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First of all, a System Station had sprouted out of the ground like a mushroom in an alley between two ruined shops. Offering resupply and upgrades to the dozen or so Users that were guarding what had been a smoking hole in the ground only an hour ago.

While he had been meditating on the nature of the Multiverse and how to use it to punch harder, the System had sealed the pit with a smooth circular cover of smooth white and silver material. Around the metallic edges of the cap, the ground was transforming into a hard substance that looked like concrete.

Derrick was amused to see that the colourful collection of Users didn't stand anywhere near the spreading substance. They were hanging about in small groups but clearly at ease with each other. No doubt trading tips and tricks of their new trade.

Remember to ask the Station for recommendations.The best spots and colors for custom gear. Always aim for the head or neck. Buy grenades, even if they seem like toys. How to unlock rewarding titles.

Derrick didn't see Kate among them or anyone else he recognized. Not really wanting to go through a round of introductions, he just went back to practising. He didn't feel the need to go look for her. It didn't seem like he was going to be needed anytime soon. Whatever the System was up to, it was taking its sweet time. Hopefully, whatever it was building would kill the Node.

Curious about how it had changed, he brought up his profile.

 

User Profile

Name: Derrick

Show Title: Auril Pioneer II

Role: Fighter

Level: 1.8

Titles: Titles: Scrappy III, Emergency Activation II, Auril Pioneer II, Multi Killer, Fold Survivor, Auril Cultivator, Counteragent, Ambitious, C/C 1A/1B

Traits: Curative Blood © (Defensive)

Standard Auril Heart (D) (Auril)

Basic Manna Core (D) (Manna)

Quantum Awareness (D) (Survival)

Combat Drug Package (E) (Offensive)

Breathless (F) (Survival)

Auril Heart Capacity: 13.9

Auril Style: Red Law (D)

Active Auril Skills: Regeneration

Pulse

Splintering Strike

Manna Core Capacity: 7 (7.7)

Manna (Raw): 7 (7.7

Manna (Deep 9765A) 3.5

Manna Skills: Sheathing

Reinforcement

Acceleration

Successful USS missions: 5

USS Points: 118

It was all pretty normal until he got to Manna (9765A). What was that supposed to be? Raw manna was clearly the basic type he'd been practising with. From what he knew, it powered weapons and manipulated kinetic energy, allowing for the creation of shields. A very useful power for both offence and defence. So, what did this second type do and how did he use it?

Curious and a little excited, he sent his mind back into the Fold. Raw, was a good name for the sensation he felt as sent a sliver of awareness into the Fold. An overwhelming sea of crackling energy waiting to be used was all he felt. If there was more than one type of power here, he had no idea how to find it. The raw energy was overwhelming.

He wasn't in a hurry, so he just sat down and basked in the sensations of touching another layer of reality with his mind. Listening to the hum of alien energies was strangely calming. The web of power currents flowed around him like an impossibly complex machine. He failed to detect any pattern of form to them, but it was a pleasant distraction. His mind emptied, the roar of power faded, and the Fold Survivor began to hear something.

The faintest of whisperings. Odd, why did this feel so familiar? He frowned and removed his thoughts from the Fold. Whispers and mazes... damn, it was no good. Whatever he had been remembering escaped him. Well anything so easily forgotten couldn't be important. It probably had nothing to do with manna anyway.

He was pretty disappointed really. He had honestly been hoping for a last minute power up and new manna type seemed like it might have led to that. He didn't have time for experimentation that would probably have no pay off though.

Maybe he should hunt down Third Striker after this, get some lessons. Aarav probably didn't have the advanced know how to teach him to use a new manna type. Third Striker meanwhile had been very impressive when he... did that fighting... against the thing.

Derrick frowned, what was wrong with his head this last hour? He felt like was dozing off. He gave himself a little slap to the face.

Moving to the window and staring down revealed that at least two dozen Users were now hanging around in the intersection. Just hanging around and chatting or buying things from the new Station as the sun slowly set over this ruined corner of Westhills.

Derrick grimaced. Things were about to get dark. Literally. There was no way the broken streetlights were going to kick in when the sun set. Which would be dangerous enough for a team like him, Kate, Blake and Jenny. With the quality of Users he saw below, it was twice as bad at least. He'd gamble that at least one person would end up with a bullet in them even if no enemies even showed up.

Sure, they had the sensor hub Kate had set up but that shouldn't be their only line of defence. If nothing else, a fast enemy could blitz across half a dozen unlit intersections in under a minute, while Users scrambled to arm themselves in the dark. Personally, as a naturally stealthy User already in cover and with night-vision, he wasn't threatened too much by a blitz, these people were right out in the open though. Some of them even seemed to be arguing amongst each other. Pitiful. Someone should step up and get things organized. Where was the leadership?

...

And now he realized this might be his fault.

Maybe, before experimenting with manna, he should have been organizing the... camp... base? He felt an uneasy feeling grow in his chest as he looked to the armed mob. Despite his recent proficiency gain, he wasn't really the leader type. It had never been his thing, not even in the normal context of office life. Things had changed though, the stakes were a little higher these days. Keeping his head down was no longer an option. That would just get the position overrun, which would be a loss of force multiplierness. Multiplierity? A loss of tactical advantage.

His mind flashed back to the dark imaginings of a few seconds ago and the shadows that clung to the abandoned section of city he was in began to look a lot more hostile. He was going to need help to survive this mission and defend this spot. No, he was going to need people to do what he said.

He peered down one more time, hoping to spot someone who looked more competent than he felt. No such luck. He was pretty sure all two dozen Users were still unaware of him, having not bothered to peer into any of the ruined buildings around them. He guessed their next move would be to start a bonfire and crack open a couple beers as the sun set. Well, that was a bit of an exaggeration, some of them looked more competent than any group he'd been part of. Most though? He wasn't sure how these people even still alive. The first Vanguard or Feral Artisan they encountered should have eaten them alive.

He spent a moment just creeping on the group below. Luckily, an auril pulse detected Kate was entering the back of the building, with another human... man. His auril senses weren't that precise but he was pretty sure it was man.

“The Hub is set up. It should be impossible for anything to get within two blocks without us knowing.” Kate informed him as she entered the room. “Also, Blake is here,” she added with no particular enthusiasm.

It was definitely the other surviving Demnol. He swaggered in, sword on hip and wearing System made armor, having apparently learned his lesson from his trip to the hospital. It was a slightly darker shade of blue than the usual armor, with grey highlights. He was also, for some reason, wearing a necklace of oversized dog teeth.

Derrick was about to make fun of him but remembered that his coat was a 'trophy coat' and had stolen carapace woven into it. Besides, some of them were big. Like almost saber-tooth tiger big.

“Greetings, mighty Derrick the Red,” Blake said with a friendly nod and grin at Derrick. Apparently his confidence had healed as quickly as his body. No real surprise there. “I see you two are... together.”

That was astute of him. Was there some kind of stamp on his forehead? Something that declared for everyone to see that the two of them had hooked up? Derrick shot Kate a look and saw her roll her eyes as she moved to the window and took a peek below. Apparently, she wasn't bothered so he decided not to care either. Besides, Derrick was glad Blake was here. Grating personality and relationship awkwardness aside, he was an oddly dependable ally.

“Greeting, Blake the Puppycutter” Derrick replied deadpan. “You got drafted onto this glorious mission too?”

“Actually, I'm a volunteer. How could I just leave you two on your own?” he answered. “I was technically on break after a long day of protecting refugees coming into the city when I saw you two double team some Agents on the Trial, so I got a ride over. Meg; the biker lady with the nice rack, says hi. Sadly, she's too busy to help out here. We were running down some very bad dogs together.

“I'll bet you two really hit it off,” Derrick said sarcastically. The raven haired biker was a surprisingly friendly woman in derrick's admittedly short experience. Derrick hadn't been stupid enough to risk annoying her though. You didn't become a respected female member of a biker gang through acts of kindness.

“He was riding bitch behind a dude named Gary when he was dropped off.” Kate confirmed. “Probably not a romance for the ages.”

“I wasn't her type.” the blond sword wielder explained with a shrug. “How goes the battle so far? Kate filled me in on the details of the Legion scouts already.”

“Pretty bad. Take a look for yourself,” Derrick admitted and waved him towards the window.

“Yes. They do seem to lack leadership,” Blake said while looking down, the fingers of one hand tapping against the pommel of his sword. “That's easy enough to solve though.”

“You think you should be in charge?” Kate asked, amused.

“They would be lucky to have me. I remember leading a successful team,” the male Demnol defended. "No failed missions or deaths."

"Like four people died," Kate reminded him. "Some within minutes of you becoming their leader, pretty bad deaths too"

Derrick shot Blake a look. Ya, he remembered that he'd been welcomed as a replacement for another dead member. Soon after that, their group's fourth member had bitten the dust in a free for all against Legion Agents.

“No one that mattered," Blake clarified. "But no, I will gracefully pass the baton here. Derrick here has the Star Power needed to get people to listen to him. I shall remain his trusty and competent advisor.”

Derrick heard Kate snort loudly from her position at the window. He shared the sentiment.

“Fine, we all agree. That's three votes for glorious leader Derrick.” Kate said. “We need a plan to steal some more votes. Anyone think to bring any bribes? That's how this usually works.”

Well, that was basically true. He had Basic Leadership proficiency, maybe he could use that? Time to see what Leadership meant to the System. To get what he wanted from the System, he would need to think like a computer. Make an argument one would understand. Just saying people were incompetent and they were going to die didn't seem like the kind of thing the Universal Support System cared about.

“Local resources and leadership are insufficient to defend location,” he tried aloud, knowing the System could hear him. He probably didn't even need to speak aloud but this way was less creepy.“I request local command and a budget to order supplies from the Enclave. In order to reduce strain on local Station resources.”

Surprisingly, an answer was immediately forthcoming. He'd guessed that whatever the System was doing here, it was straining its resources and it seemed like he was right. The new Station below couldn't possibly supply them with everything a defensive outpost would want in a few hours. No matter how advanced the System's technology was, it still had limited resources.

Temporary (24:00) command over facility G4wd01 granted.

97 USSP Defence Budget created.

Transport for supplies arranged.

Huh, that wasn't a huge budget. Honestly though, he'd thought he'd be paying out of his own pocket, so it worked for him. He didn't even have to strong arm someone into making the delivery, which would save a lot of time. Say what you wanted about alien AI overlords, they delivered. The other takeaway was that this spot was classified as a facility. That was interesting. Apparently, the System had ambitions for this spot.

“Did that work?” Blake asked skeptically.

“Seems like it,” Derrick answered. “I have a defence budget of ninety-seven points now anyway. Oh, and free delivery.”

“How generous,” said Kate dryly. “Spare change and a coupon. The System really emptied its pockets for us.”

Derrick shrugged. Better than nothing. What was the most important thing they needed?

“I will pay any amount of points if you can guarantee the four buildings that surround the intersection have basic utilities.” He replied hopefully. The buildings around here were blasted ruins, still standing but who knew what below the ground was like? Probably shattered and infested with all kinds of nastiness. Keeping a bunch of modern city people happy without sanitation or electricity was pretty much impossible. His lip curled at the thought. People squatting in the dark, thinking about how thirsty and hungry they were did not make good soldiers.

-5 USSP from G4wd01 budget. Repairing native utilities.

A bargain, he thought, relieved. So now he had the System's backing in organizing a defence. That would help a lot. He would probably need it to get people to take him seriously.

“Good call,” said Blake approvingly then added slyly, “You should keep the lights off for now. So, people know who to thank when they come on.”

Yes.. that was a good idea. Showmanship wouldn't hurt.

“Keep the lights off till I prompt it,” he said aloud to his invisible boss. There was no response but he'd guess the System would play along.

“Where's miss 'Straight Shooter' anyway,” Kate asked Blake suddenly, attracting Derrick's attention. “I thought you'd be with her.”

“She took some easy missions to babysit her partner,” Blake answered, a touch of annoyance in his voice. “When they let me out of bed at the hospital, I needed to get back into the action. Took me awhile to find anyone worth working with and wanted to do the right type of mission. High risk, high reward is my style.”

“So the partner is finally joining the fight,” Derrick added. “I thought he'd be asleep forever.”

“Good for him,” said Kate agreed. “One more Guard for the city I guess.”

Every bit helped he supposed. They were getting a little off track now. He pulled out his phone and dialed as the two Demnols watched.

It wasn't like he had learned nothing about leadership during his life. He knew the very basics. A leader was confident. A leader provided for his people. A leader unified. On the other end of the phone, a voice greeted him warmly and asked what he wanted.

“Hey, I would like to order some pizza,” he answered.

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Mirrored

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