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Pizza was, of course, not the most important part of his plan. It was simply the toppings on his ambitious strategy. Though, being able to provide hot food to a bunch of Users who were being forced to camp out in monster infested darkness would at least establish him as a provider. As well as get their attention and build good will. The pizza, made by a System startup, cost him a dozen points for fourteen large. He assumed it had some special properties he would look into later, or maybe Pizza was just a huge luxury now.

The three Users had a little chat about what they wanted to spend their budget on now that food and utilities were taken care of. Lights should be pretty easy to set up. He just called one of the fabricator shops he'd seen earlier and had them set him up with a few hundred meters of carbon power cable and two dozen System built light/sensor boxes that could stick to walls. That only cost him a few points. Which was really cheap, but he guessed materials were basically free at this point. A lot of no one's stuff was just lying around, ready to shoved into a System built fabricator by Support Users. Time was really the only expense, as the System was probably supplying the power too.

With that in mind, he considered what else he could throw in.

“Recommendations for defences?” he asked aloud. He was talking to Blake and Kate but the System answered as well.

Low Quality Barrier Pane: x3 2 USSP

Structural Reinforcement Post: x1 2 USSP

Huh. A light but strong sheet that could be expected to stop a projectile and a self securing post that could be used to hold things in place. He ordered a few dozen of each. Movies informed him that no defensive perimeter was complete without barbed wire, so he ordered a few hundred feet of that too. What else, landmines? No, even if he could order something like that, it would be directly from the System and through someone who knew what they were doing.

“Any suggestions for defending this place?” he asked his Demnol allies.

“Some more passive sensors wouldn't hurt,” she answered with a shrug. “It would be nice to cover a few more buildings or get some redundancy. Explosives maybe?”

“Can you order those?” he replied. “I can't purchase anything like landmines.”

“No, not landmines.” Kate said. “Something to bring down the nearby buildings and clear our line of sight. Hard to see anything with all these building around.”

“Construction equipment might be safer and basically free,” Blake offered.

“Not fast though,” Kate riposted. “We could be attacked at any time.

That was a very good point. Also they'd been concentrating on countering the Grey Legion with their plans. While hopefully the System would kill it soon, the Spore Tyrant Node below them was still alive and it might still have minions in the city. He could easily imagine a flailing mass of tentacles bursting out of the ground or a wave of sporelings writhing their way over any defences he created.

“Can you teach me that Spore Tyrant disabling trick now?” he asked Kate and got a shrug in return.

“Auril Stupor. Sure,” she said casually. “It's not difficult if someone shows you how.”

Curious Derrick's eyes met her brown ones.

“Really. Who showed you?”

“Title reward from the System,” she answered easily. “Incorruptible. Not sure what I did to get it exactly. Something to do with almost dying from infection after killing that Node in the cake factory.”

The thin blonde immediately gathered and released a pulse of auril from her hand, sending it out in a wave that hit Derrick. He shivered as the still strange sensation washed over him. He paid attention though.

It was over way too fast though for him to get any real info for it.

“Again,” he said, but grabbed her hand this time. Kate, raised an eyebrow at the invasion of personal space, but said nothing, just showed him the technique whenever he asked. Which was half a dozen more times. Derrick didn't even notice her amusement, so focused was he on studying Auril Stupor.

Right away, he was pretty sure he could copy it. Better yet, he began to understand it. It was an inhibitor, which fit nicely into his theories of what auril could do. The auril energy flowed through the ground and when it hit something living, it shut down some biological process. He could feel it, a extremely specific interaction but not a complicated one. Probably unique to Spore Tyrants but that could be fixed. It was somewhat like coding, now that he had some idea of how to play with cause and effect. Finally some good news from his old expertise.

Kate's technique was a goldmine for him. It was also simple, to the point of feeling incomplete. He lost track of reality completely as he focused on the dancing patterns of auril and tried to steal meaning from them. He knew auril had a natural invigorating effect. So, all he had to do was see how the smallest threads of auril interacted within himself. Next he took those patterns and used Auril Stupor as a basis to reverse that effect.

A quick test on is own hand, showed success. He felt a wave of weakness and numbness before his auril quickly overpowered the technique and undid the damage.

“What are you doing?” Kate asked. Probably because he was still holding her hand. Absently, he let go and continued his work on his own auril.

“I guess he's already bored with you cousin,” Blake said. “Shouldn't have given up the goods so fast.”

Derrick registered a sound of impact and a grunt of pain but ignored it.

It still wasn't good enough to be a usable combat technique. The effect was only momentary on anything with auril. It would be great if he wanted to slow multiple non auril using opponents that were nearby. That was about all it was good for but he knew a way to fix that, the persistent effect created by Shattering Strike. The two abilities might be close enough... yes he could do it. It was just a matter of allowing the auril to... churn in such a way that in pulled in adjacent auril. Feeding and protecting the technique from outside influence.

Hidden in the flesh of his hand, a churning knot of invisible energy grew, relaxing and numbing the muscles it could reach. He wouldn't be able to emit this version as a pulse, but at a touch, he could inject it right into a target. Bonus, the effect was much less dangerous to experiment with than Shattering Strike.

New technique learned: Auril Stupor Pulse

New technique learned: Sapping Strike

“Are you okay?” asked Kate. “Did you somehow manage to turn your brain off?”

“Ahh. No I'm good. I think I've got the technique,” he said and let a pulse of the vanilla technique out. It hit Kate and washed over her without visible effect.

“Yeargh,” said Blake and gave a little shiver. “Fucking weird.”

“That was fast.” Kate said and gave a lazy smile.

“Well, we are in a hurry.” he answered and looked out the ruined window. “There are cats that are in desperate need of herding.”

“How about we just stay here and use them as bait?” the female User asked hopefully. No doubt she was joking; it was a pretty terrible plan.

“No,” he said, then elaborated. “Too many guns. We need to at least make sure they won't shoot us by accident. Look, two of them already have grenade launchers. I'm not lurking in the shadows while a terrified mob fires those at anything that moves.”

A pout crept over Kate's face. It was so cute that he couldn't hep but smile at her.

Blake looked slightly disgusted and turned away. Sighing to himself as he peered below.

“So, we use the head you're dragging around to scare them into listening,” she offered. “Sell ourselves as experts. Get ourselves some cannon fodder. Make sure they're at least pointing those guns in the right direction.”

“We are experts,” Derrick argued, then paused. “Relatively.”

He waved down at the groups of colourfully dressed Users below. “They should be grateful we're here to save them.”

“I'm sure that's exactly what they will be thinking,” Kate mocked. “Thank the System! Derrick the Red is here to save us with his tactical genius!”

“Quick, everyone grab an axe!” added Blake, even though Derrick being in charge was his idea and Blake's sword was hardly much different. If anything, Blake was far more attached to it than Derrick was of his axes. The only reason he hadn't upgraded to some kind of gun was that he'd been too busy playing around with auril and now manna.

“There's no need to be jealous,” he rebutted. “I'm sure at least one of them will have heard of you.”

“Oooh. You should totally give a speech,” Kate offered with a grin. “I love it when you try to inspire people.”

Blake smiled at him meanly, clearly amused.

“I probably will, and you should love it,” he agreed haughtily. There was nothing wrong with his speeches. They worked, that was the important thing. No doubt they would work again.

The three Users grabbed their stuff and made their way down the stairs and out of the building, attracting more than a few surprised looks as they did so. He'd been right that few if any of the Users had realized he'd been up there. Wearing his mask and red armor, he was immediately recognized as Derrick the Red and a few Users shuffled aside to allow him and his allies pass.

The now close to three dozen Users sent by the System to protect the intersection were in groups of four to six people. The groups were illuminated by the lights from two silently running modified pickup trucks and a pair of lights attached to the sides of buildings that some generous User must have bought from the nearby Station.

Most of the Users were just chatting together or restocking at the Station while keeping an eye on each other and the lengthening shadows around them. Most were dressed in the normal blue System armor and all had the filtration masks the System offered, though only a few were wearing them. The coats consisted of an armored but not bulky vest with long sleeves that looked like the classic sci-fi take on military or police gear. Many had boot and pants from the System as well. While none of them were as colourful as Derrick the Red or Kate in her sea green, two of the groups did stand out.

The first, was a group of five, four men and a woman who was still wearing her mask. They seemed to be going for a tough grunge look. Playing up the wear and tear on both themselves and their clothes. Tears in clothing and messy scars were on display, alongside an identical patch sewn on all their chests; a lightening bolt running through an ornate gear. It was familiar to Derrick, something he'd seen in the city before a number of times but never paid much attention to. Just one of the countless logos you saw everyday. As tough and serious as they looked, it was their weaponry that set them apart. Each had multiple grenades, guns and gadgets stuck to them, some that Derrick didn't recognize but each bore the same logo as their chests. It was also proudly displayed on the side of a nearby pair of pickup trucks.

Summoning their tags revealed that they were a mix of Guards and Fighters. So, some of them were at least semi-professional combatants before the Scourges made themselves known. At their head stood a somewhat tall man with sloping posture whose face was hidden by a hood. Derrick was both impressed and curious. In turn, these Users watched Derrick approach with cautious interest.

The second group was the largest, nine people clustered together, most of them wearing the System armor and with standard weapons like Scavenger's Pistols and System made rifles. Other than that, the only thing they had in common was youth, ranging from skinny kids that should be in high-school to older college students.

At their head, was a tall and athletic looking young man of college age whose features were strong and tanned but didn't really mark him with any clear ancestry. Like the other group, one of them wore a mask. A shorter girl with a small amount of auril that looked like she was hiding behind the others. Unlike the last group, they watched him approach with smiles and looks of relief. Apparently, they were fans? Only the leader was guarded, his smile more polite than welcoming. Not hostile though.

Then there was a scowling Anita and two Users who seemed to be with her. Hers had been the smallest group taking part in the big argument. They all had knives and Rifles at least, with a few standard grenades between them. They seemed somewhere between the other two groups when it came to competence.

The last group was one that had been sitting the discussion out, until Derrick showed up. They moved to him as soon as they saw him, all three standing behind him and the Demnols. It was Tim and his allies. No. Wait, his name was Tom. He was the younger User who Derrick had beat up in his old apartment. Then, he'd helped him and his allies with the giant spider drone that had ambushed them. At his side was a skinny and pale man with auril. Who, even wearing System armor and with a System rifle slung over his shoulder, seemed totally out of place. Gangling and awkward, he seemed more like a nerdy school teacher or accountant than a combatant. On the other side of Tom, was the heavyset redhead he'd met before. He couldn't help but look at the burn scars that covered a third of her face. She must have gotten those burns by making a target of herself, so he'd had a chance to catch the Combat Drone by surprise.

Derrick summoned her tag, wanting her name.

 

User Tag (Basic Leadership)

Name: Kessy Kelly

Title: Adamant

Role: Fighter

Level: 1.6

Rank: Subordinate

Proficiency: Expert Rifles, Basic Explosives


Oh hey, the tag was bigger now. Because she was his subordinate now? Curious, he turned to look at Kate.

 

User Tag

Name: Kate Demnol

Title: Incorruptible

Role: Fighter

Level: 1.7


Nothing new. Apparently, she was not at all subordinate. Not really a surprise.

“Derrick,” Kessy said and gave him a friendly nod. Relieved at a lack of bad feelings between them, he returned the nod. That fight had been brutal and she had lost people she must have considered both allies and friends. Tom's no doubt exaggerated praise of him probably helped. The teenage looking young man was trying to look tough but couldn't help but shoot almost worshipful looks his way.

“Kessy,” he returned with respect.

“Derrick,” spoke another female voice, this one much less warm. “I thought you'd be too busy for mere guard duty.”

Hmm, hostility. He supposed he deserved that after his little 'prank'. Well, at the moment it was more likely to drive people into his arms than turn them against him. He could already see a hard look in Kessy's eyes. The tall auril user was frowning while Tom tensed up. The two dozen other Users mostly just looked... entertained or indifferent.

“You underestimate how important you are,” Derrick rebutted. “The System is taking the defence of this place very seriously. Whatever it's doing here, it does not like the fact that the Grey Legion is scouting it out and preparing for an assault.”

Anita looked like she was going to speak but the hooded man talked over her.

“It told you this?” came a raspy voice that was almost deep enough to hide the concern in it. “How long do we have? Any estimate on numbers?”

The speaker stepped forward and let light from the setting sun reveal what was under his hood. Derrick wasn't the only person to flinch. The older man's face was a mess of thin but long scars, the worst of which was around the eyes, where it looked like some kind of small animal had put a lot of effort into messily clawing the eyes out of his face.

Instead of fleshy orbs, he had somehow replaced his eyes with silver eyes of obvious artificial origin. Eyes were not the largest thing he was missing either. An auril pulse failed to detect his left arm at all, even though a functioning gloved hand could be seen hanging at his side.

 

User Tag (Basic Leadership)

Name: Gregory Smith

Title: Relentless

Role: Fighter

Level: 1.5

Rank: Undecided

Proficiency: Expert Pistols, Advanced Engineering


What an interesting fellow. One he wanted on his side. Time to display the evidence then.

“Kate, show our friends the head,” he said and saw her pull a head out his backpack in response, flourishing it like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Holding it from above and below, she held it out so that all the Users could clearly see the eyeless face.

He watched the Users respond to the ghastly sight. Most showed almost no reaction but concern. It was the Mr Grey that reacted the most. Not to the head but to the name Kate. His eyes widened and shot to the blond woman, then to Blake before he hid his reaction. Kate must have seen it but didn't react to appear to recognize the man in turn. Blake just looked like he hadn't been paying attention, which was probably not true.

He really hoped this wasn't more Demnol bullshit. Gregory did not seem like someone he wanted to fight.

“This beauty is a variant on the classic Grey Legion Agent that everyone loves. Now with stealth, personal shielding and detection abilities,” Kate informed with a cheery tone. “It was leading a group of Agent's that was skulking about.”

“The local Grey Legion are getting more cautious due to a series of setbacks they've faced,” Derrick indirectly bragged. “We're in their strike range though, they have a hidden base outside the city somewhere. Kess and Tom here can tell you exactly how fast and hard they can hit when they want you bad enough.”

“The first thing you'll notice is that half of you are on fire,” Kessy added grimly. “The second thing will be dozens of Agent's swarming your position, armed with weapons of their own design. They're ramping up, better tactics, guns and mutations everyday. Not sure if anyone saw it on the Trial, but they basically mechanized now.”

“Almost unlimited numbers too,” Blake commented. “No matter how many you kill, there's always more skulking about it seems. They've been falling back from the inner city recently, consolidating into this direction.”

Huh, he hadn't known that.

“Could you actually help deal with an attack by an army of Grey Legion?” the youth leader asked. “Not to be rude but it seemed like you got lucky. You seem to work better at... a smaller scale too. ”

Derrick hid a frown, not at the comment but from a weird sensation that rippled over him. Was that auril? If so, it was very low powered. So low powered that he had no idea what it could be for.

“We won't be surprised and caught out in the open this time.” Derrick said encouragingly, as he tried to understand what had just happened. “So, we won't need luck if we can get things going here.”

“Besides,” Kate added from his side. “We have a lot more firepower. We should be able punch right through anything’s defences with concentrated firepower. Assuming we are organized enough.”

Only if their target stands still, Derrick thought darkly. It would be a real problem if one of those drones just decided to rain fire on them from above while staying mobile at a distance.

“So you should be in charge? That's what you're working up to, isn't it?” Anita interrupted with narrowed eyes. “You're joining the discussion a little late. We were just talking about that already.”

“And decided exactly nothing,” the youth leader added, sounding tired. “The last thing we need is someone else throwing their hat into this circus.”

“I think it would be a good idea if someone organized our defences, considering none of us can leave this giant target for the next... seven hours,” Derrick finished. “Unless anyone here thinks they have a better understanding of Grey Legion scouting and assault tactics than me?”

“Everyone here has been fighting for their lives against the Scourges. We are not inexperienced,” the young leader said with a hint of defensiveness. Derrick narrowed his eyes. He'd felt it again when the man spoke. It was coming from close by but not from the speaker himself. The short girl with auril in the mask? Some kind of super low power pulse? Interesting but a distraction.

“I wasn't insulting anyone,” Derrick answered. “You wouldn't be here if you weren't capable. What I asked was, if anyone here thinks they have a better understanding of Grey Legion scouting and assault tactics than me?”

If anyone did, they kept it to themselves. It wasn't quite that easy to take command over the Users though.

“Do you bring any other skills to the table?” asked Gregory sounding more curious than confrontational. He was giving Derrick an odd look. No doubt because he recognized Kate but not him. He pushed down a surge of annoyance and resisted the urge to make a landscaping comment, it would just confuse the situation.

Besides, while he'd been talking, a cube van pulled up into the intersection, from which the smell of hot cheese and spices wafted out. Behind it, four more vans waited. It seemed his orders had arrived.

“Logistics,” responded Derrick and sent out a mental command. Lights inside the four neighbouring building all flashed to life, the ones not destroyed by the System's attack did anyhow. The single remaining and tilted streetlight actually joined them, flickering to life and illuminating the Users from above.

Derricks lack of reaction showed the sudden illumination came as no surprise to him.

The old man nodded to himself and Derrick could see his showmanship paid off with the other Users as well. Points to Blake, they took the lights as the mandate from the System it was. They were used to doing what the System told them to at this point.

“It seems we have a winner,” said the youth leader, seemingly relieved. “Congratulations. I look forward to working with everyone.”

Derrick would guess he'd been more worried about his group being abused than actually dedicated to being in charge. Had he run into problems before?Well, the other man seemed to trust him for some reason.

“I have a logistical question,” the pale ally of Tom stated with a frown on his face and continued when Derrick gave him a nod. “What do we do with bodies. We found some Spore Tyrant victims in the bank vault. We fumigated, of course, but haven't done anything with the corpses yet.”

Wasn't leadership grand. So his first leadership decision would be about the burying of corpses. Specifically, who should be forced to bury the corpses. He would think this was an attempt to undermine him, but the man looked like the question had really been bugging him.

“We bury them,” he replied. “I'll be assigning tasks to everyone according to their strengths. Building a defensive perimeter. Whoever is left over buries them. Anyone have any problems with that?”

Heads were shook, the grim nature of the task both depressing and motivating them.

“No need to put it off,” said Gregory, calmly. “I'll have someone take care of it quickly. We're used to this sort of thing. Won't take more than a moment.”

That got the older User some thankful looks. Surprisingly, none of his allies seemed bothered by being volunteered for the grim task.

“Since we're dealing with issues now, what are we doing about Users who need to sleep?” Youth leader asked. “Some of my people were already sleep deprived, even with System cheats, we won’t be able to keep everyone awake all night.”

“We'll clear out the basement of these buildings and fortify them,” Derrick said. “As soon as that's done we can rotate people on watch.”

“Here is what else we need done if we want to survive,” he continued and laid out his plans. “Can anyone here hot-wire a car?”

 

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Mirrored

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