Thursday, November 21, 2019

Project Stellar by Roman Prokofiev

Project Stellar by Roman Prokofiev
Book 1: The Incarnator

Release - March 9, 2020
Pre-order on Amazon -


A powerful source of Azure radiation detected
Absorption initiated: 1/1000
Activation No 30765
Incarnation impossible
The host is infected. Regeneration impossible. The energy source is irreparably damaged.
Search for a new host initiated...

Light. That was the first thing I saw. A dull light seeping out of a crack which ran all across the wall, top to bottom. Where was I?
The room was weird. It resembled the inside of a giant egg, its black vaulted ceiling webbed with a complex light-blue pattern. Several tall objects sank deep into the floor below, giving the impression they were alive and rooted to the ground. They were veined with the same light-blue pattern which crept around their bases like shots of ivy.
As soon as I focused on one of the objects, a frame appeared in my field of vision, highlighting it. It was followed by a translucent message box:

Black Sarcophagus
A cryogenic capsule. Origin: an unknown xenotechnology.

I was soaring in the air right above them. As I descended a little, approaching the sarcophagi, I realized that they were indeed technogenic objects: flattened cylinders made of some black metal. One of them had been ripped out of its gossamer light-blue support and lay aside from the rest, misshapen and ripped open.
A group of people stood next to it. They looked sort of weird even though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. They must have just forced the black sarcophagus open and were now studying its contents, speaking in low voices between themselves. Their speech resembled a sequence of long clicking sounds. I seemed to be grasping some of their meanings.
Trying to listen, I floated slightly closer. Now I was hovering directly above their heads. Still, they completely ignored my presence. Was I invisible?
They’d done quite a job on the sarcophagus: mangled out of shape, it must have burst open along the seams. Inside, behind a mesh of tubes and steel supports, lay a dead man: a grinning blackened skeleton with a few bits of mummified flesh still clinging to it.
When I descended yet more in order to take a better look at it, the frame in my field of vision informed me again:

Dead A-Man
Collecting data...
Integrity: 22%
The energy source is irreparably damaged. Evidence of genetic modifications and reinforcements detected. Traces of infection detected: ???
Incarnation impossible

The light-blue frame turned a flashing red. Somehow I knew this was a danger warning. I also discovered another element of the same interface: a translucent light-blue bar which was barely one-quarter full.
The moment I noticed it, new information appeared inside the bar:

Azure: 173/1000
Current absorption rate: 58 Azure per minute

The group counted seven people in total: five men and two women. All of them were armed with miscellaneous weapons and clad in some weird greenish gray suits of armor, giving them a fleeting resemblance with medieval knights. Two of the men had their faces concealed by closed helmets.
Having finished inspecting the broken sarcophagus, they must have decided to remove the lid off the next one. I watched them use various tools and an unusual light-blue flame torch with which they prized open the hoops which held the cylinder together.
The result wasn’t what you’d expect. Some pitch-black substance poured out of the opened half, gooey like rubber but runny like water, making a large puddle all around the sarcophagi. The liquid splashed everywhere, its long thin dribbles landing on two of the people around it.
A chaos ensued. The two victims began to scream and squirm as they tried to brush off the dark liquid, then they dropped to the floor, convulsing. The five survivors dashed toward the crack in the wall and squeezed themselves through it while shooting at the threat, their flashing weapons dispelling the gloom of the room.
They managed to escape.
I noticed now that the strange liquid wasn’t as static as you’d think. It seemed to be capable of moving albeit quite slowly. Its black mass rippled, approaching the two bodies still squirming on the ground: a young woman with a long dark ponytail and a burly man with a scarred face. It began enveloping them, forming an opaque film over their bodies, until their screaming and groaning was reduced to unnatural bubbling sounds.
I descended even more, hovering over them. Soon their faces and bodies reappeared, pale and bloodless. Their skin seemed to have absorbed all of the black liquid: there was not a trace of it left now on the floor.

The message box informed me again:

Dead Human Being
Collecting data...
Integrity: 99%
No energy source detected
WARNING! Contamination in process!
Incarnation impossible

A vague feeling of danger stopped me from studying them any further. I soared up just in time, because the two infected creatures opened their eyes in sync. I managed to notice yet another peculiarity: their eyes had no pupils or irises, completely flooded with blackness.
They could see me. Their heads turned; their eyes focused unmistakably on me. The feeling of dread intensified, tolling through my head like an alarm bell. I hurried to gain altitude, climbing all the way to the vaulted ceiling.
More shouting came from the outside. I glimpsed the outlines of the remaining group members through he crack in the wall. Then the room was doused in jets of blue-and-orange flames.
The two infected creatures didn’t make a sound even though their clothes went up like paper, spreading blotches of burns all over their skin. All they did, they stopped looking at me and turned to the source of this new danger instead, apparently switching their priorities.
A new message appeared under the light-blue bar which was now completely full:

Total Azure count: 1000/1000
Critical quantity
Absorption aborted

The torrent of flames pouring through the crack in the wall had stopped, replaced by the sounds of shooting and explosions outside. Judging by all the shouting, there was a new combat raging outside. Enveloped in flames, the man and the girl moved awkwardly, their movements jerky and unnatural as if they were learning to use their human bodies.
Ever since the moment when my conscience had switched back on, I couldn’t quite work out who I was, what I looked like or what I was doing here. I just wasn’t interested. But now I suddenly “remembered” exactly what I was supposed to do.
As long as I was inside, I was in danger. I had to get out, find a suitable host and bring it back to life.
I had to do it ASAP.

Chapter 1

THE OUTSIDE was unexpectedly bright. The midday sun blazed overhead. I found myself in a large crater lying amid the ruins of a city. The structure I’d just escaped was stuck bolt upright at the center of the crater. It resembled an enormous cracked egg, half-buried in the ground. The thing looked alien and, how can I put it... out of place. It just didn’t belong here. It was black, webbed with the same light-blue veins which spread all around the “egg”, their pulsating threads reaching under the ground. A great many fragments of broken rocks, both big and small, floated in mid-air, surrounded with the dull light-blue glow.
The crumbling spires of city towers overgrown with greenery peeked from behind the crater’s edge.
I now realized that the group of people who’d discovered me had found themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. Those who’d escaped from inside the “egg” were now fighting a strange-looking creature which resembled a very long and very fast centipede: giant, predatory, with a great many eyes and legs. The men looked miniscule next to it; although they kept firing at point blank range, their weapons didn’t seem to deal any damage to the monstrous scolopendra. Its jointed body was safely protected by the grayish-blue layer of chitinous armor, allowing it to attack and dodge at incredible speed, curling and uncurling its lithe body. Its spiky black feet allowed it to slide effortlessly around its attackers. It grabbed one of them in full run with its sharp mandibles, completely ignoring the glitter of steel in the man’s hands, snapping him in two and sending the still-screaming man down its belly.
The frame containing the information about the creature was flashing crimson. It didn’t offer much though:

Type: unknown
Warning level: Red (Lethal)

The humans below stood no chance. Even the hectic firing couldn’t drown out their screams of agony as they were torn apart alive. Using its serrated legs and lithe spiky tail, the scolopendra made quick work of three more. It spat some kind of smoking venom which instantly ate through the fighters’ armor.
The three survivors closed their ranks and managed to scare the monster away with a barrage of fire, then hurried under its cover toward the crater’s charred edge, waving their hands at a black dot which had just appeared in the sky over the towers’ crumbling spires.
The dot rapidly grew in size, its insect-like buzzing noise rising to an angry rumble. A squat snub-nosed flying machine appeared over the crater’s edge.
Immediately its short wings began spitting bursts of tracer fire from behind the rimmed propellers. It threw the scolopendra back, extracting a furious hiss from it.
Two spiraling jets of smoke hit the curled-up monster, consuming it in the havoc of smoke, fire and rearing earth. Under the cover of the explosion, the three survivors grabbed at the lifelines thrown down from the ship and hurried to scramble up, disappearing from sight.
The heliplane soared upward, banking into a steep U-turn. You could see it was in a hurry to leave the scene but...
But no such luck. A giant shadow  flitted across the sky, momentarily covering the entire crater. Then I could see what cast it: an enormous bird. Next to it, the heliplane appeared no bigger than a dove next to an eagle. It dove onto the plane, crumpling it in its talons, propeller and all.
With a crackling noise, the propeller blades flew everywhere, disintegrating. They must have grazed the bird though because it emitted a thunderous squawk, letting go of its prey. The heliplane careened out of control, hitting the skeletal remains of a skyscraper and disappearing in a cloud of dust behind the crater’s edge.
I heard an explosion. A pillar of black smoke billowed up to the sky. With a victorious squeak, the bird soared back up, once again covering me with its shadow.
My information support momentarily highlighted its outline in golden.

The Roc
Type: A unique stable subspecies of the A-Morph
Warning Level: Gold (Invincible)

Hissing, the scolopendra scarpered away, leaving a smoking trail of green slime in its wake. It was clearly afraid of this new enemy for whom it was little more than a tasty worm.
I returned to the battlefield to study the remaining bodies and their fragments.
There were no survivors. Most of the group had been ripped apart alive, their weird technogenic weapons and armor damaged beyond repair.

Dead Human Being
No energy source detected...
Integrity: 24%...

Dead Human Being
Evidence of modifications: myoelectric amplification
Weak energy source detected
Energy type: Qi
Integrity: 43%

Dead Human Being
Weak energy source detected
Energy type: Ra
Integrity: 96%
Would you like to initiate the reincarnation process?

The last fighter was a young man who’d only passed away a few minutes ago. His helmet was smashed, revealing a handsome face and short blond hair drenched in blood. Having analyzed the data, I “came to the conclusion” that he was the best option.

Reincarnation process initiated
Connecting to the Source...
Taking over the host’s bioenergetic channels...
Restoring the damaged functions...
Success! Incarnation complete!
Energy cost: 500 Azure
Current Azure count: 500/1000

Rubbing my head, I gingerly scrambled back to my feet and took a few steps. My new body was easy to control, its muscle memory and motor skills eagerly performing the required movements.
Immediately I sensed a huge change in myself. No more was I an emotionless creature devoid of a body. Although admittedly some part of the old me was still lurking inside me, I was now fully alive, capable of feeling and experiencing the whole range of emotions.
My self-preservation instinct kicked in. I had to escape. Even though the wounded scolopendra had slithered off, I had my doubts it was too far away. The giant bird was still circling the sky overhead. And within the terrible black “egg”, more people were awakening from suspended animation inside their sarcophagi, their bodies infected with the black liquid. I had no idea what it was but I could sense the mortal danger of staying nearby. The sooner I got out of here, the higher my chances of survival.
It didn’t take me long to make it to the crater’s edge. I climbed over a low bulwark which appeared vitrified by some old raging fire. Pieces of broken glass and all kinds of junk crunched underfoot.
The crater was surrounded by the ruins of nearby buildings. I dashed into a gap between them just in time. As I looked back, I glimpsed the quivering antennae of the curious scolopendra showing over the crater’s edge: it must have sensed my motion.
This was a city - or used to be, rather, whatever was left of it. The street in front of me was blocked with mangled carcasses of cars which heaped up on top of each other, rusty and misshapen, completely filling the space between the collapsed buildings. The houses appeared dead; people must have abandoned them a long time ago. The buildings’ lower stories were overgrown with moss and creepy vines; the wind howled in the black gaping holes where windows had once been.
The tarmac underfoot was cracked and claimed by tall grass. A small tree grew right through one of the cars, lifting it over the road. How long ago had this city been abandoned? Whatever had happened here?
I had no idea where I was or what the hell was going on. As I walked, I struggled to remember who I was. What was my name? What was this place? How had I ended up here? I just couldn’t remember. My memory was an empty void filled with fragments of irrelevant details. My head was blank, completely blank. My last conscious memory was when I’d been released from the sarcophagus and floated, invisible, in mid-air in search for a suitable host.
That just felt wrong, as if I’d been stripped of something which meant the world to me. It just shouldn’t be happening!
Still, it was. Trying not to make noise, I ran along damp moss-covered walls. Where to? - No idea. It was simply my self-preservation instinct driving me away from the egg-shaped object in the crater and the predatory scolopendra which had just made quick work of a well-armed assault squad. I needed to put as much distance between me and that place as I possibly could and find some sort of shelter. Then I could sit down and try to work all this out.
Devastation was all around me. Darkened shop signs lying on the ground, display windows grinning with the few remaining shards of glass; thick cobwebs blocking dark gaping doorways. How much time does it take to turn city streets into makeshift forest glades? The omnipresent carpet of greenery entangled the burst pavement, reaching toward the higher stories of the ravaged skyscrapers in the plants’ attempts to get to the sun. Quite a few of the buildings gave me the impression that the damage done to them couldn’t be explained by time alone: they appeared to have been mangled by a squad of army heliplanes. How else would you explain the collapsed walls and entire floors caved in on top of each other? I had to vault my way over heaps of debris, squeezing between the upended rusty skeletons of vehicles.
A far-off hoarse crowing cut through the silence. A dark cloud of birds took to the wing from the crumbling framework of one of the highrises. Or were they birds? I couldn’t exactly make out the details of the great many black dots which started circling the ravaged skyscraper, but their movements were too fast and controlled for comfort. They seemed to be heading in my direction.
 I strained my every sinew to keep going, searching for gaps in the maze of the rusty cars. A lot of them appeared crumpled or forced open like tin cans.
Finally, my advance was blocked by a deep fissure in the ground lined with reared-up tarmac. It crossed the entire street, reaching out for as far as the eye could see and cleaving right through one of the collapsed buildings. There was no way I could possibly find a way around it.
The birds’ sharp squeaking and the flapping of wings were drawing near. They did home in on me, and it didn’t bode well.
I had to take cover pronto. The buildings’ first stories were basically just big gaping holes, offering no shelter. I dashed into the nearest side lane blocked by a bus lying on its side. Behind it, I discovered a rusty fire escape. One of its steel platforms led to a surviving door. I jerked at the stairs to check their safety, then gingerly began to climb. The stairs sagged under my weight but held.
I opened the door. A dark corridor breathed damp and mold in my face, dimly illuminated by the meager light reaching through the cracks and gaps in the building’s collapsed framework. The walls were peeling; junk crunched underfoot.
I purposefully avoided turning into the first few corridors that crossed my way. I caught a glimpse of a gaping elevator shaft to my left - then found myself in an abandoned human dwelling.
The door must have been ripped out of its mangled frame a very long time ago. In the surrounding gloom, I made my way through pools of stagnant black water. The room was littered with heaps of crumbled plaster and unidentified rotten garbage. The walls were covered in mold and blue moss; clumps of tall translucent mushrooms quivered in the room’s corners.
The birds’ deafening clamor ripped through my eardrums like the screeching of as many circular saws. Their black winged outlines flashed past the gaping windows. I glimpsed them just in time to drop to the floor. It might have been my imagination but the birds appeared to be the size of a large dog. Some pigeons they had here!
The birds must have flown very close. I could see their shadows flitting across the floor; I could hear the loud flapping of their wings. By now, I had little doubt their interest in me was purely gastronomical. Could they get inside the building? I just hoped that their large wing span could prevent them from entering through the empty window frames.
Well, I shouldn’t have. One of the birds squeezed itself though the window and began darting around the room, screaming and rustling its wings. Its grayish-blue spindle-shaped body flashed past me, hitting the opposite wall, then immediately swung round toward me. The bird was up to my waist, its long beak and three-digit feet with impressive talons looking rather intimidating.

Young Ptar
Type: Gregarious
Warning level: Green (insignificant)

This was insignificant? For a moment, we just stared back at each other. Then the Ptar, or whatever his name was, went for me like a ton of bricks. I barely managed to dodge to one side. His hard feathers grazed my face; his talons screeched against the walls, leaving deep furrows in their wake.
Luckily, the bird’s size was working against him now as his wingspan didn’t let him turn round. He rammed the wall again and began to thrash about, realizing he was trapped.
Until now, I hadn’t even realized I had weapons on me. Two of them: a knife in a heap sheath and a handgun which used to belong to my body’s previous host and which he’d still clutched in his hands when I’d taken over. As I left the “egg”, I’d mechanically holstered it in what looked like a very ergonomic right-hand rigid case. The body’s well-honed motor skills and reflexes all functioned on a knee-jerk level, which was excellent news.
My fingers closed over the gun’s ribbed handle. It felt as natural and familiar as shaking an old friend’s hand. My thumb checked the safety catch while my index finger felt for the trigger. The gun’s balancing was unusual so I had to prop it with my left hand, supporting its massive thick barrel.
The shot had no recoil and was almost soundless. It threw the Ptar into a corner, raising clouds of feathers. Squeaking his protest, the monster tried to scramble toward me, his talons screeching against the floor.
I loosed off another round, then a third one, but the bird had no intention of stopping, desperate to get to me even though he was leaving a wide crimson trail in his wake.
It had taken me a good ten rounds to silence the die-hard avian. Finally, he produced one last heart-rendering screech and stopped moving. Dead as a dodo.
A pool of dark blood spread all around the body. Some bird that was! His long beak was open, revealing some truly impressive teeth; his knobbly three-digit feet were protected by gray scales. As I inspected him, I came to the conclusion that this so-called Ptar looked more like a pterodactyl than a regular bird. His feathers were as long as my forearm, so sharp you could actually scratch yourself on their edges; their stems  hard and strong. If you sharpened one of those, you could probably use it as a dart.
The Ptar’s brethren were making a terrible racket outside, dashing to and fro somewhere very close. Then a thunderous cry drowned out their squawking like a lion’s growl drowns out the jackals’ yapping. A sound like that could only come out of a truly gigantic throat.
I scrambled to the safety of a nearby partition wall and half-sat, pressing my back to the cold slimy wall. The thunderous cry resounded again, closer this time. The floor jolted as if some giant had just brushed against the building in passing. Small debris showered past the window from above. Another jolt and a new scream were followed by the flapping of gigantic wings. The sounds and the vibration seemed to come from above as if some gigantic creature had just landed onto the building.
This just had to be the Roc which had smashed the heliplane like a child smashes a plastic toy. Against a monster like that, I had zero chances whatsoever; I couldn’t even conceive of anything powerful enough to hurt a behemoth like that. No wonder even the scolopendra had made itself scarce once this boy had arrived at the scene.
I had only one option: to lie low and wait. There was no way it could get inside, unless he took the building apart brick by laborious brick. Still, I had a funny feeling he wouldn’t even bother with petty prey like myself.
Let’s wait, then. I looked at the dead bird lying a mere couple of feet away from me. Once again, I received an augmented-reality message in a blue frame:

Dead Ptar

I squinted, focusing on the flashing triangular icons with question marks. Immediately,  new prompt popped up:

Don’t forget to collect all the Azure and genetic material amassed by the A-Morph. To start the absorption process, touch the creature’s body.

Ah, so that’s how it worked, then. Mental commands, fair enough. Another snippet of old memory resurfaced: I must have known how to use this kind of interface in the past.
Obeying the instruction, I touched the dead bird’s stiff wing. A small ball of light-blue energy shot out right into my hand and got absorbed into my skin, leaving a pleasant tingling sensation.
A new icon appeared over the dead bird’s body:

You’ve absorbed 210 Azure
Total Azure count: 1000/1000
Critical quantity
Absorption aborted
Would you like to create a Neurosphere?

A ghostly green spark shaped as a figure of eight appeared in the blue sphere’s wake. It pricked my hand as it entered it. What the hell?

You’ve received a Ptar genome

Another hoarse croak came from above. Was it my imagination or did I detect disappointment in its sound? The building shuddered again; I heard the flapping of wings. Judging by a sudden gust of wind which raised a cloud of tiny stone fragments from the windowsills, the Roc was one hell of a monster. His smaller brethren had already made themselves scarce, scared away by the arrival of a bigger predator.
I spent several minutes listening intently but it looked like the coast was clear. The Roc had left; I couldn’t hear any new sounds. I could finally take a breather and try to figure out what the hell was going on here.
First things first: this wasn’t my body. The mysterious Incarnation protocol had had my identity transferred to the body of this young man who’d just been killed while fighting the mysterious A-Morph.
Only was it a transfer? Or a resurrection, really? I could feel my own pulse; my heart was beating, my body temperature seemed to be within the normal range for a human being.
Secondly. I’d emerged from one of the Black Sarcophagi: an extraterrestrial cryogenic capsule which must have fallen from the sky - or from outer space, rather, otherwise what else could have formed a crater of that size around it? Presumably, my own physical body still lay there, most likely infected by the unidentified black liquid. What was it, by the way? And how had the old me ended up there?
Thirdly, in my bodyless form I’d been invisible and impassive, with only one concern: I had to find a suitable host for my new incarnation.
Question: who the hell was I? Was I even human?
I had no answers to any of these questions. I couldn’t remember jack. My memory felt like a clean slate. Even though I’d eventually remembered certain words such as “outer space”, “interface”, “cryogenic capsule” or “handgun”, they had only come to me whenever the necessity arose and in any case, I had no idea how I knew them. What was my name? Who were my parents? How old was I? Which year was it now? How had I gotten here? Where the hell was I, anyway?
All I could remember was an echoing, crystal-clear void. Still, I had this gut feeling deep inside me telling me that I was alive and human. And judging by the fact that this world and all the objects in it looked eerily familiar, that’s probably where I used to live before.
Could my interface shed some light on it, maybe? I focused, trying to activate its main menu. Logically, if I already had all the little augmented-reality icons, prompts and descriptions, it stood to reason it should also have a control panel.
Which wasn’t long in coming.
Summoned by my mental command, a translucent rectangular screen shimmered to life before me. Wasn’t it what they called mnemonic control? Or was it neural control? Irrelevant, anyway.
A long horizontal bar glowed on top. It was marked Azure. Its icy-blue strip was calibrated into one thousand increments. Below it was a dainty figure of eight which resembled both the infinity sign and the DNA symbol made up of a multitude of tiny empty spheres.
Four icons glowed next to it:


The interface design was elegantly Spartan. It must have taken them a whole research institute of eggheads to polish it to this level of perfection.
So let’s start with the first one.

Chapter 2

Project Stellar
Number: ???
Name: ???
Rank: Recruit
Total Azure count: 1000/1000
Source: Energy Type Ra
Physical modifications: none
Available Neurospheres : none
Available Genomes : Ptar Genome

INCARNATOR... The word seemed to have left a bad taste in my mouth. No name, no number... I focused on the question marks. A system prompt popped up, informing me that the number had been “force deleted”; as for my name, it just said that “all data has been irretrievably lost”.
How interesting. It looked like my past, including the history of my previous incarnation, had been painstakingly removed. By whom? And most importantly, why? More questions.
Never mind. What next? A small message flashed next to the Azure bar:

Critical quantity
Absorption aborted

The mysterious Source, too, appeared to be “temporarily blocked”. And what’s with all those available neurospheres and genomes? What was that supposed to mean?
The Azure... The word seemed to repeat a lot. Azure levels, Azure radiation... As I focused on the blue bar, a new description appeared, admittedly not clarifying any of my questions.

The Azure is a type of biological energy pertinent to the Edge (also known as the A-Dimension). It is also called “the light of creation” or “the original light”. The Azure is capable of altering both organic and non-organic matter in most unpredictable ways. Your Source is capable of absorbing and storing the Azure in order to use it for controlled development of your body.

Oh really? A biological energy capable of unpredictably transforming organic matter? Did that mean that those A-Morphs I’d encountered earlier were similarly altered by this A-radiation? What could it do to human beings, then? Nothing good, judging by the state of the abandoned city...
As I focused on the blue Azure bar itself, it offered some interesting information:

Total Azure count: 1000/1000
Critical quantity
For your information: a weak source of Azure radiation detected. Absorption paused.
For your information: critical quantity reached.
Further absorption impossible

I was then offered a rather puzzling choice:

Would you like to use your critical energy reserve in order to create a Neurosphere?

Suddenly I knew I was no novice to all this. That was the reason why I wasn’t really amazed by what was happening. Somehow it felt like business as usual. My memory might have been wiped clean but you couldn’t erase every little trace of it in my mind. All this was just as familiar to me as was my grip on the gun’s ribbed handle.
Following my mental command, the blue contents of the Azure bar flickered and disappeared, replaced by the picture of a tiny spiked sphere next to the DNA icon.

The Neurosphere complete.
Available Neurospheres: 1
For your information: every new Neurosphere will require a bigger critical energy reserve.

Indeed, as I focused on the blue bar again, I was surprised to see that the bar’s capacity had grown 100 pt.

Total Azure count: 0/1100
Warning! A source of Azure radiation detected!
Current absorption rate: 3 Azure per minute

Did that mean that this mysterious blue energy could regenerate albeit slowly? Its absorption rate probably depended on one’s location. Next to that alien “egg”, for instance, the radiation was considerably stronger. And seeing as the total Azure count was now 1100 points, a quick calculation showed that it would take me a good six hours to refill the bar again. Could it be because the Azure radiation was so weak here? In which case it stood to reason that if I wanted to replenish my stocks faster, I needed to look for places with a “powerful radiation source”. And I had a funny feeling that they were all located on the territories of some of the most dangerous A-Morphs.
That was option number one. Option number two: to harvest Azure from monsters. The Ptar had given me 210 pt. Six birds like him could fill the bar back up.
Okay. That little was clear. Now the next icon.

The Abilities tab was predictably empty. Four empty entries flickered miserably inside:

Physical reinforcements: not detected
Genetic modifications: not detected
Myoelectric modifications: not detected
Implants: not detected

I closed Abilities and moved over to Transformation. This time, an awesome new window opened, showing a slowly rotating life-size translucent 3D image of a man. It took me some time to realize that this generic light-blue figure was actually me; my heart missed a beat as I peered at his faded features.
This Transformation was in fact one hell of a feature. It took readings of everything, from my pulse rate to my white blood cell count. If I focused on any part of my body, all of its components immediately got highlighted: all the muscles, nerves, bones, organs and blood vessels. The system would take stock of everything and offer me a number of incomprehensible graphs and charts followed by columns of data, comparing my vitals to the expected average. And if that wasn’t enough, it also offered me various options to “transform” or “improve” certain parts of my anatomy, which all required the use of the aforementioned Neurospheres. What might happen if I, say, selected lung improvement? Or blood, for that matter? What new effects might such restructuring have to offer?
As if detecting my mental inquiry (then again, why “as if”?), a detailed information sheet appeared. Despite the abundance of strange terminology, I managed to get the gist of it. The sheer level of the biotechnologies that could be used to restructure my body was mind-boggling. Without the need for lab conditions, I could almost painlessly inflict all sorts of transformations on my body just by using its own reserves, stem cells and the mysterious Azure force.
Building in a new genome also required an available neurosphere. The picture was gradually getting clear: by filling up the Azure bar, I could create new Neurospheres which I could then spend on various improvements to my own body, including the building in of third-party genomes. If you compared it to a virtual-reality game, then the Azure was the analog of experience while neurospheres worked like levels, or certain points where you could invest the XP you’d gained into your character’s attributes or abilities.
Virtual reality games? The expression sounded familiar even though I couldn’t for the life of me remember their names nor the circumstances in which I’d learned it. What a strange selective amnesia. Then again, my memory could come back eventually, you never know.
Just out of curiosity, I selected the Ptar Genome I’d just received whose icon was now framed a glowing green. As I tried to drag it onto the available cell of the DNA spiral, a new system message appeared:

Collecting data...
Select one of the following modifications to your vision system:

Binocular Vision
Improves your eyesight, allowing you to see everything in the slightest detail at great distances.

The Third Eyelid
Turns your semilunar conjunctival fold into a solid transparent membrane, protecting your eyes from hostile attacks.

Forms a compass system in your retinas which serves as a map providing the reception of geolocation information.

I froze momentarily. I could press Decline, of course - but my gut feeling, my subconscious and the remaining shreds of my memory, everything in me was screaming I had to use every opportunity to upgrade myself. Even the procedure itself felt familiar as if I’d been through it dozens of times.
Okay, that’s it, then. Let’s try. All three modifications sounded amazing, each in its own way. Which one should I choose?
The Third Eyelid - nah. I unticked it. It sounded too spooky, way too inhuman. Magnetoception... if the truth were known, I wasn’t quite sure how it was supposed to work. Was it how migrating birds found their way every season?
Now the Binocular Vision sounded interesting indeed...

Would you like to use the Ptar’s Genome?

Darkness. Piercing pain in my eyes. And immediately afterward, the promised surge of endorphins arched my body in a torturous spasm of almost delectable pain.
That wasn’t too bad. Suddenly I realized that from now on, I’d always be looking forward to my next transformation simply to re-live this addictive sensation.
Slowly I raised my eyelids. Tears gushed from my eyes. I took a slow look around the trashed room, then at the broken window. My new ability seemed to work. My vision’s sharpness and focus had both improved. I could clearly see every swirl of the moss covering the opposite wall across the street; I was pretty sure I could discern every detail of the crumbling plaster bits on the window ledge. My eyes indeed worked like a pair of binoculars now.
I effortlessly zoomed in on the opposite façade, studying the shape of the ivy leaves festooning the wall. What a strange feeling. It might take some getting used to.
My very first genetic modification had appeared on both my Status and my Abilities list. That was a reason to celebrate, I suppose.
I spent some more time toying around with my new vision, trying to work out what these new abilities could and couldn’t do. I had to practice using them on the knee-jerk level to make sure they became an integral part of me.
Very well. While my brain was trying to adapt to this new feature, I could take stock of the clothes I’d received with my new body.
I was wearing well-worn fatigues of some thick khaki fabric which reminded me of tarpaulin, with rubberized inserts on my shoulders, elbows and knees. On top of them, I had greaves and elbow protectors fashioned out of some dull lightweight metal, scratched and battered. On top of the fatigues I was wearing an ammo vest which repeated the anatomical shape of a male torso. It felt hard but flexible as if made of some resilient plastic.
On my chest above my heart I discovered a small chevron which said, “Grey.” Probably the fighter’s name, or his preferred nickname.
An assault belt sat snugly around my waist with dozens of fat pockets which appeared stuffed to their limits. A pair of high thick-soled rubberized boots were reinforced with steel toe and heel protectors. All of the gear held together with some transparent Velcro-type fastenings. It looked well-worn, tatty even, but was still good quality and fitted to perfection.
A black bracelet on my left wrist flashed a tiny blue light: the Azure meter. When I took a better look at it, I realized that it was identical to my built-in perception system albeit more basic, the intensity of its flashing light communicating the intensity of A-radiation. After a brief deliberation, I pressed on the light for a several seconds to disable it: its flashing could attract all kinds of unwanted visitors.
Now, what next? The weapons. I was holding a heavy handgun made of some dull black metal: a rather unusual device with a thick long barrel and a coarse-grained handle covered with ribbed plating. It looked like some futuristic revolver with a recessed flat cylinder. A V-shaped sign was embossed on its grip with a little loop at its bottom end. It was the symbol for “gamma”, one of the letters in the Greek alphabet, I remembered.
A moment later, my interface offered me a full ID on the weapon:

Needle Coilgun
Light kinetic weapon (replica)
Ammunition: needles made of a heatproof alloy
Makes part of the Gamma kit which is part of the standard Planetary Security Forces field kit.

My fingers still remembered how to use it. In a few practiced motions, I broke the barrel to get to the inner works. The cylinder holding the needles was virtually full, and I discovered two more in the pockets of my assault belt. I had almost three hundred rounds. That was a good start.
I sent the gun - or rather, the needle coilgun - back into its open ergonomic holster on my right hip. Everything was so cleverly designed that you could draw it at a split second’s notice. A silent revolver with almost zero recoil - I tried not to even think what kind of technology that might involve.
On my left hip, I had a sheathed knife. Excellent. It was unusual: it appeared old, antique even, probably made to order; you could tell it was battle-worn and must have shed its fair share of blood in its day.
I was at a loss trying to identify the metal of the knife’s predatory double-edged blade. It looked a bit like steel but I’d never come across any alloys that would have had such an intense bright-blue hue. A fancy engraving covered the blade, depicting a gnarling wolf with a faded inscription below: FFang. The beautifully calligraphed double F was shaped as the wolf’s bared teeth. So this was indeed a unique custom weapon which even had its own name: Fang.
Its hilt appeared to be made of yellowish bone, wound with strips of rough black leather, and was topped with a large red crystal. Interestingly, my built-in information support seemed to be unable to ID it. No matter how much I squinted at it, it failed to offer any useful data:

Combat knife. A light bladed weapon

I then rummaged through the belt, discovering a multitool so old it was almost crumbling apart but which had been painstakingly cleaned from all the rust. It contained a small knife, a fork, a spoon, a pair of pliers and lots of other useful little thingies. I also found a universal injector which looked like a fat syringe, and lots of color-coded cartridges that came with it. Antidote kits, a few antishocks, some regeneration stuff and adrenaline pills... a blood-stopping spray... Plus some less technologically advanced items: an old tourniquet, a roll of black electric tape, two field rations, some flat crispy things sealed in vacuum foil; a needle and some cotton; a rag that could do with a wash; a little tin pot containing some kind of talcum powder and a hard plastic comb.
The most interesting item turned out to be in the very last pocket I’d checked. It was a heavy ribbed cylinder with a ring and a large bracket on top, painted black with diagonal red stripes. Its top rim sported a long-dead electronic clock face while the bottom one was marked with a complex combination of letters and digits next to a stenciled logo: a white three-pointed star in a circle.
I didn’t need an augmented-reality interface to tell me that this was a bomb - or a grenade, rather.

Thermal grenade
An explosive device (replica)
A high-temperature charge. When detonated, creates an area of intensive combustion with temperatures up to 7000 F.
A remotely controlled fuse. Can be set up using the built-in electronic timer

This looked like a serious argument against local beasties. Unfortunately, it was single-use. I put the grenade back into its pocket and Velcroed it nice and safe.
That was the extent of it. No ID papers, no notebooks - nothing that could shed a light at my body’s previous host. He must have also had a knapsack with all his personal items but it was probably left behind - either at the scene of his death or back in the Gryphon. As for his helmet, I’d discarded it myself on my way here.
Was that all? Not really. I could feel something bulge against my chest under the vest and fatigues. I wriggled for a while, trying to reach in, and finally produced a length of string hung around my neck, with two more items attached to it: a signet ring made of some rare bright-blue alloy, and a plastic card.
The ring was definitely a memento - probably, something that used to belong to the soldier’s family. An inscription in some Latin-based language, faded so badly it was barely visible, covered the inside of the ring. The signet depicted the same gnarling wolf’s head.
The card, however, looked like something quite recent. Made of hard plastic, it had an eyelet to hang it around your neck; I could make out the thin outline of a microchip inside. The three-pointed star was depicted on the card’s one side, and on the other, the picture of a serrated white key with a mug shot underneath. A blond rosy-cheeked guy grinned at me from the picture. An embossed inscription below read: Sven Greyholm.
So that’s who you are, then. Sven Greyholm, codename Grey; a young fair-haired Viking whose dead body had become the receptacle of my new incarnation. The name didn’t ring any bells; still, I had to keep the card which must have been some sort of electronic key.
Pointless staying here for much longer. I had to get out of the city. It was pretty obvious it had been abandoned a long time ago and was teeming with nasty beasts; still, the very fact that I’d already come across an organized and well-armed military group meant that there still had to be vestiges of civilization out there somewhere, complete with advanced technologies and flying machines. That gave me some hope they might have answers to my questions.
Trying to avoid being seen through the windows, I cautiously checked the dilapidated room for anything I could use. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Gaping holes pierced the entire height of the building’s framework; thick layers of writhing lichens clung to the heaps of garbage; the room’s walls were black with mold, its floor covered in pools of obnoxious stale liquid swarming with microfauna. Everything that could perish or decay had already done so. Two things attracted my eye: a water purifier and a food unit which at some point must have been ripped out of their mountings, and deep furrows covering the walls, looking suspiciously like claw marks. This room had long been stripped of anything remotely valuable.
I heard a rustling noise outside which sounded suspiciously like footsteps. I crept toward the window and peeked out.
Two people moved along the street with a noiseless feline grace. I immediately recognized their uniforms which were very similar to the one I was wearing. I recognized the fighters, too: the same burly man and the girl with the long dark ponytail that I’d last seen inside the “egg” contaminated with the splashes of Darkness. Somehow they’d escaped the scolopendra, avoided the Roc and were now following my rail.
For the second time since I’d come round by the sarcophagus, my gut feeling screamed a danger warning, wailing like a cat on heat: foe, foe, FOE is near!
The crimson augmented-reality frame sprang to life again:

A contaminated ???
A dead human being.
Contamination stage: 1
Warning level: Red

As if sensing my gaze, they both stopped in synch and turned their heads. Mt new Binocular Vision allowed me to see them in every little detail.
They weren’t human, not anymore. Their gear was scorched, their bodies bore evidence of deep burns. The girl’s eyeballs were anthracite black on her impassive dead face veined with a web of black blood vessels, turning her pretty features into a horrifying mask. The man’s exposed hands looked the same. You couldn’t reason with these creatures who had long ceased being human; they obeyed orders issued by a different kind of will - that of some alien entity.
As if confirming my suspicions, the man raised his gun and shot at the window where he must have glimpsed my outline. No idea what kind of ammunition he used - needles or regular rounds - but they bit through the concrete window ledge and showered me with pieces of concrete from the ceiling.
The war had been declared. The hunt for me was on. The two trotted toward the building entrance.
I wasn’t afraid; I just tried to weigh up my chances in order to come up with the most rational strategy. Then I darted toward the room’s entrance, hurrying to take up a position which would allow me a clear shooting lane of the entire length of the corridor.
I raised the gun, zeroing in on the gap in the wall through which I expected the two “hunters” to arrive. After a few seconds, they did. The man walked first; I managed to put four slugs into him before I heard them shoot back.
I hadn’t missed once. His heavy body kept jerking whenever a needle pierced him right through. And still the contaminated man kept walking without even slowing down.
I felt for the grenade in its belt pocket.
No. Too early. I only had one, so I had to make sure I took both of them out. I darted toward my preplanned escape route. The “hunters” opened fire, showering me with bits of concrete from the wall next to which I’d just stood. Their reaction times weren’t that great: they were probably limited by their hosts’ physical abilities; but their weapons were definitely more serious than my needle gun.
A large hole gaped in the floor of the next room. I slid down, grabbing at a loose end of rebar, then jumped down from a ten-foot height, landing rather expertly on my feet. My body seemed to be remembering this and similar stunts: apparently, Grey, whoever he was, wasn’t new to this kind of combat acrobatics. My body’s agility, strength, flexibility and coordination - all of it seemed to have been well-practiced.
I slid along the corridor toward the exit, ran down the stairwell overgrown with slippery blueish moss, then climbed out of a window still bristling with broken glass. There I was, on the opposite side of the building. If I made it to the nearest corner, I could try to lose myself in the maze of the nearby streets.
The sound of breaking glass came from behind me. I looked back as I ran, glimpsing the girl jump out of a second-floor window, landing with a soft feline grace. She was holding her own weapon over her head: a long glistening blade of a narrow single-edged sword without a handguard. I was saved by the fact that she didn’t’ seem to have any long-range weapons.
I shot her twice, hitting her both times: in a shoulder and a hip. The impacts made her jerk and drop to one knee but there was no trace of blood on her clothes. I got the impression that the contaminated creatures ignored any pain and damage to their bodies entirely - at least the impassive expression on her blackened face hadn’t changed one bit.
Almost immediately, her partner appeared in a cloud of dust, chasing after me. He was armed with what looked like an assault rifle which he immediately used, opening fire; the slugs struck sparks off the rusty bodywork of the car behind which I’d taken cover.
Still, my little stunt had bought me an advantage of a good six hundred feet. The two had no problem keeping up with me though, chasing after me past the broken cars and overgrown side lanes.
I ran without a plan toward a patch of open space far in front, finally arriving at a large square which must have once been an important traffic junction.
I was facing a dead battlefield. Several burned-down military vehicles froze at its center, resembling motionless black monsters. Broken sheets of tarmac reared up around the craters of shell holes. Heaps of crumpled cars towered many stories high as if some giant had tried to clear a path for himself. The buildings around were practically razed to the ground, reduced to the ruins of their first levels.
Bones began crunching underfoot. On my way here, my new improved vision had already revealed to me plenty of bone fragments and even skeletons in various stages of disintegration - but this square and the adjacent streets were littered with bones as if a whole army had once found its demise here.
The broken mounted guns of various combat vehicles faced in three different directions as if their crews had died trying to contain an enemy advancing along the entire perimeter.
The blue augmented-reality frame came to life again:

Combat vehicle
Provenance: Utopia
Irreparably damaged

The great many shell holes riddling the square had turned into mini-pools, the cracked tarmac around them overgrown with some blueish-green bushes which resembled spiky barbed wire. They crowded the Tarantulas’ dead skeletons, enveloping them like enormous spherical domes with thick branches which coiled over the pavement, sprouting  thousands of long lithe tendrils.
My intuition screamed an alarm before I could even realize what was going on. I glimpsed strange outlines within the thick of the bushes: half-skeletons entwined with branches, a movement amid the tendrils which coiled away from the vehicles’ blackened remains. There definitely was something there, so I swung aside, changing direction.
My two pursuers were drawing near. The girl leapt from one car roof to the next, awesome in her unhuman grace. The man kept up without attempting to fire.
They made a lot of noise. Not a good idea.
As soon as they ran out onto the square, the whole place stirred. The prickly black tendrils shot out toward them - toward me too - like the tentacles of a giant kraken. The coils of the plants’ thick branches began to swirl.
A new scarlet frame lit up, outlining the entire scene:

Type: Unknown
Warning level: Lethal

My intuition had done me a good turn. The bushes turned out to be a trap, the snares set up by a monster plant which dwelled in the safety of the ancient tanks. Had I taken a few more steps toward it, I’d have added to its victims. I’d been lucky: my suicidal dash across the square hadn’t attracted much attention, for two reasons: firstly, because two running people make much more noise than just one, and secondly, because my gut feeling had forced me to change direction before it was too late.
But my two pursuers had gotten a full dose of it. Not only had they actually ran out onto the square, but the man had started shooting, of all things. That was what had become their undoing, focusing the creature’s wrath on them while I’d only attracted the attention of a small bunch of its tentacles.
I whipped out the knife as I ran but the damn vines were unbelievably fast. They caught up with me just as I’d almost cleared the square. One of them threw itself around my leg, constricting it, while the other entwined my shoulder.
The pain in my trapped ankle all but paralyzed me. With an almighty jerk, the thorny bastard threw me to the ground and effortlessly dragged me a good several feet. Luckily, my knife did quick work of its hard inch-thick branches: the razor-sharp blade sliced through the one gripping my shoulder, then in two well-aimed blows got rid of the one around my leg. Limping, I ran for my life: lingering here was well and truly deadly.

Warning! You’ve received a dose of venom!
You must take a respective antidote ASAP!

My two pursuers weren’t as lucky. I hadn’t had the chance to watch their struggle but when I turned round as I ran, I saw that both of them had been enwrapped in several layers of prickly vines forming thick impenetrable cocoons. The offshoots braided between themselves, forming cable-like ropes, then lifted their bodies in the air and dragged them toward the creature’s bulk which stirred in excitement, swinging its trunk-like appendages.
More and more tentacles rose from under the broken tarmac. The bastard was so huge! His visible part sitting over the ground was probably no more than one-third of its actual size.
The pain in my ankle just wouldn’t abate. I limped heavier with every step, so I stopped to unravel the prickly branch still coiling around my leg sinking its thorns deep into my flesh. The pain was so excruciating I barely suppressed a scream. My whole lower right leg was mauled by the thorns, my boot gradually filling with blood.
This wasn’t going to do me any good. The local beasties must have had an excellent sense of smell. They would follow the trail of fresh blood and find me in no time.
I slumped onto a garbage heap, lifted my pant leg and stared in amazement at the huge blue and red mark. I generously sprayed it with the blood-stopping solution, which did work straight away, but the pain just wouldn’t go. The edges of the wound were a very unhealthy blue color. By now, I had almost lost all sensation in my leg: the plant must have injected me with some kind of venom.
I rummaged through the first-aid kit for the syringe and a light-blue antidote cartridge, injected myself with it and focused on my sensations to see if it worked.
What the hell? I didn’t have to do it, did I? That was exactly what I had the interface for! Didn’t it allow me to monitor all of my body functions?
I opened Status and selected Transformation to view my 3D image. I’d been right: my left ankle pulsated crimson. As I peered at it, a prompt appeared:

Light damage to your right ankle’s skin layer. The bleeding has been stopped.
Warning! Your right ankle has been temporarily paralyzed. Source: ??? (an unidentified neurotoxin)

So the antidote hadn’t worked, then. I hurried to inject myself again. Nothing changed.
By now, I was paralyzed almost to the waist. I stared at my 3D projection, watching the green cobweb of the venom spread over my blood vessels at a frightening speed. My interface hurried to warn me that the dose was lethal. Thanks a bunch. What was I supposed to do?
I tried to scramble back to my feet but immediately collapsed back onto the rubble. The funny thing was, I was still a mere five hundred feet from the monster’s lair.
My forehead erupted in cold sweat. I struggled to breathe. My heart was throbbing.
Very soon I began to convulse. My body refused to obey me. I rummaged through my mind in search for a solution but couldn’t find one. Nothing that I had - my gear, my interface, my newly-acquired abilities - nothing could save me now.
Did they say that dying wasn’t scary? Oh yes it was. Especially when you remained lucid till the last, knowing full well what’s going on but unable to change a darn thing about it.

Chapter 3

Activation No 1
Your host is dead.
Would you like to restore your host’s body?
Error: Operation denied
Your host’s body cannot be restored. The restoration procedure requires 500 Azure.
Current Azure count: 286/1100
Current absorption rate: 3 Azure per minute

SLOWLY I EASED myself out of the body of the man sprawled over the heaping rubble. My ex-host, the blond Viking, who’d just become defunct poisoned by an A-Morph plant. It felt so strange looking down at the body which had been my own only a few minutes ago.
So that’s how it worked, then. This was what Incarnators were supposed to do. Instead of dying within their bodies, they could either resurrect them or wander off in search of a new one if such resurrection was impossible.
Did that make me an ethereal spirit whose host had every chance of becoming immortal? Provided he or she had enough Azure, of course.
Azure. A-force. It appeared to be the key to everything here. I couldn’t revive Grey now simply because I hadn’t managed to amass an extra 500 Azure. Which meant I should always have some to spare. I had to make sure that my A-bar was always full or almost full.
Which also meant that I was especially vulnerable immediately after an upgrade. So I had to stay closer to the locations with strong sources of A-radiation. Either that, or I had to hunt and kill A-Morphs.
I noticed another funny thing. Being out of body seemed to affect my emotions, disabling them entirely. All I experienced now was logic and cold calculation. I knew and remembered everything but somehow it neither frightened nor alarmed me. It was as if someone had flipped a switch: any body-related sensations seemed to have faded, becoming irrelevant and leaving one clear goal in my mind: I needed to collect enough Azure to revive my host. Alternatively, I had to find a new body in case this one deteriorated in the meantime.
Theoretically, if I just stayed where I was now, I could amass the required 214 points Azure within the next 71 minutes. The A-radiation seemed to gradually weaken away from the “black egg” and its impact crater - which meant I might save some time if I went back there. Pointless staying here watching over my host’s dead body. There was nothing I could do to prevent it from becoming an A-Morph’s dinner, anyway. And I could also use the trip to do some long-due recon.
I flew back past the square where the vegetal monster was still busy with my two pursuers. Even completely entwined by its vines, they were still struggling: they must have been immune to neurotoxins just as they were to physical damage. By now, the monster had managed to drag them very close to its lair within the burned-out skeletons of the Tarantulas. There, a great many thick blue-and-green branches rose predatorially into the air as if in anticipation of the approaching feast. What an unusual creature. If anything, it resembled a giant overgrown carnivorous bush which caught and devoured its prey with thousands of its living vines and offshoots.
Predictably, it ignored me. Once I left the square, I lingered over the mirrorlike surface of a water puddle, trying to peer at my reflection. What did I look like, being out of body and all?
I didn’t look like anything really. Nothing. I was as invisible as one could possibly be. All I could see were the reflections of the sky, the floating clouds and the city ruins. If I moved sharply, I could glimpse some sort of air movement flitting past but the moment I stood still I completely merged with the scenery. A perfect spy, an ideal scout.
I glided over the ruins, repeating my earlier route, past the building where I’d fought the Ptar. Finally I approached the edge of the black crater. I could already make out the top of the broken “egg” veined with the light-blue swirls behind the surrounding ruins. A murder of ptars squawked overhead, circling it.
As I tried to approach, a new message popped up:

Warning! You’re about to leave the incarnation control zone! Your connection to your host is about to be broken.

So much for a perfect scout. Apparently, there was an invisible leash which tethered you to your death scene. What would happen if I severed it? Would I lose all the upgrades I’d received with that body? Would it become neutral and available to any taker? I had no answer to this, either.
Eighteen Azure per minute. I warily floated over the ruins as I absorbed the energy, peeking into the broken windows. I was especially curious about the local fauna: all those feral city critters which interested me both as prey and as hunters. Earlier, when I’d been running along the city streets, they must have gone into hiding, but now I could see that this abandoned city had in fact its fair share of denizens. The absence of human beings had given rise to a new ecosystem with its own quaint food chains. It had to be, otherwise all those giant monsters I’d already encountered would have already starved themselves out of existence.
A few silhouettes flitted in the midst of the broken cars: rat-like creatures in a variety of sizes from a lapdog to a Dobermann, their coats a motley red. The biggest one kept rising to its hind legs, twitching its nose and looking warily around.
Thy appeared to be hunting some kind of woodlice the size of a grown man’s arm, which occupied the city’s dark damp basements. Swirling knots of either snakes or predatory vines lurked in the deep pools of rainwater. The sharp-toothed mouths of gigantic flytraps gaped open on window ledges, dripping sticky juice, their throats filled with the stirring of dying insects, some small, others quite big.
The Azure seemed to have a strange effect on living matter, releasing the dormant ancient energy of all creation, then warping the creatures’ evolution and putting it on its head.
Finally, I had five hundred points. I dashed back, forcing myself to fly as fast as I could. I didn’t seem to have a booster button though, so all my efforts amounted to the equivalent of a normal run. If I had to look for a new host, I might spend weeks or months roaming the city at this speed. Can’t say I was looking forward to it.
Luckily, it looked like no one had shown a gastronomical interest in my body in the past half-hour. The streets adjacent to the square were as empty as they’d been before, as if the local beasties gave the predatory bush and its territory a wide berth.

Repairing the damage to the host’s body...
Success! Incarnation complete!
Energy cost: 500 Azure
Current Azure count: 28/1000

Once again I breathed in the air. The first thing I did once I’d come alive was check the rolled-up pant leg and the wound underneath. It was now gone without a trace, no scar, nothing. The scratch on my face which I’d received when fighting the Ptar had disappeared too. Apparently, the restoration process completely renewed the host’s entire body, healing all and any damage no matter how small.
Now it was time to leg it. Preferably as far as possible. Even though I’d gotten rid of my two pursuers, they weren’t the only threat here. The city had become a true hotbed of monsters, their own territory. I was sure it had something to do with the Azure radiation’s ability “to alter both organic and non-organic matter in most unpredictable ways”. So I had to go someplace where it was weaker, which meant leaving the city.
But where was I supposed to go? Everywhere I looked, all I could see was more concrete debris.
When I’d already put some distance between myself and the square, I finally saw what I’d been looking for: the thin needle of an almost-intact tower rising high over the neighboring ruins. It must have offered an excellent view of the city. I might even see what was beyond it or at least decide on some landmarks which might help my advance.
Although the tower appeared close enough, it took me quite a while to get to it, threading my way through the maze of the rubble-strewn streets.
I had to keep my eyes peeled for any more of the local wildlife. My newly-acquired vision worked like a dream, detecting the slightest movement in the ruins. Plenty of silhouettes flitted between the gutted buildings: something that resembled the woodlice I’d seen earlier, only ten times their size. My interface highlighted them gray, marking them as “isopodes”.
I’d already worked out that the interface color-coded the creatures depending on their degree of danger. The Roc had been highlighted golden, the scolopendra and the predatory bush had been scarlet, and the Ptar had been blue. The light-gray isopodes must have occupied the very bottom of the local food chain. Seeing me approach, they showed no intention of attacking me but scurried away the moment I drew near.
The surviving tower must have been some sort of a large luxury hotel in the past. And I wasn’t the only person who’d found it useful: the place seemed to have served as an evacuation center, or possibly even an island of resistance, judging by the well-built barricades and anti-tank obstacles blocking its corridors, and the occasional eye of a makeshift firing slit. The charred skeleton of an enormous six-legged Tarantula frozen in a huge gap in the wall had become the breeding ground for a giant colony of predatory plants.
The crumbled gaping hole of the hotel entrance looked like a direct bomb hit. A large lopsided sign still hung over it, covered in stenciled red Chinese-style characters. Judging by a plethora of little details, the city’s language was like nothing I’d ever come across, even though its architecture, the surviving cars and the entire technosphere appeared familiar and even commonplace.
I entered the dark hotel hall and started looking for ways to get to the top. The place didn’t differ from all the other buildings I’d  already been to: the same puddles of stagnant black water, heaps of rubble, the thick growths of mold and swaying mushrooms, and the giant woodlice swarming in dark corners.
As I checked other rooms and corridors, I glimpsed some broken furniture and traces of cooking on an open fire, as well as several well-appointed firing points. Who had it been who’d defended this place? Who had they tried to stave off? I’d come across several fragments of human skeletons and loads of old junk which my built-in system ID’d as “irreparably damaged”. Even the weapons had long rusted away, not to mention more perishable objects.
As I searched one of the balconies, I stumbled across something that made me pause and double-check it. A naked human body glowed white next to a makeshift firing slot in a ravaged wall.
A female torso with a head, human - or rather, almost human because it ended in a bunch of broken pieces of metal and color-coded wires. A robot? A cyborg?
After a pause, the interface kicked in:

A synthetic android
Type: an artificial myoelectric mechanism
Provenance: Utopia
Irreparably damaged

I took my time studying its remains. Unlike its clothes which had decayed away in their entirety, both its skin and its muscle tissue seemed to be intact although ripped away in places, revealing the mechanism’s skeletal framework made to imitate human. The material itself was rather unusual, plastic rather than metal. This synthetic android had been built to fully imitate a female human being, down to every proportion. I’d venture a guess that when fully functional, it must have been virtually indistinguishable from a living human being. Now, however, the top part of its head was missing revealing a savaged empty skull. Had someone harvested its control circuit? Possible.
What an interesting object. Unlike all the junk around it, the synthetic’s remans were quite well-preserved. This Utopia place, whatever it was, had boasted some high technological standards. What kind of catastrophe could have forced its people out of its cities? Could it have been A-radiation? Or something else entirely?
Some of the stairwells were completely destroyed - but the building’s defenders had drilled holes in the concrete framework and connected the floors with jury-rigged steel structures. A lot of them had crumbled over time but my fit young body seemed to enjoy the challenge of leaping, climbing and pulling myself up from one floor to the next.
I discovered an excellent observation point just where I wanted it to be. It offered a bird’s eye view of the entire city: a panorama of intertwining streets and blocks lying in ruins; the skeletons of its skyscrapers reclaimed by the greenery; the long bridges that once used to arch across a nearby river and which were now listing, collapsed, over its dry bed.
I could also see one more thing. An enormous black planet which peeked from below the haze-consumed horizon.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. The sun was still there, its old and familiar yellow fireball just beginning its descent toward the west. But the planet - the moon? - looked totally alien. The sheer sight of it made my shackles stand on end as if I were a wolf sensing danger.
Jet-black and veined with blue, covered in a web of crimson and orange scratches, its looked sinister, malicious even. About one-third of its disk was now exposed, and it already took almost all of the visible horizon. What would it be like when it rose in its entirety? What kind of orbit was this - what was the distance to it if I could see it so clearly in every detail?
After a pause, my interface highlighted the moon a glowing black before offering a prompt:

Black Moon
Type: an artificial planetary object
Provenance: extraterrestrial
Warning level: ???

Its blue swirls made my head go round. If I peered at it real hard, I got the impression that it was moving, changing shape. My new vision identified the orange scratches as some giant splits - canyons and gorges - as if it had suffered in the past from some cosmic-size clawed paw which hadn’t finished what it had started. When I peered at it really hard, I thought I could even make out some kind of artificial engineering structures. At least that’s what I thought they were, dull square and round shapes, but they could be optical illusions caused by some natural phenomena.
What really mattered was that the black egg that I’d escaped from had been covered in almost identical light blue patterns. I could still see their intertwining swirls which resembled pulsating veins.
Did that mean I’d dropped from the Black Moon?
Never mind. Pointless poring over questions without answers. I strained my Binocular Vision, submitting to memory every little detail of the cityscape below. Just as I thought, this was one hell of a big place. The city must have been many million denizens strong before the catastrophe had struck. Block after ravaged block reached out to the horizon, half-consumed by the wild vegetation. To my right lay what must have been the city’s business center reaching its jagged skyline into the sky. But to my left, past the dried-out river bed and the city’s dormitory suburbs, I could make out a thin strip of woods on the horizon overhung by a mountain ridge almost concealed by the haze.
Squinting at the view, I finally worked out that the closest route toward the mountains lay past the collapsed bridges and the suburbs on the other side of the river. Although admittedly far, it seemed to be the only available option.
So, what else did they have there? I made a mental note of a large lake which was deep and definitely artificial; a bunch of black dots in the sky which were murders of ptars circling the towers; an unidentified smog which swirled over the buildings, and strands of gray substance reaching down from some of the collapsed walls. Lots of strange things here, that’s for sure. Considering that I’d just encountered several “Code Red” A-Morphs in a matter of less than two hours, the city had to be teeming with more dangerous creatures.
And in order to defeat them, I had to become stronger.
On my way back down, I decided to kill a few of the isopodes. That proved easier said than done. The giant woodlice were extremely fast and alert; my needle gun didn’t seem to do them much damage. Even though the needles pierced them right through, the critters would just scamper away despite two or three neat holes in their bodies.
Having wasted a dozen needles, I tried to come up with a different tactic. I was saved by a lucky chance: I was so annoyed that I hurled a rock at one of the isopodes, knocking it off the wall. The creature dropped to its back, squirming but unable to turn round. It looked disgusting but my need for Azure was more desperate. I picked up a huge chunk of concrete and dropped it onto the thing, squashing it.

You’ve received 20 Azure
Total Azure count: 131/1100

Not much. I could have absorbed the same just by standing idly in place for ten minutes. Still better than nothing though.
So, Grey my friend? Should we go a-huntin’?
I managed to scavenge a thick piece of rebar on one of the balconies, complete with a chunk of concrete still stuck to its end, which could serve as a heavy and very primitive hammer. As for rocks, there was no shortage of them here. My Binocular Vision was a real boon, allowing me to spot and stalk my prey from a safe distance. Not all of the rocks hit their targets, of course, but approximately one in five creatures ended up stunned or thrown onto its back, after which all I had to do was finish it off.
The second isopode I’d killed fetched me 30 Azure, the third one, 27. None of the following ones brought me more than 30. My interface also reported fragments of “arthropod genome” in some of the bodies but immediately marked it with a spiky frame saying “genetic garbage”.
While hunting on the lower floors, I came across several types of predatory plants which were described as “Vegetal A-Morphs”. Carnivorous sundew plants camouflaged themselves as innocent vines climbing up the window ledges, attracting victims with their beautiful flower traps. Some kind of knobbly poisonous mushrooms spread their deadly spawn all over the empty rooms and corridors, hunting small mammals, insects and predictably isopodes. Still, I was pretty sure they wouldn’t say no to bigger prey. How were you even supposed to fight that kind of critter? Neither my knife nor my needle gun were any good against them. The only things that could realistically get rid of them all  were some top protection gear and a good old flame thrower.
When my blue Azure bar was almost 1000 points full, I allowed myself a break and a bite to eat. My field ration tasted a bit like pemmican: a flat biscuit made of pressed meat with some nuts, berries and spices. I’d eaten about one-third of it and put the rest away. There was no knowing how long it would take me to get out of the city and where I might be able to restock. Water was becoming a problem too: I simply had nothing to carry it in. Grey’s water bottle must have been left in his knapsack.
Time to get going.

Interlude. The Council

They gathered at the city’s highest point, in the conference hall on top of the Needle. It offered an excellent 360-degree panorama of the city’s colossal walls and its ring-shaped sectors flooded with night lights.
The giant anthracite sphere of the Black Moon had already half-risen above the horizon. The sinister glow of its blue swirls provided additional illumination most nights of the year, making them almost as bright as daylight. As for the Star, you couldn’t see it at all at this time of night as it was shining over the opposite Southern hemisphere of the planet.
His hands clenched behind his back, Whisper gazed at the Black Moon, almost trance-like. The pattern of its swirls had changed imperceptibly since its last cycle. Was there any significance to it? Or had another tectonic readjustment of the scars of the Siege altered the direction of the energy channels veining its surface? Could it have had anything to do with the recent incident?
The City Archons arrived one by one, walking down the steps of the round Transfer Platform and taking their high-backed seats around the giant table. In the City’s heyday, the table used to seat the entire Council of Stellar. This was where the First Legion had been created; where they’d endorsed the rules of Timus, discussed Siege strategies and taken all the other life-changing decisions. And this was exactly where that fateful meeting had taken place which had resulted in treason, a massacre and the decade-long War on Zealots.
By now, the seats of those first legendary Incarnators had long been taken by the Archons ruling the city’s alpha levels. It made Whisper think that all of them, including himself, were but pale shadows of the ancient founding heroes.
He shook his head free from the thought and sent a mental command, activating a spherical hologram over the table which depicted planet Earth.
“Archons,” Whisper addressed the table. “My personal Hao to each and every one of you. I pronounce the meeting open. The reason I asked you all to come here is because we’ve just had some very disturbing news from the Star. As soon as we’d received it, we put Stellar on blue alert.”
He paused. The Archons didn’t say anything, waiting for him to continue.
“Fifty-seven hours ago, the Star systems registered an impact in this area,” Whisper continued, pointing at the red dot which had just appeared on the interactive globe, surrounded by blots of light-blue. “The object appears to have arrived from the Black Moon.”
“That’s one of the old A-zones in the South East. Lots of abandoned cities. Absolutely packed with monsters,” Gung Furius boomed, the Legion’s chief strategist. Three times the size of a regular human, Furius in his cumbersome Hercules-class bionic armor looked like the epitome of a rageful warrior. His stern scarred face betrayed no emotion: he already knew everything Wisper was about to tell them.
“Exactly. It’s three thousand miles away,” Whisper said. “The Star’s coordinator had insisted we check the impact site and dispose of any xeno-objects. Bound by the Oath, I was obliged to dispatch one of the Legion’s raid groups to the area.”
“Since when have you become so quick to oblige, Whisper?” asked Orpheus, the head technomancer. A faint smirk played on his delicate intelligent face, forming a net of wrinkles around his cunning eyes. “The Oath I understand, but even I can see that sending a raid group to a location like that is taking a huge risk. It just doesn’t sum up...”
“It’s Code Blue!” Whisper snapped. “Also, the coordinator was very insistent about it. He said they’d recompense the city for any losses. He promised to provide our replicators with the blueprints for Legion’s alpha kits, plus he said they’d give us ten new specialist-class ergoes and synthetics.”
Orpheus nodded. “That explains it. Those skinflints must have had a good reason to offer such a windfall. What could have alarmed them so much? You have any information from the impact site? What caused it, do you know?”
“Not really. All the raid members were killed, including the Gryphon’s two pilots and the entire assault group which counted two Timus cadets.”
“My sincere condolences to the Legion,” the technomancer mumbled, casting a sideways look at Furius who nodded curtly.
 “Two cadets? You put cadets on a raid like that?” demanded Eor, the animaturges’ representative. The bionic implant which replaced his right eye and the surrounding part of the skull began flashing indignantly.
“Doctor, please. It’s common practice,” said Aurelia, an enchantress and Timus’ acting headmaster, whose golden hair and sophisticated beauty drew all eyes to her. “All second-cycle cadets take part in the Legion’s raids.”
Whisper gave her an encouraging nod, making a mental note of the young woman’s cool and self-control despite the fact that this was the first time she was on the Council in an Archon’s capacity. Aurelia was indeed an old and trusty ally.
“But this is barbaric!” Eor said. “The tributes are too precious. We can’t waste their pure gene pool! They’re no cannon fodder.”
“This has been our tradition for as long as the Legion exists,” Furious snapped. “Every cadet should go through an ordinary soldier’s experience.”
“Don’t you think we digress? What exactly killed them?”
This last question came from under the closed hood of the last council member. Mora never revealed her face to anyone, her body always enshrouded by her dark blue robes. Dark rumors surrounded the identity of the Shadow Whisperer: Mora was one of the few who’d chosen to upgrade her Source, not her physical body.
“Apparently, the group was attacked by several unidentified monsters. The impact site served as a powerful radiation source, and A-Morphs are always attracted to them. I don’t have any details, only what they told me during their last communication session.”
“What did they report?” Mora insisted.
“Judging by the object’s Azure aura, it must have fallen from one of the Siege locations. It crashed into the city ruins, forming an impact crater of about half a mile wide.”
“Did they sight the Spear? Or the Disseminator?”
“No, nothing of the kind. I’m afraid that...”
“That what?”
“There was a sarcophagus. The legionnaires discovered several ancient cryogenic capsules inside. That was one of the last things they told us. Apparently, the sarcophagi released some substance that instantly killed some of the group members. The others managed to get outside where they were attacked by a few A-Morphs. Trying to rescue them, the pilots entered the A-zone - which they shouldn’t have done - but it didn’t work anyway because some other flying monster destroyed the ship too. There’re no survivors, I’m afraid.”
Silence fell.
Finally, Orpheus chuckled. “Do you have anything more precise? What exactly was in those capsules? Some of the Possessed? A Sephiroth-class creature? Or was it... Darkness?”
“I’m afraid so.”
For a while, nobody could speak. Then Mora rose from her seat, breaking the silence.
“In that case, there was no point gathering us here. Too late. How much time has elapsed, fifty-seven hours? Every minute counts now. We all signed the Oath with our blood. Surely you all remember what happened in Neo Ark?”
“I agree. If Darkness gains a foothold there, it’ll be the Legion’s job to smoke it out!” Furius slammed a fist on his chair’s armrest. “The pest’s lair has to be exterminated! Burned to the ground!”
Whisper nodded. “I agree. This isn’t an easy decision but... Orpheus? How many operable Absolutes have we got?”
“All of them. Seventeen on Titans and nine more down the shafts, twenty-six missiles in total. That’s all we’ve got left. You know very well we used the bulk of them when... never mind. And this is Utopian technology in case you forgot, so it can’t be replicated. You don’t mean...”
“Oh yes I do. That’s exactly why I gathered you all here today. I have to ask the esteemed Council members to unblock your access codes to all items marked as Absolute. I’m also requesting your permission to order a surgical strike at the impact site. Any objections?”
He slowly looked around the table at the Archons’ faces.
No one objected.
Release - March 9, 2020
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