“Uncle Hank!” Jane shrieked, dropping her rubber ball and throwing herself at him in a blur of blonde pigtails.
Hank’s eyes narrowed a fraction, even as he beamed at her and swept her off in his arms. After all, she moved fast. Of course, not too fast, but with enough speed that she probably had 40-50 Agility, and with enough Reaction and Perception to manage it all. The girl was fucking 9, what the hell was her school putting her through…?
“Heya weasel,” Hank said, spinning around the shrieking girl until she was helpless with giggles. They were currently standing in a manicured park near the Lodestone School, filled with extremely intricate jungle gyms designed to train Stamina and dexterity in the children who played there, rather than breed fun. To the side, Ms. Smoke was standing, a frown on her face as she looked at Hank.
Of course, Ms. Smoke didn’t speak; Ms. Smoke was a stickler for the rules, and she was only a Tier 2 citizen. It would be improper for her to reprimand Hank Howard, an exalted Tier 3 citizen unless he was doing something obviously reprehensible and damaging to the interests of Jane.
‘Oh, how far we’ve fallen,’ Hank thought, somewhat sadly, as he rubbed Jane’s head.
Which didn’t mean that Ms. Smoke felt shy at all about her constant glares. But it did mean that she would let Hank pull his niece out of school, if only for half the day. He disliked the hierarchy most of the time, but he supposed that if he had to slog through the shit on a daily basis, the least he could do is enjoy the benefits on days like this.
“Oh Uncle Hank! I’ve missed you so much! Pleeeeease help me skip school. We are having a quiz in monster anatomy class today, and I am going to fall asleep and then DIE if I have to sit through one more remedial lecture! PLEAAAAASEEEEEEE.”
Hank smiled looked at Ms. Smoke.
Her frown deepened.
“I don’t see why not,” He said brightly. “Why don’t we get ice cream?”
After an afternoon and evening of spending quality time with his niece, Hank found himself standing before the President of the UHF.
“Alan, you are getting fat,” Hank said, partially to break the tension of their staring contest, but partially to point out to the man that he was truly letting himself go.
Alan harrumphed in that way that Hank knew so well from their childhood, in the way that meant ‘I am well aware and the only reason it is happening is that I am so inundated with important, pressing matters that my personal health is the least important of my challenges and I have deliberately decided that it is the area in which I am most comfortable with some small amount of lax behavior’.
Or something. Hank knew his brother Alan very well or used to. Growing up, they had been extremely close. Even before the System came, they were still very tightly connected. But somewhere in his heart, Hank knew what it was. Alan had never forgiven him for that third pronouncement by Ghost.
Alan Howard: Tier 1
Hank Howard: Tier 3
Even now, as Alan Howard sat at Tier 4, the most important nonmilitaristic individual in the Zone, it wasn’t enough. That small jealousy had grown into something insidious and persistent.
But they were still brothers, so Alan said nothing about the comment, leaning back in his chair and folding his fingers into a steeple. “Have fun today?”
“Yes,” Hank said simply. They both knew that Hank had a very close relationship with Jane. And Hank believed that Alan was also aware that Jane needed something like that in her life. Especially since she had been transferred to the Lodestone School, a move that Hank had vehemently opposed, she needed those moments where she could forget the pressure of living under the weight of the System and remember that she was just a kid.
“...Well, if you don't wish to speak on it further, then I won’t belabor the point; keep your distractions to the minimum, alright? Now-”
“Distractions?” Hank interrupted, glad that Alan had the poor sense to send away his honor guard. Of course, Ghost would be watching, but there was only so much that the AI could do from afar, and it allowed Hank to speak freely. “What she needs is a childhood. The Dungeons are handled, the monsters have been pushed back from the populated areas. Why drive the children so hard? Your own fucking daughter, Alan.”
Alan swiveled in his leather chair and stood. When he stood, he emphasized that slowly building belly even more. Where Hank was tall and a little towards a stockier build, Alan had always been shorters and slighter. To consider the possibility now that his brother was heavier than him… it was somewhat amusing to Hank.
“You know,” Alan said, interrupting Hank’s thoughts, “Ghost had run a lot of simulations, based on available information. According to his calculations, we are in the 72nd percentile of possibilities. That means that 38% of other Zones might be-”
“Bah,” Hank scoffed. “We both know that those statistics are bullshit. They are based on the premise that others had a comparable amount of ammunition and foodstuffs prepared in their area, and people with the training to use the supplies effectively. It’s meaningless. How have you convinced yourself your daughter is going to save the world, Alan? She’s-”
“She’s my daughter,” Alan said, his voice rumbling dangerously. “True, the stats don’t paint an accurate picture. But they illustrate the real danger that there will be other Zones that could reach our Level of power, even if they are likely below us in technology. If a violence-crazed warlord rose to power in the vacuum left by the System-”
Then Alan forcibly stopped himself, seeing Hank about to speak. They had this conversation in 1000 ways, 1000 times. They did not agree. Finally, Alan simply said, “Dr. Karman was assassinated, Hank. We never caught the killer. If things hadn't- god, if we had devolved into a civil war…. Even Ghost was clueless. But it cannot be denied that the culprits were looking to sew chaos.”
They were both silent for a long second. Both remembered the two months following the death of the respected doctor, and how quickly things had almost dropped out from under them, leaving the government hamstrung by cutthroat politicians and short-sighted scientists who would have lost the entire forest for their own individual tree.
But they made it passed that, albeit barely.
“If something… if they took Jane… I…” Alan said, his face bleak, some of his professional facade falling away. Hank wondered how much of the reveal was contrived, but at least he believed that Alan genuinely felt that worry for Jane. Hank knew he himself did, and couldn't imagine that the father of that bundle of joy would feel any less.
Deciding to remain silent, Hank just stared at the ground, abruptly too tired to argue. That was why he continued to work as a sheriff, even as he was largely disgraced. Because there were people in this Zone worth protecting. Children like Jane, and that kid from yesterday. Innocents who knew nothing of the backstabbing and the posturing, who were struggling under the weight of their Tier 1 status to survive in this new, regimented world.
And if he had to support this corrupt system, to do it…
Closing his eyes, Hank pictured Jane’s smiling face earlier when she had realized she had ice cream on her nose.
“Why did you call me here?” Hank said, his voice gravelly.
Alan straightened, turning back to Hank. After coughing, he said, “...as you know, we have two main expeditions heading out in two days to explore the new areas available to us, after our Zone joins the reconstructed Earth. This was done after Ghost’s careful calculations, and all of the members of those are already selected. But… after some explanations from us beings of flesh… Ghost was persuaded that there might be cause for a third expeditionary force. You would be in charge.”
There were so many reasons that Hank wanted to refuse, he was momentarily frozen as he decided which was the most pressing. The hassle of leading such a force first off, beyond that the political niceties that he wouldn’t have time for, and also the pointlessness of these mining expeditions…
Besides, as far as Hank was aware, all the Dungeon Divers of note were already part of the first two forces; only dregs would be left for the third.
Alan held up a hand. “Wait, I can already see you jumping to conclusions. It won’t be large, like the others, at most 5 people. Your group would be designed… for other reasons. You would remain on standby for now, and only move when a second Zone connects to another world.”
Hank’s eyes flickered with recognition. Then he frowned. “...What did you have in mind? It wouldn’t be a political delegation, not if you are sending me. You know me better than that. You also know that I have no mind for business, so any trading beyond some small things I have, that couldn’t be it either. So I have to assume that we will be involved in some sort of espionage. or assassination.”
Alan sighed. “Don’t be dramatic. You are going for your Pathfinding Skill. What we will need to identify the best route between the two Zones, through what will likely be very dangerous territory. Once there, I would expect you to have enough common sense to contact whatever powers that be there, but only to lead their agents back to us, so we can communicate. I’d prefer that you take the time between now and another Zone connects to familiarize yourself with the areas we can explore in two days, but if you insist on your two-bit crusade for justice-”
“I do,” Hank affirmed.
“-just consider it alright?”
Sneering, Hank said, “Who is askin’?”
Alan seemed to age before his very eyes. “...just your brother, Hank. You are the best man for this job. I’d appreciate if you helped me out on this.”
Slowly, Hank shook his head. He pointed at a dossier on the table. “This is supposed to be my comrades? Heath hates my guts and would butcher a stranger as soon as give him the time of day. And Ezekial? I’ve never met him, but I’ve heard the rumors. He’s more monster than man, at this point.”
Alan pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, sat down in his leather chair, and turned forward, facing Hank face on. “Fine. Then here are your orders, from the President of the UHF. Meet your allies. Position yourself in one of the border cities. Because as soon as some Zone connects to the world, you are going there. You are dismissed.”