a planet as hostile as Vuuldar, you either eat or are eaten.  There isn’t another option.”  

I nodded, reminding myself that Vuuldar was a much harsher place to live that Tso’got.  While Tso’got had plenty of problems with things like the Snatchers and Suppression, Vuuldar had harsher diseases, scarcer resources, and cyclical plagues.  If Hydra was almost as old as Titan, she would remember some of the earliest and roughest days of being on Vuuldar.  “I’m sorry,” I offered, “I didn’t mean-“

“I know you didn’t,” she replied, that animalistic rage fading.  “People ask me how I keep an edge, how I have taken so many fights and won every time.  Growing up, I got used to fighting like my life depended on it.”

“No wonder you’re so fucking intense,” I mumbled.  

She smiled and changed her teeth into a row of fangs, successfully startling me.  “Can’t be serious all the time,” she said, laughing, “You should have seen your face.”

“You, people like you are why I want to finish my damned armor,” I grumbled.  

“Oh now, lighten up,” she insisted.  “What’s the point of having these powers if we can’t have a little fun with them?” 

I rolled my eyes.  “Fine.” 

Hydra leaned forward, seeming to bore into me with those scrutinizing eyes of hers.  “Why is your armor so important to you?  It’s not just needing an extra soldier,” she said confidently.  “What is it to you to be wearing it?  Is Dragoon the armor or the inventor?” 

“Both…and neither,” I said, caught off guard. 

“Why do you need to fight?  You’re a Cognate.  Last I checked, every other Cognate avoids getting into an altercation if possible.  What makes you the exception to the rule?” 

“On Tso’got, you learned to fight and be strong or you got walked on.  And for the first fifteen years of my life, I was walked on.  I was a cowardly little girl.  Sure, I had opinions and dreams of grandeur like every kid, but I didn’t have the grit to back it up.  When Parasite, Eldritch and I became the Rogue Sentries, I wanted to prove I was strong enough to take something, to earn it, to command someone’s respect.” 

“Look at you now,” she said plainly, “You don’t have armor and you got through to the most powerful person alive.  You run the show without question.  Now, you don’t do it all single handedly, but neither did Titan.”  She pursed her lips, looking for the rights words, “Listen, I understand wanting to be stronger, but you put so much emphasis on your own ability to fight.  Being able to get everyone on board moving one direction is a strength unto itself.  You’re eighteen and you command my respect,” she assured me.  “You even command people you fought with.  Shockwave, Beleth, Psycho, they will all fall in line when it is demanded.” 

There was something strangely liberating hearing her insist that my strength didn’t have to come from the power armor.  That Dragoon could be more than just my inventions.  My leadership wasn’t tied to the machines I made but instead to the people around me.  I’d made a point to overcome my introverted nature and foster relationships with other groups when we started, and I had kept that up while on the ship with Titan in charge.  

“Thank you,” I said, smiling.  “I think I needed to hear that.”

“I know you did,” she said plainly.  “You Cognates have a bad habit of getting inside your own heads and getting stuck there.” 

“Like you have no faults,” I shot back. 

“Nope.  I’m perfect,” she replied with enough confidence to make me believe it.  Hydra laced her fingers together, “Listen, I’m not you.  I’m not the boss.  But, I think you shouldn’t let yourself get caught in the same traps and same anxieties that Titan did.  We’re all peers here.  And, thanks to him, we’re a family.  A fucked up, dysfunctional, violent family.”

“Message received,” I said.  “And, you’re right.”  I took the last bite of my burrito and stood up, stretching out my neck.  “Time to stop being afraid.  Time to start leading.”

“Atta girl!” 

“Do shut up,” I snapped playfully.  

Hydra beamed as I walked away, a new confidence in my step.  Stepping into the control room, I was a bit surprised to see Interface sitting there idly.  They turned and glanced at me, equally perplexed. 

“Yes, captain?” they finally said.  

“The intercom,” I replied, pointing at the microphone built into the console, “I want to use it.”

“I can-“

“I want to do it,” I said, making it clear that it wasn’t a debate.  Interface raised their hands and slid out of the chair, giving me the spot.  Taking a seat, I took a deep breath and let out a slow exhale, against reminding myself that Dragoon was more than a suit of armor.  

I pressed the button and began my address. 

“To every person on board the S.S. Madhouse, we are going to have a change of plans.  Our original itinerary was slated to go to Marn next, to seek out additional hands to fight against Zellig and his brand of murders.  But, with the loss of Titan, with the information that the Trillodan are making their own Adapted, things have changed.  We don’t have the time we wanted.  We can’t get around the universe instantly, even with Infinite helping.  So, we are going to take the fight to the Trillodan.  When this ship lands, we are going to be in hostile territory.  Let me be clear, we are flying into hell.  But, the alternative is that we stall and wait to die or be captured by Zellig and his legion.  This is our only real choice, and it sucks.”

I took a deep breath and continued.  “No matter who you are, no matter how insignificant you feel you might be, every one fighting will help.  No matter how little you believe you bring to the table, you are important.  We can’t all be Infinite, or Hydra, or Eldritch,” I said, highlighting the three scariest people on board, “But they can’t be everywhere at once.  They can’t do it all on their own.  They need us backing them up.”  I ruminated on Hydra’s words, knowing that people deserved to be informed.  “For those of you who think that Infinite can do it all for us, you should know she won’t be with us on the surface.  She is going to be above us, ensuring the capture of Zellig’s Crimson City.  She is going to be our backup plan; in case we lose, infinite will ensure that the Trillodan are made to experience Protocol 37 for themselves.” 

The weight of my words started to take a toll on me.  I was shaping the course of an untold number of lives.  As I felt myself start to buckle, I pushed back against that wall of fatigue.  “Thanks to the information left behind by Skaberen, we know what locations on Xalanni have to be destroyed completely.  We have some idea of what we are up against.  Even so, it won’t be pretty.  You all know what it’s like to lose someone,” I said, my mind drifting to Mutant and to Geyser.  “It’s inevitable that we’re all going to lose someone else.  Make peace with it as best you can before we get there.  None of us are doing this because we want to,” I confessed.  “We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do.  Titan isn’t here ordering us around anymore.  We’re going to beat the Trillodan because there shouldn’t be another race of exiles like us.”

My blood started to hammer as the adrenaline came flooding.  It was really happening.  We were going to go to war with the Trillodan.  “No matter what happens, the universe is going to know what we did.  Next time we meet with Zellig, we put him on the back foot.  No more running, no more hiding, no more stalling.  We are Adapted.  And what do all Adapted do?  We fight,” I said with finality.  Letting go of the button, I sat back and took a shaky breath.  

“Holy shit,” Interface whispered, looking at me with a surprised smile.  “You sounded like Titan for a second there.”

“Titan kept secrets,” I said.  “It served him perfectly on Tso’got.  You guys had to stay hidden, had to be under the radar.  The time for secrecy has come and gone. There’s no more need for duplicity.  There’s only one way this ends, and we all know it.”

Interface dared to flash me a smile, “You know, if he had gotten you in his family earlier, I think things would have been a lot smoother.”

I rolled my eyes, “Things would have been smoother too if my friend didn’t eat nearly four-hundred people in downtown Ciel.   But, it happened.  We just have to roll with the punches.”

Interface chuckled, “You keep sounding so confident and I’m going to sneak into your room one of these nights.  Gotta say, confident leadership is a hot look on you.”

I blushed, caught wildly off guard by their ribald comment.  “What, but-“

“Oh my God, it’s too easy!” they exclaimed, clapping their hands together with amusement.  I hated that they were grinning ear to ear, thoroughly enjoying how awkward I felt now.  “You and Eldritch, so easy to fuck with!”  

“I thought you were into guys,” I blurted, completely flustered. 

Interface scoffed, “Drag, seriously.  Look at me.  Do I look like someone who is really all that discerning?”

“I’m not sure how to answer that.  Either way,” I said, trying to regain control of this conversation, “Fuck you.  I need to go work on my damned armor.” 

Interface cackle followed me out the door and I was glad when a slab of metal finally separated us.  Without their energy, I started to feel the anxieties of leadership creeping back in.  What I had suggested was so simple, but there was too many variables to try and account for.  Who did I send to which location?  What kind of Trillodan Adapted would we encounter?  What sort of traps would Zellig have waiting for us? 

I walked by a door and felt a pang of remorse in my chest.  Clairvoyant had spent most of her time the last few days asleep, trying to induce visions of the future.  While Infinite had only needed Command in times of extreme stress, Command had almost completely enabled Clairvoyant.  Those two had acted like an early alarm system from Titan and had helped him elegantly side-step countless disasters.  

Right now I longed for some glimpse at what was to come.  

“We’re really doing this,” a gravelly voice said behind me.  

I turned around, seeing the shaved head and grim visage of Beleth.  A few months ago, I would have been terrified being so close to him.  Now, he instilled a strange sense of confidence.  “Yeah.  We really are,” I said in mild disbelief.  

“Your group has a fair amount of friction with me.”

“You mean Eldritch,” I corrected.  

He sighed, “Yes.”

“You executed his parents.  Do you think he’s just going to be okay with you because you two are working for the same cause?” 

“No,” he finally admitted.  “But I know that thing inside him is prone to losing control.  The last thing I want is him eating me on the battlefield because I’m vulnerable.  I don’t want to die ahead of schedule.” 

I stared at the cold, calculating gangster and scoffed.  “You’re already thinking of what you want to do after all this shit.  You’re looking out for your own skin because you want to make sure you can go back to Tso’got and go back to business as usual!”  I stepped forward, pressing a finger to his chest, “Listen, Beleth, you need to fucking get it through you head: I don’t speak for that monster.  I know my friend won’t kill you because he’s not a bastard.  He wants to see this through to the end.  But the monster, I don’t know how much of a grudge that thing holds.”  I shook my head, “I wouldn’t worry about what Eldritch wants after this.  I would worry about surviving all of this shit first.”

Beleth winced, “You have your machines to dive into.  We all have our coping mechanisms.  If we can’t think about what to do afterward, do you think we’re going to be motivated to give it our all?  Did you ever consider that I don’t want to be aimless the second we are done with this hellish affair?  Did you ever consider that maybe I’m as fucking scared as everyone else here and don’t want to think about the fact we’re almost sure to die on Xalanni?” 

I was caught completely aback.  Beleth was someone I considered most stoic, most immovable.  He was like the rock he commanded in that he never wavered.  But now, there was vulnerability.  

“Listen, he won’t eat you.  Eldritch has been working on controlling the beast.  And, you’re right,” I conceded, “I shouldn’t shame you for wanting to think about what comes after all this.  I’m sorry.  But, if you insist on going back to being a Scoundrel in Ciel, I’m going to kick you off that throne again.  You can be sure of it.”

Beleth offered a smirk as he reached a hand out.  “You’ll try.”

Returning his smirk, I reached forward and shook his hand, a mutual understanding reached between us.  As he left, I groaned and rubbed my temples.  I was gonna get more weirdness like this before we arrived at Xalanni.  More concerns and deathbed requests.  People were going to be on edge, on each others nerves, but at least we had a fight to look forward to.  

Even if it was going to be our demise, we would all gladly go charging into the fray.  

“We are Adapted, we fight,” I whispered to myself, echoing Titan’s little mantra.  

As quickly as I could, I scuttled back to my room and locked the door.  There was going to be a barrage of questions and demands from me, but I couldn’t deal with it yet.  I needed to decompress and come to terms with the collision course I had set for us.  Beleth daring to be vulnerable and scared was more than I could handle right now.    

Sitting at my desk, I glanced at my mess that was my unfinished armor and forced my Adaptation to stay dormant.  I wasn’t ready yet.  I would be distracted and end up giving myself a nauseating headache if I tried to build.  

Instead my hand shot to the metal orb on my desk.  Giving it a squeeze, the metal ball hummed to life and a projection of Skaberen appeared in the center of my room.  He took a moment to survey the area and the hologram offered me a smile.  “Dragoon.  What a pleasant surprise.  How can I help you?” 

“I need to know more about the Immortal Matron and Zellig.  I need to know how to beat them,” I said, somehow hoping that this alien’s memories would contain some kind of silver bullet.  “There has to be something I can do, something I can use that will guarantee me some kind of victory, right?  I’m not just leading all these people to their death, am I?” 

The projection’s face fell slowly and he offered a somber shake of the head.  “If there was a single trick to wiping them out, I think someone would have done it ages ago.  As it stands, I don’t believe that there is one specific tool that will guarantee victory.  I believe that Trillodan technology has simply made that impossible.”

“Am I leading all my friends to die?” I demanded, my voice cracking.  “Please.  I need to know if we have a chance.”  

The hologram nodded, “I’m not the right person to estimate odds of victory or to ponder the outcomes of battle, but I believe that there is a chance for success.  I believe that the Trillodan are vulnerable to assault because it hasn’t happened in centuries.  To compliment that fact, there has never been anything like you all before.  The Trillodan will not be sure how to deal with you.  While Zellig and his legion might be well enough equipped and trained, the common soldier won’t be.”

“But they are still the Trillodan military,” I grumbled.  “No matter if they aren’t equipped to deal with us, they are still going to have plenty of raw firepower at their disposal.” 

Skaberen’s silence was all the confirmation I needed.  

I groaned, “Great. Even though I have our alien creator onboard, he doesn’t have the answer to all my questions.”

“I never claimed I was going to.  I simply wanted us to meet.  I wanted to try and arm you with as much relevant information as possible.”

“Which, how were you getting that information?” I asked.  “None of us know how you are even obtaining information about the Trillodan.  They spy on hundreds of solar systems, not the other way around.  No one has ever been able to even find their homeworld before Almanac existed.  How-”

“Overconfidence on their part,” he replied honestly.  “They don’t think about protecting or encrypting their own immense stream of information.  One of my colleagues more versed in this sort of thing enabled us to hijack the information and keep an eye on them.” 

“You’ve been silently watching their society progress for years.  And this device,” I said, pointing to the metal sphere, “It has all the memory of what you’ve seen?  This databank essentially has every scrap of information about the Trillodan homeworld that you have?” 

“With a slight margin of error, yes.  There are things that I haven’t accessed with my mind or found irrelevant that likely weren’t appropriately transmitted.  But the vast majority-”

“I want to know everything about their Adapted.  You said they had a tremendous breakthrough.  What happened?  And, who?” I asked.  “I’m assuming it was one of Zellig’s legion who opted to be the first guinea pig.”

The projection distorted and turned into what looked like a Trillodan soldier made of tar.  His form was imperfect and there was stuff literally dripping off the limbs, like the farther it reached forward, the harder it became to hold shape.  “What, what is this?” 

“This,” Skaberen’s voice insisted, “Is what has become of his lieutenant, Tol.  Titan burned the man to a crisp and he was bound to die.  When given sufficient integration of Kelotan, this is what he turned into.  While it looks like a disaster, I assure you that his new form is decidedly more troubling than his old one.”

“Why?” 

“Remember that the Kelotan is bound to the person it bonds with and it is largely affected by their mental disposition at the time of awakening.  He was on deaths door and had been for a long time, even before being burned to death.  Tol had a condition called Exscarra, a genetic defect where his skin was hyper-prone to infection.  Unlike the rest of the Trillodan, he practically lived inside his armor because he needed the insulation from the outside world.  Without it, he was sure to die.”

“So he wanted to be free of his armor?”

“He wanted to live, at all costs.  His new form is proving to be nearly indestructible and is still coupled with that killer instinct that Tol exhibits.  He can mold some of the liquid into metal and has a regenerative factor that puts Hydra or Parasite to shame.” 

I sighed with frustration, “Great.  A hyper-regenerative Tol.  That’s what we needed.  What else do you know?” 

“At the time of this brain scan, I had found several instances of Vaneel’s work.  Notably with Zellig’s legion but there was also some testing done with additional Trillodan soldiers.  Like you all, the range varied tremendously and some were minor in the grand scheme of things, but some were more along the lines of what you’d consider an ‘a-list’ power.  A few of these-”

“Stop,” I said, raising a hand to silence the projection.  “I, I don’t have the capacity for this right now,” I realized.  

“It was not my intent to overwhelm you.  I was simply informing you of what you were up against.”

“I know,” I muttered.  I gave another glance to my mound of scrap metal and sighed. It was still so far from done and I was staring down a horde of Trillodan Adapted on the horizon.  “Skaberen,” I asked softly, “Are you proud of us?  Even though we might have delivered Adaptations to the Trillodan, do you look at us like a success at least?” 

I shouldn’t have cared about what he thought of us, but I realized that I wanted some kind of confirmation that we weren’t fuck ups.  Even though he had experimented on our parents without consent, even though he had been spying on us silently for a decade and a half, I wanted to hear this alien scientist assure me that we weren’t a mistake.  I wanted to have that semblance of approval from someone other than another one of my peers.  

As a few tears started to accumulate in my eyes, I let out a weak laugh.  For all my mature face and pragmatic decision making, I was still the same girl from Tso’got who was in way over her head.  I was still the same child who felt they needed to prove something.  After all this hell, I finally realized all I wanted to hear was that I was good enough.    

“Alexis,” Skaberen said softly, wearing that sad smile, “No matter what happens on Xalanni, no matter what I think of you, the universe is going to remember you all.  You will be the first people to fight the Trillodan, to attack Xalanni, and to seriously threaten them in a millenia.  No matter what becomes of you all, you are a tremendous success.”

Turning my head, I looked at the mound of metal.  “Thank you, Skaberen,” I said as I reached forward and clicked the orb again, shutting off the projection.  Taking a deep breath, I cleared my mind of the anxiety and looming threats of the Trillodan.  I did my best to distance myself from the battle to come and centered myself on the current.  

“Alright,” I muttered as I allowed my Adaptation to spring to life, “We have a suit of armor to finish.” 

Previous Chapter – Next Chapter

Onward: Understanding

“Now to motivate the most powerful person in existence,” I said as I stared at the plate of metal that kept me out of Infinite’s quarters.  “No way this could go wrong.  Just don’t think about the fact that she could turn you into dust with a thought if she really wanted to.  Don’t fixate on the fact that she’s emotionally unstable and you have a tenuous relationship with her.”  

I reached forward and drew my hand back.  

“Fuck.  Why did they have to take Titan?  Why can’t anything be easy?”

I walked to the other side of the hall and let my shoulders rest against the wall.  Truth be told, Infinite didn’t dislike me, but I was still wary of her.  She had accidentally smothered me during our voyage to Vuuldar and it had introduced a bit of tension.  We mostly made up, but neither of us talked much afterward.  And now I was taking over for her captured boyfriend.  

Yeah.  This was fucking great.  

A few months ago my biggest concern was whether or not I should stand up to my mom.  A few months ago I had time to worry about grades and school.  Hell, a few months ago I worried about where I could scavenge more materials to keep working on my armor.  

Even though I hadn’t enjoyed my life on Tso’got, I missed it.  I felt my throat close up as I thought about my parents.  We hadn’t really been able to have a proper goodbye since they kicked me out of the house.  I stifled a laugh since I was working alongside Shockwave now.  And to think I was kicked out for fighting Imperium.  Still, I missed my parents.  Even my mom, despite her being a mean drunk.

Glancing back at Infinite’s door, I wished that I would wake up.  That everything was a fever dream.  That Titan had never found us and that the Trillodan had never come along.  I wished for shit to be simpler, for the biggest weight on my conscience to be that I liked my friend who was already dating someone.  I was only eighteen and somehow responsible for the lives of over a hundred people.  And that wasn’t considering any of the Trillodan on Xalanni.  

Even if the Trillodan were galactic tyrants, not all of them were militants.  Many of them would be non-combatants.  They didn’t have any part of this, and many of them were bound to be collateral.  

“And we don’t get anything done if we just stand here like an idiot,” I growled at myself, practically dragging my protesting carcass forward.  Against my better judgment I rapped my knuckles against her door.  “Infinite, it’s Dragoon.  Can we talk?” 

The door opened which I took as an invitation.  

I walked in and couldn’t help but grimace.  It was littered in scraps of what looked like a ravaged journal.  There were flecks of blood on the walls and on her cot which had several gouges in it as well.  Infinite was pushed into the corner in an oversized t-shirt and black jeans which I immediately recognized as belonging to Titan.  Her forearms were coated with tracks of blood where it looked like she had been gouging with her own fingernails.  

All of my apprehensions vanished as I reminded myself of one fundamental truth: Infinite was a person, just like the rest of us.  

I sat down on the floor across the small room, unsure of how to start.  “Have you been eating?” was the first dim-witted thing that came tumbling out of my mouth.  

“Not really,” she admitted.  

Another tense silence followed.  The more I looked at her, the more I watched her clutch her own arms, slowly digging another bloody track.  

“Infinite, I-“

“You need me to get us to Marn,” she whispered.  “And I’m the only one who can do it.” 

“No,” I replied, a bit too forcibly.  I swore at myself as I saw her wince.  “No.  That’s not what I need.  What we need is for you to get better,” I said, trying to be as honest and gentle as possible.  “There’s no getting around it, we need you.” 

My fellow redhead looked up at me and then back to the floor.  “I don’t think I can.”

“Don’t think you can what?” 

“Get better.  I don’t think that’s an option for me.” 

I frowned, “Infinite, everyone can get better.  It doesn’t matter what happened to you in the past.  The important thing is that we keep moving forward.  That’s what Titan would want, right?” 

For a while, she didn’t give me any kind of reply.  There was just another tense and awkward silence that lingered.  I felt strangely exposed, wishing that I could be wearing armor, that I could really feel like Dragoon instead of mild-mannered Alexis.  

“Did he ever tell you what happened to me?” she whispered.  

I shook my head slowly.  “No.  Titan only told me what happened when you Altered.  He warned me about what that thing is that creeps out when you abuse your power.” 

Her face was perfectly flat, completely devoid of any kind of emotion or human feature.  She stared at the floor with so little display of humanity that she could have posed as a mannequin for the next full minute.  “Every Alteration has a cost.  Being so powerful, there’s always a downside,” she muttered, talking to herself as much as me.  

“All the Lunatics have drawbacks to their gift, and Parasite’s gift hurts him if he uses it too long.”  I couldn’t help myself, “What is yours?” 

Her gaze finally ripped free of the floor and fixed itself on me.  “Most people Altered because of the Snatchers.  Those shithead scientists experimented on people until they broke.  It was enough to drive the Lunatics into a frenzy.  Same kind of thing happened to Parasite: imprisoned and experimented on.”  She finally showed the slightest smile, like she remembered an old joke, “I didn’t get anything like that.  I wasn’t in some kind of surgical suite or under someone’s microscope.”  Her head slowly shook, side to side, and it was becoming more and more clear that she was almost completely dissociated.  Even though she was talking, even though the lights were on, no one was really home.  

“Infinite,” I said, hoping I could get her to come back, “What happened to you?” 

“What you really don’t realize is how much you miss your old power,” she said wistfully.  “Even if it was nothing that exceptional.  I used to manipulate air.  I could kind of fly around, blast people with air bullets, that sort of thing.”  Her gaze drifted back to the floor as she dug her fingernails into her forearms again.  “I Adapted when I was fifteen.  I got bullied at school and wanted to be whisked away.  And for about two years, I went by the name Tempest.  Not at all a big headliner, just a small scale Reckoner.”

I felt myself growing tense as she pulled her hands free of her forearms, opting to pull her knees to her chest.  

“A bit after I turned seventeen, a few Zari thought it would be great fun to abduct me.  They stalked me and ambushed me when I tried to go home.  My power relied on using my hands to control airflow; the first thing they did was smash my fingers.  When I tried to run, they stabbed me in the thigh and then threw me down a flight of stairs.  I barely remember them taking me to a basement, but they strung me up like I was a fucking side of beef,” she spat, her eyes darting back and forth, now hyper-vigilant.  “I don’t know how long they kept me there.”

“What did they do?” I asked, horrified.  

“Depended on the day.  Sometimes they used me like a punching bag.  Other days I was just a toy to get their rocks off.  Once they had their fun, they left me down there, all alone.  After a while, I quit screaming.  No one was going to show up.  They probably had the place soundproofed.  For a bit, I held onto hope that a friend would come looking and break me out.  I hoped they would be stupid and let my hands heal enough so I could use my power.  Those bastards were careful and made sure to keep my fingers shattered.”  She looked at me, tears starting to roll down her cheeks.  “Finally, one day, it just sank in: I was going to die there.  No one knew about me.  No one would ever find me.  Charlotte Quinn was going to die alone, in some blood stained basement.”

“But you didn’t,” I said, stating the obvious. 

She nodded slowly, some of her humanity seeming to creep back into her face, “Once I finally realized I was going to die, I heard something talking to me.  I’d spent so long down there, so long without anyone talking to me, I thought I had gone crazy.”  She let out an aberrant chuckle, “I guess I kind of did, didn’t I?” 

I didn’t answer.  I wasn’t sure what the hell I was supposed to say.

“That thing that creeps out when I push too hard, it’s not like Overexposing.  I don’t really run out of power.  Ever.  My cost, my cross to bear with my Alteration is much more insidious.”  Infinite shivered and started to tremble.  “I begged for anything to get me out of there.  I wanted to feel powerful again; my cost is that to access that power, I have to remember exactly why I got that gift.  The more power I tap into, the more I relive my past.  After seven, I can start feeling them touch me again.  After nine, I can even smell them.  Reality starts to blur pretty quick after that point.”

“And that thing?” 

“That was my first response.  My first collection of powers, all dedicated to snuffing the life out of my captors.  I wanted them to die, to be as afraid as I was, to feel as powerless as I did back then.  What I didn’t take into account was how powerful I’d become.  So, to make it worse, I killed another hundred and thirty people who didn’t deserve it.”  She mouthed a few words silently, having to try again before the next words tumbled out.  “I hate this.  I hate this power, so much.  The only way to be useful is to relive the worst part of my life.  To make it worse, you all need me!”  She stretched her fingers and curled them back into a fist, “The only thing that made me worth anything was what those bastards did to me!  No one needs Charlotte but everyone needs Infinite!” 

I reached a hand out but drew it back slowly.  I was so far out of my depth; I barely managed to keep my own head out of a dizzying dose of anxiety.  I couldn’t begin to imagine what she lived with day in and day out.  “Charlotte, I-“

“Titan was the only one who gave a shit about me.  He was the only one who fucking cared about me beyond my powers.”  She glared at me, all her terror turned to rage.  “You just want me to be a fucking puppet, just some other toy to use.”

Digging deep for any scrap of confidence I had left, I rapidly expelled, “I want to go after Titan.  I want to get him back.” 

It subverted expectation enough to quiet her for a few seconds.  “What?” 

I quietly reminded myself that honesty was the best policy.  Trying to sugar coat things or be duplicitous would bite me in the ass.  “I want to go after Titan.  I want to get him back…because we need him.  You’re right, we need Infinite,” I confessed, “But I don’t want Charlotte to be forgotten either.  He knows you in a way that none of us do, and frankly, right now that’s not going to change.  You scare the shit out of everyone because if you fly off the handle, there is no stopping you.” 

Her glare bored into me, but I held firm.  She hadn’t let out that banshee wail and smothered me yet.  

“You’re so hurt that it’s hard for anyone to get close to you.  And truth be told, none of us are going to be able to establish the same relationship with you that you had with Titan.  So, I want to go after him.  But to do that, we’re going to need your help.” 

Infinite’s glare softened a little.  “How are you going to find Titan?”

“Skaberen left me with a copy of his brain basically, long story,” I said quickly,  “Bacially we got to have a conversation and glean some insight about how to fight the Trillodan and where they would be keeping Titan.  The truth is that they aren’t likely to keep him on the planet; if anything goes wrong with containment, he destroys a city before he could be put down.”

She didn’t respond beyond nodding.  

“So, our Goln friend believes that Titan is going to be kept in a Crimson City.  It keeps him removed from everyone else.  Since Zellig took him, it would make sense for Titan to be kept on Zellig’s ship.  If we attack Xalanni, who do you think is going to show up to try and stop us?”

“Zellig.”

“Which means you’ll be able to go get him back,” I replied.  “And it means you won’t need to hold back since you’ll be almost all on your own.” 

“Almost?”

“Big Picture had the idea to send Interface with you.  They could control the ship and prevent the Trillodan from having anywhere to run.” 

Infinite nodded, that hostile edge receding.  “Okay.”  

I dared to let myself breathe for a moment before leaning forward, “Infinite, I don’t want to pressure you, but I feel like you probably need to find someone on board you can talk to about this stuff.  Not just because I worry about other people, but because you need to take care of yourself.  Even though we need Infinite, I don’t want you to forget about Charlotte.” 

“Okay,” she said laconically.  Even though she was looking at me, I felt like she was only half present once again.  

“Are you going to be okay if I leave?” I whispered.  

“I’m never okay.” 

I pursed my lips, “When was the last time you ate?” 

“Two days ago.”

“I haven’t had dinner,” I said, extending a hand, “Come on, let’s go.”

She backed away from my hand like it was some kind of snake.  “I’m fine.” 

Digging deep, I shook my head no.  “You need to eat.  I’m never going to totally know what’s going on with you.  I’m never going to be able to understand the inside of your head,” I confessed, “But I know that no matter who you are, you need to eat.  Even if you don’t say a damn word the whole time, we gotta get you something.”  

Slowly but surely, Infinite nodded.  “Give me a few minutes to get ready,” she requested, glancing at the bloody scratches down her forearms.  

I nodded and stepped back to the door, “I’ll be waiting outside.”  

As the door shut behind me, my knees buckled and a relieved gasp escaped my lips.  I slumped against the wall and collapsed, my nerves finally catching up.  I had been sitting across from the most dangerous person in existence and had the great idea to be bluntly honest with them while they were as raw and sensitive as an exposed nerve.  

The fact I had managed to survive the encounter was outstanding.  The fact I had done it without having a panic attack felt almost unreal.  

Taking a few massive gulps of air, I managed to climb back to my feet right before Infinite walked out.  She had kept on Titan’s pants but had donned a hoodie that was clearly for someone half again her size.  But, the sleeves did cover the scratches.  She followed me without making a sound, like some kind of scolded child.  

In the galley people were wrapping up training and tables were being pushed back into place.  A few bloody Adapted were making their way over to Organelle who had set up shop in a corner, handing the few injured patrons a tincture and sending them on their way.  I caught her eye and she glanced at Infinite with alarm.  

As I looked around the room, she wasn’t the only one.  No one had seen or heard anything from the last of our Prime Trio, all everyone knew was that she wasn’t in a good way since Titan was taken.  For her to come in looking like she had a hangover was likely making people very anxious.  

I did my best to ignore their stares as we grabbed the quick-prep lasagna that had been pilfered on Vuuldar; even though the stuff was cheap it still smelled divine.  I took a seat at a small, round table with Infinite and quietly dug in.  Infinite hesitated but eventually took a few meager bites.  I devoured the whole thing before she had gotten a third of the way through her portion and she looked like she was about to be sick.  

“You okay?”

“Not used to this,” she said softly, taking another nibble.  “Not used to people caring about me.  People only liked me when the chips were up.  I’m waiting for people to scream at me and wonder why the all-powerful bitch isn’t fixing everything.  I’m surprised someone else hasn’t come and said it yet.”

“You aren’t just a box of powers for us to exploit,” I said with a sigh.  “Listen, you scare the shit out of all of us, me included.  But, so did Eldritch and we managed to get over it as a group.  He killed half a dozen Adapted on Vuuldar because he lost control.  Not so different from you,” I said, bracing myself for potential backlash.  

My fellow redhead didn’t reply but instead took another bite.  

“When you hide from us, we don’t get a chance to know there is anything better about you.”

“I nearly drove you insane,” she whispered.  “Why are you being so nice to me?”  She looked up at me, tears starting to build in the corners of her eyes, “What did-“

I raised a hand, stopping her, “We’re family, right?  We’re supposed to look out for each other,” I said, finally understanding exactly what Titan had wanted.  While he might not have been the best leader, he certainly understood exactly what we all so desperately longed for.  All of us were broken toys who had been through it.  I’d managed to be on the gentler end of the abuse spectrum and I still had dealt with my mom nearly stabbing me at one point.  None of us had ever felt like we belonged; Titan’s greatest boon to our cause wasn’t his destructive power but his charisma and community that he deliberately created.  

“Thanks,” she said at length, shifting focus back onto the lasagna.  “I’m glad you don’t hate me.” 

I reached over and squeezed her forearm, giving this poor girl what I wish my mother had always given me.  

It didn’t matter what happened in the past.  Infinite wasn’t a criminal or a monster who needed to be shackled.  She was a scared kid who needed to be reminded someone gave a shit, just like everyone else on this damn ship.  

“If you want to make it up to me,” I said, thinking out loud, “I need some help that has nothing to do with your power.”

She lazily raised an eyebrow. 

“Parasite,” I explained. 

“Ah,” Infinite replied, seeming to understand almost immediately.  She wiped her face with an oversized sleeve and looked back up at me, “You sure you want me to be the person he talks to?” 

“I figure I have some leverage over you right now,” I said with a grin.  

Infinite scoffed, “Bitch.” 

Behind Infinite, Eldritch walked forward, “Hey Drag, how are-“ he stopped as he realized who was sitting across from me, “Um, am I interrupting?” 

“No,” I said, “Pull up a chair.”

There was a tense silence as Eldritch sat down, looking at Infinite like some was a bomb and he needed to spot the timer. 

“You don’t have to stare at me,” she whispered.  

My friend blushed and looked down at his own serving of lasagna.  “Sorry.  You’ve been hiding for a while and I’m confused as to what’s going on here.”

“I’m eating dinner, like everyone else,” she snapped, her timid demeanor dropped for hostility in an instant.  I’d managed to win her over, but Eldritch clearly hadn’t.  “That’s what you’re doing, isn’t it?”

I gulped down a nervous lump; I did not want to try and come between Infinite and my best friend.  Hell, I didn’t want to try and come between Infinite and anyone.  That was a recipe for disaster.  “He’s not trying to be mean,” I offered, “But seriously, Nick, don’t fucking gawk.” 

He nodded, “Yep.  Got it.  My bad.”  He turned his focus to me, “I don’t know if you’ve heard, but we need to-“

“Do something about Parasite,” I finished, “I know.  Ragdoll talked to me about it.  I’m hoping that Infinite is willing to talk some sense into him.” 

I silently screamed as Nick looked at her and then back to me.  She wasn’t behind a pane of glass, she could see him and hear him.  “Do you think that she’s the best person to talk with him?  Why not Lightshow?”

“You realize she is sitting right beside you, right?” I said, glaring daggers at Nick.  “And maybe, just maybe, you don’t want to follow along with everyone else who thinks that her power makes her dangerous by default.  Last I checked, you spent a while hoping that people didn’t make that assumption about you.” 

The epiphany hit Nick like a ton of bricks.  “Wow, I’m, um-“

“An asshole,” Infinite supplied.  

“Yeah,” he admitted, putting his face into his palms.  “Fuck, you’re right.  I’m sorry.” 

“We’ll deal with our anti-social friend after dinner.  At least he isn’t causing any real problems,” I grumbled.  

“Oh, you didn’t hear,” he said, almost wary.  “Murphy beat the shit out of a guy.  Ragdoll managed to make him go to training and he nearly killed a guy.”

“Who?” I asked, suddenly more concerned.  

“Torment, some mental manipulator from Vuuldar.  Guy induces visions and causes hallucinations.  He made Murphy see something and…Murphy lost it.  Used his gift about as agro as he could have.  Goliath had to pull him off the guy and even then couldn’t put him down.  Hydra actually shapeshifted and held Murphy down until he finally calmed down” 

I glanced around the room, realizing that some of the people who were still gawking weren’t looking at Infinite.  Hell, with the hoodie on, they probably couldn’t recognize who she was.  They were looking at me, undoubtedly asking themselves why the fuck I hadn’t been there to stop my friend from nearly murdering someone during the training I insisted everyone participate in.  

“Shit,” I grumbled, closing my eyes and trying to push away that creeping anxiety.  “Any idea where he went?” 

“Presumably he went to hide in his room,” Eldritch said.  “Maybe he went to go hide with Ragdoll?” 

“He won’t do that,” Infinite said softly as she took the last bite of lasagna.  “He’s going to hide in his room and shut everyone else out.”  She looked between us, both confused why she sounded so confident, “It’s what I would do.”

I equipped my best pleading face, “Can you help me talk to him?  Try and help him realize that he’s not totally alone?” 

“Eldritch kind of has a point,” she muttered, “I was doing the exact same thing until half an hour ago because you barged in.” 

“So, go barge in,” Eldritch said like it was the simplest thing ever.  “I remember my mom telling me that therapists worked so well because it was from someone objective.  It meant they didn’t have to sugar coat things or try to dance around you being sensitive.  They could be straight up with you and didn’t feel like they betrayed your trust.”

Infinite and I locked eyes for a moment, realizing how right my friend was.  

“Let’s go see him,” I said.  “The sooner we squash some of the crazy in this ship, the better.  No offense intended, Infinite” I added.  

“You’re on a boat of Adapted, there is a limitless supply of crazy,” a smooth voice said from behind me.  I glared over my shoulder to see Interface saunter by, waving over their shoulder without breaking stride.  

“They are always in the right place to weigh in and be sassy,” Eldritch muttered, almost in awe.  “Seriously, that’s a power in and of itself.”  

I rolled my eyes, “Our androgynous pilot being a quip machine is not exactly helpful.  Come on.”

  The three of us set off down another metal hallway, passing a few bored Adapted in the halls.  Some of these sights had come to be common now: Shockwave would be smoking, Spectre would be staring out into the void of space, Hydra would be sitting on the floor half-transformed, and you were almost bound to run into one of Hive’s insect splits.  Most of these people used to fight us but now they greeted me with a smile and a wave.  

Less than four months and we had gotten over feuds that had gotten people killed.  The only real friction I knew of from our group was with Eldritch.  

I pushed my concerns to the back burner for now as I rapped my knuckles against Parasite’s door.  “Murphy, it’s me.  Open the door, please.” 

There wasn’t an immediate reply though we could hear him pacing around which was not encouraging.  

“I could barge in,” Infinite said softly, though she didn’t look enthused by the idea.  

I slammed my hand against the door, no longer being polite, “Murphy Pell, open the fucking door!” 

The pacing stopped, and a moment later, a disheveled teenager opened the door.  Murphy looked haggard, like he hadn’t slept in the last week.  His hair was a mess, his normally tan skin seemed drained of color.  Bags hung around his eyes and he kept nervously flexing his hands into fists.  His gaze shifted between the three of us, as if trying to assess which one of us was going to make the first move on him.  

He was like paranoia made human. 

“What?” he said, his words curt.  

“We need to talk,” I insisted, stepping forward, assuming he’d move out of the doorway.  I was very wrong and walked straight into his remarkably solid frame.  He spent so much time being a jester I often forgot how strong he was.  

“Can’t, not right now,” he snapped, “I’m sorry.  But-“

“You saw him, didn’t you,” Infinite said, her voice barely audible.  “Zellig.” 

There was a crack in his hostile façade as he uttered a single syllable in reply.  “Yes.” 

Nick and I had the good sense to keep our mouths shut as Infinite stepped forward, an unspoken understanding clear between both of them.  For all our faults, Nick and I weren’t Altered.  We hadn’t seen the same levels of shit that Murphy had.  Even though he was our best friend in the world, we were estranged.  He had joined a community that neither of us had part in.  Our attempts to understand, to empathize, they were faulty at best.    

Infinite though, she knew exactly how he felt.  

“You think he’s gonna put you back in one of those tubes, don’t you?” 

Murphy tried to open his mouth and talk, but nothing came out.  He managed to nod, tears starting to well up at the edge of his eyes.  

“It’s okay,” she offered, “I’m worried too.”

Murphy massaged his arm, trying to hide how much those phantom pains hurt.  “I really thought we were getting better.  I thought we had a hold on this.  And then… poof.  Titan’s gone.  Zellig just knew what we’d do.  He was one fucking step ahead.  He’s always one step ahead of us.  And because of it,” he flipped his skin and then reverted, “I’m a FUCKING FREAK!”

She glanced back at me and Nick, seeming to steel herself before reaching forward to put her hand on Murphy’s cheek.  He tried to draw away, but she followed him, stepping closer.  “We’re all freaks.”  She took a deep breath before continuing, “Back on Tso’got, I Altered because I was put in a basement and abused for God knows how long.  When Titan Adapted, he killed his family on accident and nearly killed himself at the same time.  We’re all freaks,” she repeated, digesting that truth as well.   

“I can’t go back in a tube,” he expelled, shaking his head, “I can’t.  I won’t.  If he can put Titan in one, he can put any of us in one.”

“Not me,” Infinite said.  

“He’s going to hunt us down on Marn.  As powerful as you are, you can’t be everywhere at once.” 

“That’s why we’re going to kill him, and all those Trillodan fucks,” she replied.  “That’s why we’re going to attack them first.” 

Murphy blinked a few times, trying to understand what he was hearing.  “We…what?”

“We’re going to Xalanni,” I declared, “Infinite is our ticket there and I think she should get Titan back.  As much as I don’t want to admit it,” I confessed, “Skaberen was right.  Going to Marn is suicide.  If the Trillodan are manufacturing Adapted, we only get one more encounter with Zellig and his legion before we are hopelessly outgunned.  We might as well go down swinging.”  

“And this way they won’t be able to bomb me from space… hopefully,” Nick added, daring to grin.  

“But you need to work with us,” I said, “You can’t be beating people near death.  Ragdoll is worried.  I’m worried.  We’re close to the finish line,” I insisted to both myself and him, “We just need to keep it together a little longer.” 

He nodded and hung his head, “Is Torment-”

“He’ll be fine,” Nick said.  Organelle got to him in time.  Dude is gonna have a hard time walking for a few days but he’ll recover.”

“When he used his power on me, I felt Zellig choking me again.  I remembered being thrown off a railing and falling nearly 10 stories onto a metal floor.  I just… I-I-”

“You’re not going to have to fight Zellig again,” I promised, knowing full well that I might be lying.  I did my best to sell it and felt my stomach turn at the duplicity.  I didn’t like being sold a fake bill of goods and hated that I was doing it now.  But as I looked at my friend, I knew he couldn’t tolerate that risk.  No matter how unlikely it was that he specifically ran into Zellig, any risk would send him back into a panic, back into a murderous frenzy.  

So, I lied.  I smiled at my friend and watched him relax as my integrity splintered.  

Murphy nodded and turned back to Infinite, “I need you to do something for me.”

She drew back, a little surprised.

“I need you to make them pay.  For everything they’ve done to us.  For everything they took from us.”

Infinite put on an impish grin that I was used to seeing on Murphy, “I plan to do exactly that.” 

Previous ChapterNext Chapter

Onward: Adjustment

My eyes flicked open, greeted by a dark room.  I sat up, lost for a moment, wary of my surroundings.  

Then I remembered I was in my cramped little room aboard the Ark ship, the S.S. Madhouse as Interface and others had branded it.  I took a deep breath, collecting myself and staving off the perpetual wave of anxiety that kept threatening to wash over me with the slightest provocation.  

It had been three days since we had met and lost Skaberen.  Three days since we had our run in with Zellig.  Three days since we had seen Titan abducted.  

Three days since the second member of our Prime Trio had fallen.  

What made it worse was knowing that Titan being taken was the best case scenario.  We managed to lose him without Infinite blowing a gasket and killing everyone.  Still, it wasn’t exactly what I considered a win.  

I clapped twice and the light turned on, illuminating the mess of metal and tools that my room was littered with.  Building a new set of power armor was an ongoing project and had not been given the dedication required to truly see through.  While I needed a new set, I needed to make sure it was something that couldn’t be immediately dismantled by Trillodan technology.  To that end, I had started gleaning information from some of the Trillodan power armor.  

Since Siege could replicate Tol’s power armor, I had been studying that and working to create my own version.  

Every time I looked at the mound of metal, I had half a mind to ask Chemtrail for some of his stimulant but I shook off that urge.  Being forced through detox was an experience I didn’t want to replicate.  Besides, with Titan being taken, things had gotten tense in a big hurry.  Even if he wasn’t our leader anymore, he had been a pillar of stability on the ship.  To make matters worse, Command being killed meant we had lost our two people who could help handle Infinite.  

I needed to keep my head clear to keep the peace.  

No one was outspoken about her like Zeal had been weeks ago, but there was no shortage of dissent among the ranks.  People were scared and we all knew that our clock was ticking.  If the Trillodan were already starting to unlock the power of Adaptations, how long until we started fighting superpowered Trillodan?  How long until they had their own version of the Prime Trio?  How long until they had someone like Alamanc who could find us no matter where we went?

I groaned and rubbed my temples.  Being the leader was a non-stop migraine.  

Glancing at the bits of foreign technology, I felt my power stir in the back of my head.  As quick as I could, I looked away.  It was far too early to try and work on that mess.  First thing I needed was coffee.  

I was glad that Shockwave and a number of the Adapted from Vuuldar had the good sense to bring a bunch of supplies on board.  Even though it was mostly stuff drowned in preservatives or dehydrated, it beat having to just eat the protein slop that Repository could conjure.  Instant coffee wasn’t good, but it was at least a nice hit of caffeine.  As I went to get a cup, our little galley was empty, making me wonder exactly what time it was.  

Hydra had the good sense to set a clock to keep everyone on a schedule since looking out into space really screwed with your normal rhythm.  

“Four in the morning,” I mumbled to myself.  I had only gone to sleep three hours ago.  I considered going back to my cot to try and get a little extra sleep, but there was no way I’d be able to relax enough to rest.  

Too many problems, and never enough time to get to them all.  

“Can’t sleep?” a gentle voice asked.  

“Three hours is enough, isn’t it?”

Pacifist scoffed and took a seat beside me.  “You of all people should be getting a full night’s sleep.  You need to be clear headed.  The rest of us are supposed to be the crazy ones.”

“How fitting coming from a Lunatic,” I noted.  Pacifist was one who always perplexed me.  Most of the Lunatics seemed… off.  Spectre was unnaturally withdrawn.  Psycho was a different personified mental illness every day.  Dysfunction had been unnaturally aggressive.  Bargain had been so willing to sacrifice himself.  But then, there was Pacifist.  While maybe a little withdrawn, she wasn’t a mess like the rest of her group.  

“I’ll assume that wasn’t meant to be offensive,” she replied with a raised eyebrow.  

“No.  Sorry,” I said, realizing just how on edge I really was.  “Shit is very trying.” 

“I’m well aware.”

I was expecting more but she stopped there.  “Did you have something you wanted to talk about or…?” 

Pacifist sighed, “I’m never good at this sort of thing, but I wanted to address the issue you are having with Infinite.”

“The fact that she’s a ticking time bomb or the fact that everyone else is freaking out that she’s still onboard?” 

“Both,” she replied.  “We need a new handler for her.”

“Understatement of the month.”

“I think I can do it.” 

“You do?  Why?  I thought all you did was stifle action and intent.  You make people inert and docile.” 

“That’s…mostly right.  My gift, when turned up all the way, lulls people into a small coma almost.  If I wanted to Overexpose a bit, I could probably keep someone from breathing.” 

“Wow,” I muttered, suddenly wary of the woman beside me.  

“But, I should be able to mimic Command’s influence on her, at least a tad.  I’ve been thinking that Infinite loses control, and from the sounds of it, that thing that comes out is almost like another person.” 

“And you think you can keep it in check,” I intuited. 

“Exactly.”     

I shrugged, “It’s worth a try.  Even just having something theoretical to help suppress Infinite should push come to shove would alleviate a lot of concern around the ship.”

She offered a smile, “Glad to help.  I’ll go talk to Infinite about it then.”  Without another word, she got up and walked away from the table, her bare feet making the slightest sound as she walked away.  

“At least that should help with one problem,” I muttered.  Stirring a second cup of coffee, I stared into its murky depths and slowly let my power creep in, daring to think about my power armor and the adjustments needed. 

Within the minute, I was interrupted by someone else taking a seat beside me.  

“Is there a sign on my back saying ‘please come to me with your problems?’” I demanded as I turned to glower at Ragdoll.  I regretted my snarky comment as I saw the dour look painted on his face.  

“We need to talk about Parasite.” 

I frowned, “Rags, I don’t want to get between you two.  Relationships aren’t something-”

“No, not that,” he said quickly.  “He’s slipping and I’m worried.  He skipped training the other day and when I woke up this morning he was gone.  He’s not talking to me, he’s barely eating, and he’s avoiding Eldritch and anyone else from your original team.”

“He was finally in a good place what would-” I cut myself off, realizing I knew exactly what would prompt him to slip back into a depressed spiral.  “Zellig.”

“Even if he never said it, Parasite looked up a fair bit to Titan.  Everyone did.  He watched the guy who beat him nearly to death capture an idol.  He won’t listen to me, Drag.  I need you to help talk some sense into him, before he hurts himself.”  Ragdoll was normally a proud figure.  He was as fit as Murphy was, and he carried himself with a confidence I envied.  But now, now he was like everyone else.  

Scared.  

“I’ll get with Nick and do my best.  But, you have to know that I’m not the best for this.  I’m not an Altered,” I said honestly.  “The best person to probably talk to would be Lightshow or one of the Lunatics.  They get this shit in a way that I just can’t.  We’re all fucked up, but not like that.”  

He shook his head, “I don’t think that we should try to defeat insanity with insanity.”

“They aren’t insane,” I snapped.  

He glared at me, “You talked to Psycho recently?”

I scoffed, “Psycho aside, the rest aren’t insane.  Someone who has PTSD isn’t crazy, they’re afflicted.  There’s a difference.”  I met his glare, refusing to yield this to him.  I wasn’t about to let a divide come between Altered and Adapted on my ship.  Most were wary of Altered because of Infinite, but she wasn’t the only one.  The other Altered didn’t deserve the undue prejudice.    

Ragdoll’s gaze softened, “You’re right.  I’m just… I don’t like what happened to him.  I don’t like that he thinks of himself as broken.  As ‘one of them.’  I don’t want Murphy to brand himself as something he isn’t.” 

“For better or worse, he is one of them,” I replied bluntly.  “We can’t undo an Alteration.  The only person who might have known how to do that went along with Titan.  All we can do is accept that fact and move on.  He has to do it too.” 

“And what if he doesn’t?” 

“I don’t know,” I said quietly.  “I’m doing my best here, Ragdoll.  At a certain point, Parasite has to accept that he’s different.  He has to accept that his power is different.  He has to come to grips with the fact he was in a tube and couldn’t rescue his friends.  There’s nothing we can do but move on.  It’s a shit answer, but it’s a shit situation.  No real way to sugar coat it or get around it.”  

“Yeah,” he finally replied, leaning forward and putting his head in his hands.  “I really like him, you know.”  He gave me a weak smile, “It’s not just a fling or something situational.  I really think he’s something special.”

I smiled, “Good.  We should have something good come out of all this shit.  Besides, Murphy deserves to be with someone who gives a shit about him.  It also means that if you break his heart I sic Eldritch on you.”

Ragdoll let out a laugh, “Harsh.”  He looked me up and down, noticing me now staring back into my second cup of coffee.  “How are you holding up?” 

“I’m holding.  That’s about all I can say,” I said.  “People want Infinite dead.  Right now we aren’t using any kind of fast travel so we’re just kind of floating around in space.  We lost our weird alien maker before he could answer all our questions.  And, to top it off, I have to figure out whether or not to listen to Skaberen about going straight to Xalanni or trying to see who else we can find on Marn.”  

“Maybe you need to find someone for a good fuck to get your mind off things for a few minutes,” he suggested.  At first I thought he was kidding, but the bastard was actually serious.  

“Thanks, but no.  What will make me feel better is if I can finish my damn power armor and know I can fight when the time comes.  It’s coming along, but not quick enough for my tastes.”

“Toolkit and Armorsmith helping you?” 

“Toolkit has given me some places to edit and refine but I haven’t tapped Armorsmith yet.  I figure I will have her buff the suit of armor once it’s actually a full suit of armor.  There’s a good chance I scrap some pieces of this shit before I’m done.” 

“Well, let her know,” he insisted, getting out of his chair, “I’m going to see if I can find where Parasite hid himself and try to talk some sense into him.” 

“Good luck.”

“Thanks, I’m going to need it.  And Dragoon, for what little it’s worth, I think you’re doing a good job with everything.  Most people would have broken down already.”
As Ragdoll went away, I sighed and did my best to recline in the straight-backed chair.  Despite Ragdoll’s praise, there were too many people, too many problems, and too few solutions.  “What we need on this damn ship is a full time counselor,” I grumbled as I took the last drink of my coffee and stood up, stretching and cracking my neck.  This room would be cleared out for training around ten, but there was nothing immediately pressing until then.  

“Six hours of work time then,” I said to myself.  Back in front of the heaps of metal, I closed my eyes and envisioned the suit I had drawn dozens of schematics for.  On cue, my power activated, like a lightswitch being flicked on.  Information streamed into my brain like water from a firehose, giving me a million different instructions at once.  Taking a deep breath, I narrowed my focus and concentrated on the sleeves of the armor.  

Still too much to think about.  Tol’s armor had been a matrix of thousands of moving parts that could shift on command.  

“I need that inner working first,” I said, guiding my power.  The machinations in my mind’s eye fluctuated and finally gave me something to work on.  A lattice of magnetic suspension that would guide the individual metal pieces into place.  Rigged to a neural mesh, it would let me adjust and manipulate the armor’s layout at will.  

Even though it was tedious, it felt good to be building.  I layered the lattice of magnetic cord over my kev-silk suit, making it the foundation for my new power armor.  For a few blissful hours, there was nothing obstructing me, nothing else to worry about.  There was only me and my armor, a series of technological hurdles to work through with my own hands.    

“Dragoon?” a voice called, in interrupting my process and immediately earning my ire.  A glance at the clock on my desk told me that I had been working straight for nearly four hours.  While not the full six I wanted, it was at least solid progress.    

“What do you-” I shut up as I saw Big Picture loitering in my doorway.  “What can I do for you?” 

“I think we should talk about what to do moving forward,” he said softly.  

“We have.  The problem is that we need Infinite to do anything and we’re kind of paralyzed with her being so volatile.  Pacifist thinks she might be able to help but we’re going to have to play that one by ear.  Psycho’s girlfriend has experience controlling Altered, but I’m still a little wary.”

He wheeled himself in, parking his wheelchair near my cot.  “With all due respect, I think we have not considered every option, or at least not with all the information that we should.”

My eyes flicked to the lump of metal on the corner of my desk.  The little metal sphere that Skaberen had given to me, insisting that it would help us fight the Trillodan.  According to him, it contained schematics and maps for the capital city of Xalanni.  I had avoided it, not wanting to think about the Trillodan homeworld.  I didn’t want to simply fall in line and acquiesce to Skaberen’s demand that we attack them next and avoid Marn entirely.  

“You know I don’t want to deal with that.”

“And I know that you know that you have to.  You know that to be responsible you must deal with this unknown sooner rather than later.” 

I grit my teeth.  “I don’t want to simply fall in line and do what some bastard said.”

Big Picture wheeled himself a little closer, giving me a plaintive look.  “Listen, Dragoon, I understand that you don’t want to just follow along.  I understand that you want to lead, to be responsible and to ensure we are taken care of.  But, we still need to use every edge.  We need to analyze every piece of information at our disposal.  Information is power and we’re neglecting a piece of it that the Trillodan don’t know we have.” 

“For all we know they ripped the information out of his head already,” I snapped.  

“They didn’t,” Big Picture replied with confidence.  “He knew too much, had too many trade secrets in his mind to allow them to do that.  My guess is that he had some kind of countermeasure to prevent them from scanning his brain.  If he didn’t, Skaberen wouldn’t have simply waltzed forward and volunteered to go with them.” 

I glared at the paraplegic, “You are infuriating to talk with at times, you know that?” 

He smiled, “Titan told me the same thing.”

Mention of our old leader made me long for his presence.  If nothing else, he’d ensure that order could be kept.  “Why am I running this fucking show when you have all the answers anyways?” 

“Because I have all the information, I don’t have the keys to making the best decisions.  Plus, how would a guy like me get involved in a fight?”  He picked up an atrophied leg and let it slap down against his wheelchair.  “Every queen needs a good advisor, right?” 

I scoffed, “Don’t ever refer to me as a queen.  I never want to be that pretentious.” 

“No matter how you cut it, you’re the one in charge.  You’re the one we trust to make the best call.  My job is to help you know what the best call is.  And, in my opinion, the best thing we can do is at least see what Skaberen left for us.” 

“He experimented on us.  I don’t give him any more of the benefit of the doubt than I do the Trillodan.  I have no interest in following his plan.  We had a plan to get every Adapted we could before we fought the Trillodan.”

“And we both know that Zellig having his own Adapted to run at us would likely be an unwinnable scenario,” he said bluntly.  “Let’s face it, Drag, we have to consider the fact that our time is running out.  Getting to Marn, even with Infinite’s help is going to take weeks.  We have to ask ourselves if we have that kind of time.” 

I frowned, “You seem unnaturally zealous today.  What aren’t you telling me?” 

“I think that I have a possible solution to our Infinite problem, ” he replied.  

My eyes widened, caught completely off guard.  “How the hell do you think we can manage that?”

“Adapted demand conflict.  We need that struggle.  Without it we feel lost.  The other thing we all need is community; like Skaberen said, the organism driving us drew us together because of our own intrinsic need for a group of peers.” 

“What does this have to do with Infinite?” 

“Who was the focal point of her community?  What relationship mattered more to her than anything else in the world?”

“Titan did,” I said.  “She defined herself with him.  She clung onto his every word and whim because she didn’t trust herself to act without accidentally killing everyone nearby.”  

“Exactly.  And, presuming that Vaneel’s research is bulking up, they are going to want to study Titan since he is one of the few Adapted who can reliably alter the states of matter.  He represents a theoretically limitless supply of power.”

“Get somewhere with this,” I demanded.  

He nodded, stopping himself from going too far down the rabbit hole.  “Right now Infinite has no drive, she has no one to bind herself to.  She has no real meaningful relationships and is becoming more and more reclusive because of it.  Even if Pacifist can help, she won’t be able to stop Infinite lashing out if she spirals.  Instead of looking to control Infinite, we need to direct her, we need to nudge her so she has purpose.  If we give her something to work toward, we help her mood and make everyone on board safer.” 

It finally all came together for me.  “You want to rush the Trillodan because it means we can dangle Titan in front of Infinite.  You want to use him as a means of incentive to keep Infinite properly motivated.” 

“Exactly.  Instead of looking to limit her, we should try to incentivize her.  Pacifist might be able to control the dark part of her, but we need the ‘Charlotte’ part of her as focused as possible.”

“Do you think that avoiding Marn would be wise? Do you think we’ll be able to fight against the Trillodan without the extra manpower?” 

“I have no idea,” he confessed.  “I don’t know what kind of defensive measures are present in the Trillodan capital.  However, Skaberen’s message will likely give me some insight.  We can work from there.” 

I looked at the metal orb, feeling my blood boil.  “I don’t want to be controlled like this.  I don’t want to-”  

“You aren’t being controlled,” Big Picture said, exasperated.  “You are choosing to take his advice.  He is not pulling the strings.  Skaberen can’t force you to do a damn thing!”  He wheeled himself beside me, “Please, Dragoon, you need to let go of that demand for control.  The best thing we can do in this situation is take the best choice available to us and own it.  If that means we do what he suggested, so be it.  The reality is that, as it stands, we are going nowhere fast.  That is something we can’t afford.  The more time we waste in obstinate defiance of Skaberen, the longer we give Vaneel and Zellig to manufacture an army of Adapted.” 

I wanted to shout at him, to tell Big Picture that all the insight his Adaptation afforded him was completely off-kilter and wrong.  

Instead all that I said was, “Goddamnit.”  My fingers curled around the metal sphere which immediately began to glow.  A moment later, it projected an image of our departed maker.  

“This isn’t a schematic of anything,” I muttered, confused.  

The hologram turned to me, those massive orb eyes seeming to peer into my soul.  “Dragoon.  A pleasure to see you.  Presumably for a second time.”

“What the fuck is this,” I whispered, stepping closer to the hologram, passing my hand through it, half expecting it to have substance.  “How-”

“This is an imprint of my brain from five days ago,” the hologram replied.  “Given that you have activated this, something happened to the real me.  I made this to help provide information for you should something compromise my person.” 

“You were taken by the Trillodan.  Well, you voluntarily went with them to prevent Infinite from blowing a gasket,” Big Picture said.  

The projection of Skaberen looked between us, fishing for the next words to say.  “What did I promise you that this would be?” 

“You said that this orb would contain schematics and information about key locations in the Trillodan capital city that we needed to destroy.  I did not agree to go to Xalanni next,” I insisted before the hologram could reply, “But Big Picture insists that we need to have all the information possible before making a final decision.  Right now we’re just floating, not really going anywhere quick without Infinite’s assistance.” 

“What is wrong with her?”

“Titan was taken.  Command was killed,” I said curtly.  “And now, she’s unstable.” 

“I see.”  

“So, key things on Xalanni we have to hit?”

The projection of Skaberen faded and was replaced with a landscape projection of a sprawling city.  Four points in the city lit up red, making them stand out from the rest of the blue tinted diagram.   

I glanced at Big Picture, “You going to remember all this?” 

He tapped a hand to his head and grinned, “I remember everything I see.  Don’t worry.”

“Okay,” I said, turning back to the projection, “What are these places?  What are we going after?” 

The diagram zoomed in, shifting focus to the first highlighted building.  It was a massive structure that looked to be made of ornate stone and metalwork, “This is the Tillodan garrison and it boasts nearly ten-thousand soldiers who are stationed with the explicit purpose of defending against foriegn assault on Xalanni.  Even though all of them won’t be present at the onset of the fight, they will use displacement charges to join the battle for the capital.  However, if you manage to blitz this building fast enough, you will disrupt their acquisition of armaments and buy yourself some precious time.” 

“One down.  What next?” 

The image shifted and brought up black cube of a building that seemed strangely simple given how ornate the garrison looked.  “This is Vaneel’s laboratory.  While he has likely upped production, this will be the nexus of their information about Adapted.  If everything is going wrong and you find yourself losing, destroying this building will cause their progress with Adaptations to falter drastically.”

“So we can leave that building alone since we’re going to crush them,” I said with faux confidence.  

The projection paused, as if debating offering a witty remark but then thought better of it.  Next structure showed was a massive ziggurat that looked like it was built with the intent of surviving a nuclear apocalypse.  It was coated in armor and was littered with turrets; I assumed there would be security measures that weren’t showing on the projection as well.  “This is the Trillodan Arms Discovery.  Effectively their version of R&D, and it will be where their monstrous Adapted are being produced and contained.  Once you begin laying siege to the city, they are going to be unleashing whatever they have cooked up.” 

“It looks like this place was meant to withstand the end of days,” I muttered. 

“It was,” Skaberen replied succinctly.  

“Great,” I mumbled.  “What other impossible building do we have to attack?” 

The last building was a domed structure that seemed rather pedestrian considering the oppressive nature of the Arms Discovery.  “This is the site of the Eternal Council, basically their government’s headquarters.  Even though the actual council won’t be sticking around when the battle starts, taking  control of it will be impactful.  The Trillodan live so long that things become symbolic, and so is the act of laying waste to it.”  

While that sounded impractical to me I figured that it would be easy enough to have Beleth flatten a building.  Anything to help us get a psychological edge.  

“So if the government people are going to vacate, how exactly would we ever capture the Immortal Matron?  If the Eternal Council can flee and use their displacement charges to escape, how do we really win?”

The image faded and shifted back to Skaberen’s image.  “Displacement charges only take you so far.  They are generally fairly short range in terms of cosmic placement.  Most of the time they are used to relocate on a planet’s surface or to quickly retreat to a ship that is lingering in orbit.”

“Like a Crimson City,” I muttered.  “Which, if we go to Xalanni, it means that Zellig brings his ship to the planet and leaves it in the atmosphere.” 

“It means that people retreat there,” Big Picture pointed out, “How do you exactly plan to assault a spaceship?  We aren’t exactly armed to the teeth on this vessel.  The best thing we managed to do was allow for a few Projectors to have makeshift gunnery ports.  We can’t fight a Crimson City.”

I raised a hand, shutting up my advisor for a moment.  “Skaberen, if they were to capture Titan, where would they take him?  Would they want to put someone so dangerous on the surface?” 

“Likely no.  They don’t have a reliable way to contain someone like him.  They probably have some insight to his gift and realize that any small failure of security or sedation means he’d break loose.  Odds are that they would keep him in a Crimson City, effectively distanced from their society.” 

“Which means that he’s on board Zellig’s ship,” I replied with a grin.  

“We still can’t go engaging in space warfare,” Big Picture reminded me.  

“We can’t,” I admitted, “But Infinite can.  Imagine how motivated she’d be to rip that thing apart.”

He shuddered at the thought but I could already see his intuitive Adaptation spinning.  “With her onboard, it would deny the residents of Xalanni a quick way out.  In fact, if you sent Interface with her, we could leverage their own ship against them.  We could threaten Protocol 37 to lure out the Immortal Matron and her council.” 

I glanced at the projection of Skaberen, hating that I was starting to find myself agreeing with his plan to skip Marn entirely.  Especially with Infinite in the mental state she was, pointing her like a guided missile was beginning to feel like the only correct move.  I reached over and tapped the metal orb, ending our little chat session with the imprint of Skaberen’s brain.  

“Okay,” I said, shaking my head, “Next stop, Xalanni.”

Previous ChapterNext Chapter

Interlude: Masterminds

“These things are always so much more intense in person,” I said to myself as I wandered down the halls of the Crimson City.  Glancing over the railing, I reminded myself how easy it would be for the gargantuan Trillodan behind me to toss me over the side if I gave him the slightest excuse.  

While Zellig’s curiosity had gotten me onboard, it wouldn’t necessarily keep me alive.  

I didn’t have to turn around to know the grey-skinned goliath was trying to bore a hole in the back of my head with that intense glare of his.  Even though I had been subject to a number of scans to check for any kind of weapon or biological agent, he wasn’t entirely convinced that I wasn’t a threat to him and to his matron.  

To the rest of the universe, she was an icon.  To me, she was a person.  He didn’t care much for my choice of perspective it seemed.  

But before I could go visit her on Xalanni, I had to make good on a promise to Infinite.  The only way to avoid her spiraling out of control was to ensure that her lover wouldn’t be incarcerated in the same conditions as the rest of the Adapted.  Zellig had initially balked at this idea, but finally agreed to put Titan into a temperature sensitive prison cube.  Should there be any fluctuation, it would eject the young man into the void of space.  

Two days after capture, the Trillodan hadn’t reneged on his deal.  Every morning I was allowed to come to the upper wing of the ship and see how he was feeling.  It was Titan’s only chance to talk to anyone as Zellig had seen fit to keep him in solitary confinement.   

“I think you can allow me to have a conversion with some semblance of privacy,” I told Zellig as I approached his wing.  

“Semblance?” 

I scoffed, “Come now, I know about your superior senses.  If you wanted to, you could hear people halfway across this ship through the vibrations in the floor.”  

Zellig scowled but didn’t comment.  “You have twenty minutes until the Matron will be here.”

I stiffened in surprise.  “Iilena isn’t one to venture off world.  I assumed I would be going down to the surface to see her.”

“Not just for you,” Zellig said.  “She wants to meet Titan and see the upstart who has threatened to shake the galactic order.  We can’t house him securely on Xalanni without sedating him.  Thanks to your little bargain and the Matron’s respect for you, we can’t move him to Vaneel’s laboratory.  He’s too dangerous to be on the surface.”

“I suppose that is true.  All the same, I would like a moment to speak to Titan alone.” 

The massive Trillodan keyed in the code and let me pass over the threshold before a reinforced metal plate closed behind me, locking me inside.  I couldn’t help but smile; Zellig had just locked me in with the most dangerous criminal in Trillodan history since Kardan.  Maybe he hoped that a jaded Titan would try to kill me, saving him some headache by dealing with two issues at once.  

“Skaberen,” a tired voice said.  

“Titan,” I replied, stepping close to the glass.  “How are you?” 

“Shitty,” he muttered.  The young man had been forced to do away with his normal look, instead being forced to wear a tight fitting blue shirt and pants.  His normally tidy appearance was grimey and disordered, like he hadn’t slept all night.  “I mean, I’m in prison.  How else would I be doing?” 

I frowned, “You can be honest with me.  There is no reason to lie to me.” 

Titan scowled, “Lie to the man who let us all live for years as unwitting experiments?  That seems incredibly hypocritical for you to request honesty.”

“Yes, I suppose that is fair,” I replied, not surprised by his verbal attack.  Something else was eating at Titan, and not just his predicament.  “All the same, we are stuck together so we might as well try to mend the bridge.”

Titan did a circle of his cell and finally sat down on the small lump of blankets I had insisted they give him.  “The strings, they’re gone still.  I hate feeling so out of touch.”

“Strings?” 

“My power,” he replied, looking up at the corner of his cell.  There was a camera present; an insistence from Zellig that he be observed at all hours of the day.  I knew that he would also show everything to Vaneel in case he said anything helpful to his research.  Titan paused and then finally did away with his caution.  “My power, for me, is like pulling strings.  It starts the reaction.  The air is generally full of them but…when I do too much…” 

“Overexposure.  You aren’t physically harmed but instead limited.”
“You care to tell Vaneel why you think that might be?” Titan said with a chuckle, waving at the camera.  

I offered a sad smile, “As the burns on your chest might remind you, your power is dangerous.  Atomic fusion is a hell of an energy source, one that you flippantly use.  Thanks to changes to your Adaptation, the excess energy doesn’t bleed over to our plane of existence.”

“The first time I used my gift, it was an explosion,” he recalled.  “It burned away my brother, my home, and burned me.”

“You Adapted very young,” I recalled, “And you’ll forgive me for not knowing all the particulars.  But your little atomic accident is what prompted us to look into your generation.”

  “Good to know you hadn’t been spying on us before then.”

I envied his ability to still care about such things as breaches of privacy and being under observation.  Living so long, surviving what I had…such things seemed so trifling to me.  It was another reminder of how out of place I was in the universe.  It didn’t need people like me.  If anything, it needed to be rid of me.  After finally re-centering myself, I offered a possible explanation.  “The Kelotan, the thing responsible for your power, is its own organism and has a demand for preservation.  While it might be tied to you, it can affect powers too.  My guess is that after your first use, the Kelotan made small adjustments to avoid you damaging yourself.  I feel that if you wanted to utilize that more violent side of your gift, you likely could.” 

He paused, frowning, “You said that the excess energy is dumped somewhere else?  So, am I just making an irradiated wasteland?”

“Our hope with the Kelotan was to pull resources from otherwise uninhabited realities.  While you have likely made a wasteland, you probably haven’t killed off any civilizations.”

That seemed to give him some peace of mind.  “Do you think she can do it?” 

“Pardon?”

“Dragoon.  Do you think she can finish what I started?” 

I offered a sad smile and a shrug.  “I can’t think of many people more capable or resilient than that girl, but I’m not sure.  She has a monumental task in front of her.  The Matron and her champion aren’t going to go down easily, no matter what course of action she takes.”  

Titan sighed, knowing that there wasn’t anything better I could give him.  “Do you think your colleagues are going to come and help her?” 

“I can’t speak for them but I doubt it.  We stayed hidden for centuries by design.  My choice to reveal us and remind the Trillodan we were alive went against the vast majority; it’s why I was the only one waiting for you.  They deliberately didn’t tell me what their plans were or where they would go so it couldn’t be tortured out of me.”

“Tortured?” Titan said.  “I thought they simply extracted information out of your brain.  I doubt they would engineer such a thing to only work for humans.” 

“Who do you think helped pioneer that technology?” I said, daring to offer a cheeky smile.  I tapped my fingers against the side of my skull, “I had a small device implanted to trigger should anyone try to read my brain waves.  No threat to anyone else,” I said, more for the eavesdropping Zellig than anyone else, “But I can’t run the risk of Vaneel or any other Trillodan scientist getting a readout of my brain.”

“What would it do?” 

“Melt my brain,” I replied bluntly.  “It would turn everything into a puddle of mush so they can’t extract any information.  If you are all going to have a chance, I can’t have that information getting into their hands.” 

There was a sharp knock on the door, Zellig’s indication to me that it was time to go.  I frowned: the Matron must be early.  She was always one for being ahead of the clock.  As I turned to go, I was caught by Titan’s last question. 

“Did I make everything worse?”

I stopped and pivoted back to face him.  “What do you mean?”

He ran his hands through his hair.  “I had everyone come marching against the Trillodan like we had a chance of beating them.  I basically gift wrapped superpowers and handed them over the the Trillodan.  Thanks to my little, naive crusade, I might have given them all they needed to repair the damage to their genetic code and provide them with even more longevity.  There was going to be an expiration date on the Trillodan and I probably helped undo it.”  He shook his head, “Being locked in a cell gives you nothing but time to think.  So, I keep wondering: did I do the right thing?”  He looked up at me, his eyes begging for some kind of confirmation that this wasn’t in vain, that his actions weren’t for naught.

I shuffled closer to the glass, wishing I could reassure the youth that everything would be okay.  I wished that I could tell him that his insurrection was surely the right and noble thing to do.  “There was an expression back on Earth, ‘All that is required for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’  Truth be told, I loved many of the phrases that humanity turned, and it saddens me to know that those will die out and blend with the galactic homogeneity that has spawned from Trillodan and the Universal Common that they force upon other species.”  I put a hand to the glass and looked Titan straight in the face, “Titan, you had the gall to do what my race could not.  You stood up for yourself and for so many others.  We decided to act, but we acted in duplicity.  We gave you these powers and then remained passive observers.  The Goln were too cowardly to truly be involved.  If we had, things would be different.  But you, you dared to dream.  You dared to put your foot down.  You dared to use the gift you had been given to fight back.”

My words of encouragement seemed to offer little inspiration.  “I thought it was my destiny to do something great.  I thought that I could really do it, you know?  But…here I am.  In a fucking cell.  Inevitably, they are going to sedate me and start drawing samples from me.”

A sad smile found home back on my face.  “Titan, they are still afraid of you.  They can’t take that away from you.  If you go to sleep, smile.  Know they sedated you because you are a genuine threat to them.”

The corner of his lip dared to curl as Zellig hammered on the door again.  “Looks like it’s time to go.” 

Offering a supportive smile, I turned and scuttled back to the door.  Zellig opened the door and bade me follow.  Wordlessly, I tagged behind the giant Trillodan as he led me back to the elevator.  He saluted a number of the officers but most didn’t say anything to the Matron’s champion as he wandered past.  

“Your pigment seems to have introduced quite the rift,” I said. 

“You knew that long before meeting me,” he countered.  

“I could help you fix that,” I offered.  

Zellig turned and glared at me, “I don’t need your pity, Goln.  Your technology has done enough to my species.”

A part of me wanted to comment on the fact that I knew about his dead spawn.  The other side of me won out and kept my mouth shut.  Angering someone who could rip through reinforced steel wasn’t a good recipe for keeping my head attached.  

Zellig took me to the residential area of the ship and to a room that had been furnished with brightly colored cushions and a small table in the middle.  Two glasses and a bottle of some bright blue liquid were waiting to be consumed.  “Wait here.  She will be along shortly.”  He glared at me again, “It goes without saying, but try anything-”

I raised a hand to stop him, “Rest assured big man, the only threat I pose is to myself.  I’m an old man and my damage has already been done.” 

Zellig growled but turned around, leaving me in silence.  Taking my spot on the far side of the table, I let my legs fold under me as I settled my abdomen down, waiting until my friend arrived to start drinking…whatever beverage this was.  

“You always did like sampling new things,” I muttered aloud as I stared at the bottle, trying to discern which sundered culture she had taken it from.  Even though I had spent hundreds of years watching Iilena and seeing her actions ripple through the cosmos, I hadn’t been able to see much of her behavior.  There was no recording of the Trillodan government and she wasn’t one to hog the spotlight.  “A millenia and change.  I wonder what it’s done to you.”  I glanced down at my own hands and my reflection in the glass of the bottle, taking stock of how old I really looked. 

The door opened, interrupting my self-reflection.  

For a moment, I forgot all about the fact that the Trillodan were galactic conquerors.  I forgot about the atrocities of her and her predecessor.  

For a moment, all I saw was my old friend.  

“I had to see it to believe it,” she said, stepping forward with a smile.  Her skin was still an immaculate shade of crimson though there were little streaks of white cutting through thanks to time and stress taking their toll.  “Skaberen, come here,” she demanded, spreading her arms wide.  

I grunted and propped myself up, scuttling across the room to embrace my friend.  “Iilena, I never thought we’d be able to see each other again.”  

As we released each other, she looked me up and down, snickering, “My gods, you look old!”

“And what are those?” I replied, pressing a bony finger against some stress lines.  “All the telomere restoration that is available and you still age.  You’ve been hard on yourself.”   

She scoffed, gesturing to the table, “We’re too old to be standing around gawking.  Instead we should do the refined thing and have a drink.”

I eyed the liquid again, “What is that exactly?” 

“A Trillodan recreation of a taste of home,” she replied to me.  “I had someone synthesize some Lathi for us.” 

My breath caught in my throat  as she poured the blue liquid into a glass and pushed it to me.  Lathi was an old Goln drink that was traditionally used at ceremonies of bonding or other noteworthy celebrations.  “I haven’t had Lathi in…”

“Me either,” Iilena replied, raising her glass.  “I think we should remedy that.” 

I nodded, lost for words as I pressed the sweet liquid to my lips.  A wave of sweet followed by a light burn and small kick of euphoria.  My lips curled into a smile as I greedily accepted a second glass and enjoyed another taste of home.  “Whoever made this, they did a magnificent job.”

She looked into the blue liquid, letting out a long sigh, “I don’t suppose that we can just sit here and drink this stuff all night like this, can we?” 

A sad smile replaced the euphoric grin, “I think we both know the answer to that question.”

The Immortal Matron drained the rest of the glass and looked me full in the face, “I had half wondered if the Adapted were your handiwork.  Once Vaneel managed to narrow the cause to an organism that had taken up residence within the children, I was almost sure you had a hand in it.  But, how?  Where have you all been?”

“After Kardan’s attempted genocide, we hid.  Using a rudimentary Void Door, we escaped and managed to smuggle a decent amount of equipment with us.  Not enough to jump start our work, but enough to enter cryo and wait out his rampage.  For the first cycle, we were asleep.  When we woke up, you had killed Kardan yourself and taken his place as the matriarch of the Trillodan people and assumed the most notorious title in the universe: Immortal Matron.”  

“Why didn’t you come back to us?  I would have welcomed you with open arms, Skaberen.  The Goln and Trillodan were allies.  Kardan was a paranoid and deluded lunatic who let his own fear blind him.  You and your colleagues would have been welcome to our table at any time.”

I eyed my empty glass, debating pouring myself a third.  “How could we be sure?  You’ll forgive us if Kardan’s actions hadn’t introduced a fair amount of paranoia among our remaining few.  We had a race to preserve, a population to try and rebuild, and technology to try and reclaim.”  

“But on a remote planet,” she said, “Why not try to contact me?  You and I had known each other for nearly two cycles.  I would have moved the heavens for you and your people!” 

I felt my throat constrict because there was no duplicity in her words.  My old friend was still just that: my friend.  She would have done so much to help me and my people, she would have likely saved us several centuries of toil in the desert trying to rebuild a semblance of a society. 

“I could not condone what you have done,” I finally admitted.  “We could not agree with the direction you took your reign after Kardan.”

I was expecting some kind of violent outburst, some kind of enraged retort, but Iilena had much thicker skin than that.  “You have been watching what we have done around the universe.  Our gating of sentient life.”

“It is impossible not to notice.”

Iilena sighed, “From an outside perspective, I understand how damning that must look.”

“With all due respect, Iilena, it’s not just about how it looks.  You have forever clipped the wings of hundreds of species.  Even if you have only eradicated sixty-seven different species, that doesn’t stop the ripple.  Your introduction of Universal Common, your rendezvous with growing civilizations, it paralyzes them.  Look at Tso’got,” I insisted.  “They are in a state of stagnation out of fear.  And so many others are  suffering that same plight.”

“And it is still a better option than the alternative,” she replied, a bit of sorrow creeping into her voice.  “I don’t take joy knowing how many suffer, but I know that allowing another maniac to get to the position Kardan held would mean ruin for so many more.  Imagine if a directionless hand wielded my authority.  How many would be indiscriminately turned to dust?”

I stopped and poured us both a third glass, not wanting things to escalate.  Even if she had turned to the logic of a despot, Iilena Lamak was still my friend.  There was no need for a reunion to be nasty.  

“We both helped each other overcome so many hurdles,” I recalled, witfully.  “You aided in our ability to manufacture while we helped introduce medicine and therapies.  Your technology coupled with our biological savvy allowed us to conquer any number of filters.”

“We were the first few species to not blast ourselves to death,” she said, proud.  “We overcame foreign illness as well.  Not an easy hurdle to withstand as we discovered.”  

I laughed as I silently recalled working in hospitals as thousands of Goln began to suffer from Trillodan infections.  Exposure to foreign bacteria and viruses had been…harrowing.  “But, Iilena, you have become a filter.  An even greater filter than the ones we faced.”  

She frowned, “I’m not an indiscriminate murdering machine, Skaberen.”

“You do tend to flatten anyone who might threaten you.  You annihilate civilizations that are beginning to breach the topic of faster than light travel.”

“I thought you would have noticed my pattern more than that.  It isn’t just those who are breaching faster than light travel.  I’m enacting protocol on anyone who is pushing that boundary and who is still too warlike.  Look at humanity,” she insisted, “They were warmongers.  They exploited each other.  They had taken themselves as slaves throughout history.  All that seemed to change as they aged was they made things more duplicitous.  The only thing that kept them around was stubborn resilience.  They weren’t a collective society.  They weren’t a unified group like we were.  Those in leadership worked only for self-interest.  Altruism was a dead concept to anyone with real power in their society.”

“But-”

“How many civilizations would they have exploited for their own gain?  How many developing societies would have been enslaved and had their history steered because of humanities greed?  How many lives would be senselessly lost for their amusement?”

“We’ll never know, will we,” I replied.  

There was a tense pause in the conversation and I worried that Iilena was going to call for her brute to come and dispose of me.  To my relief, she poured us a fourth round and changed the direction of the conversation.  “Why children?”

“Accident,” I said with a chuckle.  “The original idea was to tinker with the parents and see the effects.  The children inherited more than we had bargained for.  If we had been smarter and intervened we could have drastically changed the trajectory of this whole debacle.”

“I can’t imagine they took that news well.”

“Oh, they did not.  I was a bit worried that Parasite or Beleth would have killed me.”

“Speaking of,” she said, “I hear from Zellig that they have changed leadership a touch.  Titan was leading their little crusade, but now it’s being headed by the machinist.”  

“Dragoon,” I supplied.  

“Yes.  What was your impression of her?” 

I eyed my friend warily, “Are you fishing?  Is the great Immortal Matron trying to hedge her bets?” 

She scoffed, “I’m just a woman asking her friend for input.  I had Zellig’s report on her but I wanted your voice on the matter.  Even though we may be…opposed,” she finally said. 

“Dragoon is dangerous in a different way,” I confessed.  “Titan may himself be destructive but it has made him overconfident.  It’s why Zellig could catch him.  Dragoon is more grounded and well aware of where she stands.  She aims to out think and out plan opponents.  I think of all people to stack against your champion, she is going to be most formidable.”

“You think she has a chance against Zellig?” 

“If anyone does, it’s her.  She understands the strengths of her people and she’ll utilize them better than Titan could have.  Even though they unified under him, she is going to take better charge.”  I dared to smile, “Is the Immortal Matron afraid someone may come and seize her throne?” 

“No,” she replied with a devilish smile, “I was wondering whether or not I should take the risk of having Zellig fight them again or just enact Protocol 37 the next time they surface.”

“If they surface, they will be on Marn,” I said, aghast.  “Those people are nowhere near faster than light travel, and they aren’t warlike savages.  You’d be condemning an innocent species to extinction because of this war.”

Iilena’s face hardened, “If she is as big a threat as you believe, there is too much to lose for me and my empire.  I believe that what I am doing, what the Trillodan are doing, is too important.  One civilization is a tragedy, but I will let the blood stain my hands if it ensures that we can preserve so many others.” 

“You are killing billions due to an unknown,” I insisted, wishing she would listen to reason.  “You don’t know if there is going to be another Kardan or if there can be more pragmatic leaders like you!  For all you know, you may have killed the species who could have helped undo the damage done with the Legacy-Ender.”

“And you might have created a woman who will annihilate an entire planet,” she replied. “I think you created more destructive potential with Infinite than I have with the four Crimson Cities that are at my disposal.  If you want to talk about wanton acts of destruction, should we discuss the horrifying possibilities that child represents?” 

“Infinite is…unique,” I confessed.  

“She is capable of mimicking a Void Door.  While it may not be to quite the same extreme, I know that she has more power she can tap into.  If the information we have of her is correct, her power grows exponentially as she builds upon it.  If that gift of a Void Door took eleven, that leaves two more gifts to acquire.  What happens if she loses control on Marn?  What happens if she loses control here?  Would every civilian dying be a necessary sacrifice to see me stopped?”

“But she hasn’t done any of those things yet,” I noted.  “And if anything, your champion made it more likely that she will lose control.  Command’s mental influencing helped keep her stable.  Thanks to Zellig’s crony, that safety net is gone.  And with Titan captured, she has limited emotional support to keep her stable.”

“He isn’t one to believe in incremental victories,” she conceded.  “Zellig believes that if he removed Command it would hinder the Adapted.  Now, either Infinite loses control and exterminates the problem or she remains dormant.”

My skin crawled with how easily she could talk through this bloody logic.  “Iilena,” I finally said, “I think we are asking ourselves the fundamentally wrong questions.”

She tilted her head, confused. 

“We’re ancient.  We have outlived entire civilizations.  We are one-person dynasties.  In a way, I think it’s fitting that the Adapted ended up being children; we need to allow room for a new generation.”

“I’m old but not decrepit,” she replied.  “I have plenty more to give to the universe.”  

“We have been pulling the strings far longer than we ever thought possible,” I pushed.  “Don’t you think it is time we stepped away from the table and let someone else play?” 

The Immortal Matron pursed her lips in thought.  “You might argue that a fundamental component of life is struggle.  We struggle to obtain resources. We struggle to survive against enemies and predators.  In a way, isn’t it the most natural thing that the Trillodan exist this long?  We have struggled to get where we are.  We have overcome so many filters and hardships that other species falter to.”

“Most predators can’t reduce a planet to an inhospitable wasteland.”

“And many in my position would take slaves.  Many would colonize and conquer indiscriminately.  Even with all our technology, it is an infinite universe.  There are likely countless star systems that have life developing; I’m sure we are bound to meet our match eventually.  Why should I relinquish my position before then?  I struggled to get where I am.  The Trillodan struggled and rebelled against all the obstacles and hardships thrust onto us.”

I sighed, “I’m never going to convince you to walk away from this, am I?” 

Iilena offered a coy smile, “No, old friend, you and I both know that I’m far too headstrong for that.”

A fifth round of the Lathi was poured in silence.  After a sip, I opted to steer the conversation a different path.  

“Your champion-”

“Commander Zellig?” 

“Yes.  Why him?  I understand that he’s an incredibly capable and devoted zealot, but he seems bloodthirsty for you.  Even though you aren’t above getting dirty, he strikes me as someone who would cause more problems for you than you want to answer for.”

She studied the contents of her glass while formulating an answer.  “In truth, you’re not wrong.  Zellig is bloodthirsty.  He has a flair for the dramatic and a love of combat that is unsettling at times.  But, he’s good enough to leverage those sorts of quirks into tremendous strengths.”

“Oh?”  I pondered what of his actions I had seen so far.  “Is he making good use of neural acceleration?” 

“Zellig’s brain hasn’t been enhanced with Vaneel’s work,” Iilena replied with a proud grin.  “My ‘champion’ is just that clever on his own merit.  Zellig uses his love for a violent display to play mind games with his opponent.  Even though the Adapted have him outgunned in many ways, he knows how to leverage his position and bait people in.  What I do politically, he does in a field of combat.”

“His alteration into the warmachine he’s become seems to have caused quite the stir.”

Iilena frowned, “How are you so up to date with Trillodan affairs?”

I dared to offer a cheeky grin.  “You spend so many resources monitoring other planets, but your security is really nothing too special.  No one dares tamper with your probes because they don’t know if they are tamper-proof.  We simply patched in some software to gain access to all your surveillance.”

She actually let out a laugh.  “You’re right.  I would never think of anyone trying to hack into our data.  I assume you put some kind of failsafe on the program in case we tried to go looking?” 

“Not me personally,” I corrected.  “I was never too savvy with that end of things.  One of my colleagues did.  And yes, knowing how thorough she was, I assume there will be failsafes present.” 

“Naturally.  As for Zellig,” she continued, “He has caused a tremendous amount of stir.  Technically speaking, what Vaneel did with him was considered illegal.  I opted to put my neck out and defend the commander because I believe that his heart was in the right place.  That being said, I also believe that Zellig was willing to do anything after the death of his child.  His transformation was possibly an attempt at suicide.  His last way to be helpful to the Trilodan empire and simultaneously cease his torment.”

I winced, feeling a sad empathy wash over me.  My daughter had died during Kardann’s madness.  It was one of the few things the Trillodan juggernaut and I had in common.  “You want someone suicidal to be running your armies?”

She scoffed, “Of course not.  But what I want is someone who understands the true weight of loss.  I want someone who knows the depths of dedication and devotion to a cause.  I wanted someone who understood how meaningful sacrifice was.  I chose Zellig because he had seen the bottom, he had seen how bleak and meaningless existence can be, and he rose from the ground with a fire in his chest that no one else can shine a candle to.”

“Having seen him in action, I can’t help but agree with your assessment,” I confessed.

“What about your champion?” she shot back.  

I scoffed, “I have no champion.”

“You wouldn’t have called Titan your champion?  You don’t call Dragoon your champion now?”

I shook my head, “Heavens, no.”

“Why not?” 

“Because they do not answer to me.  If anything, I am an enemy of my creations.  I am a reminder that they have spent their lives with limited, if any, control.  I am just one more element they never had a say in.  Even though they weren’t born on Earth, all of them feel some residual pain of never knowing a planet that was truly their home.  I think I am only a reminder of how miserable Protocol 37 has made life for them.” 

There was the slightest glimmer of guilt from Iilena but it faded as she took another drink.  “Fair enough.”

“What are you going to do with me?  You can only keep me locked up so long before people on Xalanni start hearing that you have a Goln in custody.  It will create quite the stir for all who remember my kind.” 

Iilena frowned, “I think that largely depends on you.  We will have to scan and see if you still harbor serious resentments and are likely to act-”

I shook my head, “Not a good idea,” I insisted, tapping a finger to my skull.  “The chip in here will liquidate everything in my skull if you try to scan me.” 

“Without a scan, I can’t trust you to not make any kind of heinous biological weapon,” she said with a disappointed sigh.  “I am going to go out on a limb and say that you were the head of the Kelotan’s creation?” 

“I was.”

“You were the primary creator for the organism that is threatening Trillodan society for the first time in nearly nine cycles.  You understand why I can’t exactly trust you on your word alone.  We’re both old and we’ve had enough time learning to lie convincingly.  My hands are tied on this one, Skaberen.”

“Yes, I suppose you’re right,” I chuckled.  “I don’t suppose you would be willing to let me talk shop with Vaneel?”

She shook her head, “Besides, he’s busy.”

“You have ramped up production and testing?” 

“The Eternal Council is behind our research into Adaptations.  We are going to see if we can further your excellent work.  It already has promising results with Tol.”

I winced, “I hardly call the results you induced with Tol promising.  You turned him into a sentient slime.”

“That still has his mind.  It salvaged him from death’s door and has made him nearly indestructible.”

“Fair point.”  

“So, especially since you’re the creator of this organism, I will have to keep you away from it.  If anyone would know how to sabotage our research, it would be you.  For now, Skaberen, I’m sorry but you’ll have to stay in a cube.” 

“Can we at least spring for house arrest and give me some amenities?”  I looked around the lush living space, “How about leaving me locked in here?  For old times sake?” 

Iilena Lamak smiled and emptied the last few swigs of Lathi into our glasses, raising it in a toast.  

“I’m sure I can figure something out.  For old times sake.”  

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Interlude: Ambush

Of course they had found us.  

They were the Trillodan.  They were aliens responsible for somehow monitoring hundreds, if not thousands, of species among the stars.  Of course they would find us once we landed somewhere.

We hurried back to the ship, people already in a panic.  Thanks to Skaberen’s use of Interface to broadcast our conversation, everyone at least knew that the Trillodan were somewhere in orbit above us, undoubtedly preparing to come down and lay waste.  I was half expecting to be cut off before we could rejoin the other Adapted; nothing gated our advance. 

“Titan,” Dragoon said as we arrived back at the ship, “If anything happens, I want you to be the one to fight.  I don’t want Infinite using her power.  If we need to blink away, she’s the only one who can get us clear.”

“And having her cycle gifts gets dangerous when she’s using that many powers,” I said.  “If it comes down to it, I’ll deal with it.”

Dragoon gave me a nervous look but I didn’t dwell on it.  Anyone under this kind of mental strain was bound to have some slips.  I ran a hand through my hair, wishing there was more I could do to help.  I would be lying saying that I didn’t miss the control.  People would still listen if I made a demand, but that would be beyond my station at this point.  Instead of loitering, I opted to quickly check in on one of my favorite and most loyal family members.  

They could definitely use a friendly face since our maker had hijacked their nervous system.  

Interface was where we had left them, still sitting on the flight deck.  Instead of being limp, they had pulled their knees in close, like they were chilled to the bone.  

“Interface,” I said, kneeling beside them.  

“Who, the fuck, did that to me?” 

“I did,” a gentle voice called from behind us.  I was surprised how quietly Skaberen could move around on his pointed legs; there was hardly any sound as they moved close and hovered near Interface.  “For what little it is worth, I am so very sorry that I did that.”

“You fucking should be,” Interface snapped.  

Skaberen nodded, wringing their hands.  “It was never my intent to be so harsh or mistreat you all so horribly.  I suppose that being alive so long has made me rather…daft in some ways,” they admitted.  “Being so old, so many things seem trifling to me that are so appalling to you.”

I almost opened my mouth to chastise him for being condescending, but Skaberen wasn’t being facetious.  Their perception had been warped by centuries of survival and planning.  They had spent lifetimes working for this one moment, this one chain of events.  Thinking about an individual’s privacy would be dwarfed by such a grand design. 

“How did you even do that?” Interface asked.  

Skaberen shook their head, “Can’t tell you.  If either of you were taken, the Trillodan would learn my trade secrets.  Things are already going to be rough enough for you in the future as it is.  We best not give them another advantage.” 

“You think there is going to be a future for us?” I asked, dubious.  “If Vaneel is getting close to mastering the potential of the Kelotan, what is stopping Zellig from turning this ship to dust?” 

“Living so long encourages a number of bad habits, and one of which is a predilection for being slow and agonizingly thorough.  While Vaneel might be able to complete his research without more samples, there is a chance that capturing additional people might yield new data, unlock new possibilities.  Zellig is going to want to secure as much as possible before he finally deems you expendable.  The Adapted are something that is unfound in nature and it makes you inherently valuable because you promise benefit for centuries to them.”

“Thank the Lord that he’s thorough,” Interface mumbled, not exactly elated by that revelation.

“If they live so long, why aren’t there more of them?” I said.  “If you gave the Trillodan the ability to live for such absurd durations, why aren’t they overpopulated?” 

Skaberen shifted his legs awkwardly, like he was regretting the next words he had to say.  “As I mentioned, the Trillodan were masters of machinery.  As a species, they relied on tools to survive.  They created mechanical solutions.  If you look at the vast majority of their weaponry, you see that kind of emphasis reflected.  Their default is to wear power armor, to manufacture massive explosions, to blast things with lasers, etc.”

“The Goln instead focused on biology, and you all invented biological weapons,” I surmised. 

“You can still see some of our influence on their technology,” Skaberen said, “One of Zellig’s lieutents, Omec, has a proficiency for biological weapons.  Most of what she has thrown your way comes from our school of thought.”

“Wonderful,” I said, “But that doesn’t explain why there are so few of them.”

Skaberen donned that sad smile again, “One of our most insidious concepts was a toxin known as the ‘Legacy-Ender’.  It was strictly a Goln thought experiment, a purely theoretical weapon that would cause malformations in gamete cells.  The idea was that you could set a whole species up for extinction and they would never even know they had been poisoned.  We had invented functional immortality, we were willing to be patient.” 

“Well,” Interface said, their face pale, “That’s fucking horrifying.”

Skaberen didn’t disagree.  “Like I said, it was limited to a concept.  A theoretical weapon that we struck down and vowed never to make.  When Kardan the King annihilated the Goln, the fractured Trillodan society was incensed.  The ‘Immortals’ thought it would almost be poetic to use Goln weaponry to undo Kardan and put one of their own in charge.  What they didn’t foresee was how ferociously the toxin could spread and how long standing the effects could be.  Even though they gassed Kardan and his cabinet, they assumed that it would disperse and be harmless.  Instead, they poisoned the entire capital of Xalanni, the most population dense area for the Trillodan.”  

“Why haven’t they been able to undo the damage?”

“It was never tested which meant that no one knew how long it would last, or knew that it would persist in the body indefinitely.  No one could have expected that the damage offspring could carry traces of the toxin with them.  Finding completely untainted Trillodan is nearly impossible now,” Skaberen explained, “And without our knowledge of biology, Trillodan science isn’t managing to solve the problem fast enough.”

“Why not grow Trillodan in test tubes?” Interface asked. 

“Culture,” the Goln explained.  “Trillodan are too damn proud to allow themselves to be vat born.  That’s another issue with living too long: you end up far too attached to the way things used to be.  Their longevity is ultimately hampering the Trillodan.  One of their few true pioneers is Vaneel; the Matron is smart to use him so aggressively because she knows Vaneel will get results no one else can.” 

“And Zellig is fiercely loyal, willing to commit atrocities in the name of the Matron without blinking an eye,” I said.  “Wonderful pair she has working for her.”

“How come there isn’t anyone else like you guys?” Interface asked.  “How come there aren’t other super-societies that have the power to destroy planets?  Why just two?”  

Skaberen shrugged, “One of the first great filters that sentient life needs to overcome is their own destructive nature.  Technology and culture clash, and once you have the ability to annihilate immense swaths of land, things get tenuous.  The Trillodan and Goln found numerous ruined civilizations that failed to pass this filter.  There may be other civilizations who were as advanced, but we never found them.” 

“And now, thanks to the Matron, there won’t be more.”

“Unfortunately,” Skaberen agreed.

I tapped my foot, impatient.  I hated this inaction, and the longer we sat there, the less and less it made sense.  “Why would the Trillodan approach if they weren’t going to do anything?” I thought aloud.  “They can see us, and they must have noticed the mad scramble we are now engaged in.  Surely Zellig would recognize the telltale signs of an evacuation.” 

“He would,” Skaberen confirmed.  “The Matron’s champion is no fool.”   

“So, why aren’t they stopping us?  Violence is Zellig’s hallmark and he has the perfect option to rain death down on us.  He could warp a battalion in for crying out loud.  We’ve seen his elite use those displacement charges; I have to think he should be able to rapidly get people down to the surface.”

Interface’s eyes widened.  “Violence is Zellig’s hallmark, but not lack of restraint.  He gave us back Parasite just to deliver a toxin to kill Bargain.  He wouldn’t risk a full out assault on us because Infinite is here and stable.”

“You think he’s going to gas us?” 

Interface shook their head, “No, there’s enough of us who can cope with gas.  But, one of Zellig’s elite is a guy who specializes in stealth.”

“And people are running around in a frenzy; he could sneak on board.  If he takes out Almanac we’re flying blind.  You and Skaberen stay here,” I ordered, running at the door, “Let everyone know!” 

I thundered down the hallway, racing to where I knew Almanac was holed up.  The only upside was that he was prone to isolate; no one was likely to have gone in or out since we landed.  Overhead, the speakers quickly explained that we could have someone onboard and to take shelter in their rooms and lock the doors.  A few people tried to get my attention as I sprinted down the corridors, but I was too focused.  

We needed three people on board to survive.  Only Infinite was able to get us through space.  Only Interface could be trusted to pilot this mess of a ship.  And only Almanac could find a planet that was prone to moving.  

I wasn’t entirely sure how the Trillodan planet Xalanni was able to move, but it wasn’t stationary.  Everything fell apart without him to get us there.  Even though Skaberen had spied on them, I doubted he knew exactly where his old friend had taken her home.  I skidded to a stop in front of his room and hammered on the door.  

“Almanac, don’t open the door!” I bellowed, “I just need you to talk to me.”

I felt a slight vibration as he tapped the door, “ What’s going on?  Are they really onboard?” 

A relieved sigh escaped my lips when he replied.  “We think so, but I don’t think they can phase through walls.  Have you opened the door since we landed?” 

“Just once, but not since we heard about the Trillodan appearing.”  

I looked up and down the hallway, unsure of what I was looking for.  Would there even be anything to tip me off?  Would I get any kind of forewarning from my danger sense if the threat wasn’t directed at me?  I could use my gift and flood the hallway with molten silicon but God only knew what kind of collateral damage I would cause.  

“Almanac, you do not open the door for anyone until we are off this planet.  Am I clear?” 

“Crystal!” 

With Almanac secure, I did my best to think three steps ahead, to think who else Zellig would target.  Even if Almanac was the primary target, he wouldn’t send his operative onboard with only one goal.  He’d give him a list of high priority targets.

I could cross myself off that one.  Danger sense made me too hard to assassinate in confined spaces like this.  Infinite was also a dangerous option: at best she grabbed a power set to regenerate and then hunted the operative down but at worst she destroyed all of the Trillodan samples by smothering the ship.  For a moment I wondered about Dragoon; she didn’t have a finished set of power armor but Zellig wouldn’t know that she was the new captain.  She would be safe for now.  

Organelle was a prime candidate.  Our resident medic had pulled a number of people back from death’s door and allowed us to keep fighting after we were bloodied and bruised.  Distortion would be a prime candidate to hamper our mobility, and same for Relay.  For all I knew, Zellig might send his assassin after various group leaders to try and sow discord.  

I needed someone smarter than me to help me figure this out.  

Down four doors, I slammed my knuckles against the wall.  “Pic,” I shouted, “Don’t open it, but I need your insight.”

“You want to know who an assassin would be targeting,” the Cognate called, already three steps ahead of me.

I bit the inside of my cheek to stifle a smart ass response.  “Yes.  Exclude Almanac.  He’s in his room with the door locked tight.  My next guess was Organelle and Distortion.”

“Organelle is safe.  If the Trillodan are indeed on the decline, they will want her gift to regenerate.  They wouldn’t kill her.”

“Would they attempt capture?” 

There was a pause, “I don’t think so.  Organelle is insurance that we can keep more samples alive for them to harvest later.  If we operate under the assumption that Zellig believes he is bound to win, why not ensure that as many of us live as he can?” 

His line of cold logic sent a chill down my spine but I didn’t have time to fret.  “Distortion?” 

“Possibly, but I think you are playing too narrow and too far ahead in some ways.  You’re thinking of us on Marn, but I don’t think Zellig wants to let us get there.”

I shook my head, “Infinite is a dangerous gamble on his part.  If he sent her into a rage, there’s a chance she kills all his sample or tries to direct a dozen powers at the Crimson City above us.  If she really let loose, she could turn it to dust.”

“But who enables Infinite to regularly abuse power sets?  Who ensures that she doesn’t fly off the handle at a moment’s notice?” 

My eyes widened, “Command.” 

I bolted again, nearly sliding around a corner as I thundered towards his room.  While not one of the most powerful Adapted, he played a pivotal role in enabling Infinite to swap her power sets more often and more safely.  He was the only one who could outright undo her frenzied states where she smothered everything.  And, due to his power being mental manipulation, it wasn’t going to be something the Trillodan needed.  

He was expendable.  

I roared at anyone in my way as I sprinted down the hallway, skidding to a halt in front of his door.  “Command!” I shouted, slamming my hand against the door.  

No response. Even after I hammered my fist against the door a few more times.    

“Fuck it,” I growled, raising a hand and grabbing a few of the invisible threads that triggered my power.  The air erupted with energy and a small column of molten silicon melted through the door; as soon as I could climb through, I cooled the silicon and prevented it from boring through the floor.  “Command-”  My words were strangled as I saw a lifeless body in the corner of the room, his throat cut.  His clothing was coated in blood, and some was still lazily oozing from his neck.  

It was a kick in the stomach seeing a member of my family dead.  He had trusted me, he had signed on early into my crusade because he believed he could help us defeat the Trillodan and I had let him die.  

Setting my jaw, I stared at the blood slowly seeping from his neck.  Zellig’s assassin had been here recently.  This unseen agent was aiming to impose limitations on Infinite, to make her unstable. Zellig was going to force us to be reliant on Infinite and endanger ourselves.  If she was too tapped, we wouldn’t be able to run.  

“Who do we have that is one of a kind?” I mumbled, climbing back out into the hallway, “Who would Zellig force her to mimic?” 

It wouldn’t be something destructive.  He couldn’t risk that kind of unbridled power pointing the wrong way.  It wouldn’t be some kind of Enhancer power; too many people could mutate into something.  Organelle was unique, but I trusted Big Picture’s judgment.  Infinite’s only limitation was an inability to mimic Cognates.  She couldn’t be Dragoon.  She couldn’t be Toolkit or Chemtrail.  

“Projector then,” I said, praying I wasn’t wrong.  “Who is a defensive Projector?”  I blinked twice, “Guardian.”

I took off but Guardian was across the whole ship.  Even if Command had died just a minute ago, that was a tremendous head start.  

“Emergency situations, Infinite always puts on heightened senses first,” I realized.  I took a deep breath and yelled as loud as possible.  “Infinite!  Get to Guardian!  Protect him!” 

With my message relayed, I charged.  Even if she could protect him, I wanted to at least be in the right vicinity to try and catch this bastard.  We couldn’t let him continue to run amok.  Though, as soon as Infinite was involved, I felt some pity for the poor operative.  There was no escaping her.  

“Titan,” a stern voice snapped.  Dragoon’s voice managed to stop my charge. 

She sounded uncharacteristically frazzled.  If there was one thing consistent about her it was that she was level headed.  

In all my charging around the ship, I had managed to come back to the flight deck, our one spot for looking out of this steel deathtrap.  “Wha-”

She didn’t need to answer because I could see the answer through the display.  Zellig was standing outside, waiting patiently.  “Interface told me about our assassin situation,” Dragoon said, cutting straight to the point.

“Infinite should be handling that.  What do we want to do about him?” 

Dragoon shook her head, “I…I’m not sure.  He’s crazy, but he’s not stupid.  If this is a power move, what is he trying to prove? How many of us he can fight?”

Skaberen was still idling in the flight deck, still waiting with Interface and he seemed just as perplexed as the rest of us.  “I have never been one for war and for combat.  I was a scientist.  Zellig has turned war into more than just brutal math, he has turned it into an art form.  I don’t know what he aims to gain from this, but he’s not an idiot.  He’s not bold enough to simply launch himself into an unwinnable confrontation.” 

“The hell he isn’t,” I said.  “Dragoon, send me out.  I either force him to flee or I burn him to ash.”

“And if the Trillodan fire back?  Infinite doesn’t have Command to be a safety net.”

I turned to Interface.  “Favor.  Get on the intercom and tell her to establish a neural link with me.  It should cost her one power but if she has to rapidly swap powers, I can talk to her,” I explained to Dragoon.  “I might not be Command, but I’m a good ballast for her mental volatility.” 

She frowned, not liking how I talked about her so objectively but she finally relented.  “Fine.  Go say hello.” 

Halfway out the ship, I felt a little ping inside my skull as Infinite reached out to me.  

You’re going after Zellig?

Of course I am.  How is Guardian doing?

Injured but alright.  The assassin came back to try and finish the job.  I grabbed an energy blade power set to fend him off.  Pretty sure I maimed him.

Well done.  Make sure Organelle sees to Guardian as soon as possible.  Be ready to swap powers soon.  I get the sense if I melt Zellig, the Trillodan won’t be happy about it.  We’ll want to get out of here quick.

You got it, Max.      

I stepped down the ramp and glared out across the sand to Zellig, still trying to figure out what exactly he had to gain from doing this.  He wasn’t going to beat me in a fight.  What was most galling was that his smug smile seemed to broaden  when he saw me.  How the hell could he be happy that I had come out to confront him?    

“What do you think is going to happen?” I called out.  “You think you can just waltz in and fight us?”  As I slowly closed the gap between us, I felt the threads lingering in the air.  All I had to do was pull them and ignite the reaction; he was just far enough away I couldn’t ignite the air around him.  I could make a and bring it crashing down around him, but he’d have enough time to use one of those distortion charges and get away.  He wasn’t moving.  It would just be a few more seconds until he was within my range.  

“Infinite found your assassin on board,” I called out, “Looks like you’re going to lose another one of your legion!”   

Zellig raised a hand and waved forward, as if telling an army to charge.  

Above you!  

That wasn’t Infinite, that was my danger sense.  My eyes involuntarily flicked up, involuntarily.  I had been given a two-second warning because I knew that he had just called a bombardment down on the ship.

This hadn’t been a ploy to get us killed or to unleash Infinite.  This hadn’t been an attempt to even cripple our ship.  Zellig had exposed himself because he knew I would take the bait.  With Guardian wounded and Infinite watching over him, no one else could save the ship from a blast of that orbital cannon.

My power was meant to be destructive, to turn the world to ash, and Zellig knew it.  And he knew I had to try and change my role.  

I grabbed every single thread I could reach and pulled.  My vision narrowed and the wind was sucked from my lungs as the space between Zellig and I was turned into a river of molten silicon.  Swinging my arm, I directed the liquid metal to raise and form a massive column between us and the impending blast from the orbital cannon.  Yanking back, the column turned into a tsunami that hovered over the ship.  

Clenching my other hand, I cooled it, leaving a metal glacier around the vessel.  

And right then,  the sky turned red as a massive laser slammed against my makeshift barrier.  It cracked and crumbled, but it managed to withstand enough of the assault that it didn’t rip the ship in half.  Even though debris rained against the ship, the work from Dragoon and Armorsmith held up.    

I sank to my hands and knees, gasping for air as the threads retreated from my grasp.  I’d done way too much, way too quickly.  But, it had kept them safe.  Overexposure was a cost I was willing to pay to ensure everyone else’s safety.  

“So noble,” a menacing voice announced.  A second later, a massive hand grabbed my shirt and hauled me up like I was weightless.  I had never been face to face with Zellig before, only having dealt with him in abstract.  

Now that I was a few centimeters from him, I understood why he scared everyone.  There was no fear in his eyes, only relentless determination.  He had put himself within arms reach but knew he was untouchable.  Zellig had been one step ahead of us, again.  

And  this time I was the cost.  

“Did you think I was going to just sit here and let you turn me to dust?” Zellig asked, sounding far too happy.  He smiled, showing off a row of razor sharp teeth, “Cut off the head, the body dies.” 

I couldn’t help but laugh in his face.  He didn’t know.  He had no idea that there had been a change of management. “Wrong head,” I wheezed.  

Zellig’s smile fell as he raised his head, glaring at the ship.  

Dragoon was standing there, glaring at the two of us as the engines started to spin up.  

“Interesting,” Zellig muttered.  “Do you really think she’s going to stand a chance?  Or, did you just set her up to fail?  Did you endanger your precious family?” he asked with a sneer. 

I forced my head to stay up so I could manage a defiant glare.  “She is going to rip you apart, with or without me.”  I smiled, “Besides, it was worth it.  Just to see this fucking look on your face.”  

He let out a chuckle.  “We’ll see ab-”

“TITAN!” 

Both Zellig and I turned just in time to see an orange blade of energy slice through the air; Zellig tried to evade but his right arm was ripped clean off his body.  Without hesitating, Zellig adjusted his grip, squeezing around my neck and lifting me high to show off exactly what he had caught.  “Infinite, be careful,” he bellowed, “You do that again, I rip his head off.” 

Infinite was halfway down the ramp, the air around her literally glowing with energy.  She had to be at least at eight powers selected, if not nine.  Dragoon was torn between trying to get close to her but terrified to do so.  I couldn’t blame her.    

Titan, I can get you away from him.

Zellig glanced to her, and then to me.  “Infinite, you move a muscle, I rip his head off,” he said.  “If you manage to pry him away from me, I will have the Crimson City fire upon this vessel without restraint.  Do you think you’ll be able to change power sets without killing everyone else here?  Do you think you’ll be able to save Titan in your rage?” 

Her lips curled like a wild animal.  “Give.  Him.  Back.” 

Zellig smiled, feeling empowered again, “I don’t think I will.”

Infinite, listen to him.  Don’t waste power getting me.  Use it to get everyone else away.

His grip around my neck tightened, “Stop talking to her.  I can feel that little frequency you two are using,” he whispered.  “Say another word, I crush that windpipe of yours.”

“Without me talking, she’s going to kill you,” I gurgled.  

Zellig’s smile broadened, “Then I die a hero, and all of you die with me.  I can think of worse things.” 

For a moment, the world seemed to stand still as energy literally kicked up sand around Infinite.  And then, Skaberen came crawling forth from the ship.   Dragoon raised a hand to try and stop him, but he politely shook his head and walked on by.  The Goln smiled and offered something to Dragoon before stepping down the ramp to Infinite, putting a hand on her shoulder and whispering.  The energy around her faded and her shoulders slumped forward, defeated.  

Whatever Skaberen had told her, it had confirmed that I would be taken.  

Zellig himself was perplexed by our newfound alien comrade, his stoic face actually betraying surprise.  

“Who are you?” he growled as Skaberen got closer.

Despite the urgency of the situation, Skaberen didn’t seem to be in any particular hurry.  He simply plodded forward, still wearing that sad smile on his face.  “Oh my,” he finally said when he was closer, “You are a truly magnificent piece of work.  I will have to ask Vaneel how exactly he managed to get so much nanite work done in such a neat package.  It’s so seamlessly integrated into your physiology.  Near perfect honestly.”

Zellig was at a loss for words.  

“Rest assured, big man,” Skaberen said politely, “I’m not here to deter you from taking Titan.  I’m coming with you to make sure he’s treated well.  Besides,” he added with a sly smirk, “I have been waiting a long  time to see my old friend.”

Previous ChapterNext Chapter

Remnant: Maker

We were aboard the S.S. Madhouse for over a month before we finally arrived.  

Even with Dragoon’s genius idea to have us train together, she had to add additional sources of entertainment to prevent the incubation of cabin fever.  Admittedly, my friend’s next great idea to help us kill the time was a simple, yet elegant, solution. 

Dragoon had Chemtrail manufacture alcohol.  

Our ship turned into a veritable Valhalla as we drifted ever onwards.  We developed a schedule of fighting, drinking, sleeping, and repeating.  The rhythm gave us some sense of normalcy and ability to maintain a waking/resting cycle; even though Titan wasn’t thrilled to relinquish control to Dragoon, he freely admitted that she was doing a fantastic job creating the sense of unity that he had struggled to achieve.  

He might have recruited us, but she was making us work together and get along in a way we hadn’t thought possible.  

Getting back into the habit of practicing allowed for all of us to work on finessing unwieldy gifts.  Parasite and Ragdoll found themselves training people in hand to hand combat more frequently.  Shockwave and Clemency worked with Projectors and taught many of those from Vuuldar how to concentrate their gift or direct their power in a more efficient manner.  

I found my niche becoming a new strength test for people.  Those who wanted to seriously test their skills fought the guy who could constantly get bigger to match.  On the flipside, I challenged myself to use as little mass as necessary.  Some opponents required only a few hundred kilograms of growth; people like Overwhelm required at least two-tonnes to reasonably fight.  One of our highlight fights was of me versus Shockwave.  While it would have normally been a shoe in for him, he couldn’t go full swing without killing someone.  I was confined by the fact there was a ceiling and Repository gave me limited protein to devour.  

Even at six-tonnes I still lost.  Shockwave was admittedly sweating bullets when I tore myself free and forced him to deal with two targets.  I took pride in having at least made him work for it.  Despite him being the victor, I was proud of myself; back on Tso’got, I had ‘fought’ Shockwave before Feast Day.  Calling it a fight wasn’t doing it justice since it had been a one-sided smackdown I barely survived. 

And then, finally, after thirty-seven long days in space, there was finally something on the horizon.  We crammed into the flight deck, shoulder to shoulder, to look out and see where Infinite had been taking us all this time.  As we took another disorienting jump, we found ourselves on course for what looked like a massive beige marble.  

Several people looked to Infinite, like she had made a mistake.  

“Almanac,” Dragoon asked, getting ahead of people, “You know where we are?” 

The acne-ridden Adapted shook his head, “Uncharted planet.  I don’t really have a great description for it.  Far as I can tell, it doesn’t belong to the Trillodan.  I tried searching for Trillodan colonies and this place didn’t come to mind.” 

While not entirely reassuring, at least we weren’t going into hostile territory.  

“I can get us to the ground,” Infinite volunteered.  

“No.  Guardian, work with Powerhouse and shield the ship as we go through the atmosphere.  Interface, take over and pilot us for landing.  Infinite told you where to go?”

“She gave me a set of coordinates.  The ship has navigation tools that will do the rest for me.”

“Make it happen,” Dragoon said with a nod.  

The androgyne Adapted saluted and took a seat, leaning forward as their body went limp so Interface could literally inhabit the ship’s controls.

“I recommend that everyone else batten down the hatches and get ready for a fun landing,” Dragoon said.  That was enough prompt to get people to file out and scramble to their rooms, strapping themselves down so we weren’t pitched around the metal cabin.  

We’re going to meet whoever was responsible for us.

It was a thrilling and terrifying prospect to entertain.  Both Eldritch and I had spent a lot of time over the last month wondering what sort of person made us, and how exactly we came to be.  Even though Eldritch was a cognizant Adaptation, it wasn’t any more informed about it’s creation than I was.  

“Some people have already met them, at least a little.  Something about a weird spider-humanoid thing in dreams.  Plenty of people have had them.”

But not us.

“We can’t always be the special one,” I pointed out.  “Besides, Titan hasn’t met this person either.  We’re hardly being singled out.”

Other people haven’t eaten a militia.

“Others have definitely killed Adapted or innocent people.  Very few people on this ship are blameless.”

I ratcheted straps across my chest and hips and cupped my head with a pillow as the ship started to shake.  

Here’s hoping that Guardian and Powerhouse can keep us alive.

“Guardian has made force fields that dealt with Trillodan artillery,” I shouted over the roar of the ship barreling through the planet’s atmosphere.  “He’ll be fine!”

The ship continued to shudder for a small eternity until quickly replaced with an unsettling sense of free-fall.  My stomach settled back to its regular place as the engines kicked on and Interface started chugging through fuel.  This ship was still like the hippo of the skies; fighting gravity was not its strong suit. 

I really hoped Interface could keep us from crash landing and doing the Trillodan’s job for them.  

It might not have been particularly smooth, but we did come to a stop and the ship didn’t explode.  I decided that was probably as good as we could have asked.  No sooner had we stopped than an intercom chimed to life.

“Ladies and gentlemen and anything in between, we have now safely arrived on planet I-have-no-clue!  I hope you have enjoyed riding with Adapted Skylines.  I’m your pilot, Interface, and I hope you choose to fly with us again soon.”  Interface stopped, probably to snicker to themselves before continuing.  “We’re going to have an expedition party.  So, would the following Adapted please come and meet our fearless leader in the galley: Parasite, Shockwave, Beleth, Hydra, Overwhelm, Titan and Eldritch.  Everyone else, get comfortable for a bit until we have the all clear.  Those of you responsible for refueling this metal monster, get to work!  Thank you, and have a nice day!” 

I was a bit surprised to hear my name called out, but Dragoon had ensured I kept Eldritch fed and ready in case of emergency.  

You idiot.  She wants her friends to be with her along the way.  You have all been there since the start, she wants to see it through with you.

“You shouldn’t have more common sense than I do,” I grumbled as I removed the straps and stretched, stepping awkwardly to the door and out into the hallway.  Other Adapted had pulled themselves free and were talking in hushed whispers with one another.  I felt a few people glare at me as I walked by; I didn’t like being singled out, but I hadn’t tried to convince Dragoon to bring me with.  

I was the last one to the galley, though one more person had tagged along: Infinite.  

“I want her to stay with the ship, Titan,” Dragoon insisted.  “I want her to ensure that this place is unassailable.”  

Titan folded his arms, glaring back at my friend.  “She’s coming with.  She is the one who found this place, she’s the one who heard our maker calling.  She deserves to meet them.”

Hydra, a Vuuldar native, rolled her eyes.  “How about we ask Infinite herself.  How about the two of you stop talking for her.”  Both Dragoon and Titan nodded in deference to Hydra.  If Titan was the paragon for all Adapted from Tso’got, Hydra was Vuuldar’s equivalent.  Her gift made her capable of mimicking and distorting organisms she had seen.  Hydra could turn herself into a giant insect with four sets of arms or a dog that could breathe fire; her options were almost limitless but every form came with an incredible regenerative property.  Even the ever arrogant Adamant admitted he wasn’t sure if he could beat her.   

Infinite put a hand on Titan’s shoulder, “I want to come with.  I can practically feel that voice calling out to me, guiding me.  I want to meet them.” 

Dragoon frowned, “We’re not even completely sure we’re going to meet-”

“We will,” Infinite replied.  

“Fine,” my red-headed friend finally ceded.  “You can come with.  We should have enough power back here to stop anything too drastic from happening.”

I glanced around at our little expedition party, knowing that we had enough destructive capacity between us to level a city.  Dragoon had talked about our maker as a nice person or at least as someone who wasn’t threatening to us; did we need all this power to say hi?

We trekked down to the ramp that would lead us out.  The airlock opened and the nine of us stepped out onto a sandy plain.  There were rocky outcroppings with the occasional tree scattered around here or there, but the landscape was otherwise desolate.  

“This is where the people who made us are hiding?” Parasite asked. 

“Beleth, start looking,” Dragoon insisted. 

The bald man nodded and dug his feet into the sand, closing his eyes to enhance the sense given to him by his Adaptation.  

Infinite pointed towards an outcropping in the distance.  “It’s there.  There’s a cave back there with our maker hiding in it.”

Beleth’s eyes popped open as he glanced at Infinite, a little dubious.  “If we get closer, I can confirm.”

“For what it’s worth,” Overwhelm said, “I trust her.”

Without any debate, we all hurried and marched across the sand, eager to get out of the blazing sun.  Going from a controlled environment to a scorching desert was definitely something none of us cared for.  As we got closer, Beleth corroborated Infinite’s finding; there was a whole cave network under our feet, one big enough to house dozens of people.  It was large enough to extend beyond the reaches of his extra sense.

Nearly hidden among the outcropping was a metal plate door; crude but definitely effective at keeping any kind of wildlife out.  

As we approached, it opened for us.  

“Anyone else find that ominous?” Parasite asked. 

Titan grit his teeth and led the way, his purposeful gait practically dragging us all with him.  

Immediately inside was a landing that had a wide set of stairs at the end; all of us went down, wordless but on guard.  The floor below was lined with tubes that had bioluminescent bugs running around, casting the whole hallway in a soft glow.  A few wires were run along the floor which made me wonder how someone was powering anything here.    

“Beleth,” Dragoon prompted. 

“Not much going on down here,” he said, feeling for any kind of vibration through the ground.  “Besides us, I felt one source of movement down to the ri-” he stopped, turning his head, “It’s coming to us.” 

All of us turned, staring down the cave as a figure stepped forward.  I had to fight recoiling as I saw a ghastly and gaunt humanoid walk forward.  Their eyes were massive black orbs which contrasted with their pale skin.  While the upper half looked human, the bottom half was a flesh colored spider abdomen that shifted to the side as they drew closer.  

Half of us were surprised, but half recognized the figure.  

“You?” I spit out, “You’re the thing that made us?” 

The figure smiled softly, “You have a number of questions and I have answers.  Come.” 

“Everyone will want to hear-”

“I’m borrowing Interface,” they replied.  “Your friend is doing me a service and will be broadcasting our conversation on the ship’s intercom.  They will all hear.” 

Infinite winced at the figure mentioning ‘borrowing’ someone else.  

“You shouldn’t be using people like that,” Dragoon growled, stepping forward and putting her foot down.  “Even if you made us, you aren’t entitled to simply use us as the situation requires it.”

The figure sighed, “Ordinarily, Dragoon, I would agree with you, and your outrage is not misplaced.  Unfortunately, I fear that time is going to be of the essence.”

“So we go to the ship and leave.  We have this conversation in space,” Shockwave said, taking the common-sense approach.  

“Most of our fuel was stashed in Collector’s storage,” Dragoon muttered.  “We have to give Chemtrail and the others a chance to get fueled up before we can consider taking off again.  We’re likely going to be here for an hour at least.” 

Our unnamed maker started walking backwards, leading us with a wave, “Please, we can at least sit somewhere more comfortable while we talk.  I also get the impression that you wouldn’t mind a few minutes off that vessel.” 

No one raised a voice in protest.  Titan followed them and we all fell in line.  

We followed them down a side tunnel and through an arch that opened up into a spacious cavern that was brimming with broken technology.  Shattered glass was scattered around the floor, massive cryo tubes were fractured, computers smashed to bits, and equipment I didn’t recognize had been melted down.  The only clear spot in the whole room was one table that had been neatly set with ten places and ten cups of what looked like tea.  

Tentatively, we all took a seat.  

“I’ll ask the obvious question,” Beleth led, “Who the fuck are you?”

“Also, what are you?” Shockwave added.  

“My name is Skaberen,” he said gently, “And I am one of the last Goln.”

“One of the last?  What happened to the rest?” I asked. 

Skaberen donned a sorrowful smile, “My species was the first to suffer at the hands of the Trillodan.  We were the very first ones to be persecuted near extinction.”

“The first?” Dragoon said, “That would make you ancient.”

Skaberen nodded, “That’s because I am.  By your estimates, I would be about sixteen-hundred years old.” 

 All of us stopped, unsure of how to exactly interpret that information.  “But…how?” Infinite said.

“The same way that the Trillodan are living to be so old: we have learned to manipulate biology to the extreme.  The Goln learned how to perfectly regenerate and repair telomeres in the cell to prevent aging.  Well,” Skaberen smiled to himself, like he’d been reminded of a joke, “I’m simplifying things, but that’s the gist of it.”

“Why did you call us here?” Titan demanded, pulling the conversation back on track.  

Skaberen’s smile fell, “I have been watching you all for a long time now.  I had hoped that the Trillodan wouldn’t intervene as early as they did, but fortunately you thought ahead, Titan.  However, you were never going to win a war game with Zellig and it has created some…complications.  Vaneel is dangerously close to unlocking the secret of the Adapted; he’s even managed to produce a few promising results.” 

It was like the air had been sucked out of the room.  Our most valuable life-line was our importance to the Trillodan.  We were only still breathing because we were valuable to them.  If we became superfluous, we became vulnerable.  

“Why not tell us in another dream?” Dragoon demanded, “Why divert us?” 

“And sow seeds of superstition among everyone?  Cause everyone panic while you are all trapped in a metal box?  You think Zeal would be the only casualty?” 

Parasite raised his hand, “How the fuck do you know all this?  In fact, what the fuck is all this?” he demanded, gesturing to the demolished lab behind Skaberen. “Where is everyone else who had to have lived here?” 

Skaberen raised his hand to stifle Parasite’s barrage of questions.  “When the Trillodan destroyed our colonies, a few of us managed to escape and hide.  We ended up waiting out the worst of things in cryostasis.  Later, my colleagues and I found this unsettled planet, one that was survivable albeit relatively void.  A new beginning that was a hollow echo of the great society we used to have.”  He let out a slow exhale, “This facility was our new research and development that had one goal; we had to stop the Trillodan.  The problem was how far back we were set.  Even though me and my colleagues had incredible longevity, we were struggling to reclaim the basics.  We had to steal and slowly rebuild our technology, all while remaining invisible.” 

Hydra frowned, “The Trillodan seldom follow up hunting the species that they enact Protocol 37 on.  They aren’t hunting humans, just us.  Why did you have to stay hidden?” 

“Back then, the Immortal Matron wasn’t in charge.  Back then, the Trillodan were headed by a man known as Kardan the King.  For a long time, the Goln and the Trillodan were sister species, two of the first species to overcome the series of great filters that plagues all sentient species.  When we found one another, we fed off of each others development.  The Trillodan had unparalleled technological prowess while our research was more aimed at biology and the study of life itself.”

“You helped each other,” I said, mystified.  “But, they’re tyrants.”

“Back then, they were just another race, struggling to advance.  Our integration with one another led to an explosion of development that has yet to be paralleled.  The problem was that with the ramp of industry means the potential escalation of destruction.  Kardan feared that the Goln would turn on the Trillodan; to avoid any potential conflict, he struck first and wiped out the six planets we had colonized.  Fourteen billion dead, in a matter of hours.”  

Skaberen drew his lips together in a forced smile, “Kardan’s assault on their greatest ally caused a rift within the Trillodan people.  Half believed that he was right, that there could be only one supreme power.  The other half believed that we were supposed to live together, working in harmony forever.  That we were to be-”

“Immortal,” Titan extrapolated.  “The Immortal Matron took over in his place, didn’t she?” 

“Yes.  She did.” 

“But, isn’t she just doing exactly what that lunatic was doing before her?” Shockwave asked.  “She’s still exterminating races left and right.”  

Skaberen frowned, “I can’t pretend to understand all of what is going on inside my old friend’s head.  However, I know that Iilena Lamak sees her doing as a form of altruism and balancing for the universe, to prevent anyone from being perfectly oppressive.” 

“Wait, old friend?” Parasite said, shocked, “You know the Immortal Matron?” 

“Yes.  Well, I did know her.  But that was…a long time ago.”

Beleth leaned forward, “So, what the fuck did you do to us?” 

“To you, specifically, nothing.  To your parents, we introduced an experimental micro-organism we named Kelotan.”  

“Our…parents?” Dragoon asked, perplexed. 

“When we discovered that Earth was slated to be subject to the Protocol 37, we distributed an aerosol with Kelotan distributed within.  Our hopes were that it would ingratiate itself with the host’s cells, becoming another power supplier like mitochondria.  Our hope was to observe the survivors in exile to see what had become of our experiment.  Initially, we had assumed our work a failure.  All your parents were…normal.”

“But we weren’t,” I said, realizing how incredibly obvious that was.  “How the hell did a microorganism make us…Adapted?” 

“Our initial goal was to create a quantum link with the Kelotan.  They were supposed to be conduits for energy, to provide limitless energy for their host.  It was supposed to make any species hyper-efficient and capable of profound accomplishment.  They would have a robust immune system, have no need for rest, be able to endure stress, etc.  What happened, however, was that the Kelotan ingratiated itself perfectly with the cells of the offspring and then lay dormant.  With the Adapted, the Kelotan were effectively shaken to action.  It’s quantum link, instead of granting energy on a cellular scale, became the ability to manipulate the elements on a macro scale.”  Skaberen paused, “Essentially, each one of you is tied to another reality.  Whenever you use your Adaptation, you are exhausting resources from that reality.”

“But…how?” Beleth asked.  

Our maker grinned, “It took us centuries of work to create the Kelotan and another century to create a version that would self-propagate.  And, while I may not be the smartest man alive, I like to think that my colleagues and I were at least some of the brightest of our species.” 

“We were experiments,” Parasite said, his voice hollow.  I turned and saw his face crestfallen.  “You…used us.  You used humanity, unwittingly!  You tested on a race of unaware people.  You abused your scientific prowess and quietly used a whole population.”  Parasite clenched his fingers, his arm shaking.  “You’re no fucking better than them.  At least the Trillodan have the decency to be outspoken.”

Of all of us in the room, Parasite had been the only one to experience being tested on by the Trillodan.  I had been tortured by human scientists back on Tso’got, but it was nothing like what he’d endured.  

“Don’t you have an answer for yourself,” Dragoon demanded, putting an arm around our friend.  

Skaberen let out a long exhale, finally looking Parasite square in the face.  “We did.  And nothing can undo our methods.  Nothing can undo our lack of morality.  Nothing I can do will atone for our deplorable actions.  We were so tired of watching years spin by with limited results that for us, ends would always justify the means.  It may be a hollow apology, but I am sorry.”

“Were you always going to have us throw ourselves at the Trillodan?” Titan demanded.  “Were you going to always draw us together and have us fight your war for you?”

“Our war?” Skaberen said, sounding affronted.  “Last I looked, Titan, your home is in shambles too.  Last I looked, many homes are barren wastes, monuments to what the Trillodan perceive as ‘order.’  We might have been the first, but we are hardly the only ones who have suffered at the hands of the Trillodan.”  The Goln took a breath and wrung their hands, “But, no.  Ideally the Kelotan wouldn’t have made such drastic alterations to your physiology.  Ideally, we could have observed how it impacted humans and had a more refined product before deliberately introducing it to a race and groom them for a fight.” 

“So we are…accidents then?” Hydra demanded. 

“In a sense, yes.  You were more than we could have possibly dreamed,” Skaberen replied.    

“Why did you call us here,” Dragoon asked again.  

“I don’t believe your next stop should be Marn,” Skaberen said bluntly.  “I believe that you will face an even greater defeat there than you did on Vuuldar.  The Matron’s champion will now be using his own, monstrous, Adapted to fight you.  If you thought his elite were bad before, they are only going to get worse.  And the longer you keep engaging with Zellig, the worse each outcome will be.  There is a reason the Matron has unofficially made him her champion.  He is a product of near perfect engineering and unparalleled dedication.  He is as determined to defend his empire and preserve it as you all are to destroying it.” 

“You think we should just, battle charge the Trillodan home world?” Dragoon asked.  “Shouldn’t we have more time before Vaneel can master the thing that took you centuries to create?” 

“Most of our time was spent creating a quantum-entangled organism that would self-propagate.  By obtaining and isolating the Kelotan, Vaneel already has the majority of our work at his fingertips.  He’s now just expanding upon it.” 

“But there is strength in numbers,” I said.  “Even though Vuuldar wasn’t…ideal, we still ended up with more people onboard for our cause.  The last thing we want to do is attack the Trillodan short-handed.” 

“And you must remember, the moment they don’t need more samples to fuel Vaneel’s research, you are all expendable.  They can make a targeted plague to kill you.  They can flatten all of Marn to ensure there is no more Adapted resistance.  These are not mindless sociopaths, the Trillodan are run by the most dangerous monarch ever.  And the Immortal Matron is beset with a righteous fervor that will mean there is no reconsidering or remorse.  She will act with the intent of preserving both her people and ending the threat you pose to the rest of the universe.  You must-”

“No,” Dragoon said, slamming her hand down.  “No.  You do not control us.”

“I-”

“You might have made us, you might be able to hijack our nervous system, but we do not answer to you.  You will not deprive us of our agency.  We have a plan to go to Marn, we have a plan to bring all of the Adapted together to siege the Trillodan homeworld.  It may be ill-advised, but is it our plan.”

Skaberen opened their mouth to answer but then thought better of challenging her.  “I understand.” 

There was a tense silence that fell over the room.  No one wanted to be the first to speak up, to lift the weight Dragoon had placed.  However, there was one outspoken visitor who still had questions and cared little about the tense silence.  

I want to know how we met.  I want to know what I am.  Ask Skaberen before someone demands we leave.

“How did we find each other?” I finally asked, my voice barely a whisper.

“Because I went looking for-” Titan started.

“No,” I said, “I mean, way before.  Most Reckoner groups on Tso’got were friends banding together.  Most Scoundrels were grouped up before they Adapted.  How?  That seems…impossible.  How could we have all met by accident?”

“You didn’t,” Skaberen answered.  “The Kelotan lay dormant in most, but its activation had multiple stages.  The first threshold would generally show up by the time you were six or seven. And, at least in humans, the biggest indicator was stress.  Most of you dealt with chronic stress.”  He glanced between myself and Dragoon, “Something like fear of your parents.  Or maybe their absence.  For others,” he said turning to Beleth, “Poverty and constant misery pushed you.”

All of us shifted, feeling unnaturally exposed.

“You were all causing some start with the Kelotan, giving it some kind of agitation and reason to wake up.  My theory is that the Kelotan is so meshed with the host that it amplifies basal truths.  You are all humans, and humans have lived for ages in social groups.  It would make sense that the Kelotan called for like-minded souls to form some kind of community.”

I glanced between Parasite and Dragoon, all of us unsure of how to feel that our friendship had been prompted by some alien organism that had infiltrated our body.  

“So the way it manifests?” Infinite asked.  “Is that tied to the host as well?”

Skaberen tapped his fingers together, “I believe that the expression of the Kelotan is more nuanced and much more imprinted.  In most circumstances, I believe that it takes on an expression of what is most needed in that moment.  It supplies a demand.  Eldritch, you needed to become the monster to survive.  Dragoon, you wanted to know how to solve the problem.  Parasite, you needed a helping hand.  Overwhelm, you wanted to reach a little further.  Hydra, you wanted to be anything else.  Beleth, you vowed to move the world.  Shockwave, you wanted to fire back. Titan wanted to see it all burn.  And Infinite, you were willing to do anything for the power to fight.” 

All of us were aghast, our privacy violated.  The nature of our power was so tied with our being, our core person, that it felt wrong for someone to point it out.  

“You’ve gone too far,” Shockwave said, sounding uncharacteristically somber.  “You shouldn’t be in our heads like that.  We might be an experiment, but we’re still fucking people too.  We are entitled to some privacy.” 

Skaberen nodded, solemn, “We have been watching you all with rapt interest for the last fifteen years.  Our desperation and impatience for results has made our methods-”

“Unethical?” Parasite interjected. 

The Goln winced but didn’t deny the allegation.  “All we can do now is move forward.  I know that I will be called upon for my crimes against you all, and I will answer that when the time is right.” 

“That could be now,” Beleth said.  “All we have to do is think and we can kill you.”

Skaberen raised a hand, smiling softly, “I have no doubt.  But, I do have something else I would like to offer.  Something I couldn’t deliver in a dream.  Something of substance to help you in your war.”

“What could you offer us besides these weird gifts you thrust upon us?” Dragoon demanded. 

“Information about the Trillodan capital. I know where Vaneel’s research is happening, where their garrison installations are, and where the new surge of Adapted are being produced.  Whenever you decide to attack Xalanni, it will all be useful to know.”  Skaberen walked over to a counter covered in shattered glass and grabbed a small metal sphere, handing it off the Dragoon with a nod.  “My people have spent so long watching, I think someone should finally do something with all of our surveillance.” 

As Dragoon took the orb, the soft blue glow of the cave changed to an alarming red.  

“What the fuck?” 

Skaberen’s sad smile fell.  “The reason that all my colleagues ran and we destroyed this laboratory is because we had this suspicion.  We were worried that the Trillodan would follow you here, that they would find you steered close enough to a planet to trigger a proximity alert.” 

Dragoon gritted her teeth, “Skaberen, come with us.  We’re all leaving.  You have way too many questions to answer.”

“I believe that this-”

Dragoon glared daggers at him, “You dragged us here and have hijacked our bodies on multiple occasions now.  For better or worse, you’re involved.  You are part of this now.”

The Goln finally nodded, “Very well, Dragoon.”  

We all hurried for the exit as quick as possible, pausing only for a moment as Skaberen grabbed a lever that had been hidden amongst the rock.  He took a deep breath and pulled it; below us the ground shook as dozens of explosions went off, ensuring that nothing survived for the Trillodan to recover.  

Skaberen’s home for centuries was gone.  

Like us, he was now adrift, on the run from the Trillodan once more.  

Previous Chapter – Next Chapter

Remnant: Unity

It had been a week since Titan had officially handed over control of the crusade to Dragoon.  I had been worried that there would be an insurrection from the other Adapted on-board as a result.  To my surprise, there weren’t any outspoken groups who threatened the new order.  While it was in large part because of her popularity, it was also because she had the emphatic support of both Titan and Infinite; it was hard to threaten someone who had the universe’s most powerful bodyguards in their corner.  

With the change in leadership, things almost went back to being normal.  At least, as normal as a group of Adapted this big could ever get.  

If nothing else, there was a steep decline in the number of people getting their brains boiled.  

A few people held out in disbelief, not wanting to accept that Dragoon was a fit leader.  She didn’t have clout with a number of the heads from Vuuldar.  To her surprise, Adamant came through and vouched for her.  While many of the other Vuuldar Adapted didn’t seem fond of the arrogant and brash Adapted, they did respect him enough to get in line.  

It actually seemed a bit strange to me that he’d bother.  Adamant seemed fairly self-centered for the most part.  But while we were adrift through space, he seemed fairly buddy-buddy with Dragoon. 

Parasite stopped omitting himself from our group and would come by.  While I understood his desire for space and alone time with Ragdoll, it felt good to have my best friend back around.  He had to explain to Menagerie about why he had been so absent, but she empathized at least a little.  His ability to own up to being so absent prompted her to confess that she had been furious he had come back without Geyser in tow.  

The day after Dragoon was instated, Infinite began making more regular jumps.  This time it was a lot smoother since it wasn’t someone else trying to pull the strings; even though this mysterious figure had helped create us, they didn’t know how to pilot us.  

Even though we managed to solve our primary conflict, there was one unstoppable force that Dragoon’s leadership didn’t have a good answer to:

Boredom.  

As much as I hated it, Titan’s outburst and divisive behavior had at least instilled a sense of conflict that we all thrived on.  Without confrontation or some kind of fight to endure, we all fell into this sense of listlessness.  One could only play so many rounds of Yahtzee before you started to go a bit mad.  

A week after the exchange of power didn’t see any real change in scenery.  Even if Infinite could pull us through one-hundred million kilometers of space every day, we were still just floating adrift in the void.  It was the worst case of spinning our wheels and feeling like we were going nowhere.  

Parasite did his best to kill time by helping train people on hand-to-hand combat, to help give people an edge with or without a physical Adaptation.  The most perplexing figure to watch work with my best friend was Siphon, the first Adapted who had seriously kicked the absolute crap out of us.  Siphon was one of Shockwave’s enforcers who sapped strength away from his opponent which had proved to be a perfect foil to my friend.  Our first big loss had come when Parasite and Dragoon went out without me, trying to thwart a bank robbery.  He’d been robbed of his agility, his strength, and his natural resilience and had been beaten so bad it took his days to heal.  

Watching the two of them work together, it was strangely empowering to see them exchange ideas and give tips to one another.  The other surprise guest to his little courses was Goliath.  It was strange to think someone who could turn into an eight-foot tall wall of muscle would need hand to hand training.  

Dragoon took Parasite’s idea and turned it up a notch, demanding that people get to know one another by doing what we did best: fighting.  While there were a few exceptions, nearly all people were required to have a training bout at least once a day to keep themselves sharpened and to learn the strengths and weaknesses of their new allies.  

It was met initially with reservations.  People were afraid that there would be fatalities and serious injuries, but Dragoon didn’t share their apprehensions.  She encouraged more senior Adapted to work with those who hadn’t learned to fully reign it in yet in a kind of forced mentorship.  

I made a point to keep myself out of it the first day; the last thing I needed to do was show people the monster that had terrorized them and possibly eaten their friend.  It had been nearly two weeks since we had escape Vuuldar, people didn’t need to relive that horrifying few hours.  No one needed to see my grotesque transformation into a wall tendrils.  Eldritch was eager to get loose and have some physical manifestation, but was still leery of giving him an outlet and flesh to consume.  

Later, I was greeted with a frustrated looking Dragoon at my door.  

“You’re skipping out on training?”

“I-“

“Played hookey,” she replied as she shouldered past me.  

“Most other people don’t have an Adaptation that has a mind of its own,” I grumbled.  “We both know how out of control I can get.  The last thing I need to do is eat a few other people.” 

Dragoon rolled her eyes, “That’s a weak excuse and you know it.  The only times you’ve lost control were because of extreme duress.  On Vuuldar you were hit with an orbital cannon and had a literal tonne of explosives detonated under your feet.  That’s not going to happen here and we’re not going to start you off with tonnes of material.”

I frowned, “And when other people see the fucked up thing that killed their friend?”

“They’ll deal with it.  They’ll also see the thing that wiped out most of the Ellayan militia.”

“A fact I’m still not proud of,” I admitted, feeling a pit at the bottom of my stomach.  Even though Adapted were surprisingly resilient to mental strain, that one had done a number on me.  “I felt those people scream and thrash around as they died, Drag.  Hundreds of them.  It was just like Feast Day all over again, this time I had better direction though.”

My friend sighed and rubbed her temples, “Listen, Nick, I don’t understand how you feel.  I’m never going to understand how you feel.  But, I need you to appreciate that no one is going to trust you if you continue to hold yourself back like this.  I’m getting murderers to train teenagers how to fight; while it’s not an ideal scenario, it is working.  I need people to know that you aren’t just a monster.  I need people to know that Eldritch is more than a walking, talking monument to hunger.”

“And what do you do with me if I eat someone?” I shot back, feeling my fists clench involuntarily.  “I don’t want to put my friend into a corner like that!  I can’t have you be accountable for me time and time again whenever I lose control!” 

The words pouring out of my mouth surprised me as much as they did her.  But, it wasn’t a lie.  We had put her in charge which meant that the buck stopped with her.  If I was to go on a rampage, there would need to be some kind of tangible consequence.  The last thing I needed to do was start a mutiny because people saw her as playing favorites.  No one could defy Titan and Infinite, but plenty of people could defy Dragoon.  

On the flipside of that coin, I didn’t want to put her in a place she needed to have me put down like a wild animal.  She had already carved me free of Eldritch once; I didn’t want her to suffer any more because of my primal Adaptation.  

“There has to be a baseline trust somewhere,” she finally said softly.  “We have to be willing to embrace what we have, no matter how weird or fucked up it might be.  I know you don’t like your gift, I know that it’s ugly and destructive,” she said.  “But, the reality is that it’s powerful as hell.  You survived a laser from space that left behind a literal crater.  You took on six of the most powerful Adapted and then withstood Psycho running an army of monsters into you.”  

I winced at the reminder.  

“But I know that you are a lot more.  I remember when you were afraid to control more than a single tonne of growth.  I remember watching you struggle to fight back against Shock and Awe.  I remember when we were trying to figure out the rate at which you developed mutations.  Other people need a chance to see you on a smaller scale, to see that there is a person beneath that wall of tentacle.  People need to appreciate the person Eldritch, not just the beast.” 

“I think this is a shit idea,” I said after a pause.  

“And I think you and Murphy put my happy ass in charge,” she said with a smirk, “Talk to Repository for a dump of material to consume.  You will be training with everyone tomorrow.” 


Even with all my reservations about using my power again, I found myself in the galley that had turned into our makeshift training ground.  Depending who was training, a few different fights would be going on at once, or just a single pair would have all the eyes glued to them.  

There were easily four dozen people lining the outside of the room, all transfixed on the duel going on. 

Ragdoll against one of the Adapted from Vuuldar.  Clad in a red tunic with black pants, the stranger kept distorting the space around Ragdoll.  Where a punch should have landed, Ragdoll seemed to slide backwards.  A kick should have cleaned his block, but it was like something kept dragging Ragdoll back towards the center of the room.  

“Who is that?” I asked, noticing Lightshow standing nearby.  

“Cantrip.  Seems to manipulate people’s movement somehow, like making them slip or glide backwards.  From the looks of it, the more subtle the movement, the easier it is for him to pull off.”

“Seems like a shitty power,” I muttered.  

“Until he does something like this,” she said.  “Watch.”

Ragdoll wound up again and brought a leg around; Cantrip stepped backwards and tilted his head.  Ragdoll’s foot touched down and was yanked out from under him and landed him flat on his shoulderblades.  Cantrip bolted in, yanking a shiv from his sleeve.  I gasped, but Ragdoll kicked his legs to build up momentum again, coming around like a human top to upend Cantrip.  As he hit the ground, Ragdoll flipped over and landed on Cantrip’s chest, pinning him.  

“Good try,” Ragdoll said, “But you’re too passive.  You banked on making one good opening too hard.  If you’re going to do that, you gotta have a backup,” he added as he helped his opponent back up to his feet.  

Cantrip and Ragdoll shook hands and there was a round of applause from the ring.  

“Who’s next?” someone inquired.  

“He is,” a clear voice said, cutting above the rabble.  I spotted Dragoon on the opposite end of the room, pointing a finger at me.  “Who wants to take a crack at Eldritch?”

My chest tightened as everyone went silent, all staring at me.  I hated being this put on the spot, being this singled out.  But, Dragoon wanted to be fair.  Everyone who could fight had to train.  I had been given a hundred kilograms of material from Repository to burn, letting me have four tonnes of growth for fifteen minutes or half that size for a full hour.  

While I wasn’t going to be flattening any cities, it was still enough to do some serious damage.  

Finally, one brave volunteer broke the silence.  

“I’ll take him on.”

From the human cage around me, one woman stepped forward and rolled her neck, getting ready to brawl.  Tanned skinned and with brown hair pulled into a ponytail, she looked like she had a rough life.  Her face was spotted with pock marks and scars, her hands clearly weathered and calloused.  She was wearing a pair of jean shorts and black t-shirt which seemed strangely understated given some of the flashier outfits from people who had made a career out of being a Reckoner.  However, that intense glare in her green eyes sent a shiver down my spine.  

“And for everyone who doesn’t know you, your name?” Dragoon called.  

“Overwhelm,” she replied without taking her eyes off me.  

“Eldritch,” I said when Dragoon pointed to me.  

“You sure as shit don’t look like Eldritch,” someone called from the side.  I glared and saw Adamant standing with Exchange, a smirk at the corner of his lips.  That smug bastard was enjoying every moment.  Easy for him to be cocky, he couldn’t lose in a scenario like this.  

I stipped off my shirt and pants, ignoring the whistling coming from Lightshow and Parasite.  I opted to simply demolish a set of underwear and abstained from stripping down into my birthday suit in front of everyone.  Reaching into my storage, I ignited half of my supply and called for two tonnes of material to sprout from my skin.  Gasps and sounds of disgust were heard around the room as I went from being a scrawny and pale kid into a ten-foot tall mass of tentacles.  

The whole room came into view as I saw through all the growths, forcing me to direct my attention to the woman in front of me who was one of the only people who hadn’t flinched while I transformed.  

“And, have at it!” Dragoon shouted.  

Even though I was still in control, I felt Eldritch push forward, invigorated at the prospect of a fight.  It was thrilled to be animated, to have some means of expression and stimulation through its own form.  For a moment, it was given the right to exist.  The room seemed to fade to background noise as I lumbered forward, taking massive steps with practiced ease now.  

Just a few months ago, I walked around like a drunk giraffe.  Now the movement was fluid, easy to execute.  I could rely on Eldritch to finesse the individual growths, to call all the swarm of Neklim to task as I guided us and strategized.  

We weren’t fighting, we weren’t at war with one another.  We had a clean, clear cut division of labor.  

I closed the gap between us and Overwhelm and reached forward, aiming to engulf her and end the fight immediately.  

As I reached forward, my arm literally bounced back.  Overwhelm stepped forward and planted her feet, pushing a hand forward.  

It felt like a giant fist slammed into my torso, crushing several dozen kilograms of mass and knocking me on my ass.  Overwhelm took a step forward and planted her foot, swinging a hand down; another invisible hand crashed into me and tried to flatten me against the floor.  I snarled and pushed back, feeling the pressure on my body alleviate a small bit.  

She’s having to move too.  

Sure enough, as I toiled against it, Overwhelm’s hand was slowly being pushed back, like she had some kind of telekinetic arm attached to her real arm.  Overwhelm furrowed her brow and pulled her arm back, letting me sit up.  

I shifted forward, allowing myself to bear crawl forward at my opponent; Overwhelm planted her foot and swung her arm.  Another invisible slap knocked me down but I was able to roll with this one and orient myself to keep charging before she could pin me again.  Overwhelm grimaced and drove an open hand forward; I felt like I slammed my face into a wall.  

She is expending strength to hold us back.  Apply pressure. Tire her.  We don’t exhaust like she does.  

I took Eldritch’s advice and drew an arm back, slamming it against the invisible barricade.  Overwhelm sneered but kept her hand forward, keeping the wall between us intact.  She steadied herself and curled her other hand into a fist and punched lower.  

My right leg was shot out from under me, forcing my right arm to plant down.  Intuition told me that she was going to adjust her wall and try to position for something that could do more damage; I allocated mass from my leg to arms and literally pulled myself forward, slamming my bulk into her wall.   Overwhelm’s eyes widened as her firm stance broke and she stumbled back.  I lurched forward, no longer impeded.  

I raised my arm and came crashing down but Overwhelm was nimble when she wasn’t holding me back.  She rolled to the side and spun back around to face me, throwing both hands forward.  As I took a step back, the impact slid her across the floor, making space between us again.  Overwhelm stomped her back foot down and established a firm base before drawing her hands together like she was going to clap.  

I felt like I was being put in a trash compactor as I held back against her telekinetic limbs.  Tendrils were being crushed under my own exertion as I fought to keep her from crushing me underneath.  While Eldritch might have been right that we were stronger, it was too easy for Overwhelm to make it hard to struggle against her.  She could adjust faster than we could and we were being punished for it.  

An idea came to mind, but it required a mutation to properly work.  

Burn the rest.  

I reached into my storage and ignited the rest of our supply, growing another tonne of mass and extending the duration of the growths for another fifteen minutes.  Overwhelm sneered as she continued to pressure me, trying to crush me.  All my new growths were struggling to survive with about half of them dying immediately to her crippling hold.  

Mutation: Separation.  I can do this without you. Go.

Collecting two-hundred kilograms of growth that was immediately next to my person, I let my connection with the rest of Eldritch sever.  The chest cavity of the monster broke as I tore myself free, my body covered in an extra two-hundred kilos of Neklim tendrils.  It all wove around my limbs, acting like my own muscle as I hit the ground running.  

“What?” Overwhelm gasped.  She drew her hands back and tried to push me away, but I was much more agile and able to throw myself to the side.  I lunged forward, my fist slamming against a telekinetic wall as she raised her hands to shield her face.  

Then the rest of Eldritch came lumbering forward; two massive Neklim arms smashed through her barrier and pressed her against the floor.  Before she could do anything, Eldritch engulfed her with an arm, covering all but her head in a mass of black tentacles.  Overwhelm’s eyes went wide as she stared down at the arm holding her, and everyone around the periphery of the room mobilized.  

“Wait!” I shouted, “It’s not going to eat her!” 

I made a point to stay disconnected from the greater mass as it lifted and set down Overwhelm, putting her back on her feet.  Everyone held back, but barely.  The hunkling form lumbered and scooped me up next, shoving me back in the chest cavity.  

I’m not a mindless beast.

I knew that, and now everyone else had been given a chance to see that too.  

I dismissed away most of the growths, reducing myself down to two hundred kilograms.  I would have completely dismissed Eldritch, but I didn’t want to be standing there naked in front of everyone.  

Overwhelm stared at me, finally having caught her breath after what she had assumed would be a near death experience.  “I don’t understand,” she finally said, breaking the tense silence of the room.  “You were an animal on Vuuldar!  You killed my friend, Challenger.  You killed Drought.  You ate four others!  Why didn’t that thing just eat me?”

I moved the tendrils off my face and did my best to ignore the impending headache from using my eyes and receiving visual input through the tentacles.  “It’s a part of me.  It might be an animal, but it’s intelligent.  It was desperate and starving.  And I’m never going to let it be that desperate again.  I refuse to be a mindless monster again.”  

Overwhelm nodded slowly, eventually extending a hand.  “Good fight.” 

“Good fight,” I echoed.  

“Alright, back up people,” Dragoon shouted, “Who’s next?” 

I stepped out of the galley and hurried back to my room to get a change of underwear, leaving the din of our training arena behind me.  As the door slammed shut to my room, I took a look at myself in a reflection from the wall, almost admiring the smaller and more refined suit I was wearing.  

We don’t always have to be a massive, hideous monster.

“So often we need to be,” I replied softly to my reflection.  “Most can’t do what we can.”

You struggle against me.  The times we fight best are when we are together.  You fear power.  You fear what we are capable of. 

“I’m afraid of losing control,” I corrected.  “You are unwieldy when we get big.  Your instinct and interests feel like they begin to occlude mine.  Your hunger becomes my hunger and I start to lose sense of who I am!” 

How do you think I feel when there is no growth?  When there is no food for me to consume?  I am a passenger, a spectator.  

“And how do you think I felt on Vuuldar?  I watched you eat our friends and family!  I felt you fight against Clemency and Psycho.  I felt you hunger for more power, for more consumption to become unbeatable.”

I didn’t want to fail and fall apart!  If I was to break, we would have been captured and taken by the Trillodan or killed.  It would have left you vulnerable and exposed!

I recoiled from my reflection.  “You were…protecting me?” 

You are my host.  You can survive without me.  The inverse is not true.  On Feast Day, I did my best to shield you from Beleth and everyone else; back then I had never been so unrestrained or given such access to your mind.  I was drowning in stimulus I didn’t think possible.  That was the only time I had ever truly lost control and been an animal.

“So…on Vuuldar?”

I ate them to preserve you.  

As aware and sentient as Eldritch might be, it was still a Neklim.  It was still a cold and calculating predator who only looked out for their own self-interest.  “We can’t do that,” I said softly.  “I appreciate you trying to take care of me and protect me, but you’re right.  We do work best when we work together.  When you started eating people, that wasn’t us in harmony.”

Without consuming-

“We don’t know what would have happened,” I corrected.  I stuck with the conviction Titan had given me, to not simply curl up and let everyone else speak for me.  Eldritch needed to hear this as much as I needed to say it.  “We both need to be willing to trust the others.  I need you to be able to respect them like you did Overwhelm earlier.”

Eating her would have gained us nothing.  It would have jeopardized our survival.  

“More than that,” I insisted.  “Since you didn’t eat her, she is going to be able to fight in our next battle.  Because shes is able to fight, she may be able to defend someone else, like Repository, who can make us a nearly endless supply of mass to consume.”

You’re speculating.

“I’m thinking ahead.  I understand that Neklim are solitary creatures, but humans aren’t.  We need community, we need people to lean on and draw strength from.  Think of it this way, Eldritch, if you eat any Adapted or human you are going to be harming your host.”

I felt Eldritch grapple with that idea, but I got the sense that it was finally starting to stick.  

Then know that keeping me from having any physical expression for so long is maddening.  

“Well, then say thank you to Dragoon for insisting that we have these training bouts every day then.  For now, that won’t be a problem.”

Right on cue, the door to my room opened revealing my red-headed captain with a smug grin on her face.  “Fucking knew it would do some good for you two to get back in sync with one another.” 

I rounded on her and pointed at the door, “Get the hell out of my room!” 

 Dragoon shook her head and took a seat on my cot, turning away.  “Get changed, I actually want to talk to you for a minute anyways.” 

I glanced back at my reflection and shrugged.  I dismissed the remainder of the growths and hastily threw on some clothes.  “Okay, what?” 

Her face went alarmingly somber as she took a deep breath.  “This doesn’t leave this room.  Understand?”

I frowned, “But, I thought we weren’t going to try and keep secrets from everyone else.  I thought part of your goal in being different from Titan was to keep everything above board and honest with the rest of the Adapted.”

She winced, “This is…tenuous.  Believe me, this isn’t easy to stomach for me either.  But, I worry that telling everyone is going to start affecting things.”

“Affecting things?” 

“Clairvoyant has seen something,” she replied, and it’s a couple of specific visions that are making me concerned.  Three, three, and three split, so it seems very likely that one of them will happen and exclude the others.” 

I felt a chill run up my spine.  Clairvoyant could see snippets of a possible future; the more regular the vision, the more likely it was to come true.  “What did she see?” 

“There is a Trillodan attack and one of two things happen: we either lose Titan or nearly twenty Adapted.  Clairvoyant gave me names-” 

I raised my hand to stop her, “A fucking disaster either way.  I get it.  What was option three?” 

Her face fell, “The last vision was of all of us dead.  All of us, that is, except for Infinite.  Something caused her to snap.” 

I suddenly understood why she was reluctant to tell anyone about what our soothsayer had seen.  It had the potential to reignite the animosity towards Titan and Infinite that had caused Zeal to lose his head.  There would be people calling for Infinite to be thrown out into the void of space.  Others would demand that, when the time came, Titan sacrificed himself for the cause.  Either way, it would divide the ship and there was no telling if trying to change the future would make it better or worse.

“The least bad option is to lose nearly twenty Adapted,” I said with a grimace, “That’s a huge blow, but Titan is too powerful to give up.”

“I might be in charge, but his authority behind me is what gives me credit and sway over anyone else here,” she muttered.  “Right now, I’m a girl.  I don’t even have a set of power armor made.  I can’t fight, I can’t do anything on my own!”

With no one else watching, the stress could finally come out as she took a shaky breath.  

“Jesus, Nick,” she whispered, “I don’t know how to do this.  I’m trying to go forward and there’s a fucking disaster waiting just around the corner.”

I thought about my conversation with Eldritch and how much of our conflict had come down to a matter of identity.  “You shouldn’t abandon who you are,” I said, “You are known for being a chick in power armor.  You’re known for being the only Cognate on board who volunteers to fight.  I think you need to get a new set of armor so you can respect yourself again.”

She sighed, “You aren’t wrong.  But… what happens if we lose the guy who started all this?  What do we do if everyone starts dying left, right, and center?”  

The silence between us spoke volumes. 

“Yeah,” she said, shaking her head, “I don’t know either.”  

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Remnant: Kingmaker

“I could kick the door down,” Murphy suggested as the four of us stood outside of Dragoon’s room. 

“That seems a little heavy handed,” Organelle replied.  “Maybe we should at least try knocking.”
“Dragoon didn’t come out of her room even when Infinite warped us.  I really doubt she’s gonna open it for us,” I said.

Lightshow rolled her eyes and rapped her hand against the metal slab separating us from our drug addled captain.  “Drag, open up.  I know you’re in there.”

“Busy,” was the muffled and laconic reply.  

“Drag,” Lightshow groaned, “Open the door or I conjure someone who can melt the damn thing.” 

It took a moment, but our red-headed captain opened the door, sneering when she saw me and Murphy in tow.  “What the fuck do you guys want?  You here to-” she stopped when she saw Organelle.  “What are you doing here?” 

“We want to talk,” Organelle replied gently. 

Dragoon’s doubt was palpable.  “What would be so important?”

“A promotion,” Lightshow replied, “And a big one at that.”

It was enough to at least interest Dragoon and get her to step away from the door.  “What the hell are you talking about?” 

All eyes turned to Organelle: this was her circus, we were going to let her ringlead.  “Dragoon, I’m guessing you noticed the ship jumping earlier.”

“Yeah.”

“Infinite took us off path.  She completely changed our trajectory and it caused a bit of panic,” Organelle said with a clinical candor.  “Needless to say, a number of people were…uneasy with the abrupt change.”

It was disturbing enough news to cut through Dragoon’s paranoia and fear to evoke some genuine curiosity.  “She’d tell Titan or Command though.”

“That’s the thing, she didn’t,” I said.  “She just acted on her own, like something prompted her to do this.”

“Fabulous,” Dragoon replied, almost disinterested.  She just wanted to get rid of us. 

“Zeal was the first to raise serious concern with Infinite,” Organelle continued.  “While he was a bit radical in his suggestion, his dissent is hardly isolated.  While others weren’t going to dare and be vocal like him, there are plenty who are wary about Titan and Infinite.”

Dragoon seemed to detect that she wasn’t hearing the full story.  “What happened to Zeal?” 

“When he suggested that we throw Infinite out an airlock, Titan cooked his brain,” Parasite replied.  

“I’m afraid that the longer we are stuck in space, the longer tensions are going to wear and erode relationships between everyone else and those two.  And, the reality is that those two are people in positions of power who can’t be challenged.  There can’t be a coup thrown; it would end in a slaughter.”  Organelle sighed and laced her fingers together, “That’s why we came to you.”

“I still don’t get it.”

“I want you to take Titan’s spot,” Organelle said.  “I think that you’ll do a better job than he can.”

Murphy and I glanced at each other, leery of what kind of reaction was going to come from our friend.  Alexis wasn’t the best with surprises; someone telling her that she was to become the captain of this whole ship and Titan’s entire crusade was quite the surprise.  

“Oh, fuck off,” she finally replied.  “Are you serious?  You want me to try and take over after Titan literally melted a dude’s fucking head?  Fuck that shit!  I just want to be left alone so I can make-”

With an alarming quickness, Organelle shot forward and latched her hand around Dragoon’s wrist.  

“Wha-”  Before our friend could finish the word, she tried to rip her arm and away, frantically clutching at her chest with her free hand.  

“I’m really sorry,” Organelle whispered, “But I think we should be having this conversation sober.”

Even Lightshow was thrown by this uncharacteristic course of action.  “Organelle, this isn’t what we agreed to!  We were going to try and appeal to her, not use fucking force!  What the hell is a matter with you?”

Dragoon sank to a knee, gasping for air, her face deathly pale and ashen as she shook.  

“You have literally had to make a copy of me to help out with the number of broken and battered Adapted on this fucking ship,” Organelle snapped.  “The last thing we need is to fight amongst ourselves.  I will not sit back and be passive while we kill ourselves!  We need someone new in charge to avoid a massacre!  What happens if Clemency gets in a fight with Siege?  What happens if Beleth and Psycho really go at it?  What happens to everyone in their way?” 

“You’re going to kill her!” Murphy shouted.

“No,” Organelle said, “I won’t.  I’m keeping tabs on her heartbeat and oxygen saturation.  But, seeing her speed through her withdrawals is going to be unpleasant to watch.” 

Dragoon looked up, mortified.  Her pale face now covered in a sheen of sweat.  It didn’t take long before she turned and started dry heaving.  

“Organelle, let her go,” I pleaded.

Our medic shook her head, “I told Titan I would help his cause, no matter the cost.  I don’t like doing this, but we need her at her best.”

I wanted to shout, to scream, to say something to make it stop.  I didn’t care for Organelle’s cold pragmatism; she was torturing my friend and was seemingly oblivious to the incredible pain she was causing.  

She knows how much it hurts your friend.  It hurts her too.  Look at Organelle’s face.

As shocked as I was that Eldritch had said something besides a readout of weight, I obeyed.  It was right.  Organelle was doing her best to put on a resolute facade, trying to look like a hardened killer, but it was so foreign.  This was as much torture for her as it was for Dragoon.  She was fighting her nature as a healer and as a disciple of Titan.  Having to rebuke all of us for trying to be empathetic and human only made it that much harder.  

“No matter the cost,” I echoed.  Maybe the only good thing Titan had done in the last few days was tell me to find my voice, to be more vocal, to be more sure of myself.  

“Nick-”

“Let her do it,” I said softly.  “We need Dragoon sober to make a decision and we can’t wait for her to detox.  People might be killing each other in a few hours over this shit.  We can’t wait until after this ship starts tearing itself apart.” 

It was a painful handful of minutes.  The only sound was our anxious shuffling and the constant dry heaving of our team captain.  Occasionally Dragoon would look up, trying to find some support, but none of us interrupted Organelle.  This was too important to stop, too important to let our emotions dictate.  

As I watched my friend suffer, I realized a few months ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do this.  Watching something so torturous would have broken me.  But now it was almost easy to assure myself that I was doing the right thing, that it was going to be for the best.  

It was still a great relief when the dry heaving stopped and Organelle finally let go of my Dragoon’s wrist.  

“Blanket,” was the first word that Dragoon managed to expel.  Parasite stepped forward and swiped the blanket off her cot, tossing it down to her.  She snatched it out of the air and drew it around her shoulders, sitting with her knees pulled to her chest.  Even though Organelle’s fast-tracked withdrawals had stopped, she was ashy and looked sickly.  “Water,” was her next demand.  

Lightshow grabbed the water bottle beside her cot and took a seat next to her, wrapping her arm around our captain.  Parasite and I followed suit, going to the opposite wall.  Organelle sat down between us, like she was at the head of the proverbial table.  

“First off,” Dragoon said, her words still shaky, “Fuck you, Organelle.”

“I deserve that,” she muttered, her resolute and stoic facade melting away.  “I-”

“If I didn’t feel like puking my guts out, I’d fucking beat the shit out of you,” Dragoon grumbled.  

“Right, I-”

Dragoon shot a glare at Organelle that immediately stopped her attempt to defend her position.  “And fuck the three of you for letting her do that,” she gumbled.  “Y’all are a bunch of assholes.” 

“You are the one who threatened to assault me earlier,” I replied, “You’re hardly innocent.” 

She took a drink from her water bottle and rolled her eyes.  “Well, you got your wish for me to get clean.  I feel like you could have at least asked me to sober up before springing this bullshit on me.”

“I thought we were going to use a softer touch for this,” Lightshow said, glaring at Organelle.  “Or, at least that was what I was operating under the assumption of.  But, hey, what do I know?” 

Dragoon shook again, turning to look at our mutual friend.  “Murphy, where the fuck have you been the last couple days?”

He hung his head; I nudged him and shook my head ‘no.’  I didn’t want him to be ashamed of his own baggage; he needed to own up to it.  He explained to both Organelle and Dragoon why he had been so hands off and muted the last few days.  What I wasn’t prepared for him to admit was that it was hard to look at me in particular.  On Vuuldar, he had seen me start to slip into the beast’s control and he felt guilty fighting.  He hated that Titan had set me up for such an outcome.

It had only made him feel more ostracized to harbor animosity against our leader.  

“All the more reason someone else should be in charge,” Lightshow thought aloud.  “You can’t be the only person who is feeling some misgivings for how Titan moved us around.”

“I’m still not thrilled about nominating myself if he’s fucking melting people’s heads,” Dragoon said with a shudder.  “Zeal might have been a huge prick and all, but he was still one of us.”

“Zeal threatened Infinite,” Organelle noted.  “Titan is fiercely loyal to his people and his cause; for someone to threaten his lover and ally was bound to rub him the wrong way.  You aren’t going to be threatening to chuck anyone out into the void of space.”

“You’re right, I’m just going to suggest he relinquish leadership of the crusade that he spent years constructing.  I’m sure he’ll be really receptive to this idea.”  Dragoon sighed, “No matter how good and objective as Titan is, he’s still human.  He’s not going to want to step down when he’s invested so much time and effort into this.  The reality is that he did this, incredibly successfully I might add, for three years.  It’s only gone tits up in the last few weeks.”

“By far the most hectic couple of weeks,” Parasite pointed out.  “He was used to navigating around a government and Adapted butting heads with one another.  He wasn’t truly prepared for fighting against the most oppressive empire in history.” 

“And I am?” Dragoon said with a scoff.  “If you ask me, it sounds like you’re grasping at straws, Organelle,” she replied, her tone cold.  “If you really think I can do better than Titan, who has had nearly three years to prep-”

“You can,” Organelle insisted.

“Why?  Why in the hell would you single me out for this?”
“Best mindset,” Lightshow answered.  “You’re used to fighting from a disadvantage; Titan has never been at a disadvantage before now.  He’s a fucking walking, talking natural disaster; why would he be used to losing?”

“You’re well liked,” Parasite added.  “You’ve established relationships with almost half the groups on the ship.  Even when we were back on Tso’got, you made a point to look for other people on Server’s forums.  You were the one who constantly reached out, constantly tried to bounce ideas off others and improve.  People know you and respect the hell out of you.”

Dragoon shook her head, “And so what?  Ragdoll fits all of those criteria.  Shit, Beleth fits all those criteria.”

“They aren’t ambitious like you,” I said.  

“Not ambitious?  Beleth controlled a goddamn city!  He ran the dart cartel in Ciel!”

“Did he expand?” I countered.  “Did he ever man up and truly challenge Shockwave?  Did he ever try and bulldoze Suppression?  Did he ever really chase down Vermin?”

“No,” she whispered.  

“In a few weeks you: recruited more people, dethroned two of the biggest mobsters in Ciel’s history, and helped kill the most notorious domestic terrorist in Ciel.  Beleth and Shockwave had been in power for nearly a year and a half before we came along.  Two months and both of them were gone.”

“Yeah, because Psycho and his Lunatics showed up,” she pointed out.  

I shook my head, “We aimed to pit Shockwave and Beleth against each other, to finally get them to commit to a brawl so we could pick up the pieces.  I’ ve talked to both of them,” I said, “And they both would have fought the other.  If it wasn’t for interference, your plan would have worked.  And besides, we still fought Beleth and the whole Surface Dwellers and lived to tell the tale.”

“Beleth had killed entire Reckoner teams on his own too,” Parasite noted.  “Rookies or otherwise, we held our own.”

Dragoon looked frustrated, like she was desperately scraping the bottom of the barrel for a reason to shrug off this prospect.  “I’m still an eight-teen year old girl.  Shouldn’t we get someone older?”

“Older?” Organelle asked, “How are we going to get anyone really older?  The oldest Adapted, far as I know, is Titan at twenty-six.  I’m only twenty-two.  Playlist has been Titan’s fixer for almost a year and is only sixteen.”

“We’ve all had to grow up,” Parasite said softly, “I don’t think age really matters at this point.  You kept a level head on Vuuldar when we were under constant attack.  You made the hard call to cut off Lightshow’s arm.  You made the hard call to let Mutant go.  You made the hard call to let me go,” he added, his voice cracking.  

Her eyes widened, “Murphy, I-”

“I know,” he said, tears starting to well up in his eyes.  “I’m not judging you.  We were losing.  Hard.  Better just one captured than everyone.  You’re the best of pragmatic and empathetic.  You can dig deep and sacrifice for people but you can also be cold and calculated when it’s needed.”  

Parasite ran a hand along his arm, feeling for something that wasn’t there, trying to massage away an injury that wasn’t visible.

Dragoon started slowly shaking her head, overwhelmed.  “This is…this is insane.  I can’t be the leader of this whole fucking thing.  I, I’m just-” she looked around at all of us, looking for someone to second her; none of us made a sound.  “What if I lead us all into the fucking abyss?  What if I can’t get everyone to rally under one banner?”

“Then you are no worse than Titan is now,” I said.  

“Why not someone more iconic, like Clemency?  I’m just a bitch in power armor!”

Lightshow scoffed, “Clemency has the leadership skills of a fucking sponge.  He’s a great fighter and all, but he does almost everything solo.  That man is one of the few Adapted who never opted to be in a Reckoner team back on Tso’got.  Dude is way too headstrong; he’s not going to lead dick.  He follows Titan out of respect alone.”

“Alexis, you can do this,” I said sincerely.  “You have all of us backing you.”

“The Flagbearers will back you,” Parasite added, “And not just because I’m on good terms with Ragdoll,” he said, glaring at Lightshow.  

Her snicker was telling.  

“Titan’s family will work alongside you,” Organelle said.  

“You sure about that?” Dragoon asked, “The last thing I need is Playlist splattering my head against a wall with that destructive telekinesis of his.” 

“We all know that without you, we would have died a long time ago.  Titan may have recruited us, and we’ll always be loyal to him, but we aren’t stupid.  Interface knows we need a change.  Playlist has his doubts.  Almanac is concerned.  Clairvoyant is anxious.  So many of us are ready for something different, for something to give.”  Organelle sighed, “Forest dying ripped a hole in Titan.  It did damage to him in a way no one thought possible.  He might be one of the most destructive forces alive, but he’s a wounded animal.”

Dragoon raised her hand, stopping the medic.  “I get it.  You’re not giving me a lot of room to say ‘no’ to any of this.”  She rubbed her temples, groaning, “Fucking hell.  I still hate this.  I hate everything about this.  I don’t want to fucking be responsible for so many people.  I don’t want to be accountable for all this shit!” 

“Heavy is the head,” Lightshow muttered.  

“Yeah, and all you asshats are trying to put the damn crown firmly atop me.”  Dragoon let her face fall into his knees and groaned again, “God, I want one of Shockwave’s cigarettes.”

“I could ask him-”

“I’m being facetious, Nick,” she snapped.  “I haven’t managed to pick up smoking yet.  Though, I might in a few hours.”  She raised her head and looked at Organelle, “So, since you clearly thought of all this shit, how do you reckon is best to go about starting this off?  I feel like storming in and strutting up to Titan demanding he abdicate the throne is a bad call.”

Parasite shrugged, “It’d get a reaction at least.”

“Yeah, Zeal got a reaction too.  How did that go for him?” Lightshow shot back.

Organelle cleared her throat, shutting up the two jokers.  “Titan might be rather reactive to aggression, but he should still be able to tolerate an actual conversation.  I think your best approach would be to be honest with him.  Engage in a conversation and voice concerns and a possible solution.  It will give us a chance to show support for you.”

Dragoon frowned, “Which puts you all in the danger zone with me.”

“Titan’s not a loose canon,” I said.  “We aren’t going to threaten violence like Zeal did.  He’s not going to start torching people left and right because we make a suggestion.  I talked with him after the Zeal incident,” I explained, “He was…. rattled.  There was some self-doubt creeping in, leaving him wondering if he was doing the right thing.  I think if we offer to take the torch from him, to help finish what he started, he might play along.”

“Okay.  Yeah, I like that,” Dragoon said, the wheels clearly turning.  “Organelle, set up a meeting with me and Titan.  Murphy, Nick, I want you two to come with me.  It started with us three, so, you’re both in this shit with me.”  

Lightshow gasped in faux offense.  “So exclusionary!” 

“Do shut up,” Dragoon said with a grin.  

Organelle nodded, daring to smile, “I’ll talk to him and let him know you want to have a sit down.”  

I felt a tremor of excitement and anxiety; it was no longer a theoretical request or a lofty notion from Organelle.  This was going to happen.  

“Well, I’ll just say it now: all hail the queen,” Parasite said, his impish grin finally returning.


It didn’t take too long for Titan to agree to chat.  Organelle explicitly said that she wasn’t going to explain why, just that we had some concerns to voice to him.  

She wanted the true weight of the idea to come from Dragoon, not her.  

Titan called us to his and Infinite’s quarters.  I was expecting something more grand than our typical rooms which were just a six by three meter cell; in truth Titan’s room was a touch bigger, but not much.  His captain’s quarters were maybe an extra meter long and wide, but hardly luxurious.  

At the far end, Infinite was laid down on a cot, still fast asleep.  Titan sat in front of her, like some kind of guard dog.  

Organelle had been kind enough to arrange for us to actually have chairs for this meeting.  Even though they were just folding chairs, it beat sitting on the harsh metal floor.  

“So, Dragoon,” Titan said as we took a seat, “What’s going on?” 

For a moment, I was worried that she was going to fold and back away, just get up and leave without saying a word.  

No, she’s ready.  Look at those eyes of hers, those belong to a predator.

A little over three months ago, we had just been idealistic kids in Ciel.  We had been naive Reckoners who had gotten ourselves in over our head.  Looking at my friend now, she was gone.  All those nerves, all that anxiety, it didn’t show.  She looked determined.  She looked unstoppable.  

“I think you need to step down,” she finally said, wasting no time to get to the point.  

Titan raised an eyebrow, “I beg your pardon?”

“I think you need to step down,” Dragoon repeated.  

“I think you should mind what you say next,” he cautioned.  

While Parasite and I were wary, Dragoon showed no such concerns.  She knew what she was doing and had expected this.  

That, or she had the best poker face in the universe.

“Titan, you melted Zeal’s brain earlier today.  You killed one of our own.  I understand why you did it, but you still did it.”

His lip curled in frustration, “Are you saying you wouldn’t have done the same if they had threatened to toss Eldritch out an airlock?” 

She shrugged, “I don’t know, honestly.  I might have, but I’m not able to do it so nonchalantly like you.  I can’t snap my fingers and melt everyone around me.  I can’t turn this ship to a pile of slag in the blink of an eye.  You can.  You’re a monster, Titan.  None of us can stand up to you.  The only person who can,” she said, looking past him to Infinite, “Is fiercely loyal to you, and only you.” 

“So, I should step down because of a single lapse in judgement?  I should step down for defending my girlfriend?” he growled.  

Dragoon shook her head, “No.  You need to step down because tensions are high and your existence is causing unrest.  While everyone from Tso’got might know who you are, the people from Vuuldar only know you as a calamity that wears a leather jacket.  Scarier still, a woman who dismantled Eldritch and snuffed out life in a one-kilometer radius only answers to you.  They’re scared,” she said with concern.  “They don’t have the experience with you to know that you have their best interest at heart.”

Titan took a deep breath, “I know that people are afraid.  I know that tensions are high, but that should be alleviated when Infinite is awake and can explain herself.” 

“Titan, this isn’t the only reason for you to step down.  You’re taking too many risks, too many gambles.  You’re too used to fighting with an advantage and don’t have one.  Even with all our power, the Trillodan outgun us.  Infinite can warp us through space and the Trillodan still beat us to Vuuldar.  Eldritch can devour a city, but they can bombard him from orbit.  Forest could make a landslide, but they still burned her to the ground.” 

He winced but didn’t have a reply.  

“We know you’re doing your best, but you have to recognize that this… this isn’t the same as it was on Tso’got.  Back then, you were playing a totally different game. You founded a secret society and network of Adapted to help one another.  Thanks to your work, you kept us from being taken by Suppression.  You kept Eldritch from sure death by dispatching Playlist and Interface to save us back then.”  Her look of purpose and raw determination shifted to one of gratitude and genuine amazement.  “You did things that no other Adapted had the balls to do, and you did it all in secret.  You organized this whole thing. You had ambition that put everyone else to shame.”

“But, no plan survives contact with the enemy,” Parasite said.  “The Trillodan were a bigger force than any of us could have guessed.  You assumed that we would be able to pull ahead because of their need to keep us alive; Zellig’s elite fighting force however have shown time and time again that they are comfortable fighting from a deficit.”  

“It’s not how you are used to fighting,” I added.  “You’re overwhelming.  You could use shock and awe tactics on Tso’got because no one could stop you.  But the Trillodan, they can answer blow for blow.”

Titan looked like he had been slapped in the face.  “I devoted my life to this.  I gave up any semblance of normalcy to make this possible.  I gave my everything to this crusade.  You want me to just….bow out?” 

“No,” Dragoon said, “We still need you.  We’re going to need your raw firepower.  We’re going to need your ability to inspire.  But,” she added solemnly, “We need someone else steering the plans for now.  We need someone who can be more risk averse.  We need someone who knows how to fight at a deficit.  We need someone who can roll with the punches.  We need someone who can be a little more objective than you can.”

Titan looked her square in the face, his red eyes boring into her.  “You want to take my spot.”

“Yes.”

He let out a ragged exhale.  “You can’t possibly appreciate the weight of this.  You don’t understand the pressure of leading this.”

“Maybe not,” Dragoon conceded, “But I can appreciate the burden of leadership at least a little…and I know what it feels like to feel small.  I can empathize with the rest of them in a way you simply can’t.  Titan, you drugged me because you were scrambling.  Your plans on Vuuldar fell apart in a matter of hours.  You relied on Eldritch turning into an almost unkillable beast to thwart an army and that backfired when he ate four of us.  You put Infinite in a place where she would be vulnerable and it cost us a dozen lives.” 

Titan bristled but held his tongue.  

“There’s a big difference between amassing an army and running it,” she concluded.  

He looked between the three of us, his gaze ending up on me.  “Do you feel the same way?  Do you think I’m guilty of misleading us?” 

I swallowed a nervous lump, reminding myself that he wasn’t going to melt me if I spoke out against him.  “I think you’ve done the best you can.  I think you’ve put a damn good effort out there, but you just aren’t the man for the job.  You do a great job with a long, drawn out strategy but you can’t adjust on the fly well enough.  I think Dragoon is better at shotcalling in the immediate.” 

Titan let out a wry chuckle, “I told you to find your voice.  I guess you went and did just that, didn’t you?”  His gaze turned to Parasite.  “Do you agree?” 

“Dragoon has the right blend of pragmatism and empathy to do right by all of us.  She won’t let us down,” he assured. “I agree with Eldritch that you have done the best you could; the problem is that you won’t beat Zellig in a war game. You got this whole thing started, let her finish strong.” 

Titan opened his mouth to reply, but a soft voice cut him off.

“They’re right, Max.”  All of us turned, surprised to see Infinite sit up.  She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and smiled gently to her boyfriend, “I think we need someone who understands the others better than we do.”  She looked past him to Dragoon, “She’s one of the brightest on this ship and the best connected.  No one is going to go to fight against her.  We’re leading with fear, Max,” Infinite said sadly, “Dragoon won’t have too.” 

Titan struggled with the idea for a minute; finally his shoulders sank as he admitted defeat.  “Okay,” he said, his voice barely audible.  “Okay.  Dragoon, you’re up.”

For a split second, Dragoon looked perplexed and dumbfounded that he had actually relinquished his position to her.  But, as soon as it started, that moment ended.  

“First things first,” she said, “We need to know what the fuck you’re doing, Infinite, and where you’re taking us.” 

Infinite lurched forward, nearly falling off the cot.  After a second, she sat back up, her eyes glazed over.  “I’m so sorry for not letting you know,” she said, but it sounded wrong.  The timbre and cadence was different, like someone was speaking through her.  “But I’m having her bring you all to meet me.” 

While I was confused, Dragoon clearly recognized the speaker.  

“Drag?” I asked, trying to get some context.

“You,” she said, raising a hand and pointing at Infinite’s possessed form, “You’re the one in our dreams, aren’t you?  You’re the person who made the Adapted!” 

“Yes, Dragoon.  And I think it’s high time we all met in person.” 

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Remnant: Summit

“What the fuck do you mean we aren’t heading to Marn anymore?” Beleth shouted, his voice cutting through the crowd.  

Almanac raised his hands defensively, “It seems like she’s going to try and take us to another solar system or something. You have to remember we are fucking hundreds of millions of kilometers from any planet.  I have no idea where we’re going; I’m just along for the ride too.”

“Maybe we should hear it from our top two about where the fuck we’re going,” Adamant suggested.  “They might have answers for us.”

I could practically feel the unease in the crowd, like a miasma covering the whole room.  For as much collective firepower as we had in this room, none of us were able to do a damn thing about Infinite going rogue.  

The beast under my skin reacted to the unrest, rearing up as if it knew I might need to tap into that power.  It reminded me how much people weighed and how much mass I could pilfer per corpse.  

“We should have some faith in Titan and Infinite; they are going to act in our best interest,” Clemency said, hovering over the crowd.  “They have given up way too much to suddenly abandon our mission now.”

“And so have we,” Zeal barked back, the people around him echoing his distaste.  “We’ve all lost our home, our friends, everything!  I don’t think they get a fucking pass, Clemency.  Especially since Infinite killed fucking twelve of us!  She’s got a bigger Adapted body count than any of us.”  

Clemency glared daggers at Zeal, “You almost sound envious.”

I could see the room splitting in half before my eyes.  People who had been forced into Titan’s crusade, like Zeal, were gearing up to march on the Prime duo and demand an explanation.  However, there were just as many devoted to Titan and his cause who were at odds with the insidious implication behind Zeal’s words.    

There had to be seventy Adapted in this room, all of them extremely on edge; I was in the middle with no power to use should a fight break out.  My heart hammered as anxiety washed over me, making me want to flee and freeze at the same time.  

“We shouldn’t just follow along, blind,” Zeal growled, emerging as the ringleader for one faction.  “If anything, we shouldn’t trust a fucking thing Infinite does!”

“And if it wasn’t for her, you would be a stain back on Tso’got.  She got everyone off Tso’got in one piece, or did you conveniently forget that,” Clemency fired back, traces of color starting to dance around his hands.  

“ENOUGH!” a commanding voice bellowed, quelling all the arguing.  

In the entry was Titan himself, leaning heavily on a crutch with Playlist beside him for balance.  

“For the love of Christ, shut the fuck up, all of you.  It’s been four days; if we start fighting now there won’t be anyone alive when we finally land,” Titan muttered, creeping forward at a snail’s pace.  

“You can’t just-” Hive started to insist.  

Titan glared and shut her up.  “It wasn’t my idea,” he admitted. “And truthfully, I don’t know what Infinite is doing.  She… acted like someone was directing her.  She grabbed ten powers on her own with no warning to me or Command.  Our jumps caught me off guard just as much as it did all of you.”

“So, she’s gone rogue then?” 

“No, Zeal,” Titan snarled, defensive, “She has not gone rogue.  She has not put us in any danger, she has not had a sudden lapse in sanity or entered any kind of dangerous delirium.”

“If you don’t know what she’s doing, how can you be sure?” Zeal pressed. 

As Titan straightened himself, I noticed a slight green aura radiating off Playlist; around me the room seemed to take a breath as we collectively relaxed.  I was used to him using his power for destructive purposes; I almost forgot that Playlist could be a fairly potent emotional manipulator.  

“If she had gone off the reservation, none of us would be breathing anymore.”

Titan’s cold statement quieted the room.  

“But,” he continued, his face falling, “Something is influencing her.”

“Something is controlling the most powerful person alive?” Shockwave demanded.  “Something is having her go millions of kilometers off course?  You’re sure that something isn’t the Trillodan having a laugh?”

“If it was the Trillodan, they would have dumped us back on Vuuldar days ago.  Why would they wait this long?  Why let her kill a dozen of their precious specimens?”  

“Why don’t we ask her?” Interface suggested, cutting in before Zeal could open his mouth and offer some cynical retort.  “If Infinite is lucid, maybe we should hear from her and stop making assumptions.  Maybe, just maybe, there is something Infinite can see that none of us can.”

There were some murmurings around the room, but no one spoke up to formally object.  

“She’s unconscious,” Titan confessed.  “She cycled powers too quickly.  To avoid another eruption, she sedated herself.”

Even with Playlist actively calming the room, I could feel the unrest ripple out.  “Maybe, just maybe, we should fucking kill her while she can’t fight back,” Zeal spat.  “None of us can stop her,” he insisted, not letting anyone else butt in, “And she just knocked herself out to avoid smothering half of us death.  I don’t care if it takes us longer to get to Marn, I want to get there alive!” 

He broke free of the crowd, stepping forward, defying Titan.  

“Maybe we shouldn’t just accept what you have to say at face value,” Zeal snarled, “Maybe we shouldn’t be in this fucking ship at all.  Maybe we would have been better off if we never got roped into your fucking bullshit crusade.”

Titan pushed Playlist lightly; the adolescent gulped nervously but stepped back, letting Titan stand on his own.  

“Look at you!” Zeal shouted, taking another step closer, “You’re fucking broken.  You’re finally like one of us.  No more Forest.  No more being untouchable.  You finally get to feel real loss!  All of us, we’re expendable to you, just little fucking pawns in your galactic game of chess!”

Titan’s lip curled in frustration.  

Of course, Zeal noticed.  Even though I couldn’t see his face, I knew that he was wearing a manic, psychotic smile.  “You think you’re so good at this little game too!  You really thought you could out-wit a Trillodan general who has been doing this longer than any of us have been alive!  You thought it was a brilliant idea to make a giant monster rampage through their ranks; did you think Zellig wouldn’t expect that play?  Come on!”  Zeal took another defiant step forward and the throng held their breath, unsure what would happen.  

No one had dared pressure Titan like this.  No one stood up to any of the Prime Trio before.  On Vuuldar, Zeal had told us he hated Titan and how he’d lost his home on Tso’got; I had no idea he harbored this level of resentment.  

“Maybe we need some new management around here!” 

“And you think you’re the best that we have to offer?” Titan replied, his voice dangerously cool.

Zeal laughed, “I’m a far cry better than you and that unstable bitch you keep relying on.”

“Don’t-”

“Don’t what, huh?  Don’t call it how it is?  Don’t point out that she killed more of us than I have?  I’m the fucking psychopath here, right?  I haven’t murdered anyone since you forced me into this bullshit outfit you cobbled together.  I have played nice and gone with the flow as best I can but enough is enough.  I’m not letting that crazy bitch stay on this ship if she’s started going off the fucking rails!” 

“Shut your mouth,” Titan growled.  

“Or you’ll what?” Zeal challenged, throwing his arms to the side.  “You’re going to torch me?  You gonna be the big man and prove that you’re sooooooo strong?  Come on, Titan, I thought you were better than the rest of us!”  Zeal turned around, showing off a smug smile, “Look everyone, the guy who insisted we were family doesn’t like when someone challenges him for his patriarchal spot!” 

“Zeal, that’s enough,” Organelle snapped as she took a spot near Clemency. 
“No, it isn’t!” he screamed.  “Don’t you get it?  We can’t just blindly follow this man until we’re all locked up!”  His head snapped to the side as he pointed into the crowd.  “Parasite, you’ve been in one of those prisons.  You wanna tell the rest of the class how it felt?  You wanna tell us how it felt seeing your teammate sedated and behind glass.”

I hadn’t noticed Parasite on the opposite side of the room; from the looks of it, he wished no one had noticed him.  Ragdoll patted him on the back, giving him enough courage to reply.  “All those people, people I had seen and watched fight…all just stuck there.  Dozens of them, just trapped.  They couldn’t struggle, they couldn’t object, they couldn’t fight back and try to save themselves.  I only woke up because of a freak chance; no one else is gonna get the same break I did.”

Zeal turned his attention back to Organelle, “You still think that I’m taking things too far?  You think I’m the one who’s crazy here?  Did this shit ever happen before Titan got involved?  Did any of us end up in fucking specimen tubes?  Did we have to worry about running from the universe’s most dangerous and successful tyrants?”  He turned back to Titan, his rage boiling over.  “You made all this shit happen!  You should have left us back on Tso’got, to have normal lives!  Instead, you fucking interefered!  Instead, you decided that you could just assert yourself because you’re fucking Titan!  No one could tell you no; you’d just turn them into ash if they denied you!  So go on, Titan, prove my point!  Burn me down!”

Titan stood still, trying to control his breathing.  

Zeal lowered his arms, chuckling.  “There’d be another twelve people alive in this room if we didn’t have her.  And, you know,” he said, his laugh growing, “Forest enforced a strict no-fighting policy!  Imagine what she would have done if I killed a dozen people!” 

Titan’s eyes widened. 

“So, in memory of our dearly departed Forest,” Zeal giggled, “I say we chuck Infinite out an airlock for her cri-”

I only got to hear the noise for a split second, that sound like an acetylene torch being spun up.  The air around Zeal’s head erupted, a layer of molten silicone bathing his cranium before turning into an inert lump of silver rock.  Zeal’s body toppled, slamming into the metal floor and shattering the crust of silicon that Titan had constructed around his head; inside was a flash fried human head with most of the skin cooked away to reveal a charred skull beneath.  

The room fell silent.  

Titan looked at us with an expression I’d never seen on his face before.  He wasn’t in control anymore, not really.  For the first time since Vuuldar, I felt something from Eldrtich besides hunger: a strange pang of empathy.  It understood that sensation of being cornered that Titan was feeling now.

“Titan-” Organelle whispered, her voice trembling.  

“Anyone else thinking about trying to throw Infinite off the ship?” he roared, taking a haphazard step forward.  “Anyone else wanna remind me of how shitty this has all gone?  Anyone else think they can do better than me?” 

It was hard to watch, not because Titan was angry, but because he was hurt.  All of us knew, we empathized with his pain; all of us felt conflicted though since the acrid smell of Zeal’s burnt brain lingered.  

Titan took a second to catch his breath and some semblance of composure.  “There was no getting away from this.  There was no scenario where we didn’t face the Trillodan.  Zeal’s delusion of a ‘peaceful’ life back on Tso’got is just that: a delusion.  The Trillodan didn’t show up on our doorstep because I was making a coalition; they showed up because we made ourselves a fucking public spectacle!”  He pointed a hand forward, causing the whole crowd  to wince.  “Beleth, tell all these people what the head of Suppression told you back home.”

It had felt like an eternity since I had thought of Suppression: the special brand of police on Tso’got dedicated to locking up and exterminating Adapted.  

Beleth sighed, “The head of Suppression wanted me to put down the Rogue Sentries because they had spotted a Trillodan monitoring probe in the atmosphere.  Suppression wanted the brawls between Adapted to slow down enough so they would lose interest.”

“Was that before or after Feast Day?” 

“Before,” Beleth said.

Titan wobbled on his crutch as he tried to step forward, “This was happening, regardless!  If Eldritch didn’t start it off, something else would have!  If I didn’t have all this shit planned out, do you think the Trillodan would have been content leaving us alive on the surface?  Do you think the Zari would be fine with having Adapted in their midst with the Trillodan looking for us?  Do you think humanity would keep us if we brought about their second encounter with the Trillodan?  I’m not perfect, but at least I’m not going to kick you out!”

“What about him?” Adamant asked, pointing to Zeal’s corpse.  

“You can voice your dissent against me all you want,” Titan replied, “But the second you threaten the woman who is responsible for getting us this far, you’re dead to me.  I have done my best to not rely on Infinite to avoid having her cause collateral damage and she has done her best to control herself!  For Zeal to threaten her while she’s comatose without giving her the benefit of the doubt, that was over the line.”  Titan narrowed his gaze and scanned over the crowd, “So, is there anyone else who thinks we should toss her out into the void of space?” 

To everyone’s surprise, Interface stepped forward to the front of the crowd, their hands raised defensively.  Titan himself was flabbergasted, unsure of how to react to one of his most loyal stepping out in protest.  

“Titan, I’ve been with you from the beginning, but Zeal has a point.  We need to hear from Infinite.  We need to understand why she’s suddenly altering things.  We’re living this reality too.”

“Interface,” Titan whispered, “You know she doesn’t want to hurt anyone.”

“I know that, but they don’t.  They don’t have the same history with her that I do,” Interface replied.  “All of us need to be on the same page, we can’t have you melting more people because of a misunderstanding.”

Titan looked like someone had slapped him, his cold and violent air wiped away.  “Y-yeah.”

“So you get us back here when she’s awake and we talk about this, like fucking adults.”

Before Titan could offer any kind of rebuttal, Interface stormed past him.  It didn’t take long for others to take the hint; the spectacle was over and there wasn’t going to be anything else to see.  As everyone filed out, Titan motioned for me to come over to him.

“Can you deal with this body?” he asked softly, still clearly rattled by having one of his most devout put him in his place.  

Most people had left, but there were still a few around, all of them looking to Titan, and by extension, me.  “I’m not sure if that’s a good idea,” I confessed.  

“I’m not letting his body go to waste,” Titan insisted.  

While Interface might have been comfortable with verbally slapping Titan, I wasn’t about to challenge him.  Wordlessly, I placed a hand on the body and watched the tissue fade away as I added it to my storage.  It would spoil long before I could ever make use of it but Titan didn’t need to know.  

Even if Zeal was a psychotic, murderous son of a bitch, he was still one of us.   We could offer him a little more dignity than being a popsicle in the void of space.  

As the last few people left, I was alone with Titan in the galley.  I turned to leave, but he called after me.  “Do you think I did the right thing?” 

I raised an eyebrow, “By killing Zeal?” 

“By…any of it.  He might have hated me and what I was doing, but Zeal was right that I upset everything.  I actively broke people out of prisons back on Tso’got.  I helped tons of Adapted group up; maybe I escalated things.  Maybe I am the reason all of this happened.”

I struggled for a second, understanding the exact brand of guilt he was coping with; I still blamed myself for the Trillodan disrupting everything since Feast Day had been the final straw to get them to come in person.  “I don’t think so,” I finally said.  “I think you’re right that it would have eventually happened.  The reality is that we were fighting amongst ourselves for any reason.  We made it into a spectacle that everyone bought into.  My first night as an official Reckoner, I fought against Shock and Awe.  The next day at school, I saw kids watching that fight on their phones and I felt a weird sense of pride.  It was like a drug and I wanted a new fix.” 

Titan gave me a soft smile, “Thanks, Eldritch.”

“We all fight.  We all love to fight.  Even if we had stayed on Tso’got when the Trillodan came, I don’t think we would have hid.  That’s just…not how we seem to operate,” I pointed out.  

He gave me a curious glance, “You’re not the same kid I pulled out a mess of tentacles back on Tso’got.”

I physically recoiled, unsure what to make of that.  

“Don’t be so quiet next time,” he insisted, “Even though we just see you as a monster, you’re a lot more than that.”

“I, um, yeah,” I said, tripping over my words.  With nothing else to say, I hurried outside and was surprised to see a familiar face waiting for me.  

“Hey, Nick,” Murphy said.  

I felt my heart rise, and sink a little; he wasn’t sporting his usual smug smirk.  “Hey.  Where is your plus one?” 

Murphy blushed and looked down at his feet, “Ragdoll said I should probably take some time and hang out with you a little; I’ve been kind of avoiding people I know and he called me on it.”

“It has been a little weird being around you lately,” I admitted.  “Competing for your attention against Ragdoll is tough; he’s way hotter than me.”

Murphy finally smiled and reached out to push me, “Shut up man.”

I led the way back to my room, debating going to Dragoon’s room to try and confront her again about her substance use; I decided against it for now.  Things on the ship needed time to sit and calm down. Tensions were too high and I figured Murphy needed some time to process that the other member of our triad was drugged out of his mind.  

“I’m sorry for making you play third wheel…but it’s not quite what you think.”

I raised an eyebrow, “What do you mean?”

“I-” he started, shaking his hands in frustration.  “It’s hard to explain.”

“Well, try anyways,” I said.

Murphy frowned, “It’s like I’m not me anymore.  There’s just something that snapped inside me.  Seeing our friends in prisons, being isolated like that, it was like I had to turn into an animal.  It was like I stepped into a nightmare that I can’t wake up from,” he said, his voice trembling.  “And seeing you, or anyone else from the Sentries, it’s just a reminder of what I used to be, what I used to be a part of.  It’s like there’s this giant pane of glass between us; I can see it, but I’m never going to properly belong again.”

“You know you’re always one of us,” I insisted. 

Murphy winced as we stepped into my sparsely furnished room.  “See but that’s easy for you to say: you’ve never lost your power.  You don’t know how this feels man.”

“I’ve felt literal tons of flesh torn away from me and felt my own body rebel against my mind, twice.  I’ve had to grow up and accept that there is a crazy, primal predator that is a core part of my identity for probably the rest of my life.  I have to come to grips with the fact that I literally consumed the flesh off my parents’ corpses,” I replied, feeling a little insulted.  “I think I understand a fair bit more than you give me credit for.”

“Fair point,” Murphy admitted.

“So, try to explain it,” I implored, “I want to know.”

Murphy raised his hand, looking at it like it should be doing some kind of trick.  “I got used to feeling that thing under my skin.  I relied on it, and I had some damn good control of that little organism.  It was a part of me like my arms or my legs are a part of me.”

“And it’s gone,” I extrapolated.  

“Worse,” Murphy corrected, “It was taken from me.  It broke in an effort to keep me alive.  And now, I have this hideous strength.”  To emphasize his point, all his skin flipped from a light tan to a deep red, and then back again.  “And the shittiest part of it, even with that, Zellig still beat the shit out of me.  My body turned my power into a toxic, ugly thing, and it still wasn’t enough.  I have phantom pains,” he admitted, “And they just happen!  Just, all over!  I don’t even know how to describe how bad they are, and they’re under my fucking skin!  I can’t even massage the pains away; at least Lightshow can rub the stump of where her arm used to be!” 

I felt my throat constrict as tears started to roll down his cheeks.  “Murphy, I-”

“They get worse when I see you guys,” he managed to eek out.  “I want to hide it, to pretend it’s okay and that I can be a member of the team again…but it hurts.  It hurts so bad, Nick.  I look at my best friend and all I can fucking feel is an ache where something used to be!” 

Part of me wanted to run, to make it so he’d never see me again, to let him bury that part of himself and avoid the pain.  But, the other half of me won over as I stepped forward and pulled him into a hug.  For a second, Murphy pulled away from me, but then let himself slump forward, resting his head on my shoulder.  

For what felt like a full minute, we just stood there. 

The silence was broken with a declaration of, “Dude, you’re gayer than me.”

I let my friend go and promptly shoved him as hard as possible, “And you’re a fucking asshole.”  A snicker escaped, “Or do you-”

“Dude!” Murphy said, immediately blushing, “Come on!” 

Before I could continue to push this envelope on how much I could embarrass him, there was a knock at my door.  I opened it and Lightshow brushed by me, “Oh, well come on in.”

“I planned to,” she replied confidently.  “Murphy, good to see you around.”

“Hey, Rachel.”

She narrowed her eyes, scrutinizing him, “I half wondered.”

“Wondered what?” I asked. 

“Phantom pains,” she said, “I wondered if that was why he was staying clear of us.”

Even Murphy was perplexed.  “How-”

“Come on,” she said, gesturing to her missing arm, “I know how they feel, and the way that you rubbed your chest when I walked in.  There’s nothing physically wrong with you, and who rubs their chest due to nerves?  Wringing your hands or something you can pass off, but not massaging your pecs.”

“Who knew Altering would make you a fucking super sleuth,” Murphy said.

“Who knew Altering would finally get you laid,” she shot back with a smirk.

His blush returned with a vengeance, “Hey-”

“You deserve this,” she interrupted.  “Do you remember how much shit we gave to Nick back on Tso’got?  We made hundreds of shitty jokes about him and Xana’s relationship.  You’re just finally paying your dues.”

Murphy glared but couldn’t clap-back with a witty retort.  

Lightshow glanced at me, “Have you told him about Drag?”

“Not yet.”

“What’s up with Alexis?” he asked, concerned.  

I explained what had happened earlier and how Goliath had tipped me off and how Dragoon had all but assaulted me when I called her out on it.  I explained her rationale which made Murphy all the more somber.  

He knew first-hand how powerful fear could be as a motivator.  

“Are we going to stage some kind of intervention for her?” he asked at length.  

“I don’t like the idea of her being strung out,” Lightshow said, “We need her to be clear headed when we get into a fight next.”

“I’d also she rather not melt her head,” I muttered, “She’s basically overclocking her brain; what happens when her body finally revolts against her drug abuse?” 

“We could do it by force,” Murphy suggested.  “She might be able to beat you in a fist fight, Nick, but she won’t beat me.  No powers necessary.”  

“That seems a little barbaric,” I said, “She’s still our friend.  I feel like we owe it to her to at least try and go with the diplomatic route first.” 

“Do you think talking to her is really going to do the trick if she was willing to attack her best friend?” Lightshow countered.  “Come on, Nick.  I love your optimism, but let’s be real.  Shit is crazy on this ship and we need her to come back to reality as fast as possible.  Titan just killed a dude, Infinite is taking us…somewhere, and we have no captain.  We need her back on the level as of yesterday.”

“I can help with that,” a muffled voice called.  

All of us turned to my door, surprised.  “Organelle,” Lightshow finally asked, “What the fuck are you doing eavesdropping?”

I opened the door and the ship’s medic walked in, still looking a bit frazzled.  “I’m sorry, I could hear you all talking and I didn’t want to interrupt.”

“What do you mean you can help with our issue?” I asked.

“And…why?” Murphy added.  “Aren’t you basically running yourself ragged with people who are still injured from Vuuldar?”

“I am,” she replied, “But, detoxing someone isn’t nearly so hard as regrowing bones or undoing serious organ trauma.”  She took a deep breath before continuing, “Titan is slipping.”

“You don’t say,” Lightshow interjected.  

She shot a glare at Lightshow but said nothing.  “Contrary to what Zeal insists, he doesn’t see people as pawns in a chess game.  While he values all of us, Forest was his best friend and confidant.  It was also a huge wake up call to him that they are vulnerable.  Titan had gone so long effectively being unstoppable; for all of the Prime Trio to lose in a single battle rattled him more than he wants to admit.” 

“Which means now the ship gets to feel his insecurities,” Murphy said.

“Exactly.  What he needs is a new person to step up, someone who isn’t afraid to tell him how it is, and someone that the whole ship respects and will listen to.”

My eyes widened, “You want to make Dragoon his new right hand.”

Organelle shook her head, “Not quite.  I want to make Dragoon the new head of this operation.  Until Titan gets his head back on straight, he’s not going to lead well.  He’s going to take risks because he’ll assume we can brute force through them.  We need someone who is willing to be more cautious and more grounded.  Dragoon is all of those things, and is possibly the most liked person onboard.  She is used to fighting at a disadvantage which is something Titan doesn’t fully appreciate; now that he’s having to experience it, he’s crumbling.”

“It takes the pressure off Titan and Infinite if there is someone else running the show and immediately cuts the animosity between everyone who just watched Titan murder Zeal,” Lightshow summed up, giving it a nod of approval.  “Man, Organelle, I would have never thought of you to be so calculating.” 

She gave a soft smile, “Never count out the quiet ones.”

“Does Titan know you want to supplant him?” 

“Not yet,” she confessed.

I laughed, “We just watched him kill a guy and you want us to suggest he hand over the reigns of his cause to Dragoon?”

Lightshow raised her hand, stopping Organelle before she could try and argue, “How about we get our ducks in order first.  Regardless if we want to oust Titan, we need Dragoon to be clean.  I think then we should stop assuming positions for her and ask for her take on this situation.”

All of us nodded, feeling foolish for getting ahead of ourselves. 

“Well,” Lightshow said, far too upbeat, “Let’s go have an intervention!”     

Previous ChapterNext Chapter  

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.”  

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