It wasn’t Tessa slipping her hand from Lisa’s grip that was worrisome. It was the low throated growl. That wasn’t a sound Tessa had made before as far as Lisa knew. For a moment Lisa wondered if the woman beside her wasn’t quite the person who’d been lost saving them at [Sky’s Edge], then Tessa spoke and Lisa understood where her anger was coming from.
“You’re a parasite,” Tessa said. “Gail Merriden gave this world a million times more than you ever did, and when she died all you did was lie to tarnish her name and steal the credit from her for everything she and her team created.”
Tessa reached out her hand and twisted her wrist violently to the side. In what looked to be the distance, a stack of books shelves exploded into a shower of sparks.
There hadn’t been any incantation, and Tessa hadn’t called out the use of a skill.
“That’s…that’s not true,” Kralt said. “They bought my world. I ran this game on my own for twenty years before the first programmer ever sat down to write a line of code!”
“If you wanted us to think your work had any value at all you shouldn’t have published it as its own table top game,” Tessa said.
“Oh, right, I remember that,” Lisa said. “That was the game that had the random table for the bust size didn’t it?”
“Among other things,” Tessa said.
“Yeah, that was a total trainwreck.” Lisa couldn’t help laughing at the memory of trying to play the offline version of [Broken Horizons]. Her guildmates hadn’t even made it through character creation before pronouncing it an overly complicated and completely unbalanced mess.
The worst part though was the lore.
They’d each picked up copies with the thought that even if the game was as mediocre as the early play test reviews said, that the hitherto unrevealed backstory on the [Fallen Kingdoms] would be an interesting read, and might give them some insight into upcoming things for the online game.
Sadly, that was not to be. The tabletop RPG which was theoretically written by the “Original Creator of the Smash Hit Broken Horizons!” turned out to have virtually nothing whatsoever to do with the MMO which shared the same name.
In place of the rich and diverse setting with deep and interconnected lore between dozens of playable factions, the tabletop game was nothing more than a badly plagiarized rip off of the Gor novels welded to a mass of contradictory and arbitrary rules designed, apparently, to allow the game master to ‘win’ the game no matter what the players did.
Lisa had burned her copy, mostly as a matter of teenage rebellion, but at no point in the years since had she been unhappy with the choice, when she ever bothered to remember it at all.
“It was my world!” Kralt shouted as the illusion of the [Library Primordial] continued to flared and shatter around him.
“Unrepentant? Really? Why would that be a surprise though? People like you are all I deal with. Every single goddamn day.”
As she spoke, Tessa’s words echoed through the room much louder than they should have. Lisa looked around, taking in the expanding destruction as the shaking of the library grew somewhat alarming.
“What are you doing!” Kralt’s composure finished breaking as he wailed out the question.
“This place is a lie,” Tessa said. “And a badly constructed one at that. All I did was pick apart one thread and look how it comes all come crumbling down.”
“Should we be leaving?” Lisa asked on their private channel.
“Probably,” Tessa said. “If we’re here when this place falls apart completely, I think we’ll be tossed out of this reality.”
“Would that let us get home?” Lisa asked, and found herself uncertain which answer she was hoping to hear.
“I don’t think so? I think we’d basically be lost out beyond the stars somewhere.”
“Ok. That sounds bad,” Lisa said and took hold of Tessa’s arm. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Just a second. I want to make sure he doesn’t do anything funny.”
Lisa paused, considering that for a moment.
“Is this the real David Kralt?” she asked Tessa. “Like the one from our world?”
“Yeah,” Tessa said. “I can kind of see him. It’s weird. Like one of the stereo-optical illusions. I wish I could check my character sheet. This has to be some kind of passive class skill. I think?”
“And the plan is to let him drop into the endless of void of space?” Lisa asked.
“He deserves it,” Tessa said and Lisa heard a whole lot of transferred rage riding on those words. “I’ve worked with so many guys like him. I lost my last two promotions to people who did the same things he did.”
“I’m onboard then,” Lisa said. It didn’t seem right to drop someone into outer space, but in the grand scheme of things she wasn’t going to bet any money that preserving the toxic butt monkey was the better of the two choices.
“Pardon me,” a tiny voice said from behind them.
Lisa turned, with Lost Alice bracing her body for an attack.
But it was just another slime, this one green rather than Kralt’s blue.
“Hello?” Tessa said, sounding as perplexed as Lisa felt.
“It doesn’t sound like you intend to rescue the All Sage,” Aptomos said. “But he can be useful if you would reconsider.”
“Useful how?” Lisa asked.
“He doesn’t have a place in this world,” Aptomos said, “but he can does a rank which might help you.”
“A rank?” Lisa asked.
“Yes. He holds, or I guess it would be more accurate to say ’he is’ a key to this world. I thought that might help you out,” Aptomos said.
“How is he a ‘key’? What does he unlock?” Lisa asked.
“I see it,” Tessa said. “It’s buried deep inside him. It’s how he made this place isn’t it?”
“Yes! Exactly!” Aptomos said. “I didn’t know you would be able to perceive it though?”
“Perceive what, specifically,” Lisa said, her eyes narrowing as she began to guess at what the possibilities might be.
“David Kralt worked on the [Broken Horizons Project] in its earliest days,” Tessa said, disbelief tinging each of her words. “He was transferred off it, but his account wasn’t deleted. I can see it in him still. He’s a [Retired Admin].”
The first squad of troopers to assault Azma’s company did so according to proper protocol. No warning was given, no communication was attempted, and no risks were taken. The ambush was clean and precise and the troopers involved exposed themselves to the absolute minimum of return fire. Azma was quite pleased with them.
She was also pleased that her command codes were still in effect and still capable of reducing their weapons to inert, yet still expensive, clubs.
“They’re withdrawing the loading ramp,” Sergeant Fiori said.
Azma tapped a button on her wrist comm and countermanded the order to seal the ship.
That it was open at all meant there were still forces deployed which it was waiting to recover. That complicated her plans, not in the least because the stragglers who hadn’t returned stood a reasonably high chance of having been corrupted by the [Formless Hunger] and while Azma didn’t want to kill them, refusing to do so could lead to more corruption as well as some serious questions as to her own unimpaired state.
“If they follow protocol, they will be taking their Berserker Ampules now,” Fiori said. “We probably have thirty seconds before they sorte against us? Orders?”
“Concentrated stunning fire,” Azma said. “I want all of you focusing on each target until the target drops and then shift to the next.”
Berserker drugs were one method of overcoming a hostile psychic entity. A difficult to use method, since there was no “off switch” for the berserkers but when the other alternative was having your own forces turned against you, having them instead turn into completely uncontrollable killing machines was often preferable.
True to Sergeant Fiori’s prediction, the initial squad of troopers poured out of the shuttle with wild screams of rage and were immediately barraged with sustained stunner fire.
The drugs gave a measure of resistance to non-lethal, disabling shots. There was a horrible price paid by the body afterwards but for most military purposes the doctrine was that berserkers had to be decisively slain to stop their rampage so the after effects of the drugs weren’t much of a consideration.
Being unwilling to waste her resources, Azma violated the approved doctrine with her orders and chose to rely on the competency of her personal guard.
They rewarded her trust with a display of marksmanship and cool under fire which met even Azma’s high standards.
“That’ll keep ‘em asleep for a bit,” Fiori said, trotting to keep up with Azma.
Neither Azma, nor Grenslaw or Ryschild had broken their stride during the brief firefight. That let them cover the small space to the shuttle’s loading ramp before another fire team could arrive to bar their path.
“Secure the bay,” Azma said and walked to one of the data terminals.
“Shuttle Dragon-462 will be sending be opening firing on us with its main guns soon,” Ryschild said, nodding towards the other partially disabled shuttle which was grounded near the shuttle they’d boarded.
“I’ve shutdown it’s weaponry as well,” Azma said. “Please observe if they chose to send a Berserker party over here and take command of Sergeant Fiori’s team if they do. Protocols are unspecific in this situation and I’m not sure what 462’s commander will chose to risk.”
“At once,” Ryschild said and took up a concealed observation spot by the edge of the loading bay where he could keep an eye on the other shuttle.
“Shall I establish contact with the rest of the fleet?” Grenslaw asked.
“We are within the [Formless Hunger’s] expanded zone of influence are we not?” Azma asked.
“The shuttle has transmission antennas on the side shadowed from the Hunger,” Grenslaw said. “I can shoot a tight beam communication down to our troops on the surface and have them act as a relay.”
“That would require remarkably precise calibration?”
“Yes,” Grenslaw said. “I wouldn’t ask anyone else to try. It would be a waste of their time.”
Azma was delighted by the lack of false modesty, but communicating with the fleet was not part of her gameplan just yet.
“I would expect the process to take at least thirty minutes,” she said. “Please do not rush the process, or skip any relevant safety checks.”
“Understood,” Grenslaw said and Azma believed she really had been understood.
Flicking on the ship-wide intercom system, she disabled the safety lockouts and pressed the button to signal a general alert.
“Attention crew of Shuttle Wyvren-770, this is [Supreme Commander] Azma addressing you. By the proper lockdown protocols, you are required to ignore anything I say and treat myself and my Recovery Team as Class 1 Hostiles. I am not rescinding your lockdown protocols. You are to treat myself and my team as you would any other suspect entities. Immediate lethal force. No communication. Destruction of the shuttle in the event that all hands are lost or suborned. For the record, we are not hostiles, and will do you no permanent harm, all etheric rounds will be stun rounds only, but protocols dictate that you are not allowed to trust any forces who are out of position, including me. Do not risk disciplinary probation for failing to follow Consortium Protocols. I am proud you have survived the misfortunes our forces have suffered so far. Don’t throw that achievement away. [Supreme Commander] Azma out.”
“That will make our job somewhat more difficult won’t it?” Fiori asked.
“Not especially,” Azma said. “Now we know how everyone onboard will react to us, and so anyone your team sees you are free to stun immediately. As for their reactions? It will be difficult for them to launch an offensive with all of the weapons depowered and the medical supply cabinets on lockdown to prevent more berserkers.”
“That is simple. Thank you,” Fiori said. “So what is our next move?”
“Next, we need to get the [Formless Hunger’s] attention. Grenslaw, can you do an indirect sensor scan? I need a targeting solution to poke it somewhere painful.”