“I'm very excited for this,” Deleterious said. “I come from a solar system that defeated the Scourges centuries ago. So, auril is an incredibly rare resource there. Most of it was sold to the System after the Scourges were thrown back and what little remained belonged to the most elite of the Opp... sapients.”
Derrick let the verbal stumble pass. If Deleterious didn't want to talk about his past, Derrick would be a hypocrite for calling him out. Not to mention he didn't really care at the moment. Later, he would no doubt try to wheedle the hybrid's life story out. Right now, he was more concerned with the future.
The human User watched intently as the System healing chamber opened and slid down the wall, pivoting and folding to become a vertical bed without the straps that held its small occupant needing to come undone. It seemed like total overkill at first glance, but having been stabbed by one of these zombie kids, he appreciated the System playing it safe. Even though the bound form was almost painfully thin and seemed completely comatose.
“In case you weren't aware, it is possible to earn points through discovery and research. Technically anyone can do it but practically you need a supporting Role.” Deleterious explained. “The System is competitor and customer both. While sapients cannot hope to match its gathered data or computational power, its focus is very narrow and once it solves a problem, it very rarely refines the product. There are also gaps in the products and services it provides. I believe this is because it is trying, and usually failing, to encourage Users to innovate. Despite its love of secrecy, it very purposefully allows for competition. Even without access to samples from Scourges, I was able to earn points through royalties on a few specialty modifications the System deemed worth selling through its local Stations. It is even possible to earn titles through discoveries worthy of becoming Traits, though that is the stuff of legend.”
The fact that Students didn't need to defeat invaders to level wasn't really a surprise, Derrick had never pictured Aarav doing that. Intuitively enough, Fighters levelled by fighting and Students levelled by learning.
“I cannot wait to see what discoveries I can make on a world this interesting. As a test subject for auril, these specimens have some negative and positives to them.” Deleterious said as he read from a handheld tablet device. “But I'm confident that I can learn enough to start earning a significant profit.”
“Feel free to reinvest that profit,” Derrick said. He wasn't short on points at the moment and he wasn't worried about graft. He was running an official System facility and the System took that kind of thing seriously it seemed. It was hard to beat an AI in record keeping. The ancient alien AI recorded everything, and he had access to that information. Deleterious wouldn't be able to so much as get a drink of water without it being recorded in a half dozen different reports. “If at all possible, try to unlock auril for yourself. I'll help anyway I can.”
Deleterious nodded absently. Deleterious was fast and strong for a level one User but Derrick would rather his new employee not try to fight the Grey Legion with an axe to try and earn the Scrappy title. There was no guarantee a Student even could unlock 'exaltation' that way.
“Of course. Positives,” the Velorie began. “The subject is deeply infected with a variety of parasitic Spore Tyrant lifeforms, allowing us to gauge the effect of auril, biological and chemical treatments on specific specialized parasites. This also allows us to test methods to prevent infection. Furthermore, their small body sizes and weak muscles make them relatively safe as far as test subjects ago.”
“Negatives,” He continued. “Each subject has had over a third of their brain eaten and replaced with said parasites. Making them a poor test subject for the mental effects of our treatments on humans and mind of Spore Tyrant nodes is beyond out ability to study for the foreseeable future.”
“Oh, and they are also dying.” he added. “For reasons I don't really understand, their small bodies would have already shut down if the System hadn't forcibly sustained them. I would guess it was initiated purposefully by the node once it was defeated. This will obviously limit the amount of research we can do.”
Derrick frowned and placed his hand on the half alive preteen's feverish forehead, sending and receiving auril.
Yes, he could feel it. Auril flowing throughout the tiny body almost lazily. Not that different from his disabling pulse but more.. relentless. It had already turned off the heart but was attacking almost every organ in the body. Ironically, death would have been almost instant if not for the 'improvements' the Spore Tyrant had made. Now it seemed like it was trying to 'turn off' the toys it had made.
It was deeply offensive, Derrick the Red thought and his auril seethed in response to that indignation. The Primal Scourge had done to these children what the Siren node had tried to do to him. Crushed their will to live so completely that it was a death sentence.
Derrick liked to think he was more practical than emotional but even he was human. Children were supposed to be off limits. This was an atrocity.
It was also an opportunity, he grasped. Even an amateur at using auril like him knew that as a suicide method, auril was... counter intuitive. It would work but it would be a fragile corruption. Pushing Deleterious aside, he pressed his palm to a small chest, right above where the heart would be. Intent on stopping the suicide process unfolding in front of him.
It was symbolic placement, Spore Tyrants didn't use auril hearts like the System did. For Spore Tyrant Nodes, aurilin was placed in many small clusters spread throughout the body. A more organic method compared to the System's singular organ.
The moment he sent his auril into a living corpse and commanded it live, he felt his auril obey eagerly. Commanded it to fight like his own auril had commanded him to when a Spore Tyrant Node had tried to will him to death. It was ridiculously easy. It was so simple it wasn't even really a technique. Just a blast of auril flavoured by the Red Law, full of the indignation he had taken from the Grey Legion and made his own.
“Specimen is stabilizing!” Deleterious announced gleefully.
“Only temporarily,” Derrick returned calmly. “I'm overpowering the suicide command but the source of that auril weave, the aurilin itself, is unaffected.”
Those tiny clusters of auril would be much harder to crack. The moment he ran out of auril, the body would start dying all over again die. It wasn't enough to depend on talent or will. He needed to be technical and skilled.
“Initiate invasive measures of preservation?” Deleterious asked. “The System can prolong death to a useful...”
“Not yet,” Derrick responded.
He began to turn the auril into a more advanced technique. Inverse Sapping Strike essentially. He'd become very good at understanding the process involved in making an auril weave predatory. He wasn't sure how much time passed but eventually, through trial and error, he turned that idea into a technique. The pattern clicked into place, a knot of invigoration capable of sustaining itself on foreign auril.
The effects were still temporary, but now, feeding on the infected body's own auril, it wouldn't stop the second he ran out of auril. He could keep this measure going indefinitely, he'd bought himself time for more experimentation.
He shot the tank containing Kate a glance. She had taught him a technique that could be useful here. Aurilin reprogramming. What he wanted to do now would be a hundred times harder than copying or cleaning up a chunk of stolen aurilin he was holding in his hand. If this was any other subject, he wouldn't even try. This one though was still partly human and so he might have a chance. Plus, just as important, it was now ruled by the very soul of surrender. Man or mushroom, when one threw their life away, it stopped being theirs. So, he would take it.
Which was a lot easier said than done. He stood there for what felt like hours, just memorizing and altering tiny flows of auril. Then he turned what he'd learned into needles, seeking to penetrate aurilin and override it.
Nothing happened. It was like trying to stab a rock with a french fry.
New plan. The auril prodigy gathered the knots of aurilin and turned them into a crushing fist.
“I can't see auril but I must admit that was painful to watch,” Deleterious whispered directly into his ear. “Have patience. Play the long game. Your victory may not be sudden, but it is inevitable.”
That... that... was good advice. Derick forced himself to relax, ignoring the flash of white teeth he saw from the corner of his eye.
Not a crushing or penetrating attack then. What he needed was a technique from the Scourges own playbook. Infection. Virulence. He gathered auril and gently wrapped it around a cluster of aurilin, just waiting and watching. Then, he shaped the aurlin to create a subtle but persistent pressure. He forced himself to remember what the Spore Tyrant had tried to do to him.
Patience paid off. A tiny tendril of his power wormed its way inside, and at that moment, whatever defences that tiny nugget of aurlin contained were destroyed. He hesitated and the moment passed.
Damn it all. He had broken open the vault only to be so confused by what he found there it had closed itself before he noticed. For a split second his auril had scanned the nodes. It was pretty much as incomprehensible as he'd imagined. A seething mass of writhing auril patterns. Faced with such chaos, where could he have even begun?
Well, he'd done it once. He could do it again.
Once more, he used auril to apply a constant pressure, waiting for weakness. This time though, he kept a single point that had seemed vulnerable in his mind. When the node's defences fell, he shoved his foot in the door and spotting similar knot of auril to begin attacking.
Supported by his will, the Red Law spread like a virus through the more human focused parts of the aurilin. Corrupting and overwriting parts of the node's own style, weakened as it was by its crude self destruction. He noticed that most of the original pattern held against his amateur attack easily but he wasn't worried about that. What he'd changed should be enough to keep things interesting. Honestly, he had no real idea what the changes he'd made would actually do. Probably, he gave the node cancer or something. The one thing he did know was they wouldn't be suicide friendly.
Smiling, Derrick repeated the process for the other half dozen slivers of aurilin in the node.
He stepped back and looked upon the results of his work.
Auril was strange and powerful, but not anything like all-powerful, the much-abused shell of a child didn't rise to its feet and salute or anything. It didn't even open its eyes. What he'd changed were small things really, the rise and fall of a chest and the beat of a tiny heart.
It was still a mindless and unthinking pile of flesh and fungus in the shape of a child. What he'd given back was just instinct, a will to live that had nothing to do with reason or logic. Pure animal desire to survive and fight. Red Law.
He hadn't turned it back into a person or gained control. All he'd done was take advantage of a discarded tool, gaining himself a test subject. Still, he was sure between him and Deleterious, they could pry some interesting secrets from the Scourges. He was a Hunter after all. It was a poor hunter that didn't learn the nature of what they hunted. If he was going to survive this Role, he needed new weapons, tactics and techniques using both manna and auril to bring down his targets. If in the future, if he could use what was learned here to save more people infected by the Spore Tyrants, that would be great too.
It was a big planet after all, there could be millions of people devoured from the inside and turned into nodes.
While he planned, he felt fingers dig into his shoulder, real ones this time and not the phantom sensation his auril sometimes sent him.
“Well done. Oh, very well done. I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship,” Deleterious announced, smiling widely with a mouth full of sharp teeth and hungry eyes.
“I agree,” Derrick said, pondering the vastness of space and the might of the foes he challenged. “This is a start”
He turned to look at Kate, still floating in the healing chamber. If he was going to pick fights with even lesser Scourges like the Hollow Majesties, he would need more... well, everything. Points, subordinates, land, facilities, aurilin, siviril, new weapons and people trained to carry them.
“Focus on vaccinations and medicines against the Spore Tyrants,” he told Deleterious. They would spread quickly he knew and would almost impossible to get rid of. Every life saved by what this lab produced would make a difference. The Lurker had been right when it had told him that just being a killer wouldn't be enough.
His tailor had told him the Grey Legion mass produced materials slightly stronger than what the System gave low level Users were just going to waste. He might even be able to do something with Spore Tyrant materials now that he owned a Dungeon. It was a bit icky, but he didn't think people would care much. Not if their lives were on the line and the price was right.
“If you feel qualified,” Derrick questioned, earning a raised eyebrow from Deleterious. “Look into customizing armor with recycled materials from Scourges and adding an auto-doctor function to them. Something that helps fight Grey Legion paralysis and Spore Tyrant infection. Try to keep it cheap.”
But it wasn't enough to save lives. People had to know whom they owed their lives to. If Teslaforce could corner the local weapons market, why couldn't he create a business of his own?
He would let Deleterious take blood samples from himself too. His blood had been given healing and resistance boosts by the System. Hell, he could try to create an artificial lung in the armor to pump oxygen into people. That was ambitious but a product he could be proud of.
“Advertise the brand,” Derrick mused. “How do you feel about the name Red Works?”
Scynil, Crusader and Warden of Flourishing Humility, was waiting for him in the elevator. Or maybe just asleep. The freshly reborn alien-hybrid was sitting with legs crossed on the elevator floor, her eyes closed and perfectly still. She did not react to the door opening to reveal him. He noticed that she was once again wearing her full set of armor and it showed no sign of being damaged. He felt a pang of disappointment but knew it was for the best. They were headed back to the surface.
Derrick tip toed to the other side of the elevator. He enjoyed a few moments of silence before deciding to break it. Today had been a particularly bad day in a literally apocalyptic week and he had a question for his busty... trusty ally.
“Everything go well on your end?” he asked and stood around waiting for her to answer. “Earn any titles or new Roles?”
It took a few moments but she did, not bothering to open her eyes or look his way.
“It is generally considered rude to ask about titles not displayed openly.” Scynil mentioned dispassionately. “And many duels have been fought to the death because of inquiries into Roles earned and forbidden. But as you are from an uncivilized people and a worthy ally, I will answer you. A Role I would claim is still unavailable to me. However, I have been granted a new title by the System and for that I must thank you. It is likely I would not have been able to do so without your aid, even a small distraction could have meant failure.”
“Zausite bullets are a small distraction to you?” he asked. From what he'd heard of them they were a pretty big deal. “I had to be shoved in a medical chamber.”
He saw Scynil's relaxed state fail as she jerked in surprise, her eyes flying open and staring at him. At the same time, he felt a pulse of auril hit him.
“Zausite. How... no it does not matter. I once more must apologize,” The Hybrid spat out. “I have once again, put you in grave danger. I brought you here to make up for putting my goals above you and your race's, yet I have done so once more. I should not have let you risk yourself against a trespasser. As your superior I should have found some way to...”
“I'm fine.” Derrick interrupted, a bit embarrassed at her mild freak out. “I prioritized the binding's success for my own reasons, and it worked out. I guessed we would be attacked and chose to spring the attack myself. I have nothing to blame but my own weaknesses and ambitions. So just tell me about your title and I'll call it even.”
Which was true if a little skewed towards making him look good. There was a moment of silence as Scynil gazed at him. Soon she rose to her feet and looked down at him. Damn, she was tall. He'd already forgotten just how much taller than him she was.
“You should value the honor of the System's champions more. But very well, let that be the first payment towards the debt I still owe you. It may be that you might earn the same title one day.” She announced. “Ground Breaker, a title granted to those who bind a Dungeon before the end of the second phase. I have also been granted permanent citizenship in your Enclave.”
“You think there's a chance I can earn that title?” Derrick asked. It seemed a little unlikely to him, he knew nothing about
“Yes, because I will teach you how if you wish.” She replied. “The first phase is the establishment of Enclaves. The second is simply expansion, it can take decades.”
“Are you allowed to do that?” Derrick asked. “Isn't it a secret of your Order of Humble Flourishing
“There would be oaths and promises that needed to be made, but they would be light. My Order, unlike others, flourishes through the spreading of knowledge, not the keeping of secrets.”
Hmm, yes. He imagined even if people knew how to punch a Spore Tyrant into a coma and harvest aurilin from it, that would never be a popular technique. Not even for the considerable rewards involved. Especially considering your highly trained and talented specialists had a good chance of dying just getting to the dangerous planets they could ply their trade on. So recruiting on challenged worlds must be how they did most of their recruiting. Teach people how to do it and they moved on to new ones once those worlds failed or succeeded in driving off the Scourges. It fit with Scynil's origin story.
Did he want to be a Warden of Flourishing Humility? Not even a little. His Patron had been right when he said he wasn't fit for being Squire. Did he want private lessons in auril from Scynil? Yes, very much so. Even if he never tried to bind a Dungeon, he would like to know how it was done. If this actually panned out, he really had made the right choice by turning down the Squire Role.
“That sounds tempting,” Derrick admitted as the elevator came to a stop and the doors skid open. “I think I'm goi...”
He was interrupted by the sound of loud music filling the air as soon as the doors parted. Frantic and echoing, it hit the silence accustomed Derrick like a wave of cold water. Scynil was hit even harder, she almost fell over backwards as the furious dissonance hit her.
Derrick peeked outside and saw that while a party definitely seemed to have happened, it looked to be long over. The area he could see was empty except for a few unconscious bodies laying in cars and on furniture that had been dragged into the street. He recognized one of them, Tom, who was asleep sitting at a table that was covered in beer bottles and pizza boxes. One of which Tom was drooling on. A banner ran across the street, anchored to lights on the second story of ruined buildings.
‘Victory!’ it read. It seemed like Blake and Tom had tried to throw a party but due to zausite poisoning, he'd shown up late. Alcohol and lack of sleep had probably shortened its lifespan. How like him to miss a party thrown in his honor. Not that he cared much, he wasn't in much of a party mood. In fact, it just made him smile and he looked at streets full of equal amounts of battle damage, party garbage and a sprinkling of passed out Users.
His gaze was drawn to small colorful objects littered across the ground and stuck to people's faces. Huh, they were masks clearly based on his and Kate's. All different colors and shapes, though most stuck close to the classic opera mask look. Masks patterned to look like skulls, animals, monsters and more abstract things. It seemed like he had started a trend. Or Kate and Jenny had by gifting him the mask in the first place. Amusing and interesting. At least he would stand out less if it caught on in their Enclave. It was also a good sign that he had political capital. Which he could use. His next goal, seeing as how he was already drafted into it, was making sure that their push into the countryside was as competently led and equipped as possible. If he could turn local popularity into power, he would do so.
He still had to look into the whole Trusted Citizen thing. It gave him a bad feeling.
Derrick moved to the table and pried a box of pizza out from Tom. Inside were two slices. He took them both and threw the box onto a pile.
“Hungry?” Derrick asked his only conscious ally, offering her half.
Scynil eyed the cheese and meat covered slice of dough dubiously.
“That is food?” she asked.
She must have eaten since she got her new body, right? It had been at least a day.
“Yes. What have you been eating so far?
“Ration bars,” She replied, causing Derrick to wince. He'd been eating those too but only because the benefits to levelling and how hard it was to carry other food with him. The whole pickle flavor fiasco still scarred him. He was too cheap to throw something that had cost him points away, so had forced himself to eat the whole thing.
“Try the pizza,” Derrick said. “If you don't like it, there are thousands of other options. Humans love eating.”
“And sex,” Scynil responded. “Even now the neophytes Blake Demnol and Emily Cespedes are mating. Is this cause for concern?”
Derrick choked on his pizza and the sudden change of subject and the unwelcome visual it brought. Really Blake and Emily were a thing now? Things happened fast on the battlefield he supposed. Falling in lust with your bodyguard was a cliche for a reason he supposed. Why would Scynil care though? Ah, the auril sensitivity issue. She might be wondering if Emily mind whammied him. Honestly Derrick doubted it would be necessary. Unless Blake was hiding hidden depths, all she'd have to do is signal interest.
“Er... no?” he answered after swallowing. So much for his efforts to avoid the subject of sex. “What brings this up?”
“There are a dozen pairs of Users that seem to be engaged in or have finished having sex.” Scynil explained in monotone. “Human mating is not so different from the norm that I cannot recognize it.”
Ah, that made sense. With auril you could basically see through walls, although what you'd be seeing would be more like heat vision than actual sight. Scynil's auril senses probably covered the whole neighbourhood. After the life or death battle and the wild party that followed, he imagined most people had slunk away to hook up. Thankfully, he had been too distracted by the party to use his own auril pulse. Seeing the blurry form of strangers wrapped around each other did not appeal to him.
“A heightened sex drive after a close call with death is normal,” Derrick explained. It certainly had been for him and Kate. “The alcohol doesn't hurt either. This is normal stress relief.”
Scynil nodded and to Derrick's relief, dropped the subject, turning her attention to slowly chewing her slice of pizza instead. She seemed to like it a lot. Which was perhaps the third greatest victory for humanity today. She spent a weirdly long time chewing what he'd given her and then began to look through the scattered boxes for more.
Well, what now? There was a lot he could do he supposed. He could call and catch up with Jenny, the former police officer should know what was happening in the city. Gregory and Teslaforce would also have their finger on the city's anemic pulse. Alternatively, he could also figure out what the hell he was going to do with Kate or allow Deleterious to use him as a lab animal.
Or, maybe there was still some cold beer left somewhere around here. Derrick shrugged and followed Scynil on her quest to find more food. The Scourges could wait, he was due a break.