Enough time for a nap was apparently asking for too much. It seemed like Scynil was already behind schedule and it could get dangerous if she didn't do some Spore Tyrant wrangling soon. Scynil did graciously allow him an hour to get his affairs in order. That was a hard limit though, which meant he needed to get many things done fast.
First stop was the most pressing, a chat with the latest person he'd saved, the auril 'alterer of others', as Scynil had called her.
Blake and Anita had run off with her at the first opportunity, but they hadn't gone far as there was really nowhere to go. They were still surrounded by hostile ruins, possible filled with all kinds of Scourges. He wanted to get dealing with her out of the way. He figured the less time she spent around people she could influence, the better.
It turned out this one of the few times that his paranoia came to nothing. If she was a master of manipulation, she was fooling him.
“That's it?” he asked Emily skeptically from across a small table they were drinking tea on. Anita was also in the room, a worn-down kitchen, watching the both of them with equal amounts of distrust. He didn't mind that though, she was keeping it to herself while being useful now. Blake had positioned himself outside of the room, letting Anita calm her fellow female down.
Name: Emily Cespedes
Proficiency: Basic Auril, Advanced Field Medicine
Has saved the lives of many other Users though bravery and medical skills, preserving resources and increasing moral.
“Yes,” Emily replied in a strained voice. He could see wet smears on her cheeks where she had wiped away tears. “I'm a... was a nurse at the hospital. I have no idea how to use auril to fight, I don't want to fight, so that's what I came up with. I just lucked into a trait that gives auril, not enough to do anything impressive with it. I mostly just tried to help the wounded, thinking I could heal them and found a way to reduce suffering.”
Derrick nodded and sipped his tea, what she was saying did make sense. It was impressive in a way but at the same time, very disappointing. He'd been hoping for something he could use, not mind control but at least an example advanced auril techniques.
“A happiness pulse,” he mused aloud. It was such a ridiculous ability it would actually be funny if it hadn't almost gotten her executed. It would be terrible to survive everything the average Fighter goes through just to die because of your ability to create bursts of happiness in the people around you. Judging from what he'd heard and experienced, many people with equally stupid abilities had probably already gotten killed.
Derrick was glad his own auril abilities had at least turned out to be useful in a fight. He didn't think Spore Tyrant's could even feel happiness and the Grey Legion was constantly smiling anyway.
If the nurse was to be believed, her mind control capabilities came down to the ability to make nearby people happy for a single second. A mutated auril pulse that activated the pleasure centres of the brain, affecting anyone within range.
Or something, his background was in computers. He wasn't a doctor, or even a nurse.
Thinking it over, the happiness pulse wasn't completely useless or even harmless. It could be used to condition people pretty effectively. Easily faking charisma and building attachment, at least as long as no one suspected what you were doing. A cute girl like her, a couple smiles and pulses of her unique ability would be all it took to wrap people around her finger. He eyed her carefully. The technique was so low powered and subtle that it even seemed to penetrate basic auril defences. Probably, it was considered harmless by simple auril defences, the kind people without a Style had. He imagined manna could block it if you could reinforce your head. No one at the base could do that though, so it wasn't possible to test.
And yet, she hadn't been in charge of her group and her profile proved that she really did work to save the wounded. He rated the chances of her being a villainous puppet-master much lower than just a nurse turned Fighter with a weird ability. Why would anyone try to kill her? Why him?
Whoever was targeting them must either hate them irrationally or, more likely, was afraid of their potential. His abilities hadn't even gone down the mind control path, though arguably Quantum Awareness was a kind of mind reading. Given enough time, both their abilities could be refined into actual threats and considering the likelihood of him just running into another target, it was a given there must be dozens of people with the potential for this sort of stuff in their Enclave alone.
“Was what I taught you about pulses helpful to extend the range of your happiness pulse?” Derrick asked.
“Pulse of Delight,” Emily corrected absently, before staring at him and looking worried. No doubt she was finding his mask pretty intimidating, but he didn't want to take it off and reveal the circular scars on his face. “That's what the System calls it. And yes, it helped a little.”
Good, that meant what he knew about auril was compatible with her technique.
“Of course, it does,” Derrick said with a comforting smile and reached over the table slowly. “If you don't mind, could you take my hand and use the pulse, I'd like to feel it in action.”
She hesitated but agreed and so Derrick spent a few minutes just examining the auril she released. As far as he could tell, it worked exactly as she said it did. It was in fact, an absurdly simple technique. Just a modified pulse, orders of magnitude simpler than either of his Strike techniques. Sister to the technique Kate had just taught him. So simple and similar, in fact, that he could easily turn it into a Strike technique with a little work. He probably would, just as learning experience. There was a lot about his Strike techniques he didn't understand, having created the first by accident. He really didn't want a repeat of his double KO with Scynil.
The only things stopping him from doing it right away was how short on time he was and more importantly, a fear of seeing 'Smiling Strike' in his profile. A punch that made people happy... so creepy. Kind of a Jokeresque super villain ability really. He was already wearing what looked like a devilish opera mask...
Running low on time, he gave her his phone number and told her to get in contact with him if she needed help, either with auril or people. Lastly, he ordered Anita to grab a buddy and make sure Emily was protected at all times, while at the base and on her way out. He hadn't forgotten about the auril Users who disappeared.
Which took care of the mind control 'crisis', at least until he had time to think about the bigger picture.
“Should I start ordering tinfoil hats?” Blake asked him as he left the building.
“Absolutely,” Derrick replied. “I'm told folding them into those little sailor hats is super effective.”
“Damn,” swore Blake Demnol. “And I just spent all my points on this.”
The blond User threw a phone sized object at Derrick, which turned out to be a phone. Go figure.
Or at least it looked like a smartphone. The device was dominated by a large screen and was clearly of System make. It looked interesting and solid, a combination of System silver and a boxy frame that reminded him of the military. It probably didn't cost Blake more than a hundred points though, not unless it shot lasers or something.
Whatever it did, it was a decent and unlooked for gift.
“It's basically just your old phone, but it can survive a nuclear blast, brute force any human security encryption ever invented in seconds, and if anyone but you tries to use it without permission, it either grows poisonous thorns or explodes, depending on the situation.”
“But does it play any games?” asked Derrick as he watched the screen flick to life at his touch. “I've got a real itch for some mindless repetition.”
“Not yet,” replied Blake. “Could be something for you to work on, weren't you a programmer? Most of the competition is probably dead. Combine it with your personal brand and you could dominate the market.”
“I'm not that kind of programmer,” the network engineer said. “Anything important I should know about?”
“Gregory and friends left already,” Blake informed him with a shrug. “I think they snatched that monster's arm on their way out. Other than a few Spore Tyrant leftovers, the area is clear.”
Derrick grunted. Well, he was the one to cut it off with his surprise lightning gun. If he wanted the charred limb, he'd earned it. Derrick asked Blake to continue with his report.
“I don't think you should date my cousin,” Blake reported.
“So... you're bribing me with this phone to get me to break up with her,” Derrick asked, puzzled.
“What? No. That's for saving my life,” the blond User corrected. “Look, it's not you. It's her and this whole situation. I've been trying to mind my own business, but she has a few quirks, some of which you might not be aware of yet, and I feel like it's going to end up badly. One of those breaks up the band situations but instead of not getting rich, everybody dies.”
Derrick smothered the spark of anger that Blake had created. The blond man was being sincere and trying to give good advice. Hell, it probably was good advice. Not that he was going to follow it. Kate was, hands down, the person he cared the most about in the world. Which was mostly due to his not giving much of a damn about other people.
He knew she was keeping secrets, probably pretty bad ones. She was also one of the few people he respected, which had become strangely important to him lately. Respect. It wasn't something that had had a lot to do with his dating life before aliens attacked. He couldn't see himself hooking up with anyone else and honestly, he liked the sex.
Besides, he thought and felt some dark emotion coil pleasantly inside himself, pushing her away would be an admission of defeat. And even the thought of such a retreat left a bad taste in his mouth. There was risk yes, but at the same time, potential.
“Sorry? Were you saying something? It sounded like you were giving me relationship advice, and every time I think about that, all I can see is the memory of you strapped naked to that bed,” Derrick said.
“That woman was a professional seductress, hired by a shadowy conspiracy!” defended Blake.
Did Greta count as a shadowy conspiracy? He was going to go with yes. She certainly seemed to be trying hard enough at being one.
“Anyway. You're a good guy and I have to admit I've been a not great friend,” Blake said, a somewhat pained look on his face. Really, it was almost sneer-like. At the same time, his hand was tapping the pommel of his sword erratically.
“Mmmm,” responded Derrick thoughtfully. “Well, you're the best surviving friend I've got.” Not that he'd had more than one or two casual friends even before the Scourges. “All things considered, I'm glad we met.”
“And to be clear, I was just giving you advice. You're a local celebrity, you could totally go the harem route.” Blake said and patted him on the shoulder. “If she’s going to date someone I know, I'm glad Kate is dating you. You're sturdy.”
Harem route? Sturdy? He was about to ask when an auril pulse warned him that they weren't alone. Speak of the Devil.
“Daaaw,” interrupted Kate, her face mirthful. For a second he thought maybe someone had hit him with a happiness pulse, but no, she was just cute. “My cousin approves of my boyfriend, I'm so relieved.”
“I'm sturdy.” Derrick agreed sarcastically.
“And rich,” added Kate. “Or at least I assume so. Out of everyone you must have gotten the most points. Unlock anything interesting?”
Apparently, he wasn't the only person who got a little too happy about upgrading at Stations. Their conversation on traits and titles quickly got out of control, drawing in a couple other Users. Predictably, everyone wanted to know every detail of his traits and titles. It wasn't like he didn't learn anything though. He heard about a dozen interesting traits, from stronger and lighter bones to an upgrade to the System implant that aided hand eye coordination.
It was a fascinating conversation, but he was on the clock. So, he moved on to the second item on his list of things to do. Which was wandering a dozen feet into a nearby alley and browsing through his options at their base's System Station. He had two thousand six hundred and thirty-six points to spend after all.
Traits came first, as they seemed to be the most important things he could buy, they were the only thing you could that had an effect on Roles after all. Unless there were Roles you could unlock by owning a big enough gun or a fast-enough vehicle.
Curative Blood (B) (Defensive)
Defensive Trait. Modified blood cells and plasma give increased resistance and healing speed.
Breathless (E) (Survival)
Modified blood increases oxygen carrying capacity, decreases muscle fatigue and allows the User to hold their breath for longer periods of time.
Allows cutaneous gas exchange from the neck, chest, and back, enhancing Users ability to oxygenate blood.
Advanced Combat Drug Package (D) (Offensive) 521 USSP
An advanced gland in the spinal column that allows controlled release of powerful drugs. Refined by the System from data gathered from Human Users, this upgrade allows a subtle and balanced release of drugs, granting a small passive bonus to reducing bleeding, reaction time, endurance and focus.
Devil Skin (F) (Defensive) 421 USSP
A dermal mesh of carbon fibres that increases skin toughness while capable of quickly transforming to insulate the body and radiate away heat. When activated, the trait protects against damage from exterior heat sources and detection from heat sensors.
Curative Blood was too expensive. No way was he going to spend all his points on upgrading it. Judging from how his Role choices only required a D ranked trait, it wouldn't help with that either. The trait was already ranked C and hadn't been relevant to his roles other than being ranked D or higher.
Breathless was a no brainer. He'd gotten a lot of mileage from that quirky trait. Increased running ability alone was a literal life saver. Apparently, this was an upgrade from his Predator title, what he'd received from fourth place in the Trial of Predation. It seemed as if earning upgrades for traits was difficult. Only the one given when people first became Users was always able to be upgraded.
The trait given to Fighters as they levelled, was sketchy as always. A System designed organ that was constantly dripping drugs into Users? Definitely sketchy. Even if it wasn't a health hazard, it seemed like the kind of thing that could permanently alter a Users personality. Although, another D ranked trait could help with unlocking a Role. That might be being too hopeful, it seemed like the Roles available were as 'elite' as level two Roles got. Role requirements aside, the small, across the board bonus could be good.
Devil Skin, the new trait unlocked by Resilience II was surprisingly decent. It was just F ranked, so the effect would probably be weak. Yet it was just all around helpful and worth upgrading into a real game changer in the future. The name though... He was almost positive the System had created the trait while watching him fight the Legion and named it to troll him.
Speaking of trolling, he'd noticed something odd going on with the System Station. At some point during his browsing, four eyes had formed on the video screen that dominated the Station's front. Yellow and with slit pupils, they were clearly all attached to the same invisible head and watching him. Well, this had never happened before. Derrick took a couple steps to the side and watched them follow him.
“Hello,” he said. “I'm assuming you're an Authority, probably ITRS.”
A green handprint appeared on the screen next to the floating eyes, earning a suggestive nod from them before they settled back to staring at Derrick.
Sighing, Derrick pressed his hand against the alien machine. The effect was instant and flashy. Coolness spread through his palm even as digital fireworks erupted from where he'd touched, spreading across the Station's screen. A second later Derrick heard trumpets ring out joyfully.
Amide the garish explosions, words popped into view.
This process may be recorded for posterity.
Through your actions, you have proven that Earthlings are not yet the bottom of the food chain!
You have earned 4th place in the Trial of Predation!
As one of the top five competitors, you have earned the favor of It that Rewards Savagery!
You have been invited to become a disciple of Authority (ITRS)!
Would you like to learn more? y/n
Yes, he did want to learn more. Since this non stop tango with horror and death had started he'd been kept in the dark. At this point there were very few things he wouldn't do for some answers.
It was not, however, a decision he was going to make thoughtlessly. He was willing to bet that despite the somewhat ominous name, this Authority wasn't laying some kind of trap for him. The Trial of Predation had been on the up and up. While there was no doubt that it had gotten some of the braver auril Users killed, it had, at the same time rewarded them for their efforts in ways that didn't seem to discriminate against the participant's unique skills. So, there would be fewer auril wielders immediately, but the remaining ones would be tougher and more skilled because of the trial they had been through.
He wasn't sure how much he should read into that though. There could easily be layers of deception or just him dealing with a truly alien mind.
What did he know about this creature?
It had created the Trial of Predation, supposedly to prove humanity had a fighting chance or something like that. Could it not care about the auril shenanigans that were going on?
Derrick's brows furrowed. No, that wasn't quite right, this alien entity was opposed to auril mind control. It was simply, as far as he was aware, was taking a subtler approach to dealing with it it.
He'd been too annoyed at the idea of being recorded to think about why. The public broadcasting of the participant's battles and rewards would encourage people to walk in their shoes. Using auril like Derrick himself did, as a weapon and survival tool, not for manipulation of other Users.
Derrick the Red existed because ITRS had created him as an example.
Huh, despite the name, this Authority's methods had been the least savage or crude he had seen so far. Logically then, if he did become this creature's disciple, it would try to influence him away from the mind control uses of auril and back to being a soldier for the System.
Was that worth whatever help it would give him? Was there any opportunity for him to become the disciple of some other Authority? He knew there was at least one other, but that was because it had tried to kill him. Would becoming this Authorities disciple protect him from the rest?
It wasn't like he wanted to use mind control. Learn it sure.
Whether or not he decided to become a disciple, it was worth hearing it out. He sent the Station a mental acknowledgement.
A pulse of green light from his hand washed away fireworks and silenced the trumpets. Derrick was unsurprised to find his hand stuck to the Station. He just sighed fatalistically, avoiding panic this time. As he watched the machine carefully for more changes, darkness instead fell all around him. Blotting out everything but the machine in front of him, which continued to let off a faint glow. Even the dirty walls of the alley were slowly hidden in shadow. When the entire world was covered in darkness, he heard the sound of something large moving toward him from behind.
So dramatic, thought an unworried Derrick, as he turned his head to try and catch a glimpse of whatever was approaching him. Despite the darkness and his hand still being trapped, he couldn't be bothered to be afraid. He'd had more than a little experience with nightmares and monsters recently and could tell this was all theatre.
It lacked even the flighty substance of a dream. It was simple illusion. No doubt a more complicated version of what the System used to display notifications. Also, the creature was now circling around him instead of approaching directly from behind, effortlessly moving through what should be solid buildings without slowing.
From the sounds alone, he would have guessed the creature was the size of a bus. Yet, as it grew closer it seemed to shrink until it ended up much smaller than even Derrick.
He watched with great interest as a cartoon animal emerged from darkness. It was a four eyed snake the size of a large anaconda. It slithered into view and wrapped itself around the Station, so that its head ended up level with Derrick's own. Just a few feet from him, its unblinking eyes stared at him as its forked tongue tasted the air.
It was pretty obvious this wasn't the Authority’s true form. As strange as the universe was, he wasn't willing to believe cartoon snakes were an alien race that existed. It didn't have any limbs. He was pretty sure you needed limbs to develop civilization, not to mention intelligence.
Exaggerated cartoon eyes returned his amused scrutiny. It seemed like some kind of desert snake to Derrick, having very defined scales and horn-like growths on it. At the same time, it was a glossy red and purple, colors you only saw in rain-forest animals.
“Hey,” said Derrick the Red. “I hear you're looking for a disciple. What's in it for me?”