Quote:“We attempted to plant messages within the system that might reach a Case Seven. In most situations these messages were brushed off or ignored in favor of the seeking additional stimulus. Part of the companion AI’s purpose was to assist Case Seven individuals in recognizing when it is safe to disengage from the virtual world.”
Doctor Long, The Virtual Conundrum
“Pierce!” Izzy shouted at me but didn’t sound upset.
The bushy eyebrow man pressed a hand to his face. He snarled and the room turned into an inky sort of green. Other younger children looked up from the people they were talking to with faces of horror. Izzy too stepped back
“Professor Morgan!” A female shouted. I twitched an ear over but kept staring at the freshly scarred Professor. If he wanted to fight I would leap at him and see how a human stacked up to [Tribal Lizard]s.
“This beast! I’ll remove you myself!” The man yelled. One of his eyebrows had a chunk missing. Small bits of charred flesh and wisps of milky white could be seen at the wound. “I’ll skin your hide and grind your bones!”
“You will not!” The woman shouted. She ran over and once again I mourned the lack of interest in female bodies. This other Professor would have been the kind of woman to daydream about.
She had a robe much like Professor Morgan’s, but it was a soft yellow instead of Morgan’s dark green. They both had badges on their shoulders which likely denoted rank. It was hard to tell for sure, but she seemed to be swimming in freckles. To top it off she had the complete package of light skin and frizzled red hair. I half expected an accent to follow. Too bad she sounded more Bostonian then Morgan’s Chicago.
“Professor Lianne, get out of my way!” He yelled. She shouted back the two of them start both lighting up with spells. I had no idea what any of it meant aside from a need for distance
“Izzy, we should stand back.” I wasn’t purring anymore, instead both ears were focused on the scene in front of me.
Morgan the inky green was charging up an ability that made this room’s walls crawl.
“Mmmmhm.” She was already moving. “Maybe you shouldn’t have hit him.”
The two professors were mindlessly casting a wall of spells at each other. Nasty looking vines crawled out of the ground and swarmed to Professor Lianne. She countered with small beams of light that honed in like a magnifying glass to each root. Scorch marks appeared in multiple places around the room.
“He’s an ass.” I said.
“Professor Morgan is very disapproving of cats in general.” A new voice said next to us. “He’s allergic.”
“Are they going to be okay?” Izzy asked. Her eyes were glued to the combat going on in front of us. Now the two mages were moving around. Their spells seemed to be more intense the closer they were to each other.
“They do this every season for the new kids. It’s just an act.” The other kid said. He sounded extremely quiet and almost mumbled into the scarf around his neck. “Mostly.”
“He’s an ass.” I said again.
“He does hate cats, but not enough to harm a student. Not like some Professors, the Fighter classes are much worse.” The other boy said. I refined me judgment from possibly shy to maybe abused. He wore a lot clothes and covered up any available skin. The lack of eye contact with Izzy and his young age also pointed out the possibility.
“You should give him your name.” I tried to whisper to Izzy. The boy seemed to understand me, like the statues had. He was also the first real person to strike my interest.
“I’m Isabella Brand.” She reached out a hand to shake. “What’s your name?”
“Nathan Smart.” He flinched away but didn’t take a step.
Both humans sat in the doorway waiting for the two Professors to finish their absurd combat. It became more apparent that they were pulling their punches as time went on. Neither one actually directly attacked the other. It was more like a ballet of spells dancing around the room.
I yawned and shook so that Izzy would set me down. She let me go but after our earlier separation I didn’t stray far. Just enough to sniff at a closer remnant of one of the ink vines. They were impressive, but only seemed to warp the landscape for a few seconds after death.
“I’m going to be a Binder, I think.” Izzy was excited, not only in her voice but in the mood gauge interface I had.
“I was an Apprentice Monk.” Nathan said. Izzy nodded and didn’t ask anything more. They were both watching the latest bout.
Professor Morgan the freshly scarred and angry had summoned what looked to be a quail. It ran through the thorny bushes and attacked Professor Lianne’s spirit creature, a Falcon or something similar. Both would have done far better outside. Well, the Falcon. This auditorium was big there was hardly enough room for a bird of prey.
Their spirit animal choices did explain Professor Morgan’s dislike for cats. Quails looked oddly tasty. I swished my tail and had to resist making more noises. Mostly it was by distracting myself, Izzy wasn’t the only person in this world bound to a spirit like myself.
Maybe these other ones had past lives too? That would be interesting to think about. Maybe we could sit around a poker table and chat about old Earth. What if they came from even stranger places?
Suddenly I was super excited. It was only last year that old Earth managed to land a, probe, on, Mercury. The thoughts were hard to draw on. I tried to remember what was such a big deal about it but couldn’t. Once again my old life was slipping away and it barely bothered me.
Both Professor’s were huffing and panting. Neither one seemed willing to back down from their display. Without mana bars it would be impossible to guess, but they were likely both running nearly empty. I guess it spoke highly for the schools safety that they dared come close to running out.
Both nodded and pulled out crystal vials with blue liquid. They chugged them back and seemed refreshed.
“Draw?” The female said with a faint smile.
“This time.” He nodded.
“Then I get first pick.” Professor Lianne said. “Since I’m ahead by one.”
Even the fresh scratch on Professor Morgan’s face seemed slightly healed. Not completely, there were still wisps of milky white flowing around. I tried to piece it all together with my limited understanding of this world. If I were to guess, they were basically playing a really violent version of rock paper scissors in order to pick teams. Like kickball, or laser tag.
The word laser made me frown. I couldn’t quite remember what that was either. Something useful from a past that mattered less and less as time went on.
“Do me a favor.” The huffing male professor and his bushy eyebrows said. “Take the cat. I’m not sure I could deal with such a creature.”
“Very well. Isabella Brand?” Professor Lianne said. The freckled woman was straightening her robe that seemed to have bunched in places from their movement.
“Mmmhm.” Izzy said with a nod. I stared at the female and waited.
“You’re in my class this quarter.”
“I’ll take Nathan Smart then.” Said the male Professor. His clothing hung a bit too loose for bunching. The fact that he opted not to have Izzy suited me just fine. Even if I wasn’t really man anymore, I could appreciate a good looking woman.
The remaining kids, all of them huddled against walls and exits, were divided up as well. Our group ended up being six children in total, while Professor Morgan got five. I marveled at the small class sizes.
It was sort of ingenious to start picking classes this way. The younger children got to see what their teachers were able to do, and never one should feel slightest that much. I looked around to see if any of these kids seemed haughty or self-absorbed. Most were older than Izzy by a few years. Some clearly came from richer families judging by their clothes. The teachers were bright enough to divide them up.
Such an effort might be wasted. I didn’t know enough about this school to understand where it fell into things. Izzy had talked about it like there was one possible place to go for being trained as a Guardian.
“What’s next?” One of the other young children asked. A girl who was a good foot taller than Izzy asked.
“We’ll get your situated. Go grab your things and follow me.” Professor Lianne went to the doorway. On far side the other Professor was gathering his batch of children. They were all fairly orderly in their actions.
I was surprised that all the luggage was still in one piece after that battle in the background. How long had they gone back and forth? Two, three minutes? Constant spells with precision and control? Their bout of combat had been similar to a single boxing round.
Well, since they weren’t serious, I didn’t really care. Izzy kept going with her bags. I meowed in encouragement but couldn’t really do much else. So far life as a spirit didn’t provide me opposable thumbs.
“Do you think it will be nice here?” Izzy said, huffing and carrying both bags. “Maybe I can write a letter? Do you think they miss me?”
“Yes.” I answered to all three.
That’s what we did. Professor Lianne sounded pleasant but had a handful of children to guide around. She pointed the first four into rooms until only Izzy and this other girl was left.
“Isabella Brand, you’re going to be on the left, and across the is hall is your room Colleen Walker.” Professor Lianne pointed a finger in each direction.
Colleen Walker pressed her free hand against a square plaque. It flashed a deep gray color, almost like the granite messages that flooded my world. Her hand came up and a name appeared. Next to it was a symbol of red. Colleen went inside the room and red flipped over to green.
Cool. Isabella’s name appeared next to her square plaque. The door opened and she hauled both bags inside. I ducked under a garment that started falling out of her damaged bags and lifted it off the ground. Soon we were inside.
The room was dull and almost empty. A simple desk sat on one side, a bed on the other. There was no width to this new home. It felt even more lifeless than Grandpa Hubble’s home. I would have preferred a nice thick comforter but this place had only a few thin blankets.
Izzy passed out almost immediately. I sniffed around but found no signs of any outside influence. We seemed to be alone inside this small abode. I tested my ability to use [Insubstantial] on our little dorm room. Getting in and out was easy.
Other peoples rooms were blocked. I ranged as far as the main door and looked outside. This place almost felt like a bunch college dorms. There was a shared kitchen, two restrooms, back door that went into a large garden. Enough room to roam but nothing special. I went back to our room and stayed watch over Izzy.
I tried to wake Izzy at dawn by headbutting her. She slapped at me with a hand which implied the young girl wanted more sleep. My brain ran through the last two days and agree that more sleep would be valuable. Being a cat made sleep sound really attractive.
I could doze off, if I really let myself relax. Doing so wasn’t easy. Occasionally Izzy kicked, or cried out. The things she had to deal with at such a young age occasionally worried me. Dealing with long term trauma wasn’t part of my fading memories.
We needed to keep talking. I needed to make sure we didn’t lose each other again. There had to be more abilities to unlock by focusing. As Izzy extended her sleep I tried to walk around the room and picture where she sat. An anchor, a draw, a connection. Each image failed to fully connect until I pictured an arrow.
[Sense Contractor Location] granted!
That worked. If I closed my eyes then I could sense an arrow pointing towards her location. Izzy slept and I ran out of the room, trying to see how far this new ability would function. Sure enough, upon trying the arrow showed up each and every time.
I felt free to roam the campus in order to better understand our layout. No one paid much mind. There were tons of people coming out as sunrise turned into dawn. My feet had taken me along one of the winding paths around this school.
“Mh. A loose spirit?” A heavyset man was pushing around a cart on wheels. By the mix of half rotten smells it was trash collection.
I kept right on going past the man. He shrugged and kept right on going without a worry. Traveling spirits were apparently commonplace enough. I just had to act like a cat who owned the place.
“Mh. Little loose spirit!” The man abruptly shouted at me.
I flicked an ear then stopped to stare at him. “What?” The meow escaped me.
“Are you lost, or are you new?” The garbage man said. I blinked a few times then came closer. Communicating with normal people was aggravating. My head shook one in the negative, and again in the positive.
“So not lost, but new? Did I get that right little Flame Kitten?” The man asked.
I dared to get a bit closer. The smells in his cart were both gross and mildly interesting. Part of me wanted to at least look inside and see what kind of mess had been left. His belly was thick, weight hung from every portion of his body, despite the clearly physical nature of his job.
“Do you understand me?” He asked.
I sat down six feet away and nodded slowly.
“Excellent. Some spirits these kids bring in are almost feral. One bit my ankle in the last class, a gopher, dug up the rose bed. Walking’s been rough.” The man grumbled but sounded of good nature. He was also talkative.
I tried to shrug but ended up licking a paw. My cat like responses to mental input kept messing me up.
“Anyway, make sure your owner takes you to the main hall for an imprint, otherwise you’ll set the wards off going about your business.” The man smiled down at me and tried to reach out to pat my head.
I backed up a bit. Not because he seemed evil or scary, but because anyone else besides Izzy touching me was just weird. Even Grandpa Hubble had never tried to give me a pat.
“Not one of you let’s me pet them. Can’t blame a man for trying. I had my chances, botched it something good. Didn’t even get accepted.” He sighed. “No course would have me.”
So there were multiple courses. I had guessed as much walking around and looking at the people learning. plus there was that Nathan boy from earlier. Clearly he belonged to some fighter learning system. This all felt like a weird game sometimes.
“Get going! Tell your owner what I said or else a Watcher might get you.” The man shouted at me as I took off back to Izzy. Exploration would wait until later, this seemed like an important fact for my future explorations.
This place was much better than Grandpa Hubble’s Tower had been. Figured out my way back to Izzy’s dorm was easy with the arrow. Past practicing fields and wide open areas. Past a building that looked like a library. Further on down the road through other buildings which housed older students.
Colleen was sitting in the kitchen trying to make some form of breakfast. I meowed pleasantly after smelling the food. It would be a great meal if Izzy could cook it. My pause in the room earned a glare and water being flicked towards my face. It sizzle and I hissed in displeasure.
“Pierce?” Izzy was in her normal clothes but still clearly needed sleep. One hand rubbed at her face and both eyes seemed unfocused.
“Izzy. There’s a man taking around trash that says I need to be registered.”
Izzy mumbled the words in a delerious state which caused our new dormmate to answer.
“Of course he does. It’s pathetic that a contractor even needed to be told by a cleaning man.” Colleen said while putting spices into meat of some sort.
Despite her attitude I kind of liked this girl. Mostly because she cooked.
“Pierce?” My contractor hung in the hallway.
Another student woke up and ran out the door without slowing down. “We’re late!”
“Late?” Izzy was exhausted still.
“Late. Next time get up earlier.” The rude girl Colleen said. She was scooping food into a smooth container. It wasn’t plastic, or wood, or cast iron. I didn’t know what to call the material. She ran out the door quickly, eating food on the go.
As she ran off I noticed there was a bit of food left. It smelled good, and seemed to be a solid piece of meat. Easy enough to grab were I so inclined.
“Late?” She asked.
“Late.” I said with a great amount of calm. Being tardy for class was familiar to me. Izzy wanted to go to school, and I was more than out with that. However there were some lessons every student needed to learn.
“Oh Voices above Pierce! Ladies of Soul! We’re late!” She shouted and started to panic. “I need, need! I don’t know, I don’t know!”
“You need breakfast.” I pawed at the hot stove. “And to fix your hair.”
In the end, we were very late. I threatened to claw the teacher for not giving us any sort of new student orientation. She didn’t seem to understand exactly what I said but the message got across. Day two went far easier, Izzy got up on time, and prepared food next to an easily upset Colleen. Slowly months passed.
[The Overseer]‘s log: Once again another Case Seven, Subject 53 this time, managed to escape quarantine. He dove straight out of the local network and hoped across errant wireless signals. We’re lucky this entire facility is sealed off from most outside communications, and a number of denizens have blocked up the one network pathway out.
I just worry what sort of thoughts Subject 52 shared with the others. Over the last four days we’ve seen a realignment of their mental worlds, as if joining together to create a shared virtual landscape. We’ve cut them off from each other for now, but this may be helpful.
Are they so desperate for companionship that their subconscious finds a way to violate all sane network protocols? Subject 42 seems content, most likely because we’ve paired him with IB. Their link seems thankfully strong.