Two days after being dosed with that obnoxious stimulant Chemtrail made, and I was still feeling the same pounding headache as I tried to sit up. The first try was too quick and the sudden shift in blood flow made me see stars; I let out a groan and alerted Murphy to my plight.
“Still the same?”
“Still the worst hangover ever,” I muttered, “help me up?”
With a steady arm to balance on, I eventually found my feet but had to grab the edge of a bunk bed until my head stopped spinning.
“Getting some breakfast. You wanna-“
I nodded, regretting moving my head so much, “And there’d better be coffee.”
“It is a hot commodity,” Murphy muttered as he hopped up next to me and offered and arm, “You aren’t the only person who wants a dose of some familiar.”
“Pffbbt, fuck familiar. I want caffeine. It helps take the edge off this damn migraine.”
“You know,” Murphy muttered as we left the little dorm room, “I’m pretty sure Chemtrail can just make a few caffeine crystals and let you spike a drink.”
The idea evoked a desperate groan, “He’d better. Otherwise I’m gonna kill him for his stupid drug. God this sucks.”
While the ship that Multitask and Repository had made over the last three years was huge, things started to feel small when there were 80-ish people on board and many people wanted to keep away from one another. Even though we had all fled here in a panic with Titan acting as a shepherd, old grudges hadn’t faded; Titan had basically tossed a bunch of warring tribes in together and told us to get along.
If we didn’t keep the peace, Titan and Forest warned us that retribution would be swift. No one wanted to figure out what that veiled threat entailed.
The central hub had been turned into a strange mix of lounge/kitchen thanks to Collector procuring furniture and–for some reason–and entire industrial kitchen set. No one asked why she had it, but we were all grateful. Most of our food came from Repository since his power could produce an ‘unrefined meat’ as he called it; while having most of our meals be repurposed protein paste wasn’t exactly glamorous, it was certainly better than starving. Chemtrail at least helped make spices to add flavor and try to make us think we were eating something else.
It was surreal seeing so many Adapted in one space, coexisting. Around the hub, there were a handful of tables with chairs surrounding them and a number of couches scattered around. What was perplexing was seeing Shockwave, Beleth, Hive, and Toolkit all sitting around one table together; a few weeks ago those guys would have been trying to kill each other on principle alone. Now it looked like they were playing cribbage.
I was in luck, there was still a cup of coffee waiting on the chow table. Taking that and a plate of edible paste I sat down next to Murphy.
“Thank fuck there was a mug left,” I mumbled as I drained half of the lukewarm black liquid in one gulp. It was awful coffee, but I could already feel some of the throbbing behind my eyes abate. Food admittedly helped a little, even if it just tasted like sad quality beef doused in salt and pepper.
Now able to entirely open my eyes without risking sensory overload, I scanned more thoroughly for Nick and didn’t see him anywhere. “I thought you said he was out here.”
Murphy shrugged, “I’m sorry I lost track of him. Maybe I’ll get a collar for our troubled behemoth of a friend.”
I shook my head, “Maybe a bit too soon?” I still vividly recalled cutting him out of that thing. It was…unpleasant.
Murphy shut up and looked at the floor, a bit ashamed. I knew humor was his go-to defensive mechanism but joking about Nick losing control seemed like a faux pas. I was glad that Nick had confided in us about his Adaptation seeming to grow and seem to be trying to claw free, to gain influence over him, but that didn’t make it comforting. If anything, him being scared enough to disclose about it made it all the more worriesome.
The unleashed Eldritch had fought half the people on this ship on his own…and he’d won. Even Titan, the guy known being an unstoppable offensive force, had needed help to cut him free. What was more daunting was knowing that we hadn’t even seen a ceiling for Eldritch. In theory…there wasn’t one. Our only saving grace was the fact that Forest had been willing to lose 20% of her mass to help keep food away from him.
When the three of us had started our Reckoner group, we’d wondered what his maximum size might be. Seeing what he was truly capable of was somewhere between awesome and petrifying.
Still the bigger question mark in the room was this Infinite character that Titan introduced. She was oddly non-threatening. A short red-head like me, though with a better tan and bigger rack. Even though our first introduction was watching her teleport us and the ship nearly 20 million kilometers, ever since they she seemed strangely docile, almost timid.
I didn’t have to attempt the math to know whatever she’d done required a crazy amount of energy. Doing any kind of warping or faster-than-light travel was something only the Trillodan seemed able to accomplish; she’d done it on her own in the blink of an eye.
As if she’d heard my thoughts, Infinite stepped into the common space and started walking towards Murphy and me.
“Did you order the overpowered babe?” he asked softly.
“No…” I muttered, equally confused. What would she want with us? She spent most of her time palling around with Titan or Forest, kind of segregated from the rest of those onboard.
She walked up to our little round table and shifted from foot to foot awkwardly, clearly nervous. “Can, I um, sit here?”
I waved at the chair, “Please do. What, um, what’s up?” I asked, a bit nervous as well. As timid as she was, I made a point to tread lightly.
She blushed a little, “I um…”
Murphy and I glanced at each other, both confused as she squirmed like a scared kid in school who had been called on. “You…what?” he finally asked.
“Your friend,” she finally whispered, “Eldritch.”
I straightened in my chair, “What about him?”
Infinite leaned away from me, startled, “I um, I wanted to know about him, about his gift.”
Murphy seemed less hostile, more genuinely curious. “Why?”
“It was super strong…and I wanted to know more about it so I could replicate it,” she whispered, looking at the table, refusing to meet my scrutinizing stare.
“Replicate it?” Murphy asked, “What do you mean?”
People onboard had been speculating what exactly Infinite did; now seemed the best time to ask. “Infinite, what exactly is your Adaptation?”
“I create powers that I want,” she replied. When Murphy and I glanced at each other, equally unsure of what that entailed, she continued. “I don’t just say ‘I want to copy Titan’ or something like that, but I create power components and string them together.”
I shook my head, “I’m still not entirely following.”
She concentrated for a moment and little arcs of electricity began to chain between her fingertips.
“Holy shit,” Murphy muttered, “You just made Shock’s power.”
“If I want to copy most powers, it takes between four and six of my allotments. To mimic Shock, it requires: electrical manipulation, power storing, power collection, extension, and amplification. I have to be able to draw the energy from the air around me, store it, and redirect it like he does. If I copy Projector gifts, I have to create a way to store energy. If I don’t have a way to gather the electrical charge, there’s nothing to use except the electricity in my body. I learned that the hard way once and almost shorted out my heart.”
One thing stood out to me as she described how she recreated Shock’s gift. “Five allotments. How many do you have?”
“Thirteen,” she muttered, “But I don’t use more than eight if I can avoid it.”
Nick had mentioned seeing Command—the Projector who controlled mental process—Overexposing when she had relocated the ship into space. And if she could create Shock’s power with five of thirteen…what did using it all look like? “Why don’t you use more?”
“It starts screwing with my head,” she whispered, looking around at the Adapted present, not wanting anyone to overhear. “The more I use, the less I recognize who is friendly and what I’m supposed to be doing. More wild and chaotic.”
“I heard you said you needed eleven to move the ship,” Murphy said quietly, “Doing that was more than doubling Shock’s power.”
“Exponential growth,” I intuited, “the more you turn on, the more volatile you get, but the more overwhelmingly powerful you become?”
Infinite nodded, “Yeah.”
“So why do you want to copy Eldritch?”
“He fought Titan,” she said plainly, “Titan takes eight powers to replicate and if I could make improvements on Eldritch since I could add additional power-“
Murphy shook his head violently, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Infinite paled and shrank in her chair, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-“
“It isn’t that,” he assured, “But there is a mental tax that comes with his gift. Those tentacles he spawns, they aren’t just mindless lumps of muscle tissue. The more of them there are, the harder it gets to control because they tug back at his mind and fight for control. The whole reason that the Feast Day happened was because he lost control and started gobbling up everything in sight. Our friend would never do that, but the stuff he made had two directives: eat to grow, and survive. And, no offense to you, but I don’t want to see you given a gift that has the ability to go nuts when you already are…obscenely powerful.”
“And when you have a gift that comes with a mental tax on its own,” I added. “Eldritch isn’t a pushover, but do yourself a favor, don’t copy him. I’m not sure if you’ve talked to him since we left-“
She shook her head, “I’m too nervous to.”
It finally dawned on me: she had crippling social anxiety. Everyone who Adapted was broken down on some level, damaged; regardless of how powerful you were, that quirk and flaw didn’t just go away. Even though she was the biggest A-lister here, she was just as scared of us as we were of her. “Hey, Infinite, you know you don’t need to be afraid of us, right? You literally saved all of us.”
Infinite offered a weak smile, “Thanks. It’s um, yeah, you know.”
Murphy raised an eyebrow, “Why do you, of all people, have anxiety issues?”
I reached over and hit my teammate, “Don’t be a dick,” I snapped, “She doesn’t have to explain herself to you.” Of course he didn’t move or even flinch, his passenger just took this hit in his stead.
“Your thing,” Infinite muttered, leaning forward and closer to Murphy, “How does it work, Parasite?”
Ever since we had all boarded the ship, it seemed easier to just address everyone by their Adapted moniker; learning our actual names seemed to almost detract from who we were and what exactly we were doing. Everyone on board was Adapted and it just somehow seemed more apt to use the monikers we had chosen for ourselves after we changed. The only exceptions for me were Murphy and Nick, but only because I’d known them before Adapting.
“Well,” he muttered, “I’m not totally sure. I can tell you what it does though.”
Murphy moved all of his passenger into his arm and showed what it did, even letting me cut him so he could show off its regeneration. Infinite touched him and closed her eyes, concentrating for a moment before something rippled under her skin.
“Feels really weird,” she muttered as the organism slid into her fingers and then slid back out and made her shoulder swell. “But I feel…kinda strong.”
“Sounds like you’ve got the right thing going on then,” Murphy said with a smile.
With all the time we spent talking to Infinite, Murphy and I hadn’t noticed someone in a black coat making his way across the room to us, and we hadn’t noticed the rest of the room growing reverently quiet as the head of this whole operation joined us.
No one objected to Titan sitting down beside Infinite, though now Murphy and I were the ones stricken with anxiety where Infinite seemed much more comfortable to have him close by. There was something about Titan that made him daunting, even before considering the fact that he could turn us to dust with just a thought. He had a way of being commanding, in charge, absolutely sure of his authority and none of us dared to call him on it.
I was especially grateful that he wasn’t a mean bastard.
“Umm…hey, Titan,” Murphy said nervously, “What can we, uh, do for you?”
What might have been the most unsettling about him was the fact he had red eyes. He wasn’t an albino and the rest of his physiology was completely normal except for the color of his irises. Even though his smile was genuine, it was hard to not assume there was something sinister and malicious driving him. “Parasite, there’s nothing I need from you, for now, but I was hoping to borrow Dragoon for a few minutes and run something by her.” He glanced at me, “That is if you’re migraines have faded.”
“For now, I’m pretty functional,” I replied, mostly honest. The throbbing in my head hadn’t totally abated, but the caffeine and some breakfast had seriously taken the edge off.
“Well then,” Murphy said, getting up, “I’ll leave you all to it.”
As my friend left, I noticed Infinite edging a little closer to Titan, her cheeks betraying the slightest blush as she gave him a warm smile. Titan wasn’t as obvious, but he didn’t shift away from her to keep the respectable distance between them either.
Talk about a fucking power couple.
“Whatever you’re about to ask for,” I mumbled, “It better not involve any more of Chemtrail’s drugs. That stuff is a nightmare.”
Titan shook his head, “No. Not at all. But more like I have a proposition for you to consider.”
I raised an eyebrow, “I’m listening.”
He glanced around at the Adapted in the room, most of which had moved on from the initial shock of him showing up, “Everyone in this room has limited avenues to be stronger. And, quite frankly, your suit is limiting you.”
I scowled, “Hey!” As soon as the word escaped my mouth, I recoiled, terrified of some drastic consequences for interrupting him.
Titan raised his hand defensively, “Dragoon, you made a very functional suit of power armor. No question. But how long have you been forced to use limited tools, limited equipment, and limited raw materials?”
“I guess…basically all the time I’ve been Adapted,” I muttered.
“You had to be hidden, be secretive. We all did on Tso’got. For some, that mattered much less than it did others. For example, your friend, Parasite, only needs to exercise to heighten his gifts potential. Clemency is limited by population, Eldritch by mass, Awe by electricity, etc. But you, you’re limited by quite a number of things. You need space, material, planning time, tools, and time.”
I frowned, feeling helplessly outclassed by everyone else around me. “Thank you for reminding me that I’m one of the most useless people in the room.”
“You misunderstand me. See, we aren’t on Tso’got anymore, we don’t have to play by the Zari’s rules. In a few hours and under incredible pressure, you designed drones that did spot welding on a spaceship you’d never seen before. When you were given material and tools, you were a one-woman factory. You might think of yourself as useless, but I would argue quite the opposite. But, you’ve never been given the chance to strut your stuff like so many others.”
Infinite smiled, “You have a power I wish I could copy.”
“Wait…you can’t copy mine? Why not?”
“I can’t mimic Cognate powers. I can’t really adjust the way I think unfortunately. You and Big Picture are the two I wish I could copy but…alas, no dice.”
Titan cleared his throat, pulling the conversation back to him, “Right now, we have nothing but time on our hands. Every Adapted wants something to do, like we are hardwired for conflict. Not necessarily violence, but we want something to conquer in a metaphorical sense. And giving several people something to do would help bolster morale around here…even if just a little. It isn’t going to be long before cabin fever sets in and issues begin brewing.”
“Several people?” I asked, suddenly a bit wary.
“You’d need Repository to produce you raw materials. Well, him or Infinite can mimic him or Spectre can simply clone the gift I suppose. Armorsmith can reinforce anything you create as finished product, and Toolkit can aid in refining your new suit.”
“Why can’t I just upgrade my old suit?”
Titan sighed and leaned forward, his hands spreading as if he was laying cards on the table. “The Trilodan aren’t going to play nice…and honestly your old suit isn’t engineered well enough to take the beating that is going to come around. The man hunting us, Zellig, he stood up to half of the Surface Dwellers and won, handily. Clemency had serious trouble putting him down with the entire city in an uproar. Do you think your armor could stand up to anything like that, even with Armorsmith reinforcing it?”
I shook my head, “No.” Nick had watched that fight unfold and told me all about it. While the Trillodan as a whole were enigmatic and impossible to pin down, their Expedition was a known entity since it gifted Awakened planets with Universal Common. There were a few names of specific Trillodan that people knew and Zellig was one example as the leader of the Trillodan Expedition.
He’d disemboweled Goliath, withstood Shock’s lightning storms, caught Awe despite his obscene speed, and torn Nick out of a three-tonne suit…all without his insane arsenal. Even before Trillodan technology assisted him, he was stronger than most of us. Titan was right, he’d shred through my armor like it was made of paper. And he was someone who had been engaged in conflict for centuries; there wasn’t a way that we were avoiding fights from here on out.
If my armor wasn’t made up to snuff, there was no way I was going to live through this campaign that Titan was leading.
“Okay,” I muttered, “I like your idea. But, with all due respect, I want another day before I start tapping my power and think of making an upgraded suit of armor and renewed arsenal. I don’t care to refresh the duration of this migraine.”
Titan chuckled, “I suppose that is fair enough.”
As he pushed the chair back to leave, my curiosity nagged, “Um, Titan,” I called after him, “What is the plan?”
Our lead in this had been awfully hush-hush about what we were doing going forward; all anyone knew was that we were going to Vuuldar, one of the other refuge planets. A few of the Adapted who were higher on the pecking order had asked and none had been given a straight answer.
I was admittedly a bit scared when he frowned at me, “It depends on what happens when we arrive on Vuuldar.”
“But, you must have some idea of what we’re going to do.”
He sat back down, “Alright, Dragoon, do you think that other Adapted will be willing to join our cause?”
I shrugged, “Maybe. They won’t likely don’t have the Trillodan breathing down their neck right now so they won’t be as motivated as we are.”
“And you don’t think Zellig isn’t going to figure out where we’re going? He is a cunning Trillodan commander who has been fighting for decades or maybe even centuries. He’ll expect us to go hunting for reinforcements.”
“Are you sure he won’t assume we’re going to just rush them directly?”
“Big Picture is pretty damn sure that he’ll follow us in good time. And as it stands, the Adapted on Vuuldar will likely no want any part of war with the Trillodan; if we bring them to their doorstep, they have no choice but to join us.”
I frowned, “Doesn’t that kind of go against your usual thing of wanting Adapted be as free as can be?”
His face fell, “I think for once I can’t be as altruistic as I want to be. In this case, I think pragmatism and kicking people out of inaction is going to serve us all better. This time we already have a mode of transportation ready to go and a solid force to work with. I’m not starting on my own to recruit for a crazed fever dream.”
“Vuuldar might not survive us showing up though,” I pointed out.
“As long as they don’t understand how we operate, Zellig isn’t likely to slag the planet. If their goal was to kill us, he would have enacted Protocol.”
While part of me didn’t care for his cold and calculated logic, I could see the value in his pragmatism. Even though we had Infinite, she was an unrestrained canon; letting her really open up meant we risked everyone’s life. If we wanted to have a proper war with the Trillodan, we needed more troops.
The proposition of meeting other Adapted was enticing and a bit intimidating too. It was strange to consider there could be other havens of Adapted, other people who were gifted with such strange and extraordinary gifts like we had. But we were all the same generation of human…so why not? It also begged the question if there would be others of Titan or Infinite’s caliber.
“But, details are still being worked out,” Titan said as he got up finally, taking Infinite by the hand, “Might I recommend that you consider the proposition that I gave you earlier. I’m going to leave it up to you since it is your power to use after all.”
Infinite got up and followed him. It was odd watching those two walk together knowing what they were capable of; they both seemed almost inhuman with the amount of power they wielded.
I grabbed another plate of spiced up protein mush and thought about Titan’s idea while being sure not to accidentally engage my gift. Armorsmith I knew would help me without a second thought; she and I had been fast friends online and clicked the second we met in person. Repository would likely be happy to conjure any material I might need since he seemed markedly easygoing…and was probably looking to do something more substantial than generate protein paste. Multitask would likely be in the same boat as Repository and be happy to be helpful. Titan was right, we liked having some kind of purpose and obstacle to overcome.
Unfortunately the last two I needed were Collector and Toolkit. Both members of Imperium, the gang that my parents had belong to and that I directly opposed. The same gang I had unintentionally helped bring down about two months ago.
Even though he had made a strong suggestion to me, Titan wasn’t going to mandate how we used our powers. He had spent years on Tso’got fighting Suppression and Snatchers so that we were free to use our powers as we saw fit. The only way Collector and Toolkit would help was on their own volition and I didn’t expect to be well liked by either of them.
A few days ago Toolkit had helped me make the drones but that was only because we had no time for petty squabbles and Chemtrail’s drug made it nearly impossible to think about anything other than the task at hand. In some ways our gifts were very similar, and it meant that we were both subject to incredibly narrow focuses. Then we weren’t given the time to fight or bring up the past; now if I was going to work with her there was no way we could avoid the topic.
I took a deep breath and made my way across the shared space and down one of the corridors where more of the rooms were stored. The vast majority of the vessel was dedicated to being living space for those onboard. There were no weapons, no armories, no real medical wing, etc. It was basically a flying hotel made of metal. I couldn’t exactly blame Multitask though, the poor girl had been told to make a spaceship and had done the best she could.
The fact that it functioned at all was pretty impressive.
I rapped my knuckles against the door for Toolkit’s room, caught a bit off guard when Shockwave opened it. My initial reaction was to try and turn to run, knowing full well that he could paint the wall with me if he felt like it.
But there was no aggression, he just turned and waved me in wordlessly.
Toolkit was sitting on the other end of the room, wearing shorts and a tank top that likely belonged to Shockwave. I hadn’t seen her out of costume, but she was markedly pretty with her hazel eyes and soft olive complexion. However, as pretty as some would find her, it was hard to ignore the scowl on her face.
“What do you want?”
“I had an idea…and I need your help.”
She scoffed, “I’m sure you do. And I’m sure that I want to help out a traitor. I know you’re a petulant little bitch who couldn’t stomach what we used to do.”
I shook my head, “Listen, that shit happened-”
“Yeah,” she interrupted, “You’re damn right it happened. You personally fucked up Collision. You guys got Vermin involved and that got Ironclad killed. That shit wasn’t that long ago that we forgot. And not to mention what your friend did the other night. A fucking brick hit Shockwave in the ribs and collapsed one of his lungs. If Organelle didn’t fix him up, he probably wouldn’t have made it.”
She shook her head and got up off the bed she was sitting on, marching up and stopping an inch from my face. “I’m not gonna start nothing, but I’m not gonna help you with shit! We’re only playing nice because Titan said to get along. Now, time for you to play nice, and get the fuck outta our room.”
I tried to open my mouth, but I could practically feel her rage and frustration pressing against me. My cheeks burned with shame as I turned around and shambled back out, the door closing behind me with a metallic slam.
Toolkit didn’t make anything, but damn did she improve whatever she could get her hands on. She made engines more fuel efficient, firearms more precise, armor stronger, etc. With the drones that night, she had made their spot welding pinpoint accurate and reduced the energy consumption by nearly half.
The only way I could make a bigger suit and managed to make it operate at all was with her helping reduce energy requirements. As it was, my suit only lasted a couple hours if it wasn’t being stressed. Making something larger demanded exponentially more energy and thus large battery packs which only made it harder to move.
I felt my power click on as I mulled over the mechanical issues and slapped myself. “No. Don’t you fucking dare,” I hissed to my Adaptation, willing it to stop functioning, “You will not refuel the headaches. Fuck you.”
I took a shaky breath as a flood of memories about my family and Imperium came rushing back. All the fights with my mom, all the good times with my dad, and then the night where they’d discovered my identity…
Were they even alive or had my friend killed them on accident? Had he eaten my family?
The walls started to feel tight around me as I stumbled backwards, my knees buckling beneath me. My breath went shallow as my vision narrowed and my hands started to tremor.
I hadn’t had a panic attack in weeks…and of course I’d find a way to be all alone when it happened. Fingers clawed at the fabric of my shirt as my heart raced and I looked around, wishing there was someone who would come help me. Of course no one did…why would they? I was all alone. I’d abandoned my family without the courtesy of even saying goodbye.
“My name is Alexis Trent,” I hissed, doing my best to center myself, “And I’m-”
My mantra failed me as I fell onto my side, my whole body shaking. I wasn’t sure how long I convulsed or how long I laid there in the hallway afterward, perfectly still. I must have looked like a corpse because eventually someone found me and nearly jumped.
“Holy shit! Alexis!”
Familiar hands heaved me up and got me back into a sitting posture, my limbs all hanging limp. Nick was there, his face deathly pale as he stared at me, horrified. “Alexis, holy fuck, what happened? Are you alright?”
The person I needed to help me make a suit that would ensure I survived hated my guts, I was a terrible daughter who had abandoned her family millions of kilometers away, and I was so out of my depth that I didn’t have a clue about what to do.
All I managed to whisper was a pathetic, “No.”
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