Mathias had only visited the Grand Canyon once, before the Conquest.
A dream of Dad had always been to do a road trip across the United States, through Route 66. While uninterested, his mother had eventually agreed to the idea under the condition that she could work from afar; she had ended up spending half the car trips programming stuff instead of sightseeing.
Unlike Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon hadn’t left Mathias with much of an impression, to the point he could scarcely remember how it looked years afterward.
The current Grand Canyon was very different from what it was ten years ago. After the Conquest, Concordia had taken over the area, apparently for research purposes. They had built labs and military installations there, including one of the Weather Control machines they used to alter the global climate. Many Players on the forums had doubted this was the entire story, and the unusual imperial resistance had convinced them.
New, imported alien vegetation had started to grow in the area; purple and red flowers the size of cars grew from the stone, releasing strange pollen into the winds; vines whose size rivaled those of bridge steel cables infested the cliffs. Shroud even noticed winged, insectoid beasts making their nest in isolated areas, watching Players with curiosity.
If they ever kicked Concordia off Earth, Shroud figured that it still wouldn’t return to the way it was. The ecosystem would remain radically changed, as would the weather. The technology the Empire imported would remain after them.
The group eventually arrived at the Players’ home-base, a large camp under a crimson cliff. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people had set up tents in the area, while sorcerers had created stone fortifications to protect the entrance. The sorcerer sensed the magical protections around him, probably variants of the Ward spell; he felt an invisible pressure surrounding him, someone’s gaze on him.
Shroud was surprised by what he saw. First of all, the camp was much larger than what he had expected; no way everyone there was a Player. Roughly a third of the people present weren’t humans, but hobs, bullmen, or rare other species he didn’t recognize. Shroud guessed some of the more impressive specimens, such as the greenish, snake-haired gorgons, were creatures summoned by the Call spell.
Everyone was armed with earthling or alien weaponry, and they even had a primitive garage where a Player cast Orange spells to enhance guns. They had even had three pre-Conquest helicopters, customized with more advanced weaponry.
“How many of there are you?” Shroud asked the leader of the initiative, the former SEAL Washington. The man wore a heavy, bulky power-armor, seemingly made of scavenged Gearsmen parts.
“Here, or in the entire Zone? I would say between ten and fifteen thousand in the entire Zone, with two thousand gathered here. Of these two thousand, eighty-seven of them are Players from seven guilds, without including yours or the person powering the Zone. The rest are NPCs, as we call them. Our summoners can bolster that number by eight hundred as needed.”
Which made ninety-three players deployed on this front. Considering Magik currently had less than two thousand of them worldwide, that was a huge concentration, the second behind Neo York.
Since a single sorcerer was worth more than a battalion, and that their abilities meshed well in groups, maybe they had a chance to take the area.
“What about the non-sorcerers?” Solomon asked, noticing quite a few people wearing similar armor as Washington’s. Shroud noticed many of them glanced at him as the group walked through the camp; it appeared he had a reputation here on Earth. “Even if armed, they are no match for Gearsmen without support.”
“That’s what I wanted to talk about in private,” Washington replied, stopping before a tent larger than the rest. “Sol, Shroud, you can come inside. The rest of you, make yourself at home.”
Shroud glanced at Ulysses. “We’ll talk later,” his best friend said. “Saving our hides comes first.” The sorcerer nodded and walked into the tent, noticing Ulysses leading the other Dragonslayers around, much to Maggie’s discomfort.
The ‘war tent’ reminded Shroud of movie depictions of the White House’s situation room, to the point he wondered if Washington had emulated it on purpose. The tent welcomed screen devices monitoring areas of the Grand Canyon and even had an emergency radio. At the center, a Native American woman waited for them, sitting around a table covered with maps. She must have been Atalanta, Ulysses’ Moderator.
“I am Solomon Nicholae, and this is Shroud,” Sol introduced himself to the woman by warmly shaking her hand and saying his true name, having nothing to hide.
“Hi, I’m Atalanta,” the woman replied with a smile, before focusing on Shroud, the Players sitting next to her. “You’re Odysseus’ friend? He talked a lot about you.”
“In a good way, I hope,” Shroud deadpanned, removing his helmet and allowing himself to breathe. He somehow felt vulnerable without it on, as if he had lost the skin over his face.
“Sometimes,” Atalanta smiled back, although she seemed reserved. “You two have a complicated history. He didn’t give me all the details, but what happened at Evermarsh still has consequences to this day.”
“I gotta say, you killing that dragon? That inspired many.” Washington praised him. “I always thought a good dragon was a dead one.”
While Shroud kept his composure, Sol visibly flinched. “We found out that not all dragons support Concordia,” the priest pointed out, wary of what Washington’s thinking may lead.
“Does it really matter?” Washington replied contemptuously.“If they don’t fight against their government, then they’re still supporting it by inaction.”
“You could say the same for most of our species,” Atalanta pointed out.
“I’m just saying, you got to pick a side,” Washington replied, before brushing it off. “Anyway, pal, maybe the Administrator that kickstarted the revolution, but you’re the one who made it sound credible.”
That was what Shroud had intended when he fought Smokefang, and the number of people who took up arms did warm his heart. The more victories they claimed, the more momentum they could build.
Atalanta pointed at a map representing the Grand Canyon. “This,” she pointed at two spots in close proximity, “is the main Concordian facility, and this is our camp.”
“Is it wise to make camp so close to them?” Sol asked.
“We have protective spells and Locks, and the Zone warns us ahead of time when they try to hit us with orbital lasers. In fact, the closer we are to their main base, the safer we are. I don’t know what they keep in that facility, but they are in no hurry to bomb it.”
“They have been using chemical and incendiary weapons on the area ever since they noticed the Zone’s effects,” Washington explained. “Our scouts say they have seen more Gearsmen come out than in.”
“Either they have teleporters, or this is a weapon factory,” Shroud guessed. He had seen the information Players shared on the Gearsmen and the source of their organic matter.
“Yeah,” Washington nodded. “If we can take that place, we eliminate the biggest local Concordian army, and this frees our forces to take Las Vegas next.”
“We have two advantages,” Atalanta said. “Our Locks, and Hacks. Especially your Mad World. Concordia hasn’t yet managed to negate that spell. They accelerate the speed of their Gearsmen’s reboots, but cannot prevent them.”
“So in response, they have begun to field armored, flesh and blood soldiers and sorcerers,” Washington explained. “Without including the Gearsmen, they have roughly four times our numbers protecting the main facility.”
“Thankfully, we noticed a weakness to exploit,” Washington said. “Namely, reliance on a single color. Unlike our multicolored Guilds, Concordia fields sorcerers in battalions sharing the same color. They got specialized firepower, we’ve got versatility.”
“What colors?” Sol asked.
“We’re facing groups of Red, White, and Yellow. The first as artillery, the second as support, the third is trying to exorcise the Zone. The Reds pack a punch, but the Whites disrupt our Players more. We’ll target the latter first.”
“You scavenged some of Concordia’s technology,” Shroud noted. “Can it help?”
“We have, and the Guild in Neo York smuggled us tech from other worlds,” Washington confirmed. “But it pales in comparison to what the Empire can field. Most still have pre-Conquest weapons we recovered from hidden army depots. We enhanced them with spells like Reinforce, enough that it can hurt Gearsmen, but they aren’t lasers.”
“Your Network can be the decisive factor,” Atalanta said. “Granting a spell to every able-bodied fighter can make or break the attack.”
“The Administrator informed me that I have a limited amount of allocated ‘Flux’ per color to draw upon,” Shroud replied. Hence why he had a hard limit on the number of Doppelgangers he could deploy. “I can roughly allow ninety-nine spells of each color, Black exempted. My Lock simply does not recognize them.”
A few heads perked up as he mentioned the color, Washington pouncing on the opportunity. “About Black, anything that can help our group effort?”
“My Black Spells are optimized for direct combat, not for tactics or strategy,” Shroud replied. “One spell, ‘Ruin Mode,’ does increase my other capabilities, but also starts affecting my Lock negatively.”
“How negatively?” Washington prodded as if trying to gauge whether they would make up for the power boost.
“I stopped the experiment before I could fully examine the consequences,” Shroud admitted. “As it may endanger everyone I Networked. And as I said, much like Hack, I cannot grant them to other people.”
“Which useful spells can you allocate?” Atalanta asked.
“Ninety-nine Premium Thoughts or Doppelgangers, ninety-nine Accel, and either ninety-nine Powersurge or Heal. My other spells are Hacks, and I lack the Spellcoins to purchase more. Finally, my Doppelgangers carry all the enhancements of the original. If you have Powersurge and Premium Thoughts on, your clones will stay super-strong and smart; magical equipment is not duplicated, however.”
“We also created a stockpile of magical pills and grenades by encoding spells,” Sol said. “We can distribute the arsenal.”
“Our Green Sorcerer also experimented with breeding and enhancing monsters,” Shroud pointed out. “So we can bolster the army significantly.”
Washington considered the resources at his disposal, before assigning tasks. “For our Sorcerers, Shroud, you should give Doppelganger to direct combat specialists so we can increase our number of heavy hitters, and Accel to everyone else. Twenty-five NPCs get Heal to act as emergency medics, the rest get Powersurge. Doppelganger is more valuable than Premium Thoughts to distribute since it’s kind of a spell tax already.”
“I would like to keep a certain number of Doppelgangers for myself,” Shroud said. “They help me control the battlefield, and they distract attackers trying to target me personally.”
“Yeah, your Lock is too precious to risk you in direct combat,” Washington said. “You will stay in the camp and you coordinate us from afar.”
Shroud shrugged. Once he would have jumped on the opportunity to get his hands dirty, and he had the feeling he might should things turn ugly, but he had come to accept his powers served better to support groups. “The more people I Network, the better they coordinate,” he said.“Even if I do not grant them spells.”
“You’re pretty overpowered, aren’t you?” Washington said. “Glad you’re on our side.”
“When are you planning to attack?”
“Tomorrow evening, when the Zone’s influence will reach the facility. That will give us an edge.”
Shroud better Network everyone beforehand then.
As he said he would, Shroud spent the day touching people and assigning spells as per Washington’s strategy. He probably hadn’t Networked everyone in the camp, but he might as well have.
As night fell, the sorcerer found himself with more Network feeds than he ever had before. He couldn’t keep track of all of them even with Premium Thoughts, although he remembered everyone whom he assigned spells to.
With the attack planned for tomorrow, and mentally weary, Shroud flew around the camp looking for his friends. The fighters were dining around campfires, and he found Ulysses and Maggie among one.
“–That’s ridiculous,” he heard Maggie tell Ulysses, as he landed next to them. “If modern people can’t stop a zombie invasion, how can a Roman Legion win?”
“Superior tactics, and trenches,” Ulysses replied. “And fire. Lots of fire.”
Somehow, this conversation sounded familiar. “Do the legions have prep-time?” the Blue Sorcerer asked. “Mind if I join the debate?”
“Of course not, Matt, my friend,” Ulysses said, cooking marshmallows around the fire while Maggie rested on her back, rolling her eyes. “The Romans get two hours of prep-time. Caesar is the commander.”
“Then the Roman legions win,” Shroud replied. “Superior tactics like choke points will prevail over overwhelming numbers if they aren’t taken by surprise.”
“Pff, nerds,” Maggie snorted.
“However,” Shroud trailed off before Ulysses could gloat, “If the zombies have been raised by a necromancer, then I must assume they will show coordination that offset the Roman technological and tactical advantage.”
“Zombie hordes aren’t raised by necromancers,” Ulysses replied.“They’re a virus.”
“The undead I met would beg to differ,” Shroud replied.
“Yeah, we got one in the team,” Maggie said. “He’s not right in the head, but he’s smart.”
“Undead or undeads?” Ulysses asked. “I can never tell.”
“And there is a Yellow spell allowing us to raise an army of the dead,” Shroud pointed out, completely ignoring Ulysses’ question.
“Now you’re just nitpicking,” Ulysses replied, offering marshmallows to his friends; Maggie declined, while Shroud happily accepted. “I missed these conversations though.”
“Yeah, it’s been too long,” Shroud sat with them. “How long has it been since we last camped together?”
“I think it was last year when Mom took us to the glades,” Ulysses replied. “I can’t believe we were crushing the resistance on an MMORPG back then. How far we have gone since.”
“What can I say, Divinity made interstellar empires much cooler than our own. That faction had the best costume.”
“Good lord, it’s like you’re drawing the inner nerdness of the other in a feedback loop,” Maggie said, although she had a smirk at the edge of her lip.
“Says the girl who played the worst FPS in her spare time.” Maggie glared at Ulysses. “Oh? That was an educated guess, but it landed right!”
“Shut up, it was shooting training,” Maggie pouted, crossing her arms. “Why did we date again?”
“‘Cause you’re an edgelord and you thought I was one too.”
“Nah, I think I just had terrible tastes.”
“You said it, not me.”
Amused, Shroud watched them bicker while eating his marshmallow. He found joy that in spite of everything that happened, they could fall back into their old habits; it was as if they never had an interruption.
He thought back on his reasons for rebelling against Concordia. Once, it had been for revenge, for both his mother and Earth. Now…
Now the more Shroud thought about it, the more he realized he fought for these moments. The brief instants when he wouldn’t have to fear death, or arrest, or watch over his back for an attack. He fought for better days he hadn’t experienced since the Conquest.
There was still a lot of work to be done, but they could-
Warning: Abnormal code change detected.
Lock upgrade ongoing (2/7)…
Shroud frowned, sending a message to the Administrator at once.
SHROUD: What’s happening? I didn’t fulfill a side-quest, and yet I received a Lock upgrade notification.
ADMINISTRATOR: I did nothing. Let me check… Have you edited the source code?
He didn’t, and couldn’t. The Sponsors didn’t trust him with anything that sensitive. It may have been Black Sorcery’s influence, but he hadn’t used it since the Midnight Market. No, the timing didn’t fit.
The fact that it happened right after he networked so many people at once though… it couldn’t be a coincidence.
ADMINISTRATOR: It isn’t a hacking attempt by Melusine, but just as worrying. Shroud, your Lock is evolving on its own without my input. It is editing your profile’s code by itself.
SHROUD: Like when it created the Save feature?
ADMINISTRATOR: Yes, but this time it didn’t make use of a Dis artifact, which confuses me. Either your Lock is undergoing its Overlock stage ahead of time, or something else is afoot. In any case, your mass networking kickstarted a process of some kind.
SHROUD: Can you block it? It could be a hidden program left behind by Manus or Melusine, with all the dangers it entails.
ADMINISTRATOR: True. I will reject the edits at once.
Shroud instantly received another message.
Warning: Iron God Protocol interrupted by: Administrator.
… Request denied.
Administrator blocking attempt overruled by: Lazarus.
Iron God Protocol uninterrupted.
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