The black iron pot voiced its objections as it crashed into the hairy skull of the Shredgasp. The creature let out a pitiful, dog like yelp, before slumping down to the ground. Rand gave the dented pot a sorrowful look. He had bought it for a few coins just two days ago and hadn't even had time to use it for its intended purpose. Now it was more or less ruined.
The shout pulled him back to reality. He turned just in time to land a hit on a Shredgasp galloping his way, sending it to the side with a yelp. The things ran like a cross between a monkey and dog. Sharp teeth glimmered in the light the camp-fire cast and claws flashed as they tried to rip his flesh.
Rand dropped the pot and made the short lunge to his bedroll and pulled his sword from its scabbard. He lifted the blade just in time to cut down the Shredgasp he had deflected earlier. Dark blood splattered on the ground and on Rand.
He had a moment to survey the situation.
There was Carl on the other side of the camp-fire. The tall, lanky man was swinging his axe and keeping a single monster at bay. Two lay dead at his feet. He had always been deadly with the axe. Claimed the hours spent chopping wood in his childhood had made him a master. Rand suspected it had more to do with the years of adventuring they had done together.
Only a few feet to the left of Carl there was John. The fat bastard moved surprisingly gracefully for someone his size and the heavy metal stick he used as a weapon had already put down one Shredgasp while another one was yelping out in pain as the heavy hits landed.
Then there was Seth, swinging his morning star over his head before sending it crashing down on an attacking monster. The spikes dug in deep, pierced bone, forcing the man to strain the big muscles on his arms when he kicked the thing free and turned his attention to the remaining threat. Out of all the men Seth was the only one who looked like an adventurer with his muscles and rugged face that looked to have gone through more than a few fist fights. Which it had.
Rand shook his head and rushed to help Carl and John. The two remaining monsters were quickly put down with the concentrated efforts of all four men. The silence that landed on the small clearing after the last one was down felt eerie. The heavy breathing of the four friends was the only thing to be heard. The forest around them was dark and silent.
“I thought the Oracle said this area was safe,” muttered John and leaned on his metal staff. It nearly bent under his weight.
“He did,” assured Rand. “He's never wrong.”
“Then what the hell was that?” asked John and pointed at the dead monsters. “We'd be dead now if I hadn't been paranoid and put up the usual tripwires.”
“I don't know. A wandering group that just happened upon us?” suggested Rand.
“A wandering group of Shredgasps a mere two days walk away from a city? A Protectorate city no less?” Seth shook his head and raked his hand through his jet black, long hair. “Something is not right here.”
Rand felt all their eyes on him. He had been the one to suggest they come here. Now they were blaming him for the danger. Still, it was odd to have such a group of monsters attack. They were still in Protectorate lands and the Red Ravens usually did an excellent job of keeping the lands safe and void of any dangerous beings, even in the hills of the unexplored lands. That had been the case for so long that many monstrosities had learned to avoid coming to the lands. In general it was thought safe to go in the woods if you didn't venture too far beyond the forest covered hills. Two days should have been safe.
A shrill cry echoed from the forest. All four men grabbed their weapons and looked around nervously.
“What was that?” demanded John. His double chin quivered as he moved around.
The cry sounded out again, this time closer.
“That's no Shredgasp,” said Carl. The lanky man had been silent, but a new threat made him talk. They could hear branches snapping and heavy footsteps coming their way.
“Sounds like something much bigger,” said Carl and readied himself with a wide stand while gripping his axe.
“It can't be..” muttered Rand. A bad feeling welled up inside him.
Scaly, clawed hands grabbed two younger trees by the clearing and bent them out of the way as if they were mere twigs. The monstrosity that stepped through the opening made the men on the clearing huddle closer together. A snake like tongue slipped out from between dagger like teeth to taste the air. Yellow eyes nailed themselves on Rand and his companions. The creature stood well over ten feet tall. The green scales glimmered in the light of the camp-fire and showed off its muscular build and the bone spikes that extended out from its head.
Behind it they could see more Shredgasps, yapping and laughing like a pack of hyenas.
“Well, we're fucked,” muttered Seth.
Rand wished he could disagree with him, but facing off a monster like the one standing in front of them looked like it would take more than they had.
“Evacuate,” said Rand finally.
“But what about our stuff? We can't just leave everything in the middle of the woods,” demanded John.
“Your stuff isn't going to be much use to you if you're dead,” said Carl.
The monster launched itself forward with surprising speed, forcing the group to scatter to avoid its sharp claws. John wasn't fast enough and claws ripped through his clothes, leaving behind red scars that spilled out his lifeblood.
“John! Get out!” shouted Rand and tried to distract the scaly monster by whacking it with his sword. It bounced off harmlessly from its arm, but it got its attention away from John who was laying on the ground at its feet. A moment later a bright flash told Rand the fat man had managed to get to safety.
He dodged a clawed hand coming his way and turned to run. There was no point trying to fight the thing. Rand swatted away a Shredgasp that lunged at him. It yelped and lunged to the side, allowing the man to run past and into the woods. A flash of light cast momentary visibility in the dark woods, telling that yet another member of the group had found their way to safety. He could hear the monster rummaging after him through the woods. Branches snapped, heavy footsteps thumped on the ground followed by the lighter ones the Shredgasp made.
“Time to go,” muttered Rand and lifted his left hand and dropped the sword. With his right hand he pressed his middle knuckle and a small keypad appeared underneath the skin of his hand. It shone an eerie blue in the dark woods, but made it easy to see the numbers on it. Rand punched in the code that would save him from the pickle.
Seven, two, nine, five, one, three, enter.
A bright flash.
Even with time the transfer never came any less disorienting. One moment Rand had been running through dark woods with monsters on his heels, the next he was standing on a cold metal floor without any shred of clothing. His sword was gone as was everything else that had been on him. The trees around him were gone and replaced by dull grey metal walls, cold artificial lights and all sorts of machines lining the area.
Carl and Seth were there, both looking to be unscathed by the attack. John on the other hand laid on the floor, bleeding profusely enough from his gut wound to build a large puddle of blood around him.
“Call the medical team!” shouted Carl and rushed to the fat man. Seth followed close behind while Rand rushed towards the console that was mere feet away from him. There was a dedicated button on it for calling in help and that's what he pressed. A siren started to blare.
Rand rushed over to his friends to see how bad the situation was. He'd always thought John fat enough that you'd need to drive a ten foot pole through him just to scratch any important organ.
“Take it easy John. The med team is on its way.” Carl tried to hold him down with help from Seth.
“It was supposed to be safe!” shouted the fat man followed by wails of pain.
Rand did his best to stifle the flowing blood, but the claws had cut deep and wide and there was simply too much area for him to cover with two hands.
The door slid open and two men rushed in, one pushing a trolley in front of him stacked with medical supplies.
“Give us room,” demanded the first man as he knelt beside John. They did as told and gave the two men room to work. They soon had bandages over the wounds and painkillers flowing into his vein. With help from Seth and Carl they hoisted him up on the trolley and started to cart him out of the room.
“You'll be all right, John,” said Rand right before the trolley left the room.
“It was supposed to be safe..” was all John could mutter out in his drugged up haze.
The three men stood in the room and looked at the door their friend had been carted out from. They all knew it was a risky game they were playing, but seeing a comrade get hurt like that gave all of them pause. There had been injuries earlier, broken bones and small scrapes, but this was the first time something major had happened. And it had happened despite the Oracle declaring the area safe.
Rand walked over to a sink that was one of the walls and washed off the blood from his hands. He was the first one to get to the lockers on the left side of the room and pull on his regular clothes: a pair of jeans and a white t-shirt. The others soon followed in silence. There was no need to speak. There was only one place for all of them to go.
The door opened up into a corridor and Rand headed left, the opposite direction to which John had been taken. He passed several doors with Carl and Seth in tow until they reached a wide doorway with a sign above it saying “Oracle”. With a swipe of his left hand the door opened. Rand was the only one with access to the room out of the group.
All three men entered without hesitation.
“Welcome back, Rand. I was not expecting you back so soon,” echoed a flamboyant male voice as soon as they entered the nearly empty yet brightly lit room. The only furniture in the room were a few chairs and a console in the middle of the room. The voice seemed to come from all around them.
“Hello, Oracle,” said Rand and walked to the chairs and took a seat. Carl and Seth took their own seats.
“How was your trip to Kendle and the lands of the Protectorate?” asked the Oracle. “You were only gone three hours. You said you'd stay a full seven.”
Three hours home was three days in Kendle. The difference in the way time worked was what made the place so appealing. You could get home from work and spend a few days out adventuring, having fun or just sleeping. That is if you were willing to break the laws and deal with the shady figures that ran the places that still offered Alternating as a service.
“There's a reason for that. John's at the hands of medics,” said Rand and eyed the console in front of him. It was only a simple interface to give the Oracle commands that could not be spoken – or that you didn't feel comfortable saying out loud for fear of someone listening in.
“Oh dear. What happened?”
“That's what we'd like to know,” muttered Carl.
“You said the area was safe,” noted Seth.
“Indeed it was,” replied the Oracle. “There was nothing in the area that indicated any sort of trouble.”
“Well we met a pack of Shredgasp and some sort of lizard monsters with claws that could rip apart a bear,” said Rand.
“We've never seen anything like it,” added Carl with a shiver in his voice. It was clear he was still shook up over what had happened.
“I hit it with my sword and it just bounced off and did nothing to it,” said Rand and glared at the console in front of him as if that would somehow make John unhurt or the mistake done by the Oracle forgotten. He wasn't that worried about John surviving, he had seen the med team sow together men cut in half and replace severed limbs with artificial ones, but the fact the Oracle had made a mistake was a deeply disturbing one. The safety of all the men and women alternating rested in its hands and if it could not be trusted then the activity went from being comparable to the extreme sports of the past – jumping from helicopters to snowboard down a mountainside or soaring through the sky with nothing but flimsy fabric keeping you from smashing into the ground – to being sent into a war zone without a helmet and bullet proof vest.
For an accountant like Rand that was a risk he was not willing to take for simple entertainment.
“Gentlemen, I really do not have an answer for you right now,” said the Oracle. “I will have to run a full diagnostic of myself. That will take some time. I will begin immediately.”
A progress bar appeared on the console in front of Rand. He frowned at it. There had been more questions he'd like to have asked.
“That's it?” demanded Seth. “It just shut itself down?”
“It's looking for answers,” said Carl. He was a systems administrator at the government tax office. He knew computers better than anyone else Rand knew. If a program was misbehaving or the virtual personality of it was acting up he'd fix it in no time. In this instance there was nothing even he could do. The Oracle was well protected against any tampering and the console in front of them only allowed access to the outward facing virtual personality. The only person who could grant access to the more important function was Vincent.
“Looking for answers? Well that's bloody brilliant then, isn't it?” said Seth as he bounced up from his seat and started to pace around. “Our friend is laying in the med bay with his guts hanging out and the bloody computer is taking its sweet time getting us nothing!”
“That's generally what you need to do if you want answers,” said Carl and gave the raging man the sort of look that would have demeaned even a king. “The answers aren't magically pulled from thin air.”
Seth glared back at him. Muscles tensed on his arms. Despite his appearance he was not some bouncer at a seedy bar, but rather a relatively successful business owner in the area of groceries. He claimed to have gotten his well toned body from lifting boxes in the back room though that claim was suspect at best since much of that warehouse business was handled by robots. Rand had always suspected he had gotten the muscles like anyone else – the gym and steroids. It explained his occasional temper as well.
“Guys, calm down,” said Rand and stood up. “Nothing we can do about the Oracle now so let's just go and talk to Vincent, all right? He needs to hear what happened and maybe we'll get some answers out of him.”
Both men gave him a sceptical look. They all knew that getting a straight answer from Vincent could be like trying to squeeze water out of a rock. He'd answer any question you asked, but he'd dance around the truth, give you half the story and leave out important bits, but do so well enough that you'd be none the wiser.
None the less they followed Rand out the door and further down the corridor. They took a staircase up one level, passed a few more doors and a pair of guards that searched all of them for weapons before letting them pass. Vincent was not a man you simply walked up to.
Few important men in the underground were.
And the underground was the only place left where you could alternate.
The government had banned the practice ten years after its widespread use as a recreational pass time. Only scientific use was allowed and even that needed approval from the government. But the masses had gotten a taste for it and there were engineers and technicians readily available who could build the needed facilities and equipment to continue business. The legitimate places went bankrupt, some turned criminal and continued their operation from less conspicuous places, such as the underground facility Rand and his friends were at now.
On the street level it was a simple bar, but if you ventured down a hundred or so feet you'd find a vast complex that offered all the needed amenities for alternating. Of course, you needed the money and connections to get in.
They found Vince in his office. It was an opulent room filled with art, a large aquarium with exotic fish, lush carpets and luxurious looking chairs. It was a stark contrast to the balding, pudgy man that was Vincent. The thick cigar in the corner of his mouth may have made movie stars of the past look cool, but on him it looked pretentious, almost ridiculous. Combined with the striped suit that seemed to be pulled straight from a sixties gangster flick, he came off as something very different from what you'd expect from a man running a underground business measured in billions in profit.
Of course, not all of that came from alternating. There was the usual stuff; booze, whores, drugs, cigarettes, gambling: everything fun and decadent the government had decided to make illegal. Banning things never worked, but Vincent sure thanked the government for every new thing they decided was bad for the general population. It meant more money in his pockets.
“Rand, what can I do you for?” asked Vincent and took the cigar out of his mouth. He tapped it gently on the edge of an ash tray and a large chunk of grey ash fell in.
Rand knew Vincent from way back. He'd helped him a few times with his books and taxes. It was how he had gotten in and the discount he got for services rendered enabled him to afford to continue his hobby with the meagre salary an accountant got.
“There's a problem with the Oracle,” said Rand as he sat down in a plush chair. Carl and Seth found their own seats to his sides.
“Problem?” asked Vincent and put down his cigar. He frowned and the concern was evident in his voice. He knew full well the importance of the Oracle. If it failed and stopped working his alternating business would go down the toilet quickly.
Rand explained to him what had happened. The expression on Vincent grew more worried the more he heard. Finally, once he had heard everything, he cursed.
“First one of you thrill seekers decides to go Dark and now the Oracle is on the frizz. Great fucking day,” complained Vincent.
All three men perked up when they heard the mention of someone going Dark. It was never a good thing and was one of the reasons that led to the outlawing of Alternating.
When someone went Dark they removed the chip implanted in their hand. It was the chip that allowed those alternating to travel to other worlds and once removed you could not put it back in. You needed a new one and getting that delivered to another world was difficult at best since you could not bring anything outside your own body. It meant you were stuck in the world you had arrived in and exposed to all the dangers as well as opportunities it presented.
In the instance that had provoked the government to outlaw the practice a man had went Dark. Back then it had not been a big deal so no one had paid much attention to it, but when the man managed to seize full control of the world he had chosen, people paid attention. The world had been sent down a different path than it would have gone without the man. Who knew what had changed and what sort of brilliance his tyranny had wrecked?
Then there were the rumours that those going Dark developed strange powers over time. Something to do with being from a different place. By lucky accident the chip provided a stabilizing field around you when you were in a world not yours and kept you from changing, but once removed that protection was gone.
But those were rumours, things whispered around Alts during a night of drinking.
“How much is the bounty on him?” asked Seth, suddenly more eager to hear of the troublemaker than finding out what was wrong with the Oracle. Rand and Carl couldn't blame him. Once you went Dark the establishment that had allowed you to go to the other world would put a bounty on you. Usually they were enough to let you live comfortably for a decade without working. Everyone would be looking for you.
“Her,” muttered Vincent grumpily. A painful expression grew on him. It always appeared when he had to part with a significant chunk of money. “I'm starting off with two million.”
Seth whistled. It was a much higher bounty than usually. The woman must have really angered Vincent.
“That should get everyone's attention,” said Rand in a surprised voice. He knew Vincent. If he was willing to part with two million just to start off, the woman being hunted must have done something else besides going Dark.
“Once John recovers maybe we should go after her,” suggested Seth with a wide grin.
“We're not exactly bounty hunters, are we?” asked Carl.
It was true. Most of the time they had spent on others worlds had gone by exploring and simply taking in the sights. They'd faced monsters of all sorts and other dangers, but nothing as serious as what had happened before. It was only recently that they had settled on a world and started working towards something more concrete. They'd gathered equipment, wealth, and even started making friends with the locals by sticking close to the same area.
They all enjoyed the medieval feel of the world. Swords and bows were the sort of things they'd always dreamed of wielding. They'd practised hard to learn how to master each weapon and in the world they'd been in few had managed to gain such skill in so little time.
“It's never too late to start,” said Seth. He looked to be serious about it.
One problem Rand saw with the plan was the fact they'd have to kill her. Monsters were one thing, but another human being, from their own world? Could they do that? Strictly speaking it would count as murder should the government ever find out about it and the punishment would be harsh as they'd have broken the law on Alternating as well and that would count as an aggravating circumstance.
“Best leave her to the professional, boys,” said Vincent. “You can't take her lightly just because she's a woman. If you do she'll cut your balls off and feed them to you.”
“What the hell sort of a woman is that?” asked Seth, taken a back by the graphic depiction.
“The kind we should steer away from,” said Carl in a flat tone.
“See? Listen to your friend there,” said Vincent and pointed to Carl. “Unless you're absolutely ready to rip open her throat with your teeth if need be then just leave her alone and alert a professional about her. I like you boys and wouldn't want to see any of you in the medics hands, spitting out your family jewels.”
When a man like Vincent warned you not to go near someone, it was usually wise to listen. He wasn't the sort to be easily frightened into warning others about someone.
“We'll steer clear of her,” said Rand but then realized they didn't know anything about her. “Has the poster been put out yet?”
Vincent nodded. “It's on the board.”
“All right. We'll check it on our way out. But what about the Oracle? If it keeps sending people into dangerous places you'll be out of clients in no time.”
“Almost lost us four already,” reminded Seth with a nod from Carl.
“I'm sure it's just a temporary glitch,” assured Vincent. “Once it has ran an analysis of itself we'll know more. I assure you, the problem will be fixed by tomorrow.”
He didn't sound too convincing, but given that there was very little anyone could do until the Oracle had investigated itself Rand saw no point arguing about it.
“Tell you what. You boys go up to the bar. Drinks are on me tonight because of the mishap,” offered Vincent with hands spread open to convey openness and good will.
All three men saw right through it, but free drinks were free drinks. They thanked him for his time and left the room. It took them a while to get to the elevator. The underground facility was huge and it was a small miracle the government had not taken notice of it as of yet. Many smaller places had been hit.
The bribes Vincent paid must have been enormous.
At the bar there was an area reserved specially for those who alternated. It was a more quiet area where you could still hear the music, but talk without having to shout. That, combined with the free drinks, had Rand and his companions staying well past the time any working man should be.
But none of that was a concern for them.
They were just happy to drown away the bad day they'd had.