Planetside: Landfall

(12/3/80 – Eldritch)

Give in already, we both know you will.  Just give up, let me grow. Let me feed!  

I could feel the icy grip creeping along my skin, squeezing down, crushing me, pulling me under as tendrils sprouted from my fingertips.  I willed them to dissipate, but they persisted and rebelled against my will. The Neklim growing rapidly, engulfing me, subsuming my consciousness heedless to my struggle.  

See, it is pointless to fight. 

I sat up, gasping for air and coated in a layer of cold sweat.  It took a moment for me to remember where I was, and to accept that my hands weren’t sprouting unregulated Neklim mass.  

“Just a nightmare,” I whispered, making sure my voice was my own.  “Just the eighth night in a row of the same fucking nightmare.”

Unlike most nights, there wasn’t any quick call of concern from the bunk above me; thanks to the fight between him and Alexis yesterday, Murphy was actually sleeping soundly to properly heal and recover his strength.  He was a notoriously light sleeper and every time I had sat up in a cold sweat, he’d immediately perked up to check on me.

I was a little glad that both of them stayed out cold, beaten silly from the brawl; I wasn’t thrilled they had tried to take one another’s head off but we were finally a team again.    

Alexis had told us about Infinite’s misguided attempt to alleviate her anxiety and replace it with unrepentant drive; while it had worked technically worked, it had come with unfortunate side effects.  It didn’t forgive her weird moment with me, but she and I had a productive conversation about boundaries between us. On top of that, I had to own up for my misplaced and undue hostility; even if her advances were distasteful, Alexis didn’t deserve to take the brunt of my rage at having to leave Xana behind on Tso’got.  

I wasn’t sure what time it was, but it was early enough that the only people in the common room were Repository, Command, and a few members of Serpentine I didn’t recognize.  It was a little unusual to see Command by himself since he was generally glued to either Clairvoyant or Infinite, but I could understand wanting some time to myself if I were him.  When better to get it than at some ungodly hour?  

I noted his mild annoyance as I stepped closer.  “Can I help you, Eldritch?” 

Command was one of the older Adapted present.  The oldest Adapted onboard was Titan, and he was only twenty-six.  The Projector-Druid in front of me was twenty-four; given our experience as Adapted however, it felt like I was intruding upon an elder.  “I was wondering if you could help me.”  

His expression softened a bit as he saw the concern on my face.  “What’s wrong?” 

“Nightmares,” I stated plainly.  

He gestured at the chair beside him, “Maybe give me a little more to go off of?” 

I took a seat and let out a slow, steadying exhale.  “Ever since Feast Day, I feel like I…splintered,” I tried to explain.  “It’s like the Neklim stuff got a voice, and it wants to be free.”

Command raised an eyebrow suspiciously, “At the risk of being offensive, but that sounds like a reason we should throw you into space.  The last thing any of us want is a repeat of that performance.”

His words stung, but they weren’t unfounded.  The fact I hadn’t killed any Adapted during my rampage was a very fortunate statistical fluke.  If I had eaten someone’s friend, there would have been a lot more objection to me stepping foot onboard.  Every now and then I caught Forest and Titan eyeing me, both wary of what I could turn into if I was off the leash.  The only person who didn’t seem to give me the occasional glance of enmity was Infinite; she could probably erase me from existence though if she really wanted to.  What reason did she have to be wary of me?  

“I don’t want to have a repeat, and that’s why I’m hoping you can help me.  I want you to help shut up whatever the voice is in my head.”  

Command eyed me curiously, “You’re assuming this voice has something to do with your Adaptation, and you want me to shut it up?  Playing with Adaptations and mental impulses can get hazardous pretty quick.”  

He didn’t need to tell me twice with what Alexis had gone through.  “I’m living through a nightmare and I just want it to be quiet. I haven’t been able to sleep well since Feast Day and I’m growing more and more paranoid by the day.  I figured if anyone on the ship could help adjust how I’m thinking,” I trailed off with a wave.  

“Prolonged control isn’t necessarily my wheelhouse,” he confessed as he took another sip of coffee, “With Infinite, it is short bursts where I contain her and basically keep her mind from wandering.  With Clairvoyant, I adjust her thinking so it tricks her body into believing she is in that state of twilight where her power activates.” He turned to me, “For you, it sounds like something shifted in your Adaptation.  Not quite an Alteration, but something gave way. I don’t think that having me brute force it into submission would be helpful.”  

I gripped the edge of the table, frustrated, “You won’t even try?” 

His eyes flitted to my death grip on the table and then back up to me, “Listen, Eldritch, I appreciate how dire this feels for you, but hear me out.  Even supposing that I can get my gift to work for a prolonged period of time and silence the voice, think about the ramifications it could have.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“Well, for starters,” he elaborated, “If that voice is truly a kind of manifestation of your Adaptation, would it still be able to work when you needed it to or would I have effectively made you a normal human again?  If it has truly gained some kind of sentience, would putting it to sleep make it more unstable if and when it came to? Worse yet, what if it was more woven into you than you give it credit for? If I managed to put it to sleep, who’s to say that it wouldn’t have profound physiological effects upon you.” 

I didn’t like being told ‘no’ but Command had a solid argument, and it wasn’t one I could see myself dismantling.  With all the unknowns surrounding Adaptations, it was impossible to predict the outcome and what sorts of consequences would accompany.  Infinite hadn’t thought about other interactions in Alexis’ brain and look where that got her. “Any suggestions?” 

Command looked ahead, donning a markedly contemplative expression, “I’m not the best with answers, especially on something like this.  Your best bet would be to see what information you could get from Big Picture. If anyone would know what is driving the voice in your head…or even what it is, it’s him.  But, he’s a bit of a night owl so you may have to wait a bit.”  

“My favorite,” I muttered, disapproving, “Hurry up and wait.”  

“No one enjoys it, but we all have to do it,” he replied.  “Now, all due respect, but I want a few minutes alone in my own head before I start playing around in someone else’s.”  

I took his suggestion and got up, muttering a word of thanks for his time before stalking over to the little breakfast table, taking a small bowl of meat-esque substance and a spoon.  I couldn’t fault Repository though I was growing more and more infuriated with the cuisine onboard. The poor guy was busy conjuring meals for literally dozens of people and organic material had never been his specialty.  Fortunately, he had honed his ability to generate spices so the meals had been tasting progressively better over the course of our voyage to Vuuldar.  

However, while some salt, pepper, a little bit of cumin went a long way, I still yearned for something with a different texture.  If I was offered a steak and a salad in exchange for killing someone, it would be a hard decision to make.

After a second I had resolved that I was sprinting to some kind of restaurant and eating literally anything else the moment we touched down on Vuuldar.  Every single person onboard had said that they planned to take literally every scrap of food onboard with them that they could hoard; Collector had told people she planned to look into grabbing a number of fridges to help store and preserve whatever we could pilfer.  

As I was mindlessly eating, a chair slid out beside me and a familiar figure sat down next to me.  “You really should consider sleeping more,” Menagerie whispered.  

“So should you,” I replied.  There was a tense stillness between us, neither really wanting to engage in case we stepped too far.  

I caved.  “New notebook?”

She put a palm atop a green sketch pad and nodded, “Filled the last one.  This one is half done now.”  

“You aren’t going to Overexpose trying to get him back, are you?”  I silently cursed myself, but the words had tumbled out before I could stop myself. 

I was expecting there to be some kind of reaction, but there was nothing.  A pure cessation of activity from Menagerie. After a small eternity, she finally took another bite of her breakfast and replied,  “I want him back, Eldritch. More than you know.”  

“I can relate.”

She smiled sadly, “I’m sorry we had to leave Xana behind.  She was a good person.” 

“Yeah, she was.”  

I wasn’t sure whether to leave things there and sit in silence together, mourning our losses in quiet, or if I should try to say something to change the direction our dialogue was taking.  

Fortunately I didn’t have to choose, two rambunctious figures joined us and sat on the opposite side of the table.  

“What are you sad sacks doing up this early?” Lightshow grumbled, her blonde hair a massive mess.    

“It looks like they are partaking from the wild abundance of options that our good man Repository has provided us!” Murphy replied with an impish grin.  Across the room, I noticed Repository shoot my friend a glare before shaking his head.  

“You’re going to earn the ire of someone powerful, Parasite,” Menagerie cautioned between bites, “I wouldn’t envy your position then.” 

Lightshow sniggered, “You did just get your ass beaten by a girl.  You’re stock is dropping rapidly.” 

He scowled, “Kick rocks.  She was wearing power armor that half the ship helped her put together.  All I had was a fucking metal stick and I still gave her a nasty concussion and a couple fractured ribs!”  

“You seem oddly proud to have maimed our childhood friend,” I said, pointing a fork at him in accusation.  

“Pfft, she broke my ankle, my knee, my ribs, and fractured my skull.  I’m the victim here!” 

It was subtle, but I noticed Menagerie roll her eyes, “You’re also the one with a healing factor.  Even without Organelle spotting you a little power, you would have been fine by now.”  

Murphy opened his mouth but Lightshow slapped her palm over it, “Parasite, you’re the villain here, deal with it.”  Despite his mouth being covered, he continued talking, undoubtedly protesting us all ganging up on him.  

“Am I missing something?” a new groggy voice inquired as our resident redhead sat down next to me.  “It’s too early for Murphy to have done something substantially stupid, isn’t it?” 

“He’s too peppy for this ungodly hour,” Lightshow replied with a roll of her eyes, “Someone had to shut him up.”

Our last member took a seat beside Murphy and took Lightshow’s hand off his mouth, “It’s barely six, has he really made an ass of himself already?”  

“Mutant, you must know better by now,” Alexis replied, “He’s a right pain in the ass at any hour and that’s never gonna change.”  

Murphy gave her a smug grin and shrugged, “Gotta be me, don’t I?”

“Unfortunately for all of us,” Lightshow mumbled with her mouth full. 

Menagerie glared up at Lightshow, “If you didn’t have your partner in crime, you’d be miserable.” 

Lightshow returned a sinister smile, “Only one way to find out, right?” 

Alexis rolled her eyes at the rest of the table and took a look at me, “You alright?” 

I shrugged, “Nightmare again.  Same damned one.” 

“I noticed you talking to Command,” Menagerie said in a hushed tone, “Could he do anything for you?”

“He didn’t want to tinker with it, said that bad things were more likely than good ones if it is indeed tied to my Adaptation.  Plus, after what our captain went through this last week, I’d rather not try and alter my brain through the use of super powers.”  

Mutant scrutinized me, leaning forward far enough I was curious if he would slam his face down into the bowl of protein paste.  “Have you tried conferring with the voice in your head?” 

“And humor its existence?” I shot back, affronted.  

“It doesn’t seem to be going away,” he pointed out, “And something has to give.  We’ll need you to fight again at some point. Probably sooner than later, honestly.”  

For all his qualities, Mutant was incredibly tactless, and that could arguably be noted as a plus under most circumstances.  Right now, his blunt appraisal of my position felt like some kind of death sentence he was placing on me. Using my gift meant letting it out of the cage again, and while it was awful handy that its first directive was to keep me alive, it cared little for everyone else around.  

Even just the idle thought about tapping into my Adaptation disturbed something in the back of my mind.  

“I think he might be onto something,” Lightshow confessed, getting surprised looks from all present.  “Especially without Geyser, we’re going to be reliant on you if we get into a scrap. Geyser and I could do disruption well, but we needed people help close out the deal.  Without him relieving pressure, we’re going to need you to take more of the brunt of whatever abuse comes our way.”

Murphy seemed to notice how quickly this was making me wildly uncomfortable, “Hey, we’ll figure it out.  One step at a time. But,” he added slowly, “They’re right mate. When we get in a scrap, we’re likely to get put in a spot where we need you.”

I felt all their eyes on my, like some kind of invisible hand pushing me away from the table.  “I-I don’t know if I can-“

“You can,” Mutant corrected, leaning forward, his eyes boring a hole in me.  “I trust my instincts. When you need to act, you will.”  

He drew back and continued eating, but my stare lingered on him for a few extra seconds, mystified by his bizarre surety.  He wasn’t hopeful, or even banking on me doing the right thing, he simply knew that I would nut up when it was time.  

It was both assuring and daunting; I wondered if this was how it felt to be given a ‘prophecy’ from Clairvoyant. 

Other people began filling the common area, people grabbing bowls of our protein paste and taking a seat, the din of conversation filling the room.  Looking around, it was odd to think that everyone in the room was gifted in one way or another. When some of these people fought, buildings fell as collateral damage.  Hell, if some of these people were to get into a serious fight, there would be cities that ended up being collateral damage.  

And yet, somehow, there was a strange comradery around the room.  Even though there was so much bad blood and history between so many of the people here, we were getting along.  A few meters away, I could see Hive and Mizu sitting together, chatting amicably. Three weeks ago that would have been a laughable thought.  

“If I might have everyone’s attention,” Titan called over the clamor as he stood on top of a table.  

As if quieted by a spell, we all shut up and paid attention.  I was still debating if Titan had some additional gift to command attention or if he was naturally talented as a leader.  

“Today, we’re touching down on Vuuldar.”

A cheer went up from the crowd, the promise of getting the hell off this ship a relief for everyone.  As much as we were all managing to get along, in large part thanks to Dragoon’s project, everyone could agree that the cabin fever was reaching dangerous levels.  

Titan raised a hand and the room stilled again, “Now, we know that the Trillodan are going to be hot on our ass.  They have the ability to travel around the cosmos in the blink of an eye and scout I’m sure they will have an eye on other human settlements to see where we show up.”  There were a few quiet murmurs around the room, but it wasn’t the same level of horror that we’d expressed when we heard the Trillodan were going to be arriving on Tso’got ahead of schedule.  

This time we were operating under the assumption that things were going to be going south from minute one.  We knew it was going to be a chaotic expedition, but at least it wasn’t a surprise.  

“Before we left Tso’got, I was in contact with some of the Adapted over on Vuuldar.  Server managed to allow for some conversation.” 

Server, the mysterious entity who facilitated the message boards that would only allow Adapted access to them.  No one was quite sure how they were made or how they worked, but to date nobody on Tso’got had ever cracked into them, and hopefully the Trillodan hadn’t either.  Still, Server and his ability to connect Adapted to one another had been a lifesaver on Tso’got for a great many. Hell, it was how we managed to meet up with Lightshow, Geyser, and Menagerie.    

Titan continued, “There are nine cities that have known Adapted there, and most of them are sea-side cities commonly called ‘estuaries’.  The natives of the planet are aquatic oriented humanoids known as Ellayans, and from what we hear they are pretty friendly towards humans for the most part.   However, of the fifty-million people or so who took seed ships to Vuuldar, only a tenth of them survived the initial year, and it’s given many of the humans there a very rough edge.”  

A hush came over the room as we tried to wrap our heads around that.  That was 45 million dead from a very much reduced human population.  

“What killed them?” Chemtrail asked, raising a hand as if we were in class.  

“Foreign disease,” Titan replied to the acne-pocked teenager, “Vuuldar has some nasty viruses and bacteria that humans had no antibodies for.”

“And you plan to send us down there?” an authoritarian voice called back.  I recognized that grizzled face from pictures and videos I had seen back on Vuuldar.  That was Calamity, the head of Black Mass. “You think we’re going to fight the Trillodan when we’re fucking dying from disease?”

Titan reached into his pocket and fished out a little orange vial, “Organelle has been kind enough to created nearly three hundred of her tinctures.  Those should be able to buy you at least a temporary cure until you can get back onboard where she can heal you should you contract a nasty bug. There is enough for everyone to take two: one in case a fight breaks out and you’re injured, and one to help alleviate any symptoms from a fast acting virus.”  

So that was why he’d been forcing Organelle to work overtime making those.  

“You said nine cities,” Alexis called out from beside me, “How are you planning to get us around?  This ship won’t hold up on the surface of a planet, it’s too heavy to be flying around. It would drain all the fuel that Chemtrail could make and then demand more. The only reason we got it off the surface of Tso’got was because of Infinite.”  

Infinite stood up on the table next to her boyfriend, “I’ll be ferrying people down to the planet and putting teams in place to go scout for those Adapted in question.”

Alexis wasn’t satisfied, “So, when we undoubtedly need to make a quick escape from the planets surface?” 

“Relay is going to stay onboard and act as a ferry back to the shuttle,” Titan replied, clearly having thought this out.  “Powerhouse will supply him with extra gifts to enable him to reach all the way down to the planet, and for each team to hold a tracking beacon.  Instead of a specific location being what he draws from, it’ll be a specific item. As long as you keep a hold of your beacon, you can all request to come home and he’ll pull you out.” 

Something about this felt off.  Titan had a solid course of action with good escape contingencies, but there was something he wasn’t accounting for.  

  “What if they find the ship?” I whispered, afraid to call attention to myself.  

“The Trillodan traverse space in an instant,” Mutant stated, “What if they search around and find our ship out here?  I’m going to assume an aquatic dwelling group don’t particularly spring for space travel. Our ship hovering around the atmosphere will be obvious to them, won’t it?” 

He glanced over at me, nodding.  I mouthed a thank you and looked back at Titan for his answer.  

Despite the ripple of concern from the crowd, Titan seemed confident.  “Infinite and Guardian will stay aboard the ship, protecting our getaway vehicle as it were.  Infinite will keep it shrouded and invisible for all intents and purposes, Guardian will be a contingency plan in case they try shelling it.  He should be able to make a field strong enough to hold their assault at bay until Infinite could relocate the ship to somewhere safe.” 

I frowned, not thrilled that our nearly deific trump card was being held in atmosphere merely holding down the fort.  If there was someone I wished was on the surface with us, it would be her.  

Without her, no one can control us.

I bit down on my tongue to keep from crying out in frustration at the voice.  

“Most of you will be going out in groups that you were aligned with back on Tso’got,” Titan informed us, “While I am pleased that you have all been playing nice up here, I don’t know how you’ll do without supervision.”

A nervous ripple of laughter spread across the room.  

“Each group will have a section of a city to look into.  While I was able to glean some information talking with various Adapted parties on Vuuldar, I wasn’t able to get much concrete information on where they would hideout, what the landscape was like, etc.  I was hoping to have another week on Tso’got with internet access to help smooth things out but…”

I could feel a few glares directed my way.  There was no way I couldn’t take the blame for that.  

“All the same, we’ve stood up to the Trillodan before and we’ll do it again.  In an hour, Infinite will make a few more jumps and we’ll get this all underway.  Forest will tell you where you’re going and what you can expect. Be ready to hit the ground running.”  

As he got off the table, the energy building in the room was palpable.  Alexis had told us that the reason she was told to make a new suit was to provide a common cause for everyone to align with.  Adapted needed a cause, needed a campaign to champion or a banner to rally behind. It was why we sought out conflict or made ourselves goals to strive towards.  

Even though Titan might as well have said, “We’re going to go fight the Trillodan guys!” and still everyone was thrilled at the prospect.  There was a challenge, a cause, a conflict. It was something we could all rally behind, regardless of wherever our moral compass pointed.  

Every single person onboard could agree that the Trillodan were heavyweight cunts who deserved to be taken down.  

As promised, Forest conjured a representation into existence near our table.  “Rogue Sentries,” she said with a completely flat affect, “You are all going to NaMein, a nice southern sea port.  It should be very pleasant this time of year.

“Shame we won’t be able to enjoy it for long,” Murphy whined.  

Forest cast him a sideways glance but nothing else; given that we could see at least nine representations of her around the room, trying to manipulate facial expressions and creating an appropriate voice must have been an immense challenge for her.  “Since NaMein is one of the larger Estuaries on the planet, you are going to be splitting the place with Serpentine. They will be taking the southern half of the city, you’ll be up North.”

Murphy clearly had something witty to say, but Alexis cut him off with a glare, “What are we looking for?” 

“There are reports of a rather villainous trio operating up north that call themselves the Lost Children.  They have a penchant for firing first and asking questions later.”

It also explained why she was sending us north instead of Serpentine.  We were bound to be way less trigger happy than those Scoundrels.  

“Any idea on what they do?  What their powers are?” Mutant asked.  

Forest shook her head slightly, her attempt at the subtle motion reinforcing that she was wooden.  “Titan wasn’t able to get enough information. He only managed to get details about a few of the Adapted on the planet since only a few sources that were willing to talk to us.  There isn’t the same level of infrastructure on Vuuldar as there was on Tso’got, so limited internet and communication to draw from.”  

“Fish people aren’t a fan of bad internet memes?” Lightshow asked with a smirk.  

“Are the Ellayans going to be friendly if we show up in costume?” Alexis snapped, giving Lightshow a nasty look. 

Forest blinked twice as if surprised, “Titan said they were friendly towards humans.” 

“Most humans don’t appear out of thin air in power armor,” she replied.  “Most humans don’t have super powers at their fingertips. Adapted are often viewed differently than your garden variety human.” 

Titan’s right hand mulled it over for a moment, “They should be accepting if you aren’t causing problems.  Ellayans seem decently accepting of differences and view all humankind as the displaced ones, Adapted or otherwise.  If you refrain from violence with the Ellayans we should be fine.”  

When there weren’t any more immediate questions fielded her way, Forest gave us a parting nod and dissipated, joining back into the bulk of her proper form.  

I wondered how the hell someone so massive could contain it all.  I had to grow and basically throw fuel onto that fire, but Forest simply existed as that gargantuan entity.  Sure I broke the laws of physics regularly, but her existence was an affront to the fundamental laws of reality. 

Just one more question about Adaptations that I wasn’t sure how to answer. 

“You heard the lady,” Alexis said with a crack of her neck, “Let’s get ourselves suited up and ready to go.  We’re in for a bumpy ride.” The other nodded, finishing their breakfast before walking away to put on more appropriate garb.  Before I could get up, Alexis grabbed my sleeve.  

“What?” 

“You have to be ready too,” she insisted.  “Get with Repository, have him make something you can consume.  I want you able to be four-tonnes on demand.” 

It felt like she had dropped a stone in the bottom of my stomach, “Alexis-“

“No, Nick,” she snapped, “I’m sorry, okay, but it’s time to man up on this one.  If these guys are prone to shoot first and ask questions later, we need our massive meat shield to soak some damage.”  

I looked down at the floor, ashamed about what I had to ask.  “And if I lose control?” 

“Four tonnes will to manageable for Murphy and me to put down.  You can’t eat Menageries monsters so she could contribute plenty of extra hands to help isolate you and tear you out if it comes to it,” she replied, displaying some clear forethought.  “I know you’re afraid of losing control, Nick, but you have to have some faith that we can hold you back if it comes to it. Four tonnes is far from an unstoppable amount, but it is enough you can do some serious damage.” 

“And if I eat one of the new people we’re meeting?” 

She let out a slow sigh, “Then I use the railgun and put a hole in your guts.  The Neklim will fix you at the cost of basically paralyzing the rest of you. While you’re standing still healing, we cut you out.”  She lifted my chin and stared me dead in the eyes, “Part of the reason I made a gun like this is because I remembered what you said about Goliath crushing your liver.  You healed through it, but it forced you to hold still for a moment.”  

I scoffed, “You made a gun that would help you neutralize me.”  

Alexis nodded, “You leveled several city blocks even before you fought Titan and Forest.  I’m not going to let that happen again.”  

As much as the voice at the back of my mind felt maligned, I felt strangely relaxed by her contingency plan.  “Thank you,” I whispered.  

My friend gave me a smile, “Now, eat up.” 

As promised, it was one set of disorienting lurches forward until we arrived on Vuuldar.  This time, we all watched with fascination as a pinpoint of light rapidly expanded with each jump until we suddenly found ourselves looking down at a blue sphere.  

While Tso’got had been similar to Earth in a number of ways, it overall looked like an inhospitable wasteland compared to Vuuldar.  Where Tso’got had been subject to desertification on a magnificent scale, Vuuldar was nearly entirely covered in water. Massive blue oceans looked back up at us from under a layer of swirling cloud cover.  If I had to guess, I would have wagered that easily three quarters of the planet was just water.  

I wondered if Mizu was going to try and pull something nefarious since he’d have an almost endless supply of material to manipulate.  

As Infinite relaxed and exited her trance, Interface pressed a few buttons on the console, turning on the thrusters that would help keep us in orbit instead of crash landing on the surface.  

“How long do you need?” Titan asked as Infinite took a moment to steady herself. 

“Five minutes, then the first group can go.”  

It was a strange phenomenon looking down at a planet.  It was so…massive and so calming in a way. I knew that those oceans were massive, that landmass was large enough for numerous providences to coexist, and that there were surely mountain ranges and canyons down there I couldn’t even see from this distance.  

Hell, I knew that there should be cities along the coast line and I couldn’t see them.  

And yet, there were millions down there living, surviving, maybe even thriving.  They all took part in the repeat cycle that was struggling to wake up another day and make a name for oneself.  We had all been doing just that on Tso’got, but none of us had ever been able to appreciate the scope and how small we all were in the grand scheme of things.  

It was humbling to see just how big it all was, and invigorating to know that we would soon be able to participate, to help contribute to the story of the planet we had come all this way to see.  

But a thought crossed my mind that horrified me: the Trillodan were able to reduce something like this to ash in a matter of hours.  Hundreds of millions of years of time shaped this planet and its inhabitants and those tyrants could snap their fingers and turn it into an inhospitable wasteland.  We all had heard horror stories about Protocol 37. How our parents had felt the air start to burn around them as people took to space elevators in droves. How people frantically begged for place on a shuttle while the world turned to ash around them.

On Earth, there had been eight billion people when Protocal 37 was engaged; only three hundred million had managed to get off world in the 72 hours while the planet was still inhabitable.  The only reason that many managed to survive was thanks to the ships in orbit and space elevators to ferry people to them. If Vuuldar was subject to Protocol 37, the oceans would boil and the Ellayans wouldn’t stand a chance.    

The greatest perspective I had ever been granted was when I was the monster of Ciel during Feast Day, when I rampaged through its streets.  Tens of thousands had fled from me, and hundreds had been too slow to avoid my hunger. But this, seeing an entire planet and all its splendor, that was a scale that my ravenous hunger couldn’t pretend to shine a candle to.  

In this moment, I understood exactly why Titan was so passionate about stopping the Trillodan.  Something this monumental, something this pure and pristine, it deserved to be preserved come what may.  The Trillodan had become deities of sorts, able to end legacies with the push of a button; no one deserved such overwhelming power.

A flash of light brought me back to the present as Infinite sent the first team down to the surface.  I watched as she and Relay approached another group of Adapted, passing a sphere of metal to them before whispering a few words and sending them away in a flash of light.  I could feel the tension growing as more and more people were whisked away in the blink of an eye. I caught Ragdoll’s eye before the Flagbearers vanished and he gave me a wink.  A mix of emotions flooded me as Beleth and the Surface Dwellers were ferried away.  

After Serpentine, Rogue Sentries were next on the list to go.  

Relay handed over a ball of metal to Dragoon, “Don’t lose that, otherwise I can’t locate you.  Last I checked, there is no cell reception out here, so be mindful.”  

Dragoon gave him a nod and slid it into a storage compartment in her power armor.  “I’ll make sure to keep a good hold of it.” 

Infinite stepped forward to us, her eyes changed into blue orbs that seemed to look well beyond us somehow.  “Good luck, Sentries.”  

The air around us seemed to come alive as the ships interior faded away.  

Whether we were ready or not, our crusade continued.

Next stop, NaMein.    

Previous ChapterNext Chapter

In the Void: Stress

Feeling your organs stop was a truly horrifying experience.  

You really aren’t aware of your digestive track functioning, but when it stops, there is a sudden cessation of activity that leaves you wildly uncomfortable.  The next was my respiratory tract coming to a halt as my diaphragm and lungs gave up the ghost.  

As my body burned for air, I felt my heart slow to a crawl.  My normal resting pulse was 64 beats per minute, but now, if I was lucky, it was a whopping 20.  And I felt it slowing despite my bodies best attempt to pump adrenaline into my veins.  

It felt like I was burning alive, trying to fight this spreading paralysis.  

On the edge of my vision, I watched Infinite herself since there was nothing else for me to do.  When she had been pulling everyone through space, she seemed so confident and in control, so sure of herself.  Now, she was affected by a serious palsy as she tried to keep her hand pressed to my face. I could feel her shaking and hear her sobbing, her intentions at odds with her bodies actions. 

“Charlotte,” a distressed voice came sounding as the door opened.  The voice was a familiar one, but the concerned and daunted tone one I didn’t attribute to the man leading our crusade.  The only person who could seem to control her, the one she glued herself too constantly, of course it would be Titan who showed up.  “Charlotte, let her go, okay?” 

Her palsy seemed to worsen, but she refused to let go.  I felt myself losing sensation in my limbs and I felt the world begin to close in around me.  My skin went cold as the nerves seemed to just shut down.  

Whatever Titan was doing, I yearned for him to speed it the hell up.  

“I just wanted to help,” she lamented, “But Dragoon pushed me.  She yelled at me. She was angry, Max. She said that I raped her.”  

I heard Titan step closer, though the sound was warped, my senses affected by my near inability to breathe.  “Charlotte, sweetie, you’re going to kill her. Please, let her go. For me, okay?” 

Breath rushed back into my lungs as her hand lifted off my face and the paralysis undid itself in rapid order.  Infinite drew away from me as I rolled onto my side, sputtering and curling into a ball as all my muscles seemed to do a stress test, contracting violently.  

“I didn’t-“

“She knows,” Titan assured her, “She understands too well what it’s like when people lose control.”  

I looked to Titan and saw a break in his usually commanding façade as he looked back at me.  He silently implored for me to play along, to not do anything rash. As powerful as he was, she was something else entirely and it was clear he wasn’t going to try and push her.  

And the truth was that he wasn’t wrong: I wasn’t angry, I was terrified.  But, in a twisted way it all made sense. I had pushed her, Infinite had just pushed back in the only way she knew how.  

“I’m okay,” I gasped, “And we’re…okay,” I managed to say at length.  “I know you didn’t mean to hurt me,” I said, silently praying that her eyes would return to normal soon. 

Titan knelt down beside her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.  “See, Charlotte, she’s okay. You didn’t hurt anyone. It’s okay.”  

Finally, the massive black orbs that had been Infinite’s eyes up to this point returned to a state of normalcy making me so much more relaxed.  She still had tears streaming down her face, but now her expression wasn’t so strained and twisted into a terribly flat mask. Now she looked like a distressed girl who was curling into Titan’s shoulder.

Her behavior almost made her seem like a child.  

“I’m so sorry, Max,” she muttered, still shaking and afraid to look at either of us due to shame.  

He wrapped an arm around her shoulder and gave her a reassuring squeeze, “It’s okay.  Listen, Charlotte, Dragoon is still breathing. She’s rattled, but she’ll be okay. Isn’t that right?”

This had been a mercy, or at least an attempted mercy at Infinite’s hands.  I had been like her a few days ago, subjecting myself to horrible and crippling shame.  Infinite—Charlotte—had legitimately tried to be nice to me and do me a great kindness by removing it entirely.  There was no reason to persecute her for trying to be nice. Ever so slowly I pulled myself up so I was sitting facing them.  Extending a hand, I smiled softly, “I have panic attacks too. I know you weren’t trying to hurt me. I know you only meant the best, okay?” 

She nodded, silent, still leaving her head buried against Titan’s chest.  But after a moment, she reached out and took my hand. “I shouldn’t have fucked with your head.  I’m sorry.”  

“Let me know next time,” I said, politely but firm, “Those kinds of surprises are less than ideal.” 

Infinite nodded again and pulled her hand away slowly.  “I think I’m going to go wash my face,” she muttered softly, getting up and walking away.  

I debated going after her, but Titan shook his head no.  As soon as she was out of earshot, he sighed with relief.  “You’re lucky Forest was keeping an eye on you.” 

As much as I didn’t care for her spying on the entire ship, it was the only reason that Titan had gotten here so damn fast.  “Why didn’t she just intervene? If she was close enough to listen in, she had to be able to produce enough mass to help me.”

Titan scoffed, “You shouted at Infinite and she nearly stopped all your vital functions.  What do you think would happen if Forest physically accosted her?” 

I pursed my lips, both unable and unwilling to ponder the potential ramifications for causing distress to someone so powerful.  Even if Forest had managed to subdue her, what kind of damage would she have inflicted first? “What is her deal, Titan?” I asked softly.  “She isn’t normal, I can say that for sure. None of you three are, honestly. You make the most sense, but your danger sense is a part of your kit that seems…off.”

He narrowed his eyes on me, “She told you about Forest?”

The scariest part about Titan to me wasn’t how much capacity for violence and harm he had, it was the fact he wasn’t an idiot.  What made Beleth so much more damaging than Shockwave was his ability to think around corners and Titan was a cut above the head of Surface Dwellers in that regard; just forgetting to mention Forest specifically cued him in that she was less of a mystery.  “Yeah. Well, she told me what she knows anyways.”  

Titan rolled his neck and managed to get a few satisfying cracks out of it.  “Infinite is an Altered.”  

My eyes widened, “I’m sorry, what?”  The only people I knew of being Altered were the Lunatics.  While there were undoubtedly others onboard who had been forced to suffer like them, they had been quiet about it. 

“I don’t know how, I don’t know why or what caused her to break, but something happened to Infinite ages ago and it has rewired her.”

“How do you know she is Altered if she has never told you?” 

“Altered don’t Overexpose in the same way we do,” he said plainly.  “Bargain, for example, can’t Overexpose. He could kill himself as a price for power, but he could push his body well beyond natural limitations.  Psycho can abuse any form without a care, and one of his forms offers literal immortality. Spectre tried to use Clemency’s chain to hold back Eldritch when he was massive but she didn’t Overexpose, she simply fatigued from physical strain.”  He gave a grim smile, “As powerful as that Adapted are, the Altered are much more so in so many ways.” 

  But that power came with a price.  Altered were fractured people who had been broken over and over again; what they were now was incomplete, tarnished, hungry for validation and would often be labeled as mentally ill.  “And Infinite uses power that makes theirs seem paltry by comparison,” I extrapolated, putting the pieces together. Titan was likely onto something, but one piece didn’t add up. “How do-” 

He shrugged, “No one has managed to tack down exactly what happens when people Alter, but it seems to be brought on by prolonged torture and confinement.  That’s why it was most common with the Snatcher victims, and why I burned those places to the ground when I found them. No one should suffer like that.”

I paused, my thirst for knowledge stymied.  While I wanted to know more about what made them tick, Titan was right that people shouldn’t be subject to such monstrous conditions.  Still, one thing nagged at me. “Despite your outward animosity, you should thank the Snatchers since they helped you recruit so many,” I muttered, a bit disapproving.  “For being someone who touts autonomy, you do a bad job putting people in a position where they can reasonably disagree with you.” 

There was a hint of a smirk at the corner of his mouth, “How else would I make an army?”  

I had to admire his pragmatism and manipulation, as underhanded as it might have been.  “You know, in some ways you are just as bad as they are.”

His good humor dropped abruptly, “Careful, Dragoon.  She might have taken a shine to you, but don’t think I’m one to tolerate accusations like that.”

I raised a hand to stop him.  “We’re going to have the Trillodan on our ass in a hurry once we arrive at Vuuldar, and you’re banking on their known menace to drive the Adapted into your waiting arms.  It might not be kidnapping, but it’s a form of imprisonment all the same. One way or the other, they have to give up what life they had before you showed up.” 

“Everyone loses that choice when the Trillodan get involved,” he muttered, “We number in the hundreds, but we can do the damage of millions.  If not us, then who?”

I glared daggers at him, “So you vote then to remove people’s choice on a principle they had no say in?”  There was an awkward silence as he returned my glare, refusing to back down. Eventually I caved and looked at the floor.  “Maybe you should change what you’re preaching then,” I whispered. “The whole message of autonomy thing, it’s a lie. A fabrication.  It might have been somewhat realistic on Tso’got, but at this point it’s an empty offer. Don’t lie to the people on Vuuldar that they have a choice.  They have to join us or be swept up by the Trillodan because you decided to involve them.” 

Titan thought about it for a moment and nodded, “I think you’re right.  With all due respect, I am going to want to make sure that Infinite is good and stable.”  He stopped halfway to the door, “Besides, don’t you have a suit to test?” 

I nodded, debating chastising him about leaving me out to dry on that issue, but now wasn’t the time to get into it.  He made it quite clear he was done talking and I wasn’t going to push my luck, especially since he had saved me just minutes ago.  

“Hey, Alexis,” he called over his shoulder before leaving. 

“Yeah?” I replied, surprised by the use of my name.  

“Thanks for being honest.  Thank you for not being afraid to tell me the truth.” 

  I smirked, “Someone should put you in your place, right?” 

“Pushing it,” he cautioned with a smirk as he turned around and slipped away.

As soon as I was free of his company, I felt my whole being relax; even when they weren’t trying to kill you, the Prime Trio had a horrifying intensity to them based on reputation if nothing else.  

Going back to my little corner of the common space felt in many ways like going home.  It helped I saw Armorsmith giving the suit a last application of her gift. According to her, her Adaptation worked in a set of three.  The first application made it harder to break, the second increased the armors ability to disperse energy, and the third application made it nearly permanent.  It took a lot out of her to apply all three layers of her gift, but she had agreed to grant me this.  

Unlike a lot of the people onboard, I had no built in defenses.  If the armor failed, I was a softie. I hoped I never had to truly test the armors true tenacity, but I got the sense that wasn’t up to me.  

“Is it-“

Armorsmith nodded, pulling her hands away from the chest plate.  “We’re ready to make you a proper cataphract now,” she replied as she fell back on her ass, holding her head.  “Ooh, light headed.”

“How much abuse can it take?” I asked, hopeful.  

“Someone like Awe ought to be able to wail away on it for a hot minute and it should hold up pretty well.  Goliath, or someone of his caliber, hitting it will do damage to you beneath it, but it won’t be a one hit K.O.,” she assured me.  “But I mean, we still have to have a proper stress test, right? It seems like a missed opportunity to not give it a proper go considering who we have onboard.”  

Armorsmith had a point; even though a great number of people had helped and my project had bought some social stability for a few days, people were still itching for a fight, something to satiate that primal demand we had for conflict.  On top of that, there was only one way to see if everything worked as intended; if it was to fail on me when I needed it most, that would come with lethal consequences.  

“Problem with that is that the provisions against violence,” I muttered.  “Forest nearly killed people today because I made the mistake of antagonizing Parasite.”

My friend frowned, “I heard there were…words exchanged.”  

I contemplated telling her that Infinite had tinkered with my brain, but opted against it.  “Dumb friend drama I shoved way too far. I’m going to have to fix that problem, hopefully sooner rather than later.”  I wasn’t looking forward to taking my lumps, but Mutant and Menagerie had both pointed out that I had to be captain of our little squad.  

Sometimes that meant making the painful choice.  

“It’ll work out,” Armorsmith assured me, “You guys are a good lot.  Plus, if Ragdoll has his way, we’ll work with you guys a lot on Vuuldar.”  

I frowned, “Doubt it.  I’m guessing Titan is going to split us up by group to make sure we cover plenty of ground.  We will be on a time limit after all.” 

Armorsmith pouted, “But I want to pal around with you guys!” 

“You’re cute when you’re frustrated,” I teased, “But we’ll have to see.  I’m sure he’ll let us know sometime before we get there…whenever the fuck that might be.” 

She gave me a final pout for dramatic effect and then turned back to the suit, “Well, we can test the attachments and make sure it all fits before we put you inside.”  She didn’t bother adding that if they failed or were calibrated wrong, it could try and bolt itself into my skin.  

I held my breath as I placed the sections of armor next to one another and turned it on.  The proximity triggers were switched, and the metal ‘sleeves’ quickly extended and joined together in fluid fashion.  After they had all bolted themselves together, I checked and couldn’t help but smile seeing that all had gone according to plan.  

“Thank God,” I muttered, “I have a functional suit.”  The little diagnostic tool giving a readout was coming up all green; making my first suit had been so much more harrowing than this which left me in an almost euphoric state.  

It was finally done.  I was ready to fight again. 

“Now we just have to find for you a victim to try it out on,” she said a bit too gleefully.

“I could give it a shot against Blitz maybe,” I suggested.  

Armorsmith frowned, “Speedster would be a good test for your durability, but not your strength.  How about Awe?” 

I felt myself pale a little, “I’m not sure if I should be having a fight with anyone from Surface Dwellers.  We still haven’t worked out all our shit.”  

Armorsmith opened her mouth to make another suggestion, but she was interrupted.   

“How about me?”  

Armorsmith and I spun and saw Murphy glaring back.  There was still that hard edge to him; he had not forgiven me for earlier, not yet.  But, despite his clear anger, there was something else behind his expression, something not born from animosity.  Murphy had told me that fighting was cathartic for many men; guys who hated each other could have a drink and laugh as friends once they had beaten the malice out of their system.  

This was the best way he could speed up the forgiveness process on his end.  

“Murphy-“

“You want it tested, right?  I could demolish your last suit if I let myself go.  Let’s see how that one holds up.”  

There was a menace in his eyes that assured me he wasn’t lying.  But there was something beyond that anger and rage: there was a need to make this right.  Violence was a means of expression for Murphy; for him, this was the best he could manage to repair the bridge between us.  

It was time for me to be the captain of our team and own my faults.  

“Let’s make it happen,” I replied.  

Titan was strangely receptive to the idea of a duel between Murphy and myself though he did insist that not use my new gun; he wasn’t keen on the idea of me punching holes in the hull of the ship.  Otherwise, he was fully in favor of our little cage match.  

He even announced it to the whole ship and literally everyone came to watch.  Collector snapped up much of the furniture she had pulled from her storage to clear a fighting floor for Murphy and me.  Armorsmith had reinforced the floor and one wall that we had been put close to in order to vary terrain a little. Otherwise, there was a ring of Adapted surrounding us.  Eighty-two onlookers in total, all of them grinning ear to ear at the show.  

Even Forest betrayed a smirk as she manifested a body to be part of the mob.  

The only person who wasn’t smiling was Murphy as he waited from across the human cage for me to get my armor on.  I felt a sense of security as the plates locked together, the suit responding well to my movement. Taking a deep breath, I put the helmet on and heard it secure itself in place as a display blinked into existence.  Across the cage, I saw flex his fingers in a pair of metal gauntlets; he’d borrowed the gauntlets I had loaned to Awe the night we escaped Tso’got in an attempt to save his fists some of the trauma of bashing metal.  

It begged the question of whether Murphy had paid attention to what kind of armaments I installed into my suit.  

Clearing my mind, I took a few steps forward, getting used to being in armor again.  It felt good to properly embrace my namesake again, to genuinely feel like I belonged.  

I was Dragoon.  I was captain of the Rogue Sentries.  And I was ready to kick some ass.  

“Alright,” Titan shouted over everyone, “I want a good fight and one without collateral.  Dragoon, Parasite, if you guys manage to hurt anyone in the crowd here, there will be consequences.”  He paused a moment for both of us to acknowledge before continuing, “If you get too into it, Forest will end the fight.  Understood?” 

We both nodded.  

Like everyone else around, he unveiled a bloodthirsty grin, “Alright, have at it.” 

Murphy wasted no time and took to the offensive, rushing forward to close the distance between us, knowing that I had numerous options for fighting at range.  A fist fight though, that was where he excelled.

Months ago he had fought against Siphon who was regarded as one of the best fighters on Tso’got, and Siphon had years of additional training over my friend; Murphy still held his own and he had never stopped training since that day.  On the ship I had seen him sparring with Siphon to keep honing his skill set.  

The only way I won this was utilizing my arsenal and avoiding a straight fist fight with my friend.  That was a contest I would never win. Even though my suit would let me hit harder and take more abuse, it didn’t matter if I couldn’t get a hand on him.  

I raised my right hand and pulsed the magnet, yanking my friend’s gauntlets to upset his balance.  Murphy took an awkward step forward but quickly adjusted, letting me drag him forward as a leg shot forward and struck me in the chest.  

Even through the reinforced armor, I felt that.  

As my hand came down, Murphy moved with alarming speed and agility, shuffling his feet and driving his heel forward, straight into my guts.  I was forced back another step and planted, ready to block his next kick to my midsection; the next attack went low though, attacking my knee.  

Armor or no, my joints were still  the most vulnerable point to strike and Murphy knew exactly where to kick to force me to take an awkward step.  

Having to catch myself upset my balance and brought my hands down for a second, enough time for him to step forward and strike twice, a quick jab-cross slamming into my helm and rattling my brain.  Wanting to remove his edge, I quickly turned on the magnet again. As his arms were yanked down, he allowed himself to follow the motion, ducking under my punch and reaching forward to seize my other hand.  

One hand wrapped around my wrist and the other shot forward to my elbow, both pulling me a step forward.  As he upset my balance, he tried to twist my arm and strain my shoulder in order to isolate a joint.  

Planting my feet, I reached over and slammed a clenched first against his forearm, meeting resistance from his passenger.  Still, it was enough to remove his grasp.  

He was quick to counter with a heel driving into the back of my knee.  I swung and arm wildly, but it was easy for him to duck under my feeble attempt; another three strikes found my helmet and knocked me onto my side.  Desperate to stymie his assault, I raised the magnet, but his foot kicked my wrist aside, not giving me the chance to pull his hands again. Murphy dropped onto me, pinning my arm to my chest with his knee, both hands raining blows down on my head.  

Even with Armorsmith reinforcing the helmet, it was bending against his assault, the display warping as he pummeled me, ruthless.  

“Get off!” I shouted, shoving out with my free arm.  The strength from the suit launched Murphy backwards, throwing him easily meters away.  

Unfortunately he didn’t stay down.  

Murphy’s Adaptation granted him near perfect balance and bodily control; as soon as he hit the ground, he rolled and was back on his feet, closing the distance I had granted myself.  

I wasn’t getting back up to my feet before he could reach me, so I reached over my shoulder and drew my sword, taking a swing.  

There was a gasp of surprise from the throng of onlookers, but Murphy didn’t waver.  He twisted to the side and changed his target from me to my weapon. His left hand smacked the center of the blade downward while his right slapped the tip skyward; the steel failed to hold up against the pressure and snapped.

I tried to redirect my swing with what little sword was left, but his angle of attack changed; his left foot caught my kneecap and nearly upended me.  I sank to my hands and knees to avoid faceplanting and lost grip of my sword. BeforeI could look back up at Murphy, his foot came into my field of view as he tried to punt my head off.  

Throwing myself back, I avoided my whole helmet collapsing, but I was on my back and vulnerable again.  

Frustration was building as he approached; he still wore the blank expression, that damnable calm.  I’d pulled a sword on him and he wasn’t even frazzled. I’d managed to hit him once, but that hadn’t done any real damage.  

I wasn’t going to win this by trying to play his game.  Murphy was a brawler and a boxer, he liked to keep people at striking range.  

To have a chance, I had to exploit the brute strength afforded me by the suit.  I needed to grab hold of my friend. To do that, I needed to bait him closer to me and let him think that he had me on the ropes.  

Fortunately, that wasn’t going to be a particularly hard sell since he was handily kicking my ass.

As I tried to kick him backwards, Murphy shoved my legs to the side and letting him take a step forward to stomp on my side.  Before I could, I threw myself towards him; I fully exposed my torso to take the hit, but my arms were in place to snag his leg immediately after.  

My armor dented again and he might have cracked a rib, but my hands snagged his ankle before he could rip away.  In a quick twist, I felt the joint give way. Murphy let out a quick yell, but I wasn’t done; my friend was obnoxiously tenacious and knew exactly how much punishment he could endure.  A broken ankle would only keep him down for a few seconds; if he stressed his passenger, he could likely fix it in the time it would take for me to stand back up.  

For now, his balance was compromised.  Swinging my left arm back, I knocked his legs out from under him and dropped him on his ass.  

Rolling up to my knees, I reached forward, not wanting to let Murphy crawl away and create distance between us.  He shot his right hand down to his hip and swung back, something glinting in his hand.  

Pain ripped through my arm as he slammed the collapsed staff into the underside of my forearm and managed to crack the plate of armor.  He took a swipe at my face, forcing me to retreat for an instant; it was all the time he needed to get back up onto his feet. His face contorted with pain as he foot snapped back into place with a sickening crack.  It wasn’t a perfect fix, but it was functional which was all he needed.  

I raised my hand to draw the staff out of his hand and let out a gasp of horror as I finally noticed a blinking red Offline in my display; Murphy had deliberately gone for that wrist to smash the mechanism and nullify that tool.  

About the time I managed to find my footing, Murphy extended the staff and unleashed hell.  The first hit was aimed right for my head; I blocked but he was expecting me to do as much. He pivoted and slammed the opposite side of the rod into my side.  I tried to rush him, but a straight jab with the staff to my chest pushed back a pace.

With sufficient distance, he let the grip slide on the staff, like he was wielding a massive bat.  The strike came for my midsection, giving me no good outlet to evade without falling back down. Curling to the side, I absorbed the blow into my arm and groaned as I could already feel my bone bruising from the impact already.  I tried to snatch his weapon, but he ripped it away and continued his assault.

Murphy was efficiently leading me, knowing I could block a hit or two before he could create an opening.  Every time I tried to step forward, he would jab me back or attack the arm I was leading with. First he landed a shot to the ribs, another to the side of my thigh, a third into my armpit, and then he finally managed to catch me upside the head.  My helmet bent and pressed against my head, a trickle of blood dripping down my ear as I staggered to the side, wildly out of control. 

My opponent saw vulnerability and exploited it; a wide arcing swing hit my ankle and sent me crashing to the ground.  

I rolled to face him as he bared down on me, smelling blood in the water as his staff crashed against my midsection, adding to the injuries I was sustaining.  I tried to get up and move closer, but the tip of the staff pummeled my torso and shoved me down.  

Across my display, I watched a continued diagnostic readout for my suit informing me of the damage I was sustaining and of the systems that were online.  I kept my head covered to endure the avalanche, hoping that my stupid maintenence protocols would come through for me.  

“Come on,” I hissed to my suit, “Fuck fix it!” 

As if it could hear me, the magnet changed status from Offline to a green Online.  

The next swing down, I activated the electromagnet and pulled the staff to my hand, seizing it and yanking forward; he had gotten so hellbent on his pummeling me into the floor that he didn’t think to let go immediately and stumbled forward.  

It put his leg just close enough for me to reach.  A hand snaked behind his ankle as I let go of the staff and drove my other fist into his knee.  He shouted in pain and surprise, hobbling back as I stumbled to my feet. He took a swing with the staff, but I was able to close to close the gap this time, using my momentum to slam my hands into his chest, launching him back at the wall.  Murphy flew into the unyielding metal surface and collapsed in a heap; before he could set his knee and mount a proper stand, I charged and let myself endure a hit from the staff. 

As soon as I grabbed one of his arms, I knew it was over.  

I drove a fist against his side, over and over again until I felt the ribs give way.  As soon as the bone collapsed, I swung higher and caught him upside the jaw. A jab crushed his nose, a cross bloodied his mouth, and a hook sent him staggering to the side.  He caught himself and tried to gain footing with one leg. I scoffed and seized him, enduring three hits to get a hold of his torso. 

Lifting him, I squeezed and drove him against the wall, driving all the wind from his body as I heard him gasp.  Letting him go, I took a step back and started swinging for the fences. A few strikes penetrated his guard and it only took a few extras to knock him senseless while I used as much juice as possible for my actuators.  A fifth hit connected and Murphy’s head snapped to the side, his whole body dropping in a heap right after.       

The audience held their breath as Murphy groaned and I took a step back, giving him room as he seemed to come back to.  He rolled his neck before looking back up at my helmet.  

“We done?” I asked.

His scowl softened as his trademark grin crept back across his face, “I think we’re done here,” he said with a pained laugh.  

I extended a hand and he gladly accepted the help back up to his feet.  “Sorry about your leg,” I whispered.  

He scoffed, “Bitch please, I tried to take your fucking head off.  Fair is fair and what not.”  

The crowd cheered as Titan come between us, taking my hand and raising it to the ceiling as if this was a proper venue for a cage match.  “Ladies and gentlemen, your winner by TKO, DRAGOON!!”

Every hollered and clapped appropriately as I raised my other arm in celebration.  To help ham it up, Murphy dropped his head and wept playfully. As Titan dropped my arm, the spectacle quickly lost its magic and people soon were filing out so Collector could re-furnish the room.  

A group of four other miscreants came up to Murphy and I, herding us away from the ‘cage’.  

“I think it’s time we had a talk,” Nick said softly, “Don’t you?” 

It took a bit to remove my helmet since it wasn’t entirely repaired, but I ripped it free and faced my friend, my hair still matted in blood and face already starting to bruise.  “I think you’re right.”  

Previous ChapterNext Chapter

In the Void: Schism

It had been three days since the build had started for my suit, and it was coming along great, even better than I could have dreamed, especially considering how I’d been a few days ago.  

Conjurer had tools stored that Toolkit had kitted herself that made everything a breeze.  To think I had made the first suit without a properly calibrated laser cutter almost made me sick to my stomach.  Sophisticated gadgets had sped along the process, especially since my Adaptation helped me intuit exactly how best to utilize them.  With such magnificent toys at my disposal, I hadn’t needed to silence my gift as often, leaving it on and churning out ideas, guiding my process as I continued to power ahead on my design.  Especially since Multitask had decided to help out the last two days, the work had sped up tremendously. Who would have guessed that having someone dumping literally 400 man-hours my way would accelerate things?     

In truth, making the armor had been a cinch.  Thanks to Conjurer’s accumulated workshop, designing most of the armored plates had only taken a day or so.  It has almost twice as dense as the first version of my suit and with Armorsmith’s blessing on them, they would be able to take a hell of a beating before my countermeasures couldn’t fix the damage.  Even with all the added weight though, I hadn’t felt limited in mobility at least thus far in our tests. Admittedly, we had yet to try it as a whole since we had just finished installing some of the locking measures last night.    

With the thickening plates, the issue had become the joints being so weak comparatively.  To help avoid any edged weapon finding the inside of my arm we installed a sleeve of metal scales that would stack and fan back out as the joint extended and collapsed.  A similar treatment was given to my knees, and thus far the range of motion afforded both was magnificent.  

But the truly fun part had been designing the weapons.  

My old suit had been markedly rudimentary when it came to offensive measures: zip gun—albeit with a good ability to create ammunition—an electrified sword, and a rudimentary laser.  The restraining compound was something I had used as well, but that was hardly limited to use of my suit. Outside of those, there were a few non-lethal measures but I had the feeling those were going to be less and less important as Titan’s campaign went forward; we had Almanac and he could tell us exactly where the Trillodan homeworld was.  Why would we bother taking prisoners for information if we could get all the information we needed from our own people? This was no longer a fight between Reckoners and Scoundrels, there was no backing out of what we started. Now it was time to start playing for keeps so I might as well be ready for it.     

To that end, over the last thirty-five or so hours, I had allowed my imagination to run wild and added as many aggressive components to my suit as I could.  

The first thing was to up the amount of actuators for my suit.  While the magnetic actuators I used weren’t giving me nearly as much output as hydraulic ones might, I wanted to remain mobile and bogging down my joints seemed like it would be a downside in the long run.  As long as I could power the electromagnets, I could effectively output twelve times my own strength. Even though the suit came with extra weight, the extra strength would mean that I could still run comfortably and would be able to roll over a small car should it be necessary.  

Toolkit had tinkered with the laser and managed to nearly triple its efficiency, making it similar to the weapons that the Trillodan had been using; while it couldn’t cleave through buildings like Zellig had somehow done, it would do serious damage to organic matter and likely be able to bore through armor given enough time.  

A more unique item we made was a directional magnet in the glove.  While it was damn hard on my power supply, it created a strong enough pull to rip things out of people’s hands, or I could use it to stick to metal surfaces.  While not a lethal measure, being able to disarm or at least wildly skew the aim of any Trillodan soldiers we found ourselves matched up against would prove very useful.  

Last thing I had made was a proper gun for myself.  Thanks to the strength granted by the suit, I was able to ostensibly use a firearm with as much kick as a fifty-caliber rifle pretty reliably.  However, to keep it mobile and not make me lug around a gigantic canon, Toolkit and I had made myself a small railgun instead. It would draw from my power supply on the suit, but we had agreed that trying to make it a fully functional railgun would be absurd.  If I was to try and fire off projectiles going 3km/s I would only be able to fire once and then be out of juice for the rest of the suit. Instead, we engineered it to fire a three-hundred gram piece of metal at 1 km/s. While it wouldn’t have the same speed that some high-powered firearms did, the extra weight of the projectile would provide more than enough punch through for…basically anything.   

Still, it was an energy hog.  Each shot would consume seven percent of my overall battery life.  While the rounds could rip a hole through a couple of cars, there was no way to let me be both mobile and trigger happy for long.  I would have to be sure to better with my aim and make sure that each round counted otherwise I’d be reduced to a sitting duck before long.     

This morning I was putting some finishing touches on the gun and the rounds that we had crafted for it.  I had kept the scrap gun, giving it a little more juice so it might have a chance of penetrating weak points in the Trillodan’s armor; even though it wasn’t likely to do a lot of damage in the long run, it was a gun that was never out of ammunition.  The new gun had very specific mandates for the rounds it fired. If they were inappropriately sized, it was likely that the gun would rip itself apart as the magnetic track pulled it too far one way or the other.  

Considering how much time it had required to make, I wasn’t eager to rebuild.  I hadn’t installed any kind of reconstruction protocols in the railgun; with how precise and nuanced it was, I didn’t trust my reconstruction to work properly.  I didn’t want to fuck it up and have it explode in my hand.    

Since I started the project, this morning was one of the few times I had been able to work in relative silence.  Everyone who could lend a hand had offered to do so, and even those who had nothing to contribute wanted to check in and see how the project was going.  Members from groups I didn’t recognize asked questions about the suit and how I was doing. The comraderie and common interest in my work had afforded me chances to meet other Adapted group cliques and learn about a number of  the people on this ship. Inevitably we’d end up fighting side by side; might as well know what they can all do before I have to bank on their ability.    

While empowering, it made me more frustrated at Titan and Forest: if they had predicted that such a phenomenon was going to happen, why hadn’t they helped me get started?  Why had they made me deal with Toolkit myself instead of intervening and explaining it to both of us? If their aim was to create a social linchpin and beacon for common interest why hadn’t they intervened?   

I wanted to believe that Titan had some kind of skewed reasoning, but I was thinking more and more than he was just as dizzy in this whirlwind as the rest of us.  

“Have you slept?” a groggy voice demanded from across the common space.  

Repository, my source of materials and some engineering insight.  Before he joined up with Titan, he had been a total gear head and still loved all things mechanical.  Even though he couldn’t wrap his head around what I was told by my Adaptation, he had pointed out tricks here and there that had allowed my ability flourish.  The entity in my head feeding me ideas took his advice and ran wild, refining and implementing everything that it seemed to deem appropriate.    

“Not really,” I confessed, finally taking my eyes off my work, “Kind of nice to keep working while I’m alone.  Just me and my thoughts.” 

He took a seat next to me, clad in grey sweats and a grimy hoodie.  Water was something he and Infinite had to produce with Chemtrail helping purify, but it made laundry a very limited necessity since disposing of waste was a bit of a chore for us.  While Multitask had managed to make a functional spaceship, she hadn’t managed to put a few of the finishing touches on it…like convenient ways to dump waste; she agreed that the second we touched down on Vuuldar she would make a functional air-lock to alleviate such complications in the future.  The poor girl had been expecting to have an extra week or two to iron out the finished product and she’d been flying blind.  

To her credit, she had still made a markedly functional spaceship.  Even though Armorsmith had helped to reinforce a large chunk of the hull, it would have probably held up without her blessing.        

When someone suggested Infinite do it, Titan slashed the idea.  For her to rapidly cycle powers was dangerous, and she had been useful as our jumping system.  Command had finally recovered from the Overexposure when we had evacuated Tso’got and now he and Infinite would regularly work in tandem to warp us through space.  Apparently moving our entire ship wasn’t too bad for Infinite, only requiring nine allotments of her power. Without having to fight gravity, zipping through space was simple for her.

I debated doing the math regarding how much energy she was commanding, and then decided against it.  It was easier to accept that Infinite was simply overpowered and take it at face value. Still, every time they did the little exercise, Command was exhausted afterward from keeping her in check.  If he wasn’t around, what would she be like?   

He shook his head, taking a look at my gun, “That thing is going to be devastating, isn’t it?” 

“As long as we didn’t fuck it up, it should pack a hell of a punch.” 

Repository chuckled, “I’ll be sure to let you try it out first then.  How are you powering it?”

“Conducting plate through the glove.  The second it meets with the handle,” I reached into the metal gauntlet and wrapped my fingers around the handle of the rifle; it thrummed to life dramatically as the magnetic coils primed.

“And you’re in business,” he said with a bit of awe in his voice.  “Well, you might be the scariest lady on the ship now.” 

“At best I can get about nine shots off,” I replied, downplaying his praise, “Even though this will pack a hell of a punch, I’m not the best shot.”

He looked over the rest of my armor, reaching forward to get a feel for the handiwork before turning back to me to ask more questions.  “Where is your battery?”

“On the back.  Basically runs parallel to my spine on either side for uniform weight distribution.”

“Your charge time?”

“Three hours,” I replied happily.  “Basically two hours with serious toil, but fortunately Toolkit helped make it more accepting to change sources.”

Repository thought about it for a moment and then laughed a little, “So Shock can charge you up?” 

“Exactly,” I said, stifling a yawn. 

He looked over my armor with a bit of amazement, running his hands over each individual component, “Amazing you managed to get all this done so fast.”

“Hardly just me.  I just pointed for a lot of it and Multitask donated a dozen copies to consistently work.  Many hands and all that. All I really built were the maintenance protocols that all my tech has.  Small plate of armor underneath the meat of the suit with hydraulic pistons to reshape the metal. That with a few automated drones to spot weld stuff, this baby should hold up well.”  

Repository looked at my design and pursed his lips, “If you can fit in the wiring, a dynamic feedback generator would help your power consumption while you’re just walking around.”

I gave him a thumbs up, my eyes starting to swim as fatigue started to get to me, “You make a good point.”

“Maybe play with electrical wiring when you have a little sleep?” he suggested, noting my fatigue.

“You might be onto something.”

He laughed and gave me a pat on the back, “Get to bed, I’m going to start printing breakfast.”

I turned to face him, “Repository, you’re a good guy, but you need to figure out how to print something that isn’t just protein paste.  It’s…really getting old.”

“It’s super simple and that’s why I can print it en-masse.  Printing something like wheat is much harder than you might think; I could make it for maybe 10 or 20 people, sure as shit not eighty.  I’d love if Infinite or Powerhouse would help me, but they’re spoken for.”

Powerhouse, the Adapted who could gift additional Adaptations to people for a limited time.  She had been regularly lending power to Organelle so that our onboard medic could print a vast reserve of her blessed tinctures.  She had also supposedly been donating power to Command to help him recover over the last week and a half, but that was entirely speculation on our parts.  Titan had kept the nature of Command’s work and relationship with Infinite very hush-hush. From a point of leadership, he wanted to keep a panic from erupting; if we all knew she was unstable, we’d all want off this ride.   

But if Powerhouse had been helping him recover, it begged the question how bad would it have been if Infinite used eleven allotments without him helping to control her?

Repository got up and wandered back towards the “Kitchen” that Collector had put together, but he turned around and offered me a hand.  

“Come on, Armorsmith found you on the floor yesterday morning, let’s at least get you onto a couch.”

I wanted to protest, but I knew he was right.  I’d probably been awake nearly twenty-four hours and had spent most of it working on fine tuning my new suit; the last thing I needed to do was try to push farther and end up screwing the whole thing up.  

As soon as he got me on a couch, I was out cold.  

It was jarring being woken up by teleportation. 

As we snapped back into existence, my whole body lurched, like experiencing a quick bout of free falling and abrupt stopping as we appeared another vast distance further.  

I sat up and staggered to my feet, adrenaline coursing through my veins as I looked forward.  

At the front, there was Infinite with a hand extended towards the void, Command standing beside her with a hand on her shoulder, concentrating.  

Another disorienting shake later, and the view had shifted some.  

Most of the Adapted onboard had gathered to watch this spectacle.  Just as people had been fascinated by the progression of my suit the last few days, people were excited seeing displays of Infinite’s extraordinary power.  

It was interesting that sheer wonderment kept people appeased.  As I took stock of the crowd, I saw opposing factions standing shoulder to shoulder, admiring the stars as we lurched ever forward.  It wasn’t fear that kept everyone tame for now, it was unadulterated Awe. I even caught a glimpse of Psycho in his enlarged narcissistic form looking on in admiration.  Even with all the pride and ego that form of his came with, he had to respect the otherworldly influence she commanded. 

The jarring leaps forward stopped after the tenth, Command telling her to stop there.  He fell on his ass out of breath; unlike when we had evacuated Tso’got, Command looked like he’d gone for a hard run as opposed to suffered a drug overdose.  

People realized the show was over and people started going about their business after a few appropriate cheers and hollers. 

For me, I was more interested in how Infinite behaved.  While she was in front of people, she was confident and took control of the room.  When she had herself juiced up and with gifts allotted, she was in full control. The instant she let go of them and turned to the room, she blushed and made herself as small as possible.

“Hey, Dragoon,” a familiar voice called out behind me.  

I turned to see Mutant and Lightshow, both looking a little out of sorts as they stepped forward.  “Hey, what’s up?” 

Lightshow wrung her hands together in a rather out of character display of concern and anxiety.  “Listen, Drag-“

“We want you to patch shit up with Eldritch and Parasite,” Mutant filled in.  While he was typically quiet, our shapeshifting Enhancer was, at heart, a pragmatist and a problem solver.  

I shrugged, “Murphy started the issue and neither he nor Nick have bothered to make any real attempt to talk to me.  Why should I be the one to go groveling to them?” I replied.  

“Dragoon, do you have any idea how awkward it is without you acting like a foil to me and Parasite joking around?  Do you know how weird and foreign it is when Mutant has to be the fucking voice of reason?” Lightshow grimaced, “Part of the only reason we worked as a team was because you were the sensible glue that helped hold us all in place.  Without you, we’re coming apart.”

Mutant sighed, “Especially with the loss of Geyser, Menagerie isn’t doing well.  With you growing detached, she doesn’t have a good confidant and we aren’t sure how long before she quits on us altogether.”  

I wanted to argue, but Mutant had a good point.  I’d seen Menagerie drawing and she was setting herself up to Overexpose if she decided that she should empty a notebook.  The one time she had emptied a notebook to save us from Beleth and the Surface Dwellers it had nearly killed her; with what she was drawing, she wouldn’t be so lucky.  

But still, I felt something churn in my guts, disagreeing with my comrades.  “It still doesn’t answer my question why I have to bite the bullet and start the fix between us when they are the ones who cut me out.  Why aren’t they the ones having this talk with me?” 

Mutant and Lightshow looked at each other nervously.  “Dragoon, they have tried to talk to you. But, you sent them away.  You told them to talk later.”

I blinked a few times in surprise; I had no recollection of either of them approaching me.  But then again, I had been in a building frenzy and surrounded by people while working extremely unhealthy hours.  It wasn’t outrageous to think I had completely forgotten something small. But, would I really overlook my best friends like that?  I hadn’t felt as dissociated as I had when I was given Chemtrail’s drug, so surely I would have noticed, right?  

“We need you back at the helm, Drag,” Lightshow insisted, not comfortable with me standing there, silent, “I know you might not feel cut out to be a leader or some such nonsense, but trust us on this.  The team, Rogue Sentries, we fucking need you, now more than ever honestly.”

I shook my head, “In case you missed the memo, we aren’t a Reckoner group anymore, Lightshow.  We’re part of Titan’s big ass collective.”

Mutant scoffed, “You aren’t that short-sighted.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“We’re venturing to a planet in the hopes of recruiting other Adapted; do you think that we are all going to remain a big cohesive unit?  Titan is going to want to cover as much ground as possible. It makes the most sense that he’d split people up based on affiliation. Easiest for people to rely on those they have worked with before and it is the most likely way to make sure there is not backstabbing between factions.”

When we first met, Mutant had somewhat challenged my leadership, and I had almost forgotten why.  As quiet as he typically was, he had a strange sense for the flow of things and the way that people worked.  He likened it to a kind of primal ‘animal’ sense that his Adaptation bestowed on him. It was how he knew that Murphy was into guys and not girls when no one else had picked up on it in the slightest.  Mutant was good at knowing which way he could shove people and awful talented at predicting how they would react.  

The fact he was deferring leadership back to me was telling, and his read on Titan’s plan made a lot of sense too.  

“Alright, I hear you,” I said, conceding.  “I’ll talk to them and get things sorted out.” 

I could see a wave of tangible relief wash over the two of them, “Thanks.  I don’t know how soon we’ll get to Vuuldar, but I’d just as soon not have you guys at each other’s throats when we’re there.”

“I agree,” Lightshow added, “Plus, the awkward tension is killing me.  I mean seriously, who am I supposed to make fun of without you around to tell me I’m overstepping things?”

“Message received,” I grumbled, “Now just, piss off.  I’m going to check a few more things on my gear and then go find Parasite.” 

Mutant didn’t need another prompt and grabbed Lightshow by the shoulder, dragging her off in an oddly comical fashion as I turned back to my suit, giving it a look.  

Three days of intense work with a whole team of people helping me.  The chance to work to the best of my ability and prove that I belonged on this ship, that I could hang with the other people here, and that I was worthy of being part of Titan’s crusade.  

“And to think I used to work with scrap metal and had to make my own shoddy ass tools,” I mumbled to myself.  “We’ve come a long way, Alexis.”  

Trying to escape the common area was impossible to do as a small group of people gathered around to ask about my suits progress; it probably took me ten minutes to field questions and assure everyone that soon it would be getting a full test, that there would of course be a demonstration, and that I was quite sure it would be up to snuff.  

I hadn’t even made it out of the common space before I saw a figure that made my stomach drop.

Murphy.

I wasn’t sure if I was glad that he was smiling, but it was such a common sight for me that I likely would have been more concerned if he wasn’t.  We caught each other’s eye and he walked over, gesturing to a couch. He took a seat and I joined him, keeping a little space between us.  

“So, Alexis,” he started.

“Murphy.”

He ran a hand through his unruly hair, “Been a bit, hasn’t it?”

I nodded, finding myself more and more annoyed at that shitty grin he constantly wore.  Did he even realize how awful he had made my life for the better part of a week?

“About that morning, I really didn’t mean for anything to happen.  I wasn’t trying to drive a wedge between us, but Nick has been an exposed nerve as of late and hasn’t been sleeping which has made everything worse,” Murphy explained, “He misread things and that wasn’t what I meant to do.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “You aren’t wrong.”

His smiled faded a little when I wasn’t as relieved as he was, “That’s what I’m going to get here?  We can’t pretend to be a little more friendly with one another since this was literally a giant misunderstanding?”

I frowned, annoyed at his presumption.  “What exactly were you expecting, Murphy?  A goddamn song and celebratory fanfare that we were finally having this awkward ass conversation?  Were you expecting me to grovel in apology for being incommunicado the last few days?”

Now his smile was flattened completely, “We initially gave you space, and you climbed more into your shell initially.  And then, boom, you start building again. A promising sign given your stress and anxiety lately. Then we try talking to you and you hardly registered that your friends since childhood were trying to patch things up with you.”

I felt my cheeks flush with frustration; why was he accusing me, why couldn’t he understand what I had gone through?  Why did he feel this urge to point out how he was always the one in the right? Why did Murphy have to be such a jackass all the time? 

“And I’m supposed to just set everything aside right then and work with you?  My work isn’t important anymore?”

Murphy drew back in surprise, “What, no!  I didn’t mean that at all!”

“Then what did you mean, Murphy?”

He shook his head, “I only wanted to talk to my friend and help her sort things out.  I wanted our fucking team, the one we stated, to be a proper goddamn team again. We need you back, Alexis, more than we want to admit.”  Murphy let out a low sigh, “Alexis, Nick isn’t stable without you. We need you back. Whatever happened between you guys, we need to undo it.  I don’t like how he’s holding up, especially after what happened back in Ciel.”

At the mention of Nick, my brain went two different directions: there was a stab of remorse and sympathy for Nick, and rage at Murphy for trying to manipulate me through guilt.  “Clearly he is such a mess if he has only come to see me once,” I grumbled. 

I saw my teammate wince but the discomfort was washed away quickly.  “We tried to talk to you three different times. Once a day since you started building.  I’m okay with having to wait, but not noticing us is different, Alexis,” he said, his voice betraying a little frustration, “What the hell is going on with you?”

“Suddenly there’s something wrong with me?” 

Murphy clenched his fingers, getting more and more flustered; a sick part of me felt satisfaction seeing him squirm.  “Alexis, no. I didn’t say that at all. I understand you’ve been under an inordinate amount of stress lately, we all have.  We wanted to give you time to yourself, but then you cut yourself off, isolated yourself. We haven’t pushed too hard because you’ve been chummy with Armorsmith and we don’t want to come between a new friendship, but we’re your team.  We need you to come back to the fold.”

Again my brain warred between two dialectically opposed beliefs: Murphy was either being genuine and wanted me back, or he just didn’t want to deal with his own guilt over driving me away.  A sneer spread across my face, “Do you really want that, Murphy?”

I could tell from his look that he knew something was very wrong.  “What the fuck are you talking about, of course I want that! Why the fuck wouldn’t I want you to come back to us?”

“You’re little schmoozing session is tainted by your guilt?  You need me around so you can enjoy it again?”

Murphy’s eyes widened in horror, “Alexis what the-“

My blood boiled as I glared daggers at my childhood friend, “You couldn’t have at him if I was around, could you?  We both know you’ve had eyes for Nick ever since Mutant outed you. But maybe that guilt of driving me away has finally gotten to you, hasn’t it?”

There was a split second where my damning statement processed, as if Murphy couldn’t just accept it out of the gate.  And then, once it had processed, his face twisted in a way I had never seen.  

In all my times of knowing Murphy, I had never seen him fueled by hate.  

“There’s no fucking way you mean that,” he snapped, “Because if you did, you’re not the person I grew up around.”  

That should have debased me, it should have hit harder than a car crash, it should have shut me down completely, but it didn’t.  Instead, my rage boiled over, the train already having left the station. “Well it makes sense, doesn’t it? You shoving us together like that.  You like to play the fool, but we both know you’re so much more clever than that. You’re able to think three steps ahead, and just that little nudge would be so easy for you-“

“Alexis,” he growled.

I kept pushing, “So easy to engineer.  And you even gave yourself a convenient excuse.  I wonder, how long have you been waiting for the right opportunity to spring this, huh?  Now that Xana isn’t here, you have to make sure he stays on the market?” 

“Alexis-“ he hissed, “Shut-“

“No,” I snapped, “I’m not going to be shut up by you, not now, not ever.  You understand me, Murphy? Or maybe I should use the more appropriate name, the literal one we gave you: Parasite!” 

“Shut up!” he shouted, drawing the attention of everyone in the room.  While many had dispersed after Infinite’s display was over, there were still fifteen or so Adapted playing cards or conversing.  But now, there was conflict and that drew everyone in like a bug zapper drew in flies. “Fuck you, Alexis. I’m done. I don’t know what you’re fucking deal is, but I’m not about to entertain you being a fucking prick.” 

As he left, I got up, following him, my rage not sated.   I wanted Murphy to hurt for what he’d done. “Just leave then, you little bitch.  Drive me away so you can go fuck our friend some more. I wonder how long you’ll have him before you drive him away like you did your parents!” 

Murphy spun around faster than I could process; the air was shoved out of my lungs before I could comprehend that he had thrown a punch into my guts.  My eyes looked down as my body folded and I noticed his arm was normal sized; he hadn’t used his gift at all to punch me, this was just him fueled by rage and adrenaline.  If he’d tapped into his passenger, his fight might have gone through me.    

I sank to my knees, coughing, sputtering as everyone in the room got up to their feet, enraged.  I was the champion of the ship as of late, and Murphy had just assaulted me with seemingly very little provocation.  

As I hit my knees and gasped for air, it was like scales fell from my eyes.  It dawned on me that I had no reason to be horrible and spiteful to my friend.  What the fuck had I even been doing? Of course Murphy was concerned about me, and of course shit was awkward with us and the sudden absence of Xana.  He wasn’t trying to domineer Nick’s time, he was just being a supportive friend since Nick had lost his girlfriend a large source of emotional support.  

I’d been the one who had stepped out of line by daring suggest anything between us, and Nick had been still grieving when I tried to push.  Of course he had lashed out at me.    

All this rage and misplaced aggression, while it had worked wonders with people who I didn’t have personal baggage with, it had pushed me to lash out…and for what?  

But Murphy didn’t know any of that; he was still livid with my behavior and what I’d had the audacity to say.  As people started to take action to the attack, he leaned down to growl at me, “Say shit like that again, I use my passenger and I turn your fucking ribs into dust, you understand?”

“The fuck you will!”  From behind Murphy, Crash came bounding forward, shoulder-checking my friend and letting a ripple of energy expand between them; Murphy was tossed back against a wall.  He tried to get up, but someone new streaked forward, utilizing her momentum to drive a knee into his gut. As the mocha colored stopped for a moment, I recognized her as Blitz of Serpentine.  

At least the two gangs were working together for once, I just wish it wasn’t to batter my friend into submission.    

However, all parties involved stopped the fighting as a girl in white materialized in our midst, her face a bloodthirsty sneer, “You, fucking, idiots!” she shrieked, “What did we tell you?”

“Wait,” I managed to croak out, my body still burning with the need of oxygen, “Wait, Forest, please.  I initiated with Parasite. They were defending me. Please, don’t punish them for my mistake.”  

Forest stalked forward to me and no one dared to breathe as I found my feet, looking back into her eyes, doing my best to stay composed.  Whatever unlocked rage and unhealthy drive had been fueling me was gone now and fighting back my own nerves was troubling. The last time I had pushed back against Forest she nearly smothered me.  

This time, she backed away, “You get one, Dragoon.  Don’t make me regret it.” 

We all breathed a sigh of relief.  As soon as it faded though, I could feel Murphy’s glare at me, and saw the way other people were looking back at him.  “Murphy-“

“Save it,” he said, inconsolable.  He waved a hand and turned away, going back to his room, “Tell someone who gives a shit.”  

My jaw hung open as I watched, helpless to stop him from skulking away.  I knew he’d need distance for this to be something we could work out, but right now it stung.

However, there was a more immediate question: why had I done any of this? 

Even under the most stressful situations I never lost my cool like this.  Rage wasn’t my MO, far from it honestly. I felt some anger for my mother for years of neglect and abuse, but even then I didn’t lash out at her.  Even the night I was outed as an Adapted I didn’t pick a fight, she did.  

Toolkit had called me someone else entirely.  Murphy had said he didn’t recognize me. What if they weren’t wrong?    

I was on a vessel with dozens of Adapted and I hadn’t paused to consider that some of them were capable of adjusting my brain and how I think.  Psycho had been a guy named Empath before he Altered; his old power had been emotional manipulation. Who was to say that he was the only one?

But who would have reason to tinker with my brain?  Who would have even had the time?  

“Forest,” I asked as the girl started to dissolve, “Where is Infinite?” 

She turned to give me a curious glance, “In her room.”

I said a quick thanks and darted away, not bothering to explain myself as a new fire of anger caught blaze in my chest.  This wasn’t a rage that seemed to go against my better senses, this was a response to violation. There was one person who had spent a lot of time around me lately who wasn’t in any kind of normal circle, and one was capable of doing damn near anything.  She couldn’t adjust her brain, but who was to say she couldn’t adjust someone else’s?  

I was a cognate, I was someone who lived or died based on my ability to problem solve and out-think people.  Whatever she might have been trying to do, Infinite had fucked with my brain, and that was not something I would tolerate.  I didn’t give a damn how all-powerful she might be, there were lines that you weren’t supposed to cross. She had no reason to do something like that without telling me.    

I slammed my fist on her door; the red-head opened it, surprised when I stepped in, my whole body shaking with frustration.  

“Dragoon, whats-“

“What the fuck did you do to me?” I snapped, my voice cracking. 

Her eyes widened as she pressed herself against the wall, trying to make distance from the ball of anger that had burst into the room, “I don’t know-“

AS she made herself small and meek, I pushed in and loomed over her, “WHAT DID YOU DO?” I shrieked.  “Don’t you fucking dare lie to me! Don’t pretend you didn’t do anything!” 

“I only wanted to help,” she sobbed, “I never wanted to hurt anyone!” 

My fingers curled into fists as I shook.  I leered forward, slamming my hands against his shoulders and shoving her against the wall, “And your response was to tinker with my brain?  You can’t be a Cognate, so you affect another one? At least Titan allowed me to not take Chemtrail’s drug, but you didn’t even ask! You just did it!  What the fuck did you do to me?” 

“I just wanted to get rid of your anxiety, give you some drive!  I didn’t want to risk you worrying so I just didn’t tell you, I didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt!” she insisted, tears now streaming down her face.  “Please, it should have just made you more assertive and commanding, something you would normally be!”

Something about the way she said it made me think she knew what she was talking about, like she had done this before.  But, I was a Cognate. Of course my brain didn’t respond the same as someone else. “Your drive turned into aggression once anyone pushed back, Infinite!  I just chewed out my best friend for something he didn’t do! And still, what the fuck were you thinking?” I put a finger to my temple, “The thing in here, that’s all I’ve got that makes me worthwhile to be on this fucking ship, Infinite.  I can’t zip us through the galaxy faster than light like you, okay? Why the hell do you think it would be okay to tinker with me like this? If you fucked me up, were you going to see if you could put the pieces back together, huh?” 

“I didn’t want to see my new friend in pain, okay?  I’m sorry, please-“

“How did you ever think this would be okay?  You thought it would be okay to effectively rape my brain?” 

The second those words left my mouth, Infinite’s eyes turned into black orbs.  From her mouth came a blood curdling shriek and I felt all my muscles go limp. I could feel my heartbeat nearly stop as the paralysis washed over me, leaving me a prisoner in my own body.  All conscious effort quickly turned into a war to draw breath since my diaphragm was trying to shut down along with the rest of my muscles.  

All the while, Infinite stood over me, shaking, her eyes seeing something entirely different.  Her breath was ragged, strained, like she was trying to hold something back. I tried to speak to apologize, to placate, something, anything to get her to shift back into the friendly redhead I had spent some time with recently.  

My only response was to widen my eyes as this monster stared back at me.  Even though she was shaking and tears were running down her face, there was something wrong about her movements.  It was like watching a bad puppet show as she stepped forward, awkwardly kneeling over me to put her mouth close to my ear.  

“I only wanted to help,” she whispered, her voice tortured “I’m so sorry, Dragoon, I’m so sorry.”

She placed a hand over my face and everything went dark.     

  
Previous Chapter – Next Chapter

In the Void: Push

(11/32/80)

“You really wanna do this?” Playlist taunted, outright laughing at his opponent.  “Come on, Collision, what are you gonna throw at me?” 

Imperium’s telekinetic growled and flicked a finger, launching a table forward at easily 100km/h; Playlist clicked on his headphone chord and glowed purple, his Power aura demolishing the table when it got too close.  

People around the room moved away as a pair of chairs were reduced to splinters from colliding with Playlist’s protective field.  Playlist shrugged, unphased, laughing the whole time, “Give up man! You got nothing that can hit me!”  

Collision growled and flicked his hand, throwing a massive stone chess table that Collector had been kind enough to donate for our use.  However, it never made it to Playlist’s destructive shield as a literal hand of tree roots and gnarled wood seemed to almost explode into existence and snatched it from the air.  

Between the two of them, more vines and wood coalesced to take the form of an adolescent girl clad in white, “We warned you, no fighting.”  She raised a hand towards either of them and a torrent of bark and root flowed forward, quickly engulfing Collision up to his neck. Playlist’s barrier held out for a moment, but there was too much to fight against as Forest wrapped around his shield and squeezed down like a python.  

It eventually burst like a balloon and Playlist slowly rose through the gnarled mass until his head was free.  The instant breathing was an option, Forest held him fast.  

“Now,” she muttered, her voice tinted with rage, “What the hell are you two idiots doing?”  She split herself off from her impromptu prisons and reformed her arms to look more like regular limbs.  “Were you having a disagreement about your game? Did someone cheat at solitaire? Did someone take an extra mug of coffee this morning?”  She stalked towards Playlist, “Do you think Titan will be happy to hear that his little protégé has been picking fights when explicitly denied that privilege?” 

For all the bravado that I had seen the youth exude, he paled quick at the prospect of Titan being made privy his blunder.  “No, Forest.” 

“And Collision,” she started before dissolving into the mass of wood only to reform inches from his face, “Shockwave assured me that his men would cause me no trouble while we were all working against the Trillodan.  Are you saying that your boss lied to us?” 

“No, ma’am,” he whispered. 

“Then what the fuck were you doing?”

The stocky man hung his head, “Being an idiot, ma’am.”  

Both men were released from their twisted prisons as the roots receded back to their source, the girl shook her head at the two of them and then turned her attention to the thirty or so Adapted watching the spectacle.  “The next person who goes against our rule, the next one of you idiots who starts a fight, I will crush you. We have no room for people who can’t play along and make nice. We don’t give a fuck where you came from or what grudges you hold.  You’re part of a greater cause now. Start acting the part.”  

With the situation diffused, people began to file away, but I stayed a second to watch Forest and get a glimpse into what she was thinking.  

I could tell from the look on her face that she knew the problem wasn’t resolved.  All she had managed to do was quell this solitary incident. The bigger issue was that the Adapted were made to fight for some reason.  We needed conflict, we craved it. When Titan had told me that we needed something to champion and conquer, he was right.    

Unfortunately it meant fear of consequence could only hold us hostage for so long.  

I retreated away from the common space and slinked into one of the empty rooms that were sparingly furnished for the Adapted we were hoping of finding on Vuuldar.  All it held for now was a bedroll, a small table, and my backpack of clothes. Even so, I was content. I hadn’t gone back to my room in two days, not since my falling out with Nick.  I couldn’t stand to look at him and Murphy, not after the shit that had happened.  

To add insult to injury, they were still plenty chummy.  I was the only one left out in the cold.  

“Fucking Murphy,” I growled to the empty room, a little tinny echo calling back to me, “You’re the fucking problem.  You had to run your mouth.”  

Maybe I just needed to shut him up.  If he wasn’t around to bumble into awkward topics we wouldn’t have this problem…

I shook my head, that wouldn’t solve the problem in the long run, not by a mile.  If anything, driving a wedge between Murphy and Nick would only make them hate me more.  They were inseparable; it was easier to accept that I was the outcast. A few people from the Sentries had come to see me to tell me that I could stay with them but I was happier alone.  There was nothing I could ruin and spoil if I was quarantined.   

I was staring so intently at the table, brooding over how hopeless my life was that I hadn’t noticed someone take form in my room. 

“Dragoon, what the fuck are you doing?” A shriek left my lips and I threw myself to the far corner.  Forest raised her hands apologetically, “Sorry, I forget how quietly I put myself together.”

Taking a second to swallow the nervous lump in my throat, I found my way back up to my feet and looked towards one of the Prime Trio, intimidated to be in the same room with her, alone.  “Forest, um, hi. How can I help you?”

She looked to the side, likely responding to another conversation, before turning back to me, “Sorry, keeping an eye on Playlist to make sure he behaves.  Boy can be a bit touchy.” Her hands wove together as she took a step forward. “I know about the talk Titan had with you.” 

“And you probably heard my talk with Toolkit,” I replied, agitation clear in my voice.  “We don’t appreciate being spied on, Forest.” 

She shrugged, “When you put dozens of battered and broken people with powers inside a box together, you have to take measures to ensure that they don’t kill one another.  Or maybe I should allow the blood feud between Black Mass and the Serpentine to continue?”  

Two gangs from cities outside of Ciel’s cluster.  I had seen their colors the night of our evacuation and seen the glares of animosity between those groups ever since we had been onboard.  From what little I knew of them, they had a few heavy hitters on their squad and they had bad blood that made our feud with Imperium or Surface Dwellers look trivial.  I didn’t like Forest’s concept of policing us, but I could see why she would take that over leaving it alone when people like that were in the mix.  

That wasn’t a problem that would stay contained if let out of the box.  

I shook my head, “What does this have to do with Titan talking to me a week ago?” 

“He told you that Adapted need something to rally behind, a cause to fight for, right?  Don’t you think there’s a reason he chose to speak to you specifically?” 

“You know he did, and honestly I don’t know and I don’t care.” I replied, more annoyed than anything at this point.  

Forest scowled, “Then if that is the case, why are you sitting her and wallowing?” she asked, a bit terse.  “Why are you refusing to fight?  Why aren’t you doing what you are able to do? Don’t you know what good it would do for so many people to have something to do? Something to partake in?”  

   As she talked in that frustrating, accusatory tone, I cracked.  “Maybe I’m apathetic because I managed to lose my friends. Maybe because I can’t get the help of the bitch I need because I destroyed her whole way of life back on Tso’got!  Maybe because I helped get her friend killed!” I spat out, tears forming at the periphery of my vision, “Maybe I’m tired of fighting, Forest. Maybe I’m tired of pretending I’m good enough for any of this.” 

Forest was a pain to read because you could always see her responding to stimulus that wasn’t something nearby; it meant that I had to watch her smile, sneer, and then finally don a very neutral affect as she seemed to regain focus on me once more.  “Titan didn’t pick the weak and feeble to fight. We had our eyes on you for a long time, trying to figure out the best way to introduce ourselves.”

“Why didn’t you come to us earlier?  Why did you let things blow up so horribly before deciding to say hi?”  I didn’t have to say it to know that Forest understood exactly what I meant.  

Why had the Prime Trio allowed Feast Day to occur?  Why had they let my best friend’s consciousness become his worst enemy?  

“Titan refused to detract from your autonomy and introducing ourselves early into the life cycle of a Reckoner team would have done just that.  Would you have believed you had a choice but to disagree with him?” 

“I don’t feel I get a choice to disagree with him now,” I replied, blunt.  “The problem with you three is that no matter what we want, no matter what you say, we have to agree or we’re toast.” 

Forest frowned, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” 

“It isn’t that I just feel that way, it’s that everyone feels that way!  You three don’t even recognize how much power you casually throw around! If you wanted to, Forest, you could literally fill this entire ship with wood and snuff out every person onboard in a matter of seconds.  Titan could turn this place to slag without breaking a sweat, and Infinite….could do whatever she wanted! She could casually eject us into space or fill the place with fire. Who the fuck knows! You guys are so damn powerful you’ve lost sight of how much influence you wield just by existing!  You three don’t seem to appreciate exactly how gifted you are!” 

Up until now, Forest had been oddly detached, objective, content to let me verbally wail away, but that actually got a rise out of her.  I got the sense that despite how much she likely had herself spread out around the ship, all of her attention was pointed straight at me.

It suddenly dawned on me, all my problems, all my troubles, all my insecurities and foibles, they all were so solvable.  The fact that I had pissed off one of the most powerful people in existence, that was a problem no one could fix. Even if I screamed, no one would be able to get here fast enough to save me from Forest; my only prayer was hoping she didn’t deem me worthy disposing of.  

“You think this is a blessing?” she demanded, taking a step forward, “You think I love being like this?  Do you think existing like this is a gift?” Her arm erupted into a mass of roots, scooping up the table and subsuming it into an expanding mess of wood that quickly filled half of the room.  “Go on, Dragoon, explain to me how being rendered inhuman is a blessing?” Her form twisted as she grew, her human form cast aside and her voice distorted to something fit for a nightmare. “Go on, Dragoon,” she snarled in a voice that shook the room, “Tell me I’m lucky!” 

I fell backwards onto my ass, tears streaming down my face as a massive hand of wood slammed down next to me.  Even if I had the dream suit with everyone helping me build, there was no beating her, there was no stopping this juggernaut.  Even if Titan was here, I wasn’t sure that he could stop her. This was the woman who had slowed down Eldritch during Feast Day and she only had access to about a third of her mass at any given point; now all of her mass was accessible, and my only option was to beg for my life.

“I’m sorry,” I whimpered.  

Her renovated face leered down, inches from my own.  There was no breath, no panting, growling, nothing. I did my best to crawl away from her but backed into more of her ever expanding form.  To touch as little as possible, I curled into the fetal position, my face slick with tears and snot, my whole body shaking as she swallowed the space around me; I had never been particularly claustrophobic before now but now suddenly understood that sense of being crushed and stifled.  

And then, Forest collapsed in on herself, her adolescent form taking shape again while the roots that had swallowed the room somehow compressed themselves inside of her.  Even though she wasn’t huge and monstrous, I pushed myself away as Forest took a few steps forward; after I finally backed myself into a corner, she knelt down in front of me and sneered.  

“Clean yourself up and fight.  Understand?” 

I managed to nod between shaky breaths.  Forest turned and walked out the door, leaving me alone and petrified.  

Finding my feet was a chore, and one that did not come easily.  My whole body felt like it was being held down, still smothered by the immovable mass that was Forest.  Even though she hadn’t laid a branch on me, she didn’t have to.  

Her message was loud and clear: earn your keep.  

The first attempt to get up ended with me tumbling the side, my equilibrium still completely shot.  Using the wall, I pushed myself back to my feet and sank immediately down to my knees on taking my first step towards the door.  

How was I supposed to fight when I had nothing left to fight for?  Forest tried to make it so simple, but it wasn’t such an easy problem to address.  

It took awhile to make it to the door and I was still needing to use the wall to aid in my balance, and much to my embarrassment there was an Adapted outside who I didn’t recognize.  He was a bigger guy with a little bit of a gut but clearly there was enough muscle on his frame to suggest he wasn’t a lay about. His hair was cut high and tight with oddly square features that seemed to accentuate his head as a block.  

Whoever he was, he looked just as caught off guard by me as I was of him.  

“Um, hi,” he muttered.  

I fought the urge to retreat back into the room and hide until I could balance; instead I managed to redirect my frustration with Forest into drive to stay outside.  

“Hi,” I replied, “We haven’t met.”  

He gave a nervous smile, “Crash.  I’m with Black Mass…or was I guess.”     

I offered a sad smile, “You’re part of the most murderous group on Tso’got and you’re wary because of a girl who can’t stand up straight?” 

While I didn’t know a whole lot about Black Mass or their equally nefarious counterpart, Serpentine, there was one consistent thing about all of their members: everyone had a body count.  The leaders of each group hated one another and amassed as many Adapted as they could scrounge. Part of the reason that a lot of Adapted ended up in our cluster was because of their blood feud; no one wanted to get swept up in something so alarmingly fatal.

“Just because I have a body count doesn’t mean I’m not a person,” he replied.  “Plus, I don’t know you or what you do yet. Maybe I have reason to be afraid,” he suggested playfully.  

As much as I wanted to smile and pretend I was interested in flirting, I felt myself start to cry as all my self loathing and disdain for my cowardice came rushing back.  This confident foot I was trying to put forward, this attempt at flirtation, all it did was remind me of Nick and his hostility. “I’m not someone to concern yourself about,” I whispered as I tried to push past him, “I’m a nobody.”  

“I find that hard to believe,” he said, grabbing my arm, “Hey, I might be a killer but, I’m still a person and you clearly need someone to talk to.”  

“Let go of me, Crash,” I whimpered, “Please, just leave me alone.”  I already felt my chest tightening as the surge of adrenaline and fear that Forest had induced started to come back in full force.  

It abated somewhat when he released my bicep.  

“I didn’t mean to-“

“I know.  But please, try introducing yourself a different time, okay?  I’m not…just not now.”

It was quite clear that Crash wasn’t used to be snubbed as his face twisted a little with annoyance.  But as quickly as it appeared, it vanished. “Okay, okay. But hey, listen-“ 

“The lady said to leave her alone,” a familiar voice called out from down the hallway.  I wasn’t sure if I was glad or alarmed to see a familiar redhead stalking forward like she owned the place; the needle tipped toward glad as Crash paled and bowed in apology, quickly scurrying away. 

No matter where you came from, no one fucked with Infinite.  

As happy as I was to be rid of him, I wasn’t thrilled to see another of the Trio right now with the memory of Forest smothering me fresh in my mind.  “What do you want, Infinite?” 

Her bold demeanor paled quickly as she stepped forward to offer me a ballast.  “I um, I heard you pissed off Forest.”  

“Yeah,” I scoffed, “I had the audacity to call her special and gifted.”

“Oh.  Poor choice to call her because, well, she isn’t,” Infinite replied quietly.  

For a moment I wanted to call bullshit, but I looked at the most powerful person alive and was surprised to see clear pain on her face.  “What…what do you mean?”

“Everyone else on board is human still.  We can eat, speak, touch, etc. Forest…isn’t.  I mean that in the most literal sense too. The guise she dons, that takes effort.  For her to speak, it takes serious work. She has to fight daily to keep a sense of self as she suffer sensory overload when she is spread out.  She can feel the lives of so many through her vast network and it is a constant struggle for her to preserve her own identity. A few times she has lost control and Titan had to cut swaths of her away until she could regain control.”  Infinite gave a weak smile, “As powerful as Forest is, she is only granted such extraordinary might because she was robbed of her humanity. She won’t be able to enjoy the taste of food, the joys of dreams, or even the same pleasurable touch they we can feel.”  

“I-I didn’t-“

“You couldn’t have known,” Infinite assured me, “I know.  But, everyone who Adapts is broken in part. Forest is one arguably the most battered and broken onboard.”

“What happened to her,” I inquired with a mix of horror and curiosity.  

Infinite sighed, “Forest was homeless as a girl, and being homeless on Tso’got as a human is almost always a death sentence.  She was lured in one day, bribed by some man with food; she hadn’t eaten for days and eventually desperation overwhelmed caution.  He turned on her, tried to rape her, and something snapped. The next thing she knew, her arm had erupted into roots and branches and crushed the man.  Her attempt to move was rewarded with additional eruption of growths and she couldn’t even cry for help if she had wanted too. She was alone and suddenly put into a body that was so foreign that she had no control.”  

My eyes widened as I vividly recalled my own Adapting and how violent a fracture that was; I couldn’t imagine how much worse her transition was compared to mine.  

“What made her different, so far as we can tell, was that she Adapted before puberty.  Forest has been Adapted since the age of nine. Even though she is five years younger than Titan, she has been Adapted almost as long.”  Infinite shrugged, “We don’t know why she changed into what she is or why, but she is firmly devoted to Titan because he helped give her purpose and helped her piece herself together.  Without her, Titan couldn’t have accomplished nearly as much as he has. Truthfully, she has done way more for his cause than I have because she is more stable than me at this point.”    

All this news brought a staggering amount of shame down on my shoulders.  She was such a troubled and battered person and I had basically reminded her of her horrific past and her pained existence.  “I didn’t mean to-“

“Forest will calm down,” Infinite assured me, putting a comforting hand on my shoulder, “But she can be a bit reactive at times.  I know you didn’t mean any harm; you’re just having a rough time.”  

There was a strange warmth that seemed to flow from Infinite into me; I hadn’t felt like anyone had been able to understand me, to really be willing to listen to me for the last few days.  Having someone who could was…incredibly invigorating.  

“Thanks.  I’m just so damn overwhelmed.  Fucking Titan singles me out to try and make a project happen out of nowhere and won’t back me up with trying to enlist people.  And of course the person I need to get onboard hates my guts because of what I did to her group earlier. It isn’t like I can just disagree with her and say ‘oh, I didn’t do those things that happened’!  I mean, clearly not.” I felt blood thundering through my ears as despair was replaced with a new emotional extreme.  

Rage.  

How dare Toolkit hold this against me.  Why should that bitch be allowed to hold a grudge that could end up getting tons of people killed?            

As if Infinite could tell something had changed, she raised an eyebrow, “You look like you’re getting ready to do something intense.”  

I didn’t so much think as open my mouth and let the words tumble out.  “I’m gonna go give Toolkit a fucking piece of my mind.”  

Infinite raised her eyebrows, “Wow, really?  That seems…rather valiant of you.”

“Titan won’t stand up for me and my friends sure as fuck won’t rep me right now either, someone has to take care of number one.  Even if I don’t like her right now, Forest had a good point. I need to fight.”  And with that, I had a crystal clear plan of attack; it seemed so clear to me now that my depression was so unwarranted.  I was taking out frustration on myself and that would accomplish nothing.  

Adaptation or not, I was an engineer.  I was someone who solved problems. Why this had taken me so damn long to figure out?  Toolkit was a part of Imperium, a group that resorted to violence first and asked questions later.  Being cowed by her lashing out only proved I was weak. What she needed was the opposite to prove I was worth her time.  

Infinite followed me behind me, smiling nervously as I marched up to Toolkit’s room and pounded on the door.  “You sure you want-“

“I got this,” I replied, raising a hand to quiet the most powerful person in the universe.  I was somewhat aware that sort of behavior could come back to bite me in the future, but for now I had something else on my mind.  

The door opened and Shockwave stood in front of me, clad in shots and a white t-shirt with a cigarette tucked behind his ear.  “What do you want?” I saw him look behind me, noting the presence of Infinite. In some ways, I wanted her gone; I didn’t my assertion to be tainted or misattributed to the mere proximity of Infinite scaring people into cooperation.  Still, she was good to have as insurance in case Shockwave got the wrong impression.  

“Toolkit.  Where is she?” 

The Cognate stepped into my field of view behind Shockwave, glaring at me, annoyed.  “Bitch, what are you doing here? We already went over this, I’m not fucking helping you.  What part of that don’t you understand, Dragoon?” 

Part of me screamed to turn around and leave, to accept that this was something beyond my control, something I had no sway over and should simply take as fact.  

And the rest of my shouldered forward, pushed Shockwave bodily out of the way, and seized Toolkit by the collar.  I wasn’t the strongest person onboard, not by a longshot, but I definitely favored myself in a fight between most Cognates present. Even though both our powers pertained thinking and creation, I had spent countless hours training and exercising with Murphy who was a goddamn savant when it came to fist fighting.  Toolkit however, was someone who avoided direct confrontation, leaving it to people like Shockwave and Siphon.

For a moment, her proud and unflappable façade cracked, displaying a glimmer of concern as I yanked her forward.  As quickly as it faded, it resumed with a renewed sneer. “What the fuck are you gonna do, huh? Hit me? You gonna pick a fight with one of the Trio here?  You think Infinite won’t tell Titan that you punched me?”  

I countered her sneer with a bloodthirsty smile, “I’m not that crude, Toolkit.”

“So you’re just gonna have a panic attack outside when you’re done pretending you’re a tough bitch?”

I heard Infinite start to protest, but I shook my head to stop her.  “Not this time. You know why?” 

“Do tell.” 

“Here’s the deal, Toolkit, I know you’re fucking bored out of your skull.  I know you’re aching for something to do and you’re starting to lose your mind with the apathy.  So, you’re going to work with me because you need to alleviate that headache that’s fucking brewing between your eyes.”

Toolkit spat in my face and shoved me away; my grip broke as I was caught off guard by her salivary assault.  “You think I’d help someone like you, huh? You’re weak, you’re pathetic, and you can fuck-“

My body twisted as I swung, a massive right hook practically throwing her across the small room onto a lower bunk.  I rounded as Shockwave stepped forward, his hands starting to glow. “Fuck off,” I shouted at him, “And think about what you’re doing.  You wanna use your power for violence in front of a Trio member? You really wanna fire one of those off and hope Titan is simply cool with it?”

The former head of Imperium looked cautiously at Infinite and then lowered his hands.  I knew that I was playing with fire, but I didn’t care. I had come here to be heard; I wasn’t about to let some superpowered warlord intimidate me.  Should Shockwave really want to shut me up, he’d have to do something more drastic than posture.

And there was no way he did that with Infinite in the same room.  

Toolkit got back to her feet, blood trailing down from her lips.  “You piece of shit, you think you can force me to help you?” 

I laughed, “You think I’m gonna try to beat you into servitude?  I’m not Beleth for fucks sake. That hit, that was for spitting on my face.  Toolkit, here’s the deal: we’ve got issues because of the Sentries.”

“And you’re a traitorous-“

I raised a clenched fist, shutting her up quickly, “You bring my parents into this, I hit you again.  They made their choice, they made their allegiance, and my mother was an abusive cunt who drank too much and hated her daughter.  So yeah,” I snapped, “Maybe I hated Imperium because it was what seemed to drive my parents to be nasty, horrible people. If you want to hate me for being part of the Rogue Sentries, fine, you be a bitch who won’t let it go.  But you know what has happened on this ship: I’ve seen Shockwave and Beleth play cards and Collision and Awe workout together. You really wanna insist that you have more bad blood with the Sentries than you do the Surface Dwellers?  You really wanna tell me this isn’t some petty shit because of my parents, go for it! Tell me that we’re the fucking problem. Can you, honestly?” 

The edges of Toolkit’s sneer leveled out; she couldn’t rise to my challenge.

“Didn’t think so.  Now,” I said, lowering my hands, “I’m sorry about Vermin and that whole day.  We never intended for any of that to happen. If you want to know the truth, all we wanted to do was get some blood in the water to prompt a fight between Imperium and Surface Dwellers so you’d wipe each other off the map.”  

Shockwave laughed behind me, a quick, jarring bark of a laugh that got my head to snap his direction.  “Clever. It almost worked too. If fucking Rat and his group hadn’t shown up it would have worked. Beleth and I have been talking about it lately,” he confessed.  

“Seriously?” I asked, strangely amused.  

“Seriously.”

I smiled, glad that at least my initial plan for helping clean the rotten underworld of Ciel had been on the right track until a group of terrorists knocked over my house of cards.  With a little pride restored I turned my attention back to Toolkit, “Now, while we’re stuck on this fucking barge, how about you use that gift of yours to do something productive and stop fucking hiding around in this room?” 

Toolkit didn’t answer for a bit, eventually waving at the door.  “Let me think about it, yeah?”  

I shrugged, “Fine.  It isn’t like I’ve got somewhere else to be.”  Stepping out the door, I walked back into the hallway in Infinite who seemed astounded at my behavior.  

“You seemed… I mean wow.  You just owned the room,” she giggled.  

“It’s like something just clicked into place,” I confessed with a smirk, “I just finally got outside my own head and it seemed so clear I needed to meet Toolkit on her turf and prove I was worth her time.”  

There was a metallic clang behind us as the door opened and Toolkit darted into the hallway, catching up to us.  “I’ll help,” she proclaimed. 

“Good.” 

She looked down at the floor, “And you were right.  I was holding a grudge against you and your parents because mine were… a lot of the same.  I joined Imperium because my dad finally stopped hitting me when he learned I could help out the gang.  I just wanted to feel valuable.” For a moment she did away with the tough and bitchy facade and allowed me to see the real person underneath the violence.  She shrugged, “I guess I’m pissed that you managed to avoid getting roped in like me.”  

I scoffed, “Toolkit, it’s whatever.  I mean, it hardly matters now, doesn’t it?  We’re both in the same spot, working for the same asshole.” 

“Hey,” Infinite protested, “Don’t bad mouth Titan right in front of me,” she said, her voice trailing off.  

“He’s a bit of an asshole,” I replied to Infinite, “I mean, come on.  Nobody on this ship isn’t at least a bit of an asshole.”  

Infinite glared at me but didn’t reply.  

Toolkit laughed a little and shook her head, “Five days ago you had a panic attack because I got up in your face and now you’re shit talking Titan in front of Infinite.  It’s like you’re a whole other person from the last time you talked to me.” 

I smiled, but something about her word choice unsettled me.  

A whole other person, like there was something fundamentally different about me.  

“Well, whatever changed, I’m glad to have your help,” I said honestly.  “We are going to need tools.”

“I’ll talk to Collector, she can likely get us most anything we need,” she supplied.  

“Good, I’ll talk to Repository about making material that isn’t a fucking protein paste.  See you in the common area in a few hours to get started?” 

She nodded and offered an arm to clasp, and just like that it was official: I had the help I needed to build my new suit of armor that would help keep me alive.  

For the first time in nearly two weeks, I felt good about myself and about my prospects moving forward as we hurtled ever closer to Vuuldar and more inevitable conflict with the Trillodan.  

I wasn’t sure exactly what had clicked within myself, but it was about fucking time I remembered how to stand up for myself.  I was the fucking leader of the Rogue Sentries, it was time to start acting like a leader again. Time to stop grovelling and embrace my namesake.    

“Alright,” I whispered as I finally allowed my power to come to life, “Time to get to work.”  

Previous ChapterNext Chapter

In the Void: Failure

Maintaining your sense of body clock and regular schedule in space is strangely challenging.  While there were plenty of chronometers that told me it was four in the morning ,it was challenging to differentiate from four in the afternoon.  There was just artificial lights or the vast emptiness of space to try to use to gauge time.  

Neither helped to provide a sense of normalcy.  

Anxiety and depression had made sleeping regularly a bit challenging and now without a consistent daily light cycle, I was barely sleeping at all.  Over the last forty eight hours I’d maybe slept a total of five. It didn’t help that every time I closed my eyes I was gifted with a deluge of guilt-inducing imagery of my parents.  Between them and the confrontation with Toolkit, I couldn’t bring myself to close my eyes for longer than an hour or two if I was lucky. The last four days had been a haze where I wasn’t quite awake, and not quite asleep either.  

The whole time I hadn’t dared tap into my gift; I knew that I would work myself into the ground attempting to cope with making a suit that could meet both my power requirements, mobility needs, and durability demands.  Despite people addressing me as Dragoon, I had never felt so powerless and out of place.  

Murphy had suggested that I just ask Infinite to make me tools.  Even if Infinite could conjure me tools I needed, she couldn’t adjust her brain to help beyond that.  She wouldn’t know how to better the power consumption on a machine like Toolkit would.   

“Another sleepless night?” a soft voice asked from beside me.  A slender figure in an oversized shirt and sweatpants sat down next to me, notepad in hand.  

“Hey, Menagerie,” I muttered to my teammate.  “How are you doing?” 

She didn’t answer because we both knew she was doing awful; Geyser had been captured back on Tso’got.  Despite all her effort to help liberate the Adapted who were taken hostage by the Trillodan, he hadn’t been among those rescued. 

“Eldritch told me about your talk with Toolkit.  He said you had a panic attack a few paces outside her room.”  

I let out a heavy sigh, “Yeah.”  

She glanced up from her note book, “Why did I have to hear it second-hand days after?”

“Because it’s my problem to deal with; I shouldn’t be troubling everyone else with my personal garbage.”

She frowned and looked back to her sketchpad, drawing as she replied, “If I said that about losing Geyser, you’d call me stupid for trying to shoulder it all on my own.  Why shouldn’t your rules apply to you too?” 

“We can help with your grieving though,” I replied weakly, “No one can help me overcome the bad blood I have with Imperium.”  I glanced over at her notebook and saw what looked like a monstrous elephant taking shape on the page. I’d noticed lately she had been making things that were supposed to be bigger, stronger, more able to take a beating before turning to dust; while she hadn’t said anything about it, Menagerie was setting herself up to Overexpose once there was a conflict with the Trillodan.  

She noticed my spectating and glanced sideways at me, “You’re worried about me, aren’t you?” 

“You’re making drawings that are going to be the size of a car or larger.  I’ve seen you drive yourself into a coma once and I’d really rather not see that again.  He wouldn’t either.”  

Menagerie took a sharp breath in, “I’m sure he wouldn’t want the captain of our little troupe wallowing  in self loathing and doubt either.”

I let out a wry laugh, “I’m not our leader anymore.  In case you missed the memo, Titan is running the show now.  I’m just along for the ride.” 

“Every army has a general, but every army has officers too.”  She set down her pen for a moment and turned to me, giving her full attention; even though Menagerie was a fairly small person and very soft spoken, there was something intense about her stare.  “Me being broken only really affects me. If a crisis comes, no one is going to look to me for orders. I’m the quiet girl with a notebook who provides support. They will look to you though, the knight and officer in shining armor.  You need to be ready to lead when that time comes, Dragoon.”  

I wasn’t sure what I could say back to that, so I didn’t say anything.  She seemed so sure of her answer that it made me wonder whether my crippling self-doubt and loathing were appropriate.  

I lost track how long we just sat on a couch in silence as the rest of the ship slept, the only sound the scraping of Menagerie’s pen filling in her monstrous drawing.  “Do you think we’re going to be able to pull this off,” I finally pondered aloud, “Titan’s whole idea of fighting the Trillodan? Do you think we can?”

“We have to,” she whispered, “I can’t bury another teammate.”  

“Menagerie, I-“

She shook her head, shutting me up.  “I know that I don’t know him like you, but when Eldritch lost control, I was terrified.  He’s still my teammate and he was in so much pain. He was taking out his suffering on everything nearby until he wasn’t himself anymore.”  She set down the pen again and turned to me, “When I look at you, I see you crumbling, like he did.” She placed a comforting hand on my shoulder, “Can you at least tell me why?” 

A tear rolled down my cheek and I wiped it off, “Titan talked to me about my suit and warned me that if I didn’t upgrade, there was no way I was living through this.  Trillodan have weapons that would punch right through it. But, if I’m going to make a bigger suit to fight in, I need help. I can’t make it work on my own. The only person who can help me onboard is Toolkit and she…hates me.  I did so much damage to her that she’d rather let me die than help me.”  

She nodded, gently squeezing, “I can’t pretend to understand what you know or how your brain  works…but can’t you make something without Toolkit’s help?” 

“The problem comes down to power,” I explained, “Even right now, my suit isn’t very great in terms of efficiency.  It’s good for a single prolonged fight and then it just becomes a tin can I’m stuck inside of. If I seriously work the armor and push it, I burn through all my available power in about forty minutes.  If I took the suit I had now and fought someone like Shockwave, it’d get ripped apart in seconds; to make a suit strong enough to fight him, I need it to be larger which ups the power demand.”  

“So you need a bigger battery?” she asked, attempting to simplify the problem.  

“Exactly.  But if I’m using a massive battery, I have to accommodate the weight.  And if my suit shuts down and I’m carrying a ninety kilogram metal suit around, I’m gonna be a sitting duck.”

Menagerie frowned and turned back to her notepad, “I’m sorry I can’t help more, but maybe someone like your friend could help.  Maybe you can make something in the middle?”  

I shrugged, “Maybe Armorsmith and I can work something out, but it’ll be a challenge.”  

“Before you get started on talking about anything technical I’m going to ask you to save it and take it up with her,” she insisted as she looked more intently at her notepad, “You’re just going to talk over my head.”  

“Thanks, Menagerie.”  

I debated saying more, but she was lost in her work.  Just like when I was entrenched in construction, there was no way I was getting her attention back without royally pissing her off.  It was probably for the best that we had stopped talking as a few extra Adapted began milling around the common area, waiting for Repository to wake up and provide that sweet, sweet, protein paste.  

After a week of it, eating had started to become a chore more than anything.  An obligatory function if you wanted to keep living comfortably. It wasn’t helping anyone’s mood onboard.  Even though it had only been a week, what Titan had worried about was coming to fruition: people were incredibly malcontent and bored.  Bored and powered were not a good combination of traits.    

One character caught my eye in particular: Collision.  I paled when I saw the telekinetic and turned away, ashamed.  I muttered a hurried goodbye to Menagerie but I don’t think she heard given how engrossed she was in her drawing.  Back I went to the room I shared with Murphy and Nick, and to my surprise he was actually awake.  

Given the pale color of his face, Nick wasn’t up by his own volition.  

“More nightmares?” I asked softly, not wanting to disturb Murphy.  

He nodded, “I felt him ripping me out of the suit again, Alexis.”

While all of us had come to be afraid of Zellig and what he represented, no one felt it quite like Nick did.  The first time he had used his power since Feast Day and it was yanked out from under him. For someone who was so desperately seeking control, it had crushed my friend.  

I sat on the other lower bunk and the two of us leaned forward so we could whisper.  “And next time, you’ll kick the shit out of him.”

Nick shuddered, “To that I’d have to be…at least twice the size and I don’t know when I’d start losing control.”  

I reached out and patted his knee, offering a weak smile.  As strange as it was, it felt good to comfort my friend, to forget about my own problems for a moment.  “Nick, we’re here for you and it isn’t going to be like last time. We will be able to help so much faster.”  

“I don’t want to hurt anyone again.” 

He looked confused as I took a hand of his between mine, “Have a little faith in us being able to help, please?  I was there when we had to cut you out; I know exactly how far gone you were and I know that wasn’t you hurting people.”  

“That makes it better?”

I sighed, “You are blaming yourself for the wrong thing.  You didn’t hurt anyone, Nick. Whatever is inside you, that strange doppelganger that your Adaptation made, that’s what hurt all those people.  Worry less about you and maybe try to negotiate with it in the future?” I suggested with an awkward shrug, “As far as I know, there’s no way to get rid of an Adaptation; you might as well make peace with it, right?”  

He nodded and gave me an understanding smile, “Okay.”

There was an awkward pause; the last time we had been alone like this I’d divulged how much I liked him and kissed him.  Even though it felt like a lifetime since that night, that infuriating awkwardness lingered between us. I wasn’t sure whether I should address it and see where we stood or whether or not I should just let the tension remain.  

“Oh for fucks sake, will you two just make out already?” a groggy voice growled from the bunk above Nick.  A mop of disheveled brown hair poked up as Murphy glared down on the two of us as we frantically moved away from one another.  Until he chimed in, I had almost forgotten I was still squeezing Nick’s hand.  

“I didn’t think you’d wake up,” Nick stammered, blushing. 

“We’re super-powered fugitives on the run from the most oppressive tyrannical group of aliens in the cosmos.  Not to mentioned we’re in a fucking metal box with people that we were trying to kill two weeks ago. Do you really think I’m going to be sleeping heavy?”  He dropped down to the floor, landing with the grace of a cat. 

Even when the prick was tired he was perfectly coordinated.  

“Where are you going?” Nick called after his best friend.

“To see if breakfast is available, and to give you idiots some space.  If you get up to something questionable, leave a sock outside or something.”  

As the door automatically closed behind him, Nick and I were left with each other, blushing furiously.

“We’re going to have to talk to him about that sort of thing sometime,” I muttered.

“Definitely.”

More awkward silence as we stayed put, unsure what to do; it would have been easier if we could just pretend Murphy hadn’t thrown a wrench in our conversation but there was no way we could unhear what he’d said.  

“Are…are you doing okay?” Nick finally asked.  “You’ve seemed really off kilter whenever anyone sees you or talk to you since that day where I found you.  I don’t want-“

I shook my head, “I’ve been sleeping less than you.”

“Not ideal,” he replied with a wince on my behalf. 

“Um, no.  Not at all,” I admitted, “But I had a nice talk with Menagerie earlier.  She isn’t doing so well… but that is somewhat to be expected.”

“Geyser?”

“Yeah.”  

More awkward silence.  More oppressive reminder of the strange tension between us that refused to die.  Eventually, I cracked. “Nick, listen, that night… I don’t regret what I did back on Tso’got.  I, um, I’ve always liked you and-“

To my surprise, his face twisted with an emotion he seldom exhibited: anger.  “Are you…are you fucking serious, Alexis? Now is when you do this? We leave Tso’got a week ago and you’re already trying to just replace Xana like she meant nothing to me?” 

“What?  No!” I replied, caught off guard by his sudden hostility.  

“And you use Murphy making a shit joke to be a convenient lead in for you to try and schmooze up to me?”  He clenched his hands, his knuckles turning bone white, “Do you have any idea how much I miss her? Were you just hoping that you could take her place, just like that?”  

“That isn’t what I was trying to do at all!” I insisted, my brain reeling as blood pounded in my ears.  I could already feel my chest tightening, my vision blurring around the edges. “I just don’t want to be alone, and I don’t want you to be alone either!”

His jaw dropped as he shook his head, “So it’s about me?  It’s about making sure Nick is good and stable, that he isn’t going to listen to the voice in his head that demands to eat everything around him.  He needs to be sated so he won’t try to kill everyone on board! Let’s make sure that the fucking volatile psycho stays happy to he doensn’t eat anyone else!” 

“Nick,” I whimpered, “You know that I don’t think that.  I’ve been your friend for how long?” I snapped back, my terror shifting into righteous indignation.  How dare he assumed that I was out to screw him over and be an insensitive cunt when I was just trying to care for my wounded friend?   

“Then what are you doing, Alexis?  What the fuck are you even trying to do?” 

“I’m only-” I said, stumbling over my words as crippling doubt and anger warred in my mind.    

“Just what?  Spit it out!” he snapped, leering forward, challenging me.   

The scales swung the way of rage thanks to his display; I didn’t care that he was my friend who I desperately wanted to be with.  Right now, I wanted him to hurt for being such an immense jackass. I was only trying to help.  

“You sound like your fucking dad right now.  Like father like son, huh?” I snarled.  

No sooner had the words left my mouth than I regretted them.  

Nick paled and his rage went to despondency immediately.  “Don’t talk to me, Alexis,” he muttered, getting up and leaving the room without another word.  I debated calling after him but it didn’t matter, the damage was done.  

I had successfully managed to push away my best friend when I needed him most.

Just one more way I proved I was an abject failure.  

“Hey, Drag,” Ragdoll greeted as I rapped on the door.  He shared a room with Mr. Magnificent, Soliloquy, and—the one I was most interested in—Armorsmith.  The leader of the group waved me into their living quarters where just he and Armorsmith were sitting now.  “I assume you’re just looking for her?”

I gave him a nervous smile, “Not trying to step on your toes or anything, Rags, but you can’t quite do what she can.” 

He laughed, “Why do you think I keep her around?” 

“Oh shut up,” she chastised from the corner of the room, “Go find Parasite and spar with him or something.”  

Ragdoll waved his hands in surrender, “Alright, alright, I can feel when I am unwanted.  I’ll take my leave.”  

As soon as he shut the door, Armorsmith’s face fell.  “He might know the physics of launching himself around, but Ragdoll sucks at reading people sometimes.  What happened?”  

I felt myself choke up, “That obvious?” 

“I notice vulnerability and weakness, kind of a quirk of my Adaptation,” she confided, “And it’s written all over your face and in your body language that you are off your game.”  Armorsmith patted the bed next to her and waved me over, “So, come on, what’s going on?” 

A sob tried to escape but I pushed it down, “I fucked up everything, Armor.  Everything that happened in Ciel, what became of Tso’got, it’s all because of me and what I got us to do.”

“Bit full of yourself, isn’t it?” she countered playfully, trying to lighten the mood a little. 

I gave her a smile, as if to show I noticed her attempt at levity.  “My suit’s going to break the next time I get into a fight. We saw what the Trillodan are capable of, and we definitely haven’t seen all of their technology.”

She looked perplexed, “That shouldn’t be that big a hurdle for you.  You just make a new suit then; you have Repository and Multitask to help out with the actual construction.”  When I didn’t brighten up, Armorsmith knew something else was wrong. “Drag, what’s going on? And don’t give me that half-truth that you’re freaking out over making a suit.  I watched you make drones to spot weld a spaceshift in a matter of hours. You are more than up to the task.”  

I shook my head, “I needed Toolkit for that.  The drones I made would have been passable but clunky.”  

Armorsmith winced, “Don’t shit on yourself like that, okay?  You aren’t some bitch pushover who didn’t deserve a seat on this ship.  Do you think Titan would have picked up you guys if he didn’t deem you all worth keeping around?  There were supposedly 200 Adapted on Tso’got and he only brought around 80 onboard. That means something.” 

That should have offered a fair amount of reassurance, but I felt very little.  “Without Toolkit, I don’t think I can design a suit that will be energy efficient enough for me to use.  I’d need to likely double the thickness of the metal to make it hold up and that’d be so much extra fucking weight that I’d almost be unable to move once it ran out of juice.”  

“So ask Toolkit.  Everyone is bored to shit and wants something to do.  It’s why people are sparring or why Shockwave of all people made a fucking cribbage tournament.  People need something to do.” She laughed and shook her head, “Who would have guessed that the fucking head of Imperium was such a massive fan of card games?”   

“We trashed Imperium,” I whispered, “It was one of the first big things we did as Reckoners making a name for ourselves.”

Armorsmith pursed her lips, “Ah, now I’m starting to get a clear picture.  Toolkit is still holding a grudge?”

I nodded.  “I’m pretty sure even if you reinforced my existing suit it wouldn’t hold up.  Even before you think about what kind of weight weapons might add, the sheer amount of metal I’m going to be carrying around is gonna add up in a big hurry.”  

“Or maybe use a harder material…. but making a fucking suit out of Osmium or something would be heavy as hell,” Armorsmith thought aloud, shaking her head.  She frowned, “My gift would let me reinforce something to take about triple the stress it can normally withstand. You’re sure that won’t do for your current getup?”  

“For heat capacity and dealing with their laser weapons it would be great, but I’m thinking explosives and impact.  Right now, Goliath would tear through my suit with no problem and Zellig was just as big and strong as he was…but faster.  They all have that golden glove that mimics a weak Shockwave power, who knows what else they have. Right now, Murphy–Parasite–can break the plates or armor and he isn’t nearly as big or strong as Goliath.  I’m pretty sure if Ragdoll gave me one of his signature tornado kicks he could cut me in half.”        

She frowned, “I’m not sure what to tell you.  I think your old suit might hold up better than you think with my help.”  

I shook my head, “I’m sure of this one, Armorsmith.”  

There was doubt in her eyes, but she quit pressing me on it.  “Okay, well then yeah, you’d need a better battery pack, but that is going to be unwieldy at best and make you markedly dependent on a strangely vulnerable spot.  Unless you tried to integrate it around your shoulders…but that means more metal which means more weight.”  

 “That’s where my problem is.  Right now the suit weighs 22 kilograms and is a bitch to move around without tapping the battery.  Doubling the weight means I’d almost be trying to move around while lugging around my body weight. Even if I only up the plate thickness by half, that still provides a ton of strain on me or on my power consumption.”  I shook my head, “Murphy might be able to run around wearing his weight in armor but I sure as hell can’t. I’d sweat to death in an hour or two.”  

A reassuring hand grabbed my shoulder, “Hey, listen, just because you’re suffering a setback doesn’t mean you’re out, huh?  Maybe we can ask Infinite or-”

“Infinite can’t help with Cognate stuff.  It’s the one kind of power set she doesn’t have access to.” 

Armorsmith raised an eyebrow, “How the fuck do you know that?” 

“Talked to her one morning because she wanted to know about Eldritch and how his power worked.”

My friend paled, “Seriously hope you told her not to use that one.”

I nodded, “Yeah, not a power I want anyone else playing with.  Especially not someone else who could add other stuff to the power.  Can you imagine if Eldritch had the ability to breathe fire when he was devouring everything in front of him?” 

She closed her eyes and shuddered, “It’s a scary image.”  

“No kidding.  I’m not eager to try and cut anyone else out of that mess again.”  I noticed a little grimace from Armorsmith and raised an eyebrow, “What?” 

“I heard about Zellig attacking the rescue party and about his ripping Eldritch out of the suit.  The fact Clemency couldn’t just bring him down immediately worries me. Besides our Prime Trio, no one else could reliably go toe-to-toe with the cobalt-clad bastard.”

Our Prime Trio, the three who stood a cut above everyone else onboard by an unfair margin: Forest, Infinite, and Titan.  Some people would argue that Eldritch should be up there with them, but his power was so circumstantial we kept him off the list.

“Beleth has won a round with Clemency, and so has Shockwave.”

She shook her head, “They’ve all lost to him too, and more than once.  Beleth won a skirmish because he was clever and lured Clemency to a nearly empty part of town so it diminished his power; Shockwave got a lucky hit but otherwise doesn’t have the tools to fight his varied arsenal.”  

“Zelling is the head of a whole branch of the Trillodan military,” I pointed out, “But if you look at the standard footsoldier it is a lot less threatening.  Hell, even your group killed a couple. I heard Ragdoll straight kicked someone’s head off.”  

Armorsmith laughed, “You should have heard how proud he was when he talked about it.  One of the first people to fight back against the Trillodan and he beheaded one. It was all I could do to stomach his preposterous ego for the next three days.” 

I laughed, glad to forget about my trouble for just a moment, to just lose myself in some pleasant distraction.  

Right on cue, Transport opened the door and gave an apologetic smile, “Hey, Dragoon, didn’t mean to interrupt, but I need to borrow Armorsmith for a bit.”  

She gave a shrug, “Work is never done, right?”  Before she left, she gave me one last look over her shoulder, “Is it just the armor that’s getting  to you?”  

“Yeah,” I lied, my voice going quiet, “I’ll figure it out.”  

“Hey,” she said with a shake of her head, “None of that self pity.  Go be honest with Toolkit, you can do this. Remember, you’re on the ship for a reason.”  The door slammed shut behind her and I was left alone in their room.    

I sat there for a moment, wishing that I could stop thinking about all the reasons that Armorsmith was wrong.  

I didn’t belong on this ship, I didn’t deserve help from Toolkit for so many reasons, I deserved to die when we fought against the Trillodan and no one should try to interfere.  

It was my own fault that all this horror had happened.  I had single-handedly condemned the planet to Trillodan subjugation; I couldn’t even fathom what sorts of horrors were being wrought upon the surface of Tso’got as I sat here, a fugitive.  

Hell, I had displaced so many Adapted from their homes and for what?  

I wasn’t sure how long I sat there dwelling but I eventually got up and walked out the door, trying to control my breathing as I climbed down a little staircase to lead to the other corridor of living spaces.  My heart was already hammering in my ears; there was no way that Toolkit was going to accept my request, and why should she? 

I had gotten Ironclad killed, I helped ensure that Geyser was gone, and I hadn’t been there when Nick needed me most.  

To top it all off, he hated me now.  

I could see Toolkit’s door down the hall and I stopped, my whole body rigid, paralyzed with anxiety.  She wasn’t going to help me, she wouldn’t even if she knew it would get me killed.  

But that was…okay.  I deserved to die, didn’t I?

This time I didn’t have Nick to come find me sprawled out on the floor as a horror struck mess.  Instead of knocking on the door to Toolkit’s room, I walked away, accepting the fact that I didn’t deserve better.  

I had gotten so many people killed, why did I deserve to live?

I wasn’t sure or exactly how, but fate would come and claim me soon enough.  I wouldn’t bother anyone afterward and that was a plus as far as I could see. 

Eventually I would be forgotten, and everything would be better that way.    

Previous ChapterNext Chapter

In the Void: Adrift

11/26/80 (Dragoon) 

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.  

“Where’s Nick?” 

“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.”

“I-”

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.”  

Previous ChapterNext Chapter

Exodus: This Means War

11/24/80 (Zellig Ak’aan)  

They thought I didn’t notice: the shifty glances, the wary looks, and the subtle turns to make themselves less visible to me, even the little drops of the head. 

These soldiers were intimidated by me. 

Even as battered and marred as I was, they were terrified.  I towered above the rest of my species, and I was the only Trillodan who could tolerate the surface of this planet with no armor.  Tso’got had bred a markedly tenacious people in the Zari; we weren’t so fortunate to be as durable and immune to the elements as they were. 

Walking back was challenging since my bout with Clemency had earned me a hip that was shattered into dozens of small fragments, all too damaged for my body to try and reconstruct.  As a result, every step was a reminder that my leg was being held together by muscle tension and nothing else. 

 I refused assistance and showed no pain as I shambled forward; I would not be seen as weak by these soldiers. I was Zellig Ak’aan, commander of the Expeditionary arm of the Trillodan army.  I was a living weapon that had been fighting for centuries; I refused to show weakness. Even if they feared me, I would be the unyielding pillar my soldiers could rally behind. 

 Still, my lack of functional joint had made my inspection around the Adapted build site take much longer than I had hoped.  Even as thorough as I was forced to be, there was no lingering energy signature and no evidence of a power supply.  Faster than light travel had only been attained by the Trillodan in the form of a Void Door, but those required an enormous amount of energy. Somehow, without one, the Adapted ship simply vanished.  We had scans out as far as the two moons of Tso’got, and nothing triggered a sensor. 

 These Adapted had mobility that none besides the Trillodan should possess.

I lumbered back onto the dreadnought I had arrived on, forcing my left leg to work for me a little longer.  Soon enough Vaneel would be able to put me back together. Once onboard, I felt my skin drink up the moisture from the air; even though I didn’t need to remain wet like the rest of my kind, my skin still appreciated the humidity.  Other soldiers were glad to be able to strip free of the armor and show off their colors now that they were finally free of the harsh atmosphere. 

 Vivid green, blues, even a few red skinned individuals chattering amongst each other, a harsh contrast to my lifeless grey.  While I knew they didn’t mean to regard me like some kind of crime against nature, they failed.  

 Fortunately there was one person aboard who would treat me like something other than a freak.

 It took a few minutes of dragging my charred body down the corridors that I came to a science suite most of the soldiers lacked clearance to enter.  As I drew close, the slabs of metal slid open, welcoming me inside to where my best friend was waiting.  

Vaneel, chief researcher for the Immortal Matron, the brilliant mind who had assembled me, and my best friend.  

He turned to me, his purple skin brightening in surprise as he was greeted by the sight of his thoroughly damaged friend.  “What the fuck did you do?” 

“Gave your work a stress test,” I replied as I dragged myself over to a gargantuan table and fell on top of it.  Agony screamed through my body, every fiber of my sensitive nervous system painfully aware of each and every injury I had sustained over the day.  

Vaneel dropped what he was doing and rushed over to me, glancing down and letting out an exasperated sigh, “What the fuck did you do?” he repeated, no longer flustered; now the scientist was annoyed.   

Thanks to the work Vaneel had performed on me decades ago, I was as much machine as I was Trillodan.  He had sought to create the perfect mix between metal and flesh, a soldier that would never tire nor be left at a profound disadvantage should there be need to fight off world.  None were brave enough to be his test subject so I volunteered. When he inevitably succeeded, my decorated military history would help give his research the credit it deserved. 

As an unfortunate side-effect, it robbed me of my color and my smooth skin.  While I had been made so much more functional, I was quickly branded a freak and a monster.  The council cancelled the project believing that the preservation of beauty and our culture was more important than creating super soldiers.  After all, we regularly turned planets to inhospitable wastes. What use was there for high-powered foot soldiers?

Vaneel pulled over a workbench that hovered a meter off the floor, a myriad of tools specific to fixing me strewn across the top.  “You’ve done a lot of damage to yourself,” he grumbled, “Even managed to break two nanite housings.  So, you’re going to be vomiting metal in a few hours once some of the machines fail and drop out of your bloodstream.”  

“Nothing I haven’t experienced before,” I replied.  

While it was true that Trillodan seldom fought a proper war, the Expedition was often involved in small skirmishes.  Our primary responsibility was locating Awakened planets-those who had discovered they weren’t alone in the universe-and providing them with Universal Common. Even though we refused to let other people possess our ability to travel faster than light, we encouraged community between worlds.  However, there were some relatively advanced species who took it upon themselves to rebel if they found one of our mining settlements scattered through the stars. Despite any kind of statement they might try to make, we made sure no one ever learned about their opposition. As far as the rest of the cosmos was concerned, no one could or would stand up to us.   

Unlike other Trillodan commanders, I fought alongside my troops even before I was enhanced.  I would never dare hide behind my soldiers like a coward. Being turned into an unstoppable brute only made me more eager to lead the charge.

“Just because you know you can survive a lot of punishment doesn’t mean you should go seeking it,” Vaneel sighed as he hooked a few sensors to my skin and took a look at two screens displaying both my biological and mechanical readings.  “Remind me why I bother letting you out at all if you’re just going to break my work.”  

I smiled as he grabbed a scalpel shimmering with energy; Vaneel had to design specific tools to carve me open for maintenance as my skin reflexively hardened if threatened.  

“So, Zellig,” he said as he cut into my leg, pulling muscle and skin apart to reveal the non-existent chunk of hip, “What are we even doing on Tso’got anyways?” 

I winced as he dug around but I didn’t let him see my discomfort.  “The Matron didn’t tell you?” 

He shook his head, “She sent me to provide care for her investment and to see to my project.  But she didn’t exactly tell me why you came down here. And as expected, soldiers aren’t willing to talk to me, so no. I have no idea why we are here.  All I’ve really heard about is some irregularities with some of the exiles here.”

“Humans,” I informed him, “And some of them are displaying remarkably unique abilities.”

Vaneel looked up from his work as if checking to see if I was kidding.  “You’re telling me that a human did this to you,” he asked with a laugh as he dipped my wrist into a gel solution; it began taking the form of my missing hand and I refrained from wincing as nerves reconnected.  “How would that even be possible?”  

I reached over to the workstation and grabbed one of the tailor made devices; as it slotted into a small nook on my head, a screen lit up and played out my fight with Clemency as I had seen it.  My friend gawked as he watched Clemency destroy the Gauss cannon and subject me to the entire explosion. I removed the device after it showed Clemency throwing me through the air before he and the other Adapted ran off.  

“How-“

“Not sure,” I confessed, “That is why we’re here.”  

“But they’re…so ordinary!  He’s making hard light constructs.  Those…those take extraordinary amounts of energy!  How can he do that without any kind of access to a power grid?” 

“No one is sure,” I replied with a grin, “That’s what makes them so fascinating.” 

Vaneel looked back down to his work and I felt a burst of pain as he dug around, fishing out shattered fragments of my skeleton.  “I heard some whispers about casualties over the day. Over three hundred around Ciel.”

“Yes,” I replied, “Three-hundred and twenty-eight total that I’m aware of.”  

“Those kind of losses with little to show for it would almost always warrant Protocol, right? I mean, we are Trillodan, we don’t lose right?”  He looked up at me, “Why haven’t you ordered it yet?”  

I smiled, “Oh my shortsighted friend-“

“Stop with the posturing.  I solve the problems in front of me; right now that is fixing your annihilated hip.  Tell me what you’re planning and don’t be snide.”  

Despite his agitation, I smiled.  It was refreshing having someone snap at me and call me on my quirks.  “I took the fight with Clemency on purpose. For the last week we’ve been monitoring the surface and I took it upon myself to dig around for information about the Adapted.  As luck would have it, Zari and humans alike were all in favor of the violent spectacle that was watching the Adapted fight. A few stood out above the rest.”

“Like this Clemency fellow?” 

“Yes.”

Vaneel rolled his eyes, “And your thought is to fight him on his home turf?”  

“It went perfectly as intended.”    

“You were reduced to an invalid,” Vaneel scoffed, “That was your intent?”  When I didn’t answer, he tilted his head to look up at me. “You really did mean to lose?  Why?” 

“Let me ask you something, Vaneel, do I ever lose a fight?” 

He stopped fishing bone out of the surrounding muscle tissue for a moment to ponder the question.  “No, you don’t. You are willing to take risks if I’m nearby to fix you, but even when you took a rocket to the chest you didn’t let yourself lose.”  

“I took a risk, clearly.  But I knew I was walking into a losing fight once Clemency arrived.  He even offered to let me stop and opt out.”

“You chose to fight instead, even though you knew you weren’t going to win?”

I propped myself up on my elbows, watching him work and straining to keep my face neutral as he finished snagging the last few pieces of my shattered hip free.  “Correct. I took the fight and recorded it.”

My friend cocked his head to the side, “You deliberately recorded yourself losing.  Not exactly a good bit of publicity for my work.”  

“But it does set a frightening precedent.  For all the flack your work has taken, it has never been about the efficacy.  Even Councilman Baarl can’t argue with your results; his only gripe with your work comes from a cultural point of contention.”  

Vaneel turned aside and spat on the floor, “Fuck Councilman Baarl!  He should know he’s holding us back with his precious ideals. But, what does this have to do with us being here?” 

“You don’t understand how Clemency was able to create hard-light projections, correct?” 

He nodded.

“But we have concrete evidence he can, and that he can do it to a degree that he threatens the strongest Trillodan alive.  Regardless of the Eternal Councils thoughts on the morality of your research, there is no denying its efficacy,” I said with a sweeping gesture.  

The scientist grimaced, “But they’d insist that you proved the existence of a threat that would warrant a use of Protocol.  Why haven’t you?” 

My smile extended, showing rows of dangerously sharp teeth, “Why have we used the Protocol in the past?” 

Vaneel opened a drawer on the workstation and pulled a block of blue tinted metal out, setting it on a forming plate; after a few commands input to the computer, laser cutters began carving me a new hip.  “Historically we have used Protocol to quell anyone who is hitting a critical point in technological development. Usually it has to do with cracking faster than light travel since that kind of mobility brings about the most potential for retaliation.  Still, we have done it simply to exterminate those who drew blood from us. People who can fight the Expedition are generally quite advanced.”  

“But those are threats we are familiar with since they always rely on technology.  Technology is something we can acquire, study, and ultimately understand. But Clemency wasn’t using any kind of mechanical means to bolster himself.  So, how exactly did Clemency create hard-light projections?” 

“I…I don’t…,” he said aloud, realizing my plan.  “You want to study them.”  

“I want YOU to study them,” I corrected.  “I might have a mind for strategy, but you’re the scientist.  I want you to figure out what makes them tick.”  

Vaneel shook his head, “While what they did is remarkable, we both know that Councilman Baarl isn’t going to allow this sort of research.  He would simply say that there must be some kind of hidden machination that allows him to accomplish this feat. It wouldn’t be the first time there was technology developed in secret that caught our military a bit off guard.”  

“I figured you’d say that,” I replied, pressing the device to my head again and procuring two more segments of memory.  The recording of Eldritch growing and fighting off waves of Adapted, and then the Adapted’s unwieldy vessel simply vanishing.  

“How…how can either of those be possible?  That’s…they used a Void Door. But there was no energy signature or power surge.  And he..he made so much material from so little. How…”

“I’m hoping you can tell me,” I replied with a grin.  

Vaneel reached back over to the workstation and grabbed the chunk of recreated hip.  It took him a minute to move aside muscle before eventually jamming it back into place.  

My façade wavered and I grunted in pain.  

“Your pain is still on,” Vaneel hissed, “What the hell is wrong with you?

As he reached over to workstation to override my nervous system, I shot a hand out to stop him.  “I will not be a machine,” I insisted, “I will not feel nothing while soldiers under me suffer.” 

“And I’m not going to carve into my friend while he feels every last bit of sinew giving way!  I have to basically replace organs, Zellig! Do you think I want you to experience that kind of pain?  I can’t drug you like I could any other Trillodan. The machines in your blood, they filter out anything I can give you for the pain!”

I glared at him, unyielding.  “You will not turn it off. I won’t give them the satisfaction.”      

“I’m not the Eternal Council,” Vaneel pleaded, “I just don’t want to hurt my friend.”  

“You built me to endure so much worse,” I promised, flashing a smile, “Cut away.”  

He didn’t share my smile.  “Dull the pain at least. Please, for my sake if nothing else.”  

Every bodily system was operated via neural impulse; Vaneel had set me up for fine control over how acute my sensory input could be and pain was its own unique sense.  When my friend had proved the efficacy of his work to the Eternal Council, Baarl had been the first voice of opposition, proclaiming that it wasn’t right for someone to do away with sensations, that doing so was an affront against nature.  He claimed I would abuse my newfound ability and essentially do away with being made of flesh and bone, that I would be simply ‘other’.   

It was the one setting I never adjusted.  I endured because I knew I could. As much as this hurt, I knew I would survive.  

But for my friend’s sake, I dulled my pain by about half.  

“Fifty percent disabled,” I informed him.  

Vaneel nodded, still upset.  I didn’t need to be able to hear his heartbeat or breathing to understand how livid he was.  It was written on his skin.  

In so many ways, the Trillodan were an inferior specimen in terms of physicality.  If we were left on Tso’got, we would die off in a matter of days. The arid climate would leave a trail of shrivelled amphibious corpses to be cast to the wind.  We weren’t necessarily that strong either. The humans, were physically stronger than most of us when we were without mechanical help.  

What we did have that set us apart was our skin.  

Our ancestors had survived extinction by using our ability to change the pigment of our skin as a means of camouflage and a way to communicate with one another.  Relaying basic information about danger had allowed our species to survive to a point where technology could start giving us an edge. Since there was no more biological necessity, our skin was no longer a means of stealth, but a means of personality.  

Every Trillodan had gorgeous coloring across our wet skin.  Having been to many planets, I could attest to how few amphibious species attained sentience and as such, the Trillodan took pride in their distinction.  While its historic function had faded, our skin was still a measure of emotional response. Colors would brighten with happiness and contentment but they would darken with stress and anger.  

To date, there was only one of my kind who didn’t have such display: me. 

“I’m not angry,” Vaneel eventually muttered, “Just frustrated.  You’re enduring things for no reason. You have endured enough pain for several lifetimes; why let yourself experience any more when you have the option to not?” 

“Because others aren’t so lucky.  I will not ever diminish my soldiers’ suffering by suppressing my own.”  

“They aren’t subject to the ridicule and judgment that you receive simply for existing.  It isn’t like you can go back to being a normal Trillodan; there is no clean way for me to remove all that I put inside you, Zellig.”  

As if to add emphasis, he cut a slit in my side and removed a sphere of metal that had a massive fracture along the side.  Retrieving an undamaged duplicate from the workstations, he plunged his hand back into my side and clicked the new nanite housing back into place behind my ribcage.  Even with my pain cut by half, that was excruciating. Doing it a second time didn’t make it any more bearable.    

The last thing Vaneel insisted on looking into was my spine where Clemency had broken me against the building; to his surprise it had actually the nanites were already repairing the damage inflicted thanks to the resurgence from the two renewed housings.  

Eventually I was given the go-ahead to rise from the table and performed a few quick tasks to show Vaneel that all was working as intended.  Motor functions were fine, skeletal system was holding, and my sensory inputs were all up to snuff.  

As my friend turned back to his lab, I grabbed his shoulder and spun him around.  “Come along, I have something for you.”  

My friend followed me without another word; as soon as I showed him what we had managed to snag off the planet, his mouth hung open. 

In the other science wing aboard this dreadnaught there were a series of stasis cells I had asked for deliberately.  Seven of them were holding the limp body of a captured Adapted, floating in a light green solution. “I figured you could use an early start.” 

Vaneel stalked forward and looked into a few of the holding tanks, scrutinizing every detail about them that could be gleaned from appearance only.  “Even on closer inspection,” he muttered, “They seem ordinary. You’re sure it isn’t some kind of technological phenomenon?” 

“None.  I fought with half a dozen of them up close and personal.  No tech to enable them,” I insisted. 

“I’m going to need samples.” 

I laughed, “This whole wing is yours.”

“And the Council-“ 

I shook my head, “The Matron has already promised to protect us on this.  Let me handle the Eternal Council and what might come of our taking prisoners.  For now, you do what you do best,” I invited with a sweeping gesture to all seven prisoners.  Even before I was out of the room, Vaneel was completely ensconced, dictating details regarding any sort of minute abnormality in appearance.  

Now I had to make good on my promise.  It was true that the Matron had given me a promise to protect us from the Councils inevitable backlash, but she hadn’t counted on me losing so many soldiers.  Trillodan lives were precious since we procreated a tragically slow rate.  

Losing as many as I had for seven prisoners would be a hard sell as something worthwhile.  But the proof of the Adapted’s power would help balance the consequences and warrant the drastic actions.  

I marched through the halls of the ship, my massive frame occupying most of the space as men made way for me and bowed in recognition as I made my way back to the bridge.  With the Adapted vessel vanishing, there was limited reason to be on Tso’got. While I was sure that Titan didn’t get nearly all of the Adapted to follow him, the Adapted respected identity; until we knew what set them apart physically, we had no way to rapidly locate them.  Sticking around to go on a wild chase was pointless.  

There were a few officers of the vessel onboard who all rose when I entered, all bowing respectfully.  One man approached with a solemn expression, “Commander Zellig, how may we serve?” 

“The other search parties?” 

“No additional results, sir.  The ones you told us to look out have all either gone to ground or left with the rest of the Adapted.”

I nodded, unsurprised.  Titan, the man coordinating everything, had years to plan and had been clever enough to hide a great number of his tools.  The man who could teleport everyone around, the woman who could extend the tree roots and listen in on an entire city, and whoever was able to conjure enough power to pull off that vanishing act.  He’d taken advantage of the Trillodan writing off humanity; it was not a mistake he would be able to exploit further. Ultimately, his preparation overcame our military might. But wherever he was heading to now, he wouldn’t get nearly the same head start.  

“We return to Xalanni then,” I informed the bridge, “There is nothing left for us here on Tso’got.”    

The captain stepped aside as I approached a console and input a command to start the charge on a Void Door.  

Even to move a vessel this size, it would take nearly a full hour to power.  Someone under Titan’s command had the capability to move that unwieldy vessel in an instant without being in a zero gravity environment.  I glanced around the Trillodan officers on the bridge; they were competent soldiers but I was going to need my legion back for this fight.  

I had lacked a proper reason to call back all twenty of them in nearly a century but this would provide enough impetus to get the Matron to approve my request.  

I glanced back down at my hand that was still reforming, adding definition and detail; a smile crept across my lips as I looked back out into the emptiness of space, excited at the thrill of a proper campaign.  

“Round one goes to you, Titan,” I whispered, “But you’re new to this game, and I’ve been playing a long time.”

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