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Hot-wiring was actually unnecessary. Kessy just offered to drag the vehicles where he wanted them. With the truck she had driven here in, not by hand. While she did have an aura of workman-like competence and strength to her, she was no Bruce.

Derrick’s plan was to turn the four small two story buildings that surrounded the intersection into a defensive perimeter and base. A bank and three shops with either offices or an apartment above them. Just enough room to spread three dozen users across easily. The newly arrived barricades would be used to cover windows and doors that faced the outside of their amateur fortification.

So, while other Users barricaded streets and reinforced the nearby buildings, she dragged cars to block the roads. Those car frames soon had layers of barbed wire running on them, creating a makeshift wall about eight feet tall. Which should be enough to slow attackers down without providing much cover for them.

After getting past the cars, a more impressive looking wall of dark grey barrier panes stood with cars parked behind it to allow Users to walk on them as a rampart and to help prevent the barrier from being toppled by whatever alien monstrosities they would be fighting. Other barrier panes had been set up to block windows and doors at street level, making it so the only way out of their ramshackle base was two steel security doors in alleyways. Assuming whatever attacked them couldn't just break through concrete walls.

Trying to design defences against everything the Scourges could throw at you was hard.

He found two three story buildings outside that perimeter to use as lookout stations, vantage points that could be easily retreated from. If something large and fast came gunning for them, a lookout could see it coming precious seconds before it hit the sensor lines. Plus, something might try lurking around the edges to pinpoint targets for sniping or artillery.

To help counter that, Kessy and some of the logo wearing Users were knocking down buildings. The buildings went down surprisingly quickly, making him grateful he'd thought to reinforce their own. Well, the System had suggested it, but he'd been smart enough to go along with it.

The pairs of rifle armed Users he’d positioned in the watchposts would be in danger, but they would help prevent something from skulking around the edges of their defences. They were strongly suggested to fire and retreat if they saw anything they didn't think they could handle. They were a way to prevent scouting and possibly slow attacks, not a real fortified position.

Cables ran from an outlet on the System Station to lights above all the barricades, illuminating every entrance and the gun armed Users that patrolled them. Some Teslaforce Users had stolen his extra power cabling, but he just let them have it. No doubt whatever they would do with it would be more impressive than backup lighting.

All in all, it was an impressive change from the disorganized crowd of just two hours ago. The Users had all jumped to help, providing a variety of skills to the fortification effort. No one who had survived as one of the System's conscripts this long was stupid or useless. As tired and scared as some of them might be, they knew it was in their best interest to sweat now so they didn't bleed later.

Derrick had been hard at work himself, upgrading the defences by upgrading the defenders. Specifically, the new auril users, all three of them. He could tell their techniques were cruder than his own, not to mention much lower in strength due to their lower amount of aurilin. So, he gave a few lesson in efficient pulsing and detecting enemy pulses. They were almost pathetically grateful for his meagre teachings, having just done the tiniest bit of experimentation themselves. Of all the auril Users only the two female ones stood out. The shorter one because she was the one who showed the most skill and the Teslaforce employee because of her large amount of auril. He would guess that she had already reached the normal auril cap for level one Users. Probably as an experiment done by Teslaforce, she certainly didn't have skill with it.

The shorter girl, the skilled one, refused to take her mask off for some reason. It was a little strange but whatever, he'd certainly dealt with weirder people and things lately. Maybe she was just afraid of scarring her face? He could relate. Despite his powerful healing, tiny scars still covered his face. Mostly from the acid.

“That was sad,” Kate said, as the lessons finished up. She'd watched the lesson without stepping in to help. Not that he needed any as all he taught was auril pulses. It wasn't a waste though as he was glad to help and he'd been 'paid' by the Teslaforce employee with a small auril heart taken from a Grey Legion Vanguard. One of the dog's, the human ones were much rarer and seemed to be used for defence. The dogs meanwhile were much more common, used by the Grey Legion as scouts and raiders.

“I don't think you should use us as a standard,” Derrick replied and gave a small yawn, it had been a long day. “It was kind of a let down though. Have you run into any decent auril Users?”

“None that were human,” Kate replied. “You seem to be very far ahead of the curve.”

“Only locally,” Derrick replied modestly. “In the trial alone I'm probably only in the top five. I'm not even sure I'm better than you.”

It was hard to be sure of anything like an exact ranking from just short video clips. He'd seen some impressive tricks there, but it was hard to know what was auril and what was manna or just regular skill and luck. His own abilities were very subtle, his scouting and healing were hard to capture on a minute-long video.

“The... competitors in that Trial are the best auril users on the planet.” Kate said dryly. “No one is going to learn faster than you through peaceful meditation.”

He had been giving the lessons in the lobby of a cleared-out shop. When he finished, he followed his students out. He was deep in his own thoughts when he found himself face to face with a scowling Indian woman. She had been in the shop across the street, seeing how many Users could defend with manna. A fluke of timing let her catch him by surprise.

“Hey...” he started before he was interrupted.

“You didn't strike me as a leader when we first met,” she said.

“Well spotted,” replied Derrick casually. “Kate this is Anita. Anita this is Kate. Anita helped me clean out some gym washrooms. Bruce was also there, Blake might have mentioned him?”

“He didn't,” Kate answered with an easy smile. She had begun acting formal Derrick noticed. Adopting a friendly look that was odd to see on her face. “Nice to meet you Anita.”

“You as well,” replied Anita without taking her eyes off Derrick. The lack of attention caused Kate's friendly smile to grow a little larger, which Derrick knew was a sign of repressed anger. He idly wondered which of them would win in a fight. Kate for sure if she could get distance. Well, the important thing was not to get between the two of them.

“What is it you want?” Anita blurted out while staring unblinkingly at him so hard it was making him uncomfortable.

Derrick paused. He sensed a lot of hostility from the women recently but had no idea why. Envy was the obvious answer but it seemed too arrogant for him to seriously consider it.

“What exactly is your problem?” he asked, more curious than threatened. She was a bit player here.

“I don't trust you,” Anita answered with a scowl. “You have been arrogant and selfish since we first met. I've watched much better people than you die while you ran around like a moorkh. Not giving a shit about the consequences of your actions.”

A Moorkh sounded pretty bad. He assumed it was an Indian swear word.

He saw Kate back away, abandoning him with the angry Indian woman.

There was a little truth to the accusation of selfishness. He would say that he was one of the most humble people around though. From the beginning, he'd had no illusions of being invincible, valuable or even particularly likely to survive. Even now, with his talent for auril and higher than average level, he was just a slightly larger than normal fish in an insignificantly small pond.

Huh. In fact, that might be the problem, he realized. She'd seen the streak of fatalism that ran through him and mistaken it for arrogance. That fatalism had been useful, allowing him to, if not adapt to, then at least to accept the incredible changes of the last week. He imagined a lot of people simply were too attached to the way things had been to thrive as he had.

“This is not a game,” Anita replied while he considered what to say. “People are dying, are going to die here. You should go back to running around the city throwing yourself into fights. Less people will die that way.”

He assumed he didn't factor into her calculations of people who would die. Did she think he was just playing around? She seemed insulted because of his... casual acceptance of the post Scourge reality. He had eased into it more than most, emotionally. Physically it had been a nightmare, sometimes literally. That wasn't obvious to her though.

Derrick realized that she must have very personal and complicated reasons for her dislike of him, built from bias and misunderstanding. He also realized he didn't care.

“That was a great learning experience,” Derrick admitted. “Is there any reason I should do that, other than your very confusing personal feelings? Because people who know me better than you have very different opinions on my skill as a leader. I, the System itself, and everyone else here believe I have skills that increase the survival chances of those smart enough to listen to what I have to say.”

“Desperate people do stupid things,” she retorted. “I should...”

“Shut up,” he spoke loudly, letting out a wave of auril. Not an attack of any kind, just enough auril that she would feel something; a shiver down her spine. He was out of patience with this.

“Resent me if you want. I don’t care,” he said. “This isn't about you. It's about this spot that the System needs guarded. You will contribute to the defence of this place. Suggestions will be considered; selfishness and whining will be punished.”

“You're playing soldier now?” She asked with a sneer.

“If you like,” he replied with a smile. “How many Users have passable shields? Private.”

“None in the style of Aarav taught,” she replied. One guard has a device that slows incoming objects and two of the Teslaforce people have devices that create hard shields at close range.”

“Better than nothing. Now, report for a two-hour shift at the northern watch point. Hoo Rah.”

“You can..” she started, then stopped suddenly and after a second, stomped off. He assumed she was going to say, you can't make me, or something like that. Then the System had informed her that he could and was.

“That was handled alright,” came a voice from beside him. He turned and saw Gregory there. “But what would you have done if the System hadn't helped out.”

A tricky question.

“I would have disarmed her and accused her of endangering everyone here.” he responded. “She's too valuable to discard completely. Her defensive manna abilities could make a big difference.”

“So, you're an optimist.” Gregory mused. “What did you do in the good old days?”

Good old days? Did he mean last week?

“Network engineer,” he replied casually.

“What a coincidence,” The older man exclaimed with false cheer. “I, too was engaged in engineering. Though of a different sort.”

His gloved fingers reached into one of the many pockets of his jacket and pulled out a card. It was an ordinary paper thing like every business man used to have. It was also speckled with reddish brown stains.

Teslaforce Solutions, it read and had the familiar gear logo on it. Beneath that, Gregory Smith, Senior Partner.

“It's a little out of date,” The man with a maze of scars covering his face admitted. “Still essentially accurate though. I'm not actually a 'partner' per se anymore. Not since all the other partners were eaten.”

“Sorry to hear that. So, you're still keeping your business going?” Derrick asked. “Even now?”

“Especially now,” Gregory said, gave a wild smile and drove one fist into his other hand's palm, creating a dull thud. It was a sound completely unlike flesh hitting flesh. “Markets have shrunk drastically and infrastructure took a bad hit, I'll admit. But the opportunities in manufacturing and research boggle the mind, boy. Boggle the mind.

“Excellent,” said Derrick and took a step back. At some point the other User had gotten a little too close for comfort. Despite being old, stooped and not particularly heavyset, the older man was a bit intimidating. He radiated intensity when he spoke about his work. “It's great to meet a fellow optimist. I take it everyone I saw with your Logo on them works for you?”

“And almost two dozen more.” Gregory agreed happily. “Another field research team and the support staff back at HQ.” He patted the assault rifle looking gun at his side. “We can't pay in modern currency as of yet. So instead, we've been paying employed Users with weapons and ammunition.”

Modern currency must mean USSP, the currency of their new AI overlord. Yet another person who seemed glad that the System had arrived.

“How entrepreneurial of you.” Derrick responded neutrally. “You have much competition yet?”

Whatever Gregory was doing, it would affect far more than just business. An organized and loyal group of Support and Fighter Users would be a political superpower in the ruined city. If this old man wanted to be friends, he was all for it.

“Just independent operators,” he bragged. “We've sped ahead of the competition through dedication and sacrifice. Without matching our investments, it's impossible to match the expertise of our specialists. The most others can do is mass production of basic designs offered by the System or recreating older products with System tech.”

A truly mad smile blossomed on his face. Derrick noticed that despite his ravaged face, the older man's teeth were perfect.

“As far as we know, we might be the only people using System fabrication methods to incorporate advanced materials into cutting edge designs. Real sharp stuff, you'll see tonight no doubt. We brought some pretty pieces.”

“I'm jealous,” admitted Derrick with a sigh. “The System does not seem to like network engineers much. I mean, it's a super advanced AI that spreads through FTL, if it couldn't handle its own network maintenance it would be kind of weird, I suppose. The only insights it's given me have been..."

He stopped talking, unable to put the thought into words.

“You seem to have some new and valuable skills,” Gregory offered, still grinning. “Some of which are very interesting. Very interesting indeed. You'd have a place at Teslaforce Solutions if you wanted it. Just give the word!”

Derrick couldn't help but smile at that. It was strangely touching. He found himself liking the older User. Not sure if he could be trusted though, he could easily just be playing up the whole old eccentric thing to build trust. Then there was the fact he'd recognized Kate.

“I'll keep that in mind. I've been itching to sit down and do some research of my own,” he admitted sincerely. “So, I saw you recognize my teammates, the Demnols. Did you know the family?”

“Only in the usual way we old snobs knew each other. Stuffy parties and such,” he dismissed with a wave. “I have no idea what’s happened to them recently. Been years since I saw young Kate, I'd heard she was in a coma? Was big news a few years ago, I seem to remember.”

“I was told they were torn apart by a mob,” Derrick said and Gregory nodded and looked thoughtful. Not showing any emotion, as if people you knew getting torn apart by mobs were an everyday occurrence. Which, he guessed it might actually be now. Huh. “Kate's cousin got the System to wake her by making her a User. Blake?”

“The name is familiar, one of the unimportant Demnols I think.” Gregory said with a shrug. He seemed to be unenthusiastic about this conversation. Derrick had a number of problems to deal with though and needed to make sure the older man and his well armed friends wouldn't be another.

“What about Greta? Does that name mean anything to you? Short lady, dark skin? Wants to be in charge? Hates the Demnols?”

“Ah... her,” he replied with a frown. “I've had some dealings with her in the last few days. Hates the Demnols does she? Odd, I remember her as one of their employees. Hmmm. Executed a bloody little coup did she?”

“Yes,” answered Derrick with a nod. “What kind of dealings are we talking about? She didn't strike me as the type who cared about production or research.”

Gregory shot an amused look at Derrick.

“No, I'd bet she didn't. Yet, it is an unfortunate reality that even hardworking professionals must set aside the practical to deal with the political at times. A wise businessman always cultivates contacts when he can. So far, I've exchanged only information on Users and the System with her, mostly in the first two days since the Scourges arrived. A very ambitious woman but only in mundane ways,” he dismissed.

Interesting. It didn't sound like they had a close relationship. If nothing else, he was pretty sure the older man's disdain for politics was real. A thought occurred to Derrick.

“What did she offer at first?” he asked. “Insight into manna?”

That earned him a shrewd look from the eyeless and heavily armed man.

“Yes, exactly.” Gregory admitted. “It was very helpful.”

Wonderful. He knew exactly how to make sure Gregory didn't conspire against him or Kate. Invite him into his own little conspiracy.

“She's lost her expert,” Derrick spilled. “A man named Aarav. I have his number. I can get you in touch with him.”

He considered mentioning Third Striker but didn't know how cooperative the Crusader would be. What little he knew about the Crusader's philosophy was contempt for just the kind of weapons Teslaforce seemed to want to create. Or, for that matter, how useful his knowledge would be for creating weapons for human Users.

Derrick gave him Aaravs contact info, as well as a warning that the Indian User both had friends and could take care of himself, just to discourage any repeats of Greta's kidnapping stunt. Gregory appeared not to hear the subtle threat though, he beamed at Derrick.

“Much obliged!” he thanked before adopting a conspiratorial tone. “Just so you know, I've heard things about what Greta's been up to. She definitely has been keeping an eye on some Users; Users that might be you. Tried to do it directly but apparently some of her employees died under suspicious and... messy circumstances. Since then she's been keeping her distance and exchanging a lot of favours. As far as I know, she has no 'aggressive' actions planned towards you. She's been shoring up her power base among Users and trying to organize some kind of governing body for the city.”

That was... somewhat reassuring. The lack of physical threat from her was countered by the mysterious deaths and her gaining political power. If she managed to end up in charge...

He asked if her dead employees had auril but the other man didn't know. From there the conversation moved onto less dramatic subjects.

Gregory had just launched into a speech about prototypes that Derrick was only half listening to when he was interrupted by a gunshot that echoed through the dark. It seemed to have come from the southern watch-post. A second later, a powerful wave of auril washed over Derrick, penetrating his defences and giving him a vague feeling of something powerful to the south. Next, he heard shouting but by that time, both he and Gregory were sprinting in that direction. The older man quickly fell behind, though that was more because of how fast Derrick could move and not him being particularly slow.

Shit, the System's timer still had four hours until they were done here. He hoped this wasn't a prelude to a night long skirmish. Half of their Users were still asleep. They could wake them, but their amateur fighting force was unreliable enough without sleep deprivation added to the mix. Hopefully, it was only a single powerful Legion scout that had snuck past their sensor net. Maybe some kind of Tyrant Spore node?

Gah! It could be anything.

His thoughts were interrupted when something large and human shaped lept up onto their makeshift rampart from the other side, landing at the side of a panicked User and lifting him off the ground by his collar with one hand.

Derrick slid to a halt as he watched the intruder hold the thrashing man. It regarded him for a second before turning to Derrick and he felt a powerful will focus on him. Gregory had caught up and had his gun out. Derrick slapped it down before he started something he couldn't finish.

 

User Tag

Name: Blaze so Bright It Reflects From Above.

Titles: Pilgrim IV

Warden III

Scholar: Quantum Flesh

Race: Human/Strider Beneath Sunlight Hybrid

Role: Sentry

Pathfinder

Warden Crusader

Level: 3.9


“Greeting Crusader... Blaze.” he said to the almost eight foot tall green and purple woman with thick long white hair hanging behind her. “We neophytes welcome you to our humble base.”

Glowing like a human bonfire to his overwhelmed auril senses, the Crusader turned a cold gaze to him.

“I find your defences lacking, Tower that Raises.” She said and dropped the squirming User on his ass. “The night is filled with nemesis and your people seem inadequate to turn them away. If you want to survive, you will have to raise them higher.”

 

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Mirrored

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