Derrick bounced up the dozen or so cement stairs at the base of the building. The building's glass double doors opened for him automatically. Which was just common sense, as this was the heart of the Enclave. Its role as the seat of human government was the least important of its functions. It was a bunker and hub of travel, containing powerful System machinery buried in its depths. He had learned from the Systems champions, the Crusaders, that the building contained an Injection Anchor. A device that made friendlies trying to teleport to this location much less likely to turn inside out or be dropped inside the sun.
It was only cost effective for moving Crusaders to the next crisis and bringing the Velorie to Earth. He was pretty sure no human had ever been allowed to use it. In fact, humans were only allowed in a small part of the building, even though they had helped build it.
He remembered seeing the building being built weeks ago, seeing human builders constructing the framework and placing the panels that formed the walls.
Derrick hadn't bothered to change, so when he entered the building he was still wearing his signature red and grey armor. He even kept the top part of his mask on and didn't clean the grey platter off himself. He wanted no one to have any illusions about what he'd been doing when they'd called him here.
He strode into the buildings main lobby. Dozens of strangers were going about their business and two women he knew were clearly waiting for him.
You have entered a secure facility. Violence, trespassing and vandalism are prohibited.
“Did you read the briefing I messaged you?” his secretary asked as soon as he was inside.
Derrick took out his smartphone and checked his messages. There was, in fact, a file about the upcoming meeting among them, courtesy of Clara, one of the first Users he'd hired when he started staffing his company.
His missing friend Brian's last known girlfriend was one of the few support Users he'd had any real interaction with. She'd also worked for Greta, so poaching her had given him a measure of personal satisfaction. Not to mention some limited but not insignificant insight into Greta's operation.
Clara had been happy to jump ship, going from one of many low level Users to a more important position at Red Works.
“No,” Derrick admitted. “I'll read it after the meeting.”
“It's a briefing for the... nevermind.” she said and her shoulders sagged. “I hope you were at least doing something important.”
Did defying the laws of physics by stealing strange energies from beyond space and time count as important? It probably depended what he was doing with said strange energies. Which was... not much.
He hated these meetings, but he had to admit they were important. He should have read the report, there was probably useful info in it.
“I appreciate the effort, I really do. I'll have plenty of time to read the highlights while the other council members are talking” Derrick said and pressed forward, the meeting would start soon and he still had to deal with the next person waiting for him. Unlike the last one, this one wasn't human, or at least not all human.
She was Velorie Terran Caste and she definitely didn't work for him. Or anyone, as far as he knew.
She was a non-voting representative of the Velorie that the System would allow to live in their little slice of safety. While technically not born yet, hundreds of Velorie waited for the Enclave to become self sustaining before they would have bodies made for them by the System.
This specific alien invasion was kind of his fault. He had run around like a suicidal madman, making sure West Hills survived the first few days of the Scourge’s arrival. Now, as one of the most secure Enclaves, West Hills had gotten more than their fair share of Velorie immigrants.
Where as Clara had hustled to confront him with prim professionalism, Shalka sauntered between him and the door he was headed towards. The confident stride reminded Derrick of both the dominatrices he'd seen in movies and a jungle cat on the hunt.
She was built like an olympic athlete and her powerful muscles moved under her skin as she walked.
Brushing a lock of braided hair behind a pointed ear, she cocked her hips and smiled at him, revealing a mouth full of teeth that were just a little too sharp to be human.
Derrick met her bright purple eyes and had to force himself to smile.
Derrick was self aware enough to admit, to himself at least, that he was both attracted to and terrified by her. He was pretty sure that was what she was going for. She was wearing a sleeveless and form fitting vest over what he was pretty sure was nothing at all. The tight but thick vest was bisected by a thick silver line that ran from her collar to the end of the vest's skirt. It would look like slightly conservative clubwear but the addition of a high collar and fingerless gloves somehow made it almost a uniform.
A uniform that screamed, I am an alien woman who is as sexy as I am dangerous. Deleterious was clearly not the only Velorie that enjoyed human media. This outfit was ripped straight from a decently budgeted science fiction movie. Sadly, knowing it was base emotional manipulation, did not protect him from it.
“I'm sorry,” the hybrid said with a flutter of dark eyelashes. “I can't allow you to wear your mask beyond this point.”
“Is that a new rule?” Derrick asked as he came to a stop. “Who was elected hall monitor while I was away?”
“Me,” the hybrid replied cheerfully. “I just cannot bear to see your handsome face covered.”
Ghnnn. Life had not equipped him to deal with this. No doubt some other member of the council had complained to her and she was seeking to win approval from both of them by flattering him into taking it off during this meeting.
Eyelashes fluttered once more. As blatant as her manipulations were, they did not come off as insincere. Stoically, Derrick removed his mask and shoved it into his jacket.
“Thank you,” she said with a flash of perfect yet inhuman teeth. “You have such noble scars.”
Ah, flattery. Well, if she wanted to play at manipulation, he could play too. Just not by her rules.
“You're a magnificent liar,” he replied easily and honestly.
“How can I help the Velorie today?” He asked brightly, emitting a wave of auril that must have made her spine feel like it had turned to ice. Weeks of practice had let him turn the crude effects of his auril pulses into a more versatile toolset. He had used Auril Roar to cow men and women who were half feral. Brazen brutes who had been fueling themselves with adrenaline and System drugs since the Scourges arrived.
She should have flinched, that was what he had been aiming for. A spike of fear and weakness. Invisible fingers running down her spine and robbing her muscles of strength.
Instead, her eyes closed for a second, and she shuddered. She fell towards him before stopping herself at the last second, the long black nails of one hand digging deep enough enough into her opposite forearm to draw blood. She let out a quivering breath and the movement was much more erotic than he was comfortable with. Damn it, he had obviously made some kind of mistake here.
“You are... so adorable,” she said, a second before her eyes opened and stared into his. “If only you...”
She stopped herself and correcting her posture, gave him a shy smile.
Derrick the Red had gazed upon creatures of nightmare that existed across multiple realities and felt less fear than he did at this moment. Even his auril seemed taken aback by the sensual display. Why did he attract the crazy ones?
He was such a reasonable person too.
“All I want is for you to keep doing what you have been. Making us all safe. Now, they must be waiting for us inside,” she continued calmly with a welcoming smile. “Shall we go?”
Well, he wasn't going to stay here. The two of them entered the council room and Derrick immediately felt the focused gazes of eight people fall on him. A chuckle escaped his lips. It was pretty amusing to him that he could enter a room at the same time as Shalka, sex on two legs, and he was the one everyone stared at.
It was a simple room they'd entered, twenty feet across with a round metal table big enough to seat a dozen people in the middle of it. One door and one small window. The System didn't feel the need to show off. Or it could just be Greta’s spartan tastes. She had oozed herself into the position of council organizer. Mostly because the only other council member who would want the position worked for her. The extra work was not worth the tiny amount of authority it would give him. He could barely be bothered to even show up.
He heard Shalka sit down in a chair by the door. As a non-voting member of the council, she wasn't allowed at their special table.
The room didn't need to be very large because in the entire Enclave, all the power lay in just eight pairs of hands. And the System itself, of course.
The System had given this diverse cast of primitive dependants the power to create a legal framework for the Enclave. It was their job to create the laws and organizations that would run West Hills. They had no direct power other than that. They could not vote themselves points or traits, but they did have points to budget out to the institutions they were supposed to create.
Enclave Founders was the title the System handed out. They were not kings, they were legislators. And in Derrick's opinion, they were terrible at it.
Only three organizations had actually been created despite a previous meeting that had devolved into hours of pointless arguments. Enclave Defence, Enclave Agriculture and Human Resources. The first two were self explanatory, while the third was about picking and training Users. At this point, none of them were much more than a name and a budget.
Derrick insincerely smiled at everyone and saw the room's occupants mostly look away. Yet despite the lack of eyes on him, Derrick could still feel the attention of most of the room.
Derrick knew that many of his peers on the council were confused by him. His clothes, and martial accomplishments without formal military or police training made him seem like a petty warlord or gang leader that had rode luck and charisma to power.
Luck and charisma, as if he had any of either.
The fact that he ran what might be the most advanced medical company on the planet and was the Enclave’s liaison to the Crusaders complicated the ease at which they could shove him in a category. The mysterious nature of his pre-Scourge life and medical company were also a big factor.
The hilarious part was that he knew that many of them assumed he had a criminal background, due to association with the Demnol. The truth was, he had simply barely existed before the Scourges arrived. Even to the rather invasive programs and governments that he had grown up under, he had been just a name and birthdate. Thanks to the chaos of the Scourge attacks, most records of his existence had slipped through the cracks.
Derrick pulled out a chair and sat down among his allies on the council. The Fight Clubs as people had dubbed them. He was pretty sure that moniker had been created by their opponents. They had too much time on their hands and really didn't understand Users if they thought it would shame them.
Those allies were Sarah Long, the Support User and Gregory, Ceo of Teslaforce. He nodded and smiled to them both. Sarah beamed back at him while Gregory gave a bored nod.
“The victorious champion returns?” asked the User two seats to his left, a stocky asian woman in glasses and a suit. Sarah Long was a lawyer turned Support User. While she officially represented a diverse group of people, it was a bit of an open secret that she mainly spoke for the biker group Breakneck.
Breakneck was the third User run company in the city, specializing in Mechanics and they were just as aggressive as Red Works. The two groups had something of a friendly rivalry going on these days. Their goals were too closely aligned for there to be any real hostility.
“Another successful hunt,” Derrick declared. “Your friends are still doing well? Enjoying the open road?”
“Of course,” was the professionally smug reply. “You should be able to meet them in a day, if you stick around.”
“Since we are all here, we will begin.” Came an annoyingly familiar voice from the opposite side of the table. It was Greta, the short and dark skinned woman who had once held him at gunpoint.
The last meeting had instilled a dislike for her that dwarfed that caused by the whole attempted assassination fiasco.
“The first orders of business should be the greatest threats to the Enclave,” Greta said, just as she'd said last time. “Firstly our need to expand our agricultural production and secondly the creation of a unified defence organization. While the System's guidance and missions prevent total failure, it is very far from perfect. It is necessary to supplement the missions with our own directives.”
Immediately, Greta's flunky on the council started talking about water tables and System equipment. Derrick forced himself to listen. After twenty minutes of statistics, the speaker called for a vote on expanding the powers and budget of Enclave Agriculture, supposedly to let them 'encourage' the hiring of Support Users to produce the food they needed.
In reality, even Derrick could tell this was a naked power grab by Greta's faction. Dubbed by Blake as the Buristocrats. She controlled the majority of the support Users that ran the city, so any expansion of the city’s powers was in her favour.
On the other side, the Users that had carved out their own little empires from the ruins of the city fought tooth and nail against that.
Every motion needed a two thirds majority to pass, so the motion died. Even with the support of the two Old Guard votes, it was split evenly. Greta seemed unsurprised by this. Though she frowned towards their end of the table.
“If you are going to kill any motion to solve this problem, you should at least offer your own solutions.”
“Traditionally the offering of loans and grants to pioneers is more effective than forceful recruitment.” Aarav answered brightly. “The classic draw of farming is owning the land you settle on. This benefit that lasts generations, not merely until your usefulness is at an end. If we are serious about attracting groups to defend and cultivate land, we should offer serious benefits. Not just a wage.”
The Indian man was officially unassociated with any faction. His Role, Student granted him a seat and vote here. His entire purpose was to learn and teach without bias. He was unlikely to side with Greta however, as she'd had him kidnapped and held him against his will until Derrick had accidentally rescued him.
To Derrick's amusement, the indian man’s answer did not please Greta. Her frown deepened. It got especially deep when Aarav's motion to set up low interest loans and land ownership for successful User pioneer groups was passed thanks to support by half the Old Guard.
No doubt, due to the fact they could use those loans themselves. Derrick made a mental note to talk to Clara about the feasibility of investing in food production himself. He liked the idea of owning land, even if it was dangerous wasteland.
The Old Guard duo was made of a police officer and a retired army lieutenant, they almost always voted with Greta. Like her, they looked to rebuild the city of West Hills as closely as possible to what it had been before the Scourges. They controlled a number of User groups made up of mostly Guards. Those Users were now protecting the Enclave itself and enforcing its few laws on the Users inside of it. It was no mystery why they wanted more laws written and enforced.
With that issue surprisingly resolved, they moved onto an even thornier issue, Enclave Defence. Essentially how much power that organization should have over Users and who should run it.
One of the Old guard launched into a speech about the need for command and control. Of unity of purpose and clear chains of command. It was clearly a speech designed to make him the obvious choice to run Enclave Defence.
It was clear, he had the support of his fellow Old Guard, as well as Greta and her minion. It was just as obvious that everyone else despised the idea.
After several back and forth arguments, Derrick couldn't keep his mouth shut. For the last ten minutes he had been working to keep a furious tick from showing on his face.
Maybe, he thought to himself as he listened to the same argument be repeated for the third time, that first Grey Agent had actually killed him in that gym men’s room. Maybe he was dead. Maybe this was hell.
“This entire argument is stupid,” Derrick announced, the suddenness of his declaration catching everyone else off guard. “You all agree, in theory, that a powerful Enclave Defence would be beneficial for everyone. The problem you all refuse to admit though, is that we have no competent candidate for the leader of that organization.”
Derrick let that sink in for a second.
“I and the leader of Breakneck are the two most experienced and successful leaders we have when it comes to fighting the Scourges. This is simple fact, and I can show you the numbers to prove it. And yet, the idea of either of us becoming some kind of Supreme Commander of West Hills is laughable. I wouldn't accept the position if everyone on this council begged me too.”
“Yet you block our own efforts to fill the position,” one of the Old Guard replied darkly.
“You two,” Derrick continued, while nodding to the old guard. “Are better candidates for the position simply due to you experience in complex security organizations. If only as mid-level officers. Yet neither of you will ever be put in charge of an empowered Enclave Defence because you are fighting yesterday's war. A war you lost, horribly.”
That provoked strong emotions from the two Old Guard. One of them snarled at him, causing Derrick to wonder how many of the older man’s teeth he could break with a single punch and without using auril or manna.
“You’re blaming us for the Scourges?” the other Old Guard spat out. “We did as much as we could. No one could have done better. It is absurd to believe otherwise.”
“Derrick is correct,” said Sarah Long calmly but assertively. “If we were fighting a conventional enemy or had an experienced and trusted group capable of command it would be doable. But we don't, and no one here is willing to put ourselves at the command of an unqualified and untrusted commander simply because they were voted to be in charge. Even if you could pass the motion, do you really think it would be that easy? That everyone would just bow and do as they were told? Forcing a Supreme Commander on the city would just fragment us further.”
“And what have you done that makes you fit to judge us?” asked the other Old Guard cooly.
Gregory stirred and held up a hand with four fingers pointed at the ceiling.
“Fed them, clothed them, bled for them and inspired them,” He said still sounding bored and dropping those fingers one by one. “Everything you've done, but much more effectively.”
Even Derrick was less blatant in his contempt for this council than the CEO of Teslaforce. While Derrick disliked the opposing faction, the older man simply had no patience for anything but his company and playing with System technology. Why was he even here?
“It seems like a compromise is necessary.” Greta said, typically unruffled by the arguments. “We can all agree that Enclave Defence requires more powers to effectively operate and that those powers cannot include the election of a single overriding authority figure.” A flicker of distaste showed on her cold features. “No Supreme Commander, as it was put. That aside, what powers can we agree on?”
Silence reigned as the council members all eyed each other warily. It was going to be a long meeting, Derrick realized.
After what seemed like an eternity to Derrick, the meeting was adjourned and he stumbled out into the hallway. Predictably, nothing had been accomplished other than Aarav’s pioneer support motion.
Mentally exhausted, he and the rest of the Fight Club exited the room first. After a couple mumbled goodbyes, they each went their own way. They were all busy people.
Derrick found himself alone. Which was odd, he'd expected Shalka to accost him again. Instead, not even his secretary, Clara was here to meet him. His vehicle was still parked out front he saw. It was empty though.
His eyes narrowed in suspicion. Was this some sort of trap? It shouldn’t be, he was too important to kill these days. His death would be messy, not to mention hard to pull off. Even his dumbest enemies had clued into the fact that if he were easy to kill, he’d already be dead.
Blake had probably just left to hook up with his girlfriend, Emily.
At that very moment, he felt a gaze fall on him. He turned to see Greta separate from her political allies and approach him in a business-like manner
“Derrick,” she called and gave him a tight smile. “Since you’re back in the city, let me be the first to buy you a drink.”