Interlude: Legion

Iilena Lamaak had delivered on her promises.  It had been only two days since our conversation and I could already see the preparations that the soldiers and engineers had set to, preparing the world-ending vessel for my use.  

A Crimson City was the crowning achievement of Trillodan engineering.  While it had been modified over the cycles, it had kept much of the old features and design choices.  There were more efficient ways to demolish a planet, but few rendered it so completely uninhabitable and sent such a statement as enacting Protocol 37.  Much of the vessel was dedicated to the power supply: a massive reactor containing annihilation reactions to provide the energy required for opening a Void Door or fuel the array that would torch the atmosphere of a planet.  

The whole vessel itself was monstrous, a sphere of metal that was nearly a dozen kilometers in diameter.  Half of that immense volume was dedicated to housing the reactor and a third dedicated to holding drones and the satellite array for engaging Protocol 37.  The rest housed the engineers attending as well as a fully staffed medical bay and barracks for the soldiers who would deploy with me.    

Such a ship had only one purpose: extermination.  A Crimson City was designed to obliterate a planet and declare supremacy.  While the Trillodan did have ships made for interstellar warfare, the Crimson City was built to ensure the enemy ships had nowhere to go home to.  

“Commander Zellig,” a familiar voice called.  I turned to see three figures, all clad in simple black garb like mine, kneeling just beyond the door to my quarters.  

My three captains among the legion: Salah, Tol, and Omec.  Three of the most renown killers in the Trillodan military.  

Salah was first to rise, her purple coat brightening a few shades, a show of unadulterated excitement.  She had been one of the first to join my legion, in large part because she didn’t think in the common way for a Trillodan soldier.  Instead of charging headlong into conflict, she was someone who played the long con, set up traps and used demolitions to her advantage.  While she was more than capable of holding her own in straight conflict, Salah was at her best when working just out of sight around the periphery.  Many others of my legion could reliably beat her in a duel, but no one could play a battlefield quite like Salah.    

Tol followed suit and rose, albeit with a little tremor running through his legs.  His white skin was dotted with green spots, an indicator of a typically fatal condition that plagued many Trillodan children.  Tol was my youngest captain, his parents a pair of old veterans who were lamenting that their child was bound to die before he had survived his first cycle.  Tol made up for his lack of physical ability with his quick decision making and terrifying ability to learn; he had taken it upon himself to train his mind since his body warred against him.  Vaneel cautioned mem, insisting that Tol had become a bit of a surrogate for me in the wake of losing my own child, and my friend was probably right. My captain, was a rebel, someone desperate to please, desperate to prove that he was able despite his parent’s assurances that he was not.  Even though his bones were brittle and his body frail, I knew Vaneel could help shore up his weaknesses and that Tol’s razor sharp acumen could be utilized to the fullest. He had taken to combat shooting like a fish to water, mixing his prolific use of firearms with an incredible ability for standing toe-to-toe against anyone.  In a cycle or two, he would be the most efficient killer in the entire military, maybe even including me.  

Last was Omec, and by far the most controversial of my captains.  If Salah was unorthodox, Omec was an alien. She had been raised by a family known for their insurgency, her family being one of those last who rebelled outright against the Matron.  As such, she had been taught a number of methods for creating biological weapons and manufacturing parasites that could be used to cripple dozens or hundreds of people at once. Such biological warfare  had never been in alignment with the Matron’s refined social order and it caused a stir when her family was brought to trial. There had been orders to execute her, but I had argued for a chance to refine her, to sculpt her into a powerful ally for the Immortal Matron’s military.  Omec had been lost after her parents were captured by the Garrison; I gave her a new calling and made her one of the most dangerous people alive. The pale, yellow captain rose, standing nearly a head shorter than Tol but still holding herself with dignity and pride.  

I walked forward, offering a soldier’s clasp to all of them, not bothering to hide my smile.  “It has been far too long since we’ve all been in the same room,” I laughed, “Now, come, sit. We have much to discuss.” 

As we took a seat at a square table, I couldn’t help but bask in the different atmosphere of the room; with most Trillodan officers, there was respect but also a healthy dose of fear.  So many were terrified of what I represented and what I had been turned into. My legion though, they were grateful. I had taken the misfits, the oddities, and given them all an outlet.  While a formal and uniform military had its purposes, I didn’t see a need to break the perfectly capable into that mold when they could do so much more when given a little creative nudge.  

Because of the graces I extended them and the relationship cultivated, I knew these three, and the seven that served under each one of them, would die for me without question.  

“How much do you know,” I asked.  

Tol took a deep breath to steady the palsy in his hands, “We were briefed and showed some footage from various cameras.  We know they are… supernatural for lack of a better explanation.”  

Salah frowned, “We saw a living tree eating people and crushing transports.”

  “One of these Adapted kicked a soldier’s head off,” Omec added.  “But none of us have a complete idea what these kids are or what made them so… able.” 

“I don’t suppose that Vaneel will have an answer for us on that front, will he?” Tol asked.  

“Where is that madman anyways?  I’d have figured that you’d bring him in for such a meeting of the minds,” Salah added.  “I’m assuming if that Matron gave you all of us back, he’s still working alongside you.” 

My legion and Vaneel had an interesting relationship.  While my legion largely respected strength, they recognized exactly how vital he was even though Vaneel was no killer.  Without him, their personalized suits of armor didn’t exist. Without Vaneel, we would be only half as efficient.  

Tol was especially indebted to the Matron’s researcher since Vaneel had saved his life.  

Even though my best friend couldn’t fight if his life depended on it, all of them would sacrifice themselves if it ensured his survival, not out of devotion, but out of pragmatism.  They all recognized that my best friend and I were the linchpins that held this group together and they could be replaced should it be necessary. All of them knew there would be more Trillodan soldiers who didn’t quite fit in; keeping an outfit like mine functional was important for the future of our race.    

“Vaneel wouldn’t work for another Commander,” I replied with a laugh, “They’d throw him out within the week.  You know how harsh he can be to work with.”  

Omec rolled her eyes, “the other Commanders also lack your vision, Zellig.  They are shortsighted and cowardly unlike you.”  

I shot her a sideways glance, “Careful, Omec.  I think Vas’sah would be remiss to hear that his former underling was being spiteful.  Even if they aren’t one of us, you will refrain from speaking about the other Commanders in such an unbecoming fashion.”  

She nodded and bowed her head, “Apologies, Commander Zellig.  I will mind my tongue.”  

“Commander,” Salah said, clearly looking to move the conversation past her fellow captain’s blunder, “What do we need to know about these Adapted?”  

I reached alongside the table and pressed a button, projecting a hologram crafted from the recording I took on Tso’got.  For several minutes, my captains watched, enthralled in the combat as I weathered the storm against several of them.

And they were all stunned seeing me beaten by Clemency.  

“Commander,” Tol whispered, solemn, “How is this possible?” 

I straightened and they all did the same, all on their best behavior now that they had seen me lose.  “While these Adapted are mere children, they are not to be taken lightly. Even those lesser ones wield deceptive amounts of power.  What the video doesn’t do justice to is revealing exactly how much trauma I had to mend on the fly.”  

“You want us to apprehend those things capable of fighting you?” Omec said, a bit suspect.  I could hear all of their hearts accelerating, a nudge of adrenaline sharpening their senses.  Fear wasn’t something these three were prone to, but they hadn’t seen anyone beat me either. Even though Vaneel had made all of them specific power armor with a daunting, personal arsenal, all my legionnaires knew that I had paid a larger price for my might.  Every single one of them had taken a chance and fought me, and to date none had beaten me. The closest to succeed had actually been Tol, and the smug child occasionally liked to remind the other captains about it.  

“I do,” I replied, blunt.  “They are not immortal, they are not all powerful, and they are very fallible.” 

“With all due respect, Commander Zellig,” Salah said, slowly, “But I’d just as soon avoid a suicide mission.” 

I shook my head, “I didn’t finally get us all gathered in one place to send you to the afterlife.  By my estimates, there are eighty-four Adapted who will be setting foot on Vuuldar, and of them there are eight who you must avoid outright conflict with.”  I tapped another button and pulled up images of nine faces. “Titan, Shockwave, Beleth, Clemency, Psycho, Cataclysm, Forest, Zeal, and Sinister.” 

Omec scrutinized the faces and information I had listed alongside them.  “These are leaders among the Adapted. If we avoid them, we avoid conflict with half of the Adapted present.  How do we apprehend them if we can’t pursue a majority of them for fear of conflict with this lot?” 

“He said ‘outright conflict,’” Tol said thoughtfully.  “We are to engage in guerilla warfare, weaken them and their cohorts before attacking directly.”  My youngest captain turned his gaze towards me, “That is not my area of expertise. That is where Salah is best.”

She smiled in recognition, “Much obliged.”   

I nodded, “You’re correct on both counts, Tol.  Salah and Omec will be the ones working to undermine the major names.  However,” I added as I noticed his face fall a little, “I have a few targets I want you to isolate.”  The image projected changed to the monstrous form that Eldritch had assumed during Feast Day, “That one is named Eldrtich, and he is contestably the strongest among them if allowed to remain unchecked.”  

Both Salah and Omec gave a worried glare to the other captain, “Will Tol be able-“

“You doubt my judgement, Salah,” I snapped.  “You have your strengths, and so does he.”    

She shook her head, “Apologies, Commander.  I would hate to see Tol devoured by that…thing,” she replied, sincere.

“I have faith in your fellow captain, and I believe you should share it,” I replied, making it clear that wasn’t a suggestion.  My attention turned back to the youngest captain, “Eldritch is in the company of five others, and two of them I want brought back alongside him: Dragoon and Parasite.  Both of them are promising specimens, and both of them I want to give Vaneel for further study. The other three with him are of interest, but less of a priority. You will likely want to bring your underling with you.” 

“Lail will be glad to stretch his legs,” Tol said with a grin, “He may end up killing one of them if push comes to shove.” 

  I shrugged, “One loss is insubstantial in the  grand scheme of things. Just be sure it isn’t one of those three.  For-” I paused as a hurried set of footfalls rang in the distance. “Ah, right on time,” I chuckled right before Vaneel barreled into the room, out of breath.  

“I’m.  Sorry,” he panted.  “Haven’t been. On a Crimson City.  Lately.” He took a moment to catch his breath before taking a seat at the table and continuing.  “I have finally made a bit of a breakthrough that may help us track down the Adapted on the surface of Vuuldar.”  He pulled a metal disk from a pocket of his coat and set it on the table. The screen changed as his device showed a report with a few visuals that seemed to be a kind of molecule or particle none of us recognized.  

“Translate into layman’s terms,” I insisted as I read enough of his technical terms to know that it would save everyone time.  

He scoffed, “You’ll never learn if I don’t-“

Vaneel quit being so coy when he noticed my glare.  

“Right.  Adapted tend to differentiate themselves into a few categories: Projector, Conjurer, Enhancer, Druid, and Peculiar.  Enhancer’s specifically alter their own body in some capacity and don’t have any outward effect. Druid’s affect life around them but don’t typically create anything so much as adjust it.  Neither of them leave any lasting impact on the world around them, at least not on a molecular level. The most druids do is tinker with biology but it doesn’t leave a trace I’ve been able to identify.  So, in short, no way to track them or trail their powers use.”  

“What’s your point?” Omec asked. 

“The other three classifications,” Vaneel continued, not bothering to mask his annoyance at my officers impatience, “All rely on extraneous influence and manipulating their environment to some degree.  Projectors fire things from their hands or control some kind of element or energy source. Conjurers literally pull items from outside of reality, and Peculiars often rely on something intangible to influence the world around them.  My point is, that those three emit a specific and unique radioactive signature. Something about what they do is unique and leaves behind a trace, like a little line burned in the air.”

I smiled, “And you found a way to identify it.”  

“I can reconfigure a satellite array onboard to be used as a means of monitoring the planet for spikes of this radioactive signature.  The instant we have basic coordinates, the Adapted will be easy to follow.”

“And we can deploy troops to follow after them.  As long as we know where to look, we can easily track them from the sky,” Salah said, grinning.  

Vaneel frowned, “We won’t be able to rely on this to find them initially though,” he insisted.  “Many of the Adapted won’t exhibit this signature, and it is only when they use their gift actively.”

“We can rely on it,” I insisted, taking a moment to try and think forward.  

“Why?” my friend asked, dubious.  

“Relay,” I replied.  “Simply put, their ship isn’t built to survive a trip through the atmosphere of Vuuldar.  It will fragment and crash on entry without substantial intervention. However, we know that Relay is able to teleport people, and they have someone onboard who could move the entire ship.  Either one of them will be used to ferry Adapted to the ground.”

“It prevents us from intercepting anyone in transit,” Omec added, “As far as they can figure, it would be more clandestine to go down to the planet’s surface this way anyways.  Using ships would be a dead giveaway since most of the denizens are ocean-dwelling.”  

“Even if they have beaten us to the planet, they will need to pull themselves off world as well and we can track asses then.  Titan had an exit strategy on Tso’got, and I know he’ll sure as hell want to have one again. Vaneel,” I commanded, “Begin the preparations for a Void Door, if you’d be so kind.”  

My friend nodded and rose from the table, heading towards the bridge.  

“Commander Zellig, assuming we beat the Adapted to Vuuldar, what will do with the ship?” Salah asked.  

I rose from the table and they all followed suit.  “I am going to see it dealt with personally. I’m thinking that Maak and Jor will be itching for a chance to prove themselves.”

“Is there a reason we don’t blast it out of the sky?”

“All Adapted have their own value and benefit for Vaneel to study.  The more of them we can obtain, the more we information we can glean and use for ourselves.  Besides,” I said with a chuckle, “Sometimes you just want to take matters into your own hands.”  I noticed the little bit of rejection on my captain’s faces: all of them wanted to work side by side with their Commander.  “I am not entirely sure what will be left on the Adapted ship, and frankly you are all too valuable for me to lose early in this campaign,” I insisted.  “I need you three hunting down the Adapted leaders and being my hands on the surface until I can join.”  

“Yes, Commander Zellig,” all three replied in unison.  

I put a hand on the shoulders of my two female captains, “Salah, Omec, get your armor.  I need a word with Tol.”  

Both nodded and departed swiftly, both with bloodlust already starting to show in their eyes.  The two of them were always eager to prove their value, and knowing them our campaign would likely turn into a competition for how many Adapted could be captured.  

Tol straightened his posture, trying to stymie the shaking in his hands.  He visibly strained with effort, his heart hammering in his chest. If I had to miss my guess, the boy had been without medication or steroid booster in a while.  He had always been stubborn about taking medication, wanting to be dependent on himself for his own well being. “Yes, Commander Zellig?” 

“Captain Tol, you are one of the most promising Trillodan who has ever entered the military.  It would not surprise me if you would one day be right hand of the Matron in my stead,” I stated honestly.  

He couldn’t help himself and showed a smile.  The spots on his skin brightened in glee as he looked up at me, his youthful exuberance showing through his normally rigid military mask.  “Thank you, sir.” 

“However,” I replied slowly, “I have given you a daunting task to carry out.  While none of the Rogue Sentries, were individually a threatening target, they are arguably the most dangerous group of people among the enemies’ ranks.” 

Tol narrowed his gaze, trying to figure out what I meant, “If they lack much of the power that concerns you, how are they so dangerous?” 

“They are young, clever, and most importantly, they have something to prove.  None of their members are weak, and they are arguably the entire reason that we took interest in the Adapted on Tso’got.  They are rebels, and they have battled against harsh odds time and time again. Be cautious,” I warned my captain, “And do not underestimate them.”  

“Yes, Commander Zellig.”  

“Now, get ready.  We have a hunt ahead of us.”    

My legion was restless as we waited for the arrival of the Adapted. 

A few of my legion wanted to lay siege to the ship the instant it showed up, but I dismissed that idea.  We had to let them disembark, we needed them confined to the planet’s surface. While we could outrun their limited special distortion, we couldn’t track them.  Even though Trillodan technology was a marvel, it had limitations. Surveying the surface of a planet was child’s play compared to trying to scour billions of square kilometers of the void. 

I didn’t bother mentioning to my legion that if we tried to fight them all at once it would be a bloodbath.  We wanted to keep them alive for study and they had no such prerogative. My captains and I were aware that we were due for an uphill battle because we had to fetter our own destructive potential to make sure there were pieces left to study.  Dealing with the heavy hitters would be challenging since outright confrontation was going to be problematic.  

Especially Titan.  He was going to likely be the most troublesome.     

At last, our enemy made their entrance.  The array we had established worked like a charm and displayed where their ship simply appeared.  When Vaneel brought up a live feed there was nothing showing, just an empty space where the sensor said their ship was.  Vaneel and I came to the conclusion that there was undoubtedly some Adapted trickery at play, but we weren’t sure who could manage to make a ship invisible.  Lightshow was a decent candidate, but this seemed incredibly large scale for her given what we’d seen her demonstrate.  

Either way, I’d know soon enough who was responsible.    

In the dispatch bay, twenty four bloodthirsty Trillodan waited to board transports and start their expedition to the surface.  All of them were eager for blood.  

As I joined them, all turned and took a knee.  The clamor and din of my excited legionnaires stilled immediately out of respect for their leader.  All their excitement and bloodlust quelled for a moment, all of them waiting for my orders.    

“Rise,” I said, letting my voice resound through the room.  “Look at all these monsters the Matron was kind enough to give me!”

The bloodthirsty smiles returned and a few laughs as the stood.

“I will assume you were all good little boys and girls and read what Vaneel provided you.  These Adapted are dangerous,” I cautioned my legion, “And even though they are young, they are no stranger to war.  They will fight tooth and nail. They will give you no quarter. They will not go quietly.” I strode to the center of the room, turning slowly to survey my hand-picked elite, “But we are Trillodan.  We do not fall. We do not kneel.”

All of them slammed a hand against their chest in salute.  “We do not kneel!” they echoed.  

“The Immortal Matron herself told me that we are not allowed to fail,” I said, solemn, letting the weight of that silence the room again.  “She has trusted us to succeed in overcoming this threat.” I glanced to my left, and the only person in the room larger than me, “Kalr, what will we do?” 

The massive teal woman bared her teeth, “We show them what Zellig’s legion is capable of.”  

“Vawn,” I said, turning around to face a smaller male with golden skin, “What will we do?”

“Obey the Matron and crush them,” he answered.  

I bared my fangs and made a wide sweep to the rest of my chosen, “We are her representatives and her diligent servants.  We will see them broken and in chains!” I paused for effect, “What are we?” 

“We. Are. Legion!” the entire host bellowed in response. 

Another roar was let loose from everyone as I could practically feel the killer instinct pulsing through the room.  It hadn’t taken much to whip them into a frenzy, but I wanted to be damn sure they were at their best; the last thing I wanted was to lose a few of the initial skirmishes.  

On an upper level, a door slid open and Vaneel stepped in; I raised a hand and the clamor ceased, everyone giving him a respectful bow as he gave me a nod.  “Zellig, they have started making landfall.”  

“To your transports,” I shouted, “You’ll be given their location.  If you need extracted, all of you have a displacement charge to bring you back here!  Remember, we want them alive!” I emphasized as people split into groups of two or three.  “Malak, Jor!” I called, “With me.”  

Two middle sized soldiers approached, each already hidden behind their armor.  Malak had one of the more unique sets of armor that Vaneel had to make. While most sought out strength or firepower, he opted for trickery and stealth.  His suit’s based was akin to a regulars armor, but atop the metal were little silver arrays holding cameras and small thermal capsules. He could project illusions around a room, make himself functionally invisible, and trick heat sensors as well.  While he lacked much of the punch through that many of my legionnaires had, his penchant for trickery could be invaluable.  

Jor was one who had asked for a very particular arsenal to be made.  She had what almost looked like a spool of thread along her arm. The tick that Vaneel had worked into it was a device to make it vibrate at an exceptionally high frequency; it was sharper than any blade once it was turned on.  She had a few other firearms built into her armor, but she kept it fairly light otherwise. Jor opted to be light on her feet, relying on her agility and maneuverability to let her dance around a battlefield and position for where her razor thread could do the  most damage. 

Should there be something I couldn’t brute force my way through, she could carve through it.  Should there be someone we couldn’t fight, Malak could deny them vision and facilitate an ambush or an escape.  While I appreciated what my captain’s brought to the table, my legion was comprised of people with a variety of tools for just a situation like this.  Titan was bound to leave someone onboard the ship as an insurance policy, a deterrent in case we boarded. If he was using Relay to facilitate another network of transportation again, it stood to reason that he was onboard as well.  None of them were known in Vuuldar, and none of them had access to any kind of safe haven on the world below.  

Their only bit of real estate was the ship.  Relay was essential to their exit plan and it made sense that Titan would keep him removed from where he’d expect there to be any real combat.  While Titan wasn’t a seasoned leader, he wasn’t no fool. He knew exactly how vital mobility was in combat.  

That was why it was my first target.  Only after we cut the hamstrings could we take our time hunting the rest of them down.  

“Vaneel,” I called, “We need a spatial distortion triggered.  I want to be put on board.”  

“Do be careful, Zellig,” he called down at me while he fiddled with a console, “You will be awfully expensive if I have to replace you.”  

I grinned as the energy began to distort around the edges of my vision, “I wouldn’t dream of damaging your handiwork.”

He laughed as he flipped the final switch and reality went dark for a split second.  The next moment, my eyes drank in a surprisingly serene scene: 

Six forms were lounging amidst what looked like a common room, furnished with a plethora of furniture that seemed at odds with the otherwise metal and rustic interior of the ship. The only non-uniform part of the room was a massive observation window, giving a magnificent view out to the stars.  

The six Adapted present were almost all familiar to me, all of them having spent some time on camera or had at least been seen by the Adapted we’d captured: Organelle, Relay, Powerhouse, Guardian, Command, and one redhead I didn’t recognize.  While she looked unassuming, timid even, my instincts screamed that she was dangerous. The rest of them were largely not combat oriented Adapted and Titan wasn’t about to leave his key healer and head of transportation unguarded. 

“Malak, screen!” I barked as the Adapted hurriedly got to their feet, drawing away from us.    

My legionnaire pressed a hand to his arm and a dozen copies of him shimmered into existence and he faded into the shadows.  I could see the air move around him as he crept around to the side, looking for an option to cripple one from the flank while Jor and I took a more straightforward approach.  

But, to my surprise, Jor wasn’t moving forward with me.  Instead, she sat down.  

“Can’t-move,” she hissed, “Don’t, understand.”  

I could hear her heartbeat remaining steady, slowing even as she sat down.  For someone riled up and hungry for blood, this was wrong. I bared my teeth in frustration as I glared at the group of Adapted, the one named Command staring intently at Jor.  “Command’s name is rather literal,” I surmised, “Useful I suppose.”  

He raised a hand and I felt his influence immediately.  

I felt a compulsion to lay down, to quit fighting, to be content and restful.  There was no need to proceed with this fight, there would be a time in the future to remedy my mistakes, to apologize and take another stab at this.  The more I struggled against it, the more intent the message became, eclipsing my impulse to harm the Adapted.    

Instead of stubbornly sticking to will power, I opted for another source of motivation, one literally hardwired into me.    

Protocol –Violence.  

Engage enemy – Non-Trillodan.  

Outcome – Maim.  

Duration of override– thirty seconds.

The nanites in my body took over, resting control away from mind, rejecting Command’s control of my faculties.  When he had constructed me, Vaneel had made numerous systems to give me perfect control of my body and to limit any situation that would prevent me from fighting back.  One of those was an automated defense response should I be rendered unconscious or brain damaged in combat. I had learned to access it and could turn it on through neural impulse.  While nothing to date has ever been able to damage my brain, one could never be too prepared.    

“I hope you have more tricks,” I laughed as my body raced forward; I was halted as a blue field appeared between us.  

Guardian, the pasty white Adapted drowning in freckles held a hand up that had a faint blue tint to it.  Another glance at the redhead showed her still no wanting to engage, as if she was holding back.  

The question I had was why.  It made sense she would be built for combat, but she was content with letting those less capable to contribute in a fight continue without her assistance.  She had no reason to keep us alive, no reason to restrain herself. We were her enemy and she ours.  

Why did she remain complacent?    

I tested the shield a few times, annoyed that it refused to budge.  Despite Command’s influence and refusal to fight against the Adapted, I seemed able to strike the shield without issue.  My best guess was that he was able to give specific commands or alter specific patterns of thought; it meant there were loopholes I could exploit.  Since he didn’t know about my internal network and code, he wasn’t going to keep me limited. While it seemed to waver when I hit it hard enough, I wouldn’t be able to reliably bash my way through it without exhausting my power supply.  While Jor might have been able to cut through it, she wasn’t going to be up until Command’s influence was stymied. Tapping back into my circuitry, I cheated around Command’s control   

Objective – destroy the ship.  

“Plasma barrage, thirty second intervals, immediate engage,” I ordered, forcing myself to smile despite Command trying renewing his efforts to make me fall over.  “Guardian, I hope that trick works for the whole ship.”  

The youth took a deep breath, dispersing the shield in front of me before extending both his hands out to the side; through the massive observation window I saw that same blue shimmer grow and expand, protecting the whole ship.  The bolt of plasma slammed against his shield and shook the ship, but the field held, although Guardian was already sweating with exertion.  

Enemy or not, the boy had earned my respect.  He’d made a shield able to withstand a hit from Trillodan artillery which would have leveled a city block.  

My admiration wore off quickly though, and now there was nothing between me and Command.  

“New power set,” he insisted to the redhead, “Keep him back!” 

“It’s too soon!  I allocated six for the illusion-” 

“Infinite, NOW!” Command shouted as I rushed forward, raising a hand to her.  I felt his hold on me relinquish; why would he give up on that to try and control her?  

Energy filled the room as the redhead cried out, a wave of red energy expelling through her fingertips.  And then, her eyes turned blue and hands glowed similar to Guardian’s. A shield appeared in front of me, but this one surged forward to meet me, pushing me back.  I tried to move around, but the girl kept adjusting the frustrating wall of energy, pushing me back over and over again. While Guardian’s shields seemed to be fixed, she was doing something malleable, good both offensively and defensively.

And if she’d been responsible for the illusion that concealed their ship, I was at a loss for what her true power was.  People who seemingly had multiple powers were either cleverly manipulating a gift or given two powers that worked in conjunction.  Making shields and illusions weren’t necessarily related, especially if she’d experienced physical pain to change on the fly.  

My enhanced vision revealed to me the tiniest bit of distortion as Malak crept within striking distance of Command; none of the Adapted even realized there was a killer in their midst until a blade jabbed into the man’s side.  

Command paled as Malak let down the illusion, allowing fear to creep over the other Adapted.  Command tried to raise a hand, but Malak drove a fist into his teeth, throwing bits of enamel and blood all over as he fell.  Guardian paled as my saboteur turned to him, looking terrified as Malak snickered and flipped the blade around. The Projector couldn’t let down the shield for fear of the next blast, but the others present weren’t fighters.  Command might have been able to stop him, but with him out of the way, there was no one who could really stop Malak from cutting through them.

Except for the woman Command had been influencing.  

As soon as his hold over her faded, Infinite screamed and her face contorted.  Her eyes did away with the blue glow instead opting to turn into a pair of black orbs as an almost imperceptible mist filled the air around her; Malak went down instantly, gasping and contorting like his life was being ripped from him.  

Her timid and fearful expression was replaced with a mask of anger, rage, and malice.  She ignored my legionnaires clawing and thrashing, turning her attention towards me, walking forward, taking her time.  I hadn’t been sure why my instincts were warning me about this woman, but now I understood both why Command had her on a leash and why Titan had kept her up here:

This wasn’t an ordinary Adapted who was made to fight, this woman was made to be a natural disaster in the flesh.  I was willing to bet there was no half measure with her, there was either obscene power or nothing at all. Without Command to control her, she was an unstoppable storm.   And Malak had just done away with her leash.    

“I’ve waited a long time to meet you, Zellig Ak’aan,” she whispered, “You’ve been all that he talks about lately.”  

Very few things intimidated me, but this ‘Infinite’ had made the list.  Titan had earned my respect for bothering to use someone so dangerous, and for managing to keep her so well hidden before now.  “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.”   

She smiled, a sinister grin that would have sent a lesser man running in fear.  “You made a mistake coming here, Zellig,” she announced with a voice that reverberated through the room, a strange echo making it sound like multiple voices came from her mouth.  “You believed that you could make us kneel, didn’t you? He said you would come for us. We just didn’t expect you here. I assumed I’d have a few more days until we found you.”  

Jor hopped to her feet, whipping a cord through the air, only to be halted by a bright wall of blue energy.  Infinite glared sideways and waved, almost dismissive; my soldier was slammed against the wall, her armor crumpling around her as if it was a shoddy piece of scrap metal.  

A blue wall crashed down on my shoulders as she flicked her fingers towards the floor.  “I think it’s your turn, Zellig. Kneel.”

This was such a massive departure from what she had been a moment ago, but I couldn’t figure out why.  Earlier she had been timid and anxious, now there was nothing but malevolence. Whatever had caused her to snap, it was like the mist around he was a secondary power, something she was using unconsciously.  The energy shield was the only active use she possessed. 

But with her off the leash, it was so much stronger.   

It was like being trapped under tons of rock, the floor began to bend under the pressure as I sank to a knee.  As I strained, the mist slipped forward; I felt my biological processes start trying to shut down. This wasn’t like Command trying to exert influence over my neurology and convince me to rest, this was her trying to turn my body off entirely, like some kind of paralytic neurotoxin.

Battery output override – 500%

The nanites kept my body working, forcing me to draw breath and my heart to beat, which seemed to annoy Infinite as she took another step forward, perplexed that I wasn’t joining Malak in choking on the very essence of death.  She continued to pressure down, and I could feel my body overheating as I stressed every system and safety feature that Vaneel had installed. This could require repair, but if I fell, she would paint the ship with me.    

In my head, I kept counting the seconds.  It had been twenty-six seconds since the last salvo, one was due to land in about 5 seconds.  

I took a steadying breath, knowing that we needed to disengage and soon.  No matter how arrogant this face she wore was, she would kill all of us with ease.  The only reason she hadn’t turned me into a puddle was because she was enjoying playing with her food.

Power output spike – 3x 

Duration – three seconds.  

I could not tolerate what she’d said to me. It struck at the fundamental nature of who I was, of what and who I represented.  There was more at stake than my own legacy. “My name,” I hissed, “Is Zellig Ak’aan.” My power sources whirred as they delivered the extra charge through my body, tripling my strength for a few short seconds.  “And I, do not, KNEEL!” 

I threw myself to the side and shoved to slide away from the crushing weight; it slammed against the floor and warped the metal before dispersing.  With a growl, I slammed my hand against my thigh, triggering the kinetic gauntlet to build around my hand. Raising the appendage, I didn’t aim at her, I aimed at Organelle who was trying to see to Command’s injury.  Infinite turned her wrist to blast me away but the salvo from my ship shook the Adapted’s vessel, forcing her to catch herself for a split second.    

Guardian cried out and sank to his hands and knees, exhausted.     

“Fire again!” I demanded as I let a blast loose at the group of defenseless Adapted.  

Infinite threw a hand out, creating a new wall of power to intercept the blast.  While her reflexive response had been to save her comrades, but that malicious guise that had taken hold did not view them in such a positive light once it remembered that there were people behind her.  

If she was going to be unhinged, I might as well steer her away from me.

Command noticed too and quickly raised a hand towards her, concentrating despite the blood still seeping from his side and mouth.  He waved Organelle off, knowing that his injuries were irrelevant if she did so much as walk too close. The black faded from Infinite’s vision as another blast slammed into the vessel, this time without Guardian able to stop it.  A quick response from Infinite saw a shield erected at the edge of the room as the metal fell away, exposing the ship to the vacuum of space.   

“Titan is playing a very dangerous game,” I laughed as my power supply reverted back to a normal output, “Using someone like you, it’s a very risky proposition.”  

“Infinite, time to go,” Organelle said as I took a step forward.  “Relay, get us down to the surface!”  

The other Adapted shook his head, frantic, “I-I can’t!  I’m the central hub. I’m a fixed point! I made it just to get people up here, not to move myself around!”

I tried to step forward, but a massive blue wall appeared in front of me.  I slammed a fist against it to get their attention. “We will survive the void of space!  Vaneel designed our armor to keep us alive until we can be rescued. Will you be so lucky?”  I smiled, bearing my fangs, “Fire again in ten seconds. Vaneel, remove us in six.”  

“Powerhouse, strip Relay,” Organelle insisted, “I can deal with the fallout.  Give Infinite the power. Sweetie, get us down there. We need to find Titan.”

“I-” she stammered, looking at me, mortified and overwhelmed.

“Infinite,” Command said after spitting a mouthful of blood, “NoW!”  

She shuddered as her veins lit up, a blue glow dragging itself seemingly through her veins all the way down to her hands before expelling through her fingertips again.  As the color faded, so did the force field. At the edge of the room, a new field erected to prevent all the occupants from being ripped into the space; the fatigued Guardian was shaking, but it was enough.  The olive skinned girl grabbed Relay and drained a white glow from him in much the same way, though clearly with incredibly painful consequence as he fell over, clutching at his chest and screaming. Powerhouse frantically grabbed Infinite who shuddered in agony as a white glow washed over her skin.  I took two steps forward, but Infinite raised a hand and they vanished.  

Right on cue, the edges of my vision distorted as the spatial displacement came in and Vaneel freed us from the mess. 

I had been outside the medical wing for an hour now, watching them surgeon operating on Jor through a window.  Infinite had driven parts of the armor into my soldier and reduced organs to ribbons. Malak had been fortunate that Command had come back to and reined in Infinite; once that mist abated, his organs started working again and he had managed to breathe before any real damage had been done.  While he’d be weak for a few hours, he would be fine in the long run.     

Trillodan medicine was an extraordinary thing to behold and the ship’s surgeons were optimistic they could have her back on her feet by tomorrow, though she might be not at her best for a week or two.  Despite our biology being markedly adept at regenerating damaged tissues, there were still limitations on what it could mend.  

I heard him approach long before Vaneel joined me beside the window.  A few moments passed while we stood there silently, watching them operate.  I knew that he was likely evaluating their surgical aptitude while I was concerning myself with the soldier on their table.  

“You care too much about them,” my friend noted, finally breaking the silence.  “They aren’t all going to come back from this.” 

“It is a Commander’s role to feel loss, to appreciate pain they endure and blood they shed for me.  I will not discard their lives easily. If they follow my orders unconditionally, I want them to know I appreciate their sacrifice.”  I allowed myself to look away from the operation and face my friend, “Did you track them down?” 

“I have eyes on them, yes,” he replied.  “I watched the footage from your optical camera.  This girl,” he said, cautiously, “She’s dangerous.  Even more than he is.” 

He being Titan.  Vaneel and I had spent a few days talking over how we would eventually deal with the head of this crusade since he would be a fascinating specimen to study; to date we have had no successful way to capture him alive since he had that pesky danger sense.  

“She answers the question of how they are moving around so quickly,” I replied with a sigh.  “Her gift is raw power that she can define. And she’s different somehow, less hindered by her own ability.  Adapted endure physical strain when they use a gift, but she was smacking us around without batting an eye. For her the only challenge for her was letting go of one power to utilize another.”  

“And the woman who was giving her additional strength at the end?” 

“Powerhouse is an Adapted who can loan power to people for set time intervals.  I knew that someone trying to hold onto it too long was hazardous, I was unaware stripping it out early was detrimental to the other party as well.  Infinite was given the power because she could reshape it to be a means of teleportation where Relay could not.”  

My friend frowned, “Too many options at her disposal to deal with her.  She has power, mobility, and presumably can she can make herself more durable as well.  How do you fight someone who has no weakness?”

“We don’t fight her,” I replied plainly, showing the edges of a malicious grin.  

Vaneel scowled, frustrated, “You noticed something that I missed, didn’t you?” 

“Infinite is unparalleled in power, but she is also volatile.  When she was busy asphyxiating me and my soldiers, she was only facing us.  The second she turned around, she was glaring at the Adapted like they were another enemy.  Command interrupted Organelle healing him to assert some control over her and limit her power.  For every bit of power she seizes, she cedes control,” I concluded. “However, there is something to her I don’t understand, some emotional trigger that accompanies that black mist.  We’ll have to rip that information from someone later.” 

“Titan made a point to keep her hidden; I doubt anyone will know  what that is,” Vaneel pointed out.  

“Unfortunately, you might be right.  Still, we won’t know until we try.”  

There was a moment between us as we watched the doctors work before he spoke again.  “That’s a dangerous person to rely on. Why would Titan leave anyone near her if she is so volatile?” 

“Command is her handler.  While his own gift is frustrating, he is more influential if he is enabling Infinite to use her power to the fullest.”        

The Matron’s head researcher chuckled, “You don’t want to go after her, you want to take out Command.”  

I grinned, turning back to the operation.  “If she has no handler, no way to keep her in check, one of two things will happen with Infinite: she will lose control and level everything nearby or be scared and forced to inaction.  Either way, if we can remove Command, we can nullify much of the threat she poses.” I pressed a hand against the glass, “Jor’s injuries won’t have been for nothing.”  

“All due respect, Zellig, but you’ve spent a long time here.  There are other engagements happening, and we need to see to your own injuries before you can be deployed again.”  I didn’t need enhanced senses to catch the implied concern from my friend; he had designed me so that I wouldn’t be beaten in such a grizzly fashion.  Seeing me battered so handily by two different people was worrying to him.

“You’re right.”  I shot one last look to my loyal legionnaire and turned to follow my friend, the war now underway.  

While one of my own was likely out of commission for the rest of this battle, we had succeeded in grounding them on Vuuldar.  I had found a way to undermine Titan’s greatest weapon in the arsenal, and I still had many cards left to play. We were undoubtedly in for a long chase since the Adapted were easy to maneuver thanks to their small numbers and arcane abilities.    

However, I could make their stay on the surface so much harder.  

“Vaneel, make the preparation for Protocol 41.  Let’s show these children we mean business.”  

Previous Chapter – Next Chapter

Interlude: Herald

(12/1/80 – Zellig)

    Patience was something I had managed to obtain over my nine cycles of existence.  When I was younger, I was an upstart, a rebel, a perfect fit for the military and the discipline that would be forced upon me.  While initially I had abhorred the structure and rigor of the uncompromising military, the challenge to best others and prove myself had grown to mean everything to me.   

    That was eight cycles ago, back when I had just been properly entering a Trillodan’s proper maturity.      

    Now I was one of the five highest ranked officials in the Trillodan army.  My old commanding officer had repeatedly berated me, beaten me, and insisted that I would be worth nothing as long as I lived.  I let a sinister smile creep across my face as I realized exactly what he’d say if he saw what had become of me; he’d call me a monster.  

    Not that he would be wrong, mind you.  

    I was acutely aware of how long I had been waiting I had been waiting in the Hall of Order, but I didn’t fret or demand answers from either of the guards at the end of the corridor.  They were predominately decorative, a remnant of a time long gone where Trillodan used to fight amongst each other. We used to be such a savage and foolish lot, nearly driving ourselves to extinction over ideals and idiocy.  While we were known for our galactic control and technological superiority, it was not always that way. Like humans, zari, and so many other sentient species, there were a few great filters that were needed to pass. 

Our initial hurdle had been against our environment.  Despite being self-aware, our dependency on moisture and specific climate had made technological advance a testament to our fortitude and ability to grit and bear through.  As soon as we could start creating clothing that kept us wet and started cultivating organisms that would grow on stone and keep buildings from being dry pockets of air, we could begin work on computer technology and industrial processes.  While Xalaani wasn’t rich in terms of natural ore and precious material, we had worked feverishly to enable ourselves to farm for materials off world.  

The more recent hurdle had been one of internal conflict.  When our society no longer struggled for forward progress, a question of morality and ethics came into play and it divided our great society down the middle, a split that led to war that ravaged much of the planet’s surface as well as other worlds we found ourselves occupying.  Despite us nearly driving ourselves to extinction, a few shrewd leaders were able to pull together and enact compromise and stop the bloodshed and ultimately save our hemorrhaging population.   

The Hall of Order was a monument to established rule, and one that had survived nearly fifteen cycles. There was only one Trillodan left alive who remembered its construction and it was the woman who had helped push the idea forward so long ago: head of the Trillodan military and government, the Immortal Matron.  She had been a key figure in repairing the social fabric and uniting the disparate masses under a common cause. The Immortal Matron was such a key figure in Trillodan culture for so long that no one had dared to replace her despite our government not being an explicit autocracy.  

Due to her policy, the Trillodan people were split among two lines: the harsh military and the peaceful civilian.  One respected and needed the other, and both were well seen after under her watchful gaze. The Matron was the voice of the military by and large, extending our reach across the stars to ensure that there could never be a society like ours but without the restrains she imposed.  Our old civil wars had ravaged dozens of planets, and that had just been collateral damage. The greatest fear of the Matron was if another species came into the power we had but without the same levels of moderation; it was the primary goal of the Expedition to keep such a catastrophe from ever happening.  Back on Xalanni however, she had a council to represent the will of her own people to keep them content and appeased. The Immortal Matron understood that she was, at least in part, associated with war and bloodshed. She wasn’t a clean and pristine ruler and knew that there was need to distance herself from the utopian day-to-day affairs of the majority of the population.  The council was formed by democratic appointment and provided a perfect buffer between her and society.    

Thanks to our dutiful and clever Matron, we lived on one of the only utopias in existence.  A pristine society where all could thrive and truly live.  

    I glanced down the hall at the sentries who were watching me, at least not with animosity or fear.  As I took stock of who they were behind the golden armor and helmet, I realized I knew one of them. “Dar’an,” I called, “I see you got light duty!”  

    He straightened his posture, slamming his hand against his chest twice in salute, “Commander Zellig, sir.” 

    I scoffed, “I’m not your commander anymore. You answer to Gal now, not me.”   

    He smiled, baring his fangs from behind his ceremonial helmet, “He’s harsher on the rules than you, sir.”  

    “I always believed in results, not decorum.  As long as the job gets done, I don’t care how neat it wraps up.”  I extended an arm and he clasped it in a soldier’s handshake.  

    “I do miss the Expedition,” he confessed, “There was so much more going on as compared to being in the Garrison.”  

    “Dar’an,” his counterpart warned, “Position.”

    I didn’t have to look to see why he spoke up anything, I felt the movement through the floor as the councilmembers headed for the exit.  Flashing a smile, I left the guard to his duties, not wanting to cause my former charge any trouble. While the Garrison was hardly a necessary institution, it was one I still chose to respect.  It had been instituted at the beginning of the Matron’s rule to help keep order while insurgency continued to smolder and rage against the society she built from the ashes. She had seen the value in making people safe, and the presence of the Garrison kept many at ease to this day. They were quiet protectors with the whole purpose of protecting the Trillodan people.  

    The first face through the door was one that I had come to revile over the last three cycles.  Councilman Barlow, was the closest thing to an insurgent that had existed for the last ten cycles.  He was a silver tongued cur who was working to leverage the council against the Immortal Matron and see her dethroned.  It was his personal belief that we shouldn’t be infringing upon other fledgling societies and he refused to listen to any sound reasoning about how much damage technological advancement could be when left unchecked.  

He was oblivious to the value of our Matron and how much control she truly exhibited or at least that was my impression of the man.  I had asked her more than once if I should kill him, but she insisted that he could be dealt with and that she needed to respect the will of her people.  She was firm in keeping Xalaani free of tyrants and she was not about to break her own rule after so long of having it instituted.   

I admired her objectivity but he struck more nerves with me.  It was thanks to him that enrollment in the military was dropping and that my best friend’s various projects were under excess scrutiny.  Thanks to Barlow, there was the actual chance that Trillodan’s perfect society could see drastic shift with repercussions that could cost us everything we had built over the last twenty cycles.     

    Still, as he approached, I bowed in polite gesture.  For better or worse, he was a high ranking member of the government.  “Councilman.”

    “Zellig,” the green tinted figure said, his purple robes flowing behind him, “Dare I ask what brings you to the Hall of Order today?” 

    “Audience with the Matron,” I replied, trying to keep a calm demeanor.  Few people made my blood boil the way he did.  Likely because on many occasions he had taken it upon himself to be particularly nasty and snide, knowing that he could push and prod, playing on everyone’s perception as me as a monster.  I did respect his ability to whip a room into a frenzy, but the fact he had directed it at me more than once was infuriating.  

Having a perfect memory, I could recall every time over the last cycle and a half he had insulted Vaneel or maligned me.  His current count was up to one-hundred and ninety-four instances of condescending speech. I had contemplated a unique way to kill him every time he started a tirade against me; it was a pleasant distraction while he babbled on at my expense.    

        “Are you sure she has the time for an informal meeting?  The Matron is a very busy woman after all,” he chuckled, taking note of my simple garb.  I seldom wore anything for decoration and instead opted for a black tunic and trousers, refusing shoes like most of my people.  Councilman Barlow stepped forward, his feet slapping against the cold tile flooring, “Commander Zellig, I must confess that I am surprised you’d show your face so soon after what happened on Tso’got.”

    I kept my expression neutral, not wanting to let him know my disdain; I was hoping that he wouldn’t know yet, that I could stall this particular conversation until I had more results to make up for my egregious loss of life.  Tso’got, realistically, had been a disaster.  It was made so much worse by the inherently low birth rates of the Trillodan people; while technology had given us the gift of extended lifespans, the damage we had wrought on our own planet had made rearing young a challenge. Despite being the sovereign race in the universe, we only totaled in the millions.  One of the most detrimental outcomes of our civil war was the lingering effects from biological agents that he yet to be reversed.  

Damage to our genetics had rendered many infertile and a vast percentage of the children born were with extreme defect.  Despite the Trillodan being able to live easily a dozen times longer than most sentient species, we were still treading around endangerment.  Only five percent of the children born survived their first year, and only half of those survived their first cycle. Despite our prowess and progress forward into medical science, we hadn’t managed to undo the damage we had inflicted on ourselves.      

There was no doubt that this insipid councilman was going to hammer that point home and use it to prove that my friend’s research as well as the Immortal Matron’s guidance of the military was a direct threat to our wellbeing and continued existence.  My shortcoming would be yet another blade for the councilman to chip away at our leader with.   

    “I answer to the Immortal Matron,” I replied, “She requested a report in person.  I am here to honor that request.”  

    “Is she here to get a proper count on your losses?  Three-hundred and seventeen dead, Zellig,” he said, his voice cold, “Perhaps you’ve discovered a way to help us raise children quickly, or maybe your friend Vaneel has an answer?  Neither of you have helped to bolster our ranks; the least you could do is to cease stopping so many lives short.” 

    My lips twitched, threatening a sneer and Barlow smiled, he’d noticed the little tick.  He knew he was getting under my skin, but he’d made a point to go after the most vulnerable part of my past.  The way he looked at me, that little self-assured smile of his, he fucking knew.   

He knew that three and a half cycles ago, I had buried my child.  My son hadn’t made it through his first year, just like most of Trillodan children.  

“I would assume someone of your position would know how to respect the sacrifices those men made,” I growled.

    “Sacrifice?  They did not protect me or my family,” he replied with a laugh, “No one asked they go and die for ‘the cause’ you are spearheading.  They chose to follow a reckless fool.”  

    I bared my teeth, furious, “Speak ill of my soldiers again and I tear your head off.”  

    That gave Councilman Barlow a moment of pause; while he was a persistent annoyance, he wasn’t an idiot; Barlow knew exactly how capable I was in terms of physical confrontation.  Despite there being witnesses and soldiers from the Garrison present, none of them could stop me and that wasn’t unknown for the councilman.  While he repeatedly lied and spouted slander against my friend’s research, the politician was wise enough to respect Vaneel’s aptitude, especially since he was mere feet from the scientist’s crowning achievement.  

“You’d make me a martyr,” he cautioned, donning a confident smirk, “You sure that’s what you want?”

    People had filtered in, collecting around us, all on their toes, anxious for conflict.  It was a common practice of almost all sentient species: that draw to violence. It didn’t matter how advanced, how refined, or how sophisticated the species was: when there was a fight, it drew everyone like iron to a magnet.  The spectacle, the thrill, the anticipation of that tipping point, all of it enticed even these supposedly refined and dignified members of the high government to come and gawk like slack-jawed drunkards.    

    I glared down at him, wondering how easy it would be to snap his neck.  “At least as a martyr you’d be quiet.” 

    Mutters crept around the throng who were spectating, and the two sentries nearby stepped forward, making their presence known but not saying a word; they weren’t going to try and intercede if they could avoid it.  I knew that Dar’an wasn’t about to raise a weapon against me after spending time in a legion with me. The other would likely be cowed by my reputation or refuse to raise arms against one of the most influential men in the military.  

    “For as monstrous as you are, Zellig, we know you aren’t a fool.  You won’t hurt me, no matter what I say about you or your psychotic, warmongering friend.  No matter what epithets I use, no matter what insinuations I make about the pair of you, you’ll just stand there like a massive gargoyle.  You are all talk and no action.  I’m probably safer thanks to you being nearby,” he said, patting my chest.  

    Steeling my gaze, I proved him right and stood still as a statue.  

    “Friends,” he said with a sweeping gesture to the audience, “Take a look at the great and renowned Commander Zellig.  The epitome of brute strength and tenacity, it is just a damn shame that he doesn’t know how to think first before he speaks.”  

    “A shame someone of your station doesn’t know the definition of the word dignity,” I replied in a growl.  

    A few scattered snickers were heard as Barlow clapped his hands in mock applause, immediately regaining control, “My goodness, the brute is able to show some wit!”  His gaze narrowed as he stepped uncomfortably close to me, “It’s a shame that so many followed you on a suicidal mission that served no purpose. It’s a shame that cleverness of yours wasn’t of any more use for them, isn’t it?” 

    My fists clenched as I leaned down closer, “Last chance, watch your mouth.  Speak ill of them again and-”  

    “And you’ll infringe upon my ability to speak freely?  A privilege that so many others have fought for, yes?  A right that was bestowed on us by the Immortal Matron herself!”  He took a step back, “Vaneel really did do a number on your brain, didn’t he?  Maybe you used to be a clever militant, but now you’re just a goon that the Matron tosses around for her amusement.” 

    “And you’re a frivolous figurehead.  A pompous windbag who uses so many words to say so very little.”  I grinned, “At the end of the day, Barlow, you’re nothing more than a fleeting notion, a little flight of fantasy for idiots to mass behind.”   

    He bowed, “You honor me so, bestowing such a decorative insult upon me, my commander.  It’s a shame that this ‘frivolous figurehead’ has more sway than you do.  Really now, Zellig, this is not your arena, it’s mine!  So, please, go home to that mate of yours. Oh, wait,” he said with a laugh, “I forgot she left you when your only friend made you a monster!” 

  Red began to creep in on the edge of my vision.  I allowed a quick dose of serotonin and dopamine to regulate my mood, to keep me from ripping his chest open and eating his heart.

“Since you can’t do that, maybe you should evaluate your strategy and put together a plan to avoid killing hundreds of our finest youth so unnecessarily.” He cocked his head to the side, “Just because your life means nothing to our society, it doesn’t mean you should cast aside their so frivolously.  Then again, they were dumb enough to follow you, so maybe they deserved what happened to-”    

    He didn’t get to finish that sentence as my hand snapped forward, seizing him by the throat.  It was easy to hold him off the ground with one hand, and his feeble attempts to pry himself loose made me smile.  “I warned you about speaking ill of my soldiers, but you just couldn’t help yourself, could you? Me, you can chastise and insult me until you’re out of breath, but that you dare to diminish the fallen is unforgivable.” 

    A gurgle escaped his lips as he waved frantically to the sentries standing a few paces away.  His skin darkened as panic overtook him, his movement became more disjointed and desperate as I felt his pulse speeding up, rebelling against the absence of much needed oxygen.  

    “They won’t help you,” I laughed, “One of them served under me, and the other knows what I can do.  As monstrous and moronic as you paint me, as you paint the military, you have never managed to understand the concept of respecting the position.  You flaunt your authority, but all you have are words and people claiming they’ll support you.” I looked around at the bewildered group of council members, “Do they seem like they want to support you now?”

I lifted him above my head and relaxed my hand slightly, just enough so he would stay conscious and continue to listen.  “I feel your heart, hammering,” I laughed. “You constantly call me a monster, a mindless machine, a scourge on the Trillodan society!  Well,” I asked, looking around to the clamoring council members, “Should I prove him right?” I looked back up at him and squeezed down, just barely leaving his throat intact, “Should I be the monster you so desperately want me to be?”   

    “I believe that he has learned his lesson, Zellig,” a stern voice called above the din.  The council member parted as a small figure stepped forward. Her skin was a deep crimson with speckles of pink dotted around her face.  As unimposing as she was, people reverently bowed to her and stepped aside, some sinking to a knee. 

She was the most successful leader in all history: Iilena Lamaak, the Immortal Matron.  

“Do be a good man and set down Councilman Barlow,” she said politely, though the words were clearly not a suggestion.  I obliged, dropping him in an undignified heap. 

Barlow rose to his feet, trying to straighten his robes and he pointed an accusing finger at me while he still gasped for air, “You allow this, this, monster, this savage, to sully-” 

“As I understand it,” she interrupted with a coy smile, “You had the audacity to demean the sacrifice of Trillodan soldiers.  Soldiers that, if I recall correctly, were in fact serving the empire at my behest. Are you insinuating that I somehow am responsible for sending three-hundred and seventeen soldiers knowingly to their doom?  Now, now, Councilman Barlow, while Zellig here may not be the smartest brute around, do you believe me to be a shortsighted blight upon our society?  Do think before you speak,” she cautioned.  

Barlow’s green skin paled a few shades in embarrassment and shame, and I could not blame him.  While I was straightforward, the Matron was a beast of a different kind and far more dangerous.  The High Council existed largely because Iilena had insisted upon its creation, because she wanted to help in preserving the culture of the Trillodan and to avoid becoming a fascist autocracy.  She knew that being an absolute ruler would tempt her to commit atrocities against her own people and many other innocents.  

But, even with the High Council to preserve the will of the Trillodan people, she still held the lion’s share of the power, and notably the military served at her behest.  While she did not control all of the affairs on Xalanni, she was responsible for all off world activity.  She had confided that a few people had managed to push her before, challenging her for rule; all she’d had to do was prove they were too volatile and unfit to lead.  Iilena Lamaak was not so crude as to threaten his well-being, but she could demolish his reputation if he tried to push too hard.  

“No, Matron,” he replied, slowly, cautiously.  

“Then will you explain why you decided to be so decidedly distasteful towards one of the most decorated militants on the planet?  Would you care to tell all of us here why you are being spiteful towards a man who offered his body for the sake of scientific progress?”  She took a step forward, glaring him down, “Maybe you would be more empathetic if you were forced to serve your species like Zellig has been brave enough to do.”  

He paled but glared past her to me, “That doesn’t change that he threatened to behead me, and then he accosted me!” 

She laughed, a single bark of a laugh that shut him down in an instant.  “Barlow, let me be clear; I heard what you said regarding his personal life.  Such an attack is unbecoming for any man, let alone one of your position. For someone aiming to dethrone me, you must do better than such crude condescension.  I was half tempted to let him asphyxiate you for making such an ass of yourself. The next time you have the audacity to insult a fellow Trillodan for losing a child, you’d best hope I’m not in a foul mood, otherwise I might have your daughter vanish.  Maybe you should experience the grief he had to withstand. Then, maybe then, you will think before you dare make such a comment.”

No one dared to breathe as the Immortal Matron stared down the councilman, his skin nearly turning black from terror.    

She sighed and then turned to me, “However, he does have a point. Zellig, despite how much this fool deserves having his head torn free of his shoulders, leave it on for now. You can’t simply kill everyone who talks back to you because you are able.  Councilman Barlow is correct that he does have the right of free speech to use, though I’m sure from now he’ll be more mindful of abusing liberties,” she added with a pointed glance his way.   

I nodded, “Yes, Matron.  My apologies.” 

“Good!”  Iilena Lamaak leaned forward towards my nemesis, “Are you happy now, Barlow? Has my ‘monster’ been chastised enough?” 

He nodded and the Matron whispered something others present wouldn’t hear.  My enhanced hearing allowed me to eavesdrop, a fact I’m sure that she remembered.

 “Remember, Barlow, my monster is a loyal one.  Be careful.”  

The Matron turned to the gawking politicians, “I assume you all have better things to do than stand around like mindless fools.  Zellig, follow. The rest of you, get back to work.”  

No one argued and everyone quickly fell in line, scurrying about like insects when a light was shined on them.  She did not speak to me, but I could hear her accelerated heart rate. While she had used my unruly behavior to scare Barlow back into line, she was not pleased.  

The Immortal Matron led me into her personal chambers, a small cave carved into the cliffs that the Hall of Order was nestled against.  In large part, she did it to be different, to stand apart from the other chambers who were decorated with wood or tile. For her, it was a rustic chamber though there was a corner brimming with technology and monitors feeding her information about the state of a dozen different ventures she was always looking into.  Despite being alive over a millennia and a half, Iilena Lamaak was still razor sharp and able to think a dozen steps ahead. The High Council had a running joke that part of the reason no one took her job was because no one was smart enough to pull it off.    

“You have done an excellent job causing me trouble,” she groaned as she took a seat on a smooth green stone.  “Vaneel did give you the ability to modulate your brain chemistry; the fact you don’t use it more in practical settings can be grating at times, Zellig.” Before I could reply, she raised a hand to silence me, “I know your personal conundrum and your disdain for being a machine, but think before you act.  This will come down and only strengthen Barlow’s hold on the council once the dust settles.”

“My apologies, Matron.  Though, if we are being candid, there is only so much that Barlow can do to genuinely threaten your leadership.”  

She let out a huff, “I am technically an elected official and I refuse to be an absolute tyrant.  The reason no one dares challenge my throne is because I’m too good at what I do, at least for now.  However, you’ve likely convinced a few more to join his side today thanks to your stunt. Barlow might be a bit over-zealous, but he’s far from stupid.  He knows that he can bide his time and eventually usurp my role for himself in a cycle.”  

It wasn’t something people called attention to often, but the truth was that the Matron was ancient.  She was sixteen cycles old when most only lived half that many. I was alive because the augmentation preserved me and effectively did away with aging, but she had no such luxury.  In another cycle or two, the Immortal Matron would become an ironic title. Even if she didn’t keel over, the mind would eventually start to slip. Part of why she gave Vaneel such authority and position was because she wanted to use his research for her own gain and to ensure she was up to the task until the very end.        

A wave of shame slapped me in the face but I did my best to not reveal my own frustration, “Apologies-“

“Stop,” she said, curt.  “One of the reasons I enjoy your company is you aren’t so intimidated by me that you grovel.  Do away with formalities. I’ve been alive too long to be bothered by such nonsense. Now, enough about the politicking.  That is my mess to clean up. After all, I don’t keep you around because you play well with others.”  

“Yes ma’am.”  

She took a quick glance at the battery of screens along the wall before looking back to me, “So, do explain to me why there were so many casualties and why the hell you only managed to obtain seven specimens for my head of research.  Barlow might be an ass, but he has a point; your mission was a disaster and you’ve never fallen short before.”  

“The Adapted were more problematic to control that we originally assumed.  While we had seen numerous instances of their power being used, we weren’t expecting such coordination,” I summarized for her.

The Immortal Matron frowned, “Elaborate.”

“Adapted had previously existed as small groups, little cliques that were constantly fighting amongst one another for control or prestige.  When we arrived on world though, many others came to aid against our assault teams. Despite being enemies prior, there was someone who had pulled strings and drawn groups together and coordinated.”

“That was evident from the footage released from ‘Feast Day’ as I have heard it dictated,” she replied, “Why was it shocking to you that they would work together in the face of a larger threat?”

“In large part we assumed they would flee more than fight.  While we were ready for them to band together, we weren’t ready for them to be particularly organized and act more like a proper coalition rather than a few disparate groups loosely bound together by demanding circumstance.  We weren’t under the assumption anyone was amassing influence among the Adapted.”

“You are a seasoned veteran.  From the view of a human, you are nine-hundred years old and have had more life experience than all of them put together.  How is it that you were overwhelmed? I know you are capable of salvaging situations more dire than what you faced.”    

“Lack of information,” I explained with a frustrated click of my tongue.

She cocked her head to the side, curious.  

“What damned us was a few key players that their organizer, Titan, had managed to keep concealed.”  The Matron gestured for me to expound. “Titan had three major complicating Adapted at his disposal that he’d been smart and kept hidden from the public eye.  The first was Forest; while we did see her fighting with Eldritch during Feast Day, we didn’t understand exactly how far her influence ran. It is my belief that she was encompassing vast amounts of the city and relaying information instantly for teams to be dispatched to foil our attempts at capture.  In some instances, the roots she used simply engulfed entire transports and freed those we had captured. Due to her being so massive, there wasn’t a clean way to put her down. She was like fighting a force of nature,” I recalled with a little shudder. I had seen the aftermath of her roots burrowing into a soldier and ripping them apart; it was an ugly affair, even by my standards.

“And the other two?”

“Relay is the name that Vaneel has extracted from the mind of one Adapted, apparently a man who could mark areas as zones where he could provide teleportation.  He gave incredible mobility that we were wildly unprepared for. His presence meant there was no delay in response times and no slow in retreat times either. Once the Adapted made it to one of Relay’s areas of influence, they were gone.  They simply had more maneuverability on the surface.” I took a seat on a slick block of marble that acted as her other ‘chair’ before continuing. “We also assumed that we would be able to trace some kind of energy signature, but that has thus far been a dead end.” 

The Immortal Matron’s skin darkened as she mulled over the information I was providing.  “And the last issue?” 

“An unknown,” I confessed.  “While we lacked control of the ground, I opted to fallback to using the sky to our advantage.  Their vessel was crude and defenseless, ultimately a floating box. Thanks to Forest, we couldn’t take over while it was still on the ground without simply obliterating the lot of them.  We opted against doing so in order to preserve the specimens.”

“But?” 

“Somehow, the Adapted managed to create something akin to a Void Door.”  

A concerned expression cross her face, “That seems…impossible.”  

“And yet,” I replied, solemn, “I watched it happen.”  

She straightened her posture, “And how far has Vaneel made it with uncovering what makes these fiends tick?” 

I grinned as I heard a pair of footfalls approach the door.  While she claimed not to be gifted, her sense of timing was impeccable. “How about you ask him yourself.” 

Right on cue, the door opened and my friend walked in, bowing respectfully as he approached.  His usual purple color was a few shades lighter, betraying his nervousness. While he was personally appointed by the Matron, he was still scared of her and the authority she wielded. Prior to working under her direct appointment, Vaneel and government officials had seldom seen eye to eye.

One more reason I harbored hatred for Councilman Barlow.  

“Matron,” he greeted.

“My chief researcher,” she replied, offering him a soft smile, “Report.”

He straightened and stood between us, “My findings are…admittedly limited due to small sample size.  However,” Vaneel added with haste, “They are remarkably consistent.”

“Elaborate,” she insisted of him now, leaning forward with interest. 

“Sampling the cells of all the Adapted we captured, they were markedly normal at a glance as compared to humans as they were catalogued half a cycle ago when we gifted them with Common.  For them, evolution is a slow practice and the fifty year span would see one or two new generations come to join the society or so.”

“And what does that matter to me?” she inquired.  “Evolution for most sentient species is incredibly slow.  Every species we take interest in has overcome the demands and boundaries of natures.  There is no more need for physical growth when technology can bridge the gap.”  

Vaneel cleared his throat and nodded, “Yes, Matron, but these humans were different upon further inspection.  Humans of the parent generation had some kind of tiny microorganism in their blood stream.”

Even I was interested now.  Vaneel had kept himself isolated while he’d been working the last few days and keeping his research to himself.  I respected his process and had kept my distance, giving him the space desired to think and operate freely. He, like me, didn’t always play well with others.   

“There was this anomaly in the parent generation?” the Matron asked, curious.  

“Yes.  While it seemed to predominately be free floating, some of the cells were consumed and integrated.  It isn’t unheard of for cells to adjust their nature by consuming and integrating other micro-organisms.   One of the more common example is with a small construct called mitochondria.”

“Spare us the biology lesson,” I said, “Tell us why this is relevant.”  

He glared at me, annoyed that I had de-railed him for a moment.  “Yes, right. While the parent generation had imperfect integration of the new organism, one point that was consistent across fourteen samples we took from Tso’got was that sexual organs seemed to integrate consistently.  The parent generation wasn’t necessarily given the effect of this micro-organism, but they were effective carriers of the thing due to all sex cells being infused with whatever this thing is. Their offspring, the Adapted, have a uniform cellular composition, all with this micro-organism populating their cells.” 

The Matron gave a satisfied smile, “Good work, Vaneel.  You have found what makes them tick.”

“I don’t quite think I have found all the parts,” he said with a pained expression.  

“Why not?” I asked.

“If the integration is uniform across every Adapted, and the integration is perfect among the parents sexual organs, why aren’t there more of these Adapted?  If I am to extrapolate, every single human has the ability to manifest these sorts of powers but there are only an estimated 200 to 300 present on Tso’got. That is an incredibly slim margin that suggests there is something limiting the manifestation of their powers.”

Iilena nodded thoughtfully, “You’re assuming there must be something that acts a trigger, or some specific mutation that enables them to come into their gift.”  

“Do you believe it could be an environmental trigger, maybe something to do with the air on the Zari home world?” I asked.  “There are differences in the air on Tso’got as compared to Earth.”

My friend shook his head, “I contemplated that, but too much of the place is uniform.  If it was some kind of industrial fume inhaled, half the population would have changed easily.  My best guess is either some strange genetic quirk acts as an enabler, or there is some kind of behavioral or specific chemical component that activates the micro-organism.”  

“What do you assume it does?” 

He turned to the Immortal Matron, “It is my personal belief that this organism is meant to be some kind of…power supply for lack of a better term.  Much in the way that mitochondria were subsumed by eukaryotic cells to benefit the gestalt, this thing was likely designed to fill the same role and buffer the host.  However, I don’t think that whoever designed this could have predicted the peculiar outcomes.”

She frowned, “Someone?  You believe this organism to be manufactured?” 

“It seems unlikely to have simply materialized and infected the generation of humans before we subjected the planet to Protocol 37.  It also seems highly unlikely that we would find such a peculiar micro-organism that is so unlike anything else we’ve catalogued. My best guess is that it was a synthetic design that was made to proliferate among a species and lead to long term changes of the group as a whole.”  He paused for a moment, thinking out loud, “It seems unlikely that humans were able to make this, honestly. The design and sophistication seems far too complicated for their known level of biological engineering. While they were more than proficient at creating viruses, those were child’s play compared to…whatever this thing is.”     

Despite answering to her directly for five cycles, I had never seen the Immortal Matron show an expression of genuine concern, let alone fear.  It was there only for a moment, but something he’d said actually worried her. Vaneel hadn’t noticed, but the picture was painted vividly in my mind, and it would be there forever.   

“Vaneel,” she said, her tone of voice shifting to that of a command, “Isolate the organism.  I want to know everything about it. I want you to figure out how it works and what acts as a trigger for it activating.  You will keep your findings private. Only Zellig and myself are to know about what you uncover, understood?” 

He nodded, wary, “I am obligated to report my findings to the council should they demand them.” 

She rose and walked forward; even though he stood straight, I could tell Vaneel was cowering.  “Vaneel, my head researcher, you report to me. The High Council, Barlow and his cronies, they will likely see me deposed in a cycle or two, but for now they can stay out of my way.  I will see this issue through. Am I clear?”

While I was a strong proponent of her demeanor in the moment, I wasn’t sure I was going to like the rationale behind it; if something could cause concern for a woman who had essentially commanded and shaped the universe for over a millennia and a half, it was no trifling matter.  

“Yes, Matron,” Vaneel replied.  “And, what should I say if they ask?” 

“Inform them that you have done your due diligence and reported it to the office of the Immortal Matron.  Stonewall them with that answer, I will deal with any kind of political fallout that might befell you. For now, they are outsiders, understood?” 

He nodded.

She grabbed his shoulder, turning him towards the door, “Why are you still here?  Get to work.”  

My best friend needed no further encouragement and scurried away, giving us a bow on his exit.  

She let out a sigh, and put her face in her hands.  It was rare to see any kind of crack in her façade, let alone a complete break.  She had been the mastermind behind controlling several galaxies for cycle after cycle all while maintaining utopian society.  Iilena Lamaak had managed to concoct the perfect blend of pragmatic and altruistic that enabled her to rule while allowing her people to live without the ravages of war ever befalling their planet.  She had refused to expand and claim land or subjugate other species, only acting when she believed it was in the best interest of the Trillodan and the surrounding civilizations.  

“Matron,” I said, softly, “What are we up against?” 

“I believe I am wrong,” she whispered, “Or at least I certainly hope I am, but I fear a ghost of our past may be coming for us.  If I’m right, when you pressure these Adapted, there will be complications from their makers.”  

I didn’t pry, knowing that if she wanted me to know, she would tell me.

“Zellig,” she said, composing herself, “This is a mission you are not allowed to fail.  You are to capture all of them.  Vaneel will discover what makes this micro-organism function.  If this is not possible, you are to destroy the lot of them.  They must be controlled and contained by any means necessary.”  

“Yes, Matron.  I have a few requests then.”

“Name them,” she demanded.  

“I want a Crimson City.  If push comes to shove, I want the ultimatum of enacting Protocol 37 readily at my disposal.  There won’t be any tip-toeing around the decision due to having to call for reinforcements to engage.”

“Done.  What else?” 

“My legion.  All of them.” 

She smiled and chuckled, “Of course you’d ask for them.”

“You want a search and capture operation, it is going to work best with small groups on whom I can trust completely.  While the Trillodan regulars would do well against another organized entity, the Adapted thrive on chaos. On Tso’got, they were used to messy engagement, limited rules, and no constants on a battlefield.  Besides, outfitting the typical foot soldier to be able to stand up to some of the bigger named Adapted isn’t feasible to do on time. They are meant to be on proper battlefields, not guerilla warfare.”  

“Councilman Barlow will bury me with this,” she replied, “Giving you the best group of killers alive will only fuel his movement that I am to be dethroned and that the Trillodan as a society are to go in a different direction.  Some of those you consort with are the most vile kind of soldier,” she reminded me. 

Two cycles ago I had created a group of specialized soldiers who were a cut above.  Thanks to Vaneel and some additional help, I outfitted them with unique armor, giving them all a specific arsenal tailored to what they felt most comfortable with.  For a full cycle, we were the ones who hunted down technology that could benefit the Trillodan Empire. Should there be resistance or sabotage at a mining outpost, the Expeditionary Legion were the ones who dealt with the uprising with utmost efficiency.  

Unfortunately, Barlow argued that we were hamstringing other branches of our military, making a motion to dissolve my legion and spread my seasoned operatives amongst other outfits.  It had been a clever move on his part to weaken my footing since I was the commander most devoted to the Immortal Matron.     

I sighed, “I understand.  However, I’m telling you that they are best for the job.  Common soldiers simply aren’t malleable or up to the task.  They are. Give me the soldiers I can most depend on.”  

“Done,” she decided after a moment of deliberation.  “As long as Vaneel can deliver on the research, I should be able to stall Barlow and argue for the value this will bring our people.”     

Knowing that I may well regret it, my curiosity finally got the better of me, “Matron, what are we truly up against?” 

“I can’t be sure yet, but if Vaneel’s suspicions are correct, the Adapted could be the beginning of a whole slew of gifted opponents, equipped with abilities we will struggle to counteract.  If this micro-organism is something that was manufactured, the architects will be out there and looking to perfect their project. We need Vaneel to crack the code first. As soon as he can prove that we can harness it, I can allot him all the resources at our disposal to replicate it and wield such power ourselves.”  

She knew more than she was letting on, but I didn’t need to press it.  When it came down to it, I was a soldier, and she had given me my orders.  

“Understood, Matron.”  

“So, I know you have already thought about what you are going to do next.” 

I grinned, “Have I?” 

She scoffed, “Despite the drivel that Barlow spouts, you have a fine head on your shoulders, especially for this sort of thing.  Knowing you, you already have a plan thanks to what Vaneel told us.” 

“Vuuldar,” I stated.  “The man leading them, Titan, is making an army.  Currently, it is small in numbers, so he seeks to bolster their ranks.  My guess is that he had been arranging to evacuate everyone for years prior to our arrival, waiting until the last second to gather as many as possible before leaving the planet.”  

“Why Vuuldar?” 

“Humans have occupied two other planets besides Tso’got, and Vuuldar is closest thanks to the orbit.”

She sighed, “You believe there will be other Adapted there?” 

“If what Vaneel said is true, then it is safe to assume there will be others who will have manifested such changes.  If the parent generation was all able to carry the micro-organism, then the new generation of humans on either refugee planet can Adapt.”  

“What is his endgame,” she asked, “This Titan.”  

“Simple.  He comes for us,” I said with a dismissive wave.  

Iilena pursed her lips, “How?  Xalanni is mobile by design and self-sustained.  We have managed to create a world that no longer is anchored to a star or in need of solar energy to sustain itself.”  

I shrugged, “I can’t pretend to know all of how they work, but why else would you mobilize an army?  Titan is not without plenty of firepower, and the downside of a small group of rebels is that they could easily slip onto our planet while being fairly incognito.  More dangerous than an army is a dedicated group of like-minded individuals. He has essentially recruited dozens of these groups to help him fight,” I explained. “If he has his way, he will get vengeance on us for what we have done to their home.”  

“You know this must not come to pass,” she replied.  “Though, I must ask, why do you believe he won’t come for us now?  If he has someone capable of opening a Void door, or at least something similar, what is stopping him from unleashing someone so powerful on Xalaani?” 

“He has only been alive for a quarter of a cycle, and though he is battle hardened, he is no seasoned commander.  He is a child with ideals and an untampered desire to win. Thus far, he hasn’t experienced defeat and he isn’t eager to start.  To put himself at the best odds of victory, he will need to accumulate all the power he can obtain before daring come after us directly.  We are a species that can end worlds so he will assume he needs every available body to march against us.”

“And what makes you think you can stop him, despite him being so well armed?  What makes you sure of your assessment?” she demanded.   

I grinned, knowing the Matron was testing me, making sure I was keeping my head on straight.   “No matter how clever Titan is, I know his scope was narrow and his attachment too strong to those he shares a kinship with.  His appearances on Tso’got were seldom, almost exclusively to help his fellow Adapted fight against oppressive agencies that the humans and Zari created.  I reckon that to him, the Adapted are his extended family. He fancies himself some kind of patriarch, looking out for his own.”  

While it would make him a passionate combatant, it wouldn’t make him the most pragmatic.  Despite how much raw power he had at his fingertips, he lacked something that no Adaptation seemed to give: experience.    

The Immortal Matron nodded thoughtfully, “You plan to exploit this?” 

“It is my assumption that once he has mustered force on Vuuldar he will move to gather what little he can on the last refugee planet and then begin his siege upon Xalaani.  It is also my plan to see how many I can steal away from him while he is spread thin on the Ellayan home world. Their victory will lead to some overconfidence which I will punish.  If I don’t miss my guess, it will make him volatile when I remove his family from under him. Since the Adapted coming after us are made of disparate groups it is my belief that if the head of this crusade wavers, there will be infighting and the coalition he has made will come apart.” 

“You plan to let them destroy themselves.” 

“A house divided cannot stand,” I said with a smile.  “If there is no central leadership, no coordination, it will be a rout.”     

Iilena rose from her seat and bade for me to follow her to the door, “Tell Vaneel to select several other researchers that he trusts and have them help.  The second that we have the information about the Adapted we need, we are going to exterminate the rest. Zellig,” she said, being sure she had my utmost attention, “I can’t stress this enough, these youth cannot be allowed to triumph.  No matter the cost, swear you will see to their downfall.” 

I smiled, bearing my twin rows of menacing fangs, “I will not fail you, my Matron.” 

While most would shy away, my superior leaned forward, challenging and bearing her own teeth, “Tso’got was a failure you will need repeat.  Am I clear?”  

I slammed a fist to my chest in salute and bowed, “On my life, Matron.”  

“Good.  Go. I want these children to know exactly what they have meddled with.”  

At her wave, I stepped out of her little cave and back into the Hall of Order, unable to hide my grin.  My heart hammered with excitement and I didn’t bother altering my body chemistry to settle down. In my nine cycles of existence, there had never been a threat that unnerved the Matron.  

I had been alive nearly a millennia and never been gifted with such an opportunity before, a chance to fight a true threat to my people.  It wasn’t some insidious ideology or threat of philosophical quandary. This was more direct, more blunt, almost tailor made for me to overcome.  This was unadulterated conflict. Titan had brought me a war to fight, and he would not surrender or quit, not until the bitter end.    

As my heart hammered in my chest, one thought kept repeating itself in my mind, like a drum heralding the call to arms.  

I would crush the Adapted under my heel.  Like all peoples we faced, they would kneel.  

In the end, all served the Trillodan Empire.    

These Adapted would be no exception.   


Previous Chapter – Next Chapter

Planetside: Ambush

My vision expanded as tendrils erupted from my skin, shredding my clothes as I rose.  The two interlopers were both in power armor, but both dramatically different. One was a bright chrome suit that seemed to almost be a reinforced exoskeleton that looked like a metallic canine with a massive tail extending off the end, flicking around like a cat staring down his prey.  Where his face was, the suit extended into a snout with twin rows of malicious, metal teeth. Around his hands a set of four claws extended, all glinting in the sunlight pouring through the windows. What stood out as odd to me was a number of little while spots on his armor, little vials of solution dotted along his armor.  

His companion was wearing a suit the color of gunmetal with streaks of red running through it like a circulatory tract atop the metal.  While his companion was emphatically animalistic, this one almost looked like a suit of metal muscle. There were several little red nodules that seemed to have some kind of crimson fluid churning in them and the whole thing seemed to shift and rippled like something organic.  To my surprise, his head was covered by a helmet that seemed remarkably similar to the one Dragoon wore: a curved and blank plate faced out to us.  

“Hunt,” the gunmetal one demanded, pointing a finger a hand at me.  

“Mutant, take him!” Dragoon shouted.  “Lightshow, distract! Parasite, with me!” 

The one in the exoskeleton dropped onto all fours and ran forward like some kind of hunting hound, and holy hell he was fast.  He was going to get to me before I had even managed to grow two hundred kilograms of mass as a buffer.  

A bird flitted in front of me, changing into a massive insect as Mutant intercepted.  His first hit landed, knocking the Trillodan aside; the ‘animal’ rolled with the strike and pivoted, launching himself back at our Enhancer, his tail streaking forward faster than my eyes could track.  Our shapeshifter was pushed back a step, but his beetle form’s carapace kept him safe.  

Across the room, Parasite and Dragoon ran forward, and several copies of them joined alongside.  Lightshow focused intently, bending the light to effectively create holograms alongside them; what worried me was that the man in gunmetal wasn’t at all perturbed.  

He barked something in a foreign language and charged forward, striking at the proper Dragoon despite there being half a dozen copies alongside her.   Four copies of Parasite rushed forward, but he ducked to avoid the real one, ignoring all the illusions.  

“They have thermal vision!  Lightshow, help Menagerie!” Dragoon demanded as she took a swing; he slapped her hand aside and retaliated with a strike of his own.  As Dragoon was forced away but retaliated by drawing the sword off her back and coming down in a ferocious arc. The operative raised an arm to block and the sword bit into the armor.  

 It seemed to be exactly what he was after.  

Yanking back, Dragoon was dragged forward and endured a quick pair of hits to the torso.  She used the momentum to rip the sword free, but he smacked it aside with a deft slap, sending it skidding across the floor.  

Lightshow darted over towards Menagerie, hefting her up to a sitting position and snagging the notepad that had been thrown from her grasp.  The poor girl had been closest to the center of that explosion and she was by far the least protected of the group. Right now, she offered the most offensive power but, thanks to the nature of the engagement, she was also the most vulnerable.  If Dragoon had her way, Menagerie would have been a kilometer away. The Trillodan dictating the conditions of the fight had set us at a terrible disposition right from the get go.  

Mutant was having issues trying to deal with the operative who was on all fours.  The Trillodan attacked like an animal, and he was simply much faster than Mutant. While he might have been able to keep up in his wolf form, that tail was keeping him on the defensive.  Any time Mutant tried to move forward, the tail acted like it had a mind of its own, jabbing forward and repeatedly chipping at the same spot in his shoulder, slowly cracking the plate in his armor.  I could see the frustration in Mutant as he was pushed back over and over again; he was the most experienced Adapted out of all of us, and we’d seen him go toe-to-toe with heavy hitters, but he always did it by utilizing his ability to adjust rapidly.  No singular form of his was overwhelming, but trying to put up with five of them was an incredible challenge.    

The fact he was forced to stay in one form was damning. 

While his beetle was strong and protected, it wasn’t fast and his opponent was dancing back and forth, cackling as he slowly whittled away at the shapeshifter.  Each hit was a small blow on Mutant’s endurance as he withstood the onslaught and the operative didn’t show any sign of wearing out.  

If anything, the Trillodan on all fours was speeding up, smelling blood in the water.  

I willed myself to grow faster but didn’t charge into the fray yet; at one-tonne I was pretty sure I would be too vulnerable to be much help.

As Mutant continued to weather the assault, Parasite was doing his damnedest to land a meaningful hit, but the operative facing off against the pair was almost mesmerizing to watch.  Every strike that my friend threw, he was a tiny bit ahead, repositioning to block a punch from Dragoon in a constant and fluid dance. Even though his suit was horribly bulky, he moved with an alarming agility that did not bode well for my friends.  Parasite struck and was deftly countered, forced to take a step back by a quick jab; the distance permitted the operative to pivot and backpedal, avoiding a swing from Dragoon. She growled in frustration, using the laser cutter that Toolkit had helped her build, but the Trillodan in the gunmetal suit didn’t even bother trying to stop her.  

They equipped their regular foot soldiers with lasers, of course he was going to be outfitted with armor tenacious enough to withstand them.    

“Drag, left!” Parasite shouted, bounding forward, attempting to flank his opponent.  Even though she was the leader of our squad, no one knew a fight more intimately that Parasite and she wasn’t about to question his intuition.   

Murphy had told me that he warmed up in a fight, that he could slowly piece together what made his opponent strong and how he could find a weak point to exploit, a small habit or tick to leverage to his advantage.  While I didn’t want the fight to drag on, the longer it did, the more my friend would be able to read his opponent. He had spent his life fighting uphill battles, this would be no different.           

Parasite darted into the fray, ducked under the punch aimed for his head, and jammed a foot into his knee.  The operative buckled for an instant and Dragoon landed a heavy strike against his midsection. With their opponent off balance, Parasite found another opening, and Dragoon followed up, the two of them working in a surprisingly elegant partnership as my best friend kept forcing him to split his attention in two different directions.  Dragoon continued to make openings for the two of them, using the magnet on her glove to tug him slightly off balance while Parasite kept targeting the knees or elbows, trying to hinder his maneuverability.

My best friend had the good sense to know that this guy wasn’t going down quickly and the best thing to do in a long bout is to slow down your opponent.    

I was half formed now, two-tonnes of mass increasing my stature to eight feet and lessening my hold on my body.  That presence in the back of my mind crept forward, slowly wresting control away from me as we surveyed the fight.  

Nearby, Mutant was getting pulverized.  A purple ichor was oozing from a number of perforations that the other assassin had managed to inflict through his beetle’s armor.  Still, Mutant kept himself between the alien on all fours and the slowly waking Menagerie. Lightshow was the last line of defense for our otherwise helpless Peculiar, but with their thermal vision there wasn’t a lot that Lightshow could do that wouldn’t be a detriment to the rest of us.  If they weren’t distracted by a dozen figures dancing around, we could probably assume trying to blind them wasn’t going to work either.   

I could tell that Lightshow was as frustrated not being able to help as I was.  She knew trying to use her gift was wasted energy, and I knew that if I charged in recklessly I would be cut down before I could do any meaningful damage.  The truth was that she was plenty capable, but she lacked a lot of combat application when she couldn’t directly impact someone’s vision. The Trillodan’s technology kept them a step ahead, and kept us down a player.  

Across the room, the operative being pushed around by my friends barked a command in an alien tongue as he just barely ducked under a blow from Parasite’s staff.  

A high pitched whine filled the air as his companion shot his tail forward; Mutant managed to dodge to avoid taking it to his center of mass, but it sunk deep into where it seemed like his collar bone should have been, ignoring the armor plating almost entirely.  One bound later, his claws sank into my teammates sides. A cackle escaped the animal as the mechanical jaws opened and snapped down on the shapeshifter’s other shoulder.  

“Mutant!” Lightshow screamed.  

It was enough to distract Dragoon for an instant and delay her follow up with Parasite; given a split second to breathe, the other operative ducked away and raised an arm to Dragoon.  His suit moved like it was a living entity, rapidly reforming itself to something resembling my captain’s scrap gun. A mechanical whine screamed through the room as a torrent of bullets drove Dragoon back.  

She cried out, falling down and clasping a hand to her shoulder as red began seeping through the armor.  

Another hiss of laughter rang out from the operative on all fours.  He was still trying to force down Mutant, who was still on his feet, despite having claws, teeth, and tail all digging into his flesh.  The condescending laugh seemed to invoke a kind of primal rage in the shapeshifter, and he let out a scream to answer. One arm shifted to the wolf form and jammed his claws into the metal joint at the end of the tail, ripping apart the machinations that held the cruel tip in place.  With a snarl, he changed his face to the wolf and attempted to bite out the throat of his opponent who had made the mistake of getting close enough to gloat.  

Before he could clamp down, the operative vanished and one of white vials was left behind.  It dropped to the floor with a gentle ting. 

A quick flash of light and he reappeared behind Mutant.  Claws jabbed forward and drove into Mutant’s midsection as the Trillodan snarled.  In retaliation, my teammate shifted his arm to the unsightly grey tentacle of elastic muscle and gripped the severed end of his opponent’s mechanical tail, whipping it around and sinking it into the torso of the operative.  The quadruped hissed in rage as Mutant growled in reply, refusing to go down quietly.    

Across the room, Dragoon stumbled and slumped against the wall, and Parasite was pissed.  His staff was a blur, aiming for natural weak points in the anatomy of his opponent: the neck, the elbow, the knees, the hands, or his head.  It was scary to see my best friend this ruthlessly efficient, but awe-inspiring to a degree. He likely had no business standing toe-to-toe with the operative, but he made it work, utilizing his own natural acumen along with all the strength his gift could buy him.  

The operative though, was far from out of tricks. 

All the red streaks on his armor lit up as Parasite took another swing; in a blur of motion, he drove his forearm against my friend’s weapon and broke the staff in two.  From his armor, one of the little red discs discharged, like a used bullet casing. My friend was lucky to duck under the following punch, but his surprise didn’t keep him down for long.  Parasite adjusted quickly, changing the grip on the weapon and using it like a club to batter the Trillodan, not letting him make distance and use the small gatling gun on his arm that had managed to chew through Dragoon’s reinforced armor.  

But without Dragoon, he had the operative’s full attention and wasn’t going to stand for long.  For each two hits he delivered, the Trillodan returned one. Even though Parasite was adept at taking a punch, it was clear who would win the war of attrition.  

I was at three tonnes, but I moved to action as I saw Mutant finally stumble and fall to his knees, a few fresh gouges to Mutant’s carapace finally taking him down.  No more time to wait and be fully grown, I had to manage the animal before he started wreaking havoc everywhere else.  

As I lumbered forward, the quadruped shifted his attention, bounding forward to meet me; as I expected, claws slashed through my tendrils like a hot knife through butter, carving away chunks of flesh faster than I could grow.  He cackled with enjoyment as he danced around me, cleaving swaths through my arms as I kept trying to get a hold of him. Agility kept him three steps ahead as he darted under my arms to attack my legs or torso, easily dashing away to reset his distance and keep clear of my grasp.  

Despite his manic and almost deranged demeanor, the Trillodan was far from stupid.  He knew exactly what he could and couldn’t get away with and he toed the line beautifully.  

While I bought time for Menagerie to come to her senses, I kept an eye on the other bout.  Dragoon had gotten back to her feet and reached for the railgun, knowing full well how much strain it would put on her power supply; I wished she’d done it earlier, but I know why she had held off:  if she drained her battery too soon after we arrived on world, Dragoon was going to be a handicap down the line. Still, it had gotten desperate enough to prompt her trump card.  

As if guided by some extrasensory perception, her opponent turned and unleashed another volley, carving into her side before Parasite could bring the remains of his staff down on the operative’s head.  Still, it was too late. Dragoon stumbled and slumped against the wall, her shot going wild. While it punched a hole straight through the opposite wall, it missed the operative by a full meter. The operative did stumble from the blow to the head, but he ignored Parasite entirely, opting to rush forward at our captain.  Dragoon was trying to steady herself for a second shot, but it wasn’t in time. Another disc was consumed as he punched forward.  

Her armor fractured as a shockwave rippled through the room.  My captain’s body hit the ground and flipped over, skidding to a halt several meters away.    

Parasite shouted in anger, slamming the metal baton down hard enough to crack his opponents armor and likely the elbow beneath.  The Trillodan cried out and shoved my friend back far enough he could turn the gatling gun on him. Metal screamed and Parasite staggered back but threw the hunk of staff forward and left another crack in the operative’s chest plate.  Parasite was a step behind, his front unbloodied despite the peppering.

While the fine caliber rounds had drilled through Dragoon’s armor, his passenger was best when it came to mitigating tiny points of injury.  

The Trillodan changed tactics; raising his opposite hand, a wave of shimmering energy intercepted my best friend and combusted, burning away much of his costume in a flash fire that enveloped his torso.  Parasite stumbled forward blind, disoriented as the operative charged, another surge of red running through his suit.  

While my teammate managed to raise his hands and shield his face, the empowered hit destroyed his forearms and shot him across the room like he’d been fired from a cannon.  His body smacked against the far wall and he landed in a heap.  

“Eldritch, deal with him!” a new voice shouted.  It took me a second to realize who it was. In all my time of knowing her, I had never heard Menagerie raise her voice, let alone shout.  

No sooner had her command come through than the room exploded with life.  Behind me, she was sitting in a lotus position, notepad open on her lap. The air around her was illuminated with energy as the pages turned and her artwork materialized beside her.  As the pages burned, her army grew and began leading the charge towards the animal. I lumbered towards the gunslinger as a pair of things resembling lizard-men charged the other operative.  His claws cleaved through one but it winked out of existence. The second tackled him as the new stampede rushed towards him. 

Beside her, Lightshow was holding a hand forward, intently focused. 

Menagerie’s creations weren’t truly organic beings which was why I couldn’t consume them for more mass.  It would make sense that they didn’t have to have the same kind of heat signature as a mammal. Now with her awake and in the fray, Lightshow was able to participate and add to the confusion.  The animalistic one of the two was quickly overrun, having to guess which monster was tangible and which was just an illusion that Lightshow was commanding. And now that she was finally able to help, Lightshow had something to prove.  For each creation of Menagerie, half a dozen similar figures shimmered into existence alongside the deluge of monsters.  

A few broke off for the gunslinger, but he seemed cooler under the pressure.  Small bursts from his gatling gun put down some and quickly distinguished the authentic for fake from him.  Once I got closer, all his attention turned to me and the flow of monsters turned away, all converging on the other Trillodan and leaving me to avenge my friends.  Like the other operative, he wasn’t particularly put off by me or my imposing stature. He nimbly skirted away from me, using the gatling gun to try and bore a hole through to my person underneath.  Even with my cells hardening, he was tearing through me with ease.  

After enduring the animalistic operative clawing and ripping away at me, I was down to 2800 kilograms and out of material to consume.  In just a few short moments, he’d already destroyed a few dozen kilograms and he seemed happy to dance around, slowly carving the Neklim away with that gun on his arm.  

Silently I pleaded with the presence in my head to give me something to work with, something to give us an edge.  It’s response came swift as I felt my body shift, responding to the stress of the situation.

Mutation: Adrenaline.  

My speed nearly doubled as two massive steps closed the gap he had been mindful to keep; an onyx colored arm shot forward, engulfing the gunslinger’s torso as I let out a triumphant roar.  For once I didn’t try to stymie the bloodlust of the presence as it allocated more mass to the appendage, to squeeze the life from him. 

This one had hurt my friends, and for that he was going to die, and I was going to make it hurt.

The alien operative had other ideas.   

A metallic drag rang from his suit, like a slide being drawn back, and his armor erupted with energy, destroying my hand.  He bounded away, barely dodging a strike that shook the floor beneath us. His right hand raised and blasted my torso, the blasts of heat scorching dozens of kilograms per hit as he turned his gatling gun onto my legs, slowly chipping away at my mobility.  While I couldn’t see any facial expressions on him, I knew he was going to be more wary for bursts of speed. There were only so many of those discs he could use that trick to escape my grasp.    

Above me, a silver streak zipped along as the animalistic operative literally ran along the walls, leaping through the air like a twisted acrobat the cut down what he believed to be Menagerie’s monsters; a frustrated scream was let out when he hit yet another illusion.  A massive bird with a snake head slammed into him, pulling him back to the ground as it tried to dig in talons and fangs. As it landed, it’s captive disappeared and another empty vial was left behind.  

He reappeared a few meters from Menagerie and Lightshow, claws ready.  

His first attack was aimed and Menagerie, but his claws were halted by Lightshow throwing an arm in front; her scream pierced the room as he nearly cleaved through her arm.  For a moment, his claw was stuck, but he tore it free, scattering chunks of discarded muscle and bone across the ground as Lightshow fell backwards and tried to halt some of the bleeding.  Around the room, the illusions ceased to exist, their master now more worried about trying to staunch the bleeding.  

Menagerie didn’t turn, but from her notepad, a massive grey form emerged that was like a centaur if the bottom half was an elephant and the ‘human’ part of it belonged to some cave troll.  The Trillodan rolled to the side and darted around for another angle at Menagerie, and then howled as a hunk of metal found purchase in his leg; Mutant was on his feet in defiance, the hunk of metal he’d taken thrown like a knife into the operative’s thigh.  It slowed him long enough that Menagerie’s monster could get some momentum going and kick him forward, trampling the Trillodan and crushing a number of those vials that seemed to allow him to blink around the arena. The operative clawed feverishly at the monster, eventually getting it to stop crushing him.  As he rolled away a trail of blue blood was left behind.

The exo-skeleton that had kept him safe had been shoved into his chest cavity and he was bleeding profusely.  His manic cackle was gone, and he had to limp away, one of his legs dragging behind.      

For a moment the gunslinger was distracted by his companion’s plight and slow to move; while he managed to evade my grasp, the massive bird that Menagerie made slammed into his back and upset his balance, nudging him forward and back to me.  I forced another bout of adrenaline into my system and shot a hand forward, seizing his legs and swinging him up skywards before he could use another one of those red disks.  

A spiderweb of cracks appeared on his armor as I whipped him into the ground.  

As expected, his suit erupted with energy, blasting away my hand and buying his freedom.  Rolling away from me, he grunted in pain, and showed signs of weakness as he limped away, his poise and presence done away with.  I moved to follow but the second Trillodan scrambled to his comrades side, shouting something in their foreign tongue. The animal wrapped an arm around the gunslinger and in a blink of light, they vanished together.  

It was strange how abrupt the stillness was.  Where there had been clamor and chaos a moment ago, the room felt empty.  There were no illusions dancing around, no operative in power armor trying to rip us apart, and no sound of combat.  

More immediately pressing was the fact that I still had two tonnes of mass at my disposal and nothing left to fight.  

I reached for control and felt my form move, slowly, fighting my attempt to regain control.  It was hungry, and it knew that there was material easy to consume close by. Mutant and Lightshow were both so severely weakened that they could be gobbled up in an instant, their mass enough to begin fueling a rampage.  

It would be so easy to be free, to be powerful.  Do you want to really be weak? Let me go! 

“No,” I growled.  “We… need…. them.”  

Menagerie stared at me, her focus even pulled away from the wounded and still whimpering Lightshow, “Eldritch, dismiss it or I will turn everything on you.”  

“Trying,” I hissed in reply, “If… I move… do it.”

My body still rebelled, aching to be free, aching to eat.  

They are going to slow us down.  They are going to be a liability with their injury.  Better they fuel us.  

“If we struggle,” I managed to force out, “Menagerie fights.”  

The voice seemed to listen, and I could feel it taking stock of just how many creations she had conjured.  Even though the operatives had killed almost a dozen of her constructs, there were still nine filling the area, one of which was the elephant-centaur thing which was about the same size as me and eyeing me with daunting green eyes.  She still had her notepad as well; even if I could fight all her monsters, she could dip into that well while I had nothing to call upon.    

“Nick,” Dragoon said, fighting up to her feet, “Let go.  We’ll have need of your Neklim later.”  

I wasn’t sure if it was the familiar voice that seemed to let me regain control, or the promise that the Neklim would be let out later, but I seized control again and let the growths dissipate, all turning to dust as I dropped to the floor, naked as the day I was born. 

“Dragoon,” Menagerie called, “We need the tinctures!  Now!” 

My team captain grimaced and pulled herself forward, plates in the suit sliding open to reveal half our tinctures stashed; two were thrown to Menagerie who was trying to soothe Lightshow who was pale-faced, rapidly entering shock.  I ran closer and squeezed down on the gash in her arm, doing my best to act as a tourniquet, my eye’s widening as I saw the extent of the damage done.  

There was a fist sized hole in her arm and the only thing keeping it attached was a stubborn bit of skin that clung on.

“Drink,” Menagerie said softly, “Come on, Rebecca,” she insisted, “Drink.  Now.”  

Lightshow nodded, her whole body trembling.  As she drank the first one, Menagerie popped the stopper on a second.  “I shouldn’t-”she stammered.

Menagerie ignored her and poured the contents between her lips.  “You’ve lost a lot of blood,” she whispered softly, “We need you on your feet.”

Dragoon ripped off her helmet and downed one as she half ran-half shambled over to Mutant.  He had reverted to human form now, gasping, coated in blood. Even though injuries were usually diminished by his shapeshifting, he looked bad.  “Come on,” she implored, “Down the hatch, good man.”  

“Drag-” he gasped.

“Hush, slug form, now,” she demanded.  “Mend, quick as you can.”

He nodded and his body curled into a ball as it transitioned into a pile of goo that seemed to struggle to maintain the form.  

Menagerie looked to me, “We need a more permanent tourniquet.  And…” she trailed off, looking at the arm dangling by a thread of determined skin.  

While Organelle herself might have been able to regrow the skin and muscle, even a double dose of her tincture wasn’t going to cut it.  All these would do would speed up our cellular growth but who was to say if the hunk of flesh missing would reform properly, or fast enough to prevent her from bleeding out in the meantime.  Menagerie didn’t want to tell her friend, but our best bet was to cut our losses, literally. If we removed the arm, we could cauterize it and stem the bleeding for sure. 

There was too much that could go wrong if we tried to save the arm. 

“We have to,” I said, answering Menagerie’s unspoken concern.  Lightshow looked at me, panic dancing through her eyes as I did my best to apply pressure and stymie the blood loss.  “I’m so sorry, Rebecca,” I whispered, “We need to amputate it and cauterize this now, otherwise you’ll bleed out.”

Lightshow turned her head and looked at her arm, whimpering, “I don’t want to-”

“We don’t have a choice,” Menagerie told her, squeezing her free hand.  “I’m sorry.” Lightshow looked for any crack in the facade as Menagerie held her friend, but if there was one thing our Peculiar was, it was steady.  She reached a hand and gently stroked Lightshow’s face, “There, there,” she whispered, “You’ll be okay.” 

She gasped, beginning to hyperventilate as Dragoon shambled over, the sword already in her hand.  My friend closed her eyes once and took a deep breath before pressing the edge down and drawing back, severing the little bit of skin that was determined to hold on.  “Nick, Murphy was wearing a belt. Go grab it from him. Give him this,” she ordered as she handed me a tincture before taking over.  

I nodded and sprinted across the room to my friends still form, uncapping the bottle and pouring its contents down his throat.  As I yanked the belt off his trousers, a small wave of relief washed over me as a groan escaped his lips.  

He wasn’t in good shape, but at least he was still breathing.  

Throwing the belt to my leader, I noticed my friend’s arms; his passenger was wriggling through, trying to set bone that seemed… gone.

“He hit me hard enough my forearms exploded,” my best friend whispered softly, his eyes still closed, “Goliath doesn’t hit nearly that hard.”

“The big bastard will be glad to have some competition,” I replied, trying to inject some levity as I reached forward to help him up. 

He snapped at me to stop before I could lay a hand on him.  “Spine’s broken. Moving me will complicate pulling it back into place.  Legs are worthless right now, arms need an hour or two even with that stuff before I can dream about using them.  I’m basically gluing together splinters of what used to be my ulna.” His eyes slowly opened and he saw the cluster around Lightshow.  “What happened?” 

“The one running around on all fours got her arm,” I whispered, solemn.

“Did-”

“Dragoon had to cut it off.  Where he hit, he basically ripped a fist sized chunk of muscle and bone away.  We’re not sure if it could heal fast enough to stop her bleeding out.”

Right on cue, she started screaming as Dragoon used her laser to cauterize the wound.      

“They got away,” he said, frustrated.

I nodded, “The one on all fours teleported them out.  Menagerie and I turned the fight…just not fast enough.” 

Parasite gave me a sideways look, “Don’t shit on yourself.  Those guys were no joke and if you went in too early, you’d be in the same boat as the rest of us.  We were caught off guard and outclassed. We’re just lucky these guys weren’t aiming to kill, only maim.”  

“How-”

“One of them hit me hard enough to break my bones even with the passenger reinforcing it.  He didn’t lead with that though, he only used it when he was put under enough pressure. If he’d wanted me dead, there wouldn’t have been a slow lead up.”  He let out a slow exhale, “The Trillodan don’t want us dead, they want us alive to study. It’s the only reason we’re still breathing.” 

He was right; if those two had really wanted us dead, they could have made it happen.  They could have simply blown up the building or pumped it full of bullets before making an entrance.  The gunslinger had a gun capable of ripping through Dragoon’s armor built into the arm of his suit and something told me he wasn’t lacking for a bigger gun.  And the other could have just teleported in and stabbed everyone in the neck before we knew what was happening.  

I remembered Zellig’s love of a good fight and wondered if he’d influenced that in his subordinates as well.  If that was the case, it had kept us alive, but it also meant those two would be back for a second round.     

Dragoon and Menagerie walked over, carrying Lightshow between them.  Mutant’s slug slowly dragged itself along the floor, fortunately looking more like a fully formed creature with Organlle’s tincture going to work.    

They took a seat by us, laying Lightshow down slowly though she was hardly responding.  She was normally pale, but ashen was an unsettling color to see on her. Beside her, Menagerie looked angry while Dragoon looked exhausted and like she was about to snap.  I was glad she wasn’t any more injured, but that someone managed to tear through and crush her armor was distressing. Her chestplate was resetting itself, but it looked like a broken pane of glass with the spider web of cracks running along its surface.  She wouldn’t say anything, but knowing she was still vulnerable even after all the work she did was taking a toll on her morale right now.    

“Murphy, how you doing?” 

“Paralyzed for now,” he said slowly, “And my arms are basically dust.  I need probably two hours before I can move.” 

Dragoon grimaced, not thrilled by his assessment.  The little tick of her hands wasn’t obvious, but I knew the telltale signs that she was coming apart.  “We have to move,” she insisted.  

“We have to go back,” Menagerie said softly, “We’re not fit to fight another round with those two.”  

Our captain furrowed her brow, “Our objective was to find the Lost Children-”

“Alexis,” Murphy said, forcing the words out, “Think for a second.  We were lead here to a kilbox by a local. That has some serious implications, none of them good.”

“At worst the Ellayan population has gone sycophant and we were deliberately led to a trap,” I supplied.

“Alternatively, the Trillodan might just be able to track us.  If that’s the case, we aren’t going to be able to run from them,” Menagerie added.

“Our only play is to go back up.  I’m sorry, but fuck the Lost Children.  Better we survive than lead the Trillodan to their next victims.  We’re no good to anyone if we’re captured or six feet under,” Murphy insisted.  

Dragoon groaned and ran her hands through her hair, “If they can track us, it stands to reason that they can track the Lost Children too.  Can we really live with ourselves if we leave them out here to die?” 

“We don’t know that they  haven’t swept up the Lost Children already,” I pointed out.  “Even if they haven’t we can’t do this again. I’d need to eat, and Menagerie isn’t going to be able to do as much without risking Overexposure.”

She nodded, wearing a grim expression, “Too many creations much too fast.  I am already pushing myself as is.” I noticed she had dismissed most of her monsters except the massive elephant-centaur mix and the eagle with a snake head.

“Plus, even though Mutant is going to recover, he won’t be able to shapeshift and fight anytime soon.  And are you and Parasite really going to be a full capacity even after you’ve managed to mend? Even when your armor fixes, you are going to be slower.  You’re injured and Organelle’s tincture isn’t going to remove the stress and strain of healing a handful of bullet wounds.”

“You slammed one into the floor and Mutant stabbed the other a couple times before he was trampled.  They will have injuries to see to as well.”

“They were also teleporting.  They also used a kinetic blast that felt like he hit me with a train,” Murphy sighed, “We have to assume they have some kind of technological trick for quick recovery.  Even if they don’t, I’m pretty sure there are more than two Trillodan operatives on the planet. If they want to, they can call for backup, but we can’t. The only people close enough to help are Serpentine and we don’t even have a good way to contact them.”  

“Take us back,” Lightshow whimpered, trying to sit up, “Don’t make me die here.”  

No one could argue with that.  

Alexis nodded, procuring the trinket the Relay had given to us and let out a long sigh, “Relay, take us home.”  

We waited.  Ten seconds passed, then twenty, and soon a full minute with no dramatic change in scenery.  She did it again, and a third time, her voice cracking in desperation.  

“Relay, for fucks sake,” she shrieked, “TAKE US HOME!” 

My face fell, so did Menagerie and Murphy’s; we were on our own.  Worse yet, it meant that the Trillodan had likely found the ship that was to be our ticket off this planet within two hours of us arriving.  While we might have ‘won’ the first round against the Trillodan back on Tso’got, we were losing this one. We’d barely arrived and were already cut off and stranded.  

“Dragoon,” Murphy said, firm, his voice cutting through her distress, “What do we do?”

Alexis was looking around, frantic, threatening to have a panic attack.

“DRAGOON!” he snapped, “What do we do?”

“I-I-I don’t-”

“Yes,” he pressed, “Yes you do.  You are Dragoon, leader of the fucking Rogue Sentries, a badass who just walked off getting shot and having her armor hit by the thing that shattered my arms.  Don’t you dare tell us that you can’t do this!”

Beside her, Menagerie put a comforting hand onto our leader’s shoulder, “He’s right, you can do this.  You’re our leader, so tell us what needs done.”  

Alexis glanced to me and I gave her a somber nod.  “We’re your team. We’ve survived tough scrapes thanks to you.  Menagerie is right, tell us what to do.”  

If anyone was going to think around enough corners to get us out of this alive, it was going to be her.  We needed her level headed and playing the macro-game. While Murphy was exquisite in the moment, his ability to think long term wasn’t going to be up to snuff, and I could tell from the look on his face that he knew it.  He was a fighter and a shotcaller, but not a grand tactician. Mutant might have been another option, but he was too prone to go with his gut instinct and his injury would definitely mean he wasn’t at his best. Menagerie was too withdrawn to lead, too pulled into her own imagination and the world that she gazed into that manifested itself on her sketch pad.  I was the only other person without injury, but I was no leader even before I had the voice in my head; I was a fighter and passionate follower. I would obey my captain’s orders, but I lacked the presence of mind to make the actual call.    

Dragoon had caused upheaval with the two organizations that ruled a city and completely overturned Ciel within two months of entering the Adapted scene, something that other groups had died trying to do.  She had taken us through fights with some of the biggest names among Titan’s band of misfits and we were still here, still fighting.  

More than her ability to create machines to solve problems, Alexis Trent was gifted with a kind of sight and problem solving that none of us were graced with.  If anyone was going to be able to see us through this turmoil, it was her.      

A wave of calm washed over her as she steeled her gaze and composed herself.  Where my friend Alexis had been panicking, the cool and commanding Dragoon took over, almost becoming another person altogether.  “First, we honor Lightshow’s request,” she said, “We don’t die here. We refuse to die here. Second,” she added, looking around at all of us, “We kill the pricks that came after us.  If they want to play dirty, so can we. Those fucks took Geyser and we’ve been given a chance to make them pay for it. We’re Reckoners. It’s time someone showed the Trillodan exactly what we’re about.” 

Despite being paralyzed, Murphy couldn’t help his telltale grin from creeping across his face.  “That’s more like it.” 

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Planetside: Foreigner

NaMein was not lacking for colors.  

While Ciel and most other places on Tso’got had been a general hue of beige, grey, or black, NaMein was littered with brightly colored paint, vivid murals, or vibrant designs on buildings.  It was also oppressively muggy. I could already feel perspiration beginning to collect on my neck and we’d only been here for a few minutes; back on Tso’got it was almost always painfully dry and void of any moisture so this was a monumental change for all of us.  

What NaMein seemed to lack entirely was Ciel’s activity.  

Ciel had been packed with concrete buildings that towered above you and air polluted with the fleets of cars constantly clogging the roadways.  There was always foot traffic or Zari loitering around to cat call or try and provoke someone into taking a fight with them for one reason or another.  But Vuuldar, as bright and lively as it’s art was, it felt oddly lifeless and hollow. We had been zapped down on what seemed to be a decently large thoroughfare but there was only another two people we could see and they quickly scuttled away from us, taking refuge indoors, away from the strangers.  

“Where the hell is everyone?” Lightshow asked, echoing my thoughts. 

Dragoon grabbed a sphere of metal that hummed to life, putting an illusion over her power armor to make her look like her regular self.  “Considering the sun is beating down on us, I would reckon that most people are at work or…doing something,” she muttered, not sounding sure of herself.

“There were five million people who lived through the initial year,” Murphy muttered, “And we figure that probably most of them are still hanging around near the Estuaries, there should be like half a million people in the city, right?  Shouldn’t we see someone?” 

Mutant ran a hand through his mop of brown hair, looking agitated.  “It doesn’t feel right.” 

“Crippling amounts of illness might make people reclusive,” Dragoon muttered, taking the lead, “And we did just appear from thin air.  I’m not expecting anyone to roll us out a welcome mat. Either way, we won’t find our quarry if we just stand here like a bunch of jackasses.  Let’s go.” 

“Maybe we could stop by a diner or something,” I suggested, “We’re all yearning for food that wasn’t conjured by an Adapted and someone might be able to help us find these Lost Children if we ask around.”  

Even Menagerie smiled a little at the prospect, “Something with a differing consistency would be most appreciated.”

“We don’t have money,” Dragoon pointed out.  “And if we were with Serpentine, we might feel decent robbing a place, but we aren’t.  We’re still Reckoners as far as I’m concerned.”

I debated pointing out that distinction was kind of shot since the Trillodan had gotten involved, but it was likely to fall on deaf ears.  When Alexis was suited up and took on the mantle of Dragoon, she was nothing if not headstrong.  

“Come on,” Parasite whined, “We’re teenagers with the exception of Mutant and Menagerie; surely a little dine and ditch isn’t the worst thing.  We’re decidedly overdue for a little mayhem.” 

“We’re in costume!  It isn’t like there is any kind of crowd for us to blend into anyways!” 

“Speaking of,” Lightshow insisted, “I’m as big an exhibitionist as the next gal, but I do think we should probably start walking and talking since we are just standing on the curb dressed like freaks who left a convention center.  The longer we loiter, the more identifiable we are going to be.”  

She had a point; Parasite and Lightshow were both suited up which made them rather distinguished.  Neither had opted to wear their masks, but the red and grey patterned spider silk outfit for Parasite as well as Lightshow’s white and black checkerboard bodysuit stood out something fierce. 

We might have all been able to wear a cloaking hologram like Dragoon had, but much of her old tech had gotten left behind in the mad dash hurry to evacuate, and her crippling anxiety had prevented her from getting any work done beyond creating her new suit. 

Even though she had insisted we weren’t going to steal from people, if I shredded my clothing turning into a four-tonne Neklim monster, I was damn well going to commandeer some pants instead of running around with my junk flopping around all willy-nilly.  There were certain places where her moral conviction would be dismissed for my own practical demand.  

Still, that was an if.  

With any luck, there was no need for me to change and even indulge that monster lurking beneath my skin.  Right on cue, I felt it stir and became dimly aware of someone over my shoulder. I told myself I was just being paranoid, but still it felt uncanny knowing that something was looking through your eyes.  I was still mulling over Mutant’s suggestion, wondering if he wasn’t maybe a better judge of this sort of thing than I was. We all knew about his animal instinct and his snap judgement was generally spot on.  

Even if he was on the money, now was not the time to have a long-winded internal monologue with whatever alien force was driving me insane.  

The odd vacancy of the street felt oppressive as we venture deeper into the city, heading north, supposedly in the direction of the Lost Children.  We had sparingly little to go off of, and the longer we walked, the more Lightshow and Parasite fervently debated with Dragoon about stopping somewhere to eat and try to talk to someone from around here.  Our Projector’s argument that flying blind was inefficient and instead trying to use information from people who had lived here instead made a lot of sense.

However, I couldn’t say I wasn’t biased; the prospect of a fresh meal was enough to make me drool.    

I found myself walking besides Mutant for a while as my friends bickered playfully, keeping the atmosphere light.  In contrast though, our primal companion was oddly perturbed. I caught him glancing over his shoulder, responding to every little bit of sound and scuff of feet from the few people we passed.  

“You okay?” I finally asked, keeping my voice low.  

He shook his head, letting out a whine that reminded me of a dog, “This place feels wrong.  There should be more people, more noise, more everything.”  

I frowned, “Maybe Forest and Titan were given a bad read of the city.  Maybe there is a lot more animosity between Ellayans and humans than we thought.” 

“Even if there was, we’re walking away from the water.  It’s around midday; there should be more people around. There should be yelling, laughter, crying, something.  For it to be quiet is… wrong,” he said decisively.  

“Maybe it just doesn’t have the same din of industrial background noise that Ciel had?” I suggested.  I understood his paranoia and reaching for things that weren’t there, but it seemed a bit presumptuous to assume that everything was wrong when we’d only been here maybe 20 minutes.   

“I don’t know what it is, but something isn’t right.  It’s too tense.”  

“We are on a different planet,” another soft voice chimed in as Menagerie kept pace beside us, “Perhaps your animal instincts are on edge due to the natural difference in climate and environment?” 

He paused, giving that genuine consideration, “It’s possible.  I was on edge in space for a while. I had to adjust.” 

“We have been surrounded by powered people and now we’re suddenly alone,” I pointed out, “A lot of animals have issue with abrupt change.  Maybe you’re just getting a dose of that unfamiliarity and are on edge because of it. Not that I’m calling you an animal,” I added quickly. 

Mutant didn’t seem entirely convinced but he shrugged, “Maybe.  It isn’t the strangest thing I’ll hear today, I’m sure.”  

As we walked forward, I noticed that signs were in a handful of different languages.  Unlike Tso’got, where everything had been in Universal Common, there were signs here in English, Korean, and even something that almost resembled a Cyrillic alphabet; I had seen old Russian in print and this was different, my guess was that it was the native language of the Ellayan people.  

For as hospitable as they had been touted, they seemed markedly absent as well.  If they had helped humans out with infrastructure and initial construction, how come we weren’t seeing any of them around?  If they were able to help the displaced ones with building houses and small apartment buildings they had to be able to walk around on land for at least a little while.   

Dragoon slowed ahead of us and pointed to a little building that had the word ‘Deli’ in flashing letters overhead.  “Since Parasite refuses to shut the hell up about food, we’re getting a sandwich.”  

There was a small cheer from him and Lightshow as our leader’s hologram rolled her eyes.    

Upon entry, there were a few things that stood out to me almost immediately: it was nearly vacant, with only a pair of patrons present and the man behind the counter, everyone went silent the moment we stepped in, and the temperature seemed to drop several degrees from the glare the owner gave us.  

“Tough crowd,” Parasite muttered.  

It was lucky for us that the menu was posted in Common and not a different language, but it still didn’t make it more comfortable to approach as the owner continued to glare at us.  

Before Dragoon could say anything, the man behind the counter snapped at her.  “No trouble in here, you understand?” 

She was a bit taken aback but recovered quickly.  “Of course. We just want a hot meal and we’ll be on our way.”  

He seemed skeptical but obliged.  

Dragoon ordered a ham a cheese, Mutant ordered a deluxe grilled cheese, Parasite a hot pastrami, Menagerie a club, Lightshow an ‘old school Italian’-whatever that was- and I opted for a BLT; the problem was that he immediately demanded we pay.  

While our leader tried to formulate a debate around equity and barter, the owner put his foot down.  “If you freaks can’t pay in cash, get the hell out of my store.”  

One of the two patrons present got up and quietly approached the counter; as he got closer I noticed he wasn’t human.  There was a slight blue tint to his skin and gills on the side of his neck with webbing between the close joints of his fingers.  Most peculiar to me was his face drew to more of a point than ours did. Strangely enough though, much of his facial expression was one I recognized: a soft, sympathetic smile. “Sir, perhaps you are being harsh to your fellow displaced.  Even when they are without coin, the wayward stranger needs a good meal.” 

His hostility turned to the Ellayan, “And are you gonna cover their tab?” 

“If that is what is required for this animosity to end and the strangers to partake, then yes.  I will pay their debt to you in full.”  

The owner rolled his eyes and stepped back to put the requested sandwiches together.

“Thank you,” Dragoon said with a sigh of relief, “We wouldn’t have had this problem is someone wasn’t so adamant about food,” she hissed, glaring at Parasite.  

My friend shrugged, “You can’t honestly tell me you weren’t jonesing for a sandwich, Drag.”  He turned to our patron, “So, who are you?”

  The Ellayan waved us back towards a table; we pulled over a second to make room to sit down before he answered.  “I was given the name, Lamesh.”

“Lamesh,” Mutant asked, “Why did you pay for us?” 

He seemed a bit surprised at the question having a dubious intonation.  “You were hungry and I saw an opportunity to bless more of the displaced; it would be poor practice to avoid feeding the hungry when I am able to help my land dwelling fellow.  That is not the way of Elanj.”  

“Elanj?” Lightshow asked, raising an eyebrow.

Lamesh blinked twice, perplexed by our ignorance.  “Elanj is the patron of all dwellers on Vuuldar. He is our silent guardian and divine ancestor who blessed us with our gift to breathe in the seas.  He was responsible for granting us some access to the surface as well.” He took a second as if debating what to say before adding, “He is likely what you displaced would call ‘God’ or ‘Allah’,” he decided.

Religion had been a thing that was trampled on Tso’got.  While there has been the occasional bastion of prayer and worship preserved, the vast majority of believers were either accused of propagating harmful views and radical beliefs; those who weren’t silenced were paid a visit by the police.  While none of us had ever been particular spiritual, it was still a bit affronting that Tso’got had been so wildly opposed to religion; it was nice to know that Vuuldar was at least a bit more tolerant it seemed.  

“Is there any reason you speak so fancy?” Parasite asked, ignoring the glare from Dragoon.  

“This is simply the manner that my kind speak, I am deeply sorry if it troubles you though.  Ellayans are taught from a young age to be polite and decent in all things so it also becomes part of our speech.  For you, this may seem as extravagant and unnecessarily formal; for me, this is simply how I speak, how I have always spoken, and how I will continue to speak.”  He took a look at Lightshow and Parasite in particular before glancing at the rest of our group, “I do not mean to intrude or offend any of your sensibilities, but would it be wrong of me to assume that you displaced are not originating from Vuuldar?” 

We looked to Dragoon, unsure how what answer we were to give.

“You’d be correct,” she replied, “We’re from Tso’got.”

The Ellayan blinked a few times, at a loss for words initially.  “The home of the Zari is a great and vast distance away from Vuuldar; how is it that you all came to be here?” 

“Probably better you don’t know,” Dragoon said polite but firm.

Lamesh nodded and dropped his head, seemingly ashamed, “I seek your apologies, off-worlder, I meant no offense or to pry where I did not belong.  I am cursed with a sense of curiosity that earned ire many times now.”  

“You’re fine,” Parasite said with a laugh, “You aren’t going to earn our ire for asking a simple question.”  

Mutant shifted in his chair, “Lamesh, have you heard of the Lost Children?”

Dragoon turned to him, annoyed at his directness, but he chose to remain oblivious.  I had seen that face on him before, only moments ago: something was off and he was determined to figure out what.  I hoped his animal senses were wrong, but he had a phenomenal track record of being right.  

Was it too much to ask things could just go according to plan for once?  

Our Ellayan patron nodded slowly, “I know of whom you seek; they are a troubled sort and known for carelessness around rules and regulations.  I would do you disservice not trying to insist you search out others. There are many more pleasant people of NaMein who make for much better company.”  

“They are why we’re here,” Menagerie said softly, “We need to find them.”   

“We’re not your average tourists, in case you couldn’t tell by our garb,” Lightshow added with a smile.  When Lamesh cocked his head to the side, Lightshow conjured a little ball of light in her hand and snuffed it out with a snap of her fingers.   

“You are Selected?” he whispered softly, almost in awe.  

Parasite raised an eyebrow, “It was obvious already?  You’re saying other people wear clothing like this normally here?  Seriously?” 

“Bright colors and a variety of hues is common place.  While your companion’s rather… de-saturated vestment is not necessarily what would be considered standard fare, it isn’t necessarily unhead of either.  Your garb,” he said, gesturing to Parasite, “hardly seems rebellious or out of sorts to me in the slightest.”  

The owner walking over in jeans and a plain white t-shirt seemed a contradiction to Lamesh’s statement.  However, the Ellayan was sporting a tunic with swirls of vibrant green set against muted purple. If people had been here for years, it wasn’t absurd to think that many people would wear stuff that Ellayan people would wear; cultural bleed over was an inevitability after all.  

“How come there are no people around?” Mutant pressed, still wearing that dubious expression, “When we walked here, it seemed like a ghost town.” 

Lamesh frowned, “I’m afraid I don’t understand this ‘ghost town’ you speak of.” 

“When we arrived in NaMein, there was no one around and outside,” Dragoon clarified.  “Normally, we’d expect to see people walking around or hear some kind of activity during the day, but people almost seemed like they were hiding.”  

Lamesh’s face fell and he bowed to us, “Unfortunately our home is the cause of the public being so cloistered.  Humans are still… susceptible to Vuuldar’s pathogens and a wave of Milignum has fallen on NaMein within the last moon.  I fear you have selected a very poor Estuary to visit at the time present. All who still reside in the city remember the last wave of Milignum that swept through and are waiting for it to subside and complete its cycle.”  

This was someone who made clear to select the correct words, almost painfully so.  Something seemed odd to me. “Wave? What do you mean?” 

“Ellayan’s can only remain on the surface for a short time due to our inability to breathe for long, but also because avoiding the plagues of the surface has been more effective that attempt to institute cures.  On Vuuldar, insects carry haunting illness with them and migrate regularly. They are drawn to gatherings of wildlife, and in their eyes, cities are simply immense groups of wildlife. Humans seem unable to develop immunity to the disease, no matter what kind of medicine we are able to administer.”  

“Great,” Lightshow chuckled sarcastically, “We dropped into a plagued city.”  

“There were no swarms of bugs,” Mutant recalled, leaning forward, “Are you sure that’s why we saw no one?” 

While we grew tense and worried whether Mutant might shapeshift and attack, Lamesh seemed to miss his aggressive cue altogether.  “The plaguebringers are cyclical. They tend to occupy one area for a time and move, usually returning to blight the area three times before moving on.  Thus far, NaMein has only been blighted once. It is due two more waves.”  

It was damn good Titan had sent us with a cureall then.  

“Then it sounds like the quicker we can find the Lost Children the better,” I muttered, “The longer we sit around here, the longer we risk encountering whatever the fuck Milignum is.”  

“No signs, no warnings, no quarantine procedures,” Mutant muttered, his brow furrowed in suspicion, “Shouldn’t someone post something for the public.  Shouldn’t the government do something about this?”

“Government?” Lamesh asked.  “I am not familiar with what you mean.”  

“Someone that organizes the people,” Dragoon supplied, “Or groups of people who help make things run.”  

“A ruling collective,” Lamesh said, nodding to himself, “As far as I know, there has been no such entity or collective among the displaced.”  

Menagerie’s eyes widened as if she’d had some kind of epiphany, “Lamesh, how many humans have managed to survive on the surface of Vuuldar?” 

He smiled sadly, “I can’t say with perfect knowledge, but much fewer than should be.  The hand of fate has been excessively cruel to your kind who were unfortunate enough to venture here.”  

“How many?” Dragoon asked, concerned.  

“It was rumored that nearly fifty-million displaced landed on the surface, but as I understand it there is only a sliver of that number remaining.  Among the Estuaries there are only two million survivors in total, and half that number has moved away from our shores to cultivate land mass.” 

“It’s been twenty years since someone landed here,” Lightshow whispered, horrified, “There should be more offspring, more little one’s running around.  Right?” 

Lamesh wrung his hands, “Many who survived the plagues were hampered in child rearing.  Progeny have not come easily to those fortunate enough to persist. And those who do are often challenged by the delivery of another life into the world.”  

“And we thought Tso’got had it rough,” Parasite whispered, solemn.  

“Why is there no government,” I asked, “Why haven’t people come together to try and deal with this?” 

Our patron shook his head, “Not enough commonality between the survivors from what I can glean.  Disparate positions and opinions led to dissent and animosity; the displaced instead formed something akin to tribes.  While some of the practices of your old world have survived the travel to this world – such as the concept of money – the idea of a fully cohesive society perished.  Too many died and too many are damaged into believing that re-establishing such institution is a possibility.”

“Why don’t the Ellayan’s step in and help organize?” Dragoon asked.  

“My kin can only remain on the surface for a few hours before we must find a restoration pool or return to the sea.  One can only contribute so much in such a short span of time,” he lamented, “We have done our best to contribute with construction and helping to ensure the displaced had lodging and food, but we can only help our fellow so much beyond then.  Our physiology confines us to be separate I fear.”   

Mutant was quiet, still holding that hostile glare, but he had run out of holes to try and poke in Lamesh.  As much as I trust his animal senses, I was hoping he didn’t do anything rash. Lamesh was helping provide context for much of the planet where Titan hadn’t been able to inform us.  

Besides, he’d bought us lunch.  That made him a hero in my book.  

There was a glimmer of as the hologram surrounding Alexis distorted, her helmet being set down on the table.  Lamesh recoiled but then found himself leaning forward, inspecting the abrupt appearance. “How-?” 

“I can’t eat if I’m wearing my helmet.  I’m in a suit of armor, but I don’t want to look too out of place.”

“But you are a mere child,” he said, still surprised as he leaned closer to inspect the craftsmanship, “How did you create something so ornate and elegant?” 

“Never mind that she’s an Adapted, er, Selected as you call them here,” Parasite said, looking at his sandwich with a puzzled expression, “Why does this taste different than what I’m used to?” 

It wasn’t Lamesh that answered, but Menagerie who deduced the reason.  “Fauna is different here, so the food is different. People from the old generation wanted to keep a hold on something more familiar and kept the name of what it was similar to.”  

“Your soft-spoken companion is entirely correct.”  

“Still beats meat paste,” Parasite said after a half-second of silent deliberation.  

“Best not to ask,” Lightshow added quickly as Lamesh cocked his head to the side, very confused with the lack of context.  “Suffice it to say, weird tasting meat aside, this is the best meal we’ve had in weeks,” she insisted with her mouth full.  

Lamesh smiled, “I’m grateful to Elanj that I was able to supply you all with a delicious feast then.  I must confess, I am drawn to human cuisine in the many forms it takes. Ellayan society isn’t exactly able to fry and grill food quite the same way the displaced can.”

No one replied for a while, hastily devouring the food he’d been kind enough to buy for us.  My mother used to say that you could tell when the food was good if everyone shut up; that was definitely the case here.  Even Mutant’s apprehensions seemed to abate for a moment as we inhaled the food. 

Dragoon’s hologram reached over and picked up her helmet, sliding it back on and distorting the image projected just for a moment.  “Lamesh, can you take us to the Lost Children,” she requested. 

His eyes widened, “The Milignum could return at any moment and you want to travel?  I do not mean to doubt your aptitude as Selected, but I fear you don’t understand the significant effect that Milignum will have on you, especially as foreigners on our harsh planet.  I beseech that you wait out the duration of the blighting and then travel freely, unimpeded by a life-threatening plague.”  

“We have to find them,” Dragoon insisted, “It is why we are here.  If you can’t lead us, can you point the way? You have done enough for us already.” 

Lamesh seemed to mull it over for a few moments before hanging his head, “Elanj would not forgive me for abandoning a group of youth to the hostilities of the surface when I can do otherwise.  I cannot promise that the Lost Children are entirely known to me, but there is a location they have been known to occupy. I can lead you there. We would need to make haste however,” he added, “I do not have unlimited time to remain on the surface and will soon need to return to the waves.”

“What are we waiting for then?  Let’s go.” Dragoon insisted. At her words, we all rose and filed out the door, letting Lamesh lead the way.  To our collective surprise, he started running and beckoned for us to follow him. Running had never been something I enjoyed doing, and Menagerie clearly wasn’t too thrilled about it either, especially since our guide set a baffling pace for someone who didn’t have lungs built to last on land.  

One thing stood out to me as we ran past colorful blocks of houses and small complexes: the city was arranged into specific groupings distinguished by color.  With Lamesh providing context, I could see how things had broken down into more tribal collectives. The vivid colors weren’t only for beauty, they were to distinguish what group it belongs to as well.  There were more drab buildings, but those seemed to be neutral institutions.  

The only real commonality that I could tell from the drab colored buildings were that they all seemed to be public service institutions like clinics.  While there might not be a government to help things run smoothly, it was reassuring that enough people care for their fellow man to still erect and maintain a place of care.  

More on the concerning side was that you could see curtains move as we passed.  More than once I glimpsed an eye staring back at us from the edge of a window before drawing away.  

“He’s lying about something,” Mutant hissed as he ran beside me.  

“Huh?” I wheezed as I fought to keep pace.  

“Lamesh,” Mutant replied, making the run look far too easy, “He’s lying about something.  I don’t know what, but I don’t trust him.” 

I wanted to tell Mutant that he was being paranoid, but I couldn’t quite make the words come out; I was too focused on trying to breathe.  

It was probably half an hour of torture before we reached our destination and the Ellayan slowed to a halt outside of a building that was painted a vivid red with swirls of blue mixed in to create a design that looked something like a war between a raging flame the ocean tide.  

“This is as far as I can bear to take you all,” Lamesh said softly, “Forgive me, but I dare not meddle in the affairs of the Selected.  I am not so bold as to dare infringe and make myself a nuisance for people with divine abilities.”

I thought about telling him that the abilities of the Adapted or Selected were hardly divine, but that would have likely earned a long-winded response from him that I didn’t care to listen to.  The faster we could find the Lost Children and recall home, the better. Presuming he wasn’t lying about this Milignum blight, we were on a clock that might time out at any given moment.  

The building itself was a two story metal structure that looked like it had seen use holding industrial equipment, or at least that was the sort of thing a massive shed like this would have been used for back on Tso’got.  Interesting to see some of the commonalities between the building structures even worlds apart.  

Then again, the old guard was all from the same place to start.

As we stepped forward, Lamesh turned around but Dragoon stopped him, “Apologies, but it is customary for humans to shake the hands of those who have  been so helpful.”

Our guide smiled and took the outstretched arm she extended.  To add emphasis, she clasped his forearm and whispered another note of thanks before he turned and hastily departed.  Just how bad were the Lost Children that he was so desperate to get the hell away from here?

“I’m taking point,” Dragoon said firmly as she walked with purpose towards the door.  she opened and tugged, ushering us all in after a quick scan.  

It was almost completely empty save for a few pallets loaded with boxes bound up in cargo netting.  There was a small ledge above the first floor with a ladder giving access, but we couldn’t see anything up there as we stalked in.  A pair of bay doors were on the left, but they were closed and looked like they hadn’t seen any use in a long while.  

“There’s fucking nothing here,” I panted, “We fucking ran for nothing.”  

Mutant growled, “This is useless.  Lamesh has just wasted our time.”  

“We don’t-” Dragoon started.

“There’s almost no signs anyone has been here or lived in here lately,” Mutant pointed out, “The only reason you’d keep this place is to hide supplies, but there’s fuck all here except those boxes and look at how much dust is on the cargo netting!  No one has been here in weeks. I fucking knew we shouldn’t have trusted him!” 

“He didn’t promise us the Children,” Menagerie reminded him, try to diffuse his rage, “He only said that they tend to consort here.” 

“They don’t have the same infrastructure either,” Dragoon pointed out, “it isn’t like he has reliable internet to keep track of them.  It isn’t like back on Tso’got where there was absurd public interest surrounding the Adapted.”  

“I still say something’s off,” he snarled.  “I’m telling you, Drag, something is very-” 

He was interrupted by a ding of metal bouncing off the floor as something flew through the doorway.  

There was a burst of light and a shockwave that launched Menagerie, Mutant, and me back.  My ears were ringing and eyes burning as I scrambled, trying to get up only to topple again as my vision swam and head spun.

Heavy footsteps echoed around the near-empty space as a few figures strutted through the door, each of them clad in a sophisticated suit of metal.  

“Commander Zellig was right, the children are easy to lead,” one cackled with a voice that was more akin to a serpent’s hiss.

“Mind your manners, we wouldn’t want to be a bad influence.  They are children after all,” his companion replied with a deep, commanding voice that seemed to fill the whole room.   

We had seen regular foot soldiers back on Tso’got, and we’d had great success dealing with them all things considered.  These two however were a different breed entirely. I didn’t need Mutant’s animal senses or Parasite’s aptitude for reading body language to know that these two were incredibly dangerous.  A secondary impulse from within affirmed my suspicion. 

These two, they are exterminators.  They are no strangers to slaughter.

By defying the Trillodan and escaping, we had kicked the hornet’s nest.  Titan had set a precedent by using Forest and Infinite; we had shown exactly what we were capable of and now the Trillodan were going to send someone more adequate to deal with the threat.   

Zellig had held his own against half of Surface Dwellers and Clemency.  He had physically overpowered me and literally ripped me out of the Neklim mass without other assistance.  I’d seen him nearly broken in half and then sit back up.  

And these two held that same confidence their superior officer had emanated.   

Dragoon turned to me, shouting a single command. 

“GROW!”

I reached back and felt the rush of my Adaptation wash over me, the presence in me surging with power as I tapped into my storage and felt it burn.  Consequences be damned, now was not the time to exercise restraint. Both the Neklim and I had a common goal, just like we had when confronted by Zellig.  It would likely fight me when I attempted to gain control again, but for now surviving this encounter was the top priority.  

“Kill them,” I instructed the beast within.    

With pleasure.    

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Planetside: Landfall

(12/3/80 – Eldritch)

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

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

See, it is pointless to fight. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nightmares,” I stated plainly.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I caved.  “New notebook?”

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

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

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

“I can relate.”

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

“Yeah, she was.”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Without her, no one can control us.

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

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

A nervous ripple of laughter spread across the room.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whether we were ready or not, our crusade continued.

Next stop, NaMein.    

Previous ChapterNext Chapter

In the Void: Stress

Feeling your organs stop was a truly horrifying experience.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t-“

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her behavior almost made her seem like a child.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it-“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes that meant making the painful choice.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How about me?”  

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

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

“Murphy-“

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

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

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

“Let’s make it happen,” I replied.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We both nodded.  

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

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

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

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

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

Even through the reinforced armor, I felt that.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately he didn’t stay down.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We done?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous ChapterNext Chapter

In the Void: Schism

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

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

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

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

But the truly fun part had been designing the weapons.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your charge time?”

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

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

“Exactly,” I said, stifling a yawn. 

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

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

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

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

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

“You might be onto something.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was jarring being woken up by teleportation. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I beg your pardon?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murphy.

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

“So, Alexis,” he started.

“Murphy.”

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I agreed, “You aren’t wrong.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then what did you mean, Murphy?”

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

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

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

“Suddenly there’s something wrong with me?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alexis,” he growled.

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

“Alexis-“ he hissed, “Shut-“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dragoon, whats-“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  
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