Cian woke up the next morning sweating under his blanket, the temperature had risen fast with the sun. Vanna was nowhere in sight, and all the supplies were gone, too. A bit worried, Cian climbed out of the cellar they had slept in to look for Vanna. He was relieved when he found her up top fiddling with the backpacks. She was pulling bits out of the ripped one and working on the one with the busted battery.
“Mornin’ sunshine. You know you snore like a Crag Bear? I thought you humans just went zombie mode at night. Never heard of one snoring, ‘specially not like that.” said Vanna.
Cian, looking a bit sheepish, replied “Uh, sorry. You fixing that backpack? Wait, zombie mode?”
Vanna, holding up the backpack, replied “Already fixed it! Now you get one too. Aren’t you excited? Charged the canteens too. And yeah, zombie mode. Every human I seen just turns off at random and acts like a robot for hours. Everyone knows it. You folk act like you own everything – demanding rewards for every little thing you do and yelling at everyone like we’re beneath you. And when you get tired you suddenly go zombie mode. I even seen one do it in the middle of town, just standin’ there one minute then it’s ‘Oh, I gotta go’ and off he goes like a light.”
Cian was a little weirded about by this zombie mode thing. This was a game, wasn’t it? NPCs weren’t supposed to realize players were logging out. Deciding to ignore it for now, Cian smiled and said “Oh, we act like we own everything huh? I found those backpacks, and here you were claiming the only working one. Good thing you fixed yours – the good one is mine! Tent’s mine too!”
Smirking back, Vanna replied “Ha, I’ll let you carry the tent – heavy thing. But we’re sharing it till we get to Gregar’s Hill. Lucky we found it – these dunes are deadly at night. If the Kel rats don’t eat you in your sleep, we got rinjorn ten to twenty feet long that come out at night.”
Cian shuddered. He still hadn’t seen a Rinjorn, but he wasn’t looking forward to fighting Kel rats with a knife.
Vanna continued, “While you got your beauty sleep, I got all the rations packed up and enough water for the next week. We can recharge the gear while we walk, plenty of sun here. We got enough food between us for eight days. There’s another oasis about half way between here and there, we can get more water and maybe some game there. Once we get into the green country I’m sure I can find us something to eat. Should be fine. I’m a good shot with the pistol if you don’t mind me keeping it. You got any useful skills? Know how to use that knife you carry?”
“Um, pointy end goes in bad guy? Not really. I kind of just got here. I was hoping to do a few jobs and get some training and decent equipment. I wasn’t expecting to go off into the wilderness quite yet” Cian said.
Vanna sighed. “Fair enough. I can teach you how to use the pistol, if you like. Maybe some tracking skills if we see any tracks. I only got here a few months ago. Been working as a ranch hand, but I learned to use firearms and hunt from my pa when we used to take vacations on planet. None of them was here, my family’s still runnin’ our cargo ship.” said Vanna.
Cian thought she seemed a bit young, and if she had only just left her family she was probably the equivalent of a teenager or young adult – but he wasn’t sure how that worked for aliens. He didn’t realize the NPCs had such well thought out backstories, but he was starting to think of Vanna less as an NPC and more as a person – her personality was so realistic! Worlds & Empires really was the best VR MMO out there. Well, except for the getting stuck in VR thing – that was kind of an issue.
“Hey, you day dreamin’?” Vanna interrupted.
“Oh, umm, sorry. I’m only thinking. Yeah, I would love to learn whatever you can teach me. I’m glad your family is still safe.” Cian replied.
“Didn’t say they was safe. Cargo runnin’ aint a safe business, ‘specially not with you lot around. You know how many humans are out pirating? Comin’ back to life is a mite big advantage for the fighting types. Most of you lot only care about the money, and aint half of you want to work for it honestly.” replied Vanna.
Cian frowned, “I’m sorry we have such a bad rep. I’m not like that. I only want to make my way in the world. Get a ship. Yeah, make some money, but maybe help some people along the way. No interest in blowing up honest traders for a quick buck.”
Vanna laughed, “Well, you certainly aint humble. Running around with a knife, and now you want a starship. You know those are expensive, right? Wouldn’t surprise me, though – humans always seem to be pullin’ wealth out of their arses and waving around fancy tech everywhere they go. Ever since you human folk started coming out of them bunker things, times certainly been interesting. Now come on, we’re burnin’ daylight.” she finished.
What a strange game, Cian thought as they headed toward Gregar’s Hill. The NPCs seemed so alive, they even had individual backstories that went back to before the game started.
The next week went by without much excitement. Cian and Vanna walked at a steady pace, stopping only when absolutely necessary. Cian practiced using his Mind over Body skill as he walked, healing the minor discomforts of travel, boosting his endurance. Vanna was having difficulty keeping up, and after the first day he took over carrying most of their supplies. Even burdened with most of their gear, Vanna couldn’t keep up with Cian’s seemingly endless stamina that came with burning his Willpower. Cian tried using his psionics abilities, but couldn’t do much other than move bits of sand around; and he gave up after not making any progress.
After the first few days, Cian gave up worrying about logging out. By now the system would have had to notified someone. He reasoned that he was probably in a hospital already, being taken care of by a pretty nurse. He didn’t want to think about the alternative, that he was slowly wasting away in his crappy apartment and would just suddenly cease to exist as his real body died. Regardless, there wasn’t anything he could do from the inside except try to find another player. Once he stopped worrying so much about it, the journey with Vanna was actually quite fun.
Each day, just before sundown, they would set up their tent and turn on the stealth field. Each evening Vanna discussed a topic – mostly basic energy weapon use and care, and tracking fundamentals. Each day as they walked, she would drill him on it. On the third day, she incorporated a bit of shooting practice into their daily walks. Cian would run ahead and set up some of their empty food packaging as targets, then come back and fire at them under her direction. It was paying off – by the time the duo made it near the first oasis, Cian had picked up four new skills and some nice improvements on his own.
Basic Energy Equipment – The skills and techniques to use and maintain basic energy based equipment and their energy cells. Requirements: 25 Wit
Small Arms – The skills and techniques for firing one handed armament, such as pistols and SMGs. Requirements: 15 Wit.
Marksmanship – The skills and techniques for judging distance and accurately firing ranged weapons of all types. Requirements: 20 Wit
Tracking – The skills and techniques for tracking of land-based life forms. Requirements: 20 Wit.
Mind over Body skill increased by 3.1% to 26.8%.
Basic Energy Equipment skill increased by 6.1% to 6.1%.
Small Arms skill increased by 5.6% to 5.6%.
Marksmanship skill increased by 3.2% to 3.2%.
Tracking skill increased by 2.2% to 2.2%.
In the evening as they approached the oasis, Vanna stopped Cian as she snuffled, “I smell something. Smoke. Something foul. And Starship fuel! I would know that smell anywhere. Raiders and pirates sometimes use these oasis to set down and make repairs or take on more air and water. Walk very carefully, and don’t say a word!”
Nodding, Cian stopped and secured his pack better to prevent any jangling. After that was done, they moved on nearly silently as they slowly approached the oasis. The oasis was a little natural depression in the surrounding land with a U shaped lake fed by a natural spring, surrounded by trees and greenery.
As the duo came over the last hill, they got an unwelcome surprise. A dozen Pa’Ran were loitering about, eating some kind of meat and chittering away. They were all the slower, more heavily armored variant. Their ship sat at the far edge of the oasis, fully powered down and leaking purple goop. It was the same kind of ship Cian had fought against with the militia back in Valcim. It was mostly organic, and was badly damaged. As they watched, gaping holes oozed and seemingly closed on their own as more Pa’Ran stood around with their hands on the hull. Others were working on the main engines, which looked to be the only metal part of the thing. Vanna motioned Cian to follow, and they both carefully edged back away from the scene.
“There must be at least twenty of them,” Vanna whispered, “The ones by the ship are the stronger ones, they can use that mind tech of theirs. The rest are regular soldiers and would go down with a few well placed shots, but we only got one gun between us and it aint a fancy one. Pah, we need that water. We got less than one day’s left and a week before we’re out of this sand. You got any ideas?”
Cian whispered back “Oh man, I don’t know. I’ve had a few run ins with them, including some of the stronger ones. Boundless? I saw them controlling a bunch of humans.”
Vanna looked pensive, “I don’t think any of these are that strong. The ship would be in better shape if one of them was around. They channel their mental energy into the thing and it regrows. Heard tell that the strong ones can fix their ships and get them ships back in the air in hours, and they can even heal their regular soldiers in minutes. This lot been here for days at least, probably since the raid on Chalo. Same ones as hit us I expect. Sure would love to give ‘em some payback.”
Cian focused on the ones repairing the ship. His interface identified them.
Pa’Ran Overseer – leader class of the Pa’Ran hives. Capabilities include minor kinetic energy manipulation, limited gravity control, and repair of organic ships. Some individuals possess limited mind control.
“How good are you at resisting them? Can you resist their tricks? I expect I can.”
“My Will shouldn’t be a problem. Um, I probably should have said before, but I have some mental tricks of my own. If we can get close to one of the weaker ones, I might be able to control them?” Cian replied.
Vanna looked taken aback, but calmly replied “Well, I can see why you held them cards to your chest. Seeing as my home just got wiped out by the mind bugs. Never heard of anyone but Pa’Ran able to use that tech, though. Maybe we can get one separated tonight. As slow as their ship repair is going, they’ll be here a week. Heading into the sands with no water aint my idea of a good time, so getting rid of these lot is our only choice. If you can do what you say, maybe you can sneak in as one of ‘em and take out some while they sleep. Pretty sure they sleep. Everything sleeps, right?”
The duo set up their stealth tent on the edge of the dunes around the oasis, peeking out at the Pa’Ran from inside the field and remaining completely quiet. The generator didn’t do anything about noise. Shortly after dark, a group of six Pa’Ran soldiers headed out into the dunes. Cian and Vanna followed them from a distance, walking in their tracks so as to not make their own. Cian followed Vanna, as she seemed to have better night vision.
After about fifteen minutes, they heard the telltale screech of a raging rinjorn. Hurrying over the next dune, they found the Pa’Ran and a rinjorn the size of a small car in a pitched battle. It was just as terrifying as Cian expected – an eight legged scorpion with a massive stinger and six sets of eyes. One set of eyes was in front, with five lateral eyes on each side. The Pa’Ran were keeping the rinjorn pinned while they cut into its carapace with their sharp spears. The duo whispered between them and came up with a hasty plan.
Taking the chance while they were distracted, Vanna started shooting at the Pa’Ran in the melee while Cian focused on the Pa’Ran that was holding the rinjorn’s stinger at bay. Cian focused on the Pa’Ran and started channeling neural spikes, one after another. A sparkly silver tendril snaked across the distance between them, pulsing with each mental attack.
Two of the Pa’Ran attempted to break off from the rinjorn and focus on Vanna, but she quickly gunned one down and the rinjorn tore into the other with its pincer. The five remaining Pa’Ran struggled to finish off the rinjorn while Vanna continued to take shots at them and Cian struggled with his mental attacks. They seemed to have some natural resistance to mental attack, but after a dozen focused hits the Pa’Ran slumped onto the ground.
With its stinger freed, the rinjorn turned the tables on the Pa’Ran. Striking one in the chest, it dropped lifelessly – paralyzed. Vanna dropped another one.
One of the two remaining Pa’Ran managed to jam its spear through the rinjorn’s face, seriously wounding it.
The rinjorn tried to flee, and the Pa’Ran turned to run at Vanna. In one last act of vengeance before it scurried away, the rinjorn caught one of the Pa’Ran square in the back with its stinger.
Cian ran up with his knife, blocking the final Pa’Ran from hitting Vanna. She finished it off with a well aimed shot to the head, but not before Cian took a spear through the thigh. Shouting in pain, Cian looked at his maimed leg in shock – a jagged tear six inches long left a gaping hole right above his knee. The pain was excruciating.
“Your leg!” exclaimed Vanna.
“I’m okay, I’m okay, I got this.” replied Cian shakily, focusing on his wound with his Mind over Body skill.
It took three uses of his Mend ability as his wound slowly closed, much to Vanna’s astonishment and Cian’s relief. He didn’t remember wounds hurting this much before.
“Well, that’s handy. Didn’t know humans could regenerate.” mused Vanna.
Cian didn’t comment, focused on the downed Pa’Ran. Three were dead from laser wounds, two were still paralyzed, and the sixth was unconscious from his mental attack. Focusing on the unconscious one, Cian tried the same mental leap he did when he took over his current body – a bit worried that he would get stuck in an insect body. This time it felt different – instead of flooding into the new body, a tendril of silvery speckled light connected them for a few seconds. The creature was unconscious after his mental attacks, and he quickly assumed control of its body before his focus snapped back to his own.
It was strange – he was still in control of his own movements, but if he focused on it the Pa’Ran would move like a puppet and he could see through its eyes. This must be how the creature had controlled him and all the others in the attack before. As much focus as it was taking, Cian didn’t think he could control more than one. The compound eyes were weird, although they did seem to have pretty good night vision. Cian checked his combat log.
Neural Spike on Pa’Ran Soldier. Hit for 21 Willpower (50% Resisted). Cost 4 Willpower. x12
Defeated Pa’Ran Soldier!
Parried spear from Pa’Ran Soldier.
Attacked Pa’Ran Soldier with knife. Missed!
New skill learned! Knife Fighting.
Spear attack from Pa’Ran Soldier. Dodged!
New skill learned! Combat Reflexes.
Attacked Pa’Ran Soldier with knife. Missed!
Spear attack from Pa’Ran Soldier. Hit! Take 115 damage. Leg crippled!
Defeated Pa’Ran Soldier x6! Gain 3000 experience.
Level up! + 1 Presence.
Attempted mind control of Pa’Ran Soldier. Success! Lose 25 willpower.
Pa’Ran Soldier is now under your control. Cost: 50 willpower per hour. Maximum duration depends upon battle of Wills. As target is unconscious, Pa’Ran Soldier will be 50% easier to control for 12 hours. Adjusted cost: 25.
Psionics skill increased by 2.6% to 21.2%.
Knife Fighting skill increased by 1% to 1%.
Combat Reflexes skill increased by 1% to 1%.
Mental Projection skill increased by 2.1% to 27.4%.
“Are you actually controlling that thing?” asked Vanna.
“Oh, uh. Yeah. Feels weird, but it works.” said Cian.
“Huh. Gotta be honest, when you said that you might could… I didn’t quite believe you. Guess this plan might work after all.” said Vanna.
Cian and Vanna quickly searched the Pa’Ran. Other than their spears and some sketchy looking dried meat, they didn’t have much on them. Their armor was biological and oozing purple goop where it was damaged, and neither Vanna nor Cian wanted to try to make use of it. They both took one of the nicer looking spears, leaving the meat. They needed food, but neither of them wanted to think of what – or who – the meat may have come from.
Pa’Ran Power Spear – A combination of metallic and organic structure, this spear employs a thin metallic point with a tapered 2” focused energy field instead of a traditional blade. Damage: 120 + ½ Strength + Agility with 50% armor penetration when active. 50 + ½ Strength + Agility otherwise. Charge: 432/500. Fuel: 499/500. Durability: 100/100. Consumes 1 charge per second while activated. Regenerates 5 charge per minute at a cost of 1 fuel. Consumes biological liquid as fuel. Head may be detached from pole for use as small blade.
As creepy as a fleshy weapon that literally drank the blood of your enemies was, the spear was pretty effective and might come in handy. Cian had the Pa’Ran pick up one of the paralyzed ones, while Vanna brutally finished off the other with her new spear. She seemed to enjoy stabbing it a bit too much, but Cian didn’t blame her.
“What are you doing with that one?” asked Vanna.
“Well, if he comes back by himself the others might ask questions. This paralyzed one seemed to be the leader of the group, so it makes sense for him to drag his leader back and report on being overrun by rinjorn.” replied Cian.
Vanna gave him a funny look and said, “Makes sense to you. But these are aliens. Might be normal to kill the leader at the first opportunity. Besides, if that one wakes up the whole plan will be a bust.”
“It doesn’t look like it’s waking up any time soon. Besides, they didn’t seem all that hostile to one another. This way maybe they’ll both be put right to bed and I can make him get up and kill the rest while they sleep.” Cian replied.
“Fine. We’ll try it your way.” replied Vanna.
It took the three of them over thirty minutes to get back, with Cian having some trouble adapting to the alien vision and controlling both himself and his Pa’Ran at once. It took another five minutes for Vanna to find their tent and hide their tracks going to it. The paralyzed one was still completely limp, so they moved forward with the plan.
Cian and Vanna hid in their stealthed tent, while the puppet Pa’Ran drug the paralyzed one down the path toward the Pa’Ran camp.