Mark was barely holding back tears. This sucked. Everything sucked. He closed his eyes and tried to find his center but the horrific images of the church came to front and his eyes flashed open. He didn't want to experience that scene again. No one should have to do that.
Mark and his dad made good time to the church on the border between the apes and the wolves. They were even in high mood from the positive scene at the elementary school when they arrived, but that quickly changed when they saw what shape the church was in. They had rushed inside with healing potions but for the majority of the people there it was too late. Mark understood now better than ever that this was not a game.
Of the twenty souls who took refuge in the church yesterday, only six were left. The two office guys they had met yesterday were alive, but clearly something had died inside them. Everyone in the church was just barely moving. His dad had quickly gotten them organized, starting the process of packing up the meager supplies that weren’t raided by wolves or apes. He rallied them with stories about the Randall stronghold. It provided a ray of hope to the destitute group and spurred them into action. No one wanted to stay at the place where so much was lost.
Mark volunteered to stay and guard them but everything was quiet and his dad had pulled him aside.
“They need to do some mourning and say goodbye to folks. Best we not intrude for a while.”
Mark didn’t know what to say about that. He didn’t know how to process that much loss in one day. He understood that he probably wouldn’t be much help in that circumstance though, so he relented and followed behind his dad.
“We’ll be back in an hour or less. I’m just dropping these potions off to the high school and checking in with them. After that, we’ll escort you to safety.”
The ragtag bunch nodded and started to make their preparations. The only reason there were six left was the fact that one of them happened to be a decent martial artist and had managed to hold off the monsters from entering a single room. The tall african american held a bloodied metal pipe and nodded to my dad. He had assumed leadership of the group and was thankful for his dad’s support.
“We’ll be fine for the next bit. We’ll be ready when you come back around.”
“We’ll hurry. You and yours have my condolences Carl.”
Mark followed in silence behind his dad, deep in his thoughts. The church was awful, and he didn't even want to think about how the high school would be. He didn't really want to admit it, but something about seeing people who you went to school with for months versus seeing random strangers get decimated impacted you differently. He didn't want to know if his friends were dead.
The idea of this being a game was truly dashed. There may be mechanics, and there might be an interface, but the score keeping was out of whack. There was no way he could look at the bodies and not feel awful for even thinking about this as a game. He needed to do better. He'd help somehow, he just didn't know how yet. Maybe the high school would be his chance to start making a difference.
The trip was quick as nothing much seemed to be moving around. Of particular note to Mark was the very large mass of vines that jutted up from green mountain. The place had grown since last night in a terrifying way, and the jungle resembled something out of the deepest depths of the amazon. The street had a few places not covered by vines but for the most part they were travelling on a carpet of green. He could just barely make out the shapes of houses under the dense vines. Mark was glad his home biome was not this voracious in its growth.
As the approached the school they saw the scouts up on the roof. This time, however, they were armed with the bow that they had left last trip. This got Mark wondering what happened to the original owners. George was in that group, and he didn't imagine he'd give up his weapons that easily.
"Ho the school! We're bringing in some supplies! Mary figured out how to make healing potions, in case you have seriously injured folks, this stuff will patch them up pretty good."
His dad held two vials of the ruby red liquid high to both show them off and indicate his non-hostile intent. This didn't seem to matter as the next voice he heard was one of anger.
"You just stay right there! We don't need you spreading sedition in our ranks. I can not believe you gave weapons to kids Jason. You need to learn that this isn't a free for all. We need to have rules if we're going to survive!"
"Douglass, I know we don't see eye to eye on everything, but people need to learn how to survive out here if they want a chance at living. I'd think that the recent events would have proven that to you beyond all doubt."
"All I see if a man bent on trying to tear down the last bits of civilization we have for his own profit. We'll be fine here. We're organized and getting the right people the right tools so we can be safe. You and your damned anarchist ideals. You know those weapons you handed out were used inside the school? Against other kids! How dare you! When the government shows up I hope you have all your ducks in a row because you'll be going to jail for reckless endangerment."
His dad was trying to listen to the sheriff's tirade but some way through it he snapped. There was only so much verbal abuse he was willing to take and that was further reduced when the other party was the sheriff.
"What the hell are you talking about Arthur? Are you blind? People are dying out here, and there's no one coming to save us. We need to work together you moron! We have tons of meat from last night, literally tons. I know you have close to a thousand people in there, and they'll need to eat something. Why you are fighting me on this? We're just trying to help. Don't be an idiot!"
Mark, as an outside observer knew, that calling someone a moron and an idiot was probably not the best way to get them to agree with you, but he didn't really think now was a great time to get between the arguing men. He looked around the windows and roofs to see if he could spot any signs of people he knew. On the plus side, the school was mostly intact. Squinting to block out some sun he saw there a grouping of broken windows that gave him pause. It clearly was a case of something from the outside breaking in, but without actually running into the school to check things out he had no idea what sort of damage happened inside.
"You leave those bottles there, and come back with your meat. We'll make good use of it."
"Dammit Arthur, just let us in. We want to make sure everyone is ok."
"No, leave now. Put down the bottles. You don't need to check in on everyone."
Mark was just about to scout out the window to see if anyone needed help, but after hearing the sheriff's words, he decided that leaving was actually for the best. He would check up on Geroge another time. He didn't need to check in on everyone. He should probably leave now. Also, if he had some bottles, he should definitely put them down. He turned to leave he saw his dad was standing still and shaking in rage.
"Dad, what are you doing, we should leave now. We don't need to check in on everyone."
His dad turned to face him calmly and deliberately. He looked him in the eyes and without warning, slapped him across the face. Mark had never been hit like that before in his life, and it deeply shocked him. Sure, a stray elbow or arm may have got him during training, but that was always in a situation where things like that are possibilities, and he never saw his dad angry during any of those incidents. Mark blinked his eyes in surprise, and then noticed something that terrified him.
"Thanks dad, I don't... I'm not sure what I was doing there. Sorry."
His dad gave him a hug. "I'm so sorry Mark. I just needed to make sure you were able to break out of it. That scared the living piss out of me. Let's get out of here before he tries it again.
After placing the bottles on the ground, Mark and his dad quickly left the area. Mark knew that it might be tempting to try and get some more information on what was going on, but that would require some more planning. He looked over at the notification that had popped up awhile ago and shuddered again.
Influence override broken. New influence attacks reduced in effectiveness until event period is over.
Mark didn't realize how scary a system message could be until he read those lines. He now was worried about everyone in the school more than ever, but he didn't have the foggiest idea on what to do about it.
Liz got back to the house relatively unscathed. It took a lot longer as they had to collect up all the refugees they had encountered, but everyone seemed to be in relatively high spirits as they trudged along. The fact that they were moving further away from a zombie horde also helped. Most had camping gear, and almost all of them were loaded down with as much food as they could carry. Liz wondered how everyone would be doing without clothes and other essentials, but that would have to wait. For now, it was her responsibility to get these people to their new home.
A few monsters appeared near the group but between Liz's aerial view, and her crack shooting, nothing made it close enough to threaten them. Even the giant beak bear went unseen during their passing. This suited Liz fine as she was positive the rag-tag group behind her was not ready to deal with another calamity so soon.
All in all, they had picked up eight more people. This was going to start to become problematic, as she knew there wasn't enough space to sleep everyone in the house comfortably, and the yard was really exposed. She'd have to talk things over with Mom when she got home. They needed to plan out a city, and Liz wasn't exactly sure how she was going to do that.
Sooner than she expected the house came into view. Liz had an odd sense of misplacement when she saw it. The place barely looked like it did yesterday. Between clearing out trees around the house and setting up facilities to process monster bodies, the idyllic feel of her home was gone. That was ok though, she knew it would be changing even more soon. She pulled up with folks behind her and Mom came out to greet everyone. She was all smiles as she scanned the crowd for injuries or other issues. The group was trying to be upbeat, but stopping made them ponder the future, and that left them with more questions than answers.
"Welcome to Camp Randall! We have a few people who can help get you settled, but let’s go through introductions. We're going to be spending a lot of time together, and knowing how we can all contribute is going to be key to helping us survive long term.”
Liz breathed a sigh of relief. Mom had obviously been thinking about what would be happening next and getting everything ready for these sorts of eventualities. She saw that the fenced in yard was already divided up into plots for campsites and she could see the beginnings of a new foundation next to the barn. She was curious about what it would be but she'd ask about it later. For now she quietly slipped away as Mom started getting everyone organized.
Looking over the yard she saw that the home crew had been busy while they were away. Most of the monsters had been butchered and hung up. A few of the carcasses were cooking slowly over newly dug bbq pits. Liz wondered how much of their wood they'd be going through and for a moment actually afforded some time to think about the future. For now, they were holding out fine, and camping out in the yard would be acceptable till late spring and summer. Come fall and winter that would quickly change. She also couldn't discount the effect of the giant iceberg that formed a few blocks away. Who knew if the weather would remain the same or change completely in the next few months.
Lost in thought as she was she almost didn't notice the shouts coming from the west. That was where Dad and Mark had gone to check on things and she sprinted over. Liz's heart fell as she saw the group trudging into the yard. She had thought that her group had been crestfallen, but the survivors that Mark was leading into the processing area Mom had set up were clearly in much worse shape. Blood was still splashed across a lot of their clothing and she could tell that this group had not had an easy time of things. She saw Mark rush over to Mom and burry his head in her chest, trying to hide his sobs. A few quick orders and she stepped aside with Mark. Liz would have gone over as well, but Mom was a much better choice to comfort Mark. She would try and cheer him up later, for now she would try and figure out how she could help.
Rolling up her sleeves she stepped into the mix of refugees and immediately picked up what was going on. Mom had set up a little mini census and was trying to get everyone's skills and abilities recorded, no doubt to help figure out who could help around where. The system she had laid out was really straight forward. Liz had no trouble whatsoever picking it up. Not knowing how long Mom would be out, Liz resumed the process with everyone there. Dad glanced over to her with a grateful look on his face. He was pretty good at public speaking, but this sort of thing tended to make him nervous. He was an advocate of 'do unto others how you would have them do unto you' which generally meant 'Leave me alone and go away'. That wasn't really an option here.
Liz easily slid into the organizer role. She was good at it, and every committee in school would fight to get her involved. It was a well known fact that any time Liz was part of your planning, it would go much more smoothly. Liz chuckled a little to herself. Who knew that organizing prom decorations would be a skill that transferred so well into setting up post-apocalyptic communities.
A few minutes later Mom came back out and between the two of them they made short work of the remaining tasks. Camping sites were assigned, work crews organized, and skills cataloged. Taking a moment, Liz looked to see what they had ended up with.
Their yard now hosted two more families and another nine individuals. Between those groups they had a good variety of skills, but sadly most were just office workers. She knew that wasn't very nice of her, but really, paperwork was not their most pressing need at the moment. On the plus side, they had a construction foreman who would be incredibly useful, and someone who was a furniture builder by trade. He had a few useful skills and Liz hoped that they would both be able to get some abilities that would help build out their little settlement soon.
A few hunters, a nurse, Jessie the blacksmith, and the martial artist from the church group rounded out the specialized skill group. On top of that, a cook and some gardeners were in the group. Almost all of them had developed basic mana manipulation, but few had a specific ability.
To remedy this everyone was given mana cores of the appropriate type and a practice schedule developed by Mom. Even if the system was not quite as generous with delivering abilities, she thought everyone had a good shot at unlock something. After the User Data system had come online Mom had been able to closely validate a lot of her theories, and was confident in how to move forward. It was clear that people with high skills were able to develop abilities off of those skills with much more ease than trying to do something random. Also, they had learned a lot from how people developed their mana manipulation, and that seemed to be a key towards future growth.
After people got settled, little time was wasted in exploring their potential abilities. Everyone had a sense of urgency that was completely understandable given the circumstances. People broke off into groups with similar skillsets to try and unlock something together. As their experimentation went forward Liz could hear the occasional cry of joy. They were welcome and raised the spririts of the camp in general. These small victories meant a lot to people who had lost everything. For the first time since the system came online, many finally felt they were grasping back a bit of control. Not seeing Mark around Liz turned to Mom.
“Is Mark okay?”
“He’s going to be ok, but there’s just a lot going on right now. You know how sensitive he is, and the reality of the situation is catching up to him.”
Liz had the briefest of moments where she thought, “I told him so.” but quashed it almost instantly. The fact Mark was realizing people were dying wasn’t something to hold over his head. She wondered how she might be able to help and if reading her thoughts Mom chimed in.
“You should just treat him the same. He needs some anchors to help him ground himself. If you go an change a lot on top of everything else it will just throw him for a loop. I know you two snipe a lot at each other, but I think you both realize there’s a lot of support there. Just know that I believe in both of you. We’ll get through this.”
After the speech Mom gave me a huge hug and went over to the groups of survivors to get lunch organized. It was coming up on noon, and she set a few groups of people to the task of preparing meat for smoking and drying. Fortunately, we had tons of salt, literally mountains of the stuff, so we’d be able to preserve a lot of this. Unfortunately, we also had tons of meat we had to deal with before it went bad so that was a lot of work.
As she stood up she saw Mark going back over to a group from the church. His eyes were red but no one commented and he dug right into helping people out. Liz was about to approach when she heard a shrill whistle blow. It followed the pattern that they had given to George, and with a quick glance over to Mark she knew he realized that as well. Without pause or hesitation, Mark flashed down the street using his Falling Step and soon disappeared from sight. Liz almost raced after him but decided to get the horses instead. As she hopped onto a horse bareback Dad had come up beside her.
“What’s the situation? I saw Mark bolt but he didn’t say anything.”
“That was the signal we gave George to let us know if he was close but needed help. We have to get there quick.” Liz kicked her horse to a gallop. She didn’t have a ton of experience riding bareback, but she felt time was of the essence.
Dad soon came up beside her, also riding bareback, and looked down the street trying to catch sight of Mark. “I hope whatever it is, Mark can handle it by himself for a bit.”
Liz nodded and returned her focus on to staying on the horse. She hoped so too.