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A note from puddles4263

7/14

The kid was so direct that the whole group couldn’t help but smile. Afterall, what would a 10-year-old know of the decisions that adults needed to make?

Hank grinned and squatted down next to the kid. Whereas the orange haired teen was constantly badgering him, Hank was much more pleased by this relatively reserved boy who stood by and watched the adults talked. It reminded him of Jane.

"Heya partner," Hank extended his hand. "It might be dumb, but sometimes you need to sacrifice things if you are focused on a specific goal. My name's Hank, by the way. What's yours?"

"Nathan," Nathan said, shaking Hank's hand. Then he regarded him critically. "Hank, are you a cowboy? You look like one."

Hank chuckled. "Well, I like to think so."

"What's your Class?" Nathan pressed, looking at Hank with serious eyes.

Blinking, Hank considered being quiet to hide his strength, but it wasn't like they were enemies. He knew it was a decision that would make Ghost frown, but there seemed no harm in saying it. "Gunslinger."

"Oh interesting," Nathan's eyes went wide, and Hank straightened, pleased with how the conversation went. But then Nathan spoke again, and Hank was struck dumb. "What were your starting Skills? Your Stat gains per Level? What are your primary stats?"

"Uh..."

"Can I just see your Class? That will be easier." Nathan announced.

Hank just looked down at the serious child. "You want to see... my status screen?"

"No, I want to see-" Nathan began, but he was interrupted.

"This can wait until later," Dinesh said, his hand clapping on Nathan's shoulder, instantly shutting him up. The Indian man smiled at Hank's group. "Anybody hungry?"

****

Ghost considered the new information that was flowing through him.

Ever since his creation, Dr. Karman had warned him that although their Zone 1 was the most well prepared, and the Zone that the System had judged to have the most potential, that the greatest advantage of humanity was their adaptability and creativity. It was the same advantage that Ghost himself possessed, as an AI. Humans would struggle against any obstacle, overcoming it in strange and unpredictable ways.

As if proving that very point, Dr. Karman had told him that contrary to expectations, their Zone was not the first to found a village; that honor went to another location. Although there were a thousand ways that whichever Zone that had accomplished that could fail, there was also a much greater chance that this rival Zone would be able to survive the trials and meet them in the final portion of the System's reorganization of the world.

From the very first instance of viewing Dinesh and Tykes, Ghost was sure that this very situation had come to pass.

What Ghost couldn't understand was what exactly was the advantage that this Zone possessed, that it allowed them to come so far. It was clear from Dinesh's comments that it wasn't a materials advantage. Their rather primitive, if intriguing, armor demonstrated that they really started with very few advantages. Ghost wasn't exactly sure how many Zones were created on Earth but suspected that it couldn't be much more than one hundred. This was due to the size of the Zones, as well as the size of the areas of land that had been frozen in time and added to their Zone. The System rearranged land, but it was at least limited by the area of Earth.

Perhaps the true weight hanging over Ghost was the decision over what to DO about this new Zone. The initial contact with these strangers seemed to indicate that the Zone they came from was strong, but Ghost's calculations indicated that they likely had a much smaller populous to draw from. It wasn't an ideal solution, but should it come to war Ghost wasn't above using a superior number of Tier 1 citizens to overwhelm the opposition with plasma pistols. In addition to that... perhaps it was time to move forward with some of Ghost's other plans. Ghost made a memo to jump-start the drone initiative so that the Zone wouldn't be too suspicious when he revealed his own secrets forces.

Unfortunately for him, those forces could only be considered upper-class Tier 5 citizens, based on his scale. From that small conflict alone, it was clear that the two individuals from Zone 32 were Tier 6, at the very least. Ghost was glad that he had spent the time and effort to train those long distance sniper squads. These close-range specialists were dangerous, but there were still methods of dealing with them.

But Ghost still had a bad feeling, which was extremely strange for him. He was not an entity that typically relied on emotional or spiritual cues; he was a machine, and everything that was him was calculations. But this was a calculation without any real basis. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the basis was there, but as of yet Ghost had been unable to make any sense of it.

What was the advantage that Zone 32 possessed so that they were able to become the second Zone that was part of New Earth? Only three days after the arrival of their Zone 1?

*****

Dinesh held the plasma pistol in his hand, considering it as a weapon. Even without the requisite Skill that these others from Zone 1 talked about, he could still feel the channel through the simple machine into which he could thrust his Mana. He looked in askance at the leader, the Gunslinger Hank Howard.

The man nodded shortly, curiosity clear in his bright eyes. “I’d love to see you use it. You're a mage, ain'tcha? That’s pretty rare in our Zone.

Dinesh made note of the twitch in Hank’s companions when he said that so easily. Although Hank didn’t appear to regard it as such, their two Zones were clearly in a competition of sorts. A friendly one, if the Ghosthound had his way, but a competition nonetheless. It wasn’t yet clear what benefits the Fate Stones beyond the first would have, but with how much time the Ghosthound had spent in the past two days inside of the Danger Zone, it seemed significant.

In a way, the others reactions to him made Dinesh pity Hank. The man didn’t understand how deeply he was in the schemes of others. But at the same time, Dinesh had a feeling that things weren’t that simple. When he looked at Hank, he was reminded of Dozer, of all people. There was an implacable brutality to him, although Hank’s was of a more sophisticated variety.

In their eyes was the sure confidence of a man reliant on violence, and experienced in its execution.

Focusing his thoughts to the task at hand, Dinesh carefully channeled Mana into the plasma pistol. After Karlito fed the group, they had met and agreed to carefully exchange technology. For the Zone 32 group, that meant providing equipment to Hank and his peers, as an example. The one who unleashed that strange, poison spell was still unconscious, but the others received various leather armors with Engravings done by the Ghosthound himself.

The Engravings were of a very high quality, but the equipment they were on was just average. Still, the effect was staggering.

“Fucking hell,” Hank swore. Then he glanced apologetically at Nathan before continuing. “You mean… all of your clothes provide stats? Like 10 each?”

That was another redeeming quality in the man’s favor, Dinesh thought. He had a kindness towards children that was rare in the post System world.

“Well, more or less,” Dinesh said. “The examples provided are geared primarily towards stats; most equipment simply provides flat health increases. Still, in an extended fight, they often are extremely useful.”

The short Asian woman with the milky eyes ran her fingers over the boots in her hands, a wistful expression are her face. “May we… may we keep these?”

Dinesh nodded, solemn. “Of course, consider them a gesture of goodwill. Repayment for stealing your kill.”

The group seemed to accept this, all of them cheery at the newly acquired equipment. The singular items seemed strange, compared with the rest of their dress, but they all put them on in one way or another. But although this was a touching scene, it didn’t make sense at all to Dinesh.

‘Surely, their Village Spirit, or the Champion, would have provided equipment to them. Why do they not have it…?’ Dinesh wondered, but there was no real way to ask without revealing how much he was confused by this occurrence. But perhaps that just displayed Dinesh’s own prejudices. It was something worth reflecting on.

To pay him back, they provided him with a basic plasma pistol, which he held now. He raised it, aiming at a large stone sticking out of the ground 50 meters away. They assured him that the weapons had little recoil, and, therefore, more accurate than most handguns.

Not that this information meant anything to Dinesh; he had never fired a gun before.

It was strange at first, his Mana almost cramping from the strange use, but then some barrier broke, and he learned the Mana Infusion Skill. A bright azure bolt sailed across the distance, striking the rock squarely. Very quickly, the projectile burnpumpkin-sizedsized hole in the stone.

Dinesh whistled. All that for only 20 Mana? No wonder they mass produced these. It would make the beginning stages of the System a joke.

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