Battle for Vuuldar: Adamant

This climactic battle was finally going to happen after all the anticipation and anxious pondering that I’d listened to over the last three days.  

Still, even though I had only been a part of their insane crusade for a few days, I felt a strange amount of kinship with these people.  Even though I didn’t know most of them, we were all working under one banner with a common purpose and a common foe.    

Still, as tensions rose and people made last minute preparations, I wondered if that connection warranted risking life and limb; what won me over was that the Trillodan had come to NaMein and trashed my city.  They were the reason that Distortion was crippled and why Exchange had been coughing his lungs up for the last three days. They had taken away my home and I felt that I owed them at least a little something for that.  

About twenty minutes ago Forest had come through and started informing people about what they were going to do.  i had been told I was needed for special assignment which raised questions for me. I wasn’t one of Titan’s original Adapted or one of his inner circle.  Truth be told, a battlefield was likely a place I was at my weakest: too many variables and too many actions to try and control. There was no set goal that would allow me to both fight and survive the chaos.  

Titan was operating out of the flight deck, and he wasn’t the only one there waiting for me.  Parasite, Ragdoll, and Eldritch were there waiting for orders. Behind Titan, his right hand Infinite offered a weak smile and looked away.  The man in the wheelchair was Big Picture, the Cognate who could extrapolate information and draw connections most couldn’t begin to see. I was always leery when dealing with unfamiliar people, but, looking at him washed away any concern; the man wasn’t a threat to us and instead was only interested in seeing Titan’s plan succeed.  

I took a quick moment to read the room and establish what everyone else was after: Titan wanted to vanquish, Infinite wanted to withdraw, Parasite wanted revenge, Ragdoll wanted to protect, and Eldritch wanted to prove himself.  

“Adamant, welcome,” Titan said, waving me in.  

“I seem to be the odd man out,” I said with a bemused smile, “Though I appreciate the invitation to your war room all the same.” 

“Nonsense,” he replied, beckoning me forward.  “We’re all Adapted. And, you’re just the man for the job.”

I raised an eyebrow.  “Oh?” 

Big Picture cleared his throat, “It’s not a surprise to either the Trillodan or us that we plan to use Eldritch.  He has unrivaled potential and this is the perfect scenario to let him go on a rampage. The only problem is that we don’t have an unlimited amount of material to start him with thanks to Repository making metal for the construction crew.  So, our best guess is that Zellig is going to cut him down early to prevent Eldritch from swinging the conflict one way or the other.”

“We’re playing bodyguard,” Ragdoll summed up with a hint of pride in his voice.  I glanced at him, noticing that his goal included two individuals; he sought to fulfill Titan’s mission, but he was also looking to protect the other Enhancer beside him.

“We believe that your ability to set an unbreakable goal will be the perfect gift for this mission,” Titan said.  

I shrugged, “If you think that’s what’s going to be best, who am I to argue?  I’m not a Cognate or really anyone with any say. But,” I added, looking to Eldritch, “I’d be happy to help get you powered up.”  Part of me was curious to see what Eldritch on a proper rampage would look like. I’d only heard mention of ‘Feast Day’ while hanging around the other Adapted; fortunately Menagerie had been nice enough to enlighten me in-between sketches: apparently Eldritch had lost control and ravaged half a city back on Tso’got.  It had taken the combined might of Titan and Forest to bring him down.  

“There’s also a little more to it than just that,” Ragoll said, “We’re going to have a secondary objective once Eldritch is good enough to start running amok on his own.”

I glanced at the Enhancer in the black bodysuit, getting an interesting sense of righteous rage from him.  Whatever he was about to disclose, there was some personal vitriol in there. “What is that?”

“You are going to go after Zellig himself,” Titan answered.  

I grinned, knowing this was more my speed.  “Now it makes sense why you want me. You want someone that can’t lose to Zellig.  But,” I said, directing my question to Big Picture, “Why the fuck would he be down here?” 

Big Picture wrung his hands, clearly anxious about how much sway his words were having.  He wasn’t a combatant, that much was clear. He was used to being in the background, away from it all.  Right now he was too close for comfort and that was wearing on his nerves. “Zellig seems to have an infatuation with violence and being right against it.  It’s my assumption he’s going to be overlooking the battle, likely on top of a neighboring hill that will be out of Forest’s reach. He’ll likely involve himself after the Ellayans engage.  Odds are he’ll make direct orders from the battlefield once more Trillodan soldiers come to the forefront.”

“We’re going to disrupt him, and keep him from ever entering the fray,” Parasite said, his voice flat.  Even though I had only known him a little bit of time before he was taken, Parasite had changed drastically.  There wasn’t much of that usual pep to him, instead he was cold. There were clear thoughts of revenge and settling a score. 

I had to admit, I appreciated the unapologetic violent side of Parasite. 

“Alright,” I said with a grin, “I’ll do it.  But, I’m a bit curious how we’re going to deal with our initial lack of soldiers or common footmen.  We’re against thousands and there’s only about a hundred and fifty of us.”

“A handful of people who can make copies or animals to fight for them.  Psycho is going to be our biggest front line while I get spun up,” Eldritch answered.  “He’s already amassing projections. Besides him there are people like Menagerie and a handful of others who can make minions to do their bidding.”

“How long until we go?”

“You’re going to go now,” Titan said, his face turning serious.  “Adamant, my suggestion is that you follow along with Ragdoll; even though you’ve never fought with him, he knows what he’s doing.  Distortion will get you three relatively close to the city and work towards the coast, the faster that Eldritch towers over the city, the faster that we can diffuse their whole militia.”

“Understood.”  I contemplated telling Titan that I didn’t care for the way he simply assumed control of my lackey but he had also been the reason that she had been healed and was able to walk at all.  Plus, now wasn’t the time to be taking on a power struggle, we both had bigger fish to fry.   

We moved back down with a sense of urgency, heading outside to where Distortion was waiting, teleporting people to various positions to maximize their damage in the pending battle.  Powerhouse had complimented her well, offering Distortion a fix to her one big shortcoming of range. It turns out that for Powerhouse, offering someone a range modification was a cinch and took almost none of her potential allowance.  Titan had been quick to exploit that fact and had gotten tremendous amounts of work done with my arrogant teammate.  

Outside was more electric and abuzz than inside of the ark ship.  While the Cognates and tactically oriented individuals were hunkering down, outside there were dozens and dozens of combat oriented Selected waiting to get on with it.  While I didn’t know nearly everyone who hailed from Tso’got, I recognized a few people from Vuuldar that I knew through reputation and thanks to Exchange’s infatuation with others like us.

A buxom red-head named Calamity was saying a prayer with Demon.  The two of them had been a pair in a town down the coast from NaMein, both of them notorious fiends and criminals as if they had to live up to their name.  Beside them, Effigy was trying to calm his breathing as he looked down at the city we were about to lay waste to, absent-mindedly lighting his hands on fire and extinguishing them as if to calm the nerves.  

The one that stood out to me was Stampede.  As much disdain as I had for her, I was impressed with the horde of animals she had spawned in preparation for this showdown.  It was easily a troupe of at least thirty mutated elephants and rhinos, all clearly bestowed thickers hides and more menacing teeth and tusks.  Along her arm she let the blood continue to drip free from the self-inflicted lacerations, each few drops coalescing and growing into another twisted animal for her collection.  Down the line from her was Psycho, filling the place with neon-colored monsters that were even less founded in reality. I was leery of them turning on me, but I took a moment to monitor Psycho’s intent and he only had eyes for the Trillodan.  

Of all the people I had taken stock of, he was arguably the most enraged and emotionally invested.    

“Ragdoll!” a shrill voice called above the din.  All four of us turned around to see a girl with short black hair and a colorful robe sprint up to us, sucking for air the whole time.  “Titan, wanted me to give you something,” she managed to get out between gasps.  

“So you’re Powerhouse,” I said for my own information.

“Yeah,” she said, clearly struggling to stay upright, “Sorry, I’ve spent the last three days mostly asleep as I lend out powers.”

“Why is he getting a power?” Eldritch asked, genuine in his curiosity.  

To my surprise, it wasn’t her that volunteered an answer.  “Because he is the most gifted with his Adaptation. Ragdoll is used to perfectly using extra gifts, almost like he was built for it.”  There was a hint of adoration from Parasite, a token bit of idolization. I wondered if he was even aware of those extra feelings that tinged his words and motivations.  

“Besides, I need the help,” Ragdoll said with a playful laugh.  “I’m just an idiot who throws himself around all the time. Parasite’s a badass and Adamant, I hear you can be unbeatable if you set it up.”

I shrugged, “Depending on the context, yes.” 

Powerhouse quickly laid a hand on Ragdoll and seemed to will a little sliver of light to slide into his palm.  “You’ve got it for six hours. Be sure to get it back before then or losing it is going to hurt like hell. And it’s pretty taxing.  I wouldn’t use it until you really need some extra oomph.”

“Understood.” 

As she left, Eldritch couldn’t seem to rip his look away from Ragdoll, his curiosity getting the better of him. “What-”

Ragdoll vanished and appeared a step behind Eldritch.  “Short range teleportation. And my guess is that it holds momentum between blinks as well.”

“Well, now I feel a little short changed,” I said with faux offense.  “I could certainly use a gift like that.” 

“Don’t be bitter.  Even with it, I still probably can’t beat you.”

I flashed a small grin but didn’t bother to confirm his suspicion.  Instead I changed my focus to Distortion as we got closer to her chair.  Collector, a woman who could store objects in a pocket dimension, had procured a literal cabana for Distortion to rest under and served as a good rally point for anyone who had specific instructions from Titan.

Once she noticed us, I saw a little glimmer of relief, though it vanished as soon as it showed.  Distortion had that air of arrogance to maintain, even if she was secretly glad to get a moment of face time with me.  While she would never admit it, Distortion needed me to provide some guidance and restraint on her behalf. Even though some had accused me of being abusive at times, there were simply things that needed to be strongly reinforced and Distortion had always looked to push boundaries, even when strongly warned against it.  

When I had met her, she was homeless and hungry, chewed up and spat out by the close-knit social cliques that managed to survive on Vuuldar.  I had taken her in but ensured that she learned how to present and be civil which was… challenging. However, the fact she hadn’t tried to do anything stupid here was a relief; all my time spent barking at her and reminding her of her proper role and purpose had sunk in.

Or she might be terrified of the fact that Forest was literally everywhere at all times and could listen in whenever she wanted.  That kind of looming threat did wonders for keeping one in line.  

“Forest told me about where you guys are going.”  She cast a sideways glance at Eldritch and Parasite, still not entirely trusting them.  Word that Parasite had come back from a Trillodan prison had made a lot of people leery about his presence and Distortion needed almost no reason to be paranoid.  “All of you are going to the same place?” 

“Yes,” I said.  I looked her up and down, noticing that she looked tired, worn out.  “Are you pushing yourself too hard?” I asked softly, keeping the information between us.  

“Overworked, but having purpose is good,” she confessed.  “Not as hands on as I’d like.”

I flashed her a genuine smile.  Most of the people seemed happier under Titan’s leadership because it had clear direction and purpose, something that all of us craved.  “Well, let’s be about it then,” I commanded. 

“Stand still,” she instructed as she raised a hand.  

A second later, all of us plunged into nothingness, materializing inside a small grocery store that had been cleaned out and abandoned recently.  I wasn’t one who gave a damn about other people getting in the way of this coming conflict, but I could see that the absence of other humans offered some solace to Eldritch.  I was still worried about his conviction and mental tenacity in regards to his follow through but for now he seemed resolute enough. 

Soon enough he wouldn’t have a choice but to fight anyways.  

“Get started,” Ragdoll said to the Druid, taking charge of our little squad now that we were abandoned.  I didn’t challenge him for leadership; it was obvious how comfortable he was in a position of control. He was deemed gifted among his peers and I wasn’t going to cause any dissent by disregarding their opinions.  Even though his power seemed lackluster, he had undying respect from people like Beleth and Shockwave who were infamous enough that Exchange had gushed about them long before we’d met them in person.  

Eldritch nodded, stripping off his shirt and trousers as onyx colored tendrils grew from the surface of his skin, quickly disguising the form of the teenager who had spawned them.  Even though I knew what to expect, I shuddered at seeing him actually take his form. I had fought alongside him before against one of the Trillodan’s creations but there was just something off-putting about watching Nick fade behind the guise of Eldritch.  

“How much did you get to start with?” Parasite asked.  

“Four hundred kilos,” he said, his voice altered to a hiss.  “I’m going to do fifty percent to start. Eight tonnes should buy me some breathing room.”

“We’re going to get you to thirty tonnes and then assume you’ll be good to go on your own,” Ragdoll said.  “Adamant, you’re good to go?”

I nodded, “Don’t worry, Ragdoll, I will protect Eldritch while he grows.”  

The world rippled for me, my goal becoming an unbreakable promise that I had to uphold.  Around Eldritch, a green glow crept into existence to guide me to my objective. I could feel him at the periphery of my senses, like some kind of homing beacon that called to me.  Everyone heard that my power was simply to accomplish anything, but that wasn’t the whole truth. My goal was going to guide me to success and enable me along the way. The cost was that I had to see it through.  

Until Eldritch weighed thirty tonnes, I was bound to him as his bodyguard.    

A lighter shade of green settled upon Parasite and Ragdoll: they shared my goal but weren’t the primary focus.  Any kind of power I obtained wouldn’t be as strong if I tried to intervene and protect them. I could have made my phrasing more sweeping, but I wouldn’t be bestowed as much power to fulfill my objective that way.  The more specific and narrow my focus, the stronger I was.    

Besides, I wasn’t worried about them either way.  I’d seen Parasite go balls to the walls against Zeal and endure some serious punishment.  If Ragdoll was on par with him, they didn’t need my help. 

“Eldritch,” Ragdoll said, peering at the growing mass of tendrils that was filling the room, “You’re ready for this?  No Feast Day?” 

There was hesitation from Eldritch which wasn’t exactly comforting.  “I’ll manage. I have a clear goal to fight the Trillodan and the Ellayan militia.  I can do this.”

“You’re goddamn right you can,” Ragdoll assured.  “Let’s get it done.” 

Eldritch lumbered forward, bashing through the door as he continued to grow.  He was already ten feet tall and still growing. “Do we even really need to help him get bigger?” I whispered to Parasite as Ragdoll and Eldritch took the lead.

“He mutates and develops more powers the longer he can sustain the form.  The more he grows, the harder he gets to put down. If he hits a critical mass, he simply won’t go down.  This is the only time he’s really vulnerable.” 

I shrugged, still a bit dubious as I looked at the towering monstrosity.  “Yeah. Vulnerable. That’s how I’d describe him.” 

Parasite and I jogged to keep up with Eldritch as Ragdoll turned and literally launched himself on top of a two story building.  I had been told he had a peculiar means of moving around, but no one had done it justice. For as strange as it looked, the fucker moved with alarming efficiency.  He kept guiding us forward, having us slowly close the gap between us and the Ellayan’s while all the other Adapted moved forward, letting the brigade of conjured animals lead the charge and soak the initial damage.  Rough estimates were pitting us against five-thousand Ellayans. Each one of us had to take fifty with them to rout their militia.

While I believed that was doable, the Trillodan weren’t going to make it that simple.  

A horrific screech and battle cry interrupted my thoughts; all the creations were rampaging down and the literal stampede of monsters was audible over a kilometer away.  

“Let’s go!” Ragdoll shouted and we took off, the three of us following the lumbering figure of Eldritch as he shambled forward, his immense legs each taking him as far as six of mine.  For two full minutes, all we could hear was the distant animal cries and orders being shouted in the distance on a speaker system.  

The clamor only got louder as we drew closer. Finally we spilled out into the back end of their warfront, by a weapons depot.  In front of us, buildings had been swept away to make a massive clearing and landing for the Ellayans coming up from the sea to participate in the battle.  A few Trillodan sheds littered the fabricated courtyard but was otherwise a mostly flat staging area that had mostly emptied as the first wave of Ellayans had pushed forward.  Even though the first push might be gone, there were still plenty of people lingering behind, waiting for orders from their alien overlords.  

I almost felt pity for them as we came onto the scene.    

A pair of Ellayan guards rounded and were immediately beset upon by Ragdoll; one still managed to scream and sound the alarm, getting fifty figures to turn our way.  All of the Ellayans were wearing simple ballistic armor and equipped with a laser rifle. All the figures who turned echoed the scream and turned on Eldritch, firing into the gargantuan mass of tendrils with reckless abandon.  

I felt my power flare as my objective was threatened.  Strength dumped into my body, as well as speed. All of these people needed to be stopped.  They were hurting Eldritch and reducing his size, both diametrically opposed to my stated objective.  

As fast as Ragdoll could throw himself, I was faster now.  Three massive bounds closed the gap between me and a group of six Ellayans who were closer towards us; all of them were knocked aside as I unleashed a flurry of blows.  Bones and armor shattered as I neutralized the threat, seeking the next pack to target. My power waned slightly as the next group turned their attention to me, taking their sights off Eldritch.  

Even though they wanted to stop him, their primary focus had shifted to stopping me.  I had to be careful and spend a moment evading their fire to avoid injury. While I would be durable enough to take a few hits, I didn’t want to deal with burns or other injury due to carelessness.  The Ellayans weren’t quick enough to correct their aim and track me, letting me get close with a few quick steps. This lot took a little more effort on my part, but the four of them stood no chance once I was close.  

It didn’t help that Eldritch roared, stunning everyone unlucky enough to be in front of him.  I dared to glance back as our monster kept growing with his massive form lurching forward, being peppered by volleys of lasers that bored and drilled into a seemingly endless supply of dark and slippery flesh.  The Ellayans that Ragdoll and myself were knocking down tried to scramble away from the towering figure but their screams were drowned out as Eldritch walked on them, quickly adding their flesh to his bulk.  

No matter how well drilled the Trillodan had made this militia, they were not prepared for such a spectacle.  

“Parasite, officers!” Ragdoll shouted, gesturing into the thick of the mob.  Sure enough, two figures were clearly directing the militia, trying to get the indigenous people rallied against our splinter group.  

I wrinkled my nose in disgust as Parasite seemed to almost flip himself inside out, his skin taking on a dark and splotchy red color.  For a moment, I was worried as the Ellayans began to turn fire onto him, but Parasite shrugged off lasers like they were nothing, his new form taking punishment better than I could.  He tore through a small crowd, battling his way to the Trillodan officers and dispatching them with a cold efficiency that made even me a bit afraid.  

Eldritch let out another roar as we pressed forward, now towering over us at nearly fifteen feet in stature.  More and more Ellayan’s were turning on him as he became a bigger and bigger target, but lasers were seeming to have less and less effect.  Whether it was because of sheer size or because he was developing some kind of mutation to mitigate the weaponry, I wasn’t sure. But Parasite was right, it was clear that this train was only going to pick up steam unless something was to cut us short now.  

Right on cue, a massive explosion ripped apart Eldritch’s flank.  A second followed soon after, this one clipping a huge chunk of his shoulder away, raining gore and ash on the ground behind him.  

A pair of what looked like metal slugs rolled into the clearing, each one taking another blast out of Eldritch.  While he was growing and offsetting the damage already, Eldritch had been stopped for now. I got the sense that he’d run out of material to repair himself before the tanks ran out of ammunition.  

“Adamant,” Ragdoll shouted, “You’re up!” 

I grinned to myself, feeling a bit smug that I was needed to deal with this threat.  Titan had clearly realized that there would be some Trillodan weaponry that neither Ragdoll or Parasite could simply bludgeon through; instead he had picked me as a way to level the playing field, no matter what Zellig and his forces would throw at us.  

My power surged, the threat to my objective prompting a new dose of strength.  Both palms started to glow red hot and I practically flew through the crowd, ignoring the remaining small fry between me and the tanks.  They each took another shot before I could get to them, taking chunks out of Eldritch’s legs and forcing him to fall on all fours. I snarled as I pressed a hand to the surface of the tank; the hull retaliated by sending an electrical arc into my hand to deter me. I cried out in surprise as I was blasted backwards, my muscles shorting out. 

I fell to the ground in a heap, my own physiology protesting as my power filled in the gap.  The Trillodan were still targeting Eldritch, still defying my objective. My physiology screamed in protest as my power demanded more of my flesh, rapidly repairing my fried arm and nervous system, compelling me back to my feet.  My power was ready this time as I pressed my hand back against the armor plating, melting through the thick steel until I could gain purchase. The inhabitants panicked as I ripped a hunk of the hull away and stepped in. Both of the drivers screamed as I pressed a hand to their chest, cooking them alive inside their armor.  

Another explosion drove me back to the other tank to repeat the process and dispose of its occupants.  

While I had been dealing with them, Parasite and Ragdoll had been literally throwing bodies to Eldritch, feeding him as he regenerated and swelled back up to his immense fifteen-foot stature.  As he started moving forward, any attempt to stop his advance wasn’t dealt with swiftly enough: Ragdoll was masterful at skirting around the edges of the fight to deal with heavy gunners or groups aiming to flank us, Parasite could charge through the middle and cut down the Trillodan officers trying to create resistance, and I could cripple any machinery the Trillodan tried to employ.  

Our blood advance continued until we had fed Eldritch sixty bodies.  All at once, I felt my power vanish and leave me feeling remarkably vulnerable.  My goal had been met, the quota that Ragdoll had set was reached. “Ragdoll, I’m tapped out!” I shouted.  

The Enhancer threw himself down towards me and Parasite joined us, the three of us giving a salute to Eldritch as he lumbered forward, making his way forward into the flank of the Ellayan militia and continuing to grow as he picked up corpses off the ground and added them to his immense mass.  He had developed the ability to extend his limbs like elastic and generated some kind of toughness for his whole body. As he stomped forward, Ellayans scurried to get away from him; any who were too slow were swept up by his massive limbs and turned into food for the war machine we’d helped turn him into.  

My power was sated: Eldritch had been protected until he was strong enough to defend himself and we’d sent him headlong into the flank of the Ellayan militia, just like Titan had wanted.  

“Good job guys,” Ragoll said with a satisfied smile.  “You guys ready for what comes next?” 

Parasite let himself switch back to looking like a human for a moment, catching his breath after being turned inside out for nearly twenty minutes.  I watched his eyes track Eldritch as he lumbered into the maze of buildings where the majority of the fighting was happening. I could feel Parasite’s inner conflict as he wanted to rip his friend free of that immense monster that we had helped create.  

Ragdoll could tell what he was thinking as well.  “Murphy,” he said softly, “He’s going to be okay. We have to trust him.”

“The last time he was that big he tried to kill me,” Parasite whispered.  “He smashed a building after I promised that we were going to get him out.  I just helped put him back in that prison. Are we doing the right thing making him do this, Rags?”  

Ragdoll reached an arm around his shoulder, pulling him closer.  “Eldritch is a badass and he’s grown a lot since then. He’ll be okay.  I promise.”  

Even without my ability to read intent, I knew tension when I saw it.  “Alright, as much as I appreciate the budding romance between you two, maybe now isn’t the best time.”

Both of them looked at me, then looked at how close they were to one another, each quickly taking a step to the side and looking at the ground, both blushing.  

I cackled, enjoying the momentary break of tension from the previous half hour of carnage and stress.  “You two should really take a bit and sort yourself out after this.”

“We have to live through seeing him next,” Parasite muttered, his voice a mix of hostility and dread.  While Ragdoll seemed almost a little hurt that Parasite had changed tracks so quickly, it was for the best.  We had work to do and the two of them being distracted wouldn’t help.  

“Relax,” I said with a grin, “You have me.  Zellig can’t beat me.”  

Parasite wasn’t entirely convinced but Ragdoll was willing to buy into my arrogant optimism.  Reaching up, our leader tapped an earpiece he’d been given at the start of the day. “Distortion, have you guys found him?”  After a brief pause, “We’re ready for him. We won’t move.” 

I took one last glance at Eldritch as he was now taller than basically any building and looming over the city, quickly making himself the centerpiece of the conflict.  Explosions and laser fire peppered him, but he wasn’t deterred. “Good luck big guy,” I whispered as the world shimmered around us and we faded into nothing again.  

As we came back into existence, we were  up on a cliff along the coast, a little ways away from the edge of the city.  Like our home base, the vantage had a marvelous view down into the city and over the conflict.  Squinting, I could see Eldritch shambling forward and continuing to fight against figures too small for me to make out.  

But for the figure a stone’s throw away, he was able to see clearly.  

“I wondered when you’d show up,” Zellig said, not bothering to even look at the three of us, instead content to watch the conflict play out below.  “Though I admit, I wasn’t expecting a reunion for us so soon, Parasite. What has it been, five hours?” 

Rage and intent to kill radiated off Parasite as he glared forward, fuming.  

Zellig turned and gave us all a massive grin, displaying a mouth full of razor sharp fangs.  “Adamant, I am so sorry for my lack of courtesy last time. I was never given a chance to properly make your acquaintance.”  

“Charmed,” I said with a grin as I took a moment to study him.  It was easy to read his arrogance and extreme self-confidence. His intentions were simple, or at least could all be encompassed in a simple directive: win.  

“You must realize that Titan sent you all to your death by sending you here,” Zellig pronounced as he turned to us, rolling his neck and shrugging his shoulders, getting ready to fight.  

Ragdoll stepped forward, defiant, “I’ve personally been looking forward to getting a chance to take your head off.  I owe you one for Transport.”  

The Trillodan commander laughed, “Oh, all of you have a beef to pick with me.  But, there’s only one way this ends,” he said honestly. 

“You’re right, Zellig.  It only ends one way because I will kill you,” I promised.   

Previous Chapter – Next Chapter

Battle for Vuuldar: Forest

Early mornings were always my favorite time of day, the one time when most people weren’t moving around.  It was a nice dip in stimulus and noise I had to sort through. It was one of the few times I allowed more than twenty percent of my body to rest and shut down.  Truth be told I envied everyone else who could actually sleep; even while we were on the ship coming over to Vuuldar, I had only let half of my body truly rest.   

Most of me was networked around the hill, reaching out nearly two kilometers into the town.  I didn’t have enough of me there to do anything substantial. It was just feelers to see if Zellig’s cronies were going to try and do anything cheeky as our inevitable conflict drew closer.  

Titan’s initial plan to sabotage the militia that Zellig recruited had been a smashing success.  We had stalled their progress and bought ourselves back a few desperately needed days to continue work on the ship.  Even with Adapted working round the clock, there was so much to do. I had started devoting around twenty percent of my body to help with removing the clutter Mizu was cutting away.  

It helped speed things up, but not by enough for my liking.  

The others were okay with this planet, not really noticing the differences, not like I did.  They didn’t move around with half their body buried in the dirt that was fundamentally different from the soil on Tso’got.  I wasn’t used to tasting this many metals in the soil, or having to fight through this much clay as I tried to network myself under the city.  Truth be told, with enough time I might come to like the way it tasted more than the polluted soil on Tso’got, but at least that was familiar.  

A small sliver of me was left watching over Titan, keeping an eye on him to see when he’d wake up.  He hated that I did this, but like every other Adapted, I was paranoid. Most people just couldn’t keep an eye on you at all hours of the day but I could.  I was his surveillance system, his network for information gathering, and that wasn’t exactly a gift I could really shut off.  

Sure, I was powerful in a fight, but that wasn’t my greatest strength.  If things needed to die, Infinite was a far better tool.  

Just like I kept an eye on Titan, I kept an eye on her too.  

Charlotte was too dangerous and too volatile to be left alone.  If Titan was to go berserk, he could kill a dozen people before I could intervene and isolate him; if Charlotte went berserk, we all died.  Titan had done a good job not relying on her for too much thus far, but I worried that eventually he’d have to use her.  

The other person I made a point to watch constantly was Eldritch.  He was intended to have been a panic button for Titan’s little expedition into the militia’s war front.  Instead, he had been cut down and nearly captured along with several others. Having to be saved by Bargain was weighing on him.  Without any of his immediate teammates to really share with, he had been recessed and withdrawn.  

Isolated Adapted were the ones who Altered in my experience.  The last thing I wanted was to be surprised if he snapped. His Neklim form was already performing absurd mutations thanks to duress; I wasn’t thrilled that Titan’s biggest key for the inevitable battle was a mentally destabilized teenage boy who was spending most of his time walking in a circle, talking to the voice inside his head.

Admittedly I was biased. I wasn’t thrilled about seeing him enabled to replicate Feast Day, especially after his Neklim counterpart had started developing more and more deadly biological weapons. Trying to restrain Eldritch had been impossible then; how much harder would it be if he was made of crystal or spitting out some kind of targeted acidic gas?  

“Forest,” I heard, “You around?”

I changed my focus, letting the other twenty-five points of vision fade to the background, instead adjusting my focus to Infinite who had called out for me.  Shifting a little bit of my body, I sprouted my ‘form’: a girl dressed in a white shirt with baggy brown pants. “I’m always around. You should know that by now.”

Infinite smiled nervously, “I know I should, but stil, seems rude to just assume you’re always watching.”

“What do you want, Charlotte?”

People assumed that I was terse because I was rude or didn’t understand the proper bounds of social etiquette.  Truth be told, I understood fine, but I was constantly listening to dozens of voices and watching dozens of streams of visual input, trying to process it all.  Even though Titan and Big Picture were pretty sure that my Adaptation changed the way I see the world, so much information was dizzying.

I kept everything short and sweet just so I didn’t risk missing something important.  

Even though I’d known Infinite for as long as Titan had, the two of us were always a bit disconnected from one another.  We recognized how important the other was, but I was worried about how unstable she was while Infinite saw me as unapproachable.  

“I’m just worried, and I wanted to talk with someone who might get it,” she confessed. 

“Worried?  Why?”

“It’s…it’s finally happening, you know?  This isn’t going to be some small scrap between a few people and the Trillodan elite.  This is going to be us really taking on the Trillodan. We’re going to go to war with Zellig Ak’aan.”  She shuddered, “I’m worried that we might not make it out of this okay.”

I fought the urge to roll my eyes.  “Charlotte, you realize how absurd that statement is coming from you?  You of all people are the least vulnerable or likely to be exposed. Titan won’t send you out there if he can avoid it.” 

“What if he can’t?”

I shrugged, “Then you go out and kill a bunch of people.”  I got a flash of movement as Titan rolled over in his sleep, muttering something in his sleep.  Blinking slowly, I put my focus back on my conversation with Infinite.”Listen, Titan’s smart and he’s got a lot of good tricks going for us.  Ideally, there isn’t a big fight and everything goes according to plan.”

“Plans never survive contact with the enemy,” Infinite replied, “I mean, if things were according to plan, I’d still be in orbit around Vuuldar.” 

“But we’ve made it this far, so stop being so damn nervous,” I insisted.  “You’re Infinite. You can do damn near anything. Stop being so scared of a little conflict and let yourself be a badass bitch.  If we manage to burn through all of Titan’s plans to end the conflict quickly, you’ll be up.  If you’re right and things go south, you need to be ready.”

She nodded, seemingly a tad invigorated, “Okay.  I can do that.” 

“Good.  Now-”

I stopped as something came into view that was impossible.  At the base of the hill, I saw a familiar figure approaching.  

“Forest?  What is it?”

“Parasite,” I whispered, switching my visual focus to better look at him, “He’s here.”  Even though reclaiming one of our own should be a good thing, something was so very wrong.  His body language was off and he was moving slowly, like he was heavier or burdened by something.  Instead of his head raised, he was practically staring at his feet. If he escaped the Trillodan, he should have been elated, not cripplingly morose.  “I’m going to wake up Titan and see Parasite,” I told Infinite as my form withdrew.  

I quickly made a form by Titan and one a few meters in front of Parasite.  Adjusting focus, I spoke through the form next to Titan as I shook our leader.  “Sorry for having to wake you, but something’s happening. Parasite’s back. I’m going to talk to him.  Infinite is awake and on the flight deck overlooking things now,” I said, preempting him asking where she was.  

He nodded and I dispersed that form, diverting focus back to Parasite who had come a few steps closer but was being unusually cautious.  “How?” I asked. 

“I was let go,” he said, tentatively, like he was waiting for me to crush him.  “I need to talk to Titan.”

I folded my arms as I looked back at him, “That’s not going to happen unless you can give me something much more convincing.  The Trillodan haven’t let anyone go. Why are you suddenly the first? For all I know, Parasite, Zellig put a bomb in your chest that will go off when you get close enough to the rest of us.”

“No!  It’s not like that at all,” he promised sincerely.  “Zellig sent me back, he said that he had a message that I needed to give to Titan.”

Part of me wondered if I shouldn’t just smother him now to avoid any kind of interference that Zellig had sent with him.  His talk about a message was at least interesting, and I wouldn’t put it past the Trillodan commander to do something like that; ever since he’d started leading the charge against us, he and his troupe had a bit of a flair for the dramatic.  

“Follow me,” I said as I led him up the rest of the hill, glad that there weren’t too many people out.  Parasite was fairly popular with the rest of the Adapted, so the few who saw him were elated. Ragoll literally launched himself into our path, demanding a big hug from his fellow Enhancer.

“But you’re back,” Ragdoll said, still trying to process that information.  “What happened up there?” 

Parasite tried to put on his usual grin, that affable and frustrating look that he always wore… but it faltered.  He managed to finally put on a good face but it took too long to be authentic. “A hell of a lot. I need to talk to Titan, but maybe I can tell you afterward?” 

“Of course!” Ragdoll said enthusiastically, giving him another pat on the back, “Do what you gotta do.” 

I continued leading him into the ship, past a handful of other Adapted who were thrilled to see him back.  Most didn’t seem to notice his change in demeanor, but a few people did. Psycho saw him, as did Lightshow.  Even though Lightshow rushed to him and gave him a hug, she knew something was wrong. Psycho seemed to regard him with a new kind of respect almost, like they had some unspoken bond.  

Something must have happened to Parasite to make him Alter.  Such a niche experience that seemed to bind some onboard together.

“Where’s Nick and Alexis?” Parasite asked as we approached the flight deck.  

“Dragoon is getting some sleep.  She’s been working overtime getting this ship ready. Eldritch has been locking himself away, and you’ll likely want some time with him. After we talk with Titan, you should go see Eldritch.”  While I was still suspect of Parasite’s miraculous reappearance, getting some stability for the boy who was walking around in circles talking to himself would be very welcome.  

As we walked in, I saw that same glimmer of recognition from Infinite, all but confirming my suspicion.

“You managed to make it back!” Titan said with a smile.  “But, I think I speak for all of us when I admit that I’m curious as to how.”

Parasite looked between all three of us, clearly unsure how to start.  “I-um, uh-”

“Don’t worry,” Infinite said, her voice full of sympathy, “Take your time.  I know how hard it is.”  

Ever the quick witted and intuitive, Titan glanced at Infinite and saw the way she was looking at Parasite, picking up the same cue that I had.  “Parasite,” he said, his voice a bit softer, “What happened?” 

“They’re keeping us in fucking tubes,” he said, his voice shaky, “So many of us, just sitting there, asleep.  They keep us sedated so we don’t Alter while we’re being experimented on. They keep us under with some kind of neural blocker thing that basically puts us in a coma.  I only woke up because the thing inside me ripped mine off. I woke up while they were operating on me, trying to dig my passenger out.” 

Infinite shuffled a little, unable to stand still.  “That isn’t what made you Alter though, is it?”

Slowly, he shook his head, his stare going well beyond the confines of the room.  “Zellig came for me. I took his scientist hostage, but they got him away from me.  I tried to fight him but-but-”

“It’s okay,” Titan said, stepping forward to pull Parasite into a hug.  “You did the best you could.”

For a moment, the only sound was Parasite trying to stifle a sob as he clutched on Titan’s shirt.  After a moment of open vulnerability, he straightened himself and wiped his nose. “Zellig sent me back with a message, but I don’t know that you want to hear it.  The more I think about it, the more I realize it’s just mind games.”

Titan frowned, “What did he say?”

Parasite gave one more nervous look to the three of us, as if we were going to attack him.  “He said that before we leave Vuuldar, he’s going to take one of you three.” 

I shifted my focus outside of the room, looking through the majority of the ship and surrounding area to ensure that no one had followed Parasite.  To my surprise, everything was as it should be: people were still asleep, the Ellayan camp had no new activity, and no one was approaching the hill.  Parasite was truly alone, not some kind of decoy. Unless, of course, there was something left on his person.  

“Infinite, search him,” I insisted.  

She nodded, her eyes flaring green as she allocated a few powers to search for any kind of threat against us.  “He’s clean. There’s really nothing on him that would threaten us.”

Titan frowned, “Zellig doesn’t seem like one to simply make threats aimlessly, but then again he also recognizes the value of causing panic.  If he makes us overly cautious or overly aggressive, we could be playing right into his hands. I wouldn’t bother worrying too much about this.”

Parasite wrung his hands, “Are you sure you should ignore his threat?  Are you sure that you’ve got everything planned well enough?” 

Titan turned to Infinite, “Is he clean of bugs?” 

“Yes.  Nothing mechanical on him or in him for that matter.  If there was even a screw in his knee, I’d know and I’d be able to read you the serial number on it,” she snapped.  

“Parasite,” he said, “You haven’t gotten a chance to see or hear what we’re planning.”

“You’re going to use Nick, aren’t you?” he asked even though he already knew the answer.  “You know what that is going to risk, right?”

It was Titan’s turn to sound a bit insulted.  “No, I forgot about having chunks of my arm ripped out.  I forgot how much it hurt being lobbed onto a car’s windshield.  Of course I know how dangerous Eldritch is. That’s why we need to take advantage of him.”

Parasite glanced at Infinite and then at me, “Why not one of them?”

“I’m too slow.  As big as I am, I’m spread out to spy and listen in on everything.  If I get all of myself bunched up, it’s still not a particularly fast moving organism.  If I condense myself down to move, I risk being killed because I’m localized. Eldritch is more mobile and more regenerative.  Plus I’ll do a better job ensuring no one can sneak aboard our ship during the chaos.” 

Infinite bristled as attention was turned her way, “I’m too unstable.  If I go all out, I’ll kill everyone.” 

Titan grimaced, noting the brusque tone of voice.  She got irritable when she started using more than three powers: scanning Parasite should have only required two.  Odds are that she was still giving herself heightened senses to play lookout. He didn’t say anything about it though.  

“What happens if he isn’t enough?” Parasite asked.  

“If he can’t help control the militia that Zellig has whipped up, we get Mizu down to the beach to flood the place with the whole damn ocean.  We juice him up and let him wash away those who insist on fighting.” Titan offered a soft smile, “Parasite, I know that things have been harrowing for you while you’ve been up there, and I know that everything is on edge right now, but please have a little faith in me.  Have a little faith in everyone else too! We’re going to make it through this, I promise.” 

I quit paying so much attention to the rest of the talk he insisted on having to assuage Parasite’s paranoia and instead looked around the ship again as people started to wake up.  Most people were relaying the fact that Parasite had come back, and several people were overjoyed at the thought.  

And then something else spliced into my vision, like a still image that filled my eyes for a moment: a gaunt humanoid torso on top of what looked like a spider’s abdomen.  They didn’t say a word but just beckoned me forward, like they were waiting for me to answer this siren call. 

My form twitched, shaking me free of that interjection.  It wasn’t the first time I had seen that little partial vision, and I wasn’t the only person who had seen it either.  About a dozen people had reported seeing that figure and talking with it. Supposedly it was the person responsible for the Adapted, but none of us had any idea of a name or even what species they were.  The only thing that seemed to be clear was they supported us and were expecting to meet with us soon enough.  

I assumed I never got the full vision since I was never entirely asleep.  Only a few chunks of my mind could take it in, instead spitting out little snippets and still frames.  Even though I heard people talking about our mysterious creator in secret around the ship, I had never bothered to ask anyone about it.  I figured that if there was something I desperately needed to know, someone would tell Titan or just tell me.  

Parasite and Titan spoke a little while longer, and then he asked to see Eldritch.  I made a point to watch him as he entered a room with his friend, the two of them overcome with emotion as they embraced one another.

“How do you think Zellig is going to take one of us?” Infinite asked now that it was just the Prime Trio.

“I don’t think he can,” Titan replied.  “Not as a point of pride or arrogance, but I don’t see how he’s going to be able to isolate any of us.  The two of you are going to stay back and I’m not going to involve myself much in the fighting if I can avoid it.  He won’t have an opportunity to corner us. Neither Zellig nor his cronies can fight us individually.”

“No,” I said, “But he’s not limited to just his cronies.  He has a ship in orbit. God knows what kind of tricks it might bring into play if he really wants to get nasty.”

“If he’s using a Crimson City to rain fire down on us, he’s going to kill us.  Our biggest advantage is that we’re wanted alive. It means they have to fight with restraint and we don’t.  As long as you two stay here, it means you aren’t going to be subject to any kind of nefarious weaponry he has tucked out of reach.”

“What about Eldritch?  If he’s eating that many people, he’s going to make himself a massive target.  Literally,” I pointed out.

“And he can recover.  There won’t be a shortage for him in terms of food supply.  If he hulks out and devours the whole Ellayan militia, I can’t imagine that he’s going to go down without a hell of a fight.  As long as he isn’t pointed at us, the Trillodan will have to expend a lot of resources to deal with him.”

“He’s been unstable,” I said.  “The last few days he’s been isolating himself and talking to the monster that lives inside his head.  Are you sure you want him to be our first countermeasure? I could start moving myself now; as soon as the fight starts, I start ensnaring the whole Ellayan militia.”

Titan shook his head, “You’re too valuable to lose, and you don’t present the same way that Eldritch does.  He’s a literal monster. He’s a thing you see and shit your pants over. No offense to you, but you are a living mass of wood.  I know how strong you are, but you don’t inspire fear the way he does. Besides, he can regrow and undo damage, your body is inherently limited.  While it’d take hours to hack you to pieces, you can be hacked to pieces.  As long as he has food, Eldritch can sustain a theoretically infinite amount of damage on our behalf.  If we’ve got someone who has no theoretical ceiling, we might as well utilize it.”

“And his deteriorating mental state?” Infinite pried.  “I mean, is Parasite going to help now that he’s Altered?”

“Eldritch should be substantially improved by the surprise appearance of his best friend.  Even though Parasite’s Altered, the two of them have known each other for ages; a familiar face will do wonders for both of them.  If anything, Zellig gave us a massive edge in the fight thanks to him returning the boy.” 

“That’s still nagging at me,” I grumbled, still keeping an eye on the two of them as they sat down and started talking.  “I’m watching Parasite and wondering when something’s going to go wrong. Zellig wouldn’t just hand him back. They don’t give anything up, so why give up a prisoner that Big Picture deemed to be of high priority for them?”

“Maybe his Alteration made him less valuable?” Infinite suggested.  “We know that Alterations are more dangerous and volatile; maybe his new power made keeping him locked up too much of a liability?” 

It wasn’t a bad idea, but it still felt wrong to me.  “Maybe, but it still feels suspect. Zellig plays to win.  Most recently we actually had a serious win against him with Bargain and Eldritch killing three of his elite.”

Titan furrowed his brow, “You’re right that the timing is…too convenient.”

“But there was nothing mechanical stashed on him,” Infinite said.  

“One of Zellig’s elite is focused on targeted biological agents,” he said, his eyes widening.  “They made customized toxins to specifically search out Adapted. There could be a designer toxin stuck on his skin that Parasite wouldn’t even know about.”

Infinite looked between us, “But, none of us are sick.  So, not us?”

“I’m immune to a common infection.  Comes along with being not human anymore,” I said with a shrug.  “Titan?” 

He gave himself a little pat down, “No.  I can get checked by Organelle, but her stuff seemed fast acting.  Zellig must realize we’d think of this; he wouldn’t send something slow acting.”

“But, if it’s made for a specific person, they must have been able to get a sample of their genetic material to customize the virus.  It’ll be a single person onboard. Forest-” 

“Already looking,” I said as I shifted myself and woke up the rest of my body.  The first place I double checked was Eldritch: perfectly fine. The construction crew were just now getting to work, everything as it should be.  Fortunately Almanac, Big Picture and the other Cognates weren’t in any danger since they had never scrapped with Zellig’s elite. “None of our key components,” I relayed to Titan as I kept searching around the ship.  

Titan was trying to approach this from a different angle, thinking out loud about who they’d be targeting.  “Eldritch is no good, he can simply grow the Neklim and heal. He’s lost organs before and walked away without issue.  They wouldn’t try to poison him if they found him valuable, even if he’s dangerous. Dragoon is dangerous but too valuable for them to thrash.  Psycho is a bit of a wildcard and a challenge to restrain due to his shifting power scheme.”

“Bargain beat the shit out of them with ease,” Infinite said softly, “And right now he’s seriously weakened.  Bargain doesn’t have a gift that would make him particularly valuable to the Trillodan either.” 

“Which makes him expendable,” Titan said, getting to his feet. 

Another vantage point gave me a good view of Bargain, who had been completely still the last few days since he’d driven himself into a coma as a cost of using so much power.  Now, however, he was squirming, like he was trying to shake free of something. 

“It’s Bargain,” I confirmed.  “I’m getting Organelle.” My focus shifted again to Organelle’s room.  I dispersed my form by Titan and Infinite, dedicating almost my entire focus to our ships medic.  “Organelle,” I snapped, “Get to Bargain, now!”

She got up and hurried towards the door, knowing that I was not one to ever raise an alarm without good reason.  In the thirty seconds it took for her to dart down the hall and into his room, he had gone from squirming to thrashing around violently.  “What the-” she whispered, “He’s supposed to be in a coma!” 

“The Trillodan left a gift for him on Parasite.  He likely didn’t even know he was transporting it,” I informed her.  “Some kind of personalized biological weapon.”

Organelle nodded and knelt beside the Altered, having to dodge an arm as he continued to seize.  “Forest, hold him still!” 

A mass of roots erupted from under the bed, constricting around his limbs and holding him down.  He was burning up, his skin already starting to collect beads of sweat as Orgalle pressed a hand to his chest. “It’s attacking his lungs,” she whispered.  “Like it’s deliberately rupturing the cells in his lungs.”

To add weight to her words, Bargain coughed up a mouthful of blood, staining her sleeve. 

“Can you fix him?”

“If he wasn’t so weak I’d say yes.  My power builds on existing biological processes and the cost of him being so powerful is that his whole body is slowed to a crawl.  I’ve already done a lot to make sure he lived through the first night since he was barely breathing.” 

Titan and Infinite ran into the room, minding their distance from Organelle to not disrupt her.  “Organelle-”

“I’m on it, Titan,” she insisted.  “I just told Forest how banged up he is.  I can’t just recycle his lungs while his metabolism is going at a third its regular speed.”  She closed her eyes, pressing her hands to his chest as he coughed up another mouthful of blood, convulsing and struggling more as he started to asphyxiate.  “Infinite,” she snapped, “I need you to snap him out of his coma. I need you to undo his cost or something so that he’s awake. If his body can start working on it’s own, it’ll do the job.” 

Infinite balked, “You want me to fuck with his nervous system?  You want me to try and mess with an Alteration that I don’t entirely understand?”

“It isn’t like you’re going to make it worse.  He’s going to be dead in a couple minutes if we don’t try!  Forest, turn him on his side so he doesn’t aspirate!” 

I pivoted my roots, hoisting him up onto one arm; sure enough a steady flow of blood began seeping out his mouth.  “Now what?” 

“Get me Spectre and get me Lightshow.  I need every bit of help I can get.”  

Nodding, I diverted attention to the rest of the ship, finding the both of them and relaying the message.  Both hurried to join us, their frantic stomping prompting a few people to follow, curious what was happening inside.  

One of which was a very angry looking Psycho.  

As soon as Spectre and Lightshow made it inside, I put up another form in front of Psycho, cutting him off.  “I’m not sure you want to see this.”

From the looks of it, Psycho was in a Schizophrenic state today, which meant that him losing his cool would mean dozens and dozens of neon-colored monsters running around our ship, trying to eat everyone in sight.  “Forest, let me see him.”

I shook my head, “Not a good idea.  You have to trust that Orgalle and everyone else is going to do their best.  You need to get the fuck outside in case you start losing control and making projections.”  He sneered, opening his mouth to make some kind of threat and I enlarged my form so I filled the entire corridor, reminding him exactly who he was talking to.  “Psycho,” I insisted, “I will let you know the second I know anything. But I’m serious, go the fuck outside. Wait there.” 

Psycho sneered but didn’t talk back, storming outside to brood.  Shifting attention, I looked inside to the sudden bustle around Bargain as people tried to frantically keep him alive.  Infinite was trying to jumpstart Bargains metabolism so his own cells could better respond to Organelle’s gift, but overriding his imposed infirmity was proving to be impossible, even for her.  Lightshow had created a duplicate of Organelle, but having another copy wasn’t making an attempt at treatment effective.  

“It’s moving past his lungs now,” Spectre said, pressing a hand to Bargain’s guts.  “This thing, it’s eating the rest of him.”  

“Organelle, can you undo it?  Can you reprogram some of his-”

“No, Titan,” she snapped.  “Bargain almost killed himself and so nothing in his body is working.  If his bone marrow was working I could overdrive his blood production and reprogram some of his red blood cells to eat this stuff.  But, I can’t!” Organelle looked at Infinite, “Unless you can literally make him a whole new set of internal organs, I can’t do anything for him. He’s going to bleed to death, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” 

“We could force him to have more clotting factor,” Spectre suggested.  

“Then we’d just be clogging up his circulatory system.  His blood is basically sludge as is. Infinite, this is beyond what I can do.” 

All eyes went to her and she focused, his eyes turning red as she pressed a hand on  his chest. A glow started to spread across Bargain as Infinite pushed more and more power into him; it wasn’t long before he started thrashing against my roots again.  This time more frantic than earlier.  

“What are you doing to him?” Organelle demanded, horrified.  

“Burning it out of him,” she said softly.  “As long as he has this stuff inside of him, anything we do is going to be undone.  We have to get rid of whatever he was dosed with, right?”

Organelle put a hand to his skin and withdrew it like she’d touched a hot stove.  “Infinite, he’s running a fever of 106! Stop! You’re going to cook his brain! He’s too fragile for this!” 

“I can’t make it worse, can I?” she asked sincerely.  “We have to try, right?”

Organelle looked like she wanted to protest, but she didn’t have a better plan of action to give Infinite.  Even though she was our de facto healer, she was at a loss and out of her element, just like the rest of us.

Spectre knelt by her teammate and gently stroked his cheek.  “Come on, big guy, fight back. Please. You can do this.” All of a sudden, Bargain stopped struggling and went limp, his neck going slack and pulling away from Spectre’s touch.  “No. No. No,” she whimpered, “Bargain, please! Please don’t leave us.”

I searched for a pulse, for any kind of breathing, for any kind of sign he was alive, all to no avail.  “I’m sorry, Spectre,” I said softly, “I can’t feel anything.”

She nodded, “I know.  I felt his heart stop too.”  

“Fuck,” Titan hissed.  “Fuck. He traded Parasite for Bargain.  He needed some way to get his tailored virus close enough.  We let it walk through the fucking front door.” He turned and slammed his hand against the metal wall with a resounding boom.  “Fuck!”

Organelle ran her hands through her hair.  “I-I just couldn’t do anything. I needed his body to work and-”

“I know,” Titan said, quickly composing himself.  “You never half ass things. I know. It just… I gotta tell Psycho.”

“I’ll do it,” I said.  “I’m already beside him.”  

“Thanks.”

I nodded and dispersed that form, creating a new one beside Psycho as he looked down at the city.  He gave me a glance, hissing through his teeth when I didn’t volunteer any kind of good news. “Bargain’s dead, isn’t he?” 

“Yeah.”

Psycho drew in a long breath, like someone would take a drag off a cigarette.  He held it for a moment before letting out a sigh. “In a way, the Trillodan gave the poor guy what he’s always wanted,” he said, “I mean, I’ve had to stop the bastard from killing himself half a dozen times now.  Fatalistic son-of-a-bitch finally managed to haul off and die on me.” 

I frowned, surprised that I was finding him so lucid.  Schizophrenia was one of his harsher forms, more prone to making him unhinged or volatile; he was so composed in the face of his teammates death I wasn’t sure what to say.  

“You know the reason that I had to rescue Bargain, back on Tso’got?” he asked, turning to me.  

“No.”

“He was afraid of himself.  He was afraid of hauling off and destroying everything.  Bargain wasn’t someone who knew how to hold back. If you told him to get the job done, it got done.  But he was afraid of how many people he’d kill if he let loose. All he needed was for me to take him off the leash.  All he needed was a little direction and encouragement with his newfound power. The reality is that he was the best out of us; I’m the only reason he was ever called a monster.”  Psycho gulped down the lump in his throat. “He might have been a Lunatic, but Bargain was one of the nicest bastards you’d ever meet.”

“Organelle did everything she could.  They all did. He was too weak from his cost.”  

“Yeah,” he said, letting out another long sigh, tears starting to well up in his eyes.  “I know she did. And I know he was. We’ve never been able to counteract those costs of his.  Those were absolutes.”

“He took two with him,” I said, hoping that would offer some comfort. 

“One for him, one for Dysfunction.  Thanks to Bargain, the Lunatics might be the only group here that’s actually settled up on body count.”  Around us, a mist started creeping out and brightly colored monsters began to take form. “But you know what, I think I’m done with going even.”

“Psycho,” I cautioned as more and more monsters began to take form.

“Relax,” he insisted, the corner of his mouth twitching into a distrubed smile, “These aren’t for you or anyone else up here.  All these, they have a purpose. Besides, we don’t get time to grieve. Look,” he said, pointing down the coast.  

A rise in movement and population density that I’d missed; the frantic scenario around Bargain had distracted me from my outer roots and kept me from noticing the gathering earlier.  The Ellayans were coming out of the water and joining the Trillodan on the surface. From the looks of it, there were going to be at least a couple thousand in this militia.  

“Bargain at least chose a good day to die,” Psycho whispered, letting himself start to spiral into insanity, “I’m at my best when I’m under pressure.  Those fuckers killed my friend, so I’m gonna kill ‘em all.” He turned to me, flashing a maniacal grin as another dozen neon creatures began to coalesce into existence.  Even though I knew he wasn’t a threat to me, there was something so off putting about the self-assured head of the Lunatics and his peculiar brand of charisma.    

I dismissed that form and made two more: one by Titan, and one beside Eldritch.  

Both of them relayed the same message.  

“It’s starting.” 

Previous ChapterNext Chapter

Interlude: Hostage

Don’t move.  Don’t open your eyes.  Don’t take a breath through your mouth.  

I had to force myself to lay there, unmoving, playing the unresponsive victim while I tried to figure out where I was.  At least two people were around me speaking in a foreign language and I couldn’t risk alerting them that I was awake. Not until I had a better idea of what was going on.    

The last thing that I remembered was being in a fight and getting a dose of Zeal’s power which made me feel like I was able to fight God himself.  I remembered fighting Zellig and actually doing pretty well against him for a while. And then…lightning. Tons of it. After that, I vaguely remember seeing Eldritch blasted apart and then nothing else.  

I must have been knocked out and taken captive.  That meant I was probably aboard the Crimson City, hovering in orbit around Vuuldar.  

I pushed down the urge to wince as an acute pressure shoved into my side; I dared to ever so slightly open my eyelids and look at what was happening; two Trillodan were hovering over me, one cutting into my side and digging around, as if fishing for something in my body.  I didn’t know their language, but frustration had the same inflection regardless of what tongue you spoke. As fingers and medical instruments dug around my insides, I felt something else squirm away.  

They were digging for my passenger, and it was wriggling away every time leading to the worst feeling game of hide and seek ever.  

I felt a little shift in my brain, numbing the pain and keeping my heart rate steady, my little internal companion doing its level best to keep the Trillodan unawares that I was awake.  Daring to crack my eyelids a second time, I tried my best to use my peripheral vision and check for restraints; nothing around my wrists and hopefully nothing around my feet either.  

From the tone of the two people hovering above me, one was clearly a lackey while the disgruntled one was clearly leading the floundering endeavor to secure my passenger.  

Glancing to my left, I saw machines reading out what appeared to be my vitals.  There were no needles in my arm for anesthetic. But, these were the Trillodan after all; odds were they had some device that had been keeping me comatose.  They did have something that put Adamant down immediately, maybe they had used the same sort of thing on me.  

Either way, I was free of it now.  But what the hell was I going to do on an alien ship?  There could be other Adapted onboard, but it was called a Crimson City; if that was at all indicative of the size, they could be impossible to find.  The longer I stayed onboard, the longer I was going to risk being captured and more properly secured. While the Trillodan were arrogant and stupid to leave me unrestrained, they weren’t going to repeat a mistake twice.  

I had one shot at making this count. 

The two scientists rolled me onto my side, cutting down my oblique and tried to use some tool to paralyze my passenger.  I risked a glance and made sure neither of them were looking at my face as I clenched my teeth. I was worried that my response was going to trigger an alarm, but my passenger continued to keep my pulse steady to avoid detection.  

Another frustrated exchange passed between them and I heard something that sounded familiar.  

It sounded like the lackey was apologizing.  What stood out was the name Vaneel. We had heard about him from the Trillodan on Tso’got and Titan had mentioned him as a point of frustration before.  Vaneel was the Trillodan head scientist, the one who was responsible for studying us and figuring out what made us tick.  

Which meant he would be an incredibly valuable hostage.  At least, he would be if that was in fact Vaneel. If they were just two people who worked under him, I was going to lose my window of opportunity grabbing someone who was expendable.  Still, I was bound to slip up and be noticed eventually; this was the best chance I was likely to get.    

The two of them laid me on my back again, discussing their next plan of attack to better carve my passenger out of me.  I kept my breathing slow, steady, not daring to let them know that I was getting myself ready. As I felt a pair of hands press against my abdomen, I opened my eyes and sat up in a blur.  Before the lackey had even registered that I was up, I had two hands around his throat. A strangled scream was cut off as I snapped his neck.  

Vaneel tried to pull away, but I grabbed his wrist and pulled him forward, my passenger allowing me to easily overpower the terrified and perplexed scientist.  I yanked him back and pressed a hand to his throat, not squeezing hard enough to do any real damage yet.  

“Don’t scream,” I commanded, “Or I’ll break your neck as easily as I did his.”

The purple-skinned Trillodan nodded slowly, cautiously, avoiding any sudden movement.  

“Am I in the ship above Vuuldar?” I demanded.  

“You are,” he said in perfect Common.  

“You’re Zellig’s head scientist, Vaneel, correct?”

“I am.”

I breathed a sigh of relief that I had actually managed to snag a valuable hostage.  While it did not get me out of here, it at least gave me leverage.  

While I was trying to think through my next steps for escape, Vaneel was trying to understand exactly what had allowed my flight to start.  “That thing, under your skin, do you know what it is?”

“No.  No one does,” I said.  

He frowned, hoping for an easy break in his pursuit.  “My initial hypothesis is wrong it seems,” Vaneel said, thinking aloud, far more interested in this discovery and its implications than his own immediate peril.  “I assume it was some kind of mass of aberrant cells that responded to nervous input. When it continued acting despite your nervous system being paralyzed, I assumed it was a simple organism that operated in benefit to the host.  But this,” he said with an off putting smile, “This thing inside you is intelligent. It hid part of itself and destroyed the neural suppressant. It kept your heart steady despite the pain. Fascinating.”  

“Fascinating as it might be,” I muttered, “Do remember that it’s what gives me the ability to tear your head off.”

Vaneel glanced down at my hands, clearly wary.  He would have read up on me and what kind of feats I had performed.  He’d know I wasn’t bluffing. “What are you hoping for, Parasite? Where are you going to go?  It will only be a matter of time before someone comes to check on me.” 

Looking over at the tools they had been using to cut me open, I grabbed what looked most like a scalpel.  I grabbed it and pressed it to his neck, forcing him to lean away. “Tell me how to get off the ship.”

“Do you think-“

I let go of his wrist and instead cupped the side of his head with my left hand, pressing a thumb to his eye socket.  “I’m sure you can make more of these, but I’m pretty sure you don’t want to have me rip them out.” I let my trademark grin creep across my face, “Think I won’t?  What do I have to lose, Vaneel? The way I see it, if I kill you, I give Titan and the others extra time before we become expendable. The second you understand us and how to replicate our powers, we’re useless to you.  So,” I let my voice drop to a whisper for emphasis, “I think it’s in your best interest to give me what I want. Don’t you?” 

His silence was all the answer I needed.

“You’re not one of Zellig’s fanatics.  You haven’t been spouting drivel about a willingness to sacrifice yourself, so I get the impression you want to live. Well, so do I.  And I want off this fucking ship. You’re going to help me.”

Vaneel sneered, “I may not be a fanatic, but I’m not a traitor either.”  

I pressed my thumb flush against his eye, “No.  But pretty soon, you’re going to be in a lot of pain.  And if you start screaming, I’m going to have to shut you up.  You might be a hell of a lot smarter than I am, but I’m built to fight.  Are you?” I let that reality simmer for a moment. “Now, let’s try again.  How do we get off this ship?” 

“There are pods that could take you down to the surface.  Though I doubt you know how to fly them.”

“I probably don’t.  Good thing you do though.”  I jabbed the sharp instrument against his neck, shutting the Trillodan scientist up.  “You value your life. I’m sure Zellig will understand your actions.”

It seemed even his own desire for self-preservation could only tolerate so much insult to his pride.  “How dare you!”

I grabbed his lower mandible and squeezed hard enough to stress the bone.  “Your kind has medicine that can fix an awful lot of damage. All it’d take me is a second and I make it so you can never be put back together.  You say one more fucking thing out of line to me and I make sure they never find all your pieces.”  

His rage and rationality met somewhere in the middle as he let out a frustrated, “Understood.”

“Good.  Where are my clothes?” 

“Discarded.  You weren’t going to be needing them.”

“Fair enough.  I’m going to borrow your assistants,” I said.  “Take off his pants and pass them here. Don’t do anything stupid,” I insisted.

Vaneel did as instructed, stripping his deceased assistant’s pants and passing them to me.  I could tell he debated trying to bolt for one moment where I was quickly slipping them on, but he thought better of it.  It was probably ten meters to the door and he knew that I could cover that whole distance in two quick steps.  

“A shuttle.  Where am I going to find one?”

“In the shuttle bay, where else?” he said as if that was the dumbest question possible.  

“Pretend I’ve never been onboard a fucking Crimson City,” I growled, “How do I get there?” 

“It’s at the base of the vessel.  There is an elevator that can take us down there.”

I grabbed him by the collar and pushed him forward, ensuring he could feel the blade in my hands.  “Lead the way.”

Vaneel complied, taking us out of the sterile lab we’d been stashed in.  I did my best not to gawk at the cavernous ship. Outside was a hallway cold metal that overlooked a massive drop.  Across the pit was a mirror set of walkways and there were easily ten floors above and below us. At scheduled intervals, there were bridges placed between either side of the abyss with seemingly very little movement going on.  I spotted a few figures running around, but all of them clearly had a purpose and a place to be. Vaneel squirmed, clearly debating yelling but kept quiet for now.   

“Holy shit,” I muttered, daring a glance over the edge.  The only thing separating us from the drop was a guard rail that came up to my ribs.  All it would take was one good push and someone would tumble into that abyss.  

Vaneel continued to walk, keeping quiet.  We went by several rooms that seemed to all be dedicated to some kind of research, leading me to guess that function was separated by floor.  If that was the case, I wondered how many other Adapted had been procured for study. “Where are the others?” I demanded, constantly glancing over my shoulder to make sure no one was behind us.  Despite its immense size, the ship was strangely vacant.  

“Adapted storage is upstairs.”

I winced as he referred to us like objects.  “Is it guarded?” 

My hostage bit his tongue but finally fessed up.  “No, but it’s monitored well. If you show up there, you’ll be recorded and it will sound the alarm.  Everyone on board will know that an Adapted is loose.” 

Truth be told, the second I killed Vaneel I was likely to meet my own demise.  No matter how clever or strong I was, the Trillodan had the advantage here. Since I wasn’t fond of the idea of trading my life for Vaneel’s, the next best thing I could do would be to deny the Trillodan their research samples.  “Take me to them,” I said, changing plans. 

“Zellig will come for you,” he warned.  

“He’s still on board?”

“Yes.  And so are several of his legion.  If you sound the alarm, they will all converge.  You won’t stand a chance.” 

“Nonsense,” I said with a smug grin as we kept walking.  “I have you. No one would dare put you at risk. Not if you’re half as valuable as people have made you sound.  It’s part of why you aren’t volunteering to die,” I added, twisting the proverbial knife, “If you die, there is no replacement.  The Trillodan need you alive.” 

He bared his teeth but I ignored him.

“Why aren’t there more people here?”

“Many have gone down to set up the war front with the Ellayan people.  Infantry and lower officers are readying to march against the Adapted.”  Vaneel dared to turn his head and give me a smug grin, “If you wait a day, you’ll be able to see all of your friends again.”

I stifled the urge to break his neck.  

We continued on in silence, finally reaching the promised elevator.  Part of me expected there to be a small group of soldiers waiting on the other side of the rounded metal doors, but we were still alone and undetected for now.  I shoved him in and looked at a keypad, the input using a completely unfamiliar language. “Take me to them,” I said. 

Vaneel tapped a few keys and we began ascending.  Every now and then he gave me a cautious look, waiting for me to do something brash.  For now I was still in control and preferred keeping things quiet. He was expecting me to be searching for a fight or some kind of revenge, but I wasn’t going to be that shortsighted.  

If Vaneel wasn’t lying and the Trillodan were pushing the Ellayans to fight us it was going to be a bloodbath. Even if I couldn’t get down to the surface with all the other Adapted prisoners, I could help neutralize the threat of this ship looming in the atmosphere.  If I could get a dozen Adapted free and we could wreak havoc, it might disrupt some of Zellig’s plans.    

Still, my heart was hammering in my chest.  All it took was one person to notice for this to go sideways.   

The elevator came to a stop and I grabbed Vaneel by the collar again, marching us out as I kept the blade pressed against his spine.  “Where to?”

He pointed to our right and led the way, taking me by several empty storage rooms that each had a cluster of pods with amber-colored glass and tubes sticking out.  Each of them had a series of displays nearby, all of them zeroed out and waiting for meaningful input.  

“Those are what you’re keeping us in, isn’t it?” 

“Yes,” Vaneel said.  

“Why are you doing this to us?” I whispered, feeling a surge of anger.  “We have yet to ever attack you.”

“But you will,” he replied, confident.  “Everyone who has any kind of power attacks us.  Everyone wants to get rid of us.”

“Can you blame them?” 

“Yes.”

I knew that he was a loyal Trillodan, but it was so strange to hear someone so analytical and logical be so…misguided.  “How can you possibly blame people for standing up to you? You turn planets into wastelands. You exterminate billions of people regularly.  Trillodan are the greatest group of psychopaths in the fucking cosmos and you still blame us for being rebellious?” 

Vaneel bristled, turning his head to glare back at me, “We are not psychopaths.  We are not senseless murderers. We do not kill for sport. We maintain order on a scale that you fleas can’t begin to understand.”

“Order?” I said, confounded, “In what fucking universe do you bring order?  Have you seen what’s left behind when you scour a planet?”

He scoffed.  “You are too young and too near-sighted to understand what we do for everyone.  You have no idea what things would be like without us.”

“You’re right, I don’t.  I didn’t get to grow up on my own fucking planet because of you,” I snarled, again reminding myself that he was way more valuable alive than dead for now.

After the fifth room of empty tubes, I noticed a few had occupants.  One of them caught my eye immediately. Taller with dark skin and a sturdy frame, a familiar face I hadn’t been blessed with seeing in weeks.  “Geyser,” I whispered, a rush of pity and sorrow washing over me as I looked at my sedated teammate. Even though it had been less than a month since he’d been taken, I felt like it had been an eternity since I had seen him.  My heart went out to Menagerie as I looked at her boyfriend floating there, made inert by the scientist beside me. “This one,” I said, steering Vaneel toward what looked like a keypad on the door, “Open it.” 

The Trillodan scientist begrudgingly pressed a few buttons and the door slid open with a pneumatic hiss.  

Looking beyond Geyser, I realized I knew a couple of the people that were in this room.  Kudzu from Imperium, and Dysfunction from Lunatics. “How many of us do you have in cages?” 

“Forty-six so far,” he said.  

I shoved him into the room and followed, pointing to the amber prisons.  “Free them, now.”

Vaneel turned around, finally daring to be defiant.  “No.”

My lip curled into a sneer.  Just like I had been making a gamble that he’d commit to self-preservation, Vaneel had been gambling too.  He’d waited to stick up for himself until we were inside a part of the ship that was well monitored. While he was risking my wrath, he’d put a clock on it.  Someone was going to notice us before long.  

“Do it.  Now,” I demanded.

“And I said no. I’m no traitor.”

His eyes widened as I grabbed his collar, turning and throwing him against the wall with ease.  He groaned and fell to the ground in a heap, nursing his dislocated shoulder. “It wasn’t a request,” I reminded him as I grabbed around his throat and hauled him up to his feet.  “You might be infinitely smarter than I am. You might have unlocked the goddamn mysteries of the universe. But you, you personally, are not suited to endure pain.”

I slammed my head forward into his, cracking the bone beneath his slick skin.  Vaneel cried out and fell again, blood streaming from the slits he had for nostrils. 

“Open the-“

“No!” he interrupted, doing his level best to be courageous.  

“You might make monsters,” I growled, leaning down to jab the edge of the blade under his collarbone, “But you aren’t one of them.”  I wiggled the harsh metal around, holding his mouth closed while I did to stifle his screaming. “Last chance, Vaneel. Open the cages or I use your head to try and break them out.”

He shuddered as I pulled the metal out from under his skin. “No.” 

I bared my teeth in agitation but took some solace in the situation; even if I couldn’t free anyone else, I would at least be able to rob the Trillodan of one of their greatest minds and slow down the research into what made us so unique.  I would have bought Titan and everyone else precious time where we weren’t simply expendable.

Even if self-sacrifice wasn’t at the top of my list, it wasn’t going to be a bad way to go.  

“Suit yourself,” I said, grabbing him by the collar and dragging him towards the cages.  He did his best to struggle even though it was pointless. Even without my Adaptation, I was stronger than Vaneel.  I grabbed around the back of his neck, shoving him into the tube.  

As expected, Vaneel put his good arm out to stop me outright crushing his head against whatever reinforced glass he’d used to contain us.  His arm absorbed some of my force, but his head still smacked against the glass with a dull thud.  I did it again, this time meeting less resistance and the Trillodan scientist sagged, losing consciousness thanks to repeated trauma.  I managed to smack his face a third time, this one audibly cracking his skull.  

“Enough!” a voice bellowed as thunderous footsteps approached.  

I spun around, dragging the limp form of Vaneel with me, my hands clasping around his throat and drawing him up as a shield.  Zellig filled in the doorway, filling with his gargantuan, grey frame. “Don’t,” I warned, “You know how easy it’d be to rip his head off.”  

“Poor choice putting yourself in a corner,” Zellig said with a click of his tongue.  “You’ve made a worse choice grabbing him as a hostage.”

I glared back and the Trillodan commander, knowing that I was holding onto someone far too valuable for him to do anything brash.  “I’m pretty sure I grabbed the perfect hostage.”  

“The same reason he’s a poor choice,” Zellig said in a growl, his unusually upbeat demeanor gone now, “I’m going to kill you for what you’ve done.  Whether Vaneel lives or dies, Parasite, you are already dead. Am I clear?”

“We’ll see,” I challenged, leaning Vaneel’s head one way, illustrating how easy it would be for me to do irreparable damage.  “But I know he’s way more valuable than I am. So for now, Zellig, you’re going to do as you’re told. I know you want me dead, but you and I both know Vaneel isn’t replaceable.”

Zellig actually cracked a smile, showcasing this razor sharp teeth of his.  “You’re smarter than you let on.”

“I find it best to be underestimated.  It makes it all the better when I win.”

“You still aren’t getting out of this alive,” he assured.

“We’ll see,” I repeated with a smirk.  “Now, get out of the doorway.”  

He didn’t move.  “For someone so clever, you don’t just think I’m going to kowtow to you, do you?  You’re an eighteen year old boy; martyrdom and altruism are hardly words in your vocabulary.  You and I both know that the second you kill Vaneel, you’re done for.”

I let go of his throat with one hand and jammed a pair of fingers into his eye socket, feeling the little vitreous orb pop.  Vaneel became alert enough to scream and claw at his face in the aftermath while I glared back at Zellig. For someone so unflappable, he gave me the best bit of leverage; Zellig reacted.  He’d seen men ripped apart, disintegrated, eviscerated, etc. He’d seen it so often it was normal. It wouldn’t make him blink to see someone lose an eye.  

Unless he cared about them. 

   “And now I know he’s your friend,” I said as I grabbed around Vaneel’s throat again, stifling his cries of pain.  “You don’t want him to suffer, do you?” 

In my little bit of experience with Zellig, I had seen a fairly narrow range of emotions.  I had seen delight during the fight and a cold, calculated side of him as well. I’d heard of Nick describe him as stalwart and unnaturally composed, undaunted by any kind of adversity.  Even when he’d come face to face with Infinite, no one had ever talked about him looking enraged or uncontrolled.  

His face twisted with rage, his teeth bared no longer in a jest but instead in carnivorous display.  “You will pay for every bit of-“

I interrupted by adjusting my hand and squeezing Vaneel’s mouth hard enough to destroy his teeth.  “I’m sorry, you were saying?” 

He stood there a moment, growling, clearly visualizing exactly how to rip me apart.  Zellig’s animosity was palpable, filling the air around us like a mist. “What do you want?” 

“Right now?  I want to get the fuck off this ship.  That’s what I want.” 

“Bottom floor, shuttle bay,” Zellig growled.  “If you do any more damage to him-“

“I’m already as good as dead,” I laughed, “What are you going to do to me?  Torture me?”

Zellig silently backed up from the doorframe, leaving me an avenue to pass.  As I approached, he kept backing up, being mindful to avoid any sudden movements that might make me jerk my hands and tear Vaneel’s head clean off.  On the bridges, a few infantry were gathering, many of them training a rifle on the door, waiting for a clear shot at me. Zellig raised a hand, holding their fire.  

On our walkway, a few soldiers were standing resolute with Zellig, but all of them respected his command to stand down, at least for now.  

I moved slowly, dragging the limp form along with me, constantly looking over my shoulder and ensuring that the Trillodan commander wasn’t trying to pull anything sneaky.  I knew that if he saw so much as a glimmer of an opportunity, he wouldn’t hesitate. The best thing I could do was keep him angry and on edge, hopefully clouding his mind and stymieing his ability to make a decent decision.  

Vaneel’s feet were basically just dragging as we slowly crept towards the elevator.  I needed to make it past two more rooms of empty prisons and then I would be able to head down to the shuttle bay.  

I heard the pop of a gun being discharged too late.  Something connected with my arm, managing to make a small puncture despite my passenger trying to halt anything.  Despite how quickly my passenger pushed the dart out, it had already delivered enough toxic payload to deaden my arms for a single instant.  

And Zellig knew it.  

With the sudden short in my muscle, I lost all strength in my right arm.  I couldn’t tear his head clean off with just my left arm. Even if I broke his neck, they’d probably be able to bring Vaneel back.  But, I was still strong enough to send Vaneel off the side of the walkway, and there was no way they’d be able to reanimate anyone who took that drop. 

I shoved as hard as I could; Zellig leapt over and grabbed his battered scientist as he started to topple over the lip.  The soldiers behind me opened fire, a few lasers burning my skin but not doing much more than that as my passenger took the heat for me.  With the little space I had made, I ran to the edge and hopped up, pressing my feet against the barrier to vault across the gap. I descended three floors in the process, but managed to avoid splattering myself against the dark metal the ship was constructed out of.  As I threaded the gap, I rolled and tried to slow myself on the slick surface. I ended up colliding with a wall, but it wouldn’t do more than just bruise my shoulder.  

And then an immense form crashed through the barricade, embedding itself in the wall a few meters away from me.  

“Oh fuck,” I whispered in a panic.

Zellig extricated himself from the crater he’d created, glaring daggers at me.  A malevolent smile spread across his face as he looked down at me, now with no pesky obstruction between us.  “Going somewhere?”

Adrenaline surged through my system, helping my passenger rapidly deplete whatever some sniper had tried to dose me with.  The reality was that I couldn’t fight Zellig. Without Zeal to power me up, it wasn’t even a fight. Clemency had failed to kill this guy.  There was no way I could do enough damage to him to even slow him down.  

My only option was to run.  

I pressed off the wall to jump start my momentum, hopping up again and launching myself away from Zellig.  I felt the whiff of his hand just barely miss my ankle as I descended another three floors, this time landing a touch more gracefully.  Before I could turn around to leap again, Zellig crashed down, this time not landing right behind me. His momentum carried him through a solid wall, but he recovered immediately and stomped towards me, not giving me a chance to keep jumping down towards the bottom of the ship.  

As he advanced, I swore to myself that if I was going to die, I was at least going to out swinging.  

I dodged away from his first blow, letting our size discrepancy work to my advantage.  Since Zellig was nearly seven feet tall, it made it relatively easy to dodge under his punches.  The second was closer, his speed still surprising me. The third swing made me drop all the way to the ground, relying on my natural agility to catch me.  Twisting, I spun around to dodge Zellig’s kick and drove my feet into his guts.  

It forced him back a step, but that was all.  Hitting Zellig was like hitting a mountain of metal.  

Springing off my hands, I turned around to face him again.  I kept low to evade the first swing, but the second one was already heading my way before I could correct my positioning.  My head snapped to the side as I sailed, hitting the metal floor and slamming into the barricade. Before I could find my feet, Zellig had closed the gap and grabbed my throat, turning and throwing me through one of the massive panes of glass that led to what seemed to be an armory.  

Fighting through the pain, I rolled to my feet and grabbed one of the laser rifles off the well kept shelves; Zellig slapped it out of my hands before I could take a shot.  Instead of trying to dodge his swings, I went on the aggressive. My passenger powered my legs and I launched myself off the wall like a human missile, driving into Zellig’s legs.  He hopped backwards, easily compensating his balance on a single leg. Snarling, I let go of the Trillodan’s calf and rolled to the side, trying to get access to his back.

A hand caught around my arm and threw me straight up into the reinforced ceiling.  Zellig had read my intent and acted a step ahead of me. Again.  

I curled into a ball, letting my shoulder take the brunt of the impact as I fell back to the floor.  Before I could get up, a massive foot connected with my ribs and shot me back out onto the walkway, again slamming into the unyielding barricade.  My shoulder popped out of its socket and stars filled my vision as my head smacked against the wall; I grit my teeth and forced the limb back into place, doing the best I could to clear my head as Zellig charged me again.  

Pushing off the wall, I rolled under his outstretched arm; my eyes went wide as Zellig’s elbow yanked itself out of socket so he could reach backwards to grab my hair.  “Never fun to do this,” he confessed, “But you’re a slippery little bastard.” His elbow snapped back into place as he lifted me off the ground.  

Crying out, I tried to peel his hand off, but instead I was dragged around, thrown back into the small armory and onto the bed of broken glass.  Before I could find my feet, an immovable hand gripped around my throat and hauled me up, pressing me against the wall. My passenger pressed itself around my throat, protecting my windpipe but Zellig’s iron grip was still cutting off circulation to my brain.  I grasped his hand, but without the power of my Adaptation helping me I would never make him budge.    

“You know, I respect you, Parasite.  You have such a knack for violence, such an affinity for combat and a mastery that so few have, especially for one so young.  I’ve watched some of your fights from back on Tso’got. Always the one with something to prove, and you always delivered. No matter what, you picked yourself up, you kept fighting.”  

I gurgled and continued thrashing, trying to use my whole body to leverage his hand off my throat to no avail.  

“When you fought me, I was impressed.  Even with Zeal corrupting your mind, your technique was exquisite.  You punches were crisp. You always kept yourself defended. Your breathing was controlled.  All despite Zeal’s insanity. Don’t think that your prowess wasn’t noted.”  

I tried to attack his elbow by digging my heel into the divot, trying to get his arm to fold so I could get myself off the wall.  No matter how hard I struck, Zellig didn’t even seem to register that I was doing anything.  

“Even now,” he said with a sincere admiration, “You continue to fight.  You don’t lay down and give in. You have found yourself presented with an unbeatable opponent and you refuse to yield.  That on its own is commendable. You are even managing to try and formulate a plan to work your way back into this fight,” he said, nodding to my foot vainly digging into his elbow.  “You are a fighter, through and through. Know that you have my undying respect for that.”  

His grip tightened and the world started to lose color as even my pitiful gurgling was silenced.  

“But you hurt my friend.  You ambushed him, took him hostage, and maimed him.  You dared to threaten the advancement for my empire and for all those under our gaze.  That, Parasite, is not something I can excuse. You were a valuable specimen, and one that we had aimed to keep alive to study.  But, we will carve that ‘passenger’ of yours from your cold corpse. Even in death, you will still be of great use for the Trillodan Empire.” 

Zellig’s hand ratcheted down like a vice, crushing my throat despite my Passenger trying to repel him.  No matter how strong or durable I was, I couldn’t compete with the pinnacle of Trillodan engineering and biological manipulation.  

“It’s almost fitting,” Zellig said as my vision began to narrow,  “I saw your fight with Imperium. I saw Kudzu nearly smother you in a mass of tree roots.  You were only saved by your friend Eldritch pulling you free at the last second. How fitting that you’ll be going out the same way.  Choked for air, helpless to save yourself.”  

For a moment, I looked in Zellig’s eyes, taking my focus off his arm and my pitiful attempts to free myself.  I knew that look, that specific brand of glare that Zellig had in his eyes.  

I’d fought enough killers to know that he wasn’t going to stop until I quit kicking.  It didn’t matter that I was a valuable specimen, it didn’t matter that my passenger might die with me.  There was no one here to stop him. No Trillodan here to argue that I was worth keeping alive for study.  No Adapted here to draw his attention and threaten him.  

He was right: this time there was no Eldritch to save me.  There was no monster to break me free.  

I need to be my own monster.

Strength flooded through my body, and Zellig’s elbow folded, letting me slide off the wall and rip myself free from his previously unbreakable grip.  I hit the ground and hopped back to my feet, caught off guard by how easy it felt, like I weighed a fraction of what I had previously.  

And then I saw my hands.  

Instead of my tanned skin, there was dark red tissue with pronounced black veins running along the surface.  Where there had been skin, it had been replaced with tightly knit muscle tissue.  

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Zellig said, his cold rage replaced by surprise.  “You really are a fighter to the end.”

“What-” I panted, looking at my hand in horror, “What the fuck!  What the fuck is this?!” I glanced at the sheet of glass I hadn’t been thrown through to get a look at my reflection, mortified by what looked back at me.  My whole body was a grotesque and dark crimson color, a network of inky-black veins and arteries running over my ‘skin.’  

When Dragoon and I had tried to figure out exactly what my passenger was, we’d tried digging into my skin, only to see that lump of tissue fuse with my muscle.  I wasn’t sure how I knew, but I was finally getting a look at what my passenger looked like. Under enough threat, it snapped, taking over my anatomy.

Just like that, I was Altered.  

My distraction was costly as Zellig wasn’t nearly as put off by my transformation.  A massive, grey fist collided with my cheek and sent me flying back onto the floor. While earlier that hit would have knocked me cold, now it just dazed me.  I picked myself up and tried to mount a defense against Zellig’s continued onslaught. I parried his first blow and ducked under his second punch, caught off guard by the kick I had exposed myself to.  

Again a step ahead of me.  Again I was the one being knocked on my ass.  

I rolled and planted my feet, like a runner on the starting blocks.  Getting as much traction as I could on the slick floor, I shot myself forward, aiming for the Trillodan’s legs.  

Zellig jumped, floating over my gasp as he twisted in the air.  He came back down, landing on the small of my back, driving an elbow into my spine.  Even though his weight snapped a disc out of place, my new body immediately popped it back into socket, refusing to stay broken.  It was the same kind of healing that my old gift had offered, but now greatly empowered.  

But Zellig hadn’t been trying to paralyze me, he’d just been trying to get a hold of me.  Struggle as I might, my newfound strength still wasn’t up to snuff when compared to Zellig.  He’d torn Nick out of the suit. He’d fought Shock, Awe, and Goliath all at the same time and had no real trouble beating them all senseless.  Even though my whole body had the strength that my passenger granted, the Trillodan juggernaut was on another level. He had to work for it, but he eventually got a hold of my arms and pulled them down to my sides, smothering me in a bear hug.  

Zellig dragged me out of the armory, despite my struggling.  I screamed and lashed out as he lugged me to the ledge, his ears deaf to my protests.  And then, he tossed me off, sending me plummeting into the abyss.  

I flailed, as if something would magically appear to stop my fall.  As I fell, the whole world seemed to slow around me, my body readying for its imminent demise.  After the seventh floor had passed by, I took a breath and twisted, trying to put my legs under me as I braced for impact.  

My legs slammed into the ground a few seconds later and all the bones in my legs sheared into several pieces.  The impact sent a shockwave up through the rest of me and made my eyes swim as I fell forward. I managed to turn my head before I face planted, fortunately avoiding crushing my nose.  A small mouthful of vomit mixed with blood escaped my lips as my legs recomposed themselves violently.  

I wasn’t dead, but I felt like I should be.  

This new well of strength in me was running dry.  I looked at my outstretched arm and its aggressive coloring, wishing for my body to return to normal.  I didn’t want to look like this, like some kind of monstrosity. I wanted to be back in my own skin again.  Responding to my mental impulse, my passenger receded. A literal ripple of flesh flowed out from my core as the new tissue folded under, my skin being put back into place.  I pulled myself to all fours and watched my skin finish reverting to normal. Fighting to my feet, I searched for that usual bit of strength I could rely on from my passenger, that extra little push to fight through.  

It was gone.  And it was gone for good.  Just like Lightshow, something had broken inside me.  

Zellig landed a few meters away from me with a thunderous slam on impact.  I stumbled backwards, falling onto my ass as the Trillodan commander stalked forward, looking down at me with a smile.  

“That was a thirty-five meter fall onto metal.  And look at you. Already healed.”  

He crept closer and I didn’t bother running.  That well of strength was expended from the abuse I had endured and from the frantic healing my body had subjected me to.  

“You’re done fighting?” Zellig asked, legitimately curious why I wasn’t doing anything.  

I nodded, “Everyone has limits.  I’ve found mine.” 

Zellig nodded, clearly understanding. “A pity, Parasite.  But, don’t worry, I have a new plan for you.” He grabbed my arm, hauling me to my feet.

I was leery to ask about what the hell the commander of the Trillodan offensive had planned.  Curiosity eventually got the better of me. “What do you mean? What happened to killing me?”

“Things change.  Now, I need a message delivered to Titan.  And you, Parasite,” he said with a viscous smile as he pressed a finger to my chest, “You are going to deliver it for me.”  


Previous ChapterNext Chapter

Militia: Brawl

There were six of them.  Six of Zellig’s elite crew, and at least one of them was one of Zellig’s right hand men.  To add insult to injury, Kalr was here as well. I could vividly remember the beating we endured at her hands, and Mutant’s death was still fresh in my mind.  

Eldritch raged against my control, demanding to be free, to run away from this disaster.  

We need more food.  We need more size to survive this.  We can’t die here.

Unbeknownst to anyone else, I struggled to push the monster back down, to keep control of our hulking form as Eldritch entered an almost primal panic.  These were apex predators and we had blindly walked into their lair. Even though Eldritch had pulled information from my brain, it was still a Neklim hive mind and all too familiar with this kind of killing floor.  Despite Eldritch natural instinct driving it to be a predator, it instinctually knew the tables had been turned on us.  

As well as I could manage, I assured Eldritch that we were going to survive this; we weren’t alone and the people with us were not prey.  While Siege was a phenomenal asset thanks to his ability to conjure Trillodan technology, Shockwave and Beleth were something else entirely.  In the time that I had my internal struggle with Eldritch, the two of them were already concocting a battle plan.  

“Siege,” Beleth asked, “What do they do?” 

“Bitch in yellow is in a special bomb suit, so she’s munitions.  Guy in blue over here manipulates force fields. Big blue bitch in pumped full of drugs and stupid strong.  Guy in front of me dumps energy into metal to hit harder or make it explosive. Green glowing asshole down there has a plasma cannon; basically a bitch version of Titan.  And…” he looked at the last woman operative, “I have no idea what she does. Looks like a stock standard set of power armor for the Trillodan. No weapons I can see on her.”  

Shockwave glanced around and then to Beleth.  Both of them had spent so long fighting one another that they were perfectly aware of the others strength and shortcomings.  Beleth had complete control of the area around him, but his reach was limited. Shockwave was more vulnerable but unbound by proximity.  

“Split them,” Shockwave insisted. 

“Take that half,” Beleth said, agreeing to something that neither Ragdoll, Siege, or myself understood.  

“Eldritch,” Shockwave snapped as Beleth turned away from the three Trillodan operatives in front of us.  “The big bitch, slow her down. Siege-”

“Middle guy.  Got it.”

Ragdoll didn’t even wait for the instruction, he simply launched himself at the last of the bunch who was a middle sized figure in armor with glowing blue tubes running from a power source to the operative’s gauntlets.  Sure enough, a blue force field appeared between them, just barely stopping Ragoll from making contact with his kick.    

As interested as I was in the new Trillodan technology, I was almost mesmerized watching Beleth.  We all prepared to square off against one of the operatives each; Beleth pitted himself against Salah the demolitionist, the guy with a plasma cannon, and the unknown elite.  And, in classic Beleth fashion, he was gliding forward to meet them without concern. As he got closer, the ground began to ripple around him and walls of packed dirt and rock rose up; with a little nod, Beleth pushed the walls he created forward, making something between a barricade and maze around those three, trying to quarantine them. 

Salah, threw an explosive to blast the first wall he put in her way.  As one fell, Beleth simply made another, the ground swallowing most of the rubble.  Despite all the munitions she had at her disposal, Salah wasn’t going to be able to simply blast her way free.  Unless she could remove the ground under his feet, Beleth would always be able to create more obstructions.  

The operative with the glowing green armor and plasma cannon flicked it on and belched forth a stream of green sludge that literally melted through the terrain that Beleth was erecting.  “Shockwave, you have a runaway!” 

Right before I collided with Kalr, Shockwave threw a bolt of force and knocked her legs out from under her to give me an immediate advantage.  As she tried to get up to her feet, I engulfed her arms, letting the mass of tendrils act like a straight jacket and hinder her range of motion.  Unlike the other Trillodan present, Kalr was a brawler and needed to be able to throw a punch to do any serious damage.  

As long as I could lock her up and keep her away, everyone else would be able to take care of themselves.  

“Get off of me,” she growled, straining as I pushed her back into a building, the wood groaning as it tried to support our combined weight.  “I ripped you apart once-” 

“And we took your arm off last time,” I hissed back.  

“Good thing we can make new ones!”  Kalr pushed forward and then threw herself back, pulling us both through the strained architecture.  We tumbled and she drove a foot into my midsection, rolling back and launching me deeper into the house we had just crashed into.  

I ended up ripping away chunks of the translucent membrane around her arms, but she was free of my grasp.  My body shifted and I galloped forward, barreling forward on all fours; Kalr dodged and rolled to the side, avoiding the momentum that I had built.  I managed to stop, but she had descended upon me before I could get another head of steam.    

A heavy blow slammed into my midsection, managing to rattle my actual body beneath the layers of Neklim provoking a small disconnect with me and Eldritch.  I gained control, but not before Kalr could continue her assault. It should have been easy to pull my arms in and protect my core, but the beast was trying to pull away, to cut and run.  

She ripped us apart when we were bigger than this!  We need more meat! We can’t fight her at this size! 

Another flurry of blows slammed into our torso, driving us back a step.  We were saved by a kinetic blast hitting her in the stomach.  

“Eldritch, get your fucking head on straight,” Shockwave shouted.  “I can’t cover for you all the fucking time!” 

The operative who had the molten green sludge was trying to advance on Shockwave, every time being pushed back by the kinetic assault.  The problem was that he was helping to cover for Beleth. Salah and the other Trillodan had split apart, making a point to be at the edge of his range and force him to spread thin.  Shockwave kept firing quick blasts back at them to ensure the last one couldn’t slip away entirely. His split attention meant the blasts from his hands were having limited time to charge, greatly diminishing their destructive output.  

With the little bit of space that Shockwave had bought for me, I did my best to reconcile with Eldritch.  We weren’t losing, we had friends with us, we had others on the way. We still had time before we needed to start panicking and going berserk with a need for consumption.  

I barely managed to get the agitate Neklim under control before Kalr came charging.  This time, with a unified front, my body didn’t fight back as I moved my arms into place to absorb the blow.  A few kilograms of material were crushed, but not enough to cause alarm. My arms split and fanned out, forcing her to back pedal to avoid being snared.  

Kalr growled in frustration as I advanced, driving her away from everyone else.  For now, we were on even footing. The sludge she carried would negate any harm and she was generally strong enough to simply overwhelm or overpower any opponent she encountered.  But I was big enough to mitigate her strength.  

And I had one extra trick she didn’t.  

Mutation: adrenaline. 

A burst of strength filled my body, all four tonnes charging forward.  The change was surprising enough that she was slow to dodge my grab; a huge swath of mass re-allocated to prevent her from tearing her arm free.  

She struggled, at first completely in vain.  Even with her raw might, she couldn’t displace a four-tonne monstrosity.  Her glower faded to a smirk as she reached back, slapping the massive metal tank on her back. 

Red serum seeped through the tubes that were plugged into her skin.  Her smirk turned to a manic sneer as she planted her feet, reaching her other hand forward to seize under one of my massive limbs.  Both Eldritch and I panicked as she heaved us off the ground.  

“I hope you have another trick,” she laughed.  Kalr launched us to the side, ripping her arm free in the process.  Our bulk obliterated a small home and cost us nearly two hundred kilograms of material.  While I had calmed Eldritch down earlier, we were now recalling the abuse we had endured at Kalr’s hand when she was empowered with that steroid.  Even turned into a monster of crystal, we hadn’t been able to withstand her fury. With how she was looking at our center, she was intent on ripping me free of the Neklim mass, and I wasn’t sure how we could stop her.  

As we rose from the rubble, she crashed down on top of us, driving a hand into our shoulder, tearing a huge swath of growth free as I tried to backpedal and regain my bearing.  My other arm wrapped around a fridge and I swung it around like some kind of hammer. Kalr shielded her head with an arm, but she barely recoiled at all, despite all the force behind that blow.  

We have to run, Nick!  If we don’t, we die here! 

Before we could turn, Kalr lunged like a feral cat, tackling us through the wall and back out into the street.  Nearly a hundred kilograms of material were casualty to the road rash as we skidded to a halt with her sitting on top of us.  I swung an arm, trying to knock her off, but she was far too strong, far too juiced up to even budge. The giantess frantically ripped handfuls of growth free, literally digging for my real body.  

In desperation, I shifted the distribution in my arm and lumped my growths over her head, smothering her.  Kalr growled and withdrew one hand to keep ripping tentacles free of her mouth so she could keep breathing, but her pursuit continued.  

One of her fingers grazed my arm.  

For a moment she paused, and then both hands flew to my core; she knew she could hold a moment of being smothered.  The moment I was torn free, the Neklim would disintegrate and I would be out of the fight for good.

Her weight vanished from my chest as the air rippled around me.  Kalr went flying backwards, buried into the remains of the building we’d just escaped.  Shockwave glared my way, both hands trying to quickly accumulate a new charge as Kalr rose from the pile of debris, sludge washing over her and fixing all the injury he’d inflicted.  

“Eldritch,” he said, stern, “Trade me.  I’m a better match for her.”  

Behind him, the man with the cannon of molten green material had clearly endured some damage, with chunks of his armor cracked.  It seemed like he had valued preserving his weapon over keeping his own body intact; the only reason he was probably still standing was the fact that Shockwave had been splitting his focus between several attackers.  

Kalr tried to charge me while my back was turned, but Shockwave clapped his hands together, sending a wave of energy screaming through the air; as soon as it came into contact with the giantess, it exploded and sent her tumbling back.  Despite her landing in a mangled heap, she was back on her feet in seconds, the sludge flowing through those tubes, mending all the damage that Shockwave could dish out.

The others were faring better than I had managed, though none of them needed to try and talk sense into a panicking beast.  Tol and Siege were exchanging blows, seeming to be at a stalemate. While the Trillodan had far superior combat experience, Siege could always conjure a new weapon to compensate for any shortcoming he had.  

Ragdoll was in another peculiar stalemate with his opponent.  The operative’s suit made force fields that projected from his hands, and that was all that was keeping Ragdoll from smashing him into the ground.  The Trillodan seemed more used to standard movements and limitations that most would have on how far they could jump or throw themselves. Every time he tried to project a forcefield and use it to squish Ragdoll, the head of Flagbearers threw himself out of the way and rapidly repositioned for a new angle of attack.   

Doing my best to trust the others, I focused on the injured operative that had been left for me.  Someone with a weapon that was reminiscent of Titan’s molten mixture wasn’t ideal, but I would be able to deal with them better than I could Kalr.  

Burning what was left in my storage, I bulked back up to five tonnes of mass and felt another threshold of power reached, both mine and the monsters desperation prompting another timely alteration to our physiology.

Mutation: Thermal resistance.

The whole Neklim mass felt a surge of strength as our second mutation set in.  Even though I had rapidly constructed the extra mass and only had fifteen minutes of size, both the beast and I felt more confident as we approached our new opponent.  As we got closer, I started to lose that little burst of confidence.  

Around the operative, the air was scalding.  Even though we were now more resistant to the harshness of the temperature differential, it was agonizing.  All the tendrils on the exterior were frying and I got to feel all of them trying to cope with the oppressive heat from the Trillodan’s weapon.  

To make matters worse, Eldritch and I had felt something like this before. 

Titan burned us.  Titan cut us down.  He’s just like that.  We can’t do this!

I roared and shook the whole pavilion, undoubtedly causing more harm for all my teammates than I did any of the Trillodan.  I was so sick of trying to fight Eldritch and the abject fear that I was experiencing as a side effect. If I could just get the damned Neklim to calm down we could probably hold our own.  But instead I was grappling with PTSD from my own Adaptation.  

I charged forward, forcing my rebellious body to action.  Even if Eldritch wouldn’t work with me, I was the host. I was the owner of this whole ordeal.  We would fight.  We would not abandon our team now and leave them to die.  

The Trillodan raised the massive weapon and pulled the trigger; a jet of molten green plasma slammed into our legs and began burning away dozens of kilograms, making me stumble and fall onto my arms.  Another blast of this plasma and my right arm lost a third. Reeling, I reached out and seized a chunk of debris, courtesy of Beleth constantly manipulating the distorting the landscape around himself.  I threw the hunks of rock, forcing the operative to adjust settings on his weapon and make a sheet of plasma to disintegrate the projectiles.  

Getting back up, I burnt some stored adrenaline and did my best to rally.  Attacking him head on was suicide, celarly, but we had beaten Titan. We had used our strength to turn everything around us into a weapon.  It had worked once, and it would work again.  

Thanks to Salah constantly blasting away Beleth’s creations of rock, there was plenty of loose rubble to grab fistfuls of and launch at the alien with the glorified flamethrower.  The tank that was feeding his cannon wasn’t seeming to empty, but he wasn’t able to launch any kind of meaningful counter attack either. I kept reminding myself that stalemate was fine.  All we needed to do was hold out. I wasn’t supposed to panic and let loose. We had Clemency and Spectre in the area, they should be here soon, especially with me letting out a roar like some kind of alarm system.  Salah was constantly demolishing plenty of rock as well. They should be able to find us.  

Why aren’t they here yet, Nick?  Why hasn’t Clemency shown up? We can’t hold out forever and if we stay out too long we will die.  The fire is consuming any reliable meat that might have been nearby. The longer we fight, the less likely we are to survive. 

I ignored my other half, doing my best to keep my head in the fight and hold the even state.  But, as we saw all the fights unfolding, I was worried that things weren’t going to get better.  

Ragdoll was doing his best but still making no tangible headway on his fight with the force-field manipulator.  Even though he could kick hard enough to behead someone, he hadn’t been able to make contact. The Trillodan wasn’t doing Ragdoll any damage but Ragdoll was panting from exertion.  More than that, Ragdoll was running himself ragged and taking giant breaths of air polluted with smoke thanks to Salah’s explosions and the fires that Clemency had started earlier.   

Siege had broken a few pieces of Tol’s suit off and drawn blood, but he was gassing out quickly.  His constant adjustment to counter Tol had started to seriously take the wind out of Siege while the Trillodan lieutenant was comfortable fighting through fatigue and pain.  Even though Siege wasn’t breathing ash like Ragdoll, he didn’t have the natural strength and conjuring a literal tank earlier had done a number on him.  

Shockwave was the only one who wasn’t winded, but he was clearly getting more and more frustrated that every blow against Kalr was washed away by that sludge.  He tried to target the tank on her back, but she consistently denied him a clear shot. Even though her dose of that red serum had faded, she was still running around just as easily as when the fight had started. 

A little bit of motion caught my eye as the other woman Beleth was holding back raised her arm and threw a black orb towards us.  It touched the ground and a black gas erupted out; from the cloud, five little fingers of smoke shot out, each guided towards one of the Adapted.  The instant it made contact with the wall of Neklim I wore, I felt the effect.  

Lethargy.  Unbelievable exhaustion spread through me like fire through dry leaves.  The lattice structure of the growths started to sag, the individuals tendrils robbed of the strength to hold themselves together.  

Shockwave blasted the air away from himself, but a new wisp of smoke shot back towards him after the first failed.  Ragdoll tried to launch himself clear of the pavilion, but a force field slapped him out of the air and back down to the ground where he was subjected to the gas.  Beleth didn’t quite pull himself underground fast enough to avoid the inhalant. For a moment, the only one immune was Siege.

Tol’s suit had given him a respirator.  Even though it lingered around his head, Siege stayed on his feet.  

However, his opponent now had reinforcements.  

A force field slammed into Siege’s legs, upending him.  Before he hit the ground, Tol was pouncing, pinning one hand and pressing his prosthetic arm against Siege’s mask.  There was a metallic grinding as Tol’s robotic hand squeezed hard enough to shatter the mask and Siege’s jaw beneath.  

The head of Black Mass screamed, but his cry died down to a whimper as the gas took effect on him as well.  

“Omec,” Salah said as they began closing she and the Trillodan responsible for the blight sauntered forward, “You’ve outdone yourself with this one.  Targeted metabolic depressants?” 

“Yeah, I just needed to adjust-”

“That one isn’t done,” Tol shouted, drawing all the Trillodan’s attention to me.  

I burned what little adrenaline there was left in my system to keep my structure together and stay upright.  I turned to fight and let out another roar, trying to portray some kind of confidence…but it was all a front.  

Both Eldritch and I were alone.  

Desperation drown us both, and both of us were aligned with a specific goal: 

Survive.  

“Carve him out, Phelios,” Tol called to the operative with the plasma cannon.  “Now!” 

Eldritch and I screamed.  It wasn’t a roar like we usually let out, it wasn’t a cry of war, it was a cry of panic.  We were cornered again, the predator turned to prey. Both of us knew that this was another absolute end if we fell.  Clemency and Spectre hadn’t shown up yet, and we didn’t know if they would be able to. There could be more operatives around, there could be Zellig himself fighting them.  

We were alone and we had no options.  

As the searing green liquid began burning my left arm, I felt a wave of power and change rip through us.  We didn’t turn to crystal like we had last time. Instead, Eldritch wanted a way to fight, not just survive.  The apex predator of Tso’got was tired of being hunted, tired of being powerless. With that gas on our mind, I felt our physiology shift in an instant. 

More than a mutation, it was the same phenomenon we had felt saving Murphy.  Eldritch was Adapting again, overhauling his natural limitations and defying nature in the blink of an eye. 

Little geysers erupted on my back, releasing wisps of green gas.  Just like Omec’s it was directed, each trail chasing down an operative.  Phelios was closest and didn’t get a chance to react and get himself clear.  The little breath of fog ballooned in size, enveloping his armor; within seconds it began melting.  Pehlios screamed and dropped his weapon, trying to rip free of the demolished armor and layer of acid that had formed atop the metal.  It quickly ate through the metal and seeped through the cracks, cooking the alien underneath. He fell to the ground, screaming as he continued to cook, not long for this life.  

Tol assumed charge immediately, barking commands in a foreign tongue.  The squad of Trillodan quickly sprinted together as Salah threw something down that seemed to incinerate the air as the gas tried to fly through it.  Eldritch screamed again, fighting against the lethargy that was just barely staved off. More gas erupted and began swirling around the Trillodan, seeming to run Salah’s device to capacity.  

Omec was next to provide a counteragent as she quickly tinkered with a glass cylinder.  In a dramatic motion, she slammed it against the ground and some little yellow arthropod crawled out, visibly affecting the air around it.  With a kick, she launched it my way. As soon as it came into contact with me, it exploded in a cloud of dust and some kind of particle that made the air heavy, and pulled my trails of noxious gas down to the ground, fizzling out as the ground absorbed the acidic fumes.  

Tol burned a red disk and fired a metal needle into my shoulder; a second later half of my mass was demolished and my real body was tossed free of the mass of Neklim.  I groaned as I hit the ground, struggling to get up to my feet, my skin red and blotchy from the heat. My brain tried to adjust to being just a single person again; I was centered by Tol grabbing my shoulder and shaking me.  

“Not twice,” Tol said as he leaned down.  “You had your little upset. Do you think we’d give you a second?” 

I raised my head and endured a metal gauntlet to the mouth before I could try and be defiant.  

“Learn your place, worm.” 

At the far corner of the pavilion, a tall silhouette was cast against a backdrop of flickering flame.  Stepping forward, I recognized the white coat and black surgical mask with neon teeth painted onto it. “Bargain!  All out! Ten minutes duration!” The operatives rounded on Psycho, ready to fight. Psycho just laughed, shaking his head.  “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about me. It’s him you need to be scared of.” 

On the opposite corner, the grimey and scraped up figure started convulsing, his body contorting for a moment as he seemingly put on thirty pounds of muscle in a split second.  Salah didn’t bother waiting for him to finish his transformation and threw an explosive his way; I felt a pang of anxiety on his behalf.  

My apprehension was grossly misplaced.  

Bargain sprinted out of the fire and smoke almost faster than the eye could track, immediately going for Omec.  She let out a scream of pain and surprise as he grabbed both her hands, crushing them in a squeeze. She was shoved backwards into Salah and both went flying as if Shockwave had blasted them.  

Tol powered his suit up with another one of those red discs and tried to join the fray, but Bargain ran to him, closing the gap in a blink.  Even with the speed granted by the serum, the Altered hit him a dozen times before the Trillodan lieutenant could react. Each blow cracked Tol’s armor and audibly cracked the Trillodan’s bones beneath.  

Kalr roared and swung a massive leg into Bargain, and he didn’t bother to dodge.  He let her gargantuan leg collide with his torso; instead of Bargain going flying, Kalr’s shin snapped around him.  “Pest,” he grumbled, merely inconvenienced. A palm shot out and Kalr’s chest collapsed, her body landing in a heap fifteen meters away.  

The last man tried to grab one of those white vials that acted like a quick means of teleporting away; before he could shatter the glass, Bargain zoomed over to him and smacked it out of his hand.  A force field came between them, and Bargain blitzed through it. Tubes were ripped free of the power supply as Bargain tore his arms free of his body. The operative tried to scream; Bargain silenced him by hitting him hard enough to cave in his helmet and his head.  

A blink of white light quickly flashed where Salah and Omec had been thrown to, and a quick glow behind me told me that Tol decided to abandon the fight as quickly as possible.  

I had heard that, if he wanted, Bargain could be one of the most powerful people alive.  His power was temporary strength equal to the punishment he would take once his power expired.  I had seen him pummel Shock and Awe handily but this was… something else. Five of the strongest Adapted had floundered against these operatives and he’d cut through them like a hot knife through butter.  

“Should we kill this one?” Psycho asked, lifting the unconscious form of Kalr.  “Bargain, care to do the honors?” 

Another blur of movement, and Bargain appeared behind her, readying himself to behead her.  

“Wait!” a stern voice insisted.  Up above us, Clemency dropped down and raised a hand to stop the two Lunatics.  “We can use her. How often do we get to have a prisoner? How much value is she going to pose for Zellig?”

Psycho turned to the man clad in cobalt and laughed, “Are you serious, Clemency?  These are the Trillodan. You think they’ll negotiate? You think this crazy bitch is going to cave to torture?  They are roided up fanatics with a stronger attraction to murder than me! They are all happy to die for their cause!  Besides you think Zellig is going to just let us keep her? Hell, you think she’s going to just be confined to a prison cell?  Look at this bitch! Besides,” Psycho said, glancing at me, “She’s the one who killed Mutant, isn’t she?” Despite him being in his Narcissism form, Psycho’s became surprisingly somber.  “Bargain, kill her. Eldritch, eat the corpse.” He turned back to Clemency, “I think it’s time we start to even the score, don’t you?”

Clemency clearly didn’t want to give into the wills of a madman governed by mental illness, but his lack of response was all the go-ahead that Bargain needed. 

Karl’s head hit the ground and body was launched, skidding to my feet.  “Eat up,” Bargain insisted. “Make her death at least somewhat productive.”  

I nodded and pressed a hand to her flesh, her chemically stained muscle admittedly making me nauseous as I devoured every last scrap.  Two hundred and sixteen kilograms of muscle tissue, all of it gone in a few precious seconds.  

“What happened to you guys?” 

“Some illusionist and a pair of their operatives were keeping us penned in,” Clemency mumbled, frustrated as he grabbed the nearly comatose Shockwave.  “Help me get the others!” he shouted over the crackled of the flames. “We have very little time left to get the fuck out of here.” I wanted to know more about what had happened and why they had been slow to respond, but I didn’t push it.  Clemency was right that we were in a hurry.

Psycho scooped up the other Adapted I had come with, tossing them all unceremoniously over his  shoulder with ease. I got up on my own accord, much less affected by the gas that Omec had released.  As he grabbed Beleth, he noticed the puddle of melted armor and flesh that I had turned Phelios into. “What the fuck happened to him?”  

“I, um, melted him.  Where are-”

“Waiting for us at the extraction,” Psycho said, his face actually somewhat dour.  “Pacifist took a nasty hit. Spectre is keeping her safe.” He gave another cautious glance at the pile of liquified flesh, “How the fuck did you do that?” 

Part of me considered confessing that my Neklim form had a way to Adapt on its own, but I kept my mouth shut.  The last thing I needed was to incite more fear about how dreadful and unhinged my power could get if properly enabled.  “One of the mutations I can gain is an acid splash,” I answered, “Poor guy got too close to me and took a full hit.”

The leader of the Lunatics raised an eyebrow, clearly calling bullshit on my explanation.  He didn’t press any further, ripping Beleth free from the ground since his legs were still halfway submerged.  

As soon as we had everyone, Clemency insisted we make quick time to extraction. 

I wondered why we were even bothering to hurry.  All the Ellayans had taken refuge in the water during the attack or been  killed by one of us. Their little base was in shambles, and no one was going to challenge us.  Even Zellig himself wouldn’t be brash enough to come anywhere near us with Bargain as high-powered as he was.  

The moment we arrived at the extraction, Bargain dropped to the floor unceremoniously.  His body deflated, all the power rapidly fleeing and being replaced with grotesque infirmity.  

“Careful with him,” Psycho snapped at me as I helped him to his feet, “His bones are going to be incredibly brittle.  We need to get him back to Organelle and make sure that his lungs are functional enough for him to survive the two day coma he just lapsed into.”

Inside our rendezvous house, Spectre and Pacifist were waiting, both looking worried.  Pacifist had a hand pressed to her side, blood seeping through her fingertips.  

We sat there a moment before the room began to shimmer, Distortion’s power finally kicking in and ripping us through reality back to the ship.  After a split second of nothingness, we were back among our comrades on the hillside, overlooking the city.  

There was a hustle and bustle to get the injured up to Organelle, but I excused myself and slipped away after someone was kind enough to give me a pair of pants.  Climbing onboard, I found a dusty and empty room to lock myself inside of.  

Now that no one could see me, I let all the bottled emotion and panic out as I put my head in my hands, unable to control myself.  The last time Eldritch had Adapted, we had managed to rally.  

This time, it had barely made any difference.  Our surprise burst of power had claimed one of Zellig’s elite, but that was it.  The others had quickly turned it around on me, negating my newfound biological weapon.  

I needed to be saved.  Again. I was supposed to be some kind of super-weapon in this fight against the Trillodan and I had let everyone down.  Again.  

Tonight was a victory.  Even though Bargain was going to be down for several days, if not a week, we had stalled the Ellayan militia and burned the beach head the Trillodan were trying to prepare for themselves.  We had bought valuable time for the construction crew to continue work on making our escape vessel something that could get off the damn ground. And we had done it all with no casualty.  

But the only thing I could hear was my own head repeating one thought over and over again.  

Weak.       


Previous ChapterNext Chapter

Militia: Sabotage

Big Picture made the presumption that the Ellayans weren’t going to press the attack at least until dawn of the next day.  There was plenty of work happening in their little camp and they would all need to rehydrate since their time on the surface was limited to a few hours.  Even though the Trillodan had a similar issue with needing moisture to survive, their power armor fixed that problem for them. As prepared at the Trillodan were though, they didn’t have thousands of spare suits to loan.  

After our meeting, we split up and had a few hours to kill before it was showtime.  While others went off to get mentally prepared with their collective teams, I had prep work to do.  With no available protein to consume, I was worthless in a fight.  

First order of business for me was bugging Repository and getting a massive mound of protein sludge to devour for my gift to consume.  In case we had to hit the panic button, I needed to be able to start the process and not just rely on a convenient corpse to consume. Fortunately Repository wasn’t hard to find and more than happy to help me prepare for the coming evening.     

As the stout twenty-year old conjured pile after pile of bland tasting mush to devour, I finally  asked something that had been bugging me. “How did everyone get here? We were all scattered around a planet with limited transportation.  It took us a full night of driving to get here and we were relatively close by.”

“Clairvoyant apparently started having visions of people being captured.  Titan pulled the trigger and gave his super drug to Relay and had Powerhouse give him every gift she could.  It let him reach out and grab people to pull them to him; since we knew where most people had been sent, he could reach out and pull them from the city.  The problem is that it Overexposed him something fierce. Poor bastard won’t be moving for a week probably.”  

“How many more people is Titan going to have to drug before we get off this planet?”

Repository shrugged, “I might be next.  Simply creating stuff for the construction crew is valuable.”

“Do you ever get frustrated with him?” I asked.  

“Why would I?” 

“Because we’re in a war with the Trillodan.  Because we’re literally millions of miles from home and facing down near certain death.  Because all our plans are made up on the spot since all we have are a few Cognates feeding us theoretical information.”

Repository paused, looking me up and down.  “Yeah, but at least we’re doing something worthwhile.  What the fuck were we really doing on Tso’got? Fighting for turf?  Playing at being super heroes and super villains? At least here we’re trying to do something.”

“And we’re going to get thousands of innocent people killed.  We already displaced a whole fucking city!”  

He sighed, “Yeah, but so what?  Adapted displaced people all the time.  Think of how many people are homeless now because of you.  How many buildings were flattened and demolished because of Feast Day?  Even before you, how many people were swatted aside or displaced because of the turf wars between Imperium and Surface Dwellers?”

“What’s your point?”

“My point is that we always do damage.  No matter where we go, we’re going to be a destructive group of fucking kids.  At least when we are working for Titan, that destruction has a purpose, an end goal.”  

I heard that dubious voice that gnawed at the back of my mind, eroding away my confidence.  “Do you think we can actually win?” I asked, echoing my own concern. “Do you think we stand a chance?” 

“Absolutely,” Repository replied with a confidence that caught me off guard.  

“How do-“

“Because I’m not going to give up.  Because we shouldn’t give up,” he said.  “if we lose hope, what’s the point? We all knew it was a longshot.  No one has ever taken the fight to the Trillodan and we’re the first people in recorded history who have even tried.  Of course it’s a longshot. Of course the odds are stacked against us. But, is it possible? Absolutely.”  

I ingested the last stack of protein sludge he made for me and offered a quiet word of thanks as I took off, wishing I shared his optimism.  I couldn’t get it out of my head that our only lifeline was how much more valuable we were alive as opposed to dead. The only insurance we had for survival was that our hearts beating upped the worth to the Trillodan.  

As soon as I was done with Repository, I wasn’t sure where to go since all of my teammates were either helping with construction or nose deep in a notepad.  I was saved from loneliness by a taller guy my age with slicked back hair and a form fitting black-body suit that had armored plates tucked inside. “Eldritch!” he called out to me, “Been wanting to talk to you!” 

Ragdoll.  Leader of Flagbearers.  An Enhancer who could adjust the mass and durability of his limbs.  On Tso’got, I had seen him kick a Trillodan soldiers head clean off thanks to his crazy acrobatic style of combat that no one else could quite replicate.  

“Hey, Ragdoll,” I said.  

His chipper expression fell for a moment, “Lightshow told me about Parasite.  I know I won’t miss him as much as you do, but he was a good friend.”

Ever since they had met on Tso’got, the two of them had hit it off.  While we had been on the ship to Vuuldar, the two of them trained and worked out together twice a day like a pair of psychos.  “I appreciate it, Rags. And it’s still hard to believe that he’s gone.”

He sighed, commiserating.  “Fortunately that’s not the only reason I’m here.  I was talking with the Lunatics and we’re going to have to split up.  It looks like there’s four weapons caches that Almanac and Infinite have spotted out, so to cover ground best we’re going to split up into groups.  Beleth and Shockwave are going as a unit, Psycho is going to sleep to get a new power and go with Pacifist and Bargain. I’m going to be with Siege and we want you to come with us.”  

I blinked a few times, confused.  “But-“

“I figure if we need a panic button, we might as well have you close by, right?  Besides, you and I have worked together before, and this time I’m not going to let you run away like you did back in Ciel.  You almost got yourself caught because you tried to be the hero, like a total jackass.”

I felt my ears burn with shame, but Ragdoll laughed and clapped me on the back.  “Relax man. Bygones and all.”

He didn’t explicitly mention no one else wanted to be stuck with me but he didn’t need to.  Without using my power, I was fragile. After using my power, I was a literal monster. There was no middle ground in the eyes of most people.  

“What about Clemency and Spectre?  You didn’t mention them.”

“They’ll be flying around, our early alarm system and first layer of interception.  Ideally we can blow apart three of the stashes and they’ll hit the last one as people start to panic and juice them up.  We dash like hell and bail before our two hour window and call it a night. Once we’re back at the ship, Zellig isn’t going to hunt us.  It’s too risky for him and his men to come close to us; Forest has way too much hold here for him to want to fight.”

It sounded optimistic.  If there was one thing I had learned from our time fighting against Imperium and Surface Dwellers, it was that no plan survives contact with the enemy.  Then again, I was the backup plan in case something did go wrong.  

Ragdoll gave me an almost pitying look, “You wanna come hang out with us for a little while?  I know that your group is a little scattered right now.”  

It was probably the gentlest way to remind me that half my team was dead or captured and the others were now cogs in Titan’s machine.  I might have been able to hang with the Lost Children, but Adamant was holed up with Distortion and Exchange who were catching up on sleep after our harrowing nightmare yesterday.  “Yeah, that sounds nice.”  

The rest of the Flagbearers were waiting around a tree on the side of hill, an open botton bottle of something alcoholic being passed between them.  As we sat down, Mr. Magnificent started shuffling a deck of cards and dealt both us in without missing a beat. Just like Ragdoll, all of them opened me with welcome arms.  While we sat around playing cards, I noticed they were short a member: Transport was gone.  

Everyone had lost someone.  How Ragdoll managed to brush such things off was beyond me.  Soliloquy and Mr. Magnificent seemed painfully aware of their teammates absence, but neither of them made mention.  Instead all of us were content to pretend everything was okay for a few hours and swear at each other because someone was clearly cheating, or so Soliloquy kept insisting.  Poor man couldn’t get a good hand to save his life.  

But eventually, all good things had to come to an end.  As the sun began to set, Ragdoll gave me a nudge and we withdrew, taking our leave from the rest of his team.  Before he left, Ragdoll exchanged a warrior’s handshake with Mr. Magnificent. Knowing the two of them, I knew that Mr. Magnificent was donating his power to Ragdoll, granting him some kind of heightened physical attribute.  

As we all met around the side of the ship, everyone was void of humor.  It looked like Psycho had swapped back into his Narcissism form given the fact he was a foot taller and riddled with muscle he hadn’t had three hours ago.  Clemency was decked out in his usual armor, all of the Lunatics were wearing the white coats and monstrous masks that we had originally seen them in. Shockwave wore his crimson suit with the golden mask and Beleth was back in his brown trench coat.  

Outside of the Prime Trio, this was arguably the strongest group of people here.  The only person I wished to have at our back was Lightshow, but she had joined the construction team since she could make a copy of Multi-task or Mizu and effectively double their workforce.    

“You won’t get much time,” Titan said as he joined us, flanked by Infinite.  He looked exhausted, like the poor bastard hadn’t slept in a week. “Two hours.  Distortion will be pulling you back from the same place she drops you, so don’t forget where you need to go.  Each of you has an earpiece, courtesy of Toolkit. If you need early extraction, get back and we’ll pull you out.  If you need help, Clemency and Spectre will be the quickest response team. If we need to call it a panic,” Titan said as all eyes turned to me, “Eldritch, don’t hold back.  You bring about hell while everyone else runs. Infinite will come to extract you herself if we need to.”

Our means of conveyance, Distortion, stumbled forward, using a crutch to prop herself upright since her left leg was still defunct.  Beside her, the sprite Powerhouse place a hand on Distortion’s shoulder, bestowing an extra power to the teleporter from Lost Children.  

“Don’t pull the panic alarm early,” Clemency stressed, “that goes for everyone.  If we do that, we risk advancing our time tables. We’re the best at this shit, so trust one another to handle things.”  

Shockwave took one last drag on a cigarette and stamped out the butt.  “So, let’s get to work.” 

Everyone huddled together as Distortion raised a hand and the world melted away.  After that second of nothingness, we all found ourselves in what looked like a cramped townhouse that had clearly been abandoned.  There were cheap dolls on the ground around the room, dishes left on the table, and enough of a mess that it was clear people had left in a hurry. 

As soon as we materialized, everyone ducked down.  The whole group slowly advanced to the windows to take a look out and see exactly what we were up against.  

Despite the fact that humans had all but evacuated, the city was strangely buzzing with activity.  The house’s windows looked into a small pavilion where a Trillodan dropship had been parked. Patrols of the men in power armor were circling around the block, keeping watch out for our attempts to sneak in.  Ellayans were everywhere as well. Even though they were primarily aquatic and could only escape the sea for a few hours at a time, I could see dozens moving around in the lamplight, almost like they were doing military drills.  

   “They aren’t  ready for a war on ground,” Siege said.  “They’re used to fighting underwater. Trillodan are helping get them ready to attack us. 

He was right.  It wasn’t just Trillodan marching around to watch for us, they were helping the Ellayans learn to fight and move around on the surface like the rest of us.  They were drilling them through the night, likely deliberately working to condition them to be more resilient without the water from the ocean.  

 “Alright, let’s stick to the plan,” Clemency said, taking charge.  “Spectre will copy my power and we’ll be sticking in the sky, listening in if you need help.  If you get in trouble, click once to turn on your earpiece and call for us, we’ll find you as fast as we can.  Once you’re in position to blow apart a cache, let us know. If you have trouble finding it, Spectre or I can guide you.  According to Infinite, they should look like black steel buildings, clearly designed to take a beating. Lunatics, you all go to the northern stockpile.  Ragdoll, Siege, Eldritch, you all have the southern cache overlooking the coast. Shockwave, Beleth, you two have the central cache to dismantle. Spectre and I will carve a path in the central square once commotion has started and try to provide cover fire as you all return.  Any questions?”

“When do we panic?” Pacifist asked.  “When do we ask Eldritch to pull the trigger?” 

“If a whole group is going to go down, call for the monster,” Clemency replied.  “Eldritch, you ready?” 

I nodded.  

“Good.  Let’s go.  Out the back and be as stealthy as you can be.”  

Once we were outside, everyone was deathly quiet.  I stuck close by Siege as Ragdoll took point, throwing himself around with alarming agility, scouting ahead by tossing himself onto a rooftop with his strange brand of mobility.  He would wave Siege and I forward to avoid the Trillodan drill sergeants. As we started to move in closer, our progress became more haphazard. Siege and I were having trouble avoiding detection with there being more artificial lights and more people being drilled.  

“We’re taking too long,” Siege muttered under his breath.  “We’ve already used up half an hour and we’re still a several blocks out.  We’re going to have to fight our way out. We need to get there now.”  

“I don’t think rushing is the right idea.  No one else has chimed in saying they were ready to go yet,” I said.  

We both held our breath and Ragdoll launched himself onto another rooftop, beckoning for us to come forward.  

“And why are there so many people here,” I wondered.  

“Construction,” Siege muttered, pointing down the street.  Sure enough, the Ellayans were hard at work on more than just military drills.  The closer to the coast we crept, the more the buildings were being hastily erected of the same black metal that the Trillodan power armors was comprised of.  “This isn’t just a militia.”

“It’s a fucking prison camp.  They’re making the Ellayan’s their slaves.” 

“When your slave driver can destroy the planet in the push of a button, you do what they tell you to do,” Siege said, grim.  “They’re making a base of operation for the Trillodan. Even after our bout with the Ellayans, we’re going to be squaring off against a fresh batch of Trillodan military.  Zellig is looking to get his forces on the ground for a proper battle with us.” 

“No wonder people evacuated.” 

We hustled across the road as Ragdoll waved us forward from the roof.  

“Their security seems like shit,” Siege thought out loud.  “These guys can survey entire planets; you’d think they’d have better eyes on their own construction project.  Someone as trained as Zellig should be a step ahead of us, right?” 

Even one of Zellig’s underlings, the demolitionist Salah, had cordoned off a whole chunk of city and had it rigged with explosives and surveillance equipment.  Siege was right, there was no way they didn’t have it better monitored. “Trap?” 

“Probably.  I’m just wondering why they don’t spring it.” 

“Waiting for us to be better farther apart maybe?”

“Would Zellig want to just leave regular soldiers to handle us though?”  

I was worried that Siege was right.  Even though he had a fascination with killing people, Siege was no fool.  He didn’t survive going against Serpentine because he dived recklessly into engagements. 

Ragdoll waved us forward again and then dropped to meet us.  “Looks like it’s right ahead of us. Though, it’s got a handful of guards.” 

“Then we let Clemency know we’re in place to blow this shit up.  The fast we get the fuck out of here, the better.” Siege tapped his finger to his earpiece, “We’re good to blow shit up.  Everyone else ready?” 

Ragdoll and I looked to each other, alarmed; his voice hadn’t come through the earpiece.  

“Jamming communication,” I whispered.  “Which means no early extraction.”

“And no calling Clemency or Spectre for backup.”

Siege scoffed at the two of us, “Stop being so worried.  If we’re in place and we have no additional movement, others should be in place.  If not,” he said with a chuckle, “They’re going to have to hurry up.” Siege smiled as he stood up straight, closing his eyes for a moment; as his eyelids flicked open, his eyes were covered in a matrix of light.  From his core, a suit of armor materialized out, covering his torso and limbs like he had a swarm of nanites rapidly constructing it for him.  

Not just any armor.  Dragoon’s armor.  

Siege was a Conjurer that could fabricate copies of weapons or vehicles that he had seen or interacted with.  While his things had an expiration date, he didn’t normally need to use the full duration of the weapons he summoned.  He opened his hand and a massive rocket launcher materialized in his palm. “God, your friend’s armor is fucking dope,” he laughed, the helmet muting his voice.  “I can’t wait until she makes some upgrades on version three.”

There was something so horribly wrong about him using my friends armor, but I wasn’t going to say anything yet.  For now, we had a job to do.  

“Knock, knock,” Siege said with glee as he stepped into the street and took aim.

  Even with the strength granted by the suit, Siege staggered back as the missile flew down the street with a screech, slamming into the building with a deafening explosion.  Chunks of metal were shot in all directions as a hole appeared on the side of the stockpile. The guards positioned around the perimeter had been tossed aside, leaving a clear path…to absolutely nothing.  

“Empty,” Siege muttered, “This one was a fake.”

“Of course it was,” a familiar voice said derisively.  

On the roof above us, a familiar armored figure loomed.  He was clad in gunmetal colored armor that shifted and morphed into its own  flexible weaponry. The Trillodan responsible for maiming Dragoon. Tol, one of Zellig’s lieutenants.  

He dropped down on us, slapping aside the rocket launcher and easily evading a strike from Siege.  Tol slapped a hand against Siege’s chest and a pulse rippled through the air, sending him flying backward and through a wall like he’d been fired from a cannon.  The whole arm shifted into a blade, the edge just missing as Ragdoll threw himself backwards and rolled back up to his feet.  

“Fuck me,” I muttered as I backpedaled.  “Dragoon shot your arm off!”

“And you cost me a leg,” Tol snapped as his attention shot to me, “But thanks to Vaneel, I’ve just been improved!”  His right hand reformed, shifting like the rest of his armor did. He was right, all we’d done was given an already dangerous fiend a way to be more lethal.  

Tol’s attention snapped to the right as a new screech ripped through the air, another missile flying straight at the lieutenant.  Before impact, Tol’s arm morphed into a shield but the shockwave still sent him skidding backwards. Siege staggered back through the hole in the building, a bit marred and dusty but otherwise okay.  “That suit of yours is pretty cool,” Siege said as his current armor turned to dust, “I think I’ll give it a try.”  

Just like he’d created a copy of Dragoon’s, a picture perfect copy of Tol’s armor materialized across his skin.  

“Oh yeah,” Siege said with a laugh, “You guys make some great stuff.  I’m going to like this.”  

Tol sprinted back at us as an alarm klaxon began sounding, letting the entire installation know they were under attack, as if destroying a building wasn’t enough.  Around the smoldering building, Trillodan soldiers began forming up, as well as Ellayan militia. “Eldritch, Ragdoll,” Siege shouted, “Leave this bitch to me. Do some real damage if you can find a real cache.  We need to hit it and run!” 

“Eldritch, burn half of what you’ve got.  We need you to have some size as we run. Don’t go full beast mode yet.”

“Understood.”  I reached into my storage and felt a hundred kilograms of material dissolve.  I’d bought myself fifteen minutes at about three tonnes; it would be enough to fight against most regular soldiers and certainly against the scattered Ellayans.  

Behind us, Tol and Siege squared off.  While it was clear the Trillodan lieutenant had more combat prowess, Siege was able to rapidly equip a new arsenal to keep Tol at bay.  The first item in his hands was a copy of Dragoon’s rail gun that sent a round screeching through the building behind Tol. His other hand materialized a hand grenade as Ragdoll and I turned the corner.  

I hoped that Siege could keep himself safe for a little while.  

“Left,” I hissed to Ragdoll as a group of Ellayans formed up, all taking aim with Trillodan laser weapons.  Ragdoll threw an arm forward and sailed with it, closing the gap and rolling to his feet fluidly, immediately disarming one.  As the aquatic people tried to fight the man in their midst, it was clear they were out of their depth. Ragdoll whirled around, like a human tornado, knocking people aside with ease. 

As I lumbered forward to catch up, the bout was all but done.  

“Eldritch, grab that one,” he insisted.  I obliged and engulfed a poor, rattled Ellayan in a mass of writhing black tendrils.  I could feel his heart hammering as he stared back at my mass of growth, terrified.  

Ragdoll stepped froward, forcibly turning the Ellayan’s faces so they looked into each others eyes.  “Those guns, where did you get them?”

“The Trillodan-”

“A location.  A stockpile. An armory.  I’m assuming they don’t let you take those underwater.”  

“I, I can’t-”

“Eldritch, eat him,” Ragdoll commanded.  

“Wait!” the Ellayan shrieked, suddenly gifted with an epiphany.  “North of us. It’s a big green building. The Trillodan reinforced it.  Impossible to get into.”  

“You swear on your life?” 

“Yes!”  

In a blur, Ragdoll punched the Ellayan and knocked him cold.  “Drop him. We go fetch Siege and head north. If we can find Beleth and Shockwave, we group up with them.”

It was easy to retrace steps and find Tol still fighting with Siege.  The Trillodan lieutenant was actually losing ground against Siege and his adaptive arsenal.  There were cracks in Tol’s armor with blood seeping through. His movements were a bit sluggish while Siege still looked crisp and up to snuff.   Siege’s suit was glowing red. He’d created those red disks and opted to use a couple of them.  

Tol saw us coming and snarled as he was driven back again by Siege’s limitless weapon selection.  Reaching into a compartment on the armor, Tol cracked open one of those white glass tubes that teleported him away.  As Ragdoll and I drew closer, Siege let the armor around him disintegrate and he nearly fell onto Rags.  

“I think I hurt him, but whatever was in those red disks,” he muttered, “It’s not good for you.” 

Along his skin  there were little red streaks creeping, like there was some kind of noxious weed spreading roots across the flesh.  

“Whatever this shit is,” he said, “It’s strong.  But not worth what it does to you.” 

Overhead, a blue blur soared by, layering a few buildings in flame.  His other hand blasted out globes of acid that began eating through the Trillodan’s barricades.  Several tried to take shots at him; nothing connected but it kept him from getting any work down melting down the buildings.  

“Come on, we have to keep moving,” I hissed, “I only have another eight minutes left on my growth.” 

“So eat someone,” Siege suggested.  

“Grab something on the run,” Ragdoll insisted as more and more footsteps began clattering towards us.  “I can hear people trying to box us in. We can’t let that happen.”  

I lumbered forward, checking the road; as I stepped out, Ellayans shouted and began turning around, taking aim.

Can’t be cut down.  We’ll need to eat.

I didn’t want the monster to be right, but we couldn’t afford to be broken down.  If I was to lose my mass, I wasn’t going to survive this warzone. I roared and charged forward, terror stunning a few of them and I felt pity wash over me as I smashed them into the ground, gobbling up the mashed remains.  Their mass went to reclaiming my size and injuries. Even just eating two fresh bodies, I felt Eldritch itching to be let go, to be unrestrained with so much delectable material close by.  

Behind me, Ragdoll threw himself into another group of Ellayans, dealing devastating damage with his heavy blows.  Siege equipped a Trillodan weapon that I had never seen; instead of firing a laser it fired a bubble of purple liquid that exploded in a burst of violent flame once popped.  The three of us kept pushing forward with only our objective in mind.  

“Half our time is gone,” Siege told us after we had fought off a second little squad of Ellayans.  “Do you think everyone is having the same trouble we are?”

“Titan picked us because we were the best.  The others can manage,” Ragdoll insisted. I wasn’t so optimistic, but Ragdoll was right that we couldn’t afford to worry about them.    

While Clemency was being harassed in the air, he had managed to start one hell of a blaze and amp up the confusion and disorder.   Ellayans were scrambling trying to both fight and put out the fires he had set. Another two small regiments of militia tried to get in our way but did very little to harm us.  Even though it wasn’t as good as Tol’s armor, the standard Trillodan armor kept Siege safe, Ragdoll was too nimble to let himself be hit, and I could soak up lasers all day. The standard fare simply didn’t have enough punch to get through me.  

“There,” Siege said, pointing to an intersection that was being flooded by Trillodan soldiers and Ellayans alike.  

At first I couldn’t see what he meant, but then a concussive wave bowled a dozen people over.  In one corner of the intersection, Beleth and Shockwave were holed up. Beleth had made the terrain in front of them a bed of spikes and trenches while erecting a barrier for the both of them.  For Beleth’s shield, Shockwave was the sword. Beleth would drop the barrier of rock to let him fire a pair of blasts from his hands before the barrier was pulled back up to prevent recourse. Even though they were cornered, I felt pity for the Ellayans and Trillodan who were trying to assault them.  

“Problem,” Ragdoll cried out, pointing down the road.  

“Is that a Trillodan tank?” I hissed.  

It had the same steel plates that their prisoner transports did, and it hovered a few inches off the ground.  What made it distinct was the immense cannon on top as well as several barrels on the side. The Trillodan knew they couldn’t do more than just keep Beleth and Shockwave in a corner; they’d fetched a bigger gun to blow straight through the makeshift barricade.

“We need to get rid of that,” I hissed, “I can-”

I stopped in my tracks as Siege put distance between us, and materialized the same tank.  The original tank tried to pivot but couldn’t take aim before Siege’s duplicate fired a massive green bolt of energy that carved a hole straight through the center of the metal vehicle.  

Siege’s tank disintegrated immediately afterward and he fell to the ground, wheezing.  

The ensuing commotion gave Beleth and Shockwave a window to break free and clean up the rest of the stragglers in the intersection.  Those who weren’t impaled by stone spikes were blasted and crushed by Shockwave. A few lucky ones managed to escape and fight another day.  

“Good timing,” Shockwave said.  “Our cache was a bust, nothing there by some jackass who turned himself invisible and tried to stab me.  Good thing Beleth here can feel stuff through the ground.”  

“We know where their stockpile is.  It should be pretty close,” Ragdoll insisted.  

“It’s right there,” Siege panted, pointing at a green structure that stood a little taller than the surrounding buildings.  “Probably why they had a fucking tank right nearby.”  

Beleth stood in the middle of the group and waved a hand forward; the ground underneath us moved, letting us all glide down the road effortlessly.  Anyone who tried to stop our charge was either met with a blast from Shockwave or riddled with laser fire from Siege. Ragdoll and I were simply along for the ride.  

As much time as I had spent fighting against Beleth and Shockwave, the two of them were scary powerful.  Watching them work together made me very glad I wasn’t still at odds with them.  

We came to a stop in an open space that had likely been some kind of market square.  There were bits of what looked like vendor stalls broken down and abandoned to make way for this ugly green building.  The few Trillodan guards there were knocked aside by Beleth as Shockwave charged both his hands, each one giving off an ominous white glow.  

“You all should back up,” he insisted.  We obliged immediately as he swung his hands together in a thunderous clap.  A ripple of energy shot from his hands, exploding the second it touched the surface of the building.  Wood and metal exploded as shrapnel was blasted everywhere. The building groaned as its structure began to fail.  The sound grew as the three story building collapsed in on itself and released a billowing cloud of dust.  

Before we could celebrate, I felt Eldritch squirm and recoil, alarmed.  

They’re here for us.  

At first I wasn’t sure what it meant.  But, from the edges of the market, several figures stepped forward, all of them wearing custom armor and donning custom weaponry.  

Tol, Kalr, and Salah were there as well as three I hadn’t clashed against yet.

“We can trade a simple weapons depot for the six of you,” Salah said with a condescending laugh.  “You’ll be much more valuable to Zellig and Vaneel than any amount of basic armament.” 

“These Ellayan’s are fodder anyways,” another said, clearly one who wielded some authority given the commanding tone of voice she used.  “A tool to get what we want. But don’t worry,” she said.

“You all will be of great use to the Trillodan empire,” Tol concluded.


Previous ChapterNext Chapter

Militia: The Calm

I wasn’t sure how long I just sat there waiting outside of Organelle’s med-bay, but eventually Dragoon came out with a little more color in her face.  Her arm was bound up in a cast but the rest of her seemed all considered. And fortunately for her, she’d also been given a change of clothes: a generic yellow t-shirt and pair of loose jeans.  

“How do you feel?” I asked as she took a seat next to me on the floor.  

“Shitty,”  she said, not needing to remind me why.

“Yeah.”  

“I don’t fucking think I can do this anymore,” she said, her voice barely a whisper.  “I don’t think I can watch more of my friends die because we can’t fucking find any traction.  I can’t watch someone else get their chest stomped in because the Trillodan have crazy super technology.”  She let her head lean back and hit the wall as a tear rolled down her cheek. “And we’re going to lose more people.  I’ve worked with like thirty different Adapted, talked and gotten along with so many others. If we keep going against them, I’m going to lose more friends.”  

Her eyes softened as she looked down at the ground.  “Fucking hell, Nick, I can’t lose you too.”

I didn’t have an honest answer to assuage her concerns.  “We have to try though, right? We’re already committed.”  

Alexis shook her head, “I don’t fucking know.  I just…I don’t. How many more people do we need to lose before Titan realizes we can’t win this?”

“We need to keep fighting though.  If we quit now, Murphy and Mutant will be lost for nothing.”  

She scoffed, “Right.  Fighting. I’ve got an arm broken enough that Organelle needs to see me multiple times to put it all back together.  And even when I have all my limbs working, that bastard Jai dissolved my fucking armor! How am I going to fight anymore, Nick?  I’m just going to build another suit?” She let out a shaky breath, trying to get a hold of herself and struggling.  

“The second one was way better than the first, right?” I said optimistically.  “Maybe the third will be able to go toe-to-toe with any of Zellig’s band of assholes.”  

“When am I going to do it?  I won’t have time to fight before we leave Vuuldar.  I’m fucking done.”  

I could tell from her tone that this reached farther than just her being out a suit of power-armor.  She was done in every sense of the word. Alexis Trent had no more gas in the tank; Murphy being taken had been her breaking point.  She was not going to be able to claw her way back, not for a while.  

And nothing I could say was going to change her mind.  But… there was one person who might be able to.

“I talked to Titan.”

She gave me a surprised look.  “Really? About what?” 

“Few things, and what he wants me to do when we end up fighting that Ellayan militia.  He also told me he wants to talk to you.”  

“Nick,” she said softly, “What does he want you to do?” 

I pursed my lips, not looking forward to her reaction.  “He’s planning to have me eat a third of them. He’s going to use me as a big enough threat so that Playlist and Soliloquy can help convince the rest of the Ellayan’s to not fight us.  We just need a big enough motivator to scare everyone into line.” 

“That’s fucking barbaric,” she hissed. “You can’t seriously be thinking about doing it!” 

“I’m still on the fence,” I said.  “There’s plenty of reason to go either way.  No one else can do what I can.”

“Except Infinite.  Your power isn’t Cognate based at all.  She could replicate what you do. So could Spectre.”

“Spectre can copy powers but she doesn’t have all the nuance down which is why she generally takes powers from people she knows and has been around for a while.  Do you really want someone getting my power for the first time and consuming that much material? And, if Infinite does it, what happens if she loses control? How do we stop her then?” 

Alexis bit her tongue, visibly annoyed that I actually had a rebuttal.  As much as I didn’t want to admit it, Titan was a few steps ahead of us and had reasoned out those possibilities.  Using me gave the best option for control of the behemoth while still giving him a backup plan to deal with me should it be necessary.  

“And what happens to you?”

“What?” 

My friend turned her hips to jam a finger into my chest.  “What happens to you, Nick?  What happens to your brain after you subject yourself to being that big again?  That thing inside you, Eldritch, it got smarter after Feast Day. You changed after Feast Day.  It fucked with you in a big way. And…”  

I grabbed my shoulder and looked away, suddenly wrought with guilt.  “You don’t want to lose me to that thing,” I said, finishing her worry.  “But, how many people die if I don’t?”

“Let’s not talk about this any more,” she insisted.  

“Okay.”  

She groaned and pushed herself up to her feet, “Alright, I’m going to go talk to Titan before Forest fucking shows up to drag me to him.  I might as well go and see what he wants.”  

I followed her and we stepped back outside and down the ramp, catching a glimpse of our head-honcho walking around the side of the ship, where it looked like it had chunks taken out.  

As we joined them, we were greeted with a full scale operation going on.  

“They’re already cutting out the old cryo-pods,” Dragoon muttered, “Lopping off sections of the ship we don’t need to make it more lightweight.  He’s using Mizu like a fucking power tool,” she exclaiming, pointing up a few floors. Sure enough, the Projector from Imperium had basically a sawblade of water literally carving through metal as he whirled his arms around.  Besides him, there were duplicates of the same girl in a pair of simple overalls and a red t-shirt with brown gloves.  

Multi-task, the one woman workforce.  Another Adapted who had been following Titan from the start, Multi-task could split herself into dozens of clones as long as she could assign a specific purpose to each one.  With a whole ship to reconfigure, there was no shortage of jobs to complete.  

“Dragoon,” Titan’s commanding voice called.  He beckoned us over, watching the work progress. “I’m glad we finally get a chance to chat.”

“How did-”

“Big Picture had some ideas about what you would want to do.  While he can’t get into the technical specifics like you can, it was an easy enough place to start.  I’ve had Mizu and Forest ripping chunks of the ship free, and so far just the cryo-storages. Big Picture was sure we wouldn’t need those.  What he wasn’t sure about was what else we could discard to give up more weight.”  

She nodded, “So what do you need from me?”

Titan raised an eyebrow, “I need your expertise.  Big Picture might be able to guess what you plan to do, but he has no idea what you do to fix the ship, he simply knows you’ll need to fix it up.  The more specific the information, the less accurate he starts getting. Asking him how to fix or bolster the engine is setting us up for failure.”  

“I-”

“Dragoon.  You are the best suited to this task.  Toolkit builds upon initial designs. While she can help overhaul some of the existing technology, you and her work extraordinarily well together.  You create a solution, she betters it. As much animosity as you two had, we need you to work together, and quickly.”

She stood there, silent for a moment, the din of ship repairs the only sound.  “I can’t,” she finally admitted. “I can’t think straight.” 

Titan opened his mouth but didn’t have a reply.  

“I’m sorry, Titan, but after yesterday, I just don’t think I’m good enough.  I lost my fucking suit because some idiot hit it with a vial of what was basically living acid.  I watched one friend die and another be taken. My arm was shattered hard enough that Organelle couldn’t put it back together in one sitting.”  

“I understand,” he said after a pregnant pause.  “It’s not what I needed to hear though.” 

Dragoon’s face twisted in disgust.  “What you needed to hear?  What the fuck is wrong-” 

Her voice caught in her throat as he pulled a small syringe from his pocket.  Dragoon drew away from it with a degree of disgust that suggested she was already familiar.  Organelle had already been dosed with it, and it seemed like Titan planned for Dragoon to be next on the list of those give a power boost.    

“I’m really sorry, Dragoon, about what happened yesterday.  I heard about it from Interface. I wish I had time to let you grieve for Parasite, I really do.  But,” he made a sweeping gesture to all the Adapted on the hill, “They all need you. None of us, for all our strength and power, have your brain.  None of us are trained engineers or mechanics, not the way you are.”  

“I…I had to leave him, Titan,” she whimpered, “I had to leave my friend behind.  I had to watch Zellig walk off with him, like he was some kind of prize from an arcade.  I had to tell Distortion to take us as far away as possible!” 

I wanted an excuse to be mad at Titan and call him unfelling, call him monstrous; the truth was that he looked just as hurt as her.  He knew exactly what she was experiencing and he was doing his level best to be empathetic.  

But there was that cold pragmatism driving him forward.  He hadn’t wanted to confront me and give me orders to repeat Feast Day, and he definitely hadn’t wanted to deprive Dragoon time to rest and grieve.  

Still, he wasn’t wrong when he said there was no one else who could do what she did.  Spectre and Infinite could theoretically recreate my power, though it was likely to be wild and uncontrolled if they did.  But with Dragoon, she had worked and toiled for week and months to build her existing knowledge base and allow for her Adaptation to expand.  Just as Murphy had pushed himself physically to increase his own might, Alexis had pushed her brain to allow her gift room to stretch its legs.  

Infinite’s only limitation was copying Cognate powers so she was out, and Spectre wouldn’t have the same information base to work from.  Even if she copied my friend’s gift, it would be like watching Dragoon try to learn from the ground up again.  

When Titan  said there was no one else who could do what she did, he was being literal.  

“Please, Titan,” she pleaded, “I just…I can’t-”

“I can’t let everyone die.  I’m sorry Dragoon, I truly am.  But the longer we’re stuck here, the closer we hurtle to a future where we’re all captured or dead.  Help me keep us from losing anyone else. Help us all avoid losing friends. Please.”  

Tears started to well up as she looked to me for some kind of support, but I wasn’t sure what to say.  As much as I wanted to take pity on my friend, Titan was right.  

“I’m so tired,” she said.  “I-”

His expression hardened, that cold pragmatism starting to cut through the soft empathy.  “Dragoon, you can either administer the drug yourself or I can. I’m sorry, but we don’t have time to waste.”  

“Titan I don’t…” I said, finally speaking up.

He silenced me with a glare, those red eyes of his driving me a step back.  

Alexis looked between the syringe in his hand and Titan’s intense stare.  She finally hung her head, defeated. “Give me the shot.”  

He nodded, uncapping the needle as he pulled aside her shirt, exposing a shoulder.  “I’m sorry for having to do this again,” he muttered. “I never wanted it to be like this.”  

Before she could offer any last minute objections or voice any reservations, he jabbed the need and pressed the plunger down.  Dragon gulped down any nerves she had and looked back at me, “Don’t do anything stupid while I’m busy, okay?” 

I nodded, “Yeah, sure thing.”  

Alexis let out a slow exhale and her pupils dilated, the drug taking effect.  “Okay, let’s get to work.”  


The best thing about managing to make it to the new base camp was the fact that there was actual food, and plenty of it.  Apparently in the wake of the Ellayan’s militarizing, a majority of the human population had abandoned this town and driven south, getting the hell out of dodge before it all went to shit.  

While looting a handful of small stores and co-ops wasn’t exactly the  most noble thing to do, I wasn’t about to complain. A few of the Adapted from Vuuldar had set up a little grill on the side of the hill and were making burgers and quesadillas.  While it was a bizarre mix of cuisines, I didn’t bother complaining. Collector was nice enough to provide more furniture for people to take a seat and I found myself sitting down next to the group of Altered who had once terrorized me on Tso’got.  

The Lunatics.  

Spectre, Bargain, and Pacifist flashed me a smile, Psycho himself just stared at his plate of food like he was trying to remember why he was supposed to be eating.  

“Been a bit, Eldritch,” Bargain said as he made space for me at their table.  “I hear you had a hell of a night.”

“Word spreads quickly,” I muttered. 

“Doesn’t even need to spread.  We saw you come up with Serpentine, and they’re down two. Everyone else is battered to shit.  Plus, you’re missing two since last we saw you.”

I winced, not caring for his clinical evaluation of our groups status.  “Yeah.”  

“Bargain, take it easy,” Pacificist chided, “The guy’s had a hard day.  The last thing he needs is to be reminded about how awful it was.”  

It dawned on me that the Lunatics originally had five members.  Dysfunction, the Projector who caused things to malfunction, was absent.  

Bargain nodded and looked back to his food, trying to veil how much that weighed on him.  “Yeah. Sorry.” 

I decided to change the topic to anything else.  Talking with a handful of people more broken than I was about losing friends seemed like a quick spiral into depression that I didn’t need.  “What the hell is wrong with Psycho?” 

He barely even registered that his name had been spoken.

“Nothing’s really wrong with him,” Spectre said.  “He’s just got Cotard’s Syndrome today.”

“What is-”

“He thinks he’s dead,” Bargain explained.  “Basically, Psycho doesn’t believe that he’s alive at all.  We have to remind him to do basic activities because, well, why would a dead person need to eat and bathe?  The upside,” he continued, predicting my question, “Is that Cotard’s makes him immortal. We’ve seen him get his head torn off and not stop kicking.”  

“Not the best combat illness though,” Pacifist confessed.  “Immortality doesn’t really help you do much against people with power armor.  It was really useful on Tso’got when we fought regular humans or other Adapted.” 

I nodded and ate the food I picked up, forgetting how scary powerful all of the Lunatics were.  Pacifist was arguably the weakest, but her power was to basically lull people into complacency. If she was given enough time to work on a single person she could effectively put them into a coma.  Bargain was capable of making himself a demigod for an hour at the cost of sustaining injury later, and Spectre could copy anyone else’s power. Plus, she could just turn ethereal and fly around for short periods of time.  

And then there was Psycho and his crazy arsenal.  

Just as I finished my food, I yelped in surprise as Forest materialized beside me.  It was like I couldn’t get away from the Prime Trio today no matter how hard I tried.  

“I need you all to follow me.  Titan and Clemency want to talk with you.”  

My face scrunched up in a frown, “But you-”

She glared at me, clearly not giving a damn about my objections.  “Just, follow me.”  

We all obliged since no one knew how to say no to someone like Forest.  Back inside the ship, she led us to a room with Clemency, Titan, and Big Picture.  A moment later, Beleth, Shockwave, and the head of Black Mass–Siege–joined us.  

I fought the urge to say something profane at Beleth.  Even though Titan had insisted we needed to put aside our differences, I loathed being in the same room as the man who had murdered my parents in front of me.  

“What the hell’s going on, Titan?” Shockwave asked, not one to beat around the bush.  

“We have a problem,” Titan confessed.  “Even though we got Dragoon back, we’re not going to have enough time to fix the ship to leave.  And, if Clairvoyant is to be believed, we’re not likely to win.”

“How bad?” Bargain asked.

“Eleven visions, eight of us being wiped clean.  The other three aren’t pretty and still don’t end with us making it off world.  We’re pretty sure that it just means that we’re going to be hunted down later.” 

Even Psycho in his current state seemed to register that this was bad news.  

“So, what are we doing about it?” Beleth asked.  “I’m assuming that just running headlong into the Trillodan and Ellayans isn’t the best idea either.”  

Titan turned to Big Picture, giving him the floor.  

“Fighting them outright would be too dangerous.  Pulling too many people away from the ship ensures that it becomes a target.  If the ship goes, our clock resets at best. At the worst, we never recover and never manage to get off world.  It forces us to hold the fort and leave at least a lion’s share of the Adapted present to avoid it being demolished.”

“But you got some of the strongest people here.  You have different plans for us then,” Siege said.  “Are you using us to thin the herd or something?” 

“Not exactly.  Zellig and his elite soldiers are excellent at small engagements.  They each have their niche and are conscripted to deal with isolated problems.  However, there are simply too many Adapted in one area to compartmentalize and control us.  The last thing Zellig wants to do is send his men out to die.”

“That’s why he’s using the Ellayans,” Clemency said, as if prompting Big Picture to get on with it.  

“Right, but that also means he won’t want to risk his own troops until after the Ellayan’s initial assault.  As long as we can delay it, we can effectively delay the Trillodan’s push against us.  You all represent the most independent group of fighters around, and because of this, we’re going to use you to sabotage the Ellayan forces.”

“Infinite has done some scouting around and has found a few weapon caches that the Trillodan have set up.  Our goal is to destroy those and buy ourselves some time while they ferry more armament down to the surface.”

“So why not send her to destroy them?” Bargain shot back at Titan, “Why the fuck would you risk all of us?”

“Because he doesn’t want to kill everyone,” Big Picture snapped, annoyed at the interruption.  “You might have been criminals back on Tso’got, but even you wouldn’t stoop so low as to simply cull innocent people.” 

Titan sighed.  “Using Infinite brings about risks.  If things go wrong, there’s no telling what kind of damage she does.  You are all in control. You can all mitigate your own impact.”

“What the fuck is he doing here then?” Shockwave asked, pointing a thumb over his shoulder at me.  “Last I remember, Eldritch was known for losing control in spectacular fashion.” He turned and shrugged, “No offense, but you broke my leg that night.  Not exactly the type of thing I forget.”

I waved, letting it go.  In our time onboard the ship, I had actually gotten along pretty well with Imperium.  As coarse as Shockwave was, he was at least honest and upfront. Whether you wanted the truth of not, he would give it to you.

“Shockwave’s right,” I admitted.  “I’m known for losing control, Titan.  Why am I here? Why not Shock and Awe or Eclipse?  There are plenty of other heavy hitters you could send besides me.”

“None of them offer a panic button the same way you do,” Big Picture explained.  All the people here can be surgically precise. However, if everything goes sideways, we can let you go on a rampage.  We can use the fear you strike into the Ellayan soldiers as another means of delaying them.”

I frowned, “It just means I’d be eating tons of them.”

Titan nodded, “Yes.”  He turned to the rest of the group he’d gathered, “Since she’s in the camp, we’ll use Distortion’s ability to teleport to get you close to the docks without any risk of detection.  We’d give you a time limit of two hours before you have to make it to a rendezvous spot that Infinite will scout out; once the time limit is up, Distortion will pull back whoever is there and ready.”

“Two hours isn’t a lot of time,” Pacifist said, worried.  “Are you sure we’ll have enough time?”

“We can’t afford to spare more.  Given the ships we’ve watched over the last day, we can assume that two hours is all it takes for a ship of Trillodan soldiers to come down from orbit; we don’t want to risk the fight escalating between you and their soldiers.  If the Trillodan soldiers engage, it becomes much more likely that Zellig and his elite enter into things as well.” 

The first to break the subsequent silence was Shockwave who clapped his hands together.  “Alright, let’s go blow some shit up! I’ve been itching for a good fight. Anyone else?” 

One by one the others agreed to go until I was the last one to make up my mind.  

As all eyes were on me, I had to ask myself a hard question: was I willing to be Titan’s killing machine?  Was I willing to be his monster? Was I willing to dirty myself working beside the people who were Scoundrels back on Tso’got?  

“Alright,” I finally said, “Let’s do it.” 

Previous ChapterNext Chapter

Militia: Triage

The only upside about the Trillodan militarizing the Ellayan population was that it drew people away from where we were heading.  

Interface steered us towards where Titan was setting up shop, well removed from the coast.  It seemed that Big Picture had pushed Titan towards the idea of using one of the old ark ships for getting us the hell of this planet.  Part of why Interface had found us was because Titan knew he’d need Dragoon to get the damn thing off the ground. Thank God that the pilot had decided to dump the ship a ways away from the coast.  It let us drive around the majority of the city completely ignored, not that anyone was coming out anyways. Every human had sequestered themselves if they hadn’t evacuated already. No one wanted to be seen by the Trillodan if they could avoid it.  If this generation of survivors was anything like those on Tso’got, they would avoid the galactic tyrants at all cost.  

If they were anything like our parents had been, any rebellious tendency within them had burned along with Earth nearly three decades ago.  

It wasn’t too long before we found ourselves approaching an ark vessel; I heard they were monstrous, but I didn’t fully appreciate exactly how massive they were.  

Originally built in atmosphere, they had been the product of years of labor with hundreds of craftsmen putting together a ship able to relocate massive swaths of society to a new refuge.  While our first vessel had been the size of a damn football field, this was easily quadruple the size, or at least it had been. Chunks of it had been cut free, like someone had taken a massive saw to some of the sections of the vessel.  

“We’re going to get that off the ground?” Lightshow asked.

“We can figure it out,” Dragoon said, not sounding at all sure of herself.  While this had been her plan, the original fire that burned within her was gone.  You could feel that emptiness in her, that pain that couldn’t be ignored anymore. Even though Adapted were incredibly resilient to mental stress and trauma, this was more than she could bear.  

It had only been a few hours since her childhood friend was ripped away.  Of course she wasn’t okay. Truth be told, Alexis and I might never be okay after last night.  

“I’m not trying to be too negative here,” Interface said, “But do you think you’ll be able to make it happen fast enough?  I mean, if the Trillodan are gathering an army, we’re not going to have a ton of time before everything goes to shit.”

“Because once they use the Ellayans as fodder, the Trillodan themselves clean up afterward,” Menagerie added.  

“Maybe Titan has some ideas,” I said, alleviating some of the pressure from Dragoon.  Right now she didn’t have the wherewithal to make a cogent argument or defend herself.  The last thing she needed was tremendous pressure to save a whole sect of people. That was more than she could bear for now.  

“I’m just hoping that Titan has some food,” Exchange yawned, “I’m starving.”  

“If we’re back on Repositories cooking I’m going to hand myself over to the goddamn Trillodan,” Lightshow grumbled.  

Menagerie laughed, and it surprised everyone in the cab.  None of us had been able to crack a smile since last night; the Peculiar artist laughing was permission enough for everyone to lighten up and laugh a little.  Even though none of us in the truck were happy, laughing was a blissful reprieve. Admittedly, I felt a pang of pity for Exchange; the blonde looked woefully confused as to why her comment was funny.    

As we got closer, I was expecting some kind of ambush.   I expected for one of Jai’s slimes to block the road, the demolitionist Salah to blow up the road out from under us, the juggernaut Kalr to slam into us and roll the truck.  Perhaps a brigade of Trillodan infantry would set up a firing line or, worse yet, Zellig himself would come to claim a few more of us as his grisly trophies.

Instead our approach to Titan’s base camp was uneventful which made me all the more paranoid.  Vuuldar seemed to have longer days than Tso’got did, but it had probably only been thirty hours since our arrival.  Even in such a short time, I’d gotten used to the frenetic and hectic, adrenaline fueled fights we’d been swept up in.  Despite the stakes and the losses, there was something strangely comforting about it.  

Adapted fought.  It was what we did.  Originally I thought that was a bit of a jab at our violent exploits on Tso’got, but I started to wonder if there wasn’t some kind of underlying and biologic truth to that saying.  

When we were kids, Alexis was one who avoided conflict.  She had avoided confrontation with her parents for years and years; once we embraced our role as Reckoners, she never backed down from a challenge.  Murphy used to be pushed around and bullied but took it upon himself to be stronger and turn fighting into a work of art. He’d stood up to Zeal to prove a point, even at risk of life and limb, knowing full well that he wasn’t supposed to win that fight.  Even for me, tapping into the primal power of Eldritch felt good. Even though Feast Day horrified me, I would be lying if I said that the power wasn’t intoxicating. There was something primal and gratifying about being powerful and knowing I could rise to the challenge.  

As we drew closer to the old ship, I noticed a figure flying down to meet us.  I recognized the way he carried himself, but it was strange to see him without his cobalt clad armor.  

Interface parked the truck and woke back up.  “Clemency!” Interface greeted with a smile as they opened the door.  

“Good to see you,” he said.  The Projector’s grin turned to a frown as he saw us clambering out of the truck.  “Is this-“

“It’s everyone,” Dragoon said, cutting him off.  “Where’s Organelle?” 

Clemency noticed the laid out members of Serpentine in the back and grimaced.  “Goliath!” Clemency shouted, “We need a hand!”

From up the hill, a small figure sprinted down towards us, rapidly enlarging as he approached.  The musclebound brawler from Surface Dwellers wordlessly scooped up the members in the truck bed and turned around, jogging back up the hill in haste.  Clemency helped steady Trample and I put an arm under Alexis to help her up the hill. Behind us, Lightshow created a stretcher and, with Exchange’s help, wheeled Adamant up behind us.  

Looking around, I was reminded of the last site where Titan had been hiding a ship.  Right before we’d had to abandon Tso’got, it had been a hive of activity and this was no different.  People were talking and milling around, some seeming to investigate the ship or be discussing battle plans with others.    

What was different was the tone. 

Back on Tso’got, we knew that we had an exit plan.  Back on Tso’got, we were one step ahead of the Trillodan.  

This time the Trillodan were a step ahead of us.  

We were staring down an army and we didn’t have an escape plan.  Even if Infinite could get us off world, the ark ship was in desperate need of repairs; the moment we were in the void of space, we’d all be choking once the oxygen was sucked away from us.  Discounting the external work that needed to happen, the ark ships were older than any of us. I had my suspicions that a rocket engine was good to go after nearly three decades without any kind of upkeep. 

And as far as I knew, the only two people who really could do quality work fixing the damn thing were Dragoon and Toolkit.  Given the unrest of the other Adapted here, they knew that too.    

The ship had been dumped on top of a grassy hill overlooking the bay.  If we had time to truly relax and appreciate the scenery, it would have been a fantastic place to drink in a view.  There were plenty of Adapted on the hill, trying to appreciate the calm before the storm, but they sucked at it. I saw Psycho and his band of Lunatics huddled up, whispering amongst themselves.  Shockwave was off to the side, still in his coat with a cigarette in hand talking to Beleth. Playlist had one headphone in while chatting with a few Adapted I knew by reputation from Tso’got.  

Clemency led us up a ramp and into the bowels of the ship.  While the original ship Multi-task had made was clean and tidy, this thing felt like it desperately needed restoration.  It was covered in dust and oppressively musty. Despite the smell, there were plenty of familiar faces, and plenty of new ones too.  Big Picture was talking with Clairvoyant, Command was talking with a pair of red-headed twins I’d never seen before, and one scantily clad woman with a long spiked trail caught my eye.  

“You’re a pig,” Dragoon whispered, managing to provide a small grin.  

“I’m seventeen,” I said defensively, “If there was ever a time to look at a girl…” 

“Here,” Clemency announced, herding us through a sliding metal door.  Inside, the always graceful Organelle was in a room surrounded by battered and sick looking Adapted.  Some of them I recognized: Blitz from Black Mass, Pyre and Hive from Surface Dwellers, even Contagion from Occult was laid up.  And there were just as many faces that were present that I didn’t know. Whether you had been an Adapted on Tso’got or a Selected on Vuuldar, none of us seemed to be safe from the Trillodan.    

“Organelle, where?” Clemency asked. 

“Anywhere,” she snapped, her demeanor markedly more hostile than I remembered.  “I’ll get to them when I can.”

“She’s been drugged,” Dragoon whispered to me as I helped lay her down on a small bedroll that hadn’t been claimed.  

“What?”

  “That shit Chemtrail made.  That shit Titan gave me back on Tso’got so I could build drones for him,” she said.  “Titan’s given a hit of that to Organelle. Her body language, it’s all wrong.”  

Titan had let people die instead of interrupting autonomy.  If he was administering a power booster and putting people to work, things were getting desperate.  

“Lightshow,” Dragoon said, “You feeling good enough to work?”

Our Altered comrade nodded and helped get the limp form of Adamant draped over Exchange’s shoulders.  Once he was set, she dismissed the stretcher and began making a duplicate of Organelle; it seemed easier for her a second time, though it could be that she’d finally gotten some sleep since losing her arm.  

Clemency raised an eyebrow at us not leaving Adamant with Organelle, “Why-“

“Trillodan left something in his body.  It isn’t organic, but it’s attached to his spine.  We’re hoping that Infinite or someone else can get it removed for him.” 

“Follow me,” he said, leading the way up a flight of metal steps.  Clemency guided us through the maze of corridors to the flight deck…which wasn’t nearly as grand as I imagined.  The ship that Multi-task feautred an immense pane of glass across the front, making it almost an observatory. This was a small deck littered with control stations and precious little space for anyone who wasn’t needed to fly the damn thing.  There were dozens of blank displays, half a dozen stations with a bevy of control, dials, and buttons all at their disposal. At the front, a familiar redhead raised her face and flashed a smile that quickly fell into a frown. “What’s wrong?” she asked, getting up and meeting us halfway.  

We put Adamant in a chair and leaned him forward.  “The Trillodan shot him with a device, basically a small coil of metal around his spine is keeping him paralyzed.”

Infinite filed in behind Adamant for a better look.  I felt heat radiate from her as her eyes changed color and she got to work.  “Clemency, I can handle this. Let Titan know that the Sentries are here. I know he wants to talk with Dragoon.”  Her voice was surprisingly curt and forced, like she was frustrated with the inconvenience or us being here.    

I hadn’t spent a lot of time with Infinite, but this was very different for her.  

“Sure.  Will you need-“

“No,” she barked.  “Don’t bother Command for this.  I’m fine.”

Clemency bowed and backed off, knowing better than to press his luck.  

It was interesting to watch Infinite up close and get some insight into her strange power.  When she added a new power to her arsenal, her eyes shifted some, slowly veiling her own original features.  As more of her power bled out, the air around her felt alive. It was like as she changed the space around tried to change with her.  

The first power added little red spots in the whites, a second little yellow streaks, and a third little black swirls that seemed to fill some of the gap between the streaks.  

Infinite pressed a hand to Adamant’s skin and it parted for her, like her fingertip was some kind of scalpel.  She leaned forward, studying the little band of metal constricting around his spine. A green tint covered her pupil and little beads of vibrant green liquid covered the end of her fingertips.  Leaning her index finger near the little metal band, a single drop splashed against the metal snare; an acrid scent filled the air as the green fluid attacked the metal. Whatever acid Infinite made was on a mission and it took very little time for Adamant to wake up violently.  

He clawed at the floor, gasping for air; Exchange grabbed him, keeping him from reaching back at the opening that Infinite had made on his neck.  

“Let her finish-“ 

“What the fuck happened to me?  Where the fuck am I?” Adamant demanded.  He opened his mouth to say more but all that tumbled out was a surprised cry of pain as Infinite dragged her finger along his neck to re-seal the skin.  

“The Trillodan paralyzed you,” Exchange explained while Adamant still caught his breath.  “They hit you with something that stopped your nerves, basically made you a human vegetable until we could get it ripped off.”

He grimaced as he rubbed the spot on his neck.  “They knew about me,” he said, annoyed. “They got rid of me early.”  

“Seems that way.  Oh, introductions,” I said.  “Infinite, this is Adamant, head of the Lost Children.  Adamant, this is Infinite. The most powerful person here.” 

“Hi,” Infinite greeted meekly, her hostile demeanor gone.  Adamant seemed dubious about my assertion but still shook her hand gladly.  

“Thanks for getting that off my spine,” he muttered.  “Exchange, where’s Distortion?” 

“With Organelle,” the blond teen answered, “She had one of those on her spine too…but we had to rip it off so she’d wake up.  She lost use of her left side; Organelle is trying to fix it.”  

Adamant was a little shaky getting up, but he wasn’t going to be deterred from seeing his underling being patched up.  He said another thank you to Infinite on the way out. I tried to leave with them, but Infinite caught my shirt.  

“I want to talk to you, Eldritch,” she said.  It wasn’t the same curt demand she’d given to Clemency earlier, but there was something ominous about the way she said it, like she knew that no one was going to enjoy the ensuing conversation.   

I had a sinking sense that I knew exactly what she wanted to talk about.  

As I took a seat some distance away, Infinite grimaced and blinked the color out of her eyes.  The strange pattern seemed to travel along her skin down to her fingers where she whipped her hand and expelled it.  Infinite shuddered and composed herself. “Forest,” she called out to the room.

“Yes, Charlotte, I’m here,” a disembodied voice answered.  A moment later, a girl in white materialized as a group of roots slithered across the floor and wove themselves together.  I squinted around the edges of the room, catching glimpses of the tiny bits of flora that was Forest and wondered how long she’d been watching and how much of the camp she was keeping an eye on.  “Good to see you again, Eldritch.”  

“Hey,” I said.  “So, um, I think I know what this is about.”

“So then you understand why we have to have this conversation,” Forest stated.  

Of course this was a conversation I was going to have.  Lightshow had brought up the idea which meant Titan had thought of it too.  With the Trillodan provoking an army to march on us, it meant there was an opportunity for me to cannibalize hundreds of people and utilize the fact that my power had no ceiling as long as I could keep feeding it.  But, Forest had been there for Feast Day and remembered how much effort she’d expended trying to stop me; she was not eager to repeat that.    

“You’re afraid of another Feast Day,” I said, solemn.  “It’s not going to happen.”

She was unconvinced.  “Right. Emotional triggers.  Speaking of, where’s Parasite?  I didn’t see him among your crew.”

  Forest’s words were like a slap to the face.  I’d told Titan that I’d been emotionally unstable because the first trigger was watching Beleth kill my parents back on Tso’got.  That ensuing volatility had let Eldritch take control. I hated that she was calling it into question, but she wasn’t wrong to do so.      

“We know you won’t do it on purpose,” Infinite said, playing the good cop, “But after a certain point you become awful hard to bring down.  If the Trillodan are sending thousands of people at us and you gobble up a few hundred…”

“I know.”  I took a deep breath to steady myself.  “I know it was only a few weeks ago, but I’m not the same guy anymore.  The thing I grow, it’s alive. And we’ve come to some agreement about control.”  

Being mentioned caused the beast to stir a little and listen in like a fly on the wall.  

Forest wasn’t the best at generating facial expressions because she had so much body to control, but she managed to look incredibly suspicious of my claim.  “Eldritch, we want one thing to be abundantly clear: if you lose control, we will put you down.”  

Infinite winced, not liking the harsh assertion.  “We can’t risk everyone else if you get out of hand.  If we think you’re out of hand, we’ll do whatever it takes to make sure the others are safe.”  

“And what about Titan’s opinion?” I asked.  “Where is the third member of the Prime Trio?” 

“He’s busy,” Infinite offered.

I set my jaw, frustrated that I was someone that could be ignored like this.  If two of the three most powerful people among us were warning me about going overboard, I wanted to know what the head of our crusade was planning.  Surely he had some kind of grand design or plan to make use of Eldritch, and I knew that neither of these two were the ideas people. Forest fed him information and Infinite was his enforcer.  Even though he was powerful, Titan’s greatest strength was his mastery of delegating.  

Titan knew exactly how valuable Eldritch was and he had some grand role reserved for it, of that I was sure.  Otherwise, why the hell did he keep us alive on Tso’got? Titan went to great lengths and risked his own life and limb to keep me intact; there was no way he did it out of decency.  He was too interested in self-preservation for such sentimental heroics.  

I vividly remembered the end of my rampage and being sequestered in the alley.  I remembered attacking him, nearly engulfing his arm; the only thing that kept him from losing a limb was the fact Titan’s coat had been imbued with power by Armorsmith.  If it hadn’t, even Organelle wouldn’t have been able to undo the damage.  

“What is Titan planning to do with me?” I asked, looking to gauge their reactions.  “You’re only giving me warnings because you assume I’m going to get wildly large. Why?”  

“In a perfect world he would keep you away from the fight,” Infinite said.  “Under ideal circumstances, he can employ a handful of non-lethal measures to deal with the Ellayan militia.” 

“Such as?” 

“Powerhouse bolstering Playlist and Soliloquy would be a good start,” Forest said.  

Playlist was another one of Titan’s devoted, and the kid had a powerful arsenal up his sleeve.  Whatever music he listened to granted a specific ability ranging from destructive telekinesis to superspeed.  To my understanding, some of those powers were emotional influencers, such as a calming presence or a dread-inducing aura around him.  

Soliloquy was someone I had gotten to know  during our last night on Tso’got. A member of Flagbearers, he was a Projector who could give commands and glamour people who heard him speaking.  It was like instant hypnosis that only grew in power the longer he was allowed to talk to people.  

If Powerhouse gave them extra gifts to bolster their own kit, they might be able to stop a small army without any bloodshed being necessary. 

“Except the Trillodan won’t let that happen,” I said.  “Titan has to know that.”  

“He’s hoping to keep the fighting minimalized and protect the innocent people.  If all goes well, we’ll be able to segregate the Ellayans away from the Trillodan.” 

  “We’re guessing that we’re going to have to kill half of them,” Forest said, blunt as ever.  “Titan’s hope is to make you big enough that Soliloquy and Powerhouse can easily make the rest of them fall in line and avoid any excess bloodshed.”  

Now it was starting to make sense.  “And you want to make sure that I can control myself and still follow along with his plan.”

They both nodded.  

“I should be able to.  At very least, I can do my best to direct it to the Trillodan.  We both hate them so it shouldn’t be a hard sell.” 

That got a smile from Infinite and no discernible response from Forest.  

“Whatever happens,” Forest said, “Just know the risks you take.  I’d rather not have to pick another fight with you.”  

I gave a sheepish smile and Forest’s figure dispersed as the roots slithered out of the room, leaving Infinite and I alone.  She let out a long sigh, as if she’d been holding it in ever since Forest got here. “I’m sorry she gets… confrontational. Forest also doesn’t care for you all that much since you ripped a lot of her apart back on Tso’got.”  

“I figured.”

“She does respect you though,” she added, as if that somehow made things better.  “She’s just distracted looking everywhere for Titan.” She trailed off, looking down, as if somehow I made her nervous.  It still perplexed me that the most powerful person in the galaxy was such an anxious bundle of nerves.  

If she wanted to, she could kill everyone and we’d be powerless to stop her.  You’d figure that kind of power would inspire some confidence.

“Infinite,” I said, “How hard would it be for you to stop me?” 

“Huh?” 

“They told you about Feast Day.  Titan and Forest had to work together with power boosters to bring me down,” I recounted.  “If I lose control again, can you stop me?”

For a moment, that anxiety vanished completely, and I saw a glimmer of what Dragoon saw.  Just like I hid a monster beneath my skin, Infinite had her own monster pushed down and suppressed.  Instead of the eyes of a nervous young woman, I saw the eyes of a hardened and cold-blooded killer. I saw the eyes of someone who would do whatever it took, no matter the consequences.  I saw someone who would not, and could not, be stopped.  

“Nine powers.  That’s all it’d take.” she answered.  As soon as she had said that, that look of malice vanished, replaced by the demure demeanor that I was used to seeing.  “But, I mean, I’d rather not. Using that many can get a bit dangerous.”

“Because it would make you lose control?”

She bristled but didn’t deny it.  “You… you don’t know what it’s like.”

“I lost control and ate nearly four hundred people alive.  God knows how many I buried in rubble thanks to me rampaging around!  I think that of all people I-”

“No, Eldritch, you don’t,” Infinite snapped.  “You have no fucking clue. You have no fucking idea what it feels like!”  She took in a deep breath of air, trying to calm herself. “I heard that Lightshow was unlucky enough to Alter.  Talk to her if you want a fucking clue about what losing control is really like.”

As angry as she was, it wasn’t hostility that I heard.  Her voice cracked like someone who had been kicked down one too many times.  She sounded like my mom had the few times she allowed me to see her being truly vulnerable.  “…yeah,” I finally answered.  

“It isn’t something that goes away,” Infinite said, looking way beyond this room.  “That feeling of it being wrong, being misshapen, that doesn’t go away. Adaptations feel normal, like an extension of you.  Even yours I’d guess. But Alterations…those are fucking monstrous. They remind you that you’re broken. They remind you of every little awful thing that made it happen.”  She got off the floor and dusted herself off, “Don’t pretend you know what I feel like. You don’t know and, if you’re lucky, you never will.”  

I took a moment, letting her get enough of a headstart that I wouldn’t run into her on my way back down.  It hadn’t been all that long, but I needed to see a familiar face. Seeing that look in Infinite’s eye, hearing that shake in her voice and the rage and pain that came with it, it was all so unsettling.  I was reminded that others had paid a much steeper cost than I had for power.  

If the power she wielded was of any indication, Infinite must have paid dearly.  

As I walked back down towards Organelle’s impromptu clinic, I was surprised to see someone else waiting outside.  

Still clad in a black coat and black jeans with short brown hair, Titan loitered impatiently.  Just like the rest of us, he couldn’t stand being too still with nothing going on. Patience was a strong suit for none of us.  In some ways, it was nice to see him with some vulnerability, that he had some normal ticks like everyone else. Interface might be right about him being human like the rest of us. 

It didn’t take him long to notice that he was being watched.  

“Eldritch.”

“Hey, Titan,” I greeted, awkward.  He was the closest thing to a celebrity we had in our midst, and he was intimidating in a way that the other two of the Prime Trio weren’t.  They were probably more powerful than him, but he had a certain presence about him that neither of them had. Forest was just overbearing and scary like some kind of rabid dog on a leash.  Infinite held the promise of danger, like a loaded gun, but she was too demure and meek to really scare you. Titan though, was like a master boxer. He knew exactly what game he played and it was hard to not feel out of your league once he had his  sights on you.  

“I understand that Forest and Infinite gave you a bit of an overzealous warning.”

“It’s a bit weird being warned for something that I wasn’t told about.”

He nodded.  “Yeah, they jumped the gun a little.  I meant to tell you about my idea before Forest began threatening you regarding keeping your ass under control.”

I took a deep breath, bracing myself for whatever answer he might give me.  “How many people are you expecting me to consume?”

“Probably a third of their army,” he said at length.  “Enough that the Trillodan can’t easily stop you, and enough to be scary as shit and towering above everything else.  We need you to be that monster you were back in Ciel.”   

“Titan, those are innocent people,” I muttered.  “You’re asking me to eat hundreds if not thousands of innocent people.”

He let out a long sigh and then turned to face me.  “I know. And I wouldn’t ask you if I thought there was another way that we could manage it,” he confessed.  “I’m not thrilled at the prospect either. If Infinite has to intervene, it gets ugly for everyone. It’s a risk, but I am not about to let my family die because the Trillodan push people against us.”

“We should try-”

“Eldritch,” he snapped, catching me by surprise.  “People are going to die. Tons of them, with or without you doing a damn thing.  That is fucking inevitable. I know you’re young. I know you’re fledgling compared to a lot of people here.  But guess what, it doesn’t matter. We have a job to do. Bottom line, killing a mob of Ellayans to ensure our survival and continued fight against the Trillodan is worth it.” 

All I could hear was my captain making the call to leave Murphy behind.  It had been the right call, but it was like a dagger in the guts.

“At what point are we the monsters?  At what point are we worse than them?” I asked, unsure of where the words came from.

Titan raised an eyebrow.  “Eldritch, I saved you on Tso’got.  People wanted me to offer you to the Trillodan as a fucking peace offering.  I nearly got myself killed trying to carve you free of your runaway power.”

I held my tongue; all those statements were facts.  

He dropped his head into a hand, massaging his temples.  It dawned on me that he was exhausted. Just like us, Titan was on edge.  I was quickly wishing that Interface was wrong and that he was somehow better than the rest of us, that he was immune to the pressures and stressors we were all subject to.  “I’m not fond of the idea of being the scourge of a city, Eldritch. Believe me. I know that I’m manipulative and sly at times, but I’m trying to do what’s best for everyone.  The reality is that you are the perfect visual spectacle and you’re one that is built for this kind of engagement. Thousands of people literally become fuel for the beast and it makes everyone else second guess who is the bigger threat.”

“I don’t want to do this.  I don’t want to consume hundreds of terrified and otherwise innocent people,” I said, unsure how to better convey my message. 

Titan’s look narrowed.  “If it can save the lives of your friends, is it worth it?  If it’s what keeps us fighting against the Trillodan, is it worth it?  I want you to take a minute and really think about this, Eldritch. The Ellayans are going to have the Trillodan at their backs, driving them forward.  If they don’t march, they die. Simple as that. Soliloquy and Playlist, hell, even Infinite herself won’t be able to do enough to simply snuff out that panic.  It will be mass hysteria at its finest. But you,” he reached forward, jabbing a finger into my chest, “You terrorized a fucking city. You became a monument to fear and power the size of a fucking skyscraper.  You have a unique power to become a literal walking, talking, paragon of destruction. If the Ellayans have something else to be goddamn terrified of then Soliloquy, Playlist, and any other emotional manipulator in our group has a chance to seriously turn the tide.” 

He took a deep breath and put his hand on my shoulder, “Listen, I can’t make you do this.  And I won’t. The call is yours. If you embrace how monstrous you can be just think of how many you might save as a result.”  

“I-”

“Think it over,” he insisted, turning to walk back outside, “And whenever Organelle’s done with her, tell Dragoon we need to talk.” 

“Yeah, sure,” I said.  

My back hit the wall and I slumped down, rattled.  Titan had a point; there was no one who could do what I did.  The exception was Infinite, but with her mental instability I didn’t want her to be so hard to bring down.  Besides, she was capable of doing anything and Titan likely already had something else in mind for her.  

He was right.  I was equipped to do something that no one else could do. 

I could make a serious difference in the outcome of the conflict to come, I just needed to be able to stomach the fact that I would be killing hundreds in the process.  I had never been aggressively pragmatic, and this went against everything that was at the core of my beliefs. I had been a Reckoner. My friends and I had originally embraced our powers to try and help people, to fight crime and clean up Ciel.  

Fighting back against the Scoundrels, Suppression, Snatchers, and now the Trillodan had been easy.  They were villains. They were doing things that were morally reprehensible. I could be righteous fighting them because they were oppressors, they were bastards who stepped on others for their own ambitions.  It had been easy to hate them, to take up arms against them.  

But the Ellayans?  They were victims. They were collateral damage.  They had simply been at the wrong place at the wrong time.  This wasn’t black and white like all my conflict had been so far.  This was grey…and I wasn’t sure how to reconcile it.  

As much as Titan had a point that it was a small sacrifice for the greater good, I wasn’t sure if I could do it.  We weren’t the Trillodan. We weren’t mass murderers. We were doing this to free people from oppression, not subject them to it.  

But if I did nothing, how many Adapted paid for it?  How many of us fell because of my inaction? What if it caused our crusade to crumble and meant the Trillodan went unchecked?    

I put my head in my hands, fighting back tears as the walls seemed to press in around me.  “Murphy,” I said, wishing my best friend was here, “What am I supposed to do?” 

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