“Out of all of the menu points, the most ambiguous one is the Companions tab. Basically, its sole purpose is to list your pets, the members of your Covenant, and – if you are unlucky enough – your living weapon. But even after lots of experimenting, I couldn’t find clear-set rules about what makes an animal your Companion. It’s clearly not enough to merely claim a beast as such; the animal has to think of you as its companion and/or caretaker as well.
If you are wondering how the Device could even determine what the animal is thinking, I have a theory for that: it can read how the Player perceives the animal’s behavior.
It would make sense, but the problem is that I clearly remember my first animal Companion: I had no intention of keeping him around and didn’t expect him to stay with me. This could only mean that the Device’s decision was based on other factors too. This is further proved by the fact that you cannot make a Companion out of an animal that someone else owns. It doesn’t make any difference if you are unaware that the animal is actually owned by someone, nor does it matter if the animal loves you and dislikes its owner.”
– excerpt from the first chapter of “Guide for the Niazian Empire’s new Players”
It is their second night in this strange world when Ryder notices the moon.
“It seems so large and bright…” he mumbles as he gazes at the amber-colored globe.
Although they decided to go to sleep, rest doesn’t come easily for his little group. One of the blue guys is lying on the other side of the fire, while the second one keeps watch. As for the humans, Ryder is the one who is supposed to keep an eye out for danger, so he is justified in staying up… but the rest of them aren’t sleeping either. Kelli, the only girl in the group, is still crying silently. She is a petite redhead, with freckles and green eyes. Though in Ryder’s opinion her body isn’t anything special, her lush kissable lips are quite alluring, even now when she is crying.
A slightly chubby black guy is sitting with her, trying to calm her down. Ryder forgot his name, the only thing he remembers is that it sounded really stupid.
“Fucking annoying,” Ryder mutters, taking his eyes off the two. Previously he tried to comfort Kelli as well, but the girl told him to get lost. Now for some reason she doesn’t have any problem with the fat guy.
The third man after Ryder and Fatty is a short, bearded one. Ryder dubbed him Dwarf in his mind. Dwarf is sleeping by all appearances, but Ryder has a hunch that the guy is just pretending. There is one more man lying next to Dwarf, the only one who is actually sleeping. Not that he could do much else: he has been injured so severely that Ryder is certain he won’t live long enough to see the next day.
That is all that’s left from their group. Initially, there were more, but the cheerful guy and the lanky girl died almost instantly when the baby-faced monsters attacked. By the time the blue guys managed to kill all of them, two more humans had died. Ryder doesn’t even remember what they looked like. He was also injured during the fight – one of the monsters bit a good chunk out of his leg – but thanks to some kind of miracle, he gained an Ability that has saved his life.
Ryder notices the fat guy standing up and making his way out of their camp, probably to relieve himself. After a bit of consideration, Ryder follows him. Even though the trees aren’t so close to each other to completely block the moonlight, it is dark enough for Ryder to lose sight of the chubby boy. Yes, just a boy. A sad little excuse of a man. Ryder saw how he hung back during the monster attack, doing absolutely nothing while the others bled for him.
“Woah!” the boy exclaims as he suddenly finds a dark shape in front of him on his way back to the camp. “Oh, Ryder, it’s only you. You scared me.”
“No wonder,” Ryder replies. “It seems like there aren’t many things that doesn’t scare you, fatty.”
“Hehe, yes, well…” he tries to edge sideways, but Ryder grabs his shoulder.
“Not so fast, fatty,” he lowers his voice. “I came here to warn you.”
“Yes. If you have anything at all in that thick skull of yours, you listen to me and stay away from Kelli. I don’t want to see you near her.”
“O-Oh…” the boy mumbles, but then suddenly his eyes harden. “A-And who are you t-to forbid me that?”
“I’m the leader of this group,” Ryder says and pulls out Soul Eater from his belt. “I was the one who was given this unique weapon, and I’ll be the one who will protect your sorry ass. If you don’t do as I say, you are out. I’d like to see how long you survive on your own.”
“Y-You are only the self-proclaimed leader of this group! No one choose you! And no one ever would!”
“Oh, really?” Ryder asks darkly. His blood begins to boil, but he keeps it in check so that it doesn’t show on his face.
“Y-Yes. I have been bullied enough at home and I won’t suffer it again! No matter what you do, I won’t be-”
He is cut off as Ryder’s arm moves lightning fast and sinks the black blade into his chest.
“How about this?” Ryder asks with a wide grin on his face. The boy just gapes as a dark red spot spreads rapidly on his shirt. Ryder pulls back Soul Eater and stabs him three more times, just for good measure.
“You stood up really bravely, in the end,” he says and begins laughing alongside with Soul Eater. The fat boy slumps to the ground, groaning weakly. A moment later Ryder stops laughing and covers his dagger hastily to muffle their sound. He feels so invigorated that it’s hard to stay silent, but a part of his mind recognizes that it would be trouble if the others found out what he did.
“Oh shit, I have to hide the evidence.”
Hiding the body is one thing, but he notices that his shirt became bloody too. Well, bloodier than it already was.
“Ah, maybe they won’t notice the difference.”
He pulls the body under a bush, then hurries back towards the camp. Maybe he can convince them that an animal has attacked them. He then stops and realizes that an animal wouldn’t put the corpse under a bush. He turns back to correct his mistake, but soon hears Dwarf coming after them.
“Hey guys, is everything alright?! What happened?” Dwarf shouts.
Ryder is in the middle of cutting long gashes on the boy’s torso – after all, it has to look as if claws have killed him – when Dwarf finds them.
“WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?!”
“Damn,” Ryder mutters and straightens up slowly. The bearded guy already has a sword in his hand, and looks at Ryder in utter shock.
“Have to hide the evidence,” Ryder grumbles as he steps forward. His mind feels strangely clouded, but there is one thing he is certain of: he has to kill Dwarf before he alerts the others.
“Stop!” Dwarf shouts, and in the next instant he uses his Ability. A medieval-style heavy armor appears around his body. It covers him fully, with the exception of the areas around the joints and the eye slit. The armor also gives off a faint light-green glow, as if it’s just a hologram. But Ryder knows it is no mere projection, because they showed each other their Abilities right after they had received them. He knows that the armor is as strong as anything made of steel, possibly stronger.
“I guess we have to do this the hard way,” he grins, and dashes forward. Dwarf shouts a second warning, but Ryder doesn’t even hear it. He rushes straight into Dwarf’s extended sword, which impales him through his stomach. Pain erupts in Ryder’s midsection, but he just grins and grabs his opponent’s sword hand and pulls him closer.
“Well, hello there,” Ryder says as if he isn’t even bothered by the steel in his midsection. It leaves Dwarf stare speechlessly in his dismay.
Before the small man could recover from the shock, Ryder rams Soul Eater through the eye slit. Dwarf cries out in agony as the blade takes out one of his eyes. With a mental command Ryder changes Soul Eater’s shape, lengthening the blade so it reaches his opponent’s brain. Dwarf’s cry dies on his lips and a second later he collapses to the ground. This time, Ryder has a harder time trying to muffle their laughs. He is so euphoric that he has to remind himself to remove Dwarf’s sword from his body. He pulls the metal out without as much as a wince and throws it away. He doesn’t need weapons like that when he has something far more superior.
“Regrowth,” he says his Ability’s name. It takes him a few seconds to seal his wound and restore all his integral organs. He wouldn’t be able to repeat a stunt like that for a while: more than half of his mana is depleted, and he has lost a lot of blood.
“Have to kill the blue aliens too,” he mumbles as he begins walking towards the camp, “and then Kelli…” he trails off, and stops in his track. “Kelli…” His resolve wavers for a second, and he wonders why exactly he has to do anything.
“But Kelli… yes, the blue guys might want to claim her,” he murmurs. “Yes, they have to die.”
With renewed bloodlust, he hurries to settle things with those damned silver-haired aliens.
*He won’t stand a chance against two Sylven soldiers. Shouldn’t we stop him, Inspector?*
*Not yet. He might be emotionally unstable, but his brain still functions properly. If he is clever enough he can do this,* Inspector Thamirthikk answers.
*But if things don’t go well, we have wasted a lot of efforts for barely anything,* Assistant Nahkshirrak objects, his telepathic voice full of worry.
Thamirthikk ignores him. He would have been annoyed by his Assistant at any other time, but now he is concentrating on the events too much to care. Subject FG20145, commonly referred as Subject Ryder, has already made his way to the camp. Both of the Sylven are awake now, and they are alert. Subject Ryder runs towards the Sylven, a fake expression of horror and shock on his face. Thamirthikk has to admit that the Human’s acting is quite good, considering the amount of excitement and bloodthirst he is feeling. None of that shows on his face. Thamirthikk makes a quick note to investigate this further at a later point.
Subject Ryder points a shaky hand in the direction he came from. The Sylven soldier with the bronze dagger – Subject HG10123 – doesn’t understand what he is saying, but the message is clear. He strides forward, barking the other Sylven – Subject HG10124 – an order to follow him. Subject HG00124 does so, readying his rusty sword and marching past Subject Ryder. Unfortunately for him, that is the moment Subject Ryder has been waiting for. He jumps behind the Sylven, covers his mouth with one hand and slits his throat with the other.
Unfortunately for him, Subject Ryder completely forgot about the presence of Subject FG20143, and the female begins to scream. His assassination wasn’t too sneaky anyways: the other Sylven would have noticed what happened within moments. Subject HG10123 spins around, pointing his dagger at Subject Ryder. His eyes harden as he realizes what happened, but his face is expressionless. He shows no emotion on the outside, however, Inspector Thamirthikk can see that on the inside anger and hatred quickly become the dominant emotions. Nothing surprising there.
Subject Ryder doesn’t hesitate. He stabs at the Sylven with his weapon, but his opponent deflects the strike with contemptuous ease. The Sylven then skips forward, stabs his dagger into Subject Ryder’s throat, and strikes him with his other hand as he pulls out the dagger. Subject Ryder stumbles back, but miraculously manages to stay on his feet. He could have been finished off right there and then, but the Sylven doesn’t understand what kind of Ability the Human has.
“Rhegrughhlhhhh” Ryder gurgles and spits blood everywhere.
The Sylven’s eyes widen in shock. He quickly jumps forward to correct his mistake, this time aiming for Subject Ryder’s head. But in the last second the Human blocks the blade with his left arm and barrels forward, taking the Sylven down to the ground. No matter how skilled the Sylven is at handling his weapons, on the ground the advantage is Subject Ryder’s because he is bigger and more solidly built. From there on, it is only a matter of time before Subject Ryder finishes off his opponent. Both fight well, but Subject Ryder wins by simply outliving his opponent, whose Ability isn’t useful in this situation.
Inspector Thamirthikk lets out a sigh of relief. It was a close call. Despite the heavy objections of the Research Team, the Council has decided to launch this batch of test subjects ahead of schedule. It would have been a shame if they lost the owner of the prototype so early on, after all the trouble they have went through in getting him ready. Assistant Nahkshirrak’s objection was on point, but they couldn’t just intervene whenever the situation became too dangerous. That would defeat the point of all of this.
Firstly, it is necessary to monitor these Subjects during extreme conditions as well, because those are the moments when the most interesting data usually flowed in. This means that risking Subject Ryder’s life is inevitable. Secondly, the spectators also wouldn’t appreciate if it was a common occurrence for Inspectors to interrupt the show. It is precisely because of the audience that the Council was adamant about sending out the second prototype-testing Subject. The first one was a huge success, bringing in incredible amounts of donations. The viewers liked this kind of extra twist, and wanted more.
The exciting part of the night was almost over. After finishing off Subject HG10123, Subject Ryder looks around for more. The prototype completely has him now. He is full of adrenaline, fury, and the will to fight. He is weak from blood loss, out of mana, his wounds not entirely closed… but he is unable to stand down. There are only two others left: the Human female trembling in her boots, and the injured Human sleeping on the ground.
The female chooses this moment to flee, screaming as she runs away, with no inclination to ever stop. Subject Ryder chooses the easier prey and begins stabbing him repeatedly.
*I think he isn’t going to stop,* Assistant Nahkshirrak says after a while.
*You might be right,* Inspector Thamirthikk answers, looking at the monitors. Subject Ryder has kept stabbing the corpse repeatedly and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down. The weapon is keeping him in ‘combat-mode’, even though there is no one left to fight.
*What about the female?* the Inspector asks his Assistant.
*She is going to be dead before sunrise, most likely,* Assistant Nahkshirrak answers. *There is an enirevlow in the direction she is running. There is no way it wouldn’t hear her if she is making this much noise. And the creature also has a keen sense of smell.*
*The encounter might be interesting to witness,* Inspector Thamirthikk muses. *But we are going to deal with Subject Ryder first. Put a commercial break on Subject FG20145.*
*B-but we rarely do those anymore. Are you sure-*
At Inspector Thamirthikk’s telekinetic command, the corpse of the Peacemeaker is flung out of the way. The translocator didn’t put them right inside the camp, and Thamirthikk suspects it was less of a calibration problem and more of the incompetence of his Assistant.
*It’s a shame that he died so easily,* Assistant Nahkshirrak says as he eyes the corpse of the Peacemaker. *He literally had one job, to prevent things like this to happen. Even Subject HG10123 has put up a better fight.*
*We only gave him a defensive Ability instead of a Morph Ability, so it’s fine this time.*
*Still, it’s pathetic how incompetent he was. Protected almost entirely by the Ability, and still dying within moments.*
Inspector Thamirthikk refrains from rolling his eyes. It’s not like his Assistant is too bothered by the death of this Subject. The only reason he is disparaging him is because it wasn’t Inspector Thamirthikk, but a rival Inspector who chose this Subject to be a Peacemaker. Had it been Inspector Thamirthikk who selected this Human, Assistant Nahkshirrak wouldn’t say a word.
They enter the camp in silence. Inspector Thamirthikk immediately freezes Subject Ryder’s body, and in the next instant Assistant Nahkshirrak is upon him, pushing his face to the ground so that he isn’t able to see them. Physical force isn’t necessary, because the cameras are offline and they don’t have to put up a show for anyone. But Assistant Nahkshirrak is a bit strange that way: instead of using telekinesis, he often prefers to get his hands dirty.
“Who- What the fuck are you, fuckers?!” Subject Ryder shouts, trying to turn his head.
“You may refer us as Godkin, Human,” Assistant Nahkshirrak sneers, then knocks Subject Ryder unconscious.
Inspector Thamirthikk snorts as he leans over Subject Ryder’s Device and starts to work. It doesn’t hurt if the human believes that they are some kind of higher beings, but Thamirthikk knows that it is far from the truth. Still, he doesn’t correct Assistant Nahkshirrak. A high percentage of the Pheilett society actually does think that they are higher beings than every other race.
But not Inspector Thamirthikk. Maybe it’s all those years watching these creatures going about their life in Niaz. Maybe it’s just simply the fact that – opposed to the majority of the Pheilett population – Thamirthikk is actually doing something important, which sets him apart from the rest. Either way, he doesn’t agree with the majority because he knows they are no better. How could they be? A society where the unemployment rate is 90 percent? A society full of dregs, who have nothing better to do with their immortal lives than to immense themselves in virtual realities and watch alien creatures kill each other off with ridiculous superpowers?
Nothing motivates their society to improve. No Pheilett needs to actually work in order to live their entire life comfortably. It’s a great boon, but also the root of their problems. The automatons can basically do any physical tasks, and there are artificial intelligences to do the mental ones. Though artificial intelligence cannot substitute everything safely or effectively, it isn’t required for every Pheilett person to have a job. But they could live in relative prosperity without ever working at all.
And what they cannot understand is that having technology handed them on a silver platter doesn’t mean that they are above every other intelligent species. Inspector Thamirthikk’s people may have technological superiority in this part of the galaxy, but that doesn’t make them ‘Godkin’. One of Inspector Thamirthikk’s fantasies is to send one of his own kind to Niaz with the same conditions as every test subject. Not only would it be really insightful, but by his estimation they wouldn’t even last half as long as the average Human or Sylven does. Unfortunately the Council wouldn’t allow this kind of experiment, not even as punishment for convicted criminals.
*Are you done, Inspector? The break is almost over.*
*No, I still need more time. Extend it.*
Blissfully, Assistant Nahkshirrak does so without objection this time. Thamirthikk quickly wraps up his work.
*I’ve done a complete reset on the prototype and on the bond,* he says. *It was the quickest solution. Now we just have to decide what to do with Subject FG20145 next. He needs a purpose, lest he slip back to this earlier mindset. Do you have any ideas, Assistant?*
*Hmm. This A-111 type prototype makes the Subject quite volatile, right, Inspector?*
*Emotionally, yes, though only in extreme situations. You can see the results on the holder of type A-110, his behavior is around normal in most circumstances. If anything, Subject Ryder’s version of the weapon has been improved. In theory, it should be easier for him to resist the prototype than it is for the holder of type A-110.*
*What, really? Ahem, I mean, I see, Inspector. So does Subject Ryder behave like this normally? Was he always inclined to commit murder? I apologize but I haven’t looked at his files… yet.*
Inspector Thamirthikk looks at him disapprovingly.
*You should have. While you are at it, also look at the Inspectors’ datalog on the other prototype owner. The Inspector who is overseeing that Subject has some very insightful observations that could be useful for us too.*
*As for your question, no, Subject Ryder didn’t have any murderous tendencies. What you have seen today is all the prototype’s influence.*
*But… Is that even possible? I’ve read the pre-field testing reports, and it was clearly stated that the prototype only amplifies certain emotions. It shouldn’t change the way they think, or give them different personalities!*
*That’s not necessarily true. As you may know it very well, the Human mind is easily malleable. Continuously altering their emotions distorts their mindset, and alongside their mindset their personalities also change. Besides that, we are still in the early stages of the development. Don’t take everything you read at a face-value. We still haven’t pinned down what exactly causes this irrational behavior, much less how to resist it.*
*Anyways, you don’t have to worry about giving Subject Ryder any violent or dangerous tasks. This whole thing is about confrontations, after all.*
*Well, in that case, how about sending Subject Ryder after the Human girl?*
Inspector Thamirthikk frowns.
*Let’s not tempt fate,* he says. *I’d rather give him something that doesn’t remind him of these events. Something longer term. Something he can look forward to… and while he does so, he can get used to his weapon.*
*Then… Since we have talked about it so much… How about sending him after the other one? The holder of A-110?*
*You are so focused on sending him after someone,* Thamirthikk clucks his tongue disapprovingly. *No, don’t send him after that Subject. But a little bit of conflict wouldn’t hurt,* he admits, showing his black pointy teeth in a wide smile.
*Assistant Nahkshirrak, give Subject Ryder a Quest that points him to Bildy.*