Pushing through the doors, Mike stepped into a dimly lit board room. Sitting in a high backed chair at the opposite end of a huge, rectangular, oak table was a middle aged man in a clean cut suit with a bright red tie.
The man himself was nondescript. Graying hair, leathery bronzed skin, and a square jawed face that could have belonged to anyone. The aura he gave off, on the other hand, was suffocating.
Mike knew instantly, he was the most dangerous being he’d ever met.
Facing a dozen trolls at level one would have been less intimidating than standing in the room with him. Still Mike forced himself to ignore his instincts as he took a seat in the offered chair, his hands balled tightly into fists and his qi circulating, ready to be used.
“Good, very good, you’re better even than I hoped,” the man intoned, leaning forward so that his elbows graced the table top, he steepled his fingers as he smiled a cold, calculating smile. The smile of a predator.
Mike suppressed the instinct to run, swallowing. It was all he could do to not cry out in fear. And then, suddenly, the pressure vanished, leaving him confused.
“You’ve got some mettle to you kid. I can honestly say I’m impressed.”
Mike didn’t know what to say, so he remained silent.
The man smiled at that, and continuing, “and you’ve got some sense too. Good.”
Leaning back in his chair, the man waved his hand and a small platform descended from the middle of the ceiling. On it were four screens, one facing each direction.
Touching something on the arm of his chair, a chair noticeably larger than the others around it, almost like a throne, the man said, “I suppose first thing’s first. You’ll be wanting to know about your companion. She was released as soon as the twenty four hour observation window passed. As you can see she is currently integrating into our little community here.”
The screen flickered and the black was replaced with images of Nikki, sitting in a cafeteria like environment with dozens of other people, including several small children. She seemed to be in a good mood as she talked with the small group of ladies sitting at her table.
Mike was relieved to see how well she was doing.
Then annoyance began to creep in as he noted her lack of concern for his whereabouts. He couldn’t fault her, they’d been together less than a day when they were taken by the men in uniform.
Still a little loyalty would have gone a long way.
As if reading his mind the man laughed saying, “we told her you were still in confinement for attacking the corporal on the way here. She thinks you’ll be released as soon as you apologize, and that you’re stubbornly refusing. I don’t know your relationship to one another, but the elf girl seemed to find that reasonable.
If I were you I wouldn’t take it to heart. People take longer to adjust to a reality like ours. Give it a week and if the same situation occurred she’d be stashing weapons and making plans to free you, I almost guarantee it. Right now she’s still stuck on the absurd idea that authority figures don’t lie.”
The man made sense, but something about how he worded his thoughts tugged at Mike. It was like he was claiming to have been in a situation like the system before. That was impossible though. Wasn’t it?
“Now that you’ve seen your companion is safe, maybe I’ve built a little bit of trust? Allow me to further build on that foundation,” the man reached into his suit and retrieved a small black ring. He slid it across the table to Mike with a smile. The smile was marginally warmer, but still had a predatory edge that made Mike want to crawl under a blanket.
Picking the ring up Mike [analyzed} it.
Looking up in shock, he looked back down and the ring [analyzing] it a second time to be sure and then up again. Clearing his throat Mike said, “Why are you giving me this? It doesn’t make any sense. You locked me up for more than a day, then give me this?” He held the ring up for emphasis.
“You don’t like it?” the man chuckled, causing Mike to swallow.
How could he not like it?
The ring was a high grade interspacial ring. It was theoretically the same as his bag of holding, only the space inside it was several thousand times greater. It was still bound by the restriction of being unable to preserve living things, but it was capable of freezing the time on anything he put in it. That included organic matter like dead bodies, and monster materials.
Enjoying Mike’s confusion, the old man allowed him several long moments of discomfort before he spoke again.
“First, let me just say that the quarantine you underwent was longer than normal, that’s true. But the quarantine itself is a standard procedure we’ve implemented to ensure no one has managed to conceal a bite or other infection that would reek havoc inside our facilities.”
Forcing himself to press the issue, to seem confident and brave, Mike demanded an explanation for why he was kept longer.
He wasn’t quite sure what to do when the man laughed saying only, “I wanted to see how you’d react. You didn’t disappoint. [Meditation] really does seem to be a useful skill.”
The answer could only mean he’d been that his cell was watched by a camera the whole time.
It should probably have been obvious. Mike hadn’t thought about that possibility though. He actually felt a little embarrassed. Luckily he had meditated most of that time. None of his more embarrassing habits had been on display.
“Why?” Mike managed to get out.
“Because I need more people like you. That’s the only way any of us will survive against the system.”
Mike hesitated, unsure how to word what he wanted to say, after hearing that, but the man nodded, “Go ahead and ask,” he said.
“It’s just you talk about the system like you’re familiar with it or something. I thought I had adjusted to it fairly well, but I don’t claim to know anything about it like you seem to.”
The man, breathed out, looking like he’d expected the observation, but had been hoping it was something different. Whatever he was thinking, he didn’t keep it to himself for very long.
“What if I told you this is not the first time I’ve encountered the system?” the man asked, raising an eyebrow.
Mike smiled and said, “I’d say bullshit. There’s no way something like this has happened before and nobody knows about it. Even our government couldn’t hide something like-”
Mike never got to finish the sentence.
The man flashed, disappearing from his chair and crossing the room before Mike could so much as blink.
Grabbing Mike around the throat he drove him back into the wall, and held him there with one hand, dangling him two feet off the ground.
Leaning in the man hissed, “What would you know young pup?”
Growling, the boss looked him in the eyes.
The man’s eyes were entirely black, the irises visible against the dark coloring.
Mike felt his fear rising again as an intense murderous aura washed over him. Just before he could disgrace himself the aura retracted. The man let go of his throat, causing Mike to slide down the wall and onto the floor.
Looming over him, the man sneered, and turning, he flashed again, regaining his throne.
Mike rose to his feet, rubbing at his neck unsure of what to say. Was an apology expected? What would he even be apologizing for?
He needn’t have worried about it.
As he regained his own chair the boss began to speak.
“The system has come before. Several times. Those few in the know, including myself, referred to these occurrences as beta tests. We theorized the beta tests would eventually end and the system would come for good. It turns out, we were right.”
Mike hesitated for a moment, but he had to know, “You’re saying you lived through one of these beta tests?” At the man’s nod of confirmation Mike pressed further, “How? Can the system be beaten?”
The man grimaced. It was clear he did not want to talk about his past, but after only a moment’s pause he spoke.
“Sixty years ago, I was the sheriff of a smallish county in New Mexico. There were a little more than ten thousand of us spread out between a few small towns and a handful of ranches. Then the system came. It stopped at the county line in every direction. People could cross it to enter, but those of us inside couldn’t leave.”
Mike thought about protesting the man’s story on logic. Even if he’d won the election for sheriff outside of high school, sixty years later he’d still be in his late seventies. There was no way the man looked more than forty two or three, even with his grey hair.
Before he actually said anything, a stray thought occurred to him. Nothing was logical about the system. The man looking younger that he claimed was hardly worth arguing over. Especially if the man was telling the truth about these “beta tests.”
The man didn’t seem to notice Mike’s disagreement as he kept talking.
“At first I gathered the survivors at the bigger of the two high school gyms in the area. It was New Mexico, so even without the system we had several dozen guns between us, and the gym had system vending machines, a generator, a well, showers, and sturdy metal doors. A few weeks later the idea was starting to wear thin. The system was content to whittle us down with attack after attack. Eventually we put it to a vote and went on the offensive.”
The man paused for a long moment, as if he was reminiscing about something.
“Anyway, to make a long story short, I lost a lot of good friends, and a lot of family, but we eventually fought our way to the core of the monolith, though in our case it was really more of an obelisk, and destroyed it, ending the system’s control over our county.
Those few who survived told our story to the government. It quickly became apparent that they already knew. Dissatisfied with the government’s response, we banded together to create the company. Our entire purpose being to find other survivors and band together to prepare for the inevitable day when the shit well and truly hit the fan.”
Mike sat there in silence for a long time. He wasn’t sure what to say, or do. He wanted to clarify one thing though, so eventually he spoke up.
“Are you saying there is a core in the monolith, and that destroying it will end all of this?” He gestured around vaguely to indicate the system.”
The man barked a laugh.
“So that’s your take away. Good. You really are the man for the job. Yes I believe there will be a core in the monolith’s center. As to whether or not anyone will be able to get to it, that I don’t know. I went in with a group of nearly fifty men hardened by the system to levels as high as thirty eight. Many of them, including myself, had bloodline enhancements and magic weapons.
Fighting for eight days straight, when we finally destroyed the core, there were three of us left. Including the families we left behind in the gym, of the twelve thousand two hundred nineteen people in my county, one hundred and six survived.”
Mike swallowed at that. Only one hundred survivors, and that had been a much smaller, more contained incident. The city had a population of several hundred thousand.
“What level are you now?” Mike asked, without really thinking.
The man didn’t seem to like that question, but he answered anyway, “I am currently level forty three. I gained two levels for delivering the final blow on the monolith’s core. And before you ask any more stupid question, my bloodline was vampiric. I was already middle aged when I obtained it. I am now just over one hundred and twenty years old. And yes, vampires do in fact grow stronger with age. Does that hit them all?”
Mike shrugged, before almost apologetically asking, “What do you want from me specifically?”
The predatory smile appeared on the man’s face again as he said, “Now that’s a good question. You won’t know yet, because you’ve only been here and in your cell. But our setup is extensive. Both underground and above. You’ve seen the Wilson building I’m sure?”
Mike nodded, the Wilson building was almost fifty stories tall. The tallest building in the city, and no one had any clue what they did.
The building had a rather extensive private area around it. The five lots directly surrounding it were all owned by Wilson Enterprises, and had been converted into a nice little private park. Surrounded by a concrete wall, and a rather impressive gate, the second name people had for the Wilson building was, “Fort Wilson.”
Looking around with his eyes open wide Mike couldn’t help asking, “this is the wilson building?”
“And I’m Jeremiah Wilson, but I think I’ve grown rather used to being called The Boss,” he said with genuine amusement.
Mike mouthed Mr. Wilson as the Boss continued speaking. Mr. Wilson was a famously reclusive billionaire. The only billionaire within a hundred miles or more of the city. Now he’d found out the man was a vampire, who’d fought the system before and won. It was all a little much.
He struggled to listen to the Boss’ plans for him.
“Since you’ve seen the building I’m sure you have an idea of the scale I’m talking about. We can easily house and shelter a few thousand people. Through careful arrangements, we can even make sure everyone becomes a player and contributes to the community. Even the people who don’t actively hunt in the streets.
We have hydroponic gardens, bunks, our own power grid. Even our security teams are stacked with ex-military and law enforcement and are competent enough to keep us safe. Basically everything we need to survive is within these walls.”
Mike nodded, so far it all sounded good, but his role hadn’t been laid out yet.
“But we’re missing one crucial thing,” the boss said, leaning forward for emphasis, “we’re missing a field team. That’s where you come in. I need a team that does more than hunts for survivors, or clears the immediate area of zombies. I need a team that can cross the city, or fight their way out of an ambush. I need some heavy hitters. A group that can take the front when we’re finally strong enough to take it to the monolith, to go after the core.”
“And you want me on this team?” Mike asked.
“I want you to lead that team, yes.” The Boss answered leaning back.
Mike took a deep breath, everything seemed too good to be true. If he’d learned anything from watching movies, it was that the boss’ operation would have a dark side. That train of thought led him to another, and he had to ask a question that had been bugging him.
“Answer me one thing. Why do your security teams wear military uniforms?”
The boss smiled, that cold, predatory smile, “Didn’t you come out to them, out of curiosity and for protection when you saw they were the military?”
Mike nodded in affirmation.
“There you go, that’s why. It makes it much easier to rescue survivors when they make such assumptions. If my men went around in security uniforms they would only raise questions. No matter how well armed they were, few people would go to them for help.”
“That’s another thing, how were they so well armed,” Mike asked.
Mr. Wilson snorted, “Kid, I’m a billionaire,” he said by way of answer.
Mike laughed awkwardly. He supposed it didn’t really matter how the boss got any of it. Whether it was surplus, or bought off the back of a truck brand new, through bribes and under the table deals. At the end of the day, it did come down to the fact the boss was a billionaire.
It wouldn’t really be all that surprising if he had attack helicopters and a missile silo.
Taking a deep breath to regain his confidence one last time, Mike said, “Okay fine, never mind about any of that. Why me? Why do you want me to lead your field team? You don’t know anything about me.”
“That’s not true at all Mr. Tanner. I have a satellite trained on the city. It’s shielded, so the emp didn’t take it out and so far the monolith has left it alone. I’ve seen you several times over the last few days. I know you have a head on your shoulders You’re a good judge of character, and the most important thing of all; I know you’re a survivor.
Why do you think I observed you in the cell for so long? How many people turn down food to meditate and train their skills when they are locked up in a prison cell with an indefinite term of service. I’ve been testing you since you got here, and you’ve passed every single test. Do you think any of my security team can handle my aura? Dirk, the big one, he’s the best of the lot and he still kneels before me the second I turn it on.”
Mike thought for a minute. Even if the boss turned out to be evil, his base of operations was too nice to turn down. Besides, evil would likely be a relative term, before too much longer anyway. Swallowing, knowing he might be making a mistake, Mike said, “I guess I’m in then.”
“Good,” the Boss said, “your first mission is to take a truck and retrieve the rest of your team. I can have someone navigate you to them using the satellite and radios. You can hold off on picking up the skeleton till last, he’s almost as interesting as you in his own ways. He should be fine until you get around to him. You’re dismissed.”
The boss said the last with an idle wave of his hand. He was already looking down at a tablet he’d produced from somewhere, lost in his work.
Mike got up, and backed out of the room.
As soon as the door closed behind him, he collapsed to the ground with a sigh of relief. Maintaining himself in front of the boss was exhausting. The level difference alone was ridiculous, and that was before considering bloodlines.
Undoubtedly a vampire bloodline was higher ranked than his half orc.
Sliding his new ring on his finger, Mike checked inside of it. Unsurprisingly everything that he’d had in his bag of holding was inside, including his ax. There were also several barrels of water, a crate’s worth of MREs, more than one set of camping gear, a tool box, and several other potentially useful items.
Smiling Mike stood up, and retrieving his ax from the ring, he spun it in the air and caught it, slinging it over his shoulder as he wandered off down the hall, following the navigation plaques towards the cafeteria.
He was feeling quite hungry, now that he was free, and had the run of the base.
This chapter took me places I didn’t expect. I have to be honest, this may not work. I’ve taken two ideas I was trying to choose from and combined them with a third that only came to me as I was writing… Now we’re off the prepared path again, luckily I get tomorrow to rebuild a little bit of that path before we continue. Thanks for reading.
I couldn’t decide if this was rambling or not. I felt it was all needed. I’m sure it could have stood to have a few cuts though. Hopefully it works for you guys. It does clear a bit of the mystery of the world up. Not everything, just a small part of it anyway.
Author : The Steve