1/26/20 Update

I know, this isn’t the fight scene you ordered.

This is a small apology from the author to you, because while I do have the next chapter written, it’s a pile of trash. It looks like it went sixteen rounds with Mike Tyson and should have called it quits after round two. Saying that it is rough around the edges is a gross understatement.

It’s rough in places that I’d rather not get into.

To avoid subjecting you to such drivel, I’m postponing my release for a week to refine and smooth out the next entry. Ideally, I will release a second chapter alongside it and get right back on track.

Again, I am so sorry for all of you who are unfortunate enough to be current and are given this lousy message instead of a supernatural brawl.

Tune in next week for Nemesis!

Illuminate: Champion

“He’s going to get himself killed,” I hissed to Dragoon as we watched Parasite take a few steps forward, meeting Zeal in the middle of the school yard.  “He had a bomb go off in his face like two hours ago and now he’s going to fight fucking Zeal! Why aren’t you stopping him?” 

Dragoon shot me a glare, “It’s fucking Murphy we’re talking about here.  This is what he’s best at.”

Menagerie stepped beside us, “Even if this is his wheelhouse, are you sure he’s using his best judgment after what happened earlier?”

Dragoon kept her face still, but I was sure Menagerie’s comment wormed under her skin. After all, our Peculiar artist wasn’t wrong, it had been a harrowing day for all of us, especially Parasite.  Even though he and Mutant hadn’t been the closest of friends, they were still comrades who had fought beside each other time and time again. In the last few hours, he’d fought to keep me alive and then been the one to put Mutant out of his misery.  

“Your suit also beat him back on this ship,” I pointed out, piling on Menagerie’s point.  “Do you think your suit holds up against Zeal?”

“Lightshow,” Dragoon whispered, “I don’t think I beat Murphy.”

That got our attention.  

“I think that he let me win.  At least in part. I think if he’d wanted to, Murphy could have bashed my brains in despite my new suit.  For all its renovation and upgrades, it doesn’t let me win in a fist fight against him. Not if Murphy goes a hundred percent.” 

I turned my attention back to the dueling duo.  A few steps away Eldritch was staring intently, muttering a prayer while he watched his best friend square off against one of the most outspoken murderers from our home world. 

“No one interferes,” Parasite declared, “No one gets to bail you out when you start losing.”

The little jab got a sneer from Zeal.  “Agreed. No one gets to stop me once I start breaking your bones.”

“We’ll see.”

I glanced over my shoulder at Adamant, “Why aren’t we having him fight,” I whispered to Dragoon.  “He can’t lose.”

“And Zeal likely knows that if he ran into a couple members of Stampede,” Dragoon replied.  “Plus, he knows Parasite and people don’t think his power is anything special if you haven’t seen him in action.  In terms of actual fighting ability, only Siphon is going to best him. Zeal loses sanity and goes crazy the more power he uses; Parasite’s going to exploit that.”

Dragoon wasn’t wrong, but she was definitely being optimistic.  All the fighting prowess in the world wouldn’t help Parasite do much against someone like Goliath or Eldritch.  At a certain point, Parasite’s skill was eclipsed by raw power. Zeal would go crazy, but he could push his gift substantially farther than Parasite’s; Parasite’s gift could make a part of him up to about eight times stronger, but Zeal’s power made all of his body stronger.    

Zeal rolled his neck and equipped a deranged smile right before lunging.

He was fast, almost entirely closing the gap of ten meters in three rapid strides.  Zeal landed and swung, but he only found air as Parasite leaned backwards and took a step away in an effortless display.  The head of Serpentine threw a few more rapid strikes but Parasite didn’t even need to raise his hands to block. Each punch was read and easily evaded by our Enhancer, despite Zeal’s speed.  

“You think that’s all it’s going to take?” Parasite laughed as he avoided another crude jab.  In a flash our teammate countered, rapidly landing three quick blows against Zeal, stunning him.  A fourth hit to the chin seemed to knock him out of his stupor. “You think a little burst of speed is good enough?” Parasite shouted as he parried a straight punch and grabbed Zeal’s arm to pull him forward and upset his balance.  “Do. Better!” he shouted, punctuating each word with a blow to his torso.  

Zeal swung back with a wild hook that was all too easy for Parasite to duck under.  As he came back up, Parasite snagged his staff from the pouch on his pants and drove his now reinforced hand into Zeal’s ribs.  The madman stumbled, the wind driven from his lungs. While he was dazed, Parasite spun around and extended the staff, slamming the rod of metal into Zeal’s thigh.  

He cried out and tumbled, throwing himself away from Parasite as he regarded him with a new respect and caution.  

“You’re the head of Serpentine?  Pathetic!” he shouted, raising his arms to the side in open challenge.  “You’re the one people are scared of? You’re weak!”

I knew that my teammate was hamming it up to get inside Zeal’s mind, but you could feel his rage, his disappointment, and his hate seeping through his words.  All he’d been forced to deal with, all he’d been forced to endure over the last day, it was all flooding out. Parasite was done feeling weak and afraid; he was going to make Zeal take the brunt of it instead.  Scarier still, he wasn’t crazy like his opponent. Parasite was in complete control, like he had entered some kind of murderous tranquility.    

For a brief moment, I felt pity for Zeal.     

Zeal roared and dropped to all fours, his whole body convulsing as his expression twisted even farther.  Parasite twirled his staff, waiting patiently for his opponent to charge.  

As fast as Zeal had been earlier, he was easily doubling that speed.  The overconfident smirk vanished from Parasite’s face as his opponent practically flew, closing the gap between them in a blink.  Zeal’s hands were too fast for me to track, but Parasite seemed to instinctively know where to move to avoid the onslaught as he moved in a circle, keeping himself away from Zeal’s back hand.  

“Alexis,” Eldritch whispered, “We can’t watch him die.  I have some mass, I can-“

“No,” Dragoon snapped.  “Murphy picked the fight because he knew he could win.  He knew exactly what he was doing. If we interfere, we don’t get Zeal to help us.  We need him. His power, for better or worse, is the only fucking thing that is going to get us off this planet without relying on Infinite.”  

“Her teleporting the ship off Tso’got nearly killed Command,” I muttered, remembering the grim side effects he’d endured trying to keep her sane.  Command was a necessary partner that Titan had paired with Infinite since he could help keep her stable as she seized more and more power to wield.  However, the Overexposure brought on by controlling her for that had effectively made him powerless for an entire week, even with Organelle nursing him back to health.  Whoever I had seen in that vision, they had warned me that Alterations were the most powerful thing, but also the most volatile.    

Dragoon was right, relying on Infinite was dangerous.  As powerful as she was, taking advantage of her strength was tempting fate.  I wondered how long it would be until I was fit into the same category as her: powerful but unhinged.  

“Still,” Menagerie whispered as we watched, “Can he beat Zeal?”

“He has to,” Dragoon said, staring intently at our friend as he fought for his life.

Zeal was a blur, darting around Parasite and trying to find an opening.  His absurd speed was still being countered though; Parasite was holding his own through what could only be described as premonition.  Everywhere Zeal went to strike, Parasite was ready to block and counter, forcing the madman back. Wide arcs of the staff bought him space, but Zeal was relentless in his pursuit and kept recklessly seeking openings that Parasite was quick to deny.  

For all the pressure he was under, Parasite looked remarkably focused, cool, collected.  He’d fought against people this fast before and he’d fought against people much stronger than Zeal had made himself.  My best guess was that he was going nearly six times faster than normal, but the sheer speed had cost Zeal any real kind of finesse.  What movements of his I could track were crude and simple, something Parasite had seen countless times when he’d trained. For him, it wasn’t about dodging Zeal in real time, it was about being three steps ahead and knowing where the next hit was coming from.  

What had become more narrow was Parasite’s window to answer with an attack of his own.  Despite the gap in skill, Zeal’s speed meant that Parasite was constantly playing catch up.    

While he could spin the staff around to keep Zeal pushed back a little, it was too easy to read, too slow an arc to catch the hyper-charged head of Serpentine.  Nothing he was throwing out was landing, and despite him revoking a chunk of his sanity for incredible physical attributes, Zeal was seeming to learn Parasite’s pattern with the staff.  

“Come on, Murphy,” Eldritch whispered, “Come on man.  You got this.”

I didn’t share Eldritch’s optimism.  Glancing down at my hand, I thought about all the things I could make that would even the playing field between them.  The upside of my new power was that so many options were at my disposal, and it wouldn’t take much to make an opening for Parasite-

“Don’t do that,” Interface whispered, stepping in just behind me.  “Look at him. He knows what he’s doing.” 

“Parasite doesn’t fight at his best in an open area,” I replied, still not buying into their faith in my friend, “He needs walls and terrain to exploit his perfect balance and natural gymnastic ability.  In the open, he’s not as fast or as strong as Zeal.”

Interface rolled their eyes, “You’re still hung up on the wrong things.  I know that look he’s wearing because I see Titan wear it all the time before he corners someone.”  

Surprised, I stared more intently at Parasite, looking full into his face, baffled by what I saw.  

He wasn’t just calm, he was anticipating and calculating as he moved; he wasn’t oblivious to the fact that he had been using the same sweep to keep Zeal at bay.  Parasite was counting on Zeal to notice and take the easy opening that he was leaving.  

“You clever fucker,” I whispered, “You always told us angry people fight stupid.”  

In a flash, Zeal seized his opportunity and surged forward right after Parasite had started another sweeping strike with his staff; Parasite sprung the trap and let himself turn with the swing, dragging his left leg in tow.  The whole encounter seemed to stop for a moment as Parasite’s shin connected with Zeal’s cheek.

And then in fast forward, the head of Serpentine tumbled and rolled along the ground, ending up in a heap about four meters away.  

Zeal’s power bolstered three fundamental things about the bearer: strength, speed, and durability.  Even though Zeal was probably six times faster than a regular person and six times as durable, a perfectly placed kick to the jaw from Parasite was more than enough to break someone’s neck; the fact that it hadn’t killed Zeal outright was impressive.  

In the moment of stillness, I glanced across the way to Zeal’s cronies—Dancer and Gnaw—to see them both dumbfounded at watching their boss stumble back to his feet, still reeling from the hit.  As he stopped for a moment, Zeal wasn’t wearing that deranged and confident smile. It was like our champion had kicked it clean off his face. After all, Parasite wasn’t someone who came across as imposing and yet he was handily beating Zeal in a fist fight.  The cognitive dissonance had to be weighing on Zeal.   

As much as we could tell Gnaw and Dancer wanted to help their leader, both held off, knowing full well that they were outnumbered.  I noticed Dancer glance a bit nervously at Adamant; my guess was that she knew exactly what he was capable of. Should they pick a fight with us, he wasn’t someone either of them could beat, even if he was still a little battered from our fight with Kalr and the demolitionist earlier.  

Parasite spun his staff around, staring down Zeal like he was a wild animal.  “Face it, Zeal, you’re done. Don’t make me knock you on your ass again.”  

He cackled, a laugh befitting a man who had come completely unhinged.  “You-you, you think I’m done?” 

For the first time, Parasite looked a touch nervous.  

Zeal was a blur, going straight for our teammate at a dizzying speed.  Parasite swung his staff around, but even though he was losing fine motor control, Zeal was simply too fast.  He ducked under and drove a fist into Parasite’s guts.  

I could practically feel the force of the blow despite me being nearly ten meters away.  

Parasite flew backwards, tripping and tumbling despite his perfect balance.  Before he could stop himself, Zeal caught up. The madman’s foot nearly crashed down on my friend’s throat, but a slight adjustment from Parasite made it come down on his shoulder instead.  Even with his passenger helping absorb the blow, I still heard the crunch of bone as Parasite’s shoulder came out of socket. He screamed, trying vainly to grab a hold of Zeal’s ankle.  

Zeal laughed maniacally as he zipped around Parasite, kicking him in the ribs and tossing him two meters towards us.  

To his credit, Parasite rolled with the blow and used the momentum to bring himself back up to his feet.  By the time he was upright, Zeal was already slamming a fist into his jaw and throwing him back to the ground.  Parasite skidded on the packed dirt, crying out as he bounced off his trashed shoulder, but Zeal showed no mercy.  With as much power as he had given himself, he had no concept of what being merciful was anymore.    

The psychotic head of Serpentine surged forward and abruptly fell to his hands and knees, his legs kicked out from him.  

For as battered as he was, Parasite was still a step ahead.  He’d been waiting for a good chance to take out his balance since it was still vulnerable.  For all the speed and strength he had, Zeal didn’t have extra mass to keep himself rooted. It didn’t take any extra power to disrupt his balance, especially if he was moving too fast to stop himself.  Once Zeal had committed to a straight charge, Parasite had found his opportunity to turn the tables.    

As Zeal fell to his hands and knees, Parasite’s arm cracked back into socket and he threw himself onto Zeal’s back.  Parasite wrapped himself around his opponent, pushing his feet against Zeal’s inner thigh to force his legs down, keeping Zeal face down against the ground.  Like some kind of python, Parasite wrapped his arms around Zeal’s neck and squeezed as he fought to hold onto a sleeper choke.  

However, Parasite couldn’t keep control of Zeal’s legs and arms at the same time.  As he kept him pinned, Zeal started to brute force his way free of the choke by pulling Parasite’s forearm away from his neck.   

“Come on damn it,” Dragoon pleaded quietly, “Come on, have one more trick.  Please.”

Parasite grunted, but it was clear he was losing the window he had given himself.  Even though he’s sprung an excellent trap, it wasn’t enough to put Zeal down in his empowered state.  As the choke was slowly ripped free, Zeal’s manic laugh came out in a gurgle; the head of Serpentine knew that Parasite couldn’t overwhelm him.  

He knew he was going to be able to beat this.  Zeal knew that the fight was over.  Once he pulled himself free, it was just going to be a matter of beating his head into the ground until he stopped struggling.  

Parasite took a deep breath, trying to center and calm himself as he watched his only lifeline crumble.  

I started pleading along with Dragoon; he needed one more trick.  Even though he’d managed to keep his head, I knew the onslaught from Zeal wasn’t without cost.  Those hits had landed and Murphy was hurt. This fight needed to end, right now, for my teammate keep breathing.  

To everyone’s surprise, Parasite stopped struggling with the choke, instead allowing his arm to be pulled free of Zeal’s neck.  It baffled everyone, even Zeal. But because he was still mostly facedown on the ground, he couldn’t pull Parasite’s arm all the way away from his face.  Instead, it stopped on the left side of his head and in a blur, Parasite shot both hands around Zeal’s head, pressing his fingers against the man’s eyes.  

“You move and I fucking blind you,” Parasite screamed, making sure that there was no way Zeal could misinterpret.  “You’re done! You understand? I don’t care if you make your eyes one-hundred times tougher, I will still rip them out of your goddamn face!” 

Despite how deranged Zeal had made himself he definitely understood that.    

There was a tense moment of stillness as Parasite kept a hold on the back of Zeal’s head, fingers ready to gouge away Zeal’s vision until a much more sane voice mumbled a reply.  “Okay, you win.”  

“Yeah?” Parasite called, challenging him.

“Yeah,” came a muffled reply, “You win.  Now, get the fuck off of me.”  

With a tremendous groan, my teammate basically fell onto the ground and flopped to his back, taking giant gulps of air as he massaged his injured shoulder.  “Good. Thank fuck. Truth be told, I didn’t want to rip your eyes out.”

Zeal pushed himself up to his knees and grimaced as he pressed a hand against his thigh, “You didn’t hit me as hard as you could earlier,” he noted.  “You could have beaten me down before I dipped into more power. Why didn’t you?” 

Parasite turned his head to look Zeal full in the face, “If I’d wanted to do some serious damage, I could have.  But if we have to run, the last thing we need is a cripple.” 

  Everyone tensed as Zeal started laughing again.  “You fucking held back? You know I was trying to kill you, right?” 

Parasite chuckled, “Of course I did.  I’m not an idiot.”

“I’m trying to literally murder you, and you know that, and you still pull your punches?  Holy shit, I thought I was the crazy one here!”  

Parasite groaned as he pulled himself up into a sitting position and extended a fist towards Zeal, “Hey, welcome to the fucking club.” 

The tension in the air faded as the pair fist bumped and helped each other to their feet.  “Alright,” Zeal said, looking to Dragoon, “I guess I’m your bitch for a while now.” 

Dragoon rolled her eyes, “Stop being so melodramatic, you’re no one’s bitch, Zeal.  You’re just going to help us get the fuck off this horrible rock.”  

He scoffed, “If you think that we aren’t Titan’s host of bitches, you’re very misguided.  But,” he said, raising his hands defensively, “Deal’s a deal. I will help you with your plan to get a working ship so we can get the fuck off of Vuuldar.”  

I still didn’t trust him to hold up his end of the bargain given his disdain for the man behind this whole crusade, but for now Dragoon was trusting him well enough.  At least for the time being, I’d keep my distrust to myself and go with her intuition instead of my own. The best thing I could do was hope that the nagging, paranoid voice in my head was being unfair.

It had been hard to gauge what had been warranted paranoia lately and what had just been whisperings of fear since losing my arm.  The best hope I had was that Dragoon had a cooler head on her shoulders than I did.      

“You mind if we come inside,” Adamant asked, “Seems a little conspicuous to just be standing out here.”  

“They can see us even if we’re in a building,” Dancer pointed out, “Going inside isn’t exactly going to hide us.” 

Zeal waved her off, “Relax, Dancer.  They can come in. Even if the Trillodan can see us, we might as well make ourselves fucking comfortable until they decide to come blow up someone else.”  He turned to Adamant, “I think you’re going to want to be the last guy in the room.”  

The head of the Lost Children furrowed his brow, “Crackle?” 

“Trample.”

The Lost Children looked between each other, clearly concerned.  “Well, this will be a fun reunion,” Adamant mused.    

“Context for the rest of us?” Parasite asked as he extended his arm and had something else crack back into place.  

“Trample is the right hand of Stampede, and she never forgave Adamant for getting me away from them.  She’s a Druid who creates rampaging animals that she basically uses like guided missiles,” Exchange explained.  “But she’s pretty, um, she’s a bit umm…” he stammered, not able to find the right words.

“She’s a cunt,” Distortion said, blunt.  “She makes me look nice and she really hates Adamant for pressing her friends head into the ground hard enough her skull exploded.”

“That’d do it,”  I muttered.  

Adamant rolled his neck and shook off the nerves, “Well, we’re gonna have to get over ourselves soon anyways.  Let’s just rip the bandage off.”

As much as he hadn’t sat right with me initially, I was growing to like Adamant and his inclinations to seek out conflict.     

Inside the school was just as run down as the exterior: paint was peeling, most surfaces at least partially covered in dust, and there were spots that looked like the victim of termite exposure.  The school itself was fairly limited and only had a couple classrooms, and only one had any occupants. Two people were laid down, both wearing impromptu bandages made of squares of fabric secured by duct tape.  “Trample, Warden,” Zeal said, stepping in front of us, “The Rogue Sentries, and the Lost Children.”

The woman, who by process of elimination had to be Trample, immediately glared past Zeal and bared her fangs like some kind of wildcat.  “Adamant? You fucking brought Adamant here?” Apart from her rather ugly facial expression, Trample was a gorgeous, delicate, dark-skinned beauty with a mess of black curls cascading down to her shoulders.  “Get him the-”

“Shut up,” Dancer shouted, literally teleporting an inch away from Trample and pressing a hand to Trample’s throat.  “If Zeal wanted them gone, they’d be gone. We’re working with them for now. Deal with it.” 

“She can teleport?” Dragoon asked, suddenly interested.  

“Short range, personal only,” Dancer replied, still clearly not happy with Dragoon.  “And only available for a minute at a time.”

My eyes turned to the other person on the floor, Warden.  “So, what do you do?” 

“I’m a Conjurer.  I make items that can be used to restrain or imprison people,” he replied, averting his eyes and hiding his heterochromia.    

“Kinky,” I replied with a little smirk.    

Unlike Trample, Warden seemed to at least have a decent sense of humor about himself and gave me a little grin.  “It can be if the situation calls for it. Chains, duct tape, bars, rope, etc., I can pull it out of thin air. Depending on the situation, I can make some more abstract stuff too, like road spikes.”  

Zeal moved himself into the middle of the room, making sure all eyes were on him before speaking.  I wasn’t sure if he was deliberately trying to get everyone’s attention because he was now obligated to work for Dragoon or because that was just how he operated.  “This room is going to get far too full with personality if everyone’s in here. Lost Children, Stampede, how about you two get refamiliarized and bury the hatchet.  Sentries, Interface, how about you take the room across the hall and rest up for a few minutes.”

“Shouldn’t we get going, like now?” Eldritch asked, looking around, strangely nervous.  “Aren’t we pushing our luck staying?”

“We might be,” Interface mumbled, “But are they really going to want to attack a crowd of a dozen Adapted?  Especially with one of those being Zeal; he can even make me a badass.”  

My stomach rumbled, “Well, I’m fine with waiting if you guys have something I can eat.” 

Gnaw, as if conjured by a spell, appeared next to me with a brown paper bag.  

“Of course, the guy made of mouths has the food,” Menagerie said with a roll of her eyes.  

Gnaw shrugged and passed off the bag to Parasite and slipped into the other room.  Exchange teetered between which room to enter and ultimately followed us, leaving Adamant and Distortion to deal with the old grudge between the little bands.  

“No one is going to think less of you,” Dragoon said softly as he glanced over his shoulder.  

“I just…it’s scary to see them again.  Warden and Trample are the two who cornered me and made it so they could force me to change.”  The teenager raised a hand and chewed on the edge of his index finger, “I thought I would be ready to see them again, but no… just nope.”

Menagerie reached into the bag and pulled out a small loaf of bread before handing the bag to Exchange, “We all have things like that.  It doesn’t make you weak. It makes you human.”

He nodded and gave her a weak smile, but it was clear that it wasn’t quite sinking in.  Instead, it seemed being the focus was causing him literal discomfort. Looking for a quick scapegoat, he turned to me.  “I never got to ask you, but who did you make earlier?” 

My heart immediately started hammering in my ears as I had a vivid flashback of being paralyzed.  I felt the walls closing in around me, that same pressure I felt as I sustained a duplicate of him.  A gentle hand squeezed my shoulder and pulled me back to center; I mouthed a silent ‘thank you’ to Menagerie as she removed her hand before I turned to answer Exchange.  “Titan,” I replied, reaching to massage my stump and undo the renewed knots of muscle. 

“He’s the guy running all this,” Dragoon explained, fortunately pulling Exchange’s eyes off me.  “His power is to turn the air into molten silicon. Supposedly,” she muttered, thinking out loud, “He fuses the atoms of nitrogen in the air to make  silicon but if he was doing that, the landscape would be an irradiated landscape.”        

Exchange looked down, as if embarrassed somehow.  “He sounds strong.”

“He is,” Eldritch replied.  “He basically melted me down once.  It was…not the most fun to experience if I’m being honest.”  

The blonde kid nodded, looking more embarrassed.  “I’m sorry you’re stuck with me then. I…I fucked up earlier.  I, I couldn’t really hit that chick and I-”

Parasite reached a hand over and grabbed his shoulder, “Dude, chill.”

“But if I was more useful your friend wouldn’t have died!”  

A hush fell over the group as we were all smacked with the fact that Mutant was dead, and that nothing was going to change that.  Exchange blushed, ashamed of himself and tried to get up, only to have a gauntleted hand snag his wrist.  

“Sit,” Dragoon commanded, catching Exchange off guard.  He obliged immediately, looking at our red-headed nerd of a captain like she was the devil herself.  “First things first, Exchange,” she said, “Even if you stepped up your game, the Trillodan would step up theirs.  The only reason that Kalr killed him was because she used those disks. She only used them because we started punching  holes in her. If you’d actually managed to do some serious damage to the demolitionist, who the hell knows what she would have done.”  

“But I-”

“Exchange,” she interrupted, “Let it go.  We’re fighting aliens who exterminate whole planets!  People are bound to die. There’s nothing we can do about it.  We’ve lost two people, Stampede has lost two from the looks of it, and Serpentine has lost a couple as well.  And realistically, before we get the fuck off Vuuldar, we’re going to lose more,” she stated, her voice cracking a little.  

I paid a quick glance to Menagerie and she returned the look: we both heard Dragoon’s steely facade start to break.  

“No matter what we do, the Trillodan are going to strike back twice as hard, and we’re going to have to keep fighting back until they break or until there are none of us left,” she continued, the edge of her eyes beginning to well up with a tear, “And until we’re all gone, we’re going to fight.  Because we’re Adapted. We fight. It’s what we do.”  

Interface reached into the bag and pulled out of their own small loaf of bread, “You know, it’s okay Exchange.  Back on Tso’got, we fought, constantly. We’ve simply done this more than you have. It’s okay that you didn’t do as well as you’d hoped.  The important thing is that you get another chance, another opportunity to prove yourself and do better.” 

He offered a weak smile, “Thanks.”  

As soon as everyone had a loaf of bread, we tore into it, greedily devouring the morsel as if our lives depended on it.  Even though there was nothing particularly noteworthy about the stuff, it was heavenly. A brief moment where we could just be human and enjoy eating.    

“You know,” Interface started to say, a little smile creeping across their face.  Except, they stopped and that smile turned into an expression of horror. “DOWN! EVERYONE DOWN, NOW!!”

Everyone immediately complied, and not a moment too soon.

A thunderous boom shook the structure as hunks of searing hot metal came tearing through the rotting and peeling walls.  Wood splintered and combusted immediately as it came into contact with the scorching hot debris, turning the room into a furnace in a matter of seconds.  Before the ringing had faded from my ears, Parasite was already on his feet, grabbing me and Eldritch, dragging us towards the door.  

I was dimly aware of someone screaming ‘what was that?’ but I couldn’t discern who had shouted.  My vision swam as I was herded back outside, even though I wanted to go back for my unfinished loaf of bread.  I didn’t care that the room was on fire, that was mine and I wanted it.  

When we staggered through the door of the now blazing building, I finally saw what had happened.  The ship we had ‘borrowed’ from the Trillodan had detonated and sent tonnes of heated shrapnel into the school and other surrounding buildings.  If we hadn’t had Interface’s warning to hit the deck, odds were that someone would have gotten ripped apart by the ejected shards of metal.  

“Everyone okay?” Dragoon shouted, helping me focus back on the present and cut through some of the ringing that was plaguing my ears.  “Anyone injured?” 

“We all seem okay,” Zeal replied.  “Interface’s warning was-”

A loud crack reached our ears as Distortion and Adamant dropped to the ground, unconscious.  Dragoon slammed her helmet on and pointed to the far side of the building. “Murphy, grab them!  Let’s get out of the-”

“No, no, don’t do that!” a thunderous voice called out.  “Your friends aren’t hurt, they’ve only been tranquilized.  I simply couldn’t have you running off on me, could I?” 

All of us knew that voice, we’d heard it shortly after coming to the planet.  It had been broadcast into our brains thanks to some mystical piece of technology commanded by the Trillodan.  

From behind the smoldering wreckage of the transport ship, a massive, grey-skinned figure sauntered forward.  Unlike his underlings, this monster didn’t wear bulky power armor. Instead, Commander Zellig was clad in what looked like a flak jacket and a pair of sturdy black trousers to match.  What did concern me was the massive cube of metal he was carrying like some kind of futuristic briefcase. I heard he had something like that when he’d fought against Clemency back on Tso’got; if it was the same thing, it was likely housing some kind of horrifying weapon that was capable of cutting down buildings and God knew what else.    

Eldritch paled.  “We’re not beating him.  Not without Adamant,” he hissed.

“Why do you think I had him put to sleep?” Zellig called back.  “His power is fascinating, but he played his hand when he vocalized his goal before tripping through Salah’s minefield.  I couldn’t have him making himself my nemesis for a few minutes, now could I?”

“There’s a whole lot of us, Zellig,” Dragoon challenged, “And I don’t know if you’ve seen Kalr lately, but she’s seen better days.”  

“The same could be said for Mutant,” he replied, with a smirk.  “Such a waste to lose a valuable specimen. So, I’ll make you an offer, Dragoon.  You all surrender and come with me. There’s no need to endure this pain, because I will be bringing you back with me.  There is no escape from this,” he said, swinging his arms in a wide arc, reminding us of the labyrinth of traps we were confined in.  “Where would you run to that Salah hasn’t already rigged to blow? Come quietly, it’ll be easier.”  

Eldritch had described Zellig as terrifying, as this guy who was more charismatic than Titan and somehow more dangerous.  I had doubted him; I had never been more wrong. The way he said it, even I believed him. We weren’t getting away from this.  He’d laid his own trap and forced us into taking a fight against him without two of our biggest trump cards: we couldn’t have an unbeatable champion or a proper means of escape.  Even if Zeal empowered us, we’d have to run headlong into a deadly maze and even then, I wasn’t sure if we could run fast enough to get away from him. From all accounts, Zellig’s grotesque strength translated to him having incredible speed as well.      

“I’ll give you a choice too,” Dragoon said, refusing to be intimidated.  “You walk away and we don’t rip you to pieces.”  

The Trillodan commander rolled his neck, readying himself for a fight as he set the cube of metal down.  “Oh, Dragoon,” he chuckled, his lips parting to reveal twin rows of deadly incisors, “That’s exactly what I was hoping to hear.”  

Previous ChapterNext Chapter

Illuminate: Stranded

Everything seemed to drag.  Everyone in our little party couldn’t take back anything that had happened; they couldn’t rewind and prevent the tragedy we had suffered.  

None of us could bring back Mutant, no matter how strong we were.

Parasite and Eldritch were arguably the most distraught out of all of us, but for different reasons.  Parasite had been the one who mercifully put Mutant out of his misery, and Eldritch was the one who stripped the flesh away, leaving nothing for the Trillodan to study.  Dragoon had left a small explosive charge to char and scatter his bones to the wind.  

His dying wish was that he wouldn’t be used as a tool for the enemy.  He would not be one more source of information for them, and we had honored his request, no matter how hard it was.    

As sad as I was, I wanted someone to be angry with.  Mutant had been my friend! He was the one who had found me and pulled me out of my shell, introduced me to the Rogue Sentries and given me a place where I belonged.  Even though my life had turned into a shit storm, at least it had some purpose now. Despite everything that happened to me, I’d still probably prefer this to hiding in a darkened apartment, watching reruns of shitty shows.  

The one person I could probably be mad at for all of this was Titan, but he was hundreds of kilometers away.  In reality, he was the one to blame for us going to war with the most powerful beings in the universe. I could have screamed at Dragoon for letting Mutant fight that Trillodan giant, Kalr, but I knew that someone had to do it.  He had known the risks, and he’d done his best.  

It just… hadn’t been good enough.  

The only person I found the strength to be angry at was myself.  I had conjured Titan a few seconds too late. If I had just started with that, everyone would have been okay… or at least alive.  The only people now who weren’t worse for wear were Parasite and Eldritch. Even though Parasite had taken an explosive to the chin, his stamina had let him bounce back.  All his due diligence with exercise and training had made that passenger of his all the more resilient.  

And Eldritch was still Eldritch.  The suit of Neklim always did its best to restore the host.  

We continued forward, with Dragoon leading the way towards where we hoped the generator for the force field was waiting.  Our captain had quickly tinkered with her helmet to let her screen for booby traps that might have left for us, compliments of that Trillodan demolitionist who had been fighting alongside Kalr.  It was slow going, but the last thing we needed was someone who didn’t have a healing factor taking an explosion to the jaw before we were free of this cage. Once it was down, we’d have a way out of here and we could bring Serpentine along with us.  

I still wasn’t thrilled about the idea of being around Zeal, but we really didn’t have a choice at this point.  Adamant’s group was strong, but they weren’t well designed to withstand an ambush. Worse yet, Vuuldar hadn’t been the tumultuous crucible of conflict that Tso’got was; the Lost Children simply weren’t battle hardened in the same way as a lot of the Adapted from Ciel were.  Adamant was the exception, but Distortion and Exchange simply weren’t of the same caliber.  

I rubbed my stump, grimacing again.  Every time I worried and dwelt on the negative, my body liked to remind me that my arm had been taken off my body about fourteen hours ago.  The muscle bunched up around my stump and I winced, doing my best not to scream while I massaged the knots out as best I could. It was hard to believe that it hadn’t even been a full day since that Trillodan asshat had mangled my arm bad enough that Dragoon had to sever it.  If we’d been back on Tso’got, I’d still be in a hospital bed, not running around and fighting like a maniac.  

                If we didn’t have those restorative tinctures from Organelle, I wouldn’t have lived through that ordeal.  Now that we were out of our healing potions, injuries weren’t impermanent. Without Mutant, we’d lost one of our fellows with a healing factor to absorb damage for us.  

I cursed softly as my arm tightened again, the thought of the hole Mutant left on the team aggravating the muscle around my stump.

                We’d only been on this planet for twenty hours and it had been harrowing.  We’d been subject to multiple ambushes, a literal plague, visions in dreams, and the loss of one of our own.  Even though we’d had a small measure of success in finding the Lost Children, we were all in desperate need of sleep and another good meal.  We’d had a little bit to eat at Adamant’s safe house but since then we’d also been walking for hours and had to fight a retinue of Trillodan operatives.  

                We didn’t dare enter buildings for fear of traps put in place by that demolitionist, even though we were sure that some places had to have food stored.  Adamant offered to retrieve some since he could make himself bomb-proof, but Dragoon wasn’t about to have him expend strength to get us some snacks; it was starting to get to the point that I wanted to scream at her to stop being so stubborn.  it had been a hell of a day, and we were all tired and hungry. Right now, creature comforts would have gone a long way in terms of bolstering morale.  

But, I knew she was trying to keep us focused after the death of Mutant. There was a chance she was making a face under her helmet, but we’d never know if she was hurting or not.  Knowing Dragoon, she was deliberately being the voice of logic and pragmatism because that was the only way she could cope.  

                “I think we found it,” Dragoon muttered, pointing to a glowing pylon.  It looked like a massive generator had been attached to a piece of purple colored quartz that hummed with energy.  Even though we were easily three hundred meters away, we could feel the electricity in the air and practically taste the energy it was letting off.  

“It’s going to be rigged to blow,” Parasite pointed out.  “The whole point of them keeping it inside their own forcefield was to stymie outside interference.  That bitch would make damn sure one of Zeal’s group couldn’t walk up and smack it aside.” He winced and sucked in a hiss of air, “And I don’t know about you guys, but I’m not about to walk through a futuristic minefield.”   

Without warning, Adamant stepped forward, unafraid of whatever traps had been left for him to trigger.  “It’s okay,” he replied, turning his head to flash us a confident smirk, “As long as I get to dictate, I can’t lose.”   He took a deep breath and rolled his neck, getting in the zone. “I will reach and destroy that generator safely.”    

The air around his body glowed green as he walked at a brisk clip forward, leaving us all tense, waiting for something to detonate.  As expected, the ground erupted with fire, electricity, and jets of purple plasma. The ground shook and debris went flying in every direction as Adamant continued to stride through the hellish no-man’s land that the demolitionist had constructed.  

However, it had all been deliberately placed to stop anyone from disabling the force field’s generator.  With a goal that was diametrically opposed to his, all those munitions and advanced weaponry might have been rubber bands and water balloons.  The only ‘damage’ he took was his hair getting messy and his clothes being stained with dirt and ash. As Adamant approached the generator, he pressed a hand forward and it crumpled like a tin can under a hydraulic press.  Even though it was clearly made to endure tremendous abuse, it didn’t stand a chance against Adamant.  

Adamant, as if guided by external sources, reached forward and grabbed the crystal, crushing it in his fist; the thrumming stopped and the energy vanished, leaving silence.  As soon as he set the hunk of, now inert, rock down, Admant’s glow faded and he gave us a smile.  

He was right; as long as he got to choose his fights, he couldn’t lose.  But he was only powerful in incredibly narrow scopes; even if he could hold his own in a fight with Infinite, he had no way to accomplish the insane feats she was capable of.  No matter how hard he wanted to, I couldn’t see him warping a gigantic vessel through the void of space. I also hoped he wasn’t capable of replicating the phenomenon that Dragoon had described where Infinite almost suffocated her because she was too stressed. 

It made me worried about what would happen if I ended up too stressed.  Was I bound to kill someone when put under pressure?

“Fuck,” I hissed under my breath as my stump tightened again.  

Still, thanks to Adamant, we had our first real win all night.  Escaping and evading capture didn’t really feel like a win, especially with the death of Mutant.  But this… this was genuine damage inflicted against our opponents that would take time and resources to remedy.   

“So, now what?” Distortion asked, her snarky demeanor making a resurgence.  The only positive about Mutant’s death was that it had managed to shut her up for a little while and buy us a few hours of being snark-free.  I got the sense that grace period was expiring.  

“We go find Zeal,” Menagerie replied, “And we group up with whoever Serpentine has left.  We need the extra numbers, and hopefully something to eat.”  

“Amen to that,” Parasite grumbled, “But it means we are going to have to go deeper into the demolitionist’s thicket of doom.  Even if we don’t go into a building, we’re going to go past dozens of those charges from every which way. I’m assuming,” he continued, looking to Adamant, “That you can’t use a purpose indefinitely.”

He shook his head no.

“Okay, so he can’t be our eternal blast-proof man.  The next best thing would be to use Menagerie and Lightshow to make decoys.”

“But I’d rather not have you give me another round of CPR,” I muttered, massaging my chest.  The cracked ribs still hurt like hell and I was reminded of that fact every time I took a deep breath.  “And Menagerie is already way too pale to keep pushing herself. We can’t have her lapsing into another coma.”  

Despite her being the quietest among us, Menagerie was arguably the most fanatic.  This wasn’t the first time she’d nearly done herself in either: back on Tso’got she had thrown herself into a two-day coma because she animated all her drawing in a notebook to save us from Beleth and his gang.  I knew that if I didn’t remind her, she’d gladly knock herself out to try and avoid another loss. Even though we’d spent three weeks in space, Menagerie still felt the loss of Geyser like it had been yesterday. Between losing him and losing Mutant, I knew that Menagerie was willing to go all the way to keep our team alive.  

The last thing I wanted to do was lose another friend because she got stupid and hot-headed.  If I couldn’t risk using my power for fear of killing myself, neither could she. If I was going to have to live and be miserable, so would she.  Her glance back at me told me that she’d gotten my message loud and clear. Whether she liked it or not, I didn’t give a shit. Today was rough enough, and I wasn’t about to see someone else kill themselves.  

My visit with…whoever the fuck that alien was, had done a strangely good job of settling me down.  Where I had been panicked earlier and ready to just curl up and die, that thing had somehow reminded me it was okay to be alive and that it was okay to struggle and get up.  They said they knew my pain all too well and they had clearly recovered from that crippling loss. If that thing could manage it, why couldn’t I?

I knew it was an optimistic mode of thinking that was bound to take a huge hit in the coming hours, but for now I figured I might as well try not to be entirely fatalistic and hell bent on getting myself put into a shallow grave or into Eldritch’s meat storage.  

All eyes turned to Dragoon for leadership, and I could tell she was struggling. 

She was saved by a familiar voice calling after us, “If you want, I think I can help!” 

We all rounded, ready for a fight, but instead surprised to see the remarkably androgyny Interface sprinting after us.  

“How did—“

“I can sense electronics and the flow of electricity,” Interface explained, interrupting Dragoon, “Besides, obviously, I lied about how far away I was.  On the off chance someone was listening, I didn’t want them to know I was actually pretty close. Besides, I’m no good in a fight, not like what you guys have been doing.”  She glanced over at Adamant, “And, that guy set off like fifty different bombs. It wasn’t exactly hard to figure out where to go.”  

“How can you help?” Dragoon pressed, trying to keep Interface on task.  

They grinned and pointed a thumb backwards, “A few blocks back there’s one of those slug ships that the Trillodan were using as prisoner transports.  I can take it over and fly us over the place. Even if they rigged the buildings and ground to blow, I’m willing to bet they didn’t rig the sky to detonate since none of Serpentine can fly.”  

“It seems too good to be true,” Menagerie pointed out.  “Like we’re being suckered into a trap.”  

“Trillodan can be victims of oversight, too,” Parasite countered.  “As stupid powerful as they are, they sure as fuck aren’t perfect. Arrogance does make people prone to doing some dumb shit.”

“But this is a huge oversight,” Adamant countered.  “These are people who have been destroying planets for generations.  Surely they know a thing or two about prolonged engagements and war campaigns.”   

“But they weren’t expecting us to be in the shield,” Dragoon muttered, thinking out loud.  “They didn’t know your powers, but they knew ours. We were televised and recorded, put on display for everyone to marvel at.  But on Vuuldar, the infrastructure isn’t there. The information isn’t as readily broadcasted, and the Trillodan don’t have it.”  She looked up at Interface. “You sure you can pilot the thing?” 

Interface nodded. “Positive.  It has circuitry for me to entwine with and control.  As all powerful as they are, the Trillodan still use the same name-brand electricity to make their shit run.”  Interface looked at Dragoon as if they could see through her helmet. “I can feel the explosives that are hidden around here.  As good as that sensor in your helmet is, I’m going to be more accurate. Everything has to be open to receiving a signal and I can feel that.”  They waved their hands around, frustrated they couldn’t explain it any better. “Just, trust me. I can avoid walking into any kind of trap that the purple bitch left for you.”

“And since that crazy bitch melted one of them,” Distortion muttered, “They’re probably too pussy to come back and try again.”

Adamant gave her a sideways glare but didn’t admonish her.  She had a point; I had literally conjured a duplicate of Titan and melted away a third of the Trillodan juggernaut, Kalr.  It was likely giving them pause and making their approach much more cautious. The upside of not knowing much about my Alteration meant that they didn’t either.  

“Interface, grab that ship for us,” Dragoon declared after a moment.  

“Great!  That being said, I still don’t know where Zeal is,” the androgyny Adapted cautioned.  

“All we have to do is navigate towards the middle and see where there is an absence of explosives.  If we can find a void, we can probably assume that Zeal has set up shop.” 

Interface nodded, satisfied and took a deep breath before sprinting back up the road.  

“This feels suspicious,” Eldritch muttered, “Like way too convenient.  Why would they leave a prison transport parked towards the fringes of their own labyrinth?”

“It’d keep Zeal from smashing it,” Exchange said, speaking for the first time in a while.  “If he’s as strong as you guys say, putting anything near him is a good way to just cause damage.”

I shrugged. “Maybe they’re just arrogant and knew he’d never get a chance to waltz out here and take it.  Parasite isn’t wrong about them being arrogant… I mean, over confidence has been a pretty common thing for the Trillodan we’ve encountered.  They think they’re better than us, and they’re kind of right in some ways.” I debated mentioning body count, but that seemed like a slight against my dearly departed friend. 

Even without expounding further, the message was well received.  So far not one of us had been able to go up against those operatives.  Even fighting them two on one hadn’t yielded us much success. We’d managed to claim a few arms, but knowing the Trillodan, they were going to be able to have a new one before the morning.  We might have super powers but they had technology and experience closing the gap. The only insurmountable spikes in power we’d managed involved Eldritch burning the mass from ten people and me taxing my body so hard that I lapsed into cardiac arrest.  

And right now, neither of those abrupt spikes in power was available to us.  Adamant could likely set himself to win against one of the operatives, but I wasn’t sure if he could make himself immune to two or three at once.  

The conversation was cut by a thrum disturbing the otherwise still night as a ship zipped over to us.  Inside, Interface’s body was unconscious in the driver’s seat, strapped in to make sure they couldn’t go flopping around while they flew. 

“All aboard,” a speaker squawked at us, “And do hold on.  Trillodan technology is a little bit finicky. Using a standard combustion engine is easy enough, but this fucking thing uses electromagnetism to stay aloft.  It could be a little bumpy while I figure it out.”

“Thank God it’s built like a tank then,” I replied.  I couldn’t help but smile a little; making a quick jab like that felt so strangely normal and so much more like me given the last few hours.  It was ruined by Interface making a wobbly ascent and sending me tumbling into a wall; I slammed against my stump and nearly screamed as pain shot through the left side of my body.  My teeth grinded together as I clenched my jaw to endure, to bear with the pain. Dragoon still believed in me even with the Alteration, and Parasite had exhausted himself to revive me.  

They couldn’t know how much pain I was in.  I couldn’t let them worry about me. Nobody had time for that shit.

While we hovered above the city, I looked on with morbid curiosity at the still form of Interface.  Taking a few steps forward, I poked their shoulder, expecting some kind of automatic response from the vacant shell of a body.  

“Weird, isn’t it?” a quiet voice asked from the ships speaker.  I noticed that Interface only used the speaker right above my head, still keeping the conversation private.

“Definitely.  You ever worry someone’s going to kill your body while you’re inside a machine?” 

“All the time.  But, you learn how to hide yourself when you’re me.” 

I looked down at the figure, still trying to discern exactly what gender Interface was.  It was beginning to irk me that I couldn’t get a read on them.  

“You can try,” that voice laughed quietly, “But you’ll be guessing for a long time.”

“How did you know?” I asked, unsure of where I looked to ‘make eye contact’ with Interface.  I finally settled on the dashboard of foreign controls.  

“You think I don’t notice the way people scrutinize me and try to decide what kind of person I am?  Please, people have been doing it since I was fourteen.”

I glanced at the figure, realizing that I couldn’t determine their age either.  “And you’re…how old now?”

“Twenty-two.  I know, I look like I’m still sixteen.”

“Some people pay good money to keep looking young,” I pointed out as I took a step forward and looked out through the ships forward display.  The Trillodan vessel didn’t have any windows, instead opting to have a camera feed input to simulate what a pane of glass would reveal. It was a bit chilling to look out and see this whole swath of city just…desolate.  No activity, no one driving around, nothing. Even though the clusters of buildings would be considered slums back on Tso’got, the disconcerting bit was how lifeless it all was.  

I couldn’t help but wonder how many other innocent people had been used as fuel to make those insidious slimes the Trillodan had used against us.  We’d seen easily forty people melted alive to construct one massive ooze, but those people could have all come from a single block or two. The force field was a six block radius; how many other innocent people had been dissolved because the Trillodan wanted another weapon to throw at Serpentine and Stampede?     

Interface wasn’t flying straight but instead doing a slow spiral in, using their own natural detection to try and pinpoint any location that wasn’t riddled with explosives to signify where our Adapted comrades might be.  

“So, you nearly died, and recently too,” the voice said through the speaker with alarming confidence. 

I glared back at the limp form strapped to the chair. “How?”

“I just kind of…know.”  

My glare intensified. “Doesn’t answer my question.”  

There was a pause as the ship dipped for a moment before pulling back up. “Sorry, though I might have found it,” Interface announced to everyone before cutting back to the single speaker near me.  “I recognize when people are different.”

“That doesn’t have anything to do with your Adaptation,” I countered.  “Your thing is about detecting electricity, isn’t it?” 

“True, but it does have to do with my personality.”

I wanted to call the Projector ridiculous, but I remembered what Exchange had said about the person from Stampede who had known that he was going to become an Adapted.  She had apparently been neurodivergent and that had been adjust when she had undergone changes thanks to Adapting. It wasn’t too big a stretch that Interface had experienced something similar.  

“Growing up, I learned how to spot people who were hiding something they were ashamed of: trans people, homosexuals, adulterers, criminals, or any other reason you can be self-loathing.  Bad or good, I knew how to spot people who were not being true to themselves. Part of the reason I’m so fluid is because I don’t know who I want to be. When you aren’t happy in your own skin, you learn how to spot it in others.”  

“I’m—“

“I’ve spent a lot of time around Infinite,” Interface said, their generally upbeat tone of voice entirely flattened.  “There’s things she’s done that are only possible BECAUSE she’s Infinite…but that doesn’t mean she likes who she is.” There was a pause as Interface lowered the ship, again resulting in a disappointing result.  “She isn’t the only Altered I know, and I’m well aware of what kind of threats an Alteration can pose to you. She might not almost kill herself, but she’s nearly killed several people around her. Infinite, at her core, is a sweetheart who was given the biggest weapon in history and she’s afraid of it.”

Interface didn’t have to announce the parallel to myself for me to understand their point.  “But, how do you know I almost died,” I whispered. 

“Too upbeat,” Interface replied, “You’re too happy given what happened to Mutant and for what happened to you.  I wasn’t expecting you to crack a joke at all, and you’ve made several in my presence. You’re doing your best to counter balance and trick yourself into believing you’re okay.”

“You say it like it’s a bad thing.”

There was another pause as the androgyous Projector thought about what to say. “No.  But, it’s dangerous. When push comes to shove, don’t be dumb and get a hero complex.”

I shook my head. “I won’t.  And you’re not wrong, but it isn’t just nearly dying that woke me up.  I…saw something. Dragoon saw it too earlier: the person who made the Adapted.  Or, at least the guy who played an integral part in creating us.”

For once, something seemed to completely baffle Interface.  “Wait…made us? What? How… I mean, what?” 

“Tell you later,” I said, “Because I don’t want to have to repeat myself to Titan and everyone else.  You know he’s going to want to know.” 

I felt like I could feel Interface pouting through the machinery, but they didn’t offer me a rebuttal.  Instead, our pilot addressed the whole ship. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are finally here,” Interface announced over the speakers of the ship, setting us down in front of what looked like people’s attempt at making a school. 

Made of cheap wood that was rotting and paint that chipping away, this building looked as much like a drug den as it did a place of education. But the little play structures in the yard around it, the little murals, it was clear what the people here were aiming for. My parents told me that they would give so much for things to feel familiar again. Sure, the kids didn’t know, but they remembered all too well how things differed.

Even though kids had never seen a school on Earth, the people who built it wanted to preserve that little bit of their culture. It was unfortunate that it had gotten so little maintenance over the years and had fallen into disarray. 

As the ship set down, Parasite was pushed forward, and I saw why. 

Someone rushed out at us at a blinding speed; what was disarming was that his whole torso had been contorted into a massive mouth. It was as if his ribs had been bent out of shape and formed into a fucked up set of jagged teeth.

“We’re friendly!” Parasite shouted as he rolled to the side, avoiding a massive chomp. “We are the Rogue Sentries,” he exclaimed, narrowly evading a bite that would have torn his arm clean off, “We are here to see Zeal!” 

“Gnaw, enough!” A commanding voice boomed from the front of the school. 

The man with the teeth in his torso stopped and stumbled forward as if he had been smacked upside the head. As soon as he seemed to be in control of himself again, his chest twisted and reset itself with a series of nauseating crunches. 

When his torso wasn’t a twisted mass of teeth, Gnaw was actually fairly well put together. He was average height and a bit stocky, but it was clear that there was plenty of muscle to pack a punch there. His face was strangely thin despite the rest of him being a bit thicker, and his voice was chain-smoker scratchy as he muttered a quick apology to Parasite. 

“You must be Zeal,” Dragoon said, stepping off the ship and stepping past our fighter.

“And you must be Dragoon.”  My attention turned to the man lingering in the doorway. He was tall, slender, and I could feel the magnetic confidence from 20 meters away. He had the chiseled jaw, the long blonde hair, and somehow a dapper look that made you want to listen to him. While Gnaw wore a pair of shorts and not much else, Zeal was wearing a dress shirt, slacks, and what looked like a reinforced peacoat.

How the fuck was he still so clean? There wasn’t a spot on the man, like he was magically impervious to dirt and grime. 

Zeal regarded Dragoon with a bit of suspicion as she staggered forward.  “You’re injured, and you were never supposed to end up coming here. You must have had quite the day.”

“Same goes for you.  I’m sure that you’ve noticed we are stuck here for now,” Dragoon replied, stopping about ten paces away from the leader of Serpentine.  “Interface, let them know what happened.”  

The androgyny Projector waved. “Zellig paid a visit to us up on the ship.  It was um…less than ideal. Turns out the ship that we made wasn’t built to withstand the Trillodan shelling it over and over again.”  

Zeal grinned a little, which was peculiar given what Interface had just told him.  “But, let me guess, our overlord Titan survived?”

Interface frowned, clearly perturbed with his choice of words. “Titan wasn’t on board when the ship was attacked.  Infinite was, but she couldn’t save the people with her and the ship itself.”  

“And we’re going to do what now?” Zeal asked as a woman walked out of the door behind him.  She was slender and wearing a bodysuit that had a few armored plates protecting her vitals. The woman had an intense stare, her eyes flicking between everyone behind Dragoon, as if she was looking for some reason to pick a fight.  “Does Titan have a plan, or is he ready to accept that this is too big a game for him to be playing?” Zeal said, his face curling into a sinister smile.  

I was finding him much less attractive now.  

Dragoon took a step forward, surprising the head of Serpentine. “Interface knows where Titan is.  We are going to get there and figure out a way off this shitty planet.”

“And how—”

“The evacuation ships,” Dragoon interrupted, answering his unfinished question, “I can repair them.  They were made to be damn near invincible, but they were built at the top of a space elevator and left hanging out in orbit on purpose.   If they were ever to touch down, they weren’t going to escape a planet’s gravitational pull; however, they will survive the impact and stay pretty damn intact.”

Zeal was curious enough not to interrupt or inject his own cynical musings as she paused to take a breath.  

“Most of the weight from those ships was due to cryo storage.  Heavy pods, tons of space required to seal most passengers. We can cut that out since we don’t need prolonged stay in transit.  It took people up to two decades to get to Marn but, thanks to Infinite, we can do it in a matter of weeks.”  

“Your plan is to just reduce the weight to make it able to fly?  That seems rather optimistic of you. I thought you were supposed to be some kind of master engineer.”

Dragoon shook her head. “You’re thinking too narrow.  I’m planning to cut the weight and recruit other Adapted to make it work. We’ll need rocket fuel, and Chemtrail can make fuel that would melt a modern engine.  Even though I can overhaul and engine to be efficient and durable, I will take advantage of Toolkit to make it as close to perfect as possible. And to make sure nothing melts , Armorsmith will use her ability to make metals durable and resistant to heat.”  Dragoon took her helmet, wincing as she tucked it under her bum arm for a moment. “But lastly, I’m going to need your help.”

Zeal raised an eyebrow. “Me?  Why?” 

“Because I know that your gift can make people withstand Overexposure for a lot longer than normal.  I know that Armorsmith will exhaust herself long before we can get a fully fortified ship; I need you to come with us to see this through and get us off world.” 

Zeal barked a laugh out, like some heckler in a crowd.  “You think I have any interest in going back with you? You think we want to keep losing our people thanks to Titan’s shitty war?”  His smile turned to a sneer. “So how about you take your naive idealism and get the fuck out of here. I’m plenty happy standing by myself.  Unlike you all, I don’t feel a need to be at that self-aggrandizing windbags beck and call.”

Serpentine had five people when we had showed up on Vuuldar; the fact we only saw three was damning.

“If Titan wants me to come with, he can come get me himself.  Until then, piss off.”  

As Zeal turned around, dismissing us, Parasite stepped forward and raised his voice, “How about you stop being a coward?”

The woman in the doorway glared daggers at Parasite, her first words to us a  banshee’s shriek. “How dare—”

Zeal stopped her with a raise of his hand. “Enough, Dancer.”  He took two large strides towards Parasite. “I know of you and your little band of misfits.  I know what you do,” he muttered, reproachful, “Think twice before you open your fucking mouth again.”  

Everyone on our side of the line was mortified when Parasite started laughing.  “God you’re fucking pathetic,” he cackled. “Such a big man, content to hide like a pussy.”    

Zeal was so baffled it looked like he was about to have an aneurysm. 

“I mean, just hiding out here, in a fucking run down school?  That’s the legacy you’re going to leave behind here, Zeal? This is where you’re making your last stand?  What a joke!” 

“You fucking—”

Parasite stepped past Dragoon, making sure all eyes were on him.  “You are such a pathetic, washed up, worn out, sad sack waste of space.  And normally I wouldn’t waste a second on a loser like you. But, Dragoon says she needs you to do something.  So, Zeal, if you’re not too big a pussy, how about a little wager. You and me, man to man. When you lose, you and your idiot cronies come with us.”  

Zeal’s face literally twitched with rage as he replied, “Fine by me.”

I glanced at Dragoon, and saw a surprisingly calm expression on her face.  Parasite was by far the least injured among us, and this was his arena. Zeal was an Enhancer who adjusted his own attributes at the cost of his sanity, but he was always forced to engage in a fist fight.  What made him so dangerous was that he could infect others with his power; Serpentine as a group were all gifted with mild Enhancer powers beyond whatever they had previously. That was what set them up so well as a collective.  

Parasite had been clever enough to play to his arrogance and nullified one huge aspect of Zeal’s power.  Despite his penchant as a jester, Parasite was a clever bastard. He’d just suckered Zeal into a fight with a handicap and he’d already managed to put him on emotional tilt before they had even started.  

But, even though I’d seen him go toe-to-toe with some heavy hitters, I’d also seen him beaten to shit more than once.  And Zeal…well, you didn’t get a reputation like his for nothing. He was a monster who had been doing this for almost as long as Titan and been incredibly successful doing it.  There were plenty of bodies in his wake and one more wasn’t going to bother him a single bit.  

As I watched Parasite square off against him, I was worried that our fighter had bitten off more than he could chew. 

Knowing Zeal, if he won, he wasn’t going to make his victory clean, and Parasite definitely knew the wager he had made.  

Either Parasite could knock out Zeal, or we were about to watch another teammate die.    


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Illuminate: Casualty

“Come on,” Parasite whispered as he continued driving his hands down, keeping a consistent rhythm of one-hundred beats per minute.  It had easily been five minutes since Parasite had started compressions. Five minutes of time for people to wander over and look at me, to see him desperately trying to keep my system running even if it wanted to quit.  

Sweat was pouring down Parasite’s face as he did his best to regulate his breathing.  Giving CPR was taxing work, and knowing him, he wasn’t using his passenger to help him.  If I knew my teammate, he was going to be doing his best to save me using only the strength that he had worked for, not something gifted by some cosmic fluke.  

While Parasite had been hammering away on my chest, Eldritch had wandered over beside us, holding a hand above my mouth and on my neck to see if I started breathing again or gained a pulse of my own somehow.  

“Come on,” Parasite grunted, “You can’t quit on me like this!  Don’t you fucking dare!”  

I was still completely rag-dolled, a prisoner in my own body, watching him struggle attempting to resuscitate me.  I could see him toil, but I couldn’t tell him to simply give up, to let me die. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t open my mouth and insist that this would be better for all of us if I was to simply fade away.  I could die on a high note, saving everyone. For the first time in my life, I felt powerful and done some genuinely good for the group. Copying Titan was the greatest feat I was ever going to manage and I wanted it to be the last thing I did for the Rogue Sentries.  

Others had their moment in the sun and I finally had mine.  I silently pleaded for him to stop concerning himself with me and just let me expire.  But damn it all, the bastard was determined. Just when I thought he was going to tire and stop, he kept at it.  

“Come on!” he yelled, getting desperate after another few minutes of effort, “Come on God damn it!  Wake up! I know you’re in there! Wake, UP!”  

“Murphy-“ Nick whispered, his face just out of my field of view.  

“No,” he snarled, “Don’t you dare.  She isn’t cold yet and she won’t be.  I don’t care how long it’s been. When I run out of strength, then I’ll fucking stop.  Until then, I’m keeping this stupid bitch alive!” 

“Murphy she-“

A tear started dripping down Parasite’s cheek as he looked on my limp face, “No.  I will not give up on her. I will not be the only joker for this group. I will not let that happen.  You fucking hear me, Lightshow,” he screamed, his voice breaking, “Never gonna happen!” 

No, no, no.  Parasite needed to let me go.  He needed to quit wasting his energy.  Who the hell knew when the Trillodan were going to come back?  The team would need all the strength they could get; the last thing we needed was a fighter who was gassed out.  I begged for him to stop, to let me fade, to just leave me in the road so they can keep running. Didn’t he know that there were so many people who could use his help besides me?  

Instead, he refused to stop hammering away on my heart.  He wouldn’t listen to my silent imploring. The prick was being just as stubborn as I was and I hated him for it.  

“Come on,” he begged, “Come on, Lightshow.  Come back. I know you’re in there! Come on, Rebecca!  Stay with us.”  

If my lips could move, I might have told him that Rebecca was long gone.  After what had happened today, after losing my arm, after the incident with Tol, after what I’d done to Overexpose, I wasn’t sure who Rebecca was anymore.  I wasn’t sure if that same girl still existed in my head or if she’d been shattered entirely.    

I used to understand my identity.  For a time, I was confident enough with my own personhood.  Even after I Adapted, even once my life was thrown for a spin after my foster family kicked me out, I still held tight to a shred of my identity.  Sure, I kept it well guarded and refused to share my true self with the world, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t sure of who I was. I hid my authentic self behind a wall of snarky humor and little quips that kept people from digging too deep into what I was or where I came from.  

It’s why I had gotten on so well with Parasite; we were birds of a feather in that way.  Neither of us wanted to show how vulnerable and raw those nerves were. We were both orphaned in a manner of speaking.  I wasn’t sure which was worse: losing your family to a car accident or having them fade away from your life because they were unrepentant drug addicts.  Both of us had an unspoken bond that neither enjoyed thinking about. For better or worse, it was a chord that tied us together and shaped us on a fundamental level as kids.  Each of us had felt alone at home for years and for each of us, the Rogue Sentries had become a new family.      

As much as I hated him for it, I knew why Parasite was refusing to let me die.

“Let me,” a new voice said softly, “Come on man, catch your breath.”  It was strange to hear Adamant speak so softly, like he was someone else for a moment.  Every bit of harsh edge and toughened survivor faded away to display a strangely gentle caregiver as he placed his hands and gave Murphy a chance to rest.  “Talk to her,” he insisted as he began compressions, “If she’s there, she needs a friend to help coax her out.” 

I would have paid anything for him to quit.  Hadn’t I endured enough? Couldn’t this be the capper for my legacy?  Couldn’t I just die having saved my friends?  

At the periphery of my consciousness, I knew that Parasite was squeezing my hand, trying to convey some life back into me.  “Please,” he whispered, shaky, “Please don’t leave me. I don’t want to lose my sister.” He leaned closer to my head, his voice dropping to a barely perceptible level, “They quit on me.  Please, please be better than them.”   

Something inside me stirred, wishing I could reply. 

Parasite, damn him, was right; I couldn’t just abandon him, or any of them.  As fucked up as we all were, we were our own little family and the last thing I should do is abandon them like Murphy’s parents had.  We owe it to each other to be there for one another…even when we didn’t feel like we could get up again.

All of us were broken, all of us were seeking someone to cling to for strength.  For all our powers and prowess, we were all so weak and helpless on our own. It was why we clung together so passionately, it was why Murphy kept hammering away on my chest even after he was driving himself to the point of exhaustion.      

For the first time since that Trillodan fuck cut off my arm, I wanted to live.  I didn’t want to leave Parasite alone, and I didn’t want to abandon my friends. I will my body to respond, to scream, to cry, to make a joke, to slap him, to do anything.  But, even with my change in heart, I was still completely paralyzed.  Nothing responded no matter how loud I could try to protest. In a cruel twist of irony, I could actually see the edges of my vision fading away, crumbling as my view of the world narrowed.  

No, no, no, no!  I finally wanted to live!  Why the hell would this be taken from me?  

My vision narrowed to a single needlepoint of light, and then it all dimmed.  


“Parasite!” I screamed.  I nearly jumped at the sound of my own voice, baffled that my vocal chords worked again.  My arm shot up, reaching out, and I was surprised that I could see my arm. I turned my head, perplexed; I could see just fine but there was nothing to see here.  I wasn’t with my team anymore and I had no idea who or what had taken me.  

The closest thing I could liken it to was Distortions little in-between; there was nothing here but me and my thoughts in an infinite void.  

I felt my chest tighten as I looked on in desperation, forlorn, infuriated that I’d slipped away.  My fingers clenched down into my palms until my hands hurt as I screamed in agony; it was like losing my parents all over again.  

Why had I let myself lay there and want to die?  Why had I been okay with fading away when I could see how much it was going to hurt him?  I craned my neck, looking into the void above me, “Fuck you! I want to go back! Do you hear me?” 

“I certainly do,” a quiet voice replied.

I whipped around, bewildered that there was someone standing behind me.  Whoever this was, they weren’t human. They had four legs protruding from what looked like an insect abdomen that was covered in folds of grey skin.  Towards the front of the lower section, there was a humanoid torso that stuck out, like some kind of alien centaur. The top half seemed to have an almost human skeleton if you were willing to discount the fact that they had four arms instead of two.  What stood out to me though was the fact that they looked gaunt, wizened, and like someone who was treading on the edge of collapse and had been for a long time. Their long hair occluded their face even though it was thinning and greyed and their hands looks arthritic and worn down from decades of hard work.  

Despite the ghoulish appearance, I didn’t draw away.  Even though this being seemed like a monster, there was something strangely reassuring about them, like a euphoric sense of deja vu.  As if someone I’d already met this thing before.  

“Who are you?” I whispered aloud.  “Where are we?” 

The figure reached up and pulled the hair out of their face, revealing a pair of gargantuan blue eyes on a face that otherwise looked like it belonged to a human.  “For now, I’m afraid I can’t be giving out my name. Things are too…volatile shall we say.” Despite their appearance, the voice that came from the alien was a warm and gentle voice, like one might expect from a nice, middle aged guidance counselor.    

“What do you mean?”

Their lips curled into a soft smile, “The Trillodan are hardly a friend to freaks like us, are they?  Anything they can’t control, they burn.”  

“I don’t-“

“One of your group has actually met me,” the wizened alien told me, “A girl by the name of Dragoon.  Well, her Adapted name I suppose. I believe her real name was Alexis Trent.”  

Dragoon had an incident before we set out where she woke up and was raving about seeing the people who made us, the people who created the Adapted.  I hadn’t spoken up and discredited her, but I had to admit that, at the time, she sounded like she was off her fucking rocker. But now, seeing this, experiencing this, I have to admit that I was wrong.  

“So, you’re the person who made us?”   

   The figure slowly shook their head, “Yes, and also no.  You, especially, we did not make. You, my dear Lightshow, are something that we had not foreseen in our wildest dreams.”

“We,” I echoed, “There’s more than one of you?” 

“There are a few dozen of us still alive.  What made you all was something we worked on for a long, long time.”

I frowned, “But you’re being awfully hush-hush about it since I was one of the damned recipients of your project,” I pointed out.  “If you can tell me anything about myself, it’d be awfully helpful. I didn’t exactly come with a fucking instruction manual.” 

“Unfortunately,” the alien said slowly, “The Trillodan have ways of pulling information from someone’s head.”

I laughed, “I’m here at death’s door, and you think I’m going to talk?  You think after all I’ve been through that I’m going to break for them? What more can they take away from me?  The other arm?” 

“Rebecca,” he said softly, “You misunderstand the nature of your opponents I fear.”  

Hearing my name coming out of the mouth of some unnamed alien set my teeth on edge, “How do you know who the hell I am?” I snapped.  “And you still haven’t answered the question of where we are or what the fuck this is!”

It was a little unsightly to see his legs carry him forward, his torso doing a peculiar bobbing motion as they approached.  “My dear girl,” they said softly, “I have lived so long and seen so much pain, and I know exactly how you feel right now. I remember seeing my family die, and I remember seeing my friends burn to ash at the hands of the Trillodan.”  

The rage in me, the hurt wanted to lash out, but something held me in check.  Whoever this was, I knew they weren’t pulling my chain. There was an authenticity in their voice that was impossible to fake.  Whoever and whatever this person was, they knew how I felt. They had experienced my anger, experienced my agony, and they had managed to pull through it.    

“When I say the Trillodan can pull information from you, you assume I mean through some barbaric kind of interrogation.  While their champion does seem to border on the psychotic, he’s not a fool. You are a perfect example of why he wouldn’t dare tamper with such heinous methods,” he pointed out, pressing a bony finger to my shoulder.  “Look what you did to two of their finest soldiers. You were a girl who created illusions; now you are a girl who can create demigods.”  

“Holy shit, you’re right,” I muttered.  “If the Trillodan interrogate us or torture us, they risk Alteration and whatever mess that brings with.”  

They nodded, “The only constant that we’ve observed is that it’s never contained.  In many ways, you had one of the cleanest Alterations we’ve ever seen.”  

“How have you been watching us this whole time?” I wondered, reluctantly starting to trust my visitor.  “How is it possible that you’ve been able to watch over hundreds of us for so long to even know our names?  How… just how?” 

That soft smile crept across his lips again, “I’m afraid I can’t let you know for now.  If I were to tell you, it’d put us at risk. Even if you don’t remember, the Trillodan will find ways to evoke it from your unconscious.”  

“How do you know so much about them?” 

“Soon, but not yet,” he whispered.  “It’s why you’re going to come see us.  We have so much to tell you about yourselves and about this war that you started.”  

“That Titan started,” I corrected.  

“No,” he whispered, “That someone else started long before him.  He’s just the most recent champion against them.”

Something else nagged at me, a question trying to make its way out.  “Dragoon said that you made us, but she didn’t tell us why.” I paused, “Did you just make us to fight the Trillodan?” 

Their smile vanished, replaced by a mournful expression instead.  “Truthfully, you children are both our best success…and our greatest mistake.  I can share this, since I have no doubt the Trillodan will come to a similar conclusion: you were the result of an experiment.  All of you were the byproduct of a secret test we issued prior to Protocol 34 being enacted on Earth. We were expecting to see results in the survivors, and expecting results that we could have some control over… and instead we now have the bizarre phenomenon known as Adapted.”

“That didn’t answer my question,” I shot back.  In truth, it only raised more questions about what in the hell he was talking about.  

They sighed, “No.  We didn’t make you to fight the Trillodan.  Not exclusively. What we did to you, what we did that ended up making the Adapted was supposed to be a trial run, a first attempt at making a force who would be capable of fighting the Trillodan.  However, you were more successful than we could have possibly imagined. Without our prompt, you all decided to take the fight to the Trillodan.”

“Titan did,” I shot back.  “He didn’t give us a lot of choice.”

“There are always choices,” the alien replied.  “You could have opted to hide on Tso’got. You could have declined Mutant’s invitation to join the Rogue Sentries.  There are plenty of ways you could have avoided meeting Titan and entangling your life into this war.”  

“This coming from the person who used a whole planet as a testing ground.”  

They didn’t waver despite my accusation.  “Lightshow, child, you have much to understand about the unique position that you are in, and about the Trillodan as a whole.  It is my hope that I can help you all in your crusade.” There was a pause before the figure continued, “In the future, you need to be more careful with your newfound gift.  Alterations are powerful, but they are dangerous to the user.”

“Why?  What do you know about them?” I demanded, suddenly craving knowledge about myself.  No one knew anything about Alterations except what prompted their genesis. If I could get any information about myself and what I’d become, maybe, just maybe, I’d be more okay with who I was now.  

“Adaptations are largely based on the user and the situation that prompts their true transformation.  The changes adjust your physiology and mentality slightly to accommodate the stressors responsible for the untenable situation.  I know that you all have some kind of implicit knowledge that seems to come from nowhere; it is granted to the bearer to make them more capable of handling the gift  they are given.” 

I nodded. 

“Alterations are taking that a step further.  What prompts the initial Adaptation is a small organism that integrates into your body; when you Alter your survival instinct becomes so overwhelming that it prompts a sympathetic response from the microorganism.  It no longer thinks entirely of its host and becomes somewhat self-centered. It means that there are fewer restraints on what the microorganism can do, and unfortunately it means often that the well-being of its host isn’t taken into account.”  

“It’s why my heart stopped so abruptly instead of the power simply giving out first,” I muttered.  

“Correct.  Overexposure is magnified since there is a lessened buffer between you and the organism.” 

I shook my head, chuckling at the joke that the universe had seen fit to play on me.  “Great. I’m finally powerful, and bound to kill myself.”  

The alien gave me a weak smile, “Maybe.  But, for now, I think it’s time you go back.”  

“What are you-“ 

Their hand reached forward, lightly pressing a finger against my forehead.  Before I knew what had happened, I was back on the ground, coughing violently as Parasite pulled away from me, letting me sit up and spasm.  My body burned and ached as I did my best to catch my breath. Still, movement was excruciating since Parasite had jammed down hard enough to crack what must have been all of my ribs.  

“You could have been a little fucking lighter on that,” I groaned, glaring at him.  It caught me off guard to see him actually crying. His face lit up as I clutched at my chest and stared daggers his way; it was as if he had been waiting for my reproachful stare for all his life and it was the most ratifying  thing in the world.  

“Welcome back,” he said softly.  

It dawned on me that most people were around me: Dragoon, Eldritch, Adamant, and Exchange were all looking on and had clearly been waiting for me to perk up and come back to life.  Dragoon’s suit was working again and she’d taken her helmet off, showing off a bruised face and messy hair, but she looked at me with a bit of pride as I kept working to catch my breath.  But not everyone was here around me, around the spectacle of Parasite and Adamant bringing me back.    

“Where’s-“ I started as I turned my head; my voice caught in my throat as I saw Menagerie kneeling beside a familiar figure who was laying in the dirt, still in human form.  Adrenaline surged through my veins as I scrambled to my feet and flew over to them, disregarding Dragoon’s words of caution and demand that I slow down.  

Once I saw what had become of my friend, I was mortified.  His entire midsection was a massive, black bruise. You could see where his ribs were broken and a trail of breaks in his skin that was slowly seeping blood.  His breathing was incredibly shallow, and for the first time, Mutant looked genuinely weak. I’d seen him beaten half to death before, but nothing ever quite like this.  

“Mutant, holy shit,” I whispered as I took a knee beside him.  His fight against Kalr had ended poorly for him and with him taking  a stomp from the Trillodan giantess before I had resolved to conjure a copy of Titan.   

His eyes slowly tracked over to me as blood started oozing out of his mouth.  Mutant spat on the ground and tried to prop himself up, only to grimace and fall back down.  “Hey, Lightshow,” he wheezed, “I saw what you did.”

“It nearly killed me too,” I said, my voice wavering.  “But, I couldn’t let you guys go.” My voice caught in my throat, “I’m sorry I didn’t do it any sooner.”  

He shook his head, “Don’t.  None of that.”      

Dragoon was the last to join us, drinking in the situation with a grimace, “How bad, Mutant?” she asked softly.  

His attention turned to her.  “I think this is it for me, Drag.  Deflated lung, tons of internal bleeding, and I’m too weak to shift.”  His eyes drifted around, looking slowly to the group coalescing around him.  “I left myself one last form, but I can’t get myself to change to slug. I, I really  tried,” he whispered. “My body is quitting on me. I’m all tapped out.”    

“I can carry you,” Parasite said, optimistically.  “It really-“

“You’d be pushing chunks of his own rib cage into his organs,” Menagerie muttered.  “Running is out of the question too. If he stumbles or we accidentally push a sliver of bone into the other lung, that’s it for him.”

“But we can’t stay here,” Adamant said, reminding all of us of the unshakable truth.  The Trillodan know we’re here, and they will be back to settle the score and collect us.  There was bound to be another fight and much more travel before the night was over.  For all his tenacity, Mutant had endured beating after beating after beating today. Eldritch had pointed out that even before we left from Mother Audrey’s clinic, Mutant wasn’t entirely healed.  He was still beaten and bruised thanks to Kalr’s heinous strength.  

He’d already been fragile when she had literally stomped him into the ground.  It was amazing it hadn’t killed him honestly, especially considering that she had been using those steroids.  

“We can’t just leave him,” Eldritch declared.  “I mean, he’s one of us, right?”

Dragoon looked down at the battered Enhancer and knelt beside him, “We’re out of tinctures, otherwise I’d pour one down your mouth.  So, Mutant, what would you do?” 

We all knew Mutant was exceptionally pragmatic.  He confided in me that when he Adapted, it had changed some of how he thought.  Many human emotions and nuances were lost on him since he thought more like an animal.  He was straightforward, direct, and always believed in doing what was most practical. While it could make him short-sighted sometimes, he had no trouble making difficult decisions.  

Mutant sighed and tried to get up again, failing a second time.  “You can’t bring me with,” he whispered, “I’m going to be a liability.” 

I was the first to truly understand what he was insinuating.  “No, no, no,” I fired back, “We can fix this.”

His eyes turned to mine, “Lightshow, it’s okay-“

“I can make Organelle,” I replied, already digging for the right frequency to conjure the Adapted who could heal the shapeshifter.  “I can create her and she can-“

“No!” he snapped, immediately coughing up blood afterward.  “Parasite, help me up,” he requested.  

His fellow Enhancer threaded an arm under his shoulder and gently helped him up to his feet.  Once they were up, Parasite extended his staff and gave it to Mutant to lean on so her could try and remain upright on his own.  “Lightshow,” he said slowly, “I saw what you did. And I know what happened to you.”  

“But-“

“If you conjure another Adapted so soon after a fucking heart attack, who knows what will happen to you?  If you die, again, and she fades away, what good is that? We’ll have just lost two people for nothing. For better or worse, you’re far more powerful than I am,” he said bluntly.  “Lightshow, they’re going to need you a lot more than they’re going to need me.”    

“I’m still untethered,” I whimpered.  “I’m still terrified of what my power can do!  I need you around to-“

He raised his free hand to stop me.  “Rebecca,” he said, slowly, “You know I’m not a quitter.  You know I wouldn’t abandon you guys. But…”  

I looked into his eyes and, for the first time in a long time, truly saw the man hiding behind them.  Mutant spent so much of his time thinking like an animal that it was almost foreign to see him as a person who had feelings and wants.  He didn’t want to die, but he wasn’t going to let his own ego supersede our own needs. Mutant was loyal to his friends and he was not going to allow himself to be responsible for any ill to befall them.  

And it meant nothing I could say would change his mind.  He knew he was dying and he wouldn’t allow any of us to put ourselves at risk to attempt to save him.  It wasn’t worth the risk.  

“You found me when I was all alone,” I whispered, “I can’t just let you go.”  

He offered a weak smile before coughing up more blood, “You’re not alone anymore.”  Mutant reached forward and gently pressed a hand against my stump, “My arms, use all of them,” he insisted.  “I want some part of me to live on, yeah?”

I nodded, tears welling up at the edge of my eyes.  

“And Menagerie, I want a couple drawings too,” he demanded, flashing a weak grin.  

Our quiet Peculiar nodded and swallowed a nervous lump.  “You’ll get an excellent portrait, I promise.”  

As he turned away from her, he turned to face Eldritch, his grin fading to a more somber expression.  “Eldritch, I don’t want you to leave behind anything for them to find.”

“But. I-“

“Nick,” Mutant pressed, “These are the Trillodan.  They will study my corpse just as thoroughly as they would a living body.”  He took as deep a breath as he could, clearly struggling to stay upright. “I will not be used by them.  I will not be their experiment. Once I go, I want you to eat every scrap of me so they can’t have it. Understood?” 

Eldritch nodded, slowly, swallowing a nervous lump of his own.  “You got it.”  

Mutant sighed as if mentally checking off one more thing from his list.  “Dragoon,” he muttered, his voice getting more hoarse by the second, “You finish this.” 

She nodded, clearly trying to suppress her own emotions.  “We’ll take it from here. Don’t you worry.”  

He gave her a last smile and turned to the Lost Children who were hanging back a few steps away; Adamant clearly knew that this was not his party and was willing to give us the time to say our goodbyes.  “Adamant, you keep my friends safe.”  

“You have my word,” the leader of the Lost Children replied, candid.  

The last person he turned to was Parasite, “Make it quick for me,” he said, his voice shaky.  “I think it’s time to go.”  

“I don’t think I,” Parasite started.

“Yes you can,” he replied.  “Murphy, you’re doing me a favor.  Please,” Mutant implored, a tear sliding down his cheek, “Put this wounded animal down.”  

There was a moment of tense silence, but Murphy finally nodded, “Okay.  It’ll be quick,” he said softly, taking a step behind Mutant.  

My friend gave me one last look to myself and Menagerie, right before Parasite’s hands blurred forward and yanked his head violently to the side.  It was less than a second and the sickening snap of his neck being broken seemed to echo down the whole street. 

Our shapeshifter dropped to the ground in a heap, lifeless.  

“Eldritch,” I snapped, “Keep your promise.  Nothing for them to find.”  

Wordlessly, we all watched as Eldritch placed his hands on the corpse of our fallen friend and removed any trace of him ever existing.  

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Illuminate: Giants

    Kill Kalr.  

    Kill the giant bitch who had fought a super-powered, crystalline Eldritch.  

    Kill the Trillodan warmachine who had laughed at two of the most powerful things Menagerie had made while fighting with Mutant.  

    Yeah, Dragoon, let’s just kill her.  No problem.

    Mutant, however, didn’t have the same reservations I did.  He took a few steps forward, his skin dissolving as a fur coat materialized and his face reshaping to accommodate a snout filled with razor sharp teeth.  

    Dragoon turned to him, “Mutant-”

    “I’ve fought her once, I know how she works now,” he snarled, making it very clear that he wasn’t about to back down.  “I’m no good with crowds, let someone else take them.”

    Our leader looked around, seeing what was still at her disposal.  Parasite was still down for now, the blast leaving him out of it for now.  Adamant had allocated a goal and Dragoon wasn’t sure how much time he’d need to reset it.  Distortion was not the best for dealing with a crowd since there was no way for her to not simply dissect people willy-nilly.  

    “Mutant, Eldritch-” Dragoon started and then cut herself off in a mix of horror and awe; she had assumed the crowd charging us had been rigged to blow in order to deny providing Eldritch with additional mass.  She hadn’t been wrong, but Dragoon was definitely not predicting the countermeasure in place.  

    The whole crowd glowed a radioactive green, all of them stopping in place to howl and scream in agony as they literally disintegrated.  Tools and weapons clattered on the ground as people clawed at their own throats and guts as green cracks appeared in their skin before a disgusting ooze drained from their fractured skin.  In a matter of seconds, all of them dissolved into a green puddle that began collecting itself into a massive slime, much like the ones Adamant had destroyed to rescue Parasite.  

    “Eldritch, deal with that!” Dragoon shouted.  

    He nodded and hit all fours, his clothing being chewed apart as he erupted into growths, the slimey, black tendrils growing over each other in a massive lattice at record speed.  As the slime lurched forward, an expanding Eldritch slammed into it, letting out a roar.  

    “Adamant, I need you to help deal with that,” Dragoon commanded, “You can still burn it away, right?” 

    “Sure.  But, there’s…a lot of it to get rid of,” he pointed out. As the slime collected, it seemed to enlarge, towering over us.  Eldritch was still getting larger, but as it amassed properly, it was basically the size of a building.  What troubled me was that I saw Eldritch dig his legs in, bracing himself to stop the slime, and it was still pushing him back.  

    “Just make it happen.  We can’t have that thing roll over us.”  Dragoon’s head snapped to the side and I followed her gaze: thanks to my perfect night vision, I saw the figure in purple armor strutting along the rooftops.  “Exchange, change of plans for you, get that bitch!”  

The blonde teenager nodded and touched his fingers to the piece of paper in his pocket to bind himself before racing away, giving chase to one of the Trillodan operatives warring against us.  

“Lightshow, help Mutant!  Distortion, if you get a chance to take a limb off the bitch Exchange is chasing, do it!”  The Projector’s bitchy and arrogant demeanor vanished and was replaced with a vicious laser focus, one that was sure to yield results.  

It didn’t change that almost half of Rogue Sentries was out for the count right now.  Menagerie had nothing left in the tank and her animating anything from her notebook was risking Overexposure.  Parasite needed a minute to remember which way was up, and Dragoon could only put on a strong front.  Out of all of them, she was arguably most hurt and spent, even before taking into account one of her arms was barely intact.    

“Lightshow,” she whispered to me, “Don’t let Mutant down.  You can do this.” 

Even if I couldn’t believe in myself, I could let myself believe in Dragoon and her faith in my new ability.  

Reaching out into the air, I felt those resonating frequencies push back against me.  I closed my fingers and selected a familiar frequency, a familiar form that I had known for a long time.  Strands of light rapidly danced from my fingers like some kind of 3D printer as a new copy of my oldest friend who was still breathing.  He turned to me, his mess of black hair obscuring his eyes a little as he waited for direction.  

All it took was a thought, an inclination on my behalf, and my reproduced copy of Mutant charged to help out the original in his duel with Kalr.  

Mutant had ten forms to choose from: Scorpion, Wolf, Bird, Lizard, Sl;ug, Beetle, Porcupine, rhino, Spider, and whatever fucked up monster was grey with the tentacles.  While three of his forms were entirely for utilitarian purposes, the other seven were all apt combat forms. It was no secret that my friend was most fond of his wolf form as it was likely the most well rounded.  It dawned on me that as my duplicate of Mutant charged, he wasn’t picking any forms; something whispered in the back of my mind that I would need to pick them for him.  

I watched Mutant dance around Kalr, rapidly swapping forms to stay one step ahead of the Trillodan giantess; a scratch along the back of her leg as a wolf before shifting to the bird to fly around her fist before shifting into the beetle to to slam a fist into her face and actually make her stumble a bit.  Before she could mount a counter attack, he shifted back to the wolf form and left gouges along her torso; as she kicked, he changed into the grey tentacled form and threw a tentacle around her neck, pulling himself away from the kick and landing behind her. A yank pulled her back a step before she could try and seize his elastic arm.  It vanished before she could lay a hand on it; Mutant had already shifted back into a bird and was dive bombing, swapping to beetle right before impact to send her staggering to the side.  

Staring at my copy, I compelled him to assume the following arsenal: rhino, spider, beetle, bird, scorpion.  Two of Mutant’s forms had poison as part of their arsenal and I wanted to see how well Kalr could cope.  The tank of regenerative sludge on her back already indicated that she wasn’t going to go down easily thanks to sharp trauma, so we had to change our plan of attack.  

My duplicate flew forward, transforming into the scorpion and dove towards her knee, pincers slicing into tendon as the tail jabbed forward and delivered a toxic payload into a dense hunk of muscle.  The copy seemed to pull from my memories of watching Mutant fight and immediately leapt away, shifting back into the bird to lessen the area for Kalr to hit. Flitting away, it dove forward and transformed into a form the size of a mid-size car.  His rhino form was a bit more monstrous than the original animal: among the leathery hide was a smattering of bone deposits that protruded like spikes from his skin, he didn’t have a horn so much as a wedge of bone over the front of his snout that acted like a battering ram, and the whole form was blue instead of grey.  

Kalr turned and absorbed the impact, bracing herself and catching my copy with a grunt; my eyes widened as she started to lift it off the ground, grinning as she overpowered his form most dedicated to running over opposition.  But, the original Mutant dove down, his wolf form sprouting from the bird as his claws raked over her underarm, severing tendons and causing an arm to go limp for a moment.  Seizing the opportunity, my copy changed into the spider form–which looked like an chalk-white version of my friend, but with an arachnids face and a pouch attached to his lower back that carried web–and jabbed his mandibles forward, injecting another poison into Kalr’s system.  As soon as it bit, the copy shifted to bird and narrowly avoided Kalr’s attempt to restrain his arm.  

There was a flash of blue light that caught my attention from the rooftops.  The purple figure leapt across the gap and Exchange was hot on her tail, narrowly missing an attempt to get a hold of her.  As she landed, the Trillodan operative abruptly adjusted her movement as a chunk of a chimney was ripped from existence. Beside me, Distortion swore as she raised her hand, a trickle of sweat running down the side of her cheek as she focused.  As he landed, Exchange tapped his hand to the top of the roof and left a trail of golden threads from his fingertips as he bound himself to that surface.  He darted around her first explosive before adjusting weights; his punch tossed the Trillodan nearly to the edge of the rooftop, but she’d clearly been able to roll with the blow.  

Whoever she was, she was in a league above Exchange.  The kid had a ton of raw power and energy, but he wasn’t able to make anything stick.  What he had in power, she made up for with finesse and aptitude. The way she moved, the way she danced around and rolled with impact, it was like watching Parasite fight.  He’d always insisted that skill beat size, every time.

That wasn’t promising for Exchange if Parasite was right.  

The demolitionist avoided another rip in space from Distortion and ducked under a lightning fast hook from Exchange; as he tried to dart behind her, she threw herself forward and detonated another explosive in his face.  The force was diverted to a wall that Exchange had bound himself to, but the munitions still blew up the rooftop she had circled around on; Exchange cried out as he fell into a building as she landed in front of Distortion, the wounded Sentries, and me.  

Distortion sneered as she raised both hands, making the whole avenue shimmer.  

The purple-armored operative jumped away, just barely getting herself clear in time; Distortion had finally thought ahead this time and smiled in triumph as a torrent of packed dirt and loose gravel came crashing down on the operatives head.  The demolitionist got back to her feet, but not before Exchange zipped into the path, slamming into her and launching the two of them through a wall and into a two story building across the street.  

A savage roar nearly made me come out of my skin as Eldritch warred with the slime that had ambushed us.  Eldritch was a powerhouse, an unrepentant monument to the power of size and weight; this immense slime was beating him at his own game.  Despite the fact that Eldritch was nearly ten feet tall and likely weighed five tonnes, he was being driven backwards. While most things would break when he hit them, this was made to absorb the blow and hinder his movement.  It was like he was fighting a massive wall of glue that refused to slow its advance.  

Adamant was literally glowing red hot, doing his best to carve away at the slime, but it was using a scalpel to cut down a tree.  He was touching his hand to it, evaporating swaths that seemed to be never ending; the best thing he kept doing was burning away the slime that had ensnared Eldritch’s legs to keep our massive beastie mobile and struggling.  

Menagerie watched intently, her fingers scratching at the notepad in her hand like an addict in need of a fresh fix.  Even though she wasn’t saying anything, I could feel her desire to intercede, to involve herself, to try and skew the outcome of the fight.  She wanted to do something, to do anything to help her friends.  I understood exactly how she felt right now, and I wished I could talk to her and empathize with that sense of feeling useless but my attention was snagged by Kalr who was seeming to speed up as Mutant was slowing down.  

For all his flashy antics, Mutant had done little lasting harm to the giantess.  Whatever that regenerative sludge was, it was easily undoing all the damage that Mutant was doing.  Worse was that she wasn’t worried, and in fact seemed thrilled to keep fighting two copies of him. Most would miss it, but I could tell my friend was wearing out and couldn’t do this for too much longer.  He was trying to fight faster than his body was going to let him; the day had been too long and he’d taken too much injury to be fighting like this.  

We needed to get rid of the sludge, but Mutant wasn’t the right one to do it with.  We’d already tried to claw through the tank to little effect.  

I reached out and seized my construct, dashing the resonance frequency and deconstructing the copy of Mutant.  Going into my memory banks, I dug for another familiar form, one I had already utilized. The second time around, it felt easy to replicate all the nuance of her armor and weaponry as a picture-perfect clone of Dragoon printed into existence.  

For all her nonchalance earlier, Kalr suddenly seemed concerned about the form I conjured.  While Mutant couldn’t rip through whatever god-forsaken metal that tank was composed of, her railgun could definitely punch a hole through it.  Mutant saw the change, and immediately changed his tactics; instead of trying to harm Kalr, all he had to do was protect my copy.

Behind me, Dragoon lobbed a concussion grenade with her good arm, detonating it a few inches in front of Kalr’s face.  Even though she was trained to endure inordinate amounts of pain and punishment, it still made the giantess stagger a few paces. Mutant changed to the tentacle form and wrapped his arms around her legs as my copy of Dragoon took aim at her center of mass, looking to punch a hole straight through the giant.  

At the last second, as if guided by some damned divine prompt, Kalr threw herself to the side.  The shot went wild, tearing a fist sized hole through a building after ripping the night air with a metallic shriek.  As my copy hastily reloaded, Mutant threw himself forward at Kalr and raked his wolf claws across her face, actually catching an eye in the process.  She thrashed, driving him back a few paces as the regenerative sludge cascaded down across her face; all the damage Mutant had inflicted was once again undone in a split second thanks to the Trillodan technology she had at her disposal. 

Behind me, Eldritch was losing ground.  Even with Adamant burning it away, the slime was simply too big and too unwieldy for Eldritch to handle.  For all his strength, he was incredibly ineffective against such an opponent. Whichever Trillodan constructed these things seemed to have almost done it deliberately to combat our gargantuan Druid.  Eldritch roared in frustration as he tried to brace himself and endure the slime washing over him, engulfing him. I could see him strain and shove back against the torrent of green ooze, but to little effect.  

To the right, another explosion tossed Exchange backwards, the wall he had bound himself to crumbling as it tried to soak up the force.  The blonde teenager stumbled, dazed; unlucky for him, the architecture was too feeble to be withstanding the hits that the demolitionist was able to dole out time and time again.  What he needed was a huge hunk of concrete, not worn wood and flimsy metal. The demolitionist smiled as she stepped out of another one of Distortion’s traps.  

Still, it seemed Distortion was starting to get on her nerves; the demolitionist lobbed a Trillodan explosive right at the group who was still in the middle of the road.  

“Lightshow, block it!” Dragoon demanded.  

The world seemed to slow down as I hastily thought through how the fuck I was going to be able to stop a Trillodan explosive.  I had done it once by creating a copy of Eldritch, but something told me that I couldn’t have two living constructs at once; leaving Mutant without the assistance was effectively signing his death warrant since he was exhausting himself.  But earlier, I had made a wall to patch the building up so we weren’t subject to the immense swarm of insects.

Could I create a whole building?  Did I need to? If I made a wall in front of us, would that be enough to deaden the blow somewhat and keep us alive?  

My brain raced through the frequencies of inanimate objects, but it didn’t seem to be that simple.  I couldn’t just make raw material, I wasn’t Repository whose entire gift was to create unrefined matter.  I could only make something I knew, some configuration that I was familiar with, something I had interacted with personally.  I had made the wall at Mother Audrey’s clinic because I had the building there to reference and to mimic. My newfound power didn’t have the ability to create on its own accord; all I could do was construct things I was familiar with.  

I needed the most durable thing that I could conjure.  One thing leapt to mind, one bloody place that I’d spent weeks honing a skill I no longer got to use.  

I grit my teeth and rapidly forced a hunk of the ship that Multi-task had constructed into existence.  It was tough enough to survive debris in space colliding with it, it would certainly hold up to whatever bomb this bitch had.  An eight by eight foot square formed an impromptu blast shield as the blue light erupted from the device she had tossed our way.  The wall did beautifully at absorbing the blast, but the force of the explosive tipped it over. With a wave, I undid its construction, right as my copy of Dragoon let fire another round from the railgun.  

The metal scream filled the air as a chunk of Kalr’s leg erupted in a fountain of gore as a swath of her over-muscled thigh came free.  Chunk of blue skin and muscle strewed themselves across the road as she sank to a knee, growling and baring her teeth at me.  

In her look, I saw something that made my blood run cold.  

Just before Tol had dismantled us, he’d give us a similar change of demeanor.  Where he’d been having a fun time playing with us, the Trillodan captain had turned up the heat when called for and proved he was far better than a handful of kids trying to be heroes.  What I saw in Kalr’s face, what her expression screamed to me was that same lethal intent, that same fiery and unbridled determination.  

Her hand shot down to her thigh, to a small pouch on her malleable suit; my eyes widened as she fished out a red disk and slammed it against the tank on her back.  Before I could tell my duplicate to do anything, the tank integrated the disk and a river of red ran through the tubes in her suit.  

Eldritch said that Tol had given her two of those to use like some kind of steroid when he’d fought her; it had made her strong enough to bash through his crystalline form.  

“Oh, shit!” I whispered as she rose, the sludge quickly filling in the wound in her thigh.  The copy of Dragoon raised the railgun to lay waste to the giant, but Kalr threw something that knocked the muzzle aside, skewing the shot.  Where she had fallen, she had gouged a chunk of the packed dirt free to throw back. Her smile changed to an almost demonic expression as she lumbered forward, five massive strides nearly closing the gap between us.  

And then a chunk of metal slammed into her eye socket, forcing her head aside in surprise.  

Parasite ran past me, leaping into the air to snatch his staff as it rebounded off her face; in a flourish of movement he seized the rod of metal and spun himself around as it extended.  Despite the red disc empowering her, she still reeled as Parasite smashed her teeth in with a four kilogram hunk of metal.  

Kalr raised her arms, defending her face from Mutant’s follow up assault; what would have been claws to the throat instead turned to gashes along her forearms.  

Even though the sludge flowed over her face and quickly began fixing her destroyed face, Parasite’s surprise entry back into the fight had bought my copy of Dragoon time to load and take aim at a disorient giantess.  The railgun shrieked as another hunk of metal went flying, ripping straight through Kalr’s guts; most importantly, we heard the sound of metal being perforated.  

With a hole in that tank, her regenerative sludge would run out soon and she’d finally be vulnerable. 

“Lightshow!”

Menagerie’s outcry pulled me back to reality; my copy of Dragoon having success had cost me my attention and distracted me from the demolitionist and her schemes.  When she had knocked Exchange over, I had failed to notice that he’d been knocked into a group of smaller slimes. They were keeping him held still like he’d been glued to the ground, and Distortion alone couldn’t begin to keep her controlled.  A handful of explosives were flying through the air in an arc spread between us and Eldritch.  

I hastily tried to erect another chunk of spaceship wall, but I wasn’t fast enough. 

My vision blurred as we were all knocked over, the blue light from the explosive sending a jolt of electricity through my whole body.  As I hit the ground, I convulsed and seized; I forced myself to keep a grip on the construct I had made as to avoid abandoning Parasite and Mutant.  Rolling my head, I saw that the damage was far worse for one other member of our motley crew.  

The hunk of metal I had pulled into reality had protected us, but I hadn’t managed to get any protection down towards Adamant.  While he was enabled to kill the ooze, he wasn’t bomb-proof. The blast had thrown him and left him in an undignified heap a few feet behind Eldritch.  While our massive Druid hadn’t given a damn about a bomb going off, not having Adamant helping cull the slime meant he was going to lose. I knew from experience that the faster he grew the tendrils, the shorter the duration.  The fact he’d made himself so massive in such a short amount of time meant that he had very limited time. All the ooze had to do was hold him and he’d eventually turn into a defenseless seventeen year old kid.  

The demolitionist walked forward, the black helmet parting to reveal a smug face.  Even though I was no engineer or machinist, I could tell there was elegance to the design of her armor.  It was form fitting and flexible, offering her a full range of motion and plenty of protection as well. Even behind the mask, there was a twisted beauty to the Trillodan, a kind of dangerous allure to the amphibious humanoids.  But, that was all done away when I saw that confident and condescending smile filled with dozens of pointed teeth. “You kids are wasting gifts like these,” she lamented as she nimbly evaded another attempt from Distortion to remove a limb.  “Too narrow in your scope, too shortsighted,” she insisted as she sprinted forward, driving a metal boot into the Projector’s sternum. Distortion fell onto her back, sputtering as she tried to focus enough to do something with her gift.  

Even though this operative didn’t have super strength like Kalr did, a metal glove slamming against the jaw was enough to knock a few teeth out, and knock Distortion cold.  

I groaned as I pushed myself up, frantically forcing my brain to think of an arm that I could wear, something that would even the odds since she was arrogant enough to step so close to us.  Gritting my teeth, I re-conjured another tentacle that Mutant would use; the Trillodan was quick enough on her feet to dodge my clumsy attempt to grab hold of her.  

“You are all so obnoxiously determined.  It is what Zellig does love about you though,” she mused as she evaded another attempt to grab her, “And why we’re all so eager to bring back more samples for Vaneel to study.” 

There was a groan of metal as Dragoon stumbled to her feet, keeping one arm tucked into her body, trying to keep the bones together.  “You’re not taking any of us with you,” she growled, defiant. “If you fucking think-“

I didn’t even see her toss the small device that sent an electrical surge through Dragoon’s suit.  My captain went down like a bag of rocks, her suit short-circuited and now turned into a prison. “Even if you manage to stop me,” she muttered, shaking her head, “Do you think any of you is fit to stop her?” 

A gauntleted hand gestured over her shoulder, drawing attention back to Kalr.  Even though I’d put a hole through the tank, she’d had enough left over to patch the tear through her guts.  My copy of Dragoon was trying to backpedal and reload; I looked up just in time to see Kalr lunge forward and wrap a hand around the copies arms.  A single motion and my duplicate of Dragoon was ripped in half. As she faded to nothingness, the giant rounded on Mutant who was trying to dive bomb her again; he was quick enough to transition to beetle, but the hit still knocked him down.  

Before my friend could get up, she slammed a foot into his torso.  When she pulled her leg away, Mutant had been turned back human, his power completely taxed.  Parasite leapt away, fighting smart enough to know that the best thing he could do was buy time, try and wait for the super steroid to wear off.  His agility let him quickly climb atop a building, but Kalr responded by tearing through walls, bringing the place down beneath his feet. Parasite was forced to abandon us or he’d trip and be caught up in her fervent rampage.  As he leapt away, she kept pace, her arm cutting through shoddy architecture like a hot knife through butter while she laughed hysterically.  

The only one who might have been able to fight her was slowly being smothered by that slime.  Eldritch was being folded in half, slowly being swallowed and unable to do a damn thing about it.    

“Give up,” the Trillodan whispered, “There is no need to die.  You can’t stop us, you might as well join us.” 

I dismissed the tentacle I had made for myself and took a deep breath as I stared at the demolitionist.  Much as I wanted to deny her, she was right. None of us could fight her. None of us stood a chance against someone so well trained, someone so clever and deadly.  

“That doesn’t mean nobody can fight back,” I whispered to myself, pushing away that feeling of surrender.  I was still breathing, and Dragoon had told me that I could do this. I refused to disappoint her.    

Her smile turned to a sneer, but her attempt to draw a weapon was thwarted by a horrific, quill covered monkey that threw itself onto her and dragged her backwards.  Menagerie glared up at the Trillodan with disdain, her sketchpad clutched by shaky fingers. “You’re not taking anyone else from me,” she growled.  

Menagerie shot me a quick glance, as if she could transfer what little bit of strength she had left to me; we both knew that she had nothing in the tank and that construct she made was all she could possible muster.  Our quiet Peculiar had given up what little she could to give me a window of opportunity to try and make one last construct. So I dug into my memory, searching for the right resonance. I dug for the most powerful person I could wrap my head around.  I didn’t know exactly how Forest’s anatomy worked, and I certainly didn’t understand the wild intricacies of Infinite’s power.

But Titan was someone I understood.  

The demoloitionist’s eyes widened as his form came into being rapidly.  The short brown hair, the leather jacket, the snide smile, and the confident stance forward.  

“I can’t kill you, but he can,” I hissed.  Steeling myself, I gave my duplicate of our fearless leader a goal: kill these two and the slime.  

There was a momentary delay where the world seemed to still as the construct raised his hand and the sound like an acetylene torch being lit filled the void; the demolitionist threw a bomb but it found a wall of molten silicon sprouting from his hand that devoured the device mid-flight.  In a frantic rush, she threw herself away and hastily smashed a white vial that was put on her hip. The air around her twisting and warping as she disappeared, narrowly evading the torrent of molten material.  

I could now say that I understood what Atlas felt like in mythology.  Utilizing Titan was like asking someone to put me in a trash compactor; a weight pressed on me as he created the molten slurry, a force that seemed intent on literally squeezing the life out of me the longer I kept him powered.  My vision started to waver as he turned his attention to Kalr. 

Whatever was in those red discs, whatever super-steroid she had pumped into herself, it had narrowed her view.  Her reckless pursuit of Parasite had left her oblivious to her comrades terror and outright abandonment. As Titan sprinted closer, she grew dimly aware that there was a new threat and so she abandoned ripping down the building that Parasite had climbed to the top of.  

As she turned around, an orange flood of death flowed her way.  The giant’s instinct and quick reflexes kept her alive, but it wasn’t enough to get her away unscathed.  Molten material disintegrated her right arm in entirety as well as a good chunk of her side, all the way down to her hip.  Even through the pain-dulling properties of the steroid, it was clear it hurt her in a way that you did not forget. More than that, I took a grim satisfaction seeing that murderous glee wiped away and replaced by complete terror.  

I felt my limbs shake as my copy of Titan let out another slurry, but like her comrade, Kalr grabbed a white vial and shattered it, distorting reality to jettison herself the hell away from my killer construct.

One leg gave out as I moved my Titan to save Eldritch.  Even though there was no more threat from the Trillodan operatives, once Eldritch ran out of time, he was going to suffocate in that wall of goo.  One last use of my fabricated Titan burned away the majority of the slime, enough that Eldritch could tear free and scatter the rest of the malevolent green ooze.  

As soon as he was free, I dismissed my creation and fell forward, emptying what little was left in my stomach onto the packed dirt that constituted a road here.  I then promptly followed suit, face planting into a puddle of my own vomit as all my limbs quit working. While my heart had been hammering in my chest earlier, I was dimly aware of the fact that the same hammering had stopped finally.  

Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get myself to roll over.  Mortified, I realized that I was lying limp in a puddle of my own expulsion and I couldn’t summon the strength to move.  It was like I had been shut away in my brain, separated from the rest of my everything.  

Someone slid in beside me, graciously rolling me out of my own vomit.  As my head turned, I saw Parasite above me, looking distraught as he placed a hand to the side of my neck.  

Then he did the strangest thing and put his hands on my chest, quickly feeling around before finally settling his hand between my tits.  He was gay, why the fuck was he trying to cop a feel, and why now? Besides he didn’t seem like the sort to take advantage to take advantage of someone who couldn’t fend for themselves.   

I wanted to tell him to stop as he started pressed down, cracking my ribs with an audible pop.  I wanted to snap at him that it fucking hurt, but he didn’t. What the hell was wrong with him that he was…

It finally dawned on me; the twat was giving me CPR.  

Normally people who Overexposed fatigued, losing control of their power before finally collapsing due to exhaustion.  In extreme circumstances you could kill yourself, but it was typically becuase you tried to do too much over too long a period of time.  Even so, the Adapted was likely to lapse into a coma first since your body would shut down as a means of self-preservation.  

But I was no longer Adapted, I was Altered.  The same rules didn’t apply to me.  

I had skipped any kind of progressive loss of power or even coma; instead I had just induced abrupt cardiac arrest.  To add insult to injury, I was somehow aware enough to watch my teammate frantically hammer away on my chest to try and keep me alive.          

I would be able to die seeing the look of horror on my former comedic partner’s face as he failed to save me.  

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Illuminate: Covert

(Lightshow – 12/15/80)

I hated being the person out in front.  Knowing that people were watching me, relying on me, it made my damn skin crawl.  A few days ago I might have been thrilled to be this helpful, but for now, I wanted to be left alone.  

But, Dragoon was my captain and what she said went.  Besides, the girl who could see perfectly in the dark should be leading to avoid having the blind leading the blind.  For me, there wasn’t much difference in how I saw the world between 12 a.m. or 12 p.m. While everyone else would fumbled around, I was completely unimpeded.  Since it wasn’t just me though, we were still going slow as all hell.

About five hours ago, Exchange, Parasite, and Eldritch had come back with the probe that Dragoon had sent out; when it talked, I immediately recognized Interface’s and could see the disdain on our captain’s face that her tech had been commandeered again by the androgyny Projector.  However, Dragoon was relieved to have the forewarning that Interface could supply us with.  

The Trillodan weren’t just distributing weapons, they had been assigning people sections to monitor.  Those bastards knew that people were too afraid to think for themselves; with some basic directions, the whole city had been put under watch round the clock.  It didn’t even cost them any manpower to maintain. Even though they had guns, these people were being held hostage just as much as we were.  

Our only victory was escape and the local’s only victory was to capture us; they had to try and decide if they wanted to fight us or the Trillodan more.  Whoever they picked, it wasn’t going to end well for them.  

Dragoon’s plan thus far had been to creep down to the ass end of the city under the cover of nightfall.  Without a lot of the infrastructure that Tso’got had, there wasn’t as much light pollution and it made it easier to slink around undetected.  It also was a harsh reminder to me exactly how much I missed my old power. Even though it hadn’t done anything against the Trillodan operatives without Menagerie, right now it would have simplified everything.  I could have bent light away from us, making us functionally invisible as we trekked. Now, while I might be able to fight, I had lost much of my old utility.  

I rubbed my stump and winced.  Each time I thought about my Adaptation it felt like someone pricking me with a pin as my body reached for sensations that weren’t going to be there ever again.  Just like my arm wasn’t going to come back, neither was the way I used to see things. Before Tol broke me, I saw the world through a kaleidoscope. The air around me was ablaze with colors and lights that I could mold or extinguish at will.  My old usage had been so sloppy, and the end of our time of Tso’got had shown me that I needed to step up my game.  

I couldn’t be the weak link in our team.  I couldn’t be the reason we fell short and lost another member.  

Countless hours of practice on that ship.  Countless days spent replicating people from memory until I could do it with ease.  I knew exactly what colors to extinguish, what lights to brighten, and how to make it all move fluidly.  

Six hours on this shit planet had undone everything.  Not only had it proved I hadn’t been enough, it had the audacity to take it away from me completely.

I leaned around another corner, glancing all around to make sure we were in the clear.  A few Sycophants were in the way, but they were far enough away they’d miss us. I waved and we scurried across another gap between blocks.  As we got closer to a new cluster of buildings, I turned my gaze to windows, looking for any disturbances or indications that people were scouting, looking for us super powered fugitives. 

For now we were in the clear.  Another hundred meters closer to our goal.  

It was painfully slow the way we were doing things, but so far it had yet to bite us in the ass.  We’d been at this nearly four hours which already made it a long night but we were far from done with the night: we still had to break Serpentine out from a Trillodan demolitions expert, somehow lose our inevitable tail, and avoid running into Kalr again.  She had gone toe-to-toe with Eldritch even though the weird Neklim thing had turned all blue and crystalline; I wasn’t sure what happened, but I knew any kind of change his ‘suit’ underwent made him stronger. If she had stood up to him like that, she wasn’t a threat to be ignored.  I was hopeful that our guide could help speed things up; my nerves being shot for the last ten hours was starting to wear on me.  

Right on cue, a little buzzing heralded Interface and her possessed drone coming by to give us another report.  “We’re getting there, but things start getting more questionable up ahead. More Sycophants are patrolling since we’re getting closer to Serpentine’s area.  It looks like this crazy Trillodan bitch has about six blocks effectively rigged to blow if anyone tries to get in or out.”  

“Good thing you have me then,” Distortion said, puffing out her chest a little.  Bitch probably didn’t think I could see her. I honestly liked the other two members of the Lost Children, but Distortion made me want to stab her over and over.  She was the worst kind of arrogant and self-congratulatory, and it was only fueled by our actual need of her. For now, our plan was to get close to the border of no-man’s land and have her warp us over, effectively ignoring whatever trip-wires had been set at the edge of her maze.  

“How much farther do we need to go?” Dragoon whispered. 

“Another kilometer or two would be my guess,” Interface replied, “But, I don’t think we’ll be able to do it all cleanly.”  

“Why?” Adamant asked.  

“Too many people out and about even if you discount the patrols.  They’re scared and mystified watching the Trillodan work. Everyone now and then you hear a controlled explosion and it keeps people on their toes and interested.  More people are awake and alert, peeking out windows, etc.”

Dragoon turned in my general direction, “It means it may be on your to help keep people shut up.  We can’t have our cover blown too early.”  

I didn’t miss Distortion’s grimace; bitch knew we had to get closer before she teleported all of us again.  Her transporting all of us four kilometers nearly killed her, but she was confident in her ability to move us a single kilometer pretty safely.  Distortion wanted to do more, to claim more of the credit, but she’d have to deal.  

That being said, I didn’t like that suddenly there was pressure put on me.  My new power was still foreign to me. I had used it in a panic and I wasn’t sure what rules I had to follow or what nuance needed to be acknowledged.  My preliminary use had also been exhausting: I’d made a copy of Dragoon and Eldritch to fight off Tol but it had worn me out. However, making a wall to keep a swarm of bugs out of a room had been easy.  

Even though they couldn’t see me, I could feel their eyes on me.  “What do you need me to do?” I asked Dragoon. I took a look at her, longing to see the old spectrum of color that would have been radiating from her armor; now all I saw was a dull glow that warped the space around it with her every move.  Most physical objects held this little aura around them, like a little wave pattern that I could…interpret for lack of a better word. My best guess was my new power allowed me to regurgitate this information, to construct a duplicate.   

It didn’t explain how I had made Eldritch even though he hadn’t been present at the time of my Alteration.  How would I have known about his aura since I hadn’t seen him after Altering? Too many questions buzzing in my skull to let me dip into the new power I had been bestowed.  It wasn’t making me feel powerful, just inhuman.   

“Make yourself another arm and slink around.  When we start encountering patrols, take them out if they’re going to be in the way.” 

I blinked twice, baffled by how simple a solution that was.  Why be a fucking amputee when I could just conjure a whole new arm?  Why hadn’t this occurred to me earlier? “Drag,” I replied, my voice shaky, “I’m not a fighter though.”

“Neither are they,” Parasite replied, “But, you’ve been trained by me.  So, at least you’ve got a little bit going for you.”  

Even though he couldn’t see me, the joker of our group was giving me his typical smug smirk.  He knew I’d notice and likely did it just for my benefit.

That was another part of me I wanted to get back too.  Normally I’d have something to say, some witty remark to toss back at him, something that would make Dragoon or Eldritch roll their eyes in annoyance or evoke a small chuckle.  But now, now when I went to the well, it was empty. That reservoir of humor I once had had been drained thanks to the Trillodan and that bastard Tol.

All I felt now was envy, jealousy, and disdain for his ability to be so upbeat and chipper.  Didn’t he know how much I wished I could go back to being my old self?  

“Maybe grow a bigger arm,” came a hushed suggestion, distracting me from my spiral of animosity with Parasite.  Behind me, Menagerie was looking around, paranoid, probably not realizing I was staring at her. She had given too much in our last fight and had been told in large part not to overdo it; she might have been able to make creatures that could see in the dark, but that would be risking pushing her back towards overexposure.  “If you made Eldritch earlier, maybe you could make yourself an arm that belongs to Goliath, or Ironclad.” 

“Okay,” I replied, my voice barely audible.  

Now that they had planted the idea in my head, I was still wary to act upon it.  There were so many things that could simply go wrong.  

My old power made it very clear when I was straining.  My old power had clear limitations and terms of use. My old power fell under the umbrella of a standard Adaptation.  This new thing, this ugly and obscene power, it was an Alteration, and those came with caveats. Psycho was obscenely strong, but his power changed based on what mental illness he was afflicted with that day.  Bargain could make himself unstoppable, but he’d sustain serious physical injury once he ran out of time that he’d bartered for. Infinite was basically a god, but she became unstable, reckless, and unnaturally violent the more she dipped into her ocean of energy.  

The rules surround Overexposure were different now.  

Would I feel that creeping fatigue, or would I simply collapse in an instant?  Would my new creations take on a mind of their own and free themselves from my control if I was spent?  Would repeated use of my newfound power erode at my sanity?

  I didn’t know.  No one did. I had joined an elite few who were completely unique, even managing to set ourselves apart from the super powered youth.    

We kept moving forward, Dragoon fortunately reading the situation well enough to know to give me space.  Interface flew away, scouting some more and directing us as we got closer, avoiding a few of the outer search parties.  The closer to the Trillodan we got, the better the equipment of the people on guard. Vuuldar was fairly unrefined in many ways, and things like flashlights were clearly in low supply.  

But as we got close, people had wide beamed flashlights that lit up whole swaths of the road.  

We were getting to a point where we’d need to remove some obstacles.  Distortion had tried to suggest she do it, but she’d be going in blind and too many things could go wrong.  If she clipped someone’s nose or cheek and they started screaming, the jig was up and everything would go on lockdown.  

Dragoon would have been a fine candidate if her arm was functional.  Plus, she didn’t say it, but at least I could see the fatigue in her.  She had been shot numerous times and was trying to lead us still; the girl needed a hospital, not a warzone.  Truth be told, all of us needed a hospital. Even Eldritch, the big man himself, had managed to sustain serious injury despite the Neklim protecting him.  I’d never seen him exit the suit with as much as a scrape before today. I could still vividly see him being dumped back in front of Mother Audrey, like the Neklim suit was delivering him, as if the two of them were separate entities entirely.  

At some point, we’d need to understand exactly what had happened to him and what it meant for us being close to Eldritch.  

“Can you deal with them?” Dragoon asked softly.  

Despite all the turmoil, I didn’t want to let Dragoon down.  I had watched her take bullets earlier in the fight against Tol; she was still my captain and had done her best to keep us all intact.  She had made no excuses and given her 100%; I would do the same.    

I let out a slow exhale and reached into my memory banks for a different signature, a different resonance for one of those auras that everything seemed to have.  My right hand traced along and seemed to pave the way for another limb to be stitched into existence. I didn’t rush this, not wanting to accidentally harm myself or graft some malevolent appendage to my body.  Slowly but surely, I constructed an arm that I had seen time and time again.  

It was one of Mutant’s limbs.  I had created a copy of the elastic, grey tentacle that he used.  It felt strangely lightweight despite the amount of wallop I knew this thing could pack.  

“Wait here,” I said as I tip-toed onto the road.  I had always been dexterous and agile, the byproduct of my parents teaching me gymnastics at a young age.  The balance and natural sense of where my body was had stayed with me and come in handy when I became a Reckoner.  I would never be able to compare to the human gyroscope in Parasite, but I was aware enough of myself to be quiet and light on my feet as I crept up on the pair of men with the flashlight.  

As I got closer, I raised the arm and stopped, amazed.

It had responded just like my arm should have; for a moment I forgot that I was missing a limb at all. 

Unfortunately, the two men turned around, a beam of light resting on me.  

Before either could react, I swung and the tentacle slammed against one man’s neck, smashing his wind pipe.  As he went down, I heaved and brought the tentacle around, hitting the other in the torso and sending him reeling.  I grimaced and shot the arm forward, using its elasticity to stretch it out and wrap around his neck, squeezing down as I yanked him back towards me.  

“Don’t,” I pleaded with him as I saw him reach for something in his pocket.  “Don’t make me do this.”  

Part of me knew that he was going to try and do it anyways; the Trillodan had already swayed him, and he was too scared to disobey.  If he didn’t try to kill me, he would die by their hands instead.  

It was alarmingly easy to jerk the tentacle and snap the man’s neck.  

Dragoon had confided in me once that she was scared at how easy it was to hurt normal people, to break them like one might a toy or a figurine.  She told me that she had savagely beaten an unpowered member of Imperium and accidentally put him into a coma when Rogue Sentries had just started out.  When it happened, she had no clue she was capable of doing that sort of damage to someone.

My old power would have never let me do this to someone; the worst I could have done was blind someone.  Before now, the worst injury I had inflicted on someone was likely a nasty concussion, but that was because I hit them with a metal baton, not because I was powered.  Everyone could have done what I did. But now, this, this was something else.  

There was a sickening and empowering feeling that warred in my mind.  

I had power.  Not just a gift that made me useful, not just an attribute that made me noticeable, but something that made me someone you should be afraid of.  It had been easy to kill that man and knock his friend out cold. And that was what made me sick too. It had been almost effortless on my part to inflict such heinous damage.  No matter what those two did, there was no stopping me, there was literally nothing they could have done.    

“You alright?” 

I turned and saw everyone approaching, Dragoon in the lead.  She looked at the men on the ground, and then back to me. Even though her face was obscured by her helmet, I could feel the concern radiating from her.  “Lightshow, are you okay? I need to hear an answer.”  

I couldn’t let her down.  I couldn’t let Dragoon think less of me.  I needed to be capable still. I couldn’t be broken.  

“Yeah,” I lied, “I’m fine.  Let’s keep going.”

  While I was fuming about my actions, Dragoon assessed the situation with a more calculated head than I did.  “Eldritch,” she muttered, “We can’t leave bodies and you need to be useful later.” My jaw dropped as Dragoon fired a round from her zip gun into the survivor’s head, quickly ending his suffering.  “He would have ratted on us,” she said softly, as much to assure herself as she did to assure us, “This was all we could do. Let’s make it count.”  

The attack with Tol and his animalistic assassin had changed her too.  Dragoon had quickly developed a hard edge to her, a newfound appreciation to bloodshed and ends justifying the means.  Where she had been naïve idealism, that had been tempered by harsh reality and it made her all the sharper. She was quickly becoming someone governed by pragmatism, as cruel and harsh as it could be at times.  Forgiveness and compromise wasn’t likely to be in her repertoire until we made it off of Vuuldar intact. Dragoon had already lost one teammate, and she’d come close to losing her two best friends hours ago.  

There was no doubt she would do whatever it took to keep us alive.  It was good to know I was in good hands, but it was still scary to see her pressed against the ropes.  What would happen if she cracked like me?     

   We only had a little farther to go before we could use Distortion to get us into enemy territory and one step closer to finding Serpentine.  I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of meeting Zeal, but the guy was undeniably powerful. For better or worse, we needed more powerful people near us, be them crazy psychopaths or not.  

At least we weren’t going to be linked up with the Lunatics again.  This time we’d get a new brand of violent and crazy.  

We dodged around another few search parties, doing our best to avoid any kind of intervention from Sycophants with flashlights.  There was another incident where I had to put down two more people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The only boon was that no one seemed to look out from a window and spotted us.  Killing someone in the street was bad enough; having to kill someone in their home would likely remove any illusion that I could still consider myself a Reckoner anymore.  

I had the foreboding sense that too would be ripped away from me soon enough; one more thing on the pile of stuff the Trillodan had torn away from my person.  

As we approached our blink site, the drone hovered back down by us to report in.  “Inside is getting sketchy, and I’m pretty sure that whatever Trillodan is running the joint is onto me; there seems to be some kind of interference whenever I get too close anymore.”

“Which means she’s working out and expanding her maze,” Dragoon muttered, “That’s not ideal.”  

I felt like Interface would have nodded if possible, “Zeal is probably proving hard to contain and so she’s falling back to allow for more room to work.  From what I could tell, there are small walls in place that look like small force fields. My best guess is that this chick came in with generators to keep everything running because clearly she’s putting enough faith in these to hold back the whole might of Serpentine.” 

“So maybe our first order of business is to get rid of those,” Adamant suggested.  “No point in meeting them for a rescue if we’re just going to land ourselves in a prison.”  

“These are Trillodan,” Parasite muttered, “They won’t be dumb enough to leave stuff unguarded or at least without some kind of countermeasure in place.  At best it will trigger some kind of alarm the second we start poking around. And since we’re dealing with a demolitions expert-“

“It’s more likely to blow up in our face,” Eldritch finished for him. 

“Yeah, so?” Distortion demanded, “We all saw you as a big-ass fucking crystal monster thing.  Turn into that and smash stuff for us. Isn’t that, like, what you’re supposed to be the best at or something?” 

It galled me that the bitch had a point.  

“I can do it,” Exchange volunteered, “If we find something close by for me to bind myself to, I can endure the hit pretty well and break stuff down pretty well.” 

“I’d rather use you,” Dragoon replied, “Eldritch might do it better, but he needs fuel for his power and we only have enough to make him big for a little bit, once.  If we can conserve him for now, that’s going to be in all of our best interests.”  

Exchange beamed, thrilled to be useful while Distortion rolled her eyes.  As long as we had Adamant in alignment with Dragoon, she’d mind her manners and do whatever our captain told her.  

“Interface, do you have any idea where there are larger groups of people or anything that might indicate where they’re hiding a generator?” 

The drone turned, “About 1.1 kilometers from this point there’s what seems like some kind of structure that’s new, but I couldn’t tell you what it really is.  It might be a ship that the Trillodan landed, or it could be a pile of aluminum siding for all I know.”  

“But it’s at least somewhere to start,” Adamant muttered. “Dis, you good?” 

“Everyone pack together as tight as you can,” she instructed, the bitch facade gone for a moment, “I’m having to guess a little and don’t want to rip anyone’s arms off.” 

Everyone pushed together when that possibility was pose. Interface flew lower and rebound with Dragoon’s armor, ensuring that they wouldn’t get cut off in the transition. 

I braced myself for the tiny glimpse of nowhere as I saw the air shimmer and twist around us before it all went black. As much as I didn’t care for her, Distortion wasn’t kidding that you acclimated quick to that being between planes of existence. This time the oppressive absence of light and noise didn’t make me squirm, and it didn’t seem to last a whole eternity either. 

As we reappeared though, I immediately like something was wrong. 

My suspicion was ratified as flood lights turned on all around us as alarms sounded. The building that we had been put next to was something we had seen before, back on Tso’got. They looked like metal slugs that served as prisoner transports for the Adapted. It was what we’d seen Geyser stuffed into and none of us had been able to stop them from taking him away. 

They had brought people in, and left a way to export us; Serpentine was likely in bad shape if the Trillodan were already standing by with a prisoner transport. 

“Dragoon,” Adamant snapped, “Plan?” 

She looked around, “Interface can you see anything?” 

For once, our talkative guide was silent. The drone remained firmly lodged in our captain’s armor, deactivated. 

“Fuck, Interface was conmected through my personal network and there must be some kind of frequency jamming here. She won’t be able to sync up with my tech from a distance.” Interface had assured us she was safe because she was halfway across town; now all that meant was there was no way she could make it to us in time to help. 

Good for her, bad for us.  

Mutant shifted into his lizard form, flicking a tongue out as he closed his eyes to better listen.  “Drag, we have company coming. Lots of it.”  

“Trillodan?” Parasite asked.  

“No, not metal footsteps,” he muttered, flicking his tongue out again.  “Sweat, urine, blood…fear. These are Sycophants.”

Dragoon growled, “The bitch planned for outside interference and left a welcoming party for us.  We’re against a master bomb maker; she’s going to be forcing people to pick a fight, and we have to assume they are rigged to blow.”  Her head turned to me, “Lightshow, that means we’re going to need a lot from you since Menagerie has very little in the tank.”  

I felt my throat close as all eyes turned to me.  “I, um-“

“You can do this,” Eldritch said softly, catching me off guard.  “You protected us once, you can do it again.” 

Part of me abhorred his optimism and flagrant disregard for my self-loathing, but he had a point.  I had made my Alteration work for me once while I was desperate. Maybe I could do it again. My eyes caught sight of the arm I had made for myself and a sense of purpose started to course through me, momentarily eclipsing my doubts.  “Okay.”  

“I still want to hold Eldritch for the big bitch, Kalr,” Dragoon muttered.  “You’re going to run crowd control and try to keep people down; avoid killing them if you can.  If not, we’ll deal. Eldritch, don’t try to eat them. If I’m right, people are going to be rigged to blow the second you get close; she definitely knows who you are and isn’t about to run a meal into your mouth.” 

He nodded, clearly a bit perturbed at the thought.

“There’s still at least one other Trillodan specialist here we don’t know about.  Adamant, Exchange, when they show up, I want you to deal with them. You two are our best candidates for taking on an unknown threat.  Menagerie, use your best discretion but do not Overexpose yourself unless things look real bleak. We can’t afford to be hauling you around, and we don’t have any more tinctures to pull you back if you push too far.  Mutant, you’ve danced with Kalr once, can you do it again?” 

He nodded.  “Still have four forms.  I might not get my slug back.”

“Then don’t get hit so fucking hard by her this time,” she shot back.  “Parasite, Mutant, Eldritch, deal with Kalr when she shows herself.”

“What about me?” Distortion demanded as the horde of footsteps drew closer, “What am I doing?” 

“Whoever the demolition expert is, she’s going to be hanging around the fringes, watching us and likely taking pot shots where she can.  If she’s all about explosives, she isn’t going to engage us directly. If you see her, remove some pieces of her. If she tries to push anything too close to us, get rid of it.  You’re our best line of defense against a bomb maker.” She reached down and removed a sphere of metal from her hip, “And for now, I’ll do my best to buy us some space to run. Our first priority is to find those generators and shut them down.  Mutant, anything taste particularly electric in the air?” 

He flicked his tongue out a few more times, “Down this way,” he said, pointing the opposite direction of the thunderous mob.  

Dragoon tossed down the orb of metal, leaving the nasty surprise for the oncoming horde as we bolted.  Parasite took the lead, his legs empowered by his passenger to make him practically gallop forward.  

And then, he suddenly wasn’t.  

It sounded like two jagged pieces of steel being dragged together as a violent blue light shot out from the side of a building, blasting Parasite into a nearby building.  

I heard the gasp from Dragoon and the subsequent swearing; she had been expecting the minefield to be within the confines of the forcefield, not outside of it.  It was a layer of complication she hadn’t been expecting.  

My head snapped to the side, looking through the hole in the wall to where Parasite was trying to get up; I widened my eyes when I saw that he wasn’t alone in the room.  There were a trio of gelatinous figures standing over him, like oversized amoebas who descended upon him, engulfing him.  

“What the fuck are those?” I whispered, mortified.  

Dragoon turned and immediately snapped to action, pointing to the head of the Lost Children.  “Adamant, deal with those! Now!” 

I felt my eyes draw to him as the energy around him changed; where he had seemed like any other listless Adapted, now he was a warrior.  I stepped away as the air around him literally started to burn. Adamant sprinted into the house, running headlong into the amoeba things, literally making them burst and cover the walls.  He grabbed Parasite and dragged him back out to us. 

The problem was that we had stopped moving, and the mob behind us hadn’t.  

“Oh, shit,” Eldritch muttered.  

I followed his gaze and saw what he was looking at: a massive blue, muscle bound figure staring back with malice in her eyes.  Any trace of injury we’d inflicted had been done away with, and all that was left was a rage-fueled juggernaut.

“Welcome, Rogue Sentries,” an eerily soothing voice said over a loudspeaker that seemed to echo in every direction, “And Lost Children too.  What a pleasant surprise!”

The mob rounded the corner, giving us no avenue of escape.  If we ran from them, we plowed into Kalr. Our only avenue of escape was to run into the buildings that would take us deeper into the demolitionists maze which were undoubtedly full of munitions that were primed to blow. 

“You are all going to fall here.  Tol himself asked for me to settle the score.  So, Kalr, give our friends here a little greeting.”  

Right on cue, the giantess began charging forward.  

“Change of plans,” Dragoon growled, glaring at Kalr, “Exchange, you and I deal with the crowd.  Eldritch, Lightshow, Adamant, kill that fucking bitch.”  


Previous ChapterNext Chapter

Interlude: Unrest

(Titan – 12/15/80)

It was causing visible concern for others that my façade was slipping despite my best efforts to ignore the unrest and stress.  I noticed the little uneasy glances when people thought I wasn’t looking.  

Everyone got antsy when the leader was nervous.  

It was a welcome distraction when one of Multi-tasks duplicates marched up towards me and Infinite to deliver a report on her progress with the ship.  She and Mizu had been doing a fantastic job clearing through and cutting away inessential chunks of the vessel in an attempt to make us a functional ship even though they’d only had a few hours to work.    

I’d been surprised how well Multi-task had done with the hydrokinetic from Imperium; the two of them had made a very close team who worked in fantastic harmony.  That being said, Shockwave’s gang of Scoundrels had softened a bit when they weren’t actively fighting for control of Ciel; it seemed that being wrapped up into my big family had done some good for them as far as wearing down those rough edges.  Shockwave himself had been surprisingly mellow and amicable since I had demanded an end to his and Beleth’s blood feud. Sure, there was still that hunger for battle that stayed under the gangsters skin, but that was in all of us.  

It was the only real constant between Adapted: we all felt a need to fight and prove ourselves.

   The more time I spent around other powered people, the more I realized that there had to be something driving that desire.  Whatever made us Adapt clearly affected our neurology and psychology in a uniform way. Most of us had been in at least one near-death experience but we seldom had any serious consequences of PTSD.  The exceptions were Altered, but they had been through more than the rest of us; even so, the Altered were still largely functional while most who survived such an ordeal would have been committed to a rehab facility for years, not sent to a battlefield.  

“How are you doing?” I asked as Multi-task got within ear shot.  

She turned, looking at the behemoth space shuttle she and her other forty copies were working on, “Well, it’s going.  I’m going to see if Mizu and I can shave off another cryo wing before the sun sets, but my clones are starting to run out of time.  And pretty soon we’re going to need more technical expertise than I have to offer. The ship I made was lucky to work, and I was starting with fresh pieces.  Without Repository here,” she shook her head, “I just can’t vouch for the state of a lot of the material.” She glanced at the redhead behind me and then back to me, “You’re sure we can’t send Infinite to go pick up Dragoon?” 

I shook my head, “Too risky.  Too many power sets for her recently and it’s taken a toll.  That and Powerhouse’s donating her long range teleportation made for some… questionable interactions.”  

Multi-task frowned but nodded, “Okay.  Well, I’ll do what I can for now.”  

“Good.  Let me know if you need anything.”  

As she left, I let out another sigh and took a set on a rock that Forest had grown a canopy to cover.  “You know people can tell, right?” 

“I know,” I muttered as a girl clad in white materialized next to me, “They aren’t stupid and have to know that things have gone horribly wrong.  I think pretending that I’m hyper confident would be a worse crime than accepting we’re playing from the back foot now.” 

Forest sighed, “I hope you’re right.  Do you want me to listen in and see if people are hoping for anything different out of you?” 

I shook my head, “No, no spying for now.  I need you to move yourself somewhere else and be my eyes in the city.  I need to know what the Trillodan are doing and what kind of activity might be heading our way.  Besides, there are supposed to be another Adapted or two in Lek’iel,” I said, making a sweeping gesture to the city that sprawled out down the hill from the ship.  “How much of it can you scout through at one time?” 

“About half if I spread myself thin.  Give me a day and I can take a thorough look through the whole place for anyone who stands out.”  

“Do it,” I encouraged, “We have more than enough eyes up here.”  

Forest glanced over at the redhead and back to me, “Everything okay with her?” 

“I’m fine,” Infinite replied meekly, speaking up for the first time in a while.  “I’m just… Powerhouse didn’t agree with me.”  

As powerful as Infinite was, the nature of her gift made her tricky to fully utilize.  Her Alteration was difficult to truly unleash because she was too dangerous to cut loose, and her power didn’t play well with others.  Some Adapted had a gift that would empower others; her Alteration made her try to reject them. Even though Powerhouse could imbue her with essentially any extra ability, it was like pouring fire into her body.  

Infinite wouldn’t say it aloud, but she was still in tremendous pain from utilizing Powerhouse’s gift earlier.  While it allowed her to transition her power from illusions to teleportation without delay, it wasn’t without cost.  Generally she needed time between choosing power sets to avoid putting undue stress on her already fragile emotional state.  For now, it was going to be best and safest for all parties to keep her close and monitored to see if she started to destabilize.  

It felt a bit peculiar to be monitoring her…since we were in a relationship.

Well, as much as we could afford to be in a relationship.  I probably spent more time ensuring she wouldn’t flatten a city than I did being romantic.  Still, we spent long hours together and that I made a point to be vulnerable and open with her; Infinite had latched onto me and I had to be sure to not push her away.  When I met her, she was alone, isolated, and nearly divorced from reality. She viewed me as an anchor to her sanity which had been a bit of a recipe for codependency.

  Truth be told, I liked her a great deal, but Infinite was a handful at times.  I wasn’t about to tell her that; I’d seen her literally change landscapes. What would she do is she was worried I was threatening to dump her?   

“Don’t push yourself,” I encouraged, “You swapped power sets three times in less than twenty-four hours.  That’s rough on you.”  

She pouted, kicking at the loose rocks around us before flopping down on the grass.  “I don’t like feeling useless. I can still fight, Titan. And I heard Multi-task; we need to go get the Sentries.  Dragoon is the best mechanical mind we have.” 

I shook my head, “The last thing we need you doing is overloading and accidentally asphyxiating a bunch of people.  Especially with Command healing, we need you to rest and get a proper reset. It’s a miracle you didn’t accidentally start killing the others onboard,” I said, being honest to the point of abrasive.  

“Titan-“

“Charlotte,” I said, using her real name, “Please, trust me on this.  We have to put some faith in the others and that they can handle themselves.  Dragoon and her team are no pushovers. They can take care of themselves, and Interface has gone out to help them.  I feel bad for anyone who has to try and fight against them.” 

She bit her lip, annoyed.  Like the rest of us, Infinite desperately wanted to help and be useful; it was especially pointed since she had accidentally lashed out at Dragoon while we were in transit and nearly killed her.  One thing I kept hidden was that Infinite, for all her power, was fragile. Emotional distress could invoke a small psychotic break that ushered in that asphyxiating power on top of whatever else she had manifested.  

No one besides Forest and myself even knew where it came from and we had every intent to keep it that way.   No one else knew that when Infinite had Altered, that was the first power she used to kill the men who had held her captive for weeks on end. When she Altered and was blinded by pain and rage, everyone within a city block died; that section of Leisel was still under quarantine due to the assumption that there must have been some kind of biological agent released.  She had killed a hundred and thirty-four people in about fifteen seconds and the majority of them were collateral damage. The fact that kind of power lingered in her, waiting to be accidentally released, was horrifying. Command had helped drastically in keeping her in control, but I still feared for the day she lost control and we all had to flee because she turned the air around her to death.  

“I’m still worried that we should just rush it and make sure nothing can happen to them.”  

I groaned, “If there’s someone who does best navigating dicey scenarios, it’s Interface.  That bastard has a knack for getting into trouble and slipping out.” The technological Projector who could jam their conscience into machines and bend them to their will; it seemed like an underwhelming power but Interface found a way to be incredibly resourceful.  With a little nudge from Powerhouse to help track them down, we had used the last dose of Infinite’s teleportation gift from Powerhouse to send them off to find the Rogue Sentries.  

That being said, I wasn’t worried.  People would continue to underestimate Interface, but they had a rather unforeseen gift thanks to the Trillodan: those idiots had brought fancy gadgets.  Interface could simply make them all fail or backfire. I was sure I would hear a giddy retelling about how Interface had seized control of a Trillodan dropship and started firing into a crowd. 

Forest stepped over beside me, “Titan, it’d do well if people saw you relax a little.  You look like you’re ready to melt someone. If you’re on edge, it puts everyone on edge.  People might be afraid of Infinite and me, but they know we answer to you.” 

“Heavy is the head that wears the crown.”  I muttered, dialing back my grimace. “Okay, fair enough.  Here is Titan, relaxing,” I stated as I sat down on the damp grass.

“And maybe,” a new voice suggested, “Let’s run into town for some food.” 

Shockwave gave me a nod as he approached, hands wedged into his coat pockets.  He had brought out his old getup with his crimson suit, though he only seemed half dressed without the golden mask he had worn.   “Come on Titan, people are hungry, and we’re tired of eating protein paste. Some real fucking food, some real drinks, it’ll help a lot of people take the edge off.  If we’re going to be here a while, we need to eat anyways. Repository is with Blast and Ifrit anyways. An army marches on its stomach, right?” 

I had been reluctant to let anyone out of my sight, but there was someone whose vision stretched a lot farther, “Forest, you have enough city covered to find a decent place to eat?” 

Her eyes flitted around, looking at things we couldn’t before nodding, “Yeah, few restaurants down here.  We don’t have money though, and us raiding a place will attract attention from all sorts of people.”  

A part of me wanted to wait until it was dark, but we likely had another few hours of light since days on this planet were damnably long.  “Shockwave, if you can take a few people and look ordinary enough to not attract attention. Relay can pull you back, so take stuff from a store or something but not a restaurant.  We have to make the food ourselves.”

He nodded, “Fine.  With the Trillodan showing up, people are likely to do a little light looting anyway.”

Forest shook her head, “Nope.  People are too scared so they’re staying rigidly within the lines.  It doesn’t help that the Trillodan are arming them. People are more and more apprehensive of one another, and starting to look a little trigger happy in my opinion.”  

Shockwave shrugged, “They have big scary guns, but scared people are going to be happy pretending they can’t see us. If they don’t have to pick a fight, they won’t.” 

I wanted to agree with his optimistic outlook but I couldn’t allow myself that. “Take a couple people and a totem to get back here. Don’t take too long though; being back before dark would be best.” 

He nodded and scratched at his arm a bit, “Forest, I don’t suppose you can see if anyone is selling cigarettes, can you?” 

She laughed, “You walk, I will let you know.” 

He waved over to Collision and Toolkit and brought them along. I knew that a hole was felt through Imperium since they had lost two members in the last three months: Ironside had been claimed by Rat and his gang and Kudzu had been taken by the Trillodan in the madness that had ensued after Feast Day.  In the face of it all, Shockwave was doing a much better job of maintaining appearances than I was; maybe I should spend some time with him and Beleth to discuss keeping up the right look. That was something I had never had to deliberately train on Tso’got where they had more experience. 

Following Forest’s advice, I let myself fall onto the grassy hill and at least look like I was able to relax. It felt inappropriate, but for now there wasn’t a whole lot for me to do other than wait.  I was playing guard duty and that meant I was essentially here as an insurance plan. Until something went wrong, my presence was fairly unimportant. 

Fortunately, we were likely to be left alone for now.  Zellig had seen all three of us in action; unless he destroyed the whole city the Trillodan commander wasn’t going to have a chance at removing us.  He was going to flex his influence somewhere else for now and take the lower hanging fruit while the Prime Trio was all in one spot.  The upside was it meant that anyone near us was safe. Not having to worry about Foresight, Almanac, or Big Picture had helped calm me down.  My plan hinged on having information that only those three could supply me.  

I was actually waiting to speak with Big Picture to try and glean every scrap of information I could, but he had taken the changes in gravity and living space very hard thanks to his paralysis. For now he was resting and I wouldn’t interrupt that.  The last thing I needed to do was agitate one of the men I desperately needed open communication with.  

“You do a bad job relaxing,” a familiar voice chided as an olive skinned man sat down beside me.  It was hard to recognize Clemency without his armor on since the cobalt color was so branded to his identity as a Reckoner.  However, it was hard not to recognize his fantastic figure. He made a point to be in alarmingly good shape, and had somehow bulked up despite our time in space.  Apparently he’d spent a lot of time exercising with Parasite who was a known fitness fanatic due to his power’s interaction with his own musculature. It made me a bit jealous that the Projector could have been a model in another life.  

I felt strangely intimidated by him as I noticed Infinite’s eyes linger in his direction.  

“I haven’t relaxed in the last two years,” I replied.  “Tso’got always had conflict, always had something for me to be doing.  Another Snatcher nest to melt down, another group to save from Suppression, something!  But this, playing guard duty, it’s strangely out of my element. I didn’t have a huge network working for me until the very end on Tso’got and now-“ I trailed off.

“Worried you’re letting everyone down?” he inquired, more intuitive than I care for.  

Clemency was an incredibly powerful Adapted, and much more versatile than myself.  I was relatively simple all things considered, I’d just gotten very clever with how I used my power, and it was one that was difficult to defend against.  Clemency had dozens of options at his fingertips, his only weakness was having to rely on a power source besides himself. The man was also one of the few Adapted who’d worked alone for an extended period of time, and it’d made him incredibly perceptive since he’d had no one to function as backup.  It endeared me to him, but at times I didn’t like how well he could see through me.  

“Inactivity doesn’t suit me,” I complained, “I want something to do, something to fight!  But, if I leave, I know Zellig is going to sweep in and do what he does best. And every person we lose is one more person he has to study.”

“Trillodan being able to copy our gifts wouldn’t be good,” he conceded, “But would it make them any worse than they already are?”

My eyes went to Infinite, “If they learn how to mimic someone like her, yes.  Things could get worse.”

“Even so, they already can race around us in space and they have the ability to kill planets.  What more do they really need?”

It was a question I had been mulling over for days since we’d been stuck drifting through space.  “The only place they lack is the small scale. They are good at demolition on a galactic scale, but search and seizure, annexation, that is something that is not perfected.  If they get access to our powers who knows what kind of trend that could create. Instead of destroying planets, would they start subjecting them to slavery and create dystopic societies all over?” 

Clemency shrugged, “You could argue they already do that.”

“Yes, but not directly.  They influence civilizations by existing and by showing up to remind people they exist when they deem a race advanced enough to gift Universal Common to.  If there was any additional intervention, it would be so much worse.” I swiped my hand through the air, feeling the energy that was lingered at my fingertips.  For all my destructive ability, I was still petrified by a man I’d never met. “Clemency, what did you think of Zellig? Most only know about him in abstract, but you actually fought him.”  

The handsome man’s face turned somber, “He’s… different, Titan.  He’s a different breed of monster than any of us. We fight for self-preservation, but he doesn’t.  Zellig was utterly unafraid of injury, unafraid of the harm I could dish out. He knew the power of his arsenal and was inflappable.  It doesn’t help that he is seemingly immortal.”

“I heard you snapped his spine and he shrugged it off.”

“Hooked him with a terror chain and swung him around into a pillar of concrete; his spine hit right on the corner and he bent at a ninety degree angle.  Ten seconds later, he snapped himself back into place like nothing had happened.” 

“I tried to crush him,” Infinite added, “Basically pressed him down with like fifty tonnes of force and he didn’t crumple.  It bent the floor of the ship though,” she added. 

“What makes him so different?” I inquired.

Clmency looked up and bit his lip, digging for an apt descriptor.  “He’s unnaturally determined. There was something you could see about him, something you could almost feel when he spoke.  Zellig was there to triumph, like his existence depended on it. He was enough of a zealot that he didn’t care about his own well-being, not really.  He takes risks, and he’s talented and enabled enough to walk over any competition, and he knows it.” Clemency twisted his face in disgust, “He’s a bit like you in the way he motivates people, except he’s clearly spent a lot more time handling that level of charisma.”  

“And of course he’s not dumb enough to come for me directly,” I muttered.  I was the known variable, the destructive force that could surely kill him.  He’d had men come to the surface wherever the teams went, but no one near me or Forest.  “But he didn’t know Infinite, so he was bold enough to meet her first hand and form his own opinion.”

Infinite shuddered, “He just knew…like he could see things that we couldn’t.  I feel like Zellig could see inside me or something and understand how I was wired.”  She paused, wringing her hands, “I think he knows that Command helps me stay stable.”  

“I wouldn’t put it past him,” I agreed.  It was something I had considered since he had been on the ship, especially since Command had to calm her down and pull her back from the edge.  We couldn’t afford to lose Command, not if we were going to be able to reach Marn. Infinite took our trip time from years to weeks. Even though Dragoon could add fantastic technological advancements to a ship, it wouldn’t do nearly as much as the supernatural.  

“Titan,” Clemency cautioned, “Don’t just think of him as a monster either.  Zellig seemed hurt that we’d killed his soldiers. As much of a monster as he is, we have to remember he’s not delusional or deranged.  If he’s capable of empathy-“

“He’s capable of getting inside our heads too,” I extrapolated.  “He already found our ship, and likely already had a number of Adapted captured too.”  I ran my hands through my hair, “Well, at least things are going to stay interesting.”   

“I don’t envy you,” Clemency laughed, “But I do admire your ambition if nothing else.  You let me know how I can help and I’ll do it.”  

While on the surface it was a polite invitation, I could hear the desperation underneath that statement.  Clemency was a fighter, a doer; inaction was just as hard for him as it was for me, if not harder. I at least had social balances to navigate and to keep an eye on Infinite to make sure she was calm and stable.  Clemency was forced to keep his feet on the ground like some bird who had their wings clipped.  

He excused himself to go talk with Multi-task and Mizu, likely looking to see if he could be of any help to them, and it almost prompted me to follow suit.  Something to do until Big Picture was awake, anything to occupy my time and mind from the incessant boredom.  

I sighed and fell back down, annoyed, furious at my own insecurities.  The nagging concern that I head led everyone to their demise was an ever present fear of mine, and the first day on Vuuldar was definitely making me question my own dedication.  

A soft hand tapped my head as Infinite pulled herself beside me, “Clemency is right, you’re bad at relaxing.”

I rolled my eyes, “I’m leading an army of kids against the universe’s most oppressive tyrants.  Forgive me for being a little stressed.”

She started walking a hand down my chest, slowly, a touch seductive, “I mean, if you’re just killing time…there’s plenty of vacant rooms in that ship over there…”

I tilted my head back to look her in the face, “Charlotte, as much as I appreciate the invitation to blow off some steam, I’m just not feeling it.”

While Infinite was like an armed bomb in our midst, there were certain aspects of her that definitely appealed to me, both personally and professionally as it were.  Even though people like Shockwave or Psycho had influence and clout, they were prone to defer to me on principle. None of them wanted to pick a fight with me because none of them would win.   

Forest had been a friend of mine for a long while, and she was a great resource, but she was always a little distant and removed.  Most of it was because she was literally inhuman at this point; none of us could guess what had caused this strange anomaly, not even Big Picture had been able to shed any light on it.  His best guess was some kind of genetic anomaly, but he couldn’t explain why she would have Adapted prior to puberty.

Her exceptionality had turned into a bit of a barrier between Forest and everyone around her; it made her fabulous at being objective and pragmatic but not necessarily the best for personal comfort or sanity checks.  She still had vulnerabilities, but they were few and far between if she had anything to say about it.  

Infinite on the other hand was almost paradoxically riddled with insecurities and almost childlike on first impression.  As she grew more comfortable with people, she opened up and was willing to abandon some of the childlike veneer; with me in particular it had let out a bit of a clingy teenage deviant.  There were times I was a great proponent, but sometimes I had to remind her that things had a time and a place. Still, I appreciated that she was at least as authentically herself as possible around me.

Infinite shrugged, “Your loss.”  

I reached a hand up and wove my fingers in with hers, “I’m sure we’ll get another chance before long.”

She giggled, “Good.  You always smile more after.”  Infinite perked up and her head snapped to the right, like a dog who heard a branch snap in the distance.  

I hadn’t heard anything, which meant that Infinite hadn’t disabled all her powers.  Generally speaking, she had one or two running at all times; she usually had some kind of limited danger sense or heightened sensory functions enabled.  Since she had been taken hostage once via ambush she was hellbent on never letting it happen again.  

“You can turn those off,” I promised, “We have plenty of people here who can keep an ear out.” 

“That obvious?” she said, a bit embarrassed. 

“I know what to look for.  Besides, I want you to completely reset and unwind.  If you keep hold of a few powers, you’re going to be a bit on edge.  Have some faith in the other people here; they are our family after all.”

“I’d rather not think of you as my sibling,” she shot back. 

One of the few things that we all had in common was a shit home life.  Trying to find a single Adapted who had a pleasant home life was nearly impossible.  Most of us had been rejected by our families and friends, especially when people learned what we were.  It was why we bound up in cliques: even though we could withstand trauma time and time again, no one wanted to be alone.  I just thought we should just take it a step further and replace the hole we all had.

If none of us had a family, why not make our own?  Why not choose who we called our brothers and sisters since society rejected us?  

I was saved having to explain nuance as I saw Big Picture being led down a ramp off the ship.  “Sorry darling, I have an appointment,” I said with a smile, glad to have something to do.  

Big Picture was someone I knew I needed alongside from the get go, but he had been markedly difficult to get close to thanks to Beleth playing the role of overseer much of the time.  Between him and Shockwave, getting an edge in anywhere in Ciel had been a challenge. I had been forced to hold off making my presence known for quite a while; in truth, it had been the Rogue Sentries who had helped burst that bubble for me and break the tense power struggle between the two factions.  

It had opened the door for me to get a hold of Big Picture and make a sales pitch; I’d made a point to do it right after he’d been accosted by Psycho and his Lunatics because I knew exactly how desperate he’d be for protection, a service I was happy to offer in exchange for information.  

One of the few good lessons my dad had ever taught me: If you have something they want, make them earn it.

Part of what kept me awake at night was because I was trying to fight a war of information against Zellig.  While I had Cognates answering to me, he had a virtually supernatural infrastructure to call upon. I couldn’t fathom how much surveillance the Trillodan had scattered among the stars, but now that we were under the lens, it seemed it was greater in scope than I had thought.  I was hoping that Big Picture had some idea of how to skew the playing field at least a little in our favor.  

“I could have come to you,” I called as Multi-task wheeled him closer to me.

He waved the notion away, “No, no, I could use to get outside for some fresh air.  That ship is still damn musty,” he muttered. “So, Titan, what can I do for you?”

I laughed as I sat down on the boulder, “Actually, I’m pretty sure you already know.”    

“You’re anxious about Zellig’s presence and the general Trillodan oppression and sphere of influence.  You’re feeling overwhelmed by their ability to be essentially omnipresent, and you believe that you’re failing us as a whole.  To rub extra salt in the wound, you’re trying to run a small military campaign and you’re stretched thin with no way to reach out and communicate with the people you deem yourself custodian of.”  

“That about sums it up,” I muttered. 

“You’re wanting my insight on Zellig and how he thinks, and what kind of technology I know they will have so you can avoid it.”

“Two for two.” 

There was a tiny twitch at the corner of his mouth as he seemed to look beyond me, letting his Cognate brain get to work.  While Big Picture had a reputation of being ever the professional, he loved to be useful the way that all of us did. “First things first,” he said after a moment, “You need to consider who Zellig is going to want access to.”

“Why?”

“For right now, Zellig and the Trillodan don’t understand us or how we work anymore than we understand ourselves.  From their point of view they assume that each person has a power that is unique to them; by capturing that person, they can unlock that classification of gift.  Some are going to be inherently less appealing while others will warrant more investment.”

I had assumed that they were going to target Adapted based on perceived threat.  Adapted generally measured our own value on raw firepower and combat prowess. To hear I was misguided was disarming.  “So, what will they deem most valuable?”

He rubbed his temple in concentration, “The Trillodan are still mostly bound to the laws of physics, even if their technology seems to defy it.  So, they will want access to things that outright ignore the fundamental laws of creation. People who can create matter from nothing, like you, are going to be in high demand.  You, Repository, Eldritch, etc. Anyone who can seem to make limitless material is of tremendous value. If your gift can be obtained, there is no war of attrition they can lose ever again.  Endless material for an already peerless empire would expand their reach even farther.”

I frowned, “A daunting thought.”  

Big Picture kept talking, blowing by my idle thought, “You aren’t going to be a high priority target.  Eldritch and Repository will be. Zellig has studied up on us since we had so much footage taken on Tso’got; given that he’s partially robotic, it’s safe to assume he has a way to remember everything about us.  Every time we encounter him, he’ll know more about how to undo us.” 

Infinite shuddered, not liking the implications.  

“Repository is likely a lower priority though since he’s with heavy heaters like Ifrit and Blast.  Besides, a man who can simply create a wall of metal is hard to capture. It’s likely that Zellig will leave him for later when he believes he has enough upper hand to wait him out since Repository is designed to win a war of attrition.  Eldritch, however, he’s going to want as quickly as possible. Zellig will know that our big Druid has had limited time and access to feed his gift and is therefore vulnerable. A silver lining is that Infinite damaging the Trillodan commander means he likely didn’t hunt Eldritch personally.  For now, he’s likely safe since Dragoon had the good sense to make him save up some storage before they went off world.”

“But multiple fights are going to exhaust his supply.”

“Correct.  And given how sprawling the cityscapes are and how much less population dense Vuuldar is, Eldritch wouldn’t have the tools required to engage in quite the same rampage as he did back in Ciel.  He’s never going to have that same level of power. Him aside, he’s with several others who Zellig is going to want to get his hands on because of the possibilities they represent.”  

I raised an eyebrow, caught off guard.  I had assumed the only real powerhouse of their team was Eldritch; I wasn’t about to question Big Picture’s intuition though.  There was a reason people paid top dollar for his insights back on Tso’got.  

“Dragoon represents unparalleled advancement in technology.  She is able to learn at incredible rates and simply draw information from what she encounters.  She has no formal education in machining and robotics and yet look at what she constructs. Her first suit was made from scraps, the second suit was a dramatic improvement and she was adding more advanced weaponry.  When you consider how young she is and how little time she’s had to hone her skill set, it sets a frightening precedent for the Trillodan. In a decade, what kind of mechanical monster will she be able to make? But, inversely, what if they can get access to her brain?  Imagine if the Trillodan had the ability to learn like she does. What new heights could their technology soar to then?” 

“And the second?” I asked.

“Parasite.  While Mutant poses a decent gift in the form of shapeshifting, Parasite offers a bafflingly well rounded physical boon.  It rewards effort and functions markedly well as both shield and sword. Even without knowing about the Flag Bearer’s talk with a Trillodan soldier, you could tell they are simply dependent on technology to sustain them.  In many ways, they are physically inferior to many species and are reliant on specific environment conditions. Their grasp on technology has leveled the playing field, but how much more threatening would they be without that kind of limitation?” 

I was beginning to regret only sending Interface to help them now.  However, I had trusted Interface and I had yet to be disappointed. I just hoped the trend continued now when the stakes were highest.  

“So why is Zellig spreading himself out?” I asked.  “Why not blitz group after group?” 

Big Picture scratched the top of his head, “I’m not entirely sure about this since I never got a chance to see or meet the brute, but I’m guessing there’s a couple reasons.  First off is that he loves a good fight; how often is there any competition for the Trillodan elite after all? Second, we are something he doesn’t understand and their scientists don’t either.”

“How do you know that?” Infinite asked. 

“If they understood us, Infinite,” he explained, “They wouldn’t be risking men to catch us.  They would simply exterminate us and everyone else unlucky enough to be on Vuuldar right now.  We have no immediate way to leave; it’d be like shooting fish in a barrel.” He turned back to me, “Because we are unknowns, he’s being cautious.  He utilized standard foot soldiers on Tso’got and a number of them were cut down. The men he’s sending out are elite soldiers though. They have special armor, special training, and they are likely informed about their specific quarry.  Each one of his hand-picked are sent after a specific person for a reason. My guess is that Zellig is trying to draw out the conflict for as long as possible and keep us on the back foot the whole time. If he makes it so we can’t sleep, by the end of the second day, we’re going to be sloppy and make mistakes.”

“A war of attrition.”

“Yes.  And when he is sure of his victory, he will march troops in and take over.  Another guess, but he is likely going to hold off on using Trillodan regulars until the second or third day.  He will use them to contain us, to make barricades and box us in. Zellig’s special forces, they are the ones who will take the risks and get close to collect.”  

“Why?” Infinite asked.  “If they love war so much, why is he being stingy with troops?”

Big Picture mulled it over for a moment, “I believe it would be because of a lack of population.  With technological advancement like they have, there is a good chance that they could have nearly driven themselves extinct once upon a time and their population never quite recovered.  It’s fairly speculative, but you’re right and he definitely has a reason for it. Best guess though is that within about three days he’ll start employing all hands.”

“What do you think he’ll do if I can relocate most of the Adapted here, with us?”

  The Cognate grimaced, “I’m not sure…but it will be bloody for all parties.  My assumption is that he’ll employ more heavy handed artillery to keep you busy,” he said to Infinite.  “He’s seen first hand what Forest, you, and Infinite are capable of, and he’ll prey upon your desire to preserve the Adapted over killing the Trillodan.  If he’s capable of removing you from the arena, I don’t really like our odds. We have plenty of powerful people, but if they are threatened, the Trillodan have plenty of technology to use that makes a bigger splash.”  

“What if we simply kill Zellig?” Forest asked, materializing beside me.  

Big Picture nodded to her, “I wondered when you’d chime in.  If we kill Zellig, the planet is torched, immediately. Even his elite are a far cry below him in terms of battle prowess; if he dies, we will be deemed too difficult to obtain and they will then most definitely cut their losses.  Everyone on Vuuldar will become collateral.”  

“Well, shit,” she mumbled.  

I looked out over the city down the hill and found myself saying a quiet prayer for the people out there.  We weren’t in a place I felt we could start rescuing them, not yet.  

For now, they just had to hold on and withstand the assault.  The only victory was escape, and our window was going to close soon.    

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