Interlude: Unrest

(Titan – 12/15/80)

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

Everyone got antsy when the leader was nervous.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Titan-“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What makes him so different?” I inquired.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infinite shrugged, “Your loss.”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That about sums it up,” I muttered. 

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

“Two for two.” 

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

I frowned, “A daunting thought.”  

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

Infinite shuddered, not liking the implications.  

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

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

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

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

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

“And the second?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

“How do you know that?” Infinite asked. 

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

“A war of attrition.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, shit,” she mumbled.  

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

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

Previous Chapter – Next Chapter

Planetside: Organization

“What do you mean that someone ‘made us?’” Adamant demanded.  “What the fuck are you talking about?”

Dragoon shook her head, seeming to clear out the adrenaline and calm down.  “Someone sent me a message in that dream, and I have no idea who they are. But, according to them, the Adapted were an experiment.  I don’t know how to explain more than that, but what happened to us wasn’t a natural phenomenon.”  

Exchange leaned forward, curious, “But, how could we be the product of anything except a weird happenstance?  We’re all from such disparate places.”

“We all came from the same place a generation ago,” Parasite replied.  “Less than thirty years since we were exiled from Earth. All of our parent generation could have been exposed to something.”

“It doesn’t explain how our parents never manifested crazy abilities,” I countered, “Adapting was only something from the younger generation.  As far as we know, Titan is the oldest Adapted I know of and he’s only twenty-six.”

Adamant nodded, “The oldest Selected I have heard of on Vuuldar would be twenty-five now if he was still alive.” 

All eyes turned back to Dragoon who was trying to sit up.  “I don’t have all the answers,” she grunted as she tried to straighten her posture, “But I know that sure as hell wasn’t a regular dream.  I’ve never been able to lucid dream and my recall afterward has never been nearly this good. Somehow, someway, someone communicated with me.”

“That almost seems irresponsible,” Lightshow muttered, “If someone is talking to you, now their information is in your brain for the Trillodan to extract.”

No one had a good reply to her mortifying observation.  The Trillodan had proved able to travel through space faster than we could, destroy planets, and utilize teleportation; who knew what they could do with a brain. 

“Either way,” Adamant said, “We can deal with this revelation IF we can get the fuck outta here in one piece.”  He turned to Dragoon, “These two insist you’re a good planner and strategist. I know the locals, how to get around, where to hide, who is still trustworthy, etc, but I don’t know more beyond that.  I’m going to have to trust you there. So, captain,” he said with a bow, “What’s next?” 

Parasite helped Dragoon sit up so she could stop struggling.  “Alright,” she muttered, closing her eyes, “Let’s start with what we know.  We know that Zellig himself is leading this expedition and that the operatives are hand-picked and trained by him.  We know that they have the objective of capturing us alive for study.”  She took a deep breath, collecting her thoughts, “We can pretty safely assume that our getaway ship is toast.  I don’t think that Almanac, Organelle, or anyone else onboard is dead since they had Infinite there as a bodyguard.  However, I think even she’d be hard pressed to try and wage a space battle with a Trillodan warship.”

“Crimson Cities,” Exchange supplied.  “They’re the world-enders that are capable of enacting Protocol 37.”

Dragoon nodded, “It’s pretty safe to assume that they have a Crimson City waiting in the atmosphere.  If we prove too hard to handle, there’s a good chance they simply torch the surface and be done with us.  For as powerful as we are, we won’t survive that. Infinite might be able to get herself to another planet but odds are once she showed up she’d blow up half the planet on accident.  If she tried to teleport a hundred people to another planet, she’d pull too much from her well of power and likely kill us all in the process..”  

Adamant sighed, “Lovely, but that doesn’t tell us what to do now.”

“Give her a minute,” I promised, “She will want to think through things  first before making any decisions.”  

She grimaced as she tried to lift her arm, clearly frustrated by the cast.  “We do know a bit about Zellig, and we also know two core facets of him, and by extension, his elite: they are a nasty blend of sadistic and zealous.  Zellig is determined and doesn’t fail whoever he serves. His underlings are likely zealous and devoted to him in a similar fashion. Believe it or not, this is a bit in our favor.”

Parasite frowned, “Determined psychopaths are a positive?”

“They aren’t here to kill us, and they refuse to fail,” she replied, “As psychotic as these clowns are, they won’t kill us if they can avoid it.  Since they are perfectionists and take pride in their work, it buys us a little bit of breathing room. They have had multiple opportunities to turn us to dust, but they haven’t.  The need to study us is a more pressing demand than our demise. For them, they have to succeed because failure is unthinkable. Think about this, how often do you ever hear about the Trillodan losing?”

“They don’t,” Exchange whispered, saying aloud  what we all were thinking.

“An honor-based ideology,” Adamant mused, “They are driven to fulfill the contract they were given because they are driven by achievement and praise.  Whoever they work for is likely carrying a huge amount of influence. Their goal is to keep their boss happy at all cost.”

“The Immortal Matron,” I whispered, “I’ll bet she’s the one ordering Zellig around.”

The most successful tyrant in history, and the one who had been flattening civilizations into obscurity for untold centuries.  We didn’t know how long she’d been operating because no one met her and lived to talk about it. She could be centuries old or millenia old; we had no way to tell.  All we knew was that she was responsible for more carnage than we could fathom.    

“If you’re right,” Dragoon said softly, “It’s both good and bad.  It means we have really kicked the hornets nest, but it also means that we are something they are scared of.”  She shifted again, trying to mask the pain, “But it also means that they are going to be getting more and more frustrated every time we can avoid being captured.  If they are so hellbent on success, we can try to play a bit of psychological warfare and see if we can’t destabilize them.”

Parasite frowned, “These aren’t some untrained dorks, these are operatives who have been doing this for decades.  Fighting Tol and his underlings, they’re better trained than any of us, by a lot. We fucking shot a guy’s arm off and all it did was piss him off.  These are killers who have seen whole worlds turned to slag and they don’t flinch. We aren’t going to be able to make them waver and flinch when we pick a fight with them.”

Dragoon nodded, furrowing her brow, “True, but that’s why we should think about trying to change what kind of fight we pick.  A straight brawl is something these guys are used to, and it’s a place they excel. They’re used to a killing field, but they might not be used to the chaotic frenzy we are.”

“What do you have in mind?” I asked, my curiosity piqued.  

“Given what I’ve seen of Lightshow,” our captain said, “I think we can throw them for a spin.”

Lightshow’s eyes snapped to Dragoon, “What are you talking about?”

“They only have spent time fighting against us.  What if we pit them against each other. I saw you recreate my railgun; who is to say you can’t replicate those disks that Tol had?  What if you made a copy of Zellig for them to fight against?” 

The Projector shifted uncomfortably, “I’m not sure how I feel about doing something like that, Drag.  I’m not sure what kind of rules my new power is going to follow.”

Our captain sighed, “Lightshow, for better or worse, you have a whole incredible new arsenal.  And, for better or worse, we’re going to have to make use of it to the fullest. The last thing we can afford to do is pull punches.”  

I felt somehow like that comment was also a bit directed at me.  Ever since Feast Day I had been prone to holding back, nervous to let myself loose; I’d need to talk with Dragoon later about what had happened now that Eldritch had been properly let loose again.  

Lightshow frowned and pushed herself deeper into the corner, “Maybe, but I’m still not exactly sure how to control this shit.  I finally had a pretty good mastery of my old Adaptation and now I have…something woefully different.” 

Exchange raised a hand, “Maybe we should try to practice?” 

Dragoon shook her head, “Not right now.  Any excess use of our gift is going to draw attention, and in case she does lose control we might as well have put a beacon on our head that says ‘come capture.’”  Our captain sighed, “Whenever it comes time, Lightshow, we will need you to do the best you can.”  

Our Altered shifted, uncomfortable with the attention being paid to her.

Take the attention from her.  

I was pretty sure that the beast wanted Lightshow calm because it was afraid of her, but I agreed with it.  She was still rattled and looking like she was a few shades from tears. “You seemed interested in the ships,” I interjected, “When sister Sara mentioned the old refugee ships, I saw your eyes light up when you asked where they were.  Why?” 

“Because,” Dragoon explained, “If I can get access to one of them, with some help mind you, I can make us a ship that will be able to escape this dreadful place.”

“How?” Adamant demanded.  “Those things are fucking huge and unwieldy at best.  They wouldn’t survive liftoff, let alone escape velocity.” 

Dragoon laughed, “You’re thinking too conventionally.  We are Adapted, we break the laws of physics regularly; what people haven’t bothered doing it applying those kinds of principles to space travel.”  She pulled herself a little straighter and grimaced from the pain for a moment before continuing. “The ships are super heavy, it’s true. However, they were made to shlep thousands and thousands of people who were going to be stationary.  The idea was the old ships were crewed by a few hundred and could house approximately forty-thousand sleeping residents.”

“Your point?”

“My point, Adamant, is that we don’t need all the cargo space.  We have Adapted who could simply sever the bond between sections of the ship and fix it in a matter of hours.  We aren’t looking to escape with thousands of sleeping people onboard, so we don’t need life-bays to house thousands of cryogenic tubes.  That alone saves us a ton of space and weight since the mechanism to maintain those were incredibly dense and cumbersome.” 

“And what about a functional engine?” I asked.  “They likely didn’t land smooth, and they certainly haven’t been maintained in years, decades even.  The last thing we need is to be stranded out in space.”  

She rolled her eyes, “I designed and made a suit of power armor in three days along with a functional rail gun.  With Multi-task being my hands and Armorsmith reinforcing the engine to be heat resistant, we could use any kind of miracle fuel that Chemtrail would make.  We could use a stronger fuel than liquid oxygen because it wouldn’t melt the damn thing.”  

Adamant opened his mouth, confused.  

“Multi-task is a girl who can make copies of herself with a specific directive.  Armorsmith imbues inorganic material to reinforce the stuff and make it more durable, and Chemtrail is basically a crazy chemist who makes everything from chemical weapons to rocket fuel,” Parasite supplied.  “More people that Titan recruited.”  

“The problem is getting people back together,” Dragoon mumbled, frustrated, “Being cut off, I’m only marginally effective.  I could theoretically make a rocket engine, but it would take me months, not days. When Titan split us up, he expected us to have some time to be able to meet back up, to pool our resources and fight against the Trillodan.”

“But now he’s kind of fucked us,” Parasite said, blunt.  “He should have realized that the Trillodan are super old monsters who have been crushing societies forever.  They’ve likely had to quash rebellions and insurgencies before. We can’t be the first to fight back.”

“More than that,” Dragoon said with a groan, “Zellig is supposed to be the scariest figure in the Trillodan military.  He’s well known enough guy that my parents had heard the name for crying out loud. Titan decided to try and take a military gambit with one of the most notorious generals in the most notorious military in history.  Zellig just read Titan like a book. He knew we’d try to bolster our ranks and Vuuldar was the closest place to do so.”  

“Great,” I muttered.  

“I hate to detract from the tale of woe,” Adamant said, “But maybe we should think short term.  The city is no longer under blight and you all were clearly seen when you rolled in. You walked in wearing power armor for fucks sake.  So, there’s going to be Sycophants running amok and out for blood. How do you propose we deal with them?” 

“I have a myriad of non-lethal measures on my suit I can use to help us cope with an angry mob,” she replied.  “Bigger question is do you know the other Adapted/Selected in the city? We know that Serpentine left to try and make contact with another group to the South.  If you know where they hide out maybe we can go to them.”  

Exchange raised his hand, “I know where they might be.  I’m betting the group they went to go see was Stampede. They are pretty violent guys honestly, they’ve done a good job making a name for themselves through extortion and strong arming anyone who isn’t willing to play by their rules.  We kind of stay away from them because they have a policy to shoot first and ask questions later.” 

Adamant groaned, “Exchange is probably right, and they won’t be too happy with you if I’m in tow.”

“He killed one of their members,” Exchange explained.  “Flattened her head against the pavement.”  

“That’ll do it,” Parasite mumbled.  “Did you all come to a proclaimed treaty or…?”

Adamant shook his head, “We came to a silent agreement that they don’t come too far north, and we don’t go too far south either.  No one wants to lose another member since we’re pretty small groups.”  

“We’re going to have to break that rule later,” Dragoon muttered.  “But the best thing we can do for a little while is sleep, or at least try to.  Later maybe someone should scout out for us, but until then, we need to rest and heal.  We’re dead in the water if we pick a fight while still this battered.”  

“Do we have time to slack off?” Adamant pressed.  “I’d like to avoid getting caught with our pants down.”  

“The Trillodan made this a war of attrition the second they removed our means of escape,” our captain replied.  “Zellig’s elite soldiers, their first wave, that was to wear us down, and to put us all on edge. They turned the planet against us and proved that they have members who can fight us tooth and nail.  Zellig hasn’t simply assaulted one place en masse because I’m pretty sure he’s still unsure if we have extra trump cards hidden.”

“Like what?” Lightshow asked.

“Think of it this way, what happens if he tried to run all his soldiers at someone like Titan?  What happens if he tries to pick a fight with any of the Prime Trio?” 

I blinked a few times as I had an epiphany, “Zellig didn’t know about Infinite.  He likely didn’t know about Forest either. None of us knew about them, and we were constantly checking into what we could learn about Adapted.  Trillodan get information through observation and from our media; if we didn’t know about them, he couldn’t have either.”

It made so much more sense why Titan had played so many cards close to the vest; if anything was going to make Zellig and Trillodan hold back and be cautious, knowing that he’d concealed people like Forest and Infinite would sure do the trick.  While we knew Titan was out of cards to pull from his proverbial sleeves, the Trillodan commander likely didn’t.  

How long the illusion would last through was a different question entirely.

Dragoon nodded, “As over reaching as our leader might be, he’s spent a lot of time trying to arrange things to favor us as best he can.  He knew that we’d be a prize worth capturing, and he did a phenomenal job recruiting people to his cause. The only problem he has is that he doesn’t have the same experience that someone like Zellig does.  Titan is only twenty-six and Zellig is probably at least ten times that old.”  

“No better teacher than experience,” Parasite said.  

Adamant sighed, “Alright, well, I’m going to have Dis take the two of us out to get some supplies since we’ll be here a hot minute.  Exchange will stay with you as a guard so you can get some sleep and rest up. That work for you?” 

The blonde kid nodded with an excited grin.  It was challenging not to like how upbeat and chipper this kid was.  To Adapt you had to have endured some kind of trauma or prolonged stress that warped you; Exchange seemed like he had been inappropriately chosen to change.  He was uncomfortably well adjusted, or at least he did a magnificent job selling that.

Adamant smacked his hand against the wall and a few seconds later Distortion stumbled out, looking a bit groggy still.  The head of the Lost Children whispered something to her and she nodded, grabbing his hand before the two of them vanished into thin air.  

As soon as they were gone, Dragoon nearly collapsed.  I hadn’t realized that she was putting on a front to keep Adamant impressed with her, to keep him from challenging her leadership.  “Murphy,” she panted as she laid back down, “Thanks for covering for me. I’m glad that you didn’t give him control of shit.” 

My best friend shrugged, “No problem.  I don’t think he’d want control anyways,” he pointed out.  “I think Adamant is just a fighter who happens to be the best at navigating social engagements.” 

Exchange nodded, “It’s why Distortion and I stick with him, even if he can be a bit…abrasive at times,” he said carefully.  

Parasite and I both shifted uncomfortably, remembering him backhanding Distortion for talking back to Mother Audrey.  “Why did you put up with him? Do you really like him or does he have something on you?”  

“Well, the reason that Adamant killed a member of Stampede was because he was protecting me,” Exchange said softly, the gleeful smile fading for a moment.  “They had someone among them who was autistic, and when he was Selected, that part of him apparently changed too. Where he had just been a bit autistic, he kind of developed a bit of a weird savant quality in that he could see anyone who was going to be Selected.”

It had been speculated that Adaptations were somewhat suited to what was happening to you or linked to who you were fundamentally.  With Murphy, he was a fighter and wanted a way to stop being abused. Alexis was a nerd and wanted to think of a way out of her shitty situation; she was now a Cognate engineer.  They had developed an Adaptation specific to their fundamental identity. Meanwhile, I had changed into the very thing that was going to eat me. The hypothesis was that if the Adaptation was due to a prolonged encounter, it would be more indicative of character qualities whereas abrupt trauma yielded a power based more on the environment and circumstances.  

It wasn’t unprecedented that someone could Adapt and that their existing conditions would change too.  Something about the process was firmly rooted in the mind and our neurology, and thanks to this, Exchange was the first Adapted I’d ever met who had effectively been bullied into changing.  If someone knew who had the potential to Adapt, they would recognize that as an immensely powerful resource; for a gang in such a rough world like Vuuldar, they wouldn’t pass that up. 

“Let me guess, they tormented you until you changed,” Parasite surmised. 

“One of Stampede was a girl named Afflict.  Her power was to screw with people’s minds and make you experience some kind of hallucination, for lack of a better description.  Most often, she would adjust the gift to inflict incredible amounts of pain for hours on end. She made me feel like I was being crushed by a mountain of rubble.  Well,” he corrected, “That was the last thing that finally tipped the scales. The first thing she had me feel was like I was being burnt alive, and then I spent a while convinced I was drowning.”  

“What happened to her?” Lightshow asked, admittedly startling me a bit.  She hadn’t spoken up in a bit and I had hoped she was finally managing to get some rest.

Exchange shook his head and took a deep breath before putting his cheery grin back on.  “When Adamant says he won’t be stopped, it isn’t just a physical thing. It isn’t like he just can’t be deterred physically, but he becomes almost immune to harm or at least incredibly resilient to anything that would prevent him from accomplishing his goal.  He’d heard about what Stampede was trying to do in order to recruit, to make themselves a small army; Adamant showed up right after I changed. All of Stampede was there, all present to make sure Adamant couldn’t take away their new inductee. But, they all had the same goal which made him essentially unkillable.  He was…incredible,” Exchange said, sounding a bit mystified. “In some ways, Adamant really isn’t that powerful. He isn’t that fast, he isn’t necessarily strong, but he can simply accomplish something as long as he has the energy to do it.”  

“So, even someone like Afflict couldn’t wear him down?” I asked, trying to get a read on the leader of the Lost Children.

“She tried to make him feel the same weight she had crushed me with, and she only managed to piss him off.  Adamant sent two of Stampede’s people to a doctor, and Afflict had her head crushed against the floor. She was fairly territorial and wouldn’t let me be taken; she had made the mistake of setting her goal as antithetical to his.”  He laughed, “I read that on Tso’got they had classifications of powers: Conjurer, Enhancer, Peculiar, Projector, Cognate, and Druid. Most people would assume Adamant is just straight Enhancer, but he’s not. What makes him so dangerous is that he’s part Cognate.”

Murphy and Alexis raised an eyebrow, confused, but pieces began falling into place for me.  “Adamant deferred leadership to Dragoon so readily because he’s not a good leader, he’s an expert at reading a room because his power demands he knows what people want.  His Adaptation gives him the ability to inherently know intent and objectives.”  

Exchange nodded, “The broader his goal, the more taxing it is.  When he came to rescue me, his goal was simple and narrow in scope: I want to rescue that kid.  He knew that all of them would want to protect their most recent quarry. It immediately set them all against him and it basically made them powerless in front of him.”  

“He set the stage, he got to dictate the rules of engagement, and so he was unstoppable,” Dragoon extrapolated. 

“That’s why he doesn’t want to be caught by surprise.  With no time to read the room, with no experience around the person, Adamant is powerless,” Parasite muttered.  

I felt the beast within twist a little, uncomfortable that we were going to be palling around with someone who was so intuitive and someone so powerful when it came to specifics.  If he wanted to bring us down, could he? Under the right conditions, could he be more powerful than someone like Titan?  

Exchange got up to his feet and stretched out, “Right, well, since the world is going to hell in a handbasket, I’m going to take a look around the place and make sure that we’re not going to be abruptly ambushed by a group of Sycophants.”

It made me mildly uncomfortable to hear those words coming from someone who seemed so strangely and unrepentantly happy.

“Doesn’t Adamant-”

“We’re never going to use this location again.  I’m sure Adamant plans to burn this place the second we take off.  Plus, if what you’re talking about is true and the Trillodan are going to raze Vuuldar until they have all of us  in a cage, we’re going to be coming with you.”  

Dragoon didn’t have a good counter and shrugged.  I was a little nervous as he left, but I relaxed a bit when I saw our captain lay back down and fade out again.  Unlike Murphy and myself, she didn’t have a healing factor; even with Organelle’s tincture helping, she had to process the stuff the hard way.  A glance to the corner showed Lightshow actually nodding off for at least a little while too. 

Plus, I’d seen Exchange running around; the kid was unreasonably fast when he bound himself to the piece of paper he kept tucked in his pocket.  

“She’s finally  getting some sleep,” Murphy muttered as he and I walked to the far corner of the room, “Thank God.”  As we sat down with our backs against the wall, he looked over at me, eyeing me with a little caution, “So, you wanna tell me what happened?” 

“What do you mean?” 

Murphy shook his head, “Dude, I have seen you busted out in full Eldritch garb.  I’ve seen you devour half a city and snatching people up by the dozen. Every time I’ve seen you, every time you’ve fought, every time you’ve been an inch from death, you’ve always been the same color.  You’ve always looked like a Neklim: onyx colored, wet and slippery. But, when I saw you, you were fucking blue and you were made of rock. I’ve seen you mutate, I’ve seen you develop adrenaline, elasticity, life senses, etc.  But that, that wasn’t a mutation,” he said, leading me.  

“How much did you see?” I asked.  

“I woke up when Tol blew your arm off.  The blast was enough to rouse me. Yeah,” he said with a weak laugh, “For all their sophistication and technology, they didn’t drug me.  They just clubbed me over the damn head to keep me subdued. Bloody savages.” 

“Ever since Feast Day, you  know how I’ve had something else making noise in my head, right?”

He nodded. 

“I finally tried to make some peace with it, and when the Trillodan first attacked us today I let go of the reigns.  For a few minutes, our needs were perfectly synced up; we both agreed that preserving the group was in our best interest for survival.  Since then, I’ve been trying to get a feel for the monster inside my head.”  

Murphy nodded, “Most don’t have an active relationship with their Adaptation you know.  When your parents called you special, they were on the right track.”  

“Fuck off,” I laughed, shoving him.  “The monster though, it’s not unreasonable.  Even when it is getting savagely beaten, like when Titan fought us, it wasn’t the same.  There was a sense that we wouldn’t die there, that he’d do his best to preserve us. Eldritch, the monster, knew that I’d have need of my Adaptation again and that it would be given a physical existence again.  Even though we were being burned alive, there was this sense of security because all Adapted are somewhat cut from the same cloth. We knew that Titan was going to try and obliterate us or purge us.” I took a deep breath, “But, both me and the monster knew that the Trillodan would never let it out again.  If we were captured, that was it. No second chances.”  

“So it what?  It Adapted? But, how?  How does that even work?”

I shrugged, “Man, I’m just as confused as you.  I’m not even sure if that tool will be accessible to me next time since each time I shed the Neklim it feels a little different.  I have no idea what’s going to happen the next time I use my gift.”  

“Coming from you, that’s kind of alarming,” he said with a sideways look.  

Both of us nearly jumped out of our skin when the door to the flat was thrown open; Lightshow snapped to attention as did Murphy and I as Exchange zipped in, wide-eyed like he had seen a ghost.  “Guys, we have a, uh, problem.” 

“Lightshow,” Murphy said, “Stay and watch over the others.  Eldritch and I will check it out.”  

She nodded, her eyes back to flitting around, hypervigilant once again.  

Exchange led us out and through a small block of homes, taking us to a kind of main thoroughfare that had been entirely stopped up as a ship was sitting down in the center of the road.  Three figures in power armor were addressing a crowd of both Ellayans and humans who were listening to the Trillodan soldier speak.  

While we couldn’t hear exactly what he was saying, we could see the other two at the back of the transport, handing out what looked like a high tech rifle to everyone who volunteered and came forward to receive the blessing of the Trillodan.  

“Great,” Murphy whispered, “Sycophants with Trillodan guns.” 

“They’re giving them weapons that will actually hurt us,” I lamented, shaking my head.  “Zellig knew that we’d be able to deal with Sycophants; he wants them to be more than just an early alarm system and location device for him.  He wants them to be able to cripple us.”  

Zellig hadn’t just turned the planet on us, he’d equipped them with enough firepower to eradicate us.  While his elite might have the good sense to keep us alive, the average, terrified Sycophant was going to aim to kill; now they were a real threat and one we had to constantly be on guard against.  Zellig had been smart enough to know that his keeping us alive gave us an edge so he’d changed the game. There was no more writing off the masses as a non-factor and pretending we could simply be stronger than them.  No one would be able to rest if there was a potential for anyone walking by to be a threat. And knowing his penchant for opportunistic attacks, the Trillodan commander would sick one of his elite on us when we were at our weakest and most vulnerable.  

“We can’t stay here,” I hissed, “We need to get Dragoon to be mobile as fast as possible.”  

All of us turned to a buzzing heard overhead.  From the sky descended a little robotic probe, the same one that Dragoon had sent out earlier.  

An androgyne and familiar voice echoed from the speaker on the machine.  “Hey, Eldritch, long time no see!”  

Interface, one of Titan’s original cronies and one of his most dedicated.  I still had no idea what pronoun to prescribe to Interface, but they manipulated machines and could essentially inhabit one, controlling it like it was some kind of second body.  While my captain had been upset at her technology being commandeered, Interface had helped us out of a sticky spot back on Tso’got. It was like the technologically savvy Projector had a knack for finding trouble.  

“Interface?  What…how?”

“Long story.  But trust me, as bad as this looks, it gets worse.  This isn’t the only transport delivering weapons to the civilians.  I’m sure you guessed by now, but Zellig attacked the ship. He gunned the damn thing down.”  

“It had Infinite guarding it,” Parasite muttered, “How did she let that happen?” 

“Infinite can only do so much when there are people nearby.  Her trying to do to much is…messy,” Interface replied cryptically, “They also had a boarding party and Zellig himself made an introduction.  While I think Infinite fucked him up, he took her attention, and Guardian isn’t built with withstand Trillodan artillery. We’re alive, but now we have no means of escape.” 

“So, why are you here?” I asked.  

“Titan is trying to recover people and assemble forces again.   We’ve used Infinite for some communication, but it’s limited at best because that’s just not what she does.  Relay has managed to re-establish his network, but he had to use a different totem to tether himself to people; when Powerhouse had to redistribute power, it did a number on him.  He’s fragile right now, but he should be up for the task.” 

“Still not sure what this has to do with us,” Parasite mumbled.  

“She has the new totem,” I muttered, “But he’s right, why us?” 

Interface groaned, “Powerhouse gave me a little hit of juice earlier, letting me sneak around through networks and detect electronics; I opted to come to NaMein since I knew Dragoon would be here and the place is basically barren of technology compared to Tso’got.  It was easy to find you, and the drone you started sending south.”  

Parasite rolled his eyes, “All her stuff is connected to a small network she built into her suit.  All her drones sync up with the signal frequency that broadcasts from her armor. You’ve been listening in on us through Dragoon’s stuff,  haven’t you?” 

There was a pregnant pause, “Maybe.”  

My best friend put his head in his hands, “You couldn’t just tell us?”

“I’ve been using the drone to try and find Serpentine to help give you guidance when the time came for it.  The problem is I found them…but so did some of Zellig’s cronies. Chick who does nasty things with explosives.  Zeal and his crew have been holding up for now, but it’s tenuous and it’s only getting worse with time.”

“We need to help them!” Exchange interjected, being louder than I wanted him to be considering how close we were to a Trillodan transport.  

“Easy cowboy,” Interface replied, “Part of what is making her so nasty is traps.  She’s got like several blocks wired up to blow if people set foot in the wrong spot.  Even though these aren’t made to be lethal, but they’re still plenty nasty. Zeal is being choked out and denied any kind of movement thanks to this gal and two others working alongside her.”  

I groaned, “Interface, is anyone else in NaMein or is it just you?” 

“For now, just me.   Titan’s goal is to extract you guys and Serpentine and then move forward on Dragoon’s plan to re-invent a ship as a means of escape.”  

“We need Multi-task for that,” Parasite reminded the drone.  

“Titan is well aware.  Right now, Titan, Infinite, and a few others are hiding out near an escape vessel, with Multi-task.  I told them her idea and Multi-task has gotten to work with what she knows needs done.” There was a pause, and Interface got strangely serious, “Titan’s a bit rattled and paranoid now, more than usual.  He’s determined to not let Zellig catch them short-handed again. While I suggested that we deploy more than just me to help you guys, he’s unwilling to take any risks. So, for better or worse, I’m all he’s willing to spare.” 

“So we have to escape NaMein which is now crawling with Sycophants carrying Trillodan weaponry, aid a group of murderous nut-jobs who are being besieged by a Trillodan munitions expert, and the only help that our fearless leader Titan can spare is a fucking talking speaker box who doesn’t have the common courtesy to let us know that they’re watching us like a fucking perv!”  Parasite waved his arms, exasperated. “Did I get that about right, Interface?” 

“No because I forgot to mention one more thing.  That massive woman you fought, she’s back in NaMein,  looking for you lot with someone else tagging along.”  

I felt Eldritch twist with disdain as he remembered the savage beating we endured at her hands.  Even with the beast changing and Adapting somehow, she had simply overpowered us thanks to the Trillodan’s superior technology.  And now add in another operative and who knew what dastardly tricks would be brought against us this time.    

“Great,” I muttered, “So you’re basically telling us that we’re boned?” 

There was a long pause before Interface finally replied.  “Yeah, basically.”     



Previous ChapterNext Chapter

Planetside: Reinforcements

The room was tense to say the least; even though we had been looking for the Lost Children, having them show up abruptly made us cautious.  

They hadn’t been exposed to Titan or subjected to his ideology; for all we knew they could be hostile the second we gave them an opening.  After all, Adapted weren’t always prone to getting along; we played nice because in large part because no one dared oppose the absurd power that Titan and his two fellow forces of nature wielded.  

I was the only person who had stood up to them before that was still alive to talk about it after all, but that was when they found me at the tail end of Feast Day.  Never mind that Infinite hadn’t shown her face.  

We were also on guard because we were all spent, wounded, unable to fight, and the smile their leader was wearing made me uneasy.  It was something reminiscent of the smile Shockwave wore when he was fighting: it was bloodthirsty, the smile of someone itching to kill.  Since all we had to go off of was two sentences of reassurance they weren’t here for a fight it wasn’t exactly a calming face to see looking back at us.  

Parasite extended the staff and jammed it against the ground to balance as he looked back at the man in front.  “Names?” 

He put a hand to his chest, “I’m Adamant, the girl here is Distortion, and the smaller guy is Exchange.  And you guys?” 

“Parasite, the monster man you saw is Eldritch, girl with the tea is Lightshow, the quiet one is Menagerie, Mutant is hidden in a back room to regenerate, and the sedated girl is Dragoon.  She normally runs the show, but for now Eldritch and I will manage.”  

Adamant’s smile fell a little bit as he looked over at Dragoon, “What happened?  All we know is what we heard earlier and that people started turning on us. But those were just regular people, no one capable of fucking up a group of Selected.”  

“Trillodan special forces basically,” I replied.  “We don’t know how many there are, we just know that they can get around fast, heal quickly, and they are armed to the fucking teeth.  Each one of them packs enough firepower to level a building or twelve.”

“Then you guys aren’t dead because?” Distortion chimed in.  I knew right out the gate she had a superiority complex. She spoke with an air of arrogance, like a bratty child who was so used to getting her way.  She wasn’t ugly, but she wasn’t the prettiest person ever with the pock marks and asymmetrical spattering of freckles on her tanned face. My guess was that her arrogance stemmed from her power.     

“They want us alive,” Parasite answered.  “We’re better to study if they have a live specimen.”  

Exchange seemed mortified, Distortion oddly unconcerned, and Adamant was strangely invigorated.  Adapted were conflict driven; what better conflict to partake in than one like this?    

“Even if they want us alive, they can’t take us,” Distortion scoffed, “We’re fucking super powered.  I don’t care what the Trillodan have going on, they aren’t gonna do shit.”  

Adamant cast her a sideways glance, “Don’t get ahead of yourself, Dis, we saw Eldritch earlier and he didn’t look like someone we’d want to tangle with.” 

She rolled her eyes, “Speak for yourself, Adamant, I could have taken big boy apart.  No problem.”  

“What do you guys do anyways?” Exchange asked, fortunately stopping Distortion from making more obnoxious claims.  “We saw you be, well, a monster, but we don’t know the rest of you or what you can do.” 

“I have an organism under my skin that makes me stronger, heals me, and gives me perfect balance.  Mutant is a shapeshifter who can pick five forms out of his arsenal of ten and swap between them at will.  Dragoon can set her mind to fix a problem and create machines that are capable of self-repair.” He paused and let the other two speak for themselves. 

“I bring my drawings to life,” Menagerie said, keeping it straight to the point. 

Lightshow winced, “I’m not quite sure what I do anymore.  I think I create copies of things or people that I know.”

Adamant’s smile was replaced with an inquisitive expression, “Anymore?  It changed?” 

“She’s an Altered,” I replied, “Adapted, or Selected as you call them, put under enough duress can have another break and it changes their power.  Lightshow used to manipulate light and create illusions but, like two hours ago, she Altered. We’re still figuring things out.”  

I noticed her squirm, shifting uncomfortably and massaging her stump.  Even though Mother Audrey had been smart enough to pull her from being isolated, Lightshow had a long way to go before she was anywhere close to normal again.  

“The arm,” Adamant asked, “did you just lose it?” 

She nodded, looking down at the floor awkwardly.  “Yeah.”  

He nodded, his bloodthirst gone for a moment.  “We’ll make them pay.” There was a small pause and his smile returned as he tapped himself, “I turn on my gift and I can’t be stopped.  If I keep moving forward, things either get out of my way or I break through them. Exchange binds himself to stuff and shares impact and his selective weight with them.  He tires quickly depending how many binds he makes, but he’s dangerous and hard to keep a hold of. Distortion selectively takes snippets of reality and moves them after a tiny delay.  Think basically aggressive teleportation,” he said after a moment of thought. 

I regarded her with a little more caution; teleportation was something incredibly powerful no matter how you cut it.  The fact that she could retool her gift to do damage made some sense why she had a superiority complex. It made me wonder why she was so respectful to Adamant.  If she could simply teleport his head off his body, it seemed like she won most fights nearly instantly. Even if nothing could stop him, I was willing to bet that a supernatural guillotine was a strong contender for shutting him down.  

Still, one could never forget the importance of perception and relationship.  I followed Dragoon and trusted her intuition even though I was, from a power standpoint, much more of a force to be reckoned with than she would ever be.  While she was coming into her own in many ways, I had an incredibly high power ceiling. Especially with the Neklim itself Adapting, I had more questions about what I was truly capable of and where that ceiling was.  I had been hoping to get some time to myself to converse with the beast within but the appearance of the Lost Children had stymied that quickly. I wasn’t about to let myself be distracted while around new Adapted who I didn’t trust.

Mother Audrey had been uncharacteristically quiet, but she finally broke her silence.  “I would appreciate if you all took your show somewhere else,” she insisted to the trio who had so rudely popped in.  “You are looking for a fight, and I’m not about to let you pick one from here.”  

Distortion glared at her, “And you’re going to stop us?”

The nun was not intimidated, “I do not fear you, girl.  And I wasn’t talking to a petty underling like yourself, I was talking to your superior.”

While I couldn’t help but be concerned for Mother Audrey’s safety, I did appreciate seeing Distortion fume.  It was bad enough that Adamant actually put an arm out, stopping her. “Sister-“

“Mother Audrey to you,” she corrected.  

“Mother Audrey,” Adamant continued respectuflly, “We’re locals, we know not to fuck with public services.  We know you make medicine, and we’d like you to do that for as long as possible. Isn’t that right, Dis?” 

The tanned girl eventually shook her head no.  “Yes, of course.” 

He turned back to the mother, “The second the swarm lets up, we’ll be on our way.  You do good work here from what I hear, and who are we to interrupt such a generous mission.  We’ll do our best to allow you to remain uninterrupted.”

“By attacking the planet-demolishing aliens?  By provoking them through violence? You think they’ll just be happy with that?” The mother superior asked as she continued to work on Dragoon.

For as level-headed as he seemed, Adamant seemed at a loss.  

Parasite took the chance to fill the vacuum, “The second the swarm ends, there’s going to be a horde of people outside who want us subdued and gift wrapped for the Trillodan.  I’d rather not kill a ton of them if we can avoid it; they’re just people scared out of their wits.”

“They’re siding with the Trillodan instead of standing up for what’s right,” Adamant shot back, “I don’t respect cowardice.” 

“And you never saw your world burn,” Mother Audrey replied.  “These people have experienced a trauma it is almost impossible to wrap your head around.  The benefit of the doubt isn’t such a large ask.”

“All the more reason they should rally against them,” he insisted, “They should remember exactly why they hate the bastards.  Anyone who can’t stand up for themselves doesn’t really deserve our help.”

“That’s hardly a reason to kill anyone either,” I countered.  “They are making one bad decision; shouldn’t people get a second chance?” 

Distortion rolled her eyes, “You were the badass monster we saw a bit ago?  Jesus fucking Christ-“ 

Mother Audrey slammed her hand on a table, “Do not use the Lord’s name in vain in my building.  I will only tolerate your insolence so long.”  

Distortion clenched her fingers and a second later the table legs simply fell off, reappearing a few paces away.  The table clattered to the ground and the few surgical instruments on top of it scattered around. “I could fucking do that to you, you old hag!” 

To her credit, Mother Audrey didn’t blink. 

Adamant, however, was livid.  He turned and backhanded Distortion, nearly knocking her to the ground.  “Dis, she’s a fucking doctor! Seriously? Are you out of your fucking mind?”  Distortion stood back up, sneering and she clearly debated raising a hand, but Adamant glared her down, raising an eyebrow, “I say the word and Exchange beats you silly.  We know you can’t fight him, not indoors. Now, be a good girl, and fucking play nice.”  

The whole room went silent, no one daring to breathe as the two Lost Children stared each other down.

“You will not strike her again in my presence, and you will mind your language as long as you are under my roof,” Mother Audrey demanded, regaining control of the room.  “Am I clear?” 

He turned and reverently nodded, “Yes, ma’am.  I apologize for our poor conduct.”  

It was now becoming clear to me how their group dynamic worked, and it seemed to almost be a bizarre mix of the old concept of mind: Id, ego, and superego.  Distortion was id, driven entirely by her own self-interest and entitlement. Exchange was altruistic and polite, kind even, by far the most affable if not a bit underspoken.  Adamant held them together and was the best at navigating social situations. He functioned as limiter for Distortion’s arrogance and haughtiness while being the instigator for Exchange to act.  Exchange and Distortion rallied to him because they knew they needed the rounding out even though their relationship wasn’t necessarily the most healthy.

I regarded the teleporter with some caution; she had a short fuse and I didn’t want to incur her wrath.  While there were likely limitations on what her ability could do, she was quite sure of her ability to dissect things.  Even though I could probably regrow an arm, I didn’t want to find out how much it hurt to lose in the first place. 

Parasite took a step forward, “When the swarm stops, we’re not killing anyone.  Not if we can avoid it.” 

Adamant directed his attention to my friend, “And if I think that’s not our best course of action?” 

“I’m not offering a choice.  You want to help us out, you’re going to play by our rules.”

Adamant stepped forward, sizing up Parasite, “You’re looking worse for wear, friend.  Are you going to enforce that rule of yours?”

Parasite shifted the passenger into his arm, effectively swelling it with muscle, “Even though I’m in shit shape, I’m still able to take care of myself.  Besides, Lightshow and Menagerie are the really scary ones. You don’t know what kind of things they could cook up and you definitely don’t want to be on the receiving end.  Besides,” he added, “Picking a fight with other Adapted is going to make a lot of noise and pull the Trillodan here. The best thing we can be right now is clandestine. Once Dragoon is as good as she can get and we lose whatever tail we’re going to incur, we avoid conflict.  We’re going to want to lay low as long as possible and come up with a plan and rest up.”  

The leader of the Lost children weighed his words and eventually shrugged, “Fair enough.  We’ll play it your way for now, but if people decide to make trouble for us, we’re not going to hesitate to get messy.” 

There was a moment of stillness, only interrupted by the thudding of insects against the side of the building as the swarm continued to plague the city.  Parasite and Adamant continued the staring match before both looked away, clearly coming to a silent understanding.    

“How did you guys even get here?” Exchange asked, clearly not enjoying the tense stillness.

“A few Adapted made a gigantic ship over like two years; we all took it from Tso’got,” I answered.  

He blinked a few times, “You guys just made a spaceship and piloted it all the way to Vuuldar?  Shouldn’t that have taken you years to do?”  

“One of the people we’re with was teleporting us along the way,” Menagerie supplied.  “We call her Infinite because there seems to be basically nothing she can’t do.” 

The talk of teleportation caught Distortion’s attention.  “Wait, you have a bitch with you who can teleport an entire spaceship?  How far?”

“She was jumping like 20 million kilometers at a time or something like that,” I replied.  

Even Distortion was visibly impressed by hearing about Infinite’s feats.  “If she is so powerful, why can’t she just kill all the Trillodan on the planet?” Adamant asked.  

Lightshow frowned, “The more powerful she gets, the more unstable and dangerous she gets.  Odds are she doesn’t want to accidentally muder everyone instead of just the Trillodan. She’s not a surgical instrument, she’s more like a bomb.” 

“Is she running the show?” Adamant asked.  

I shook my head, “No.  Titan is.”

Exchange’s eyes widened, “I’ve heard of him!  Yeah, he’s the molten metal guy, right?”

“Yeah.  How did you know that?” I asked, surprised he knew anything about Adapted from another planet.

“I read a report about humans on other planets and he was referred to as some kind of government scourge.  Apparently he burned down prisons and laboratories and stuff like that.” Exchange paused, putting on a slightly worried expression, “You guys aren’t all like dangerous convicts or anything, are you?” 

“Us personally?  No,” Parasite informed.  “And neither is he, not really.  The places he burned down were basically torture chambers and illegal holding facilities where people kept Adapted shackled, sedated, and routinely tortured.  Titan’s big thing was freeing people so that they could make their own choices.” 

“I hate to but in,” Mother Audrey said loudly as she threw another chunk of bullet from Dragoon into a bowl, “But I am afraid we are going to quickly run out of time to be together.” 

I hadn’t noticed, but there was no longer any noise in the background.  The swarm was no longer outside and NaMein was no longer under blight.  

Now instead of a swarm of insects, we had a swarm of Sycophants on the way.  

My attention went to Dragoon still on the table, still sedated.  “Mother Audrey, can we move her?”  

The nun frowned, “I need to cast her arm before you take off otherwise it’s inevitably going to break, and it won’t be clean.”  

“That’s going to cost time,” Adamant noted, “If we stay too long, you’ll be guilty by association.  Caregiver or not, Mother Audrey, you’re going to have hell to pay for helping us. And not just you but everyone else here is going to face accusations for sheltering them.” 

  Sister Sara paled beside Lightshow, not wanting to speak out of turn, but Adamant’s words were clearly directed to her.  Despite her indecision, she stayed quiet, looking to the mother superior and deferring to her judgment.    

“Sister Sara,” the mother said, “Take off your habit.  Run. I will not have you being swept up in this mess. If I live and this place resumes operational, God will hardly mind you taking off your vestments for a moment and neither will I.”  

Even Distortion realized the weight of what Mother Audrey had just proposed.  

“Whoa,” Parasite said, “Let’s not be too-“

“Young man,” she insisted, “One day you will learn to be quiet and respect your betters.  When I told you I saw God in you, I was not about to ignore that sign. Now, as both a healer and a believer, I am honor and duty bound to fix your friend as best I am able.  If the last thing I do in this life is seeing you leave in the best shape I can, then I will die with a smile.”  

I managed to pry my lips apart to comment, “You don’t have to-“

She sighed and cut me off, “Eldritch, sweet boy, no one is making me stay.  I am choosing to do this.”  She was working furiously, mixing grey plaster in a bowl.  “I only have one request for the lot of you.” She paused for a moment and looked up at all of us, “Beat them.  The Trillodan have made far too many people too scared for too long. So, crush them. It may be a sin for me to wish for it, but I want you to make the bastards who burned my world pay for what they’ve done.”  

Parasite put on his trademark grin for the first time since we’d shown up at the clinic, “We’ll do what we can.” 

She let out a contented sigh and wrung her hands as she looked down at the unconscious form of my friend, “Well, I guess there is just one more thing for me to do.” 

“I hate to interrupt,” Exchange said, “But um, we have company coming.”  

Parasite glanced over his shoulder at me and I shook my head; while I would be a huge deterrent and threat if I was massive and monstrous, I had no mass to burn.  I’d consumed all the corpses that Mutant had made earlier, and even then it had only just been enough to get Murphy and me back from the clutches of Kalr and Tol.   

We needed some other way to stall the incoming mob.

A faint ripping of paper got my attention as Menagerie sat down.  The pieces of art dissolved and a pair of things that looked like snakes made out of obsidian slithered towards the chunk of wall Lightshow continued to maintain.  Our Altered grunted and let the rocky reptiles could slither through as though the wall was no more than an illusion.

Another facet of her reconstructed power: she could selectively change the solidity of her constructs now.  While I wasn’t happy about what had happened to her, seeing the changes to her gift was interesting.    

Outside there was a cacophony of screams and obscenities let out; it seemed four meter snakes made of stone made people question whether or not we were really worth attacking.

“Where’s Mutant?” Parasite asked.  “We need him awake.”

“He’s in the back,” Mother Audrey said as she kept working.  “You have about five minutes to get him awake and get out of here.”   

“I’ll get him,” I told Parasite.  As my legs hit the ground, I nearly buckled; the bullet Tol had shot through my thigh hadn’t entirely healed and it felt like my thigh simply refused to engage.  It was a struggle to get myself moving, but I eventually found a stride and dragged myself back and opened the door, spotting the grey slug that was our shapeshifter.  I reached forward and pressed a hand against him, noticing a little bit of movement in response.  

“Time to go.”  

It seemed to take a moment to register, but the grey flesh donned a pink and then white color as arms grew out of the lump and legs took form as well.  The slime on his form seemed to wick away magically as he stood up and bumbled forward, clad only in a pair of boxers. Even though he’d had time to heal, Mutant was still battered.  He had plenty of cuts and bruises and one massive bruise on his side stood out since it was essentially just a black patch of flesh that covered his entire right rib cage.  

“You okay?” I asked, horrified. 

He grunted and grabbed a shirt, hastily throwing it over his head.  “I’m alive. I’ll heal. That’s what matters, right?” Mutant saw my eyes transfixed on that one spot as if I could see it through the fabric.  “Where Kalr kicked me, still quite broken. I didn’t manage to swap to my beetle fast enough. It’s not important,” he insisted, annoyed. He glanced at me, “Did you get him back?” 

I nodded, “Yeah.”

“Good,” he said, curt.  “I was worried that neither of you were going to make it back.  I’d miss you two.” 

“That might be the nicest thing you’ve ever told me,” I said, caught a little off guard. 

“Grab the bag,” he said, reverting to be all business as he threw on pants.  “That’s all the medicine and stuff that Mother Audrey is giving us.” 

I strained with effort and sank to a knee as I tried to lift the duffel bag; my leg simply couldn’t stand the strain and the rest of me felt so pitifully weak after having just had bullets removed less than an hour ago.  

Mutant looked me up and down, concerned.  “You’re always healed when you come out of the thing.”

“It couldn’t mend me properly this time,” I replied softly, “There wasn’t enough time.”

The shapeshifter frowned, “How bad?”

“I got shot five times.  The Neklim was nice enough to fix my spine so I wasn’t paralyzed once it finally turned to dust.” 

Mutant bit his lip and nodded, grabbing the bag and offering me a hand up, “We’re going to have need of that big beastie of yours again.  It can finish fixing you then.” 

As nice as it was to have a little bit of a moment with Mutant, we were on a serious time limit.  “Lost Children found us, don’t do anything to them. One of them is a bit nasty, but she’s a teleporter and we need her to like us.”

He nodded as we stepped out.  

The clamor of the incoming mob was getting louder, but a glance through a window showed that the snakes Menagerie had made were doing a good job maintaining a perimeter at least for now.  I gave another glance at Mother Audrey and felt my heart sink, “Are you sure you don’t want us to bring you with?” 

She shook her head as she continued to form a cast, “No, Eldritch, I don’t believe this is my fight to partake in.  I’m a medical practitioner, and enough people are liable to have the good sense to let me live so I can keep them well when shit hits the fan.  If you take me with you, that means I’m around when the Trillodan hunt you down again and I’d just as soon avoid that.” She let out a weak laugh, “No, no, after seeing what you all do, I’d rather be as far away from that as possible, thank you very much.”   

I couldn’t help but worry that she was projecting optimism for our benefit; I was pretty sure that she knew she wasn’t going to walk away from this.  For her, fixing Dragoon’s arm so she could fight later was more valuable than her own life. She had only met us a handful of hours ago and she was willing to sacrifice herself for our cause.  None of us were charismatic juggernauts like Titan, none of us had the chops to convince her that we were a group worth supporting.  

Hell, I don’t think Titan could have convinced Mother Audrey of anything; she did what she believed in and that was that.  What hurt was knowing she was another good person who was likely to be caught up in the avalanche that was our crusade against the Trillodan.  Someone so good and altruistic was going to be collateral because of the ambition of a few kids.  

Mengaerie let out a huff, her façade of strength starting to waver.  She had kept Steve alive for hours before this and animated half a notebook in our first fight against Tol and the animalistic operative.  That dragon she had pitted against Kalr was massive as well and capable of withstanding huge amounts of damage. Menagerie hadn’t told anyone that she was spent and that her projections were about to fail because she was going to black out.    

“Adamant, who is best at crowd control?” Parasite asked, noticing the same thing I did.  “Her snakes are about to disappear.” 

The head of the Lost Children looked over at the skinny blonde kid and beckoned towards the door, “Exchange, put on a bit of a show.  Don’t kill anyone. Just some clean fun.” He turned to Lightshow, “Pull down the wall for him. It’ll add some gravitas to his entrance.”  

While I wasn’t a fan of him making demands, I have to admit I liked his flair for the dramatic.  As he stepped out, I saw him touch the wall and what looked like a golden thread trailed from his fingers for a moment.  He kept walking forward as the snakes faded into smoke.

Right before he was swarmed by a few dozen members of the mob, he reached inside his waistline and touched something, leaving behind another trail of golden threads.  

“What the hell-“ 

Exchange moved fast enough that my words caught in my throat.  He bounced around like he was as light as a feather, shoving people into one another and knocking them on their ass; he was a blur among the mass, fast enough that no one could lay a hand on him.  Panicked shouts and cries of alarm rang out as people stopped moving forward, scattering away from the human whirlwind that had appeared in their midst.

“What the hell is he doing?” Parasite asked, finishing my earlier question. 

“Exchange binds himself to a couple objects within a hundred meters<” Adamant explained.  “He can selectively choose the weights of the item to replace his own. So, right before he shoves people, he makes himself as heavy as that wall.  When he’s running around, he makes himself as light as the piece of paper he keeps tucked in his trousers. The extra nifty thing he can do,” Adamant said with a bloodthirsty smile, “Is that he can redirect damage.  If someone lands a hit on him, they’ll be effectively punching that wall instead of a fifteen year old kid.”

“What breaks the tethers?” Mutant asked, studying Exchange as he darted among the scattered group of people, shoulder checking and pushing people around to maintain the chaos.  

“Fatigue usually.  The only way that they can properly ‘snap’ though is if he takes enough damage that the item is malformed.  So, if something hit him hard enough that the wall was bent out of shape, that could snap the bond. Exchange’s ability to defer harm isn’t perfect either; we’re guessing it is about 90% of the energy transferred over, but enough that he usually doesn’t care.  So, you could theoretically hit him hard enough that he goes down too I suppose.”  

I was glad that the Lost Children were working with us instead of against us; all three of these sounded incredibly difficult to fight against.  Even if we weren’t fatigued and battered, I didn’t know that we could necessarily fight them while on even footing.  

“And we’re done,” Mother Audrey said, gingerly setting Dragoon’s arm down.  “Make her leave the damn thing on for at least a day otherwise she will break the stupid bone.”  

Adamant shouted something and Exchange bounded back to us, a few little scratches on his face being the only injuries he sustained while running interference.  

Parasite and I turned to Mother Audrey, neither one of us knowing how to say goodbye appropriately.  

“Thank you,” Lightshow said for us, “For helping us.” 

She gave a warm smile, the very corner betraying a little bit of the fear that she harbored, “Of course.  Now, time’s up. Off you go.” 

“Dis, home,” Adamant commanded, “And no one move, not if you want all the pieces of you to come with.  Make sure you get all her armor,” he added to the teleporter.  

She rolled her eyes, “As if I’d forget.”  

There was a shimmer in the air, and a second later, there was an instant of horrifying and inky blackness.  For a blink, for a single heartbeat, I was nowhere. There was no one around me, no extra noises, no extra sensations, nothing.  It was the closest thing to non-existence I could fathom.

And, fortunately, it ended as quickly as it started.  

We found ourselves in a flat that was furnished with cushions and bean bag chairs, as if it had been someone’s college dorm once upon a time.  There was a small refrigerator in the corner, and from the looks of it, a bedroom adjoining this living space. It was spacious enough and with little enough clutter that the room still felt open despite there being nine people crammed inside.  

“What…was that?” Menagerie panted, looking rattled.  She must have been witness to the same horrifying void.  “Where the fuck did we go?” 

Distortion laughed maniacally, “Nowhere.  Literally. For a fraction of a second, the stuff I move around doesn’t exist anywhere.  Don’t worry, after the third of fourth time you get pretty used to it.” 

“It’s true,” Exchange affirmed with a weirdly cheery grin.  “Initially it gave me a panic attack. I’m okay with it now.” 

Menagerie didn’t look reassured at all.  “Please tell me that we’re not doing it anytime soon,” she pleaded.  

“We won’t,” Adamant assured.  “Distortion just moved us about four kilometers and she doesn’t normally do nine people with baggage; if she tried to do that again she’d turn us into mincemeat and put herself in a coma.  For now, you’re safe.” 

Taking a look at Distortion, I could tell he wasn’t joking.  For all her tough act, she was drained of color and taking shallow breaths.  The only other person I had met who had any kind of teleportation, discounting Infinite, was Relay.  He had been able to move tons of people with ease, but it was only to set locations, and his gift seemed to have no real offensive capacity and instead strictly utilitarian.  

It seemed the flexibility of Distortion’s gift made it much more taxing.  

“What is this place?” Parasite asked.

“Our hideout,” Adamant said proudly.  “We pooled our resources and bought the place outright.  We made a point to keep it so no one could ever follow us here.”

“We only enter with Distortion teleporting us here,” Exchange explained, “We never use the door.  There are some people in NaMein who have started looking at Selected, er Adapted as you call them, and are looking to study us.”

Parasite and I frowned; we’d been in a Snatcher laboratory before and knew exactly how hellish those places were.  If people were just starting to follow the trend, hopefully they weren’t organized into a dangerous network of desperate scientists.  

A groan came from Dragoon who had been placed on the floor.  The Cognate groaned as she tried to sit up and found herself unable.  Her right eye was still black from Tol hitting her hard enough to break her helmet, and her whole torso was wrapped in bandages thanks to her being riddled with small bore bullets earlier.  “Where-“

“Safe,” I answered.  “The Lost Children found us.”  

Another unintelligible groan as she tried blinking, “Murphy?”

“I’m here,” he replied, slumping to a knee beside her, “I’m okay.  Nick got me back.”  

Her eyelids parted for a moment, as if to confirm he wasn’t an imposter before she lapsed unconscious again.  

“Not to spoil the moment,” Adamant said slowly, “But we are going to have to figure out what we want to do moving forward.  Considering what we’re up against, we are going to be found out eventually. Either someone is going to use the chaos as an excuse to raid our home or the Trillodan use some fancy technology to locate us.”  He turned to myself and Parasite, “How many of you are on Vuuldar, and what exactly was your plan?”

I felt Menagerie and Mutant bristle, reticent to trust someone they didn’t know yet, but Parasite and I knew that we needed the manpower and that there would have to be risk required.  Should the Trillodan fight us again, we were dead. We were all tapped for resources and beaten to the point of infirmity. We needed reinforcements, and Adamant wanted the information.

He’d held up his end of the deal and avoided killing anyone.  He’d helped get us to safety. Whether we wanted to play ball or not, Adamant was as good as his word.  He was involved now and needed to know what we did. He’d definitely earned this.  

Parasite and I explained what had happened towards the end on Tso’got and the hellish night that had eaten Ciel before we left with Titan and all the Adapted he’d amassed.  We divulged Titan’s plan to try and make a small army of Adapted to march against the Trillodan home world since Almanac could locate it, no matter where it was. We told them about his overpowering right-hands who were likely more powerful than he was in the grand scheme of things.  We talked about how we got here and were blindsided by the Trillodan and ambushed. When we had tried to return to the ship, Relay was non-responsive and for all we knew, it wasn’t in the sky anymore.  

We were stranded and our closest group of allies was a murderous group of Adapted in the south end of the city.  Joining forces with Serpentine wasn’t exactly high on our list of wants, but Parasite and I agreed that survival was definitely on the top of the list of priorities.  If there was anyone capable of surviving, it was Zeal and his band of bastards. He was one of the oldest Adapted at 25 and had been in more fights than Beleth and Shockwave with arguably more dangerous opponents.  He was the cream of the crop if you excluded the prime trio. Our shared anxiety was whether or not he’d help us since we had injured and may well slow him down in whatever venture he had.  

Parasite and I were being more optimistic and assuming that Titan, Infinite, and Forest were all somewhere on the planet, looking to engineer a way for us to leave.  Still, Zeal might not share that opinion and assume that we were stranded; if that was the case he was likely to dig in and go down swinging. None of us were sure if he’d be happy bringing along wounded people into his fold, especially without Titan helping to keep the peace between factions.  

I didn’t mention it aloud, but when we discussed the possibility of getting back off Vuuldar, I remembered that Dragoon had taken an interest in the old evacuation ships that Sister Sara had mentioned but I couldn’t figure out why.  My parents told me about them and how they were massive, made to withstand a crash landing but not to ever escape orbit again. They were designed to relocate a mass number of people a single time. Several Awakened planets built them as a means to avoid extinction in the case of Protocol 37, but it was a one-way ticket off world.  

It would be so much larger than the ship that Multi-task had made that I wasn’t sure if Infinite would be able to get it off the ground.  Even if she did, would it have functional life-support or engines?  

I wished our leader wasn’t so injured and doped up.  Parasite and I weren’t good at planning the long term, and I was remiss to give reigns over to Adamant.  While he knew the area infinitely better than we did and he’d bought some good will from us for sheltering us, I was still wary.  It might just be from a history of fighting other Adapted, but I couldn’t bring myself to let my guard down around him.  

Adamant was polite, listening intently as we talked.  Around the room, other people began winding down and finally relaxing after the last few hellish hours.  Mutant shifted back into a slug and pressed himself into a corner, Menagerie laid on a beanbag and promptly passed out.  Lightshow took the corner opposite Mutant and pressed her back against it, massaging her stump while her eyes constantly flicked around the room.  I knew that no matter what I told her, she was going to be looking for a threat. Adapted seemed incredibly resilient to the stresses of fighting and injury but I knew Lightshow was going to need time, help, and patience to get over what had happened to her.  

Distortion found the conversation boring after a while and retired to a bedroom but Exchange hung around, sitting politely and listening in.  

“So, Adamant,” Parasite said, “What do you think?”

His eyes flicked towards Dragoon, “I think this would be easier if she was awake.  No offense to you, but you’re fighters and not planners. She’s going to have the answers we need.  I might be good with people and getting my way, but Trillodan aren’t people who barter, and people turned Sycophant aren’t either.”  He wrung his hands, “I hate to say it, but I think we need to up our game a little and scare people away the next time we’re confronted with insurgency.  Word of mouth spreads, and if we can scare a lot of people into being docile, I think we’ll have a better time while we’re in NaMein.”  

I frowned, “Are we not going to try and avoid people?” 

He shook his head, “Best bet is that we move down south and try to meet up with Serpentine.  If this ‘Zeal’ character is as hardcore as you suggest, we want him nearby. Even if he’s a killer, he’s got bigger fish to fry than us.  You may not like it, but you may have to be okay with him killing a handful of people in order to keep him happy for now. Mother Audrey understood that sometimes sacrifice is essential.” 

My stomach turned at her being compared to a mass murderer, “Not the same kind of sacrifice,” I growled. 

He raised his hands defensively, “If you want to live, you have to be around the biggest baddie you’ve got to offer.”  he turned and looked at Exchange, “The reality is we need to come with you. We’re powerful, but we’re bad at being responsive as a group.  We set traps well, rig fights to be almost unwinnable for another party. That’s where we’re strongest. You guys are more malleable and still had trouble dealing with these Trillodan operatives; I worry if we get caught off guard, we’re paying the high price.”  

I was going to say something, but all four of us drew back from Dragoon as she sat up violently, eyes snapping open as she started panting, shaking as if someone had electrified her whole system.  

Before anyone could ask, she grabbed my leg, “Nick.  They want to talk to us. We need to get out of here.  W-w-we need to get off Vuuldar! We have-”

“Calm down,” Parasite insisted, taking a knee beside her, “What the fuck are you talking about?  Who the hell is ‘they’ anyways? Do you mean the prime trio?” 

She shook her head, “Not them, not Titan.  Whoever ‘they’ are, they’re the ones responsible for us.”  She looked around at the sleeping figures before turning back to us, “Whoever reached out to me, whoever sent me a message in a dream, they made the Adapted.”  

Previous ChapterNext Chapter

Planetside: Hunter

        As soon as I stepped into the swarm, I felt the tendrils grow in earnest, shielding me from the droves of insects that were drawn to us.  For a moment I was worried that they would somehow harm the growths, but Eldritch relaxed the hold the outer layer of growths. Left unrestrained, they could ensnare the bugs that came too close.  While humans weren’t built sturdy enough to withstand the Milignum, a Neklim definitely was.  

       Even having panoramic sight gifted by the Neklim, it wouldn’t help locate my abducted friend or his abductors.  Something was going to need to change for me to have a chance to track them down. Every time that I had mutated the massive Neklim it had been a response to stress or some kind of explicit need.  While the monster Eldritch might be the actual Neklim entity, I was the progenitor. Without my input, it couldn’t develop.  

I focused intently on what I wanted most, what objective I couldn’t fulfill.  

We need to save my friend.       

Our first mutation was a new sense, a kind of vision that identified sentient life and guided us through the swarm.  As we charged, we kept our eyes out, looking for the operatives wading through the storm of insects; other humans and Ellayans would be hiding and waiting for the Milignum to pass but the Trillodan would keep moving.  

Fortunately, Eldritch knew how to move the body much more fluidly than I had ever been able to.  Running, where it had been problematic and nearly impossible for me, was a breeze with Eldritch taking control.  As we continued to grow, our stride changed, becoming somewhat of a gallop as the beast used its continually lengthening limbs to help pull us along.  But, such size and rapid growth wasn’t without cost.  We had used all five hundred kilograms of mass to grow ourselves ten tonnes of Neklim material as quickly as possible, but the cost had been in the efficiency of the production.  These growths were only going to last half an hour and we’d been chasing the Trillodan down for about fifteen minutes.  Once we caught up, we’d have to be quick. If it came to a war of attrition, the Trillodan would have the clock on their side.  

Ahead of me, the Trillodan stopped, turning around.  

They know we’re coming.

Eldritch didn’t respond vocally, but I could feel the thrill building; no matter how sentient and self-aware this thing was, it was, at its core, a predator.  It lived to hunt, to catch its meals, to grow older, more clever, and more dangerous as it persisted over the years. When I had Adapted, the Neklim that attacked me and Xana had played with its food a bit first, dancing around the trees to scare me, to savor the kill.  Even though Eldritch was far more refined than that beast, there were always going to be some similarities between them.  

To feel that same thrill coursing through my veins was… a little bewildering.  

But I wasn’t about to try and stop the monster.  I’d seen what Eldritch could do during Feast Day; if there was ever a time to pull out all the stops, it was now.  Tol and Kalr were both injured, but it was still one of us vs. two of them.  While ten-tonnes seemed like more than enough to overwhelm them, I had witnessed Kalr throw Steve, the half-elephant and half-troll amalgamation that Menagerie had made.  Brute strength was not absent, and Tol had fought through getting an arm blown off.  He’d used five of those red disks earlier, but we’d seen at least seven on his armor. No matter how big we were, those could pose a problem for us. Just one of them had provided enough power to destroy Lightshow’s copy of me.  

In a frenzy the bugs peeled back, revealing an open little city square of sorts.  There were a few cars scattered around a plaza with small, brightly decorated stores lining the area.  In the middle were the two Trillodan operatives, waiting patiently. Despite having an arm ripped off and a chunk of his side removed, Tol looked remarkably okay.  Beside him, Kalr still showcased a few lacerations and some bruising, but she was so big that the injuries seemed markedly superficial. Even though I was two and a half meters tall, she didn’t seem too put off by my stature.  

“You’re a lot bigger than last time,” Tol said with a laugh, “But this time there’s not any of your friends abominations to help you.”

“Last chance,” Eldritch hissed, “You give him back, or I eat the both of you.”  

Kalr laughed, lifting Parasite up by his arm, dangling him around like he was some kind of toy.  “You want him? Come get him.”  

Show me what you can do, big guy.  Rip them apart.  

It felt strange encouraging the monster I had been so afraid of.  I had spent so much time fighting with Eldritch for control, so much time trying to silence this beast that had been created.  But, my friends had been right, talking to the voice hadn’t been a bad idea. Getting a feel for the monster living in my head was liberating.  

And it was a thrill to feel myself stampede forward, rushing headlong to collide with Kalr.  

We towered over her.  Despite her being over eight feet tall, I was a head and a half taller and I used that reach to swing an arm down, an avalanche of force that would crush all the bones in her body.  Except, she dodged out of the way.  She wasn’t some big and overzealous brute who would believe she could outmuscle me.  Kalr had been trained by Zellig and undoubtedly been a fighter for longer than I had been alive.    

Tol is going to try and whittle you down.  He was using explosives earlier; he’s going to use those to blast chunks of you away and get you to a size that Kalr can grapple with.

Right on cue, Tol raised his arm and fired three spires of metal into us; Eldritch raised an arm to block, instinctively protecting me in the middle.  As soon as they made contact, the hunks of steel exploded, shaving away nearly a hundred kilograms of material.  

On our flank, Kalr leapt away and ripped the hood off a car, reaching in for the engine block.  The translucent membrane around her skin changed, turning a chrome color as she drove her fingers into the hunk of metal.  In a blur, she turned and whipped the lump of machinery at our midsection. Even with the tendrils hardening, we weren’t designed to be hit with a two hundred kilogram projectile that had effectively been fired from a cannon.  Another four hundred kilograms of material turned to mush as we staggered to the side.  

Eldritch planted an arm to correct our balance, but Tol was expecting as much; a sphere of metal bored into our arm before exploding and taking a hundred and fifty kilograms of mass with it.  As we rose, Kalr dashed forward, her suit shifting to that chrome color as she slammed into us. The outer layer of tendrils tried to find purchase in her skin, but there was an impervious wall between us; whatever that membrane was, it was now as tough as steel.  It did seem to hamper her movements some, but it robbed us of one of our greatest strengths.

We stumbled as she drove a shoulder into us and Eldritch roared in frustration as it tried to maintain balance.  A massive arm swung back at her, but she was back out of range, stepping forward to drive a foot into our leg before we could adjust again.  The downside of being so large with no combat oriented mutation was that we were slow.  

If we couldn’t adapt to her surprising agility, there was no way we stood a chance.  Focusing as hard as I could, I tapped into that sense of desperation. 

We need to be faster.  

Our biology responded like before, rapidly changing our physiology to better suit the arena we were caught in.  Strength seared through us as a wave of adrenaline saturated the layers of growths. Our adrenalized counter caught Kalr off guard, and allowed us to get a hold of an arm; tendrils engulfed if and began to squeeze and twist, trying to crush the armor and the bones beneath.  Even if we couldn’t bite into her flesh, I still had a lot of size I could abuse and I wasn’t limited in my direction of movement because of a skeleton.  

Tol fired another four explosive spikes into our torso, but Eldritch shifted mass to absorb the blow and keep me safe as I continued the tug-of-war that was going on with Kalr.  His salvo cost me another three-hundred kilograms, but it was an acceptable loss if we could cripple the brute. Twisting, I swung my limb and dragged her along, trying to whip her into the ground as I had done with Tol on our first encounter.  

Kalr twisted and threw herself with the movement, willingly dislocating her shoulder to maintain her balance.  Her feet hit the ground and she growled as she forced the arm back into its socket.  Eldritch reached forward with the other arm, but a handful of explosive spines kept it at bay.  I could feel the adrenaline wearing off and our grip lessening; soon we wouldn’t have this edge and we’d lose the chance to surprise them like this again.  

Another attempt to debase her proved fruitless, and then she roared as the operative gave a final yank, tearing her arm free from our grasp.  Without the adrenaline, we weren’t stronger than Kalr.  We couldn’t simply overwhelm her with brute strength; if we were going to win out against her we needed to leverage size as well as well as muscle.  We needed to literally crush her or mutate another way to seriously injure her.  Now that she knew about our adrenaline mutation, she wasn’t going to let herself get caught like that again.  

We’d had to work something else out, and fast.  Our tussle with her had ultimately wasted time, and cost us nearly another tonne of mass that Tol had been free to chip away.  We had showed up with ten tonnes to fight with; we were down to less than eight and a half already, and we’d done no substantial damage to either of them.  

They had no reason to hurry.  They knew about our powers and had to know that my growths would expire with enough time passing; they had no reason to make hasty or risky calls. All they needed to do was play it safe and I would burn out, and then I’d have handed myself over to them.  

By showing up to fight these two, I had gone all in.  

Either this worked, or the Trillodan were claiming two for research. 

I tapped into that desperation, seeing if I could coax out another mutation, but nothing came to the surface.  For now we had exhausted our means of rapid change and were forced to do with what we had. 

If we can’t overpower Kalr, we have to attack Tol.  He’s the one doing the most damage.  

Another wide swing drove Kalr back a step, and let us rush forward and grab a hold of the engine block she had pitched at us earlier.  Tendrils wrapped around the hunk of metal; another turn launched the chunk of crude metal towards the Trillodan captain.  

He threw himself out of the way, rolling up to his feet in a fluid motion.  Still, it had provided a small moment where we could begin charging his way and get some momentum going before he riddled us with explosives.  Even though a few spikes detonated and shaved off some of the growths that constituted Eldritch’s legs, more tendrils were allocated to keep us mobile and on the chase.  

“Kalr, now!” 

Beside us, the giantess grabbed a flatbed and threw it on its side.  With a grunt, she lifted it up and then charged straight for us with the vehicle acting as the front of the battering ram.  

Eldritch planted his foot, abandoning the chase for Tol to answer Kalr’s battle charge.  The instant he wasn’t on the run, a trio of explosives carved into our leg; we only stayed upright because of the allocation of resources to keep our legs intact.  Our arms flared out, our ‘hands’ turning into a maw of material that enveloped the truck and pushed back as she collided with us. The ground gave and we slid back a few paces, her momentum literally driving us backwards.  But, she slowly ground to a halt as we dug into the ground, and another spike of adrenaline flowed through us.  

We roared and ripped the truck away from her, bringing it over our head and crashing onto hers.  Kalr raised her arms to weather the blow, but she sank to her knees as the metal frame bent around her limbs.  Our left arm flared open and shot forward, engulfing a shoulder and part of her torso.  Her eyes widened, realizing she had made an enormous mistake getting so close to us. Despite her attempts to rip herself away, Eldritch could allocate too much mass to allow her to rip free.  Even with the material on her skin turned to metal, we had too much weight and muscle in one area for her to leverage against. 

I didn’t even need my other arm to get a hold of her; she wasn’t getting away from this.  But then it dawned on me that she shouldn’t have been so close, she knew about our adrenaline. 

Her bewildered expression changed to a smile as a metallic slide dragged, heralding a red disk being discharged.  

I saw the crimson energy collect in a single bolt and shoot forward, embedding itself in our shoulder.  We had committed so much material into our one arm to capture the brute, I hadn’t realized that we were making it vulnerable; all Tol had to do was destroy the joint and all the tissue would die since it would disconnect.  Eldritch had seen a chance to dig our teeth in and the Trillodan captain knew that we’d spring for it.   

When it detonated, the entire left arm and a good chunk of our torso went with it.  

From 7724 kilograms to 5850 in an instant.  Kalr ripped herself free as I reeled, trying to compensate for the damage.  I expected her to back away and reassess us with some caution, but it seemed that all we’d done was invigorate her.  While Eldritch was trying to reallocate mass and correct the balance and size of his form, she began landing heavy blows against our midsection, aiming to try and hit hard enough to batter me beneath the lattice of onyx-colored tendrils.  

And she was more than able.    

Goliath had been able to hit me hard enough I felt it under the muscle and she was hitting harder than he did.  Each hit was crushing easily a dozen kilograms of organic material, and she was hitting me with the speed of a trained boxer, even with her armor limiting her movement.  Behind her, the gunslinger continued to take pot shots, the two of them working in perfect tandem to whittle and cut me down to size. The 5850 kilograms was down to about 4100 kilograms before I had even managed to build up another surge of adrenaline to expend.    

I dug again, trying to reach for that threshold of desperation that would enable another mutation, to add to our arsenal, to give us a fighting chance.  We were hemorrhaging material at an alarming pace; we’d run out of mass well before we ran out of time, especially if Tol used another one of those disks to blow two tonnes off at once.  It was likely the only reason he didn’t was because he was afraid of killing me underneath all the growths.  

Still, even though he was a bit hamstrug, she wasn’t.  And with the sudden absence of so much size, I wasn’t even sure that I could properly overwhelm Kalr now, even with an adrenaline boost.   

A sense began to flood through me, a dread that wasn’t my own.  While I was scared mostly for my friend, Eldritch was scared for its own survival.  The massive entity was being culled, ripped away piece by piece; if it fell here, there was a good chance it would never be given a chance to exist again.  Even though I had been wary about using the monster, Eldritch was something I had to use.  As long as Eldritch existed as part of me, it knew that it would taste flesh and be released again. If the Trillodan got a hold of us, there was no way that Eldritch would ever be given control or mass to burn.  It would cease to exist, it would be relegated to watch the world pass through its hosts eyes, rebelling against its imprisonment, denied agency until it ceased to exist.  

I felt the monster scream in protest, and I felt it change fundamentally.  

This wasn’t a mutation or some strange, explainable physiological change.  This was a complete re-writing of the monster, an adjustment that remained unexplainable, and a heretical rebellion against nature. 

The monster growing from my skin, the entity of Eldritch had just Adapted.  

Our tendrils changed consistency, and not just in the way that a Neklim could normally do to reinforce their own muscle mass.  The color of the growths changed to a deep blue and the consistency of our body paradoxically found a middle ground between crystalline and fluid.  

Kalr slammed her fist forward again, but this time it didn’t have nearly the same impact.  The hit before it had crushed thirteen kilograms, but this hit only destroyed two.  Instead of hitting muscle, she might as well have been hitting steel.

The giantess leapt away, unsure of what to make of me given the changes.  Tol must have told her about Lightshow’s Alteration and she was likely wary about any changes to my gift.  Even though I couldn’t explain how the Neklim entity had Adapted, I knew that it hadn’t changed my Adaptation, or its limitations.  

The two of us could discern what would become of us after we had made it away from this.  But, we only had another five minutes to finish this fight before the growths turned to dust. 

Tol shouted something in their foreign tongue, having her fall back further as he tried to stare us down, unsure of how to proceed.  When we had just been a mound of sentient muscle, there were limitations and laws we had to obey.  Becoming something else entirely threw those preconceived notions away and Trillodan captain knew better than to underestimate any kind of change like this; he’d just fought against Lightshow after she Altered and it put her on a completely different level.  He wasn’t about to repeat that same mistake.   

The captain fired another explosive spike into my leg, only chipping away a dozen kilograms where it had previously done ten times that much damage.  A tiny crack appeared along my outer layer, but it fused back together to form a solid sheet again.  As I stepped forward, it still functioned like normal muscle, folding and bending to keep me perfectly mobile.  

My mind was still reeling with the fact that the Neklim I was host to had somehow Adapted on its own but I wasn’t about to complain.  I knew that when feast day had happened, Eldritch had pulled and copied much of my brain and given itself some kind of base intellect even without a hive mind feeding it information.   

It begged the question then that when it did that had it also found a way to pull whatever made me Adapt as well?  

It met the same criterion for changing as I had, almost exactly as a matter of fact.  It wasn’t a response to long term stress of prolonged oppression like Alexis or Murphy, it was a short and intense burst of stress when faced with death.  Eldritch had simply gained a method of protection to keep itself afloat in the bout since it was too vulnerable.  

I did my best to pull myself back to the present, pushing this conundrum to the back of my mind for now.

We need to fight.  If we stall, the growths fade and we’re never getting away.

Eldritch got the message and charged forward, adjusting the outer layer so we were effectively covered in spikes.  As we got close, I noticed something behind Tol: a small device that seemed to be emitting a low frequency signal. It had to be what was keeping the swarm at bay, and it was something Tol had been keeping himself between us and that machine this whole time, trying to keep our attention off of it.    

Their vision wasn’t perfect, and if the swarm was in the way, it could provide the cover we needed to get escape.  Plus, if the swarm was close enough, it could provide the mass I needed to extend the duration of the growths and run.  

“Kalr,” Tol called out to his comrade as the metal in his suit shifted, putting two of the red disks into his hand, “Show him what you can do.”  

She stepped back and he slammed the two disks against the canister on her back.  When she had fought Mutant and Menagerie, it had previously contained the fluid that had regenerated countless injuries; now the red fed through the pipes plugged into her suit, the solution beginning to infuse into her muscle.  

We had been too slow stop the transaction.

Kalr leapt forward and kicked us backwards.  Despite the chrome color making her armor more opaque, I could see the red running through veins in her arms and across her face.  Her expression twisted from a sly grin to a frenzied and nearly deranged smile. This whole time I had been assuming those red disks were some kind of energy source that could translate to circuitry only, but they clearly had some kind of biological property as well.  

If the partial energy from a disk had made Tol’s suit nearly twice as fast, what would two entire disks do for the already obscenely strong Kalr?

 We tried charging again, but this time she answered with alarming ferocity.  Her hands were a blur, her speed easily triple what it had been previously. More damning was the fact that she was hitting nearly three times as hard.  Each hit was breaking six to ten kilograms, and she was a storm of punches that could not be calmed.  

We tried to raise an arm and she literally beat her way through it, hitting the crystalized muscle with the force of a freight train; If we hadn’t been made as strong as steel, she would have probably punched all the way through me. 

Eldritch attempted a wide sweep to knock the berserker back, but she was far too fast to get hit by anything we had to offer.  Another flurry of blows shattered three hundred kilograms in an instant, and a massive kick nearly cleaved my leg in half. We tried to angle around for Tol, but Kalr was having none of it; even in her berserker state she was aware enough to keep herself between us and her captain.  

Four minutes remained until the growths would fail and Kalr’s boost showed no signs of wearing off.  

Embracing that desperation, I reached out into the void, grasping for any kind of change that would help us attain a favorable state in this fight.  Even if she ran out of power boost, she had reduced us in size enough that she could just fight us on her own, even with our new crystalline body.

We need to be in two places at once.  We can’t keep running our head into Kalr.

The mass of growths responded, developing a mutation that had enabled so much of our rampage back on Ciel: the ability to splinter myself into animated fragments.  However, we only had one shot at this and then our window for upsetting the fight would be gone. Tol was no slouch and even with an arm removed would adjust quickly once he knew what new trick we had up our sleeve.  

But Eldritch was fundamentally a beast.  While it had attained some sentience and siphoned intelligence from me, the beast that had manifested within me was still just that.  We’d tried operating under Eldritch’s guidance and it had been seen through by Tol in an instant. But, the Trillodan had no idea we could create a division of labor, and he wouldn’t be expecting something so dialectically opposed to what we’d modeled so far.

Eldritch, I need you to give me control. 

There was a moment of hesitation, but I felt control shift in a dizzying flood of sensation.  I was no longer an idle passenger and was instead thrown into the driver’s seat of this monstrous body.  My balance wavered as Kalr continued to batter our body with relentless fury.  

I steeled myself, knowing that there was only three and a half minutes to make this work.  

Mass shifted to my shoulder, running along one side of my right arm as I pivoted, turning slightly to angle myself so that arm was facing away from Tol.  I let Kalr hit me for a few more seconds, sundering another hundred kilograms of material. It was like pieces of glass were being broken free of me, and I let myself endure the pain of each blow.  I hadn’t managed to make any kind of real injury to either of them and I’d had nearly seven tonnes of mass destroyed.  

Brute forcing it wasn’t an option.  Eldritch had tried that and failed.  

Instead, Nicholas Weld was going to try and see if he could be clever.  For several minutes they had only seen a monster fight; as well trained as they were, they were bound to see things in patterns.  We’d endured this much punishment without changing much, why start now? I was a naive and frantic kid from their perspective; the last thing they would do is assume I was calm and collected.  

The mass collected in my shoulder ran down along the back of my arm, collecting a forty kilogram lump of material near the end of my ‘hand.’  I endured another volley of strikes, one of them finally catching me in the upper chest on the left.  

I let the momentum move me and spun around, dragging my arm along with it to whip a forty kilogram mass of growth at Tol.  He dodged the initial hit, but it wasn’t just a projectile, it was a living fragment of material that I’d given a single directive: 

Bite into his leg and don’t let go.  

The hunk of crystalline muscle leapt towards Tol and wrapped itself around his left leg, squeezing down against the power armor and chewing through with hardened teeth.  He cried out in alarm as he tried to batter the thing off, but it was fragmenting in tiny chunks, refusing to give up on its goal.  

Kalr roared and sped up her assault, but all I had to do was hold her off for a moment longer as I threw another fragment free, this one with orders to smash the machine that they were using to drive away the swarm.  My first mutation would give me the ability to see through the cloud of insects far more clearly than they were capable of doing.  

As I threw it, there was a brief moment where Kalr tracked the fragment, and in that instant I dumped every ounce of adrenaline that was stored to crack back with a quick slice.  I had my arm flatten and do its best to sharpen; it was good enough to hit and finally break through the armor she was wearing. I felt it bite into her side and let a handful of tendrils spring free to burrow into her flesh and chew up everything they could.  The giantess stumbled, her frenzy showing signs of waning as the invasive growths began consuming her ample supply of muscle; Kalr grit her teeth and jabbed a hand into her side to fish them out. 

While she was distracted, I took the chance to swing again, slapping her with a broad arm; the impact knocked her onto her side and gave me a chance to flee, not daring to see how much harder she would hit when enraged. 

“Now!” I hissed aloud, giving control back to Eldritch. 

The swarm descended upon us, providing me some cover as we broke away and lumbered forward to Murphy.  Eldritch seized the limp form and enveloped him in a thin layer of growth to try and limit any further exposure to the Milignum.  

However, I could already see some dark spots forming on his skin from where he’d been infected.  The best thing we could do for him now as hurry him back to the compound so Mother Audrey could purge it out of him.  

Eldritch roared as something tore into my shoulder despite all the crystalline armor I was encased in.  Behind us, Tol had managed to get up and reconstitute his power armor, exposing his stump to the swarm while making a massive gun atop his intact arm.  Another round fired, this one hitting me in the torso, puncturing a lung even as Eldritch tried to shift growths to protect its host better.  We’d pressed Tol again; and he was done playing around to capture me. Tol was done being defeated.  

He had every intent to kill me.  The gun he’d configured truly did very little damage to Eldritch, it was made to kill me underneath the armor.  My only saving grace was that he didn’t know exactly where I was in the mass of growths, but he clearly knew he was on the right track.    

Do not stop!  Let me bleed, just keep running!

Eldritch’s core directive was to preserve me, to ensure that I existed so that it could as well.  I felt the monster grapple with its nature as a third round tore through a kidney. I did my best to compel the beast forward, knowing that standing still was a death sentence.  We only had ninety seconds before the tendrils began to fail if I didn’t begin consuming the swarm and the new, crystalline muscle was failing on that front.  Besides that, Eldritch’s attempt to heal me took too much of it’s focus; he basically ceased to function if he was mending me.

Eldritch wouldn’t be able to compete with a sniper rifle boring holes in me every few seconds.  Eventually one would find my heart or my brain and this charade would end.  

The beast struggled, but we began lumbering forward, leaning forward and using our right arm to help us along the ground as our left sheltered Murphy from the swarm.  

Another round ripped through, this one hitting a leg.  One more followed as well, hitting me in the base of my spine.  

After thirty seconds of running, the crystalline shifted back to the more malleable onyx-colored muscle; the change allowed us to consume the insects again and buy us a little more time to preserve the growths.  At a certain point we slowed, Eldritch demanding that I be restored at least in part before it faded; I didn’t argue because the blood loss was finally catching up with me and I wanted to be sure I could use my legs when I was out of the suit again.  

As we moved, I started slipping in and out of consciousness, the internal damage from Tol exhausting me.  

I was dimly aware of a spike of concern from my monstrous counterpart as I began to fade and then I couldn’t remember anything else.  


    “I think he’s coming to,” a soft voice called from beside me.  

    I managed to open one eye and got a face full of Menagerie as she looked closer.  “Hi,” I mumbled, aware that everything hurt. That in and of itself was alarming; everytime I had used my Adaptation I was healed by the end.  This time though had been different.  

It dawned on me that I had blacked out while still wearing nearly two tonnes of Neklim on my body; my eyes snapped open as I sat up, immediately regretting my decision.  A hand reflexively pressed against my side as I felt myself being short of breath, aching.  

“Young man, if you pop those stitches, we will have a problem,” the stern voice of Mother Audrey called over at me.

“I was… I showed back up with-“

Menagerie shook her head, “It didn’t do anything bad.  You just kind of lumbered to Lightshow’s wall and it fell apart, dropping you and Parasite inside.  You’re okay, Eldritch.” 

I let out a sigh of relief knowing that nothing had happened because of me.  “Dragoon?”

“Your friend with the armor took a hell of a beating,” Mother Audrey replied and it finally dawned on me what she was doing; removing chunks of metal from a slim redhead who had been heavily sedated.  A bag of blood hung, slowly draining its contents into her arm. “And these bullets are nasty. It’s like they spun to bore into her flesh.”

“Probably why they tore into her armor,” Menagerie muttered.  

“Your friend isn’t going to be able to use this arm for a while,” the mother superior stated, making it clear that wasn’t up for debate, “Even with the supernatural medicine helping mend her, she did serious damage ripping the spike out of her arm in such haste.  It cracked part of the bone, and the last thing she needs to do is split it entirely. This may take a day or two to heal with the orange goo, but if she splits the bone the recovery time goes from days to weeks.”  

I turned to the Peculiar artist beside me, “Murphy?” 

“Sleeping soundly,” the mother answered before Menagerie could respond.  “Luckily whatever lives under his skin kept the Milignum from getting too deep…but there are several spots that are going to be scarred for life.  He has a handful of broken ribs and cracked jaw, but his ‘passenger’ as your artistic friend called it is doing a good job setting bones. He’s doped up on some painkillers and sleeping it off.”

Sister Sara entered my field of vision, running a cool hand over my injuries and pressing a hand to my head.  “Reverend Mother, he’s still running hot.”  

There was a clang of metal on metal before the mother superior walked over, glaring down at me, annoyed.  “I know I fished all the metal out of you, thanks in large part to that monster you made digging it most of the way out.  Odds are you’re immune system is trying to overcompensate. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to get a white cell count,” she mumbled, annoyed.  Two capsules were pressed into my hand, “Take, swallow. We can’t have you getting an infection.”  

I obeyed, not questioning her medical acumen.  

“Sister Sara, the other two?” Mother Audrey inquired.  

“One is turned into what looks like a grey slug,” she said, a bit disturbed.

“Don’t worry,” Menagerie assured her, “he’s supposed to do that.  He has ten forms he can utilize, and that one is built to make him heal.  If he was finally able to shift into it that bodes well.”  

She nodded, not entirely convinced, “The amputee is still pressed in a corner, still silent.  I offered her food, but it doesn’t look like she’s touched anything.” 

Mother Audrey clicked her tongue in frustration, “Damn it.  Child,” she directed to Menagerie, “I need you to bring your friend to me.  I would very much like to talk with her.”  

Menagerie frowned, “I don’t think-“

“I didn’t ask,” Mother Audrey replied, “I understand you believe you know what is best for your friend, but believe me when I say I’ve seen this more times than you have.  Your friend is quickly spiraling into the thrall of PTSD and the next few moments are going to be very important. So please, let me speak to her.” Her tone made it very clear that it wasn’t a request.

Our Peculiar bristled, “Mother Audrey, with all due respect-“

Menagerie was silenced by a stern glare from the nun, “Girl, enough.  Whatever argument you think you’re going to make, it’s a flawed one. That girl stared death in the eyes and part of her broke.  For better or worse, your friend is going to be different now, and the best thing you can do is work from here. I have seen this countless times, and the last thing she needs to be isolated.  You all will have to fight again, and again, and again, and the last thing you need is her to be withdrawn.” She sighed, “You are an incredibly introverted person, but she is not. She needs to be reminded that she is a social creature.  If she can hear it from an objective party, she will respond. Trust me.”  

“Menagerie,” a groggy voice called from out of my field of view, “Let her talk to Lightshow.”  

I turned and craned my neck, catching a glimpse of Parasite laying on his own cot, wrapped in bandages.  

“You, young man, you should be asleep,” the mother superior growled.  

“I metabolize drugs too quick and I never do what I’m told anyways,” he replied as he turned and swung his legs out of the bed.  “My staff, I want it.” He stared beyond me to Mother Audrey; I twisted to see her matching his stare, unflinching.  

She finally shrugged, “Sister Sara, be a lamb and get the boy his trinket.  However,” she insisted, “I must insist you get back in that bed. You will undo good work if you continue to move your broken ribs.”  

“Pull me closer to Nick,” he demanded. 

The mother superior strode out of my vision and a grinding sound echoed through the room as the cot came into my field of view.  “Now, lay down you obstinate brat,” she demanded as my friend took a place beside me.  

I turned my head and looked him in the eyes, horrified at what I saw looking back: fear.  Even after Siphon had beaten him within an inch of his life he hadn’t been this rattled. When Kudzu had nearly suffocated him in a mass of wood he hadn’t been this undone.  We kept dancing closer and closer to the edge, and this time he’d been the one closest to making a permanent exit. We’d already lost Geyser, and he had been seconds away from joining him.  He’d been beaten badly, twice in a row, and it was exacting a toll from our plucky Enhancer.    

“Thanks,” he whispered, “For saving me.”  

I offered a smile and extended a fist, “You’d do the same for me.”  

He took the fist bump and offered a weak grin, “I’d at least try.”  

We couldn’t continue anymore as our last member came back in.  I rolled onto my side and watched Menagerie walk her forward, helping her stay upright.  

Mother Audrey stepped forward, waving a hand to Menagerie, “Lightshow is strong enough to stand on her own.”  

Menagerie fought the urge to argue, stepping away from Lightshow and giving her friend a supportive smile.  Our Projector looked to her and then back to the mother superior, her eyes shifting around the room, constantly on the prowl for anything amiss or possibly threatening.  

“What’s your name, child?” 

“Light-“

She shook her head, “Not that one.  I’m not asking about the girl who is keeping the walls up, I’m asking about the girl behind that mask.  Behind that veneer of power, there is a scared girl, and I want to know her name.”  

Lightshow gulped down her anxieties, “Rebecca.”  

“Rebecca,” Mother Audrey repeated, “A beautiful name.  The patron saint of the sick and orphaned. Did you know that?”  

“No.”

“And now you do.  My child,” she said softly, letting the callous demeanor fade away, revealing a gentler side of the matriarch, “You aren’t alone.”

Lightshow shied away from her, turning her head, refusing to meet her warm look.  “I know that.”

“Do you?” 

It was a simple question, but one that hit Lightshow like a ton of bricks.  She struggled to formulate a response, to do anything other than stare at the floor in contemplation.  

“I heard about what happened, and I saw some of what occurred.  I know that you’ve faced death twice in a matter of hours and you bear the most permanent wound from your encounters.  The rest of them will heal. You, my child, are forever going to be missing a part of yourself. And unfortunately,” she added, “That arm isn’t the only part of you that came free, was it?” 

Rebecca moved her lips three times, mouthing a single word, but unable to make a sound.  The fourth attempt finally got a tiny whimper out. “No.”  

“Child, come here,” Mother Audrey insisted softly.  When Lightshow didn’t move, she let out a sad sigh. “You’re an orphan, aren’t you?” 

That jarred my teammate out of her stupor.  “How-“

“I have met many children who don’t know what it’s like to be cared for.  You struggle, and you joke about everything to make it feel better. But when things come crashing down around you, it’s hard for you to let people help you.  It’s difficult to allow anyone in that head of yours. For better or worse, you believe that you are best on your own, not troubling other people.”  

There was no judgment from the mother superior, just a declaration of what was.  

“Just because you’re Selected, or Adapted, doesn’t make you less human,” Sister Sara said softly, “You have friends here, and they want to take care of you.  It’s okay to let them help.” 

A single tear rolled down Ligthshow’s cheek as she took a step forward.  “I saw it, you know, when your life flashes before your eyes. I experienced it all again.  I remembered my parents dying when I was sixteen. I remembered being alone in Manda, and meeting Mutant.  I remembered working with you guys,” she said, looking around the room, “And I felt something give out. It was like I quit being human because I couldn’t afford it anymore.  I had to become…something else.”  

Mother Audrey took a step forward, “Good, what else?” 

“I didn’t want to go,” she whimpered, “I didn’t want to die.  Ever since Feast Day, ever since the fight started happening with the Trillodan instead of with other Adapted, I’ve felt so fucking useless!  I’m an illusionist, and they can see right through it. The best I could do was support Menagerie, but I wanted to be able to do something on my own.  When Tol pointed the gun at me, there was no tricking him, there was no blinding him, nothing. No one was coming to save me, and I was going to die because I was too weak, because I was useless.”  More tears began flowing down her face. “I was so tired, and so horrified. And I just-I just-I couldn’t die like that. It was like Adapting, all over again,” she said to us, “But this was different, painful in a way.  When we Adapted, it was like something was added to us.”  

“And this took something away,” Murphy extrapolated.  

She nodded, “It ripped something away and jammed a new piece in.  It was power for part of my soul. I don’t know if I’m still Lightshow, or if I’m even still Rebecca.  I don’t feel useless anymore, but I don’t feel human anymore either.” Lightshow sank to her knees, “I feel so powerful for once, and at the same time I’ve never felt so fucking weak and pathetic.  I’m afraid to be near you guys,” she confessed, “Because I’m afraid I might be like one of the Lunatics.”  

We remembered Psycho and his band of Altered vividly: the deviants who had pushed us into taking a fight with Beleth to help settle a grudge he had with the man.  All his cronies were rescued from Snatcher’s prisons and laboratories, but all of them had fractured and become something else entirely. They were so volatile, so shattered, and all capable of doing so much damage.  The only other Altered we were aware of was Infinite, and she had nearly killed Dragoon on accident.  

It made sense that she would be afraid to be anything like them. 

“Have they rejected you, child?” Mother Audrey asked finally.  

“I-“

“It is a yes or no question,” she pressed.  

There was a pregnant pause as Lightshow looked around at all of us, “…no.”

Mother Audrey knelt down beside the timid Altered and put a hand on her shoulder, “My child, I witnessed what you did.  I saw you save your friends. If not for you, we would all be dying from the Milignum and they would have made off with more than just that loud-mouthed buffoon you keep around.”  

“Hey!” Murphy protested weakly.  

“You protected me,” Sister Sara said quietly, kneeling beside her as well, “Even if you are scary and unsure of yourself, so far you’ve been nothing but good.”  

“Come here,” Mother Audrey insisted, leading her over to the bed that Dragoon was laying on, “This girl is going to live because of you.”  

Lightshow nodded, taking time to process that she had kept the head of our team alive, that she’d actually saved probably half a dozen people by stopping Tol in his tracks. “Okay.”

My jaw almost dropped with Mother Audrey gave her a genuine smile.  “Now, Sister Sara is going to make you some tea, and you’re going to sit down here with your team, understood?”

“Okay.”  

As the demure nun guided her to the Bunsen burner that was making tea, I slowly sat up, being mindful of the stitches in my side and shoulder.  “Mother Audrey,” I called.  

The older woman turned, “Yes?”

“Thanks, for everything.”

She nodded, “If I might make a suggestion to you, monster boy.”

“Eldritch,” I supplied.

“Eldritch,” she repeated, “I would encourage you to talk to the thing you hide in yourself.  It isn’t a mindless beast; the best thing you can do is tame and train it.”

“I think that’s a good idea.” 

She scoffed, “Of course it is.”  

Before I had time to reply, there was a distinct crack like a branch being snapped and three people appeared in our midst.  

Parasite sat up, staff in hand as the three figures raised their hands in surrender.  “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” the one in the middle said, trying to diffuse the tension, “We’re not here to fight.  We’re not with them.”  

He was average height and bald, with a vividly colored tunic that was a mix of red and yellow, and the people beside him were all dressed in similar garb, though with different color combinations.  

Mother Audrey clicked her tongue, annoyed.  “And if you aren’t ‘with them,’ who in the hell are you and why are you inside my building?”

The man in charge smiled, “We’re here because we figured you guys could use some extra hands.”  He turned his attention back to me, “We saw your performance and thought it might be fun to tag along.”

I blinked a few times, finally putting it together, “You’re the Lost Children.” 

He bared his teeth in a vicious smile, “Guilty as charged.” 

 Previous ChapterNext Chapter


Planetside: Plague

While several of us were still trying to process what had just happened, Dragoon turned towards the matron of the facility, “Our friend, where is she?”  

Like me, she’d realized that we weren’t in danger, but Ligthshow sure as hell was.  Mother Audrey was quick to pick up as well, her eyes betraying a moment of alarm. “Building on the opposide side of the compound.  She should be in a back room near our storage closet.”  

“Mutant, get to Lightshow, NOW!”  

He needed no additional prompting.  In a blur, he transformed into a bird and zipped through a window.  Mutant was more than enough to keep her safe, but we needed to group up quickly.  People were going to light a literal signal fire to bring the Trillodan to us; the last thing we needed was to be split.    

“Guys,” Parasite said, pausing as he took a glance out the window, “We have another problem.”  

“What the hell is that?” I whispered, staring out at the black cloud on the horizon. 

“Milignum,” Mother Audrey said, very matter-of-fact.  “The insects come in a swarm, all guided by the same compulsion thanks to the disease.  We have a few minutes before they get here.” 

“How long will the swarm be here?” Dragoon demanded. 

The Mother Superior frowned, “Usually a Milignum blight lasts anywhere from one hour to three, depending how well the city contains itself.  If there isn’t adequate food easily accessible, the swarm will move on in search of something else.”  

Dragoon let out a sigh, “Alright, Parasite you’re rear guard, Menagerie call Steve to be closer.  Let’s get to Lightshow before we have to compete with that shit.” She turned to the Mother Superior, “Mother Audrey, I might recommend you sit this one out.  It’s gonna get rough from here on out.”

She shook her head, “I will ensure you leave here in good health and get the medication that was promised to you.  You are still under my charge.” 

Our captain debated arguing but decided against it.  She nodded and threw her helmet on, “Well, let’s get to work.”

The second the door opened, someone tried to barrel into the room, clubbing Dragoon with a chair.  While she stumbled for a fraction of a second, my friend was quick to return fire and hit the man in the mouth.  Chunk of shattered enamel went flying as he stumbled back into the hall, whimpering in pain.  

“Cover!” she shouted as Dragoon pulled off a sphere of metal from her suit; she lobbed the concussion grenade into the hallway and closed the door before anyone else could try to muscle in.  As soon as it went off, she forced her way out, pushing people aside as they tried to reclaim their balance.  

One grabbed my ankle, but Parasite stomped on the man’s hand without hesitation.  There was no smirk on my best friends face, for now the jokester was all business.  

As we got outside, I grimaced at the encroaching insect swarm.  It was so thick that it just seemed like an angry cloud of smoke, one that made an audible buzzing, even from this far away.  “Around the building, quickly,” Dragoon insisted.  

We darted around the edge of one building, knowing people weren’t about to break through the glass to come after us.  While they knew the looming consequences of disappointing the Trillodan, they were all too familiar with the threat the Milignum posed right here and now.  The swarm didn’t care about intention, it was a force of nature that would do as it pleased.  

The threat the Trillodan posed did drive a dozen people outside to try and intercept us.  Like us, they knew there was a few minutes before the plague arrived and began to infect. Still, seeing them trying to intercept Adapted with nothing more than broken pieces of furniture and their fists was almost depressing.  They had to know that there was no way they could win. As I watched them, some of them clearly knew it was futile; they didn’t want to be doing this, but they didn’t feel they had a choice. Allowing us to stay here was being complicit.  Some of these people remembered the Trillodan and they wouldn’t suffer Protocol 37 again.    

“Parasite, left,” Dragoon barked.  

The men in front of them didn’t stand a chance.  Dragoon and Parasite were better armed, better trained, and had-for all intents and purposes-armor where their opponents did not.  The confrontation was over in seconds, each desperate patient only needing a single hit or two in order to be sufficiently eliminated from the fight.  

I was expecting some kind of lecture from the Mother Superior, but none came.  There were no gasps of surprise or condescending glares cast at any of us. Instead, she watched the violent display with a sad expression, disheartened that it would come to this.  It didn’t escape me that both of my friends weren’t aiming to kill but trying to maim or cripple. If Parasite had really wanted to, he could have simply swung for the fences and started crushing skulls with his staff.  Dragoon had the scrap gun and could have fired into the crowd, but she restrained herself as well.  

I was willing to bet that Mother Audrey noted their moderation as well.  

Dragoon threw the door open, turning back to the Mother superior, “Where is Lightshow?”  

“Farther down,” she informed us, “On the right.”   As we got closer, we didn’t need her guiding: there was a blood trail leading up to a closed door.  Around the entrance, there were chunks of people scattered among the gore. Some of the people were groaning and trying to limp away, but some were never going to rise from Mutant’s rampage.  

This display of carnage did actually earn a frown from the Mother Superior, but still she held her tongue.  

“Still think we’re divine, Mother Audrey?” Parasite asked, his tone somber.  

“Maybe a little old testament for my tastes, but defending a wounded comrade is hardly what I would consider evil,” she replied, curt.   

Dragoon rapped a hand on the door, “Mutant, it’s us.”  After pausing for a moment, she opened the door and he stepped out, bringing Lightshow with him.  She looked substantially better after being given a blood transfusion, but she was still decidedly out of sorts.  Her face was grim, but now at least there was a modicum of color where before she has been alarmingly grey.  

Mutant was in his wolf form, his coat caked in blood.  Seeing the Mother Superior, he changed back and tried to stare her down, but still to no avail.  

“I assume you didn’t kill the sisters.”

Mutant shook his head, “Just those clambering over one another to get at Lightshow.”  

Across the hall, a door opened and a mousy face poked through as Sister Sarah crept out, horrified.  “Mother Audrey-“

“Peace, child,” she said softly, pulling the terrified woman close, “He means you no harm,” she insisted, looking to Mutant.  “God didn’t make soldiers who were going to be clean and pristine, Sarah. It is always darkest before the dawn.” 

The Mother Superior’s vote of confidence did not exactly win points with the rattled nun.  I couldn’t blame her though; when Mutant was let loose, he was a monster. The people here didn’t stand a chance, especially since they were threatening the shapeshifters closest friend.  The two of them had been roommates and known each other long before Rogue Sentries. When he found us, Mutant had lost his old team and it had burned a harsh lesson into his primal personality:

Defend what you have, or watch it die.  

He didn’t talk about the fact that Geyser had been taken by the Trillodan, but Mutant was one who spoke with action.  Mutant was not about to relive that reality, not if he could fight it.

“Lightshow, how are you holding up?” Parasite asked.

“A bit more gore covered than I’d like to be,” she replied, vainly trying to wipe the blood off her checkered outfit, “But alive, so good start.”  

I opened my mouth to say something, but a buzz droned as the wave of Milignum washed over the building, with insects slamming into the side with a cacophony of metallic thwacks.  

“What exactly is this Milignum shit?”

“It’s a parasite, a tiny one,” Mother Audrey informed us, “It starts with insect eggs, gestating with the bugs as they grow and subsequently uses them to infect mammals.  The mammals it infects are prompted to leave their waste in the water where the eggs survive and eventually hatch. The problem is,” she added, “That Milignum evolved to plague hartier species.  Simply put, humans are not built sturdy enough to withstand the stuff. It’s far too aggressive and causes necrosis. While it doesn’t usually last very long in us, that’s because we run out of skin and muscle for it to rot off.”  

“Can it be cured?” Dragoon asked, a bit mortified. 

“Not really.  You can treat it and curb any further damage, but undoing necrosis is God’s work to do, not mine.  The best thing we can do is basically burn it out with concentrated silver nitrate. It’s an… unpleasant process.”  The way she lingered on the term, she had either experienced such a thing or knew someone who had. That was definitely the voice of experience.

Menagerie sighed, “Can you cover up to prevent infection?  Will the bugs bite through clothing?” 

Sister Sarah and Mother Audrey looked her way, each with some concern.  “Why would you ask?”

“The Trillodan are likely going to show up while we can’t run, they will take advantage of the situation and dictate the fight on their terms.  They all wear armor suits, so they won’t give a damn about the plague.”

“And they aren’t going to be subtle about their entry,” Parasite added.  “If we have to fight back in earnest it’s like that much of this building isn’t going to survive the evening.”

  “There are extra clothes we can use to ensure we are covered,” the Mother Superior said, walking over a cabinet to fish out extra linens.  “The bugs also shy away from enough heat, so if one of you is capable of making a space heater, that might help.” 

Menagerie hastily began flipping through the pages of her notebook to see if she had any kind of means to control the almost inevitable influx of pests. 

Dragoon tried to look out the windows, annoyed at our lack of visibility.  “Mutant, stay alert for them. I don’t want to be blindsided.”   

Mutant changed to his lizard form, the green scales coating over his skin in a wave of color that consumed our shapeshifter.  Mother Audrey gave him a respectful nod as he stepped forward, flicking his tongue out, smelling the air. While it wasn’t a particularly good combat form, his lizard form was incredibly sensitive and a good scouting measure.  While it limited his vision, it more than made up for it with his adjusted hearing, touch, and smell.  

As he flicked his tongue out to taste the air, he crawled up onto a wall, blending seamlessly with the shadows cast in the corners.  “There’s a fire, on the other side of the compound. I can taste the smoke.”  

“If the Trillodan didn’t know where we were, they do now,” I muttered, trying to avoid becoming too discouraged. 

There is meat you can consume.  You don’t have to be disarmed. Four hundred and nineteen kilograms within reach right now. 

I felt a little sick to my stomach at the suggestion, remembering exactly what had happened the one time I had consumed a person to ignite the reaction.  There had been no stopping it, no curtailing my ravenous hunger, and the genesis of the voice in my head. I had left nothing of my parents to bury except for bare bones.  

“No,” I whispered to myself, “Not that.  Not again.”  

There was a tense silence as we held our breath, waiting for the inevitable conflict.  “I’m sorry,” Dragoon said to break the silence, “I’m sorry we are bringing our war to your home.  If I might make a suggestion, you should probably try to get yourself away from us, away from where the inevitable conflict will be.” 

Mother Audrey offered a sad smile, “If we are culpable for sheltering you, I believe that there is nowhere for us to hide.  If the Trillodan want to see us dead, I will die proudly having helped you.” She prompted the sister who handed over the duffel bag of goods she had offered to us, “Should you escape, I do hope this offers value for you and all who fight alongside you.”  

“It will,” Parasite replied.  

Mutant tapped his fingers on the roof, getting our attention, “I hear something…different.  It isn’t part of the swarm, but it isn’t like a drop ship.”  

She drummed her fingers against her arms, “Meaning what?” 

“I’m not sure, Drag, but it tastes,” he flicked his tongue out a few more times, “Like metal.  I don’t have a better way to describe it.”

Menagerie tore a page from her notebook and the page turned to ash; a pair of her burning boars showed up, each one standing up to my waist and radiating heat.  She’d used these before to great effect. “They might start some small fires, but they should be hot enough to be a good insect repellant. If you and Sister Sara would like to hide with them, that might be a good idea.”  

“You should join them, Menagerie,” Dragoon insisted.  “The last thing we need-“ 

Mutant hissed and dropped back to the floor, swapping to his wolf form, “The bugs are moving away from the buildings.”  A glance at the window showed that it wasn’t just speculation; the swarm was backing up, giving the building a wide berth. 

He didn’t have to spell out what that meant.  The Trillodan were setting the stage for a brawl, and the last thing they wanted to get were infected specimen.  Besides that, they had fought us once and knew that we could break the armor they came with. Even if they didn’t care about us getting infected, they likely didn’t care to risk getting some kind of necrosis from the bloody bugs.  The Trillodan soldier that Soliloquy had coerced into talking had mentioned that the Trillodan were surprisingly fragile in some ways; as badass as his operatives were, Zellig’s cronies were still Trillodan and had the same foibles.    

“Menagerie, Sister, Mother, please,” Dragoon implored, “the back room, hide there.  There’s no need to get yourself caught up in this.”  

At least we could operate with impunity, but then again if these soldiers worked with Zellig, they were hoping for a good fight.  They thrived on conflict, on the mayhem, just like we did. I wasn’t sure who it favored more, and the more I thought about it, the more I eyed the scattered carnage that Mutant had generated; would we be able to fight them without Eldritch?

Before I could come to a conclusion, something slammed against the exterior of the building, and then blasted a hole into the side of the structure.  Through it strode the gunslinger operative, his swagger just as confident as the first time we had encountered him. He seemed to drink in the scene, taking stock of what he was up against before taking a step forward.  

“You can give in,” he offered perfect Universal Common, “You can quit struggling, quit fighting.  Your friend lost an arm last time; what will we have to take this round?”

“Where’s your friend?” Lightshow shot back.

Even though he was wearing a helmet, I could swear he was grinning.  “Lail will heal, but I don’t think that stump will.”       

“And what happens if we don’t come along quietly?” Dragoon said, stepping forward, putting herself between the operative and me.  “What happens if we choose to fight back?” 

“Then I break your bodies and drag you back to Vaneel.  He will heal you to make sure you last as a material for study.  As long as I avoid killing you, I can inflict as much damage as I want.  Trillodan medicine will be able to restore you before the sun sets.”  

It was good to know that Steve had enough damage that even Trillodan medicine had put down ‘Lail’ as the operative called the animalistic assassin.  If nothing else, it gave us some benchmark for how much damage we needed to inflict to take them out of the fight for at least a night.  

“What do we call you?” Parasite asked.  “You know us, but this seems to impersonal.”  

The helmet pulled back, the metal shifting like sand in an hourglass to reveal a green Trillodan face with some sickly white spots dotted across him.  Even though I knew next to nothing about the tyrannical aliens, I knew that those blotches were not something that bode well for him. “My name is Tol,” he said, proud.  

The way he said it, the way he held himself, it was like looking at Zellig again.  “You work for him, directly, don’t you?” I asked.  

Tol parted his lips to reveal twin rows of fangs, “I’m one of Zellig’s three captains.  The other two are hunting down the rest of your twisted race.”  

“Twisted race,” Parasite said, affronted, “We’re humans.”

“Human’s don’t have that shit under their skin,” the trillodan captain replied.  “Human’s don’t turn into reptiles. You are something else, something different.”  

“The other thing that humans don’t normally do,” Dragoon said, loud so that Menagerie could hear, “Human’s don’t make monsters come to life!” 

In a flow of metal, the facemask returned and Tol snapped his fingers; something detonated and the entire left wall of the building was turned to dust, revealing a gargantuan Trillodan.  She was easily eight feet tall, laden with muscle and equipped with a terrifying, bloodthirsty grin. Unlike Tol, this one didn’t wear a distinct set of power armor but instead had a small translucent layer over her frame.  The only bit of mechanical enhancement she had was a tank on her back with a network of tubes running into some major muscle groups. All the tubes looked to be coated in metal, protecting the obvious vulnerability.  

“Kalr is fixing for a fight,” Tol said with a laugh, “Are you su-“ 

Steve thundered into our midst, leaping over the building and slamming into Kalr, shoving her away from the breach and interrupting Tol.  

“Menagerie, make the dragon,” Dragoon shouted back at the door, “Mutant, help keep that big bitch down!  Parasite, with me, we’re due a rematch!”  

Any alarm that the sudden presence of Steve might have introduced was gone instantly; instead there was a malicious hunger coming from him as he held a few meters away, eagerly waiting for them to charge, to take the fight to him.  He wanted this and he’d known full well that we weren’t going to take the option to come quietly.  

“Drag-“ I started.

“Stay back with the others,” my captain insisted.  “We can take him.”  

I was reluctant to believe her, but if there was one thing that she and Parasite were both fantastic at, it was learning.  My best friends were quick studies and both were going to fare far better against Tol this time. Both knew about what kinds of threats he came with and would have some idea of how to work against those trump cards he had built into his suit.  Both knew the dangers those red disks posed if consumed. At a glance, he had seven of them. Two had been enough to do in both of my friends, but they had been blindsided by the insane power those posed.  

And this time, Dragoon wasn’t about to pull any punches.  Our last fight had started with her trying to avoid lethal measures and continue to be the tight laced Reckoner.  That idea was cast aside now.  

“Parasite, blind!” 

My best friend nodded, darting in, looking down for a split second as Dragoon launched a concussion grenade at Tol’s head.  

It exploded, prompting Parasite to attack, going low and attacking the Trillodan’s legs, slamming his shin into the side of the operative’s knee.  While Tol buckled, he turned his attention beyond Parasite, looking to Dragoon.  

Just like they had learned the dangers he posed, Tol had learned the dangers Dragoon posed like the fact that her railgun would punch holes through him like a pencil through paper. 

Metal moved along his suit, collecting in his palm as he skirted to the left, avoiding the next hit from Parasite; the shifting metal collected in his hand in the shape of a ball and he threw it back at Dragoon.  Halfway through its trajectory, it detonated, shredding shelves and punching a hole in the wall that was still standing. The blast knocked Dragoon over and forced Parasite back a few paces, giving Tol freedom to run her down.  

Dragoon sat up, grabbing the railgun but not getting a shot before Tol kicked it out of her hand.  I expected her to go after the gun, but instead Dragoon threw herself forward, tackling the Trillodan.  As both tumbled, she slammed a fist down, doing so damage to his helmet before he launched her off, throwing Dragoon through the hole he’d made in the wall.  Our captain rolled and was quick up to her feet, throwing another concussion grenade in, this one detonating right in front of her opponents face.  

Even with a helmet to dampen the effect, it sent him reeling.  

Parasite seized the opportunity, clutching the collapsed staff in his hand and driving it into Tol’s face plate.  The eight kilograms of metal ripped a chunk out of the mask and exposed some of that blotchy skin. My friend flicked the hunk of metal to his other hand to allow for another full bodied swing, trying to break the rest of the fractured metal; Tol shot a hand forward and grabbed his elbow.  A pivot launched Parasite into the wall as if he weighed no more than a piece of plastic. Despite being tossed, my best friend was back on his feet in an instant, already attacking again, trying to keep Tol occupied so Dragoon could get a hold of her gun.

Parasite knew he wasn’t going to be the one to put him down; all he had to do was buy space for Dragoon to get a few good shots off.  

What drew my eyes away for a moment was Lightshow pointing through the hole in the wall, to where the monstrous brute Tol brought with him was engaging with Menagerie’s two massive creations.  The three-headed dragon coated in quills was the same size as Steve, and both were trying to batter and shred their way through Kalr. But, she wasn’t going down. From the tubes attached to her suit, some grey colored sludge flowed and quickly filled any gashes or cuts in, completely undoing the damage.  

The more daunting thing was that she was standing toe-to-toe with Steve.  Menagerie’s monstrous creation slammed into Kalr, forcing her back a step, but he couldn’t keep rampaging forward.  The Trillodan dug her heels in, twisting and lifting the beast off the ground with a grunt. Her lips parted into a sneer as she ducked under a barrage of quills from the dragon, darting forward with surprising agility considering her stature.  Mutant flitted by in his travel form, shifting to his wolf to drag his claws along, slashing down her side before throwing himself away to avoid being squished by a furious swipe. Initially it looked like Mutant had inflicted some serious damage, but more sludge filled in the gaps, immediately rectifying the damage.

Steve rallied and charged, demanding attention as he raised on his back legs and kicked.  While her hands were busy, Mutant sliced into the back of her knee while the quill-coated dragon darted forward, each head finding a place to bite and tear a hunk of flesh free.  As soon as Steve was muscled back, the dragon and Mutant darted away, lacking the strength to stand and brawl with her. I almost shouted to go for the metal tank on her back but there were already scratches present.  Kalr, I observed, was keeping her face to Steve; he was likely the only one would could hit her hard enough to dent or break the machinations.  

One other person on our team could likely do the job; the problem was that she was hung up with Tol, trying to make enough distance between the two of them to actually get a hold of the railgun.  

Parasite went in for another exchange with the Trillodan and found himself on the receiving end of the battery.  Tol ducked under the strike to his head and countered with a few crisp punches, each slamming into my friends’ side.  The Enhancer tried to counter with a kick, but his opponent grabbed the leg pulled it out from under him.

Instead of falling down, Murphy caught himself on his hands, kicking a few times before springing away and correcting his posture, about the same time that Dragoon got her hands back on the railgun.  

Tol growled and raised an arm, the gun on his wrist winding up; Parasite leapt in the way and endured a dozen shots to the chest, none tearing too deep thanks to his passenger being best at mitigating local traumas.  The Trillodan roared in frustration and raised his right arm; a blast of heat rolled through the building as Parasite’s shirt was burned off and the skin immediately blistered.  

“Move!” Dragoon shouted.  My friend needed no additional hint as he stepped to the side for our captain to let fly the first round.  

It screamed, the unholy sound echoing in the metal box as she let fly the sphere of metal.  Tol threw himself to the side, landing in an undignified heap but managing to avoid getting a hole punched through him.  As she went to reload, Parasite moved forward to keep the Trillodan captain busy. 

A sound like a cartridge being discharged rang out and one of the red disks his the ground.    

Tol shot a hand forward and a visible wave of force slammed into Dragoon, throwing her a good three meters backwards and into a shelf that had been housing linens.  Even though I was down the hall, I was still swept off my feet by the shockwave and landed among the corpses; reviled I got up as quick as possible. But, it did remind me that I could participate in the fight.  But if I did, would I end up killing my friends in the process?

Tol  rising to his feet drew my attention back up the corridor and off my crisis  of conscience. For now, I would have to trust my friends to hold their own.  

As the Trillodan rose, his suit was still dimly glowing red.  I was glad that my friend had noticed too, dodging away from his grasp.  Tol wasn’t limited to just boxing or just shooting, he could pick his tools selectively.  The red disks were just a trump card, one that was hard to plan around because he chose how it was delivered and how long it took to administer.  

After he missed his initial attempt to grab my friend, the Trillodan closed his fist and the red color drained into a small sliver of metal that shot at Parasite like a harpoon; Parasite dodged, but the thing exploded once it hit the wall.  

Murphy was slammed against the opposing wall, the staff clattering to the floor as he groaned and tried to pick himself back up, clearly dazed.  

It was the window Tol had been trying to make.  

Dragoon got up to her feet, snagging the gun, but not before the Trillodan captain could get to her.  Tol slapped it aside, forcing an exchange of blows, knowing she lacked his finesse. Parasite had done his best to teach all of us basic hand-to-hand combat, but we paled in comparison to him.  Watching the Trillodan captain, it was clear he was better still.  

The best she could do was mitigate the damage she was taking while Parasite fought up to his feet, but a cost was being exacted.  Metal shifted on his suit, effectively adding spikes to his knuckles and it became apparent how lopsided this exchange was; armor began cracking as Tol pushed her against a wall, the pace of his onslaught speeding up as he smelled blood in the water.  

A scuffle and blur of movement drew my attention back to Parasite who foguht to his feet, snagging the hunk of dense metal on his way up.  My friend swung his arm back and launched the collapsed staff; Tol saw him coming and turned, guarding his head and vitals, willing to endure the impact.  

Except my friend knew Tol would defend the obvious target; that’s why he’d thrown lower, drilling the Trillodan in the knee.  

Tol groaned as the joint shifted and he stumbled, even the assistance from the power armor unable to compensate for the abrupt change in balance.  Dragoon rallied, stressing the actuators and shoving him backwards as hard as she could manage. The Trillodan stumbled back, trying to catch his balance as Parasite slammed into him, tackling him to the floor.  Instead of trying to pummel him, my friend threaded himself around the operative, isolating joints and keeping him bound up for a few extra seconds.  

“Get the fucking gun!” Parasite screamed as Tol started peeling himself free.

Dragoon stumbled and sank to a knee picking it up, turning on the pair of them; Parasite let himself be thrown away as Tol scrambled to his feet, right as our captain pulled the trigger.  

Another shriek from the railgun, but this time she hit meat.  Tol cried out as his right arm simply came off at the elbow.  

Despite the grave injury inflicted, there seemed to be a change in the atmosphere of the room; they’d hurt Tol enough that he was done enjoying the fight.  Instead of fighting a combatant who thrilled in the sport, they had unwittingly forced him to become the hand-picked Trillodan assassin that Zellig had personally trained. 

His suit shifted again, covering the stump and glowing, cauterizing the wound; by his leg, the machinations constricted, forcing his knee back into place with a sickening pop.  As Dragoon snagged another sphere of metal to fire, he raised his hand and the gun wound up. Parasite threw himself back into the fray, but not before several sharp bits of metal he chewed into our friend’s leg.  

Dragoon cried out and fell, hastily trying to reload as another red disk was discharged from Tol’s suit.  

Parasite tried to jump away, but Tol moved with blinding speed, throwing what had to be a dozen strikes in the blink of an eye, knocking the wind out of my friend.  As if some sixth sense guided him, the Trillodan captain turned and fired a sliver of metal. Dragoon screamed as the spike pierced her right shoulder and stuck her to the wall before she could pull the trigger.  

The Enhancer came back swinging, attacking the side that no longer hand an arm, but the speed boost was still affecting Tol, letting him easily stay a step ahead of my dazed friend.  

I looked at the pile of bodies and reached forward, recognizing far too late that they were going to need help. 

Tol pushed Parasite back again and fired a spike, this one piercing through my side and pinning me to a wall.  My vision blurred as I nearly passed out from the pain; it was only made worse when I looked down and saw the blood beginning to seep out from the wound.  

“You mother-“ Parasite screamed, running forward.

Tol ducked under the kick that might have taken his head off and delivered a punch into Murphy’s ribs.  It sounded like a shotgun going off as the rest of the energy from the red disk discharged into my friend’s torso.  Murphy slammed into the metal wall, gasping for air as he sank to all fours. Blood oozed from his lips as he slumped down, his face blank, like he didn’t know where he was anymore.  

Dragoon screamed as she ripped the spike out of her shoulder and hastily loaded the railgun.  Tol fired another spike through her bicep, making it impossible to aim the gun. She screamed, but reached over and grabbed the spike, ripping herself free of the wall again.  

Tol hurried forward and smacked the gun aside.  Dragoon tried to raise a hand to fight, but he was not having any of it.  He knocked her to the floor and dropped down beside her, using a knee to pin her good arm to the floor.  His fist slammed forward, smashing her face plate, each blow worsening the malformation. It tried to correct, as all her machines did, but after the fifth blow, he dug his fingers in and ripped that hunk of her helmet away.  

In desperation, I groaned and pulled myself forward, trying to get free and get access to flesh to consume. 

Tol spun and embedded another spike into my shoulder, not wanting to risk letting me access any living tissue.  He knew exactly how dangerous I was if fed.  

“No, I don’t think so,” he growled.  “Zelli-“

He was cut off by Murphy haphazardly throwing himself forward, doing a bad tackle.  The surprise only took Tol an instant to recover from; Parasite took a pair of strikes and Tol threw him back across the room.  Despite my best friend’s determination, it was clear that he was done. Dragoon tried to go for the gun in the second she had, but Tol turned his gun on her and put half a dozen rounds into her side.  She let another scream and fell back, trembling and shaking as she tried to fight through the pain.  

“I understand why Zellig told me to be wary of you all,” Tol said, his voice carrying above Dragoon’s whimpering, “You lot don’t quit!  No matter how many times I keep hitting you, you refuse to go down!”  

He stomped on Dragoon’s torso to add emphasis to his words.  

He turned his attention outside to Kalr who was finally showing some signs of injury, the flow of the sludge being more sparing now.  But, it wasn’t without price. Steve was no more, and the dragon that Menagerie had made was starting to crumble and one of it’s heads had been torn off.  They had engaged in a war of attrition and that brute had won out. Even as I watched Mutant dance around the gargantuan Trillodan, he was slowing, getting tired.  As much as he’d stressed himself, he was running out of steam. Even if he pushed his limits, there was no way he could enough to bring down the giantess. Overexposure or not, he wasn’t going to win.

Kalr, even though she was finally sustaining injury, wasn’t slowing down.  

“You’re done,” he said, triumphant.  “Now that I don’t have these two,” Tol made a sweeping gesture to my friends, “bothering me, it’s just the two of us.”  

To our surprise, several more copies of me manifested nearby.  A few paces away, Lightshow focused, doing all she could, trying to make it a little harder.  She knew that they could see through her illusions, but she had to try, to do something. I watched her slump against the door to Menagerie’s hiding spot, the physical toll too much for her to sustain given her injury.  She’d lost the arm only about four hours ago. Lightshow should have been sedated and resting. The fact that she was on her feet was impressive, but this was damaging.    

Tol laughed in the face of her struggle.  “You think some petty illusion is going to stop me?”  He took a few steps forward, “Zellig asked for Eldritch, Dragoon, and Parasite to be brought back alive specifically.  I can see why we might want to take Menagerie and Mutant as well, they have uses to be sure. But you, Lightshow, you are worthless.  The Trillodan have no need of some pathetic illusionist whose only defense it trickery!” His arm came up, and I saw Lightshow’s eyes widen.  

All I could do was scream, “NO!” 

As Tol took aim, I felt something change in the room, something shift; the air was suddenly electric, like the moment right before a thunderstorm.  Ligthshow’s despondency changed, her face going almost blank as she held herself upright, reaching a hand forward and changing the projection. The images of me faded away, and instead an illusion of Dragoon appeared between them.  Tol laughed as it charged forward. He fired, calling Lightshow’s bluff.  

Tol quit laughing when the bullets drilled into the copy of Dragoon right before it hit him in the face.  As he staggered, the projection of Dragoon yanked up her railgun and took aim; Tol threw himself to the side but the round still carved through some of his oblique.  

For a moment, I forgot that I was suffering from incredible pain and turned to look at Lightshow, amazed and frightened.  I’d heard from Psycho and the Lunatics about what an Alteration was like, I just never thought I’d see it firsthand. Her powers had completely changed in an instant, and now I wasn’t sure exactly what she was doing, and that meant Tol didn’t either.  

“How are you doing that?”

“I don’t know,” she whispered, looking past me.  

Tol was scrambling.  While the human copy of Dragoon would go down after being riddled with bullets, whatever Lightshow was making didn’t give a shit.  As he chipped away, the projection kept coming, refusing to give him an avenue to attack Lightshow directly. Enraged, he discharged another disk and obliterated the projection with a massive concussive wave.  

Lightshow screamed and a new spectre came into existence, this time a copy of Eldritch that practically filled the room.

Tol didn’t gawk or drop his jaw like I did.  Instead of trying to fight it, Tol popped a red disk off his armor and caught it; his armor shifted and turned the glove into a ball of metal that he tossed at us.  “It’s me or you!” he shouted as he grabbed Parasite and bolted out the hole in the wall he’d entered through.   

Lightshow frowned as the Neklim monster threw himself down on the sphere of metal.  The building rattled, but she had successfully smothered the explosion.  

As the projection faded to nothing, I saw Tol sprinting away and shouting at Kalr in their foreign tongue; the giant finished off the quill dragon and slapped Mutant away before she turned to run with Tol, the two of them heading to the cloud of Milignum.  

Tol raised his hand, and the bugs began flowing freely, swarming the building now that some signal wasn’t keeping them at bay.  

Menagerie burst out from a back room, her fiery warthogs in tow; one stayed near us to keep us covered while the other ran out to grab Mutant and drag him back inside to safety. 

Our Peculiar looked around, eyes growing wide as she looked to Lightshow and me, “Where… where is Murphy?” 

I was so caught up with Lightshow Altering that it hadn’t entirely sunk in that a Trillodan madman had just taken my best friend.  

And I had been too weak to stop him.  

Lightshow raised a hand and what looked like threads of light wove the walls back into existence.  Menagerie seized the chance to have her warthogs incinerate the infected insects that slipped in, preventing any chance of exposure for now.  Mutant would likely have endured a few bites, but he could regenerate. Of all people who could deal with necrosis, he was top of the list.  

Dragoon limped over to me, not saying a word about how incredible Lightshow’s new power was, or about how much pain she was in.  She didn’t say a word, but instead grabbed the first spike buried in my shoulder and ripped it free, unceremoniously as Menagerie helped her stay upright.  A scream was caught in my throat as she ripped the second one free; the both of us collapsed on the floor, both spent.

“Child you must-” Mother Audrey said, coming closer, but Dragoon raised a hand, stopping her.  My friend grabbed a human body and heaved it forward, pressing it against me, the message clear.  

“They.  Can’t. Have him,” Dragoon panted.  “Get him back.”

I gulped nervously, “Alexis, I don’t know if I can control-“

She slammed the deceased man’s hand against my chest, “Eldritch,” she said, no longer talking to me, “Get our friend back.  Understood?” 

To my surprise, the voice stirred and gave an answer immediately.  

Yes, captain.

As if she could hear it speaking, she met my gaze.  “Nick, no stops. Nothing held back. They can not win.”

Menagerie nodded, as did Lightshow; Dragoon might as well have said we were better off being food instead of study material.

“Get me all the dead people, quickly,” I replied as I pressed a hand to the pile, feeling the flesh dissolve away and appear into that little space where I held all the meat I consumed.  Menagerie and Lightshow dragged a few more bodies to me, all while Mother Audrey said a prayer for those who had gone on.  

In the end, five hundred kilograms of usable material was devoured, hopefully it would be enough.  

I pressed a hand to Lightshow’s wall and tapped back into my power, starting the growth of the tentacles from my skin.  

“Nick,” my red-headed friend said, finally daring to show the pain and fear she had been hiding, “You can do this.”  

I had no assurances or cheeky parting one-liners to give them, but I felt that monster within creeping forward, and it brought a message  to share with the rest of them. “Don’t worry,” it said, using my voice to speak, “I’m a predator. I was made to hunt.”  

The restraints slid off as Lightshow let me out into the swarm; my consciousness slipped back into the void as the Neklim took hold.  Tendrils erupted from my skin as I felt my body lumber forwrard.  

This time though, I was giving the reigns up willingly.  For better or worse I was giving the monster complete agency.  

Whether or not it was the right call, I knew one thing for certain: 

I had Trillodan to hunt.  

Previous ChapterNext Chapter

Planetside: Samaritan

    “In all my years knowing him,” Dragoon muttered as she continued to tinker with the hologram projector that had been crushed during the fight, “I’ve never seen him so zen.” 

    Parasite shot her a glare since he was stuck in a lotus position as his bones were sufficiently reassembled.  The tincture from Organelle had sped it up, but there had essentially been nothing left of his forearms after the massive hit he endured.  As impressive as his healing factor was, it was still a hell of a beating he went through. Maybe not quite as bad as the near-death experience he’d endured at the hands of Siphon, but still a devastating blow against our unapologetically chipper fighter.     

    “And in all my time knowing him, I’ve never known Eldritch to be such an exhibitionist,” my friend replied with a sideways glance at me.  

    I still had my hands tucked around my privates, still very uncomfortable with my nudity in front of five other people.  Even though it’d been a few hours since the attack by the Trillodan operatives, we’d refrained from going outside. There was a chance that our Ellayan guide hadn’t been lying and there was a biblical plague ready to sweep back through the city; going outside meant risking exposure and that seemed like an abysmal choice while we were still severely limited in terms of mobility.  

    The other large reason we hadn’t moved was because Menagerie’s magnum opus could keep us protected.  Her hulking half troll, half elephant monstrosity had been given the elegant name ‘Steve’ courtesy of our paralyzed Enhancer.  Parasite wasn’t necessarily hyperactive, but he didn’t sit still very well either.; to compensate he had been running his mouth for almost two hours straight, likely talking twice as much as normal to alleviate the void from Lightshow being uncharacteristically quiet.        

    Menagerie had been playing field medic since she was strangely well versed in first aid, helping rip chunks of metal from Dragoon’s side and shoulder after she made sure to get the bleeding stopped for Lightshow.  Even with a double dose of Organelle’s tincture, our illusionist was looking frail and spent, and her usual wit and the absence of her sarcasm was felt more than I might have thought it would be.  Even though Parasite tried, it wasn’t the same without her acting as his comedic foil. 

    Before now though, no one has ever considered how much her and Parasite riffing together had kept the morale of our little group bolstered.  Without it, there was an undeniable pressure placed on all of us, a stifling need to win the next bout we had with the Trillodan operatives to make sure we couldn’t lose more of what made our group ours.    

    The one who seemed most inoculated against this sensation was Mutant.  

    He’d finally managed to depart his slug form after about an hour and looked decent all things considered.  While there was a new scar just below his collarbone, he hardly seemed to notice. Dragoon had told him to get some sleep and restore some of his strength as well as reset his pool of forms to select; since Lightshow and I were going to be incapable of fighting for now, we needed to have those who could fight at their best.  Likely a mixture of exhaustion and his own pragmatic nature had let him fall asleep despite the hard floor.  

“Menagerie, you really should have made Steve more anatomically correct,” Parasite said, glancing at the behemoth who was standing guard; it actually turned its head for a moment toward our paralyzed jester which only made his grin more pronounced.  Of course he would be thrilled that it was responding to the name he gave it.  

Our quiet Peculiar glanced at her work and back to my friend, “Really?  I didn’t know Steve was up your alley.” The trace of a smug smirk wasn’t missed and I wondered if she was even aware that she was filling in for Lightshow to inject some levity back into the group.  

“We’re on an alien planet, it has been a while for me, and when you consider Eldritch has copulated rather frequently with an alien I figured I might need to one up him.  Logical progression is maybe I should hit up some monster D. You know, can’t let the nerd of the group be more eccentric and out there than I am.”

“Please don’t rope me into this,” I begged, knowing full well that would only encourage him.  

    “How much longer do you need, Murphy?” our leader asked, saving me from whatever my sadistic friend had in store.  While we had been resting and healing, she had been doing her best to repair the hologram projector since it had been destroyed in the scuffle.  More than that though, it was her returning to something she was good at; even with our support there was likely some second guessing going on for her.  For her, working with machines and tinkering was going to keep her level headed.  

    He slowly curled his fingers and let out a groan of relief, “The arms are decent enough now to at least use.  My spine should be sorted in another few-“ My friend stopped talking and his face contorted in pain. A loud snap echoed through the room as he pulled his legs to his chest, hissing as he tried to fight through the pain.  “Or, right now!” he forced through gritted teeth.

Our captain gave him a look, “How long?”

“Few minutes,” he grunted, “However fucking long it takes the shooting pains stop really.”    

    Uncomfortable with just listening to him forcibly breathe and struggle through spinal surgery with no anaesthetic, I spoke up.  “So, now what?” 

    Dragoon frowned, taking a seat beside the pile of her dumped armor.  “We can’t escape the planet, and we have no communication with anyone for now,” she summarized.

    “For now?” Menagerie pried.

    “I sent a drone south to see if it could locate any members of Serpentine and deliver a message.  If they haven’t been attacked or if they don’t realize they are cut off, maybe they can find us and we can join up.  Strength in numbers and what all.”  

    Lightshow dragged herself up beside me and sat down, still clutching a hand to her stump.  “We can’t wait for them here, can we?” 

    Our captain shook her head, “No.  Our best bet is to go try and find the Lost Children.  I’m willing to wager they aren’t thrilled that the Trillodan are here and would fight with us out of necessity.  If they can help us, we’ll at least have a full roster to brawl with next time those guys show up.”

    “I think one of them is down for the count,” Menagerie said with a surprisingly eerie smile, “I believe Steve here managed to seriously damage that animal operative.”

     “Don’t be too optimistic,” Parasite cautioned, “Even if he’s damaged, there’s likely more soldiers they can throw at us.”

    “Zellig himself can always show up too,” I muttered, admittedly being pessimistic, “I’m willing to bet that he trained these guys personally.  They seemed bloodthirsty in the same way he was when I met him. He won’t sit out for long given how eager he was to scrap back on Tso’got.” 

    “It’s still a big planet, and there’s a lot of Adapted scattered around,” Dragoon countered.  “If he shows, I use the railgun and punch a few holes in him. As tough as he might be, I don’t think he’s going to stand up well to that.”  

    I didn’t argue with her about the efficacy of her railgun.  But even though she could probably punch a hole through him, I’d seen him instantly correct a snapped spine and shrug it off.  He’d outmuscled me when I was three tonnes in size and endured the beating from Clemency when he was wielding the desperation and terror of an entire panicked city. As dangerous as the operatives had been, he was in another league and he had a weapon that none of us had in our arsenal: experience. Even with Steve kicking around for now, if Zellig came after us, it was only going to end one way.  

    “Now assuming Murphy can move, where do we go?” I asked, trying to change the subject and stop thinking about the impending storm that was Zellig.  

    “We move back into the city.  We try to find you a new source of food so we can have access to Eldritch when it comes time.”

    Her word choice wasn’t lost on me.  It wasn’t a case of ‘if’ we’d need Eldritch to fight, it was ‘when’ we’d need him to fight.  She wasn’t going to pretend that we could get off Vuuldar without another battle.   

    Beside me, Murphy managed to finally stretch himself out, wiggling his toes and testing out his regained mobility as the grimace slowly faded from his face.  “Well, I guess I can move now but my passenger is fairly tapped out.  If we get into a fight, I’m gonna be a bit limited.”

    “Controlled Overexposure,” a groggy voice muttered.  Mutant didn’t bother getting up but instead dragged himself over to us, still blinking away fatigue.  “If we get in a fight, you should force it to fight.”  

    Menagerie glanced his way with a hint of concern, “That seems… unwise.” 

    “I’m with her on this,” Dragoon replied.  “That seems like a horrible idea if we’re going to be trapped on the surface for any length of time.  If we go too far down that rabbit hole, we won’t have enough tinctures to draw people back from the edge.” 

    To everyone’s surprise, Lightshow was the one who answered, “I agree with Mutant.  We need to be willing to push farther. If we try to drag out a fight, we lose.”  As if to remind everyone of the cost of losing, she gently massaged where the skin had bound over her stump, her face twitching in frustration.  

    “We have three people who can Overexpose,” Mutant said slowly, “Myself, Parasite, and Menagerie.  Lightshow, you can, but right now you’re having to play support for Menagerie.”  

    “If you can use your gift at all,” Dragoon added, somber.  

    Lightshow frowned, her face falling.  She had never been in love with her gift, never enjoying having to explicitly play the role of support.  While Geyser had been a bit of a support character for our group, he was capable of getting into a scrap and holding his own.  Lightshow wasn’t extra durable or able to stand toe to toe with anyone if it came down to it. She was nimble and light on her feet, sure, but nothing she could do would have put a dent in the armor of those Trillodan operatives.  Even her ability to project illusions was a great feat considering back on Tso’got all she could do was screw with someone’s vision by plunging them into darkness or blinding them.  

If we were fighting with a group of Scoundrels back on Tso’got, she would have been invaluable and all the time she had spent bettering her control of her gift would have been so beneficial.  Truth be told, her illusionary gifts would have likely let us take the fight with people like the Surface Dwellers and win. But, Trillodan technology was rendering her inert. All her personal dedication and work was now restricted to helping one of our members.          

    The fact that she was so injured seemed to be like salt in the wound that was her self-worth right now.  It wasn’t hard to tell that she was feeling worthless.  She wouldn’t say it, but I could see the despondent look in her eye, the knowledge she was worthless chewing on her.  It was something I had felt the entire time we had been on our way to Vuuldar, something agitated by the looks and wary glances that were cast my way.  

    Even though our reasons were very different, I understood feeling out of place and burdensome.

    “We nearly lost two from our initial scrap,” Mutant stressed, gesturing to Lightshow and Parasite.  “We’re fortunate that we had those tinctures and that two of us have a natural healing factor. If one of us had Overexposed right at the start, we would likely be dealing with one person completely down for the count as opposed to everyone being somewhat injured and exhausted.”  He ran his hands through his hair, the first real sign of stress he’d shown so far, “Dragoon, the reality is that we can’t pull punches.”

    She nodded, not liking the option he’d provided to her, but knowing we didn’t have much left at our disposal anyway.  “Okay, fine. We’ll do it your way, and you’ll be first since you’ve gotten a little sleep and reset your forms.”  

    “Understood.”

    “I still need food, either way,” I muttered.  “No offense to you, Mutant, but even if you Overexpose yourself, if I’m not a participant, I don’t like our odds.  I’m the only one here who doesn’t fatigue.” I abhorred being arrogant and flaunting my powers peculiar advantages, but the truth was that we needed to use every bit of an advantage that we could snag.  

    “Well, we won’t find you anything here,” Dragoon replied, putting her armor back on.

    Parasite looked warily at the door, “And the plague?” 

    “We still aren’t sure whether or not the Trillodan have turned people sycophant and if the plague is real or not.  What we are sure of is that the Trillodan do know where we are, and that they won’t be happy until we are either dead or captured.  For now, we risk the elements and try to avoid the guaranteed problem.”  

    Mutant let out a huff, “As much as something seemed off about our guide, I don’t think he was lying about the Milignum.  I hate to admit it, but I think I’m just paranoid and on edge. This planet feels wrong to me, but it’s more likely that it isn’t what I’m used to.  The upside is that Lamesh wasn’t leading us here to die.”

    “Good, at least we have that,” Dragoon said slowly, finding it hard to be optimistic that we’d still be contending with a literal plague that could hit the city at some point.

    Menagerie pulled out a notebook and pen, setting to drawing while our leader contemplated our options.  I was a little surprised to see ‘Steve’ look over her shoulder, as if inspecting what his inevitable replacement might be.  I leaned over and Menagerie lowered the notepad so I had an easier time seeing what she was preparing for our inevitable next encounter.  

    This thing looked like it was going to be a massive dragon covered in quills.  I could see her setting it up to have three heads and likely three tails. “And here I thought Steve was a scary customer,” I muttered. 

    Our Peculiar artist smiled as she kept working.  In a strange twist, this was the most energized and alive we had seen from our soft spoken illustrator in weeks; without Geyser she had turned incredibly far inward with no reason to pull herself back out of the depressed spiral.  Dragoon had been right when she observed how much the Adapted needed conflict or some kind of goal to work toward. Even though we had our backs against the wall, she was alive and thriving in a fashion.  There was something for her to do besides mourn her boyfriend’s capture and create instruments of demise.  

    “Hospital.  We go there.  Odds are they would be fortified against any kind of plague that the fucked up insects of Vuuldar would bring around, and we can look for antibiotics to hopefully stave off any kind of infection we might have been exposed to.”  Our captain finished putting her armor on and rose, giving Lightshow a hand up and helping support her as she was still a bit shaky for now. Dragoon was nice enough to pass me the restored hologram projector so I could avoid going au natural for now.  

    That didn’t make it any more comfortable on the walk back the way we came.  

My shoes had been destroyed in the explosion of growth that was my Adaptation, and I wished that I’d at least had the good sense to quickly kick off my shoes before telling the Neklim mass to effectively obliterate my outfit.  Hindsight being 20-20 only made me feel more like a fool of course.  

    Our trek was slow going due to Lightshow and Parasite still being a bit shaky and unstable.  It did nag at me and cause some concern that we weren’t getting anywhere too quickly; given how intensely people were staying sequestered, it wasn’t a stretch to assume that treatment was either non-existent or not reliable.  While we had a few leftover tinctures, we were likely going to need them for another scrap since there was no way we were that lucky. I still harbored a fear that Zellig was bound to make an appearance; he said he had sought me out specifically on Tso’got and I assumed he didn’t take failure well.  This time I wouldn’t have Clemency to bail me out.  

Back in Ciel all of us were within a handful of kilometers of one another; on Vuuldar we were thousands of kilometers apart.  Even though Serpentine was theoretically close, they might as well still be in orbit.    

To call our destination a hospital was being a bit generous.  Back on Tso’got, the hospitals had managed to set themselves apart by having a modicum of color to at least signify their importance.  Instead of just being a grey monolith like every other cement building downtown, hospitals were painted white with red crosses on the side; according to my dad that had been a human color pattern the Zari had simply taken a shine to.  It had been quickly co-opted and used to designate all medical care facilities within a decade of humans ‘washing up’ onto their home world.  And with the influx of population, the need for medical facility had skyrocketed; hospitals in Ciel and all over Tso’got had been massive structures, capable of housing hundreds or even thousands of patients at a time.  

    This seemed more like a temporary installation that had ended up becoming permanent on accident.  It was four metal sided, rectangular buildings arranged in a square to create a makeshift compound in the middle, as if they were once tents that people had set up.  Dragoon suggested that the people who erected the tents likely realized that their services were always going to be needed and created a more permanent institution based around their existing facility.  While their more permanent location didn’t scream hospital to us, the red cross painted on the side of the building was evidence enough.  

    But as we approached, we were given anything but a welcoming greeting; the door opened and a pair of armed guards stared back at us, automatic rifles held at the ready.    

    “Who the fuck are you?” one barked.  It dawned on me that we’d likely met with a lot less scrutiny if Dragoon had kept the hologram projector; approaching with someone clad in power armor was rather threatening.  Then again, if she hadn’t passed it to me, I’d be showing up naked which would raise its own concerns.  

    “We’re from off world, we’re from Tso’got,” Dragoon said slowly.  

    The guard who had barked the question shook his head, disapproving.  “I didn’t ask where you’re from.  I asked who you all are.”  

    Beside him, I realized his second was his twin brother, and that the slightly smaller twin was shaking.  While both were tanned, tall, and clad in old military green garb, the older brother held a better musculature and much more poise in the face of adversity.  His sibling was barely holding fast, but the point man was steady as a rock.  

    “My name is Alexis Trent, or Dragoon if you want to use that title instead,” she replied as she removed her helmet.  The display of non-violence helped some, but they weren’t letting their guard down.  “We aren’t looking for a fight, we’re just looking for a place to wait out the Milignum and get our friend some help.” She gestured to Lightshow who was fading fast.  It was a good thing Mutant was holding her up because I seriously doubted she could manage on her own.  

    A crisp voice cut through from behind the pair of guards, “Adam, Samuel, let these people in!”  Both men quickly lowered their guns and stepped aside reverently as a woman in a nun’s habit stepped forward, giving each of them an incredibly disapproving look.  “We are to help the sick and injured, not point guns at them. Yes, please come in,” she said to us in a tone somewhere between an invitation and a demand.  

    “I’ve only heard stories about nuns and seen them portrayed in old shows,” Parasite whispered beside me, “What do you think she will actually be like?” 

    “I have no idea,” I replied as Dragoon led the way forward, not looking the gift horse in the mouth.  Regardless how our host acted, she had at least let us enter without contest; even though Dragoon had talked a big game about taking what we might need, she didn’t want to do that if it could be avoided.    

“My name is Mother Audrey, and I am the head of this little station.  We’re here as a hospital of sorts, a neutral ground for all the disparate clans surrounding us.  We offer safe haven and aid for all who need. Still, it is…unusual to see people like you,” she confessed as she inspected our leader’s power armor with some clear reservation.  

As we got inside, she took Lightshow from Mutant and steered her forward, beckoning for another nun to take charge of us. I could see Menagerie debate objecting with her separating us from our Projector, but Dragoon stopped her: Mother Audrey was clearly all business and would diligently see to Lightshow.  There was no doubt our teammate would be in good hands.   

    Our new guide took us to one of the other buildings which weren’t quite connected.  There was only about three steps between the end of one building and the corner of another, and all had a door in the center that deposited the occupants into the makeshift courtyard which had laundry lines hung up and what looked like a small pool.  

    Vuuldarian settlements were nearly all made near the coast to provide easy access to water, and their plumbing was likely fantastic to help accommodate any of the Ellayan people who wanted to reside above ground for an hour or two.    

    “My name is Sister Sara and I would like to welcome you to our little cooperative, humble as it is,” she introduced sweetly.  “I apologize for the behavior of Samuel and Adam, they are wary of strangers. And um-“ she trailed off, a bit embarrassed.

    Dragoon laughed, “Yeah I can see how that would be a concern.  I would have hidden the armor, but,” she activated one of the controls underneath her arm, disabling my illusion.  

    “Oh heavens!” she exclaimed, turning aside immediately.  “Yes. Well, we can find you some clothes!”   

    “Thanks,” I said with a glare at Dragoon.  “You could have told me you were going to do that!”  I was glad that there was a laundry bin nearby; the sister darted over to a shelf and snagged me a pair of white linen pants and a shirt to go with.  While I didn’t care to be dressed up like someone in a psychiatric ward, it beat being naked.   

    Dragoon let out a laugh as I fumbled trying to get dressed as fast as humanly possible, “And spoil the fun?”

    “More pressing though,” Mutant said, “Sister Sara, we are looking for antibiotics, bandages, all the medical supplies you can spare us.”

    “The Reverend Mother will see to your friend,” she replied as opened a door, revealing a room with a few cots and a small table in the middle, “I’m sorry we don’t have any more room to spare, but there’s always so many people to care for.” 

    A glance around told me that she wasn’t kidding.  Even in the hallway, there was a handful of people in white linens.  I glanced into another room that had the door ajar and saw a pair of people on cots, and another propped up in a chair.  The only thing they had in common besides the patient garb was that they all were busy keeping to themselves.  People on Vuuldar had been pushed to be tribal and to make themselves stand out when they were among disparate people was likely a dangerous habit, even here it seemed. It was amazing how well they simply blended into the background.  Despite the animosity hanging in the air, no one dared act on it; if disease was so rampant here, the  last thing you wanted to do was get kicked out of the clinic.

    “Excellent,” Dragoon replied, “But we were hoping that we could get some for us, for use in the future.”

    Sister Sara frowned, “I’m not entirely sure I understand why.  Most youth who come in here that are drug seeking are looking for painkillers, not antibiotics. But,” she added, looking at us with a new sense of caution, “Some people are willing to barter outside of here for such medications.”

    Our captain exhaled slowly, clearly taking a moment to select the right words, “We need them because we’re about to be in a hell of a fight.”

    “We aren’t going to enable violence,” Sister Sara replied, surprisingly harsh given her otherwise polite and gentle demeanor.  “There are plenty of people suffering because Vuuldar is a challenge to live on in the first place. We are not going to endorse or provide remedies for your own barbaric actions.  You will have to take your brash behavior someone else.”

    “That’s just it, we won’t get a choice,” Dragoon replied.  “The people coming for us, they won’t relent.  We came here to see our friend cared for, and to see if we could make preparations before our backs were against  the wall.” 

    She scoffed, “And who would be stupid enough to chase down a group of Selected?”  There was a moment of pause as she clearly contemplated her own question before continuing. “If you are planning to have a fight with other Selected you can-”    

    “The Trillodan,” Parasite interrupted, closing the door so others wouldn’t overhear.  “Sister Sara, don’t scream, but we are on a clock here.”

    Our intermediary’s eyes widened to dangerous levels as she took a few steps backwards, pressing herself into the corner before fervently crossing herself and muttering a prayer for protection.  “You would bring those monsters here?” she whimpered at length, “Why? What have we done to you?  What would possibly make you do that?” 

    It wasn’t anger or judgment behind her words, it was despair.  I knew from her expression that she remembered what Protocol 37 did to earth, and she remembered it vividly.  She was one of those who had survived and managed to escape, managed to try and forge a life for herself on a hostile world. She looked maybe late thirties, and if that was the case she would have seen the world go up in smoke as a child.  It would have scarred her, been branded into her memory.  

    The Trillodan were the wrath of the heavens come to life.  They were the stuff nightmares are made of. And for Sister Sara, that wasn’t just an expression.  For her, they were undoubtedly the thing that haunted her, that caused her to look over her shoulder, that  always nagged at the back of her mind, reminding her that there was something to be afraid of.  

    “You haven’t done anything wrong, Sister,” Menagerie said softly, “It is simply something that is.”

    “They’re hunting us,” I added, “Because of what we are.  We don’t intend to stay any longer than we have to. The instant we have what we need, we’ll be out of your hair and take the trouble away.” 

    She slowly shook her head, “They’ll burn the sky, again.  And this time there will be no ships to escape in.” 

    To my right, I saw Dragoon’s eyes widen, an idea taking shape in our engineer’s brain.  “Sister,” she said slowly, trying to draw the nun out of her spiral towards dissociation, “What happened to the ships you came in?” 

    It was enough of a conversational left turn to momentarily abate her collapse.  “The life boats are where the settlements started. You-you can find them on the outskirts of cities generally.  But,” she added, her stare going well beyond the confines of this room, “they won’t be able to ferry us away from them.  Not this time.  They are too big to get off the ground.” The nun took an awkward step backward and clasped a hand to her chest, “No, not again, we can’t-”

“Hey,” Dragoon said, reaching a hand forward, “Sister Sara, you’re having a panic attack.  Tell me what’s around you.”

“Huh?” she whimpered. 

“What’s in this room right now?” she demanded, “Objects, people, anything.”  

Her eyes darted around nervously as we took a step backwards, giving the pair of them space.  While the others watched Sister Sara list off the linens, cots, and the tacky poster, I was more interested in  watching my friend. A week ago I had found her on the floor of the ship, in the thralls of a momentous panic attack herself.  Now, she was coaching someone through her own as if it was something she’d been doing for years.  

Murphy had been right to push her into taking command again.  When Alexis Trent was at her best, she was damnably capable.

As Sister Sara managed to draw away from the precipice of a panic attack, there was still a new look of mistrust in her eye as she looked at us.  “Why are the Trillodan coming for you?” 

“We’re different, special,” Mutant replied without tact.  “We are something they can’t explain. They want to take us apart and see what makes us work.”

“But no one has been able to figure that out.”  

“If anyone can though, it’ll be them,” I said.  “They have technology that ends planets, it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have something that can work small scale too.”  

Parasite stepped forward and put a comforting hand on Sister Sara’s shoulder.  “But hey, it’s okay. We’re going to make them pay for what they did.  We’re going to take the fight to them.”  

She looked at my best friend as if he’d spoken in tongues.  “But…how?”

“Probably best if you don’t know,” Dragoon answered before Parasite could add more.  “It’s one of those things, Sister, where the less you know, the better. Trust us, please.  And, keep this quiet. The last thing we need is a panic brewing among you patients.   So far, the Trillodan haven’t made themselves known, and there’s no reason to worry everyone ahead of time.”  

I could see our leader’s logic immediately: the last thing we wanted to do was create a frenzy.  While eventually the Trillodan would be more public, if we caused chaos ahead of time people would get in our way and try to hand sabotage us to save themselves. The more time we were given to operate with minimal scrutiny, the better.  Given how much the people on Vuuldar had suffered, there was no way people didn’t turn sycophant on us when push came to shove; the longer that could be avoided the better.  

“Of course,” Sister Sara replied, slowly nodding, as if convincing herself that it was a good idea.  “Of course.”

I was almost glad that the stern faced Matron Audrey opened the door.  She walked in, glaring at all of us with an expression I was having trouble reading; it was as if she was somewhere between bemused and furious, and I’d never seen someone attempt such a combination.  

“You children have some explaining to do.” While her initial welcoming was warm and polite, now there was nothing there but a cold-steel mask of authority and distrust.  Even though we were all Adapted, she was the one with all the power. This was her domain, and she knew it.  

    “Miss-”

    “Mother Superior,” she corrected.  “You are naught but children and you will address me with my proper title, am I understood?” 

    “Mother Superior,” Dragoon replied, a little bit cowed, “What do you want to know?” 

    The middle aged nun wrung her calloused hands, letting out a pensive sigh.  “First things first, what are a group of Selected-”

    “Adapted,” Parasite corrected.  “That’s what-”

    “Young man,” she snapped, “Mind your tongue.  You maybe be special, you may have powers, but you came to me for help.  You are in my house only on the virtue of my good graces. You are outsiders and we welcomed you, but do not think for an instant I will not throw you back out on the street.  Am I clear?” 

    I almost laughed with how fast Murphy’s face fell as he frantically nodded, regretting speaking out of turn.  

    “Your companion just lost her arm, and somehow it was already healing over.  That should be a process that takes days, but there are no suture marks. No skin grafts, no nothing.  The only way I could tell that the injury was recent was because of the lingering symptoms of shock and the fact that her blood pressure was damnably low.”  She walked over and took a place beside Sister Sara, “What violence are you bringing to my door?”

“If we can help it, none.” 

“And if you can’t, what then?” she replied, not giving Dragoon an option to weasel out of an explanation.  

“They will bring the Trillodan with them, Reverend Mother,” the sister whispered, crossing herself again.  

To her credit, the Mother Superior didn’t even blink.  “Is this true?  Is Sister Sara speaking in hyperbole?” 

Our captain nodded, slowly, a bit guilty.  “Unfortunately, yes, Mother Superior.” 

“Tell me why I don’t ask Adam and Samuel to remove the lot of you forcefully.  Selected or not, I’m sure that hot lead still makes an impact.”

“I dare you to try,” Mutant challenged, narrowing his gaze at the authoritarian woman.    

Dragoon turned and shook her head, “Don’t-”

“Boy,” the Mother Superior said, speaking over Dragoon, “I lived through the world burning.  I have seen hell come to earth, and I endured it. As gifted by God as you may be, I am not afraid of you.  I have watched wars eradicate landscapes; I did not blink then, and I will not blink now.  I’m sure that nothing short of divine intervention could keep you from cutting me down, and I’m sure you’re eager to rip my head off.” She smiled and stepped forward, putting her hands behind her back as she looked over Dragoon’s shoulder. “But I’m not afraid of you.  Unlike you, I had to learn how to see through the guises that people wear and discern what lay beneath.  I was given no gift that would ensure my survival, that could protect me in a fight. If you couldn’t see ill-intent at your doorstep, you were a dead woman. And child, I have been alive long enough to be damn good at it. See, I already knew you were an animal, and that she holds the leash,” she concluded, turning her attention back to Dragoon. “Fortunately your handler has a cooler head than you, otherwise all your friends would be in trouble.”  

Parasite and I exchanged a look, both unnerved; how the fuck could she be this perceptive?  We hadn’t been read like a book since we’d been next to Big Picture, but he had a fucking Adaptation that gave him such insights.

Maybe my mother had been right when she’d told me there was no better teacher than experience.    

“Mutant, enough,” our captain snapped as he tried to open his mouth.  “And, Mother Superior, he’s right. Three of us really wouldn’t be harmed with a conventional firearm.  And, if you were to open fire on us, a massive monster would come crashing through after about two minutes.  While my ‘animal’ may be hot headed, I would ask that you not provoke him.” 

Menagerie had left Steve about half a kilometer away, hiding in some power substation that seemed like it was woefully behind on maintenance.  We’d agreed that he was far too strong an asset to lose. While it would slowly drain our Peculiar, she could keep him animated for another few hours before there were serious side effects.   

“That neglects to answer why I don’t attempt to have you removed.  If you are bringing world enders to our planet, why should we offer you asylum?  Why should we bother helping you at all?  Would it not be better to do away with you, to preserve this place so it can continue to help wayward souls for years to come?” Mother Superior Audrey stepped forward, utterly undaunted despite the power armor Dragoon was wearing.

Despite the force of presence this woman commanded, Dragoon held strong and stood her ground, setting her jaw with a determined grimace.  “We need your help so we can take the fight to the Trillodan.”  

Still no flicker of response from Mother Audrey.  “And what makes you capable of doing so? One must assume others have tried in the history of the cosmos; somehow those demons are still zipping around the stars, doing as they please.  Do you think your little tin can is going to make a difference?” she demanded, rapping a fist against her armor.

“We aren’t operating alone,” Dragoon replied, keeping her best poker face equipped.  “We are working with dozens of others to recruit our fellow Adapted from Vuuldar to add to our march against the Trillodan.  We aim to put a stop to the world enders and their tyranny.”

“Oh, so it is simply because there are more of you?  It’s a numbers game then? How many souls do you think have raged against those monsters only to be thwarted, beaten down, forced into obscurity or non-existence, hmm?”  There was a split second where the Mother Superior showed a modicum of grief for her old life, but it faded fast. “You will not endanger the people here because of a childish and vain notion.  I will not allow your ignorance and idealism to jeopardize so many others. I’m sorry, but we must-“

“We can find them,” Menagerie said softly.  “Others have failed because they can’t locate the Trillodan.  One of us can.” 

Mother Audrey turned to Menagerie, her facade showing a crack, this time betraying surprise.  “Is that so? And that will make all the difference?”

Menagerie nodded slowly, “You can’t fight someone if you don’t know where they are.  And they can’t destroy the planet if we’re on their homeworld. They will have to fight us on a relatively even playing field.”  

Unlike the rest of us, Menagerie had been quiet this entire time, and the Mother Superior felt the weight of her words.  While our quiet and petite Peculiar seldom had much to say, she rarely spoke without valuable point.  

“Please, Mother Superior,” Dragoon implored, “We don’t want to put anyone in harm’s way, but we need all the advantage we can get if we are going to go to war against-“

“Silence,” she snapped.  “Do you really think you stand a chance against them?”

“Yes,” Parasite replied, his humor and grin gone.  “If anyone has a chance against them, we do.”  

Her piercing glare snapped his direction, “And why should you lot be the ones to bring down a world ending regime that has been operating centuries before our modern society existed?  How can you children possibly think you stand a chance?” 

She is afraid of the consequences, not your campaign.  She fears their wrath, she just disguises it as rage. 

I blinked a few times, surprised that the voice in my head could or would say something so insightful and strangely helpful.  “Mother Superior,” I interjected, “they aren’t coming to torch the planet. There won’t bring Protocol 37 here.”  

Her piercing glare nearly drove me back a step; I’d heard the expression glaring daggers, but this was the first woman who could.  “And in your infinite wisdom, you know this? You’re sure of this? You’d wager the lives of everyone on this planet on your hunch?”  

I swallowed the lump that formed in my throat,  mustering up every bit of confidence as she stared me down.  “Yes.”  

She cocked her head to the side, surprised by my confidence, but the glare didn’t soften.  “Explain yourself.” 

I was glad Dragoon filled in for me, taking lead as I felt my throat closing under her scrutiny.  While the voice steered me in the right direction, I didn’t have a convincing argument in place. “If they wanted us dead, they’d have killed us already.  The reason our friend lost an arm is because they aimed to take us alive. If their aim was to ensure we died here, the sky would already be ablaze. The Trillodan answer to no one, so why would they worry about what the residents of Vuuldar think?  They don’t obey the same laws that we’re subject; the only thing they serve is their own self-interest. Why bother fighting if you can simply exterminate everything?”

Cold logic was something that she could understand, something that resonated for her.  Plenty of people who had survived Earth burning had trouble responding to sentiment or idealism, but unyielding logic was something that held sway.  “It doesn’t explain why you think you can win against them. Knowing their location is one thing, but fighting them is another I would reckon. They have the technology to simply be anywhere and to reduce planets to cinders.  How does one combat that amount of power?”

Dragoon looked towards me, “You haven’t seen what some of our bigger names can do.  The reality is that this guy,” she gestured to me, “is theoretically unstoppable.” She briefly explained what my power can do, which only added to the terror of Sister Sara who was practically hiding in the corner already; I gave her a nervous smile which didn’t help alleviate any of her fear directed at me.  Mother Audrey nodded with cold deference, acknowledging and not giving me any indication whether she was impressed, mortified, or bored by Dragoon’s explanation.  

If she was impressed or concerned about my volatility, she didn’t show it.  I wish we had time for me to ask pointers about how she maintained such a tremendous poker face. 

When Dragoon finished explaining about what I could do, and giving a quick overview of what everyone else was capable of, the Mother Superior let out a slow sigh and her expression softened just a tad.  “Sister Sara, there is a case of Sulfanitran that I would like you to fetch for these people, as well as a rucksack that can store a few changes of clothes for this young man,” she added, waving a hand at me.  “They will need bandages, rubbing alcohol, and as much gauze as we can reasonably part with. Give them something preserved as well; if they are going to be fighting, they can’t be doing it hungry. An army marches on its stomach after all,” she said wisely. 

We all blinked a few times in disbelief as Sister Sara nodded and scurried out the door to fulfill the Mother Superior’s request, just as surprised as we were.  

“What-“

“My dear boy,” she said, interrupting Parasite, “I have been alive longer than most of you put together, and I know a sign from the almighty when I see one.”  She allowed her grimace to soften some more into something resembling a sad smile, “I apologize for being so harsh, but I had to be sure and test you. I had to be sure that you were the real deal.”  

“What would you have done if we weren’t?” Mutant asked, still a bit guarded.

“Sent you on your way with a bag full of placebos,” she replied with a dismissive wave.  “I’m not unaccustomed to people strong-arming for resources and influence. We aren’t foolish enough to believe that we could win a fight, but that doesn’t mean we will simply roll over and be exploited.” 

“You make sulpha drugs here, don’t you?” Dragoon asked.  “It’s why no one would try to ransack this place: they need you to keep making the stuff.  On a planet with horrifying disease, antibiotics are worth their weight in gold.” She paused for a moment, looking at the Mother Superior, noticing something I missed.  “In fact, you make the drugs yourself, don’t you?” 

“I do,” the Mother Superior replied proudly.  

“What pharmacologist turns nun?” Parasite asked, bluntly.

“What foolish boy turns superhero?” she shot back, punctuated with a raised eyebrow.  “I have always been a devout catholic, and religion does not preclude science. Just because I choose to honor the lord, I should abandon my schooling and knowledge gained there?  Back on Earth, I worked with doctors without borders and other kinds of institutions, helping test medication and for a while I was running a lab.” She smiled, much like how my mom used to when she was remembering how things used to be.  “I’ve always loved helping people, and there is no shortage of sick and needy on Vuuldar. The planet was harsh, and it demanded I be harsh. Even though much religion has been snuffed out, I would not abandon my faith.”

“You kept it alive by making yourself necessary, and making its presence undeniable,” Menagerie extrapolated.  “You made yourself instrumental in the survival of the surrounding tribes by being a safe haven and place of healing.  You used your knowledge of medicine to provide a positive outlet to spread your religious influence.”

The corner of the Mother Superior’s lip curled into a sly grin, “For someone so quiet, you’re quick to put things together.  You should teach this boy a few lessons in observation skills,” she added, gesturing to Parasite.  

I stifled a laugh but Dragoon didn’t manage to.  

“Why do you think that we’re of God?” Mutant blurted out.  

The question actually was the first thing that seemed to genuinely catch the Mother Superior off guard, though not for long.  “My boy, are you familiar with the bible?”

He shook his head, “Religion was largely suppressed on Tso’got, and my parents never practiced anything.”

She pursed her lips, annoyed with his report.  “Many people will disagree, and many have different views on the divine.  But, in my mind, God is not a force of nature that comes like a storm and wreaks havoc.  Nor is he a specific being like you or I either. God is more abstract, more intangible, but always present, lingering in the details.  So many people waste their life believing that God will come to them in an earth-shattering vision or some kind of epiphany amidst a dream, they need to have some kind of concrete proof that such a being exists.”  She shook her head, “No, that is just not the case save for a few lucky ones. Short of using some psychedelics, you’re not likely to experience that sort of phenomenon.”

“So, what is he?” I asked.  

“God is the force of preservation in this universe.  He is the voice that whispers in your ear to get back up, to try again, to keep on keeping on.  God is the little reminder that things can get better, and that nudge that brings people together.  God is the beauty in the details, and the artistry in nature. He is the change we want to make, and the energy to keep going.  God is the astral mathematician who set the universe to spin, watching as his creation presses onward. I personally don’t believe the God intervenes much, but I do believe he helps nudge his creation back onto the right track.”  She reached forward and put a weathered hand on my shoulder, “I see God in you lot. You have a fight in you that I’ve never seen, and it would be irresponsible for me to not honor his call.”  

Mutant blinked a few times, confused.  “This seems, absurd.” 

The Mother Superior actually let out a laugh… which admittedly caught us all off guard.  “It is,” she confessed, “And it isn’t. The Almighty leaves fingerprints everywhere, you just need to know what you’re searching after.  This may be a bit of personal bias, but I am glad that he has enabled you young folk to fight back against the Trillodan. Whether or not you are strong enough to succeed, I’m glad that he has given you the tools to try.  If I can be of help then, damn it all, I’ll help.”  

There was a strange weight to her words, one that none of us could quite wrap our head around.  “But-“

“Do I believe that the Trillodan are agents of the devil?” she interrupted, “Maybe.  I can’t be sure that they are truly evil, I’ve never had a conversation with them. However, do I believe that a race with so much technological prower is prone to dreams of megalomania and an unhealthy disconnection with other species?  Absolutely. Whether or not you want to make this conflict a war between divine entities, there is clear imbalance among the stars. I believe that is something the Almighty would see fit to correct. When you consider how many factors had to line up for you all to be standing here now, it is a bit mind boggling.  Somehow you all obtained arcane abilities, somehow you all found each other, somehow someone managed to recruit a small army of you lot, and somehow you all made a ship capable of travelling the cosmos. To think all of that is complete coincidence is a little… absurd, don’t you think?” She turned to face me, “Does that answer your question?”

As I opened my mouth to demand an answer out of her, a new voice cut in, interrupting me and lowering the temperature in the room by ten degrees.  

It wasn’t so much noise so much as if a voice was speaking directly to my brain and it wasn’t just me who was hearing it; given the expression of horror we all wore, I wasn’t the only one hearing Zellig speak.

“There are vermin on your planet, denizens of Vuuldar.  You call them Selected, and some call themselves Adapted.  There has been an influx today, and they are fugitives, nothing more.  If you aid in their capture, we will reward you handsomely. This planet has no need to burn, but if there is resistance, we will cull your population like cattle, burning the innocent and guilty together.  There is no need for such waste. Stage a bonfire to signal us and we will give you amnesty, we will ensure you survive. All you must do is comply.”

I gulped as I kept reminding myself that he wasn’t behind me, he wasn’t there, he was using some Trillodan tech to broadcast to the whole planet.  He couldn’t hurt me, not yet. Still, no matter what I told myself, I could feel him ripping me out of the growths. I could still feel his fingers around my throat.  

“Those of you who feel a need to shelter the heretics will be butchered alongside them.  Make no mistake, we are not interested in disturbing your planet; we come here with a singular goal and then we shall leave you to live in peace.  If there is anyone to blame, turn your anger against the freaks among you. Surrender them to us, save yourself.”  

You could have heard a pin drop as we all looked between each other, none of us sure what the hell to say.  Even the stoic Mother Audrey was alarmed and caught off guard, unsure how to react.    

And then, outside we started hearing the tampling  of footsteps as people came to life, spurred on by Zellig’s address to the whole planet, and it dawned on me that we were down a man.  The Trillodan had just turned Vuuldar against us, and our most injured member was on her own, now surrounded by a desperate and cornered enemy.  

Lightshow wasn’t at risk of the Trillodan killing her, she was at risk of being devoured by the mayhem that Zellig had drown the planet in.   

Previous ChapterNext Chapter

Interlude: Legion

Iilena Lamaak had delivered on her promises.  It had been only two days since our conversation and I could already see the preparations that the soldiers and engineers had set to, preparing the world-ending vessel for my use.  

A Crimson City was the crowning achievement of Trillodan engineering.  While it had been modified over the cycles, it had kept much of the old features and design choices.  There were more efficient ways to demolish a planet, but few rendered it so completely uninhabitable and sent such a statement as enacting Protocol 37.  Much of the vessel was dedicated to the power supply: a massive reactor containing annihilation reactions to provide the energy required for opening a Void Door or fuel the array that would torch the atmosphere of a planet.  

The whole vessel itself was monstrous, a sphere of metal that was nearly a dozen kilometers in diameter.  Half of that immense volume was dedicated to housing the reactor and a third dedicated to holding drones and the satellite array for engaging Protocol 37.  The rest housed the engineers attending as well as a fully staffed medical bay and barracks for the soldiers who would deploy with me.    

Such a ship had only one purpose: extermination.  A Crimson City was designed to obliterate a planet and declare supremacy.  While the Trillodan did have ships made for interstellar warfare, the Crimson City was built to ensure the enemy ships had nowhere to go home to.  

“Commander Zellig,” a familiar voice called.  I turned to see three figures, all clad in simple black garb like mine, kneeling just beyond the door to my quarters.  

My three captains among the legion: Salah, Tol, and Omec.  Three of the most renown killers in the Trillodan military.  

Salah was first to rise, her purple coat brightening a few shades, a show of unadulterated excitement.  She had been one of the first to join my legion, in large part because she didn’t think in the common way for a Trillodan soldier.  Instead of charging headlong into conflict, she was someone who played the long con, set up traps and used demolitions to her advantage.  While she was more than capable of holding her own in straight conflict, Salah was at her best when working just out of sight around the periphery.  Many others of my legion could reliably beat her in a duel, but no one could play a battlefield quite like Salah.    

Tol followed suit and rose, albeit with a little tremor running through his legs.  His white skin was dotted with green spots, an indicator of a typically fatal condition that plagued many Trillodan children.  Tol was my youngest captain, his parents a pair of old veterans who were lamenting that their child was bound to die before he had survived his first cycle.  Tol made up for his lack of physical ability with his quick decision making and terrifying ability to learn; he had taken it upon himself to train his mind since his body warred against him.  Vaneel cautioned mem, insisting that Tol had become a bit of a surrogate for me in the wake of losing my own child, and my friend was probably right. My captain, was a rebel, someone desperate to please, desperate to prove that he was able despite his parent’s assurances that he was not.  Even though his bones were brittle and his body frail, I knew Vaneel could help shore up his weaknesses and that Tol’s razor sharp acumen could be utilized to the fullest. He had taken to combat shooting like a fish to water, mixing his prolific use of firearms with an incredible ability for standing toe-to-toe against anyone.  In a cycle or two, he would be the most efficient killer in the entire military, maybe even including me.  

Last was Omec, and by far the most controversial of my captains.  If Salah was unorthodox, Omec was an alien. She had been raised by a family known for their insurgency, her family being one of those last who rebelled outright against the Matron.  As such, she had been taught a number of methods for creating biological weapons and manufacturing parasites that could be used to cripple dozens or hundreds of people at once. Such biological warfare  had never been in alignment with the Matron’s refined social order and it caused a stir when her family was brought to trial. There had been orders to execute her, but I had argued for a chance to refine her, to sculpt her into a powerful ally for the Immortal Matron’s military.  Omec had been lost after her parents were captured by the Garrison; I gave her a new calling and made her one of the most dangerous people alive. The pale, yellow captain rose, standing nearly a head shorter than Tol but still holding herself with dignity and pride.  

I walked forward, offering a soldier’s clasp to all of them, not bothering to hide my smile.  “It has been far too long since we’ve all been in the same room,” I laughed, “Now, come, sit. We have much to discuss.” 

As we took a seat at a square table, I couldn’t help but bask in the different atmosphere of the room; with most Trillodan officers, there was respect but also a healthy dose of fear.  So many were terrified of what I represented and what I had been turned into. My legion though, they were grateful. I had taken the misfits, the oddities, and given them all an outlet.  While a formal and uniform military had its purposes, I didn’t see a need to break the perfectly capable into that mold when they could do so much more when given a little creative nudge.  

Because of the graces I extended them and the relationship cultivated, I knew these three, and the seven that served under each one of them, would die for me without question.  

“How much do you know,” I asked.  

Tol took a deep breath to steady the palsy in his hands, “We were briefed and showed some footage from various cameras.  We know they are… supernatural for lack of a better explanation.”  

Salah frowned, “We saw a living tree eating people and crushing transports.”

  “One of these Adapted kicked a soldier’s head off,” Omec added.  “But none of us have a complete idea what these kids are or what made them so… able.” 

“I don’t suppose that Vaneel will have an answer for us on that front, will he?” Tol asked.  

“Where is that madman anyways?  I’d have figured that you’d bring him in for such a meeting of the minds,” Salah added.  “I’m assuming if that Matron gave you all of us back, he’s still working alongside you.” 

My legion and Vaneel had an interesting relationship.  While my legion largely respected strength, they recognized exactly how vital he was even though Vaneel was no killer.  Without him, their personalized suits of armor didn’t exist. Without Vaneel, we would be only half as efficient.  

Tol was especially indebted to the Matron’s researcher since Vaneel had saved his life.  

Even though my best friend couldn’t fight if his life depended on it, all of them would sacrifice themselves if it ensured his survival, not out of devotion, but out of pragmatism.  They all recognized that my best friend and I were the linchpins that held this group together and they could be replaced should it be necessary. All of them knew there would be more Trillodan soldiers who didn’t quite fit in; keeping an outfit like mine functional was important for the future of our race.    

“Vaneel wouldn’t work for another Commander,” I replied with a laugh, “They’d throw him out within the week.  You know how harsh he can be to work with.”  

Omec rolled her eyes, “the other Commanders also lack your vision, Zellig.  They are shortsighted and cowardly unlike you.”  

I shot her a sideways glance, “Careful, Omec.  I think Vas’sah would be remiss to hear that his former underling was being spiteful.  Even if they aren’t one of us, you will refrain from speaking about the other Commanders in such an unbecoming fashion.”  

She nodded and bowed her head, “Apologies, Commander Zellig.  I will mind my tongue.”  

“Commander,” Salah said, clearly looking to move the conversation past her fellow captain’s blunder, “What do we need to know about these Adapted?”  

I reached alongside the table and pressed a button, projecting a hologram crafted from the recording I took on Tso’got.  For several minutes, my captains watched, enthralled in the combat as I weathered the storm against several of them.

And they were all stunned seeing me beaten by Clemency.  

“Commander,” Tol whispered, solemn, “How is this possible?” 

I straightened and they all did the same, all on their best behavior now that they had seen me lose.  “While these Adapted are mere children, they are not to be taken lightly. Even those lesser ones wield deceptive amounts of power.  What the video doesn’t do justice to is revealing exactly how much trauma I had to mend on the fly.”  

“You want us to apprehend those things capable of fighting you?” Omec said, a bit suspect.  I could hear all of their hearts accelerating, a nudge of adrenaline sharpening their senses.  Fear wasn’t something these three were prone to, but they hadn’t seen anyone beat me either. Even though Vaneel had made all of them specific power armor with a daunting, personal arsenal, all my legionnaires knew that I had paid a larger price for my might.  Every single one of them had taken a chance and fought me, and to date none had beaten me. The closest to succeed had actually been Tol, and the smug child occasionally liked to remind the other captains about it.  

“I do,” I replied, blunt.  “They are not immortal, they are not all powerful, and they are very fallible.” 

“With all due respect, Commander Zellig,” Salah said, slowly, “But I’d just as soon avoid a suicide mission.” 

I shook my head, “I didn’t finally get us all gathered in one place to send you to the afterlife.  By my estimates, there are eighty-four Adapted who will be setting foot on Vuuldar, and of them there are eight who you must avoid outright conflict with.”  I tapped another button and pulled up images of nine faces. “Titan, Shockwave, Beleth, Clemency, Psycho, Cataclysm, Forest, Zeal, and Sinister.” 

Omec scrutinized the faces and information I had listed alongside them.  “These are leaders among the Adapted. If we avoid them, we avoid conflict with half of the Adapted present.  How do we apprehend them if we can’t pursue a majority of them for fear of conflict with this lot?” 

“He said ‘outright conflict,’” Tol said thoughtfully.  “We are to engage in guerilla warfare, weaken them and their cohorts before attacking directly.”  My youngest captain turned his gaze towards me, “That is not my area of expertise. That is where Salah is best.”

She smiled in recognition, “Much obliged.”   

I nodded, “You’re correct on both counts, Tol.  Salah and Omec will be the ones working to undermine the major names.  However,” I added as I noticed his face fall a little, “I have a few targets I want you to isolate.”  The image projected changed to the monstrous form that Eldritch had assumed during Feast Day, “That one is named Eldrtich, and he is contestably the strongest among them if allowed to remain unchecked.”  

Both Salah and Omec gave a worried glare to the other captain, “Will Tol be able-“

“You doubt my judgement, Salah,” I snapped.  “You have your strengths, and so does he.”    

She shook her head, “Apologies, Commander.  I would hate to see Tol devoured by that…thing,” she replied, sincere.

“I have faith in your fellow captain, and I believe you should share it,” I replied, making it clear that wasn’t a suggestion.  My attention turned back to the youngest captain, “Eldritch is in the company of five others, and two of them I want brought back alongside him: Dragoon and Parasite.  Both of them are promising specimens, and both of them I want to give Vaneel for further study. The other three with him are of interest, but less of a priority. You will likely want to bring your underling with you.” 

“Lail will be glad to stretch his legs,” Tol said with a grin, “He may end up killing one of them if push comes to shove.” 

  I shrugged, “One loss is insubstantial in the  grand scheme of things. Just be sure it isn’t one of those three.  For-” I paused as a hurried set of footfalls rang in the distance. “Ah, right on time,” I chuckled right before Vaneel barreled into the room, out of breath.  

“I’m.  Sorry,” he panted.  “Haven’t been. On a Crimson City.  Lately.” He took a moment to catch his breath before taking a seat at the table and continuing.  “I have finally made a bit of a breakthrough that may help us track down the Adapted on the surface of Vuuldar.”  He pulled a metal disk from a pocket of his coat and set it on the table. The screen changed as his device showed a report with a few visuals that seemed to be a kind of molecule or particle none of us recognized.  

“Translate into layman’s terms,” I insisted as I read enough of his technical terms to know that it would save everyone time.  

He scoffed, “You’ll never learn if I don’t-“

Vaneel quit being so coy when he noticed my glare.  

“Right.  Adapted tend to differentiate themselves into a few categories: Projector, Conjurer, Enhancer, Druid, and Peculiar.  Enhancer’s specifically alter their own body in some capacity and don’t have any outward effect. Druid’s affect life around them but don’t typically create anything so much as adjust it.  Neither of them leave any lasting impact on the world around them, at least not on a molecular level. The most druids do is tinker with biology but it doesn’t leave a trace I’ve been able to identify.  So, in short, no way to track them or trail their powers use.”  

“What’s your point?” Omec asked. 

“The other three classifications,” Vaneel continued, not bothering to mask his annoyance at my officers impatience, “All rely on extraneous influence and manipulating their environment to some degree.  Projectors fire things from their hands or control some kind of element or energy source. Conjurers literally pull items from outside of reality, and Peculiars often rely on something intangible to influence the world around them.  My point is, that those three emit a specific and unique radioactive signature. Something about what they do is unique and leaves behind a trace, like a little line burned in the air.”

I smiled, “And you found a way to identify it.”  

“I can reconfigure a satellite array onboard to be used as a means of monitoring the planet for spikes of this radioactive signature.  The instant we have basic coordinates, the Adapted will be easy to follow.”

“And we can deploy troops to follow after them.  As long as we know where to look, we can easily track them from the sky,” Salah said, grinning.  

Vaneel frowned, “We won’t be able to rely on this to find them initially though,” he insisted.  “Many of the Adapted won’t exhibit this signature, and it is only when they use their gift actively.”

“We can rely on it,” I insisted, taking a moment to try and think forward.  

“Why?” my friend asked, dubious.  

“Relay,” I replied.  “Simply put, their ship isn’t built to survive a trip through the atmosphere of Vuuldar.  It will fragment and crash on entry without substantial intervention. However, we know that Relay is able to teleport people, and they have someone onboard who could move the entire ship.  Either one of them will be used to ferry Adapted to the ground.”

“It prevents us from intercepting anyone in transit,” Omec added, “As far as they can figure, it would be more clandestine to go down to the planet’s surface this way anyways.  Using ships would be a dead giveaway since most of the denizens are ocean-dwelling.”  

“Even if they have beaten us to the planet, they will need to pull themselves off world as well and we can track asses then.  Titan had an exit strategy on Tso’got, and I know he’ll sure as hell want to have one again. Vaneel,” I commanded, “Begin the preparations for a Void Door, if you’d be so kind.”  

My friend nodded and rose from the table, heading towards the bridge.  

“Commander Zellig, assuming we beat the Adapted to Vuuldar, what will do with the ship?” Salah asked.  

I rose from the table and they all followed suit.  “I am going to see it dealt with personally. I’m thinking that Maak and Jor will be itching for a chance to prove themselves.”

“Is there a reason we don’t blast it out of the sky?”

“All Adapted have their own value and benefit for Vaneel to study.  The more of them we can obtain, the more we information we can glean and use for ourselves.  Besides,” I said with a chuckle, “Sometimes you just want to take matters into your own hands.”  I noticed the little bit of rejection on my captain’s faces: all of them wanted to work side by side with their Commander.  “I am not entirely sure what will be left on the Adapted ship, and frankly you are all too valuable for me to lose early in this campaign,” I insisted.  “I need you three hunting down the Adapted leaders and being my hands on the surface until I can join.”  

“Yes, Commander Zellig,” all three replied in unison.  

I put a hand on the shoulders of my two female captains, “Salah, Omec, get your armor.  I need a word with Tol.”  

Both nodded and departed swiftly, both with bloodlust already starting to show in their eyes.  The two of them were always eager to prove their value, and knowing them our campaign would likely turn into a competition for how many Adapted could be captured.  

Tol straightened his posture, trying to stymie the shaking in his hands.  He visibly strained with effort, his heart hammering in his chest. If I had to miss my guess, the boy had been without medication or steroid booster in a while.  He had always been stubborn about taking medication, wanting to be dependent on himself for his own well being. “Yes, Commander Zellig?” 

“Captain Tol, you are one of the most promising Trillodan who has ever entered the military.  It would not surprise me if you would one day be right hand of the Matron in my stead,” I stated honestly.  

He couldn’t help himself and showed a smile.  The spots on his skin brightened in glee as he looked up at me, his youthful exuberance showing through his normally rigid military mask.  “Thank you, sir.” 

“However,” I replied slowly, “I have given you a daunting task to carry out.  While none of the Rogue Sentries, were individually a threatening target, they are arguably the most dangerous group of people among the enemies’ ranks.” 

Tol narrowed his gaze, trying to figure out what I meant, “If they lack much of the power that concerns you, how are they so dangerous?” 

“They are young, clever, and most importantly, they have something to prove.  None of their members are weak, and they are arguably the entire reason that we took interest in the Adapted on Tso’got.  They are rebels, and they have battled against harsh odds time and time again. Be cautious,” I warned my captain, “And do not underestimate them.”  

“Yes, Commander Zellig.”  

“Now, get ready.  We have a hunt ahead of us.”    

My legion was restless as we waited for the arrival of the Adapted. 

A few of my legion wanted to lay siege to the ship the instant it showed up, but I dismissed that idea.  We had to let them disembark, we needed them confined to the planet’s surface. While we could outrun their limited special distortion, we couldn’t track them.  Even though Trillodan technology was a marvel, it had limitations. Surveying the surface of a planet was child’s play compared to trying to scour billions of square kilometers of the void. 

I didn’t bother mentioning to my legion that if we tried to fight them all at once it would be a bloodbath.  We wanted to keep them alive for study and they had no such prerogative. My captains and I were aware that we were due for an uphill battle because we had to fetter our own destructive potential to make sure there were pieces left to study.  Dealing with the heavy hitters would be challenging since outright confrontation was going to be problematic.  

Especially Titan.  He was going to likely be the most troublesome.     

At last, our enemy made their entrance.  The array we had established worked like a charm and displayed where their ship simply appeared.  When Vaneel brought up a live feed there was nothing showing, just an empty space where the sensor said their ship was.  Vaneel and I came to the conclusion that there was undoubtedly some Adapted trickery at play, but we weren’t sure who could manage to make a ship invisible.  Lightshow was a decent candidate, but this seemed incredibly large scale for her given what we’d seen her demonstrate.  

Either way, I’d know soon enough who was responsible.    

In the dispatch bay, twenty four bloodthirsty Trillodan waited to board transports and start their expedition to the surface.  All of them were eager for blood.  

As I joined them, all turned and took a knee.  The clamor and din of my excited legionnaires stilled immediately out of respect for their leader.  All their excitement and bloodlust quelled for a moment, all of them waiting for my orders.    

“Rise,” I said, letting my voice resound through the room.  “Look at all these monsters the Matron was kind enough to give me!”

The bloodthirsty smiles returned and a few laughs as the stood.

“I will assume you were all good little boys and girls and read what Vaneel provided you.  These Adapted are dangerous,” I cautioned my legion, “And even though they are young, they are no stranger to war.  They will fight tooth and nail. They will give you no quarter. They will not go quietly.” I strode to the center of the room, turning slowly to survey my hand-picked elite, “But we are Trillodan.  We do not fall. We do not kneel.”

All of them slammed a hand against their chest in salute.  “We do not kneel!” they echoed.  

“The Immortal Matron herself told me that we are not allowed to fail,” I said, solemn, letting the weight of that silence the room again.  “She has trusted us to succeed in overcoming this threat.” I glanced to my left, and the only person in the room larger than me, “Kalr, what will we do?” 

The massive teal woman bared her teeth, “We show them what Zellig’s legion is capable of.”  

“Vawn,” I said, turning around to face a smaller male with golden skin, “What will we do?”

“Obey the Matron and crush them,” he answered.  

I bared my fangs and made a wide sweep to the rest of my chosen, “We are her representatives and her diligent servants.  We will see them broken and in chains!” I paused for effect, “What are we?” 

“We. Are. Legion!” the entire host bellowed in response. 

Another roar was let loose from everyone as I could practically feel the killer instinct pulsing through the room.  It hadn’t taken much to whip them into a frenzy, but I wanted to be damn sure they were at their best; the last thing I wanted was to lose a few of the initial skirmishes.  

On an upper level, a door slid open and Vaneel stepped in; I raised a hand and the clamor ceased, everyone giving him a respectful bow as he gave me a nod.  “Zellig, they have started making landfall.”  

“To your transports,” I shouted, “You’ll be given their location.  If you need extracted, all of you have a displacement charge to bring you back here!  Remember, we want them alive!” I emphasized as people split into groups of two or three.  “Malak, Jor!” I called, “With me.”  

Two middle sized soldiers approached, each already hidden behind their armor.  Malak had one of the more unique sets of armor that Vaneel had to make. While most sought out strength or firepower, he opted for trickery and stealth.  His suit’s based was akin to a regulars armor, but atop the metal were little silver arrays holding cameras and small thermal capsules. He could project illusions around a room, make himself functionally invisible, and trick heat sensors as well.  While he lacked much of the punch through that many of my legionnaires had, his penchant for trickery could be invaluable.  

Jor was one who had asked for a very particular arsenal to be made.  She had what almost looked like a spool of thread along her arm. The tick that Vaneel had worked into it was a device to make it vibrate at an exceptionally high frequency; it was sharper than any blade once it was turned on.  She had a few other firearms built into her armor, but she kept it fairly light otherwise. Jor opted to be light on her feet, relying on her agility and maneuverability to let her dance around a battlefield and position for where her razor thread could do the  most damage. 

Should there be something I couldn’t brute force my way through, she could carve through it.  Should there be someone we couldn’t fight, Malak could deny them vision and facilitate an ambush or an escape.  While I appreciated what my captain’s brought to the table, my legion was comprised of people with a variety of tools for just a situation like this.  Titan was bound to leave someone onboard the ship as an insurance policy, a deterrent in case we boarded. If he was using Relay to facilitate another network of transportation again, it stood to reason that he was onboard as well.  None of them were known in Vuuldar, and none of them had access to any kind of safe haven on the world below.  

Their only bit of real estate was the ship.  Relay was essential to their exit plan and it made sense that Titan would keep him removed from where he’d expect there to be any real combat.  While Titan wasn’t a seasoned leader, he wasn’t no fool. He knew exactly how vital mobility was in combat.  

That was why it was my first target.  Only after we cut the hamstrings could we take our time hunting the rest of them down.  

“Vaneel,” I called, “We need a spatial distortion triggered.  I want to be put on board.”  

“Do be careful, Zellig,” he called down at me while he fiddled with a console, “You will be awfully expensive if I have to replace you.”  

I grinned as the energy began to distort around the edges of my vision, “I wouldn’t dream of damaging your handiwork.”

He laughed as he flipped the final switch and reality went dark for a split second.  The next moment, my eyes drank in a surprisingly serene scene: 

Six forms were lounging amidst what looked like a common room, furnished with a plethora of furniture that seemed at odds with the otherwise metal and rustic interior of the ship. The only non-uniform part of the room was a massive observation window, giving a magnificent view out to the stars.  

The six Adapted present were almost all familiar to me, all of them having spent some time on camera or had at least been seen by the Adapted we’d captured: Organelle, Relay, Powerhouse, Guardian, Command, and one redhead I didn’t recognize.  While she looked unassuming, timid even, my instincts screamed that she was dangerous. The rest of them were largely not combat oriented Adapted and Titan wasn’t about to leave his key healer and head of transportation unguarded. 

“Malak, screen!” I barked as the Adapted hurriedly got to their feet, drawing away from us.    

My legionnaire pressed a hand to his arm and a dozen copies of him shimmered into existence and he faded into the shadows.  I could see the air move around him as he crept around to the side, looking for an option to cripple one from the flank while Jor and I took a more straightforward approach.  

But, to my surprise, Jor wasn’t moving forward with me.  Instead, she sat down.  

“Can’t-move,” she hissed, “Don’t, understand.”  

I could hear her heartbeat remaining steady, slowing even as she sat down.  For someone riled up and hungry for blood, this was wrong. I bared my teeth in frustration as I glared at the group of Adapted, the one named Command staring intently at Jor.  “Command’s name is rather literal,” I surmised, “Useful I suppose.”  

He raised a hand and I felt his influence immediately.  

I felt a compulsion to lay down, to quit fighting, to be content and restful.  There was no need to proceed with this fight, there would be a time in the future to remedy my mistakes, to apologize and take another stab at this.  The more I struggled against it, the more intent the message became, eclipsing my impulse to harm the Adapted.    

Instead of stubbornly sticking to will power, I opted for another source of motivation, one literally hardwired into me.    

Protocol –Violence.  

Engage enemy – Non-Trillodan.  

Outcome – Maim.  

Duration of override– thirty seconds.

The nanites in my body took over, resting control away from mind, rejecting Command’s control of my faculties.  When he had constructed me, Vaneel had made numerous systems to give me perfect control of my body and to limit any situation that would prevent me from fighting back.  One of those was an automated defense response should I be rendered unconscious or brain damaged in combat. I had learned to access it and could turn it on through neural impulse.  While nothing to date has ever been able to damage my brain, one could never be too prepared.    

“I hope you have more tricks,” I laughed as my body raced forward; I was halted as a blue field appeared between us.  

Guardian, the pasty white Adapted drowning in freckles held a hand up that had a faint blue tint to it.  Another glance at the redhead showed her still no wanting to engage, as if she was holding back.  

The question I had was why.  It made sense she would be built for combat, but she was content with letting those less capable to contribute in a fight continue without her assistance.  She had no reason to keep us alive, no reason to restrain herself. We were her enemy and she ours.  

Why did she remain complacent?    

I tested the shield a few times, annoyed that it refused to budge.  Despite Command’s influence and refusal to fight against the Adapted, I seemed able to strike the shield without issue.  My best guess was that he was able to give specific commands or alter specific patterns of thought; it meant there were loopholes I could exploit.  Since he didn’t know about my internal network and code, he wasn’t going to keep me limited. While it seemed to waver when I hit it hard enough, I wouldn’t be able to reliably bash my way through it without exhausting my power supply.  While Jor might have been able to cut through it, she wasn’t going to be up until Command’s influence was stymied. Tapping back into my circuitry, I cheated around Command’s control   

Objective – destroy the ship.  

“Plasma barrage, thirty second intervals, immediate engage,” I ordered, forcing myself to smile despite Command trying renewing his efforts to make me fall over.  “Guardian, I hope that trick works for the whole ship.”  

The youth took a deep breath, dispersing the shield in front of me before extending both his hands out to the side; through the massive observation window I saw that same blue shimmer grow and expand, protecting the whole ship.  The bolt of plasma slammed against his shield and shook the ship, but the field held, although Guardian was already sweating with exertion.  

Enemy or not, the boy had earned my respect.  He’d made a shield able to withstand a hit from Trillodan artillery which would have leveled a city block.  

My admiration wore off quickly though, and now there was nothing between me and Command.  

“New power set,” he insisted to the redhead, “Keep him back!” 

“It’s too soon!  I allocated six for the illusion-” 

“Infinite, NOW!” Command shouted as I rushed forward, raising a hand to her.  I felt his hold on me relinquish; why would he give up on that to try and control her?  

Energy filled the room as the redhead cried out, a wave of red energy expelling through her fingertips.  And then, her eyes turned blue and hands glowed similar to Guardian’s. A shield appeared in front of me, but this one surged forward to meet me, pushing me back.  I tried to move around, but the girl kept adjusting the frustrating wall of energy, pushing me back over and over again. While Guardian’s shields seemed to be fixed, she was doing something malleable, good both offensively and defensively.

And if she’d been responsible for the illusion that concealed their ship, I was at a loss for what her true power was.  People who seemingly had multiple powers were either cleverly manipulating a gift or given two powers that worked in conjunction.  Making shields and illusions weren’t necessarily related, especially if she’d experienced physical pain to change on the fly.  

My enhanced vision revealed to me the tiniest bit of distortion as Malak crept within striking distance of Command; none of the Adapted even realized there was a killer in their midst until a blade jabbed into the man’s side.  

Command paled as Malak let down the illusion, allowing fear to creep over the other Adapted.  Command tried to raise a hand, but Malak drove a fist into his teeth, throwing bits of enamel and blood all over as he fell.  Guardian paled as my saboteur turned to him, looking terrified as Malak snickered and flipped the blade around. The Projector couldn’t let down the shield for fear of the next blast, but the others present weren’t fighters.  Command might have been able to stop him, but with him out of the way, there was no one who could really stop Malak from cutting through them.

Except for the woman Command had been influencing.  

As soon as his hold over her faded, Infinite screamed and her face contorted.  Her eyes did away with the blue glow instead opting to turn into a pair of black orbs as an almost imperceptible mist filled the air around her; Malak went down instantly, gasping and contorting like his life was being ripped from him.  

Her timid and fearful expression was replaced with a mask of anger, rage, and malice.  She ignored my legionnaires clawing and thrashing, turning her attention towards me, walking forward, taking her time.  I hadn’t been sure why my instincts were warning me about this woman, but now I understood both why Command had her on a leash and why Titan had kept her up here:

This wasn’t an ordinary Adapted who was made to fight, this woman was made to be a natural disaster in the flesh.  I was willing to bet there was no half measure with her, there was either obscene power or nothing at all. Without Command to control her, she was an unstoppable storm.   And Malak had just done away with her leash.    

“I’ve waited a long time to meet you, Zellig Ak’aan,” she whispered, “You’ve been all that he talks about lately.”  

Very few things intimidated me, but this ‘Infinite’ had made the list.  Titan had earned my respect for bothering to use someone so dangerous, and for managing to keep her so well hidden before now.  “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.”   

She smiled, a sinister grin that would have sent a lesser man running in fear.  “You made a mistake coming here, Zellig,” she announced with a voice that reverberated through the room, a strange echo making it sound like multiple voices came from her mouth.  “You believed that you could make us kneel, didn’t you? He said you would come for us. We just didn’t expect you here. I assumed I’d have a few more days until we found you.”  

Jor hopped to her feet, whipping a cord through the air, only to be halted by a bright wall of blue energy.  Infinite glared sideways and waved, almost dismissive; my soldier was slammed against the wall, her armor crumpling around her as if it was a shoddy piece of scrap metal.  

A blue wall crashed down on my shoulders as she flicked her fingers towards the floor.  “I think it’s your turn, Zellig. Kneel.”

This was such a massive departure from what she had been a moment ago, but I couldn’t figure out why.  Earlier she had been timid and anxious, now there was nothing but malevolence. Whatever had caused her to snap, it was like the mist around he was a secondary power, something she was using unconsciously.  The energy shield was the only active use she possessed. 

But with her off the leash, it was so much stronger.   

It was like being trapped under tons of rock, the floor began to bend under the pressure as I sank to a knee.  As I strained, the mist slipped forward; I felt my biological processes start trying to shut down. This wasn’t like Command trying to exert influence over my neurology and convince me to rest, this was her trying to turn my body off entirely, like some kind of paralytic neurotoxin.

Battery output override – 500%

The nanites kept my body working, forcing me to draw breath and my heart to beat, which seemed to annoy Infinite as she took another step forward, perplexed that I wasn’t joining Malak in choking on the very essence of death.  She continued to pressure down, and I could feel my body overheating as I stressed every system and safety feature that Vaneel had installed. This could require repair, but if I fell, she would paint the ship with me.    

In my head, I kept counting the seconds.  It had been twenty-six seconds since the last salvo, one was due to land in about 5 seconds.  

I took a steadying breath, knowing that we needed to disengage and soon.  No matter how arrogant this face she wore was, she would kill all of us with ease.  The only reason she hadn’t turned me into a puddle was because she was enjoying playing with her food.

Power output spike – 3x 

Duration – three seconds.  

I could not tolerate what she’d said to me. It struck at the fundamental nature of who I was, of what and who I represented.  There was more at stake than my own legacy. “My name,” I hissed, “Is Zellig Ak’aan.” My power sources whirred as they delivered the extra charge through my body, tripling my strength for a few short seconds.  “And I, do not, KNEEL!” 

I threw myself to the side and shoved to slide away from the crushing weight; it slammed against the floor and warped the metal before dispersing.  With a growl, I slammed my hand against my thigh, triggering the kinetic gauntlet to build around my hand. Raising the appendage, I didn’t aim at her, I aimed at Organelle who was trying to see to Command’s injury.  Infinite turned her wrist to blast me away but the salvo from my ship shook the Adapted’s vessel, forcing her to catch herself for a split second.    

Guardian cried out and sank to his hands and knees, exhausted.     

“Fire again!” I demanded as I let a blast loose at the group of defenseless Adapted.  

Infinite threw a hand out, creating a new wall of power to intercept the blast.  While her reflexive response had been to save her comrades, but that malicious guise that had taken hold did not view them in such a positive light once it remembered that there were people behind her.  

If she was going to be unhinged, I might as well steer her away from me.

Command noticed too and quickly raised a hand towards her, concentrating despite the blood still seeping from his side and mouth.  He waved Organelle off, knowing that his injuries were irrelevant if she did so much as walk too close. The black faded from Infinite’s vision as another blast slammed into the vessel, this time without Guardian able to stop it.  A quick response from Infinite saw a shield erected at the edge of the room as the metal fell away, exposing the ship to the vacuum of space.   

“Titan is playing a very dangerous game,” I laughed as my power supply reverted back to a normal output, “Using someone like you, it’s a very risky proposition.”  

“Infinite, time to go,” Organelle said as I took a step forward.  “Relay, get us down to the surface!”  

The other Adapted shook his head, frantic, “I-I can’t!  I’m the central hub. I’m a fixed point! I made it just to get people up here, not to move myself around!”

I tried to step forward, but a massive blue wall appeared in front of me.  I slammed a fist against it to get their attention. “We will survive the void of space!  Vaneel designed our armor to keep us alive until we can be rescued. Will you be so lucky?”  I smiled, bearing my fangs, “Fire again in ten seconds. Vaneel, remove us in six.”  

“Powerhouse, strip Relay,” Organelle insisted, “I can deal with the fallout.  Give Infinite the power. Sweetie, get us down there. We need to find Titan.”

“I-” she stammered, looking at me, mortified and overwhelmed.

“Infinite,” Command said after spitting a mouthful of blood, “NoW!”  

She shuddered as her veins lit up, a blue glow dragging itself seemingly through her veins all the way down to her hands before expelling through her fingertips again.  As the color faded, so did the force field. At the edge of the room, a new field erected to prevent all the occupants from being ripped into the space; the fatigued Guardian was shaking, but it was enough.  The olive skinned girl grabbed Relay and drained a white glow from him in much the same way, though clearly with incredibly painful consequence as he fell over, clutching at his chest and screaming. Powerhouse frantically grabbed Infinite who shuddered in agony as a white glow washed over her skin.  I took two steps forward, but Infinite raised a hand and they vanished.  

Right on cue, the edges of my vision distorted as the spatial displacement came in and Vaneel freed us from the mess. 

I had been outside the medical wing for an hour now, watching them surgeon operating on Jor through a window.  Infinite had driven parts of the armor into my soldier and reduced organs to ribbons. Malak had been fortunate that Command had come back to and reined in Infinite; once that mist abated, his organs started working again and he had managed to breathe before any real damage had been done.  While he’d be weak for a few hours, he would be fine in the long run.     

Trillodan medicine was an extraordinary thing to behold and the ship’s surgeons were optimistic they could have her back on her feet by tomorrow, though she might be not at her best for a week or two.  Despite our biology being markedly adept at regenerating damaged tissues, there were still limitations on what it could mend.  

I heard him approach long before Vaneel joined me beside the window.  A few moments passed while we stood there silently, watching them operate.  I knew that he was likely evaluating their surgical aptitude while I was concerning myself with the soldier on their table.  

“You care too much about them,” my friend noted, finally breaking the silence.  “They aren’t all going to come back from this.” 

“It is a Commander’s role to feel loss, to appreciate pain they endure and blood they shed for me.  I will not discard their lives easily. If they follow my orders unconditionally, I want them to know I appreciate their sacrifice.”  I allowed myself to look away from the operation and face my friend, “Did you track them down?” 

“I have eyes on them, yes,” he replied.  “I watched the footage from your optical camera.  This girl,” he said, cautiously, “She’s dangerous.  Even more than he is.” 

He being Titan.  Vaneel and I had spent a few days talking over how we would eventually deal with the head of this crusade since he would be a fascinating specimen to study; to date we have had no successful way to capture him alive since he had that pesky danger sense.  

“She answers the question of how they are moving around so quickly,” I replied with a sigh.  “Her gift is raw power that she can define. And she’s different somehow, less hindered by her own ability.  Adapted endure physical strain when they use a gift, but she was smacking us around without batting an eye. For her the only challenge for her was letting go of one power to utilize another.”  

“And the woman who was giving her additional strength at the end?” 

“Powerhouse is an Adapted who can loan power to people for set time intervals.  I knew that someone trying to hold onto it too long was hazardous, I was unaware stripping it out early was detrimental to the other party as well.  Infinite was given the power because she could reshape it to be a means of teleportation where Relay could not.”  

My friend frowned, “Too many options at her disposal to deal with her.  She has power, mobility, and presumably can she can make herself more durable as well.  How do you fight someone who has no weakness?”

“We don’t fight her,” I replied plainly, showing the edges of a malicious grin.  

Vaneel scowled, frustrated, “You noticed something that I missed, didn’t you?” 

“Infinite is unparalleled in power, but she is also volatile.  When she was busy asphyxiating me and my soldiers, she was only facing us.  The second she turned around, she was glaring at the Adapted like they were another enemy.  Command interrupted Organelle healing him to assert some control over her and limit her power.  For every bit of power she seizes, she cedes control,” I concluded. “However, there is something to her I don’t understand, some emotional trigger that accompanies that black mist.  We’ll have to rip that information from someone later.” 

“Titan made a point to keep her hidden; I doubt anyone will know  what that is,” Vaneel pointed out.  

“Unfortunately, you might be right.  Still, we won’t know until we try.”  

There was a moment between us as we watched the doctors work before he spoke again.  “That’s a dangerous person to rely on. Why would Titan leave anyone near her if she is so volatile?” 

“Command is her handler.  While his own gift is frustrating, he is more influential if he is enabling Infinite to use her power to the fullest.”        

The Matron’s head researcher chuckled, “You don’t want to go after her, you want to take out Command.”  

I grinned, turning back to the operation.  “If she has no handler, no way to keep her in check, one of two things will happen with Infinite: she will lose control and level everything nearby or be scared and forced to inaction.  Either way, if we can remove Command, we can nullify much of the threat she poses.” I pressed a hand against the glass, “Jor’s injuries won’t have been for nothing.”  

“All due respect, Zellig, but you’ve spent a long time here.  There are other engagements happening, and we need to see to your own injuries before you can be deployed again.”  I didn’t need enhanced senses to catch the implied concern from my friend; he had designed me so that I wouldn’t be beaten in such a grizzly fashion.  Seeing me battered so handily by two different people was worrying to him.

“You’re right.”  I shot one last look to my loyal legionnaire and turned to follow my friend, the war now underway.  

While one of my own was likely out of commission for the rest of this battle, we had succeeded in grounding them on Vuuldar.  I had found a way to undermine Titan’s greatest weapon in the arsenal, and I still had many cards left to play. We were undoubtedly in for a long chase since the Adapted were easy to maneuver thanks to their small numbers and arcane abilities.    

However, I could make their stay on the surface so much harder.  

“Vaneel, make the preparation for Protocol 41.  Let’s show these children we mean business.”  

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