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Were the police that much stricter around here that this guy was worried about wasting this thief and whatever goons he might have? Terrenus seemed pretty lawless once you got outside of the cities, and even inside the cities, like nearby Palgard, law was still something that was more metaphorical, or even hypothetical, than actual. But maybe the guy was afraid of entity that Erin had not yet seen, so she supposed she'd default to his wishes until she could learn more about this continent. 

"The shipment is a meta-material worth more than its weight in gold. If you want to sell your cut, I'm buying. And as for the guy, yeah, I got a lead, I got somewhere we can start looking. That mean you in?"

Erin didn't know what the hell "meta-material" was, but if it was worth a shit-ton of gold, she'd be happy to help acquire and promptly sell it.

"Hell yeah, I'm in."

She promptly grabbed more cheese curds, pleased to take advantage of food that was free, for once. Also fried. Because frying food always makes it better.

Edited by Tyler

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The orc was pleased that Eldwine seemed adverse to getting caught which was something he could easily relate to. Blob Boss had made it clear that anything he did that could harm their makeshift family could warrant an agonizing death. There was so much else Xavier wanted to do and there were certain people he wanted to make sure he saw again. At the very least he could be sure that Eldwine wasn’t anything like that Mistress lady which made his decision that much easier.

 

Xavier shifted in his chair a bit which caused the seat to groan a bit more as he leaned in to listen to Eldwine speak some more, moving in to grab the bottle of wine. The orc was briefly distracted given that the glasses he had to choose from here looked far too delicate for his massive hands. He set the bottle down without drinking any wine at all, letting Lycoris pour herself some and scooping some of the fried foods to jam them into his mouth before Eldwine explained what sort of shipment they were after. Xavier munched at a moderate pace that again seemed practiced as if it defied what he actually wanted to do and when he swallowed his latest snack, he decided to speak.

 

“Sure. I am ready when you are…”

 

The orc turned to look at Lycoris coincidentally after that, waiting for the woman to confirm she was in as well.

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638ddd939bd0d5c7ac89cb547f752950.jpg?response-cache-control=max-age=2628000lycoris romanova


 

“Shall we then,” asks Lycoris, and that is that, the end of the matter; everyone is onboard.

The rest of their stay in the Purple Penguin is a blur, but she distinctly remembers two more glasses of wine—quickly downed and disposed of; irrelevant—seven separate invitations to leave the club and have a good time somewhere else—quickly declined all seven times; also irrelevant—and Eldwine offering up the tidbit that their first stop is the CyberFunk Cafe, whatever that is.

Half an hour later, Lycoris is gazing up into the virtual aquarium cut deep into the wall in front of a bar counter, holographic electric blue lobsters and a plethora of discus fish swimming in what seems to be thin air, and she thinks, ah, that’s what it is.

They must have come in during the off-peak hours, when the customers milling about the cafe appear to be either students of VR programs sporting permanent dark circles under their eyes and caught in helpless spirals of programming sprees, little old ladies delicately nibbling on crustless sandwiches as they watch a hologram of advanced needlework classes over tea, or shadowy figures sipping black-just-black coffee and ostensibly hacking in the corner cubicles.

Lycoris takes in the interior of the cafe in one breath, glances at the door leading down a staircase to the arcades below, then shifts her eyes towards Eldwine, waiting to see what comes next.

 


 

 

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Eldwine nodded to the three of them in their turn – Erin, Xavier and Lycoris.

"Alright let's get the fuck out of here then. Take some food if you want, I'm already settled up."

He slapped his knees and came to a stand.

In navigating their way out of the Penguin, Eldwine was given pause a few times, these being when he bumped into Xavier's arresting bulk. It was only twice, but in those moments he found he lost a quarter inch of ground while Xavier remained completely unfazed. These negligible physical conflicts imparted on Eldwine a combined sense of confidence and anxiety. The first because Xavier was a hired hand, and Eldwine was the one footing the bill. The second because, and this applied to all of them really, he knew Xavier for less than an hour and had to map out the realistic, even if unlikely, scenario where Xavier and he were suddenly opposed to one another.

It made his nerves tingle and his muscles tighten in an involuntary readiness response, but then they were out in the opens pace of the world, with the half-deafening, partially blinding atmosphere of the Penguin well in their rearview.

The Penguin was on the outskirts of Martial Town's Core - their next heading brought them towards the Core's heart, and saw the group of hardened thieves and assaulters, and maybe even killers, transition into a juvenile surveillance state. There weren't cameras on every corner, but whenever Eldwine took a series of turns that saw them entering a neighborhood they just left, he explained that: "I don't want to make it too easy for anyone, you know?"

Skyscrapers, the steely, glittering façades for the two-pronged pitchfork of Government and Corporation, crowded the skyline above them when Eldwine ducked them into the CyberFunk Café, pulsing, digital heart of the shopping district.

They ambled past the main floor, through the arcade, to a corner hidden by holographic projection, guarded by a humanoid with no face, no muscle definition, but one-and-a-half as much bulk as Xavier and an inscrutable demeanor. Tied to the fact that it had no face. Eldwine offered it a phrase.

"Don't jack in without a firewall, and make sure that you flip from ANY ANY to DENY DENY. If at all possible your hash needs to be off the chain; those blocks don't compile, public trust is for the birds and worms."

A solid minute passed without engagement. Eldwine looked over his shoulders at the cool hands, sellswords, hired guns.

"Don't . . . jack –"

The humanoid stepped aside to grant them access to the door it obscured with its bulk.

"Sorry about that." The voice projected down on them from every imaginable angle. "Latency."

Five minutes later saw them broaching an unlabeled VIP room. Eldwine sat on a sofa, touched the wall next to him, from which extended a rack – on it were two thin halos, and two 'suits' with an appearance of a wire mesh with very few strands.

"We're meeting my contact in the Cyberplex. Most people 'jack in' using permanent mods or these halos, so they don't have many of these control suits. These were the only two I could reserve, and one of them is for me. I need to go in to meet my contact and as many of you can, come with me. I want the extra eyes in case there's something I don't see that you do. The thing with the halos is that they limit mobility so that you don't thrash around here while you're in the virtual world. It's more immersive, but takes longer to come out of. So the two in the suits are going to be the first line of defense if something goes sideways out here; the two with the halo will be more agile in the VR. 

"Who's getting the other suit and who's taking the halo?"  

Edited by supernal

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Erin wasn't wanted in Valcure, at least not yet, but she still shied away from the cameras when they came upon them. In a technologically advanced world such as this, a mundane assassin such as her was even more vulnerable, especially if she failed to be vigilant. At some point she lifted the hood of her jacket to hide her head away as much as possible, as she silently followed their leader to the cafe. The big humanoid was intriguing, as she could only guess what it actually was when they came across it. It stepped aside to reveal an interior room, where what apparently were different types of virtual reality equipment were being held for them.

"Wait, we're plugging into the internet?" Erin questioned, but it was in a low tone of voice and was more a mumble to herself rather than a legitimate inquiry to her boss.

She didn't really like, nor trust, the idea of "jacking in" to a virtual world, but apparently they had to do it as part of their job. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad, given it would be a new and unique experience. The real question then was whether she wanted to commit fully to being Eldwine's VR bodyguard, or have one of the suits that would allow her to escape the virtual world more quickly. 

"I'd prefer the suit." she stated.

She probably should be the one with the halo, as she was likely the least physically impressive of the mercenaries, and thus the other two were better suited as the real world defenders, But she really didn't want to be left vulnerable if something bad happened outside of the so-called Cyberplex.

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Xavier made it a point to down whatever fried food remained and then took it upon himself to chug down the Dali wine in its entirety. Sure, he was supposed to be on a job and taking a moment to imbibe may ruin any professionalism points he had already garnered but free food was free food. It was good that he soon found out that it would take far more than just a bottle of Dali wine to get him truly inebriated. He lagged a bit behind for the start of the journey before picking up his pace and making sure to remain centralized in the group. Whether it was so that they could endure whatever surprise attack came from the front or to quickly protect their rear would be up for question as there were times where Xavier seemed completely alert and others where his eyes were clearly distracted. It didn’t help that after that wine everything he saw along the way piqued his interest.

 

He felt Eldwine bump into him twice but never once addressed it. Even the fact that they were walking circularly at times produced no inquiry as Xavier seemed interested enough in what the Core had to offer that he didn’t mind the purposeful detours. When they had approached the faceless bulk, Eldwine began spouting off words that held no meaning to the orc other than technical jargon. The orc looked visibly perplexed but then caught himself and just returned to his default stern look. Just when Xavier was about to laugh at the inaction of the bulky humanoid and Eldwine’s potential failure, the faceless one moved aside and allowed them to enter.

 

The onslaught of virtual technology assaulted Xavier’s eyes as they entered the CyberFunk Café. From the holographic lobsters he wished were real to the engrossed patrons that were lost in worlds, Xavier felt out of his element and then idly wondered if that techie girl that was part of his family enjoyed places like this. Once Eldwine sat down and laid out his plan Xavier turned his head to look all around him before he decided to respond. “I would prefer neither but will take the other suit while she takes the halo” The orc motioned to Lycoris as he said his last few words. Xavier had no problem volunteering Lycoris or anyone else here for jobs he didn’t care to do. He knew his strengths and his weaknesses.

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"Who's getting the other suit and who's taking the halo?"

Lycoris waits for a moment, letting the others speak their mind about the situation, and really, it’s all for the best: it rather seems like control suits are becoming the fashion everyone aspires to nowadays. Both the other woman and the hulking orc state their preference to use the suit, and Xavier even has the brazenness to throw her in the other direction in favor of using the halo.

She is not overly concerned where she is positioned in this endeavor; her poison will be quite enough protection for herself, at the very least, and her compatriots seem rather able-bodied. She does not quite know them yet, so she’ll have to give them the benefit of the doubt.

What to do with this impasse, however?

“I don’t mind taking a halo.” Lycoris nods at Eldwine, then turns to the others, a slight edge of amusement embellishing the curve of her lower lip. “One of you, however, will have to concede to use the other halo, as our leader,” she gestures to Eldwine, “has already determined that he’ll be taking one of the suits.” Lycoris moves to sit at the sofa and takes a halo between her gloved fingers in wait of the group’s final verdict.

 


 

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"Shit, she's right..."

Erin thought as she turned and looked at Xavier, or rather, looked up at Xavier. She had to figure the hulking man was used to getting his way with people, and even if Erin was above average height for a woman, she still definitely felt like an insect when compared to the giant orc. Technically, the logical choice, and the more team-centric one at that, would be to let him take the other suit, as he was likely the most capable defender in the real world. But Erin was not about to surrender her physical escapability lightly. The last thing she wanted was to be left defenseless or impaired if some hostile entity decided to barge into their room here. 

"Seems we have a bit of a dispute, then." she stated, crossing her arms, "And I called the suit first, so you'll need to give me a good reason to surrender my claim to you."

The moment Xavier actually turned to look at her though, she realized it probably wasn't the wisest idea to antagonize the big guy.

"Though..." she quickly backtracked as the stern expression evaporated from her face, "The fair option would be to leave it up to random chance."

Reaching into her pouch, she produced a copper coin and held it up so the man could see it.

"Uhhh, heads or tails?" she asked with a nervous smile.

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Erin’s challenge to his claim took Xavier back to those moments in his childhood where the only way to resolve conflict was to pummel the challenger into submission. Such was the tried and true method of the Thoro’kan tribe. Within the depths of the orc’s being he could feel himself wishing to return to his roots and it didn’t help any that Obtenebra seemed to urge him to act, threatened by Erin’s growing proximity. Xavier glared at Erin in this moment and listened to her words, not angered at all by what was being said as he realized that his own words had caused his current predicament. He couldn’t simply back down. Not in front of Lycoris and definitely not in front of Eldwine. What motivated him even more was that he knew Blob Boss would chastise him if he did not meet this challenge at all so Erin would find the orc stepping even closer to her until she could hardly see anything other than the black bulk of his upper body before her.

 

“What is fair…isn’t what is always right. I can defend this group better than you can…”

 

Xavier stopped himself before he began to sound much like the rest of his brethren would, flaunting there ideas of superiority with abandon. A light sigh slipped out of his mouth before he stepped back a bit and eyed the halo before continuing. “If you want to be able to run away faster, though, then I will join her and take the halo.” His massive hand motioned to Lycoris before moving his hand toward one of the halo and staring at Eldwine. The man was their ‘leader’ and ultimately he would be the determining factor here. Whoever the man placed his trust in now would give Xavier the insight he needed to know how the rest of this job might go.

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"I'd prefer the suit."

Eldwine nodded. A simple, declarative statement. No equivocation, no clever little word-traps.

Already in the middle of pulling one of the wire-frame suits out for himself, Eldwine merely positioned himself out of the way so the others could grab their own equipment as needed.

". . . but will take the other suit . . ."

A wrinkle.

Eldwine spared Xavier and Erin a passing glance, and no more than that. A quick flick of the eyes which allowed him to survey, in the single instance which he allowed himself, their demeanor, as informed by their postures, the positions of their arms, the geometries of their faces as lit up and shadowed by the slow pulse of the VIP room's custom light show.

Tensions, though far from a critical mass, were mounting. He didn't expect professionals to blow a payday over something comparatively trivial, but Eldwine had seen stranger things, and had been as or more petty himself on more than one occasion. Rather than intervene and attempt to defuse, Eldwine's response was to be quicker about fitting the suit on. His simple reasoning being that it would be much harder for either of them to turn on him and take his suit if he already had it secured.

" . . . as our leader . .  . he'll be taking one . . ."

Eldwine looked up at Lycoris at nearly the same moment she motioned towards him, drawing a line from her hand to his person, asking them all to look his way. They would do so just as he fastened the final snap around his collar.

"You know what? I guess I am."

His question was a surprise – his statement homed in with a sense of finality, emblematic of a radical but effortless readjustment on Eldwine's part to the circumstances. He was so accustomed to deferring to higher ranked agents, to bowing the head to Lady Halisera, to merely being an arm to that greater Dali body, he sometimes forgot how authority flowed.

But Lycoris reminded him that here, now, he was the fountainhead.

"If it'll fit, give the suit to the guy with biceps the size of melons. I mean, really now."

Spoiler

aesthetic 

AztnZ5S.jpg 

 

Edited by supernal

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Erin glared between Xavier and Eldwine, finding that the first was not backing down, and was also smarting than he looked, while the latter clearly just wanted to go with the more logical option and be done with it. 

"Fine, you take it then." she grumbled, heading over to grab the other halo, while muttering under her breath, "Suit looks stupid anyway."

She had to be instructed on how to actually interface with the halo, but eventually she accomplished this. Soon, she was plugged into the matrix, her body going stiff as her mind's signals shifted from her physical form to her pending avatar in the technological network. Of course, as it turns out, this being her first sign-in, the network had apparently to do a few calculations first. As it was doing that, she found herself in the middle of an out-of-body experience, no longer feeling any physical form, instead only seeing what amounted to a computer screen in front of her eyes, except that she had no eyes, for it was just an image projected directly into her mind.

New Subject Detected.

Conducting biological scan, please wait...

Complete.

Profile being created, please wait...

Complete.

Species: Human

Sex: Female

Height: 5.75 Meters

Weight: 68 Kilograms

Please input name...

Erin.

Profile Name: Erin

Constructing avatar parameters, please wait...

Complete.

Please select an avatar variant...

Erin found herself staring a sliding menu of various constructed versions of herself. The default was a cartoony caricature, which would have made her roll her eyes in annoyance, expect... yeah, still no eyes. Still, using brain impulse, she was able to rotate the model to look at it, as well as cycle through the list of potential models. The default didn't suit her, so she moved to the next. The pixel version didn't exactly float her boat either, nor did the low-poly version, or the anime version, or the age-regressed version, or the age-progressed version, or the... let's not talk about that version actually... the monochrome version wasn't horrible at least, the metallic-skin version made her pause a moment, then she arrived at the "enhanced version". 

"Those... do not look natural..." she thought.

Right, moving on. Stick figure version? No. Genderbent version? Err... Comic book version? Nah. Chibi version? NO! Catgirl version? Why is that EVEN a THING!? Furry version? WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE?!?

Having exhausted literally every weird and irritating internet cliche, Erin finally arrived at the end of the list... which was actually a fairly high-quality, near-photo-realistic 3D model, that actually did look like her. Finally. Why in hell was that not the default? Whatever, at least she found it.

Select.

Avatar requires 10,000 Network Coins to unlock, please input payment option...

Oh COME ON!

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The orc flashed a grin as he got his way and stared long at Erin before moving to put on the suit. Xavier took some time placing the mesh suit on his massive body, fumbling with some of the wires and looking visibly uncomfortable as the suit barely managed to fit on his bulk. The receptors came in contact with Obtenebra on some occasions which caused the black substance to recede so that it came in contact with flesh. Xavier tried to hide this as best as he could, shifting around so that the others couldn’t see but his ancient companion would be hard to conceal. After several awkward movements, Xavier seemed ready to start so he planted himself near Lycoris and then felt a tingling sensation all over his chest which caused the orc to jump before he started to see things he knew weren’t physically there.

 

Vibrant colors assaulted his eyes from within the helm as neon signs advertised a variety of services and several avatars began walking by him without a care in the world. It was then that he noticed a certain aura around his appendages that let him know where his arms and legs were but did not look like he knew they should. Xavier would shake his arm and then shake his leg trying to regain his bearings which caused a few avatars that passed by to jerk their bodies to circle around him. The din of the crowd around him caused him to dart his head to and fro until he took a long deep breath and mumbled something to himself; a mantra to keep it together.

 

He frantically searched for the others but only saw a silhouette of someone near him that seemed to take a long time to take shape. Attempting to poke at it, unaware that it was Erin taking her sweet time, he found his fingers slide right through which bothered him every which way. Music filled his ears as there was a band playing in this centralized area. A group of women brushed by him and had no qualms letting themselves slide around him which activated some receptors that caused nerves to fire up as he felt them go by but the orc knew they weren’t physically there. The woman scrunched their faces in mild disgust after they noticed what he was. This orc had no time to be offended as he clearly did not come prepared for this part of the job and it showed with how his body jerked at every sudden movement.

 

In whispers, he said following to himself.  “This is all for the money Xavier…just suck it up.” It seemed to help just a bit as he stood upright and looked promisingly imposing. That was his job right? To be the muscle and nothing more? Please let it be all he needed to be this time around.

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638ddd939bd0d5c7ac89cb547f752950.jpg?response-cache-control=max-age=2628000lycoris romanova


 

It’s faintly surreal—one moment, she is standing in the crooked circle formed by the group as they prepare to enter the Cyberplex, and then the next moment, she is blinking through a shimmering silver-struck screen, all sight and sound and touch dampened and forcibly attuned towards the sudden appearance of floating cubes, hanging from the dark expanse above like disfigured stars.

Strange. Lycoris lifts a hand, her fingers dancing over the spines of the cubes closest to her, flashes of colors and images whizzing past as she makes contact with one after the other. Not putting much thought towards it, she holds one particularly luminous one between the palms of her hands, and when it bursts open in a bright explosion of sparks—

Lycoris finds herself standing in the Cyberplex, a mere speck in the sea of avatars shifting through the virtual world.

She smiles down at herself in satisfaction, all sleek dark suit and blonde hair—a combination that is pointedly not her real appearance—and strides over towards the figure sticking out like a sore thumb in the midst of the street. “Hey there, big guy,” she greets Xavier, gaze shifting to and fro as she takes in their surroundings, eyes catching on the nebulous shape that is taking form at the orc’s side. “Where are the others?”

 


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More than anything else, the experience was novel.

And more than anything else, novelty was the sensation the human animal chased. It was a function of evolutionary biology; the brain chemistry was structured in such a way that it rewarded acquiring, the process of hunting, more than it rewarded acquired, the state of being fulfilled. The human animal was a predatory animal, a hunter, that's why the human animal's eyes were located on the front of their face rather than the side of it. It was why the human animal sought experiences and situations and circumstances which challenged it in some way, and would break under the heavy burden of ennui if lacking this stimulus too long. It explained otherwise irrational impulses for the human animal, from suicide to infidelity to depression to substance abuse.

Eldwine could get addicted to this, as he had been addicted to other things. He could see himself coming back over and over to this sensation of uplift, of breaking through the sky as if water and taking his first breath in a new world, in new skin, as a new person with different tools and different choices, of making mutable his identity not only for the exterior world, but for his internal reality; he could finally be on the outside the gross little monster he had always been below the thankful veneer of obscuring skin and bone and gristle.

And that was just the helmet and the suit. Imagine what the –

A little fist of disciplined focus clenched itself in the space between his heart, lungs, and stomach, making all three of them hurt; none of that is what all this was about. It could wait until the job was done. Everything could wait, except the job itself.

Eldwine blinked, or opened his eyes for the first time, and reality adjusted itself, a jittering screen growing steadier by the second until the lines and pixels interlaced and presented a unified whole. It was a beautiful world but he could tell that it wasn't real. Could feel it, especially when he moved, and there was that barely-but-definitely-there latency between how his body was told to move and how it moved in 'reality'.

"Wait a second."

Eldwine turned at a tight 90-degree angle and found himself facing a brick wall; his back now towards the spinning circle, the blonde, and the vaguely Xavier-like avatar he knew to be the rest of the crew.

"Hold on."

He stepped back, spun around 360-degrees this time, ended up facing the same wall, and stepped forward until his face was pressed against the brick, revealing video artifacts which further removed him from this second life.

"Okay I think I got it."

He was a little slow but Eldwine, who looked like someone who looked like Eldwine but not exactly Eldwine, managed to step towards them and join the group proper.

"Okay help me out here. We're looking for some kind of colosseum, the Hypnogeum (sic). The guy likes blood sports. Err, fake blood anyway."

The Cyberplex, from the inside anyway, looked like a spiraling tower which sprawled both above and below them, and which held dozens on dozens of flashing, blinking, shimmering signs.  

Edited by supernal

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Okay fine, she can't literally be herself, because all of her damn money went to hell with Elendaron, and she had no way of inserting her pocket change into the system. So, one way or another, she has to be some sort of video game version of herself, or something like that. Erin scrolled back and forth through the list, finding the metallic and monochrome were "premium" membership only, and a few others also had restrictions. By the time she narrowed down her options, she noticed a little timer in the top right corner of her view, one she hadn't noticed until just now.

"Wait... what's..."

Warning: Session timeout in 5 seconds. Please select avatar...

"Crap... I hate all of these!"

2...

"WAIT! You just said five seconds!"

1...

"Nuh-no-no..."

Session timeout, selecting avatar at random...

"I guess that's easier than having to pick it myself..."

"..."

"Oh, not THAT ONE!"


Erin finally loaded into the Cyberplex, in the body of a nine-year-old version of herself.

"I. Fucking. Hate. Technology." she growled, in a voice appropriate for her apparent age.

She loaded in as Eldwin was saying something about a colosseum, hearing just enough to know that she was probably going to get blocked at the entrance for being underage or something bullshit like that. Why does this stuff always happen to her?

Edited by Tyler

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