Chapter 55 – Choices

Dumbstruck, he stared at the console, thinking, This is a solution?

Infection module will track and regulate foreign code

  • Current status
    • Unit infection rate: 5%
    • User infection rate 2%

Warning: the unit is currently in an infected domain

  • The domain will supply energy to all infected subjects of the domain
  • Infection rate will continue to rise as long as the unit remains within the influence of the infected domain

Warning: the user has been infected

  • Protocols to protect user origin is now in effect
    • User will be unable to disconnect from the unit until the infection has been removed
    • User infection will be influenced by unit infection

Before him, the image of the ethereal sun had closed up completely. There were no signs of the thing hiding within left, only the memory of that singular eye.

When the image had appeared before, it had usually faded back into his body without any drama. This time, though, it shifted slightly in the air, glitching into a pixilated mess, back to its normal appearance before parts of it once again glitched out.

The messy image fell apart before his eyes, crumbling to bits and dissipating into nothingness. That can’t be good, thought Sam, blinking away the remains of the image from his synthetic retinas.

Indeed, none of this was ideal. He had relied on the anger a lot in recent days and had almost come to regard it as a new side of himself. Having looked into that one eye, from within the cracked sun, he was now assured that his anger had been anything but natural.

Shaking his head, Ares returned his focus on the body before him. The kertal had remained motionless this entire time, its red eyes still eerily open. The iron mask on its face was peculiar, considering Ares’ limited knowledge of the infected told him that his artificial eyes should have been unable to pick up on any facial features.

Then, why would you wear a mask?

Tentatively, he reached out and grasped the edge of the mask, trying to pry it off. To his surprise, despite there being no signs of any strings to hold the mask fast, the iron simply would not bend to his command. Regardless of how hard he pushed, the object was completely stuck.

In the end, he gave up. It was not important right now. He was about to gain his feet when the lifeless eyes of the kertal suddenly focused on him. Shocked, he tried to move backward, but a hand as quick as a viper caught him by the throat and squeezed.

Ares grasped the hand, trying to pull it away, but an overwhelming grip held him. Although he might not need any air, the throat and neck of the unit was still a critical pathway. Ares would not die, but he could be severely impaired if this went on.

Staring into those red eyes beneath the mask, Ares thought he saw a bit of confusion. Regardless, he had to make a decision. Raising his hand, Ares applied [Edge] and was about to cut through the arm holding him, when the red light in the kertal’s eyes flickered.

Hesitating, he watched in amazement as the eyes rapidly shifted from red to purple and back again. “Priimee…” It said, its voice weak and hoarse.

“Rest now,” Ares responded, not unkindly despite his monotone.

“The… Voices…” The flickering began to settle on purple, shifting back to red only in instants now, “Don’t listen… To the voice…”

Finally, the red light was gone, and the purple eyes lost their luster. Head slumping to the side, the kertal appeared to have finally shut down. Hopefully, dealing with the parasitic vine had been enough to release this one from torment.

Its grip released, and Ares slumped down on the side of the kertal with a strange sense of exhaustion. Not physical, but mental. Granted, his body hurt, but his head was buzzing between the restless anger and a growing sense of despair.

Now he had to deal with being infected, as well as being in a terrible state, currently. He decided to remedy what could be remedied and initiated the self-repair protocols. His battle for energy might have triggered his infection, but it had also provided him with enough sustenance for the foreseeable future.

When his damage meter was back below 90%, he stopped the process, reducing his remaining energy to 38%. As long as he was functional, it was good enough; he still needed to get a grasp of the overall situation.

‘Orca, you there?’ He tried calling out to his assistant, but only white noise met him in return. Last he had heard from her, she had been in her own kind of trouble. He hoped she had gotten out unscathed.

Initially, he had suspected the kertal for having attacked Orca as well, through the dungeon’s system, but with the kertal out of the action, and Orca still absent, he had to consider the alternative. The console had indicated this place as an ‘infected domain,’ whatever that meant.

Looking at his energy gauge, he confirmed what the console had told him: the unit’s energy supply was steadily growing, rather than depleting. In turn, his infection rate was also rising. The process was not fast, about 0.1 percent energy every minute, and the infection rising about half that speed.

Still, with this rate of increase, Ares only had a little more than a day before the infection rate of his unit would reach 100%. He needed to find a solution before then, preferably one that would also allow him to return to Earth.

Though the console had already told him he would be unable to, he nonetheless made the attempt to return. The same kind of block that had initially stopped him from coming here, was now in the way for his return. There was only one option, then.

Find a way to stop the rate of infection.

Next, on his list of issues, he gained his feet and walked over to where he had laid down Izzy. Kneeling at her side, he felt for her pulse. It was still there, still weak. His HUD once again gave him an overview of her failing life signs, reminding him of the laceration she had suffered.

Now that his source of energy was somewhat steady, the pulsing red light from his markings gave him enough illumination to check his little companion properly. He found the irregular wound on her leg, her calf having been spliced open by the fall.

She had lost a lot of blood, and Ares was sure that — had she been human — she would have bled out long before he could administer any kind of first-aid. As it were, he could sense her inherent lifeforce working overtime to repair the worst of the damage, but it was failing. Ultimately, Izzy did not have an overwhelming amount of lifeforce, not enough to save her from this without help.

However, Ares was not exactly qualified to perform the kind of suturing this wound required. He knew the basics of cleaning and disinfecting the wound, and might be able to cobble together a stitch or two, but it would be nowhere near perfect.

If he did nothing, though, Izzy would die, and soon. There was no time to hesitate. Using his storage, he retrieved some of the supplies Alai had insisted he carry, in case of an emergency. The avore had been difficult to deal with, but her foresight would probably save Izzy.

Of course, he had none of the potions and medications which would have been the best option. He had only really carried the stuff Alai did not want to bother carrying herself.

He had about a week’s supply of water, a few rations, disinfectant, and bandages. No string for stitches, though. With the length of the laceration, Ares knew it would take a long time to heal without suturing it, and would probably open up if Izzy as much as flexed her calf.

They did not have that kind of time, and Ares could not leave Izzy alone in the depths of a dungeon with that kind of injury.

His mind racing for a solution, as he poured water over the wound to rinse it, then applied the disinfectant. Unconscious, Izzy did not react to the pain, much to Ares’ relief. Having administered the first-aid he could, he looked at the injured calf in his hands.

Wait, he thought, concentrating, I do have some string, don’t I?

He had just seen the lifeweave of his hand turn into thin threads. Albeit because of a system function, but he had been the one in command. It had not been a skill, but pure manipulation of the lifeweave itself.

The descriptions of both [Edge] and [Pulse] implied that he, as a user, had learned the art of manipulating lifeweave. Though he always relied on the skills to do the manipulation for him, nowhere did it say that he had to use skills.

With this in mind, he placed a hand near the wound and concentrated, trying to focus on it had felt just moments before. The lifeweave around his arm shuddered, then warped. Very slowly, a single deformation grew, extending into something like a bulge.

Ignoring his declining energy, the rate of consumption suddenly skyrocketing, and drastically outweighing the meager supply the infected domain provided to him, Ares continued his work. The bulge became longer and thinner, finally taking the shape of a thread.

Grinding his teeth from the mental exhaustion this demanded of him, he forged a sharp point to the thread and dipped it in disinfectant before he pierced the gnome’s delicate skin. Holding the edges of the wound together with one hand, he made the first suture with the other.

Without any medical knowledge, Ares just did the best he could, mending the thread into a ring. Done with one stitch, he continued until Izzy’s wound was held securely together by his lifeweave.

Satisfied, and exhausted, Ares sat down on his haunches and relaxed his taxed mind. While physical exhaustion was nigh impossible in this body, he would have to train more if he wanted to be able to use his powers freely.

To his surprise, the console seemed to heartily agree with that assessment.

User has manually manipulated lifeweave

  • Mastery of all lifeweave skills have increased

Congratulations: a skill has reached full mastery

  • Mastery of skill [Edge] has reached 100%
    • Skill is evolving…
    • [Edge] has evolved into level 2 skill [Blade]

Skill name: [Blade]

  • Category: Level 2 active skill

The user’s ability in manipulating lifeweave is sufficiently advanced that they may now extend the material at localized points and form blades. Increasing the skill mastery will affect the length of the extension, energy efficiency, and amount of blades formed at once.

Not bad, Ares thought, nodding in satisfaction. So, relying on the skills was actually an inefficient way to train his mastery. The effort it had taken to manipulate that single thread was evidence of how difficult it was, but with this kind of effect, it was more than worth it.

Until now, [Edge] had been, by far, his most reliable skill. Now that it had evolved, Ares was sure it would be even more effective. Focusing on his hand, he activated [Blade] and watched as his fingers merged into one and extending at least another hand’s length, with one side sharpened to a point.

While his hand was the most natural place to form the blade, he tried using different parts of his body, extending blades from his shoulder, then his back, and even his head. He only stopped when his energy dropped down to 30%, knowing he had to restrain himself.

At his side, Izzy moved. The little gnome shuddered, then moaned, and finally opened her eyes, staring straight up into his.

“Ares…? Am I dead?” She asked, her voice both hopeful and resigned.

“Not dead,” he responded in his broken elvish, “Just hurt.” He pointed to the wound he had inexpertly sutured, and she weakly tilted her head to look at it. She shuddered again and closed her eyes, saying, “Is there any water?”

He retrieved the flagon he had used to rinse her wound with, holding it to her mouth. She drank only a little, spitting out the rest. With another weak sigh, she leaned her head to the side and passed out again.

Ares took her pulse again. It was stronger now, and his HUD told him her life signs were stabilizing. She would live.

One problem overcome, at least for the immediate future, Ares began looking around for where to go from here. They were probably lucky that nothing had come out to look for them yet, but Ares did not intend to rely on luck for too long.

If he understood the dungeon correctly, the further in one went, the more dangerous the beasts. Now that they were at the bottom, quite literally, he did not doubt that the enemies down here would be fierce.

Although he could not leave Izzy behind alone, he still had to scout their surroundings for immediate danger. Gaining his feet, he began to skulk down one side of the narrow passage, looking for any threats. The pulsing red light from his body was the only illumination he had, giving him enough light to just barely make out the road ahead.

He only walked a short distance before the path split into two, forking in opposite directions.

This place must be like a maze, Ares thought, remembering how it had looked from the top-side. Above, the ground had been fractured into smaller parts, linked only by the metal connectors. Down here, these passages had to be in between those fractured parts, creating a natural maze.

Not willing to go too far, Ares returned and scouted out the other direction, but found much the same. The path split off into three this time, without any sign of what the best option was. Reticent to just leave things up to chance, Ares nonetheless had to admit he had no way of distinguishing good or bad points between one path or the other.

He returned to the initial area, finding Izzy having woken up again. She was on her elbows, reaching into her pockets for something to defend herself with when she recognized him.

“Oh, it’s just you,” She said and fell back down, closing her eyes, “This sure doesn’t look good, Ares.”

“No,” he agreed, “It does not.”

She opened her eyes again and inspected him closely, which was easy because of the light his body gave off. “How are you, any issues?”

Ares shook his head, then thought better of it and decided to do a full check. Raising his right hand, he tried to access his blaster. There was no reaction though.

Equipment, Plasma Blaster, has been critically impaired

  • Manual repairs are required

He tried out his left hand, relieved to find his whip was still somewhat responsive. With his improved skill and this weapon, he should at least be able to protect himself.

“Shield broken, too,” he said, shaking his head. Izzy nodded and managed to sit up, waving at him to get closer.

“We’ll fix you up good, Ares, don’t you worry,” she said, smiling despite the pain she must have been in. “Even if I’m wounded, I won’t be a burden to you; I promise.”

She studied his right hand closer, reaching into her pockets for instruments and began analyzing the damage. “We can’t do anything about this, for now, I’m afraid. I’ll need materials and time to refine the proper parts. Turn around, I want to have a look at that shield… Oh my… Oh, this is not very good at all…”

“Bad?” He asked, his limited vocabulary still hampering his speech.

“Well… Kinda… I mean, the equipment itself isn’t damaged, but the central component is completely shattered. I haven’t seen that before… The kind of force it must have taken for this result is… Old Ones, Ares, we should be dead.”

“Probably,” he agreed, looking up. Pitch darkness was all they could see from above. How far had they fallen?

“I’m grateful, Ares. Although we’re probably going to end up dead here anyway, at least you’ve given me the chance to fight for survival. Thank you…”

Ares felt her little head collide with his back, and looking over his shoulder, he found her having passed out again. She had exhausted herself to check on him; he should have let her rest.

Carefully, he laid her back down on the ground, checking up on her once more. She was merely exhausted, as far as his system could tell. There was not much for it; they would have to stay here until Izzy was rested enough to move.

Despite his urgency to remove the infection, haste would only result in him losing all his advantage. He was not entirely sure why he had risked this body to protect Izzy, even if the protective instinct had begun to grow stronger within him.

At the very least, she was useful. With her around, he could restore the equipment that had broken, and if there was any damage his system could not mend on its own, she could assist. She also had interesting fighting capabilities, and Ares estimated they would have to do a lot of fighting in the near future.

Though he was ruminating on these issues, Ares nonetheless kept a watchful eye on his surroundings. Having expected a visitor at some point, Ares was not surprised when a soft noise from the nearby darkness alerted him to the presence of an intruder.

His proximity lit up, a red dot appearing close-by. Ares got up on his feet, carrying Izzy with him, and prepared himself. He hunkered down beside a nearby rock, placing the gnome in a nook between the rock and the wall, and peered over the edge, waiting for the enemy to appear. The light from his body was a dead give-away, he started to realize, and he tried to find some way to reduce it.

The system responded to his will, lowering the light, allowing Ares to recognize a heat-signature coming closer. Whatever it was, it was big. Hesitantly, it approached head to the ground. Ares could hear the soft sniff of a sensitive nose.

Of course, he thought, down here, smell and hearing must be the predominant senses.

The creature closed in, aiming straight for the stilled body of the kertal. Ares was more than content with allowing the beast to have its meal, if only it would leave him and Izzy alone after that. Although he felt bad for the person the kertal might be linked to, as long as they had not been drawn to this side, perhaps this way they could avoid future infection.

To Ares’ the creature looked like a huge blur of radiating heat. It arrived at the kertal’s side, sniffing it carefully. Holding his breath, without having any breath, Ares watched as it scratched at the lifeless kertal trying to ascertain whether the thing was alive or not.

No movement.

Ares thought he heard something like a snicker. The creature moved again, to Ares’ eyes its entire front opened up, ready to swallow the witless kertal.

Witless, at least until it actually moved. Its purple eyes, which had lost their light, switched on in an instant, and Ares heard a croaking voice say, “Who…?”

Shit.