(Y6, July 29th-Aug 4th)
The forest had ended abruptly. They were facing a large plain, with small hillocks. After four days of a forest with wolves, black cats and bears, that was a change the trio welcomed.
Birkathane checked her Absolute Compass, but they were perfectly on track, on the west-northwest direction that was supposed to eventually lead them back to civilization.
They had spent the last days forced to fight four or five times a day. Being jumped by another Herpailurus Spumantis. Wandering Ursus Jubatus. To think they had to run away from one two weeks ago, and it was probably the easiest hostile around this time. The worst had been the Canis Tacitus. That silent night-black killer was not just nearly undetectable, even by Quandocor, she also massively reduced every form of magic except psionics, unless you could open up range. The fight had been an endurance race between killing her and running out of vitals.
Without her healing and more importantly their respective Meditation skills, it would have been nigh impossible to sustain the rhythm.
Vantegaard had asked for a regimen of non-combat grinding on top of that. Anything you could do, you did. Even Juggling 90 minutes per day, up to the point where skill gains collapsed. Getting that sweet additional point to put into your stats, as they were doing now, was helping. They each got close to 18 levels over the four days of the forest, points that immediately went into their most important stats, but also Strength and Dexterity.
All of their vital statistics were climbing steadily.
But Birkathane could see the signs. She could tell the tempers were starting to fray, as the endless fighting was piling upon them. She was a bit surprised that she’d be the one to keep her head clear so far. Back on Earth… that wasn’t what anyone would expect from depressive Erika Haglund. But Birkathane was being tempered by this insane ordeal. And if she had to put herself as an example for the others… she would.
It was just nauseating to think six people would die to make her stronger. Nietzsche would be proud.
At the end, when the book would be written, she hoped she would make a good enough impression.
They finally made camp for the night. A real camp this time. A firepit, cookpot, cans from their supplies. They ate in silence.
“We’re going to have to figure out how to manage Recess,” said Vantegaard finally.
Quandocor looked up, surprised.
“We should get it open tomorrow. We can all Recess together, but that’s only if we have a very safe location for that. You can’t see who or what’s around on spawn, so you do it where nothing can attack you, or where you’re sure you can solo the attack if necessary until you can get support.”
Quandocor frowned, concluding.
“We’re just outside of the forest, so…”
“And if the plains are in the same kind of range as the forest around the Pyramid, we’re probably not yet able to solo most of it. A Jubatus, maybe, but I don’t think those leave their forests. If the wolves range out of the forest, though, it’s curtain call if you get picked out solo,” confirmed Vantegaard.
“Hopefully, it’s easier. The other option is that one of us Recess at a time, while the other two stay there and keep watch. It’s a bit safer, but we have to rotate, and we end up taking a lot more time. And that’s assuming the two remaining can handle the fight if something jumps them.”
“I’d hate that to happen to you two while it’s me on Recess. I’m the one with the real heals.”
“How long do you think we need to Recess?” asked Quandocor.
“The rule of thumb seems to be 4-5 hours for every day spent on Northworld,” answered Vantegaard.
“Vasili seemed to suggest you could spawn back in 30mn.”
“That was the first time I’ve ever heard of it. Everything on every forum I’ve checked says you expressly don’t spawn again before purging completely the AS charge. If you spawn back, you get Adaptation Sickness immediately and you’re stuck with it for at least 9 days. Come to think about it, he said something like that as well.”
“No to 30mn Recess, then.”
“There might be a trick to it. I’d have to ask, but if it’s a special Cartographer secret, I’m not sure they’ll let me in it when I’m just at the probationary rank. Worst case, it’s a potion you take, and I won’t have any available, so I’m stuck on Earth while you’re there.”
“So we’re stuck with you away for two days at least.”
“Pretty much. Assuming the plains are safe for you two. And then, we’ll have to Recess again in two weeks.”
“You still will have 11 days elapsed when I spawn back after my Recess. We’ve gained some Resilience, so the Adaptation Sickness onset is a bit further than it would be, but we’re still talking less than 4 weeks. I think.”
Birkathane added, “And we won’t be at Hilltop Samms yet. Vasili seemed to imply four, five weeks of total travel. At the expedition’s original speed.”
“Yes. We have another Recess necessary. Vasili wanted to cut it into half, next Recess for everyone three weeks out of Fanduk, then everyone would be good for the last leg of the trip.”
“So? We stick to the plan, with just your two days delay to report.”
Birkathane shook Quandocor awake. The fire was out since she did not need anything to see in the darkness with her Night Sense.
“Watch time. See you in the morning. And maybe once I should take mid-watch.”
“I’ve never got any problem with interrupted sleep. And I don’t really need much of it anyway. Sweet Viking dreams, Birka.”
Quandocor settled. The night was clear and the plains almost visible under the moon’s light. Seemingly, summertime in Northworld was dry season rather than a hot season. The cloud cover back in Fanduk had been pretty much the only time they couldn’t see the sun.
The three-quarter moon was starting to rise from the horizon. It still looked weird whenever he looked at it. For one, it was smaller than Earth’s moon. Then, instead of the familiar dark seas and wide craters, it looked like it was crisscrossed by straight visible scar lines joining small white craters. Like the ancient drawings of Mars so-called ‘canals’, except in grey instead of red.
The other thing that also bothered him was the lack of any Milky Way. There were denser patches of stars between some constellation-like groups, but nothing remotely like the splendor of the Milky Way across the sky at night. He never saw that in Atlanta, but when he was young, his parents always went on holiday to the southern part of the Appalachians, where the skies were clear and the night black.
He would have to remember to ask Vantegaard about the skies of Northworld. His Cartographers had probably probed Northworld’s skies. Did they find anything special? Or would he have to sell him that information?
Quandocor winced, remembering Maelia’s banter. He still had the card, safely tucked in his backpack. She would never draw a map again for him or anyone else.
Quandocor still didn’t understand why he kept running the mission. The odds of it succeeding were going low all the time. Tomorrow, he could call it quits, drop everything, exile on Earth, take a long shower, and admit defeat. Someone else could take his Silvergate, and try his or her hand at Operation Swordfish.
The first thing keeping him there was that he expected everyone else to be still running their infiltrations. With success. A couple of months and they’ll score this or that Gater gang. And if he gave up, he would just be another guy clapping his hands in the room when the score was tallied.
The other thing… well, there was the matter of the Other Gaters. He understood better the Gaters than probably anyone in the FBI, except the other Swordfishers. There was no way the Northworld guild organizations wouldn’t rush to find the rest of them. And unless the FBI moved fast, those guys would do the First Contact for mankind. Maybe another agent could catch them faster, but he didn’t know that.
And the final thing… Swordfish was still running for him as well. He hadn’t been snuffed out. He’d survived the harrowing Pyramid trap, and everyone on Northworld would probably think of him as a kind of hero.
What else could the other agents claim? Spawn in a capital town and try to buy drinks until someone was interested? Did any of them even run a minor dungeon – like that stupid basement on the first day – to prove themselves?
And besides, if those two could go on, so could he.
Vantegaard was keeping himself busy by preparing breakfast while his two companions were sleeping. He smiled at the sight. Birkathane had admitted to snoring like a sawmill, but whatever respiratory problems did cause that on Earth, the properties of Northworld had cured her of it. And probably Earthside as well.
Then he winced on seeing his bacon stock. Well, he’d stock while on Earth. Although he never checked… there were boar analogs all over Northworld. Did anyone make Northworld bacon? Almost certainly. But Earthside would do for now.
While he waited for the sun to rise and mark the beginning of the day, he reflected on the last days. Vantegaard was driving himself too hard, he knew. But he couldn’t let go.
In a real way, the Pyramid was his failure. Okay, maybe not the Aether switch. He shared that one with Wisuqkz. However, he did it. He had started the debacle. But that wasn’t what was wrong. The thing is, he had a solution all that time.
Mind over Matter (skillstone)
Tier 1 Reasoning
There is no wall.
Temporarily refutes the existence of rock or stone walls or barriers. Inoperable on a large scale.
Maximum volume: 3.3 m3
Cost: 71 psy/m3/sec
Skill level 33 (base 0)
Mind over Matter wasn’t listed on Honest John’s and he had neglected it. In retrospect, he should have tried to grind the skill – which was very tricky to do without stone or rock walls – to get it to a much higher level and have the wall open longer. Or get higher stats for higher psy. Or at least higher levels.
And he should have tried it way earlier. That was the inexcusable part. Using it trapped in that stairs, with more and more enemies pouring in… that was far, far too late. The skeletal guardians were not smart. Once they had left the corridors, they’d simply lost track and interest. Simple automatons, leftover by…
The full VR simulation theory that was still popular in some circles could be bent to explain the Pyramid. But which VR simulation would leave an empty shell of a Pyramid. The Pyramid felt… alien. Built by an alien mentality. One that monitored – or at least had done so at one point – the Gaters. The human ones and… the four others.
Who were they? Were they like humans, drawn to adventure in this strange new world? Did they have an Interface? Did they suffer adaptation sickness? Questions. Questions gnawing at him since they had discovered that biggest of secrets.
And the biggest question of all. What would they do, all of them, on the day when the color blobs on the globe finally met.
The ash pit had been cleared, and the trio was now ready to move.
“So the plan for today is, scout the area while we follow Birka’s direction, see if it’s safe, find a good Recess point for tonight, and… well, go.”
“Sure, boss,” joked Quandocor.
“Hilltop Samms that way,” indicated Birkathane.
Less than an hour in, Vantegaard with his superior Perception pointed left.
“So they do leave their forest?”
“Thought they did not. I was wrong. At least this one looks like it’s headed back. But that means this part of the plains is probably 30-ish as well, just like the forest was.”
“As long as it’s only some Jubatus, I’ll be happy.”
Vantegaard pointed westward.
Birkathane spotted it immediately.
“Quan, do you remember when we spoke about horse riding back in Fanduk?”
“That’s one of your… carnivorous horses?”
“Pretty sure it is. Equus Esuriens. It’s normally weaker than a Jubatus, but unlike those, they tend to roam in couples or packs at times.”
Birkathane made the conclusion.
“It’s time to make a slight detour north, then. I prefer my horses eating hay from my hand rather than eating the hand itself.”
They managed to skip a few solitary Esuriens, but more importantly, they spotted a pack of 6 of the saber-toothed horses. Where normal horses would probably graze all the time, the Esuriens were standing there, looking slightly bored and restless. Thankfully, they did not notice the group.
As the evening drew near, Quandocor noticed his Interface.
“Recess has lit up.”
“Same here,” confirmed Birkathane.
“Went up 10min ago,” added Vantegaard.
“We need to find a safe camp then.”
Birkathane pointed out.
“That stream probably isn’t.”
“Nope. It’s usually what animals in the wild go to at the end of the day to drink,” opined Quandocor.
“So, let’s cross and move away.”
The stream wasn’t very large. They waded across, barely getting water to their midriffs. But it quickly turned out that Quandocor was partially right when he spotted something looking like a snorkel streaming toward them at what felt like a speedboat pace.
The thing that erupted from the water looked like an artist painting of an alligator while under the influence of acid. The creature had color splashes all over its scaly hide, looking more like a peacock than a proper sauroid. Quandocor goggled. Even its teeth seemed to have multiple colors.
The trio wasted no time dropping their usual debuffs. Birkathane even added an arcane Entangle-Precision to make sure the alligator wouldn’t rush them again. They quickly settled down to their standard rotation of assault, distraction, and ranged attacks.
The creature quickly proved to be looking more impressive than it really was. Its health evaporated quickly, and even Birkathane managed to inflict damage through a combination of Weak Points and Pierce Defense.
While being able to raise some melee skills for once pleased her immensely, Quandocor grumbled when his Skinning only left him with ratty looking stripes of useless scales.
“Well, that’s one less skin for my collection.”
Birkathane smiled. If Quandocor joked, the day wasn’t so bad.
The sun was getting close to the horizon and they stopped before it got too dark to continue. Vantegaard prepared a minimal camp.
“I’m not feeling it,” was his reply.
“Worried about the horses?”
“You guessed it. You two can probably tackle one solo easily. Two will be hard. And if you get a larger pack, you’re dead. I don’t think you can last one minute without using any skill and being locked out of Recess. So no Exile escape.”
“I wouldn’t know how to prevent Dodge Blow from acting,” said Quandocor.
“That one doesn’t matter. It’s only activated skills that lock you. As long as you can endure 1 minute of a fight without using an activated skill, you’re good.”
“That’s why Vasili was angry at Zaccali?”
“Yea. She could fire arrows all she wanted, but using one to interrupt the spellcasting Terminator got her back to 9 days wait.”
“Ok. No active. That’s not helping when I always use Drain Life.”
“You can do it if you’ve got massive health, high passive defense skills, and avoid reflexively trying to do something. Probably. And then, as he said, you’re pretty much screwed if you try to spawn back later. You can recover some health Earthside, if slowly. But the rest of the vitals won’t budge during a Recess.”
Birkathane brought the conversation back on topic.
“No Recess here then?”
“Well, unless I’m acting like a coward and leaving you to risk everything… No.”
“You think you could help us with a pack of horses?”
“No. But if you get two or three and you end up dying because I’m not there, I’m going to hate myself when I find your bodies. I already have caused six people to die.”
“We’ve talked about it. You’re not at fault. You couldn’t do better or know better.”
“There’s a difference between knowing it and feeling it.”
Quandocor concluded, “the notification will have to wait. It’s been five days already, we can wait for one more.”
The next day didn’t bring relief. Neither was the one after. More packs of horses roaming the plains. Nearly every river had its mandatory Ceratosuchus Auium trying its luck.
They trudged on.
“There were never that many critters near Fanduk.”
“Fanduk was a low-rank zone. The rule is pretty much, the higher the rank of the creatures around, the more of them,” said Vantegaard.
“And we’re still in 30-land.”
“At least it’s not higher. But…”
“At that point, I’m almost expecting this to go on until Hilltop Samms. I mean, there’s usually a reason why the areas near the known zones haven’t been explored already. Unless you like exploring harder zones, there’s plenty to do that’s known.”
“So, how are we going to Recess?” asked Birkathane.
“We level. Until we’re good enough to survive the zone solo when we spawn again. We’re closing on 100 now.”
“Or Adaptation Sickness hits and we have no choice,” concluded Quandocor.
“Anyway, we’ll do this Recess together,” added Vantegaard.
“I’ve been counting the days. I probably need close to 3 days of Recess now to be safe. And if I do, then there’s a good chance you’ll get hit by AS before I can Recess again.”
Birkathane had an explosive laugh, cut short.
“Well, if you were worried about leaving us two alone, think of how we feel leaving you on your own.”
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.