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First Contact Second Wave - Chapter One Hundred Fourteen
[first] [prev] [next] The day was hazy, visibility lowered to less than a quarter mile due to the thick spores and pollen in the air. Some of the spores were the size of a baseball, lazily floating along in the humid air currents. The sound of the waves against the cliff was far and remote, as if the pollen in the air was somehow muffling the noise of the tide. The tank was large by most standards, two hundred tons of moving metal, three engines, eight forced air pressure hover nacelles. A 155mm main gun, a set of tri-barrel co-axial mag-acc guns, a pair of 4-pack mortal tubes, point defense weapons, and APERS strips. Ekret knew it was a light scout tank by the standards of the military he was currently serving with. Ekret, like his entire crew, had started out as debt forced wage-slave military forces, using equipment who's designs were over ten million years old without a single update or improvement. His tanks, back then, had been between fifty and a hundred tons and mounted less than half the weaponry, were slower, with less shielding. The battle-screen that would normally be glimmering was turned off, although there were sterilization fields, normally used in surgery, glimmering over the head sinks and fins off the back of the tank. The Terran military had purchased his contract, and the contracts of his entire division, from the bankrupt corporation, trained him, armed him, and integrated him into one of the most lethal militaries Ekret had ever seen. The patch on his shoulder, a pair of lighting bolts on either side of the Terran number "1", was the patch of his division, First Recon Division (New Metal). Which is how he had ended up on a planet that was currently being overgrown by hostile plants. And how a Terran Descent Human, who had been raised by insectoid Treana'ad after a natural disaster had left him an orphan, had sent him, and his crew, out to check on the coast. Satellite recon was almost completely useless, the plant's spores making visibility by almost any wavelength next to useless. But the General, known to many as 'Tik-Tac', had been staring at maps for over a day, tapping his fingers and rubbing his hand together. Standing in the cupola hatch, the commander's hatch, Ekret was chewing on the end of an empty plastic ration tube, staring at what he'd found. "Any ideas?" one of the human commanders, a big burly human who was more cybernetics than man, asked. "No clue," Ekret admitted, staring at what he'd found. It was massive. He could see it, dimly through the spores, extending off past the visibility line. A massive vegetative tube, exiting the jungle and down the cliff, into the sea. It was pulsing in a rhythm that suggested to Ekret that it was pulling the water up. The seawater was covered with a thick layer of algae and seaweed. There were smaller veins around it, all obviously feeding the tube, which moved with a life all its own. On Ekret's left was the jungle. The leaves were brown and yellow, limp, almost wilted, coated with a thin film of what looked like wax. "Pan the jungle again," came an order over his headset. The hovertank slowly rotated, bringing the massive scanners on the front glacis into play. "Air's full of crap," Heslettek, the EW and scanner officer complained. --attempting to compensate-- 749, a small green mantis engineer flashed through the icon and emoji language he used. "That jungle doesn't look like its benefiting from millions of gallons of seawater being pumped into it," said the voice that had ordered the jungle to be panned again. "No, sir," The human commander, one General Trucker - 3rd Armor Division (Old Metal), said, his voice slow and quiet. "Anyone have any idea what it's doing?" "Pumping water up from the ocean and taking it further into the jungle is my guess," Ekret said. "We need an expert on this," Trucker said. Ekret heard the big human spit. "Where's that Vuxten kid?" There was silence a moment, broken only by stray chatter that was bounced around by the vegetative chaff. Ekret nodded to himself. Vuxten had fought in the Precursor War as an Army conscript, pulling SAR and recon, then had gone through training as a Terran Marine. "Vuxten here, sir," came the voice of one of the natives of the planet, a Telkan. "Any ideas what this might relate to?" The original voice asked. General Tik-Tac of 19th Logistics and Sustainment. "It has to be a vein. One of the big ones," Vuxten answered. "It's pumping nutrients, probably filtered out of the ocean, to the plants deeper in. Watch out for veins, sir." "The plants at the edge are dead," Ekret said. "No, sir. They just look like it. The whole jungle, all of it, is one interconnected system. Believe me, that big vein could pump enough nutrients into that patch of jungle that you're tank would have vines trying to crawl into within a minute or two. We call 'vein bolt' and 'power bloom' when it does that," Vuxten said. "It's pulling millions of gallons an hour. Any idea why?" Ekret asked. "No, sir. Honestly, with what we've learned over the last week? It's probably something bad. Let me check," Vuxten said. There was silence for a moment. "There's three big lakes, according to the old maps. It's pulling in the water to feed something in those lakes. Every time we've seen lakes, they've been coated in algae and have something big and mean growing in them," Vuxten said. "All right, kid. Thanks. Get some rest," Trucker said. "Yes, sir," Vuxten said. Ektret leaned against the edge of the hatch, staring at the jungle. "Well, gentlemen, what do you think?" Tic-Tak asked. "I think the kid's right. It's pumping nutrients to something nasty," Trucker said, then spit again. "After what happened during the landing, I'm willing to bet it's growing something that it hopes can stand up to modern metal." "I concur, sir," Ekret said, lifting up a pair of lens only binoculars and looking through them. "All right, come back. I don't like having you out that far on your own," Tic-Tak said. "Unless either of you have an objection." "We could always have Ekret put a couple rounds in that artery, see what shakes loose," Trucker suggested. "I'm in a hover tank," Ekret said. "I should be able to outrun anything the jungle tosses out." "No, I think I should consult with all commanders and come up with a workable plan to force the jungle to show a few cards," Tic-Tak said. "Together we are much more than the sum of our parts." Trucker and Ekret acknowledged and then signed off. The big 'scout' hovertank lifted up in a shower of pureed vegetation and dirt, rotated in place, and smoothly headed back to the massive logistics base. Behind it, the thick tube kept its secrets. ------------------- Six hours later Ekret stared at the same scene he had watched from his tank. Well, close. The image was split into quarters, one with visible light, one a composite, one cleaned up, and one the last aerial view that had been recorded. "First of all, I'd like to welcome our two reinforcement division heads. General Araktun of the 219th Cybernetic Infantry Division and General Vost of the 712th Genetic Warfare Division," Tic-Tak said, rubbing his hands slowly back and forth. Ekret had noticed that in a way it mimicked Treana'ad body language. General Araktun looked like a warborg except in chrome, with a single line of red that had a moving red dot going back and forth, instead of the normal warborg eyes. He nodded to everyone at the introduction then looked at General Trucker, who was spitting juice into a small plastic bottle. "You still hanging around with these meatbags pretending you shouldn't be working with me, Trucker?" Araktun asked. "Still 42% meat, ya walking hubcap," Trucker grinned. The cyborg made a grinding sound of amusement. General Vost was a lean looking Pure Strain Human with a face like a shovel and cold hard eyes. He just nodded when he was introduced. "Do have any ideas what might be going on deeper in the jungle?" Tic-Tak asked, brushing his fingers together back and forth. Everyone shook their heads. "Send for that Vuxten kid, let's get his input," Trucker said, waving at it. "I've looked over the after action precis for what went down on the landing, those Telkans had their shit together." Everyone nodded and Tic-Tak gave orders to an aide to have Vuxten report in to the command center. "Would those big ones prove difficult for your tanks, General Trucker?" Tic-Tak asked. Trucker shrugged. "That's hard to say without actually engaging them, sir. From what I've seen, using straight lasers or plasma just seem to energize them in the same way that my battle-screens pull any energy they can into my reserves." Araktun just nodded, staring at the screen. He pointed at an unused holotank. "May I?" "Of course, General," Tic-Tak answered. "I haven't been on planet long enough to do a complete genetic analysis of the foe, but what I'm seeing just in these images is concerning," Vost said, leaning forward. "I would suggest from here on out we make our plans as if we're dealing with a rogue Elven Queen." "Oh my," Tic-Tak said, rubbing his forearms. "That is... concerning." "Amplify?" Trucker said, staring at the holotank. "Corporal Vuxten as well as several other members of First Telkan have annotated that the 'jungle itself' adapts to them. They treat the 'jungle' as a complete organism, and so far their instincts have been on the nose," Vost stated. "How many of you have seen an Elven Queen in action with your own eyes?" General Tic-Tak was the only one who raised their hand. "If we approach this as if we are taking on a maddened or rogue Elven Queen, we'll be able to adapt our strategies must quicker as well as possibly predict the actions of the enemy," Vost said. "I would suggest considering it a maddened queen, as we've seen them 'print out', so to speak, unfinished versions of attack and defense systems where a rogue queen would take the time to finalize the design." Tic-Tak nodded and exhaled. "That makes logistics handling much more difficult. I'll need to put a priority on medical checks and medical care as well as ensure everyone's blood cleanser implants get constant updates." Araktun was replaying several of the First Telkan's combat operations, pausing and zooming in on the plants involved. "Right now it looks like, for the most part, the controlling organism, if there is one, thinks on the macro not the micro, which is lucky for us," Vost said, staring at the screen. "It hasn't resulted to viral warfare as far as we know, specifically they haven't engaged in viral warfare against the human element, which leads me to believe that they don't have enough of our genetic code to begin attacking us." "A maddened queen wouldn't rectify that, a rogue one would," Tic-Tak mused. "A rogue queen would be sending in small blood sucking creatures to get a sample of us." "Pre-programmed," Trucker said, staring at the map. Ekret noticed both the big human's cybernetic eyes were slightly unfocused. "Our proteins and yadda yadda are different enough from the Telkans to throw an error code but close enough we can breathe the same atmosphere and eat roughly the same things. At first glance we'd look like a mutation, but on a deeper level our cellular structure and makeup are too different to be easily effected. It's either ignoring us or devoting a lot of effort to figure out how to go at us beyond stabbing or crushing us." General Vost raised his eyebrows slightly and Ekret kept from laughing. It was obvious Vost had taken one look at the big General and dropped his estimates of Trucker's intellect by a factor of five. "With Big Slobbery Mo out of the picture, it might have to dedicate resources to regrowing intelligence arrays," Trucker said, suddenly looking up. "We should consider this thing akin to the Precursor machines for how they work together and add in the Lanaktallan 'slow and steady wins the race' philosophy." Everyone nodded except Araktun, who was engrossed in watching the sped-up replays of First Telkan. Ekret slid an empty ration tube out of his pocket and put the end in his mouth, chewing on it, and staring at the holotank. It had been only a little more than a week and already the majority of the planet was covered by vegetation. There wasn't that much more than rolling plains, a few mountain ranges, and complex interconnect rivers to make up the geography. That made Ekret blink. He reached out and brought up a few planetary scans of planets in the Dead Zone where all this had started as well as planets from the Terran side, looking over the geographical outlay of the planet. The majority of planets in the neo-sapient zone were uniform in their layout. Protocontinent or a few continents, mountain ranges in the center, rivers flowing through rolling plains. He ran a similarity check between neo-sapient zone planets with the main computer system and waited the few minutes for it to check. 80% match. Ekret looked up. "They've been here before," he said. Everyone turned and looked at him. "Not just here, but all over this zone. Look," he motioned at the planetary comparison. "Think about it. These planets are just farms, resource farms for the creatures and Lanaktallans." Tic-Tak was slowly rubbing his hands together, staring at the screen. "The Lanaktallans want physical resources, found in a planetary crust, and use the local sapients as a slave force to maximize the resource extraction. The creatures want... biomass? Calories? Fuel for themselves?" "The question is," Trucker said slowly, staring at the holotank as he spit into the bottle. "Which one is obeying who?" Ekret shrugged. "Say ten million years between each, well, rotation so to speak, does it matter in the meantime?" Tic-Tak moved to the holotank, bringing up an interface and twiddling at it rapidly. After he was done he stepped back and waited. Vuxten came in and stood against the wall silently, seeing all the high ranking officers staring at the holotank. Vuxten could see it was flashing planets up rapidly. "Let me adjust the algorythm a bit," Tic-Tak said. He twiddled for a moment on the interface. "That's the best my limited skill can do. After we're done here I'll send it for analysis." Everyone just nodded, watching. It took almost five minutes before the computer spit it back up. Core Worlds and Inner Sphere worlds were heavy metal poor, almost to the point of having none outside the mantle. The mountains were low and rounded. Geological instability was largely relieved. Weather was controlled. The ecology was carefully balanced, with no high end predators. "As I suspected," Tic-Tak said, stepping back and shaking his head. "General Ekret is correct, they've not only been here before, but I suspect they have been all through this section of the galactic stub." Everyone nodded as Tic-Tak turned around. "So either there is an ecological battle group outside of every system in Lanaktallan control and sphere of influence, or the creatures have been slowly spreading out, abandoning the "Core Worlds" and "Inner Sphere" as depleted due to the eco-system being too, well, 'thin' as it were," the portly General said. He spotted the Telkan against the wall. "Ah, Corporal Vuxten. Good of you to join us." "Thank you, General," Vuxten said. "How can I help?" "How long, would you estimate, it took the jungle to adapt to what your men were doing?" Trucker asked. Vuxten thought for a moment. "A day, maybe too, at the latest. Hours sometimes. It got easier in Grid Tango-Niner after we blew up a bunch of weird looking coral." "Which day and engagement?" Araktun asked. When Vuxten told him he shifted views in the holotank and brought up the section quickly. He tossed it to the main holo-tank and everyone watched as First Telkan moved in on an overgrown spaceport, escorting flame vehicles. Only a few days ago we had the ability to do overwatch with drones and satellite, now we're almost blind, Ekret thought to himself, watching the icons move across the screen. "STATUS CHANGE!" the voice rang out over the holotank and the image changed from ships covered by a thin layer of moss to outgrowths of coral defended by plants that fired laser or vomited up plasma. The screen blinked twice to show it was updating. The coral was closely grown, full of folds and bulges, and ringed by heavy armored plates. Ekret noted that the shell to completely encase it wasn't fully formed yet but still gleamed metallically. Plant extruded metals forged at the cellular level. The flame vehicles washed the coral with fire and everything went berserk. Lightning-like patterns in the moss. "That was the first time we ran into a vein bolt," Vuxten said quietly. Ekret just nodded, staring. It did look like a lightning bolt moving through the moss. "Thousands of gallons of nutrient per vein, fifteen veins, this was of major importance," Tic-Tak mused. "The first power bloom we ever encountered is next," Vuxten said. "We lost a couple of people right here and a lot of the tanks. We got chewed up." The lumps in the moss, which had only showed up on the scans when First Telkan had arrived, suddenly erupted into plants that grew impossibly fast. General Vost was working at his own holotank, watching what Vuxten was narrating as he worked, identifying plants, growth rate, nutrient uptake rate, where they were in regards to a major vein. Tanks had plants shoot out from under them, vines grabbing and twisting. First Telkan scattered, going for flat spots of moss, throwing or firing out grenades or rockets to blow the moss off of the ferrocrete and jumping to the middle of the spot. Four of First Telkan didn't make it. At every point where the Telkan Marines didn't make it out there was an explosion. "What triggers that?" Vost asked. "Termination of life signs," Vuxten said. "We encountered a few places where bodies are used pretty horrifically and all agreed we'd rather risk having our suits explode when we sneeze than be used like that." Vuxten made a motion, looking at the holodisplay coming from his palm, then flicked it General Vost. "Take a look at that, sir. We encountered that on Day Two when we were evacing people." It looked like a Telkan with a bulging face, throat, and abdomen. It suddenly split open to reveal a swarm of wasps and dozens of little crabs which charged in. "Luckily, the broodcarriers can smell them and sense them. None of them got in with any podling daycares," Vuxten said, turning away. "Their hearts still beat and they make moaning and gagging noises. We felt like they were still alive in there." General Vost nodded. The vehicle drivers obviously panicked, to Ekret's eyes. Two slammed into each other. One bathed a squad of Telkan power armor troops with fire and one of the troops fired back with a rocket that blew up the flame tank. Ekret couldn't blame them. Rockets and grenades were flying out at and the tanks were turning to fire at the coral. "It looks like cabbage in the garden," Trucker mused. "Protective leafs. See how they're trying to curl over the coral? Yeah, this was something big." Bees, dragonflies, larger bugs were all swarming, going for the tanks, which had moved to areas that had been scoured of moss by explosives. A lot of the Telkan power armor had jumped onto the tanks, providing cover as they poured fire into the plants. "Plasma didn't work, weirdly enough regular fire worked just fine," Vuxten said. "I don't know enough about the difference between napalm and plasma." "Energy profile," Trucker grunted. Araktun turned and looked at the holodisplay. The coral was burning. "Look, they lost cohesiveness," Araktun said. Trucker nodded. "Each of those coral formations they lost, they lose more and more of their cohesion." "This might be the difference in this sector compared to the rest," Tic-Tak mused. "Perhaps they are growing more of them?" Vuxten shook his head. "Not for a pipe that big. That's something big being grown. Something it'll take atomics to stop." "Something to offset our big tanks," Araktun said. He turned to Vuxten. "What's the biggest threat your power armor troops face?" Vuxten looked confused. "I'm just a corporal, sir." "Second lieutenant now, son," Tik-tac said. Vuxten nodded. "I'm just a lieutenant, sir. I'm in charge of a fire recon platoon of Telkan Marines, that's all." "What's the biggest threat you've faced?" General Vost asked. "Heat. There has to be thirty different ways the jungle goes for your heat systems. From what looks like airborne plant seeds that seal to your cooling fins with insulation like plastic to bugs that purposefully home in on your cooling systems, the jungle is definitely targeting heat," Vuxten said. "I noticed that during our relief of the civilian command center," Trucker said. Araktun nodded. "My men might be of use here," he turned to Vuxten. "I'd like a briefing of First Telkan's heat compensation tactics." Vuxten looked at the gathered generals. "Sirs, maybe it would be better to talk to some of the higher ranking officers? I've only been a Marine a year." Tik-Tac walked up and put his hand on Vuxten's shoulder. "Your men have the most field experience out there in the jungle. The majority of your officers are Terran Marines, we'll get their opinion too, son. Don't think we're not going to speak to them too. You just have a lot of field experience." "Oh, OK, sir," Vuxten said, looking out of his depth. "Don't sweat it, kid," Trucker said. "We'll have you back in armor and behind your rifle quick enough so you don't have to stand around a bunch of plotters and planners like us." Vuxten just nodded. Ekret had watched the whole thing interestedly. He knew how Vuxten felt. He had been a Most High, and he still felt inadequate at times watching the Terran military work. He, himself, was used to being told what to do, not having people ask him his opinions on everything from how much time his men spent in the tanks to if the ammunition templates were working right to what his favorite shows were. Ekret moved over next to Vuxten as the other Generals went back to discussing everything from how to deal with the Terran military's biggest problem (heat) to what the jungle might be cooking up to how much longer they had to hold out until the shelters were reconfigured and ready to launch. "It's almost frightening, isn't it?" Ekret asked the younger male. "Sir?" Vuxten asked, looking at him. Ekret could see the thick red scarring, not yet faded, around the Telkan's ear. "Watching Terrans go to work. You can see how they've crushed everyone they've ever faced," Ekret said, taking the half of the ration tube that remained unchewed. "I don't understand why they wanted to talk to me," the younger male said softly. "Because you've been on the ground, seen it react to your actions with your own eyes, had your reflexes save you, which means you understand something about the jungle at a subconscious level," Ekret said, pouring the spit out of the tube into the reclaimer before putting it back into his mouth and chewing on it. "Vuxten, what's the first sign you notice of a vein bolt?" General Vost asked. "The mat bulges slightly, gets spongier feeling under our boots, and there will be a green trail in the moss where the nutrients are being poured into the vein to get it ready," Vuxten answered. "More spores and pollen too." "See, that's information you can't see in the recordings," Ekret said, nodding at the holotank. He looked at Vuxten. "I can have my mechanics put feedback sensors on my hovertanks to rate the ground reflection of my hoverfans, maybe give me a second or two to react." "Oh," Vuxten nodded. "Trucker there, he'll notice it. The Unnamed Gods only know how he'd notice, but I guarantee you that he'll notice it," Ekret said. "General Araktun's cyborgs will know to keep a look out for it. A second or two can save countless lives." "You can ambush the ambush if you know it's coming," Vuxten quoted. "These power blooms, how long from sighting an incoming vein bloom till they erupt?" General Vost asked. "Um, ten, maybe twenty seconds. You can tell what's going to get power bloomed by a thin vein pattern coming from the middle of an intersection. It takes three or four vein bolt strikes to cause a power bloom," Vuxten said. "You can't rely on your suit computer, though. Because of the sudden spore and pollen eruptions your visuals and sensors are usually confused." Vuxten thought for a second. "If you have incoming vein bolt strikes and your sensors suddenly drop to almost nothing, you're about to get power bloomed and you might be on top of a bloomer." All of the generals nodded, adding that. Vuxten noted that Tik-Tac was stepped back a bit, just watching. He pointed it out to Ekret who nodded. "The General isn't a combat arms leader. He trusts the others to do their jobs, he's figuring out the best was to support them," Ekret said. He looked at Vuxten. "Make no mistake, young Telkan, wars are won or lost by men like the General. All of the combat valor in the world won't help you if you starve to death without ammunition or uniforms." "Oh," Vuxten said. He never really thought about it. Maintenance, supplies, armor repair, it just happened. Vuxten had never really thought about it beyond hoping it was taken care of. Ekret kept chewing on the ration tube, watching the information in the tanks flow by. "Why aren't you involved?" Vuxten suddenly asked. Ekret looked at him and smiled. "Because, young man, I, like you, are Scout Recon. Which means that I'll be paying attention to you and your fellow Scout Marines on a much more personal level. The others? They're heavy metal. Combat warborgs, heavy tanks, heavy assault infantry." "Oh," Vuxten said, still slightly confused. "Just stand here, they'll get to us. More than likely to assign a mission," Ekret said. "And I've got a feeling what it's going to be," Ekret said. "What's that, sir?" Vuxten asked. "If I tell you, you won't figure it out on your own," Ekret smiled. ---------------------- Ekret stared at the massive organic pipes, rising up out of the ocean, over the edge of the cliff, to disappear into the wilted looking jungle. His tank sat, idling, only a hundred meters from the nearest pipe, which had grown a thicker layer of twisted vines around it. The moon had set with the sun, meaning the only view was through light amplification, giving the world a too-slick feeling. He left signal repeaters every two hundred meters that used point to point tight beam communication across one of the narrow bands not clogged by the pollen and spores, all the way back to the main Forward Operating Base. Trucker was only fifty miles away, his entire Division formed into a spearhead poised to slam its way through the thickest part of the jungle. All eight BOLOs attached to him were on the flanks, ready to go. Vuxten's platoon and a light company of Araktun's cyborgs had entered the jungle only two hours before, after making sure everyone had gotten a good night's sleep. The objective wasn't to suddenly win the war, but to delay whatever it was the jungle had planned. The shelters needed another twelve days to finish reconfiguring, dig their way out of the bedrock, and launch. One point two million shelters across a main continent, two sub-continents, and eighteen major islands. Ekret was glad it wasn't his responsibility. That all of those people only tangentially relied on his guns. If I was to be put into Tik-Tac's place I'd develop a substance abuse problem retroactively, Ekret thought to himself. He looked back over the ocean, one hand on the lip of the hatch, feeling his tank vibrate slightly. The ocean was covered with a thick layer of algae and seaweed. Enemy territory, he sighed to himself. He looked around at the jungle again, keeping an eye for any change in the colors. Yeah, his scout tank would supposedly alert him of any palette change in the foliage, but sometimes it was better to keep a physical eye on it. He could barely see the fiber-optic cable twinkling in the sunlight, moss already growing over it, that ran from his tank into the jungle. Recon Alpha-Three-Three's only line of communication out of the jungle. The surgical sterilization fields crackled as General Ekret waited. ----------------------- Trucker had his left palm turned up, his right hand on the coax gun. Above his left hand was a holodisplay feeding him data. It was easy to forget just how thick the jungle was from the ground, when you weren't in a five hundred ton mechanical war machine. The 'trees' were almost a hundred meters high, the trunks thick and greasy looking. The moss carpet was thick and spores the size of a grown man's fist floated in mid air, slowly blinking red or yellow or green. Two hours and they were nearly twenty-five miles in. Trucker knew the borgs from Sixteen Scout Recon could move up to ninety miles an hour, but they'd chosen to follow the Telkan Marines, who were notably slower. Right now they were stopped, waiting for something that Trucker didn't see. He could tell by the signals that the Recon cyborgs didn't either. But Vuxten had said to hold position, that nobody should move, and so everyone was frozen in place. As Trucker watched there was a brightening in the moss in a vein pattern, spreading out from the massive nutrient pipes. "Do. Not. Move," the Telkan officer snapped. The pattern spread out, then the moss bulged around a handful of thick conduits, the edges around it brightening. Almost a minute passed before the fluid moved off to the left. That's heading for someone else, Trucker thought to himself. He opened his channel to BOLO Victorious. "Victor, keep your optics peeled, there's a vein bolt heading in roughly your direction," Trucker snapped. "Roger, sir," BOLO Victorious answered. The scout team moved on. Trucker kept watch, feeling the numbers run in his head. He slid the map to the north, not to the thickest part of the jungle, but to a point between five different lakes. There. Whatever it is, it's there, Trucker thought to himself, scanning back to where the scouts were following the thick nutrient trunk. ---------------------------- TERRASOL Space Force Units arriving at operational theaters. Rough estimation of location on Precursor Biological Weapon Fleets for systems are attached. Each fleet is to the solar north-west, at approximately 2.2 LY from stellar mass. Bioweapon fleets are to be targeted with extreme prejudice. Operation Tusked Raven is proceeding according to projections. -----NOTHING FOLLOWS--------- TASK FORCE 43 (ANVIL) Have moved in strength into the Nantaver-837 system (Locally: Artcarik-482) to engage heavy Unified Military Fleet presence. Was informed by the System Most High, one Mana'aktoo, that even if we were triumphant in two years time the entire system would be eradicated by a super-weapon. System Most High 'inadvertantly' let slip the distance. Discovered bioweapon fleet in hibernation. Upon informing System Most High and System Defense Most High of the destruction of the bioweapon fleet, the system was immediately surrendered. Governor Mana'aktoo is highly regarded by the xenospecies who live in the system. The four mega-corporations also regard him highly. The System Defense Most High is highly regarded by his subordinates. I'm in an odd place here. Governor Mana'aktoo has made himself and his staff available at all opportunity. I'm pinned down here since this system is a priority to the Unified Council defense. If I abandoned it to carry on, another fleet could come in and take it. As it surrendered immediately I cannot move through destroying infrastructure due to the Geneva Convention and the Rules of Land Warfare. Which means the System Defense High Most has pinned my task force here even more effectively than if he'd tried to take me head on. He had literally millions of troops under his command, all of whom are EPOWs that I have to oversee. They are not a difficultly, at worst they're lazy and unmotivated as EPOWs, at best their eager to assist my command in any orders we give out, but I cannot pull out and leave behind millions of soldiers. Additionally, the civilian infrastructure is the highest I've seen in a Lanaktallan controlled system, the citizens highly educated (for their standards) and eagerly supporting Mana'aktoo's stewardship. As the xenosapients in the system welcome us, with Mana'aktoo's encouragement, my office is flooded with requests for PR interviews and 'meet the people' interviews. It's not uncommon for my Marines and Army personnel to be asked to pose for photography or asked for interviews. I need an actual occupation fleet here. MI was way off on whether or not this guy would fight to the death. My Task Force should have moved on to my other objectives already, instead I'm stuck here like my foot has been nailed to the floor. --Admiral Schmidt, Commander, Task Force Anvil. -------NOTHING FOLLOWS-------- MANTID FREE WORLD ------NOTHING FOLLOWS------ TELKAN GESTALT What? What's so funny? ------NOTHING FOLLOWS------ MANTID FREE WORLDS It's the age old human problem, dear. They won, but now they don't know what to do with it. ------NOTHING FOLLOWS----- TREANA'AD HIVE WORLDS See, sis and I, we'd just eat everyone and leave, at least, before the Terrans stomped on us. The Terrans, though, they want something different for all those people. -----NOTHING FOLLOWS------ TELKAN GESTALT What do they want? -------NOTHING FOLLOWS------- RIGELLIAN COMPACT Freedom and self-determination. They don't want to stand over you with a club, they want you to start doing your own thing so they can get back to doing their own thing. Humans are lazy. -----NOTHING FOLLOWS------- TERRASOL Wow. Rude. I mean, you're not wrong. But rude. -----NOTHING FOLLOWS-----
OBLIGATORY FILLER MATERIAL – Just take a hard left at Daeseong-dong…10
Continuing… “Well, if that doesn’t throw the damper on things.” Dax remarks on our trip back down to the ground floor. “Yeah. How rude. Up and deceasing your own self without bothering to tell anyone beforehand.” I noted. “This is going to be a bloody balls-up. Trust me. This is going to be inordinately messy. A bog-standard botch job. A total dog’s dinner, just wait and see.” Cliffs adds. “First, we have to contact IUPGS. Then what? Does Bulgaria have a consulate or embassy here? I wouldn’t think so…Then what?” I grieved. For once, I was rather low; both emotionally and on ideas. “Let’s go back to the conference room and let everyone know. We’ll pull a brain session together. We should be able to sort out what needs to be done. The hotel already knows, so the state security forces also do as well. Be prepared for lengthy interrogation sessions, Gentlemen”, Cliff advised. Back in the conference room, we relayed the sad information. All were taken aback and there were general notes of commiseration. However, since no one knew Iskren too well personally, it was more detached professionalism rather than overt weeping and wailing. “Let us toast to our fallen comrade!” was accepted as both entirely appropriate and a damn good idea. I got on the conference room phone and ordered up some more sandwiches, mixers, and bottles of booze. The moment was obviously structured that way, I reasoned. We made our toasts to our fallen comrade and we had half a chalkboard filled with suggestions of what to do next. The main consensus was: “Nothing.” As in there was not much we could do. We were foreign nationals in a strangely foreign land. Our comrade was the sole member of his country, that is, Bulgaria, and the closest geographically we had aboard was Dr. Academician Ivan. No one wanted to loose Ivan on the DPRK security forces and have to deal with all that international fallout. After some number of hours, after I suggested we all remain in the conference room as we’d (A.) be together, as in unity there is strength, (2.) we’d have each other’s backs when and if it came to interrogations, and, (iii.) this is where the free booze was. Then there was a polite knock on the door. I, as the den mother of this special education class, slowly got up and answered the knock. It was a cadre of DPRK internal security forces, kitted out in their spiffy, tailor-made, and actually, quite smart-looking uniforms. Shoes and buttons polished to mirror-finishes, pants creases that could cut flesh, and enough polished brass to construct a spittoon. “Hello? Yes?” I said through the semi-opened door. “May we please come in? If the time is convenient.”, the head military type, very treacly asked. “Of course”, I replied, “Please, do come in.” Four of them entered as one. They did a quick-step, tight-march formation together and went to the head of the conference table. “Good day, gentlemen. I am Colonel Hwangbo Dong-Hyeon of Internal State Security. First, we must offer condolences on the loss of your comrade. It must have come as a shock.” He intones. There are mutters of “Thanks.” and “Damn right it was.” “I have been entrusted to update you on the, ah, ‘situation’. First, Dr. Iskren Dragomirov Dinev, recently deceased, has been examined by the best medical practitioners in the country. He was obviously a foreign national and state guest, and we do not wish this to be a cause of suspicion or mistrust, especially during this auspicious Festival season.” He asserted. We listened with rapt attention. “I am authorized to tell you that it does not appear that the late Dr. Dinev expired of any untoward circumstances; or ‘foul play’, I believe is the western term. It has been ascertained that he expired due to wholly natural causes; namely massive myocardial infarction. Given his age, apparent health, and, ah, mass, this does seem a most reasonable explanation. This has been verified by no less than three DPRK medical professionals; one of which is the Emeritus teaching professor of Cardiology at Pyongyang Medical University. Again, you have our deepest condolences on the loss of your comrade.” He continued. “I do remember Iskren complaining of gas pains the other night at the bar,” Joon agreed. “Thought nothing of it, given the change in all our diets.” Colonel Hwangbo studied Joon like an entomologist examining a particularly fascinating new species of beetle. “Which has been fine! Just rather rich compared to our usual food!” Joon hastily added. Satisfied that Joon wasn’t making light of the ‘fine’ North Korean cuisine, Colonel Hwangbo continued, “As such, the Bulgarian Embassy here in Pyongyang has been contacted and apprised of the situation. They have taken over the case, as well as recovered the mortal remains and possessions of Dr. Dinev; all of which were conserved and authenticated by his Bulgarian national counterparts.” “Ah, that’s good”, I said, “I’m pleased that there actually is a Bulgarian embassy here.” “Ah. So.”, Col. Hwangbo continued, “Yes. They have already taken possession of Dr. Dinev’s mortal remains and possessions as I had noted, and will handle their repatriation to his country and family. As you can see, we have acted in the best of faith and with the utmost respect for your lately departed. Again, our condolences.” There were some “Harrumphs”, and “Yeah, rights”, from the crowd, but since I was the team leader, it fell to me to handle this situation from here on out. “Yes, indeed”, I replied, “We see that and do so deeply appreciate your efficiency and your keeping open the lines of communication. We have absolutely no room to complain. You, your team, your country, and your services have acted to the highest degree of professionalism and decorum. Let me extend, for the team, our heartiest appreciations in this most unfortunate matter.” That seemed to please the Korean security forces. So much so they didn’t see the rolling eyes and smirks of grudging compliance from the crowd. I gave the evil-eye to several who were twittering quietly at my delivery of a load of over-the-top twaddle in the name of international goodwill. “Thank you, Doctor…? Doctor…?”, he asked. “Doctor Rocknocker.” I replied, “It’s spelled just as it sounds,”, I chuckled a knowing chuckle. Colonel Hwangbo cracked a small smile for the first time since we met. “As long as our orders of business are concluded, “ I inquired, “Might we offer you and your men a drink or sandwich or…” “Cigar?” he suddenly brightened. I smiled the sly, smirking smile of one of those used to the old duplicitous game of international diplomacy. “Why”, I replied smilingly, “Of course.” Col Hwangbo gratefully accepted a brace of fine Oscuro cigars. Probably more tobacco he’s seen in one place at one time since the last he rousted a snozzeled Western journalist or hammered European tourist with an overage of custom’s tobacco allowances. His team eschewed cigars, but gladly accepted a pack each of pastel-colored Sobranie cocktail cigarettes. It still slays me to see these battle-hardened, armed-to-the-teeth, unsmiling servants of the great state of Best Korea mincing about the courtyard smoking avocado, baby-blue, and peach-colored pastel cigarettes. The Colonel and his team left after a couple of quick smokes, sandwiches, and surreptitious beers. I even enticed the Colonel into a couple of convivial vodka toasts when his team was otherwise occupied. “Well, gang”, I said, closing the door, “Looks like that situation has been handled, most appropriately at that. We’ll miss ol’ Iskren, but at least he went fast and hopefully painlessly.” I knew that last one was but a load of old dingo’s kidneys as I’ve had run-ins with cardiac disorders in the past and they are anything but painless. In any case, that was, as I noted, in the past. What was done is done. It was as it was. It is as it is. “So, gentlemen”, I say, “Let us get back to work. Reality calls. Now, we’ve given you landlubbers the lowdown on our seismic pleasure cruise. Now we’d like to hear what you who had stayed onshore have come up with.” Erlan, Graco, and Viv fill us in on the regional geology of Best Korea and lay out a plan to examine the sedimentary piles closest to the few paved roads in the north and east of the country. We’ll be traveling by bus, as my request for four or five off-road vehicles was denied due to timing and lack of availability. Yeah. Right. What a massive pile of bovine biogenic colluvium. A country with a military as huge as Best Korea’s and they can’t spare a few jeeps or Hummer reproductions? Truth be told, they still don’t trust us and don’t want to let us out of their sight. However, we did manage to snag some internal publications from the Central Geological Survey of Mineral Resources, which we figured as a major coup. Never before were Westerners allowed to even know of the existence of these materials, much less be able to research (read: slyly copy) them. That ‘personal shaver’ I carried was actually a sneaky personal copier, a Vupoint ST470 Magic Wand Portable Scanner with all the external stickers peeled off, and any serial numbers abraded away. Hey, they photograph us from every angle on the sly, listen in on our conversations, record our phone calls…hell, turnabout isn’t just fair play, it’s almost expected. It’d be rude to refuse to play along. Anyways, we learned that The Korean Peninsula (KP) occupies a junction area of three large tectonic domains that are the Paleo-Central Asian Orogenic Belt, Paleo-Tethyan Orogenic Belt, and the Western Pacific Orogenic Belt. Tectono-fascinating. To summarize:
The Archean Rangrim massif is divided into the Rangrim and Kwanmo submassifs, high-grade region and greenstone belt, respectively.
Early Paleoproterozoic rocks underwent metamorphism up to granulite facies, which may be correlated to the Jiao-Liao-Ji mobile belt in the North China Craton (NCC).
Proterozoic rift sequences in North Korea are similar to those in the NCC with rare late Paleoproterozoic strata and more Neoproterozoic strata.
Mesozoic igneous rocks are extensively distributed in the KP.
The main Paleozoic basin, the Phyongnam basin in NK, have a similar Paleozoic tectono-stratigraphy to the NCC.
Of most interest is item #5. The Phyongnam basin is the only sedimentary and depositional basin of mention in the north of the Korean peninsula; and therefore the center of our attention as it pertains to oil and gas. The potential source rocks, and possible reservoirs, include the Paleozoic Late Ordovician Miru Series was identified as the Koksan Series and subsequently renamed. The 170-meter thick limestone and siltstone centered around the P'yongnam Basin have extensive crinoid, coral, and gastropod fossils. Paleogeography researchers have suggested that corals formed in the Miru Sea-a branch of the South Yangtze Sea. At the base of the Taedong Synthem is the P'yong'an Supergroup, which lies disconformably atop older Paleozoic rocks. In the Pyongyang Coalfield it is divided into the 650-meter sandstone, shale, and conglomerate of the Nogam Formation, the 500-meter Kobangsan Formation, 350-meter coal-bearing Sadong Formation and 250-meter chert-bearing Hongjom Formation, all typically assigned to an Upper Permian shallow marine environment. In the Mesozoic, north of Pyongyang, Precambrian basement rocks are unconformably overlain by a Jurassic limestone conglomerate ascending to layers of siltstone and mudstone. The Upper Jurassic Shinuiju Formation northwest of Shinuiju has sandstone, conglomerate, and mudstone up to two kilometers thick. Offshore drilling in the West Korea Bay Basin indicates these rocks are the onshore extension of offshore units. It is subdivided into fluvial rocks and Upper Jurassic black shale, limestone, conglomerate and sandstone formed in a lake environment. There are very few Cenozoic sediments are known in North Korea, likely as a result of erosion due to uplift of the peninsula. Submarine normal faults along the eastern coastline may have driven crustal tilting. The 350-meter thick Bongsan Coalfield in Hwanghae Province on the west coast preserves and coal-bearing layers dating to the Eocene. Further to the north, in the West Korea Bay Basin Eocene and Oligocene sedimentary rocks up to three kilometers thick unconformably overlie Mesozoic rocks, formed in lakes and coal swamps during the Paleogene. What this meant is that we’d need to travel mostly northeast and/or southwest. This was fortuitous as the paved roads in the country were created in structural valleys formed by the primary fault trends in the country. The main trans-tensional set trended NE:SW and the conjugate set trends approximately 900 to the main set at NW:SE. The topography was heavily dissected by drainages and the terrain consists mostly of hills and mountains separated by deep, narrow valleys. The coastal plains are wide in the west and discontinuous in the east. The plan was to take the bus north to Sunchon, then hang a right off towards Unsan and Yongha. There were outcrops between the last two towns and they appear to be upper Paleozoic to Lower Mesozoic clastics. Ideal oil and gas hunting grounds. From there, we’d head north-northeast towards Yangwon. There appeared to be some fair to excellent outcrops of rocks that are as of yet, unidentified as to age. From there, we’d continue to follow the outcrop belts either to their termination at the basin’s edges or at international borders with China or Russia. But, once we hit the field, time goes into relative warp. Put a bunch of geologists out on some relatively virgin outcrops and just stand back as they spend hour after hour after hour first looking for evidence of the formation’s provenance, it’s age and field relations. Then begin the heartfelt, stalwart, and sometimes vicious, arguments between all concerned about each and every one of those salient points. We were all looking forward to it and wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s our intellectual and scientific equivalent of meat and potatoes. We all agreed on a way forward and generated a document to deliver to those in charge of our logistics on this trip. There would be a total of 11 Western geoscientists, four guides, perhaps a couple of national geologists or geophysicists, and whatever cadre the shiny suit squad wanted to include. There would also be a driver, his relief, and a couple of extra translators. Good thing it was a large bus, as it’s going to be a huge crew. We needed to allow our handlers a full day to arrange room and board for us while in the field, as we had to be bivouacked somewhere outside our fine hotel. It needed to be secure, pass sanctuary muster, and be ‘controllable’, referring to both Western scientists and nosy locals. One thing we found odd was the lack of concern for long-term logistics, not to mention the end of our self-ordained indentured servitude. When this trip and all the Western geoscientists were contacted, we were all assured of an opportunity to meet with the Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-Un once our trip was completed. We were to personally deliver one hell of an international photo-op. A ‘hey look how progressive we are’ meeting and our findings in this wonderful and progressive country. But lately, with what we thought was the fallout of the Festival washing out all the usual propaganda, we’ve heard nothing about Herr Comrade Leader Supremo, K1J1-Un. Nor had we heard one iota about our intended final meeting with him before we left for China. Since there are “absolutely no” COVID-19 cases in Best Korea, it seemed, well, odd that Beijing was our only possible current exit port of call, and onward to our individual homes. There were all flavors of rumors flying all throughout the basement bars and casinos of the hotel. One claimed that Kim was now receiving treatment at a villa in the Mount Myohyang resort north of the capital Pyongyang after cardiovascular surgery. That he was near death and that his sister, Kim Yo Jong, is already warming up in the North Korean political bullpen if her brother kacks it. Others said Kim is believed to be staying at an unspecified location outside of Pyongyang, with some close confidants. It was said that Kim appeared to be normally engaged with state affairs and there has not been any unusual movement or emergency reaction from North Korea's governing party, military, or cabinet. There was also one other that tries to cover up any conspiracy rumors by shouting over a raspy bullhorn: "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!"; but most ignored that little crank. We all thought that rather odd, but of fairly low concern. In the final analysis, it would have little impact on our studies and their outcome. In other words, it wouldn’t affect our pay one way or the other. We all felt like we’ve given more than what was called for on missions such as this. And we still haven’t a clue as to when this will all come to an end. However, we all agreed to the consultation, it would have been fun to meet with him and have our pictures taken with the Supreme Leader. Dr. Academician Ivan Ivanovich Khimik. was especially cheesed that he might miss the opportunity to make finger-vee bunny ears behind the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of the DPRK during one of our photo sessions. We all agree if we do somehow find ourselves in the same room with Ivan and Kim Jong-Un, we’ll form a human shield around the latter. We want to get back home; as we’ve all heard the rumors of the horrors of ‘political realignment’ camps here in Best Korea. So the meeting breaks up and I’m left with Dax to take the final inventory. Two loads of sandwiches gone, piles of used napkins, ketchup-y table linens, bacon rinds and chicken bones, drippy ends of ice cream cones, prune pits, peach pits, orange peel, gloppy glumps of cold oatmeal, pizza crusts, and withered greens, soggy beans and tangerines, crusts of black burned buttered toast, gristly bits of beefy roasts… “The hell with this”, I say, I grab the last nearly full bottle of vodka and hand Dax a bottle of Royal Navy dark Rum. “Tally’s good”, I say, not really giving two tiny shits at this point. “At least, I think it is. Let’s make like horseshit and hit the trail.” “I’m headed back to our floor and going to zone out in front of some old, looped BBC for the next few hours with a cold drink and hot cigar.” I proclaim. “Oh, hell”, Dax says, “I agree. It’s been a weird couple of days. Let’s go.” And so we do. On the way, I leave the logistics concerns and itinerary for the upcoming field trips with the front desk clerk. I slip her 1000 won as its Festival! and I had a bulgy pocketful of same. She smiled and quietly said there’s be a surprise waiting for me in my room when I got there. “Rock, you fucking old hound!”, Dax exclaimed as he punched me lightly on the shoulder. “Taking a dip in the hotel secretarial pool?” “Dax, you surprise me”, I said in my defense, “I have been, and continue to be, happily married for the last 38 years to the most loving, most intelligent, most well-connected, and most accurate snap-shot with a Glock .380 Automatic I know of.” “Well, me ol’ mucker”, Dax smiles slyly, “If one has been happily married for 38 years, one must have a little something on the side. Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge, ‘eh, Squire?” “Oh, nothing like that”, I replied, while waiting the obligatory 30 minutes for the fucking elevator to arrive. “I couldn't break my word to Esme, and not because I don’t believe in a God that will send me to Hell without an electric fan or because it's not the right thing to do. I simply don't want to. A man is only as good as his word; and if he loses that, he loses too much. I couldn’t function without people thinking that I’m square and on the level. My business would crumble to dust. As would my marriage.” “Yeah, there is that”, Dax agrees, “You say something is going to happen and God damn, it fucking happens. That’s what makes you honest and honestly scary.” I stare intently at the annunciator that tells me the fucking elevator is stuck on 4 again. “You’re not mob, are you?” Dax harshly whispers, snickeringly. I turn to face Dax and smile wistfully. “Я с уважением отказываюсь отвечать, потому что я искренне верю, что мой ответ может обвинить меня”, I reply quietly. “What the hell does that mean?” Dax demands. “I respectfully decline to answer because I honestly believe my answer might tend to incriminate me”, I calmly reply. “Oh, look. Bloody elevator’s finally here.” I note and stride aboard. Dax gets caught up in the tsunami of the crowd and is carried bodily inside. It was so remorseless, he almost lost his grip on his bottle of Dark Rum. Up on ‘our’ floor, I go to key open my room. Dax is just down the hall and looking around to see what special surprise might show up. I was too tired to wait so I just push in, and see all my field clothes fully laundered, pressed, and either folded or hanging. Someone broke into my room during the day and committed a compound neatness. “POUND! Pound! POUND!” Hmm, appears to be someone at my door. “Yes, Dax?” I said. “You too?” he fumed, “Everything, cleaned to within an inch if its life. They even polished my bloody field boots.” “Oh, fuck”, I said and ran to find mine re-pristinized. “FUCK! FUCK! FUCKITYFUCKFUCK!” I swore. They had polished my field boots and removed the fine years-of-work-to-acquire near-subsurface of the leather’s oil layer. They polished the water-proofing and conditioning out of the leather of our boots. “OK. OK.”, I said, “Minor emergency. Cool out. I have the solution.” I toss Dax a small can. It was brown, oily, and claimed to be “Neatsfoot oil”. It was the SPF- 500 of field leathers. “Go ahead and oil them up with that”, I told Dax, “I’ve got another can, so don’t worry. Use what you need, don’t be shy, but if there’s any left, let me know. I’ll combine ours and offer it to anyone else in the team who had their boots steam-cleaned.” So, a bit later, I’m sitting on my hotel room’s floor, on several sheets of newspaper, rubbing Neatsfoot Oil into my ancient, multinational size 16 EEE Vasque™ Tracker field boots. Then there’s a knock at the door. “It’s open. Enter carefully”, I say aloud. It’s a bell clerk with a room service cart. On the cart are a bucket of ice, a bowl of sliced limes, I think, several gimlet glasses, some Best Korean ‘Air Koryo’ carbonated citrus drink, and a fresh bottle of “Kaesong” vodka. “Compliments of the front desk”, the bellman says. I stand up, tip him a few thousand won, and set a new record in mixology; a fresh brace of drinks in less than 7.3 seconds. I offer the bellman the lighter one and he accepts with a wide smile. I say “건배” (geonbae) literally means 'empty glass', which is similar to the expression 'bottom's up'. For you see, my Korean’s coming along a treat. We clink glasses and send those drinks to the places that they’ll do the best. The bellman smiles offloads the cart onto the table in my room, shakes my hand, and departs. I finish my boots, my drink, and my cigar. After another drink or seven, I crater early. Dax was right; it had been a long, weird day. The next day, Festival! is still going strong, but still no word on the whereabouts of El Líder Supremo. I find that odd, only slightly interesting, and since it will impact the day’s events zero, I file it away for maybe later use. I go to the hotel pool around 0530 and there’s no one there. I’m able to get in a good 100 laps, unburdened with either small talk or by yammering kids blocking my lanes. I go early as I don’t wear gloves in the water, obviously. Statistically, there is less chance there will be others, adults and kids included, that would get freaked out by my gnarly left hand. I really don’t feel like recounting the old Russian Rig Accident story again. After a brisk shower and double shower-scotch back in my room, I dress casually and wander down to the casino and bar level. It’s essentially breakfast time, but with the revelers not giving two hoots to AM vs. PM, it’s surprisingly busy. I find a perch up on Mahogany Ridge and order a classical breakfast cocktail of one liter of beer and 100 milliliters of chilled vodka. I see Mr. Ho is manning the bar. I ask him to ring the massage parlor down the hall and see if Ms. Nang Bo-Hee is free sometime this morning. He does and reports that she has an open hour and a half at 0900. Would I like it or any portion of that time? “I’ll take the lot”, I said. “Tell them I’ll be there spot on 0900.” “That’s great.”, Mr. Ho says, hanging up the phone, “Doctor Rock, they tell me that with the Festival discount and you taking the full 90 minutes, they can cut you a very special deal.” “I’ll bet”, I replied, “Like what?” “Oh, I cannot say for they did not tell me”, he smiled, “They will tell you when you arrive.” “Marvelous”, I exhaled tiredly. “Another, Mr. Ho; make it a double, if you would please.” The massage center here is run by a group not employed directly by the hotel. It’s a separate entity altogether. They run specials and have different discount programs that are not only not controlled nor advertised by the hotel, but they’re also not in any way beholden to the hotel, except for rent, I suppose and run it like their own little fiefdom. Ms. Nang, my preferred masseuse, is a little, tiny Korean lassie about 5 feet tall and probably all of 90 pounds soaking wet. However, she is amazingly well trained and could probably put me in the hospital for a lengthy visit with her wiles and methods of flesh, bone, and muscle manipulation. She offers a whole suite of different massage genres: Swedish, hot stone, aromatherapy, deep tissue, sport, trigger point, reflexology, shiatsu, Thai, and Rolfing. Oh, fuck. I know Rolfing. I tried that nonsense back in grad school with an old east Indian lady that could have linebackered for the Minnesota Vikings. That shit fucking hurt. Today, it’d incapacitate me permanently. That’s a definite no-go. I decide that it’s going to be the Hot Stone-treatment today. A geological-manipulation inquiry. At 0900 I’m the only client at the massage ‘store’. It’s early, day two of the festival, and people are either sleeping off the previous night’s festivities or too wobbly to even think of partaking in a massage. I’ve had several major back surgeries over the years, including one bilateral laminectomy about seven years ago that removed 7.5 kilos of overgrown bone and muscle from my lumbar region, so I’ve been very cautious about soliciting a massage. The masseuse has to know that area is strictly verboten and will do everything to avoid annoying that particular piece of bodily real-estate. I’ve walked or limped out of massages before where the practitioner said they understood my reticence, but went ahead and kneaded and provoked that land of keloids and deep-body scar tissue. However, based on past experience, Ms. Nang knows full well my reluctance as well as my desires. That’s the reason I’m returning. She’s very, very good; a consummate professional and has a never-ending series of jokes and observations while she’s pummeling you into submission. Today, we retire to a private cubicle and she hands me a small robe or napkin, not sure which, of Korean manufacture. She tells me to get au natural and to wear the robe while she prepares the tools of her trade. OK, I’m not a small person; not by a long shot. This robe, however, is made for a sprite, not even for a small person. She returns to our massage cubicle as I’m sitting there, at the end of the massage table, sipping my drink clad only in my dapper red-and-white checkered boxers. “You need to be unclothed, Doctor. Use the robe. OK, sir Rock?” she says. “Ms. Nang,”, I said, shaking my head, “It’s one or the other.” I show her how laughable the robe is as I can’t even get it over my upper arm. It’s not even as a tea towel when it comes to covering my expansive acres of exposed epidermis. “I can close door.”, she says, “I’m used to it. I am professional. Does not bother me if it does not bother you.” I lost all forms of bashfulness, timidity, or prudery long, long ago. After years and years of Russian banya, Swedish massage, Turkish baths, and surgery; well, if it don’t bother you, it don’t bother me. “OK”, I say, using the robe as a small two-dimensional breechcloth. She tells me to ‘hop’ up on the massage table and lie down, facing the floor. After chuckling about the fact that I haven’t hopped for decades, I wander over to the nicely padded and extremely clean massage table and lie down. She rearranges the ‘robe’ to cover my backside and tells me to relax. She’ll be right back with the stones. I’ve never tried this type of massage before, but as a geologist, I must; if for nothing else, progress in the name of science. Ms. Nang returns with a large parcel consisting of many sizes of steamed stones. They were river-washed and tumbled basalt from the looks of them, all wrapped in a large fuzzy towel. Now she finds the large towels… She selects them one by one and places them in ‘special, strategic’ spots on my exposed back. From the lower 2/3rds of the nape of the neck, down the spine, over the fundus mountains, and down the back of each leg. It’s a warm, almost hot in some places, but not an uncomfortable feeling. She returns to adjust them, grind them in a bit in places, and flip them to extract all that igneous lithological thermal goodness. I have to admit, at that point, it was feeling quite delightful. Relaxed; I had my drink and was being kneaded My dorsal musculature was being de-lithified by the application of hot rocks and expert point massage. All was going quite well as Ms. Nang was building a huge tip in her ‘job well done’ bank. Then the rocks had all attained room temperature. She excused herself to reload with another minor outcrop’s-worth and told me to flip over for round two of the process. “In for a dime, in for a dollar”, I said, as I flipped over and use the robe as a laughable forward-facing breechcloth. Ms. Nang mentioned that she was always fascinated by Westerners and their surplus of bodily fuzz. With my long, shoulder-length silver hair, full Grizzly Adams beard that drooped down to my sternum, and torso that picked up where my beard left off; she was quite unprepared to see the beached silver-gray panda that awaited upon her return. “Dr. Rock!’, she exclaimed, “You are as a bear! So much hair. And silver color!” “Yeah, sorry”, I replied, “Just the hand genetics dealt me. I guess it’s an adaptation for ethanol-fueled organisms that never feel cold.” “I will soon return.” She titters excitedly and almost runs out of the room. “Hmmm. I wonder what that’s all about?” I muse as I lie largely undraped in the massage cubicle. Suddenly, the door bursts open and every female massage practitioner there herded into the room. They simply had to see the specimen upon which the delightful Ms. Nang was working. OK, truth be told, I was a bit taken aback. Here I am lying on an elevated, and heavily padded, massage table. I’m ‘wearing’ only a crooked, worried grin and a sheet of a cotton washcloth that measures about 12x12 inches. They Oohed! and Ahhhed! I did feel like some form of an alien animal suddenly thrust out into public view. It was a bit disconcerting, but as usual, I just tried to deflect any unease with jokes and idiot remarks. At my age, not much is going to bother me, and this I found all the more laughable than troubling. Suddenly, I was fielding their barrage of questions: “You are American? All American men so…hairy?” “Yes and no”, I replied. I also mentioned I hadn’t undertaken a study in that particular subject. “Why you so big?” one tiny lass asked, eyes as big as dinner plates. “Genetics”. I replied. “Just a corn-fed Baja Canadian doofus. We grow ‘em big back home.” “Can we touch?” one particularly brave little lass asks. “Touch what?” I asked. Look, I might be over 6 decades old, but there are still some areas reserved for my one and only betrothed. I did tell Esme of this whole event later that evening during our nightly call. She laughed herself silly. “Your beard! Oriental men never have such beard. We touch maybe?” she implored. I was going to say “Go nuts”, but I decided that a simple “Sure” would be more fitting. So they did. They were enthralled. They had never before, from what I was told, seen such a large silver-gray ZZ Top-style beard, especially here at the hotel. That part was weird enough, but when they started in on working their way south toward the equator, I had to say something to dissuade them. “Where were you girls 45 years ago?” I laughed. I don’t think they got the joke. They became somewhat bolder in their austral exploratory activities. “OK! Time out! Ms. Nang! We have an appointment to keep”, I said as I shooed the rest of the lassies away, “We need to finish what we started.” By the time that the third syllable of that last sentence came into being, I knew it wasn’t the right thing to say. They all laughed and tittered as Ms. Nang ushered them out of the room. I could have sworn I heard the door lock behind them. Ms. Nang reprieved her earlier stone placement therapy, with a couple of strategic detours. She wasn’t that type of masseuse, and I wasn’t looking for that type of massage. She did, however, knead and pummel me mercilessly. I’ve been bruised less from barroom brawls. Finally, she announces that she’s finished. She’ll leave while I shower, as she used essential aromatic oils, and would await me out in the lobby. After showering, I felt like a large bowl of pummeled Jello. I felt relaxed, and for the first time in weeks, my back was silent. My head was clear as a spring Sunday morn in Reykjavik. The full 90 minutes, plus sideshow, was 4,500 won. I paid the owner the required sum and handed Ms. Nang an additional 15,000 for a job well done. And for another anecdote that goes into the hopper. I left the massage parlor feeling quite fine, thank you. I wandered over to the bar to see if I could augment and prolong this feeling of harmony with the universe. The mental picture even now of all those cooing Korean lassies in the massage room never fails to elicit a laugh and head shake. A few hours later, I’m back in my room, tidying up my field notes and making certain all my paperwork was heavily encoded and up to date. It was, so I placed a number of expensive overseas calls to catch up with everyone on the outside. I’m thinking of calling room service to have my mini-bar repaired when my room phone rings. “Now who would be calling me at this hour?” I wondered. It was the tour group leader. He informed me that the itinerary had been worked out and we’d be leaving tomorrow for the field at 0600. We were to arrive with all our luggage and be prepared to check out. We would spend at least a week in the field, if not two, depending on our results, and be bivouacking in different places in the interior of the country. I thanked him for the information and said I’d inform the rest of the team. He told me that wouldn’t be necessary as they would come up to or floor, deliver the notice verbally, or by note if they were out of their rooms. If I wanted to later call each participant and ensure they were apprised of the situation, that would be most appreciated. I assured him I would do so and that we’d be ready, to a man, at 0600 the next day. I whip up 10 Post-it™ notes and stick one on each member’s door. “Leaving for the field. Check out 0530. Wheels up 0600. Bring all luggage. Road trip!” To be continued…
Author note: The Cryopod to Hell is a Reddit-exclusive story with over three years of editing and refining. As of this post, the total rewrite is 208 parts long and 880,000+ words. For more information, check out the link below: What is the Cryopod to Hell? Official Discord Server. Support me on Patreon! Every dollar helps, and you get access to lots of art and other cool stuff! Want to read the whole story without waiting? Click here. It's free! I will be reposting the full story on HFY until I've caught up with the current timeline. During that period, I will update the reposted parts to edit them more cohesively, as well. Once I catch up, new parts will be posted on HFY and RedditSerials, alongside my main subreddit as they become available. Thank you for reading, and enjoy. ................................... (Previous Part) (Part 001) ... "Oh? Still alive? I could have sworn I finished you." "GRRL-BLUK!" Satan opens his mouth and spews saltwater from his mouth and nose. The Devil hacks and coughs for a few seconds before blinking his eyes open. Poseidon towers 30 feet above us. Wearing a golden crown and green fish-scale armor, the Titan stands like a god against the shadow of the midday sun. "Your people aren't usually this resilient," Poseidon mutters. The Ocean King raises his trident and prepares to lance it into my heart again. "But no matter. Stepping foot within a mile of my waters will prove to be your undoing." His weapon rushes toward me. Satan's eyes bolt open. Our Vectors kick into overdrive, yanking us to the left with astounding force. The twenty-five-foot tall trident impales the spot we were laying in and rattles the Earth, sending a tremor deep into the continental plates. Poseidon's eyes follow us. "Hm? You dodged?" Satan slams onto his left arm and rolls a few times before his Vectors stop his momentum. The Devil blinks the dizziness from his head, jumps to his feet, and strikes a defensive pose. "Damn right, I did. Who the fuck are you, lanky-legs?" The world around us, while still black and dead, is noticeably less ashen and prickly compared to before the tsunami. The sand and dirt, now waterlogged from Poseidon's attack, splashes beneath our feet. Several inches of water slowly retreat to the ocean as the remnants of his tsunami drains away. Poseidon chuckles. "Heh. You're a funny little demon. Why pretend you don't know me? I've dragged enough of your kind to a watery grave. Surely, you understand you'll be shark-food by daybreak." Satan's eyes flick over Poseidon's shoulder. The sun appears to be in the same spot as before. Hardly any time has passed since the tsunami struck us. Damn, Satan thinks to himself. That Titan's attack was brutal. Felt like it crushed every bone in my body. The fact I regenerated at the cost of only one soul is remarkable. Satan glowers at the armored giant. "First time I've met one of you. Well, I spanked Hercules' ass real good once, crushed a few lady Titan heads too, but you're the first big one I've seen in the flesh. Do all Titans look as ugly as you, or are you special?" Poseidon narrows his gaze. He yanks his trident up, spins it in his grasp, and plants its butt in the sand. "You're lucky I've let you live this long, demon. Don't test my patience. Tell me, how did you survive my attack? I skewered you right through the heart." Satan grins. "My heart? You must be mistaken. I ain't got one, big boy." "Somehow, that doesn't surprise me." Poseidon remains motionless for two seconds. In the blink of an eye, he cocks his head, and a tendril of water jumps up from our feet. The hyper-compressed beam of water smashes into my face, catching Satan off-guard as it drills out his eye and sends us flying. "Gahk! Shit!" Satan utters a curse before he splashes face-first into the flooded plain. Sand and seawater rush into our nose. Satan recoils and grabs his left eye. "Bloody sin! Spawn of a broodmother! Gahhh!" Spitting the sand from his mouth, Satan whirls to face Poseidon. Our chest heaves with rage. Blood trickles from our gouged-out eyeball and drips down the left side of our face. Despite the searing fire burning in our eye socket, Satan somehow manages to open his other eye. "Oh, you're gonna regret that, fish-boy," Satan hisses. "I thought we were having a polite conversation, but it seems you've got a death wish!" Poseidon grins from ear to ear. "Still kicking? I'm surprised. That attack should have turned your head into meat-paste. Aren't you just a hardy little guy?" Little guy, Satan thinks to himself. Poseidon's words ring in his ear. You know what they say, chump. The bigger they are... Poseidon cocks his head again, this time firing a bolt of water at us from behind. Satan doesn't react. One of his Vectors sweeps back and bats the compressed water aside, transforming it into a harmless mist upon our back. "The same trick won't work on me twice, you floppy little tuna-fish." Poseidon's smile slips. "How did you block that? I didn't see you move." This time, it's Satan who grins. He pulls his hand away from his face, revealing our gouged-out left eye. The Devil balls his hand into a fist. It trembles as he tries to control his rage. "I have a question for ya, chump. Since I'm a dead demon anyway, it shouldn't hurt ya to answer." Poseidon rests his free hand on his hip. "Oh? What would that be?" "How many demons currently walk the Earth?" The Titan frowns. "What sort of question is that? Are you mocking me?" Satan shakes his head. "Nope. Call it a dead man's final request. I'd like to know since you've fought my people in the past." The Titan purses his lips. "I see. So that's what you mean. Mmm. Too many. A few million, perhaps. My brother, Zeus, has been far too lax in eliminating them." Satan's jaw slackens. A few million? I thought Raphael said they all died! Samael speaks inside my mind. "Oho. It seems my brother may have fibbed." "Yeah," Satan mutters. "But that means we're still in this fight. Hoho. That might mean... Nerissa..." Satan clutches his chest for a moment. I thought they all died. Raphael, ever the crafty fox, told me lies to try and break my spirit. Unfortunately for that old bastard, his words solidified my resolve. Now I'm back, and nobody can stop me. Satan flashes a grin at Poseidon. "Thank you for the info, pal. I appreciate it. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to kill myself." The Titan falters. "What?" "Don't worry. This won't take long." Satan holds up two fingers in a peace sign. An instant later, his Vectors rush toward our head from both sides. My stomach clenches as our vision turns to rainbows and sunshine. With our head crushed, we lose consciousness and fall into blackness. ................................................... Recommended Listening Satan's eyes bolt open. Our vision returns in full force, now that his left eye has regenerated. He pounces to his feet to see Poseidon much closer than before. The Titan retreats two steps in shock. "What?! Impossible! What sort of trickery was that?! Your head burst like a watermelon! I've never, in all my years-" Satan holds up a hand. "I've heard enough from you, waterboy. It's time to teach you a little respect." Poseidon flinches. Before Satan even attacks, the Titan reacts as if he knows we're coming. Satan slams all his vectors into the ground, leaving eight handprints in the sand. An instant later, we rush at the Titan's chest and rear our fist back. The impact of Satan's punch transforms Poseidon's bones into jelly. His massive body flings backward violently. He spins, twists, and careens across the beach, before eventually skidding to a stop. Satan lands in a crouch. "Nobody likes a wiseass." The Titan coughs. It takes him a moment to pull himself together. He eventually stands up, but his body trembles as pain courses through him. "Y-you... hoo... wheeze..." Poseidon gingerly touches his chest with a trembling hand. After regaining his balance, he summons healing water to coat his palm, and rubs his ribs carefully. It only takes a few seconds for him to repair the damage from Satan's ridiculously powerful punch. A minute later, the Titan shakes the stars out of his head. "You surprised me... d-demon... to think such unimaginable strength could exist in a tiny body like yours..." "Yeah," Satan replies. "That's me. Full of surprises." Poseidon's eyes narrow. "That attack just now... there was something familiar about it." Satan smirks. "What, are you a masochist or something? To each his own. I wouldn't want to get in the way of your fetish." "That's not what I-!" Poseidon halts midsentence as Satan pounces at him. The Devil clears the three-hundred foot gap nearly as quickly as he did the shorter one a minute earlier. In the blink of an eye, we race at Poseidon's chest. At the last second, one of Satan's vectors grabs the Titan's shoulder, flips us into the air, and yanks us toward Poseidon's head. Danger! Satan's mind screams a warning. Before he can crush Poseidon's head as part of his grand finale, he yanks himself to the left instead. I don't understand why, until I spot a compressed stream of water shoot at our previous position. Our chest would likely have been vaporized had we not dodged. The Devil slams his feet into the ground and dives to the side. Right on cue, several beams of water smash into the sand behind us, drilling holes the size of fists in our wake. Satan uses his vectors to yank himself out of Poseidon's attack range. We land in a crouch atop a boulder planted in the sand, and Satan spins on his heel to face Poseidon. The Titan turns to face us. A look of awe mixed with fear crosses his face. "If I hadn't witnessed it myself, I wouldn't have believed it." Satan raises an eyebrow. His tone turns incredulous. "Huh? What are you on about, whale-breath?" Poseidon gestures to the sand. The handprints of several vectors stand out among the otherwise smooth surface. Within seconds, the continuously retreating floodwaters begin to wash them away. "Do you think me daft, demon? Who are you? How did you obtain the same ability as Samael, the Archangel of Change?" Satan's jovial spirit disappears. Samael appears in our mind's eye and smirks. "Oh, did I forget to tell thee? Poseidon was one of the Titans I used to spar against during the few hundred years before Raphael created Heaven. He knows the reach and strength of my Vectors better than many others." Satan squeezes his fist tighter. Damn you, ugly-ass bat. You knew that and didn't tell me?! Fucking asshole. Now I'm at a disadvantage! Samael can't hear our thoughts. However, the Archangel's grin widens further. "I see the look on thy face, Satan. Thou art scared. Poseidon is one of the five mightiest Titans still walking the cosmos. Thou hath encountered quite the misfortune to meet him here." "Shut up," Satan mutters. "I'm thinkin'." The Demon and Titan eye each other warily. Poseidon's question hangs in the air like a corpse's stench, causing him greater and greater concern for each passing second Satan doesn't respond. Finally, Satan nods. "You wanna know, Mister Po-po? I'll tell ya... but only when one of us wins this battle." "As if you ever had a chance," Poseidon replies through gritted teeth. "Since you've somehow come into possession of the Eight Vectors, it's only fair I unleash my counter-measure." Satan tenses up. What's he talkin' about? To my surprise, Poseidon rears his arm back, spins to face the ocean, and flings his trident with all his strength. The weapon races out to sea and pierces the frothing waves with scarcely a sound. Now barehanded, the Titan weaves several magic signs. Saltwater leaps from the ocean nearby, splashes against his back, and transforms into eight octopus-style appendages. Each liquid tentacle moves independently in a similar manner to Satan's invisible limbs. Poseidon smiles. "Right now, you're thinking to yourself that you still have an advantage. You can follow the movements of my octopus-style water-magic... but I can't do the same for your Vectors. Isn't that right?" Satan shifts his feet slightly. "Maybe." "I bet you also think that fighting on land puts me at a disadvantage compared to you." The Devil's discomfort intensifies. "Anything's possible, pal." A terrifying grin spreads across the Titan's face. "Well... you're correct! And you're still going to lose!" One moment, the Titan stands before me. In the next, he transforms into liquid and splashes into the receding floodwaters. Satan flinches. A hand as big as a boulder bursts out of the water behind us, forcing us to leap aside. Before our feet hit the sopping wet sand, a cackle erupts from beneath us. "Ahahaha! Wrong move, little demon! Now you've entered my domain!" Our foot hits the water with a splash. Out of nowhere, a tsunami springs up behind us. The roar of saltwater rips forward, clearing the gap in the blink of an eye. We can't dodge. FWOOSH! One hundred tons of seawater yank us out into the ocean. Our Vectors try to anchor us to the shore, but all we manage to grab are clumps of sand. Satan screams internally. SHIT! Not this again!! ............................................................ Recommended Listening Our body careens uncontrollably deeper and deeper into the sea. Satan spins violently, unable to control his movements. Like a washing machine set to max speed or a toilet flushing us down an endless drain, we spiral further into the depths of Poseidon's realm, unable to stop our momentum. Can't breathe! Water! Nose! Mouth! Satan gurgles and gargles as mounting pressure continually compresses his body from seemingly all directions. Even with his insane strength, the Devil's thoughts become sluggish. Hahaha! Look at you now, foolish demon! Poseidon's voice booms in our ears. It comes from everywhere around us, amplified by the properties of the water pressing against our ears. What's wrong? Kraken got your tongue? Where are your witty one-liners now? Satan frantically scans the area, searching for the Titan. Our eyes prove useless in the murky depths, especially since we can't control our spinning. What do I do?! Satan's panic becomes overwhelming. I can barely think with all the horrible things happening to our body, and I'm only experiencing a vision of the past! The Devil tucks his arms and legs in. He forces himself to consider his options, even as something unseen slams against our back, nearly shattering our spine. Poseidon begins striking us from all angles, using his incredible aquatic agility to outmaneuver us. I understand how your powers work, foul bloodskin! You regenerate your body after death, don't you? That means even if you drown, you'll revive a minute later. No matter! I'll trap you at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, where you'll perish over and over for all eternity! A fitting end for a monster like you! Satan winces as something batters his legs. Gotta... gotta breathe. Powers... powers... one of the demons... had to have... underwater breathing... To my surprise, a series of faces begin to appear in Satan's memories. It takes me a moment to understand their significance. They represent the souls of all the demons who died that were bound to Satan's Soul Contracts. Satan's mind frantically scans the faces of each demon. Not him, not him, not her... shit! Shit! Suddenly, one woman's face freezes in his mind. In the blink of an eye, Satan begins motioning with his hands. Despite being unable to speak any magical incantations, he manages to summon the innermost parts of his mana. Satan's feet shift. Web-like padding sprouts between his fingers and toes, giving him the ability to swim like a fish. Gills sprout beside his voice-box. Satan exhales, ejecting the toxins from his lungs. The demoness's powers not only transform his hands and feet, but his mind, too. Satan expertly swats out his right arm and left leg, bringing his endless spiral to a sudden stop. Hardly has he finished before Poseidon, back in his Titan form, rushes toward us through the muddy seawater. Finally stopped spinning?! Let's start again, child! The Titan batters us with enough force to shatter our skeleton into fragments. However, Satan's vectors lash out and deflect the hit at the last instant, narrowly saving Satan's life. Poseidon swims past us and disappears into the cloud of mud surrounding us. Oh? Your body has changed. I didn't know you possessed aquatic attributes. You're a fascinating bloodskin. Can't say I've fought someone like you in all my life. Satan narrows his eyes as he searches for his attacker. I can't talk underwater. Wish I could. I'd let him know just how disappointed I am. Eight tendrils of water burst through the mud. Poseidon's Octopus Form strikes us from all directions, forcing Satan's vectors to knock them away. However, while underwater, each one becomes visible. Their speed decreases noticeably, hampered by the ocean as it slows their movements. As a result, Satan proves unable to deflect Poseidon's attacks. Each tendril evades our Vectors with deadly precision and knocks us for a loop. They slap us around like a pinball wizard at the top of his game. Satan uses his newly-acquired fins to dodge some of Poseidon's attacks, but others land despite his best effort. Our struggles turn into a game of catch-up wherein we never quite match Poseidon's proficiency at underwater combat, but the Titan can't land a killing blow, either. Stay still, you little runt! I'm trying to make your death quick and painless! Poseidon continues to taunt us. Satan ignores the Titan's words to focus on defense. Alright. I've had enough of this guy's shit. How can I turn the tables? A minute passes. Poseidon's attacks slow down somewhat. Either that, or Satan grows better at following the movements of the Titan's tendrils. I'm not certain which. At some point, Satan begins easily dodging and deflecting the Titan's incoming barrage. By the ancestral spirits! You're a hardy fellow; I'll give you that much. The Devil flinches, expecting another attack. Instead, Poseidon's tendrils dissipate into the water around us. Silence. Several seconds pass. The Titan doesn't attack us. Satan's eyes scan his surroundings. What the heck is Flipper-Flopper doing? Tch. It doesn't matter. I need to get out of this mud-cloud before he hits me again. Using his flippers and Vectors to augment his swimming, the devil rapidly ascends toward the surface. The only evidence we're heading in the right direction is the faintest glint of sunlight above, as well as Satan's demonic intuition. C'mon, c'mon... almost there! Poseidon's voice booms, startling us. I don't remember saying you could leave! Get back down here! Out of nowhere, an underwater whirlpool begins spinning all around us — Satan's upward momentum halts. His movements slow, then reverse. No! Bloody devils!! Satan screams internally as the Titan's magic yanks us toward a deep, watery grave once again. Satan's rage begins to build. This son of a walrus! Nobody treats me like a chew toy! NOBODY!! Even as Satan falls further toward the depths of the bright blue sea, options and strategies bubble in his mind. Can't outswim the little rat-bastard, can't manipulate water like him... Samael appears in our mind. "Having fun, Satan? It seems that Poseidon has placed thee between a rock and a hard place. Soon, he will entrap thee and bind thy putrid flesh at the bottom of the sea. Thou may have escaped the Cosmic Realm, but a far worse fate awaits thee." Shut up, Samael! I don't have time for your shit! Satan ignores the Archangel taunting him. Every second, his rage builds further and further. Suddenly, a solution presents itself. Satan tucks his body in again, spreads his arms apart, and claps with all his strength. WHOOMPH. A shockwave ripples outward, rattling our teeth in the process. The Whirlpool slows dramatically, allowing us to get our bearings. Satan grins. Being underwater has some advantages, eh? Once more, he spreads his arms apart, then slams his palms together with all his strength. WHOOMPH! An even bigger shockwave blasts outward, making all of our internal organs shiver and tremble. Wrenching pain burns in our stomach, but Satan forces himself to ignore it. Stop that! Poseidon yells. I didn't permit you to move, bloodskin! Satan's grin widens until it stretches across his whole face. Oh, Poseidon... I'm gonna tear you a new blowhole. The Devil's hands turn into a blur. He performs one magical sign after another, forcing mana to bubble in his stomach. The sensation reminds me of how he killed himself in the Cosmic Realm, but this time, the kinetic energy potential inside of himself dwarfs that which he used before. Samael's eyes widen. "What art thou doing? Satan? Satan?!" The Devil cackles evilly, though his voice turns into little more than gurgled croaking. Hahaha! You shouldn't have brought me here, Poseidon! Say goodbye to all your little fishy friends! From the deepest, darkest part of the ocean, I spot a shimmer of green. Poseidon swims toward me at top speeds, his trident held at the ready. He aims for my chest. Don't you dare! Satan finishes his last sign right as Poseidon impales his weapon through our chest. That was the wrong move, dolphin-tickler. As if the Titan had popped a bubble, something inside my body bursts. A light as bright as the sun erupts underwater. The last thing I see is a look of terror on Poseidon's face as Satan's body transforms into a living bomb. NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! ................................................................ I awaken underwater again. This time, I float amongst a field of blood and body parts. Not far from me, Poseidon's massive form floats, inert, his right arm and much of his chest missing. The Titan's eyes blink weakly. Unable to move, his body likely suffers from dozens of ruptured internal organs. Satan swims over, grabs the Titan by his hair, and begins swimming toward the surface. Let... let me... go.... Poseidon croaks out a few words of protest. The Titan King tries to swat the tiny demon, but Satan merely rolls his eyes and ignores him. It only takes us a few minutes to reach the surface. Along the way, we spot thousands of dead fish, several jellyfish, and even a shark. They all float belly-up and slowly sink toward the bottom of the ocean. Satan shakes his head. Too bad about the fishies. I ain't got nothin' against 'em. Blame this guy. He brought me down here. We burst onto the surface and swim toward the coastline only a couple of miles away. At some point, Poseidon tries to fight back by flailing his left arm at us, but his strength is so feeble that he barely manages to touch our feet before the current pulls his arm back to his side. When we reach the shoreline, Satan plants his feet on the beach and flings the Titan further inland. Poseidon slams into the sand with a tremendous whump! Blood pours from his open wounds. Poseidon wheezes over and over. "Buh... bastard... you won't... get away with thuh... this..." Satan replaces his gills with lungs. He reverts to his demon form and nods along to the Titan's words. "Uh huh. Sure." "My... my brother... Zeus... he will..." The Devil strides up to the giant. We stare at him silently for a few moments. "He ain't gonna do shit. Y'know why? Because I'm Satan the fuckin' Devil. Nobody can beat me. You had all the advantages, and now look at'cha. You're a beached whale. You're out of your element. Pickin' on me was the biggest mistake of your life." The Titan lolls his head toward us. A look of determination enters his eyes. "You think I'll... beg for my life? Never... never... you can take my life... but you'll never take my pride. I'm the... the King... of the Seas..." Satan grins. "More like... the King of Deceased. Hah! Aw, man. That was a good one." Samael sighs. "Thy wit is truly incredible, Satan." "Shut the fuck up, Samael." My words ring in the air. Poseidon's eyes widen. "Sam... Samael? Is he here? Where? How?" "I ate him," Satan replies. "Sucked up his soul. Got all of his powers. Good call on figuring us out, whale-caller, but it wasn't enough. I possess the powers of thousands of demons, a few Titans, and an Archangel too! Every being I devour only makes me stronger. Pretty good deal, innit?" "You've... you've beaten... Titans... before?" Satan shrugs. "A few. Anyway, enough chit-chat. I've got shit to do, and places to be. Any last words?" Poseidon goes silent. The massive giant stares at us for several seconds as he digests the realization he's about to die. Finally, he closes his eyes. "I was... wrong about you, demon. You're not like... like the other trash... you're different... a warrior... a kindred spirit..." The Titan coughs weakly. He puts his last drops of strength into one final proclamation. "If you... are the one... to defeat me... you are a... a... a worthy..." Poseidon exhales. His body goes limp as the last bits of his spirit vanish from this world. Satan scratches his head. "Ahh, shit. He died. Oh well. Head time!" With a merry whistle, the Devil saunters over, lashes out his vectors, and severs Poseidon's massive head. Nearly the size of our body, it takes all of Satan's power to crush. He puts every drop of his strength into smashing Poseidon's head like a ripe watermelon, spilling the Titan's brains and cerebral fluid everywhere. Pausing, Satan takes several seconds to blink as a tremendous amount of mana floods into his body. "Whoa. Damn. That Titan was no joke." Turning to face the ocean, Satan motions with his hands, and a small wave splashes against the shore. "Nice." Samael shakes his head. "Another friend, lost to the brutality and machinations of the Devil. Why am I not surprised?" "Oh, please," Satan says, rolling his eyes. "Not five minutes ago, you proclaimed that Poseidon was going to bury me under the coral reef for all eternity. Don't pretend like you saw my victory coming." Samael nods. "Fair enough. Thou hath surprised me, Satan. Thy ingenuity surpasses many beings I've met during my lifetime." "What can I say? I'm a smart guy." Satan snaps his fingers. "Welp, now that that's over, time to start looking. If Poseidon told the truth, there're millions of demons alive on Earth. I need to find 'em and figure out what's happened while I was gone." "Poseidon was never one to lie," Samael says. His voice softens. "I always considered him a truthful person." "Stop with the sappy bullshit," Satan groans. "You're gonna make me vomit." The Devil turns away from the ocean and starts to take a step forward. Suddenly, he stops. Before us, perhaps a hundred feet away, a horned figure peeps out from behind a piece of large driftwood on the beach. When he notices I've spotted him, he jumps up and runs toward me. "Holy shit! Satan?! Izzat you?!" The young demon stomps across the sand, leaving footprints in his wake. A stupid grin spreads across his face as he draws near. Satan raises an eyebrow. "Do I know you?" "Yeah, duh! It's me, Barbatos! I'm one of your top generals! Your best guy! Your number one, biggest fan!" Satan scrunches up his face. "I'd remember you if that were the case, kid." Barbatos claps his hands eagerly. "Ah! I knew you were alive! Everyone said you were dead, but I always believed in you! You're like, the toughest demon ever!" Satan frowns. "Ah, yeah. Good to see you too, twerp. Look, uh, why are you here? How did you find me?" Barbatos claps his hands. "That's easy! I'm your number one fan! I'll always find you! Ehehehe! Come on, you gotta follow me! I'll take you to the others." "The other demons?" Barbatos nods eagerly. "Yup! Everyone's hiding in underground caves, but I know where to find the entrances. C'mon, let's go!" Satan exhales. Devils. This runt has the shrillest voice I've heard in my entire life. I can't stand listening to him. There isn't a chance I'd forget someone as miserable as him, not even after tens of thousands of years. Despite his misgivings, Satan falls into step beside Barbatos. The grunt glances at Poseidon's body. "You killed the King of the Seas?" "Mhm." "Holy crap! I knew you were awesome!" The corner of Satan's lip tugs into a smile. "Yeah. He's the King of Deceased, now." Barbatos's smile widens. "Bahaha! That's hilarious! Great joke!" "Thanks, kid. I'm glad someone around here knows good humor." "Huh?" "Nothing." The Devil and Grunt continue walking toward the black forest, leaving Poseidon's headless body to cook under the light of the sun. Next Part
UFC Fight Night Raleigh (Blaydes v JDS) Fight Predictions
Hello everyone! I don't really have a whole lot to say about this card, it's an okay Fight Night card, there will be somewhat a lack of gifs and all that stuff for this event because ive been a little run down recently, lots of financial issues and ive been a wee bit sick (hot days, then cold days, that usual shit) so i tried, i'm sorry if this is a disappointing post. (c) - Champ (D) - Debut FLS - Fight Lose Streak FWS - Fight Win Streak NS - No Streak (#x) - Rank in division Lets go! Prelim Featherweight Nate Landwehr (D) (#5 Russia) (13-2-0, 7 FWS) v Herbert Burns (D) (9-2-0, 3 FWS) - This is an interesting first fight of the event, and since both fighters are debuting please don’t expect me to go deep since there’s not much out there on some debuting fighters. Landwehr is a very dominant grappler outside of the UFC, with great submission abilities and considering he has wins over some very experienced fighters, this is no doubt a great addition to the Featherweight roster. I’m interested to see how he handles the big spotlight that the UFC is. Burns I believe is the older brother of the elite submission artist, Gilbert Burns. If Herbert is anything like his younger brother, he’s going to be an absolute monster on the ground, so I kinda expect this fight to take place mostly on the ground. Anyway, this is mostly an educational fight so I'll be watching to see if Landwehr really deserves to be in the UFC (in my opinion, he absolutely does), or if Burns has the skills that his brother has shown over and over in his fights in the UFC. Landwehr via UD Bantamweight Brett Johns (15-2-0, 2 FLS) v Tony Gravely (D) (#2 US) (19-5-0, 7 FWS) - Another fight featuring a fairly interesting new fighter! Johns was on a long, undefeated streak up until his fight on the Barboza v Lee card, despite facing absolute killers, he’s an incredible tough, well rounded fighter who specialises on the ground game, Johns is incredible when it comes to controlling his opponent on the ground, everything is seemingly planned out on the go to ensure that he has the best position and can dish the best ground and pound and get a strong submission in. He has fallen short recently when he fought Sterling and Munhoz but i feel that’s because the UFC pushed him a little too early. This matchup is great, he has a fresh start in 2020, fighting a debuting, more experienced fighter, it’s going to be interesting! Gravely is very new to the UFC and his fight on DWCS was a great performance, he did get hit a few times from his opponent but his constant pressure and powerful, powerful shots were beautiful. Gravely is a very physically strong fighter who has no difficulty picking up and slamming his opponents. His finish against Rodriguez was very strong and left quite a positive impression on me. This is an interesting fight, I feel like if Johns can keep the pressure up on the feet he can negate Gravely’s power, but Gravely is also very slick with his boxing, it’s a close one to predict and I feel like Johns has this one but only barely. Johns via UD Women’s Bantamweight Sara McMann (#14) (11-5-0, 2 FLS) v Lina Lansberg (#11) (10-4-0, 2 FWS) - I cannot give enough fucks about McMann even if i was paid to give at least one fuck. She has fought so rarely that I barely remember her last fight, maybe because it was against another rather forgettable fighter, and even before that we saw her lazily “ground and cardio box” Vieira, and this was 2 years ago, in those 2 years, she has shown nothing worth noting. She is a very accomplished wrestler with many many awards and competitions won. But as it is with most older fighters, they face younger and far more advanced fighters and they lose, this is one such case. Lansberg isn’t called the elbow queen for nothing, she has excellent clinch work and much more recently her wrestling and grappling has been on point, she has improved so much over the past couple of years, despite her slips and falls she’s still developing and working on her ground game because her striking is as good as she’s going to get it. Her fight against Chiasson was hard to watch as a Chiasson fan, but she did great work in the clinch, lots of control but not much action. This is going to be an interesting fight and i think Lansberg will want to keep this on the feet, because no way can she outwrestle someone like McMann. Lansberg via UD Bantamweight Montel Jackson (8-1-0, 2 FWS) v Felipe Corales (9-1-0, 2 FWS) - This is a fun matchup. Jackson is a very entertaining fighter and I’m pretty stoked to see him fight on this card. His jab is a thing of true beauty that’s assisted by his reach advantage over most of his opponents. He is also excellent at grappling and has great control on the ground. He’s still relatively new in the UFC and after facing Soukhamthath i’m eager for more entertainment and we got it with Corales. Corales is also fairly new but he’s a very good grappler. He has not shown any skill on his feet but his ability to control his opponent on the ground is really great. Ultimately though we haven’t seen a whole lot of him in total so this would be a great challenge. Obviously the heavy favourite is Jackson and I agree wholeheartedly, he’s much more well rounded and if he can keep it on the feet, he’ll be able to throw strikes and use his reach to his advantage and i think he’ll get it. Jackson via UD Women’s Flyweight Justine Kish (6-2-0, 2 FLS) v Lucie Pudilova (8-5-0, 3 FLS) - This one doesn’t interest me that much. Both fighters are on a losing streak and are pretty much nothing really that important in the division at the moment, and with the Flyweight division being a very shallow division there’s really not much to look forward to even if one of these two did challenge the champ. Kish is a relatively okay well rounded fighter but doesn’t offer that much. Whilst she does have decent cardio and fairly fast, volume punches, she got mauled in her fight against Herrig, and then lost in that rather forgetful fight against Kim, so i’m wondering if she can bring something to the table this time around. Pudilova is an interesting fighter, she stood toe to toe against Aldana and whilst she did get outstruck, she did incredible work against adversity, the fight after that, the one against Carmouche, gave other fighters an idea as to where Pudilova is weak, and that’s on the ground, she got absolutely outwrestled by the dominant Carmouche, and in her most recent fight against Antonina Shevchenko, she got submitted, so, to me that kinda tells me that she’s either going to focus a lot on her ground game before she gets wrestled or submitted again. I don’t know who is going to win this one, I'm kinda hoping Pudilova would have worked on her grappling a little more, so i’ll lean on her for now. Pudilova via UD Featherweight Arnold Allen (15-1-0, 8 FWS) v Nik Lentz (30-10-2, NS) - Allen is an incredibly good striker, his last performance against Gilbern Melendez was beautiful, outstruck him 102 to 23 and managed to sneak in a takedown, just look at these very clean strikes. This dude is incredibly technical as a striker and if he can keep up these boxing skills he’s going to make it very far in a striking heavy division. He’s just, so damn slick i don’t think Lentz will be able to handle him on the feet. I’m not dismaying Lentz’s ability to strike on his feet, his knockout against Maynard is proof enough that he’s got power, but I think Allen is just so much more technical. Lentz is a more wild man but boy has he been around for a long time, with his UFC debut in 2009, he’s now got 11 years of experience and I don't see many signs of him slowing down. His knockout loss against Oliveira was devastating but i mean, Oliveira is an animal. This is a fucking incredible striking fight and I can’t wait to watch it. Allen via KO R2 Middleweight Bevon Lewis (6-2-0, 2 FLS) v Dequan Townsend (21-9-0, NS) - Another incredibly fun fight. Lewis had Hall for most of the fight until Hall absolutely starched him. Lewis has very clean boxing, and despite him being a little behind in his last fight against Stewart, he still displayed fairly good striking and I feel that will be imperative in this fight against Townsend. Lewis is still fairly new in the UFC so it’s a little too early for me to shrug him off but from what I could see with his performance against Hall, I think he’ll make it pretty far. Townsend is coming off a fairly tough loss where he got knocked out by a man built like a tank in Lungiambula, then he got into trouble with USADA for some bullcrap like Cocaine and Fentanyl, Fentanyl i can understand because that’s used for pain and stuff, plus he’s a nurse, the whole thing is a bit of a mess so i’ll shrug that off for now, but when it comes to his skill, he hasn’t shown a whole lot, at least not to us, so i’d like to leave him as an “educational” fighter for now. It’s a tough one to call, bit of a coin toss, but i’m feeling Lewis on this one. Lewis via UD Main Card Light Heavyweight Jamahal Hill (D) (6-0-0, 6 FWS) v Darko Stosic (13-3-0, 2 FLS) - Another interesting debut. Hill is coming off an exceptionally strong win over Poppeck in his DWCS fight. He showed exceptional power and reasonably decent Fight IQ as he kept targetting the body after getting visual queues that Poppeck was hurt. However, I’m quite skeptical about how far he’ll make it in the UFC, he doesn’t exactly have much defense and seems to rely on his power alone, which is fine but we’ve seen that with Walker, a fighter who was on a dangerous streak only to be ended by someone ready. The same will happen in this case, I don’t know if Stosic will be the one to end him or maybe someone further down the line, but either way, I’m not gonna fall on this hype train just yet. Stosic has fallen on some hard times recently, losing to Clark and Nzechukwu in rough fashion. He did have a big highlight win against Kimball in 2018 but since then he’s been outclassed by two tough fighters. But, in this particular case I feel like Stosic might have this. He’s very experienced and that can go very far in these cases where an undefeated, young fighter is coming off some sort of hype. I am probably going to get this fairly wrong so don’t bet on this fight based off this prediction, but i’m gonna have to go with Stosic for this one. Stosic via UD Women’s Strawweight Hannah Cifers (10-3-0, 2 FWS) v Angela Hill (10-7-0, NS) - This is an interesting fight. Cifers has always been underestimated by fans since she got demolished by Barber. I said it before and i’ll say it again, Cifers is a destructive force with beautiful striking and she has shown that in her fights against Esquibel and Viana. She is fairly short and stocky but she carries very fast hands and power. She is still fairly new so there’s still a whole lot to develop in terms of skill, but for now she’s very good on her feet and is slowly developing a ground game. She utilizes slips very well and has excellent head movement but as I said, she’s a developing fighter and her journey is going to be a little rocky. Hill is one of those fighters that seems to be there for the sake of filling a spot, and I feel like her record reflects that. She’s fairly experienced but she has never really done anything big for her career, her only recent highlight was getting a stoppage victory over a debuting fighter in Carnelossi. Hill has very fast hands and can definitely strike but she’s not exactly a specialist in any particular style. She’s a fighter, plain and simple, and sometimes that’s enough. I’m leaning on Cifers on this one though, Cifers has a great array of techniques and she can definitely strike a little cleaner than Hill. Cifers via UD Flyweight Jordan Espinosa (#13) (14-6-0, NS) v Alex Perez (#15) (22-5-0, NS) - A great flyweight bout! Espinosa was a promising fighter that had a big win on DWCS but kinda fell off the map a little with a recent loss over Schnell. Espinosa has great foot movement and very fast hands but what else do you expect in the Flyweight division? Those guys move very fast. I’m not sold on Espinosa yet, especially when it comes to the ground, I feel like once he develops some ground skill he’ll be able to work his way to the ranked fighters but for now, judging on his last performance against Schnell, he needs to stay on the feet. Thankfully Perez is a banger of a fighter and he might have a chance at getting a win over the very talented Perez. Perez is an incredibly well rounded fighter. His wrestling is absolutely beautiful and he’s very fast with his hands, even wild at times. Perez is a hidden gem in the division and he was even a favourite over Benavidez when they fought. This guys got a whole lot of eyes on him and he’s definitely someone to keep an eye out for. Perez has this in my opinion, his wrestling will be key in this fight, I mean, look at this back take, how can you not be impressed by how fast he went from a single leg, straight to the back? Pretty slick. He’s also got great cardio, which is something i saw that Espinosa lacked during his fight on DWCS. This is a great fight and I think Perez has this. Perez via UD Co-Main Event Welterweight Rafael Dos Anjos (#7) (29-12-0, NS) v Michael Chiesa (15-4-0, 2 FWS) - This is a fun one. RDA has been such a big influence in the lightweight division. He’s fought against the very best, with wins over Nate Diaz, Cerrone, Lawler and much more recently Lee, he is one of the most dangerous grapplers in the division and his striking throws a whole lot of people off, because he packs some serious power. His takedowns are picture perfect and his ability to smother and smash his opponents is beautiful. I’m actually surprised him and Maia haven’t fought, because that would have been an incredible bout to view, even if most of it was on the ground, it would be two legitimate BJJ practitioners going at it, with one coming out on top. I feel like if things were to go to the ground and RDA was in control, RDA would most definitely submit you right then and there, and that’s where Chiesa needs to be careful. Chiesa may be great at grappling, but he’s also had a whole lot of setbacks, one major setback was the whole “i had my neck tensed” thing when Lee submitted him with an RNC. It was a strange moment for MMA fans but he definitely showed us his skills when he submitted Condit with a one handed kimura, like who does shit like that? Chiesa is a strange one for me, he’s a great wrestler, somewhat decent striker but I'm still not sure how I feel about him, he’s had his moments but he is also coming up against an absolute animal in RDA, and I can see RDA tooling him everywhere, on the feet, and on the ground. RDA via Sub R2 Main Event Heavyweight Curtis Blaydes (#4) (12-2-0, 2 FWS) v Junior Dos Santos (#5) (21-6-0, NS) - This is one hell of a fight. Blaydes is a very high level wrestler, he’s incredibly strong and he is goddamn aggressive. He cracked open Overeems face until it looked like a damn Demogorgon, and then he had that strong win over Abdurakhimov, Blaydes is just an insanely powerful athlete and he’s going to be trouble for most of the Heavyweight Division, JDS included. Now, i’m not tossing JDS aside because he’s old or anything, but he just isn’t doing as great as he used to, his wins over Tuivasa and Lewis were fairly easy wins in my opinion because the only good traits that Tuivasa and Lewis have are their ability to swang and bang, something JDS is well conditioned against. Blaydes is just a whole different animal and JDS is going to feel that. The pressure, strength and the ground and pound that Blaydes will unleash in the octagon is going to wear JDS down and that’s where we’ll see a strong finish, I don’t think it’ll go all 5 rounds. Blaydes via KO R2 All done! I know there's probably some bias with the Main Event, i usually have very strong opinions with these things. Lets have a friendly discussion down below! Or, add me on discord @ Slayertip#7013 and we can chat it up. Much love to all, hope you guys have a great weekend and enjoy the event, see you all at the post-fight results <3
Part 1 Link. Hey guys! Sorry for the long wait (well, sorry to like the 2 of you who care), but this one's super long! The reception on part 1 was surprisingly warm so here's part 2! We're gonna be going into more detail, and a little better explanations of everything that happened in part 1! If you're new here, read part 1 or literally nothing will make sense. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- I awake to the sunlight bleeding through the windows. Yesterday was crazy to say the least. I'm still a little sore from the whole fight that went down, but it's manageable. I'm the first one up, because of unlucky placement of my sleeping bag. The one place where the curtains part and the sun enters is right where I decided to sleep. Just my luck, huh? I decide to actually get a better look at the once club room, as now it's not shrouded in a massive smoke cloud. The desks have either been moved, taken apart, or just destroyed. I'm not sure where they went, but there's a lot less. There's six left made into a compound table in the middle of the room. Not sure why there's six of them, maybe just needed some extra room. The board is mysteriously gone, maybe broken down into more usable supplies. The closet is overflowing with supplies, with stacks of stuff sitting outside of it. I wonder if Natsuki's manga is still in there. Who knows, it might be. I walk over to the closet to get a better idea of what we have. I take a little bit of time to peruse the labels on crates. One's named "ammo" and is filled around half way with various bullets and clips, so they have guns I assume. Another is labeled "materials" and has spare cloth and a lot of scrap metal. It's nearly full. The one labeled "food" is empty. That's not very reassuring. There's no box for water, so they might have a pump somewhere. Their medicine crate is filled with bandages and alcohols, plus a splint and such. There's a "literature" box, loaded with just various books. Well I guess they need something to pass the time. I find an "electronics" box, with flashlights and batteries being the main contents. I see Natsuki's manga box from when I was in the club. I guess old habits die hard. I decide it's my time to pitch in a little, so I go get my bag from where I was sleeping. I remove all the food I have in there, and assort it into the box. I check my bag, and I find a few little pieces of scrap. I'll drop them into the materials box, who knows when we could use them. As I go into the closet and look to the right, I realize where they put all their weapons. They're stacked against each other in the little corner of the closet. I immediately see a pipe, a machete, and a knife hanging against a hook inserted into the wall. I decide to check my bag if I have any spare stuff. I find a metal baseball bat, and I place it against the other assortment of stuff. I check my left to find a bunch of guns. There's a rifle, and two pistols. Some may be missing, but I can't exactly tell. I check my bag, and it's basically empty. I look around the room once again, and I find where they placed their bags, by the generator across the room for some reason, and I head over there. I'm careful to not trip over any sleeping bodies, and I eventually place it down with the others. I spot Sayori's old school bag. Well it's still in one piece, so I guess it works. Finally, I find myself totally lost on what to do. But, I find Natsuki sitting up in her sleeping bag. "Hey, Natsuki." I greet her. She jumps, clearly caught off guard by me. "Oh! Uh... hi Aoki." She eventually replies. "Who else is awake?" "Use your eyes." I respond. "Wow. I thought you were supposed to be the nice one." She laughs a little at her own comment. Wait? What's that supposed to mean? "How long have you even been up for?" Natsuki moves on suddenly. "Uh, like twenty minutes. Really not all that long." I reply. "Do you normally get up this early?" She questions. "Nope. Usually I'm up much later, but I just had to choose the one spot where the sun shines." I shake my head. Natsuki stifles a laugh. "You chose the window spot?" She giggles to herself. "You really have a lot to learn." Uh, this is my first day here? "That's because I got here yesterday." I retort. "Well maybe you should've spent less time beating us up and more time learning the tricks of a pro survivor!" She combats my retort with a large smile. "Well we've both made it a year haven't we? Also, I've left my home multiple times, and slept mainly in the forest, so who's the real pro survivor here?" I go right back at her. "Yeesh. You didn't have to be so mean about it." She crosses her arms and breaks eye contact. She's not smiling anymore. I rack my brain to find a way to salvage the situation, and I come up blank. We both just kind of sit in awkward silence for a while. Wait, I got an idea. I head over to the closet, and find the first volume of her manga. "Parfait Girls." I remember reading this with her a few times, but I've totally forgotten the actual story. I sneak up to her, and I tap her head with the manga volume. She turns to me, and I show her what I have in my hands. Her eyes light up for a moment, before snatching the volume out of my hands. Hey, I fixed it! Kinda. "You still remember this?!" She exclaims in a whisper, as to not wake up literally everyone. "Duh. Do you really think that little of me?" I respond with a smirk. "Uh... no?" I've beaten her at her own game. I chuckle in reply, and she crawls out of her sleeping bag and just drags me to the same spot we used to read in. I guess I'll comply this time. She opens the book and we start to read. I'm basically just looking over her shoulder, it's a little uncomfortable, but I can deal. Natsuki has this wonder in her eyes like she's entering this totally new world. Well, I guess she sort of is? I'm only half paying attention nearly the whole time, but I'm still getting the plot points and the characters at least. I'm still trying to keep an eye out, 'cause anything can happen at any time. Natsuki seems to stop moving. She fell asleep, with the volume still open. I take it out of her hands and close it, making sure to remember the general area we left off. I rise, and decide to leave Natsuki alone for a bit. I notice Sayori has stolen my sleeping bag in her sleep, and seems to be gripping it tightly. I can't tell the reason why. I look around the room and everyone's still passed out. I just end up zoning out for a while. Until my inner peace is shattered by Monika. "Okay everyone!" She shouts loudly. "Time to get up!" She claps her hands together, and everyone is slowly getting up. Yuri's hair is a total mess, and Sayori tries to lay out my sleeping bag again in the same spot it was. Natsuki seems a little confused, and Lorenzo is awake, just laying on the floor. I walk over to try and talk him into getting up. "Hey, wake up." I say while crouched right over his face. "Five more minutes." He weakly makes an excuse. "No, no more minutes. Get up." I reply a little louder. "Ugh. Sure." He rises slowly. Just as I stand up again, Monika is right beside me. "You're up early." She starts, "How long have you been awake?" "Uhm, around an hour I'd say." I respond. "Why're you awake so early? You need rest after losing a fight." She smiles cheekily. "Hey! I totally could have won. I just needed to kick Sayori off of me and it would've been easy." I retort. "Mhm. Sure." She nods sarcastically. "What about Yuri?" "Well she was disarmed, what could have she done?" I try to defend myself a little. "Uh, picked the knife right back up and just gut you?" She smiles. "You know what? I guess winning would've been harder than I thought." I accept defeat. She smiles in return, "Now you get it." "You know that pink-haired girl?" Lorenzo speaks out of nowhere. "Natsuki?" I correct him. "Yeah! Her. She fights dirty, dude." He laughs to himself. "She nearly bit a chunk out of my arm." "Really?" I turn around to face the rest of the room, and spot Natsuki. "Natsuki! Did you bite Lorenzo?" "Who? Oh yeah, him." She smiles cheekily. "Just a bit." I laugh loudly. Oddly, I find that image rather amusing. Monika suddenly speaks up. "On the topic of the fight, why don't we do something fun and reenact it?" She suggests. Everyone in the room looks at each other, and I shrug. "Why not?" I respond to her suggestion. "That... might be fun." Yuri seems a little nervous about this, but stays optimistic. "Yeah! Why not?" Sayori is enthusiastic as usual. Howoes she even keep this up? "Sure. But only because I wanna see how Aoki got his ass kicked." Natsuki, as nice as ever. "Okay then! Follow me!" She walks right out the door, and I follow soon after. I hear everyone else's footsteps along with mine. "So, as you all know, we heard someone walking around inside our place." Monika starts her explanation. "And, we sent Natsuki to check it out." "Hey! Let me explain my part!" She calls out. "So, I looked into the window on the door, and I didn't see your faces, so I just assumed you'd try to kill us if we just kinda walked in." "Didn't you guys hear us? We talked quite a lot." I question. "And Sayori, if anyone was to recognize us, it would be you." I point to her to emphasize my point. "Ehehe, sorry... but your voice got deeper and I couldn't tell!" She explains herself, surprisingly flustered. "Also, the walls are thicker than you'd expect, so I could barely tell what you two were saying!" To prove her point, Sayori walks back inside and starts saying random words. I can tell what she's saying, but if I didn't know it was Sayori I likely wouldn't have been able to tell who it was. Also, it's really muffled. She walks back out, and I shrug. Well, at least she didn't kill me. Or I didn't kill anyone. "Anyway," Monika starts back up again, "So Sayori got a smoke 'nade from this one infected guy, and she was dying to use it so she basically wouldn't allow us to fight you guys if we didn't throw it in." "Wait wait wait, why didn't you use a flashbang? That would've made everything so much easier." I interrupt. "We don't have one, dummy." Natsuki replies. Monika continues on. "So we agreed to throw it in when Natsuki banged on the wall, and that Sayori and Yuri would take on Aoki, and me and Natsuki fought Lorenzo." "Wait, you realize you used that smoke grenade for the wrong situation?" Lorenzo speaks up. "You're supposed to use it for cover, than just making both of us blind. If you were to use it for blinding us, you'd need infrared goggles or some thermal goggles. " "Wait, really?" Sayori seems shocked. "Sorry about that..." "Oh, it's fine, don't worry." Yuri chimes in, beating us to the acceptance. "Anyway, now, let's get inside, yeah?" Lorenzo leads the way back inside. "Aoki, you get to explain first!" We all follow him inside, and Sayori suddenly starts to explain. "So, I saw Aoki just standing there like deer in headlights and I thought he didn't see me. So, of course, I ran at him to try and get the drop on him." She keeps going, "But, of course he saw me and hit me really hard... I couldn't scream, 'cause I could barely even breathe then. Of course, I eventually could, and did when he kicked me in the head with your armored shoes." She finishes her explanation staring daggers right at me. "Hey! I couldn't see a thing!" I try to retort. Oh yeah, I remember. I tipped my shoes with scrap metal a few months ago, just for fun and maybe a little extra strength. "A-Anyway..." Yuri begins to explain her side. "I got nervous the second we started. I couldn't find you two, and when I heard Sayori scream like that I thought she was seriously injured, so I just ran towards the sound. I was panicking, and I was tactless, so I was easily taken down. He ran right back at me, with his weapon against my neck, and when I hit the floor my knife slipped right out my hand. I didn't expect him to attack me in that way, so I was caught quite off guard. In the few seconds he was on top of me, he put a lot of pressure on my neck and it hurt a great deal." She smiles to herself nervously, totally red in the face for some reason. Do the girls have high expectations for Yuri? I'll ask her later. Sayori chimes in, "When I heard Yuri hit the ground, I tried to compose myself as fast as possible to help her. I realized Yuri was totally pinned, so I swung my bat right against Aoki's head. It managed to get him off of Yuri, and I decided to return his favour and do the exact same thing he did to Yuri. But, that's when I recognized him." I join in next, "I honestly was shocked, I never, ever thought I'd see you guys again. I almost didn't say anything because I didn't believe my eyes, but I was in a pretty bad situation at the time so I banked on it. Luckily, it worked out. And, now we're here." I finish off the story. Monika leads us to the other side of the room, and Natsuki explains what went on with her. "So, I need to get in close to actually use my brass knuckles, so I listened for his footsteps and just charged him. But Lorenzo, that sneaky bastard, sidestepped me and tried to put me in a choke-hold. He misplaced his arm, though, so I bit down as hard as I could. I elbowed him in the stomach and turned around, landing a punch right across the face. I also got the chance to do the same with my other arm, so I thought he was for sure disoriented. But, he wasn't. He used his weapon to hit me right in the side, and then then he dragged it across my body towards him, and then drove it right into my stomach." She finishes right as Monika starts. "I was right behind him, and I usually get super angry in these fights, so I yelled an idiot before trying to cleave his head open with my hatchet." Monika pauses for a second, thinking. "He blocked it with the long side of his weapon and beat me in the struggle nearly immediately. He kicked me in the shin, and that brought me to my knees. I, of course, screamed because it hurt like hell. I heard yelling behind me but I couldn't quite figure it out." Lorenzo jumps in, "So right after I kicked Monika, I heard you two yelling that they were friendlies. I replied, letting my guard down, and then Natsuki hit me in the back making me fall forward and almost lose my longer-than-usual pipe." It really is pretty long, around five feet long. "After that, I tried to turn around and hit Natsuki with it, but she dodged it. After hearing you guys yell at us again, we stopped fighting to try and get a better idea of what actually was going on." He finishes his account. "So, does that clear it all up?" Monika asks. I nod, along with everyone else. "Oh, and, we're sorry for starting that fight." Monika finishes with a solemn look on her face. "It's okay, don't worry about it." I accept their apology. Suddenly, someone opens the door to the club room, everyone turns around. It's this boy with jet black hair going down close to his neck. He's around as tall as Monika, and has dark green eyes. He's carrying a sledgehammer in both of his hands. He's dressed in an obviously armored winter coat, and some shorts that look a little too big for him. I notice that he as a prosthetic leg from slightly above the knee down. "Keagan!" Monika exclaims. "You took a while." "I made it back, didn't I?" He replies. "True." Monika responds. She turns to the rest of us. "Hey, Aoki and Lorenzo, meet Keagan. Keagan, meet Aoki and Lorenzo." "Hey." I wave to him. "Hi." Lorenzo doesn't usually like new people all that much. "Hey guys!" He replies warmly. "Sorry I took a while, I found a store still stocked!" "Oh! On that note, Sayori, have you taken inventory?" Monika brings up, but her face says that she already knows the answer. "Eheh... no..." She looks away in shame. "If it's been a day after you guys came back and the person in charge of unloading all the bags hasn't done so, maybe the responsibility should be moved." Lorenzo tries to be logical. "Dude, lay off, she just forgot." I whisper-yell at him, backhanding his chest from beside him. I look back to Sayori, and it appears Yuri just said something to her. Sayori's heading to where the bags are left, and picks one up and takes it to the closet. I debate helping her, but I think that she'll be fine. I turn back to Keagan. "Hey, when'd you guys get here?" He asks. "Just yesterday, in a rather over-the-top way might I add." I reply. "How? If I can ask." Keagen responds politely. "We got in a big fight, there was smoke and it was generally a mess." Lorenzo simplifies it. Keagan laughs in reply. "How did you guys stop it?" He questions further. "Sayori, who was in the process of beating me up, realized it was me and called off the fighting. I knew the girls back in school." I explain. "What about you?" "Oh, I was starving. Monika, who was a quite close friend of mine back in school, found me walking around looking for anything to eat. She eventually took me in and I met all the other girls." Keagan explains his story. "How long have you been here?" Lorenzo questions. "I'd say around three months. I'm not sure though." He strokes his chin, deep in thought. All of a sudden, I smell a sweet scent. That isn't what I think it is, right? "Oooh! Who has strawberries?" Sayori cheers. "I didn't grab any." Keagan replies. "I don't believe I did either." Yuri chimes in. "Me neither." Natsuki fills in her part. "I don't have any." Monika says loudly. I look at Lorenzo, who shakes his head. "Oh! Oh! It's coming from outside!" Sayori beckons us all over. I come running. I pray to god it's not what I think it is. "Wow, you're really excit-" Monika tries to speak, but I think the look of pure terror on my face is enough to silence her. I peer out the open window, and there one is. An Alpha Toxic. Some Toxics mutate and become Alphas. They have a sweet strawberry scent that attracts all the nearby Toxics to their position. Their skin isn't sickly green, but rather a greenish-red. The foam in their mouth is a light red rather than a faded green. They spit a sticky substance that intensely smells like strawberries very long distances, and any Toxics in a massive radius can smell it and come running to it. It might be food for Toxics, as they tend to devour anything it covers. "GUYS!" I yell. "We need to get armored up, now!" "What- why?" Natsuki is caught off guard. "That red-looking infected guy out there, he'll attract all the other infected people!" I refrain from using my term, it may confuse them. "He can spit this substance at you really long distances and all infected that are in a huge area of it can smell it! They will hunt you down!" Everyone seems scared, I'm not sure how they haven't already encountered one before. Sayori runs over to her sweater, and slips in on. She picks up her bat from the floor by her sleeping bag. I spot her returning to the spot she was, looking out the window. Yuri puts on her trench coat, and I realize it's actually way too big for her. She buttons it up this time. It nearly touches the floor. Monika puts on the hoodie she had on yesterday, and Natsuki equips her massive jacket and her brass knuckles. Monika and Yuri both brandish their blades. I take my crowbar and don my unprotected hoodie. Sayori screams loudly. "It--! It spat on me!" Sayori looks horrified. The reddish-pink substance is all over her right side. "She'll run in the back of the group. If she gets killed first it'll probably drop all the other Toxics off our tail." Lorenzo speaks with authority he doesn't have. "No. Hell no. She runs with the rest of us, at the same speed as the rest of us. Nobody dies here." I tell him off. We don't have much time. I look back out the window and see maybe forty running into the school. "Guys, we have to go. Now!" I call out before dashing out the door with no real idea of anywhere we could go. We can't stay in the club-room, after the Alpha saw us there, that will be the first place the Toxics check. Downstairs is not an option, it's flooded with them. Maybe the roof? No, we'd get trapped... the second floor? Maybe if we can hide and have the horde pass... I run down the stairs to the second floor, and everyone follows me. I hear their footsteps behind me as I hear the Toxics running at us. I look around and find that all the room's doors aren't gonna be much help. I find one door, and it seems it may hold, until it falls out of its hinges right in front of my eyes. Fuck! Then, the roof it has to be. The Toxics are running at us faster. They get faster as they approach their target, in this case, that's Sayori. Everyone else catches up to me. I spot the first Toxics running down the hall, and I motion that we're going back up. Everyone else runs ahead of me now as I begin running, and the Toxics are picking up speed down the hall. Clang! A loud, metallic crash sounds out from behind me. I look back and Yuri is on the ground clutching her head in one hand and standing up way too slowly. She's gonna die. The Toxics are too close, she can't get away at the rate she's going. Well, not if I can do anything about it. I hook my arm under her armpit and yank her up to her feet, and pull her behind me. "Run! Go! Forget about me!" I command. I hear her feet hitting the ground as she pushes herself to her full speeds. Time seems to slow for me. I guess this was my best option, wasn't it? Swapping places with Yuri, so she can get away and I'll be the bait. I can't escape, but Yuri is already halfway up the steps from what I can hear. Am I actually okay with dying here? Am I okay with dying a so called "noble" death in the place of someone who doesn't deserve to die? No. I'm not. Would it be the "greater good" if I died right here and died for someone else? After all the horrible things I had to do to stay alive as a nomad? Well, the reality of it is, the "greater good" is when everyone lives. So I will fight as hard as I need to. I swing my crowbar at full force at the first Toxic to come within reach of me. They fall to the right and send half of the hallway tumbling. It's not gonna stop them for long, but it'll slow them a bit. I begin to backpedal, but the other half of the hallway is still coming at me at much higher speeds. I swing at the other half, and the Toxic I hit is stunned but doesn't fall nor slow anyone down. Well, I tried, didn't I? In a wild attempt to not die, I swing my crowbar so hard it gets stuck in the side of a Toxic's head. As a last-ditch effort to maybe slow them down enough I throw my crowbar back as hard as I could without losing momentum or speed. Which, wasn't all that hard. Defenseless, I turn tail and book it as fast as I can down the hallways to the stairs. I reach the stairs, and I feel like the Toxics are right at my heels. They sure sound like they are. My legs scream to stop running, but I have to keep going if I ever wanna see any of my friends ever again. I reach the stairs and fly up them around three steps at a time. Luckily, most of the time herds of Toxics will trip and fall over each other when going up stairs at high speeds, so this makes the little bit of ground between me and them that I need. The staircase to the roof's entrance is on the end of the third floor hallway. My legs strain, begging me to stop or slow down and take a breath. I ignore their pleads and continue to run. I'm nearing a third of the way down the hall before the Toxics start to finish climbing the stairs. I try to pick up the pace further, but I can't go any faster. My lungs burn, no doubt not getting enough oxygen. I'm little past the half-way mark of the hallway. My ears pound, a mix of the footsteps and my own blood rushing through them. I keep pushing myself further and further. The Toxics are gaining on me. My legs are barely cooperating anymore, but I force them to keep carrying me to the end. I make it to the doors of the roof. I slam my fists against them in panic and fear, I know they're holding them closed from outside. It's a push-to-open door, so their backs are most likely against it. "Let me in!" I yell as loud as my strained lungs let me, banging on the door. Shadows move outside the door's windows then they fly open. I fall into a crawling position and I make some distance from me and the door. Lorenzo and Monika begin to hold the door closed as I hear the Toxics slam against it. I don't think they'll get through, hordes are very unorganized don't ever push in unison. At least, from my experience. I collapse, and roll onto my back. I really need to do more cardio. Yuri comes rushing to me, and slides down onto her knees, pulling me into a bear hug. I hug her back lazily, I really am totally unable to do anything more. I've had no water all day, and haven't eaten anything yet. "A-Aoki! How're you... how did..." She sounds like she's holding back tears. "I thought you were dead!" I try to reply, but my throat is too dry to say much. It was entirely adrenaline keeping me going there, and it's not like I haven't had to push myself a little while on an empty stomach, just never had to push myself that far before. "Hey... at least I... made it back, right?" I manage to choke out."L-Like I... always do." I try to laugh, but it probably sounds like I'm dying. Sure feels like it. Yuri loosens her grip and releases the hug but doesn't let me out of her arms. "Do you need water?" She asks softly. I nod weakly, and now she stands up and places me back on the floor. I've caught my breath enough to sit up, but I'm still really tired, and dehydrated. I look around myself and I see Sayori about to throw her sweater off the roof. It appears she cleaned off the parts that were hit with the substance, that weren't her sweater, with the clean parts of it. The substance doesn't seem to be localized to the right side anymore. It'd be too hard to clean up, so I guess just getting rid of it would be best. It's just now I realize it's a Christmas sweater, depicting Rudolph in a snow globe. Natsuki seems to be looking down to the ground, watching for any more Toxics. Monika and Lorenzo are holding the door closed. Keagan's across from us, doing the same thing Natsuki is. Yuri comes back with a plastic bottle of water. I bet they keep at least some up here as a back up to whatever they've got. I take it, and drink most of it in one sip. "Thanks." I thank her. Yuri blushes, and looks away. I'm slightly confused, all I did was thank her. Are people more rude to her than the others? Probably not, I'm just overthinking again. Sayori throws the sweater off the roof reluctantly. It falls to the ground with a loud clatter. From what I know, if that sweater's off the roof then the Toxics will be off our backs. They smell no better than the non-infected people do, so it's not like they can smell us. The entire roof is eerily quiet. I guess we're all just being extra vigilant, or just nervous. The Toxics start to clear out rather quickly. Monika slides down the back of the door, clearly tired. Lorenzo just walks away and starts to keep watch in the middle of Keagan and Natsuki. Around a minute of painful silence, I hear footsteps outside, and yarn tearing loudly. "Aw, I really liked that sweater..." Sayori finally breaks the silence. "Don't worry, we'll get you another." Monika replies quietly. "Is it safe to go back in?" Keagan returns to us. "Yeah, it should be." Lorenzo answers. "Aoki, where'd your crowbar go?" "In the side of one of their heads." I joke, despite how unfunny that was. Nobody reacts in any way. "Well, let's go back inside!" Monika's enthusiasm returns in full. We all nod, and everyone goes through the doors. I stand up slowly to find Yuri still waiting for me. I try to walk past, but she stops me with a hug. "Sorry, I just... need to. It's the absolute minimum I can do." She whispers, just barely loud enough for me to hear. "Thank you." I chuckle, hugging her back. "You really don't need to thank me." I continue, "What I did was the least I could've done." "I didn't need any assistance, I would've been fine." Yuri explains, "So it's not the 'least you could've done'." "If I didn't think you needed help, I wouldn't have done anything." I reply. "I could have fought them off." She doesn't sound all that convincing, but I may be overthinking. "It's okay to ask for help, you know. Nobody's expected to do everything by themselves." I decide to take my chances with my assumptions. I probably sound super dumb. She leans into me a little more, before letting go. Her face appears warm and happy. I guess that's a success? Yay? Yuri walks off down the stairs, back to the club-room. I follow. "We gotta cut that coat of yours a little shorter." I remark. "We can't have you trip over it anymore." "Yes, we do. We extended it to protect my legs a little better." Well, at least they had a good reason to do so. "We'll cut it a little shorter tomorrow." "Alright." I acknowledge her plans. We eventually make it back to the club room. Yuri pushes the doors open, and everyone seems to be right back to what they were doing. Sayori's taking inventory, searching all our bags; Natsuki is messing with the generator. Maybe it doesn't work? Monika is chatting away with Keagan, and Lorenzo is... doing basically nothing. I might go talk to him, but I decide against it. Instead, I go over to Sayori at the closet for something to eat. "Hey, Sayori." I say quietly, as not to disturb the others too much. She jumps. "Aoki! Uh, hi." Sayori seems... off. I'm likely just overthinking. Sayori reaches into the bag she has on the floor. "What're you doing here?" "Oh, I just was trying to get something to eat. Have you had anything yet?" I tilt my head as I say the last part. She shakes her head. "None of us have. We usually don't eat this early." Sayori digs around in the bag for a while, clearly scraping near the bottom. Eventually she pulls out a small piece of scrap metal. Where's her enthusiasm? Where's her aimless cheerfulness? What happened? Where's Sayori? "Hey, this may seem odd, but are you okay?" I ask, a little worried. Sayori's never this serious, unless something really bad happened. "Yeah. I'm fine, just a little tired, that's all." She responds flatly. "Did you sleep well last night?" I question further. She nods, but doesn't say anything beyond that. My shoulders slump as we sink into awkward silence. Sayori eventually is done with the bag she has, and walks away to throw the bag back with the rest. She grabs a lone bag, separated from the main pile. I guess they separate the full ones from the empty ones? In the time she's away, I peek into the closet and find the food box. I peer into the box and spot a granola bar, I quickly take it and dip my head down and try to get through the cellophane as quietly as possible. I totally failed in that regard. I wolf down the bar extremely quickly, and I just feel more hungry. I'll hold off for a bit. I look outside, and notice it's getting dark. This day went by rather fast, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. I leave the closet, and look around. Nobody's doing all that much. I'm still tired as hell, so I sit down against a wall. I close my eyes. I'm not going to sleep, I'm just resting my eyes. --- I awake to pain. My stomach hurts like hell. I sit around for a minute, until I realize it's hunger pains. The entire room is dark, and it's the middle of the night. I stand up, until I notice another figure standing in the darkness, and I hear sobbing. They're... crying? Who? I walk over, trying to be as quiet as possible. I get closer, and I see the coral hair I know all too well. "Sayori?" I whisper, as to not wake anyone up. "Aoki?!" She replies, shocked. "What're you doing awake?" "I can ask the same question to you." I turn it around on her. I look in her general area, I can't see much, but Sayori is... holding a backpack? She seems to have my extra hoodie on, too. She even has her baseball bat in her hands. "Sayori? What are you doing?" I ask, very worried. "Are you trying to leave?" "N-No..." She sniffles. "Just... uh..." Sayori trails off. "Sayori..." My hands fall to my side. I feel... almost betrayed. Is this how they felt when I ran off? Suddenly, she breaks. She becomes a complete sobbing mess, and pulls me into a hug. I hug her back tightly. After around a minute, I break the hug and lead her to the wall, keeping my arm around her. Sayori leans into me heavily. I slide down against the wall, and so does she. "Why?" I ask. I'm still processing the fact she wants to leave. "I- I'm just... a..." She fails to get any words out. She's kind of just, falling apart. "It's okay... relax. You're safe here." I try to comfort her a little. I'm a little rusty at it, but I'm trying. I give her a while, maybe three minutes? I can't tell. She's calmed down a bit. "So, why'd you want to leave?" I say softly. "I'm... just a... burden to everyone." I can barely hear her reply. What? How? "Huh?" I respond. She nuzzles into me more. "I'm just a waste of supplies." She speaks clearer now. "I wasted our smoke grenade, I forgot my one simple duty, and I nearly got you and Yuri killed. All in one day!" She breaks out sobbing again. I think for a minute about how to disprove her claims. "You know, you're really not a waste of supplies at all." I continue on, "There's thousands of more smoke grenades out there, you don't need to beat yourself up over on-" "But that was a really valuable thing! And I just... wasted it on nothing." Sayori cuts me off. "It's okay to waste stuff based on inexperience, you never knew that you were using it for the wrong-" "All the other girls said that we should save it for later! But, I was selfish, and I wanted to use it for fun." She cuts me off again. Normally I'd be frustrated, but getting angry here would help nothing. "Look, it's alright. What matters is you learn, and then fix it for next time." I get a chance to finish what I ultimately wanted to say. "Surviving, from what I know, is making a bunch of mistakes. But you learn from those mistakes and don't make them again, which means you'll live longer than the rest." "But... how will I survive if I forget my one job?" Sayori sobs, but keeps going. "I just had to unpack. That's all. I forgot about it, like the idiot I am." "That's alright too. It matters if you get it done in the end." That one was easy enough... I guess- "Your friend is right. It should be someone else who does it, not someone entirely useless like me." She keeps going on, and I can't find a place to interject. "I just let everyone down, all the time, and I never do anything right..." She trails off, muttering various other insults to herself. I move my arm down to her lower back, and I turn her over, on top of me. She's a lot lighter than I expected. I wrap my arms around her and pull her close. When I do this, I end up sliding down the wall more so I'm laying flat on my back. She doesn't try to fight against me. This... feels awkward to do as friends, but I feel like I need to. "Sayori... you never let any of us down. Lorenzo, just, he can be kinda mean sometimes, but that's because he wants what's best for all of us. He's just... not so nice at saying so." I explain, trying to make Lorenzo not seem like a terrible person in the process. "It's not some time-sensitive objective, it only matters if you get it done." She nods into my chest. Am I getting through to her? "B-But... I messed up a lot more today." She's not finished, but way calmer now. "I nearly got you and Yuri killed! All I had to do was not stand by the window, but of course I did. Just to nearly kill two people." Yuri must have given her a rundown of what happened. "It only matters if me or Yuri actually died. But, well, none of us did." I reply. "So, what's the big deal? It's likely not the first time any of us has had a near death experience." "I was the direct cause of it, though. All I had to do was not stand near the window. It was easy. But I just can't do the simplest of things that even a child could do." Sayori says quietly. She's... opening up a lot tonight. I don't know if her confiding in me is a good or bad thing. "It's okay, seriously. Both of us are here now, and totally fine. Well, and people just mess up sometimes. It's part of being a person. Also, not every day is perfect. We all have the days were we just... mess up. It's not like any of us blame you for what happened today." I try to comfort her, but I'm running out of arguments. "You... do have a point..." She mumbles. "But..! Uh..." She appears to be out of points, too. She's stopped crying by now. "But, you did fail in a way. You failed to mention how you've helped us, even back during school." I explain to her, trying to make some kind of lasting impact. "You've made us all happier during those times, and even now. I may not recognize it often, but you do get me in a much better mood. I don't know for everyone else, but it seems to be like that for them too." She giggles. "Thank you." She's silent for a bit. "You really are too nice to me." I smile in return. "No such thing as 'too nice.'" "Hey... this is probably awkward, but can you stay with me tonight?" She asks nervously. "You're, really..." She quiets down. "Warm..." I nod. "I think we'd need some pillows, and a blanket, or something." Without moving, Sayori reaches for the bag she packed up. She unzips it, and digs around only for a second. She unveils a sleeping bag, that might fit both of us. I release her from my grip, and take it out of her hands. I unravel it and lay it out, and I slide in slowly. Sayori follows soon after. Just as she gets in, she's wrapped around me. I do the same to her. Normally, this would be very awkward, but it feels right. Maybe just because of the situation that just transpired. Sayori's breathing evens out, and I remember how much my stomach hurt. I'll fight through it, I'd rather not disturb Sayori. Slowly... I doze off into my own sleep. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- WOAH. That was really long, and took forever. Sorry! If you made it this far, thank you so much! I'm really just writing this for fun, so anyone reading this is appreciated to death. Anyway, I'll see you all in part 3! I'd be a little more cautious of Yuri, if I were you...
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