Standing on a lane of the firing range, Ares could see two stationary targets that looked very lifelike. In fact, he was pretty sure they were much like himself: constructs. Only, these were very specialized, and certainly not intelligent in the way he was.
“Right, you’ve got it, Construct?”
He nodded to the dwarf, and armed himself with the ‘blaster’, as he decided to call it. ‘High density laser’ was too much of a mouthful, and ‘gun’ did not quite cover it.
His hand peeled away, the entire arm rotated revealing the long barrel emerging from within. Raising the blaster, a reticle appeared on his HUD in red. Although this meant he did not have to look down the barrel, it was still incredibly shaky. After several seconds where he could not get the reticle to center, he had to use his other hand to stabilize his right arm.
He had never fired a gun before. Ares wondered if there would be recoil. Had Bann showed signs of recoil when he used his flintlocks?
This was safe, right? His arm would not burst in an explosion, would it? No, the system would not have allowed the equipment if it had been faulty… would it?
“Are ya gonna be standing around and stare at the target all day, or are ya gonna blow it up?”
He triggered just as the dwarf finished his taunt, arm jolting a little from the recoil. A fine red line of light shot out of the barrel and zipped across the field. Narrowly missing the target, it instead hit a wall and the backend with a muted ‘zurp’.
“Well… I suppose it was you first shot,” said the dwarf, looking a bit disappointed at the show.
Ares raised the blaster again, took aim, adjusting for the recoil with a mere thought, and fired again. The shot beelined straight at the target, hitting it in the chest.
“Now that’s what I’m talking about, Construct! I knew you had it in ya, Old Ones be damned!”
“Again, Ares, again!” Izzy jumped up and down with excitement, and Ares could not help but accede to the demand. He raised his hand again and fired, this time with rapid fire.
The recoil was small, but it added up with use. Barely half of his shots hit the target this time, but Ares felt his control grow with every shot. Of course, both he and the target were currently standing still, which lowered the difficulty significantly.
“Right, good! Ya have gotten the hang of it, it would seem,” said master Baek, grinning, “These little beams will only serve to distract a decent enemy. Try using a charged shot for more firepower.”
With another thought, Ares made the command. A soft humm grew louder as he charged the blaster, until he felt the limit had been reached. When he aimed this time, the reticle jumped around as if it had a life of its own. Even using his hand to steady the shot barely made a difference.
He lowballed the shot, his entire arm jerking away as a thick, red beam of light exited the barrel. The recoil sent him reeling backwards, both arms up into the air trying to regain balance. The shot flew off, hitting the ground before his target. Earth exploded, debris flying everywhere.
“Oh my…” Izzy had grabbed Ares leg and was steadying him, while looking at the spectacle with a mixture of glee and wonder. The dwarf, though, was hopping from foot to foot, clapping his little hands in a bizzare dance. “Bwahahaha! Now see, this is real power! My own works wouldn’t even have been able to produce half of the energy ya just put into that shot!”
Ares was still reeling from the experience, and took some time to recover his bearings. Around them, people were approaching to see what could possibly be making such noise. A slight tingle down his spine made him aware that Seila was watching. He turned and looked over his shoulder, up the side of the castle walls. Upon one of the balconies stood his new mistress and observed him; her eyes spinning around in what he knew to be excitement.
“Good, now ya have tried this,” said the dwarf, still clapping his hands, “We should proceed to moving targets. I’ll activate the two automatons, and then we’ll see how fast you can take them down. They are simple constructs, with no mana link, so ya don’t have to worry about them fighting back.”
The hunchback pulled out what looked like a remote, and pushed something on it. Soon, the two stationary constructs jerked and began moving. Slow at first, the two soon picked up speed as the darted back and forth across the field.
Knowing this to be the real test of his abilities, Ares focused on his task – ignoring the spinning eyes behind him.
Over the next half-hour he kept at it. Though he could hit one target with rapid fire, this did little damage. A charged shot was necessary if he wanted to immobilize them, although a full charge was probably unusable for him at this point. He quickly discovered how to steer the target around with rapid fire, boxing it into a situation where he would have time to make a quick charge and fire at an angle.
At the half-hour mark he had taken out the first mark with this strategy. Master Baek just grinned and pushed another button, which made the automaton out on the field speed up.
“Now, let’s see how you do in a close-range firefight. Get in there and catch it!”
Ares took a moment to look at the dwarf and narrow his eyes. This little insect dared to speak to him so? Then he remembered what he was doing, and how useful this training actually was. Why should he care about the dwarf’s tone?
When I rip out its spine through the mouth, it won’t be laughing any longer…
Naturally he would kill this little thing once he had gotten what he needed from it. Maybe there was a way to take control of the lifelink and make that foolish girl serve him. That was how it should be, right?
Glossing over the disturbing thoughts coursing through his mind, Ares advanced into the field and began the elaborate chase. Along with more speed, the automaton now executed a series of turns and twists that made it difficult to box in. Unlike before, Ares had to use positioning as well as targeting, which was an unfamiliar prospect to say the least. He was barely able to hit the automaton with rapid fire now, much less pin it down. He needed a new approach.
Thankfully, it was not long before the system provided.
A new skill is ready for acquisition: Ranged combat
classification: passive skill
The user has learned to use ranged weaponry as an extension of themselves. Integrating this skill into the unit structure will add advanced tools such as system-guided aiming, analysis and prediction schemes, as well as positioning control. Greater mastery will allow for improved tools, as well as the acquisition of more specialized, ranged skills.
Lifeforce cost: 11%
It would cost him nearly all of his remaining lifeforce stores, but at this point it would be well worth it. With a thought he initiated acquisition. The process took only a moment, then he swapped the new skill for [Pulse] in his equipment tab.
The change was immediate and remarkable.
It was not that the system began taking control and aiming for him. Instead, it was like he suddenly understood how the smallest movement of his arm affected the reticle on his HUD, allowing him to be more precise. Furthermore, a new reticle had appeared, this one more transparent and ghost-like than the first. This one predicted his opponents movements, and aligning the two reticles made for a near-perfect shot whenever he managed it. Lastly, the layout of the surroundings had been scanned and analyzed. HUD markings on the ground reported benefits and backdraws to each position, allowing Ares to make an informed decision on where to stand.
Where before he had merely been guessing and staggering around, now he made quick decisions and got instantaneous results. Within 5 minutes of acquiring the skill, Ares had boxed in the automaton and hit it straight in the chest with a charged shot that blew out its chest cavity.
Only a slight headache reminded him about how much strain the system placed on his mind when pushed to the limit. Another reminder of Orca.
“Old Ones’ hairy tits…” Master Baek was looking at Ares with madness in his eyes, saying, “It really does grow, like the rumors says. Did you see that, Izzy? Remarkable… truly remarkable.”
“Oh yes, master Baek,” said Izzy, a bright smile on her face, “I wonder how the Old Ones achieved it… the complexity in the mana-script must be incredible.”
“Groew?” Ares asked, not following the conversation.
“Yes, grow. It may seem natural to ye, Construct, but the machines we build has no capacity for growth. Only machines built by the Emporium has that ability, and we have not managed to reproduce it… yet. What ya just did could not be done by any of the machines I could build, unless I removed all other functions in favor of this particular skill set.”
So, they could build machines like him, but not at the same level? Interesting.
“Ya have honestly impressed me, Construct. I want to get ya back into the workshop and take some readings from the blaster, see if there be anything to calibrate.”
Feeling pretty good about his success in this testing, Ares followed the dwarf back. As he walked, he felt spinning eyes focusing on him, and a very distinct sensation flowed through their bond.
You belong to me.
Back in the workshop, Ares lay staring up at the ceiling while master Baek and Izzy scuttled around him, making adjustments and taking notes. He ignored them, closing his eyes to think.
The anger within was muted now, barely a whisper. He knew it would erupt at the smallest provocation, but for now he kept it at bay. It was time he stopped being childish.
‘Orca, are you there?’
The connection burst open, as if a dam had been broken, and Orca’s voice invaded his head in a wail. “Maaaasteeer! I– I– I– am so soooory! Please forgive me. please, please, please forgive me!”
The anger stirred, but he held it down. He would not give in.
‘Calm yourself, Orca. I– I’m sorry too. I’ve got so much anger, and a hard time keeping control. If you can forgive me, then I’ll do the same to you.’
“You need no forgiveness, master! You are always correct; your word supreme.”
‘No, I’m serious, Orca. I make mistakes all the time, and I need you to point them out whenever I do. Else, I’ll probably die very quickly.’
“If you say so, master…”
‘And stop it with the “master” nonsense. I’m Ares here, remember. I’m still angry you didn’t tell me I could return, but you were right in that I did not ask.’
A pause. He felt hesitation from her, and was about to ask what the problem was, when she replied.
“You mentioned anger before, ma–Ares. Is anger coming easier to you than you’re used to?”
‘I guess, yeah… why?’
“One moment.” He felt her scrutiny as she scanned him. “Master… Why did you put so many points into Emulation?”
‘Because I wanted to feel something, Orca. The machine dampens nearly all emotion, and it’s stifling’
“Right, but Emotion is only part of what Emulation does… Did you not read the instructions?”
A slight bubble burst within the sea of lava that was his anger. ‘What do you mean by “instructions”? I’ve had no bloody instruction, nor has the system been very forthcoming with information.’
“Oh.. I see.”
‘Orca… what is it? Tell me!’ Another bubble popped, heating his tone.
“It’s just… and don’t get mad now, Emulation was conceived as a way to optimize synchronization between the Makers and the unit, meaning the unit would take on certain traits of the Maker using it. This soon turned out to be an issue whenever a new Maker would take over from another.”
‘Meaning what, exactly?’
“Well, synchronization is good, in so far as it allows the Maker and the unit to become one, but when taking over from another, the traits inherited from one Maker would generally begin to affect the new user, essentially changing the personality to mirror that of the old one. This is why the system does not put automatic points into Emulation as you grow, allowing you to chose how much you can handle.”
‘And I’ve only chosen to enhance Emulation, so far. Does this mean I’m not really… me?’
“Oh no, Ares. You certainly are yourself, at least for now. However, you’ll have to be careful. Putting this many points into Emulation will allow the system to adapt to your specific genetic setup at a faster rate, which means faster growth, but it also opens up for the unit to affect you. And not just personality wise either; the unit will attempt to mold your genome through your connection in the manascape, since your surface-level match will be a hindrance to its emulation of you.”
‘What? You mean… My body will change?’
“I have never seen anything like this before, so it’s hard for me to say. I would hypothesize that it’ll be a very slow process, and undetectable for a long time. You are still a match, after all, it’s merely the structure of your genome that is… unfamiliar.
‘But I will change? As long as I keep spending time in this unit?’
“Yes. I’m afraid so.”
The sea of lava rose an inch, closing in on the surface. Anger was coming.
‘Then what about this anger I have? Why does the machine insist on keeping me angry?’
“Um, part of it is probably that, with so many points into Emulation, your base emotions are enhanced to a greater degree than more complex ones. There is one other explanation though, but I can’t be sure–“
The lava was boiling over now. An eruption would soon come.
“The other explanation has to do with the former user of your unit. The state you found it in when you were woken up, suggests that the Maker who used it either had to, not only terminate their session but, completely disconnect their consciousness from the unit; or they died while in session. In either case, the Emotion dominating that moment would imprint itself stronger on the unit than usual.”
‘And once it began emulating me, that anger would affect me in turn, correct?’
“Yes, that would be a plausible explanation.”
Keeping a tight rein on the seething sea of lava, Ares focused in on a particular point Orca had made.
‘So, it is possible to completely disconnect my mind from the unit?’