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It was strange, having hearing be my primary source of information. As a human my first instinct was always to look at something, to take it in and process it visually, gaining information both obvious and subtle. Blind to the world, I instead had to figure out what I wanted to know, and then see if there was a way I can approximate that information using only the senses available to me.

The most important piece of information that I was interested in was knowing if I was alone or not. I was more than ready to experiment, to test my limits, to try out any one of the dozen ideas I had to better familiarize myself with the class and skill system, and so much more. But that desire was weighed against the consequences of revealing my unusual nature. Having others find out what I was capable of was a danger that I had to minimize as much as possible. The truly paranoid part of my mind insisted that there was no way to guarantee my secrecy, so I should just continually hide, but I knew that would eventually be the death of me, not from discovery but from boredom.

I started with listening to my surroundings, straining my sense of hearing to the limits to pick out all the details I could. The ocean continued to beat against the shore, its song changing subtly with the tides. The birds overhead had gone quiet, heading to sleep with the arrival of night. A few of their nocturnal cousins were roaming the area, but it was rare indeed for them to make a noise. Only twice did I hear a warning call from overhead, and even that was far softer than the general clamor the seagulls made during the day. As for people, I heard nothing. Lirillin was somewhere nearby, but was presumably asleep inside the lighthouse, with solid walls between him and me. He was also drunk, which would give me an additional layer of deniability for the next few hours.

Even with my privacy as guaranteed as I could make it, I spent several minutes simply waiting for an unexpected noise, the sound of something or someone where there shouldn’t be anything. It still took a large concentration of mental effort to actually convince myself to begin to act. Part of that was lingering concerns, but most of my remaining hesitation was simply due to my nature.

I hated taking risks, always took the path of least resistance, and only rarely showed initiative. It had worked out for me for most of my life, and was certainly better than trying to stand up to my overbearing parents, to disappoint my always concerned grandparents, to experiencing first-hand what a competitive society does to losers. Cancer might have removed most of the demands and expectations my family had of me, but they were quick to replace them with other ones, wanting me to make the most of my remaining time, to do all sorts of activities from my bucket list that I don’t remember ever expressing an interest in. It didn’t take me long to realize that these experiences were less for my sake than they were for theirs, not so that I could pass on with memories of a good life, but that they could live with themselves afterwards, content with their belief that they had done what they could for me. After all, it would have been terrible if I had died with even the hint that my life was shaped by their desires for me instead of my own wishes that would never be fulfilled.

At the time that realization came to me, I had been tempted to burn everything down. To bluntly admit just how many expectations had been forced on me, just how many of my interests, activities and decisions were barely hidden attempts by my elders to make up for their poor life decisions. I just couldn’t bring myself to actually do it. Part of it was being generally tired from fighting cancer, but the other part was that it simply wasn’t worth it. I may not have liked the manipulations they used so easily, but they were still my family, and I had some sort of love for them. I certainly didn’t hate them enough to unleash every hidden demon in one last act of spite. So I simply passed on, ready to leave it all behind me, taking with me my complaints and regrets and what ifs to keep the peace.

Of course, I had expected that to be the end of me, only to find myself surprised at my continued existence. And those same questions that had bothered me all my life, that I had forcefully had to push away these last few years, were here once more. What was I willing to risk pursuing my own goals? I had seen where excessive passivity leads. Thanks to my sister, I knew the result of constant antagonism as well, the black sheep of the family, never around but managing her own life, her own way. I wasn’t quite ready to go that far, but I was more than willing to act, despite the risks.

Slowly, I began to stretch out my oars, reveling in the freedom of motion that I was provided. I didn’t need to be constantly rowing toward a set destination, and I didn't have hands moving me without my say. I could wiggle my oars up and down, swing them from side to side, and slap them against the water to play rhythmic music as I vented unspoken frustrations. All the while I was listening for any signs of people approaching, but the world remained indifferent to my actions. Slowly, the ghosts in my head began to fade as well, turning back into the memories I had summoned them from, and I switched my focus to the present.

I took a moment to rest an oar against the dock, feeling the unyielding pressure that it fed back to me through that point of contact. While floating docks existed, this one seemed solidly anchored, held in place by posts driven into the seafloor. For me that meant it could be used as a reference point, and I did my best to figure out how high up the dock was compared to the current sea level. It was a crude measurement, but would likely work if this area had any significant tides. The sea would rise and fall with the pull of the moon in either semidiurnal or diurnal pattern, twice or once a day respectively. Of course, this being a fantasy world, it could follow an even stranger pattern, but that didn't actually matter to me. I didn’t care what pattern the tides followed, only that there was a pattern. I could get a rough estimate already of when it was night or day, and being able to integrate tidal information with that knowledge would give me some way of knowing how much time was passing.

I briefly considered trying to keep time myself, only to discard the idea immediately. One of the first things to go under conditions of sensory deprivation was the sense of time. My current situation wasn’t quite that bad, but I had no faith in my ability to keep any sort of accuracy if I was to try and track the passage of time internally. For now, using tides and signs from the natural day night cycle would have to do. Acquiring a Skill based method of timekeeping did make its way onto my mental wish list, but that was called a wish list for a reason.

With my initial tidal measurements complete and committed to memory, I began the exhaustive and comprehensive testing that involved two pieces of wood together. It was just like particle physics, only done at a larger scale and slower speed!

Jokes aside, I had a couple of good reasons for repeatedly whacking an oar against the dock. The simplest was just getting acclimatized to feedback from the boat. I’d much rather learn what hitting something solid felt like now, safely tied up to a dock where someone would eventually check on me, rather than out at sea where a collision with a sharp rock could easily stove me in if I couldn’t react fast enough. I didn’t have a sense of pain or the instinctive ability to flinch back from whatever might be hurting me. I didn’t have the self-regenerative ability of a person to slowly heal injuries over time. While it was probably easier for Lirillin to magic up a [Repair] spell or for a carpenter to patch me up, that relied on having access to other people willing to help me.

While getting comfortable with my new body and learning to avoid injury was useful, I was willing to keep hitting my oar against the point of dock until the point of damage. It was easy enough to believe that I could be fixed if something came up, but I would feel a lot better if I had proof. If my only goal was to break an oar to see what happened I could have arranged that in moments. Most oars were designed to be stored away when not in use, and either the [Automation] spell prevented that from being a simple task, or Lirillin had simply been too drunk to remember it. I wasn’t about to complain about it too much, but it meant that while my oars were solidly affixed in their pivots, they were hanging over the sides into the water when I wasn’t controlling them. All it would take would be the right angle and a stronger than expected wave to pin an oar between my side and one of the pillars of the dock, where the mechanical principles of levers would quickly come into play. While not something I actually wanted to do, it would provide a natural explanation for any damages I might incur without hinting at me being responsible. That meant I could freely whack away, keeping a close eye on my status screen and the durability score it tracked, trying to figure out what exactly a 10 meant and what sort of damage was necessary to bring that down to a nine. I was also curious to see if the description of the oars themselves would change. Would they list themselves as damaged wooden oars? If I broke one completely would the description change to the singular? I was glad that I didn’t have a sense of pain because the only way for me to get answers to my questions was to test them.

The last purpose of my activities was less an actual goal and more an idle hope. The Screen seemed to hint that it was possible to both improve attributes without spending experience, and that it was possible to unlock new skills. Having confirmation for either of those properties would be nice, but my range of actions was somewhat limited if I was attempting to do something noteworthy and worth rewarding. Of the four attributes, my Body was set to zero, and likely would remain such as long I was a spirit embodying another object instead of an actual physical being. My Spirit attribute was both far higher than my other stats, and was somewhat of a mystery to me. I didn’t have any pre-existing talent with magic I could use to stretch my capabilities in that field, after all.

While I would do what I could to improve myself mentally, I doubted my ability to truly push the limits of my Mind attribute without interaction with other people. Stuck by myself as I was, with limited interaction with the outside world and all of it one directional, I just didn’t think I would be getting the sort of challenges needed to actually grow. I’m sure that some people were likely the sort of math savants who would rejoice at having what amounted to unlimited time without bodily requirements and with no distractions to come up with new theories, but I wasn’t. The only reason I got through my engineering classes was the promise of big paychecks at the end combined with the implied threats from my parents if I thought of dropping out. Even though I had the pressure of my current situation weighing on me, it was too abstract to really be motivating. I was trapped and beholden to someone else, but it wasn’t like I was in pain or in danger of immediate destruction. The only risks I was facing were the ones I was voluntarily taking on, after all.

My Perception attribute was both low and was something I was relying on constantly. Being able to hear and feel the boat were my only two links to the larger world around me, and if raising my Perception gave me more information from those senses then it was something I could wholeheartedly work on. Every tap of wood on wood was a sensation I was priming my hearing to pick up, was slowly being used to correlate inputs and outputs for force applied and feedback felt. I was inscribing in my mind what a soft impact sounded and felt like, hitting harder and harder as I grew more confident in both my ability to interpret the feedback and handle the hits I was dealing out. I hadn’t seen any actual numbers change on my sheet, but I didn’t actually need them to. It would be nice, would change a lot to know I could continue to improve my sensory capability, but even with my improvements I knew I wasn’t operating at one hundred percent. There was still information my senses were feeding me that I wasn’t noticing or translating to usable knowledge. If, at the end of the night, all I had to show for my efforts was the mental self-improvement I’d given myself? I’d still consider it a valuable use of my time. That, and just because an experiment didn’t give you the results you were hoping for didn’t actually mean the experiment was useless. It just meant that you learnt something else.

While I would either succeed or fail at increasing my Attributes, attempting to unlock new skills was somewhat more complex. It didn’t help that I had no idea what a skill even was, what they might be capable of, or any other of a half dozen pieces of information that were likely common knowledge I had no access to. The ability of the screens to provide more information than the literal definition of the words that I read was helpful, but it only did so much, especially when I tried to focus on something as broad as Skills.

Common usage of the word fell into two categories. The first was that of lifelong skills, general areas of knowledge that someone could devote years of study two, that they could then apply to any number of related tasks. The skill list from Dungeons and Dragons was an obvious reference, where any character would have areas such as nature or athletics they were skilled in and could apply those proficiencies to specific tasks, such as finding a red oak tree or wrestling a bear cub. While static systems like D&D had a discreet list of fifteen to twenty skills that might be available, real life had literally millions, nested fractally in increasing amounts of specificity. Survival might be a skill, but Woodcraft, Fire-starting, and Flint Usage were also specific areas of knowledge that people could learn and apply to the same task of starting a fire. The screens probably had some cutoff point as to what counted as a unique skill, but even then there were likely thousands of options available that I could potentially qualify for but hadn’t yet. What was irksome was that this definition of skill was passive. It was about knowledge and ingrained technique. While I might be new to this word and the Skills it provided, I brought with me an entire lifetime of skills. I doubted the Screens would provide me with a typing skill, but surely there was some overlap between the two categories. Perhaps I simply needed to use the knowledge I had for the System to recognize it, but that could happen slowly or not at all. The second newer definition of skill is what interested me.

What historically would have been called a technique, it was the demonstration of lifelong skill condensed into a single moment or action. Shooting a basketball from half-court. Breaking a brick with a bare hand. Composing rap lyrics on the fly. Doing a standing backflip. Any discipline had actions that could be used to distinguish a master from an apprentice. I thought it far more likely that most of the Skills the system would provide would fall into this category. The ability to perform actions that would normally take years of practice with all the background knowledge and support provided by that extra dimensional entity. A form of automatic assistance that guaranteed success in certain areas. In a world where enchantments could perfectly row a boat towards a given destination, it made sense that there were quieter forms of magic that could help a person accomplish different yet similar feats.

All I had to do was figure out how to tap into that power.

The line that motivated me was a quote by Bruce Lee. “I fear not the man who practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who practiced one kick 10,000 times.” I didn’t have any kicks I could practice, lacking legs and all, but the underlying principle was still applicable. Practicing a simple action enough times would lead to mastery of it, which was more useful than reaching for versatility with no underlying understanding. I had the time; I had the motivation. I was going to practice hitting the dock with my oar ten thousand times to truly familiarize myself with that simple action, curious to see how the System might acknowledge mastery and control over a relatively simple motion.

Strike after strike hit the dock, each one imprinting the sensation a little more solidly into my conceptual understanding of myself. I occasionally checked the status screen to see if there were any changes, but for the most part I simply lost myself in the repetitive action. Harder, softer, varying speeds and angles of attack, I moved between them focused not so much on a strict system of experimentation, but a holistic approach, learning what felt right, what felt strange, even as I slowly defined what exactly right and strange meant to me.

It was a strange form of active meditation that acted as a slow-release valve for my fears and concerns. So much of my situation was alien and unknown that it was tempting to allow myself to slip into paralyzing inaction. I was overwhelmed by the changes that had suddenly invaded my life, and while I was grateful to no longer be dying of cancer, I knew I didn’t possess the mental fortitude needed to truly choose the best course of action for either the short or long term. All I could do was simply bungle my way through, acting on my fears and regrets in a haphazard mess of unexamined desires that kept me stumbling from one problem to the next.

But it didn’t matter. As I lost myself in my work, I began to reach a strange state of clarity. There might be some hypothetical best course of action that I was incapable of following, but I was doing the best I could with who I was and what I had. That wasn’t a point of self-recrimination, but a point of pride, that I was giving it my all. My parents weren’t here to judge me. My peers weren’t here to judge me. The hypercompetitive society I grew up in was something I left behind on another world. As far as I knew, there were no other boat people to tell me off for doing things wrong. It was freeing, to know that no matter how poorly I might perform I was still a paragon of my species. That spending my night drumming away on a dock in the middle of nowhere was a perfectly good way to spend my time because there weren’t any expectations but those I made for myself. And as time went on even those revelations began to fade, as I slowly accepted the truths present within them and let them slide away from my stream of thought. I began towing my oar not because it was the means to any number of ends, but because it was the first thing in a number of years that I was doing solely for myself.

It was not the focus of a master craftsman working on a project, but the dedication that a child might put towards the act of play. It was the strange self-absorbed ability to both assign meaning to and derive meaning from the same task, where the opinion of the world falls away because the approval of the only viewpoint that matters is always available. A thousand times I felt the niggling whispers of societal concerns prodding the edges of my thoughts, but the next strike would always drive them away with the same ease of a boy ignoring his mom’s calls to come inside for dinner.

It was a wonderfully freeing state, and I managed to keep myself there for a good while, when one of my routine status checks gave me one of the pieces of information I had been hoping to see.

 

The following skills are currently available to you:

Power Strike

 

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solopath

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  • Aspiring Author

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