They didn’t get to see the mayor.

Instead, Williams dropped them off outside the NYCEM Headquarters after getting waved through the security checkpoint. The place was a madhouse, with all kinds of army vehicles, news trucks, and emergency tents set up on the neighboring park space around a fountain. The building itself was a great cube some six stories tall, a fusion of gray paneling, blue reflective windows, and creamy vertical stone accents that made it look like something out of Minority Report.

A young woman in crisp business attire and rimless glasses was waiting for them, scrolling through her tablet while talking on her Bluetooth earpiece. She was everything James was not, the epitome of the world he’d left behind seven years ago: elegant, clean, perfect skin, perfect poise, young, healthy.

Williams pulled up right before her, double parking with panache. The place was awash in officials, many in military uniforms, people striding in and out of the building, standing in knots smoking or drinking coffees, everybody on their phones, with security everywhere.

The blonde lady tapped her earpiece and looked up as James opened the truck door. “Mr. Lumberhomelessjack?”

“Fuck,” he growled. “This is going to haunt me forever.”

“Jessica Miles, Assistant to the First Deputy Commissioner of the New York City Emergency Management Department. If you’ll follow me? I’ll brief you as we walk.”

“Good luck, guys!” Williams raised a fist. “I’m subscribed to your TikTok channel, Ms. Serenity - keep us posted!”

“Will do, hon.” Serenity looked more hesitant as she stepped down, her earlier bravado with Metcalf melting away before the sheer intensity of political and government power on display.

James propped his skillet on his shoulder, feeling like an ass but strangely attached to it. Strode alongside Jessica, one hand shoved in his pimp coat pocket, doing his level best to ignore the stares he attracted.

He kind of stood out.

“Your TikTok video last night showcases the first documented example of a Level 3 Lead Aura,” Jessica said as she strode through the crowd gathered before the building. “Far too little energy has been allocated to examining the personal statistics and the consequences of spending points on any given variation, but your video shocked management out of their tunnel vision. We’re liaising with teams across the country and the federal government to analyze the best possible builds, and your spearheading this initiative by going all out on Arete is of immense interest to us.”

“Sure,” said James as they entered through the great glass doors into the echoing lobby. He placed his iron skillet on the conveyor belt then followed Jessica through the metal detector. The guards eyed him dubiously, but apparently skillets weren’t forbidden. Serenity’s Glock 17, however, was held for her until they left.

Jessica led them to a bank of elevators, taking a call on her earpiece and ignoring them till they entered the first elevator, then rose to the second floor. She led them down a busy hallway. The air was alive with voices, people speaking into phones, people arguing with each other, the gravelly tones of military officers, the efficient, clipped language of harassed government officials, the sounds of an entire building alive with purpose and filled the brim with people trying to figure out how to survive.

“Our department contains workstations for some 130 city, state, federal, and non-profit agencies,” Jessica said, leading them through the bustling activity. “The mayor has expressed a desire to speak with you, but frankly he’s swamped. If you’ll wait here?” She gestured at a row of white chairs set against what seemed to be a random wall. “I’ll come let you know when he has a free moment.”

Serenity sat without a word. James felt a profound weariness descend upon him. What was the army’s famous phrase? Hurry up and wait?

“Sure,” he said, and sat.

Jessica smiled. “I’ll have someone come bring you water. If you’ll excuse me.”

“Maybe this wasn’t the best idea,” Serenity said in a quiet voice.

James watched a woman in a starched military uniform whose breast was covered in a wealth of ribbons and medals stride by with six hangers-on, one of whom was earnestly briefing her on something.

“…secured munitions as requested, but logistics is hampered by the loss of power in…”

“No kidding.” James shifted uneasily. “How much you want to bet the mayor’s forgotten I exist?”

“Look at all these people.” From where they sat they could watch the flow of traffic through an intersection up ahead, as well as the meetings taking place inside glass walled meeting spaces outfitted with all kinds of fancy tech. Most of the meetings featured folks on monitors, while huge displays showed all kinds of data that changed faster than James could track, from heat maps of the city to bar charts to spreadsheets.

“Wish we had your phone.” James shifted again. “We’re going to need to remedy that.”

“Maybe we can ask the mayor for one. And some cash. Tell him we don’t work miracles without some drinking money.”

“Yeah.” James studied the faces as they went by. They were uniformly tense, but not all-out panicked. There was still a sense of control. “That’ll go over well.”

An hour passed. Nobody brought them water. James was about to get up and just leave when Jessica appeared again, looking more harried, listening intently to her earpiece and gesturing for them to follow without losing focus to the conversation she was part of.

They were led up a floor, down another hall, and then through a reception area into a large corner office with the name Deputy Commissioner Eli Mack on the door plaque.

The room inside was dominated by a huge table, a bank of monitors on the left wall, filing cabinets, a scattering of chairs that were already mostly taken, and a view over the highway and the downtown Brooklyn skyline.

The man behind the desk was old, white-haired, lean, with the look of ex-military to him. He was listening to a heavy-set younger man explain something but raised a hand cutting him off as Jessica entered.

“Deputy Commissioner Mack, this is James Kelly and Serenity, the individuals from the viral TikTok video we discussed earlier.”

The deputy commissioner rose to his feet. “Good to have you with us. The mayor won’t be joining us - he’s tied up with the heads of CERT but gave us the go-ahead to talk. I’m the Deputy Commission of Response, and this is Mr. Inverness with the CIA, Assistant Director Lin from FEMA, Captain Vischenka from the NYPD, Major Hackworth from the US Army, and Bishop Nolan.”

James felt like he’d been hit across the head with a two by four. He managed a nod to all the inquisitive stares and fumbled for his chair.

“Now.” Mack sat back down as Jessica moved to stand against the wall with a half dozen other assistants actively typing on their pads. “Mr. Kelly. We’re on our heels here. It’s been less than forty-eight hours since the world went mad. What can you tell us? Do you know why this happening? Who is managing these Nemeses, and why?”

James’s throat closed up. He leaned forward, coughed into his fist, and felt his brow prickle with sweat. Carefully, slowly, as if a rapid movement might get him shot, he placed his skillet on the carpet. “I, ah, no sir. I’m sorry. Don’t know where you got the impression that I did.”


Mr. Inverness, a mild-mannered guy with prematurely white hair and black rimmed glasses quirked his head to one side. “Yet in your video you spoke authoritatively about how to best optimize the use of these ‘unspent points’. Where did you get this knowledge?”

“Firsthand experience, sir. I, ah, I mean, we - Serenity and I - we were trapped in a cupcake shop last night, and had to, ah, kill a lot of the gremlins, I mean, the Nemeses, to survive. I dumped all my points in Arete, and it resulted in my gaining this Level 3 Lead Aura that fried the gremlins when they got too close.”

“But how did you know to spend the points in Arete?” This from the FEMA lady. “Isn’t that an unconventional choice?”

“I… yes. I guess it is.” James wiped the sweat from his brow. There were people watching from the monitors, another five or six faces that Mack hadn’t bothered introducing, half of them military. “I guess you could call it intuition, what made me choose it. The whole situation was so strange I figured the one thing I didn’t understand might be the key to, ah, optimizing my chances of survival.”

“Over strength or power?” asked the CIA man. “What is your profession, Mr. Kelly?”

Here it came. James sat up straighter. “I don’t have one. I’m homeless.”

“I see.” He tapped his tablet. “Our records indicate that you were an EMT here in NYC until the tragedy that befell your family. After that, you mostly fall off the radar. Can you explain what you’ve been doing these past seven years?”

James felt his chest tighten, anger rise within him, but what the fuck could he do? He glared at the CIA guy then lowered his gaze to the carpet. “I told you. I’ve been homeless. So mostly being cold and hungry.”

The NYPD Captain looked at her own tablet. “We’ve medical records from six months ago. A hit and run?”

“That’s right. Broke my leg.”

“And before that, in 2019, an arrest for disorderly behavior. In 2018 a warning for trespassing. In 2016 you were arrested for damaging a parked vehicle while intoxicated.”

Serenity glared at the captain. “What’s this about? You’re the ones who called us in here. Now you’re giving him the third degree?”

The captain met Serenity’s glare with stoic indifference. “We’re establishing whom we’re talking with here. We’ve only got one TikTok video to go off of. Credibility is critical if we’re to believe your story.”

“Give me a break,” said Serenity, sitting back.

“The point is, we’re at a critical moment in this development.” The Deputy Commissioner steepled his fingers. “Mr. Kelly, as far as we know, you’re the only person to have claimed to reached Rank 3 Mendicant and developed this aura. We’ve registered only two hundred or so individuals who have reached rank 3 or higher, and none of them have gone full Arete. You’ll excuse us if we’re curious about who we’re dealing with here.”

James just stared at the guy.

The bishop cleared his throat. “If I may? Mr. Kelly, I’m Bishop Nolan, here on behalf of Archbishop Connolly. Are you familiar with the term ‘arete’?”

“Yeah. It means human potential, or how to achieve it. Excellence.”

“That’s right. It’s an Ancient Greek term that has directed a lot of speculation as to the nature of this system we’re dealing with. Aristotle in his Doctrine of the Mean uses arete as a measure of things that are useful in life, a goal for education, say. That we should all strive to be useful, to fulfill our potential, whatever that may be. Originally -” He caught himself and laughed. “And by that I mean yesterday - there was speculation that Arete might thus be some manner of cap on the other statistics, and that one had to raise it in order to increase one’s stats further, which would be more in line with the Homeric notion. Yet you have clearly put that idea to rest. If raising one’s Arete results in a stronger Aura, then it seems Arete has a more spiritual nature.”

James stared at the bishop. “All right.”

“What we need to determine,” said Major Hackworth, a handsome man who looked just like the old movie star, Errol Flynn, “is whether we should establish a doctrine advising people to focus their point expenditure on Arete or not. Is it a tactically optimal move to have everybody develop this system of person defense?”

James sat back as the others began to argue. More and more he felt his hopes begin to tank. The Third Wave was about to kick off, and yet everyone here was too busy engaging in theoreticals to do anything about it.

Mack listened carefully, then finally interjected as the police captain and CIA guy started getting into a heated exchange. “What we need is first a live demonstration of Mr. Kelly’s abilities. I’ve got some eggheads from Columbia University on their way now to help set up some experiments. Then we need to figure out optimal ways to accelerate level gain. In the meantime, I’m going to have to excuse myself, as I need to attend a meeting with the Notify New York crew about our messaging.”

James stood up abruptly.

Folks leaned back, their expressions indicating wariness.

“Serenity and I will be leaving now.”

Mack frowned. “You’d be best off waiting to talk to the scientists that are coming down. We need to understand your powers better.”

“No.” Saying that word made him shake.

“Excuse me?”

“I’m not going to waste my time with scientists from Columbia. The Third Wave is going to hit this evening. Given what happened to the Second Wave, and how everybody’s going to be scared to not acknowledge, you can bet that the streets are going to be overrun with Nemeses. So I’m going to go out there and help as best I can.”

People blinked at him. Directors, captains, deputies, assistants, all of them.

“Mr. Kelly,” said the CIA dude. “The knowledge we could gain from your own developments could be instrumental in -”

“No.” James said it again. “There’s nothing more to be learned. High Arete leads to ever more powerful auras, which fry gremlins.”

“Demons,” whispered Serenity.

“That’s all you need to know. Right now, with my aura at level 3, it kills them about a foot away from me. There. Done. You want that ability? Tell your people to dump their points in Arete. Simple. Now if you’ll excuse me.”

People started all talking at once, but James picked up his skillet, took Serenity by the hand, and marched out the door, through the reception room, and out into the hallway.

“Jesus, will you look at you,” Serenity said breathlessly. “When did you become so assertive?”

“With great auras come great responsibilities,” he muttered. “How the hell do we get out of here?”

“This way.”

They strode down the crowded corridor. Voices were raised behind them. James hunched his shoulders. He should have never come here. It was a trap. They were going to force him to comply. Drag him to some lab where they’d throw gremlins at him till it was too late for him to make a difference.

“Mr. Kelly!” The voice was authoritative, stern, but also with a hint of an entreaty to it.

It was that note that caused him to stop and turn around.

Major Hackworth pushed through the crowd to catch up. “At ease. I’ve a favor to ask, nothing more.”

James raised his chin.

“If you’re going to patrol the streets, allow me to assign an infantry fire team to accompany you. Call it superstition, but I’ve a feeling you’re on the forefront of something very interesting, and I want my people there to watch and learn.”

“A fire team. What’s that?”

“Four soldiers. Two riflemen, one of whom is the team leader, a grenadier, and an automatic rifleman. I’ll make sure they’re good people, and make it clear to the officer that they’re to observe and assist. I understand your wanting to be on the front lines, but as far as we know, you’re a unique case and an asset. Let the US Army help.”

James looked sidelong at Serenity.

“Sure,” she said. “On one condition. We need cell phones and some cash. We’re broke.”

Major Hackworth raised a perfect brow. “The army doesn’t hand out cash.”

“Fine. Cell phones, and I need more ammo. I’m all out. Another Glock wouldn’t go amiss.”

“We use Sig Sauer M17s, not Glocks.”

“Fine. Two of those, a thousand rounds, and we’ll baby sit your fire team.”

Hackworth nodded. “I can make that happen. Can you wait long enough for me to provide transport? We can get you equipped and connected to the fire team in one go.”

“You’re going to give me the guns?” Serenity sounded startled. “For real?”

“For real.” Hackworth’s smile was grim. “It’s completely against policy, but I don’t think half the people in this building realize how FUBARed we are. So, I’ll bend some rules, get you those phones, guns, and ammo, and then you can show my people what you can do.”

“Deal,” said James, sticking out his hand.

Hackworth shook it. “Give me ten minutes. I need to make some calls.”

When he’d left, Serenity grinned at James. “Oh man! I think I’m going to love being important. Oh shit. We should have asked for a tank.”

James chuckled, still uneasy, and shook his head. “A fireteam. Hope this is a good move on our part.”

“One way to find out,” said Serenity, leaning against the wall and crossing her arms. “One way to find out.”


A note from pwtucker

With Skadi's Saga I built up a huge backlog before I started posting, but with Dawn of the Void I'm pretty much publishing the chapters as I write 'em. 

Which means there's tons of room for me to adapt more to what you guys would like to see. This is a great spot for you all to give me some feedback. Check the poll below, and feel free to explain your votes with comments below. Cheers!

Support "Dawn of the Void - a LitRPG Apocalypse"

What would you like to see more of going forward?
More advancement/powers
44.67% 44.67% of votes
More real world reactions
14.87% 14.87% of votes
Add more side characters
3.15% 3.15% of votes
More combat
15.78% 15.78% of votes
Flesh out the existing characters more
15.89% 15.89% of votes
Different POV chapters
5.63% 5.63% of votes
Total: 4511 vote(s)

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