The tremor in Tessa’s hands spoke volumes to Lisa. She’d seen people’s hands shake when they’d worked out too much. She’s seen them shake when their blood sugar dropped too low. Tessa’s weren’t shaking for those reasons, though the trick she did in Kralt’s library might have over extended her, and Lisa had no idea when the last time they’d had regular human food was.
“It’s ok if we catch up to the others a bit late,” she said, guiding Tessa to take seat by the wall for support. “Why don’t we take a moment to catch our breath here first.”
“But you don’t breathe,” Tessa said. She sounded like she was trying to be teasing but the undercurrent of anxiety betrayed the fact that her mind was racing over other thoughts.
“And we should have something to eat. Did your pack come with any [Adventurer’s Rations]?” Lisa asked, skipping past Tessa’s comment to keep her focused on meeting her physical needs.
As Tessa hunted around in her inventory for some basic rations, Lisa wondered why her starter gear hadn’t come with a bunch of blood bottles. Those probably weren’t strictly necessary she decided since within the game food was only for buffs and [Vampires] tended to pick those up from feeding on enemies, which were plentiful everywhere.
“It look like I’ve got some [Traveler’s Rations],” Tessa said, citing a slightly higher grade of started food than the [Adventurer’s Rations]. “But I’m fine. I can eat them as we go.”
“Are you though?” Aptomos, or Ashad, said. Even as a slime, he was able to form a concerned expression as he leaned forward to get a better look at Tessa.
“Yeah, I was just being dramatic,” Tessa said. “It’s nothing.”
“Nibble on the rations to start with,” Lisa said. “I got a [Wineskin] with my starter pack that you can use to wash them down.”
“Ugh, I’ve never been a fan of wine,” Tessa said.
The game effect of drinking was to replenish a character’s magic pool, with any sort of beverage offering some enhanced recovery. Lisa didn’t know if ‘destroying a pocket dimension’ was necessarily a magic consuming action, but, on the chance that Tessa had depleted her internal reserves, Lisa passed her the [Wineskin] anyways.
“I think this one’s only filled with water,” Lisa said, since she hadn’t paid for any more exotic beverage to fill the [Wineskin] with.
Tessa took an experimental swing, and then a much longer pull.
“It’s cold!” she said. “And, yeah, just water, but it’s like it came from a refrigerator.”
“Or a mountain stream,” Ashad said. “I remember WD, he’s one of the developers, talking about this idea that since the [Wineskins] never actually emptied or turned stale they must have some kind of portal at the bottom to a fresh source. He thought a mountain stream would be best, but I always though they should just make fresh water magically.”
“Well, it’s good either way,” Tessa said and took another long pull.
“Have some more of the rations,” Lisa said.
It would take a while before the food had any effect of Tessa’s system. Probably longer than they could spend recovering her strength, but that was ok. Lisa was trying to address any physical conditions first because grounding the body was the best method she knew for giving an agitated mind a chance to come back to equilibrium.
“The kids are going to freak out if we take too long getting to them,” Tessa said.
“We’re still in telepathic contact with them when we need to be,” Lisa said. “We can reassure them the instant they get worried.”
She wasn’t reaching out proactively because saying ‘Tessa needs to collapse for a little bit, we’re going to run late’ would incite Rip and Matt to take the worst sort of risks and both of them knew it.
“I’m ok though,” Tessa said.
“Are you?” Lisa asked. “We’ve all been through a lot, but you got hit with far more than any of the rest of us.”
“It’s my job right?” Tessa said, trying to add a wry smile to her words as she began to stand.
“Because you’re our tank? If you want to go by that line of reasoning then my job is support you and make sure your in the best shape possible, so sit down. Your healer commands it.”
Tessa rolled her eyes but she did sit down, her shoulders sagging with involuntary relaxation.
“Maybe you can bring me up to speed a bit?” Ashad asked. “The last I saw only a few people had been shifted from our world to this one. I take it a lot more got pulled over though?”
“As far as we can tell, everyone who was logged in before they shutdown the authentication server is at risk,” Tessa said. “I think there are still some people who were logged in but whose characters have stayed safe so they’re still in both worlds.”
Together Lisa and Tesa fielded Ashad’s other questions, explaining what little they knew of what was happening on Earth and what kind of things they’d run across. The explanations grew a little fuzzy when Tessa tried to describe what had happened to her when she faced the [Formless Hunger] and Lisa was careful to give her all the time she needed to work through her explanations of the experience. When she got around to explaining her new class, Ashad’s eyes widened with inspiration.
“Wait here just a moment, ok!” he said. “I think I can help.”
He bounced off as only a [Slime] could, leaving the two of them at least briefly alone.
“You don’t need to worry about me,” Tessa said, without trying to rise again. “I mean, if something happens, it’s not your fault. You don’t have to carry that responsibility.”
Lisa reached over and took Tessa’s hand in her own. There was still a tremble that ran through them, but it was a quieter one than before they’d sat down.
“I want that responsibility,” Lisa said. “I care about you. Not just as a healer and tank team, and not just because you saved me from a painful death. I…”
Lisa wasn’t sure how she was going to finish that statement, and in the pause as she gathered her words, the opportunity to put her thoughts in order was ripped away from her.
The plasma bolt which slammed into her forearm didn’t burn it to ash. It just hurt, leaving a bad scorch march on her robes and a nasty burn underneath them,
Before she could process anything beyond noticing the three armored figures at the end of the hall who were all aiming space rifles at them, she felt Tessa tackling her through one of the doors on the opposite side of the hall.
A small, out of step fragment of her was delighted at the unexpected closeness while the rest of her was screaming one word.
Listening to the ranting of someone who outranked him was one of the perils of Byron Grey’s job. For the Consortium of Pain’s Director of Xenobiology though, he was willing to endure the tirade with unusually good cheer.
“They tried to capture the damn thing before we were even on sight!” Maldrax Odful, the Director of Xenobiology said. “You said they had it safely contained, not that they were planning to subjugate it!”
“Come now Mald,” Bryon said. “You know I said nothing at all about this. It’s not one of my projects at all.”
“Bah,” Maldrax said. “We both know the leak came from that turd Whiteweather and he hasn’t had an original idea in his head since his two brain cells fissioned from one another.”
“I can neither confirm nor deny Whiteweather’s absence of original thought,” Byron said. They were speaking on a line with Director-class security, both in rooms warded by all the proper surveillance countermeasures and yet Byron would have laid a considerable part of his yearly bonus on the fact that they were being monitored regardless.
Maldrax huffed, unhappy at Byron’s circumspection but recognizing its value. They’d both risen through the ranks at roughly the same time. That Madrax had made Director before Byron wasn’t a point of contention between them only because they were employed in different divisions and therefor didn’t need to see each other as competitors.
They were of course. Byron knew that everyone was a competitor ultimately, and trust and camaraderie were an indulgence which was as useful to practice as any other sort of combat art.
“The worst part though, do you want to hear this? Of course you do. But you know it already don’t you?” Maldrax said.
“I assure you I am blissfully unaware of any unpleasant particulars with the operation you’re now in charge of,” Byron said.
“But that’s just it!” Maldrax’s temple pulsed with a vein which bore far too much blood pressure. Byron was convinced that Maldrax was moments away from a catastrophic failure of his entire pulmonary system, but he’d been convinced of that for years and the collapse had lingered there on the edge of possibility the whole time. “I’m not official in change yet. That vulture left and went right into the blackout zone.”
“Really?” Byron said, showing all of the surprise which he did not feel. “That’s a rather bold and unusual move for a task force’s Supreme Commander to take.”
“It’s a miserable attempt to hold onto her command as long as she can,” Maldrax said.
“It doesn’t seem like that should be a problem,” Byron said. “You outrank her and you’ve been given clearance. Can’t you just, I don’t know, call up the Steering Committee and have them officially transfer the command receipts to your name?”
“Of course I can! What do you think was the first thing I did when I found she’d fled the ship and left us locked out of the primary bridge control room?”
“It would seem that your problem is solved then,” Byron said. “Surely the Steering Committee wouldn’t deny your request?”
Byron knew there was no certainty as to that at all. The Director of Xenobiology lived and died by their quarterly production. Maldrax hadn’t run many bad quarters but he wasn’t sitting atop a string of extremely successful ones either. That put him in the uncertain realm of having value to the Consortium but potentially not as much as some new favorite of a board member or a pet project of the Steering Committee.
Contrary to popular belief, the Consortium didn’t terminate all of the ex-employees with extreme prejudice. Among the lower work forces, the cost of an execution far exceeded the workers wages, so it was much simpler just to return them to the general workforce of whatever planet they happened to be stationed on.
In the case of decommissioning a Director however, the firing process usually began with the incineration of the Director’s body. Director’s knew too much about the Consortium and had access to too many resources to take any chances with an action they might respond to in a hostile fashion.
“Of course they’re going to side with me,” Maldrax said. “The problem is the timing.”
“Timing? Are you up against a deadline already?” Byron asked.
Maldrax wasn’t up against a deadline. He was up against several, a few of which Byron had ensured would motivate him to act decisively and with haste.
“It’s not the deadline’s I’m worried about,” Maldrax said. “It’s the damn creature.”
“What’s wrong with the creature?” Byron asked. “It hasn’t been captured yet and the natives are clearly incapable of dealing with it.”
“It’s withdrawing!” Maldrax said.
“I’m sorry, it’s doing what?” Byron asked, his disaffected demeanor slipping as one of his plans began to spiral in an unexpected direction.
“The creature. It’s withdrawing. It’s pulling into itself and its taken our corrupted forces with it.”
“That’s not typical behavior,” Byron said, puzzling over what it could mean.
Had Azma managed to rig up some deterrent to its expansion with the scraps she gathered from the moonlet it was on? Had the containment units failing been part of her plan?
Byron shook his head, both of those thoughts were ridiculous.
But then why had Azma put herself into the most dangerous position imaginable?