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 A terrible numbness filled Derrick and his legs buckled beneath him. He managed to catch himself as he fell, resting on one knee and hand.

Had his spine been hit?

No, his auril told a different story. It was some kind of infection. He activated Regeneration and at the same time caught a needle aimed at his face. He tried to rip it from the hand of the murderous teenage girl that held it, but he found doing so surprisingly difficult. The girl had a ridiculously strong grip. She was light enough though, that she couldn't drive the needle further towards him. Dizzy, the wounded User pushed her back. Using his greater weight and System given strength to send the girl toppling backwards. Next, he pulled the thin needle out of his back, or tried to anyway.

Fuck that hurt, Derrick thought as he pulled on the needle. The damn thing did not want to come out. He had to switch position and use all his strength before it gave, taking what felt like a fist sized chunk of his back with it. Looking at the needle, he saw clumps of his flesh stuck to yellow threads. The fucking thing had been growing roots into him.

Disabled while he fought off the infection inside himself, he watched his tiny attacker stumble, fall and pick herself back up. Once on her feet, she looked around for awhile. Whatever she was looking for, she didn't find it. She didn't seem to have superhuman physical skills. The opposite in fact, she was strong but clumsy. He watched her focus back on him.

“Give it back,” she said, finally. “I need that.”

“No,” said Derrick, a little shocked to hear her speak. “You stabbed me.”

“You'll get better,” she replied with a smile. “Unless you don't. That happens sometimes. It happened to my mom.”

Derrick just sighed. He wasn't going to argue with a possessed teenager. He watched her warily and concentrated on using Regeneration to fight the infection eating away at him from the inside. The quicker he was fighting fit, the better.

“The thorns are coming,” she said after a few seconds. “You'll have to give it back then.”

Oh, good. A time-limit. Hopefully it would be a minute at least before 'the thorns' showed up. That would be all he needed to regain control of his legs. Converting more auril into healing power, he could already feel the infection dying.

“The garden is so pretty,” she said, her voice filled with a serene sweetness. “You'll be happy there.”

Derrick doubted that. He wasn't much for gardening.

Judging by how his attacker was smiling at a blank section of wall like it contained the secrets of the universe, she looked to have gone into a kind of trance. He didn't let his guard down. Her behaviour was clearly erratic but also very... psychopathic. Calm could turn to rage in a second for no reason at all. The Garden, huh. Was she talking about what he thought she was talking about? He supposed she wouldn't know it as a Spore Tyrant Node.

“I'm Derrick,” he said, blatantly trying to build a rapport and keep her from attacking again. “What's your name?”

“Tiff,” she answered casually. Still lost in her own world.

“Hey Tiff. I love Gardens,” Derrick lied as his regeneration stopped. “So, where is the pretty garden?”

She looked at him, her human serenity replaced by alien calculation in a single moment. Suddenly and without warning, she lunged forward, clawing at him with broken yellow nails.

Shit, had he just been outsmarted? Had she been waiting for him to spend his auril? God, he hoped this didn't get televised. He stopped her by grabbing her wrist and standing up, dragging her kicking feet off the ground. He was still a little woozy, but he should be able to...

Right through the air, a wave of auril hit him. It felt like getting slapped by a wet sandstorm. Dammit, how was she so good at this? She actually managed to worm her way through his defences and stun him. He felt his muscles go numb, like they had fallen partially asleep.

The bald teenager dropped from his grip, then she grabbed her needle from his limp fingers and stabbed him again. Right into his bare arm, the needle piercing deep into the flesh and muscle of his forearm.

This time she held on to the needle and sent a wave auril right through his depleted defences. Where it passed, his flesh fell still. Robbed of strength, until it reached his mind and heart.

Derrick staggered.

Peace and beauty. Service to something larger. Rest and fade. Why not? Something that wasn't a voice said in not words. It was speaking through the girl, part of him saw, but also from inside of her. From places pieces of her humanity should have been.

Because I fucking hate you. A savage part of is mind roared back with perfect sincerity. WroNg! My HEad MY HEAd. Resist! How dare you! Make you bleed! Again!

His auril, spent from healing him, rallied after a few seconds and pushed back. He regained control of himself. It wasn't enough, a temporary stalemate. He wanted to win, to push forward. He destroyed his own defences, gathered that energy and before she could capitalize on his weakness, twisted his auril into a seething mass and pushed.

The giant needle in his arm shattered into a dozen pieces as a horrible noise filled the air. Yellow eyes wide and bulging, the girl thing was screaming. The thing controlling her really did not like the auril from Splintering Strike. Even if it wasn't actually hurting it much, it was disruptive and tenacious.

Like an infection.

“There have been bigger monsters than you in my head,”Derrick the Red snarled. Overwhelmed with emotion, he backhanded what used to be a child across the room. She spun and fell, lying still on the cheap wooden floor.

Taking no chances, Derrick stumbled over to the still form and raised his axe. Fucking monsters. When would they learn that his head was not public space. This diseased child was no match for him. He could kill a hundred.... diseased...

Damn it all.

Staring down at the tiny body, Derrick saw the future. It was him killing monsters, again and again. Until, one day, he found himself alone and overwhelmed. Torn apart by once humans and monsters that fed on human flesh.

He flashed back to the bar, as he chatted with Clara.

“We can win a thousand battles and still lose the war,” she'd said. Or something like that. Gazing down at a hollowed-out child, Derick knew no amount of killing would be enough. Not to make it right, not to even this score. The System existed because these things ruled the Universe. Derick lowered his weapon. His sin was a lack of ambition.

Death was easy. How many humans and even Users had died in the last few days? They were uncountable and unremarkable. Killing once humans was a hollow victory. A delay of human kinds inevitable doom.

Even before the Scourges... ending a life was no accomplishment. It was far too common for that.

 

Universal Support System

New Mission

(1) Destroy Slave Broadcast Nodes

(2) Discover and Destroy Slaver Node

Item Granted: Tyrant Spore Antidote Injector

 

Universal Support System

Spore Tyrant Slave Broadcast Node

A rare breed of node, it infects the survivors of Spore Tyrant infection that show affinity for auril and uses them as a tool to control other infected and lesser Spore Tyrant breeds. They are in turn controlled and coordinated by a hidden Slaver node, which hides its location by acting through its slaves.

Mobile sources of intelligence, reconnaissance and infection, these nodes should be destroyed immediately.

They are capable of using advanced auril techniques and have had minor boosts to the host's physical capabilities. Despite this, they are not usually very threatening in a direct confrontation with Users, the process that allows Spore Tyrant control and auril techniques causes brain damage and functionality loss.

 Derick considered this data and what the System was asking of him. Specifically, the destroying Slave Broadcast Nodes part. He scowled and sat down on a nearby couch, tired and upset. Mostly, he was disappointed. In both himself and the Universal Support System.

“No,” he said to the chip in his brain. “I don't think I will kill her. Or any of them if I can help it.”

Obedience Protocols Initiated.

Derrick just sighed. Time to call the System's bluff. Or whoever was controlling the System locally.

Derrick had a theory. It was simply that the System was shit at using auril. It made sense because auril was a power used by living things and the System was a machine. It interacted with auril through Users only. It probably wasn't even good at teaching auril, which was a problem because that was something humanity needed to learn fast.

Anyway, the important part was that the System needed him. Other than a serial killer of dubious humanity, he might be the only competent auril user in the city. Well, Third Striker was competent but only used it for defence and minor boosts to healing and stamina. Which might be a very common approach.

The point was, he was in a position of strength.

“Are we pretending I'm not absolutely necessary to save this city?” Derrick questioned. “If you were skilled in finding Spore Tyrants, we would not be in this mess. Would we?”

No answer. He looked at the tiny body on the floor, In many ways a better auril User than himself. Just full of secrets that her death would destroy. He'd played around with enough auril hearts to know their styles fragmented after death and he really wanted to study some living ones. The physical and auril enhancements were just a few things they could learn about. If humanity was going to survive it needed to learn and it needed the System to learn how to improve human Users.

But most of all. He wanted to take something from them. He wanted to make the monsters hurt. To take from them like they had taken from humanity.

“I want the slave nodes alive,” he said. “Captured and held somewhere where I.. we can study them. Higher risk, higher reward.”

You have gained basic leadership proficiency

You have unlocked a Title: System Command/Clearance 1A/1B 48O73E4WK2

He was going to take that as a yes. He wasn't surprised, he imagined such experiments were the kind of thing the System would like. An ancient immortal AI should approve of long-term planning.

Amazing, for the first time since the Scourges arrived... No, much longer than that actually, something encouraging, something big too look forwards to.

 

Universal Support System

Mission Update

(1) Capture Slave Broadcast Nodes

(2) Discover and Destroy Slaver Node

(3) Report to Secure Facility Westhills WK2

Item Granted: Tyrant Spore Antidote Injector x3

Sterilization Grenade x2

 Still lounging on a couch and surrounded by unconscious people in a stranger's apartment, Derrick smiled. That was definitely a yes. He'd made a deal with the System. Now all he had to do was survive long enough to earn his part of the deal.

A chance to learn. A chance to teach.

He grabbed the human node and making sure she wasn't faking being unconscious, threw her over his shoulder. He carried her out of the apartment. The System was kind enough to give him a mental beacon where large amounts of rowdy infected suggested another human node was.

Should he wait for backup? This node had been almost undefended but that didn't mean the next would be. If he had to guess, she'd been being used as a scout and agitator. Possibly trying to gather more infected. This next node seemed to be controlling an attacking force. A harder nut to crack.

As soon as he stepped out of the building, a message appeared.

Wait for Courier. ETA 2 minutes 11 seconds.

He could wait two minutes. Was the System being nicer to him? Nicer might be the wrong word, it was being cooperative. Was it fulfilling its part of the bargain or did it value him more now?

Almost exactly two minutes later, a white vehicle that looked like a modified ambulance silently drove up. Two figures in airtight System armor jumped out and almost gently, strapped the girl onto a restraining stretcher. When she was out of his hands, one of them threw three injectors and three Sterilization grenades at him.

“There's five regular infected inside the building,” Derrick informed them and received a nod in return.

They rolled the node into the back of the vehicle and took off with another nod from one of the sexless figures as it closed the back doors of the van. They hadn't taken the other infected. Was he supposed to use the injectors on them? They were two short.

Maybe they would be back. Or they could just be overwhelmed at the moment. Derrick frowned. If the System's Medical capabilities were being overwhelmed, a lot of people were going to die.

They had seemed very competent, if a little hurried. Their speed and professionalism was impressive. The medical evacuation teams were upping their game. They must be pulling infected people out of combat zones all over the city and had equipped themselves for it.

Well, time to do his part. He had more nodes to kill or capture. How to go about it though? As the only User whose movements weren't being tracked, joining a group seemed as much loss as gain. So, he supposed he'd just wander over to the next beacon, all stealthy like.

Twenty minutes later, he started hearing cracks of gunfire and louder popping noises. Next, he found a body with yellow tinged eyes and a bullet hole between them. Someone wasn't holding back. He didn't blame them.

There was no one around at the moment though, so he kept moving. He used auril pulse to avoid others while he found a decent vantage point of the fighting. He sunk his axe into the cement wall of a jewellery store and used it as a foothold to climb up unto the roof.

The bullets were really flying now. From what he could see using his mask's enhanced vision, a dozen Users seemed to be trying to defend a small building from an attacking force of at least twice that many infected people with a variety of mundane guns.

Normally, he imagined that they'd make quick work of the infected, but they were wounded and tired. He saw them flinch as a sporetar exploded against the side of their building. From his vantage point, it looked like at least one User got hit.

He didn't envy them. They were soon going to be overwhelmed. In the distance, he saw dozens of sporelings cross a street, either moving to cut off their retreat or attacking some other target.

The best thing he could do for them was to take out the node, which should be nearby. He jumped down and set off on the route that seemed to provide the best cover. Ducking between buildings and cutting through shop doors to stay off the street.

He began to notice Stalks curled beneath the ground. Soon, he saw some that had already burst through the ground. Even one that had impaled a body right through the ribs. It didn’t even look like a User, just a civilian. He paused as he began to feel the auril coming from below increase in strength. Beneath the ground, alien roots were growing and spreading.

Worrying, but not a problem he could deal with. He needed to find and take out the node. The most likely place to look was towards where the roots were coming from. None of the nodes he'd fought so far had been strategic geniuses, so he was going to bet it was there.

Using auril to follow a trail of alien roots back to their source, one of his pulses detected his target in a furniture store. A human sized living thing with auril energy flowing through them. A full grown adult this time. He also detected a whole bunch of other living things, none of which were even remotely human. The nodes auril signature was the only reason he could even make out something human in the mass of life inside.

He frowned as he took in the hiding spot. The Spore Tyrant was being subtle. Beyond a few broken windows, there was no sign that the building was filled with alien life. Roots, Stalks and Sporelings.

The front was to open, he would be spotted if he approached from the front. He should try the back first. He moved to the outside of the building, tracking his target, who thankfully wasn't invisible to auril like the last one. Warily, he crept forward to the back door of the store, a steel door right next to the loading dock.

Derick froze as his hand touched the door handle. The outer layer of his auril twitched, someone had spotted him. He relaxed a second later. The information he got from Quantum Awareness suggested it was both human and in the opposite direction of the node.

Probably a User. He scanned the side of a storage yard, trying to find his watcher. A glint caught his eye, light reflecting off of something. Probably not a coincidence. Someone was saying they had his back.

Well, they could cover his escape route anyway. He opened the door, or tried to. It was stuck. He hit it a couple of times with his axe, cutting through the bolts. Still stuck. Something was holding it closed from the inside. He put his foot against the wall and pulled with all his User given strength. It popped open with a tearing noise.

When the door swung open, it brought a horrible display right into Derricks face. The back of a fresh human corpse with yellow tendrils fusing it to the inside of the door. The Tendrils growing out of it and into the walls and floor had been holding the door shut.

In fact, forcing the door open had left one of the corpse's feet still attached to the floor. The tendrils holding it there, having been stronger than its own knee joint. Derrick was glad he was wearing his full mask, at least he was spared the smell. The corpse couldn't have been more than two hours old but parts of it were decomposing with unnatural speed. He tore his eyes from the corpse and threw a sterilization grenade inside, shutting the door to trap the fumes inside. Next, he ran to the front of the store and threw another as deep inside as he could. That should spread the fumes around.

He half expected someone or something to throw them back, but nothing like that happened. Instead a wave of auril passed over him and penetrated his defences. Instantly, a wave of sporelings exploded out of the building and from the sewer grate across the street.

It was an obvious attempt to pin him down where sporetars could hit him while the node retreated. Instead of waiting, he tore through the front wave of sporelings and jumping through the broken display window they had come out of. It would be safer inside, his mask protected him from the grenade fumes and the reduced visibility meant less to someone with auril senses. He would just have to use pulse sparingly, so he didn't run too low on auril.

Inside was a mess of furniture and tendrils hanging down from the ceilings like curtains. Combined with the lack of working lights and a yellow haze that was filling the air, it was hard to see further than a dozen feet. He wondered what the yellow haze was, a counter to the sterilization grenades or just a cloud of spores meant to infect invaders?

Striking out at leaping sporeling and ambushing stalks, he tore through the building, making his way to where he'd sensed the node. To his surprise, a pulse told him it hadn't run. Why soon became clear.

He was not the first to have tried to take out this node. A full grow adult male, it was hanging like a puppet from the ceiling, suspended by tendrils. Like maggots, the ends of pale tendrils writhed through a deep cut that ran from shoulder to waist and out of multiple bullet wounds across its body.

A single working eye, the other swollen shut, focused on Derrick and smiled. At the same time a wave of auril hit him, trying to stun him. It didn't work. The thing's weak smile didn't falter at the failure.

On the ground were the bodies of his attackers. System weapons laying at their sides. Derick marched over them and considered the slave node.

So much for his newly minted plan to capture the nodes. He doubted this one would survive an attempt to move it. Hopefully, the rest could be captured. He raised his axe but never got the chance to use it. A bullet struck the node in the forehead and Derrick felt the life leave it instantly. It twitched for a second before relaxing, limp like a hanged criminal.

“Good job,” a female voice said casually from behind him, causing Derrick to turn around and face her. “I did miss working with you.”

She looked at ease as she stepped over the bodies of other Users with a System rifle on her shoulder. He'd felt her enter but had been focused on the node. Now, recognizing her, he gave her his full attention.

“So did I,” Derrick told Kate and meant it.

 

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Mirrored

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