Epilogue: Old Guard

It was a whirlwind of a week.  

Iilena had been as good as her word and relinquished the office of Matron over to Baarl; his first act had been to dissolve it entirely.  He argued that there was no reason for them to have such an appointment anymore since it had been created in a time of turmoil and military strife.  With things as they were, there was no pending threat.  

The only people who were a threat to the Trillodan had already made it clear that all they wanted to do was go home.  The Adapted had no further stake in the Trillodan’s projected trend as a society.  

Two of the Crimson Cities had been fully decommissioned and destroyed after plenty of raw material was salvaged.  One lone monument to the Trillodan’s violent past remained since they were going to deliver the Adapted back home to Tso’got and Vuuldar.  Afterward, it would face destruction as well.   

More and more of my colleagues and friends had been showing up on Xalanni.  After Iilena stepped down as Matron, I prompted the hidden Goln to come back.  To our surprise, there wasn’t any latent animosity but instead a blessed reunion between our species.  I established my good friend Melkion as the lead on creating a plan to undo the damage that the Legacy Ender had inflicted on the Trillodan genome.  While he was surprised I opted not to lead, he didn’t hesitate getting to work.  

I had been worried about getting research from Vaneel since he was the last hurdle, but he gave away his notes and findings about the Adapted and the Kelotan without a fight.  It seemed that Zellig dying had broken his spirit.  While I felt some empathy for the poor scientist, it wouldn’t do to see a mind that sharp not gainfully employed.  As soon as Melkion started, I insisted that Vaneel work on his team.  Even if genetics wasn’t the Trillodan scientist’s forte, he was too bright to not utilize.  

This morning was a special day: today the Adapted were to finally be taken home.  Those who had been critically injured were stable, and leadership among the Adapted was confident that the Trillodan weren’t going to revert to their tyrannical ways.  Dragoon and Titan had spent a fair amount of time overseeing political handoffs; meanwhile the rest of the Adapted had been drinking themselves into oblivion and having a full week rager in celebration.  

I didn’t fault them for their hedonism.  God knows they’d earned it.  

I’d set a routine of visiting the Adapted in the morning, in part to check in and in part to take a few last notes on their behavior.  As usual, most were still out cold.  The few that were up were hungover but still polite enough to give me a wave.  One that stood out to me was Psycho; he was standing by himself in a corner and only gave me a response when prompted.  I assumed he had Cotard’s today in his ever spinning wheel of mental affliction.  

“No,” I said to myself, “You aren’t here to study.” 

As I expected, one Adapted I very much wanted to talk to was up early.  I frowned as I approached, noting that she was still confined to a wheelchair.  

“You are still refusing medical treatment,” I noted as I stepped up beside her.  

Dragoon’s eyes were fixed on a little orb that she had taken apart and was tinkering with.  “I know,” she said, her eyes glued to her work, “And I’m not going to get help from the Trillodan.” 

“Out of spite?”

She shook her head, “No, I just…” she sighed and put down the tweezers she had been using to manipulate delicate wiring, “At first I didn’t want to feel beholden to the Trillodan.  You know, I wanted them to be these crazy, evil people.  And Zellig sort of was, but the Matron isn’t.  I couldn’t bring myself to indulge in their insane science.”

“Couldn’t.  Past tense?” 

“Yeah.”

“So, what’s keeping you from doing it now?” I inquired.  

She fell back against the chair, “I keep playing what you and the Matron told me, over and over.  I’m too dangerous because I can affect the whole curve of society.  I’m not constrained by my power being temporary or just confined to me.  I mean, Eldritch can eat a city but that’s pretty much where his power stops.  Toolkit is kinda close in that she can constantly improve stuff, but she can’t be the origin of its development.”  

“You two did have quite the mutualism between you,” I noted.  

“But she can’t do what I can.  She can’t…change the course of technology like me.” 

“No,” I agreed.  “She can’t.  Not even close.” 

“So I have to stop making weapons.  But, I know that I can’t just shut down and stop building things.  It has become so integral to me.  That line between Dragoon and Alexis is blurring heavily; if you asked me to stop tinkering, to stop engineering, I couldn’t.  I’d lose my shit.”  She took a deep breath, “I’ve done some serious thinking in the last week and finally come to the conclusion that I want to start doing medical work.  I want to make inventions to benefit people, not kill them.  I’m not letting the Trillodan fix me because I want to be motivated.  I sure as shit don’t wanna be stuck in this chair forever, but I want to earn my mobility.” 

I was a bit surprised at her response.  “You’re going to be okay giving up on fighting?  You have made a point to be on the front lines, to prove that you can duke it out with the best of them as it were.” 

“I’m not going to miss that,” Dragoon said with a laugh, “Fuck no.  Zellig reminded me that I don’t have that same natural affinity for violence like Parasite does.  I’m…okay in a fight.  My biggest boon is that I could make tools to shore up my own shortcomings.  But, there’s always going to be someone stronger.  Besides, I’ve had enough fighting for a long time.  Maybe I’ll change my mind later.  But, for a while, I’d rather sit out.” 

“The Rogue Sentries aren’t going to be missing their leader?” 

“Rogue Sentries are going to dissolve,” Dragoon said.  “Eldritch is in the same boat as me and wants to take some time off; it turns out that losing that beast inside of him really did a number.  Geyser was one of the samples that Vaneel took apart.  With him gone, Menagerie has said she’s going to hang up the mantle and work with Charlotte from now on.  Lightshow and Parasite are going to work with Ragdoll and what remains of the Flag Bearers.”  

“And you won’t feel left out?” 

“Nah.  I’ve got my claim to fame and a good enough purpose moving forward.  Besides, I’ve finally discovered that not all Adapted have to fight to be valuable.  How lost would we have been without Almanac or Big Picture?  Without Relay, Titan could have never coordinated around Tso’got so well.  Without Forest to scout, Titan would have never found all of us.”  She shrugged, “I guess the more I’m around so many different people, the more I appreciate that violence is only one facet of power.  Sure, it’s important, but there’s more to it.” 

I smiled and nodded, “I think that is a good message to take with you.”

“What about you?” she asked, “What are you going to do once we’re gone?” 

“I spent the last century working on the Kelotan and testing with your generation; I think it would be in my best interest to simply take a vacation and relax.  I spent a lot of time living in a cave.  Why not enjoy the high life of Xalanni for a while?” I said with a laugh. 

Dragoon offered a smile that started to falter, “Skaberen, about the Immortal Matron-“

I raised a hand to stop her.  “You have nothing to apologize for.”

“But she’s your friend,” Dragoon said, her voice falling, “And she’s not a monster or anything.  She’s just-“

“The person who caused an untold number of deaths,” I inserted.  “Iilena is my friend, and has been my friend for several lifetimes, but that doesn’t change what she’s done.  And, for what it is worth, I don’t disagree with you.  She is a force of charisma that can’t be allowed to persist.  Over a dozen centuries of leadership; she can change Xalanni with a mere suggestion.  Even if she steps down, the Eternal Council wouldn’t be able to overcome her influence if she ever chose to wield it.” 

“I’m still telling your friend that she has to die,” Dragoon said, her voice hollow.  “I hate knowing that I’m executing someone like this.  Killing Zellig was hard.  He had to actually prompt me to do it; the bastard lunged forward so muscle memory would have me pull the trigger.  But with the Immortal Matron, she was so willing to do what was best for her people and surrender so amenably.  Are you sure it’s the right thing to do?”

I offered a sad smile, “I’ve learned that second guessing yourself constantly is a recipe for anxiety and shot nerves.  I personally don’t think that asking for anyone’s death should be easy, and I understand that you’re going to have some sleepless nights about this.  But, I don’t think you were wrong.  From a practical standpoint if nothing else, Iilena Lamak wields a dangerous amount of social influence.  You’ve seen her speak.  If she wants something, she’ll make the universe move around her.  She’s mastered the art of social presentation and manipulation.” 

“She is…crazy intense,” Dragoon confessed.  “Even though she had surrendered to me, it didn’t feel like it.” 

“Personally,” I offered, “I think people like her and myself have been alive too long.  We’ve lost so much perspective because of how old we are.  Whole civilizations have risen and collapsed during our lifespan; that warps what you consider normal or acceptable.  We were able to simply pull the trigger on shaping whole planets.  I think we should take a page from your book and be more concerned about the impact of calling for a solitary execution.” 

Dragoon smiled, clearly out of words.  

“Y’all are loud,” Shockwave groaned as he sauntered forward, a pack of cigarettes in his hand.  

“Where did you manage to find cigarettes?” Dragoon asked, perplexed.  

“Vaneel made ‘em,” he said as he stuck on in his mouth, “Apparently, pretty simple for him to synthesize.  They aren’t great, but it’s better than nothing,” Shockwave muttered as he took a drag.  “You two talking about fixing the world?”

“Not exactly,” I said, finding it a tad awkward to see the human artillery wearing ratty jeans and a tank top.  It was a far cry from his crimson suit and golden mask that I attributed to him.  “But I feel I must tell you that you’re going to give yourself cancer with how intensely you smoke.” 

“So what?” he asked, “Who gives a shit if I die in twenty years?  I’m alive now and I want a fucking cigarette.” 

There was a weight on his voice, like half of his mind had never come back from the fight in Selir.  “Living on borrowed time won’t work indefinitely,” I said, trying to be as neutral as possible.  “At some point you will have to be more present and accept things as they are.”

For a moment, I thought he was going to turn and hit me given the glare in his eyes.  But, it softened and his shoulders sagged.  “Yeah, probably.  But right now, I just… don’t give a shit.  Every night I go to bed, all I can think about is the fact that Toolkit and I are the last Imperium reps here.  And the icing on this shitty cake is that I watched Zellig literally rip my friend in half.”  

“I’m sorry man,” Dragoon said. 

“For what?” he said with a laugh.  “You fucking shot Zellig in the head, you did your part.  Hell, I couldn’t stop him either.  We needed Eldritch to fucking smash the place to have a chance.  It just…doesn’t make it any better to know that most of my friends are dead.”  He took another long drag, “Even though I was a criminal and knew I’d have to bury my teammates…I just didn’t think it would be so fast.”  He shook his head and looked at his hands for a moment, like he was waiting for them to somehow reply.  “So, because of that shit, I’m gonna smoke.  A lot.  At least until I managed to come to grips with shit.” 

“If I might make a suggestion,” I started.  

“Yeah?” 

“You have spent so much time fighting everyone and only being a tool for destruction.”

“And?” 

“Why not try being something different?  Not to sound crass, but your team is dead.  You have no ties binding you to Imperium anymore and could start with a new lease on life.  When you return to Tso’got, why not change things?” 

Shockwave took another long drag on a cigarette and shrugged, “Maybe that’s a good idea.  Maybe we all could use a new lease on life.  The problem is that we’re all a bunch of violent shit-heads who live for conflict.  We live for strife.  Without conflict, we get restless.  The shit you put in us, it was built to make us fighters in one sense or another.”

I blinked a few times, caught off guard by his remarkably astute observation.  “You don’t strike me as an intellectual,” I said, the words slipping out.  

He actually smiled, “Silence doesn’t make you stupid.  I don’t talk when I know other people will.  I’m a fighter, I know my spot.  Doesn’t mean I can’t watch and learn.  There’s a reason I managed to fight Clemency, Beleth, and all the other big names without losing my head.”  

“Then I assume you’ll be smart enough to find yourself a new occupation where you can sate your need for conflict while abstaining from anything too damaging,” I challenged.  

Shockwave chuckled, “I see your game, old man.”  He looked past me to Dragoon, “We’re off world in four hours, right?” 

“Yes,” she replied, already nose deep back into what she had been tinkering with.  

“I’m assuming that you’re not coming with us.” 

“No,” I replied with a soft smile, “I have much work to do here.  Besides, you all have outgrown me.  I would simply be slowing you down at this point.” 

He extended a hand, “Then, it was a pleasure.”

I nodded and took his outstretched hand, “Likewise, Shockwave.” 

As he left, I glanced again at Dragoon and knew she was too focused to want any kind of interruption at this point.  I only had a few hours before the Adapted were gone and there were still a few more I wanted to see one last time.  

The members of the Rogue Sentries were gathered around a table, all of them drinking coffee and giggling amongst each other.  As I stepped into the doorway, Lightshow waved me in.  “To what do we owe the pleasure, oh dear maker?” she said with too much pomp.  

I smiled as I approached the table and stood between her and Parasite.  The two Altered of the group, and they had dealt with it in such profoundly different fashion.  There were still bags under Parasite’s eyes but Lightshow looked refreshed and in an almost manic state.  Both had a long way to go in terms of recovery before the damage inflicted by the Trillodan would quit haunting them.  Though, Eldritch and Menagerie were clearly not out of the woods either.  While their psyche hadn’t undergone the same trauma, both had withstood profound loss.   

“I am doing my best to come around and see you all off.  I’m not one for large addresses, so I am seeing a few groups before you all go.”  I glanced between Eldritch and Parasite, “And I wanted to see how you two were holding up.” 

“You never realize you’re going to miss a voice in your head until it’s gone,” Eldritch said with a weak laugh.  “I finally got along with Eldritch, and the damn bastard had to go and sacrifice himself.  I can still feel my power in there, can still see my storage and everything.  But, that counterpart who had a voice… long gone.”  

I suppressed my urge to continually probe with questions: Eldritch was another unique case among the Adapted where the Kelotan had managed to almost infect him and hijack part of his body.  The fact he had two entirely different beings sharing space somehow could yield all kinds of interesting results surrounding the ideas of quantum entanglement and shared identities.  But, as quick as the impulse came, I shut it down.  I was done studying these children.  The time had come for them to be left alone.  

“You have my sincerest condolences,” I said, “I admit that you have managed to find a bit of tragedy I can’t completely empathize with.  While I’ve lost many friends, I’ve never lost someone who was a part of my very being.” 

He scoffed, “I’m pretty sure I’m in a small group who have.” 

“If my imaginary friend dies, does that count?” Lightshow asked. 

“Doubt it,” Menagerie muttered from beside her friend.  “Plus, you’ll just make a new one.” 

“Don’t ruin this for me,” Lightshow said, glaring at her melancholic comrade.  

I felt a pang for Menagerie, and for so many other Adapted who were never going to see their lost teammates.  After Vaneel had started creating his rudimentary Kelotan, he began to dissect the Adapted samples he had to try and accelerate the process by harvesting it from their bodies.  Of the eighty or so that the Trillodan had captured, only a dozen had been recovered.

  “Skaberen,” she asked softly, “Does it ever get better?”

She didn’t have to specify.  I knew the pain she was talking about.  “Yes,” I assured her, “It does.  It hurts, for a long time, but it does get better.  For better or worse, Geyser is gone.  And even with all of my know-how, I can’t cheat death.” 

She swallowed a lump in her throat and nodded.  “Thank you.” 

“I understand that you’re going to work with Charlotte,” I said, trying to direct the conversation to a more positive place.

“Yeah.  I figure it’d be good to help her out.  Supposedly she’s going to make some kind of shelter for kids who were like us.  Try to help guide and make life less shitty for others on Tso’got.” Menagerie shrugged, “Since she’s not Infinite anymore, I figure she could use a little muscle.  Just in case.” 

I smiled, “I think the two of you will get along perfectly.”  My attention finally turned to Parasite who had been uncharacteristically quiet, “And you, how are you feeling after all of this?” 

“Scared shitless,” he admitted, “I’m going to go home and find…what?  My neglectful parents doped up?  My house in ruins?  Is it even going to feel like home anymore?  We can’t go back to school, not for a while at least.  Even though we just fucking beat down the Trillodan, we’re still a bunch of criminals.  There are still going to be Snatchers who are hunting us down.  There will still be Suppression who have the sole goal of killing us where we stand.”  He shook his head, “It’s like trading one war for another.”

“Cynicism isn’t necessarily wrong,” I conceded, “But if all you do is look for the wrong in a situation, you’ll never find yourself enjoying anything at all.  While all of what you’ve said is true, you are going back with friends who will care for you, a boyfriend who would die for you, and you’ve managed to overcome the greatest hurdle that this galaxy will ever know.” 

He tried to grapple with that reality, trying to rationalize and somehow hold both the negative and the positive viewpoint in his head.  “I hear you, and I know you aren’t just blowing smoke up my ass, but I can’t accept it yet.  It’s like I don’t know how to hear good news.”

I nodded, a dour smile lingering, “Time heals all wounds.  You have survived a hell of an ordeal, Parasite.  You endured isolation that most can’t imagine.  You faced death head on more times than I can count.  And you are still standing.  You’re still here.  Your friends are all still with you.  Take some solace in that,” I encouraged.  

He offered a weak grin, “Fine, but only because you are being so damn pushy.” 

Lightshow smiled from ear to ear and raised her mug of coffee, “If that isn’t reason enough to drink, I don’t know what is!” 

All of her teammates raised a cup and took a greedy gulp.  

I waved and took my leave, thrilled that they were going to be okay.  

There was hardly enough time to see everyone off before the Adapted were given displacement charges and ferried away to the Crimson City that would take them home.  In their absence, the few buildings that had become their lodgings seemed so lifeless and hollow. 

“My best work,” I said to myself in the stillness, “Most definitely.” 

Scuttling outside, I took stock of the sounds of Selir.  I had spent hundreds of hours watching footage of Selir and other cities on Xalanni, noticing how dead the place felt.  The dwindling population had left a sense of emptiness to the whole society; with the Goln showing up there was conversation and bustling activity.  

Dragoon had been right.  Trillodan and Goln needed each other.  

Wordlessly I stepped into my little apartment and reached down into a cabinet, grabbing a crystal bottle.  Clutching it to my chest, I stepped back out into the calm afternoon and ventured off to see my old friend.  

With everything handed over and the political sphere stable enough, Iilena Lamak was now officially on house arrest until her execution.  The two garrison soldiers nodded to me and let me pass as I approached.  The former matriarch was seated inside, waiting for me in her common room.  I smiled and joined her, sitting opposite from her as a cube of stone acted like a table.  Setting down the bottle, she eyed it cautiously and then glanced at me.  

“It’s that time?” 

I wasn’t terribly surprised that she knew.  If anyone was going to clue in, it would be her.  So, I didn’t try to deny it.  “I’m afraid so.” 

“Keeping it nice and quiet and civil.  I’m just an old woman dying off in her sleep,” she said.  “Did Dragoon put you up to this?”

“No.  I put myself up to this,” I replied.  “I decided that there was one last thing I could do for my friend.  As good as your chemists are, I dare to reckon that I can make a better bottle of Lathi than they can.”

She let out a chuckle, “You were never one to be outdone.”

“Of course not.  What is life without a little competition?”

A crimson colored hand clasped the bottle.  As she peered through the crystal at the beverage, I caught her looking through to me.  “And what are we celebrating?” 

“Pardon?”

“Lathi is traditionally a celebratory drink.  What are we celebrating?” 

“The life and work of the Immortal Matron,” I replied.  

She scoffed, “The crimes against the universe she was culpable of you mean.”  Her face fell, “While I appreciate you trying to inject a little levity into this, Skaberen, we’re here because I caused enough damage someone saw fit to come ensure that I signed a treaty that functioned as my death warrant.”

“Perhaps now isn’t the greatest time to reflect and ruminate on what you might have done wrong,” I insisted as I passed the bottle to her. 

“If not now, when?”

“Never,” I said plainly.  “I have personally found that when we dwell on what might have gone wrong or what we should have done differently, we lose sight of the decency before us.” 

She scoffed, “He says as he passes me poison.”

“I don’t think you should end your great legacy dwelling on what should have been done differently.”

“You and I both know that isn’t going to happen,” she said with a laugh as she lifted the bottle and again inspected the contents.  “We both know I’ve been alive far too long to not spend my last moments reflecting on all that went horribly wrong.”

I sighed, “I hate to say it, Iilena, but I think you’re stalling.” 

She didn’t answer me for a moment, peering through the translucent container.  “All of my life, I have spent so much time ordering for the deaths of others.  I stared down Titan, and my pulse was steady.  I knew I could live through it.  I’ve spent so long, so long knowing I can withstand anything.  And now, I’m finally here.  There’s no getting around this,” she said, finally looking away from the bottle. 

In all my time knowing her, I had never seen her distressed.  The greatest tyrant in history, afraid.  

It sent a shiver down my spine.  

“Will it hurt?” she asked softly.  

“No,” I promised.  “I made it myself.  It will be as easy as going to sleep.  You will fade away and simply never wake back up.” 

With shaky hands, she pulled the stopper free and let out a slow exhale.  “Well, to old times,” she said before taking a swig of the tainted Lathi.  She set the bottle down and let a nervous laugh escape, “You’re right, your batch is better!” 

I laughed as well and smiled, doing my best to silently tell her that it was going to be okay.  

“I’ve been wracking my brain, wondering what’s going to happen to my people in my absence.  I’ve never thought of a society without me that it’s…daunting,” she confessed as she pushed the bottle back into the middle of the table.  “All my life, I’ve simply tried to do what I thought was best for us.”  

“I know.  I understand that weight, not quite as heavily as you, but much of the Goln restoration and recovery fell to me.”  Leaning forward, I reached out and took the bottle.  

Her eyes widened in alarm and confusion.  “What are you doing,” Iilena said, her voice barely a whisper.  “Skaberen, don’t-”

I drew the bottle to my lips and took a swig myself.  Taking a deep breath, I set the bottle back between us, letting a smile creep along my face.  

“Why would you do that?” Iilena demanded, finding her voice again.  

“I meant what I said at our last reunion,” I answered, my voice startlingly calm.  “We’ve been alive too long.  We’ve lost perspective and a sense of where we belong.”  

“You have so much work to do!  You have so much more you can give to your people!  You aren’t the monster that I am!  You aren’t responsible for genocides!”  Iilena balled her fists and slammed them against the table, “Damn you, Skaberen, how could you-”

I raised a hand and stopped her.  “I’m not blameless.  I experimented on a whole planet without consent.  I watched my experiments die and endure torture while I sat back and took notes about what their suffering did to them.  Besides them, who is to say how much I could have saved if I hadn’t been a coward.  What would have changed if I dared to talk to you, centuries ago?  How many races could I have helped save by being your confidant and counsel?  How many died due to my apathy?”

She took a deep breath and composed herself, “I still hate you, but it seems you have given this some thought.”  

“You aren’t the only one to dwell on past transgressions,” I said with a laugh.  “The way I see it, this is the best time for both of us to shuffle off.  The younger generation needs a chance to grow without our oppressive influence.”  I nudged the bottle of Lathi back to my friend, “I figured that the two of us should go out on good terms.”  I laughed and shook my head, “You and Titan said it all: at some point we have to decide it’s time to stop.” 

Iilena took the bottle and took another swig.  “You know, after Kardan, I was mortified.  I’d lost friends, lost my family, lost everything.  For so much of my life, it has just been a blur with little blips, little moments where I felt awake.  The last few months, I’ve honestly felt more alive than I had for several cycles.  Seeing your work in the Adapted, wondering if you were somehow alive, the possibilities thrilled me.”

I smiled and accepted the bottle back from her.  “I was terrified at the prospect of meeting you again.  There was a lot of time apart, a lot of time where you were the Matron and no longer the emissary I had known.  But, I wish I had done it sooner.” 

“Me too,” she said.  

A moment of silence lingered, but not one either of us hurried to break.  We were both happy to be here, happy to have each other in the last moments.  

“Do you think I did a good job,” Iilena finally asked.

I shrugged, “I’d love to say yes, but how would I know?  I think you protected your people zealously, and there’s something to be said for that.”

She scoffed and laughed, “In my final moments, Skaberen still tries to put a positive spin on everything.”

“I am nothing if not consistent.”  

Iilena yawned and slumped forward slightly.  “This is really it,” she realized aloud, giggling. 

“It really is,” I said as I stretched my arms and relaxed, not bothering to fight my poison.  

“Do you think my people will be okay?” she asked.  

“We’ve overcome everything in the past.  I think that our people are going to be just fine.  But, we don’t know.  And that’s the great part of it,” I said.  “We get to let them have their own mystery.”

She smiled and shook her head, “I hate it.”

I laughed, “I know you do.”  Reaching out, I took her hand in my own, giving her fingers a squeeze as her eyes started to close.  “But I have faith in those we’re leaving behind.”

My friend rested her head on her arm, looking up into my eyes, “You aren’t going to keep me waiting long, are you?” 

I shook my head no and laid against the table, “I wouldn’t dream of it.”

She nodded as her eyelids drew to a close.  “Goodbye, old friend.”  A moment later, her fingers went limp in my hand.

I let out a shaky breath as my own eyelids felt heavy.  I let myself go and rested my head by hers. “Goodbye, old friend.”

Previous Chapter – Next Chapter

Epilogue: Decommission

It was strange to see him behind glass.  

Again.  

Looking in on him hurt.  His body was burnt to a crisp, his skin flayed and peeled back.  Chunks of muscle had been surgically removed due to the damage and he’d already had several transplants of arterial tissue.  His legs were the worst to see; the Trillodan surgeons had to cut away the pants that had melted into his skin.  

After they had finished cutting into him, he’d been bathing in a gel that was supposed to donate cells so his body would repair the damage.  The surgeons couldn’t figure out what was keeping him asleep, but I recognized the telltale signs of Overexposure.  Poor Titan had nearly killed himself from exhaustion between carving through a ship, powering me, and then fighting through to the Immortal Matron.  

Despite having burnt himself half to death, he’d pushed through.  

I put my hand against the glass and smiled, “Get better, Max,” I said softly.  

“You’re up way too early,” a groggy voice muttered. 

“It helps that I don’t drink as hard as you do,” I said with a snicker as I saw Interface stagger in.  “You really shouldn’t try to keep up with Adamant.  That guy has a deceptively high tolerance.”

“I’m still telling you, that fucker used his power,” Interface groaned, massaging their temples to dispel their hangover.  “How’s he doing?” 

I sighed, “Damage is slow to repair but he’s getting better.  It looks like a nightmare because the skin is the last thing to repair.  The little medical update I got was that he should be physically okay in the next day or so.  They aren’t sure when he’s going to wake up though.” 

The two of us sat there a moment before Jamie reached over and gave my hand a squeeze.  “Proud of you.” 

“For what?” 

“If you didn’t overcome Zellig’s expectation of you, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.  You would have never got him out of the prison cube.  We would have never made it here.”  

“And if you hadn’t pushed me to get back up, I don’t think I could have done it,” I replied, reaching around to give my friend a hug, “So, team effort.”

“Yeah, I clearly did so much,” they replied, chuckling, “I showed up to possess a ship and couldn’t.  So impactful.”

I frowned, “I will set up a sonic scream if you don’t accept my compliments.”  

Jamie cringed at the thought, “How…how about no.  Let’s not even pretend we do that shit.”  They glanced at Titan again and then back to me, “I’m sorry Forest didn’t make it this far.  I know how much she would have liked to see this all done and dusted.” 

Thinking about our old friend was like a kick in the stomach.  “Yeah.  She’d still be pissed that I figured out how to copy her power.  She was so proud of herself for being weird enough that I couldn’t mimic her.” 

“I wonder why she was so peculiar,” Interface wondered aloud.  “Most Druid’s are still…human.”

“Most of you didn’t have Down Syndrome,” a polite voice said from around the corner.  Skaberen poked out from around the corner, looking a tad embarrassed.  “Apologies, I was sent to find you, Infinite, but didn’t want to interrupt.  But, I figured I should answer the question.”  

“She had Down’s?” I asked, perplexed.  “How come she never told us?” 

“That much I don’t know,” he said, “But it seems that the alteration in her genetics interacted with how the Kelotan shaped her.  She was an outlier, like Interface pointed out.  My breadth of information about her is limited.” 

I thought about the little projection of herself that she always used: a pretty girl with auburn hair and simple clothing.  “She grew up homeless,” I muttered, “I think she just dreamed of being normal.”

Interface groaned, “Gah, I can’t think of stuff this heavy this early.”  Desperately searching for another topic of conversation, they glanced back through the glass at Titan.  “Did the surgeons mention whether or not his dick is gonna be alright?” 

“Jamie!” I gasped.

“What?  It’s a perfectly valid question!” 

“Oh my God,” I laughed, “You’re such a perv!  You shouldn’t be asking whether or not my boyfriend’s…well…”

Skaberen cleared his throat, “To answer Interface’s rather, um, personal inquiry: yes.  The gel should be able to replicate existing tissues based on memory.  Since he wasn’t completely castrated by the fusing of his trousers to his skin, his nethers will make a full recovery.” 

I put my head in my hands, my cheeks now a brighter shade of red than my hair.  “Can, can we just go?” I begged of Skaberen.

“Have fun deciding the fate of the universe,” Interface said as we turned to leave.  

That statement was a little more genuine than it should have been.  Even though there had been a cease-fire between the Trillodan and the Adapted, we hadn’t yet drawn up a serious treaty and plan moving forward.  There had been too much injury on either side.  

Even though we wanted to wait for Titan to wake back up, Dragoon had pushed for us to go ahead and simply get this dealt with.  The longer it sat, the longer there was a chance for the Trillodan to mount some kind of campaign against us.  Even though the Matron was sure that the military wasn’t going to revolt, there were plenty of Zellig’s legion who had survived and might seek revenge before something was formal.  

Enough of the bigger names agreed that Dragoon was still our acting captain anyways.  She would have no problem representing us.  As a show of good faith, she had insisted I come with and be Titan’s voice by proxy.  

The meeting room we used was a remarkably plain setting compared to some of the lavish and gilded buildings we had seen.  Like most of the architecture, the walls were composed of ‘slick stone’ which was basically a rough version of marble that was always wet.  The room itself was small and didn’t have any furniture beyond a square table with six chairs around it.  Several lamps around the room cast a blue glow as Skaberen led me in and pulled a chair out for me.  

Beside me was Dragoon, looking intense.  After the incident with Zellig, the Trillodan had offered to repair her spine but she had refused.  For now, she remained confined to a wheelchair; it didn’t detract from her presence at the table.  If anything, it had made her more commanding.  Across from us was a pair of Trillodan.  One I had only met in passing: Councilman Baarl was the stand-in for the Immortal Matron after her declaration.  Beside him was the Matron herself.  

Even though she had given him her position, it was clear she was the one calling the shots.  Her sheer presence was almost palpable.  

“Shall we get started?” Skaberen said politely, glancing between both parties.  

“Please,” Dragoon said, leaning forward and resting her arms on the table.  

The Immortal Matron gestured back to Dragoon, inviting her to start.  

“The Crimson Cities, they need to be decommissioned,” she said bluntly.  “They represent too much destructive capability and too much mobility.  I understand that you have other means of destroying entire planets if you needed to, but none of them afford you the ability to be omni-present in quite the same fashion.”  

“Done,” the Matron replied.  “The cores will be rendered inert and the ship itself destroyed after we salvage some of the raw materials.”  

“What kind of timeline would this be done in, Iilena?” Skaberen asked, falling into the role of moderator. 

“Within the month,” she replied to Skaberen, not breaking eye contact with Dragoon.  

I shuddered; even with all the power in the world, I was scared of the Matron.  She had no supernatural ability and yet I felt an urge to bend a knee to her.  The fact that Dragoon could make demands of her was impressive.  

“We want Vaneel’s research destroyed,” Dragoon insisted.  “I don’t want you being able to mass produce Adapted.”

“I’ll agree, under the condition that the Adapted aren’t allowed to reproduce,” the Immortal Matron replied.  Before Dragoon could protest, she raised a hand to stifle the objection.  “I don’t disagree with your request, but there must be a check put on you as well.  If the first generation of you can topple my empire, what happens when someone as motivating as Titan comes along with a different prerogative?  Who will stand in his way?” 

“If I may cut in,” Skaberen said, raising his hand, “I have been working on a solution to this issue.  Dragoon,” he said, glancing at her, “I am inclined to agree with the Matron on this point.  The Adapted weren’t made under…natural conditions shall we say.  Goln science is what created your gifts.  I think it prudent to engineer a stop so that Adaptations can’t be passed to the next generation.  If and when humanity is at a point they can replicate the Goln research, they can absolutely reclaim the power for themselves.”  

Dragoon sighed and nodded slowly, “Fine.  Are you going to take our gifts away from all of us?  I know that a whole lot of us are going to be opposed to that.”

He shook his head, “I should be able to tailor the Legacy Ender to effectively remove Kelotan from sex cells and prevent the propagation of Adaptations.  You will all remain Adapted until you die.  I understand that for many of you, the Adaptations have become fundamental to your character.”

“Anything else?” the Immortal Matron asked politely, folding her hands in front of her.  

Our captain hesitated.

The Immortal Matron smiled softly, “You can say it.  We both know what else you are going to demand.”

“You can’t live,” Dragoon said, a little bit shaky.  “I honestly thought it would be easier to say, but after being here and seeing all this… you’re not the horrible villain I assumed you were.  But,” she added, “You’re too dangerous to be left alive.  You have had so much sway and have fundamentally directed the flow of Trillodan history too long.  Even pulling the throne away from you gives the chance for those loyal to simply reinstate you.  There’s no way to be sure of your lack of influence unless…”

The Immortal Matron nodded, “I understand.”  

Dragoon seemed confused at her willingness to accept the death sentence.  “And you’re just…okay with dying?” 

“Of course.  I figure after encountering Titan, I’ve been living on borrowed time anyhow.  Though, I do have a condition for my quiet dismissal.”  Her eyes turned to me, “Infinite can’t be allowed to survive.”

“Whoa,” Dragoon said, her hands immediately balling into fists, “That’s a bit presumptuous.” 

“Dragoon, I think you woefully underestimate how powerful the woman beside you truly is.  All the power of a Crimson City and the sheer destructive capacity is dwarfed by Infinite.”  The Matron turned and looked directly at me; I couldn’t help but squirm in my chair.  I hated this attention, and the Immortal Matron seemed to see into my soul.  “And for all the power she has, she lacks control.  She has the ability to flatten continents in an instant if she had a truly bad day.”  

Skaberen opened his mouth but the Matron raised a hand, silencing him.  

“This is non-negotiable, Dragoon.  If you want me to go quietly, Infinite has to come with.”  

“That’s not fair,” I whispered.  

All eyes turned to me.  

I took a deep breath and dug for a voice.  “I didn’t ask to be like this.  I didn’t work for it.  I just…happened to be Infinite.  My real name is Charlotte Quinn.  My old moniker was Tempest.  I was beaten and raped over and over in a basement and left for dead.  You made a choice to be who you are.  I wasn’t so lucky.” 

The Immortal Matron let my comment sit a moment, as if making a point to give it the respect it deserved.  “I’m sorry,” she said sincerely, “I didn’t know.  And you’re right, I made choices that turned me into the Immortal Matron.  Unfortunately,” she said, “We can’t discredit or discount how powerful you are.  You hold yourself back regularly.  But, you still stopped a Crimson City from plummeting to the surface.  You have leapt through the void of space.  No matter how we came here, we can’t discount the situation we find ourselves in.  Fair or not.”  

“I’m not giving up my powers, not because you’re afraid of me,” I said, furious.  “I’m not going to let you dictate my life because you only see me as Infinite.”  

Dragoon laid a hand on my arm, “I agree.  I’m not going to let you call for her execution when she’s done nothing to warrant it.  She is no more guilty than those remaining from Zellig’s legion.  She hasn’t given a reason to warrant that level of fear.  Most of us on Tso’got didn’t know she existed before our campaign against you.” 

“Because Titan kept her hidden.  What do you think will happen now that people know about her?” 

“No idea,” Dragoon said, “But I feel sorry for anyone who tries to apprehend her.  All the same, I refuse to see her euthanized because of a theoretical.  I won’t say your concern isn’t invalid, but I refuse to be ruled by fear.” 

The Immortal Matron took a long breath; she finally shook her head and smiled.  “Call me a sap, but I’ll take that off the table.  What I will put in place is a caveat regarding you, Dragoon.”

“Wait, what?” 

“Your technology,” Skaberen said, “It’s admittedly something I have been concerned about.  In your lifetime, you could advance humanity through centuries of technological development.  You could give humans the power of the Trillodan almost by accident.” 

“And given your nature of seeking confrontation and constantly striving to do better, I believe there is some precedent for this concern.  You can’t deny yourself a challenge,” the Immortal Matron added.  

I expected Dragoon to rebuke them both, but she was stunned.  I could see it on her face that they had gotten to her.  “What kind of sanctions would you want?” she finally asked.  

“I don’t want you developing weapons,” the Immortal Matron said plainly.  “Even though someone like Siege is going to be more powerful for having seen our weapons, he can’t make them permanent.  You can.”  

Skaberen raised his hand again, “I might offer a more reasonable middle ground.  I understand, Dragoon, that you have devoted your life to learning and developing with your gift.  It is only reasonable that we don’t deny you that.  However, I suggest we allow the Goln and Trillodan to keep an intermittent eye on you to ensure that your technological development doesn’t run away too quickly.”  

Dragoon scoffed, “You want to keep me monitored?”

“Your technology will go into other hands besides your own,” the Immortal Matron reminded her, “You have already created weapons and armor for others.  Are you saying that you will suddenly…stop?” 

Again Dragoon didn’t have a way to answer that.  “And if I am racing too far ‘ahead of schedule’ what happens then?”

“We have a conversation,” Skaberen said, quickly interjecting, “We don’t want this to be a looming death threat but instead a bearable compromise.”  He sighed, “The Adapted existed because I meddled and effectively introduced technology that was centuries ahead of you.  I’d rather not see you accidentally make my mistake.” 

For all the frustration I could feel from Dragoon, she didn’t have a better come back.  She was furious that they were right.  In just a few months she had made a rudimentary version of Tol’s power armor; what would that work look like after a few years?  

“Another condition,” Dragoon said, composing herself, “The Goln should come to Xalanni.”

This one actually caught both Skabern and the Immortal Matron by surprise.

“Your kind grew up around each other and had a rift created because of Kardan.  Without someone to put the Trillodan in check, there is a chance that Baarl or someone else becomes the next Immortal Matron.  Patron.  Whatever,” Dragoon said, giving a look to the stoic councilman.  “And having some visibility on the Goln might prevent them from using an entire planet as their laboratory.  Besides, your knowledge of genetic manipulation is the only thing that will ever undo the damage the Trillodan have done themselves.”

The Immortal Matron, in a tremendous break of character, laughed.  “Anything else, Dragoon?” 

My captain turned and glanced at me, “I want there to be a monument to the end of your reign.  Before you demolish all of the Crimson Cities, I want you to bring Infinite to the remains of Earth.”

Both Skaberen and the Matron were confused.  “Why?” 

“Infinite, to date, has never used all of her powers.  I want to see if she can undo the damage you did.”  She turned to me, “You wanna give it a shot?” 

The Immortal Matron blinked a few times and fell back in her chair, “You want to see if Infinite can terraform a planet?  You understand the implications?” 

“I never said I wasn’t scared shitless of what Infinite could do,” Dragoon snapped.  “Infinite scares the piss out of me.  But, Charlotte doesn’t.”  She turned and gave me a smile, “All this time she has lived under constraint and afraid of her power.  I want to give her one chance to use it without a worry about hurting someone else.  Who is she going to kill on the surface of a dead planet?” 

As well meaning as Dragoon was, I felt my chest hammer in horrific anticipation.  How could I tell her no?  She wanted to prove to the universe that the Trillodan weren’t a threat, that there was no impending punishment awaiting you in the stars above. 

And of course, it was going to require me.  

Like usual, I was part of someone else’s plan.  And, like usual, I didn’t have the heart to say I hated the idea.  


Admittedly being taken through a Void Door was less magnificent than I might have thought.  Whenever I was using my teleportation to clear huge distances, there was a serious impact.  You could feel when I did it, feel the movement, feel the distance travelled.  

With this it was just a blink and that was it.  One hour to charge and plug in coordinates and then a single press of a button.  

It was strange to see what should have been my home.  I’d always heard about it as this ‘big blue marble.’  Looking down on it now, nothing could be farther from the truth.  Where there had probably been oceans, there were voids in the planet.  Where there had been green forests there was just desolate rock.  

“What a weird thing to see,” I muttered as I tapped my hand against my silent companion.  Even though Dragoon really wanted me to do this, I had my own condition.  

I had brought Titan along.  As much as I loved and respected the hell out of Dragoon, I wasn’t doing this for her.  I had started all of this because of Titan’s dream; I was going to finish it and show him exactly how profound his cause had turned out to be.  I didn’t care if we had to wait in orbit for an extra day or an extra week, he was going to see me undo the damage to our home.  

“You’re sure about this?” a meek voice called from behind me.  Relay crept in, followed closely by Dragoon in her wheelchair with Powerhouse pushing her.  “You don’t have to do this.” 

In all my time knowing Relay, he barely ever talked.  For him to voice concern was uncharacteristic to say the least.  I offered a weak smile as I stood up in the clunky suit I had been given.  It was like wearing the world’s heaviest diving suit, but it was supposed to keep me from burning up on the surface.  It would save me precious power allocations.  

“I can do this,” I said, confident.

“Goddamn right you can,” Dragoon said.  

Powerhouse donated gifts to Relay to extend his range, and then he laid a hand on me, blinking me down to the surface.  

Down here it was even worse.  Just barren and empty waste, as far as the eye could see.  I’m sure at one point this had been a lovely meadow or flowing riverbed, but not it was just a dry collection of rocks.  

I took a deep breath, knowing the first thing to do was repair the immense punctures in the atmosphere.  Water had escaped thanks to Protocol 37 literally ripping apart the Earth’s protective layer.  Bracing myself, I reached into that void and grabbed a handful of initial powers.  

Re-constitute, Expansion, Reach, Creation: Nitrogen, Oxygen, Water.  

The air around me swam as I could effectively re-create the atmosphere, but I was still far too localized.  I lacked the range to cover an entire planet and to properly undo the damage that had been done.  So, I went back to that well to grab more gifts.  

Repair, Echo, Magnify.  

I paused at nine powers, that door opening as the shade of my past crept out.  I felt my knees weaken as I was suddenly back in that basement, suddenly being beaten and violated again.  My teeth ground together as I shook, my whole body wracked with a wave of tremors.  “They aren’t real, they can’t hurt you. You’re alive, they’re dead,” I reminded myself.  

Around me, the nine powers I had amassed were turning into a small hurricane.  Air and water were expanding outward, throwing gasses back into place.  Still, with nine powers, I wasn’t getting nearly enough coverage.  I was probably covering a hundred kilometers in my little storm; a far cry from restoring a whole planet.  

Intensify, Overwhelm.  

I sank to my knees as I seized two more powers.  The shade seemed to creep from her hole, placing a hand on my shoulder, trying to shoulder forward for control.  It wanted to smother, to extinguish everything.  

“Infinite, you okay?” Dragoon’s voice chimed through my earpiece.     

“Fine,” I grunted as I pushed back against my own memories.  I felt hands inside my suit, on my skin.  Grabbing me, pulling me down.  I felt them break my fingers again, preventing me from using my powers.  My heart hammered as I tried to distinguish the past from the present, my own nightmares from reality.  

I was on Earth.  

I was in that basement.  

Either way, I was alone.  

I fell onto my hands, gasping for air, losing control as the anxiety crept in.  “I’m…I’m alive,” I swore to myself, “They died.  They can’t hurt me anymore.” 

My words felt hollow considering I remembered the stench of their sweat mixed with my blood.  

“Charlotte,” a weak voice groaned in my ear, “You’re okay.” 

Everything went blank for a moment as I heard his voice again.  He was the first thing I really remembered after escaping that horrible basement.  Titan was the first thing that told me I was alive, that I was valued.  

I remembered him finding me, hiding in a hotel.  I was scared of myself, but he wasn’t.  He welcomed me with open arms.  

“Okay,” I said, willing to place my trust in him.  “I’m okay.”  

I pulled myself back to the present, aware of the storm I was letting rage.  Even so, it wasn’t quite done up properly.  It needed a little more definition to complete the job Dragoon had sent me here for.  

I approached that well one more time, letting my memories wash over me, unafraid.  

Envelop, Genesis.

My storm expanded, reaching to the skies and well beyond where my eye could see.  For the first time, I dared to reach the full potential of what this fucked up power could provide.  It was torture to be re-living my past, but when I could bring myself to the present, I was a god.  

I watched the world bend to my whim.  I felt the climate change as I shaped the planet’s surface to resemble the pictures I had seen as a child.  Water fell from the skies that I put back into place.  Trees and plant life I had only heard of began to sprout around me and far beyond as Genesis was bringing my vision to life.  

A laugh slipped out as I walked around for a while, letting my power shape the landscape.  

I had held myself back for so long.  Dragoon had been right: it was amazing to not worry about hurting someone else with my gift.  It was amazing to see what I could do when there was no need to hold back.  


The following morning was a rough one.  

I spent nearly eight hours on the surface of Earth, shaping and molding the whole damn planet.  While it wasn’t nearly a biodiverse as it once had been, there was plenty of life and water in the oceans.  In a day I had pushed back the majority of the devastation brought on by Proctol 37. 

And then we had taken a Void Door back to Xalanni to join the rest of our friends.  A night of drinking and reckless celebration.  I even had the audacity to get drunk since I had Titan nearby to ensure I didn’t get myself into any trouble.  Even though delving that deep into my power had left me raw and vulnerable, the high from triumphing over it far outweighed the negative.  

Not having been a drinker in the past made trying  to keep up with Interface and Adamant a poor choice.  I don’t remember how I got to bed but I assumed it was likely thanks to Titan.  I woke up and saw an impression in the mattress where he had been.  

Groaning, I sat up and started trudging out, realizing that I could hear a conversation going on in the common area of our little living quarters.  

“She terraformed a planet, Titan.  I understand that-”

“Out of the question,” he snapped, “You did this to us, and now you want to take that away?  You’d cut out part of her identity because of your own fear?”

“If she can repair the damage, what could she do on a bad day?  What happens if you die and she loses control?  What happens if-”

“Dragoon already told you that she refused to live in fear of theoreticals, and so do I.  You aren’t going to strip her of power, Skaberen.  So help me, if you touch her I will turn you to dust.”  

There was a drawn out sigh, “Titan, I appreciate your loyalty, but this isn’t something you can pretend isn’t a concern for others.  Infinite wields more power than any other person alive and she has PTSD.  Her stability is a concern.  You recruited Command to help counteract that volatility.”

As I listened, I felt my heart drop.  Both of them had valid points. 

I was terrifying.  I had reshaped a planet in an afternoon.  But they wanted to restrict me because they were afraid of me.  

And yet, none of them involved me in the conversation.  None of them cared about what Charlotte wanted, only about what happened with Infinite.  Grabbing a power to quickly deal with the hangover, I readied myself and walked into the room.  

“Maybe you guys should ask me what I want,” I said, bringing myself around the corner.

Titan turned to me, flushed, “Charlotte, he wanted to take away-”

“Yeah, I figured out that much.”  I turned to Skaberen, “And, honestly, I’m okay with that.  I know it’ll make the Matron more comfortable too.” 

Skaberen looked just as shocked as Titan did at my declaration.  

“You…want to give it up?” Titan asked, disarmed, “But, Charlotte-”

I raised a hand, stopping him, “Max, I’m sorry.  For me, this power isn’t like yours.  It doesn’t feel good to use.  Every time I use it, I just relive the worst moment of my life.  And the problem is that I’m so powerful people can’t see anything else.  People want to know how Infinite is, not how Charlotte is.  People are afraid of Infinite and the threat she poses; no one cares if Charlotte is happy to be alive or not.  It colors every interaction I have.”

Max opened his mouth to say something but cut himself off, not sure what to add.  He finally settled on, “I’m so sorry.”

I waved him off, “It’s okay!  I…I get it.  I’m scary.  I fucking terraformed a planet.  And, unfortunately, Skaberen’s right; I’m not well.  I have nightmares most nights, I had intrusive memories most days, and I have a power that is like playing chicken with PTSD.  All it would take is one bad day, one bad hour, and I kill thousands–if not millions–of people.  But,” I added, turning to the Goln, “I’m not doing it because you are afraid.  I’m doing it because I’m exhausted.  As powerful as I am, I’m tired of being Infinite.  If you can take away the power, I’m glad to be rid of it.” 

“You can help so many people.  You could-”

“Max,” I snapped, “No.  There has to be a line.  There has to be a place where I put my foot down and say enough.  I love you,” I said, gently putting a hand to his cheek, “But, this is the end for Infinite.  She has done her part.  She helped your dream become a reality.  Now, I want Charlotte to be able to take center stage.  I don’t want my life to be dictated by the worst thing that ever happened to me.”   

I let out a shaky breath, my confidence faltering as I turned to Skaberen, “How long until you have a way to take this away from me?” 

Skaberen opened a hand and handed over a small vial of red liquid.  “I’ve had a counteragent prepared for a long time now.  The Matron never knew, but I wasn’t going to let Vaneel commandeer my research without some extra challenges.  If you all had lost, this was going to be my response to delay the creation of an unstoppable army.”  He scuttled across the room and put it into my palm, closing my fingers around the serum.  “When you decide you want to part with Infinite, drink it.  In your own time though,” he said softly as he turned to leave.  

Titan and I were left alone as the door shut behind him.  

“I didn’t-”

“I know,” I said.  “You couldn’t have.  I never told you.  It’s…not easy for me to talk about.”

He nodded, looking more out of sorts than I had ever seen him.  “I’m sorry I can’t do more for you.  I wish I could take this pain away from you, make it all better.” 

I scoffed, “Titan, you already did.  Do you know how many times I’ve thought about killing myself?  It used to be a daily affair.  The only reason I didn’t is because you continued to give a shit about me.  You continued to love me even though I was so battered and so broken.  Yeah, you weren’t perfect and sometimes pushed me too far,” I said with a shrug, “But the good far outweighs the bad.  Stop beating yourself up about this.”

“I know, but-”

“But nothing,” I insisted.  “Thanks to you and Dragoon, I’ve found my voice.  Thanks to you, I’m confident enough to be Charlotte again.”  I pulled the stopper on the vial and took a deep breath and closed my eyes.  I faced that ghastly spectre who had helped me claw back from the brink, who had kept me alive despite everything being stacked against me.  For the first time, it wasn’t trying to claw out, but instead looked back at me, placid.  It was like it knew; it didn’t need to fight anymore, it didn’t need to struggle and retaliate against everything.  

It had done its job.  It had nothing else to prove.  

“Thanks, Infinite,” I said, “For everything.”

With a swig, I watched her fade away.    

Previous Chapter – Next Chapter

Siege of Selir: Titan

Something was very wrong.  

While I was glad to be reunited with Infinite, I didn’t let us linger long.  Dragoon had sent her with Interface; with the trio of lieutenants out of the way, we had full control of the Crimson city.  

And then, Interface fell silent. 

They had been talking to us via the ship’s speaker system and then abruptly cut off.  It might have just been Interface breaking connection with the machine to reclaim their sense of self, but something seemed wrong.  After spending half of my life on the run or in a fight, I learned to trust my gut and the voice in the back of my head.  As we tried to move back towards the command center, we were met with a wall of metal; half of the ship had been demolished, the wreckage keeping us apart.

“Infinite, can you get us to Interface?” 

She shook her head, glaring towards the center of the ship.  “Zellig found a way to create some kind of interference.”

“Can you-“ I stopped as I saw the pain in her eyes.  She was close to tipping, close to losing control.  Fighting Zellig’s lieutenants had pushed her closer to the brink than she wanted to admit.  “It’s okay,” I said, quickly pivoting, “I can carve through to Interface.”  

I’d been trapped in a prison cube for the last month.  The whole time I was unable to use my gift for fear of being ejected into the void of space.  It was a secure enough cell that the Immortal Matron had come to visit me herself.  

But now, I was out and felt the threads in the air respond to my call.  

I reached back and placed a hand on Infinite, extending my heat resistance.  Dragging my hand through the air, I tugged at the ephemeral strings and felt my power respond.  Air fused and molten silicon flowed around me, quickly forming a ring.  Stepping forward, I increased the volume of the molten substance and intensified its flow; the vortex carved through the mound of steel like a hot knife through butter.  

Even so, it was exhausting to march forward and control my power for what must have been a whole kilometer.  

I couldn’t fathom how the hell such a monstrous vessel was built, let alone how someone would ever learn to navigate such a maze.  

The path forward seemed to be never ending.  For all I cleared away, there was another wall to carve through, another pile of debris to turn to slag.  While this was a small part of my potential, keeping it active for nearly half an hour started to wear.  Especially with a month of not being able to use my gift, I felt weaker than normal, like my Adaptation had atrophied.  

And then the ship lurched, like someone had kicked the thing.  

“What was that?” Infinite asked, her timid voice barely discernible against the flow of the molten metal.  

“Don’t know, don’t want to find out,” I insisted as I continued to blaze a trail, following Infinite’s direction.  

Finally, we were graced by another voice.  

“Hey!  Stop fucking cooking me in here!”

I clenched my fist and immediately chilled the slurry; pulling a few threads, I melted down a wall on my left and effectively burrowed into the command center of the ship.  Despite the panicked look on their face, I charged forward to give my friend Interface a massive hug. 

“Titan, I love you buddy, but not the time,” they insisted, shoving back against my embrace.  “Seriously, we have a big fucking problem.” 

I frowned, annoyed that there was one more problem to cope with.  “What is-“  I glanced at one of the displays and saw exactly what the issue was: we were creeping towards Xalanni.  The ship had been in a stable orbit; that lurch had been the engines breaking us out of that stability.  “Oh, fuck.  Well,” I glanced at the technomancer, “Fucking do your thing.  Fix it.”

Interface glared at me, “Do you think I’d be panicking if I could fix this shit?” 

“You were just interfaced with the machine.  What do-“

“They kicked me out!  I’m not sure what the Trilodan have done, but they have a way to block me.  It’s like some kind of firewall or bullshit security system.  Zellig had it on his body and it looks like they found a way to put it on this ship.” 

Infinite stepped forward, looking at the display, “But why would the Trillodan want to crash the ship?”

“Zellig has it lined up to land on Selir.  It’s going to crater the city and all the Adapted who are down there,” Interface said, their face falling, “And we’re already falling.  Depending on the angle we’re taking, we could come crashing down in about the next twenty minutes.”  

“Well then just use the controls!  You have gifted intuition with machines, right?” 

“Sure, I know how to natively pilot planes and shit, but this is a fucking spacestation with over a hundred different systems and engineering stations!   Do you have any fucking idea how complicated this shit is?  Besides-” 

Right on cue, the lights flickered.    

Interface sighed, “The core has been rendered inert.  I’m not going to pretend to understand how that happens because I’m not a physicist.  Basically, we’re in a big, steel box that is going to crush all of our friends once we land.”  They glanced at Infinite, “That is unless you can do something about it.” 

Infinite’s eyes widened.  “I’d have to compete against gravity.  That was hard to do even with a ship that was a hundredth the size of this one.  And we’re falling and I have to fight the momentum and…and….”

“Not accidentally kill us,” Interface said, nodding.  “You have had to cycle powers a lot.  I know.”

Infinite looked at me, her eyes pleading.  She didn’t want to do this.  She didn’t want to go to that place anymore, to look into that horror where she drew her powers from.  “If I lose control, I kill you two and still can’t stop the ship from falling.  I-I can’t-”

I reached forward and squeezed her hand, “Charlotte, you have to try.  You might be able to survive the fall, but Interface and I won’t.  I know it isn’t fair to put such a burden on you, but we need you to try at the least.”

She looked between me and Interface, her gaze extending beyond the room as she reached for powers; as soon as it had started, Infinite staggered backwards and clutched frantically at her face.  “No, no, no, no,” she whimpered, “No, I can’t do it!  I can’t!  I can’t go back there!  Please, Titan, don’t make me!”  Tears streamed down her face as she tripped, pulling her knees to her chest, “I don’t want to feel that anymore.”  

I held my tongue, wanting to scream in frustration.  Of all times for her to break down, it had to be now.  

Of course it was, I realized.  This was what Zellig had planned.  He had been willing to sacrifice his three lieutenants to ensure that she didn’t have the moxy left to salvage this situation.  Her only limiting factor was having to change power assignment; Zellig had set her up to fail, to be unable to perform when it mattered most.  Worse yet was that I couldn’t logic her into action; bringing up that her apathy doomed us all would only add to the stress she felt. 

The clock continued to tick as I felt the ship begin to lurch forwards, a faint screaming from the friction already audible.  

“Charlotte,” I said, kneeling down beside her, “Please, look at me.”

She quietly obliged.  

“You’ve done so good.  I mean that.  And I know it isn’t fair,” I said as gently as I could, “And I know it’s hell for you to do, but we have to try.”  I reached and took her hand, “I’m going to be with you every step of the way, okay.  You won’t be alone.”

She shook her head, “I…I can’t grab enough.  I’d need at least 10 powers.  That would tip the scales.  I can’t do that to you two.”

I pushed my frustration to the back of my mind, knowing it wasn’t going to help.  But, I refused to accept that as the final nail in the coffin.  There had to be another way around her power limitation.  Some other way to supply fuel.  

“Could you do eight?” I asked, daring to be hopeful. 

“What?” 

“I can be your battery.  If you use something to absorb heat energy, I can be a pretty potent energy source.  Thermal storage and something to drag this ship back up.”  I offered a weak smile, “I don’t think we’re going to get a better choice.”

She took a few deep breaths as she slowly rocked back and forth, “Max, I can’t.”

“Yes you can,” a dead-pan voice said from behind me.  Interface stepped forward, looking down with a look that couldn’t have been more annoyed.  “Last I fucking checked, your name was Infinite, not Finite.  You’re the strongest bitch in the universe, and not because of your powers.  You’re the strongest bitch because you look at all the horror that you lived through and you don’t crumble.  You stare into the face of that bullshit and get back up.”  Interface extended a hand to Infinite, “So, what the fuck are you waiting for, Charlotte?  Get up.”  

I held my tongue, alarmed at Interface’s blunt approach; to my shock, Infinite reached up and took their hand, invigorated.  

She took a long breath, getting her bearings again.  “I can do eight, Max.  You’re gonna have to make it hotter than normal though.  You’re going to have to let some bleed through.” 

My stomach sank at the prospect but I didn’t argue; now was not the time to try and negotiate.  If she needed it, I would make it work.  “Okay.  We can’t do it anywhere near Interface without cooking them.”

“Yeah please don’t do that.  I’d be far too stringy to really enjoy for dinner.”

A nervous laugh slipped out and I turned to glare at my long-time friend, “Shut up, Jamie.”

“Let’s go,” Infinite said, her voice turning markedly cool.  Her eyes had changed color again, now a fiery orange with little streaks of blue radiating out from the pupil, like bolts of lighting.  She marched through the tunnel I had carved until we managed to find a decent sized room to plant ourselves in.  I made a wall of silicon, plugging the tunnel behind us, hoping to prevent any kind of spillage from reaching Interface.  

“Do it,” she said, her eyes fixed well beyond the confines of the room.  

I swallowed my nerves and followed Jamie’s example to trust Charlotte.  She had seen and endured far worse than this.  

The sound of an acetylene torch filled the room as a tornado of molten material spun to life around her.  Infinite raised her hands and I felt the whole ship shift; my knees almost buckled as our fall was slowed.  

“Hotter,” she demanded.  

I put a hand against the horrific patch of scar tissue on my chest and quelled my own nerves.  As I pulled more strings, I consciously let in more of the energy of the fusion reaction; my demand for self-preservation screamed at me to stop.  All my life I had learned to keep this energy cut off, inaccessible, removed from my surroundings.  It had slipped through once and mutilated me and forever changed my life.

I did away with thoughts of self-preservation; even if we could survive, I didn’t want to do it without the family I had amassed.  Victory without them wouldn’t be worth it.

The room began to swim as waves of heat and radiation came spewing from my palm.  I grit my teeth as my skin started to peel back and my shirt started to burn away.  I sank to my knees but I kept letting the energy bathe Infinite.  She drank it up like a sieve and continued to fight against gravity.  Grunting from the exertion, her hands shook as she pressed forward, redirecting all the atomic output into magnetic energy to drive the ship back into stable orbit.  

Panting, I grabbed my own wrist to stop from shaking as I continued to be her battery, ignoring the pain as blood started to trickle down my forearm.  My pants started to melt and fuse with my skin despite my own natural resistance to heat.  I could tolerate nearly four-thousand degrees celsius without batting an eye; with letting some of the excess energy of the fusion through, I was blasting Infinite with nearly double that.  Even with her drinking it up, the metal in the room was turning to soup.  

After a few merciless minutes, Infinite put her hands down, turning to smile. 

I let the reaction stop and stumbled backwards, my body burnt and bloody from all the runoff I had been exposing myself to.  

“Oh my God, Max!”  

Infinite sprinted to catch me before I fell, trying to find any patch of skin that wasn’t horribly mutilated.  I grimaced as I held myself upright, taking an agonizing step forward.  “Don’t fuse your pants to your legs,” I said, “I don’t recommend it.  The convenience isn’t worth it.”

“Max I-”

“Did what was necessary,” I said for her.  “Don’t feel pity for this shit.  Organelle can fix me up.  Thanks to you, she’s still alive to do it.” 

The ship suddenly shook like something had slammed into the side.  Both of us turned and did our best to run back to Interface in the control room.  As soon as we limped back in, they pointed at the tunnel we had carved, “Titan, plug that hole.  Now!” 

I obliged, not bothering to ask why.  

“What’s happening?” Infinite asked.  

Interface pointed to a monitor and my heart sank: another Crimson City had shown up and was firing on us.  

“We didn’t crash, so they’re going to make sure we don’t survive,” I said, my face twisting with rage.  “Always one more thing, one more hurdle.  One more way to try and kill us.”

“And we don’t have long before they do,” Interface said, their voice grim.  “These things might not have a ton of weaponry on the inside, but holy shit does it have plenty on the outside.  Even though this ship is like, five kilometers across, it isn’t gonna last for long.”  Interface glanced between us, “Honestly, the only reason we’re alive is because this room is air-tight.  Once a hole is punched, the void of space will do the rest.”

I glanced at the wall of silicon I’d put back up, not fond of the fact that was all that stood between us and sure death.

“Let me guess, we have no way to fire back,” I assumed.  

Interface nodded.

“Fuck, FUCK!  Okay, okay, we can’t fight from out here.  We just need to get onboard.  I could punch a hole through the hull if needed.  Is there an escape pod or anything we can use?”

“Titan, even if there was, do you think the Trillodan wouldn’t blast it out of the sky the second we left the main ship?  They might not know exactly where we are inside here, but I’m sure they’d find us if we stepped outside.  Besides, the Trillodan soldiers took all the escape pods earlier when Infinite was cleaning house.” 

“And we don’t have engines available to simply drive at them.  Fuck.”  I turned to Infinite and sighed, “Charlotte, I know that-”

She raised a hand to shut me up, “I can get us there, but I can’t fight.  If I did, I’m sure I’d kill you both on accident.  You can’t ask me to do that.” 

I shook my head, “I won’t.  Get me on board, I’ll take care of the rest.”

Charlotte took a deep breath and grabbed the two of us, blinking us out of existence for a moment.  The next second we appeared back in a maze of metal hallways, this one not ravaged by demolition.  

“Interface, point me in the right direction.”  As soon as they did, I spun up a vortex of molten material and started literally carving a path to my destination.  I refused to be led into a trap or baited anymore.  I refused to play by the rules and constantly find myself one step behind Zellig anymore.  

Soldiers moved to positions to try and stop me; they were simply caught up in the ever growing ring of liquid metal around me.  My one-second warning was more than enough to silence any opposition that dared rise up.  We crashed into the laboratory where a brigade of soldiers were set to open fire on me.

Their lasers couldn’t tear through the literal wave of death I threw at them.  

As we cleared into a longer hallway, I braced myself for another bout with soldiers, but was caught off guard by there being a solitary figure standing at the end of the corridor, waiting patiently.  

I stopped and cooled the slurry, turning to face the lone woman who didn’t flinch as I glared at her.  She had come to see me in my prison cube to satiate her curiosity about who had been leading the Adapted in their fight.  Her weathered crimson skin seemed muted when compared to other Trillodan, but the sheer presence she wielded was undeniable.  

“Matron,” I said, my voice saturated with vitriol.  

“Titan,” she greeted, “I see you found your way onto my ship.” 

“Ours was past its prime,” I said, letting out a crazed chuckle as my blood boiled.  “Alright, no bullshit, why don’t I kill you?” 

The Immortal Matron didn’t even blink at the looming threat.  “You think I would show myself if I didn’t have leverage?” 

My smile turned to a sneer, “All I have to do is think and I turn you into liquid.  All I have to do is visualize your body in a molten cocoon and it happens,” I growled.  “And you have the balls to come see me face-to-face?  I’m not confined by that cube anymore,” I reminded her, doing my best to control my breathing.

She didn’t flinch.  “I’m no idiot, Titan.  I won’t pretend I have a weapon capable of stopping someone like you.  Fighting you is like fighting a hurricane; you just don’t do it head-on.  You plan around the hurricane, you have preparations made well away from its destructive path.”  She paused and took a confident step forward, “If you kill me, Commander Hel’t will blast Selir until all that is left is dust.  And, to ensure that you three pose no further threat, will use a Void Door and transport this ship straight into the nearest star.”

“You’d kill us alongside your soldiers?” I said, aghast.  

“I would make any sacrifice necessary to protect my people from the likes of you,” she responded.  “Unless I miss my guess, you were going to use the threat of Protocol thirty-seven to hold Xalanni hostage until I had given myself up and surrendered.” 

I didn’t answer. 

“Just as you have your pride as Adapted, I have my pride as a Trillodan.  You won’t be taken prisoner again, and I won’t kneel to the destructive whims of a madman.” 

My body shook with rage, “I’m the madman?  I’m the terrorist?  You’re responsible for the deaths of billions!  You’re the reason I don’t remember my own homeworld!  You’re the fucking reason I’m an exile!”  I took a few deep breaths, doing my best to calm down.  “You have pushed us to the brink, and this is what happens.  You finally have someone who can stand up to you, Matron.  What happens when someone else takes my place? Is your only option to wipe them from existence as well?  Is that your only solution, to kill us all?” 

“And here you are, threatening to kill me,” she pointed out, “Are you exempt from your own rules?  Did you give a single thought to the soldiers you cut down out there?  What about what they wanted, what about their thoughts and motivations?”

“Don’t you dare,” I growled, “Don’t you dare pretend it’s the same!  We didn’t burn your home to the ground and leave you begging for scraps!”

“And you’ve never had to watch worlds burn,” she responded, finally showing a sign of stress behind that mask of steely confidence.  “You don’t bear the weight.  You haven’t seen what comes from someone unhinged with the power I wield.  There is no telling how many worlds I have saved from greedy warlords or tyrants left with no checks on them.  For all you know, humanity was only allowed to develop because I culled another population!”  

“And I should be what, grateful that my future was bought by the blood of billions of innocent people?  I should be grateful for your generosity?”  I shook my head, “Fuck you.  Fuck your grace and your magnificent provision.  Skaberen told us about Kardan, about the shit you saw.  And all I think is that you were scared shitless by the actions of one madman.  Guess what, one madman doesn’t represent everyone else!” 

She took another confidence step forward, “You can think whatever you like, Titan.  I’ve lived nearly twenty life-times and seen people like you who only know their own vantage point.  From where you sit, I’m the enemy, the prime evil.  So, if you think it’ll solve all your problems, kill me.  Strike me down!”  She raised her arms to the side, practically welcoming the blast, “Show me exactly how powerful Skaberen’s work is!  Prove why you deserve to be the conquerors of the Trillodan!” 

My body shook as an arm slowly raised.  I could feel the threads in the air, just aching to be pulled.  It would be as simple as swatting a fly.  She had no defenses, no way to fight back.  She had put me in a prison cube.  She had enabled Zellig to hunt us across the stars.  She was responsible for the desolation of so many planets.  

“I’ve given up my life for this,” I said, starting to laugh involuntarily, “I accidentally vaporized my brother at fourteen.  I started recruiting people at sixteen with this goal in mind.  I spent all my time on the run, hiding from authorities because I looked forward to being able to stop you.  And now, here we are.  I spent so long dreaming of this moment that I wasn’t sure it would ever come.”

“Titan,” Interface said behind me.

My whole body shook, racked with pain, fatigue, and rage.  “And you have the fucking audacity to taunt me!”

“Titan, stop!” Interface shouted.  I rounded on the technomancer, furious at the interruption.  “Titan, if you kill her, you make her immortal.  Proper Immortal.” 

“What?”

“Right now, she’s a person.  She’s a matriarch, sure, but she isn’t more than that to the Trillodan.  For them, she’s a person.  To us, she’s a symbol of oppression, but the same can’t be said for them.  If you execute her, she becomes a symbol to them that the other planets out there need to be controlled.  You ratify all of her claims.  And you’ll give the Trillodan the perfect excuse to mass produce Adapted soldiers.  You’ll prove they need bigger, stronger weapons to fight people like you.”

I turned back to the Immortal Matron slowly, looking for something, some kind of tell.  There was nothing to discern from her face; if Interface was right, the Immortal Matron had the best poker face in the universe.  If she was willing to be a martyr, she had no fear, no trepidation about it in the slightest.  But, it made sense.  

“At some point,” Interface said, “We need this to stop.  All we’re doing is fighting, and violence can only go so far.  We’re finally here, Titan.  If you do this, you aren’t fighting a soldier, you’re killing an unarmed civilian.   If you do this, she’s right.  We aren’t better than them.  We’re just another brand of monster.  Your war has to stop.”

My breath caught in my throat: how long had I just been fighting?  How long had I simply been going from one conflict to the next, assuming the end was something completely unattainable?  Had I simply given up the notion of peaceful resolution?

I studied the Immortal Matron’s face, yearning for something.  I had spent my life surrounded by killers and thought I had gotten good at reading intent; this matriarch proved I had so much to learn.  “There is no ending this quietly,” I said, “I can’t just stop; you’re holding a gun to my family down there.  As long as I let you live, you can pull that trigger.”  I groaned and sank my head into my hands for a moment, “But Interface is right.  So, completely right,” I said in anguish, “There has to be a point where we just…quit the fighting.”

Strength started to fade from my limbs as my arms dropped to my sides.  The adrenaline that had kept my propped up was faltering and Overexposure was starting to set in.  “You’re right, Matron, I can’t surrender and be put back into a cell.  And you can’t kneel to a man hellbent on killing your people.  So, we need to meet in the middle.  But, I can’t!  I can’t help but think this is one more trap that Zellig has set up for us, one more pitfall I’m going to stumble into.  I can’t keep losing when people depend on me; I’ve lost too many of my family to your right-hand.” 

The confident facade cracked for a moment due to sheer surprise, “Zellig Ak’aan is dead.  He died thirty-seven minutes ago.  Dragoon put a bullet through his skull.”

Hearing those words was a shock to my system.  “What?”

“You didn’t know,” she said with a laugh.  “Titan, don’t get it twisted, Zellig was the architect of the campaign against the Adapted.  However, I didn’t answer to Zellig, he answered to me.  When I tell you that my ultimatum isn’t his idea, I mean that.  Zellig underestimated Infinite’s tenacity and assumed that the ship would crash.”

I swallowed a lump that was forming in my throat.  “I want to believe that, but how can I trust you?”

The Immortal Matron raised a hand and waved; around the corner, a familiar six-legged figure crept out.  “Skaberen has known me for a long time and knows that duplicity isn’t something I’m prone for.  I have been in power for nearly sixteen-hundred years; after a while, all you have is your own integrity.  If you aren’t trustworthy, you don’t hold power for long.”

I shook my head, not following.  “What does that have to do with anything?”

“Skaberen will be an intermediary to help decide a treaty between us.  He has experience with the Adapted and a history with the Trillodan people as well.  He will be the neutral party that can broker peace between us and help concoct a plan moving forward.”  The Immortal Matron’s face relaxed and she looked at me, like she knew me better than I knew myself.  “You’re right, the senseless violence needs to stop.  There is more than enough blood on either side; it will only stop when we say enough.” 

A raucous laugh escaped my lips, “You were fucking testing me!”  I sank to a knee as fatigue washed over my body.  Pain shot up through my limb, reminding me that my whole body was close to shutting down.  “Before I black out, I need a show of faith on your side.  I need you to call off your soldiers.  I need my family to be safe,” I demanded.  

The Immortal Matron nodded and stiffened her posture, assuming that regal poise she had spent centuries perfecting.  “Commander Hel’t, please relay the following message to the surface using Protocol forty-one.  I, Ilena Lamak hereby cede authority to the Eternal Council and abdicate responsibility to the majority representative: Councilman Baarl.  My final action as Matron is to order a cease-fire between the Trillodan and the Adapted.  A formal treaty and terms of our surrender is to be drawn up with Skaberen Karth as intermediary and final approver.”  She let out a sigh, “And Hel’t, send me a medical team for our guests, immediately.”

I dared to smile as Infinite sat down beside me and gently held me as I started to black out.  

“Relax, Max,” she whispered to me, “You did it.”

Everything I had devoted my life to fulfilling, all the sacrifices I had made along the way. 

We had finally stopped the Trillodan war machine.   

Previous ChapterNext Chapter

Siege of Selir: Eldritch

Eldritch and I had continued to grow and develop more and more mutations in our battle with the garrison soldiers.  Their ranks had broken and pockets of soldiers had split off to try and hide from me or repel the siege at the Arms Discovery.  Eldritch and I had hunted them down, a mutation to detect life making it too easy to continue to feast and grow.  

And then, the force field had erected.  

My gut told me that my friends were in trouble.  Something like this, it had to be Zellig’s handiwork.  With the garrison soldiers scattered, I decided that we needed to save our friends; to my surprise, Eldritch had wholeheartedly agreed with me.  

Our ability to detect life had guided us to the edge just in time to see Zellig nearly rip Beleth in half.  That same stuff that Tol had used was literally lighting up the Trillodan commander.  When Shockwave hit him one last time and he didn’t go down, he knew he’d won.  Zellig rose, triumphant.  

“No!” I roared, slamming my arm against the shield again.  Again it repelled us, adding more energy to the well of Retaliation that we’d been saving.  

Zellig looked at me, and he laughed.  I slammed another massive arm against the shield only to lose nearly a hundred kilograms of mass as the force field pushed back.  He shook his head, turning away, knowing full well that I couldn’t stop him, despite my immense size and power.  

We can’t just bash through this.

I didn’t care, I brought both arms down on the shield, disregarding the two-hundred kilograms of mass I destroyed in the process.  He was bearing down on Alexis and Murphy, with nothing left to stop him.  Shockwave was trying to buy time with quick shots to batter Zellig, but it wasn’t doing much more than tickling the Trillodan warlord.  

I roared and slammed my arm against the barrier again and again.  Even with my plethora of mutations, I couldn’t break through.  An adrenaline rush didn’t matter. Our elasticity to whip an arm down didn’t matter.  I grabbed chunks of rubble to reinforce my limb; it didn’t matter.  Even with a hardened exo-skeleton, it didn’t matter.

Chunks of flesh came free and exploded on the surface as a small bit of our Retaliate energy was spent but it only made the barrier shimmer.  Every time I hit it was like hitting a wall that punched back.  Eldritch was right: I wasn’t going to bash through this.  I would destroy our body long before this ever gave way.  

“We can’t let him take them,” I growled as I hit the force field anyway.  

I could feel Eldritch’s remorse, but there wasn’t a solution it could offer me.  

There was an extra tonne of material in my storage that I could consume, but what good would that do?  We were already a six-hundred tonne behemoth.  Adding another forty wouldn’t make the difference.  If I could have quadrupled my size I might be able to just bash through, but there wasn’t enough to eat.  With no immediate solution, I continued to wail away on the shield, wishing I could stop Zellig’s slow, methodical advance.  

Nick, stop.  You’re going to kill us before you kill him.

I had effectively shredded another tonne and a half of material as I mindlessly battered against the barrier.  It was all in vain.  It was a senseless gesture, a pointless exercise.  This was never going to help them.  We were so close to them and, with all this mass, Zellig was nothing more than a pest.  We could swat him away with ease.  I could have killed him by simply stepping on him like an insect. 

Inside the barrier, Ragdoll was trying to help get Parasite and Dragoon away while Shockwave was doing his best to keep the Trillodan busy.  Hydra was still trying to regrow a leg and crawling away.  This fight was done with the only thing drawing it out being Shockwave’s stubbornness.  

Zellig all but ignored my battering on the barrier.  

Nick.  You’re killing us.  All this growth is temporary if we don’t continue to eat.   

“I’m not going to lose my friends,” I insisted.  “I’m not letting that psychopath take them!  I let him put Murphy in a tube once.  I’m not letting him do it again!”

Eldritch tried to wrest control away from me, but I was too bull-headed.  Even though there was nothing sinister, I couldn’t abide by its cold pragmatism and self-preservation.  To Eldritch there was only a single directive that mattered: protect the host. 

I can’t let you kill us both.  We have to survive.

“If they die, I might as well die with them,” I said, wishing I could force Eldritch to Adapt again.  I needed a different power.  Retaliate had served us well when enduring punishment from the garrison because we could continue to eat and fuel the gift.  But, destroying ourselves in explosive fashion became less and less viable since the troops had scattered.  

Besides, I could only detonate so much of our body before it threatened the little human core at the center.  Even as the thought crossed my mind, Eldritch blocked the power from me, denying me access to our self-destructive super power.  

We are winning the fight against the Trillodan.  There are acceptable losses.

“They aren’t,” I insisted. 

Dragoon gave us a task.  We have succeeded.

“And Zellig always has something else up his sleeve!”

Nick, we have to let them go!  Bashing ourselves until we are nothing but dust won’t help them!

“Then help me!  Fucking Adapt again, get some kind of mutation for acid, something!” 

We both know I can’t do it on demand any more than you could Alter and give us something else to work with! 

I screamed again, frustrated.  Inside the barrier, Hydra was trying to hamper the progress of Zellig with Parasite’s help; both were substantially outclassed and out of steam.  Zellig, for all the abuse he seemed to have taken, had barely slowed down.  

“Please,” I begged Eldritch, “I can’t lose them.  I owe them everything.  They’re all I have left.  My parents are dead and I’m worlds away from my home.  If I lose my two friends, what life do I have to return to?”  I quit struggling and grappling with Eldritch for the Retaliate power, admitting defeat.  I couldn’t overpower Eldritch and threaten us both.  “I know you don’t think like me, I know you don’t feel like me…but please.  I need to try and save them.” 

I half-heartedly slapped the barrier one more time, knowing that I wasn’t going to get through.  

Well, make it count.

My body moved without my approval, forced free of the immense figure.  I fell to the ground with two-tonnes of material still glued to my body.  I could feel all the powers Eldritch had accumulated but that innate balance and control wasn’t there.   

Eldritch had split us and literally kicked me out.  We had done this little gimmick in training several times, but never without some kind of warning or prompt.  The monstrous form stepped forward, pressing its entire body against the barrier and started to glow.

“Hide,” Eldritch roared.  

“Eldritch…” I said, staggering away, unsure of what to do or how to feel, “What are you-“

“Make it count,” my monstrous counterpart repeated.

The Neklim material I had been separated with screamed at me, feeling the massive swell of energy.  I barely noticed I moved away, my gaze locked on Eldritch the whole time.  That monster was supposed to be pragmatic, to be self-serving.  What was it doing?  

I wanted to hear an answer from the recesses of my mind, to hear anything from that beast I had shared a body with for the last few months.  All I heard was the unintelligible noise from the Neklim sprouting from my skin.  None of the consciousness that directed the hive mind came with me.  There was none of that division of labor anymore.   

And as the last of the energy reached Eldritch’s outer layer, I felt a sinking pit in my stomach.  

I was about to watch part of me die.  We were just finally understanding each other, finally getting along, finally working together.  But it knew that I was simply going to wither and die if I watched Zellig take my friends.  Eldritch was sacrificing himself to ensure his host’s best chance for survival; knowing that my own attachments was driving Eldritch only made this more painful.    

“Goodbye,” I whispered as my body dragged me into a building, hunkering down behind a wall of stone.  

Eldritch exploded, all the energy directed forward like the universe’s biggest shape charge.  A blinding light washed over the whole city as the monster erupted and gore began to rain down on every building within eyeshot.  A second wave of explosions sounded as the ground shook; down the street a few buildings went up in flames even though they had been behind the barrier.  

The wall shimmered and then winked out of existence; Eldritch’s sacrifice had been enough to overload Zellig’s force field.  Wishing I had time to mourn the loss of my friend, I centered myself and took over the mass of Neklim growths that I had been left with.  Even though I retained all the mutations and the Adaptation that Eldritch had accrued, movement felt hazardous.  With me having to battle back against the noise of all the tendrils fighting for control I felt sluggish and uncoordinated.  

I felt like the original Eldritch, back when Rogue Sentries were first starting out.  I was clumsy, fighting my body for control the whole time.  

Before I had crossed the street, I had managed to wrest enough control to run again.  I burned half of the tonne of storage I had remaining, willing another ten tonnes into existence.  I didn’t need it to last long; I needed to be big enough to crush Zellig.  

Building up steam, I charged the building that my friends had been backpedaling into.  I reached the door and slammed through the frame, letting my anger propel me forward.  

Several explosions sounded and the building collapsed.  Metal and glass ripped into my flesh as I tried to calcify my outer layer and mitigate the damage of the building landing on my head.  Still, the rubble crushed me despite my struggles.  

I reached for the Retaliate power and tapped into that well of energy, detonating nearly a third of my mass to blast free.  Before I got my bearings, Zellig leapt down off the neighboring rooftop, slamming into me and driving me back onto a pile of shattered glass.  I raised an arm to shove him off and he fired a gun into my limb, shearing off half my arm.  I grabbed a handful of twisted metal and wove it into my right arm; he blasted my hand off before it made contact.  

Panicking, I tapped into my Retaliate and turned my outer layer into a bomb.  Zellig leapt clear before I exploded.  His ambush had taken me from two-tonnes of material to just over one.  Even though I had tried to bulk up to ten-tonnes, Zellig had managed to set me back in size.  He advanced with malevolence in his eyes.  

“One more hurdle,” he growled, “One last little obstacle.”

I burned a hit of adrenaline and consumed the rest of my storage to speed up the growth; I needed to get some size so he couldn’t casually shear off limbs with that gun of his.  In a match of pure brawn, I could take him.  But as long as he had tools, I didn’t like my odds. 

Zellig sneered and charged.  For being a wall of muscle, he was remarkably nimble.  He ducked under a swipe with my elastic appendages and dove away from me throwing a handful of shrapnel his way.  Even with adrenaline flowing through me, he slipped in past my guard and grinned as he pressed the gun right up against my center of mass and pulled the trigger.  

It punched a hole through the Neklim and the human flesh beneath it.  I roared in pain but didn’t relent; I had regrown organs before.  As long as I had mass to burn, I could recover from damn near any injury.  Fighting down my self-preservation, I pulled my arms in to bear hug Zellig.  

His eyes widened as he realized my ploy; a quick blast through one arm let him rip free but he couldn’t make the distance to protect himself from my Retaliate.  The Trillodan went tumbling into a pile of debris; his immense frame crashed into a pile and triggered a small landslide that completely buried him.  With a moment of reprieve, I directed my Neklim to rebuild the lung he had shot through.  I reconstituted the parts of me I had blown off as I ran away from the rubble, trying to catch back up with my friends. 

While I was glad he had stopped chasing them to deal with me, I wanted to see them with my own eyes.  I had to be sure that Eldritch hadn’t died for nothing.  

I did my best to split my attention, looking forward and back simultaneously.  While I could hope that Zellig would stay buried, I knew he wasn’t down for the count.  If we had learned nothing else about the warlord, he was seemingly impossible to kill.  He’d let Adamant crush his heart and had managed to survive somehow.  He’d been in a fistfight with Infinite and survived that too.    

More and more tendrils continued to sprout from my body as I focused and tapped into my ability to detect life.  The builds seemed to fade out and I felt five figures running frantically.  I could see one being carried; it looked like Alexis had been paralyzed or something and couldn’t walk.  This had to be them.  

“Guys!” I shouted, letting the Neklim amplify my voice.  “I’m-“

Behind me, another figure was sprinting at me full bore.  

I rounded and let the adrenaline flow as Zellig raised the blaster; one arm was blown in half as I charged forward, aiming only to get a hold of the gun.  Another explosion ripped into my torso as I finally got a hold of it, crushing the metal framework beneath my tendrils.  Zellig growled and charged forward like a demon unleashed.  

Heavy blows landed against my torso, each one crushing several kilograms.  When I tried to grab hold of him, Zellig would use his claws to hack away at my limbs to keep from getting ensnared.  But, without the firearm to take out entire swaths of my body at a time, he wasn’t able to destroy me faster than I could grow.  

And I could tell from that frustrated look on his face that he knew it.  

Zellig and I had clashed on Tso’got; that time he had ripped me out of my Neklim suit.  But now, I was too evolved for him to brawl with.  

Even though I endured twenty hits for each one I answered with, I was still going to weather the storm.  Zellig was hurt and starting to falter, fatigue finally starting to show.  Even though I had eaten through three-quarters of my supply, I could outlast him.  Exchange after exchange warred on, the whole while he couldn’t reduce me below two-tonnes of mass.  

All the while I continued to store energy for my Retaliate.  I held out, waiting for a good opportunity to dump all the energy he’d gifted me.  

Sure enough, I found an opening.  Zellig stayed close for a split second too long as I had a renewed burst of adrenaline; my left arm flared open and I grabbed around his torso, dumping energy into my limb and detonating it.  My opponent went flying backwards, his body flipping through the air and crashing down with a horrible crunching as his bones snapped from the impact.  

I waited a moment, but he wasn’t moving.

“Eldritch,” a haggard voice said, surprised.  Emerging from an alleyway, Hydra limped forward.  She had done away with the wings she had earlier and was still trying to regrow the leg that Zellig had blown off earlier.  “We saw-“

“You saw the monster die,” I replied, my voice hollow.  “It sacrificed itself to overload the barrier.” 

Before Hydra could reply, there was a scraping sound of claws against stone; Zellig rose, some of his flesh burned and eroded.  Where there had been grey flesh over much of his chest, now there was red muscle exposed.  “You are, tiresome,” he growled as his skeleton corrected itself, “And the fact that you now developed a penchant for self-sacrifice is so ill-timed.  All I needed you to do was just be that dumb animal.”

I had run out of storage but I still had two-tonnes of growth to fight with.  Did Zellig still think he could fight me?  Even I could tell he was on his last leg.  Even though he was built to win a war of attrition, he had been battling half a dozen very capable Adapted.

Did he just have a death wish? 

“Over and over, you just keep getting back up.  No matter how many times I break you down, Eldritch, you just refuse to submit.”  He rolled his neck and sneered, “All you’re doing now is prolonging the inevitable.”  

“The inevitable?  We have you on the run.  I broke the ranks of the garrison soldiers!” I shot back, furious.  

His sneer turned into a smile, “Of course you did.  I fed them to you.  I needed you to be menacing, to tower above everything and be a monster.  And for some reason, the monster decided to have a heart.”  

I seethed.  I let that anger guide my footsteps as I lumbered forward; I was bigger than him, stronger than him, more durable than him.  Without his fancy weapons, I outclassed Zellig.  My rage boiled over and I started to sprint at him, roaring as I gained speed.  

And then Zellig’s veins glowed an ominous color of red; that same mechanical steroid that Tol had used to beat us into submission on Vuuldar.  The same steroid he’d used a moment ago to butcher Beleth.  Before I could stop my momentum, Zellig sidestepped me with renewed speed.  I turned as he shot forward, lifting me off the ground and carrying me like I was weightless.  We crashed through a wall into a massive entryway with ornate columns and tile floor that cracked with every heavy step Zellig took.  

He seemed oblivious to me slamming him in the back; I tried to grind my feet against the ground to stop him, but he slammed me into one of the columns and I felt dozens of kilograms die.  More damning was that I felt my ribs break underneath the Neklim.  

Stunned for a moment, I didn’t get to prepare myself for the frenzied onslaught.  An electronic whirring screamed as Zellig somehow continued to speed up, his claws ripping into me, gouging out massive chunks of flesh as he tried to carve into my chest and dig me out.  My innate toughness and skeletal armor didn’t even slow him down.  His face was twisted in a manic smile, the normally composed and commanding Zellig was replaced by a deranged villain.  

A villain that was eviscerating me with frightening speed.  

I dug into the well of energy and empowered my left hand with Retaliate.  Right before it made contact, Zellig ducked under it, twisting and kicking me like a mule to throw me backwards.  

The explosion ripped off half my arm and hit nothing but air.  

Before I could even sit up, Zellig was back at it, ripping fistful after fistful of Neklim away, going at speeds that made Parasite seem sluggish.  

I wasn’t going to beat him in a fight, not trying to run at him with brute strength.  That steroid made him overbearing and I had given up too much mass with the whiffed use of Retaliate.  As wounded as he might have been, pain seemed done away with for now.  

I tried to push him off and get up to my feet; Zellig drove a knee into my side and sent me sliding across the room with a cackle.  

The steroid, it was driving him insane.  He could still fight so well because it was muscle memory, he’d been doing it for literal centuries.  There was no way to counteract that, but I could take advantage of him being deluded.  My only bet was to try and outsmart him, to lure him into some kind of trap.  My only real trump card was Retaliate and I had spent it recklessly.  I steeled myself; the only chance I had to make it out of this alive was to endure enough of a beating to knock him flat with a final application of Retaliate.  It was a shitty gambit, but I couldn’t try and hold out for more mutations to level the playing field between us.  

I did my best to guard, to keep my arms in front and protect my real body.  Zellig didn’t care what was put in front of him; it was just one more obstacle to rip to shreds.  As my arms fell to ribbons, Zellig swept my legs out from under me.  I hit the ground and roared in anguish as he stomped on me over and over and over.  

“No more fight in you?” he cackled as he danced around me, dropping to his knees to continue raking flesh off away, “Pathetic!” 

I tried to shove him away, but I held back.  It wasn’t enough, not yet.  I still had eight-hundred kilograms of material left to spare.

Emboldened, Zellig picked me up, launching me into a pillar and crushing a few dozen more kilograms of flesh.  I rose and immediately endured another flurry of blows that knocked my total mass down to six-hundred kilograms.  With another mechanical whine, he shot a hand forward and dug into my shoulder, ripping down the length of my sleeve.  

I screamed as his claws stripped away the skin on my real arm as well.  

He smiled and avoided my weak attempt to push him away; his follow up strikes hit me hard enough to actually concuss me.  I toppled, doing my best to see straight as a massive foot slammed on top of my chest.  

As my vision cleared, I could see the red tint was gone from his veins.  I had managed to live through the steroid, but I was down to just over three hundred kilograms of material.  All my size and strength advantage had been ripped away.  

“What a pity,” he said, his mania replaced by frustration.  “Your friends, they understood what a display of tenacity was.  They fought and planned on the fly.  You, you’re just a reckless child emboldened by a gift he doesn’t deserve.”  

I let all the stored adrenaline flow through my tendrils and had them rapidly migrate to one arm.  My panoramic vision faded as the massive limb shot up and engulfed his torso.  I was completely exposed, but he wasn’t going to claw his way out of this fast enough.  The whole limb glowed and it was finally my turn to smile as his face fell.  

A column fractured as Zellig’s body shot across the room as the force of the Retaliate pushed me away.  I groaned as I rolled to a stop, my entire body feeling like it was on fire.  The heat had burned all of my torso and some of it was already starting to blister.  Worst off was my right arm: most of the skin had been cooked off and exposed a torched layer of muscle with bone visible in a few places.  I didn’t feel it yet, the adrenaline numbing the worst of it for now.  

“Fuck you,” I panted as I forced myself to sit up and look at the battered warlord.  “How’s that for a display of tenacity?”

   My eyes widened as Zellig’s head lifted. 

No fucking way.  He was still alive? 

His whole body was blackened from the blast.  Most of the muscle had been stripped away leaving charred bone showing.  Dark blood was seeping from his torso but still, he staggered to his feet.  Zellig took an awkward step forward, his equilibrium shot.  As he recovered, he raised his head to glare at me.  

“Oh shit,” I gasped, wishing I had the strength left to stand.  “Someone, help me,” I croaked, my throat felt it was crushed.  I couldn’t cry out to my teammates.  I couldn’t scream for help.  

And I had no mass left to grow.  I had no more strength gifted to me by the Neklim.  

Zellig had withstood.  He had done exactly what he was built for.  

“No,” I begged, my heart hammering, “Please, no.” 

The Trillodan commander took a few more steps forward, still uncoordinated and slow.  As I watched my death approach, I did my best to take solace in the fact that I had at least robbed him of his dignity.  I had pushed him to the brink.  

It offered little comfort.  

His head snapped to the side as a green-scaled figure hobbled into the room.  Zellig tried to turn to respond, but Hydra threw her weight into him and sent both toppling over.  The Trillodan commander roared and found a second wind, shoving both hands into Hydra’s chest and tossing her away.  He turned back to me, dead set as he started to bear crawl forward. 

A bolt of kinetic energy hit him in the side and knocked him over.  “No, no,” Shockwave said as he sprinted in, “None of that.”  Zellig roared and tried to rise, but a quick pair of hits knocked him back down.  Hydra threw herself forward and grabbed one arm and pulled him to the ground.  Before Zellig could try and shove Hydra away again, Ragdoll flipped through the hole in the wall and drove a fist into Zellig’s chest before grabbing the other arm.  

Shockwave fired a pair of kinetic bolts into Zellig’s legs, dropping the warlord to his knees.  

Finally, the defiance in his eyes faded.  

Shockwave moved aside as Murphy walked in, carrying our friend in his arms.  She only had a single sleeve of her power armor and her railgun.  With a grunt, Murphy helped her stand up.  She had to throw an arm over his shoulders while he grabbed her waist, but she wanted to do this while standing.  

An intense silence fell over the room as Hydra and Ragdoll held Zellig down.  Dragoon raised her arm, her railgun aimed square at Zellig’s head.  “I should hate you,” she said, her voice quaking, “You’ve done so much awful shit.  Not just to us, but to so many people.  You’re responsible for more deaths than all of us put together.  You’ve captured us, hunted us, tortured us, and experimented on us.  You’ve chased us across the stars and flattened a few cities because we had the audacity to hide from you.”  She took a shaky breath and a nervous laugh slipped out, “But as I look at you, I don’t hate you.  You fucking paralyzed me, and I still can’t hate you!  When I look at you, all I feel is pity.  I just feel sad for you.  I look at you, and I see someone who is just as broken as us.”

Zellig looked up slowly, his face affirming Dragoon’s assertion.  

“You spent all this effort, all this time, trying to make sure that none of the Trillodan could feel as shitty as you do every day.  You killed people, just so your people wouldn’t have to feel the hurt and misery you do every waking moment, didn’t you?” 

Slowly, Zellig nodded.  

“You could have just… tried to talk to us!  You could have tried to be reasonable!  You have Skaberen; he could have helped fix the damage done to the Trillodan genome.  You could have tried to work with other people so everyone lived.”  She took another shaky, deep breath.  “All you do is spread that misery.  And the shitty thing is that I get it.”  

“Dragoon,” Zellig said, his voice a rasp, “What are you going to do to my people?”

“Your people?  Do you mean the violent,  psychotic horde you allowed Vaneel to experiment on?  Do you mean the army you threw at us just to keep Eldritch busy?”

“Soldiers fight.  Soldiers die.”

Dragoon seemed confused for a moment; her face screwed up as she fully realized his implication.  “I want nothing to do with your people.  We aren’t genocidal tyrants, not like you.  We didn’t start this fight.  I’m not going to kill innocent people because of yours and the Immortal Matron’s crimes.  We are nothing like you, and we never will be.”

I expected Zellig to be offended, but he smiled.  Not his usual self-assured smile that seemed to follow him into a fight, but a soft expression that betrayed some actual joy and relief.  Hearing those words almost made him seem… kind.  Like hearing that his people were going to live was all he needed to be content with life.  He could do away with the facade of the warlord and instead just be a regular person.  “Thank you.”  He lifted his head again, “I have a final request, Dragoon.”

“What?”

“I would like to die on my feet.”

She glanced at Shockwave; he started to charge his hands.  “Let him go.  Zellig, you do anything stupid and Shockwave makes it hurt.  But, I don’t think you’re one for being sneaky.”

A low chuckle escaped him, “No.  I’m hardly subtle.”

She took another deep breath, “You can’t stop the ship can you?  You automated it, just in case you died down here, didn’t you?”

He nodded.

“You wouldn’t stop it even if you could, would you?”

He hesitated but finally shook his head, not bothering to lie.  He slowly rose to his feet, shaking his head slowly, “I’m sorry.  I believe it is what is best for my people.”

Dragoon grit her teeth, “I appreciate your honesty.”  She raised her railgun, but her hand was shaking.  She tried to hold it steady, but her uneven breathing betrayed how nervous she was.  “This should be easy.  I’ve dreamed of killing you, but now that it’s time, I-”

“Let me help,” Zellig said slowly.

Dragoon tilted her head, “Wha-”

Zellig yanked his arms free, catching Ragdoll and Hydra off guard.   The Trillodan rose and took a quick step forward.  

Dragoon’s arm snapped up and took aim, muscle memory kicking in as she responded to the threat; a huge chunk of  the warlord’s head splattered the wall behind him and Zellig fell down.  

I wasn’t sure if I was angry that Zellig died with a content smile on his face or if I was secretly glad we had finally managed to put such a wounded person out of their misery.  


With the barrier down, the battlefield expanded.  Garrison soldiers began sweeping the area, but Adapted from the siege of the Arms Discovery joined the fray too.  

Playlist found us and helped ferry us to a Relay point.  Shockwave stayed out to keep fighting, but the rest of us were done.  Shockwave gave us a nod as we were whisked away; I got the sense that he simply wanted to exorcise his rage at losing Beleth.  Even though we had avenged the dreaded mobster, Shockwave couldn’t cope with the loss quite yet.  

Even though he knew we were all likely to die in the next half hour or so, he wanted to spend the last minutes of his life drowning in blood and adrenaline; none of us could offer a better use of the time.  

Back at our little camp, I was seen too by Organelle.  She repaired enough of the damage on my right arm so I wouldn’t bleed out, but she couldn’t do much more beyond that.  There were too many other wounded people who needed her help.  Lightshow was directing two copies of Organelle and even so was having trouble keeping up with the demand for a medic.  

Dragoon was laid down and given the prognosis that Zellig had told her: he’d shattered the vertebrae to the point it couldn’t be repaired.  Short of a miracle, she was never going to walk again.  Organelle couldn’t simply create a disk, try as she might. 

Our captain shrugged off the news and asked for a new communicator and then tried to get a hold of Interface or Infinite.  Our only hope now rested with those two above us.  Despite Organelle’s protest and insistence that Dragoon relax, our captain snapped back and insisted that her work wasn’t done.  A flustered medic finally relented and obliged her.  

I leaned against a wall, my adrenaline fading and the pain of the burns setting in.  My best friend was a pleasant distraction as he plopped down next to me, his face remarkably pale.  It was a peculiar contrast to his smirk.  

“You okay?  You’re normally more tan than me,” I pointed out.  

“Blood poisoning,” he said casually, “Abusing my gift makes me look pale as crap.  Besides, being in space for so long kind of  fucked up my tan.  I’ll need to take it easy for a few days, but I’ll be fine.” 

“Sure, but why are you so happy?” 

“We finally got him,” he said with a weak  laugh.  “More importantly, I’m not going back into a tube.”

I shook my head, “Yeah, instead we’re going to be flattened by a runaway spaceship.”

“Better than being used.  I’ll take a dignified death over exploitation, thank you very much.”  He looked up into the night sky, “Besides, let’s not count them out yet.  This is Infinite and Interface we’re talking about.  If anyone could pull through, it’d be them.”

I smiled a little, “Are you being optimistic?  That seems like a stretch for you as of late.”

“Don’t be an asshole,” he shot back, “If you keep calling me out on daring to have an emotion that isn’t immediately corresponding to my PTSD, I’ll make a point to just be a negative bastard all the time.  Mark my word,” he threatened.

The absurdity got to me.  I laughed.  “You’re fucking stupid.”  Despite all the pain I was in, I reached an arm around my friends shoulder, “I missed you buddy.”

“Me too,” he said, his voice soft.  

I opted to ruin the heartfelt moment.  “This isn’t going to make Ragdoll jealous, will it?” 

He pushed away from me, “You prick.”

Before I could reply, I saw Alexis waving at us.  We moved to her, taking a seat around our captain.  “I just talked with Interface.”

“And?” 

“Zellig’s plan is already in action.  The software has locked them out of the system; our technomancer has no control over the Crimson City anymore.  To make it worse, Zellig found a way to prevent Infinite from teleporting around everywhere.”

I raised an eyebrow, “Why does that matter?” 

“Because apparently half of the ship was rigged to blow.  Interface is trapped behind a small mountain of metal, alone, and unable to reach out and get Infinite’s attention.  During the fight with Zellig’s lieuteants, Infinite lost her earpiece.” 

“So even though we fought out of hell to pass the message along,” Murphy said, his smile falling, “the one person who can actually do something about it is still oblivious?” 

“About sums it up,” Alexis said.  A tear started to form at the edge of her eye.  “We were so close.”

Beside me, Murphy took a deep breath and put on a sad grin, “Well, it may not be much consolation, but there is no one I’d rather die with than you two.  We got into this mess together, and we’ll be leaving it together as well.”

“Maybe Interface will find a way to relay the message to Infinite,” I suggested, knowing I was being stupidly optimistic. 

“Maybe.  I mean, weirder shit has happened,” Murphy conceded.  “But, live or die, I’m glad to be together.  The Rogue Sentries are at least going to go out like a bunch of legends.  Nothing the Trillodan can do will take that away from us.”   

The three of us joined hands.  Our contribution to this mission was done.  We had done the damage to the Trillodan that we could.  

All we could do now was wait for the sky to come crashing down.  

Previous ChapterNext Chapter

Siege of Selir: Zellig

I squeezed the trigger and an orange ball fired from the barrel; an instant later it hit the ground between the Adapted, splattering the area with scalding hot metal.  Beleth was quick to provide cover for the group and contain the damage from my gauss cannon.

My favorite gun Vaneel had designed for me, one that had held up remarkably well when I had the pleasure to fight against Clemency.

I fired a few more rounds for emphasis, driving the group back.  Without Shockwave or Dragoon getting time to take aim, none of them had a way to answer my incendiary salvo.  They retreated between the buildings, buying themselves a temporary reprieve.  I could hear them the whole time, trying to find a good place to defend from.  

“How long until you get desperate,” I wondered aloud.  “How long until you have no choice but to confront me?” 

I dropped down and closed my eyes a moment, syncing back up with the frequency relay that Vaneel had set up last week.  While Dragoon and her cronies couldn’t reach out for help, I was still connected to my best friend and the Immortal Matron.  

“You’re letting that monster eat half the garrison,” came a biting voice.  “How many have to die before you’ve proved your point?”

I sighed, “I only brought fourteen-hundred soldiers back with me.  I’m not proud of this sacrifice, but there needs to be the right amount of engagement to keep the Adapted present.  Without this ruse, they would run.  Once it starts to drop, nothing is going to stop that Crimson City from crashing.”

“And you’re sure the core isn’t going to detonate on impact and annihilate the planet?” 

“It won’t,” Vaneel said, “I trust my math.” 

“Good thing I do as well,” the Matron replied.  “Zellig, you realize that the Eternal Council is going to pin this on you.  They are going to insist that you could have spared the lives of the garrison and still enacted your scheme.”  She paused, clearly mulling over her next words.  “Councilman Baarl is going to make it impossible to defend you.  He will ensure you are to blame for the deaths of those soldiers.” 

While the words were heavy, I wasn’t unprepared to stomach that fact.  I knew that this gambit of mine was costly.  If Eldritch wasn’t here to cause such commotion and destruction, the Eternal Council would never understand or condone my extreme actions.  The destruction of Selir, led by my hand, would be branded the act of a deluded terrorist.  However, allowing the Adapted to ransack the city freely would have been blasphemous as well; I had a duty to protect my people and allowing invaders to pillage freely was unthinkable.  

I needed a middle ground.  I needed the Adapted to be as threatening as possible to warrant such extreme measures without seeming completely insane.  Eldritch playing the role of monstrosity fit my narrative perfectly.  But the Immortal Matron was right, when the council learned that I had foreseen and planned for these events to unfold, they would ask why I allowed for the senseless loss of life.  

My message would be impossible to ignore, but someone would have to pay the high price for the end result.  I would be the easiest scapegoat.  

“I know,” I replied.  “But their sacrifice, and eventually my own will all be worth it in the end.  I know that you will see to that.” 

There was a wry chuckle from her end, “You put much faith in an old woman.  You are really willing to gamble your life on my ability to follow through?” 

“I put faith in my Matron,” I replied, somber.  “You have guided us this far, and I know you’ll take the Trillodan well beyond what I ever could.” 

“Then I will ensure that our ideals are realized,” she said.  “How long until this plan of yours comes to fruition?”

“In about an hour it will all come crashing down.  Commander Hel’t is standing by to bombard whatever survives in the crater.”

“You think someone would survive that sort of impact?”

“I dare not doubt the tenacity of the Adapted,” I answered with a laugh, “Some of them have proven incredibly hard to put down.  Besides, even if no one in Selir survives, I feel there is a good chance that Infinite might manage to withstand the impact.  She could single-handedly annihilate the rest of Xalanni if unchecked.”

Even though I couldn’t see her, I could visualize the Matron furrowing her brow.  “Why do you think that?”

“Vaneel, you know more of the particulars.”

“She is built on the idea of compounding powers.  Each one on the stack acts like a multiplier if they have a way to work in conjunction.  Six powers allows her to replicate most Adapted.  Eight powers allows her to mimic Titan who is magnitudes more powerful than most.  With eleven gifts she could mimic a void door; even with limited range on that teleportation, the amount of energy required for such a feat is astounding.”

“You think she could redirect that sort of energy output in a most…destructive capacity?”

“I’m sure of it,” Vaneel replied.  “From all the memories we have seen of her, she deliberately limits herself to avoid letting out some kind of traumatic manifestation.  Infinite holds back due to concern of those nearby; if there was no one left alive, I think she’d be interested in making the guilty party pay.  And the most damning thing to consider is that she accomplished that Void Door feat with eleven powers.  According to what she confessed to some, she can take two more gifts.”

“More than enough firepower to flatten a continent if she really wanted to,” the Immortal Matron concluded with a sigh.  “Then yes, Zellig, I think you’re right to have your fellow commander ensure she is removed.” 

In the distance I heard more of my operatives engaging with the other six Adapted in the zone.  “With your leave, Matron, I have work to do.” 

“Good luck,” she replied.  

I severed the connection and focused myself back on the present, allowing my hearing to pull in the scattered sounds of combat around me.  Four whole city blocks quarantined off from the rest of  the city, safe from the living nightmare I’d allowed Eldritch to become.  

The other Adapted were going to demolish Vaneel’s laboratory and the Arms Discovery; we’d made sure to move all pertinent research findings into backups halfway across Xalanni.  The soldiers and operatives who had allowed Vaneel to mutate them with the trials of the Kelotan were more than happy to go out with their dignity and fight the Adapted threat.  

They would die as patriots and heroes.

I glanced down at my grey hand, letting out a long sigh.  Soon this body would be stripped away and I’d be killed for my reckless actions.  Soon this would all be over.

My life for the salvation of my people.  A fair trade.  

I shouldered the gauss cannon and started stomping back towards the primary group of Adapted.  I loathed having to leave Dragoon but Parasite had a quicker response time than I might have thought.  And if anyone else besides Shockwave and Beleth had shown up, I’d have stayed to fight.  Those two in conjunction were too dangerous.  

As strong as I was, I wouldn’t survive a fair joust with them.  The two had spent enough time fighting one another and training together that they were a force to be reckoned with.  Even without the intervention of Hydra and Ragdoll, I doubt Jai could have done much more besides landing a lucky hit on Beleth.    

To my south, another fight had broken out.  Of my six remaining operatives, five were actively engaging the enemy and the last was on the move to join their comrades.  I trusted my operatives in duels with almost any individual Adapted; I owed it to them to keep this group occupied so they could finish their work.  

More samples for Vaneel meant a brighter future for all who survived this ordeal.  

I continued to lope along, eventually leaping up onto rooftops as I continued to follow Dragoon’s group.  They wanted to rejoin the other Adapted who were trapped in here with them it seemed.  While normally ambushing them would be easy, Parasite having Danger Sense gifted to him made it a bit more challenging.  Any chance of a proper ambush was never going to work.  

More machinations shifted inside my body, a reminder that I had a failsafe in case things went south.  Vaneel had advised against using these Selium disks since it would be like pumping myself full of poison; if I was going to die, why not give it a try?  He had been opposed to my operatives using it, but none of them were as dependent on machines built into their biology like I was.  

Vaneel hoped that I would survive this ordeal and wanted me to remain as intact as possible.  He desperately wanted his only true friend to not be given to the gallows; using the Selium was likely to erode parts of my mind and Vaneel dreaded knowing what kind of consequences that might have down the road.  I smiled as part of me warmed with his optimism.    

I gave him my word that I would only use those disks as a last resort, just in case I managed to survive all of this mess.  I would do my best to uphold his idyllic vision of the future.  He had compromised and given me three as a last line of defense.  

Leaping across another rooftop, the group of six came into view.  Flicking the canister of my gauss cannon, it swapped from the explosive shells to the pinpoint laser.  Snapping it up, I took aim at Hydra and pulled the trigger; as I did, she spun around as Parasite cried out for her to evade.  I didn’t hit her down the middle, but I removed half of the tentacles that comprised her left arm.  Despite her ‘arm’ being nearly severed, she turned and charged straight for me, undeterred.  

To my surprise, Ragdoll joined her, running so much faster than should have been possible.  

Swapping the output of my cannon, I launched an explosive orb his way; the nimble bastard leapt over the top.  

The gift of speed he’d been granted boosted his reactions as well.  He was going to be a problem.  Another two orbs just missed as he streaked forward; I expected him to go for my legs but Ragdoll pulled his torso low to the ground, swinging up into the barrel of my gun.

He hit it hard enough to bend the barrel, rending the weapon useless.  

Growling in frustration, I threw my cannon aside and pressed forward, trying to disrupt Ragdoll’s balance; his speed allowed him to flip over my leg and create distance.  Turning back around, I felt Hydra approaching thanks to the disturbance in the air from her wings.  She dove in and I turned to absorb the blow; as we collided, her regenerated tentacles wrapped around my arm and tried to wrench my elbow out of socket while the talons dug into my forearm.  

I was a bit surprised they were sharp enough to pierce my toughened skin.  

Claws in my feet dug into the stone and ground us to a halt.  Hydra tried to flap her wings and lift me off the ground, but I pulled her back down, using her own tentacles as leverage.  A flurry of footsteps behind me gave me all the warning I needed that Ragdoll was lining up another assault.  With Hydra holding me, he was liable to go for the body, try and do some serious damage since he knew I could repair my bones on the fly.  

The steps drew closer and I tapped into my power supply.  Hydra heard the electronics wind up and tried to pull herself free; I ripped my arm free of the talons and seized her wrist, turning and launching her massive frame in front of Ragdoll’s path.  

Forced to evade, he abandoned his attack on me and dove over her.  I cut him off, lunging the six meters to where he was bound to land.  Ragdoll adjusted quickly, weighing down one of his hands to pull his head away from my punch.  He tried to transition into a roll and throw himself out of my reach but didn’t account for how much faster overclocking made me.  

My foot caught his hip and tossed him into the middle of the road.  With Ragdoll down for a moment, I disabled the overclock to avoid unnecessary drain.    

Behind me Hydra was running at me on all fours; it was too easy to turn on her and rake my claws across her face, ripping chunks of her snout free.  To my surprise, Hydra didn’t abandon the attack after being mutilated but instead retaliated and swung her tentacles in reply.  I raised an arm to block, surprised by the impressive force she could put behind that attack.  Her talons reached for my face but I grabbed her hand, more than willing to engage in a match of strength.  Despite her best efforts, she started to fold backwards, her legs buckling as I started to bend the arm back.  

On my flank, a shuffling of feet revealed why Hydra had endured the punishment: Shockwave had been storing power in his hands this whole time.  I overclocked my body again and snapped Hydras arm like a twig.  In response, she threw her body forward, sinking teeth into my collarbone and wrapping her legs and tail around my own.  A muffled ‘do it’ escaped her snout as she glared up at me, defiant.  

I couldn’t help but smile.  I liked this one.  A fighter to the end.  

My claws ripped into her side, Hydra’s scales unable to mitigate enough of the damage.  I shoved a hand onto her face and used both points of leverage to literally peel her off of me so I could avoid the impending blast from Shockwave.  She fought back but didn’t have the strength to resist well enough.  

As soon as she was free, another sound warned me of a potentially dangerous attack: the metal grinding of a slide being drawn back.  Behind Shockwave, Dragoon had discarded most of her armor and was being held up by Parasite; the only part of her suit she had kept was a single metallic sleeve with the power supply running along her side and back.  Glaring at me, she raised the railgun and fired.  

I threw myself out of the way as the gun screamed and the spherical projectile narrowly missed ripping my head clean off.  As my foot touched the ground, Hydra seized the opportunity and turned, swinging her tail at my face, targeting my eyes with the spiked club on the end.  Ducking under, I kept my focus on Shockwave as he continued to hold his charge, looking for the perfect opportunity to fire.  For someone who seemed so bloodthirsty, I had to commend his patience.  

Hydra was rapidly regenerating, her snout nearly mended and her arm starting to set.  I hadn’t seen enough of her to know the details of her healing factor, but this was more potent than I would have wagered.  A scuffle along the stone warned me that Ragdoll had gotten back up, and that look in his eyes told me that he wasn’t too badly concussed to fight.  

Ragdoll needed to be dealt with.  He hit extremely hard without being gifted speed.  Now he could simply generate four or five times the momentum.  Parasite had destroyed the device in my mouth that allowed me to use a sonic scream, unwittingly having torn part of it out when he ripped most of my tongue out.  Without that to disrupt his equilibrium, I had to find another way to limit his mobility and keep him out of the fight.  Hydra was going to endure punishment for the group and set up Shockwave and Ragdoll to do the real damage.  

And on the periphery of my vision, I had another problem brewing; Beleth was slowly bringing everyone else closer.  The methodical gangster wasn’t about to underestimate my speed while overclocked but he wasn’t one to remain un-involved.  And as long as he stayed with Shockwave, that piece of living artillery had all the protection he could ever want.  

Without a weapon of my own, I was liable to lose.  One misstep meant enduring a full-force hit from Shockwave or losing a limb to Dragoon’s railgun.

The metallic grinding warned me another round was imminent.  Dragoon barked an order and Ragdoll took off, running around to build momentum as Hydra lumbered forward.  The machinations in my body whirred to life as I overclocked again, charging to meet her headlong.  Claws out, I ripped through her tentacles and gouged a chunk of her side out in a flash.  Stressing my systems, I pressed the attack and shattered her knee with a kick.  She tried to flap her wings to stay up and fight; a well placed blow to her chest sent her tumbling into the road.  

Ragdoll came streaking in, using his arms as a counterweight as he flipped and brought a leg crashing down on my head.  I raised my arms in an X to absorb the blow and felt my bones break.  I grunted and grit my teeth in pain from the blow, caught off guard at how much damage Ragdoll could do.  

Even though I could have muted my pain, I refused.  In my last moments, I wouldn’t forgo being Trillodan.  I wouldn’t damper my fear, I wouldn’t damper my suffering.  I would feel all the highs and lows of this moment.  

Ragdoll pulled his foot back, but my block had cost him his precious momentum.  My forearms snapped back into place and a  hand caught his ankle; baring my teeth in a smile as I squeezed down and shattered the joint.  In defiance, he pulled himself forward, driving his other leg into my chest.  When I didn’t fall over, he sat up and tried to punch me with a weighted hand.  

I tossed him to the ground as Hydra pulled herself off the ground and lumbered forward, her side already closing the wound.  At the corner of my eye, I saw Dragoon shift slightly; I narrowly avoided the shot from the railgun as it screamed by.  Hydra was quick to capitalize and slam into me.  Even though she was mostly mended, her attack was still clumsy and uncoordinated.  A talon found my cheek but she lost most of her teeth for it.  When she refused to go down, I hit her in the throat and crushed her windpipe.  

She sank to her knees but still grabbed my legs, unwilling to let go as Shockwave raised his hands and brought them together, a white blade of energy leaving his fingertips.  

I kicked Hydra off but not fast enough.  

My arms got in the way, mitigating some of the damage to my torso.  Still, I went flying back nearly thirty meters.  Momentum carried me through a stone wall and my body finally came to rest in someone’s living room, their furniture in shambles.  A quick assessment told me that my forearms broke in six places, nine ribs had shattered, and my lungs and liver had been riddled with the shrapnel.  Chunks of skin and muscle had been torn free from blasting through the wall and my spine had been offset from my rough landing.  

Vaneel’s systems sprung to life and started to repair the damage.  Nanite infused muscle pulled bone back into place and dedicated peripheral systems fused my metal-coated bones back together.  The excess cellular storage I had in my body donated raw material to mend the nicks in my organs and patch over the missing skin.  

It was a costly mistake that I’d made, taking that hit.  I had burned through nearly half of my cellular storage and a nanite housing had been cracked which was going to limit my efficiency going forward.  Another hit like that meant I was likely to sustain lasting damage.  I could manage but it was not ideal.  Especially if I was fighting half a dozen people.  

I had been right the first time.  I needed a weapon.  Dragoon had been smart to start coordinating threats; she knew I couldn’t evade everything at one time.  At least I had managed to cripple Ragdoll.  Even though I’m sure he wasn’t down for the count, he was going to be substantially slower with a crushed ankle.  Switching the filter on my eyes, I reminded myself of where my next weapons cache was.

Across the street and fifty meters north, just shy of the perimeter that I had set.  

I smiled, a plan formulating as I staggered out through the crater I had made in someone’s home.  

As soon as they could see me, I wiped the grin from my face and allowed myself to limp, to look haggard.  They wanted me dead, they wanted to punish me for all the pain I had caused them and their loved ones.  These children had been turned into warriors, into people with a singular purpose.  

Titan had summed it up best: Adapted fought.  It was their nature.  They would see me weakened and pursue relentlessly.  

As soon as I stepped outside, Dragoon raised her arm and fired; I avoided and allowed myself to stumble.  They all ran forward, and now Beleth felt the safety to join the fray, this time leading the charge.  Stone flowed around him as he effortlessly glided forward with Shockwave beside him.  Hydra was mending and opted to take to the air while Dragoon, Parasite, and Ragdoll held back.  

I had to sell it.  If I turned and ran, that would alert Dragoon that it was a trap.  I steeled myself knowing full well that I was going to have to endure another hit from Shockwave before this would be over.  

As Beleth approached, I started to backpedal, giving the illusion that I was looking for an opening to lunge forward.  Beleth didn’t hasten or try to rush.  We were nearing the edge of the barrier; all he had to do was calmly advance and eventually I would run out of room to run.  The cache was twenty-four meters behind me and I could see the glow in Shockwave’s hands building.  

To my surprise, Beleth noticed my slight deviation in focus.  Sprinting forward, he put himself within range; the ground erupted around my ankles, twisting the stone like rampant vines.  Ripping my ankle free, more sprouted up and continued to ensnare.  I roared in frustration and Beleth grinned, creating a spike of stone to lance my heart.  Striking the rock, I shattered the tip free and threw it back at the damned mobster.  

A wall was in the way before it could pose any threat.  As I continued to fight free of the ensnarement, the wall Beleth made slid forward and snapped at the base, flying free like a two tonne projectile.  

I overclocked my system and stopped it, shoving the stone slab to the side.  Using the burst of speed and strength, I ripped free and leapt free of his sphere of influence.  

As soon as my feet touched the ground, Shockwave struck.  This time I managed to turn my side to it, allowing my shoulder to take the brunt of the hit.  Still, bones shattered and organ damage demanded the rest of my cellular storage as I crashed into another building.  What Shockwave hadn’t known was that he’d played his part perfectly; I’d lined myself up to come flying right where I had left my weapons cache.  Getting to my feet, I touched the metal case and smiled as it fell away, revealing another one of Vaneel’s custom firearms.  

A rectangular gunmetal framework with two yellow compartments on the side by the trigger; while one of Vaneel’s simpler designs this thing was surprisingly devastating.  My friend had effectively repurposed a shape charge into a hand cannon for me.  While it would have so much kick that it would dislocate shoulders, I could use this dastardly weapon no problem.  

Before I could exit the building this time, the wall was ripped apart as Beleth and Shockwave charged forward.  

As quickly as I fired, Beleth yanked himself and his fellow Adapted underground, avoiding the cone of destruction that the gun let out.  Turning my attention to the rest, I leapt forward, charging the four who were lagging behind.  Dragoon let out a round from the railgun, but nothing else was challenging me.  After evading, Hydra lumbered forward, her injuries taking more time to heal now.  She drew close and I turned the gun on her.

She recoiled and roared in pain as the swath of tentacles was blasted off along with a chunk of the wing behind it.  Another pull of the trigger sheared one leg off just below the knee.

Ragdoll hopped to the side and tried to get the proper windup for an attack; I overclocked my system and body checked him mid-flip.  As he hit the ground, I turned the weapon on him and blasted him in the chest.

“RAGDOLL!” 

Frantic footsteps behind me, way too fast and too powerful for a normal person.  I spun to see Parasite transformed again, his face twisted in rage as he bore down on me.  As the gun raised, he pivoted, avoiding the cone of destruction it let out.  He planted his foot and threw himself at me, using the same tactic as earlier to try and rip out my eyes.  I threw myself backwards and was met with resistance.  

I looked down, perplexed that Ragdoll was still breathing.  His coat had been reduced to tatters of fabric, but his body was intact; I had made another mistake and doubted the power of his teammate, Armorsmith.  Ragdoll had been confident to charge because his coat might as well have been a layer of steel.  And now, Ragdoll’s normally smiling face was drawn into a furious sneer as he swung himself around,  readying himself to lunge.  As I hit the ground, he used his good leg and one hand to throw himself forward.  I barely managed to get a hand in the way of the punch and protect my eyes.  Turning to face him, I tried to pull up the gun but Parasite leapt forward and grabbed that limb, pulling it into an arm bar.  

And while this was happening, Dragon was fumbling with her railgun, trying to sit up and get the angle for a shot.  The only reason she hadn’t put a hole in me is because Parasite had dropped her to try and avenge Ragdoll.  

Roaring, I snapped my wrist voluntarily, bending my hand back further than should be possible to shoot Parasite in the shoulder.  Chunks of bone and muscle came free as his grip faltered.  My wrist relocated  and I swung around to ensure that Ragdoll stayed down this time.  

But his body was pulled away by the ground, leaving me no target.  

The stone around me came to life, turning into an endless sea of arms that pulled me down.  A few paces away, Beleth and Shockwave surfaced.  He had been holding the two of them underground until Shockwave had a proper blast saved up.  

I overclocked and tried to fight free of Beleth’s trap but it was hopeless.  Starting on my back meant that Beleth had too much of my body to grab hold of, too many limbs to ensnare all at once.  Spikes started to dig into my side as he applied more and more pressure, slowly crushing the life out of me.  

Shockwave’s hits had done serious damage when my body was allowed to go flying.  I would be enduring all of the kinetic payload of his next hit.  

As good as my friend’s work was, it wasn’t going to withstand that.  

I activated my failsafe, my body rapidly disseminating the first disk of Selium to my muscles.  

Shockwave raised his hands and I erupted from the ground, the stone shattering as I ripped free.  Gripping a single chunk of stone from the air, I threw it at Shockwave; he evaded, but it cost him precious time.  Before he could execute me, I charged his companion.  Beleth’s attempt to erect a wall was bashed through.  

He tried to sink into the ground, but not quick enough with how fast I could run now.  My claws found part of his ribcage and ripped it free, taking his entire right arm with it.

Shockwave screamed and turned to me, raising his hands.  My body accessed the second Selium disks and added the catalyst to trigger it’s other function as an explosive.  The skin in my palm split open and I threw it forward.  The two explosions met in midair; even though I went tumbling back through the street and had several bones break, I had survived it without serious organ damage.  

I started to laugh, and was cut off by Dragoon firing the railgun.  I was slow to dodge and a chunk of my thigh was torn out.  While painful, it wasn’t going to slow me too much in the grand scheme of things.  Without Parasite to help hold her up, her attempts to reload the gun were clumsy and slow.  Without Beleth, Shockwave didn’t have the protection to build up another charge and he knew it.  

“You all did well,” I said, lumbering forward, a massive smile drawn across my face.  “But Vaneel designed me to win a war of attrition.  I was built for this.”  

I knew that Vaneel was likely watching through my optical input; I only hoped he could appreciate exactly how well his work had held up despite such adversity.  A few more steps forward and I stopped as the ground shook.  Everyone turned to look at the wall of the barrier to see a fourteen-meter tall mass of tentacles watching through the force field.  A massive arm slammed against it but to no avail.  

I couldn’t help myself and started to laugh.  

“Oh, Eldritch,” I said softly, “You’re just in time to lose your friends.” 

I had three displacement charges for this lot: one for Dragoon and her superior brain, another for Hydra and her incredible regeneration, and the last for Shockwave and his seemingly infinite energy generation.  

My prize for survival: three of the most powerful gifts among the Adapted plundered for the gain of my empire.  

With my final purpose reaffirmed, I stalked forward to claim my victory. 

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Siege of Selir: Parasite

All I felt was rage.  

He’d taken something away from me, a part of me that I was never going to get back.  Zellig had managed to corrupt the passenger in my body into something so hideous and ugly that I almost couldn’t stomach myself.  

And now he had casually paralyzed my friend in such a definitive fashion that Organelle wasn’t going to be able to undo the damage.  

Dragoon begged for me to run.  I couldn’t.  Not anymore.  

This bastard couldn’t keep getting away with this.  He had to pay.  

I willed my passenger to come out, to overwhelm my body.  In an instant, my skin seemed to turn itself inside out.  The body I had worked so hard to keep in shape, to keep looking pristine, all gone.  My price of strength was to forgo my charm, to do away with my clever and spunky demeanor.  

Zellig had taken that away from me, made me as ugly as himself.  

For all this ugliness I endured, it did come with a feeling of strength.  There was nothing left in me to break.  I was living on borrowed time; I should have died in that tube or from being thrown to the bottom of the Crimson City.  The only positive that Zellig had bestowed upon me was removing any shackle of caution or concern.  

An image of Ragdoll cut in and vanished as quickly as it appeared.  

Nothing else mattered right now.  

Rage turned into a kind of deathly calm as I twirled the staff in my fingertips; my old power used to have to work to let me manipulate an eight pound piece of metal like this.  Now it was easy.  I honed in on Zellig, controlling my heart rate as I stepped forward, muttering a soft apology to my friend and captain.  

“You aren’t going to beat him,” she insisted, “Don’t go back into a tube, Murphy!  Just, run!” 

“He’s well beyond listening to you, Dragoon,” Zellig said with a grin.  “I recognize that face of his.  That, right there, that’s the face of a killer.  He has one goal, one objective, one purpose.  Isn’t that right?” 

I didn’t answer, I just took a few more steps forward, getting closer to striking range and feeling a secondary gift unfurl in the back of my mind.  Normally, Dragoon would be right insisting that I couldn’t beat him.  No matter how strong this form made me, no matter how durable, Zellig was built to win a war of attrition.  In an even exchange of blows, he would simply weather the storm better than I could.  He could hit harder, withstand more trauma, and repair more damage than me.    

But with the gift of Danger Sense granted to me by Powerhouse, he wouldn’t be landing any hits.  It would take a long time to beat him to death, but as long as I played it smart, I had an edge that all his training wasn’t going to be able to overcome.  

I took a quick step and swung, bringing the metal down.  Zellig raised a forearm to block, his reinforced skeleton more than capable of accepting the punishment.  I redirected the staff and brought the other end up towards his face.  

Another block and another chuckle from the Trillodan.  

Leaning into my gift, I sped up the rate of my swings, staying mobile and dancing around the monolith of muscle.  Every time he tried to grab the staff or strike back at me, I carefully adjusted to be just out of reach or a single step ahead.  I could see the confusion on his face as I continued to slam the metal against his forearms and torso: he couldn’t rationalize why he couldn’t catch me.  

He’d beaten me once after I Altered.  Why couldn’t he now?

Growling, Zellig rushed forward, willfully taking a blow to the side of the head.  In exchange, he was allowed to get close and reach a hand out; I ducked low and skirted to the left, jabbing an end of the staff into his ribs.  He spun around to seize the staff but I pulled it away and smashed his hand in response.  

Pressing my advantage, I aimed again for his head.  He went to grab the staff, but I collapsed the metal and left Zellig clutching air.  Using the weight of the metal to empower my punch, I drove my fist into his chest.  His claws were going to drop and dig into my kidneys but were left with nothing as I dove around the side of his legs and drove my heel into the back of his knee.  Zellig roared in frustration and turned to tackle me; I planted my hands against the ground and kicked him like a mule, knocking him backwards.  

I spun around on my hands, landing casually on my feet as Zellig rolled backwards and dusted himself off.  There were literal dents in his muscle where I had hit him and where I had repeatedly battered him with my staff.  

Even though he was built to win a war of attrition, I was doing some damage.  I was taxing him.  

“Danger sense,” he finally said with a snap of his fingers.  “That’s what Powerhouse gave you.” 

I did my best not to give anything away, but he saw some spark of recognition.  

“Clever.  Lull me into a fight knowing that you have an edge from our last encounter.  And at first, you sold it well.  I was beginning to worry that my fight with you on the ship was a fluke, a hoax that I almost didn’t deserve to win!  But no, you’re just using an extra advantage!  That’s hardly fair.”

“No such thing as a fair fight,” I replied, twirling the staff.  Even if he had identified my advantage, he still didn’t have a way to negate it.  Even if he knew I could read his actions, he couldn’t alter his brain.  

Zellig grinned, “On that, we agree.  And it is the only agreeable thing about you,” he said, a hint of disgust in his voice.  “I admit, I had forgotten exactly how pitiful your new gift made you look.  And smell.  Be glad you don’t have my sense of smell, Parasite, you’d regret subjecting anyone to being near your fetid carcass.”

I felt my blood boil, and that smug grin on his face meant he knew.  

“You can’t stand it, can you?  You can’t stand being ugly.  You can’t stand feeling like an aberration, like a freak.”

I sneered and gripped my staff, striking at whatever vulnerability I could find.  The difference was that Zellig knew my trick now and wasn’t bothering to counter attack, at least not physically.  He knew that wasn’t going to work.  

“I can at least own being ugly,” he laughed as he continued to parry and block my attacks, minimizing the damage.  “But you, you were such a pretty little specimen.  You pride yourself on your appearance.  It was something that you made, that you toiled over.”

My attacks grew more furious, more reckless.  I had an edge in this fight that I was going to abuse.  Weaving quick strikes in between staff hits let me break his guard and find a few heavy blows into his torso and legs, but still not enough to shut him up.  

“You’re neglectful parents never even appreciated how well you took care of yourself in their absence.  Even if you live through this, you can’t show them how special you really are!” 

I screamed in rage as I brought the staff crashing down, trying to cave in his head.  Of course he raised a hand to catch the blow, knowing exactly what my bloodthirsty mind would drive me to do.  My attempt to rip the staff free was futile; nothing in my power was going to rip it free of his grip.  Instead of backing away, I doubled down on my aggressive actions and yanked on the staff to throw myself at Zellig.  A foot slammed into his sternum and I flipped backwards off him.

Right as I landed, I rolled to the side, narrowly avoiding an attempt to grab me; immediately following that I avoided my staff being thrown like a javelin.  Another series of punches were thrown my way, but nothing could connect.  No matter how angry I was, training was going to win out for me.  In a hand to hand bout, I could hold my own.  

That was until Zellig opened his mouth and screamed.  

My ears erupted and my sense of equilibrium was immediately gone.  Warm blood trickled down my earlobes as my body frantically tried to regain my ability to hear.  There was a warning about a punch coming, but I couldn’t find my footing to properly avoid anything.  I felt my jaw crack out of place as my body went sailing down the street and onto a few pieces of broken glass.  As quick as he had ruptured my eardrums, my Alteration repaired the damage and my hearing returned to normal.  

I got to my feet and tried to brace myself as Zellig charged and let out another sonic scream. 

It was just as effective the first time.  I couldn’t do a damn thing about him kicking me in the ribs and sending me flying.  Glass exploded around me as I sailed into a massive lobby of some kind; I slammed onto the stone and wished that someone on this damned planet believed in using carpet.  Groaning, I felt my eardrum pull itself back together as several of my ribs snapped back into place.  The pain was intense enough I felt some bile rise in my throat but I managed to push it down.  

Zellig wasn’t far behind, visibly enjoying himself.  

“You’ve improved,” he said honestly, “A couple of weeks ago, I think I would have gotten under your skin a little better.  But you’ve stayed cool, been cautious where it was needed.  You have allowed yourself to play to your strengths.  I was worried that your newfound ‘gift’ was going to overwhelm you and curtail any chance for a rematch.  But, look at you go!  You have no inhibitions anymore do you?  This ghoulish appearance of yours, it quelled any inclination that you could be normal.”

As he continued to amuse himself, I felt my power start to protest.  This new form, as strong as it was, it came with a downside.  

The longer I held it and the more I stressed it, the harsher it was going back to normal.  Shifting back was painful, no matter what.  But doing it after intense use like this likely meant there would be lingering effects.  Organelle had been reluctant to tell me that at a certain point my power started to poison me; she insisted that my shifted form started to seep through and it was hard for my body to filter out.  

I ignored the panic in the back of my mind as that clock continued to tick, fully aware that the longer this drew out, the harder it was going to hit me to shift back.   

Zellig hurt Alexis.  Zellig had to pay.

I growled and charged forward, knowing full well he was going to let out another sonic scream and render my danger sense effectively inert.  But I knew he was expecting me to be somewhat conservative, somewhat controlled.  He and I knew that my finesse coupled with the Danger Sense was why I had made it this long.  He would expect me to rely on my training and agility to dance around him.

Throwing that out the window, I planted my feet and literally threw myself at his face. Caught off guard, he shot a hand out to grab me instead of screaming; a hand I could work around and use to pull me closer.  Wrapping my legs around his torso, I jabbed a hand into one eye socket, obliterating the organ beneath.  When he opened his mouth to sunder my eardrums again, I shoved my hand into his mouth and grabbed his tongue.  

His remaining eye narrowed as he closed his mouth around my forearm.  Bone immediately started to break as his jaw fought against my incredible regeneration.  Determined, I pulled my left hand free of his eye socket and tried to attack his other; a hand clasped my wrist and squeezed hard enough to fracture the small bones beneath his grasp.  

Screaming, I ripped my right hand free of his mouth.  Skin and muscle were stipped from my hand, but I took something with me: a fistful of the commander’s tongue.  

Annoyed, Zellig turned and whipped me into the ground; I tried to get my legs below me to prevent the impact but ended up just dislocating my knees instead.  They popped back into place about the time he drove a foot into my chest and sent me sliding across the floor.  I finally stopped when I ran into what looked like a marble desk.  

I forced myself to stay awake, to stay in this form as my vision started to waver.  Bones quickly popped back into place but the pain was unbearable.  Still, I pulled myself back to my feet as the massive Trillodan wall of muscle approached me, his pompous air dispelled.

“You look about as ugly as I feel,” I wheezed out as I saw all the dark blood oozing from his mouth.  His eye was already rebuilding in its socket, but I had to assume creating a whole new eye was taxing for the unstoppable juggernaut.  I dared to smirk, “We might finally have something in common.” 

Zellig opened his mouth to reply but all that came out was an almost demonic growl.  

I braced myself for his assault, my Danger Sense telling me without a doubt that he was about to subject me to an onslaught I wasn’t likely to survive.  

And right before it happened, a bolt of white energy broke through one of the opposing glass walls and slammed into his side.  The bolt erupted with a concussive wave, sending the Trillodan commander flying.  My eyes widened as I turned and saw a trio of figures making their way to me: Beleth and Shockwave were both on their feet and Dragoon was with them in a chair of stone that Beleth had created for her.  

“We figured you could use a little help,” Shockwave said with a grin.  

Beleth looked like he was all business, his face scrunched up as he stared forward.  “He’s back up and moving, running a circle around-” Beleth stopped his assessment of Zellig’s movement, confused.  “He’s…running?” 

“Can’t fight both of you without a weapon,” Dragoon said softly, thinking out loud.  “He chose the arena which means he probably left himself any number of weapon depots to pillage should he need to.  If this is going to be his last stand, he won’t leave himself without options.”  Her gaze turned to me, “Murphy, swap back before you kill yourself, please.”

I nodded, bracing myself for what I knew was coming next.  My skin flipped back over and a wave of fatigue washed over me.  I stumbled, catching myself on this desk.  At least I did, until the pain set in behind it. I didn’t know what you could really feel pain in your kidneys and liver, but it felt like someone had stabbed each organ with a serrated blade.  My arms went limp and I crashed the floor as I tried to get used to the horrific sensation that I was going to have to live with for at least the next few hours.  

“Come on,” Beleth said, walking over to me and extending a hand, “You gotta get back up.”

I accepted his hand up, admittedly caught off guard by his aid.  “Thanks,” I said.

“So what are we dealing with?” he asked, immediately back to being a professional.  “A handful of us followed the charge in after Multi-task said she’d seen you get abducted.  Almanac quickly pinpointed your armor and we pivoted.”

Dragoon’s helmet melted away, showing her bloodstained face.  She looked…broken.  Not in the way I was, but her spirit had given way.  She had conceded her original plan of going to Marn to try and get the drop on Zellig, but he had turned it around on her in about an hour.  There was barely any fight left in her.  As much as I hurt, that seemed to fade away as I felt a certain empathy with my friend.  

As she glanced at me, I wished I knew the right words to instill some life into her, to give her some extra push to fight.  

“Drag,” Shockwave said, his voice gentle, “We need to know what we’re up against.” 

“Zellig and eight of his cronies,” I answered for her, “I’m guessing he has subjected them to his rudimentary transformative shit.  But, I’m not sure.”

“And the force field?” Beleth asked.

“Powered by generators he’s hidden underground,” Dragoon replied, her voice not much more than a whisper.  “He  planned this so far in advance.  He knew,” she lamented, her hand shaking as she started to spiral.

“How many of us are in the arena?” Shockwave asked, changing the direction of the conversation.  

“Twelve.”

“Good,” he said, energy flooding into his hands as they started to glow.  “Let’s make it easy for them to find us then!” 

He turned and clapped his hands together, firing a blade of kinetic energy out that ripped through the building with a horrific cacophony of rending metal and exploding glass.  Beleth dragged the lot of us outside into the glow of the force field  on an otherwise unlit street.  

“You realize you just announced to everyone where we were.” Beleth said, giving a side-eyed glance to his competitor.  

“I know.  I’m not one for wasting time chasing people down.  I’d much rather they come to me.” 

“Even if we kill Zellig, it doesn’t matter,” Dragoon said softly.

“Why?” 

She managed to lift her eyes to Shockwave’s, “The Crimson City in orbit is going to crash on us before long and make a crater where the city used to be.”  

Both of my saviors fell silent, feeling the gravity of the situation.

“So how do we stop it?” Shockwave asked.  

“I don’t-”

“No,” he interrupted, “You don’t get to shut down, not yet,” he insisted, kneeling in front of her chair so they were at eye level, “Listen to me.  You dragged us here, you did the hard part.  Now, we’re  close to done with all this shit.  Like you said, for better or worse, it all ends today.  Right?”

She nodded. 

“So, I need you to do me a favor and dig out that Dragoon that knows how to dismantle criminal enterprises.  I need to talk to her right now.  We all do.”

“She had her spine broken,” Dragoon said, tears forming at the corner of her eyes. 

“And last I checked, she still had a railgun in her hands,” he shot back.  “Last I checked, she was still breathing.”

Gritting my teeth, I took a step closer and tapped on Shockwave’s shoulder, gesturing for him to move out of the way.  Sinking to my knees, I managed to get my friend to look at me.  “Alexis,” I said, my voice raspy, “Nick is out there.  We can’t abandon him, can we?”

No response.

“We’ve made it this far.  We beat the two dickheads who just saved my life,” I said with a weak laugh, “And you never gave up on me even after I was captured.  You never let my fucking broken mind get in the way.  So listen,” I demanded, “Your last action as our captain can’t be to just break down on us.  You’re fucking Dragoon.  You’re the girl who made power armor and hologram generators with scrap metal.  You’re the one who ousted Titan and had  the balls to talk to Infinite while the rest of us sat scared on a ship.”  I grabbed her hand and squeezed, “We’re almost done.  All you have to tell us is what to do.  We’ll make it happen.”

I saw a spark in her eyes, a little signal that her brain was starting to fire.  There was something there, something struggling to get out.  

“Why don’t I tunnel out?” Beleth asked, helping jumpstart her brainstorming.

“Because he’d plan for you to be in here,” she said slowly, “Because Zellig wouldn’t want you being able to either tunnel in or out.  The forcefield is going to extend below the ground.”  I smiled as her eyes lit up, her mind running away with a problem to solve.  “He wouldn’t put the generators outside,” she added.  “He only got a dozen of us.  Statistically, you were more likely to be outside than inside.”

“Which means they are accessible,” Shockwave said with a smile, his hands lighting up for a moment. 

“So we just-” Beleth stopped talking, spinning around and erecting a wall of stone right as something glowing green slammed into it.  “You’re beacon worked, Curtis,” he snapped as a horribly grotesque figure leapt to the side.  It has one immense arm that was dripping a neon-green slime that seemed to be dissolving everything it was touching.  The rest of the Trillodan seemed like it had its flesh fused with a black set of power armor.  Flesh seeped through cracks in the armor and half of the helmet had fallen away to reveal a lower mandible with a ghoulish tongue flopping out.  Where his eyes would have been, the helmet had a green triangle for a display.  

Dragoon recognized the monstrosity.  “Jai,” she muttered, “The one who dissolved my old suit.” 

The monstrous operative cackled as he leapt around, throwing a glob of green slime from his massive right arm.  Beleth was quick to intercept the projectile but couldn’t answer with an attack of his own before the grotesque form leapt away.  Shockwave grumbled in disappointment, his hands charged up but no longer having a clear target.  

“Nimble fucker,” Shockwave said.  “If there were a dozen of us, someone must have fucking noticed me destroy a building.  It made enough noise for half the city to hear.”

“Around to the right,” I said, pointing down to an onyx-tinted building with gold columns.  

Shockwave looked at me with a quizzical expression but didn’t ask, instead taking aim.  Sure enough, the mutated Jai came leaping around the corner; Shockwave chuckled as the kinetic bolt drilled the Trillodan square in the chest and sent him tumbling down the street.  Before Shockwave could prepare another salvo, the operative launched himself back behind cover.  

“If they’re anything like Tol, they’re going to be hard to kill,” Dragoon said softly.  

“I like a challenge,” Shockwave replied.  

“Not everything needs to be,” Beleth replied, annoyed at how chipper his companion was.  

“Two different threats,” I said, frantically looking down the street.  “One from above us, one on the road,” I said, wishing I could provide a little more detail.  The early alarm system that this provided was handy, but not specific enough to really direct the two powerful Adapted beside me.  

“Turtle?” Shockwave asked, his smile gone.

“Fortress,” Beleth replied.  

“You got it,” Shockwave said, his hands glowing brighter by the second.  “Close or far?”

“Close.  Make it count.”  Beleth turned to me and Dragoon, “Parasite, every little advance warning you give, relay it fast.” 

I nodded right as Jai launched himself off a roof of the building behind us.  As he came into view, some kind of silver quadruped came screaming down the road like a bat out of hell.  My jaw dropped as I recognized Lail, the first Trillodan operative we had run into on Vuuldar.  Back then he had been in an animalistic exoskeleton with a scorpion tail; thanks to this mutation he has fused with the skeleton and just kept adding a grotesque mix of muscle and metal to it.  

Jai threw a trio of globules down at us; Beleth created an arch of stone to intercept.  Once they did, Shockwave released the energy from one hand and turned that stone into shrapnel that ripped into Jai’s massive limb.  Beleth stomped his foot and created a ring of rock around us, easily two meters tall.  Lail leapt over the top but that gave him no way to reposition and dodge the blast from Shockwave.  He yelped as the kinetic bolt drove him back from the wall.  

Before he landed on top of us, Beleth shifted his wall, turning it into a row of spikes that shifted to intercept him.  A few managed to knick the operative, but he used his massive hand to push free and clear away from Beleth’s reach.  

“Lail is coming back,” I said.  “He’s going to go for you, Beleth.  Some kind of ranged attack.  Like some kind of…needle?” I said, wishing I could explain more.  Without me being the direct target for attack, the Danger Sense wasn’t nearly so specific.  

Sure enough, Lail came leaping over the walls of Beleth’s fortress again, but now was covered in metallic quills. Beleth’s eyes widened as he frantically created a wall between us and the volley of metal spines.  Some of the quills actually managed to partially perforate the wall of stone that Beleth had made, the silver metal providing contrast to the black stone of the road.  

“Ready?” Beleth demanded of his companion.  

“Go!”

Beleth split the wall and Lail lunged forward like some kind of wild animal; Shockwave clapped and the blade of kinetic energy compacted the primal operative.  Metal bones fractured and broke as dark blood sprayed out to the sides.  His limp body slid across the road, sparks trailing behind his claws. 

On the opposing flank, Jai screamed in anger over his fallen comrade and let out another caustic salvo; Beleth was slower to block and caught a splash on one arm.  He screamed as his flesh started to dissolve.  Shockwave started dumping energy into his hands, but it wasn’t going to be quick enough to stop the bloodthirsty abomination.  

I put myself in front of Shockwave, hoping I could at least use my body to buy time for the Projector to build enough energy for another one of his devastating claps.  As I stared down Jai, something seemed off.  

My Danger Sense didn’t scream at me for putting myself in harm’s way.  

From the sky, a massive monster descended on Jai.  It had what looked like a shark’s head with a vaguely humanoid body that was all covered in scales.  A long rat-tail extended from the base of it’s spine with a spiked ball at the end.  Instead of humanoid arms, there was a quintet of tentacles on the left and what looked like eagle talons on the right.  Massive wings extended out from the shoulders that were covered in grey feathers.  

Jai turned and avoided a stomp, managing to reply with an acidic salvo to the creature’s chest.  It leapt forward, undaunted despite the scales slowly being eaten away.  The tentacles whipped down and cracked the stone, driving Jai away, unsure of what to do when a second salvo of acid didn’t stop this beast.  

It dawned on me that I had never seen Hydra fully transformed.  The scariest Adapted from Vuuldar, here at her full might.  It was both unsettling and strangely awe-inspiring.  

From behind Jai, a figure zipped into the street and leapt forward, spinning in the air like a drunken acrobat at a speed that was almost impossible for my eye to follow. 

Jai turned right on time to see Ragdoll’s foot connect with his head.  The force of the kick obliterated any trace of the operative’s head and helmet.  As he landed and came to a stop, Ragdoll raised a hand and fist bumped the eagle talons of Hydra before turning to us.  

His eyes widened when he saw me.  He zoomed forward with a speed that wasn’t his; I felt some reassurance knowing that Powerhouse had been smart enough to give him something extra.  Ragdoll had perfect control of his body, and that control extended to additional powers people could stack onto him.  His hands clasped the back of my neck as he pressed his forehead against mine, “You okay?” 

I felt a mix of shame and comfort at his concern.  I was glad he cared, but I felt guilty for dismissing my thought of him earlier.  “I’ll manage,” was all I said while the two emotions raged in my head. 

He nodded, knowing that was all he was going to get.  Hydra lumbered forward, letting me appreciate exactly how big her transformed frame was.  Before transformation she and I were the same height.  Now she was as big as Zellig.  “We’ve got ourselves a mess,” Hydra said, her voice alarmingly deep.  “Dragoon, plan?” 

“We need to sweep the perimeter,” Dragoon replied.  “Beleth can find us the generators that are keeping this field up.  If we break free, we can warn the others about what Zellig has planned.” 

“And we can’t have that!” a commanding voice roared.  

All of us turned to see Zellig standing above us, on top of a golden spire with a massive cannon in his grasp.  

I didn’t need Danger Sense to know what was coming next.  

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Siege of Selir: Dragoon

We were winning.  

It felt so strange to say, to even have that aberrant thought that we could actually get an edge against the Trillodan, but so far everything was going off without a hitch.  

While it had cost me several people to get Eldritch up to speed, he was now an unstoppable beast who was holding back the majority of the garrison forces.  The constant sound of explosions and bestial cries echoing across the city was evidence enough of that.  And since the sky hadn’t lit up red due to an orbital strike, it seemed clear that Infinite and Interface had managed to secure the Crimson City.  

With no threat from above, the Trillodan were handicapped to deal with Eldritch.  It had given us free reign to assault the Arms Discovery building.  

But still something felt…wrong.  I knew that the Trillodan were a diminished race.  Despite all their amazing architecture and construction, the place felt so lifeless.  Soldiers were creeping in from all angles but there was something else that was absent.  As I watched dozens of Adapted and a horde of Projector or Druid generated monsters lay siege to the ziggurat that housed all of Vaneel’s monstrous creations, it finally dawned on me what it was.  

“Selir should have normal people.  Someone should be running away from us,” I muttered softly.  While there had been an immediate military response, there hadn’t been any kind of civil one.  

I turned on the thermal attachment to my visor, looking through the gilded structures, trying to figure out where the fuck everyone else was.  Had Zellig warned the Immortal Matron about this being a possibility?  She might have equipped every house with a displacement charge to ferry all of her citizens to safety.   

“Everything okay?” Multi-task inquired.  She and I were both standing a safe distance away from Arms Discovery, watching and waiting for any kind of call for backup.  Several other group leaders were taking point on the charge and directing their strike teams as they saw fit.  If there was a call for backup, then I would intervene and seize control.  

But people like Shockwave, Beleth, Siege, Hydra, they were reliable.  They’d get the job done.  

“We should have encountered more people.  If there were plans to evacuate rapidly, what other kinds of countermeasures does Zellig have waiting for us?” I asked.  

She shrugged, “If he has tons of traps waiting for us, why hasn’t he sprung them?  We can’t exactly get more invested than we are already.  We have no escape plan right now since we haven’t secured a way to get into orbit and use that Crimson City.”

“He’d know I was going to use Eldritch.  For better or worse, I have to,” I thought aloud, “but he let him grow.  Why?  He knows how hard he is to put down.”  

“Maybe to make him unstable?” Multi-task offered.  

“Maybe, but why not do it already?  And even so, we’re nearly two kilometers away from him.  If he destabilized Eldritch, his soldiers are closer than we are.  He’d keep eating them.”  The more I dwelled and had time to think about our situation, it wasn’t sitting right.  This seemed too easy, too passive for Zellig.  He was proactive, always three steps ahead.  We were going to have to win through brute force, but he wouldn’t let me keep the scales tipped for long.  “And where the fuck are his legionaries?  Even if his regular soldiers aren’t armed to the teeth, that group of monsters are.  They wouldn’t miss a fight like this.”  I flexed my fingers, assuring myself that my suit was going to hold up when the time came.  With any luck, I would never have to use it.  With any luck, nothing was going to demand I enter the fray.  

But if it came to it, I was more than ready.  Toolkit and Armorsmith had made sure that this suit was going to be able to withstand a bomb going off in my face.  

I adjusted the channel on my earpiece, calling back to our rendezvous point.  “Organelle, how are things back there?” 

“Other than Razorwire and Exchange getting mangled pretty badly, things are going fine.  We haven’t had any real disturbance on our end.”

I frowned, “Nothing?  Not even angry citizens running away?  Nothing?” 

She paused, “Yeah.  Nothing.  That is weird now that I think about it.”

My blood ran cold.  Zellig could have guessed what locations we were going to attack, but there was no way he could surmise where I was going to establish a fallback point.  An evacuation protocol had been put in place long before we arrived.  Even though I had opted to change plans and come straight for the jugular, he had anticipated it.  

Once again, he was steps ahead of me.  

“But if he knew, why leave anything here?” I whispered, “Why leave anyone here to stop us or slow us down?  Why leave your mutants here to fight us?  Why not just rig the city to blow?  Why let us come in and start thrashing things?”

“A fascinating question, Dragoon,” a low rumble of a voice said above me.  I spun around as the massive grey figure landed beside me.  Multi-task tried to turn and run; Zellig lunged forward and kicked her in the chest sending the tomboy tumbling in the street, her body going completely limp.  

My shock was eclipsed by self-preservation as I opened the comm channel, “Zellig’s here!  He’s-”

Before I could finish the sentence, he lunged forward and grabbed my arm.  I tried to rip myself away, but it was like a vice around my forearm.  With his free hand, he raised a vial of pearl-colored liquid and crushed it in his fingertips. 

The world swam around me as my vision drew to a single needle point, my whole body feeling like it was being put through a trash compactor.  Even though teleportation was seldom a comfortable experience, this was the most heinous and painful mode yet.  As we materialized, I didn’t have time to recover; Zellig was already bearing down on me.  

Parasite’s training and drilling was the only reason I managed to protect my face from the massive punch that lifted me off the ground and tossed me a full meter backwards.  I groaned as I could already feel the bones in my forearms bruising.  Despite my opponent, I diverted my attention to my surroundings, doing my best to equip myself with information, anything that could tell me where I had been taken or why.  

I hadn’t been taken off world at least.  I was still surrounded by ornate and decorative structures of glass and steel that screamed opulence.  There were explosions and the sounds of battle in the distance letting me know that I was still somewhere in Selir.  

Picking myself up, I stared across at the mountain of muscle who had abducted me.  The only time I had fought with him, I hadn’t had my armor.  The last time I had truly squared off against Zellig, he had taken Parasite with him as a prize.  Given his confident grin and relaxed posture, he wasn’t in any hurry to finish a fight.  For as rushed as his actions had been a moment ago, he suddenly seemed to have all the time in the world.  

The last thing to do was play into his game.  Zellig wanted me to fight him, to try and brawl with him.  

Instead, I turned and ran.  

“Oh, don’t do that,” he said, laughing.  

My suit whirred to life as my empowered strides carried me down the street, back towards the sounds of combat.  “Almanac,” I shouted, “I need you to tell me where I am!  Relay, get me out!  Someone!”  

No answer.  

I turned another corner and continued to hurtle forward, pushing my suit to its maximum, knowing that I wasn’t going to win a fight against Zellig.  My new suit might utilize some Trillodan technology but Zellig was the product of decades of work by someone way smarter than me.  

And a glance over my shoulder told me that I wasn’t going to outrun him either.  The gray-skinned giant was charging at me like a freight train.  

“Fuck you,” I snarled, pivoting around and grabbing the railgun off my hip.  My suit slammed a metal sphere into the chamber as I drew my firearm; as the metal screamed and fired, Zellig tossed himself to the side and rolled back up to his feet, casually anticipating my movement like it was something he’d done a thousand times before.  I tried to load a second round into the chamber, but he leapt forward, forcing me back.  A second metal sphere entered the chamber and I squeezed the trigger. 

Zellig’s hand smacked the barrel to the side as he moved his body out of the way.  

I let go of my railgun; he was too close for that to ever see use now.  The minigun built around my left wrist whirred to life as I took aim at his face; Zellig shot a hand forward and crushed the machinations with an alarming amount of precision.

“Fucking get off me!” I shrieked.  My visor lit up as a blinding beam radiated outward, this one seeming to actually catch him by surprise.  The tiny components of my suit shifted and sloughed off some of the excess to allow me to rip myself free of his grasp.  Despite being blinded, Zellig stepped forward, his aim still spot on as I had to try and parry his unstoppable strikes.  Another one of three struck against my shoulder and nearly dislocated the joint.  

I envisioned a new formation for my suit, the neural mesh built into the helmet relaying the instruction.  My sleeve shifted and drew to a massive point; I stabbed forward but Zellig attacked the metal itself, breaking the spike in half before it made contact.  He snatched it out of the air and tried to turn it on me. 

It dissolved back into tiny components before it could make contact.  

My right glove flared to life as I charged it with fifty-thousand volts and removed any kind of amperage restriction from the taser.  Diverting additional power, my suit whirred as the actuators drove my hand forward, pressing the voltaic glove against Zellig’s torso.  The smell of burning flesh filled the air and I felt a small swell of pride, knowing I’d managed to do a little damage.  

That was obliterated as a massive fist smashed my helmet.  

Blood seeped from my temple as my helmet hastily tried to repair itself, to remove the jagged glass from my display that had lacerated my cheek and hairline.  Dizzy, I pushed myself up onto all fours, staggering back to my feet. 

I barely registered Zellig before his leg slammed into my side, launching me into the side of a building.  The steel column held while my arm did not; my suit did its best to disperse the impact but my shoulder still popped out of socket with a sickening crunch.  Fighting through the pain, I forced my arm back into socket and turned to try and fight.

A massive hand wrapped around my helmet, lifting me off the ground entirely.  Doing my best not to panic, I directed my armor to adjust the gloves and give me claws; I tried to dig into Zellig’s wrist and sever the tendons. 

He laughed and casually tossed me to the side.  Before I could get back to my feet, his foot slammed into my torso, cracking ribs despite all my protection.  I did my best to roll with the impact and got up to my knees, seizing a grenade from my belt.  The Trillodan didn’t even blink as it detonated next to his face.  

From the smoke, Zellig stepped forward, his burnt face already on the mend.  Charred tissue seemed to dissolve and make way for an entirely new layer of skin right before my eyes.  He didn’t bother to hide the smile; he could do this all day.   

Raising my hand, I activated the pulse cannon in the glove; the blast of kinetic energy barely made the monster break stride.  Zellig didn’t even bother to try and block or evade the attack.   

“For all your prowess in leadership,” he said, “You are remarkably adept at avoiding direction confrontation.” 

I raised my hands to block and cried out in pain as he attacked the arm I had just forced back into socket.  My attempt to use the voltaic glove was met with a heatbutt, cracking my reforged display.  I stumbled back and he pressed forward, his claws ripping my helmet clear off.  Reforging my suit, I created a blade along my forearm and tried to carve into his throat but he easily avoided my clumsy attack.       

Zellig stepped forward and unleashed a quick combo of strikes: I blocked one aimed for my head, but a fist found my ribs and a kick nearly shattered my knee.  While I was off balanced, Zellig slammed a foot into my chest and sent me flying back.  

Again Parasite’s training saved my life as muscle memory ducked my chin and wrapped my hands around my head; when I finally slammed back into the ground, it didn’t obliterate my skull due to the whiplash.  

Groaning, I picked myself up as Zellig walked through the hole my body had made.  My vision was starting to swim and I tried to blink blood out of my eyes as I picked my hands up, refusing to surrender.  

For better or worse, I had put us on this collision course.  We were going to fight to the last man, I was not going to be an exception.  

“Fuck you,” I said, blood leaking from my mouth.

Zellig stepped forward, casually pushing aside what looked like a stone table as I kept backpedaling away from him.  “Maybe I was wrong about you,” he confessed, “Maybe you don’t hide from a fight.  Maybe,” he mused aloud, “Titan had the right idea keeping you pulled away from the real combat.  This sort of arena just doesn’t suit you, despite your best efforts.” 

“Eat shit,” I replied, doing my best to stay on my feet.  

“You envy your compatriots, don’t you.  That natural ability to fight.  That affinity gifted to them to be such threats.  Parasite’s agility and natural knack for violence.  Eldritch and his endless hunger.  What do you have compared to them?  You’re a scared girl in a fucking tin can!” 

“Shut up!” I screamed, haphazardly lurching forward.  

Zellig stepped around me and drove a foot into the back of my knee, smashing my leg against the ground.  I tried to cry out, but his fist smashed through the feeble reconstruction of my helmet and drove me straight to the floor.  

I was dimly aware of him stepping around me and raising his leg.  

My vision cleared and I screamed as a sudden pressure crushed my back.  I tried to roll over and pull my legs up to kick Zellig away from me.

Despite my best effort, my legs didn’t respond.  

“Wha-what did you do to me?” I asked, my voice shaking.  “Wha-what did you do!” 

“I shattered your L4 vertebrae,” Zellig said, his voice cool.  “It’s now in about forty pieces.  Even Organelle won’t be able to put that one back together I’m afraid.” 

I propped myself on my elbows and tried to drag myself away.  Zellig just shook his head and followed me, laughing to himself.

“Where are you going to go, little girl?  You’re going to grab your railgun and try to punch a hole in me?  Maybe hit my heart or my brain?”

I didn’t answer, instead rolling back over and ignoring the excruciating pain in my lower torso.  My body wasn’t sure what to make of this, as if it could deny Zellig’s claim that he had just paralyzed my legs.  I did my best to crawl forward, the strength from the suit letting me drag myself back through the hole we’d crashed through.  I wasn’t too far from my railgun; if I could just grab it and get one shot off…

My hopes shattered as Zellig casually walked by me and kicked it further away.  

“Why?” I finally asked, any trace of rebellion and defiance gone.  

“You’re of little use to me dead,” he replied like it was so obvious.  

“You can already copy us.  What use is one more sample for Vaneel?”

Zellig clicked his tongue, “The problem, Dragoon, is that you think too small.  You think that I am simply satisfied with copying you?  You think that I am content with mimicking the Adapted?  No.  The Trillodan will perfect you lot.  We will edit and tailor that little organism that Skaberen made.”

I fell onto my side, pain sapping what little strength I had in my arms.  “So why single me out?”

“Believe it or not, you are the most threatening among the Adapted.  Not Infinite, not Titan, you,” he confessed.  “You represent unparalleled advancement.  While you are only managing to create hackneyed versions of our technology, you have only been at it a few months.  Who knows what you would look like in a few years or a few decades.”  He knelt down, making sure I could see his voracious smile, “Imagine what someone with our longevity could do with your gift?  Imagine the advancement that could come with entire cycles of advancement.” 

“I… I’m just too early,” I realized, my heart plummeting.  

“Exactly,” he affirmed, “You are a nascent threat.  Given another year, you could challenge me or make something to do it on your behalf.  If you were allowed proper resources and training, you could be creating advancement for the Trillodan within a year or two.”  He clicked his tongue, “Such a shame that your friend Eldritch drew our attention too early.  You never got to be the threat that you wanted to be.”

“So why keep me here,” I demanded, frustrated by his enjoyment.  “Do you just want to insult me as I die from internal bleeding?  Do you get your kicks from taunting a girl on death’s door?” 

“No,” he replied, “I confess that I enjoyed, and was pleasantly surprised, by the fight you had in you.  But, I don’t delight in making you suffer.  Your brain has value to me, but you have additional value.”  He rose and tilted his head to the side, like he was listening for something.  

A realization sent a chill through my veins.  “You’re using me as bait.  People are going to have Almanac locate my armor and come chasing me down.”

“And, unfortunately for you, you seem to have been too inspiring a leader,” he replied.  “Your fellows aren’t going to let you die.  I can hear a few people already coming to your rescue.” 

I curled my hand into a fist, silently screaming.  “You took me somewhere you could jam the signal.  I can’t tell them to let me die.”

“Their loyalty, while commendable, is going to prove lethal.”

“You’re still going to burn for this,” I insisted, curling my lip in a snarl.  

“Because of Infinite and Interface above us?” he asked, his lip curling into a smug grin.  “You think I would leave myself so vulnerable?” 

“But-”

“You can’t keep Infinite on the surface.  She’s too dangerous, too unstable.  Where better to put her than the one place where none of you are going to be fighting.  Interface can hide while Infinite goes on a rampage to save her beloved Titan.  And after that, it’s going to be on Interface to hold my planet hostage, the looming threat of Protocol 37 the symbolic guillotine blade waiting to crash down and behead the Trillodan empire.” 

My heart sank as I listened to him lay out my entire plan; he’d known all along.  I was three steps behind him, again.  Still, just because he knew didn’t mean he could stop my plan.

“Interface was…a challenging complication I must confess.  No one can stand in front of Infinite when she’s motivated; I’m not going to pretend that is possible.  But, Interface tried to control my systems and I found a way to block them out.  While not pleasant for our engineers to reverse engineer, we managed to apply the same safeguards into our core system for the Crimson City.  All my lieutenants need to do is isolate Interface.  Once that safeguard is prompted, the core will render itself inert and use the remaining energy to give a single burst from the thrusters to break orbit.”  

“Infinite can just push the ship back into orbit,” I shot back.  “Like you said, she’s not going to be stopped by anything.”

“Stopped?  No.  But she can only cycle her gifts so many times.  I imagine my three lieutenants will do an excellent job forcing her to vary her arsenal.  How easy do you think it’ll be for her to conjure another new set to stop the ship from falling then?  Or, do you think she’ll crack and accidentally kill her comrades?”   

Of course he hadn’t used an orbital cannon to destroy Eldritch; he was going to crash a whole ship on top of him.  “That will destroy Selir,” I said, aghast.  “You’d destroy your own capital to kill us?”

He clicked his tongue, “Still thinking small, Dragoon.  Skaberen was smart enough to send you after some of our most influential buildings due to what they represent.  The Eternal Council isn’t in session; destroying the building doesn’t dismantle our government.  But when it has become a fixture for countless cycles, seeing it in ruins prompts change.  By letting you all attack, I show that there is a threat capable of reaching out and touching the Trillodan.”

“And by destroying the capital, you pave the way for radical changes,” I realized, “You’re going to reshape your society to allow Adaptations to proliferate.”

“I will ensure that my empire survives,” he replied.  “I may be branded a war criminal and taken apart, but I will guarantee that Vaneel and the Matron will have the foundation to make a society that is unshakable.” 

I grit my teeth and pulled myself one step closer towards my discarded railgun, some part of me longing to keep fighting.  “We’re not just samples.” 

“You’re right.  You are the building blocks for our revival.”

“You’re a fucking psychotic zealot.”

“And you are a child who thought she could bring the most formidable empire down to its knees.  I’m well aware of what I am.  I am the Immortal Matron’s bloody hands.  I am the weapon that brings rivals to their knees.  I am her extension to preserve law and order among the stars.”  Zellig rose off his knees and rolled his neck, getting warmed up for another bout.  “I have nothing but respect for you, Dragoon.  Your tenacity, and the tenacity of all of you children is admirable.  However, my admiration does not diminish my dedication.” 

“You’re tyrants!” 

“Tyrants are senseless brigands who parade around and extort.  We do not stoop to such petty antics.  We ensure that no other species can access our level of technology and threaten other worlds.  We ensure that fledgling planets have a chance to evolve, to not be destroyed before their time by materialistic despots.  The Trillodan exist so that there can’t be a tyrant whose reach extends across galaxies.”

I fell onto my side, my vision wavering again, “Instead you became that tyrant.  And you’ve all lived so long that you can’t see it.” 

Zellig opened his mouth to reply and then twisted abruptly, a hunk of steel screaming by his head and crashing through a glass wall behind him.  I grit my teeth and rolled over, my heart dropping as I saw who had come to save me. 

“Murphy, no,” I pleaded softly, “No, just run.  Just run, please.” 

Zellig had almost the opposite reaction, bursting out with maniacal laughter.  “Parasite!  How fitting we have another meeting!  And this time, no Adamant or Ragdoll to bail you out.”  

My friend reached into his pocket and pulled out a metal cylinder; with a twist, the staff I had constructed telescoped out.  “Drag, can you move?” 

“She can’t,” Zellig answered for me, “I broke her spine.” 

He glanced at me, his eyes widening as a sneer spread across his face.  “You hurt my friend.  I’m gonna-”

“Murphy, just leave me.  Run,” I begged, doing my best to project and interrupt him, “He wants us to fight him so we stay in Selir.  He’s going to crash the fucking Crimson City on top of it!” 

“Wait, what?” he demanded, looking at me and then at Zellig for confirmation.  

The confident smile from the Trillodan commander was all the confirmation that my friend needed.  He turned to run but Zellig raised his hand, snapping his fingers.  

A white dome of energy erected itself, quarantining off what had to be several square blocks inside a forcefield.  “No one can hear you on those ear pieces,” Zellig said, relishing himself as he sauntered forward, “No one is going to make it through that force field since we buried the generators for it well underground.  By the time you managed to find them, the city would be a crater.”  

“You’re going to kill everyone.”

“Whoever my men and I can’t capture before the impact will die.  But we have displacement charges to ferry us to safety.  You lot are not so fortunate.”

“How many others followed you?” I asked.  

“Not sure,” Parasite said, not taking his eyes off Zellig. 

“Right now,  there are a dozen Adapted and eight of my operatives inside this arena.”  He stepped forward and stared straight at Parasite, “Now, Parasite, you and I have always had our fights interrupted.  I think this time we won’t be so unlucky.”

“Run,” I pleaded.  “Don’t be another sample for him.  Don’t let him put you back in a tube,” I begged.  But, as I looked into his eyes, I knew that my friend had made up his mind and nothing I could say would dissuade him.  

Zellig had known that people would come for me, he had taken my ability to unify us under a common cause and twisted it into a weakness.  This wasn’t even my cou anymore; Zellig had found a way to turn that on us as well.   

Everything we did was playing into his hands perfectly.  

Previous ChapterNext Chapter

Siege of Selir: Infinite

I had done what was needed.  I had gotten Dragoon and the others to surface safely.  Now it was time for me to get back what had been taken from me.  

Reaching through the crowd, I singled out Interface and bound myself to them, using my gift of Farsight to see that massive metal structure lingering in the atmosphere.  Another use of Teleportation took us up in the blink of an eye; it was jarring enough that Interface fell to their knees and vomited.  

“Give me some fucking warning,” they begged between heaves.  

I fought the urge to snap back; I knew that my own power made me angry and Interface didn’t deserve any of that hostility.  They were here to help me, to provide me with some direction to finding Titan in this metal maze.  The two of us were playing support staff for the rest of the Adapted who were raiding the Trillodan capital of Selir.  

“Sorry,” I said finally, offering a weak apology.  While Interface recovered from the rapid and unexpected teleportation, I assessed my power selection, knowing full well I’d need to fight my way to Titan.  I kept my gift of Teleportation and Reach but dismissed the other six I had needed to drag the ship through space.  

Taking a deep breath, I closed my eyes and seized a handful of more combat oriented gifts: Danger Sense, Annihilation, Tenacity, Expansion, and Diffuse Energy were all seized from the void and incorporated into my body.  I grit my teeth as I felt those hands reaching around my wrists again, holding me fast for a moment.  

“Not real,” I snarled, “That was a long time ago.”  Taking another deep breath I finally took stock of my surroundings.  We were at the bottom of what looked like a metal trench with dozens of floors stretching overhead.  Bridges granted access across the pit that we had teleported into, and given the sounds above us, there was plenty of activity going on thanks to the ship we had just slammed into Selir.  “Interface, where can we find a control console for you?” 

They started reaching through the air, sampling the electric interference and wavelengths they could interact with.  “Above us, about fifteen floors up.  We’re a ways off, but this place is huge too.  Like five kilometers across,” they guessed.  “If we can get a little deeper in I can direct us better.”   

“Not a problem for me.  Get ready,” I said as I grabbed their arm.  

In a blink we were on the fifteenth floor and greeted by a locked door that forbade entry without clearance.  I rolled my eyes and raised my left hand; my Annihilate power reduced the door to shreds with a horrific scream.  If that wasn’t enough for the Trillodan to know they had company onboard, the alarms started sounding.  Interface looked at the ground, their eyes tracking something I couldn’t see.  “Where?” 

“Trying to figure-“

A group of Trillodan soldiers rounded the corner, armed to the teeth; a single use of Annihilate reduced them to piles of gore and scrap metal.  

Interface turned a bit green but kept tracking the signal, rushing forward with me in tow.  Any door was demolished with a flick of my hand and my Danger Sense kept us safe.  I couldn’t help but grin; these were the terrors of the cosmos, the ships capable of reducing a planet to an inhospitable waste.  But once you were inside, they were remarkably fragile.  

Our forward progress was met by increased resistance, but my gift of Annihilate allowed me to literally rip apart every threat and obstacle they could impose.  Metal was nothing but scrap that hadn’t been affected yet.  Energy Diffuse made it impossible for their feeble lasers to do any meaningful damage and allowed me to be a shield for Interface.  Even though they were mortified, I didn’t care.  As far as I was concerned, all of these soldiers were just one more wall between me and Titan.  

And nothing in this universe was going to keep him from me.  Zellig had gotten under my skin and baited me, tricked me into losing control.  He had exploited a weakness of mine and showed me exactly how fragile I was despite all my power.  Unlucky for his cohorts, he’d shown me what I needed to guard myself against.  To make it worse, he’d given me a reason to fight.

All of my time as an Altered, I had been afraid to use my power.  I had been mortified by the past it made me relive.  I loathed having to dig into that bottomless well of suffering I had endured so I could emerge with enough firepower to cripple a continent.  The only reason I had ever willingly dove in was to help Titan.  

He was the architect of this dream.  I was just a tool he could employ.  None of my actions were in my own self-interest; they were all a labor of love to help his dream become reality.  

Since I had escaped that basement, this was the first time I had shamelessly acted in self-interest.  I let that pain drive me and motivate me.  I felt no remorse wading through the soldiers on board; I was going to make all of them hurt like I had.  They would all feel the fear and agony I had felt.  

I lost track of time with my bloody work and most of it happened in near silence.  Interface hardly spoke, their mouth sewn shut at witnessing my gory display.  Interface wasn’t clean by any means.  I knew their hands were dirtied from carrying out missions fighting against Suppression and Snatchers back on Tso’got.  Titan had utilized Interface’s ability to remain out of sight to carry out mission after mission.  

But they had always been remote. They had witnessed the slaughter through a camera lens.  Interface had never been in their own skin around such carnage, and certainly not this close and personal.  I didn’t need to have heightened senses or boosted intuition to recognize the horror towards me.  That horror kept a tense stillness between us that was louder than the constant blare of the alarm klaxons.  

As we progressed inward, the ship clearly had one massive and inaccessible core to it.  

“The reactor,” Interface informed me.  “The whole thing is powered by something…absurd.  This makes nuclear power look like a car battery.  I don’t know how you could make this safely; the radiation seems like it would just melt people.”

“The whole thing was built out of orbit,” a sinister voice replied, the letters drawn out like a snake’s hiss.  “T-too heavy to have come crashing down on our surface.  Too many problems.”

I had seen the little snippets from Skaberen’s memory that Dragoon had shared.  I knew about the mutilation that Tol had suffered and how he had been malformed.  “Interface, get behind me,” I snapped.

“P-playing protector.  Seems unlike you a-after watching you,” Tol said, his body still remaining imperceptible.  I grit my teeth and grabbed another power: Heightened Senses.  Along the floor, a thin trail of sludge leading back around a corner.  He was throwing his voice to screw with us and using his bizarre physiology to spy on us.  

“You’re mimicking Forest,” I growled.  “Leaving part of yourself around to spy on someone while you hide.”

The trail along the group receded as the monstrosity that Tol had become stepped into the corridor with us.  “And y-you’re pretending you’re human.  You’re a b-bigger freak than me,” he said with a cackle, a row of metallic teeth forming in his mouth to provide a ghastly smile.  “So cold, so calculated-“

I raised a hand and cut him off, blasting his torso into droplets.  Still, I didn’t turn away; Skaberen had said that he was damn near immortal with this new body of his.  And, sure enough, I watched the tar-like solution move on its own, collecting into a singular mass.  “Interface, keep moving.  Every time this-“ My danger sense screamed at me that something was going to cause a small inferno in this space; I threw myself over Interface, shielding my friend as a Trillodan in yellow armor appeared.  As she materialized, rolling flames and a shockwave rippled through the air.  

Even with a gift to mitigate an explosion, it still knocked me over and burned my skin.  Despite my shielding, Interface fared far worse and fumbled around on the ground, blind and disoriented.  

The second of Zellig’s horrible lieutenants, Salah.  Of course the one with a penchant for munitions had a gift that allowed for calamitous entry.  Growling, I raised a hand to Annihilate, but she vanished as quickly as she had appeared.  Even with my heightened senses, I didn’t hear a second explosive burst.  

There was something else to her gift, some kind of gating or requirement to trigger that destructive aftershock.  

Another warning, this one promising something toxic.  My Tenacity power would keep me standing but that wasn’t something I could extend to Interface.  And from what little I knew of Zellig’s last lieutenant, Omec had something insidious in store.   

“Interface.  Guess where the damned controls are,” I snapped.  I needed to get them in place before I reset my power scheme to properly fight.  

Interface scanned the ground, trying to follow the maze of electrical current and signals that ran through this monstrosity of a vessel.  “I, um-“

“GUESS!” 

“Four hundred meters ahead.  Down a corridor to the right, through another giant door.”

I grabbed my accomplice and pulled us through the nether, reappearing in a quiet hallway, right in front of a door that was labeled with Trillodan letters.  Raising a hand, I blasted my way in, seeing what looked vaguely like a control console.  Massive arrays of foreign readouts and a plethora of buttons, switches, keypads, and a myriad of gizmos I didn’t begin to understand.  “Good guess,” I said, the pleasure of Interface being right counterbalancing the ache in my skull.  

Interface looked at the massive machine and then looked back to me, “Once I’m in, I am completely vulnerable.  If they kill my body, I lose the ship too.”

“I will protect-“

“Me from someone who can teleport and detonate a bomb where they show up?  Fighting them in this room wouldn’t save me.  I’d be swept up as collateral damage.” 

I grit my teeth, annoyed that Interface had a very valid point.  I took a deep breath and dismissed my Annihilation, Diffuse Energy, and Tenacity.  To replace them, I plucked Barrier, Durable, and Disperse.  

As my new powers settled in, I felt hands on my skin and could hear my tormentors sickening laugh, their derisive chuckles.  I felt that damaged half of me clawing forward, wanting an escape.  It wanted to smother, suffocate, and stifle anything nearby.  “I’m here for Titan.  I’m not done yet,” I whispered softly.  “I’m in control of my body, it doesn’t control me.”  

To top it off, I grabbed another power to round out my arsenal: Trace.  That ephemeral weight pressed on me, but I withstood it, accepting the stress and strain on my body and mind with a smile.  I had someone else I could direct that rage and hate at for the time being.  

Raising a hand, threads of blue light wove themselves around Interface as I insulated them in a cocoon that could withstand being hit by a train.  Thanks to Durable, that barrier wouldn’t erode for the next half hour.  “That’ll keep you safe.  Get yourself familiar with the ship, and shut off these fucking alarms,” I grumbled, annoyed at the klaxons still ringing.  One last look over my shoulder as Interface slumped down on the floor, my barrier the only lifeline for them.  

I turned away, stepping back out into the hall and going back towards where I had dragged us from.  

“You three hurt Titan,” I growled, “You ripped up his leg.  You tried to paralyze him.  You paralyzed me!”  My blood burned as I dug for another power; whispers started to slip into my ear and I could feel the ghosts of my past drooling on me, grabbing my hips, delighting as they indulged their seemingly infinite carnal appetite.  “No,” I snapped, “Back then I was weak!  Back then I let the world walk on me.  Not anymore!” 

Stifling the voices of my past, I seized a ninth power: Push.  

Finally, my Danger Sense cautioned me.  Salah was coming in with an explosive teleport.  

I spun around and raised a hand, dispersing the fire and concussive force from her arrival.  My other arm glowed blue as a barrier came into existence between us.  Salah tried to raise a hand and fire on me, using her technology to even the playing field; I nodded forward, prompting a push that turned my shield into a projectile.  

Salah’s quick reaction allowed her to get partially clear, but the impact still launched her into a wall.  Before she hit the ground, she teleported away.  

I blinked once, activating Trace.  

A red thread hung in the air, visible only to me.  No matter where she went, I could find her.  Trace outlined her through the ship, putting her on display two floors above me.  Using my Teleport, I appeared beside her, now in some kind of armory.  My Danger Sense kicked in: a noxious fume was filling the room.  I tried to Trace it, but the origin was a container that Salah had rigged.  Omec had yet to show herself.  

Annoyed, I used Push directly on Salah, smacking the Trillodan back against the wall hard enough to crack her armor.  She had the good sense to flee before I could do it again.  But no matter where she went, I could follow her.  

I could tell from her breathing that she wasn’t used to this.  Even for all their expertise in battle, using an Adaptation was something else entirely.  It was a different kind of fatigue, one that wore as much on you mentally as it did physically.  None of them had spent the years learning where that line of Overexposure lay.  All they knew was that too much use of their gift could betray them.    

But I was broken beyond this limitation.  My power didn’t try to kill me if I abused it, it simply devoured everyone around me.  

Salah tried to lure me into traps, but I had too many gifts active for her to have a chance.  Gas I could Disperse.  Explosives I could erect a Barrier for, and nothing was a true surprise with Danger Sense on as well.  Any mechanical retaliation was met with a Push.  

What was concerning was her comrades’ absence.  

The alarms had stopped ringing finally, telling me that Interface was getting some familiarity with the systems of the ship.  I knew they needed time to understand its workings.  Even if Interface had outstanding intuition with machines, this was a complicated ordeal to put it mildly.  But a basic system would be a camera and PA system.  Even though the Trillodan were advanced well beyond us, those two systems were functionally simple and easy to access.    

“Interface,” I shouted, “Where are the other two?” 

A moment later, a speaker came to life in the ceiling above me, “Not sure.  There’s a lot of places for them to hide in here.  They call it a Crimson City because, well, it’s a damn city.”

I grimaced, “The rest of the soldiers?” 

“Leaving, evacuating.  Escape pods are being launched and getting them the hell away from you.  And before you ask, I can’t stop it.  Manual function, completely disconnected from the central system.  Likely wanted it to be foolproof should something happen to their system.”

I should have felt a small glimmer of relief that there wouldn’t be more people for me to cut through, but I didn’t have time to be grateful for their discretion.  Zellig’s three lieutenants were still onboard.  Nothing was certain until the three of them were dealt with.  

One thing they all shared was that they didn’t like to lose.  They were never going to run or surrender.  They were like Zellig in that they fought to the end. 

Using Trace, I could still follow Salah, but she had been leading me away from Interface.  For now I was going to wait her out; the longer that Interface was given with the controls, the more my opponents lost their home advantage.  

My Danger Sense screamed at me, giving me only a moment’s notice before the whole hallway was going to be blasted to smithereens, nearly the whole way back to the control room was going to be caved in according to my Danger Sense.  

Teleport dragged me down several floors and nearly half a kilometer away; even with that kind of distance the shockwave was tremendous.  As soon as the explosion ended, I was given another quick warning, this time about something chemical.  A whole series of chemical weapons were activated and munitions were detonated to keep driving a gap between Interface and I; as much as I wanted to go back to find them, my Danger sense cautioned me about going back toward the technomancer. 

With a brief respite, I tried to teleport back into the mess, to try and get back to protect Interface; for the first time ever, my gift failed me.  It simply wouldn’t teleport me back towards the center of the vessel and their central controls.  When I directed my gift away, back towards the metal trench, everything was fine.    

“What the-“

“We’ve been looking into what makes you all tick, and how we can disrupt your gifts.  While not entirely possible to strip someone of their power, we can contain some.  Teleportation, Telepathy, these all are inhibited by the right electrical interference.  All we needed to do was lure you away from her-“

“Them,” I snapped, correcting the insipid Salah.  A quick use of Trace showed her four balconies up, watching me.  “And do you think I need Interface to fight you?” 

“N-no,” Tol said, his body congealing a few steps away, “Quite t-the opposite.  We w-wanted to keep Interface alive.  We could a-avoid damaging them.  You’re too volatile.  Too unstable.” 

Still only two of them.  Where in the hell was Omec?  Zellig’s lieutenants worked best as a composite, each one able to set up for the others.  Tol was their point man, willing to engage.  Salah was the one to break the defenses, and Omec was the quiet killer. 

I stumbled forward, unsure of what had happened, and confused why there was a voice in my head, screaming out that I was about to be stabbed.  

Rounding, I saw Tol lunging forward, one arm whipping down with a razor sharp set of claws.  I raised my hand to construct a Barrier, trying to catch up on what the hell had just happened.  There was such a delay; I should have gotten more notice about his-

The room exploded around me, my last second use of Disperse saving me from being incinerated as I found myself disoriented and off-kilter.  

“Infinite, they’re messing with your brain!” Interface screamed through a speaker.  “Discord’s power!  Adamant had it used against him by Zellig; one of them has that device!” 

I blinked and quickly activated Trace to locate Discord’s stolen power.  A red line extended across the chasm, giving me the last lieutenants hiding spot.  Teleporting up to her I had a cautioning about gas; upon arrival, I Dispersed everything that wasn’t oxygen.  In her purple armor, Omec took a step back, shocked.  My hand raised and I gave her a Push.  Her body flew and turned to a cloud as she hit the floor. 

“What the-“ 

The cloud of vapor turned and funneled at me, forcing another use of Disperse.  As the gas cleared, Omec re-solidified mid lunge.  

I stumbled back, blood spraying from my mouth as Omec’s metal glove undoubtedly cracked several of my teeth.  Before she could strike again, I put a Barrier between us and shot it forward; Omec again dissolved into vapor, avoiding my attack.  

Growling in frustration, I raised my hand and Dispersed the cloud.  

Omec reappeared, caught off guard.  A Push slammed into her and sent her tumbling back.  With a prompt, I knew Salah was teleporting in behind me and could wipe away the explosion.  Without that mental disruption, I could counter and throw her back into the railing with a Push.  Teleporting after her, I wrapped a Barrier around her torso, compacting her armor and pushing the metal into her flesh.  

An elastic arm clasped the railing as Tol pulled himself over, his body a mass of blades and teeth that I slapped aside with equal parts Push and Disperse.  

With him dealt with for a moment, I turned back to Salah.

A hand pinched around my mouth and nose as some kind of vapor filled my sinuses, my Danger Sense interrupted at the most crucial moment.  Rounding on Omec, she turned into vapor and retreated down a corridor.  I tried to Disperse whatever she had dosed me with, but it had already mixed with my blood.  My mind started to scramble as a pounding headache overcame me; it was like the migraines brought on by that thing trying to break free. 

“No,” I groaned as I sank to my knees.  “Not yet.”

My thought was sluggish, my brain mired in this fog as I felt my motor skills start to fade.  I wasn’t sure if I was being hit with Discord’s aped power or if this was just a side effect of some fetid Trillodan drug.  Deep breaths filled my lungs as I tried to stand, trying to prop myself up against the railing.  

Danger Sense tried to warn me about Tol slinking around under me, going for my ankles; I was too slow to teleport away or construct a shield.  I could have Pushed him away or Dispersed his unstable form but instead allowed him to rake the back of my legs.  

Another warning came to me, and again I was too slow to respond to Salah exploding into existence next to me.  Fire washed over me and my body slapped against the railing as I tumbled, dragged along by the shockwave.  

“You are so powerful, but so vulnerable.  All we have to do is fuck with your brain and you’re so fragile,” Salah said, her voice cool.  

Omec solidified in front of me, stomping her metal boot down on my hand.  I screamed as the network of thin bones splintered.  Even through the helmet, I knew she was smiling, enjoying this sadistic pleasure.  

Just like Zellig had enjoyed beating me on Vuuldar.  Just like those animals had enjoyed beating me back on Tso’got.  

I had been pathetic back then.  I was so limited, so inexperienced, so frightened.  And now, even with all the power in the universe at my disposal, I was still so weak.  Salah was right; all they had to do was attack my innate vulnerabilities. 

Without my brain working right, I couldn’t think of what I needed to counter them now.  I couldn’t win with my current power set, but I didn’t know what to adopt to try and hold on either.  If I tried to quickly run through two schemes to both mend and create a new fighting profile.  I couldn’t pile more powers on top of my existing set either; that was bound to make me snap.  

A trio of metal talons dug into my side and ripped out what felt like a pound of flesh.  I couldn’t survive this.  I was too vulnerable with my power set; I was too reliant on countering their aggression with my own.  With my mind compromised, my Danger Sense was worthless which left me too exposed.  I was too easy to tear apart.  

But I knew someone who wasn’t.  Someone who barely qualified as human.  

I discarded my power set in desperation, quickly seizing a whole new ensemble: Expansion, Allocation, Self-Transmute, Sensory filter, Overgrowth, Rejuvenation, Gigantification, Formation.  

An unearthly scream left my lips as my body erupted, an avalanche of branches exploding from my body as I successfully mimicked my departed friend, Forest.  Standard poison wouldn’t affect my Transmuted body since I no longer had conventional organs.  There was no brain to fog, no blood to remove, no bones to break.  My body continued to unfurl, wrapping around the metal and anchoring my expanding mass in every little nook and cranny I could find.  

Salah teleported above me and I reached an arm out, a floor of roots reaching up.  She teleported away, but I continued to expand, my vision and sphere of influence growing as I continued to branch out.  Even though I was one massive figure, now hovering above the abyss, I could see in every direction, I could listen down a dozen hallways for any kind of movement, and that field only expanded by the second.  

Forest had told me that she could spread herself out over several kilometers and keep an eye out for any kind of movement.  I used her tactic and continued to subsume the battlefield they had led me to, searching for any kind of movement.     

The first one I found was Tol.  

He was too small, too limited.  He might have been nearly invulnerable, but he couldn’t withstand the flood of roots I encased him in.  I could manipulate my body to be an airtight prison; even if he wasn’t going to die, he would remain paralyzed in a massive block of wood until I allowed otherwise.  

“Two floors up, Omec,” Interface said, this time using a solitary speaker to keep the message covert.  

I funneled my conscious mind to a section of my body and allowed for more rapid expansion.  An effigy of me grew through the metal floor, the metal unable to withstand the unstoppable might of nature.  Omec tried to disrupt my mind but Forest’s biology was too different, too aberrant to be affected by such a trivial countermeasure.  

“You needed an army to stop Forest before,” I screamed, raising an arm and letting fly a renewed flood of branches.  “Everywhere you run, you’re just running to me!”  

Omec turned gaseous, trying to slip through my grasp.  Except, I could follow her.  Even when she tried to split herself and lead me down two different directions, I could give chase.  Her power had a cost, mine didn’t.  She would eventually Overexpose and be vulnerable once again.  In desperation, Omec solidified and threw herself into the trench, trying to use gravity to give her the speed to get distance from me.  

She didn’t know I had been expanding all along the trench, overgrowing each balcony to expand my effective influence.  

My consciousness shifted down below her and I expanded a massive hand made of wood.  Omec was too slow to state change and thudded into my palm, her armor offering limited protection from the five floor fall she had just subjected herself to.  I squeezed my fingers closed around her, feeling the armor collapse as her body broke beneath it.  

“Omec!” a shrill voice cried.  Salah appeared on my arm, the explosion demolishing the limb and sending tonnes of wood into free fall.  Still, her retaliation wasn’t going to bring Omec back.  Before I could reconstitute, Salah blinked away. 

I spread my consciousness out, fishing for any kind of input; I saw her reappear and threw my consciousness to follow her.  

A life-sized effigy popped up from the roots and flashed a grin as I grabbed her arm.  My hand turned to roots and branches that overgrew her arm and squeezed, twisting and shattering the limb in an instant.  I felt her try to pull away, try to teleport somewhere safer, but she couldn’t drag me with, her power wouldn’t allow it.  I was too large, too impossible to move at once.  She frantically reached to her belt for a mechanical answer, but my other hand spread and fanned out, more roots wrapping around her body and constricting.  

“If I remember right,” I said, forcing the words out with my new physiology, “You were the one who did the most damage to Forest on Vuuldar.”  I squeezed down and felt the armor crack and fracture.  The Trillodan lieutenant groaned and squirmed, the desperation starting to show in her panicked whimpers.  As well trained and battle-hardened as she was, Salah wanted to keep her head.  

“P-please-”

“You didn’t show her any mercy,” I snarled.  Before she could protest, I crushed her body and let the blood flow through my branches.   

And then, there was stillness.  Tol had quit struggling against my branches, accepting the inevitability of his confinement.  There was no more movement among the ship, no one else to direct my bloodlust towards.  

With a scream of frustration and mental anguish, I released the powers.  A weight was pulled off my shoulders as I detached from the immense wooden entity, glad to only be seeing through a single pair of eyes again.  Shifting forms had mended the gashes Tol had inflicted, though I still double checked my back to make sure I didn’t have a chunk ripped out of my kidney.  

“Interface,” I said softly, my voice finally sounding like my own again, “Where is he?” 

“Down the hall in front of you, there’s an elevator.  Take it up to the top.  Zellig has been keeping Titan on the exterior of the ship just so they could eject him into space if he used his power.”  

I followed their instruction and went up, catching my breath as there was finally a respite.  “I’m sorry,” I said, “For what you had to see.”

There was a pause, “I know who you are Charlotte.  But yeah, it’s still…scary.” 

“For me too,” I admitted.  

“I think Forest would appreciate being the powers you used to kill those assholes,” Interface said, trying to inject some levity.  

“Yeah, probably.  But, she’d be annoyed that I figured out how to replicate her gift.  She wasn’t an easy one to pick apart.” 

The elevator door opened and a massive, foreboding door stood in front of me.  Even though I couldn’t decipher the language printed on it, context told me this was where they would keep the most dangerous sort of person.  I approached and it opened, revealing a row of transparent cubes, the vast majority of the little prisons empty.  

One had an occupant in a soiled white shirt and grimey blue pants.  

I didn’t have to ask Interface to open the cell for me.  He stumbled forward, blinking in surprise as he saw me. 

And then his shock turned into a smile as tears started to well up in the corner of my eyes.  “Max, I-”

He practically fell onto me, pulling me into a tight embrace, “I know, Charlotte.  I missed you too.”

For a moment, there was no war below us, there was no crisis with the Trillodan, and there was no malevolent entity trying to claw free in my mind.  There was just this moment, wrapped up in my best friend’s arms.

For a moment, I didn’t have to be the murderous monster Infinite and could instead opt to be the mild-mannered Charlotte.    

For a moment, I was home.            

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Siege of Selir: Eldritch

“What the hell am I looking at here?” I asked, confused by the literal wall of reddish brown material.  

Dragoon sighed and grabbed my hand, pressing it against the cold contents of the room.

Five-thousand and forty-one kilograms of material accessible. 

I recoiled from the doorway, my jaw almost hitting the floor.  “What the fuck?  How the hell is that even possible?  Where did you get five tonnes of meat?” 

“Repository has been working overtime with the help of Powerhouse to get you a nice stockpile before we show up on Xalanni,” she replied, “You’re going to have a hell of a job to do, so I wanted you to start off with a good amount to fall back on.”  That confident face of hers cracked for a moment, revealing the nervous Alexis behind the confident mask of Dragoon.  “I want to make sure that you can’t get put down before you get out of hand for them.” 

“I’m still not thrilled about being pointed in the direction of another army,” I grumbled as I eyed the room that was literally packed with animal protein, “I know that’s what my power does best and all, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy devouring hundreds of people.”

An involuntary shiver ran down my spine as I remembered the droves of people I consumed on Vuuldar only weeks ago.  They were terrified, most of them screaming and floundering as I swept them up into the mass of biting and gnawing tendrils.  

“I know, and I’m sorry that I have to ask it of you.”  She sighed and let her head fall, another sign of the stress taking its toll on her.  Alexis wouldn’t say it, but being put in the position of leadership was eating away at her.  She wanted to spend more time with her group, with the Sentries, but there were so many other people she needed to check in with.  Without our lynchpin we had been scattered and she was clearly dealing with some guilt.  

At least Parasite wasn’t nearly as closed off now, though he was still a bit avoidant towards me.  Whether it was because I reminded him of trauma or because he just enjoyed being around Ragdoll, I couldn’t tell.  I sincerely hoped that it was the latter for his sake.  

“Whatever it takes,” I said softly, reaching my hand back to the immense stockpile of meat.  Letting a slow breath escape, I gave the go-ahead to Eldritch to consume it.  In a few seconds, the meat simply faded from existence, placed into my private stockpile.  I closed my eyes and looked inward, amazed at the literal mountain of protein that Repository had conjured for me.  

It will give us a hundred tonnes for an hour or two-hundred for fifteen minutes.

I gulped, the number being announced to me making it feel all too real.  At my peak of power during Feast Day, I had been about two-hundred tonnes.  I had battled back Forest and Titan, holding my own against a pair of natural disasters that came in human form.  

And that was where Dragoon was going to have me start.

It won’t be like back then.  I won’t try to wrest away control again.  We are much stronger together than we are apart.

“You’d better not be bullshitting me,” I whispered back to Eldritch.  

Alexis gave me a curious glance, “It has an opinion?” 

“It detected my anxiety about being so massive,” I confessed, “It assured me that it’s learning that we’re more dangerous when we work in tandem as opposed to alone.  Your insistence that we train so much has managed to take some of the dangerous animal out of my Neklim half.” 

“I guess it’s fitting we finally get it a bit domesticated before our last real fight,” she said with a sigh.  “You’re going to be okay with this?”

“You’re sending Adamant with me.  I know he’ll make sure I get to full size without too much issue.  I’m more worried for you guys honestly.  That building looks like something out of a horror movie, and I can’t imagine exactly what the fuck they have living in there.” 

“We’ll have enough firepower to flatten a damn city.  Though, I wish that Psycho was in a different form today,” Dragoon confessed, “We’ll have plenty of muscle to see it through.  As much utility as his Bipolar state gives him it doesn’t have the same kind of punch through as Narcissism or Schizophrenia.”

At the mention of Psycho’s schizophrenia, Eldritch writhed around, vividly remembering the flood of phantasms that swarmed us on Vuuldar.  

“Bipolar isn’t likely to turn on you at least,” I said, trying to offer some kind of optimism.

“I know.”

There was a tense pause, neither of us quite knowing what to say.  Instead of saying anything, I reached a hand out and squeezed her forearm gently.  “We’re going to make it through this.  Zellig is expecting us to go to Marn.  We’re going to just show up on their doorstep and start breaking things.  Relay is going to deliver people around the city to give the garrison soldiers even less time to respond.  Everyone but me will be able to communicate with those little earpieces you made.  And, after we demolish those pivotal spots in Selir, Interface uses that other function of the Crimson City and literally talks to the rest of the Trillodan on the planet and demands their surrender.” 

“You make it sound simple.”

“I mean, it kind of is.  Some of the best things in life are incredibly simple.”

“Titan’s plan was supposed to be simple too. Go to the other planets where humans lived in exile and recruit the Adapted.  But then Zellig and the Trillodan showed up and introduced complications.  As much as I hated his point, Shockwave was right.  Zellig has always been four steps ahead of us.  He outwitted Titan and knew how to get under Infinite’s skin.  Who is to say he won’t have a counterplay in place for us this time?” 

“He might,” I said, unwilling to lie to her, “But so what?  He’d have a plan against us too on Marn.  We aren’t soldiers, and you aren’t a general who has been doing this for literal centuries.  He is.  We’re the rebels, the upstarts.  The best thing we can do is struggle and fight back.  We have to hope that our hellbent tenacity is better than his cold, cutting ability.”

“Not exactly reassuring.”

“You just fed me a stockpile of meat because you want me to turn into a biological superweapon so an alien army can’t put me down.  Let’s be honest: we’re desperate.” 

My friend let out a chuckle and nodded, “Fair point.” 

A soft pair of steps crept up the hall towards us, bringing a smile to my face.  “Murphy!” 

He offered a weak grin, his usual impish demeanor still muted behind that wall of trauma.  “I figured I should come see you two before everything starts to get to hell.  Crazy to think a few months ago we weren’t even a Reckoner group,” he said wistfully, as if remembering a simpler time would wash away the pain of the present.  

“Yeah, that was better,” Alexis said, laughing, “Watching Siphon nearly beat you to death was just the best.”

“And nearly being smothered to death by Kudzu,” he said with a shudder.

“Don’t forget being blasted across a street by Shockwave,” I added.  “You’re right, Murphy, fighting gangsters with super-powers was definitely a better chapter.”  

Finally that impish smirk reappeared as he leaned forward to hit me in the shoulder.  “Maybe we’ll get to do it again.  I think it’d be nice to go back to Tso’got after this, go back to something a little more normal.” 

While that sounded like a great dream for him, Alexis and I both hesitated to answer.  “Back on Tso’got, I’m the most hated criminal alive,” I reminded him.  “Someone leaked my identity after Feast Day.  I’m not sure what happens if I go back.”

“Oh,” Murphy said, his grin fading.  “Right.”  

“I’m not even sure I want to go back to Tso’got,” I admitted, the words tumbling out of my mouth.  “All that place is now is where my parents died and where my life exploded in a single night.”

“You have your girlfriend though,” Alexis whispered.  

“With any luck, Xana’s moved on,” I said.  “I don’t think I’m the guy she started dating, and I don’t want to burden her by making her fraternize with the biggest murderer in Ciel’s history.” 

It felt weird to say out loud, but it was the truth.  Nicholas Weld had been branded an enemy of the government after Feast Day.  The last thing that our home city needed was for me to come back, to terrorize more people.  The last thing Xana deserved was to be guilty by association and ostracized for my sake.  

We aren’t the same as we were then. I was a mindless animal a few months ago, bent only by your will.  Now we are one entity, one organism.  

As comforting as Eldritch’s input was, I knew that the Zari back on Tso’got wouldn’t be so receptive.  

“We should think about what the fuck we do after this once we make it out of today,” I said, trying to put on a smile.  “First things first, we topple the most dominant empire in all of history!”  I looked at my two childhood friends, taking a shaky breath, “No matter what happens after this, I want to know that you two are going to make it out of this with me.” 

“I’m not going anywhere,” Alexis affirmed.  

“I finally have a boyfriend,” Murphy laughed, “I can’t die now.”  

“Good.”  

The three of us stepped in for a group hug, taking a moment of stillness and solace before the storm we were about to walk into.  

“Alright,” Alexis said, her friendly demeanor quickly replaced by the stern voice and commanding presence of our leader, “Murphy, let’s get suited up.  It’s showtime.” 


There were ninety-four Adapted who were combat ready and another fourteen who were going to be staying back as a support.  Most of those were Cognates or people with more utilitarian gifts, like Repository or Organelle.  Even so, they had been equipped with a rifle that had been quickly assembled by Multi-task, our self-duplicating workhorse who had been one of the many hands to help Dragoon’s plans become a reality.  

Dragoon’s plan was to have Infinite land us on the surface and blitz a small area that would become our rally point with Relay serving as our main source of quick relocation.  He had borrowed a gift of Visualization from Powerhouse; with the extra power, he could bind himself to each location and quickly transport groups of people with no trouble.  

Titan had employed a strategy like this on Tso’got, using Relay to get all of his Family members around quickly to disrupt Suppression and Snatchers regularly.  Even though Dragoon was a better wartime commander, she was smart enough to recognize how well Titan had utilized some of the tools at his disposal.  

Even if Zellig was always ahead of us, the other Trillodan weren’t so well prepared.  Even if he could warn them exactly where we would be going, Zellig couldn’t predict when we’d arrive or how quickly we could get into position.  With us literally warping around the city, the Trillodan military would be on the backfoot, at least for a little while.  

“You ready,” a familiar voice said, pulling me out of my thoughts.  My premier bodyguard for the first chunk of the invasion, Adamant.  Even though Vuuldar had gone to shit, Adamant had been key in providing me protection while I grew and amassed mutations.  Not one to break up a good pairing, Dragoon had put him with me for the first leg of our siege.  

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” I said, offering a weak smile.

Six other people closed around us, all of them looking to me: Guardian, Razorwire, Distortion, Playlist, Exchange, and Maul all here to protect me.  Most of them I had seen or worked with.  The only exception to that was Maul.  Another one of Titan’s shadowy group on Tso’got, he was an Enhancer who pushed himself into a berserker rage that adjusted his physiology.  Sometimes he would don an exoskeleton, other times he’d turn into a werewolf basically.  

The only commonality was its distinctly primal nature.  

“We’re going to make sure you’re set up and kicking ass, and then we’ll fall back to help other groups around,” Guardian said politely, “Once you don’t need the protection, I’m going to hang back with Relay and the Cognates to make sure nothing untoward happens to them.” 

“Y-yeah,” I said, nerves starting to get the better of me.  

“Hey,” Playlist said, patting me on the back, “You’ve got us watching your back.  You’ll be just fine!”  I noticed a faint little green aura around his skin and felt my anxiety starting to subside.  

I mouthed a silent ‘thank you’ to Playlist as he used his gift to lower the stress of the whole room.  

One last pair entered the galley and all eyes turned to see Dragoon in her finished suit alongside Infinite.  Infinite had purportedly never had a proper costume and had opted for something in Tso’got’s muted color scheme.  While most of the people from Vuuldar had bright tunics and patterned garments, people from Tso’got opted for simplicity and grey or black.  A few notable exceptions were Clemency with his cobalt armor or Shockwave with his scarlet suit and gold mask.  

Infinite though opted for an oversized black leather coat that looked very much like something Titan would have worn.  Her red hair flowed free but her face was covered by a white mask that had a blue fractal etched across.  

“You ready?” Dragoon asked.  

Infinite nodded.  “Two quick jumps and we’re going to find ourselves right in the middle of Selir.  After that, you’re all on your own,” she said, her voice a bit coarse. 

“Anyone got any issues with that?” Dragoon called to the whole mass of people gathered.  “Any last minute reservations?”

“Fuck no!” Shockwave bellowed, a manic grin creeping out from the bottom of his gilded mask.  “We’re fucking Adapted!  What do we do?” 

“Fight!” the whole room roared in reply.  

With everyone’s blood pumping, Dragoon gave a nod to Infinite.  The Altered raised a hand, and a moment later the entire room had that dizzying sensation that came from being ripped through space.  A split second later, we were subject to it again.  Immediately after the second jump, there was a heinous grinding sound as the ship crashed, the remaining inertia dragging us along a street.  Most of us staggered and toppled over, finding our feet as quick as we could.  

Through it all, Infinite stood firm.  Once the ship had come to a halt, she pointed at Interface and the two of them disappeared.  

Our most powerful player had her own mission, and it meant we couldn’t rely on her to bail us out.  There was no more safety net of the Prime Trio; we were on our own.  

“Relay!” Dragoon shouted, her voice magnified by her armor, “Get people out!” 

In a blur of action, the teleporter started dispersing swaths of people from the ship, relocating them to their point of conflict.  We were high on the list, with me and my seven bodyguards being warped off the ship and into the middle of a street that stared straight at a massive barracks made of reinforced steel and coated in panes of reflective glass.  All around us were massive structures of ornate metal work with equally complicated and decorative glass to emphasize uniqueness.  

The only places I had seen pictures of that looked so esteemed or well decorated were cathedrals back on Earth. 

We can marvel later.  We have a job to do.

I reached into my stockpile, seizing hold of the immense volume that Repository had gifted me and lit it all ablaze.  

Eldritch began to grow as guided by my directive of creating a hundred tonnes of growth that would last an hour.  Even though we had plenty of material, the starting process was slow and when I was most vulnerable.  

“Company,” Maul said, pointing at the massive garrison.  Sure enough, droves of soldiers were frantically sprinting out and the building itself was coming to life with turrets appearing from the walls and with glass sliding away to make room for tanks and other ships to quickly mobilize.  

Guardian stepped beside me and raised a hand, creating a barrier around the two of us while I continued to gain size.  “Adamant, Playlist, we need to drive them back for a little, give them something else to worry about!” 

Adamant smirked, nodding to Exchange, “Do what you do best.” 

The blonde haired kid touched a piece of paper and little threads of gold connected to it, lingering for just a moment.  Planting his foot, more threads of gold spread out across the ground and then faded.  With his power set, Exchange charged forward, each step launching him several meters, as if he weighed nothing.  

The scrambling Trillodan response team tried to fire on him but had issues hitting someone so mobile.  As soon as he got close, bodies started flying all over the place as he ran interference, causing as much chaos as possible, constantly bouncing between targets and literally throwing his weight around.  Maul snarled as he transformed, his dark green flak jacket suddenly strained as he swelled with muscle.  His face narrowed as his jaw set into a grotesque snout.  Giving a primal roar, he charged forward on all fours with alarming speed.  Several Trillodan lasers peppered him on his approach, but he continued the charge.

“Don’t you worry,” Adamant said softly, “I’m going to make sure you get to at least forty-tonnes.”  

I could feel the buzz of energy in the air around Adamant as he made the contract with me, our circumstances now entwined.  As more countermeasures started to whir to life, I continued to grow in the safety of Guardian’s barrier.  

“Playlist, get ready,” Guardian said. 

“Distortion,” Adamant snapped, “Get him close.”

Playlist put on his headphones and a purple glow surrounded him as he called on his most devastating gift.  The air shimmered around him as Distortion warped him closer to the fight.  One of the Trillodan tanks turned towards us down the road, but Playlist raised his hand and turned half of the metal into shrapnel.  

Adamant whistled, “Never gets old seeing that shit,” he said with a laugh.  “His ‘Power’ songs are a hell of a fucking thing.” 

“No kidding,” I muttered, my voice now a raspy hiss.  Nearly five-tonnes of mass were grown, leaving me standing at about nine feet tall, nearly reaching the top of Guardian’s safe zone.  “Guardian, you’re going to have to let me out.  The best thing for me to mutate is to get into a fight.  I need the conflict.”  I could feel Eldritch bristling, the smell of blood and metal making him itch for the fight.  

We need to hunt to evolve.

I didn’t bother to let Guardian know about Eldritch’s affirmation.

“Adamant, you got him?” 

“He’s still my charge for another 35 tonnes,” he said, “Let us out.  We’ve got an army to ruin.” 

Guardian nodded and opened a hole in the barrier, letting the two of us charge forward into the melee that was going on.  Most of the turrets and defenses on the building were fixated on Playlist, but they might as well have been using water guns.  While he had a Power song playing, he was damn near unkillable.  The only downside was that he was forced to walk forward, unable to act with any sense of real urgency.  

However, as I lumbered forward, many changed targets and started opening up on me.  A salvo of missiles and laser bored into me, immediately shaving away nearly a full tonne of growth in a matter of seconds.  

Mutation: Tenacity.

I felt all the remaining tendrils react to the violence, immediately toughening and becoming resistant to the elements and physical trauma.  Invigorated, I shouldered down and kept charging forward, still losing material as fast as I could grow it.  

Up on that ledge!

A massive laser turret was bearing down on us and still punching holes through the layers of growth despite the mutation.  

“Adamant, the turret!”

He smiled, as if glad to have purpose as he charged forward.  With it turned on me, it might as well have had a target painted on it.  A few Trillodan tried to stop Adamant and were smacked out of his way; his gift would not be stopped by such trifling people like these footsoldiers.  Planting his feet, he launched himself and scaled the side of the building like a human spider.  Once he was close enough, he threw himself onto the platform and pushed his hand against the turret, crumpling the controls like a tin can.  

With one threat down, Adamant turned to the next which was a pair of tanks that had been forced to drive around Playlist.  They attempted to turn on me, but Adamant landed on one, ripping the door free and dispatching the driver.  Running to the next, he shouldered it and rolled the damned thing over.  

Around the fringes of the building, more soldiers were amassing, trying to construct additional battlements and defensive countermeasures to put us down; many of the engineers found themselves being yanked away by nearly imperceptible thread as Razorwire stuck to the shadows.  

I fought forward, each step met with barrage after barrage of munition and laser fire.  I was growing as fast as they were ripping me apart, but Eldritch had to shorten the lifespan of our growth by half to meet the immediate demand.  

Mutation: Exoskeleton

Spots of calcification blossomed on the exterior of the Neklim, turning into a layer of bone armor that substantially tempered the damage I was sustaining.  Shambling forward, I gave more control over to Eldritch who was more familiar with the bestial movements.  Tendrils found purchase in the road, letting us gallop forward and finally join the fray.  

Playlist stepped aside as we chased down a group of soldiers who wouldn’t push us back fast enough.  Their armor cracked under my grasp and I stripped them of flesh in a matter of seconds, adding to my grotesque stockpile.                 

Mutation: Elasticity

The armor on our outer layer cracked and allowed for me to whip my arm forward, the tendrils stretching to give me extra reach and sweep up a few more unlucky Trillodan.  With the change in reach we were finally managing to outgrow the damage they were dishing out, I had become the primary target for the Trillodan garrison.  

But I noticed it wasn’t without cost. Both Maul and Exchange had taken some serious damage and been pulled back to Guardian thanks to Distortion.  Off the side, the little ambushes from Razorwire had stopped and Playlist had to retreat with his song running out; now he was by guardian glowing red, inducing anxiety among the ranks of the Trillodan.  While it was helpful, it meant I was the only threat. My only remaining companion was Adamant who was actually growing in strength the more the Trillodan opposed his goal of protecting me.

More and more soldiers armed to the teeth began to take positions, skirting around the edge of the building and setting up barricades.  To my surprise, several buildings were blown to bits; with an easier sightline, it meant that more munitions could be thrown my way.  And as more soldiers joined the fray, more advanced weaponry came alongside it.  Green vials of acid doused me and electrical charges bored into my growths to try and paralyze my limbs.  

I had made it to fifteen tonnes but I started to falter, even with Adamant doing his best to destroy some of the bigger weapons they kept mounting to put me down.  Biological mutations simply weren’t keeping up.  

Eldritch roared as he tried to approach one of the mounted barricades, lashing an arm forward and being repelled by an invisible wall.  Towards the back of their lines, a generator was creating a forcefield to keep us back.  

A selectively permeable wall?  

I wasn’t sure what to tell Eldritch as I slammed my arm into it again, unable to bash through.  Another salvo of rockets delivered a toxic payload that started to bore through my armor and the flesh beneath.  

Mutation: Adrenaline.

Feeling a rush of strength, I raged against the Trillodan force field, actually stressing the field enough that my arm started to push through.

As soon as I started to make progress, a massive explosion ripped one of my legs off completely.  I faltered and part of my arm was severed thanks to the force field acting like a pair of scissors.  The growths started to shift to make me mobile again, but the Trillodan smelled blood.  Down the road, a massive cannon had been erected and I saw it lining up another shot.  

“Adamant!” I roared, pointing an arm towards the weapon.  He saw it as another round tore into my side, the explosive payload ripping away a full tonne of mass.  From fifteen to eleven in a matter of twenty seconds, even with an extra mutation.  

I willed myself to get up, to fight, to keep growing.  But the Trillodan seemed endless as more and more soldiers warped in, answering the distress call from this installation.  Even Adamant was starting to tire; as powerful as his gift made him, he had his own limitations.  He couldn’t shrug off damage indefinitely or keep smashing tanks forever.  Once he tired, I was on my own.  

And I was nowhere near equipped to fight this army.  These weren’t the disorganized and frightened Ellayans on Vuuldar.  This was the most dangerous military force ever known.  Eldritch was starting to feel the weight too; this was far beyond what we knew how to withstand, far beyond something we were equipped to fight.  It knew that they were the superior predator.  We were so out of out league, this was a fight that all of Eldritch’s instinct demanded we run from.  

Forgetting the pain I was suffering for a moment, I screamed at Eldritch to get up, to fight.  If we fell here, we died.  Our friends died.  And the Trillodan make themselves immortal with our gifts.  There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.  We only had one option.    

“Get up, Eldritch!  Get up and fight!” 

As I screamed at the monster to rise, to fight the crippling sense of defeat that was weighing us down, I felt something snap.  

Adaptation: Retaliation.

A well of energy started to fill inside me, fed by every laser and explosive that the Trillodan blasted me with.  I tried to hold off as long as possible, letting them chew me down to eight tonnes before seizing that energy, unsure of exactly what would happen.  

The moment I tapped into it, Eldritch cried out in rage.  An unnatural roar shook the city around me, shattering glass and dropping many of the Trillodan soldiers to their knees.  We lunged forward, the energy from our new Retaliation gift shattering the forcefield like glass.  

Mutation: Permanence 

Funneling energy into a hand, we flung globules of mass that were filled with Retaliation; as they landed, they exploded and sent chunks of gore and viscera flying amongst the Trillodan ranks.  Rampaging forward, I devoured the bodies before me and shifted more control to Eldritch, allowing the monster to run wild with his new Adaptation.  The predator roared again and grabbed soldiers by the fistful since they no longer had a wall to hide behind.  

We became a whirlwind of activity as we charged through the ranks of Trillodan, responding to their explosive salvo’s with our own.  As we obtained more size, we made our own troops to battle back against their ranks.  Hundred-kilogram Neklim soldiers fought tooth and nail, all of them rigged to blow if they started to falter.  For each soldier I consumed, I could make a dozen more of my own.  

I pointed out threats to the voracious predator and Eldritch responded appropriately.  With the division of labor, we continued to grow and thrash our way through the ranks of the garrison, even after Adamant saluted us and left with Guardian and the others.  It had likely cost us four of our own, but the warmachine who was responsible for Feast Day had finally arrived and wasn’t about to be stopped.  

Since I hadn’t been drilled by an orbital cannon yet, I said a silent thank you to Infinite who was already up there, undoubtedly causing hell.  Without that massive deterrent, I could hold up my end of the plan that Dragoon had laid out.    

Alright Drag, the rest is up to you.

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Interlude: Shockwave

I grumbled as I glanced at my last pack of pilfered cigarettes.  “Twenty more,” I grumbled, “Why didn’t I grab another case on Vuuldar?”

       “Because you should keep your lungs in working condition,” Yessi mumbled from the floor without looking up.  She had been working hand in hand with Dragoon on the design of her new suit and arsenal.  Thanks to her power being in high demand, she and I hadn’t spent much time together in the last week. 

       Other people needed Toolkit more than I needed Yessi. 

          I stepped out into the hallway and pulled a cigarette free of the carton.  On the third flick of a lighter, a tongue of flame graced the end of my cancer stick; a deep breath in pulled the flame and started that beautiful orange glow.  Holding it in, I savored the feeling and taste of the menthol before letting out a long puff. 

         “We’re nothing if not creatures of habit,” a dangerous voice said beside me. 

         “If that’s your way of asking for one, you can piss off,” I replied as I stared out at the stars.  Beside me, the bald Beleth stepped closer, smirking.  “It’s my last pack.  I’m not sharing these with nobody.”

           “Addict.”

            “And?” I shot back.  “We’re about to wage war on the Trillodan.  I figure if I live through that whole ordeal, I’m on borrowed time.  These things are the least of my worries.”

            Beleth’s smirk faded, the telltale signs of worry and anxiety plain as day to anyone who knew what they were looking for.  Back on Tso’got, the two of us had been masters of bluffing, hiding the concerns and anxieties.  To look weak was to invite challenge.  Inviting a challenge meant risking losing one of your crew or your whole operation. 

            He didn’t need to say anything, not to me. 

            As much as we had been at each other’s throats, we understood the other.  I was reckless, a volatile missile.  I lived for the fight, to destroy as much as possible.  My gift made me feel alive, made me feel strong.  Every duel was a competition to see if I could blast someone into submission before they managed to answer my volley.  Beleth was all about control.  He manipulated the battlefield and ran a tighter operation than I ever had.  He strangled the competition, he stifled opposition with a kind of grace and elegance that one had to admire. 

            But now that he didn’t have semblance of that control, he was adrift.  He was in my preferred realm, and he hated it. 

            “We’re gonna make it through this,” I assured him. 

            “No we won’t, Curtis,” he said softly.  “We’re going to their home turf.  We’re going against Trillodan with our gifts and their technology.  We’re a hundred strong against how many?”

            I sighed and opened my pack of cigarettes, extending it to him.  “Just to shut you up, fucking take one.”

            He hesitated but eventually accepted my offer. 

            “You gotta have a little faith in us,” I said.  “We might be few in number and all, but there’s still a lot of firepower on this ship.  You, me, Clemency, Hydra, Eldritch-“

            “Stop,” he insisted, “Just, stop, Curtis.  I know exactly who is on this ship.  I feel everyone walking.  I know exactly who is onboard.  I know exactly what people can do and… and…”

            “You don’t want to think about who isn’t going to be on the ship at the end,” I said, solemn. 

            “Yeah.”

            I didn’t push the issue, instead allowing the silence to settle while I took a long drag.  It was probably a full minute before I finally decided to do anything besides smoke.  “Tony,” I said, “Listen, when we go down there, I’m going to pair up with you.  The two of us are going to show those tyrannical pricks exactly who we are.  We’re the goddamn kings of Ciel, right?”

            He didn’t reply. 

            I turned away from the window and punched my competitor, “Right?”

            He grimaced and shoved me in reply.  As soon as he did, he finally smiled.  “Right.”

            “We have a fucking score to settle, and we’re gonna fucking settle it.”

            I felt a pang in my chest; Kudzu, Collision, and then Mizu had all been casualties of our war with the Trillodan.  Of my original team of seven, only three of us remained: Siphon, Toolkit, and me.  Beleth’s crew had only lost one man with Pyre, but I knew he still felt that same gnaw in his chest. 

            “My only loss is to a monster we brought with us,” he muttered.  “A monster that still probably wants to eat me.”

            I scoffed, “If he wanted to eat you, he’d have done it already.  Eldritch may not like you, but he’s not out to kill you anymore.  We’ve been through enough and you’ve proved it to him.  I was there too when we fought the swath of Zellig’s legion and he didn’t turn on us, even when under duress.”

            Beleth nodded, “Fair point.”

            “Stop getting too inside your own head and worrying about everything you can’t control,” I said with a laugh as I took another drag.  “Worry about the future after we win.  No matter what happens, we’re still Adapted.  We’re still going to go back to Tso’got and be fucking kings.  Until then, live in the moment.  Enjoy what we can.” 

My frenemy dared to give me a tepid smile.  “Thanks for the cigarette.” 

“Yeah.”  

He walked away, leaving me alone with the remainder of my smoke.  Once I had burned it down to the butt, I stomped it out and flicked the remainder into the little windowsill.  I’m sure Yessi was coming by and cleaning it off.  She was a bit of a neatfreak over the strangest things.  At this point I left clothes in a heap and cigarette butts laying around to drive her crazy for the fun of it.  

If she really wanted something from me, she’d tell me.  Until then, I was going to enjoy my little games.  I had to stay sane somehow. 

Walking down to the galley, I smiled as the scents of blood and sweat rushed to my nostrils.  A fight was already underway in our little  training arena: Psycho vs. Goliath.  Psycho was in his narcissist form today, a seven foot tall adonis that was incredibly tenacious.  Even though he was bleeding, every injury you tried to inflict on him only managed to be skin deep.  The muscle on his form was like hitting a solid wall of steel.  He boasted being invincible while in this state and I hadn’t seen anyone disprove that theory yet.  

I had to occasionally remind myself that man was the second most dangerous man on this ship when push came to shove.  Even Eldritch had almost succumbed to his schizophrenic state at full swing. 

Poor Goliath didn’t really stand a chance against Psycho.  Even though Goliath was a foot taller and covered in muscle, he didn’t have nearly the same speed.  Psycho ducked and weaved, zipping in and landing combos over and over again.  For each punch Goliath landed, Psycho answered with six of his own.  While Goliath slowly tired and his muscle fatigued, Psycho seemed to get more and more invigorated, the bloodlust clearly getting to him as the fight continued. 

I quickly scanned the crowd, frowning when I didn’t spot Adamant.  He was Dragoon’s quick referee since he could stop anyone from continuing a fight.  And, the more I watched Psycho, the more I saw murderous instinct.  

Goliath stumbled and Psycho landed a heavy cross into his opponent’s jaw.  Goliath went down, clearly unable to fight.  It didn’t stop Psycho from lunging after him like a wild animal.  

“Fuck,” I hissed, forcing energy into my hands.  My bones flexed as kinetic energy built and then escaped my fingers.  I grit my teeth as the blast slammed into Psycho and tossed him away from Goliath; his bloodthirsty gaze immediately switched to me.  

“How dare you!” he bellowed, planting a foot and launching himself straight at me.  Everyone around the ring hesitated to intervene, and I couldn’t blame them.  No one wanted to get between Psycho and his prey.  Lucky for me, him being nearly invincible meant I didn’t need to hold back.  

Energy flowed through my veins, building in my hands.  As Psycho planted his foot and took a last leap toward me, I focused it into my fingertips and fired a quintet of kinetic bolts into his face.  Four didn’t make too much impact, but one found a soft spot.  Blood exploded out from his face as he cried out, suddenly missing his right eye.  The distraction cost his attention as I raised my other hand, blasting him in the chest point-blank with the built up energy store.  

With both hands expelled, I forced more power downwards, causing my hands to glow.  Psycho hit the ground and rolled, finding his feet more quickly than I would have liked.  He glared at me, an eye already rebuilding in the empty socket.  “You little fucking rat!” 

“Now, now,” I cautioned, “You get nasty, I’ll take your other eye out too.”  That wasn’t the idea; I just wanted to entertain his penchant for monologuing.  The upside of his narcissism state was that he did the sound of his own voice.  The longer he talked, the more energy I could charge into my hands. 

“You do and I’m going to rip your fucking arms off.”
“Hey,” I called, “That’s not very nice!  I don’t have a healing factor like you do!”

His eye was mostly regenerated now which was enough reason for him to barrel forward and end our banter.  

I grinned as he launched himself forward.  He was quick, but I brought my hands up to clap just before he could get a hold of me.  

The mass of energy fused and fired from my hands in a thin line, detonating on Psycho’s chest.  The incurring blast actually pushed me back a few meters but it sent him sailing across the room and slamming into the wall, denting the metal.  I got back to my feet as several other people intervened, grabbing hold of the Altered and restraining him while he got a hold of himself.  

A mechanical thudding got my attention as our fearless leader strutted in, wearing her new power armor.  It was a suit that almost seemed alive as it constantly adjusted to remain flexible while she moved, like it was some kind of second skin.  The metal looked like it had been spray painted a light purple though little bits of grey and silver poked through and the surface shifted.  Unlike her previous models, this suit had actual slits for her eyes, giving a more human appearance.  To my surprise, it gave her an extra foot of stature but she moved with incredible ease.  One thing that I noticed wasn’t all together yet was her arsenal.  There was a gun built into her left wrist but there was plenty more that she’d given to Toolkit to fine tune.    

“What the fuck is going on here?” she demanded.  

“Psycho’s power went a bit overboard,” I said.  “Bloodlust from his narcissistic form got him a little too fired up.”

Across the room, Psycho had calmed down.  In part because Hydra had shifted to a monstrous amphibian with dozens of tentacles to ensnare his limbs, but also because Pacifist was quietly pouring energy into him, dimming his hostile inclinations.  Other people wouldn’t notice, but a little perk of my Adaptation was that I could trace energy transmission; Beleth had always wondered if I had a danger sense since he never seemed to be able to catch me in his traps.  I’d debated telling him but felt like playing my extra benefit close to the vest.

“I’m fine now,” he said, annoyed.  “I underestimated how fragile Goliath was.”

Dragoon nodded and Hydra let go of Psycho, letting the Altered storm off to vent his frustration elsewhere.  

“Nice suit,” I said as the Cognate walked by me.  

“It’s taken me enough time,” she grumbled, “Replicating Trillodan technology has been a massive pain in the ass.  I don’t think I could have done it without Toolkit.  Make sure she knows how grateful I am for all her time with this.”

I shrugged, “She’s glad to have something to do.  She’s been a bit annoyed at having no work, so you’ve given her a fun challenge.”

There was a long pause from Dragoon as a pause fell over the arena, people waiting to see who was going to take their place in the middle next.  With Psycho going ape-shit it had thrown a serious wrench in the flow of our usual proceedings.  Taking charge, I stepped forward into the center of our makeshift battleground.  “Dragoon,” I said, answering the unspoken question of who I wished to challenge, “I think we should give your suit a little stress test, don’t you?” 

Even though I couldn’t see her face, I could practically feel the shock at being challenged, but she obliged.  She stepped forward as I quietly started dumping energy into my hands.  

“How hard?” I asked politely.  

“Give me fifty percent,” Dragoon answered.  “I want to make sure I can take a good beating in this thing.”

“Understood.”  Without offering any warning, I pushed the energy to my palm and let a sheet of kinetic energy fire out.  Dragoon raised her arms to block, but she still went tumbling backwards.  Before she could screech to a halt, I raised my left fist and fired a ball of energy, drilling her downed body and slamming her all the way across the room.  People on the fringe of our makeshift pit scattered as I continued to pressure her suit with a constant barrage of energy blasts, refusing to relent and let her find her feet.  My veins kept lighting up as more and more energy flowed through my body, all flowing into my hands.  

I knew some people would look at me like I was some kind of bastard for this, but the Trillodan weren’t going to pull punches.  

Dragoon tried to push herself up, using the wall as a backstop.  She allowed herself to endure the frontal trauma so long as she could regain her footing.  A bloodthirsty smile crept up along my face as I concentrated energy into my fingertips and flicked my wrist, whipping a bright bolt of energy into the side of her knee.  It erupted once it made contact; Dragoon cried out and sank but I gave no reprieve.  She was going to have to do better than this, if she wanted to fight alongside us.  

Pain and frustration started to change to rage for Dragoon and she finally made her move.  A hand slammed against the wall and she pushed forward, rolling away and cutting to the left.  Her suit let out a mechanical whine as she took massive strides, circling around me and forcing me to pivot, caught off guard by the burst of speed.  Planting her foot, she turned and cut in towards me, running in slants to avoid me getting an easy read on her pathing.  

I backpedaled, building up my charge as she closed the gap between us, knowing that she wasn’t going to be able to dodge once she got within striking distance.  

She knew it too and raised her wrist, the minigun whirring to life.  

I turned my left hand flat and let the charge fly through my fingertips; a thin, white line of energy fire forward right for my opponent’s knees.  Dragoon had the presence of mind to dive and roll over the top, but it left her no recourse for the charge stored in my right hand.  As she rose to her feet, I thrust my arm forward and let a ball of energy fly; upon contact, it erupted and hit Dragoon with the kinetic energy of a car crash.  

Dragoon’s body bounced off the floor and flopped backwards, dragging and clattering along the ground.  For a second, I was worried I hit her too hard.  However, her fingers flexed and she got back to her feet, staggering around as her equilibrium settled.  

“You alright in there?” I asked.  

“I think you bruised my sternum, but otherwise not bad,” she replied.  She ran her fingers over her armor, but as far as I could tell there was nothing wrong with it.  Despite my onslaught, it had held up remarkably well.  “How hard was that?”

“Last hit should have been something like twenty-thousand newtons, enough to rip somebody’s arm off,” I said with a shrug.  “You barely seemed to give a shit.”

“I mean, it hurt,” she said with a laugh, “But my last suit would have cracked.”

“Sounds like a profound improvement then.” 

The metal swam away from her face, her whole head covering dissolving into a stream of metal sand.  Dragoon’s face plate split down the middle and came to rest over the top of her shoulders.  

It was strange seeing the redhead’s face exposed while the rest of her was encased in a suit of steel, but I couldn’t stifle my smile.  

This was the girl we agreed to follow into the fray.  This was the frustrating and brilliant engineer who had brought Ciel to its knees in a matter of months.  Eldritch might have been the monster of Rogue Sentries at first glance but she was the real demon pulling the strings.  And now that she was dabbling into Trillodan technology, there was a good chance that she was rapidly becoming more powerful than the majority of the people on this ship.  

“Grab Beleth,” she instructed as she stepped closer to shake my hand, “We’re getting close to the end of things, and we all need to have a talk.”  

I could practically feel the adrenaline pumping already at the prospect of the fight to come.  “Understood.” 


There were twenty of us present.  Twenty people who were going to help spearhead this whole foire into the abyss.  Twenty people who represented the most powerful and most influential among the Adapted that were still standing.  

It felt strange being among them.  I never really thought of myself as all that profound a leader.  Back on Tso’got, I had mostly been enforcement for Imperium, I had never really been the head of the organization.  Even though I had plenty of sway, I just wanted to secure a good place for me and my own.    

Dragoon had just shown us the contents of Skaberen’s last gift to us; a talking hologram who could show us the pain points we needed to hit on Xalanni.  He had been generous enough to explain a little bit about the Crimson Cities as well and the threat they posed to us if able to be leveraged against us.  

Around me I could see a wide spectrum of emotional responses: terror and dread was matched with plenty who exuded confidence.  There were just as many who were petrified of meeting the challenge as there were those who yearned to rise to it.  

“Four spots to attack,” Hydra said, finally breaking the silence after Skaberen’s hologram was shut off.  “You intend to split us up, evenly?”

“No,” Dragoon replied, “I do not.  I want to try and place everyone with those they can harmonize with to get the most out of their powers.  For example, I won’t need everyone to assault the garrison because I’m going to dump Eldritch at it.”

“You’re putting that animal next to a massive food supply, again?”

“Yes,” Dragoon replied to Siege, shooting him a glare.  “You have all seen him train, seen him prove time and time again that he has control over his gift.  The only reason he lost control was because he was pushed time and time again with that damned orbital cannon blasting him.  There won’t be such grand displays of destruction here, not if we are fighting in their capital city, Selir.”  She sighed, “Besides, we all know we’re up against the wall, and we all know that he is at his best when he’s allowed to feast.  We might not like it, but we all got our asses kicked by him during Feast Day.  We need all the firepower we can get.” 

“Who’s going with him?” Hydra asked. “He’s going to be vulnerable to start and even someone that big should have someone watching their back.” 

“I’m planning to send Playlist and most of Titan’s Children with him,” she replied.  “I think that they will do a good job protecting his flank.”  Dragoon turned to Adamant, “I’d like you and the Lost Children to go with him too.  If they have some kind of giant threat to Eldritch, you can take care of it.  Exchange and Distortion should do well running interference as well.” 

Adamant nodded, “You got it.” 

“The hall of the Eternal Council should be fairly low priority for the garrison soldiers given Eldritch will be on a hell of a rampage, but I still think I’m going to assign a fair amount of manpower into this.  The quicker we get the job done, the quicker we can allocate resources to helping with the remaining garrison troops or dealing with that doomsday shelter they call the Arms Discovery.  Beleth, Shockwave, and Seige, you’ll be responsible for flattening that place to the ground.”  She turned to the man who had seen fit to put back on his cobalt colored armor, “Clemency, I’m going to entrust the demolition of Vaneel’s laboratory to you and Stampede.”

He gave a nod and locked eyes with the woman who could conjure animals from her own blood; the two of them gave each other a nod but didn’t bother saying a word.  I couldn’t help but chuckle: I’d never seen Clemency so quiet before.  The self-righteous Projector too often wanted to add his opinion to the conversation.  .

“That means the rest of us are going to war against whatever abominations Vaneel has cooked up.  If what Vaneel has done to Tol is any indication, some of them are going to be a nightmare to kill.  My hope,” she said, glancing to Psycho, “Is that you’re going to be in a combat form that day and can help us lead the charge.”

He scoffed, “I’ll be able to lead the charge regardless.  Vaneel’s miscreants aren’t going to stop me.” 

I rolled my eyes at the wall of muscle, half-hoping he saw. 

“What about me?” Infinite asked meekly from the back.  As all eyes turned to her, she seemed to shrink back into her seat some more.  It had always perplexed me why someone so powerful like her would be so shy and frightened of people.  Then again, some of us had more horrific pasts than others.  

“You’re taking a Crimson City with Interface.  Once it is secure and Interface can gain control, they can bombard the surface and provide support to Eldritch against the garrison or maybe blast the Arms Discovery to speed up that process.  While you’re there, you’ll get to spring Titan.”  Dragoon sighed, “If it all goes to hell and they rally, you’re going to pivot your role and defend the ship while Interface engages Protocol 37 to torch the surface.”

“Why aren’t we starting with that?” one of the Vuuldar representatives asked.  “They are so dangerous and they’ve killed dozens, if not hundreds, of worlds.  Why should theirs survive?” 

“Because we aren’t fucking terrorists,” Hydra snapped, her death glare boring a hole into the man.  “Because we aren’t mindless freaks who delight in destruction and the  mass murder of innocent people.  I’m sure that every person on Xalanni isn’t a combatant, and they didn’t have a damn thing to do with Zellig’s actions or the destruction of Earth.”

“She’s right,” Dragoon said, stopping Hydra from getting any more wound up.  “We don’t want to just be a different brand of the Trillodan.  We want to make a point to be assertive but not merciless.  This is our chance to send a different message to the cosmos, to show that there can be a different way.” 

“And what happens when things go tits up?” I asked.  “We both know that Zellig has been a step ahead of us at every juncture.  While you might think differently compared to Titan, you know that big, grey bastard has been doing this a lot longer than you.”

Dragoon grimaced.

“Shockwave, I don’t think that you’re giving her enough credit,” Ragdoll said, glaring at me.  

“He’s right,” she said over the top of the muttering that was starting to ripple around the room.  “Zellig has been doing this for literal centuries and that’s why he’s so damn dangerous.  Aside from all his strength and speed, Zellig is smart.  Shockwave, to answer your question, we’re going to try and give ourselves and edge and be in touch.  Every  time we go into a brawl, we’re disorganized.  We immediately cut out our Cognates because they aren’t combat focused.  It’s why I’m working on a small implant I can give to everyone to enable quick communication.”

“A crowd of voices in my ear at all times is going to be distracting,” Beleth pointed out.  

“I’m aware.  That’s why Toolkit has been helping me narrow the focus and engineer a way to specifically target someone else to communicate with instead of just a global channel.” 

“And what about people who don’t have a power strong enough to fight against their grunts?  All of them are still wearing power armor.” 

“I’m working on making a prototype line of weapons that Multi-task is going to be able to replicate and mass produce for us.  Basically a high-powered rifle capable of punching a hole through their armor,” Dragoon explained to Strychnine, one of the few big names from Tso’got I hadn’t gotten familiar with.  From what Clemency told me about him, he was a real piece of work.  

“When will we get there?” Beleth asked, his voice booming over the other few scattered questions.  

Dragoon turned to Infinite, “Your guess?” 

Infinite stared forward, like she was peering through the wall of the ship, assessing the void of space surrounding us.  “Two weeks should be enough,” she replied slowly, “Give or take a few days.  I can slow us down as we get closer.” 

Just hearing that time frame was enough to bring the room to life.  Those who had been silent and still started to stir.  The prospect of a fight was like a dose of caffeine to all of us.  

Even though we were marching in with no real way to retreat, we were all excited.  People like Beleth have their concerns and reservations but I knew he was eager for a chance to flex and demonstrate exactly why he deserved to be the king of Ciel when we managed to return home.  

I felt another thrum of energy in my chest as our little war room planning wrapped up, a sense of purpose washing over me.    

There was a war for me to fight.  

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