“How?” Derrick hissed aloud as he stared at the slowly spiralling madness that floated before him. “How am I supposed to do that?”
The System had not blessed him with a jetpack or even a grappling gun. No, he had axes and a nice coat. Those weren't going to help him with this little problem. He couldn't heal the probe away from that pit and none of the drugs he'd been given granted anything that would useful here, like telekinesis.
He was still a good hundred feet from the start of the sinkhole. He wasn't comfortable being even that close. Who knew how something this strange worked? What, if any, limitations were there to this already impossible phenomenon?
He was looking at concrete flowing like water and draining away into nowhere, apparently being controlled by something that he couldn't even tell was alive or some kind of device.
Was he supposed to just swim down there and grab the probe? Which he assumed was the silver orb floating right above the centre of the pit. The one shooting random bursts of blue lightning.
Derrrick seriously considered just refusing and suffering through the System's punishment. That wouldn't be safe either though, and very likely he would just end up giving in. He had no confidence in being able to resist what was essentially torture.
Maybe it wasn't as bad as it seemed, he thought skeptically. The one thing in his favor was that the Feral Artisan hadn't reacted to his presence at all. Maybe it was passive.
But then, how had it captured the probe? Ughhh, he had too many questions.
He considered the situation he and the System was in.
This was an emergency, like when the Grey Legion had attacked the Gym, back when all this insanity had first started. The System was forcing him to do this mission because it was important.
He didn't know exactly what would happen if the Feral Artisan managed to eat its fill of Siviril, but he'd guess it would be more of the same. He imagined the whirlpool of liquefied matter moving or growing until it reached the populated parts of the city and flinched. Buildings, vehicles, and people either being pulled under or just liquefying under the strange power of the Feral Artisan.
Would he liquefy if he went inside the area of effect? The cars caught up in it weren't, so he was probably safe from that horrible fate.
He couldn't quite stop himself from imagining his flesh just falling off his bones and joining the ground in draining away.
There was a cruelty here that the other Scourges lacked. The Spore Tyrants and Grey Legion were merciless monsters, but they didn't seem to relish in the pain they caused. Rather, they were completely indifferent to it.
This thing though... It was clearly a horror by design. Whatever a Feral Artisan was or did, it was clearly both intelligent and sadistic.
Derrick scowled. Sadism and design aesthetic were not survival traits. That this Scourge bothered with them meant it was powerful enough that it could waste resources, even when competing against other Scourges like the Tyrant Spores.
Worrying. A little too big picture for him at the momment however.
The two other Scourges he'd fought made some sense to him. Strange and unexpected for sure, but at the heart of them, they just did what all living things did. Ate and reproduced. They were just living things that had adapted to use FTL to accomplish this and had evolved in a much more competitive environment than the single relatively young planet that was Earth.
Even the probably sentient Grey Legion was really a reflection of this. While he understood very little about that zombie like Scourge, it was obviously shaped by competition with the other Scourges. Terrible yes, but practical and arguably only as terrible as it needed to be.
The Feral Artisans were something stranger. Something that threatened the Enclave; as the System called the city.
As such, perhaps he could bargain with the usually closed mouthed System?
“Query. Feral Artisan Database,” he tried. The System did seem to be an AI of some kind and knowing the enemy was key to his survival here.
Huh, well at least it had answered.
“Insufficient Local Resources to complete mission,” he tried again.
Situation Critical. Obedience Protocols Activating in 0:0:45
Derrick ground his teeth together. Why was his luck so bad? What were the chances that he was the one who would stumble on this horror show?
Sadly, there was no time for complaining. He had forty-five seconds to come up with a plan. Which was way too little for even a token effort.
Lacking a rocket launcher, he was just going to have to go down there and hit it with his axe. What a depressing turn his life had taken.
He sighed and looked around. The nearby cars told him the ground was safe to walk on, half of one was teetering into the pit but the other half was safely supported by solid ground.
He mentally mapped out a possible path of sinking cars that took him near the centre of the pit and began to jog towards it.
He reached the edge and jumped, easily landing in the back of a black pickup truck. He'd been afraid it might shift as he landed but it didn't even wobble under his feet. It seemed like it was still on solid ground beneath the flowing cement sludge.
He climbed up on the cabin and leaped again, this time landing on two small cars that were being dragged together. He stumbled a bit as he landed but caught himself after a second.
Derrick paused and looked around. The next leap looked longer than it had from the outside of the whirlpool. The half-submerged minivan seemed like it was a good fifteen feet away.
Also, he was deep enough into the pit now that the outside edges were close to head height. Hiding the landscape and reminding him that getting out would be harder than getting in.
He considered just riding the slowly moving cars until he got to the middle. He decided against it. The System's urgency suggested something was about to happen and more important, he wanted to get this over with fast enough that he could get out the same way he got in. The longer he took, the more the cars that he was walking on moved towards the middle.
He drew an axe, took a few steps back, and jumped with all his strength. Midair, he knew he wasn't going to land on top of the minivan but hit the side of it. Luckily his axe bit deep into the roof and he pulled himself on top while being careful not to get his feet “wet”.
He was halfway to the centre now and all he could see that wasn't cars, sludge or alien artifacts was the sky. It was unnerving and claustrophobic.
He jumped again, landing on a small car that was mostly submerged and used the momentum to make it to another.
The next car down was easily reachable, but he stopped. There was no point in going further unless he solved a very obvious problem. There was nowhere safe to stand near the centre. All the vehicles and debris disappeared below the spinning sludge before they got that close.
So instead of going forwards, Derrick jumped on a car to the side and then onto the back of what looked like a shipping container some construction company working nearby had been using to store tools in.
Lucky for him, as it was the only thing large enough for him to try his 'plan' on. The first part of which was using his axe to put a whole bunch of holes in the roof of the container.
He jumped to another tiny car behind the container and stumbled on its rounded roof. Everything was closer together near the center, but they were moving faster too.
Derrick just rode on top of the car as the container circled the drain. It took just about five minutes before it got close enough to the alien wheel for him too put step two of the plan into motion.
Just before the shipping container sank below the surface, he threw his last two Tanglers between it and the spinning ring above it.
He breathed a sigh of relief as super strong tendrils found purchase on both the holes in the shipping container and the Feral Artisan wheel thing above it.
He'd been afraid the ring would be immaterial or have defences. But no, the tendrils wrapped around it, and for a second it dipped, sucked down by the weight of the sinking container. It seemed like it might be ironically sucked into its own abyss.
Derrick watched with his breathe held, as it quickly righted itself though, dragging the top of the container back above the surface and assuming its previous position
Ya, he wasn't lucky enough that that would be the end of it. What now though? How would the Feral Artisan respond?
Derrick watched and waited, ready to make a quick exit. Nothing happened.
The Feral Artisan just kept slowly spinning, ignoring the tendrils on it and moving the container below it in circles. The container was just two inches above the surface at either end and a few inches higher at the middles, where the sludge was lower.
Good news, he had a platform now at least. Oh, and the Feral Artisan was being super passive. It didn't even seem to know he was here. Was it even intelligent? Was it some kind of dumb construct? Was capturing probes and spinning in circles the only things it could do? Perhaps it was blind. It didn't have any eyes or obvious sensors after all. And yet, the Tanglers were touching it and it still didn't respond. Well, he wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
He waited until the end of the spinning container faced him and jumped on it, putting the ring of gripping hands at chest level and the probe at just above his forehead.
He carefully walked closer, cautious of both the ground moving beneath his feet and the alien things in front of him. He stood right next to them and still nothing happened, so he took a closer look at the enigma.
The ring was even more eerie up close. It was perfectly sculpted and this close, the circular movement made it seem like the hands were dragging each other in an endless loop.
Above it, the probe was letting off smaller and rarer blue flashes. Derrick assumed it was being overwhelmed by the Feral Artisan and would soon be consumed.
Derrick felt unnerved. There was no way it was going to be this easy. He could feel tension ready to snap, like smelling ozone.
He cringed and moved on to step three of his 'plan': poke it with a stick. He took his axe in hand and pushed it out towards the probe. He expected it to melt or explode but instead it simply hit an invisible barrier about a foot from the probe. A slight blur in the air where the axe touched was the only sign that anything was there at all.
Hmmm, it was a shield like the one that the Combat drone had, but spherical. Subtlety apparently wouldn't work here, so he drew back his weapon and struck out with all his power. The axe bounced off after creating a slightly larger blur. Derrick retreated but neither the Artisan or the probe reacted to his attack.
What the hell was he supposed to do now? Why had the System sent him down here if there was nothing he could do to even scratch the target? He wasn't going to attack the Feral Artisan, as that was the one thing he was pretty would get it to swat him like a fly.
Angrily, he punched at the probe. Instead of bouncing, his fist met a soft barrier and sunk an inch inside of it before being pushed back and ejected, causing him to lose his balance and almost trip over his own feet and into the middle of the whirlpool.
Heart pounding from the close call, he considered what had just happened. Why was had his hand sunk into the barrier when his axe had been repulsed completely?
It must be auril. It was the only thing he could think of that he had and might affect a shield. Carefully this time, he reached out and touched the barrier, feeling the surface before sending an auril strike into it. As the ejected auril moved through the shield, he felt the push back from the barrier weaken. This could work.
He withdrew his hand and forming a fist, punched out in time with an auril pulse. His fist made it just over half way through the invisible shield before being pushed back. He tried again but this time a tiny bolt of blue lightning hit his fist and he was sent tumbling backwards once again, this time with more pain.
Derrick sighed as he looked at his burnt hand and forearm. This was going to hurt a lot.
Ahh, wait. Didn't the description of his upgraded axes call them an auril medium? Could he use them with auril to break the shield?
Ahh, if he hit the probe, wouldn't that just send it flying into the whirlpool where he couldn't reach it? That might inconvenience the Feral Artisan but he doubted it would put the probe beyond its reach for long. It might even be what the thing was aiming for. After all the effort of getting here, he wasn't going to settle for a small maybe win. He was going to get that probe.
Fuck, he needed to grab the basketball sized thing, which would take two hands and a very high pain tolerance.
He flexed his fingers and arms as he mentally prepared himself.
After a deep breath, he adjusted his stance and plunged both hands into the barrier with a double auril strike and all his strength. He made it just an inch from the probe, when a blue spark caused him to flinch. He didn't stop though, he let out another auril strike and pushed with all his strength. Driving his hands deeper into the barrier.
Another spark seared his hands and he lost a precious inch of ground. Derrick grimaced and mentally activated a drug he'd never used before. Weld. A drug that granted resistance to pain and stopped bleeding.
It didn't seem like he could avoid using it, despite his reservations at what side effects the drug might have.
He felt numb relief spread through his abused hands and then, a few seconds later, despite two more sparks, he felt his fingers close around a solid object.
He switched his feet, giving him pulling power instead of pushing and yanked with all his might.
With a sizzling sound and a blue flash, the probe burst free and Derrick caught it in a hug. It didn’t resist or shock him. It seemed completely inert in fact. He had a single second to enjoy his victory when the ground jerked beneath his feet. Luckily, he had a lot of recent practice catching his balance and he stayed standing.
His eyes shot to the creepy ring of hands. It had finally reacted to him now that he'd stolen the probe. It was spinning faster now, easily three times as fast. He spasmed in surprise as cold sludge touched his feet, thrown by waves of once cement splashing over the ends of the container.
At the same moment he saw a Tangler tendril snap. The increased drag from the quicker spin was more than the tendrils could take for long. Derrick turned around and sprinted towards the end of the container, sludge splashing as he ran towards the nearest vehicle, that was safe to land on. It was harder than it should be, the sludge clung to him like glue.
Dammit, jumping was going to be almost impossible while he was ankle deep in this stuff. Another snapping sound from behind him, let him know he really didn't have choice. The probe still gripped in a bear hug, he reached the end of the container and jumped towards the next car.
After a moment of panic as the mud held him back, he escaped with a sucking sound and landed on a nearby unsubmerged vehicle.
Which was a huge relief but left him with another problem, after jumping to the next safe ground, he had nowhere to go and was being sucked back to the middle very quickly.
He felt fear worm its way into his mind as he took in his dire situation.
There were enough cars around that he was in no danger of getting sucked into the middle yet, but he couldn't see a path out. He was just going to be forced to move and jump until eventually he got tired or made a mistake and fell into the sucking sludge below.
Where this sucking pit of sludge exited was probably a mystery best left undiscovered. He forced himself to calm down. He would simply outlast this problem. Eventually, as the pit grew and more cars were sucked in, an exit path would form.
Reassured, he jumped to yet another vehicle further from the centre and waited, eyes peeled for a chance.
From the corner of his eye, he saw something move and he looked at it in horror. The wheel of grasping hands was slowly flipping up onto its side. Moving so that it turned in an upwards direction instead of sideways, with the face of it pointed right at him.
Oh, thought Derrick, this was going to be bad.
His face paled as the car he was standing on and all the others lurched to a stop. The edge of the pit rose in front of Derrick's eyes, forming a wave of sludge that came crashing down towards him. He had just enough time to attach the bottom of his mask and throw the probe over the wave as a last act of spite, before the oozing wave swept him off his feet and down into the muck below.