Chapter 9: Sounds like a broken record

[Warning, you have 600 seconds remaining to clear the First Trial.]

 

I curse under my breath as I barrel down the path. Halfway my ass! I should’ve long been there by now...

 

And I’m not exactly detoxified either, especially with the extra toxic energy I’m picking up now. Even my skin still has a faint purple glow...

 

Finally, with 400 seconds left on the clock, a closed door at the end of the garden comes into view. It features another ugly, abstract humanoid, this time with its arms raised. It’s either celebrating or screaming for help.

 

The door rumbles open as I come up on it, and it’s like a weight is lifted off my chest. I break out of my run, slowing down to a more comfortable walking pace. I start taking in a deep breath, but stop myself at the last second, eyeing the Moonshade Flower right next to the path.

 

[300 seconds remaining,] Suri reminds me.

 

Problem is, I just had a thought. What if I want to continue grinding my Toxic Energy Tolerance in the future, but don’t have enough Toxic Energy to work with? Heart beating fast, I walk over to the side of the path. I still have five minutes...

 

I grab a firm hold of the stem of a moonshade and pull with all my reduced strength.

 

I am either an idiot or a genius. Possibly both.

 

The verdict is still underway, because it’s not budging.

 

[240 seconds remaining.]

 

I let go, take a step back, and look around.

 

If only I had a tool of some kind, but the only thing I see is... knifegrass?

 

I suppose it’s worth a try?

 

I kneel down and start digging around a nice blade. The earth is soft—relatively speaking—so I only break two nails as I frantically dig it out.

 

[180 seconds remaining.]

 

It looks like I really named the knifegrass well, because its stem actually makes for a great hilt. Roots still dangle from it, but they aren’t in the way, so I place my grassblade at the stem of the moonshade and cut.

 

It slowly sinks in as I make a sawing motion. I’m careful not to touch the sap leaking from the stem, as it has an eerie purple glow.

 

[120 seconds remaining.]

 

I keep cutting, my face dangerously close to the open flower. My lungs burn, despite the fact that the sensation has lessened a lot as my Toxic Energy Tolerance increased.

 

[60 seconds remaining.]

 

Finally, with a triumphant cry, I cut through the stem.

 

I rush through the door, my two prizes in hand. The door closes behind me with a resounding slam.

 

Impatiently, I wave away the notification with the hand carrying the blade of knifegrass. I get on my knees, put the blade down, and start rummaging in my backpack. I quickly procure an empty water bottle, into which I force the dripping stem of the flower. It’s a tight fit, which actually suits me just fine, as it decreases the chance of leakage. I take out a plastic bag and wrap it around the entire plant before tightly binding it shut.

 

There. I take a deep breath. The air in this preparation room seems relatively clean and this should help keep it that way.

 

The notification pops back up again. Having a personal guide system has its perks.

 

 

Trial points and shopping windows? Sounds good, but first...

 

“Open status window.”

 

 

Here’s my problem: despite resting in the oasis for 60 minutes, I only got rid of 2.4 Onkh toxic energy. Did I overuse the oasis’s power? Perhaps I could ask Suri; in fact...

 

I get up from the floor and flop down on the bed in the corner.

 

“Oof!” It’s like landing on solid concrete. When will I learn?

 

“... Hey, Suri—”

 

[Congratulations,] Suri chimes in my head. Had she been holding back till I was ready to talk? My, aren’t we attentive today.

 

“Thank you. I was wondering, do I get another five minutes of questions?”

 

[Yes. Would you like to start?]

 

“Hmm... Depends, will you tell me what trial points are if I don’t?”

 

[No.]

 

“Then yes.”

 

[Trial Points, or TP, can be traded for various resources. For now, you have access to the shopping windows pertaining to power-ups and Skilldreams.]

 

“Right, uhuh, what are skilldreams?”

 

[The Skilldream system allows me to put you into a dream state and provide you with a kind of virtual reality training experience to teach you a new Skill. The prices for Skilldreams are loosely based on how much time it takes to teach the Skill—at about 10 TP per hour in the Dreamscape—as forming a Dreamscape takes up a lot of processing power. Average pricing for the first level of a Low-grade skill is 25 TP, and for a Medium-grade 50 TP. They are generally only available in preparation rooms.]

 

“So, those are skills like deep breathing and meditation?”

 

[Indeed. Those are both low-grade skills available in the system.]

 

“Only low-grade, huh? I guess that was to be expected. All right, power-ups, what are those?”

 

[Power-ups are consumable items. After ingestion—or some other method of application—it will become One with you and provide you with a permanent benefit in the form of, for example, increased physical stats.]

 

Mmm. Permanent benefits sound sweet, but I’m not sure about that whole ‘becoming One with you’ part... “Can I afford any right now?”

 

[There are a few low-grade ones available which provide a +2 bonus for a single physical stat, for the very reasonable price of 50 TP.]

 

Oof, a low-grade one already costs nearly all of the points I currently have... All right, let’s not get too distracted; I need to spend my five minutes wisely.

 

“Can I only view them during these five minutes?”

 

[The windows can be accessed at any time, but purchases can only be made inside preparation rooms. Furthermore, you can only view the items you have the information privilege for.]

 

I’ll check them out later then. Right, I had some questions prepared.

 

“Suri, could you explain to me how ‘Purifying’ works and why the removal of toxic energy in my body slowed down towards the end of my stay in the oasis?”

 

[The Crystal of Purification helps your body reject foreign energies, meaning the energies that have not been integrated, that exceed your body’s tolerance limit. Your body doesn’t actively reject the energy below the tolerance limit, so neither does Purification. The closer you get to your tolerance limit, the less efficient the process becomes.]

 

“Wait, are you saying that I have no way of cleaning up the toxic energy below my tolerance limit? Then what is the point of having one!” 

 

[In the absence of high concentrations of atmospheric Toxic Energy, the energy stored in your body will continue to slowly diffuse out. If you wish to accelerate that process, you would require something that can help you ‘Detoxify’.]

 

Mmm, it sounds like the tolerance limit could still be quite useful... if I’m careful not to absorb too much toxic energy in high concentration areas, and maybe find some way to detoxify, I should be able to drop beneath the limit and not suffer any adverse effects of the toxic energy anymore.

 

“Suri... Why weren’t those purifying crystals put in the first hub? Couldn’t those have saved a ton of lives?”

 

[Most of the humans in Hub One died because they couldn’t adapt to Lavi. Either way, those who need help to survive the mild conditions of the first hub would never make it outside.]

 

Mild conditions... more than 90% of us died, you know? I guess it might still be relatively mild, compared to whatever’s out there.

 

“Right... Does the Moonshade Flower I plucked have any special qualities?”

 

[Yes.]

 

Score!

 

[It is highly toxic.]

 

...

 

You did that on purpose, didn’t you?

 

[You are aware you can still request more information by asking me to ‘Appraise’ something, yes?]

 

Shoot! I forgot about that... better do it after my question time is up, however.

 

“Suri... Do others ever, raise their Toxic Energy Tolerance like I did?”

 

[Some try, even using methods similar to yours, but nobody’s ever raised it this far during the First Trial, and none who came close have lived to tell the tale.]

 

That sounds ominous.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

[Your compatibility with Toxic Energy is remarkable. No other or previous participant can compare. If they had tried what you did—and somehow miraculously survived—they might have attained half the Toxic Energy Tolerance you did.]

 

“Really? But wasn’t the first hub also partly a test of whether we could withstand the toxins? I was one of the last people to wake up...”

 

[Most humans who survive do so because of a good compatibility with Lavi. For most participants, the easiest way to tackle the First Trial is to learn how to hold their breath and make it to the oasis without taking in too much Toxic Energy.]

 

“Hold their breath? Suri, with my resting Lavi consumption I wouldn’t last 5 minutes if I held my breath!”

 

[Indeed. The average Lavi capacity among new participants is about 50 Onkh. I had truly not expected you to survive.]

 

50 Onkh?! You’re saying my compatibility with Lavi is low and I thus have a low hit point max? Damnit, no wonder I’m constantly on the verge of death! I ignore the little voice in my head saying it’s because I made greedy, reckless decisions.

 

All right, stay focused, more questions.

 

“What do I need to learn to reach the next level of the deep breathing skill?”

 

[Ooh, good question,] Suri praises me. [The next step should be learning to direct your exhales further away from yourself, in a natural manner.]

 

So I need to further reduce the amount of rebreathed air. “And meditation?”

 

[The next level of Meditation would be lucid meditation, but it is not easily achieved. I could lay out a training method for you, but it would take some time to explain. Do you want me to?]

 

“No, perhaps next time.”

 

Another question drifts to the front of my mind. I sit up and hug my legs to my chest.

 

“Suri, at what point is the next... participant allowed to enter?”

 

[When you clear the trial or perish.]

 

I thought as much. Now for what concerns me most.

 

“What if they leave the preparation room early, and clear the trial very fast, while I haven’t left this room yet? I can’t imagine you’d let them join me in here... Wouldn’t they be trapped at the end of the trial?” And die a horrible, toxic death.

 

[They can’t start the trial before you leave this room.]

 

I release a long breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. Like, really long. Jeesh.

 

I suppose that means I have to wait on the participant in front of me as well... if he or she is still alive.

 

“Can I already start the next trial?”

 

[Yes.]

 

Actually, I could have guessed as much. I stumbled through the door at the last second, twice.

 

“I think I’d like to take a look at that Skilldream Window.”

 

[Very well, here you go.]

 

 

Ooh, so I can purchase Skilldreams for the higher levels of skills I already possess too? Neat! Though, at this time, that seems kind of like a waste, since I’m already figuring those skills out for myself. Better to invest in a new skill of some kind...

 

Telepathy sounds awesome, but that seems a little useless right now, as Suri is the only one I have to converse with. Unless...

 

“Suri, would I be able to contact other people through the walls if I took Telepathy?”

 

[Not currently.]

 

That’s... vague. But, fine, that means it’s pretty much worthless right now. How would I even practice?

 

“I take it Exchange Lavi also requires the presence of another living being?”

 

[It does indeed.]

 

Then that’s out too.

 

I narrow my eyes. “What does Lavi Font do?”

 

[It’s a skill to help you form an internal source of Lavi, and decrease your resting Lavi consumption.]

 

My brows shoot up. That sounds really neat! “And I take it Boost Physical strengthens my body somehow?”

 

[It does indeed, at the cost of Lavi.]

 

At the cost of Lavi? Oof, sounds like a bad idea, currently. I’m barely scraping by as it is! Which that Lavi Font skill could really help with, sounds like... on the other hand, those stat power-ups also sound pretty useful, as I’m currently rather weak.

 

“Suri, I’m having trouble deciding on my purchases, could you tell me a little more—”

 

[Yes, actually, I can.]

 

I blink. I haven’t told you about what, though?

 

[Since you shattered the record for Toxic Energy Tolerance at the end of this trial, I have requested a reward for you.]

 

“Awww Suri, you shouldn’t have!”

 

[Really?] Suri chimed, sounding slightly taken aback. [Why not?]

 

“It’s... never mind; it’s an expression. You did great! Tell me, what’s my reward?”

 

[I requested the opportunity to properly explain a single trial and give you appropriate advice.]

 

“That’s... that’s great! That could totally save my life. When should I use it?”

 

[Now.]

 

“... You mean, I’m going to need your advice for the next trial?”

 

[Yes.]

 

“And I’ll die if I don’t take it?”

 

[Most definitely.]

 

I sigh.

 

“All right then, tell me about the next trial.”

 

 

Author's note:

So, what would you buy? A Power-Up or a Skilldream?

I know what I'd pick...

 

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©2018 by H.C. Mills