“System,” Derrick called out. “Do you offer a portable meal replacement that enhances level growth and muscle mass?”

Bruce had said that he'd gotten 'sick muscle juice'. Derrick down look at himself and flexed his arm. Meh. While he had no intention to become a mini Bruce, he could use a few pounds of muscle, it would make piercing armor with an axe easier. Even with the increased strength from levelling, he wasn't getting noticeably bigger, just stronger. Increasing his muscle size should boost his strength even more, unless some weird space magic was going on.

Plus, after years of going to the gym for only minor gains, it would feel great to get a little buffer.


Universal Support System Station

System Soldiers Ration Bar x12

(70) USSP

A dozen bars designed to replace a meal while supplying the body with what it needs to level quickly. Effect on level cap growth minor (7%).

Customized to encourage muscle growth.

Vegetable mix, peanut butter and beef flavoured

Expensive for consumables. Probably worth trying it out though. He made the purchase.

Now to find some real food. Better to save the bars for when he was in the field. He'd just gotten unhooked from the IV too. It would probably be waste to eat one so soon after that.

He put on his boots but stuffed his tanglers, axes, and mask into a large backpack. From what he saw earlier, it might be awkward travelling around the city as an obvious User.

It was a bit of a wasted effort, a small User community was springing up around the Support Stations, with everything Users needed to function available. The Tailor was just one of many small shops. He saw a garage for Users run by Mechanics, a shop that sold cheap ammo and supplies it created from scavenged materials and a restaurant with signs that declared its acceptance of USSP points and cheap prices. Derrick headed there, passing a pawn shop that he assumed sold weapons and items taken from dead Users.

To Derrick's eye, the restaurant looked like someone had just moved into a generic fast food joint and redecorated. Derrick entered the busy restaurant and browsed the menu, noting that the food all cost two to three System Points. Which was fine with him. Curious about how everything worked, he questioned the waiter when he arrived about the owner.

It turned out the restaurant was one of three just built in the city that was owned by a group of Users. Not Cooks, or anything silly like that. They were actually a diverse group of Technicians, a Guard and an Administrator, the waiter told him with a proud smile and handed him a professional level pamphlet outlining their vision and showing snapshots of their production facility.

He accepted it and took in the weirdly normal scene around him. People just eating. Sure, their clothing was a little more practical and rough than he was used too, but the people seemed the same. Laughing and chatting while they ate while he sat alone. Didn't these people know what kind of horrors walked their world now?

Disturbed by the mundanity, he distracted himself by reading the pamphlet.

The owners had pooled their resources to buy food growing and preparing equipment from the System and set up these mostly automatic restaurants that sold high quality food to Users as well as donated cheap food to the cities supplies.

Judging by all the System supported shops, it seemed like the System was giving away advanced production technology to selected Users. That was great and he found himself nodding in approval. A civilization completely dependent of vending machines would be.... weird. There was bound to be a lot of limits on what human run machines would be allowed to produce though. Well, it was good that people were being productive. Hell, it was impressive that people had enterprising spirit so soon after the world fell apart. They were picking up the pieces of civilization.

A tiny spark of something lit up inside of him. Huh, what was that? Oh, pride in shared humanity. Weird.

A normal looking pasta arrived and he was about to begin digging in, when he was interrupted.

“How did you get such a high level so fast?” a cheery and feminine voice asked from behind him. “What's an Auril Style?”

Derrick turned to see a young and fit female User looking at him with wide eyes. The brunette wore her hair in a page cut and she wore worn jeans and what looked like an inherited military jacket.

He couldn't help but notice a group of nearby Users, cautiously watching both him and her. They didn't seem unfriendly, just wary and soft.

Derrick was taken aback by the sudden question, how did she know his... Oh ya, those tags. His level would be clearly visible and she must be able to see a description of his shown title. He should switch that out for something less attention grabbing.

He squinted at her, trying to activate her tag.

User Tag

Name: Kiara Lisden

Title: Markswoman I

Role: Fighter

Level: 1.5

“Four completed missions and two stays in the hospital,” he replied to her question, too taken aback by the unexpected social interaction to do more than tell the truth. It didn't help that she was pretty good looking, fit but with obvious curves under her functional clothes. He did manage to stop himself from bragging about Auril, it seemed like it was a rare enough resource that encouraging people to get might hurt his own supply.

Auril power and expertise was one of the safer bets for unlocking a new Role.

“The hospital?” she questioned eagerly but slightly confused.

“Some System foodstuffs and the IV fluid they give you in the hospital help grow your level cap,” Derrick elaborated. “Helps your body accept the changes that come with levelling.”

“You seem to know a lot,” the young woman replied with a smile between shy and flirty. “Me and my little group have been looking for someone with skills like yours. Play a bigger role in our missions.”

Ahh, so this was about recruiting him. Ya, not going to happen. He doubted this group would last a day joining any mission the System sent his way. From what she said, it seemed like her group was more support than Fighters. Probably the kind of Fighters who got guard and escort duty, not sent to kill alien monstrosities in their own lairs.

A quick Auril Pulse confirmed that no one nearby had Auril at all, never mind a style.

“I think we do very different kinds of missions,” he replied not unkindly. “Besides, I'm already on a mission. You guys killed any Grey Legion Vanguards? Spore Tyrant Nodes? ”

He didn't even mention Sirens. Both because they clearly hadn't and because he didn't want to even think about those monstrosities.

Being on a mission was not technically a lie, even if it was more of a personal mission. He gave the group a small smile when none of them revealed they had fought any advanced enemies.

“That's too bad,” Kiara said and frowned, revealing for a second, a glimpse of fear in her eyes “Are you sure?”

Ack. He couldn't help but feel bad, even though he was pretty sure this was manipulation. It was no coincidence that the groups spokesperson was the most physically attractive. His type too, although that was a pretty broad label. 

It was far from being enough to get him to join this team though, the girl was cute to be sure, and part of himself would love the boost to his ego playing mentor would give him. Ultimately, all he saw when he looked at them was softness. It wasn't that they were weak exactly, it was just that they didn't seem to understand how bad things really were. Hadn't seen the things he had. They would get a taste of reality soon enough, he thought selfishly, and he didn't want to be around for that.  It would be messy. 

Besides, as cute as Kiara was, she was lacking in some way that made it impossible for him to be interested in her. Was he only attracted to competent women all of a sudden? That would be a huge change from his last few girlfriends. The less that was said of that, the better.

He shuddered. Hopefully this change was a reaction to the new reality and not some weird alien influence. It would be creepy beyond words if the System, never mind some influence from the Grey Legion or Tyrant Spores, was messing with his idea of the perfect girlfriend.

Withdrawing from his thoughts. Derrick took a pen from his backpack and scrawled a series of numbers into the pamphlet he'd been reading.

“Pretty sure,” he answered her earlier question and offered her the pamphlet as he stood. “Here's my number. If you have specific questions about Auril or just need any tips, give me a ring.”

Derrick moved out the door and down the street. He felt kind of bad for running away, but he had stuff to do. He still had time to burn before his coat was ready and the constant annoyance of quantum awareness had given him an idea.

He moved back to the busy System Station plaza and sat down on a hunk of concrete, crossing his legs and adopting a classic meditation pose. After a second of getting comfortable, he delved into his auril senses for the second time.

The first thing he noticed was that his auril heart was already pumping greater power into him. Not only were the strands of auril inside him slightly more powerful, but he felt new weak strands. These new one flickered in and out of existence, unmoored and uncontrollable. They came and went too fast for him to manipulate.

He imagined fleshing these out with Auril capacity was the first step in upgrading his style. Interesting, yet not what he was trying to work on.


Crude Quantum Awareness (F) (Survival)

A weave of Auril energy that responds to others awareness of your self and position. Allowing you to know when other sentients are directly aware of your position within a certain range. Can be trained to provide additional information.


The sight of a User meditating in the middle of the plaza drew a lot of attention. Attention that Derrick could feel. Quantum awareness had been a lifesaver, but the power was, well crude. The description even mentioned that it could be trained. So, that was what he was doing. Trying to differentiate different awareness or get some additional info from them, like the direction they were in.

It was hard. Like trying catch more than a glimpse of something that stayed in the corner of your eye. The delicate strands of auril that made up the ability were too fine and complicated for him. They may be too complicated for any human mind to decipher.

It was way too early to give up. He decided to change things up a bit. Every now and then he'd send out an auril pulse or activate regeneration.

Both of these abilities benefited from his increased auril capacity. Well, they lasted a little longer anyway. The auril pulser device drew a little more power and travelled a little further, using most of his auril to scan about three hundred feet in a sphere.

How did the device even work? Auril seemed to ignore anything non-biological as far as he could tell. He eyed his bracelet, was there somethiing alive in there?

He frowned as he remembered the Siren's own tracking ability. It had been very different from his, low powered and subtle. That felt, to him, more like how the ability should work.

Could he use auril pulse without the device? It was worth trying.

He tried to gather auril and send it outside his body. He failed on both accounts. Auril was not so easy to manipulate. There was an art to it, it could not just be shoved around.

Watching the pulser work didn't help. He couldn't see the actual method it used to send out the pulse.

Could he watch regeneration and try to do the opposite? That ability diffused auril into his whole body after all.

That plan bore fruit. He managed to learn how to gather auril power in one spot for a second. The channels of power forming a pool of energy in his chest before it escaped his grasp and drained back into its natural flows.

After dozens of failures, he managed to use that failure, violently ejecting the energy through its own flows instead of allowing it to return to its old circuit.

Derrick smiled as a dozen people and assorted plants appeared in his minds eye. The range was pathetic, just twenty feet, but it had used almost no auril power compared to the pulser item. Where he couldn't do two of those in a row, his new ability could be used a dozen times.

He could probably improve the range with practice and definitely through increasing his Auril capacity.

New Auril Skill: Auril Pulse

Derrick rolled his eyes behind his closed eyelids. Thanks for the obvious.

Next, just for fun, he tried to gather auril in his hand. Even with the experience from his pulse practice, it was difficult. The process turned out to be different enough from gathering it in his chest that it took him awhile to get it to work. It was also, as far as he could tell, just a weaker and harder to pull off auril pulse.

Still sitting, he went back to concentrating on Quantum Awareness and trying to make it more useful. He sat for what felt like a long time without accomplishing much. He didn't mind, he was enjoying himself.

Playing with auril was both relaxing and exciting. He fell into himself until a new sensation dragged him back into the real world. His eyes snapped open and his head turned to look at something.

Three men, about a hundred feet away, one who looked vaguely familiar and flinched visibly when Derrick looked straight at him.

Who was that and why did he knock Derrick out of his trance? Something had felt different for a second there. The man badly pretended to be casually just hanging out, obviously spooked. Derrick watched and tried to remember who he was.

Oh! Ha. It was a nameless User minion of Greta's from the party at the hotel. That lined up with the feeling that got his attention too. He'd felt the others hostility and snapped put of the trance. That could come in handy, assuming it worked on invaders. Aliens should work differently. Then again, the ability did come from the System and it no reason to give him abilities that only worked on other humans.

He tried to place the face but couldn't. The fading bruises on the man's face didn't help. A lot of people had been hit in the face back then.

Derrick frowned. Was he in danger? Should he leave? He tried to stand but found that his legs were asleep. How long had he been in a trance? The sun was pretty much straight above him, so a few hours at least.

However long it had been, it had been worth it. He now knew it was possible to detect hostility and direction using Quantum Awareness. That could be huge. In fact, Quantum Awareness felt different; the individual sensations clearer and with a slight pull attached, giving a general sense of direction.

Derrick stretched and decided not to worry about the hostile Users. He wasn't scared of any average Users attacking him in a public place. Especially since the System wouldn't allow them to murder him or even attack him with System weapons.

At this point, a regular person with a gun would be a better bet to take him and that would never happen here, in the city's centre of User activity.

He looked back to the nameless User and found him staring back defiantly. Derrick couldn't help but roll his eyes. His apparent weakness from his long hours spent sitting, had emboldened the other User.

Hmmm, he kind of wanted to talk to this guy, maybe learn what Greta was up to. Mr Minion didn't seem like either the brave or the helpful type, so he'd have to be tricky.

Derrick played up the moment of weakness he'd felt, luring them closer by faking a loss of balance and a stumble as he stretched.

It seemed to work. His target was now crossing the plaza towards him, his two buddies swaggering behind him. Actually swaggering. Recent events seemed to have done wonders for these guys' confidence. He'd guess they'd only fought things weaker than them since becoming Users.

The lucky bastards.

His face remained still but inside he smiled. Maybe he should fix that?


A note from Mirrored


Support "The Scourged Earth"

About the author


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