(Y6, July 8th)
Henry Ramius Esteban prided himself on his stomach. No youthful binge had done anything worse than a blinding headache the next day. His fellow students had once chipped in for a First flight on a Bradley aerobatics, and half of them lost their bet on that day.
Which is why he took the bacon, eggs and other nearly unidentifiable bits below him as a personal failure. Of course, he’d been told he would puke. Of course, he hadn’t believed one word of it.
Two months ago, Henry had been part of a seminar on “Operation Swordfish”. He still didn’t know if the person responsible for the name was a Travolta fan, or if nobody had dared bring that movie to his notice. Swordfish was a test trial by FBI to infiltrate the Gaters communities.
It was notoriously hard to insert yourself in the nebula of darkweb sites and hidden discussion groups. You had to prove yourself, and that was way harder than infiltrating yourself in some mafia or gang. Nerds were harder to fool.
Someone finally had the bright idea of infiltrating the Gater gangs through the Other side. If you showed up on the so-called Northworld, then you were certainly a Gater yourself, so you should be trusted.
He didn’t need to watch again the video recording on the Marbella Riots, where a group of Gaters had punched their way through the crowd and the riot police, using super strength and martial arts moves to smash everyone in their path. That was one of the only riot scenes in the last decade to have police finally open live fire.
Or the deposition of bewildered people, overcome in their apartments by overpowered thugs, desensitized by Northworld to violence and ready to casually use their extreme physiques to maim anyone who didn’t have “loot”.
Or the dismantling of the Shadowrunner Network who brought heroin straight from Afghanistan, without even risking the border patrols and custom inspections.
Or the tearjerking stories of people who had been given “potions”. At best, they’d realize later that their ‘love’ was a sack of shit who used them and threw them away. At worst… Some parents commited suicide once the charm potions the "Monster of Atlanta" used wore off and they realized what they'd done willingly.
Once Henry had volunteered to go, he’d been given a crash course in the known facts about the Silvergates, Northworld, and Gaters in general.
Law enforcement had a store of Silvergates, seized in the handful of successful catches. Gaters might flee into Northworld when the FBI came crashing on their door… but they had to come back to the same location, sooner or later. A couple of agents keeping watch, and one less Gater scum around. There would be no Silvergate to use in holding cells.
Once the basics of Swordfish had been drawn, other people had piled in. Officers with a good memory could remember and identify the Gaters there before they even got access to the underground forums. Preemptive diversion of contraband. All kinds of actions could be made. Enforcing the law directly in Northworld was probably useless, but still on the cards “for the future”.
The actual first day of Swordfish was anti-climactic. He’d moved in a dedicated office, swapped his day FBI day clothes for a sports-based set, handed a backpack filled with items carefully selected for maximum efficiency, and given a box containing a Silvergate.
Henry hadn’t spent much time obsessing about the so-called Setup. He’d been told to pick whatever he felt would help, and not worry about the “game”. He wasn’t there to be a Gater adventurer, he was there to gain the trust of the criminals and unpick their identities and hideouts.
He still had to choose a nickname, and preferably one that would make it obvious to other members of Swordfish who each of them was. You were supposed to be yourself on the other side, but nobody was taking this one at face value. So everyone had been handed a nickname starting by Quan – for Quantico, of course – and his own was Quandocor.
At least, somebody had slipped a pack of mints in the bag. Henry – no, Quandocor – was going to thank whomever when he came back.
He’d never been a fan of videogames like some people were. Oh, yes, the PS2 at home had to be locked by mom at times, but once it was out, it was out. There were only four games he’d ever liked on it. The NBA series, an offroad driving simulator whose name he couldn’t remember today. Ok, and all the MK games. All of them. He’d brought a PS4 just for the last one.
So this “character creation” Setup had been… disturbing. The expert on Northworld had tried to explain the various “magics” the world would let you use. Without being a Gater, it was difficult to come with hard facts. But, seemingly, the Setup had thrown him a bunch of skills based on something called Death. If he understood right what it boiled down… he’d have to kill stuff to gain Death for the skills that were supposed to be the ones that would prove his bona fide. Better than gang initiations where you had to assassinate people.
Health: 601/601 (recovers 156/day)
Stamina: 33/634 (recovers 2.0/s)
Death: 0/706 (recovers 0.007/s)
Unseen Meditation 28
Lay of the Land 17
Endurance of Death 14
Cold Grasp 11
Associative Memory 6
Dodge Blow 6
Drain Life 5
Deadly Punch 5
Foe’s Threats 4
Level: 1 – 0%
Unused points: 0
The other thing he hadn’t expected was to find two people staring at him.
The couple approached. The man offered a handshake.
“Wow, I thought I'd never see a first spawn. Everyone says a first spawn is different. Normal spawn is you basically popping out without effects. But that one…”
“What you mean, first spawn?”
“There was lightning arcs. Then for a second or two, you could see the Silvergate. Then you popped out.”
Quandocor dismissed that. It didn’t look relevant…
The woman added.
“Looks like you started indoor. I couldn’t see much, but...”
A sinking sensation filled Quandocor.
“That’s the only time you can see Earth from Northworld, I think. Every other time, you don’t see the Silvergate this side.”
She added “I’m Birkathane, by the way. Welcome to Northworld.”
“Hello. I’m Quandocor. How did you know I was going to arrive here?”
The man shrugged.
“We didn’t. We were following this leyline, and you simply popped in front of us. Name’s Vantegaard.”
“Well, if you’re here, can you tell me where we are? Are we far from any place?”
“That’s the problem. We’re also newbies. I spawned yesterday, Birka three days ago.”
“And… you haven’t seen anyone else?”
“Nope. Nobody. Just us two…three now. We’re trying to see if we can find a place or at least some recognizable points of interest. Then, if we’re completely alone, we can pop on Earth and contact the Cartographer’s Guild about it.”
Bingo. It looked like his mission was not going to be a failure outright. If the guy was embedded in the Gaters network… he could work his way through him. Get him confident.
“So, how we do that?”
“Well, as I said. We were following a leyline. That’s as good as anything to do while exploring around.”
“Leyline? What’s a ley…”
Quandocor stopped himself. Betraying his complete ignorance of the basics of Northworld might not be best.
“Leylines. Geomantic power lines. That should be covered in Magic 101 guides.”
He tried to whip up an explanation for his lack of knowledge. Something half plausible.
“Well, the forum I was hanging out had nothing on magic. It was all sword this and fencing that and…”
“Sounds like the Swordancers. These guys are monomaniacs. You’re a sword build?”
“Don’t think so. I got pushed all kinds of skills dealing with something called Death.”
“Oh, wow, a necromancer?”
Quandocor felt slightly insulted. Then again, his Setup had been stuff around Death.
“Sounds like. I’ve got this stat called Death, with an abysmal regeneration rate. The others look big, but that one’s horrible.”
“That’s the problem with Necromancers, alright. You have no way to regenerate power, except by killing stuff. That, or the right form of meditation for the lucky ones.”
Quandocor remembered that his Interface had something about… meditation? Something something meditation? Yes, it was there.
Tier 1 Presence
You can enter a state of meditation and no one ever sees you doing that.
Mental, magical and physical energies recharge at an accelerated rate while you are meditating. You are less likely to be noticed during meditation, and enemies will turn their attention away. Meditation is interrupted if you take action, but you can move freely.
Maximum meditation period: 28s
Vitals recovery: 7.0/s
Chance to be noticed: 75%
Skill level 28 (base 1)
“Wow, you’re right!”
“Sorry, I was distracted. I’m right about what?”
“That meditation skill, it gave me almost 1/3rd of my Death power total. That’s nice!”
Quandocor noticed that the two Gaters had looked at each other as if surprised. What could be so surprising if they just told him to use that skill?
Vantegaard asked slowly “What meditation did you use?”
“What meditation? Oh, you said there’s more than one, right. As I said, I never got any information about magic.”
“So, what’s the skill? Which tier? Does it have additional effects?”
“It says tier 1. Name’s Unseen Meditation. It says it regenerates my vitals, and while I do that, I’m not being noticed by enemies. Oh, and I can move around, but not take any action.”
He almost added “tier 1 is good, right?”, but the description seemed to imply that. Best not betray his ignorance. As someone famously said, “better keep your mouth shut and look ignorant than speak up and dispel any doubt about it”.
“It’s… very good. Tier 1 Meditations are the best there are. But…”
The man, Vantegaard, seemed disturbed by that news. Birkathane took over the explanation.
“The thing is, it’s also very rare. Of course, if you were only with the Swordancers, you’ve not heard much about the magic superstars. But, yea, tier 1 meditation means you’re going to be a magic superstar. Up until three days ago, there were only four people with a tier 1 meditation. That's over all of Northworld.”
“And now, there’s 5 with me then?”
“And now, there’s 7 with us three. And four different tier 1 Meditation skills. I don’t understand.”
Birkathane called a for short break and moved away. Quandocor was trying to figure out what it was about when he realized that, on this plains, there was barely any vegetation or anything to go behind. So he hastily turned around, pointedly not looking toward the woman.
Vantegaard tried to find out a bit more about their new companion’s plans.
“So, we’re still stuck in the middle of nowhere, and we’re going to explore as much as we can. Want to join?”
“Sure! Being on your own might be dangerous. I mean, it’s not like we can use a sat phone to call for help if we get injured.”
“Well, you’d be stuck for a day or two being careful, until you regenerated your health. But the plains look like a lowbie area. The only problems are the Serpo.”
“Yes, the cats. Those sneak around, and you usually don’t see them until they launch an attack.”
Seeing Quandocor’s alarmed look, Vantegaard hastily dispelled the man’s fears.
“They’re good predators, but they’re not that dangerous. You can solo them. It’s just that, if there’s too many around, at one point, you might not be able to regenerate enough health. And we don’t have Respawn available.”
“Group up seems a good idea.”
“It’s always a good idea unless you know exactly where you are and what’s around.”
At that moment, Birkathane’s voice came from behind them.
“Guys, I’m good. Let’s move. We should try to cover as much ground as we can.”
Vantegaard replied “good. Leyline goes that way.”
While they were walking along whatever the leyline Vantegaard had mentioned, Quandocor tried to sound the woman. He quickly filed her away, disappointed by the fact that she wasn’t an American and not a priority target for Operation Swordfish.
“Yea, I’m from North Europe. Never met Vantegaard until we spawned here in Northworld.”
“Any other people you know in Northworld?”
“I’ve got a group of friends, most of them Gaters. One of them finally got a new Silvergate, and I won the short straw. So here I am.”
“Lots of Gaters in Sweden? Or Norway?”
“Not a lot that I know, but there’s a Swedish-language forum, so there’s some. My friends made a trip to Central America last year, and picked a few.”
“How did you smuggle them? I heard that the customs have special scanners that can spot them.”
That bit was true, at least. The Silvergates were opaque to X-rays, so they showed a big sphere blob on security scanners.
“You get someone on Amazon Marketplace.”
“Yea. You order a bunch of industrial tools and materials, they pack a small crate of all kinds of metallic stuff, and you put them in the middle, with aluminum foil over it. The trick is not to touch them while you pack, otherwise they blow the crate when they expand.”
“Ooooh. Then when the customs use a scanner…”
“They see lots of various opaque shapes, and the round ones aren’t surprising.”
“Tricky. I like that. I’ll have to remember that one.”
The thing was, Quandocor did like that one. As a professional, he could admire the simplicity of the smuggler’s trick.
“It was that or paying someone to smuggle them through Northworld. Paying overland was simpler and faster. We all pitched in. Then it was waiting until they found more Silvergates.”
Birkathane’s eyes got misty.
“I miss them already. I mean, it’s been three days, and I have no idea where I am or how I am going to get back to them.”
“You can get back to them on Earth.”
“Yes, but it doesn’t count. Mies… my best friend, she spends most of her time in Northworld. We hardly see each other these days. I was sooo looking forward to going on adventures with her.”
“Guys”, called Vantegaard.
“Look there. It seems there’s some… building up ahead.”
Vantegaard’s sight was apparently better than theirs. But, when they approached, they found out that there wasn’t much to see.
Quandocor said it first.
“Looks like a burned house or something.”
“Yes. There was one old thing, not far from my parent’s farm. It burned before I was even born. I always loved going there, and my mom always spanked me afterward. That one looks the same way.”
“Why is there a single home here, in the middle of nowhere?”
Vantegaard said “No idea why, but there looks like a second leyline close. That one intersects the one we followed, and that ruin looks like it’s straight over it.”
“A Geomancer ruin?”
“Looks more like a tiny cottage to me.”
“It’s not far now. Let’s find out.”
Of course, Vantegaard was a bit more excited than he let show. He had his minor leylines “resolved” already, but hopefully, an intersection of leylines might still be “interfering”. As they neared the ruin, he surreptitiously checked his Interface…
Warning! An intersection of Minor Leylines overwhelms and replaces your normal skill selection with an ambiguous Tier 4 Earth Magic skill. Resolve the leyline interference to prevent recurrence of this difficulty. Other leyline configurations may still cause further problems.
Dual Minor Leyline skills
Armored Earth. Tier 4 Resilience. The physical always has a problem with the physical.
Immutable Mind. Tier 4 Fortitude. The mind is a wall. A wall that you erect around those you wish to help.
Extract Essence. Tier 4 Dexterity. There’s hidden power in the earth, and you can give it liquid form.
He almost asked for advice from his group but thought better. So far, the skill forcing was a secret, and maybe it should remain that way. After all, the other two seemed okay, but he’d met them a handful of hours ago.
So, the decision was his alone. Armored Earth sounded like a defensive buff, but he had no way to decide if it was personal or if it could be put on someone else. The second form would be much more useful, of course.
Immutable Mind was plainly stating that it was a group buff. Sounded like a magical variant of the Stand your Ground he’d ignored during Setup.
Extract Essence… was an Extract. All Extract skills were crafting skills. While crafting was nice, he had no intent to do that. Birkathane had mentioned having some alchemist skills, and while extracts could potentially help her… well, he had no idea if they would remain together for long. If they found a town tomorrow, and she’d find her friends were a three-day ride away, she’d probably be gone so fast, the dust wouldn’t fall for an hour.
Next recess, Jasper Hill would rush to his computer first thing, and print out every single Earth Magic skill known. Trying to figure out what any skill was for from name and description was frustrating. He would rather decide with complete information rather than be left guessing all the time.
The other option was… to let the skill opportunity go for a while. He knew that the interference would fade if they left the ruin, and come back if he came around an intersection of minor leylines.
On the other hand, he could pick a new skill immediately. If he simply accumulated points, without spending them, until he could respawn, that would lead to frustration. Any skill he picked, he could raise immediately, which would improve his levels.
There was no best answer.
Tier 4 Fortitude
The mind is a wall. A wall that you erect around those you wish to help.
Creates lasting protection against mind-related attacks.
Duration: 60 s
Maximum targets: 1
Power cost: 70
Damage reduction to psychic attack: 6%
Skill level 6 (base 1)
So ok, not a group version of Stand your Ground. This one looked like it might be useful at high enemy ranks when you faced things with Psionics. At this level? Ok for some grinding, but not much.
At least, there was finally a door. It had barely a frame left around it, and the upper part was mostly burned, but it was still, recognizably, a door. Vantegaard came near and delivered a massive roundhouse kick, blowing the door out of its rotted wood hinges.
Quandocor exclaimed, “What was that for???”
“Skill. I have Door Knocker. Did you see any door around? That’s the first occasion I have to try to increase it at least a little bit.”
Birkathane smirked, “That door sure had it coming.”
“Ok, so this looks like a small house. There’s something like a vegetable garden gone wild that way. But I can’t see why someone would have a house like that, in the middle of nowhere.”
“There are times where things don’t really make sense in Northworld. Ruins, most of all.”
Quandocor pointed out “Stairs.”
Vincent Archer wrote his first story around age 11. On a mechanical typewriter, with carbon paper for a mimeograph to distribute in class. His teacher knew enough to make vague encouraging noises rather than really tell him what she thought. He wrote more stories afterward, but Time has thankfully managed to erase every trace of them.
Now that his career has settled in a mix of routine and insanity and that he's figured out that herding cats would probably be easier, he's finally started to write stories again on a media rather than inside his brain. Some of those are even potentially good enough to show to other people.
Silvergates is his first attempt to finish one rather than admit defeat against the usual writer's block.