The training was terribly tough on her bones, skin, muscle. But she wasn’t rushed too much, and Denea kept her company after the tough days and nights, so she wouldn’t have the chance to sulk at the difficulty. She successfully brought her mind to other things to make sure that the next day she’d wake up early and go at it again.
And after a month of regular physical training and getting used to their squads – they were finally introduced to the Zerks.
The whole song and dance around Eesian technology was no simple matter – even though its era and culture of origin were unclear, there were elaborate ceremonies around every progression one goes through.
Eysin had not participated in any of those rituals yet, and that confused some of the organizers because she did, in fact, already have the battery installed – the insane, secondary nervous system – and were curious to know how she pulled that one-off.
“Do you know who Andre was?” She’d ask the next person who asked it.
“Yes, I recognize him.”
“Well, he was a mentor in my guild back at Reval and he gave me some marbles.”
“He saw you through it, then?”
“Not really… By the time I had that stuff going on, he must have already been killed… That’s how the story goes – I was supposed to bring a letter to one of his friends – and she lived close to the Revalian temple, but she wasn’t home – so, some of my buddies told we go check out the temple – in the middle of the night, and brought out own wine. Andre had not told me anything about the reds, the pinks, the whites… And I simply wandered too close to the water.
I thought I lost the damn things in the water – and well, in the morning I didn’t feel so well anymore. You know what comes next.”
“Well, that’s what I want to know – how the hell did you do it on your own?”
“Andre’s funeral – I went to attend, right? So, I’m standing there, and one of the fancy-suited guys suddenly sneaks next to me and starts asking if I’m fine and all that. Then I start losing my sight, but I hear the fuss going around, why is she spiking like that? Is she one of us?”
“The growth started… Damn, to go through this awake! I’ve heard horror stories! Did they put you to sleep?”
“No, Vinu came over and told them to keep me awake, said it will get itself sorted out faster this way. That stuff was growing inside me – I could feel it go around like a little worm, my heart was doing strange things, and so was my breath… Soon my vision came back, and by that time I was surrounded by a bunch of them, trying to keep it quiet and respectful in the midst of the funeral…”
“They usually sedate us for that part…”
“Yes, I’ve been told… Anyway, nobody explained to me what had happened. And when I asked about it later from Vinu, he said he’d rather pretend it never happened and let me happily live out my life without knowing – but then I asked to go with him. The only thing that reminded a ritual so far was the handshake with the contract glove… And through that Vinu could also tell the red marble wasn’t the only one I had absorbed… That I also had this!” Eysin shows her Kaestus, the shimmering silver-white computer glove.
“So, you’ve missed out two ceremonies, at least! Anyway, nothing difficult here – we’ll all be wearing these robes…” …
The long walk, the Zerk ceremony. Eysin felt out of place, seeing all these people around her in robes, in candlelight, the seasoned ones doing all the chanting and dancing, parading their way from the training grounds to the temple up north – a long walk that took up a whole day. But looking at the other beginners, the ones she had known for a month now – they didn’t look any more comfortable with that situation than she did.
But the walk was beautiful. It had turned dark outside by the time she got rotated to the front – and for a moment there, got stunned breathless by what she saw: a long line of large candles lit up on the twisted road framed by pine trees, all the to the temple. A fire flickered through the forest.
By the time the initiates reached the temple, most of the parade had disappeared into the woods. Denea would reveal a day later they simply went drinking and doing other stuff, their part in the initiation was over. Just the initiates remained, and a few older gladiators to walk the lot into the temple and guide them through the seemingly most meaningful part of the ceremony.
First, they enter a narrow corridor with a tall ceiling – and the walls are dusty, but you could tell, these used to be silver-white, as well. There’s moss grown on it, and occasionally other little wild plants have found it a fitting place. At the end of that corridor, they enter a large arena. As large as a large football arena. This is the Terratorium, a place where battles are simulated – the terrain can be manipulated with the temples controls – and once you’d have the suit fully on (and getting there will take a while) – additionally to the physical terrain being malleable – the Zerk will also augment your vision, hearing and olfactory senses… Sometimes it might even out thoughts in your head.
But right now the Terratorium is set to zero – it’s just a plain cold large hall with a very high domed ceiling – and still following the row of candles – they walk straight through it and reach the heart of the Temple.
A tall but relatively small room, initially you’d guess it’s shaped like a box, but when your eyes get used to the darkness, you’ll see that right above the middle part where there is a large orb, and a narrow pool that surrounds it. High above the orb and a pool, there is a platform where some of the more senior gladiators have gathered to watch.
This room had looked the same back at Reval, as Eysin recalled – but Reval’s Orb was smaller, roughly the size of a beach ball. This one here, however… A meter and a half in diameter, at least…
The initiates were all made to walk to the edge of the ground until their toes meet the pool – and looking down, it was filled with marbles. Mostly light pink marbles, quite many silver-white ones, occasionally some reds, and coins, and strangely, a few plastic bottle caps.
Eysin knew they get there from the stream behind the temple – a source of water which is called “the temple well” – an unbelievably deep and narrow cave, in stories – dug by the Eesian worm that had started this temple who knows when.
They were reminded to be quiet, and as another chant started, the pool lit up and the Orb became wet, like a fountain, and as water flew through it, silver-white marbles and a few red ones started bubbling to the top of the water.
“You are to take what you need.”
Eysin squats down to take a white marble, and as she picks it up, it turns liquid, and it does not drop off her skin, but finds the pores created by the red marbles new nervous system, and from there enters her body.
The initiates were initially too shy to get excited about it, but once someone did, it as if infected the others, too, and soon the whole small room was filled with giggles and delight.
The ceremony ended with a feast at the large Terratorium hall, at a strangely small table compared to the whole room – simply to drill it into their heads that even though they now have at their possession one of the most intricate battle-suits, they are still small, human, mortal.
The selection of food was heavenly, though. And when the feast ended, the only instructor of the lot who didn’t bother to keep himself anonymous – unmasked – and also, apparently, the tallest of them – unceremonially told that from tomorrow they will be training with them, not the regular sergeants, and the time to get to the battlegrounds right here would be ridiculously early.
* * *
Having fallen spectacularly behind everyone else’s capabilities already during the first week after the ritual – things got even tougher for her. Not only did she end up being the slowest runner and with the least stamina – but she also failed to activate her suit.
While everyone else was already sparring or doing their first Terratorium simulations in suits, she was going without. There was no point sparring against someone in a suit – so, for another week or so she was left alone to do just the hikes in the Monster Forest and regular strength…
Soon enough, the same incredibly tall Exo who didn’t care to remain anonymous – and he introduced himself as Daegan – would catch up with her and suggest her to try this or that, “maybe that could kickstart the suit”.
One of those ideas was even to go against another suited initiate – thinking maybe fear of getting hopelessly beat up would jumpstart it – but all that happened was Eysin getting beat up by a volunteer who felt rather triumphant after the fact. What a prick.
This is where I quit.
But she didn’t, because Daegan would see her pain and try to coach her while the others were fighting. Focusing, meditating, explaining what he feels when it comes on, when it goes off, trying to describe what it feels like when it is on, how “your vision is completely changed, and your sensations get applied on things you wouldn’t even imagine they could,” but while it all was fun, whatever it was, it didn’t seem to have her progress along and catch up with the others.
Eysin couldn’t move the white inside her framework. Daegan even wondered if there could be something wrong with her framework if she had accidentally created a faulty framework – and he doubled down on that theory when he found out that Eysin had installed her framework by accident.
The other guess was that the white marble could have been broken somehow… He even asked at least three times if she was sure she had managed to absorb the marble at all. “I mean, maybe it fell back into the water?”
“Maybe we’ll make a bond and I take a look at your framework, just in case… Then we might have to start training from the scratch or… Well, we need to find a way to override it.” As a last resort, he thought – because the bond he was holding at the time was a sentimental one to him, and didn’t want to give it up. “We’ll find someone else who can do it.”
But Daegan liked a mystery, and he enjoyed his power to revive Eysin’s faith in herself, so they didn’t give up. But none changed anything until another Exo chipped in – one of the anonymous ones, someone Daegan described as the best fighter he had seen, after himself, of course – and he came over to them one day when he got tired of coordinating the games.
“Daegan, your turn,” he pointed with his thumb over his shoulder, and Daegan didn’t protest. The anon sat next to Eysin while looking at Daegan go. He, unexpectedly, cracks a sentence that may be a joke, “Daegan doing a shitty job of a cheer-leader, I see…”
Mood unaffected, Eysin only sighs, “I’m so tired of trying this…” She looked at the next match start and felt envy over those who could leap over the white blocks – and wondered what they were seeing – was it a jungle? A desert? An old city? Watching them from above made it really look like moving in a zerk was so effortless – you could jump, you could climb, your could punch and take one, and crash to the ground – and it would protect your skin, flesh, and bones, you wouldn’t come out from it bruised or anything. “I’ve been walking and meditating and lifting the bar and reading the descriptions… It’s not cutting it… And it’s starting to bore me. I really wish I could be down there.”
“I went in the bare ass a few times. Not fun. You don’t see what you need to see – and they’ll hurt you because they want to win.”
“Not fun… Well, it stopped being fun forever ago.”
“We can spar – for fun – if you want,” the Exo said and nodded towards an empty floor near them, large enough to do what they did back at the forest battlegrounds.
“With this on?” Not again, she thought.
“I can emulate a fair opponent.”
“How can you tell what’s a fair opponent for me…”
“We’ll play, we’ll find out.”
And on the way to the spot they were headed to, Eysin was thinking about needing to override her framework and wondered if that framework is anything like the Temple Blueprints she figured out how to make copies of…
So, in that proceeding fight, which the suited Exo took very playfully, Eysin, with a sneaky tap of her left hand, having readied the Kaestus, her mysterious computer glove – – she managed to copy that Exo’s framework configuration and his personal signature without him knowing anything about it.
So, they played a few more matches and the Exo let her win a few times, and gave her a few slightly painful lessons, too. It seemed to have lifted her mood more than the Exo had expected – he had no idea what she had suddenly gotten so hyped about. Times up, Terratorium matches over – they’d part for the day with the Exo saying she can find him and ask them to do this again sometime.
“Yeah, if I can tell you from the others.”
* * *
Back at her little sleeping room – and Denea had not returned from whatever she was up to, Eysin spent a long night studying the copied framework configuration. First, she had used the signature to remove from the configuration everything that was native to the Exo – and everything that remained was the nature of the Zerk, the suit.
The mode that the code was written in was certainly similar to what she had seen around the building blocks, but it was more nuanced, and there was so much more to explore.
But if it works for him, why wouldn’t it work for me… Just to adjust our differences in personal signatures – something her computer could calculate with ease – started integrating this copied configuration onto her own framework.
And just when the last bit finished coding, she felt what she had felt when her Kaestus had first awoken…
And that had happened when she had signed the contract with Vinu – and he had noticed that it was there. “Not just a heart, you have a computer, too.” He gave a light tap on her shoulder and that made her body feel very strange and excited – she could feel something moving inside her arm, and when Vinu showed her what this was supposed to become – like a glove in her hand – she could bring it up.
Now that same was happening to her whole body – a great feeling of joy, a sense of invincibility tingling all over her chest, her toes, her scalp – and somehow, as if she had a grasp of her internal system, she could feel it like one can feel the texture of wood with the touch of a hand – but inside – a cold liquid… And just like that – she knew she could bring it to the surface now.
Silver-white liquid appeared on her skin and slowly covered it all. It makes her giggle, laugh, and roll around her bed – she stands up and feels how light she is, she smashes her hand back at the bed rail and doesn’t feel pain, but it left a mark on the bed. She tries to gain more precise control over it and removes the zerk from her right arm – and uses her bare hand to touch the left – the silver-white skin is cold, and smooth, and reminds a mushroom, but if she knocks at it, it’s hard – more than a bark, a stone, like platinum.
The moment she gets over the new, intense physical sensations, she realizes is not really using her eyes to see anymore – the zerk mask has been covering her face for all this while – and now she discovered she can see all around – her whole body is picking up light and warmth and all sorts of vibrations, and unless she focuses on one particular area or direction or point, in a strange sense she sees, senses the whole room.
When she moves and things around her come too close different colors alert her and grab her attention so she wouldn’t collide with them. She picks up a pink marble from her table and feels it through the skin of the suit – and in a sense, it’s no different than touching it with her own hands – but once again, it’s lighter… And she gets an urge to throw it… So, she throws it up and catches it again… And observes it through the light. The suit is giving her some kind of cryptic information about the object – one kind if it is motionless, and another when it’s moving in the air…
She also calls up the Kaestus on top of the suit – and it’s fully functional. She gets information about the status of her own suit when she places the computing hand on herself – she can see its information even without closing her eyes… Well, because under here… My eyes are closed, aren’t they?
Through this strange vision, she also notices that the pink marble stands out more than anything else in her field of vision – it seems to have some sort of a living aura – it’s moving, beams and arcs, tiny and not so, make it look like a sun and a solar storm. She takes it closer to her blank face, and sees that at will: more gibberish – untranslatable temple-language… And keeps changing, as if the thing was chattering.
* * *
The very next day she walked in with a cheerier step, but just before she had made it there, something had happened between some of the other initiates, and they were making it ugly.
The Terratorium games hard turned into a kind of a competition between the novices, a select few of them trying to outpace the others – a few of them even had a strange following – cliques had formed, and Eysin realizes she had missed out on all of that. Stepping in, she saw one of those pissing contest participants was the very one who mercilessly beat her up while wearing a suit.
He and another guy were nearly hand-to-hand with each other in the hall – one of them had left the Prick’s team to start his own – and a third novice had to come to break it up.
“You stay here – and we will walk away, okay? We’ll settle this at the match.”
Eysin thought she had seen an opportunity and offered herself to join the prick’s team, but the prick simply laughed at her, reminded her that she can’t even get it up, and walked away.
Daegan had seen all that but didn’t care to intervene. He found those self-serious punks amusing – they had a bunch of those every year. So, he thought it was about time he and the other Exos did a nice run against the novices.
Without any niceties, Daegan now looked at Eysin as she was awkwardly standing at the entrance, and asked, “anything?”
“Actually,” she looked at him and smiled, “yes!”
Daegan smiled, too. “How much?”
“I think I got all of it… Will I… Be feeling this hyped forever?”
“Yes, but you’ll get used to it… But as soon as you forget, you risk becoming a dumbass like that one. Some people mistake confidence and aggression… There’s no time to bring you up to speed today, we were planning a surprise match against them – and we are a-you short, so, to celebrate your first day, you’ll be on the teacher’s side.”
“Don’t mind if I do… But I don’t think I’ll be much help.”
“Don’t you owe that prick some ass-kick?”
“I’m no match…”
“Well sure, maybe not today… But you have a Kaestus… See, none of us here thinks you’ll be a good Zerker – but combine what you could potentially do with the suit and the Kaestus – you could become very difficult to deal with.”
“That’s like Denea…” Denea wasn’t a very good tactician either, but she was well-known in the monthly matches – no one would ever turn her down from a team, and no one wants to get close to her during a match.
“Well, Denea is good in many things, I could say, and sure, she has a Kaestus, but somehow she wasn’t blessed with one as powerful as you. You got it from Reval Temple, yeah?”
“Actually, Andre gave it – I don’t know whether he got it from here or there… And… I don’t think I was supposed to use it.”
“It would never have integrated if it wasn’t meant for you… See, when the Orbs dish out those things, they’ll make it for you. So, every suit, every glove, every weapon ever created, built, evolved – is unique. Your Kaestus is something else, and I imagine if you keep looking into it… You’ll get quite good at control.”
“So why did Andre have something that should belong to me?”
“The orbs works in strange ways – Andre could communicate with them – may be one of them had him send you that package. I am not sure, though – I’ve no idea how the Orb communicates… I do have a Kaestus, too, but – and I can read some things with it – but that’s as far as I go.”
“Where could I learn more about that?”
“Well, the only one I knew with as potent a Kaestus as yours… Are Vinu Laos and his daughter. Andre was the best at it, naturally… There’s also an Exo named Agnes – she’s not here right now, but when she comes back, I’ll tell her to contact you… But you have to forgive me, she’s a little weird…”
“Too into alcohol…” And sleeping with men while being married to another. But she has great sides to her, no need to gossip now, is it… “Ah, you’ll get along with her well,” yup, she’s usually very nice and open to other women, I’ve seen.
* * *
The Exo team with Eysin Eysin are moving around the field and swooping out 5 of the 7 newbie teams with ease. Eysin is not doing much, however, she is taking in the augmented version of Terratorium and is pleased to see that whoever built this system has put so much effort into it.
There are butterflies, birds, there’s weather, seasons, water, dry sand, cool winds, slippery ice – all that achieved through a combination of the Terratorium system, the zerk, and the integrated extra nervous systems… It all looks as real as real life – even though they look more fantastic, the creatures, than one could see on Earth in this time. She’s then informed that there also used to be a guild here, for building those worlds – but for now, they are using the services of Parisian map builders.
“Team Prick is proving to be a little more motivated than expected,” the mask of one of the Exos actually forms a grin on his simplistic deathmask-looking face. He’s saying this to Eysin to inform her why they have been standing still for a while. By the voice, it is the same man from yesterday – now trying to see if she could recognize his signature through the air, it indeed all feels familiar.
The 4 Exos surround Eysin, knowing someone is about to come at them, and figure she’d be the first they’d go after, so – they take on the challenge of keeping her in the game, too. “We’ll wipe the floor without any of us getting even a scratch.”
Eysin, done with getting stunned by the environment, now looks at her team-mates and sees Daegan fully suited for the first time. He has made his suit a little more interesting than the Exo she had sparred with. And the 2 ladies in the group have also made interesting nooks, horns, strings, and accessories. They have paint on their bodies and faces.
And that’s no normal paint – those are enhancements – colors from the powdered marbles – turned to a special paste – red, green, blue, sometimes just for show, and others can leverage it to boost their ability or avoid control.
Eysin sees one of the ladies is wearing two thin silver-white bracelets. They looked very familiar to her – she’d seen such before but never connected them to Eesian tech. “Hey, what are those?”
“Artifacts, got them from the tournament last year.”
“They look Eesian…”
“What are they?”
A hell of a mess starts and Eysin gets separated from the group for half a minute, but to her, that struggle feels like hours – because, indeed, she has been targetted, and the very prick from earlier is now coming at her fast.
And just when the sparring-Exo gets a sight on their situation, he sees Eysin getting smacked in her face. She flies to kiss the floor, but she doesn’t stay down, and what happens next gets them all on an unusually high alert.