Part 3 – Infection
It lurks in the darkness of dreams… The voices… Oh God, the voices!
Chapter 54 – A Matter of Perspective
Falling, falling, falling through endless darkness. Holding on, trying to protect. Form a barrier, get the shield back up, do not let go. Hold tight. Do not let go.
Gasping, Sam sat up in his bed, his entire body covered in sweat. Heart racing, he tried to control his breath, but his instincts refused to let up. He had to breathe more, he had to live. Only when his body had been allowed to run its fight or flight routine to its end, did his heart begin to calm.
Confused, he looked around, recognizing the room he was in, but was unable to reconcile the experience of falling with finding himself in his own bed. He knew, of course, that it had not been a dream, but at this moment it merely felt like a nightmare.
I really screwed up this time, Sam thought, putting a hand to his head and closing his eyes. He was not sure how far or for how long he had fallen, but had not been a short drop. I hope Izzy made it.
He had held onto the gnome right until the end. Ares’ body might be able to survive that kind of fall, but Izzy’s would surely be unable to. The question was now: how bad was the damage?
He laid back down and tried to focus his mind, finding that connection he relied on to enter the other side. It was there, he could feel the hole inside of him, but it felt blocked. He tried several times to push through, but was rebuffed every time.
That did not bode well.
Sighing, Sam turned his legs over the side of the bed and stood up, scratching his shaggy brown hair. If he was unable to connect to Ares, then there was little he could do. Sleep would be impossible, at the moment, and so he might as well go have some water.
His bed was drenched from sweat, and his throat dry. He put on a shirt and a pair of shorts, then opened his door to the hallway. Passing by his sister’s room, he frowned at the slightly opened door. Liz always kept her door open when she was away, and only closed it when she was inside. Had she not come home the night before?
If his parents had not made a fuss about it, then she was probably just sleeping over at a friend’s house. Sam walked down the stairs and soon encountered a second surprise. While the rest of the house lay in darkness, the study was lit up by a soft light.
Maybe dad fell asleep in his reading chair again, Sam thought, stepping into the room. The study had a lot of physical books filling out the cases surrounding the room. Sam’s dad had always been a collector of books, and even though most people read electronic books these days, the old man insisted on getting physical copies. Sam had spent a lot of time in the study, due to his inability to go outside for most of his life, and had read a fair share of the books here.
Instead of his father sleeping in a chair, however, he found a tall figure standing with his back turned to Sam, looking over the collected books with an index finger. Though Sam had not seen him for a long time, he nonetheless recognized that profile.
“Warren, what are you doing here?” He asked, coming to a halt a few steps behind his wayward brother.
“Hello Samuel,” said Warren without turning, still looking over the books before him. When his finger finally came to a halt, Warren picked out the book and opened it, saying, “It’s been a while. I hear you’ve been rather healthy recently.”
“Yeah, I… I’ve started school again.”
“School, huh? You got into Mirmir Wells, right? Ahh, that brings back memories.” Warren shut the book, placing it in the crook of his elbow, and turned to face Sam. His older brother was a tall and imposing figure, dressed in a stylish suit and tie. Warren had a shaved head, and a sharp jawline, giving his face some angular features. Apart from the watch at his wrist, the only other accessory he carried was a pair of rectangular glasses with thick frames, extenuating his steel-blue eyes.
“Why are you here, Warren?” Sam could not help but ask, “It’s very late if you hadn’t noticed.”
“I got here late in the evening, and will be leaving again tomorrow at noon. I asked dad if I could borrow some of his books, and the old man agreed,” Warren explained, walking over to the desk and placing the book upon a larger stack at the tabletop.
“Oh,” Sam said, not sure what to think about his brother skulking about in his home this late at night. Then again, he was family, so he should not worry too much about it. “Where will you be going?”
“I plan to return to Europe. I have made some inroad into the Baltic region, and have several leads on opportunities in the Middle-East. Why, would you like to come?”
The offer was sudden and very surprising. Sam furrowed his brow, thinking of how distant his brother had been over the last ten years.
“I have school…”
“Of course, I understand. You should cherish your school-days while you have them, Sam. It is an important time to make connections and establish friendships that may last for the rest of your life.”
Now he’s giving life advice? Something was definitely wrong here. The Warren he knew, looked at him with a cold glare, but this Warren seemed positively amicable.
“By the way, Sam… Do you still have that book I sent you?”
Blinking, Sam tried to remember what Warren was talking about. “Oh… The Iliad. Yeah, I still got it.”
“Have you managed to read it?”
Sam nodded cautiously. It was a difficult read, but he’d had the book since he was twelve and plenty of time on his hands.
“What do you think? Is it worth the title of being a classic?”
Crossing his arms, Sam tried to think of an answer. In the end, he could only say, “It’s hard to accept.”
“It being a classic, you mean? That’s rather bold of you.”
“No, no, I mean, it’s hard to accept the story. Or maybe ‘accept’ is the wrong word.”
Why was he getting into a literary discussion with his brother in the middle of the night? Should he not be more occupied with something else, like say, the crumpled remains of Ares somewhere far away?
“Please, explain your thoughts,” Warren said, seating himself in a nearby reading chair, and gesturing for Sam to do the same. Sam obliged, collecting his thoughts and trying to make sense of his immediate reaction.
“Are you sure you want to spend what little time you have here on my thoughts on an old story?”
Warring smiled ever so slightly. The blue eyes narrowed behind those framed glasses, giving the impression of a patient older brother.
“Indulge me, Samuel.”
Sighing, Sam gathered his thoughts, trying to recollect what his impression of the story had been. It was, after all, from reading this story that he had picked the name of his alter ego.
“What I mean is that it is difficult to know who to root for,” said Sam, deciding to just stride into the unknown, “It is a war, and all, and there is a lot of killing, but both sides have good arguments for their cause. I know how it’s going to end — after all, who hasn’t heard of the Trojan Horse — and sometimes it seems justified, while at other times it feels like it should never come to pass.”
“What you’re saying is a truism, Sam,” Warren commented, raising up a glass of water from a nearby table and taking a sip of it, “All sides of a conflict have arguments in their favor, and from one perspective the other seems evil in comparison. Of course, the reverse is true as well.”
Nodding, Sam said, “I understand that, but it’s not the human perspective I find difficult to accept. All of the warriors in that war had some kind of cause, or dream, or hope, which you can relate to; compared to the humans, the gods are the ones who seem callous and cruel.”
“Oh? How so?”
“They award favor to anyone who calls out and praises them the most, or give the most offering. The entire cause of the war is due to the fickleness of gods, and they are also the ones who determine the final outcome. From their perspective, it all just seems… pointless.”
Warren laughed softly, taking another sip of the water before he put it down. Rising to his feet, his brother walked over to the desk and picked up the books, saying, “The fickleness of gods, indeed. You may be on to something.”
With the books in hand, Warren turned to face Sam again. “It’s been good talking to you, Sam. I have to leave, but maybe we will see each other soon.” Without waiting for Sam to reply, Warred walked out of the study. Sam followed him to the door and saw him off, waving half-heartedly as his brother stepped into a waiting vehicle by the road.
He was unsure what to think of this kind of brother. Warren had always remained distant in the past, often ignoring Sam when he had been younger. He had left Flotsam when Sam was only 7 years old, setting himself up in Europe, and therefore Sam remembered little else but a cold demeanor.
Sighing, Sam closed the door and went into the kitchen, fetching himself some water. Whatever Warren was up to, it was currently not important. He had to get back to the other side, back to being Ares, if he was still functioning.
He emptied the glass, finding the clean water refreshed his mind. Stopping by the dinner table, he was struck by an idea. He rummaged through a kitchen drawer until he found a pen and a pencil, then scribbled a quick note to his parents.
“I’m not feeling too well. I will be staying home from school.”
The message would probably make his parents worried, but Sam was sure he would have to spend a lot of time on the other side, as soon as he was able to get back there. Making a last stop at the bathroom, Sam passed by his sister’s still-opened door again, once more frowning at the sight. No, he was surely just over-thinking things.
He got back to his room and changed the linen and covers before he laid down and closed his eyes. Focusing, he found the passage he had used so many times now. Like before, it felt obstructed, but the pressure was lessened now. With his force of will, Sam pushed through.
User connection established
Returning agency to user…
Good hunting, Ares
It was dark. There was pain. A dull, pulsating pain, which nonetheless served its purpose. Ares was still alive. Slowly, he opened his eyes and waited for them to adjust to the darkness. Without the limitations of an organic body, the meager light within this place was captured by his eyes, enhancing his vision.
Still, he could see little more than an outline of his surroundings, vaguely distinguishing between his own broken body and the ground he lay upon.
Severe blunt force trauma sustained
- Damage at 98%
Energy stores are critically low
- Energy at 2%
- The unit can sustain itself for another 10 minutes.
- Warning: if energy stores are depleted, connection to the origin may be affected. If the user is still connected at the moment of depletion, disconnection may not be possible.
Shit, thought Ares, I’m gonna end up stuck in this body if I don’t find something to eat. Gritting his teeth, he tried to make any part of him move; a finger, or a toe, anything! His hand twitched, and he breathed a mental sigh of relief. He soon regained control of his arm, then his legs, managing to push himself into a seated position. From here, he could observe the contours of the nearby area.
It appeared rocky, which was not a huge surprise, and he was in a narrow passage, flanked by huge vertical walls on either side. Looking up, there was no sign of light from above, which gave him a sense of how far he had fallen.
Lifeform in critical condition detected nearby
- Do you wish to initiate recycling protocols?
No, you fucking monster, Ares growled to the console, as it registered the being in his arms. The last thing he had remembered before the collision, was holding tight onto Izzy, hoping to take the brunt of the damage for her. He had a mechanical body, and a shield with a kinetic dampener. Had he managed to reactivate it before he hit the ground?
Equipment, Kinetic Shield, has been damaged
- Manual repairs are necessary
It seemed the shield had taken the worst of the damage, but in return was now in disrepair. If Izzy survived, she might be able to do something about it — if, being the operable word.
Looking at the little gnome in his arm, she was perhaps the greatest source of light in this place. Her body radiated heat, allowing him to see her as a dull gray cloud in his hands.
The markings on his body usually pulsed with a soft red and gold glow, but now the light was weak and flickering. Time was ticking.
He put fingers to her neck, feeling for a pulse. It was weak, but he felt it there.
His HUD immediately sprang into action, giving him measurements of her heart-beat, body temperature, and it was even able to tell him that she suffered from a severe laceration wound somewhere on her body. Ares was not that great a cushion, after all.
He needed more light.
He needed more time, too. Looking around once more, he found a second source of light, not far from where he sat. A few steps away, a soft red light pulsed. A very familiar, red light.
Unwittingly, he got the chills. Of course, the attacker, the kertal, would also be nearby. It must have suffered immense damage from the fall, hopefully enough to put it out of action.
But then why is there still light?
It was not a good sign, and Ares was not about to allow it the time for recovery. It was a source of energy, though. Perhaps he could take its energy for his own, hitting two birds with one stone.
Carefully, he lay Izzy to the side and tried to get up on his feet. The strain was too much, though, and he had to give up. With his hands and feet, he dragged himself over the ground, approaching the red light, revealing the outline of his enemy.
It lay on its back, one arm still holding onto the ring-shaped weapon that had survived their fight. Arriving at its side, the first thing Ares did was to pry it out of its hands. Like his own, the kertal’s hand appeared like a human’s, but the strength of its grip was no easy task to overcome. Ares did not want any potential threat nearby, though, so he expended the necessary energy to free the thing and throw it to the side.
It might be a good weapon, but exploring it would have to wait. For now, survival came first. He forced himself on his knees so he could study the kertal in more detail. This was the first he had seen of anyone like himself, although it was a lower being, of course.
With a touch, his HUD provided him a lot of information on the makeup of his enemy, and much of it matched his own unit. This was a mechanical construct, like himself, and yet it was also clearly different. There was no sign of lifeforce, for one, only electrically stored energy.
Its face was hidden beneath its iron mask, leaving only holes for its eyes, which were the source of the red light. Despite no signs of activity, the kertal’s eyes were wide open and pulsing. It was an unnerving sight, and it made it all the more pressing that he took away its energy.
There was, however, a very distinct possibility that this construct was linked to someone on Earth, someone human. Ares wondered what would happen to that person if he depleted this construct’s energy. If Felix had told him the truth, then the human was probably unable to consciously enter this world, and hopefully, they would not suffer any harm from what he was about to do.
Placing his hand on the kertal’s chest, he focused his will on what he wanted the system to do, thinking on how he had achieved much the same when he had crushed the cores of humans on the other side.
External energy source detected
Instead of red streamers, the flesh on his arm contorted and turned into wires, connecting to the kertal’s chest. With this as his entrance-point, Ares dove into the machinery, following the lines of energy to its source. At the same spot where the cores of human kertal was, a heart made out of a slightly different kind of lifeweave pulsed with power.
This thing has plenty of energy, Ares thought, his will closing in on its target, I wonder where it got it all from? Maybe the adventurers that were lost…
Once he was close, Ares could see how something was constricting the heart itself. Red vines, appearing in his mind’s vision like a parasitic plant, coiled around the heart, trapping it. Covered in thorns, penetrating into the heart itself as well as pointing outward, the vine itself was pulsing with power.
This sight gave Ares pause. He had been told the kertal was being infected and somehow influenced to become murderous creatures seeking only destruction. If that was true, then the source of the infection was probably coming from this side, and this vine looked to be the likely culprit.
Perhaps… He thought, closing in. He did not need all the power, not necessarily. He only needed enough to get by, and this vine looked to contain energy of its own. With the wires of lifeweave which he had invaded the body with, Ares launched an assault on the vine. Avoiding the thorns, his wires pierced into the vine and began siphoning the energy back to Ares.
The vine trembled and shook. The thorns grew in response, cutting off his wires and launched a counterattack. While he worked to reconnect with the vine, its thorns were using his wires to locate the source of the attack. To locate him.
Desperate, Ares knew he had to redouble his efforts. If he faltered here, he was certain he would end up infected like the kertal. He dared not even think what the consequences would be if a Well like himself got infected.
He managed to force his wires back into the vine, then used the energy he siphoned to form more wires, causing an exponential growth of consumption. The vine, meanwhile, pierced through the skin of the kertal and launched an attack of their own.
Ares could not avoid it, but only fend off the attacks aiming for his own heart of lifeweave. The thorns struck him in the chest, penetrating deep. The unit began fighting the alien force on its own, without Ares’ direction, sending in smaller defensive robots to fend off the attack. This defense depended entirely on the energy available, and Ares, therefore, focused all of his efforts on increasing his rate of siphon.
This would be a battle of attrition on whoever could hold on the longest. His wires increasing with every second, Ares thought himself sure of victory, when the vine suddenly pushed its thorns deeper into the kertal’s heart, increasing its own source of energy.
Cursing, Ares could only watch as the thorns grew more powerful, bashing away his defensive systems and heading straight for his heart. He felt it deep within his own being, as his heart was stabbed through by the first thorn.
Then a second, and a third. His entire body shook with each hit, and he almost lost control of his wires. Growling, he tried to take active control of his defense, but he felt himself faltering. The energy he was siphoning away was immediately recaptured by the vine, and an endless cycle was the only result, taxing his system.
He had felt this before, back when he had stormed through the Ammedian forest with Behemet on his heels. Ares was unable to handle this much energy through his system and was losing control. Focusing all of his will, Ares reached for anything that could help him, any instrument or skill which might be able to end the cycle and cut off the vine.
[Edge]? No, the thorns were interwoven with his own wires. He would cut himself off as well, leaving him without energy. [Pulse]? He might be able to shake some of the thorns off, but it was no solution. Time slowed to a crawl, as overclocking pitched into the fray, giving him time to think.
Anger welled up inside of him. The anger he had tried to control, but which was always there at the edges of his mind, the anger of a superior being forced to lower itself, the anger of a sovereign with unruly subordinates. This anger had saved him before, giving him the strength to do unbelievable things, even if he knew it was also dangerous.
This time, he gave in, completely.
Screaming with wrath, he unleashed everything he had at the vines. [Solar Lens] flared up, surrounding his heart with the ethereal image of a sun covered in interlocked rings of pure gold. Under the pressure of this sun, the thorns began to wither and dry up, but something was wrong.
Anomaly detected in legacy…
- Foreign code identified in Legacy core
- Overwriting… error
- Foreign code has embedded itself in unit structure…
- Searching for solutions…
- Overwriting… error
The ethereal sun cracked. The rings containing it held fast, and Ares thought they appeared to tighten, but was unable to halt the change. Ares doubled over, dry-heaving through the pain, despite not needing to breathe. The three thorns that had pierced his heart began to slacken, their energy drying up and being consumed – but not by Ares.
Something else was sucking up the energy from the thorn, something within his legacy. Soon, the three thorns lost their purchase, and the vine retreated, separating itself from Ares willingly. He thought he felt something akin to fear emanating from the vine, although he might be projecting. Despite his dampened, emotional response, Ares felt pretty terrified at the moment.
Out of his control, the ethereal sun chased the vine as it retracted its thorns and retreated, and the crack in the surface grew wider. It flowed out of his chest in pursuit, appearing before him like a ghostly image. Another tremor, more pain wrenching through him, and something pierced through the crack from within.
It was sharp and pointy, looking like a bird’s beak. Twisting from side to side, the beak opened to reveal a row of sharp teeth, snapping out after the remnants of the vine. It missed its target a few times, then retreated back into the sun. Ares almost breathed a sigh of relief, when a singular eye appeared in the crack, it’s color the hue of bloody murder.
Unable to avert his gaze, Ares stared directly into that one eye, feeling his entire body grow cold. He knew what was lay within now, it was clear as day. The anger stared back at him, its gaze cold and hungry.
Finally, it retreated back into the sun, and the beak returned, now sucking in air. The remains of the vine was unable to resist the force and got sucked into the mouth of the beast within. Ares watched as the beak chewed through the vine, forcing it out from within the body of the kertal.
The vine appeared to have given up, unwilling to resist. Like long strings of noodles, the anger sucked in its meal until there was nothing more, burping with satisfaction. The beak retreated, and the eye returned, staring at Ares, while the crack finally began to mend, the rings surrounding the sun having managed to squeeze the structure back into place.
He met the stare, understanding its message. He was next on the menu, he was the true target for its hunger.
He was already infected.
- Isolating strain of foreign code in unit structure
- Infection module has been established