He explained to Meg what little he knew about Auril and Manna, as well as what he thought Greta was up to. It was the easiest and probably most effective way of weakening Greta, short of hunting her down and killing her. Which he probably didn't even have time for, even if he wanted too.
All these revelations barely got a nod from Meg. She just peacefully worked away at her beer. Seemingly calm and projecting a natural confidence. He eyed the woman. She did seem like she'd seen some things.
“Whats the toughest thing you've seen so far?” he asked. He didn't want to get caught by surprise later and was curious how his experiences compared to others.
“Your friend over there with the muscles,” she answered easily and wiggled her eyebrows. “Don't suppose you want to introduce me to him?”
His annoyance must have showed on his face because she had a quick laugh at him.
“Sorry, you're not my type.” Meg said, still chuckling. “Need a little more meat on your bones. I'm a woman of large appetites.”
“You're not mine either,” he said honestly but held back saying that she needed less on hers. She was good looking in a way, with strong features and smooth skin that made it hard to pin down her age. In fact, it made him wonder if the System had youthened her. That wouldn't be a particularly hard trick compared to some of the things he'd seen done in the last few days. It would be pretty funny if humanity stopped aging just as soon as it faced massive depopulation and probable xenocide.
“The 'toughest thing' I've seen was what the System calls a Feral Artisan.” She stated darkly. “We took one look at it and the damage it caused and we rode away at full speed. If you see it, do the same thing.”
“Ya, I've heard those are bad,” he replied. People tended to be vague about the details though. Which only made it more worrying.
“What about you?” Meg asked him. “What's the toughest thing you've scrapped with?”
“Grey Legion Vanguard,” he replied. “Fast, smart and very armored. Military grade guns and Ethisium weapons barely slowed it down.”
“Me and the boys tussled with two of them,” she said. “The fast fuckers ambushed us as we were screening refugees entering a safe zone. Tried to run us down and almost managed it, nearly faster than our new System customs.
“You have System parts in your bikes,” he asked incredulously. That was amazing. Not to mention she'd survived a fight with not one, but two Vanguard. She aimed a condescending smile his way.
“Of course. As a Fighter, I can't buy them myself but I know a Mechanic.”
The capital at the start of Mechanic was audible. A Role then, one that dealt with the alteration and repair of machines? He hadn't seen any signs of their work yet but he supposed they were busy keeping things running. It would be interesting to see what they would be capable of later.
If technical skills led to Roles, why was he even a Fighter? Because he chose ambitious or because his programming skills were useless now that an alien AI was running everything?
“Huh, I've gotten traits mostly,” he said.
She just shrugged.
“Clearly not something graceful from what I've seen of your fighting.” she said. “Let me guess... stone skull? Lead feet?”
“Ha ha,” he laughed dryly.
Their conversation was interrupted by raised voices from the other side of Derrick.
“... I've never heard that one before,” Derrick heard his blond ally say loudly. Both he and Meg watched as the brunette woman on the other side of Blake rose from her seat and stomped away.
“This is harder than it used to be,” Blake said with a frown. “I might have overestimated how fun end of the world parties are.”
“The world isn't ending.” said Meg calmly, earning herself a speculative look from Blake.
“Kinda seems like it is,” argued Blake. “What with the aliens and the mass death and the breakdown of civilization. I have seen some scary shit, let me tell you.”
“I'd say our chances are fifty fifty,” added Derrick.
“Our chances are like three percent,” answered Meg. “Humanity is a different story. You fancy boys are soft and young, you're overestimating how important we are.”
“The System and human nature won't let us lose,” Meg informed them. “Even if ninety nine percent of everyone dies and the last few are living in caves. While the Scourges fight each other over the ruins, the System will be arming and training the survivors. Giving them weapons better than anything humans were capable of making anyway. The fight will probably take a thousand years and never really be over but humanity and Earth ain't dying any time soon.”
“That's my kind of optimism. To rising from the ruins.” announced Derrick and raised his bottle. There was a round of clinks and shouts as Meg, Blake, and a few randoms at the bar took up the cheer.
“Now excuse me boys. I've got a muscular Adonis to claim,” with that exclamation, she stood up and headed towards Bruce.
There was a short silence and Derrick took advantage of it and Blake's presence to get something off his chest.
“So, about your cousin.” he said casually.
Blake shot him a confused frown.
“I really don't want to talk about her now,” he said. “Or pretty much ever, actually.”
Yes, it was clearly a touch subject. For personal reasons and in the interest of remaining alive though, he wanted to know more about her.
“I'm sure she'd love to talk about you though,” replied. “Specifically how you got yourself strapped naked...”
“Yes fine,” interrupted the blond User with narrowed eyes. “Ask your questions. I can't promise to have any answers though.”
“It's just that she kind of confuses me.” explained Derrick. He was unsure how serious to take her flirting and her threats. Was he more likely to get stabbed or kissed?
“You and me both,” said Blake. “You know about as much about the new her as I do. Best advice I've got is don't ask about her past or her mysterious talents.”
“Mysterious talents?” asked Derrick.
“The rifle skills,” Blake replied darkly. “I have no idea where that came from. As far as I know she never fired a rifle in her life. Shes always been a good dancer and fencer though.”
“A trait?” Derrick theorized, baffled. Could the System just give out skill? Well, why not? It certainly tracked them and if it already brought her out of a coma, why not do some work in her mind. It was odd but it wasn't like he'd ever considered her normal.
Blake just shrugged and took a long drink.
“Listen,” Blake said seriously a second later, sounding just a little drunk. “She is the only family of mine, I wouldn't pay to watch suffer.” He blinked and a strange look came over his face.“I can't believe she's back. I never thought I would get that weight off my chest.”
He seemed to sober up instantly after that and just nursed his drink for awhile. Derrick chose not to interrupt his melancholy.
The rest of the night was just small talk and drinking. They stayed at the hotel until Bruce left, Meg and another woman on his arm. After that, the two of them retrieved their weapons from the front of the hotel and left without incident. Derrick knew the System protected personal weapons but he felt relief when he reclaimed them anyway. He and Blake went for a short drive before falling asleep in some apartment that Blake led him to.
The next morning, Derrick woke up well rested and in a much fancier apartment than he was used too. He joined a hungover Blake for a breakfast of fruit and bacon.
He immediately noticed that Blake was wearing his sword. It seemed that after last night he was feeling a little insecure.
Blake chewed his food slowly. This wasn't his favourite meal, but apparently this wasn't his apartment. The blond User said that his own apartment had been burned down, along with the entire block because of Spore Tyrant infection. This place belonged to a friend, who, If he was even still alive, wouldn't mind.
Derrick kinda doubted this but didn't bother arguing with him. He ate and listened to Blake complain about the women he'd failed to impress last night. It was almost a vacation until the System reared its ugly head.
Universal Support System
(1) Gather your team.
(2) Destroy three Spore Tyrant Nodes (1/3)
Items Granted: Tyrant Spore Antidote Injector
Sterilization Grenades x2
Oh hey, free stuff. Did the System have more resources to spare now or did it value his team more now that they'd proven themselves? Hopefully there was more of this in the future. He only had three hundred and seventy four points and he imagined things were going to be expensive later, upgrading Curative Blood to rank C cost nine hundred and seventeen points.
Maybe they'd destroy both nodes today and earn some levels. Well rested, he was actually kinda looking forward to a day of hunting Tyrant Nodes. It was better than attacking an entrenched Grey Legion nest anyway.
Derrick made a few calls, finding out that both Kate and Jenny were back at the User run hospital and waiting to meet up. Despite his hangover, Blake still refused to let Derrick drive. He'd basically stolen the car yesterday from an entire parking lot full of available cars but for some reason seemed possessive to it.
Car people were weird. He just hoped Blake didn't start buying System parts for it. Unless of course the System let him strap heavy firepower to it. They could use some big guns.
A relaxing fifteen minute drive and they found their allies waiting by Jenny's cruiser. Jenny looked much the same, once more wearing a bulletproof vest and a police uniform. Her hair was still tied back into a functional ponytail.
Derrick couldn't help but let his eyes linger on Kate, once again, she had changed for the better. For someone who hated hospitals, they were good to her. She had obviously gained weight, both fat and muscle and now looked like a pale runner instead of someone who had just woken from a coma.
Both of them looked tired and annoyed though.
“I hope you boys had fun,” said Jenny with thinly veiled contempt in her voice. “I don't see any permanent damage anyway.”
A night off apparently hadn't made Jenny any less of a stick in the mud. Yes, people did need help and every second did count. Derrick was very aware of his limits however. There was only so much a human mind could take.
“Of course,” replied Derrick with a wink, before Blake could speak. “Ran into some old friends that I'm relieved are still alive. It was a nice night that neither of us will ever forget. Right Blake?”
The look their faces softened somewhat at that.
“Had some drinks and made some new friends,” added Blake quickly and astutely. “Oh and we rescued a nice old man who'd been kidnapped.”
Jenny and Kate gave them skeptical looks.
“I can see Derrick doing that, maybe.” Jenny said.
“Probably by accident,” added Kate with a toothy smile.
Ouch, that was accurate enough it stung a little. But was it really an accident if he was already rescuing someone else from Greta? It was more like a bonus.
“Two people were rescued actually,” elaborated Derrick vaguely as he eyed Blake. We rescued? Really Blake? “And we might have defeated an evil plot to seize control of the city by keeping people ignorant of the System and how it works.”
“But, you know whatever.” asked Blake smugly. Because he had played such an important part that he felt the need to gloat about it. “What did you ladies get up to?”
“Well, they remembered me at the hospital.” Kate said. “Ended up getting sedated and waking up restrained again.”
“The doctors also remembered me,” added Jenny, clearly annoyed. “Made me come pick her up at five o'clock in the morning.”
“You were there anyway. Volunteering and then you were just sleeping in your partners room,” Kate said with a shrug.
“He's still not up?” asked Blake incredulously.
“No,” said Jenny bitterly. “Apparently the System needs his consent before it will use its magic on him. As he's beenmostly unconscious this whole time, it will only produce our own medicine for him.”
“Can't you just steal it or mix up some paperwork?” asked Derrick.
“Won't work, all the System's medicine and items only works on the person it was created for.”
Huh, that was a bummer but made sense. It would prevent theft from other Users and the Scourges. Some kind of smart nano machines? Would almost have to be for the kind of specific mutations it was creating and sustaining.
“It wasn't a wasted morning anyway,” defended Kate. “We also met some interesting people and even got one of them to make you a gift, Derrick.”
“What, why him?” asked Blake with sincere surprise.
Both women just ignored him and handed Blake a red object.
“It's a thank you gift, from both of us,” said Jenny and shrugged. “For being a decent person.”
That last part didn't seem like it was aimed at him.
“Don't let her fool you. You're our hero.” said Kate shooting a mocking smile at Jenny, causing the policewoman to roll her eyes. “Anyway, here you go.”
She threw a curved red object at him and he caught it. He looked at the two women and felt... odd. Were they being serious? Well, he'd done heroic things. Carrying Jenny's partner down like twenty flights of stairs. Rushing down those stairs at the cake factory to save Kate.
Stairs had been weirdly prominent in his life recently.
“Errr, thanks.” he said as he looked the object over.
It was a mask. A red mask with gunmetal borders and highlights. It covered the upper part of his face and looked something like an opera mask. At first he thought the eye holes were empty but no, they were actually filled with a nearly invisible material. Above each eyebrow, the corners of a two inch across pentagon rose about half an inch to a single point.
The red color and the horn stubs made it look a devilish opera mask.
He noticed that a silver web of lines ran around the eyes on the inside. It was clearly created by the System.
“What does it do?” he asked.
“It protects your face.” said Jenny with mild amusement. “Something you seem to need all the help you can get with.”
“It's red so your blood doesn't show, ” Kate added helpfully. “And the spikes make headbutting more effective.”
“That was Kate's idea,” Jenny said. “It's basically an upgrade to the gas masks everyone got. Tougher and you can combine it with any basic lower mask you find and those are everywhere... Look we didn't have that many poi...”
“I like it,” interrupted Derrick. It had been a long time before anyone had gotten him anything and he was touched. Even a small gift had meaning when everyone was fighting for their life. It was a good combination of Kate and Jenny's tastes too. Functional but practical. Usually, he didn't like sticking out but what the hell, it was a different world these days.
Also it would be great if he could stop taking damage to his face. Fists, feet, exploding glass, acid, claws, the list went on and on.
The biggest problem he had with it, was that now, at some point he was going to be attacked by an alien monstrosity and end up headbutting it. He put it on and grinned at them.
United Support System
Red Fighter's Mask
A custom face shield, designed to attach to basic breather masks. Provides more physical protection than an advanced breather mask.
Has basic self repair and security features.
“How do I look?”
“Wow, that is weird.” said Blake.
“What?” asked Derrick. Was it on wrong?
“The eyebrows move on that thing, just like a normal face. It's freaky.”
Huh, so the silver on the underneath was probably Esthisium. That was the shape changing and self repairing material the System used when it didn't need extreme sharpness or toughness. Or when it wanted to make sure the primitive monkeys didn't cut each other.
“Well, no time for a group hug.” said Kate. “We've got aliens to kill.”
They piled into Jenny's cruiser and at the border to the Tyrant Spore zone, restocked on Sterilization Grenades and Antidote Injectors. Then they began their hunt in the western portion of Westhills, the industrial zone they'd found the last Node in.
Once again, they zeroed in on the Node by the corpses it created. At the entrance to a small parkway, underneath wilted trees, a solitary and still figure was kneeling.
Seeing him, they pulled over and shouted but he didn't answer. The reason why soon became obvious. It was a corpse. Or at least Derrick hoped it was a corpse.
The kneeling figure wore a smile and seemed... fresh. Huge solid black eyes bulged from a face that was a very unhealthy yellow colour. To his side, a dropped knife of System origin sat.
Derrick slipped on his breather mask as they stared at it. Not even Kate made a move for the knife. The whole scene made Derrick wish he had a flamethrower.
“I think the Node is that way,” Blake said unnecessarily and pointed down the rotting path.
“I think we should go a different way,” said Derrick as he took in the leafless trees that lined the path, strings of yellow fungus hung from them and purple growths swelled from their trunks.
“Agreed,” said Jenny. “The last Node was large enough that leafless trees wouldn't hide it. Let's take a look around first.”
Kate just frowned. Having just recovered from an infection, she was clearly reluctant to take a stroll into that deathtrap.
“Fungus doesn't like direct sun,” pondered Derrick aloud.
“I don't think sunlight is going to solve this problem for us,” said Jenny.
“Look, if it was a giant blob just sitting out in the open, the System could just spot it from orbit or something.” Derrick said. “The last node was hidden from view, that wasn't a coincidence. It needs food and it needs a place to hide.”
That got him some nods.
Jenny brought up a map on her phone. The parkway was one entrance of three that connected to a stream surrounded by parks. Somewhere in that parkland or possibly next to it was the Node.
A quick drive around the area let them track the boundaries of the infection.
“There's nothing here,” Jenny mused as she looked over the map. “Just trees in the middle of the infected zone. Could it be underground?”
“Really?” drawled Blake as he ran his eyes over the map. “You people all have the same problem. You're thinking like drones. Worse, like boring law abiding suburb born people.”
“Here,” he said smugly and pointed to a mostly unremarkable piece of highway. “It's under this bridge. That's why it's not in the middle of the infected area. It's spreading downstream, you idiots.”
Ya, that made sense. Derrick was ignorant of exactly how Spore Tyrants spread, it did make sense that they could spread faster with a delivery system like flowing water though. If they could filter the water, it would be a constant supply of nutrients as well.
“So the question is, how do we approach?” asked Jenny. “The road above seems safer but we know concrete doesn't actually make much of a difference and it's the obvious path.”
“I don't think it matters how obvious a route it is,” added Kate. “I talked to some people at the hospital about their experiences. I don't think Tyrant Spores are smart enough to position defences tactically. They seem to just spread them out around themselves evenly.”
“That's good for us,” added Blake.
Perhaps the entire point of what they were doing was preventing the Tyrant Spores from becoming smart enough to use tactics. They were really only manageable as long as they were stupid and could be pushed back with flamethrowers and poison gas.
“So what?” asked Blake incredulously. “Basically we drive until tentacles block the road, hack our way through them to the Node and drop some Sterilization grenades on it?”
“It worked before,” said Derrick. It seemed to him that doing nothing and getting left behind by the ever growing Scourges would be as fatal as doing the wrong thing.
No one had a better plan, so once again they just went with Derrick's. Derrick was finding leadership both easier and more depressing than he'd thought it would be. His greatest skill seemed to simply be an open mind rather than any kind of charisma or genius.
Following his plan, they drove to the highway they guessed the node was hiding under.
As soon as they exited the on ramp and made it onto the highway, a weird itch on the back his neck caused him to turn.
Fuck, Derrick thought as he saw a pickup truck flying straight at his side of their car. He knew instantly that nothing he could do would stop the inevitable crash.
“Brace your..” he got out, before he was swatted into unconsciousness.