“A hundred!” is my triumphant roar. I finally managed to make a hundred-times projectile my own. What’s more, I mapped the entire thing, the massive overload of trillions and trillions of atoms mapped out inside my head fading slowly. The fact that I managed to get this far within a reasonable amount of time is rather surprising by itself. I still can’t really wrap my head around the fact that I’m now capable of sensing what each atom is made of.
I previously used to determine the atomic makeup of items by looking at their atomic radii. Each unique number of protons has its own electromagnetic repulsion field, and measuring these distances allowed me to map out matter the hard way. Even though I still do this to some extent with the super dense samples - the distances between nuclei are many folds smaller and thus much harder to accurately measure - I think I’ve developed another way. This started when I was messing with fifty-times denser items. I somehow gained the ability to sort of smell the atomic makeup.
This is both amazing and infuriating. Amazing because it saves me an immense amount of thinking capacity. Infuriating because I can’t get a clear grasp of how this sense works. It’s like I’ve developed an instinct for it, somehow.
It’s super easy with normal items, for example. I can just pick up a super complex modern nano-fabricated supermaterial and without much effort reverse engineer the entire thing. Even the way atoms are bonded into molecules is super easy for me to figure out. I can now very easily recognize the difference between ionic and covalent bonds. I can also tell the difference between the different isotopes, which is practically impossible to do with just measuring atomic radii.
Standing up, I start putting all the junk strewn around inside Tree’s most central chamber back into my ring. The floor is nearly covered with pencil-sized superheavy asteroid samples, there are empty plates scattered all over, and my sword is stuck in the floor, right in the middle of the room. Grasping its handle, I prevent qi from flowing through its cute formations and do a test swing. Instead of lighting up like a Christmas tree, it just whistles through the air silently. Maybe I can use it like this? All the special features such as burning, freezing, and creating arcs of sword qi can only be used by channeling qi through it. Like this, it’s just a nearly black sword.
Hey, like this, it’s just a super sharp sword! I grin while swinging it around in a few two-handed movements, not a single cute drawing appearing in the air as I wield the thing. I nod to myself as I put it away. I can work with it like this.
Deciding to check in on Rhea - Database has told me she hasn’t left the bed yet - I walk upstairs. As I do so, I request a summary of all that’s happened so far. The amount of people reaching the Foundation Realm is honestly getting ridiculous at this point. Every single person getting into the Foundation Realm in the outside world regains access to Tree, and they have been making good use of the privilege. Massive amounts of qi rich herbs, fruits, meals, and materials are being exported outside of Tree. Ket has been raking in the money, as he and Tess are going around villages, selling precious resources for points.
I nearly fumble my step as I see that a few of Selis’ kids have also entered the Foundation Realm. Recalling how that level of power was usually only attainable by sect members, and then rarely before reaching adulthood, and then only after consuming countless precious resources... I decide just to ignore that information. Instead, I pull my focus back as I enter the bedroom.
Rhea is lying curled up in a ball, still in the same position as to how I left her. What’s new is the ethereal network of branches sprouting from her head. I weave through the glowing channels while making my way over to her, touching one of the shining lines as I sit on the bed. I’m amazed at the sheer density of the data being transported here. “Wow, you are really managing it up in here.”
“Hey,” she murmurs as she stretches. The branches fade into the background, slimming down but not disappearing. “Just two weeks? That was quick.”
“Yeah, Tree really grew a lot.”
“So, after bullying the elderly, how far did you get?”
“A hundred! I’m thinking about going to visit a Dungeon Core again.”
“That’s good. The preparations are done. We are just waiting for the last few projects that are rolling off the production lines, but other than that, we should be good to go.”
“Good to go where now?” I ask.
“Go and kick the moon’s ass! You know, the one thing you asked of us?”
“Wait, the one thing? Wait, when are we assaulting the moon?”
“Well, this is the first official quest, request, mission, whatever you want to call it, that you gave us.”
“No, there’s been plenty-”
“Yeah, small missions in Database that you put there on others behalf don’t count. People actually like you, it turns out, and the moment you ask something of them, they go kind of mad. I’ve been doing my utmost trying to guide them into less destructive and more productive avenues. You will not believe the number of times I had to veto the creation of thermonuclear devices.”
I ogle Rhea as she gets out of bed and starts pulling on clothes. It’s more out of courtesy than anything else, as I mentally go through a new rapport Database just delivered to me. I make a mental note to ask for all pertinent information the next time I want a status update and not just data that would interest me. “So, what’s the plan?”
“First, you should give her some attention,” replies Rhea as she points to a rather angry fluffball.
I snatch the sulking rabbit from the chair and start petting her. “Yeah, you’re right. Sorry, Lola!”
“Then, we should go inspect the troops.”
“Yes. Everyone’s been busy. Come,” she beckons me.
Oddly enough, I don’t feel any trepidation. Something as ominous as what she is implying usually should scare me, but not this time. “Let’s do some troop inspecting then,” I say as I follow her towards the balcony.
She steps through the light curtains - since when did those get there - and I follow after her. Stepping onto the balcony, I see an entire military-industrial war machine. Two weeks ago, I also looked outside and saw a lot happening, sure. But now?
The forest line is much further back, a lot of fresh patches of grass indicating places where trees must have been uprooted not too long ago. I spot Ket and Tess, both of them flying through the air while standing on what looks to be hoverboards. I spot Bord overlooking an entire squad of tiger beastkin. All of them look at Bord with either fawning adulation or seem to be on the lookout to stab a knife between his fat ribs. I spot Rityn in the middle of a steady stream of people. The speed at which she turns to new people rattles off something in rapid speech, and motions for the next person is truly amazing. Bassik appears from a portal I only now spot, speaks into her ear, and leaves again.
“Teach! How do you like these?” Tess asks in a super nonchalant voice while performing athletic feats that would give any Olympic gymnast an inferiority complex.
“Boards? Not swords?” I can’t help but ask.
“A sword? Is that why there are all those flying sword manuals in Database? There is no way in all the Dungeons that I’m willing to waste efficiency on a shape that can also be used to cut things with! It’d probably also need to spend power to keep the sword sharp, or some nonsense like that,” replies Ket affronted. “I’d much rather spend my time working on stuff like this!”
A true stream of metal items then flows from his ring, and before my very eyes, Ket is encased in a certain well-known flying armor type. “You’re shitting me,” I reply.
“Nope! Look, it’s on my back now. It retains a ninety-nine efficiency, even in this mode. This is the protection I designed for all the early Foundation member.”
“And is that a mecha?” I ask while pointing off to the side.
“That’s a heavy prototype. But making it fly would waste too much power, so we didn’t develop in that direction. Here,” Ket continues to brag while slamming a fist against his metal chest, “all the power provided is used for defense and damage mitigation. We did try to use those big things as heavy weapon platforms, but figured that strapping massive beam emitters or cannons to flying rigs would be more efficient.”
“Hot damn,” is my only reply.
“Hello Teach,” says a curt Rityn who approaches me on a metal hoverboard in a rather wibbling fashion. “Please tell Re-Haan to give me access to the automated mines you’ve set up. And please tell her to stop wasting all those resources on the poles. Those assets are unmovable and aren’t going anywhere - no need to keep all that material stationed over there. Also, tell her to stop minding my business! I love her optimization strategies, but there is a limit to miniature managing.”
“Micromanaging,” I interject.
“It’s called micromanaging when the leaders busy themselves with the minutia of normal operation instead of focussing on the big picture.”
“Yes,” she barks. “Please tell her that.”
“Right, Rhea!” I look at her sternly. “DO whatever. Rityn!” I turn my stern focus towards the soft-looking woman with a hard gaze. “Good job. Don’t make me commit suicide. I’m going to inspect some more, and then I’ll visit a Core, I think. Send me a message when you’re done.”
I shoot away from there, clutching Lola under my arm. I risk a single glance backward and see RHea looking at a quickly reddening Rityn with an immensely smug expression on her face. You can do it, purple lady! I chant inside my mind, making sure not to vocalize a single syllable.
As I rise into the air, I hear whistling sounds behind me. Tess and Ket are closing in on my position, both of them racing to keep up. I stop accelerating, enjoying the calmness that comes to my increasing altitude. The relatively small globe of earth topped by Tree’s golden crown grows smaller. I turn around to bask in the odd sensation of hot heat and cold heat radiating from the small binary suns. Turning around again, I see that all over Tree, life has started blooming.
Instead of the largely artificial state that the entire ecosystem was in before, I can see separate biomes forming. Between the desert and the lush forest, there is no longer a stark line. Now a small section of arid brush acts like a buffer, the dunes growing small as they move further south before ending up in the stark white stone I recognize from Database’s previous surface.
Ket and Tess slowly approach, but it’ll take them a minute to catch up. Letting that observation drop into the void, I try to make my core blank. The mental idea of a ball located in the back of my head fades slowly, and then I also drop that observation. Slowly yet surely, I start sensing Tree.
The first thing that strikes me is that Tree is rather massive now. There is a rule of thumb that all trees are about as deep as they are tall. Their roots are largely equivalent to their visible trunk and crown, but Tree is just blatantly ignoring that one. Tree’s roots are tunneled all throughout the small planetoid. Database might be sucking up all the qi nearing the core of the small planet; Tree is doing the majority of the work. Its roots reach everywhere, the main branches reaching towards the separate biomes.
The large root that reached the toxic zone is developing a hint of acid and poison itself. The root branching out into the underside of the desert is touched by dryness and heat more than the rest. The bundle going around Database, supporting the ceiling of the massive mass production lines, reaches towards the white underside. It’s as dry of qi as Database’s moon used to be, and I immediately see the use of the area.
Small while buildings are already being constructed on that area. I see the same composition of fighting rings and laboratories that were present on the moon. That area is sure to be the new hotspot of qi control and pure material science. The old apartment complex I used to put all the new student recruits in is now underground, its opening emerging into the central plaza.
I realize I’ve been using Tree as ‘north’, and decide I’m cool with that. Looking at the qi starved south again, new people must make their way towards the north if they want to cultivate. That will force them to go through an area covered in lava, ice, boiling sands, or aiding and toxic fumes.
Not just that, the intermingling zones are forming all kinds of exciting in-betweens. The currently diminutive main river interspersed with large lakes running across the equator is sure to bring even more exciting ecosystems to the table. Hot and cold, dry and wet, conducive and unfavorable to life.
Wait, no. The part that’s favorable to life is still missing. What’s the opposite of a toxic swamp? A super moderate forest? Well, that’s exactly the biome around Tree, I muse.
Then I realize that I’ve got my eyes closed, and all the observing I’ve been doing has all been happening inside my own skull. Tree sticks out of the multicolored ball of earth, right there inside my brain. Expanding from my own body is the entire dimension, from the suns rather far away, to the massive shell of atmosphere, to Tree, to my own minuscule body that is floating in between.
Inside that nanoscopic me, is yet another femtoscopic Tree, complete with atmosphere, suns, and me.
“No, stop, Tess!”
“What? I want to show him that I made my own shadow dagger!”
“Yeah, that thing is really impressive, but he’s not paying any attention to us right now.”
Tess just smiles at Ket. She comes to a halt in front of the floating man. She studies his beard for a bit and briefly wonders where the line between ruggedly handsome and a mangy scruff is. And then she wonders how Teach can manage to walk that line so perfectly. “It’s okay. He’s paying attention alright. Here, this is me.”
Tess then takes a dagger from her chest. Not from between her breasts. No, the girl pulls a thirty-centimeter long cooking knife out of her sternum. The thing is beautiful only at second glance. The intricate differences between matte black and perfect pitch-black take a few seconds of careful observation before it’s noticed. The base of the blade is still there, the dagger that Elbogar, the mayor of her first town, made for her.
“Alright. I just wanted you to see it,” she then says with a soft smile. “We’ll be ready in a day or two. Don’t mind Ket or Rityn claiming that much more can be done, alright?”
Tess then turns around without receiving an answer.
“Tess?” shouts Ket behind her, confusion dripping from his voice.
“Race you back down. Loser has to massage the winner!” she whoops as she shoots back down.