Alan stared at the Administrator that had appeared in the Student Center. The tests had been a bit nerve racking, but were simple with Eve’s help. It had been like having an answer key to every question; Alan just copied over the answers.
For the most part, Alan could follow along with Eve’s solutions, though a few questions made little sense. Still, if he ever did need help he could just have Eve give him the answer. What did it matter if he couldn’t come up with the equations necessary to understand complex orbits or if he hadn’t any clue about the nature of reality? That work was for computers and philosophers.
Somehow, his Trainer had miraculously brought him out of the insect colony relatively unharmed; Alan had regained consciousness healing in a capsule. According to the Trainer Alan had been the first to reach the center and gain the “prize,” netting him enough experience to reach level 300 and the Rogue Commendation he would supposedly need later.
That brought Alan to the here and now. He had 477 ability points to spend, in addition to 1000 points he could gain by exchanging marks for ability points. He was a bit strapped for cash at the moment though, so would probably avoid the latter. After a bit of consideration, Alan decided he would start working towards meeting the requirements of his Advanced Revenant Scout Power Armor.
While he could use the basic invisibility ability for over twelve hours at a time, Alan could only use the advanced stealth ability for five minutes. While no mission thus far had required extensive use of this advanced stealth ability, Eve noted that the trainers had a difficult time detecting Alan only when the advanced stealth ability was activated. The advanced ability, unlike the basic, allowed for Eve to mimic many sensations other than light.
Meeting the requirements for the armor would allow Alan to keep basic invisibility on indefinitely, increase the time he could spend using the advanced stealth ability and decrease the amount of attention Eve had to focus on maintaining complete invisibility. Additionally, the abilities he still needed, Energy Efficiency (Advanced) and Revenant Training (Intermediate), would hopefully be useful elsewhere.
Confirming his decision, Alan sent a message to the Administrator.
Apologies, Traveler, but you may only spend ability points on stats while on Incipe, it replied.
What? Alan sent.
While in the Academy System, ability points and marks may be used to hire Teachers to gain and improve abilities. Abilities may not be directly purchased. Teachers are able to train a player’s ability up to advanced, and teach select players unique class, racial or faction abilities. Certain Teachers even help players reach the master level of understanding.
Wait, do you mean Trainers, like the ones that helped with that introduction?
Negative. These teachers are qualified specialists gathered from throughout the Game universe. They are spread throughout the Academy System, with the majority of class-related ability teachers gathered on specific planets and stations. As a part of the rogue program, you will proceed to the planet Aenigma.
So they’re real people?
Many of them are players, yes.
Wait, so, you mean, the teaching hasn’t even begun?
On the contrary, the teaching has begun long ago, as we are always learning. However, it is true that you currently have no Teacher.
Alan looked around. Everyone else was busy studying for their own exams; the entire Student Center had a surprisingly college feel about it, albeit college during the height of finals, the arguably worst time of year. Alan shook his head, gazing forward; he didn’t have time for errant thoughts or daydreaming. He had his next quest.
Alan quickly moved to exit the building, back out into the wilderness. Alan had chosen to gather 100,000 credits worth of materials rather than undergo intense physical training; it would hopefully be quicker, less painful and more profitable. He felt someone tap him on the shoulder.
Surprised, he turned to find Aurora standing next to him, wearing what looked like a grey sweat suit. Despite its drab appearance, it did nothing to hide Aurora’s beauty: her curves and bright eyes drew Alan’s attention like a shining beacon.
“Hey, Alan. Can we talk?” She asked.
“Here?” He said.
“No, somewhere away from prying eyes and ears. Let’s talk in my Room,” Aurora said, starting to walk down a corridor.
Alan hurried after her, walking with her side-by-side. “Your Room?”
“Oh, I guess you call yours your Home. I share a sort of joint virtual space with my parents and other family members, but we each have our own Room in the House. Or well, rooms, I guess, as no Room is actually just a room.”
“Other family members?” Alan asked.
“Yes,” Aurora said, glancing at Alan, a hint of something in her eyes. “You’ve met one of them, Luna. She’s a cousin.”
“Oh, so you’re royalty too? I didn’t realize,” Alan said.
Aurora shook her head. “No, I am not. My mother and I are more… outcasts, I suppose. Rogue elements. We have a certain degree of status, but by no means are we part of the Royal Family. Let’s hold off on such talk for now, we’re almost to the capsule room.”
“Uh, right. How exactly am I getting to your Room?” Alan asked.
“Oh, you’ve never before been to another Home, have you?”
“I’ll invite you, and it will appear in your list of teleport locations.”
“Um, isn’t teleporting expensive?” Alan asked.
“Wait, you mean you haven’t been to the Marketplace, or the Arcade? You’ve only teleported within the physical universe of the Game?” Aurora stopped, staring at Alan.
Alan stopped walking as well, glancing away briefly. “Um, yeah? Why, what else is there?”
“Entire universes! A thousand experiences better than this” —Aurora gestured about at the players hunched over, studying—“Why do you think everyone is working so hard? To get paid so we don’t have to deal with all this. You haven’t used any of the forms of entertainment? None of the virtual novels or custom worlds?”
Alan shook his head. “No, I haven’t. Isn’t that what the Game is, your entertainment?”
“What!? No. The Game is… the Game is what I suppose you’d consider a job. No one spends their free time enjoying the Game. There’s so many other, better, things to do.”
“But isn’t that the best type of job, one you really enjoy doing?” Alan asked, smiling.
“I suppose. I can see why you’ve been able to log so many training hours, though, if you’ve been ignorant of all that the Game really has to offer. I thought you were a machine! This explains things. Once we’re done at the Academy, we must go shopping at the Marketplace, at the very least. I can’t imagine the state your Home is in.”
“Um, okay,” Alan said. Aurora nodded, then walked into the capsule room. Alan followed behind her.
Such activity will most likely be wasteful, resulting in loss of training time and credits, Eve sent. Many sources site entertainment within the Game to be highly addictive and should thus be avoided.
Shut up, Alan replied. He stepped into a capsule.
“Wow, this is nice,” Alan said, looking about what appeared to be the living room. It was nicely decorated, the walls and ceiling painted to match a dark blue night sky. A smattering of furniture was strewn about the room, and Alan found himself sitting next to Aurora. Though the whole situation felt a bit surreal to Alan, the overall effect of the room was calming. It was like sitting beneath the stars.
“I’m glad you like it,” Aurora said, smiling at him. Alan blushed, glancing up; he watched as a shooting star streaked by on the ceiling. Perhaps it wasn’t paint.
“Um, right. So what is it that you wanted to talk about?” Alan asked.
“Ah, I was the one who asked you over, wasn’t I?” Aurora said softly. She turned, looking at a wall.
“Tell me, Alan, how strong of a player do you think you are?” Aurora asked.
“Me? Well, honestly, I don’t think I’m that strong at all, you or Kitana would definitely beat me in a fight. Still, I was surprised to find the other day that I’m apparently already in the top 100,000 or so players from Earth.”
“Beat you in a fight?” Aurora repeated. “In a clear one on one duel, where I know your starting position, I suppose. Even then, though, I have the feeling you have been holding back. Enough about that, though, I’m not here to interrogate you about your abilities or anything like that. I just wanted to… Well, I guess I just wanted some advice.”
“Advice? From me? About what?” Alan asked.
“Well, how to become a better player, of course!” Aurora replied. “You were the first to complete the first Rogue trial in at least a couple years, and your training speed is astonishing.”
“Huh? How’d you figure out I completed it?”
“Well, you did disappear right before the trial started, and were the only rogue candidate not visibly present at the clearing. You also were returned to the Academy Center right after people were told someone had reached the center.”
“Well, sure, but it could’ve been any of the invisible participants that finished it, not necessarily me.”
“Any of the invisible participants?” Aurora asked. “What? How many others were there?”
“Um, three others that I detected. There could’ve been more,” Alan said after consulting with Eve.
“So eight, not including yourself?” Aurora asked. Alan nodded. “Well, I suppose that makes me feel slightly better.”
“Better? About what?” Alan asked.
“Don’t you see? No, it is clear you don’t… ” Aurora murmured. “Alan, do you know how long I’ve spent training, toiling away in virtual simulations instead of outside playing like other children? My entire life has been devoted to becoming the best possible player. Yet, here you are, with no training for the Game, achieving impossible results.
“The information that you’ve brought the guild on the Abyss Labyrinth, the map, do you realize how beneficial that was? I heard my mother talking about raising you to the rank of Knight! And here you are, already done with the exams and a Rogue Commendation under your belt.”
“Um, thanks,” Alan said, looking down at his lap. He paused, then looked up. “But, well, I think it really has been luck, you know? Like the challenges I’ve faced have been suited for the abilities I’ve gained thus far. And my class has really been the reason I’ve been able to train so quickly. I only finished that spider challenge because of the spider’s dependence on their web to detect intruders. I’m sure you would’ve done just as well in any other challenge.”
“Hmm… Maybe,” Aurora said. “So then, I guess you don’t have any game-breaking tips for me?”
“Um, no, not really,” Alan said. “Honestly, if anything, I think you’re the amazing one.” Aurora gave a half-smile. “No, really! I mean, your ability to lead, your amazing control of your powers, it’s breathtaking. Also, you clearly know the various social circles in the Game, and that’s what most of being a Rogue is really about, right? Figuring out other people, what they want and who they are, not sneaking past giant mutant spiders. And I’ve never been great in social situations, so, well…”
Aurora smiled, a genuine smile, Alan knew. Innocent and pure, it filled his heart with a strange feeling…
“Thank you,” Aurora said.
“Sure,” Alan said. “Just, one thing that occurs to me, feel free to ignore it, but, well, I think the one thing that has kept me motivated, kept me going strong, has been my enjoyment of the Game, you know? You just told me that you think of the Game as like a job, a task. I think you really need to enjoy what you do, to really become the best. It has to be more than a hobby or a job, it has to become a passion, your life.”
“Maybe… I’ll think about that,” Aurora said. “We should probably get back. Don’t get too far ahead of me, or I’ll never live it down, okay?”
“Okay,” Alan said, smiling.
Alan stood outside, looking about. Wilderness spread out in every direction; trees, grass and other forms of nature indistinguishable by Alan.
Gather 100,000 credits worth of resources. Right. Any ideas on how exactly to do that, Eve?
Uncertain. We could return to the arachnid colony and-
No. We are not going back there.
Very well, then I suggest exploring. We will hunt down any promising beasts and I will continually scan for any sort of precious metals or herbs that we may find. Based upon our initial jog outside, the area nearby the Student Center has been picked clean, so the further we get away the better. At the same time however a better worn trail would be significantly less dangerous than the unknowns, as we are still unaware what trials other, non-rogue players met with.
Hmm, maybe try to find the tracks of a single person, and follow that?
Eve quickly highlighted a path for Alan to follow. He activated his armor’s basic invisibility, then began jogging, wondering what he’d find.
An hour or so later, Alan found himself sweating profusely, panting as he followed the other person, whoever they were, into an arid, desert climate. Gone were the trees, with their bright green leaves and shade. In their place were rocks, lots of rocks. There was also a smattering of plants, but it was still surprising how quickly the climate changed.
Alan had yet to even see a glimpse of another living creature, and all Eve had found were a few medicinal herbs worth a couple hundred credits each. Maybe the other person was taking everything for themselves.
Is there anything you can do to make it cooler? Alan asked Eve.
Yes, but it would be a waste of energy. You are fine.
Alan certainly didn’t feel fine. His every breath was ragged, his throat dry like sandpaper. He kept stopping, taking sips of water, but his throat would turn bone dry a minute later.
But he persevered.
Alan heard the player he was following before he detected their presence. A few soft thuds sounded in the distance, and as Alan continued forwards the sound reverberated, growing with intensity. Eve’s best guess at the cause of the sound was a rock slide; it certainly sounded as though two rocks were being smashed together repeatedly.
A few small dots appeared on the barren horizon, and Alan immediately zoomed in. He found Ace, wearing his heavy power armor, trading blows with sand-colored predators that blended in with their surroundings.
Stone Wolves, Eve sent. Level 500 creatures highly resistant to almost all forms of physical attacks. The stones their bodies are made of are worth a fair bit as a building resource.
Alan felt a surge of energy as he began approaching the battle. As he came closer he saw that there were three wolves fighting Ace, all above 90% hp, taking turns to attack from various angles, darting in and out with deft agility.
Ace fought with dark grey power gauntlets pulsing with energy. Each time one of his fists connected with a wolf there would be a sudden boom, and the wolf would be blasted backwards with a giant cloud of dirt. But then the wolf would simply stand back up unharmed, missing a fraction of a percent of damage.
As Alan grew closer he could see Ace’s movements were slowing. Eve estimated he had 35% of his stamina and 60% shield energy remaining. Alan unholstered Orion’s Cores, taking one pistol in each hand.
Wait, Eve sent.
Why? Alan asked. He got no response, but waited.
The stone wolves, sensing Ace’s weakness, all charged in together. Ace’s turned and advanced at the nearest wolf. He swung a fist and it glowed red, striking a wolf on the bridge of its nose. The wolf crashed into ground with a resounding thud, its HP dropped to 70%. The other two wolves leapt at Ace’s back.
Now, Eve said, and Alan began firing. It was difficult, but Alan managed to control each pistol individually, striking the wolve’s heads at the same time. Alan hit one wolf’s eye, and it stumbled, HP fallen by 5%, but the other raced through the laser fire. The stone wolf leapt then clawed downwards, striking Ace, bringing him down to his knees. Ace’s shields fell to 40%, flickering as dust swirled about him.
Alan continued firing at the two stone wolves, but each hit did even less damage than Ace’s blows. Ace stood up with a small nod at Alan, then charged at the wolf he had previously struck. The wolf tried to get up, but Ace pummeled it back into the ground, unleashing a torrent of blows.
The two wolves began sprinting at Ace, then ran straight past him, towards Alan. They sensed easier prey.
Careful, Eve sent. A single blow will fully deplete our shields.
What!?Ace just took a solid blow and his shields only fell by 20%. And didn’t you say these wolves were supposed to be immune to physical damage?
Eve gave a mental shrug.
Sighing to himself, Alan fired at the advancing wolves, trying to score additional critical hits. The wolves simply continued charging, a few feet away. Their HP bars were still above 80%. They leapt at Alan, and Alan sidestepped diagonally in front of the right-hand wolf, narrowly dodging the wolf’s stone molars. He brought his two pistols right in front of the wolf’s eyes, then fired. The two lasers flashed forwards, striking the wolf’s pupils. It let out a yelp of pain, falling to the ground pawing at its eyes.
The other wolf turned, preparing to launch another attack at Alan. At this range, however, Alan was able to get off two more shots, blinding it. He then simply danced around the two blinded wolves, firing his lasers whenever they were off cooldown.
Sensing their imminent defeat, the two wolves let out mournful howls, then began running away. Unknowingly, they ran straight into Ace’s hands, and were met with finishing blows. Two messages popped up:
[x2 Bonus XP for slaying an enemy over 200 levels higher]
“Thanks for the help,” Ace called out, “but you know it wasn’t really needed.”
“It didn’t look that way to me,” Alan said.
Ace shrugged. “I still had some tricks up my sleeve.”
“So…” Alan said. An awkward silence followed.
“So, what?” Ace finally asked. “Why are you here? Following me?”
“What!? No! I just came here trying to gather resources to complete the quest, like you. My AI picked up tracks, and I followed them; I didn’t know they were yours.”
“So you just follow random tracks, see where they lead?”
Ace shook his head. “Whatever. Anyways, I can’t carry more than two stone wolves at a time, so you can have the third corpse. The Administrator at the Student Center buys them for around 5,000 credits each.”
“Oh, but, don’t the corpses, like, despawn?”
“If you don’t loot them, you can harvest bodies. Carrion feeders would get the one I couldn’t carry by the time I returned anyways.”
“I’ll take the third wolf then, thanks. By the way, actually, I’ve been wanting to ask you something…”
“Do you know the United World Government is doomed?” Alan asked.
Ace froze, he was in the middle of examining one of the wolf’s corpses. He then looked up sharply, staring at Alan, his lips pursed. Ace then slowly turned his head to look about, ensuring there was no one around them. He then stood up, opening his mouth—
“Actually, wait,” Alan said. “Before you say anything, let me make sure of something.”
Eve, activate Program1.
Alan closed his eyes, then opened them. The world itself, and his immediate surroundings, didn’t look much different. But the sky had changed; it was now a whirl of light for Alan, streaks of all colors of the rainbow rushing by overhead. And there was a little pinpoint of light in front of him, coming from Ace, a faint yellow beacon.
“Ace?” He asked, but Ace was backing away, adopting a combat stance.
“What are you doing Alan? Your eyes have turned silver and are all mechanical. Are you a cyborg?” Ace asked.
“What? No! I’m just checking for bugs, nothing more, and I think that you would like to know that you have an unkown device planted on the back of your leg!” Alan said.
Deactivate, he thought, and Eve stopped Program1.
Ace paused, seeming to calm down a bit once Alan’s eyes returned to normal. He reached behind him, feeling his legs.
“I think it’s inside your power armor, not on the surface,” Alan said after Ace found nothing. Ace frowned, but chose to trust Alan.
“No funny business as I take off my power armor, okay?”
“Sure,” Alan said. “Here, I’ll even disarm myself.” He threw Orion’s Cores at Ace’s feet. Ace stared at the pistols, then shook his head.
“That was foolish of you, never leave yourself unarmed.” Ace kicked the weapons back, and began taking his power armor off. Alan shrugged, picking up his weapons. Eve would have warned him if throwing his weapons a way was a bad idea.
It was a bad idea, but it wouldn’t put you in significantly more danger, Eve sent.
Alan ignored Eve, trying to remember the beacon of light he saw. After a bit of rummaging about with Ace, they finally found the source. A small metal button, found behind padding within Ace’s armor.
“A listening device,” Ace murmured. He then crushed it in his fingers.
“Wait, I can maybe track back to who’s listening,” Alan cried out, but it was too late. The device was destroyed.
“Oh, how would you have done that?” Ace asked. “How did you even know the device was there?”
“I mean, umm, with the right equipment, I could,” Alan said. “And I found it with my eyes; they basically just scan for hidden devices.”
Program1 does much more than that, Eve sent.
Yes, but Ace doesn’t need to know that, does he? Alan sent back. Phantom’s invention still amazed him. The concept seemed sound, but Alan still had no idea how it all worked. Somehow, Program1 allowed Alan to see all communication signals. It opened up Alan’s eyes to the entire electromagnetic spectrum and deciphered everything, from gamma rays to radio waves. It then showed Alan anything significant on top of the normal, visible spectrum of light. When Alan had first heard that, he was semi-impressed. But then he had thought about it more, and was blown away.
It turned out these communication signals were used by almost everything, as Program1 was open to all electrical signals. Not only did that include messages that players sent, but any sort of device within the world that was interacting with space in any way that caused variation would cause electrical signals of some sort. And Program1 showed them. Simply put, Alan could scan for much more than listening devices; he could scan for everything. Alan had a feeling that his Detect Presence ability worked in a similar way, but the ability only detected thinking things, at least as far as he was aware.
Unfortunately, while Program1 could be used to detect all these signals, they couldn’t be deciphered, or at least that was what Phantom thought. Eve thought differently, but she and Alan had failed to make any progress on that front. Program1 also cost far more energy to keep active, five a second, and Alan only had an energy pool of 400.
“So, then, I guess we can talk now,” Ace said after he put his armor back on.
“Um, right, yeah, there’s nothing else listening on right now,” Alan said.
“Okay, so let me skip ahead and guess what you’re about to say. The United world Government is doomed, it’s going to go bankrupt, the Haxlardians will take over everything, we need to jump ship. Does that sound about right?” Ace asked, stepping forwards, close to Alan.
“Um, yeah,” Alan said. He backed away a bit, looking down, then forced himself to look back up, into Ace’s eyes.
“Well, it might surprise you, but among the higher divisions, this is a well known fact. We are going bankrupt. But, you see, we aren’t bankrupt yet. We still have a chance to bring this around, and that’s all we really need. This will mean bringing production up, increasing nearly every player in the United World’s Government efficiency up 700%. But it can be done.”
“What? That’s insane,” Alan said. “There’s no way you can do that.”
“Yes, I agree with you,” Ace said. Alan stared at Ace, confused. He gave a lopsided smile. “So there are other missions to make money, to explore other options. I can’t tell you anything more… but there is a chance. I’m exploring one.”
“Don’t you think people deserve to know, though, that the numbers are showing that the UWG is going to go bankrupt within years?” Alan asked.
“Show the numbers? Since when did people believe in numbers? People don’t trust numbers; they don’t understand them, and won’t follow them. The writing was on the wall about global warming and finite resources, but did people care? No. Projections and mathematical models are like prophecies. Peoples see them, they feel informed by them, but they never truly believe in them, and those that do believe strongly enough are labeled as fanatics. So you can tell everyone that the models say the UWG is doomed, and a few will panic, will jump ship, but most will just continue on. Because what else can they do?
“At least, that’s my take on it,” Ace said. “My superiors feel differently, so the this information is on lockdown. Personally, though, I could care less if the information was leaked…”
“Um, right,” Alan said. “I would rather not piss off an entire government, though. Especially one that still has the resources of an entire solar system.”
Ace shrugged. “Your choice.”
“But, like, what about other options?” Alan asked. “Like, what about the Legion of Man?”
“Ha!” Ace let out a hearty laugh, then looked over at Alan, who was staring at him open-mouthed. “Wait, were you serious? The group is a joke. It’s clear that their leaders have Haxlard backing, and are just being used to drain UWG resources faster.”
“Oh,” was all Alan said.
“Right, if you want to have any chance at helping out Earth, I suggest you get strong, and fast. A war is coming,” Ace said.
“What?” Alan asked, tensing up, suddenly worried. If Ace was part of the hidden war for Earth…
“Let’s just say that the UWG will declare war on the Haxlardian Empire before they default on any loans,” Ace said. “You know debt has specials rules once a war starts, right?”
“Yeah, sure, if the debtor defeats their debt holder the debt can be forgiven. But a single solar system with one inhabited planet against an entire empire that hasn’t lost a full scale war in the history of the Game? The UWG will be crushed, and then put in even greater debt for losing a war,” Alan said.
Ace shrugged. “You might be surprised who might join such a war. Anyways, is there anything else you wanted to talk about, or was that it?”
‘Um, that was it,” Alan said.
“Then let’s move out! Daylight is a-burning,” Ace said. He picked up two stone wolf corpses, then started jogging back to the Academic Center.
Alan stopped to pick up the third stone wolf corpse. He lifted it up, then staggered, his legs almost giving way.
Remember, the stone wolves are made out of a stone-like substance, and thus weight an average of about 100 kg, Eve sent.
That’s over 200 pounds! How is Ace carrying two of them so easily?
He is stronger than you. Now hurry up and catch up with him, this will be good training.
Groaning, Alan began running after Ace. He was immediately reminded how hot it was outside. The sun steadily beat down as Alan ran, his muscles aching. He jogged forward, unable to concentrate on anything but his muscles, the pain each step caused. The stone wolf grew heavier, weighing down on Alan’s shoulders like a slab of rock.
Then, slowly, the heat began to get to Alan. He felt hot, too hot, his throat completely dry. Unable to take the pain anymore, Alan threw the stone wolf’s corpse to the ground. He collapsed to the floor, all of his energy vanishing.
Weakly, Alan took out his water bottle.
Stop, Eve sent. Get back up, and get back to running. Do not drink the water, it will likely cause you additional pain from cramps.
Alan stared at the water bottle that he had just raised to his lips.
I can’t drink? He sent.
You should not. You can rinse the water in your mouth and spit it out, but don’t swallow.
Alan did so, and it momentarily relieved his mind. But his throat still felt so dry.
“Are you alright?” Ace called out.
“Yeah, just taking a break,” Alan replied. Ace nodded, setting the two corpses down.
“Alright, I wouldn’t mind a breather,” Ace said.
Get up, you can keep going, run harder and faster.
No, I don’t think I can, Alan sent back. His mind felt weak, delirious, the heat was simply too much. Everything seemed like a haze, and a light headache was starting to form.
Yes, you can, Eve sent back. Your body isn’t even functioning at 60% of capacity, you can do much better, but are letting pain rule you. You are weak. Get up, and run. Or abandon the idea of becoming the best.
But, I’m just, so tired…
GET UP, AND GO.
Alan struggled to his feet, anger rising. He lifted up the wolf, and let out a silent scream.
FINE, IF YOU WANT ME TO GO, I’LL GO, he yelled at Eve. He began sprinting forwards with all his might, catching back up to Ace in seconds.
“Let’s go,” he said to Ace, continuing forwards without looking back.
Every step felt strangely light as Alan rushed forwards headfirst, back into the dense, humid jungle. But then the adrenaline high faded, leaving Alan feeling even weaker than before. Still he jogged forwards, putting one forward in front of another. It was just so hot…
STOP, Eve suddenly yelled. Alan did so, thankful for a reason to stop moving forward. His mind felt blank, there was nothing but overbearing heat. Then suddenly, there was a rush of cool air filtering through his power armor. It was nice, but Alan still felt hot, so hot. Alan collapsed onto the floor, and lost consciousness.
When Alan opened his eyes, he found himself back in the Student Center, lying on a bed. He still felt weak.
What happened? Alan asked.
You suffered from a heat stroke, Eve replied.
What? How did that happen? Shouldn’t you have detected it?
Strenuous activity in the heat can cause exertional heat stroke, which can happen even in the young and healthy. You were mentioning signs associated with the illness.
Yes I was, which is why I wanted a break. Wait, this is all your fault. The only reason it was so hot was because you wanted to preserve shield energy.
Well, that seemed optimal in the case that a battle might occur, and would help train you. All of my calculations indicate that you should not have suffered from heat stroke given the amount of exertion you performed and heat in the suit. My conclusion is that your heightened mental state caused you to use up for more energy in a small amount of time, leading us to our current predicament.
MY heightened mental state!? If I recall correctly, the only reason I was so angry was because YOU wouldn’t let me rest. I clearly needed that rest, too!
There was a pause.
Yes, Eve finally sent. I apologize for not taking this possibility into account, and will strive to take such human limitations into account in the future.
Thanks, I guess, Alan sent. So, how did I get back here?
After you collapsed, Ace dropped one of the stone wolves, and carried you back instead. He said it was to pay back his debt for finding the bug in his power armor. The two stone wolf corpses have likely been scavenged by now. Additionally, due to your heat stroke, it is recommended that you not exert yourself physically for a day or two.
Oh, Alan said. His body did feel fairly weak. So what do we do then?
I believe I should teach you what was in the tests, with the hope that you can better communicate the status of your mind and desires. While I am able to access the status of your body through various physical indicators, I am unable to reach into your mind, truly feel life as you experience it. Thus, we require better communication, and to communicate, you need to know the proper words…
Alright, Alan said, laying down, looking up at the ceiling. Let’s get to it.
Two days later, Alan stood outside the Student Center, feeling much better. He also had a better grasp of mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. He had learned far more than he thought possible in such a short time span, and felt happy about the progress he made. The calculations Eve constantly ran in the background of his head made slightly more sense now… or at least he recognized a few more variables. That was progress.
Where to now? Alan asked Eve.
I believe you know the answer, Eve replied.
Alan sighed. He hated bugs.
But, what if they’re in an uproar after what happened? Alan asked. Won’t they have perhaps improved their defenses? Also, after receiving that stupid prize, is there even anything else of value there?
Assuredly there is plenty of value. However, I believe there is a fairly easy and lucrative resource within the arachnid colony.
And what’s that?
Do you remember the cavern with glistening lake?
Yeah, it glowed like it was full of energy.
Well, I believe that is a special type of enhanced water, capable of replenishing or even permanently increasing a player’s psionic energy.
Like a mana well.
Yes. A few containers worth of the liquid will likely be worth 100,000 credits.
What? Why did you have me go out and search for resources, if it was as easy as sneaking into someplace we’ve snuck into before and taking some water!
I wanted to further explore the planet, with the hopes of finding something particularly valuable. Additionally, we are likely being tested on our actions, and I wanted to prove that you were capable of great feats of strength. Now, however, we have fallen slightly behind. It would be best to finish this gathering resources task as soon as possible, perhaps even selling—
No. We aren’t talking about that stupid prize, and since we decided not to sell it then, we aren’t selling it now.
Alan sighed, then acquired a few containers to hold the liquid. Then, he managed to sneak into the insect’s underground base, just as easily as he had the first time. He filled up the two containers and, with a bit more trouble, made his way back to the Student Center.
He handed over the two containers full of water.
Thank you, Traveler. We will provide 20,000 credits for the Psionic Elixir (Rank C).
Really? Alan asked.
Yes. Alan sighed.
Five trips and twelve hours later, Alan was back at the Student Center. He chose to keep one container full of elixir for himself, even though it had no effect on his own special brand of energy, cyber cognizance energy. The other he gave to Aurora, who was finishing up with her exams, to share with Kitana and Sidestep. It was time to leave this planet.
Are you sure you wish to leave Incipe? the Administrator asked.
Yes, yes I am, Alan said.
Very well, please proceed to the capsule room and return to your Home.
Return to my home? Why?
You will be teleported to your next destination.
Alan proceeded Home. Once there, he found one teleportation destination available to him, without a picture. It was titled: Capsule Room, Castle 1B, Aenigma, Academy System. Alan hit the teleport button.
Alan stepped out of the capsule, looking around. The room looked like an ordinary capsule room, two rows of four grey ovals filled the room. A single Administrator stood in a corner of the room. Alan made a quick check of his surroundings, and detected nobody.
Activating his power armor’s basic invisibility, Alan walked over to the door. He reached to open it.
A hand grabbed his wrist, appearing out of thin air. Despite the fact that this person was literally holding his hand, Alan could not detect their presence.
“Greetings, Traveler,” a disembodied male voice said. “I am Teacher Cerberus, and I will be your Teacher. I will accept the payment of all your ability points.”
“You will be my Teacher?” Alan asked.
“Yes, I will be,” the voice answered.
“And why is that?” Alan asked.
“Because, now that I have laid my claim, no other Teacher within the system will teach you unless I allow it. I am also the only Machine Lord Teacher in the system.”
“And you decided to teach me? Just like that?”
“Yes, after observing your actions on Incipe, I decided that I would teach you. You certainly need it.”
“Oh, is that so?”
“Yes, it is. You are trying too hard to learn and fight like other players. You are not them.”
“Um, okay,” Alan said, still bothered by this disembodied hand and voice.
The voice seemed to grow incensed, and began speaking with increasing vigor.
“Most would-be heroes and warriors learn by instinct. They swing a sword a thousand times, get used to the feel, the rhythm. They do what feels right; you will not.”
“No, for you will learn to act by calculation, not instinct. You will deal killing blows not because you’ve practiced the action a thousand times before but because you know the likelihood of everything and anything that could be taken into account. Everything, from the best angle of attack to the properties of your weapon to the environment to the exact composition of metals of your enemy’s armor will be calculated. By you.”
“By me,” Alan repeated.
“You will learn not to attack with all your might, but the right amount of force such that no energy is wasted. You will learn not to act based upon what seems right but what is right, the most efficient course of action possible.”
“Um, this sounds great and all, but isn’t there a reason soldiers train on instinct?”
“Yes. They are only human. But you are in a new universe, Traveler, with new rules. Do you think any human’s reaction speed is faster than yours with hypercognition activated? Of virtually any advanced mech?”
“Okay, but then why don’t people go around sending out armies of mechs?”
“Price. The energy and cost of outfitting a single mech would be equivalent to a company of a hundred soldiers. They also don’t respawn, don’t level up and require considerable upkeep. But you will likely face many in the future.”
“What, so my instinct to shoot an enemy is wrong?” Alan asked.
“Let me give you an example. Your initial instinct would be to shoot any enemy in the head, correct? To destroy their brain? Well, there are hundreds of reasons not to shoot certain enemies in the head, ranging from specialized shields to alien physiology. You will learn when to aim for the head, and what part of the head to aim for. You will become a true Machine Lord, not some rogue playing at greatness.”
“Okay, you keep saying you, but don’t you mean me and Eve, my AI?”
“No. I mean you.”