Mark woke up the next morning in a great mood. He had cool new abilities, was doing awesome with his stealth stuff, and was totally going to get the paper that dad had. As he started going through his morning routine he got another piece of awesomeness delivered to him via the system.
Ability System updated. >>
Mark’s eyes widened as he saw the little brackets. That meant selectable text! He quickly tried to expand the window.
<< Ability System Updated
Abilities that leverage multiple pools have been optimized to fit user preferences in pool utilization. Non-Magic pool primaries should benefit heavily from these c $str(‘trying to get everything up can’t fit lrg msg in mem if Admin & alive come to loc4’)
Well, that was a little bit messed up. Mark didn’t quite know what to make of that message. Someone really needs to fix the text stuff because that was just sloppy. The second half was just confusing. He wasn’t sure if the system was asking for help or what, but he guessed it was probably worth noting down for the future.
Looking at the first part again Mark figured Liz would be happy. She was complaining constantly about how much it sucked that her mental pool was useless compared to her magic. Wait, that meant his pools were no longer as awesome. This was totally a nerf! He rushed outside to check out how everything was working.
A morning of testing revealed that the updates were not actually a nerf. Mark’s abilities were all more efficient, and drew from his other pools in a much more balanced way. Overall, it was the same number of points, but because it was spread out a bit more, he was able to sustain things for longer. The morning hunt and general chores went much more smoothly because of this. Liz in particular was ecstatic. She was finally able to keep her abilities activated a heck of lot better than before.
“Eh, magic pools, who needs em?”
Mark just grumbled. He didn’t mind that she was able to dish out a ton more shots, but it was still kinda annoying. He had been totally ok with having the most mana. He guessed it was good overall. At the end of the day, more efficiency across the board meant better survivability, and Mark was appreciating that a lot more. Plus, he still could use more abilities in a row compared to Liz, even if her mental pool was huge, because mana was just more important in general. Eat that Liz.
The morning crawled along and Mark was starting to get anxious as the time for the note grab was coming up. He knew they were really well prepared, but he was worried that they might be too late to do anything helpful. When they went for their dropoff the crystal capacity was at 95%, and if they didn’t get the people in the school to start doing some more clearing it was a given that they would hit that 100% mark. They needed to be warned if they hadn’t figured it out yet themselves. It was possible that they were still clueless about it too. The message didn’t pop up unless you actually entered a zone, and as stationary as the high school crew was, they may not have done that for days. Guess there was nothing to do but keep moving forward.
The designated time for the note grab came up and Mark suddenly wished there was more time. He was suddenly hit with a case of butterflies in his stomach and started to doubt everything they had practiced. Maybe they should try a new strategy. Maybe they could just convince his dad. He nervously started to clench and unclench his hands as he imagined how everything could suddenly go wrong.
“Comon Mark, just like we practiced. This will be a piece of cake.” Liz was obviously trying to calm him down but it wasn’t working. “Seriously, how can you be so optimistic about things that you’ve never tried before and for the thing that we’ve actually practiced tons for you flip out?”
Mark mumbled in vague agreement not really paying attention to Liz and went over the rules in his head one more time.
He couldn’t be seen, even in clone form. That came up on the second day when his dad pointed out even shadow versions of Mark being seen would tip off the sheriff and potentially cause issues between the communities. Mark suggested wearing a mask but his dad insisted that not being seen, period, was the only way to go. He couldn’t blow anything up either, and that was a bummer. It was so much easier than sneaking into a place and was a great distraction. Still, no explosions. Lastly, no hurting people, that was just a given. Reviewing their strategy one more time they went into action.
The entire camp had taken to watching the antics of Mark and Liz during these past few days. After the construction of the obstacle course, his dad had taken to setting up a lawn chair in one of the random ‘hallways’ we had set up. When everyone asked what was going on, the story of the note was told. People were more than happy to help built out more of the obstacle course at that point and a few even took to participating by walking around the course to provide additional challenge. For most people it was a welcome distraction and, without TV, was the best show in town.
Mark glanced over at George’s mom before starting the run. Haley stood at the sidelines biting a finger in anxiety. For her it wasn’t entertainment. For her it was peace of mind in knowing her only child was ok. Several other members of the camp who also had ties to people in the school adopted similar stances. Mark wasn’t just doing this for himself, he had a lot of people counting on him. He wasn’t going to let them down.
Liz looked over to their mom and gave a thumbs up. Mark gave his affirmative to the mix and their mom turned over a recently constructed hourglass. It was go time. Liz kicked things off by sending Alana up to scout. Her abilities with Eyes of the Beast had evolved a lot over the past few days and she could now jump between pets incredibly fast. This was key to the next part of their plan.
Spotting an opening, Liz whispered to Mark. “West side, entrance fourteen, clear for a bit.”
Mark literally leaped into action. A puff of mist was all that revealed he had moved to the selected entrance. Without making a single sound, he placed Natasha onto the wooden ramp that replicated the air conditioning ducts inside the school. Liz swapped her vision between both Alana and Natasha as she guided Mark back out. His job wasn’t quite over, but it was Natasha’s turn now.
Mark crossed his fingers and hoped that Natasha wouldn’t make too much noise. Their first few attempts were disastrous as they learned how much noise a small creature that weighed disproportionate amounts could make. With Liz’s help Natasha had learned to walk quietly. After constant practicing, Liz had learned that Natasha could actually manipulate shadow like a physical substance. She couldn’t do much more than coat her paws in the stuff, but that still made a world of difference. Natasha could now walk on little shadow pads that helped keep the noise level down, and in a pinch, could use it to extend her little claws. Considering how strong the mouse was, that meant she could literally tear her way into all sorts of places now. That would come in handy for the last part of this test.
Minutes crept by as Natasha slowly made her way to the target area. At this point, Liz was doing most of the work, as she guided Natasha through the predicted movements of the people walking around their course. The replica school was not as enclosed, but still provided a wealth of passageways and cover that Natasha was able to leverage effectively with Liz’s guidance. Without that help, Natasha was usually discovered almost immediately. Mark thought the course also made a really cool playground, and when not doing this test the other kids would play around it. They had some epic games of hide and seek there. It helped the kids develop skills too. His mind snapped back to the present as he saw a land on a nearby tree. That was his signal!
It was Mark’s turn again. Looking to where Alana was, he stealthily appeared in the tree beside her. He patted Alana on the side, and started his count. This was the trick they had figured out to try and get that last bit that eluded them on their previous attempt. Mark rocked the branches back and forth while Alana made loud squawking noises.
This caused pretty much everyone in their fake school to take notice. Dad decided to play along and got up to check out the commotion. That's when Natasha, who was waiting nearby, pulled apart the hollowed log she was hiding behind to snatch the note. Liz made sure to read it and place it back with no one the wiser. A few harrowing seconds later, Natasha was ready for extraction and Mark bounced around to the opposite side of the course. He held a hand out for the successful spy mouse and delivered her back to Liz.
"So what did it say?"
"No. You do not get to keep it a secret. You have to tell me."
His dad had wandered over at this point and looked over at them.
"That was really well done kids. I honestly did not see anything happen with the note. You got in and got out without a hitch, which is a heck of a lot better than anything you've done prior. So my only question is did you see what was in the note?"
Liz rolled her eyes. "Yes, and that was the lamest thing Dad. Seriously."
"What! What did it say?" Mark was starting to get a little frantic as his curiosity tried to excavate itself from his skull and throttle Liz until she told him the answer.
His dad saved him the trouble by handing him the nondescript piece of paper. After Mark read it he understood Liz's eye roll. Looking over to his dad he said in a pained voice.
"Really dad? That was the note."
"It seemed appropriate."
Mark sighed. It was appropriate, but still. He guessed he shouldn't have figured anything else. Reading over the note one more time to make sure that he had it right he spoke the words aloud in the most obnoxious voice he could.
"Fine. You can go try and contact George."
Still, he was totally going to do that now.
Liz was a bit peeved at the message but excited at the prospect of finally getting more information about what was going on in the school. Four days wasn't that long in the greater scheme of things but for time post-apocalypse it felt like an eternity. In four days she had gone from barely being able to see through the eyes of her pets to being able to feel everything and bounce around almost instantly. She went from hardly being able to hit a moving target to creating mystical arrows from thin air and hitting moving targets the size of a thimble. She shuddered to think what could have happened over four days inside a school where a man who could control people's actions with his voice was in control. At least now she would know.
She went to her room and started preparing her things. Tomorrow was going to be a big day. Liz went over her list a few more times just to make sure she had it down pat when a knock on her door interrupted her thoughts. Most people didn't spent much time in the house, especially since they got the outdoor kitchen setup, so it was strange to hear the knock. Not knowing what to expect Liz hesitantly walked over to her door.
"Who is it?"
"It's me. Jocelyn. Uh, I really needed to ask for some advice, and I knew you were here, so sorry to bug you, but do you have a minute?" a very hesitant voice replied through the door.
"Sure..." Liz opened the door and let Jocelyn in. Her eyes were darting back and forth in a manner that scream 'I shouldn't be doing this' make Liz a little nervous about her decision. Her curiosity always got the better of her though, and this was certainly an interesting development.
Jocelyn had not been participating much in the community to date. After her dramatic arrival, she spent most of her time holed up in the house and was very hesitant to go out for any reason. Liz knew she was a computer nerd in school, so this was somewhat expected, but everyone in the camp also knew that they needed to be pulling their weight. The kids were mostly an exception but there were still a lot of non-combat related things that needed to be done and everyone was pitching in. Everyone except Jocelyn. Since she was legitimately traumatized everyone had been giving her some space, so this proactive step was unexpected.
"What's up?" Liz ventured, trying to sound casual as she took a seat on her bed.
"Look, I know you've been working on doing stuff to get more info on what's going on with the school, and that everyone is doing tons of work to help make things work out, but this has all been really weird for me."
Liz didn't know what to say about that, so she just stood silent waiting for Jocelyn to continue.
"And I know I haven't really been pulling my weight recently. There's so much going on and it's all kinda overwhelming, and I was never really into physical activity stuff and that's like everything that needs to get done."
Jocelyn was pacing back and forth at this point, working herself up to do something. It didn't seem like she was going to be violent so Liz stuck to her plan of just listening for now. Jocelyn raised her hands up and ran them through her short cropped hair.
"It's just, I only really worked with computers. You know? That's like, everything I did. I thought..." Jocelyn looked like she was about to cry but pushed forward.
“I thought it was all over. That I would just die and get eaten by one of those things that was spawning. I was just waiting to die when you got me back here. Then I was alive, and I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t go back out there, not with those things everywhere. I’m not like you. I can’t shoot a bow or throw a knife or anything really. I just know how to code, and stuff.”
Jocelyn’s frantic pacing had stopped at this point and she walked over to Liz’s desk. On it stood her defunct computer and a makeup mirror. Neither had gotten much use over the past few days. Jocelyn grabbed the laptop, and then plugged it into the mirror. Liz opened her mouth to say something but her brain refused to move past the part where someone just plugged her non-functional laptop into a mirror.
“What. How. Mirror.” was all she managed.
Jocelyn just continued along and waited until a set of messages started to appear in the mirror.
“So, I thought, everyone was doing stuff they were good at, but I only was good at computers. After your Dad got his gun working and that bus driver came around, it got me thinking. Maybe I could get something working too. I started sneaking into your room to test things out, and I did it. I got it working. But it’s all weird.”
Jocelyn’s fingers flew across the keyboard and Liz struggled to keep up. She accepted that in light of the context just given, using a computer program was possible, but she was still a little hung up on the whole plugging the computer into the mirror thing.
“Here. Here’s where I got. I can’t change anything. Not for real. I can just mess around with the text in the basic interface. All the data is stored remotely and I write to it through the available API’s. That or I don’t have the right cert. Still, I got here.” She pointed to the mirror which showed a bunch of text. “There’s this one place where I can upload stuff that doesn’t really do anything, but I think… I think that if I can write a file to that location, maybe I can talk to the people who made this system.”
Liz’s eyes tried to escape from their sockets as she processed the information Jocelyn had just dumped on her. She didn’t get the acronyms or the storage stuff, but she did understand the gravity of being able to leave a message to the people who made the system. That was a pretty major game changer.
“I got the idea with the last message. It was so human, you know? It was like someone was hijacking a system to do something else, but they didn’t have enough access or something? Not sure, but I figured if someone else was hacking it, so could I, and that’s when I got the Hacking ability. Is that okay? I mean, I’m sorry for using your computer and stuff but I didn’t know what else I should be doing and it was a safe place, you know?”
Liz could only nod. Her mind was racing. There were so many things she wanted to know about what was going on. So many questions she had.
“Have you seen anything or contacted them in any way yet?”
Jocelyn shook her head. “I was afraid. I’m not sure if I wanted to draw their attention to the fact that I can sorta kinda hack their system.”
Liz stood up and started some pacing of her own. She ran probabilities and risks around her head. She shuffled through scenarios. Her mind went into overdrive thinking about possible outcomes but in the end one overriding fact conquered all her doubts.
“You should send a message. We have to know what’s going on. If someone know’s what’s coming next, or can help us in any way, that could literally mean the difference between life and death for everyone here. You could be the only one on the planet who can help us figure out what’s going on right now.” She stopped her pacing and put her hands on Jocelyn’s shoulders to drive home the point.
“But what should I say?” Jocelyn was obviously torn. She didn’t want to be thrust into the limelight and she seemed really worried about the potential consequences to her actions.
“Ask them what’s going on, and what we can do to help other people. Just that. We’ll see if it works.” Liz wanted to ask a million more questions. She wanted to know who the people who made the system were. She wanted to know how long they knew the world was going to end. She wanted to know if they ended the world themselves, but each of those questions was secondary to basic survival. If it turned out that the Admin’s were friendly, those other questions would get answered. For now, the path of least risk seemed to be the best course of action to take.
“Are you willing to do that? For all of us?” Liz asked intensely.
The doubt faded from Jocelyn’s eyes. “Yeah. If it means saving more people, I can do it.”
“How on earth did you manage to hide all this from my Mom, if you don’t mind me asking? Something like Hacking would pop up on her radar like nobody’s business.”
“Well, that was the first thing I played around with. There’s a setting you can toggle to set data to public or private. I think your mom is reading what people are setting to public on their user interfaces, and I decided to set all my Ability related stuff to private. I tried asking other people about it, but I don’t think the interface for that is enabled for everyone else yet. I could just do it by sending an updated UI config to the main system. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to do anything with it and didn’t really want your mom knowing about it.” Jocelyn looked down at her feet in trying to avoid eye contact.
“Huh, I have no idea what you just said, other than the fact that people may be able to hide stuff is really useful. Do you mind if I tell my mom about this now? She will totally want to ask you more questions, but I think that it can help everyone.”
“Ok, I think I’m ready. Maybe. Maybe can you come with me when I talk to her? She’s really scary.”
“I get that, I really do, but she’s really caring, and crazy smart, and she will know what to do with your ability better than anyone else I could think of.”
“Do you think she’ll be mad at me?”
“Sweetie, she will love you to pieces. Don’t worry.” Liz was burning up with intensity right now thinking about what things they could learn, but Mom would probably be twice as stoked. Liz was honestly concerned that her mom would keep Jocelyn working until they both collapsed, but she would head that off before it became a problem. Not everyone could work ER Doctor hours. Liz was looking forward to tomorrow even more. So many answers were so close, it would be amazing if she managed to sleep at all.