When Alan exited the Game it suddenly occurred to him this was happening. Playing this Game would likely be the rest of his life. His occupation. The thought was both invigorating and slightly nauseating, though the latter may have been from the sudden disorientation that now came from logging out of the Game.
Blearily Alan managed to make it out of the capsule and over to the nearby desk, ready to call his parents, tell them the big news. He still couldn’t quite believe it himself. The past week had gone by in a flash, with Alan learning all sorts of alien etiquette and mannerisms, picking apart his own idiosyncrasies. This was supposed to prepare him for the Academy, and all the intrigue Alan was supposed to insert himself into. He wasn’t sure if he was ready, but he tried to continue to tell himself this was all a game. The future of Earth just hung in the balance.
In the end, Alan had decided against trying to immediately recruit Kitana into the war for Earth, as there were simply too many unknowns. Alan hated to admit it, but despite everything that had happened he knew far too little about Kitana’s motivations. He knew she was a master swordsman, and that was about it. He’d been hoping to talk to her, alone, but she and Sidestep had been undergoing non-stop training with Mason, the Black Rose’s lead Arms Master. Alan was still confused about why exactly they needed to prepare so much to go to school, but he didn’t question it. This was the reason he needed to talk to his parents, after all. He was moving.
Alan’s AI, Eve, had determined that lag was starting to become noticeable, or at least would become noticeable, once Alan reached the Academy in his current state. Despite the relay of satellites and bases that allowed for the somehow almost instantaneous flow of data throughout parts of the universe for the Game, there was still a delay, however slight. Normally this delay would be unnoticeable, but Alan’s unique predicament, in so much as he was a Machine Lord Rogue with a unique ability called Hypercognition that sped up his own perception of time hundreds of times over, made it a problem. Thus it was determined that Alan should move to the one place where he would be guaranteed a perfect, lag-free connection 24/7. A place where he would be safe from any real life danger, as Alan’s mentor, Icewolf, was in fact a dangerous terrorist fighting against the United World Government in an attempt to free the earth from unwanted alien influence. A place many light years away, in an entirely different galaxy. A place that was the capital of the known universe. Khersath.
When Eve had first suggested that Alan should move to an entirely different planet, in real life, Alan had been incredulous. Then he had thought it over a bit, and, reconsidering, had discussed it with his mentor in the guild, the Knight Phantom, who was anything but knight-like. It was just a rank in the guild.
Phantom had readily agreed to the idea, encouraging it, paying for Alan’s 100,000 credit ticket aboard a neutral trade ship that was travelling between Earth and Khersath. The guild would also pay for room and board, and had their own compound on Khersath, though it was apparently in the main part of the city in real life, unlike the private island-continent they owned in the Game. That hadn’t really concerned Alan though, his main concern had been whether or not this would disrupt his planned enrollment in the Academy. It wouldn’t. He’d be able to play the Game just as easily on a starship, travelling faster than light, as he was in this room in a skyscraper in the middle of San Francisco. There was just one thing that had slipped his mind. He’d forgotten to tell his parents.
Alan picked up his cell phone, which had been lying on the desk, thinking of what he should say to them. Hey, I’ve been good, having fun in the Game. I managed to get my AI implanted in my brain, at least in the Game. I also got other modifications like a bionic eye and a godlike artifact in the form of a knife that came from the blood of an ancient warrior alien race that may have created the Game. By the way, that game, the one I’ve been playing, now runs the known universe, determining who controls territory and resources through simulated combat and player versus player wars like in an MMORPG.
One of those wars is actually going on right now, over the fate of Earth, and who will control it in the near future. If I play poorly, Earth may no longer be in human hands by the end of the decade. However, I did manage to join an elite, special forces guild, and they may be able help our planet. I also managed to piss off an unknown entity, and need to finish a quest in five years, or unknown number of locked up horrors may be unleashed. Oh, yeah, and did I mention I’m moving halfway across the universe?
Alan got the answering machine. He let out a deep breath, then launched into a prepared story he and Eve had planned out. He had been selected a part of a government-run ambassador program to go to a school with other people from across the known universe, and would be available through email, maybe video chat. There was, in fact, such a program that funded players from Earth to go to various academies similar to the one Alan was going to. He was just going to the Academy, the most prestigious school of the lot, and was paying his own way, tens of millions of dollars that he’d earned from completing a quest or two in the Game. Once he finished the message, Alan stood up, and looked over at his capsule.
It was odd, to think that this simple oval was a gateway to a digital universe. Alan had to resist the urge to simply log back in, to make sure everything was still there. Real life simply felt less… fun, less important. There was no struggle here, no levels, no abilities, no talking with Eve. It was boring.
Alan watched as the crew of robots reassembled the capsule aboard the Alliance Courier, the ship that would take Alan to Khersath. The trip thus far had been remarkably similar to the one he’d taken in the Game, a shuttle ride from the surface of Earth to this larger transport vessel. All the ships Alan had seen thus far looked remarkably similar; there were no brightly painted hulls or aesthetically pleasing, sleek vessels. Instead, they were all bulky, rectangular beasts of burden.
A message popped up on the terminal in the cramped quarters Alan had been provided; Alan didn’t mind the small space, as he was going to remain in the capsule for the month long journey. The message simply said that they were going to enter the warp gate in a few minutes. From what Alan remembered Eve telling him, these warp gates essentially created a sort of highway in space between two points, with larger warp gates allowing for longer distances between the gates. The Courier would first travel to a warp gate hub, which, like a airline hub, would have gates to a wider variety of places, like Khersath. Alan didn’t question it, taking it for granted that the journey of millions of light-years was possible. He just wanted to get back in the Game.
There had been something about a meet and greet on the ship’s itinerary, but Alan dismissed the idea of attending such an event, as it was unlikely he’d ever see or run into any of the other passengers again. He simply watched with anticipation as the miniature robots finished plugging in all of the capsule’s wires. It whirred to life, and a display screen in front lit up green. Alan dived into the sea of silver nanobots within, ready to play. He lost conscious quickly.
Alan awoke back in his Home, the log-in or logout area of the Game. As Eve booted up, clarity returned, a sudden rush of information, a sharpness of thought filling Alan’s mind. Grinning madly, Alan ordered the Administrator, a sort of gamemaster android hybrid to let him into the Game.
He was whisked away, awakening in his in-game quarter’s capsule, several floors below the Black Rose Compound on Khersath.
Blearing alarms sounded, and Alan glanced around in a panic until Eve was able to decipher an incoming message from the Black Rose Guild’s general AI. It let Alan know he was late. Cursing, Alan sprinted to the nearby shuttle that was waiting for him.
Phantom looked up from where he was sitting in the shuttle; alongside him were the other Black Rose Squires that were heading to the Academy, Kitana, Aurora and Sidestep. Kitana was also from Earth, though she was Japanese. She also happened to be a deadly swordsman and the daughter of a Yakuza head, reportedly locked up like the rest of the real world criminals, a feat easily accomplished by the Enforcers, the real life branch of the Administrators, who possessed the only real life armada and advanced weaponry. Aurora and Sidestep, meanwhile, were a variant of the human race, Ælves, with elfin features. Aurora was the daughter of the guild master, Elisandra, and Alan had learned Sidestep was a sort of childhood friend, trained alongside Aurora as she grew up.
“So,” Phantom said, “Finally decided to join us?”
Panting, Alan said, “I came as quickly as I could. You know the time difference between real life and the Game. For every hour I waited out there, four passed here!”
“Alright, alright,” Phantom said. “Now that we’re all here, we can head out. We should make it just in time.” He hit a button on the wall, and the shuttle took off.
“Now, as I was telling the others, it’s imperative that you don’t piss any of the other factions off. We depend on all of them for business, and have fought before on almost everyone’s behalf. Got that, Alan?”
Alan nodded, though he rolled his eyes behind the mask of his power armor. From what Phantom had been teaching him about the “art of conversation” it was almost as though Phantom expected Alan to run about burning women and raping churches. Alan wasn’t completely inept at social interaction, just… slightly nervous about interacting with players that would likely be future leaders of the main factions. It didn’t help that the Academy was also supposed to be a sort of testing grounds, where major factions compared power by the end of the semester standings. Most of the past week had been spent making sure Alan wouldn’t make a fool of himself.
Phantom launched into a review lecture about the various factions, more for Kitana’s benefit than anyone else’s. Eve had long ago forced the information into Alan’s head.
Alan and the others finally made it to the Academy hangar on Khersath an hour or so later, minutes before the craft was scheduled for takeoff. They made it aboard the shuttle, which was supposed to take them to the Academy in about six hours or so. The inside of it was strikingly similar to an airplane’s, with crowded rows of three seats on each side of the craft. There was little legroom.
Aurora and Kitana took two adjacent seats. Sidestep blinked into the third with a step, cutting right by Alan using his unique ability.
“Hey, sorry bro, but this will be a good chance for you to practice your people skills, like Phantom wanted you to!” Sidestep said.
Not one to get upset over something as simple as a seat on an aircraft, Alan continued down the rows, looking for an empty seat. After walking a bit, Alan managed to spot a free seat amidst the crowd (a total of 314 other students, according to Eve). It was a middle seat. A pretty brunette with a cute button nose, wearing an olive flight suit staring out the window sat on one side. An elfin blonde was seated on the other side. She had similar features to Aurora, but wore a platinum diadem, a simple band with a small dark stone that glowed with energy.
“Excuse me, is anyone sitting there?” Alan asked.
The blonde, who had been reading a book on a screen in front of her, glanced up at Alan. She gave him a quick look over, lingering on his Revenant power armor, then said, “Yes.”
“Oh, sorry for bothering you then,” Alan said, turning to keep looking for a seat.
At this moment, however, a boy seated across the row called out, “Liar. You know there’s no one seated there, Luna.”
Luna turned her head, glaring at the boy, and said, “I’d appreciate it if you minded your own business, S. Oh wait, excuse me, I forgot who I was talking to. The person with no boundaries, the snitching scab scum that sold out the Vorthos rebellion.”
“And don’t you forget it,” the boy replied.
Alan, about to assure Luna that he could find a different seat, was stopped by Eve. She told him to sit down.
“Um, I assure you I’ll be no trouble. It just looks like we’ll take off soon, and I’d like to be seated,” Alan said.
“Look,” Luna said, “I didn’t want to be rude, but seeing as you can’t take a hint, I’d prefer it if you found a seat elsewhere. Be wary of strangers, and all that nonsense. I admit it’s a rather trite saying, but you can never be too safe, especially when you’re heading to an Academy for the elite. Your armor simply screams saboteur.”
“Um, well, allow me to introduce myself,” Alan said, bowing low, as he surmised this girl was royalty of some sort. “I am Alan, and am a squire for the Black Rose guild, underneath the inventor Phantom. I assure you that I am just a sort of a research assistant, from a planet new to the Game, Earth.” At the mention of his home planet, the girl in the flight suit looked up, looking over at Alan. If she was also from Earth that explained her clothing.
Luna glanced at Alan, staring at the Black Rose emblem he had emblazoned on his armor, as if she had just noticed it. “Oh, well, alright then. I am Luna, of the Alliance system Elda, niece of the Summer Queen. I suppose you may take the seat next to me, now that we’ve been introduced. I’m usually not so rude, but that piece of shite over there has me on edge.” She made an offhanded wave at the boy sitting across from her.
“Um, alright,” Alan said, squeezing past Luna, sitting down.
“Now that wasn’t hard, was it, princess?” the boy said. “I’m S, by the way, an Empire Servant, at your service. Let me know if she gives you any trouble, Ælven royalty are known to be temperamental, prone to change how they think of you on a dime.”
“Temperamental?” Luna said. “Maybe that’s because we actually follow the will of our people. You, undoubtedly, only care about your own best interests.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you followed the highest bidder,” S snidely remarked. “And, in case you haven’t noticed, the people are idiots. The masses don’t know what’s best for them.”
“Oh, and I suppose you do?”
“Of course. Unlike you, who happened to be born into the right family, I’ve proven myself to be an adept leader.”
“An adept leader? Don’t make me laugh. I was just examining details about the uprising you single-handedly stopped. It seems to me that you simply took advantage of an already completed struggle. You made several key errors, as well!” Luna continued, launching into a long string of insults and criticisms of the Empire as a whole. S listened calmly.
Alan glanced around, looking for a different seat.
The girl next to the window turned to him and whispered, “Just ignore them. They’ve been arguing on and off for the past half hour or so. I’m Amelia, by the way, also from Earth. I’m rather glad there’s someone else here, I thought I would be the only one.”
“Oh, cool,” Alan said. “I’m from California, what about you?”
“The Midwest, mostly,” Amelia replied. ” My mother’s part of the air force, so I’ve been all over the place. Grew up around planes, got my pilot’s license at 17, and all that. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I was just as good at flying spacecraft. That’s how I ended up here, actually; managed to get a scholarship after performing well in a simulator. What about you, what’s your story?”
“Oh, I mostly just got lucky,” Alan said. “I got recommended to the Black Rose guild, they’re sort of like special forces mercenaries, and managed to get a position. I just barely met their requirements to get into the Academy; they’re paying for my tuition.”
“Oh, and how did you manage to pull all that off?” Amelia asked.
“A series of fortunate events. Like I said, I got lucky, extremely so. Trust me, I definitely couldn’t have gotten here alone; in fact another guild mate, also from Earth, helped a lot. I’ll introduce you later. By the way, are you part of United World Government? You mentioned your mother is part of the air force,” Alan said.
Amelia grimaced, turning to look back out the window. The shuttle had started its ascent, and was now flying away from Khersath.
“No, I’m not part of the UWG. Not that it hasn’t stopped my mother from trying to recruit me as soon as she learned that I was a decent pilot. I’m just not sure this is what I want to do,” Amelia said.
“I’m not sure if I want to do all this,” Amelia said, gesturing to the debating S and Luna. “This whole ‘Game,’ the never ending conflict, the battles for supremacy.”
“Um, you do understand the nature of the Game, what’s at stake, right?” Alan said.
“Sure, creature comforts and a name on a map. Honestly, if you look into the actual socioeconomic differences and factors when it comes to ‘ruling’ parties in the Game and those who live in the place real life, there are, in fact, very few differences in overall quality of life.”
“You mean, apart from the ability to reproduce and the lengthened life span from the capsules, right?”
“Ok, well, yes, there are obvious benefits for being in power, but, just, doesn’t this seem rather stupid to you?” Amelia stared at Alan, looking directly into his eyes. He glanced out the window, avoiding the stare. “Like, we have miraculous technology and advances at our fingertips, and what are we doing with it? We’re joining a never ending conflict that has been going on for, like, eons and will continue long after we are dead.”
“Well, put that way, it does seem rather morbid. Honestly, though, I’m just having fun, glad to be along for the ride. Doesn’t all this,” Alan gestured out the window, at space, “spark your sense of adventure, of wonder? You don’t have to join a conflict, I suppose. You could just explore, but, well, I think that we should at least try to help out our people.”
“I guess. So, you’re, like, a supporter of the UWG then?” Amelia asked.
“Um, not exactly. I belong to a sort of third party at this point, interested in the good of Earth overall,” Alan said, aware that Luna and S had a lull in their debate, undoubtedly listening to their conversation. “I’ll maybe talk to you about it later, as I think the details will interest you. However, if you aren’t part of any faction, the Black Rose guild is looking for skilled pilots.”
“Hands off, lucky boy,” Luna chimed in. “I already informed her that the Alliance, as a democratic confederation, is always hiring, with equal opportunity for all.”
“And I informed her that the Alliance, as a democratic confederation, pays far less and promotes far slower than the Empire, where you’ll find the true elite, with none of that bureaucratic nonsense. Or, well, less of it at least,” S said.
“And I am going to tell you what I told both of them,” Amelia said. “Thank you for the offer, I’ll think about it, but right now I just want to get through the Academy.” Amelia turned to look out of the window. “It seems like you fit right in, though, Alan.”
Alan shrugged. “I’ve always like games, especially RPG’s.”
“Mmm,” Amelia responded, continuing to gaze out into space. It seemed like she was done talking to him.
“Hmm, that was a decent attempt at recruiting,” Luna said. “I’ll give you an A for effort, but maybe a C for motivation. When recruiting others to your cause you want to ensure they’re decently motivated, otherwise they’ll have little reason to join, or will betray you. Unless, of course, you were depending on some hidden Earth technique I’m unaware of, like a mating ritual. Is it normal for the males in your culture to avoid eye contact with females?”
Alan blushed, looking straight ahead.
“I’ve found blackmail and bribery are good incentives,” S said. “Though of course, that usually involves digging up some dirt.”
“Ah, well, we all eventually get our hands dirty,” Luna replied. “It’s just a matter of how deep you’re willing to dig.”
Alan ignored the two, attempting to get a bit of rest before they arrived at the Academy. He might have tried to engage Amelia in a bit more small talk, but as she continued to stare out the window into space, he got the feeling she had her own thoughts on her mind.
Alan awoke with a jolt, a screen in front of him flickering to life, mid-air. Glancing around he saw that similar screens had popped up in front of everyone else. He woke up fully alert, a useful ability of his Machine Lord class.
The tutorial video began with an Administrator-like figure sitting behind a desk. A label above them simply said “Chancellor.”
“Welcome, players, to the Academy System. I hope that you had a pleasant journey; you will arrive at your destination in 15 minutes. In the meantime, an introductory message will be broadcast; please remain quiet while the message plays. I look forward to the coming days.”
The screen shifted to a map of space, introducing the Academy and its many quirks, mainly for the benefit of those like Amelia who likely had very little idea what they were getting into. Alan, however, with the resources of the Black Rose Guild at his disposal had learned quite a bit about this Academy.
The screen now showed the Academy System in miniature. That had surprised Alan, that the Academy was not located on one planet, but in fact had an entire solar system devoted to its school grounds. 10 planets and twice as many moons, some artificial. The second surprise had been the term limit: 100 standard days, each of which was equal to about 25 Earth hours. Unlike most schools, which generally had graduation requirements, the Academy instead had graduation limits: one could only learn at the Academy for so long.
The info-video began introducing the three phases of the Academy education, which varied from student to student. What each phase entailed was somewhat uncertain, as the Academy was prone to changing its lesson plans. Alan just knew there would likely be an introductory phase which all students took part in together, a phase devoted a student’s class and then a final phase focused on mastering abilities. Once those phases were complete, the education portion of the Academy would be finished.
That lead to the rewards, the true reason so many chose to go to this Academy, a place that had always been a part of the Game, a place that had spawned so many other places of learning, modeled after its training methods. For, once a person had completed their education, they would be allowed to spend the remaining days of their Academy semester on Volta, a literal treasure planet located within the Academy System. The tales of loot uncovered on the planet were simply astonishing: schema that extended life, mines filled with metals on par with Soulsteel and caverns full of crystals that could power the entirety of Khersath. Of course there were monsters and bosses that corresponded to the level of loot, but the chance was too great to pass up. It was a place where all the mobs dropped nothing but diamond marks or higher, or so it was said.
Much like the rest of the Academy, Volta was shrouded in secrecy, but the leading theory was that the place had been a part of the original universe when it had been copied over to the Game. The academy had been where the Lords of Life had trained their warriors, Volta where they equipped them. The Lords of Life had disappeared eons ago, but their creations remained, so this was the most likely explanation. Alan had first assumed that this meant the Academy was run by the Administrators, but Eve stressed this was not the case; the Academy was not governed or controlled by any faction, but by the Chancellor, a fiercely independent AI. An odd peculiarity was that it seemed as though the Chancellor, and most Academy ships, were confined to the Academy System, with a large Administrator outpost located nearby.
Finally, to top it all off, Alan’s classmates were supposedly the cream of the cream of the crop, at least according to Phantom. This was due to the annual tournament that was scheduled to happen. A player had to have less than a year of in-game time to enroll in the Academy, and thus wanted to wait as long as possible before enrolling, training in-game skills to get through the three education phases. However, at the same time players wanted to attend the annual tournament for players held by the Administrators, as the rewards to it, while not exciting as the ones found on Volta, were much more consistent. There was a specific newbie portion of the tournament, where a player needed to be under level 1000 and have less than a year of in-game time as well. This lead to the majority of skilled, well connected new players joining a specific Academy semester, the one Alan was now in, as it provided the most amount of preparation for both the Academy and the Administrator’s tournament.
Looking out the shuttle window, Alan watched as they landed on a green planet, in a dense forest by a small underground bunker. A flood of messages appeared before Alan. School was in.