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 No more jumping and climbing for Derrick the Red, not until his shoulder healed anyway. So, he just took the stairs down to the first floor and strolled into the ruined intersection that made up the centre of their defensive position.

The axe wielding User was glad to see that very little of his carefully designed base was actually ablaze. Luckily, the buildings all had stone and brick exteriors wrapped over steel frames, so they burst or melted if left unmanaged, but the fire didn't spread. Even the inside didn't burn as the Users had cleared out all the furniture. He saw that some Users even had a counter to the fire, thin yellow patches of foam, no doubt a gift from the System to put out the flame.

He caught a glimpse of Kate for the first time since the fighting had started, a flash of green armor and short blonde hair as she moved from one window to the next. Blake was standing in the middle of the intersection with a half dozen other Users that lacked guns, his hand was on the hilt of his blade. Under the glow of the lights above, he could see that all of them were splattered in blood both grey and red, plus a layer of soot and ash. The dangerous looking bunch seemed to be waiting for the next crisis.

“What did I miss?” Derrick asked, causing the male Demnol to twist in his direction.

“Had to fight off one of those human Vanguards a couple of times,” the blond User replied, clearly annoyed. “Creepy fucker was impossible to put down or keep out of the base, it scaled the walls like a spider. Kate and I chased it all over the place.”

He nodded to the western barrier, where all the action was. “Now it seems like they're finally done playing games with us.”

Derrick cast another glance at the other Users waiting with Blake.

“These guys any good?” he asked. There was one tall woman among them but for the most part the this group was larger and older than average men.

“Better than ninety percent of Agents,” Blake answered with a shrug. “They can hold their own anyway.”

The subjects of his curiosity ignored his question. The masked and dangerous looking Users instead were completely focused on their surroundings. Derrick supposed any User that had come this far with just melee weapons would have to be skilled and cautious. They didn't even have auril to help keep them alive. He was honestly impressed. They were like him, simply less lucky.

“What happened to your sleeve?” Blake added a second later, confusing Derrick. “Every time I see you, your wearing less clothing.”

The User in red looked down to discover that he was now completely sleeveless. He'd lost the first one when fighting the first combat drone but had no idea what had happened to the second. He really hoped he didn't get splashed with any more fire.

“I guess it came off when they were checking my shoulder for breaks,” was his answer.

There was a loud crack, a scream and then a flailing User fell off of the barricade in front of the pair. Another User quickly ran up to their fallen ally and shouted at them while kneeling at their side. Soon, a third helped them onto a stretcher.

There was a faint tingle, so faint he would not have noticed it if he wasn't looking in that direction.

Reflexively, he pulsed auril. It had been hard to tell because of all the armor and masks around but the medic was the short girl with auril, one of his students from earlier.

 

User Tag

Name: Emily Cespedes

Title: Tender

Role: Fighter

Level: 1.5

Rank: Subordinate

Proficiency: Basic Auril, Advanced Field Medicine

Tender:

Has saved the lives of many other Users though bravery and medical skills, preserving resources and increasing moral.


She must be a nurse or some kind of medical student. She'd definitely done something with auril there and he hadn't been the only one to notice. Up in one of the windows, his auril had caught Kate glancing down at her. When his eyes moved up to that window, she was already gone though.

Something secret was going on with his student, something other than refusing to take off her mask. And after he had shared his hard-earned knowledge of auril with her too, how rude. Whatever technique she had, he wanted it. Even if only to expand his knowledge base. He was really getting a feel for auril now. He was proud of his latest creation, Sapping Strike.

“...You?” finished Blake, an odd smile on his face. What was that emotion he was displaying? He was definitely happy? Why? It faded quickly, the blond User's grin turned into a frown soon enough.

“What about you?” Blake repeated. “Is it some kind a secret?”

“Me? Oh, just fought some dogs that swarmed one barricade and then led a failed raid on that annoying Drone that keeps dropping fire on us, I was mostly just trying to kill some of the Agents taking pot shots out there. Got a half dozen between me and Scynil anyway.”

“Ah yes, Scynil. Our new alien friend. What's she like?” Blake asked with incredible casualness. “She seems... different. Not too different if you know what I mean.”

“Yes,” Derrick agreed. “She's a couple centuries old nomad from a now dead civilization. Specializes in auril and fighting Spore Tyrants. She likes our night sky.”

“Ah, a romantic,” Blake said appreciatively. “And probably lonely. Anything else I should know about her... interests?”

Spore Tyrants and ripping living things apart with her clawed feet, was what came to the axe wielding User's mind first. Blake was clearly interest in pulling a Captain Kirk and 'going where no man has gone before. Which was perfectly normal Derrick supposed. He'd enjoyed a few fantasies about 'alien' women himself, but the reality was probably going to be a lot more complicated. Just a few days ago, Crusaders had been true aliens, completely alien in form and function. Reality wasn't anything like movies, it wasn't limited by human conceptions of attraction or makeup budgets. While Scynil was female now, most of what comprised human genders and even sex itself was arbitrary and incredibly specific to humans. For all he knew, Scynil's people had six genders or reproduced through spreading pollen. He was in no hurry to navigate that minefield.

“She likes long walks and camping out under the stars,” Derrick answered instead, face deadpan while his heart was filled with morbid glee. The easiest way to get through a minefield was just to throw bodies at it. He doubted Blake would make it far and she probably wouldn't kill him.

Blake nodded along, then frowned as yet another explosion rang out from the far side of the barricade.

“They're really pressing the attack now,” he said. “Maybe you should go take a look. I'm not sure how long they can hold them off like this.”

“I'm armed with axes,” Derrick replied skeptically. “You know how an axe works, right?”

“At least you can throw those,” the blond man retorted.

“Only once. What go...”

Their argument was interrupted by a new noise adding to the cacophony. Loud impacts sounding out fast and steady. Both of the pair's eyes were drawn to the source. A window where Derrick's second female student, the Teslaforce employee, was standing out in the open and raining bullets down on the far side of the barricade. She was using a massive gun that could only have come from Teslaforce. It was a solid looking automatic weapon, heavy enough that the wielder was carrying it at their hip. It was thicker than most weapons he'd seen in movies, with a boxy magazine and an odd ring of silver near the fore-end, just before the barrel. Despite, or maybe because of these differences, it was the most human looking weapon he'd seen so far.

Derrick noticed the sound of its firing was very light, pretty much impossible to hear over the explosion of noise caused by the same bullets' impacts.

Predictably, it took just seconds before she was targeted. A Grey Legion marksman firing on her position. Less predictable, was the fact that the projectile hit an invisible shield just a foot away from her and bounced off, accomplishing nothing more than throwing off her aim for a second.

Derrick was pretty sure she lacked the skill to make shields, so that meant...

 

Universal Support System Implant

Teslaforce Buckler Cannon

V1.2c

An experimental coil weapon designed and produced by the Teslaforce company. It propels dense sabot slugs using energy stored in capacitors than can be recharged by Manna. Includes a manna focus that generates an efficient Hard Barrier in front of the User.

Incapable of firing enhanced ammunition or self repair, it has a limited lifespan.

 

Chances of the manna focus catastrophically overloading and Users finding themselves 'unarmed' in the midst of combat now reduced to 8.4 percent!

 

Something told him that last part hadn't been written by anyone at Teslaforce. Derrick grimaced, it did help explain Teslaforce's love of robotic parts though.

He was impressed however, it was a very useful weapon, one that was making a real difference. The heavy firepower combined with a decent defence was a dangerous tool. Although, Derrick suspected from the ripples caused by the impacts that the shield left the top half of her head and her feet unprotected.

Derrick couldn't help but fantasize about using one himself. It would be a lot simpler than melee combat. He could just walk around levelling whole buildings. When this was over, he was going to have a chat with his good friend Gregory about getting one. Well... the next version probably, when they shaved a couple more percentages off the catastrophic failure rate.

A few more projectiles bounced off the cannon's shield before the female User smoothly retreated out of sight, no doubt to reload and cool off, preventing 'catastrophic overload'.

Well, that took care of the charging enemies. He should probably go take a closer look. Sighing and flexing his shoulder, Derrick moved into one of the buildings overlooking the active front and onto the third floor. He saw both Gregory and Kate there, shooting from windows at the enemies below.

Kate flashed him a smile and Gregory gave him a nod, both of them too busy for more of a greeting.

“There's still a Sentry Agent out there,” he warned Kate. The one they killed at the garage had been packing a slightly meaner version of the Fragment Gun. Derrick was no gun fanatic, but a longer barrel usually translated into longer range. No doubt they'd either turned people with decent marksmanship or enhanced their accuracy in some way too, the sentries did have some kind of enhanced vision.

Not wanting to distract the shooters, he took a peek and immediately recognized a problem. The Legion weren't staying down.

Even on a normal day, Grey Legion minions were both tough and quick healing. Now though, they were getting up as fast as the shooting Users could put them down. Dozens of armored grey skinned Agents lay out in the street, full of bullet holes. Every so often though, one would twitch to life and need to be shot again. Only the cannon was taking them out of the fight permanently and even that needed to hit the head or chest.

And these were just the least threatening of the Agents, armed with only makeshift weapons and the Legion's signature Dirks. Another dozen armed with ranged weapons were continuing their harassment campaign, picking off Users one by one from cover. Every so often a grenade would explode, filling a window with fire and dust and silencing an alien shooter. Derrick wasn't sure how long they could keep that up though. If they were healing as thoroughly as their melee armed friends, they were in serious trouble in the long term. The enhanced vision granted by his mask let him actually see the colorless flesh knit back together as their wounds closed.

Part of Derrick began to grow afraid, his heartbeat accelerating. At the same time, another part of him raised an eyebrow. There was something familiar happening here, he just couldn't put his finger on it. Something about the fear he was feeling, the way his heart was beating...

Derrick shook his head and banished the odd anxiety. He cast a look around and found that both Gregory and Kate must be feeling the same thing. In fact, they seemed more affected than him. Their faces pale and Kate's exposed knuckles were white as she squeezed the rifle-stock in her hands.

Neither of the other Users were letting it affect the fight, but it was the first time he could remember seeing her this afraid. Even facing down Vanguard dogs or impaled by Spore tyrant stalks, she'd kept amazingly calm. And there was no reason for it to be different now that he could see.

It was unfounded, they were winning. Even below, he noticed a few Users almost shrink back from the attackers. The obvious answer was some kind of auril attack and yet he couldn't detect one. There was something, hidden behind his heartbeat...

Derrick the Red, lost interest in his internal musings as the situation below changed for the worse once more. A grey spider-like construct the size of a car turned the street corner and skittered into view. Its top mounted gun at the height of the second story windows of the buildings around it, the Grey Legion's Combat Support Drone entered the fight.

Immediately, grenades flew its way. None landed, they were either dodged by the surprisingly agile monstrosity or blocked by a shimmering shield of manna.

Their cannon beat away at the shield as well and shattered it after just four shots. The second it did so, a gout of flame flew towards the offending weapon. Derrick had to give the Teslaforce employee props for sheer bravery, she stood in place and fired even as flame came at her. Scoring two hits against the evading enemy and cracking the drone's thick armor before a User created shield sprang up in the air and the fireball exploded midair, just ten feet from its target. Derrick winced as fire rained across the side of the building and droplets rained down upon the Users on the street below. Panicked screaming ensued but he'd bet no one would be actually burned too badly as long as they took immediate measures. The real damage was that the cannon was silenced, although his auril told him that was because that User was fleeing the burning building, not because she'd been killed.

“Drat,” commented Gregory, sounding annoyed, which switched to apologetic. “I knew I should have brought two of those.”

“You should have brought a dozen,” Kate commented as the drone advanced, easily climbing over cars and rubble until it was just three dozen feet from the User manned barricade. As it moved, it gathered its fallen allies, pointy limbs whirling about as it dragged them underneath itself. Soon it was shielding a pile of grey bodies a dozen high, its smaller forelimbs darting down to inject into and cut at them. It looked to Derrick like it was making a nest from human corpses.

The incoming fire was sporadic now, many Users realizing the futility of hitting the Drone with normal bullets or unnerved by its ability to answer threats with fireballs.

Ya, this couldn't be allowed to happen this way.

Derrick the Red ran some mental calculations, trying to decide just how suicidal running down there would be. It did need to be done. Where the hell was Scynil? The two of them attacking together would be almost guaranteed to take out the drone at this range. That or die in a hail of bullets.

Another User screamed as a wave of fragments peppered the side of a building. Shit. Soon, if that Drone finished its grim mending, they would have to give up the barricade and then they'd be fighting in the buildings where the Grey Legions lack of aim would be much less of a factor and their armor and claws would be much more of one.

“Got any grenades left?” he asked both Users in the room with him.

“Yes,” replied Kate, a worried look on her face. Different from her earlier aimless anxiety.

“Just one,” spat out the scarred man with obvious distaste.

“Well I have a plan,” Derrick replied. “I..”

“It's the same plan as the last time you fought a Combat Support Drone,” Kate interrupted and gave him a sour look. “Isn't it?”

“...Yes,” he admitted. It had not been the best plan ever, he admitted to himself. It had worked though, and it wasn't like he had time to come up with a better one. The building they were in could be set aflame any second.

“I think I killed one Sentry,” Kate informed him. “That means at least one is waiting for you to go out there with about a dozen other Agent's as backup. They're not stupid. They won’t fall for the same plan twice.”

Something needs to happen,” he replied, a hint of annoyance showing through his stoic facade. It would be great if someone else could step up and solve this little conundrum, but he wasn't going to hold his breath.

Kate didn't immediately reply; her face was conflicted. He could see gears turning behind her eyes.

Gregory swore as a large projectile missed him and slammed into the ceiling loudly. He let out a burst of fire from his rifle in return before cursing and grabbing a magazine from one of his many pockets.

“You are forbidden from going out there alone,” Kate answered seriously as burning buildings cast orange light through the broken windows. With Quantum Awareness, Derick couldn't help but notice that she was subtly focusing on his left knee and her free hand was hovering just a little too casually near a pistol on her hip.

You slept with a chick once and suddenly you weren't allowed to go on pointless suicide missions anymore. Part of him wanted to be annoyed but the majority of himself was just nodding along with that piece of wisdom. Really, he was thankful for an excuse not to do that.

“I submit to your superior wisdom,” he said and turned to look out a window that watched over the intersection they were defending. There had to be something he could do, some tool he could use. There were trucks in the intersection, upgraded by the System. Put the cannon in one and circle around to attack from behind? Build a ramp over the barrier.... No that seemed dumb, how would they aim while moving? Plus, the vehicle would get shot out from under them. The vehicles had been upgraded by the Users that drove them here but mostly just to make them run quiet and without needing gasoline. They weren't tanks.

Why didn't they have any tanks? The Drone was the Grey legion equivalent of a tank. Heavy vehicles were going on the list.

“We can't attack or hold position,” he mused aloud. “That just leaves one option.” A frankly terrible option. “We fall back,” he finished. “Try to lure the Drone forward and... we'll need a plan for taking it down after that.”

“I have some notions.” Gregory offered from his perch by the window. “Also, some explosives. There are all kinds of ways to use System tech to make cheap explosives.”

“It won’t move any closer than it has to,” Kate reminded them. “It can shield the Agent's from outside the base. We'll need to move the fight all the way outside the other side of the base or cut it off from them somehow.”

She paused in thought. Derrick also considered the problem. Could Scynil have a way to block auril pulses? No, he had no reason to believe so. Besides, it would be affecting the fight the most by blocking heavy weapons like grenades, it couldn't use auril to detect inanimate objects. He looked out the window and at the burning skyline. What did they have that could be used to...

“Smoke,” he and Kate said at the same time and smirked at each other.

“So, we let the Agents into the base. Then cut off a retreat and support from the Drone with a wall of fire and heavy smoke.” Gregory said, with a tone of approval. “Forcing the Drone inside the base if it wants to preserve its forces. Where we will have my lovely Buckler Cannon and other surprises waiting for it.”

“Sound good to me.” Kate said and stepped away from the window. Now that there was a plan, she seemed more confident. Had it been just regular helplessness that had been bothering them all?

The older User stood and cracked his back. Next, he moved to amble down the stairs with obvious eagerness. Under flickering light cast by burning buildings, the trio moved quickly. Soon their shouts rang out, competing with sporadic gunfire as they split up to gather Users and put their separate parts of the plan into motion.

 

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Mirrored

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