Alan paused, thinking over what he’d been told.
“I think you may have the wrong player,” he said. “Why should I trust a disembodied hand claiming to be a person I’ve heard nothing about?”
A soft chuckle rang out. “Check your quests.”
Alan slowly opened up his quest screen, watching the hand for any sudden movements. The corrupted quest had rearranged itself. It now read:
Accept Cerberus’s offer, idiot.
Penalty for failure: Expulsion from the Academy.
Rewards: Training and ???.]
“Oh, um, well put that way I accept,” Alan said.
“Good, we can start moving on.”
Three new messages appeared:
[477 Skill points deducted.]
Earn 10 Rogue Commendations. You may earn commendations by completing Rogue Challenges. Two commendations of another class type may be exchanged for one Rogue Commendation. Once you have acquired these commendations and the third phase of your education, you may proceed to Volta.
Reward: With Phase Three completion, access to Volta granted.]
Master two skills.
Reward: With Phase Two completion, access to Volta granted.]
“Um, shouldn’t I need to finish Phase Two before Phase Three?” Alan asked.
“Sure, but who cares about something as inconsequential as sequence? Follow me.” The doors opened and the hand began floating along.
“You’re not going to show yourself?” Alan asked. He looked out the doors to see a stone corridor that reminded him of a medieval dungeon, though the hallway was lit with luminescent light strips that glowed a dark blue rather than flaming torches.
“Nope,” Cerberus answered.
Alan walked a few steps into the corridor then leapt forwards, reaching out for the arm that was connected to the hand. He found thin air.
What? Alan asked. Eve had no answer.
Another chuckle sounded, coming from who knew where.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to discover who I am at some later time. It won’t be so easy as peeking behind a curtain of invisibility either,” Cerberus said, the floating hand beginning to pick up speed as it floated along.
“Okay, can you tell me about these Rogue Challenges then?” Alan asked, jogging to keep up with the hand. He passed by a number of intersections, each with different colors of light illuminating their path. It seemed clear that they were following the dark blue strips of light. Occasionally an additional light strip or two would join the dark blue, running in parallel, but the other lights soon branched off along a different path. A few paths were dark. Alan had a feeling that he’d have to figure his own way out of this place. Eve began building a color-coded mental map.
“Nope,” Cerberus said. “You’ll discover them sooner or later. If this is too difficult you can always go over to the Warrior planet and do the kill X, gather Y challenges.”
“For a teacher you aren’t very helpful.”
“Exactly. I’m here to teach, not help. And we’re here,” Cerberus said from somewhere. The dark blue lights came to an end in front of a round metal door with a glowing blue dot at its center. Alan wondered what he’d find if he followed the lights backwards. He approached the doorway and a message appeared on it:
[Customized Obstacle Course
Designed by Cerberus
Time to complete: Indefinite]
The blue dot expanded until it covered the entire metal door, making it look like a portal to another dimension. Alan hesitated before going in.
“What is the most important resource?” Cerberus asked.
“Time,” Cerberus said, “and you are wasting it.” The hand disappeared, and before Alan could react a strong force pushed him towards the doorway. He stumbled forwards, through the portal, and found himself standing in the center of a familiar training room. It was a near replica of the training room at the Black Rose headquarters, the size of a large gymnasium rather than a small classroom, the floor an omnidirectional treadmill.
Four doorways appeared in the middle of the walls. One was a blue portal Alan assumed would take him back. To Alan’s left a forest clearing could be seen, an urban environment to the right, and darkness ahead.
“Lesson one: Control,” Cerberus said, his voice echoing off the walls. “Proceed to the right.” There was no sign of the hand anywhere.
Alan took a step to the right, and a laser grid appeared, an array of crisscrossing red rays of light that covered the room. The grid of lasers grew denser as one approached any of the walls. An outline appeared and Alan followed it, jumping over a laser beam, narrowly avoiding a second beam when he landed.
Eve began to show a pathway to the right door. Then the laser grid started shifting, moving about in random directions that made Eve’s path obsolete. Alan ducked under an incoming beam.
“Precision is key, every movement must be exact,” Cerberus said. “The best laid plans go to waste when they cannot be executed perfectly.”
The floor began moving about randomly as well, causing Alan to devote much of his attention on simply maintaining balance. All attempts to make it over to the right doorway disappeared as it took all of Alan’s effort to simply avoid the lasers. Eve’s shadow outlines became flickering chaos as each one was suddenly reset due to the random nature of the ever shifting laser grid and floor.
“Assuming plans can even be made,” Cerberus said. It sounded like he was enjoying himself.
Eve, stop providing an outline when there’s too much randomness, they’re giving me a headache, Alan sent.
Very well. The outlines disappeared. With a sigh of relief, Alan stepped to the right of an incoming beam, only to be struck from behind. There was a brief flash of pain, a bright flash of light, and Alan found himself standing at the center of the room once more. The lasers and floor stopped moving, apparently only starting once Alan did.
“The problem with most tools is they become handicaps,” Cerberus said. “Give a child a calculator and they forget how to add. Give a person an AI and they forget how to think.”
Alan moved to the right, trying to regain his sense of spatial awareness now that he no longer had the familiar outline to follow. It was a challenge. Alan found himself moving into a beam of light, resetting the room, time and time again.
“Yet we would likely still be crawling in the mud without these tools. The key, then, is to know how to best use them,” Cerberus said.
“So how am I supposed to use Eve then?” Alan shouted as he narrowly evaded two laser beams.
“Better,” Cerberus answered. “You have been using Eve to show you what to do. That problem is hard, requiring much calculation; I’m surprised Eve has been managing as well as she has.”
“Well, what should she being doing instead?” Alan asked. Distracted, he was hit by a laser and let out a yelp of pain. He stood still so the laser grid wouldn’t start shifting.
“Showing what is,” Cerberus answered. “And no idleness, constant activity is a Machine Lord’s greatest strength. There is always more to learn, more to practice.” The laser grid began moving about. Caught off guard Alan was quickly struck by a laser. When Alan restarted everything was already in motion. Alan swore as he avoided the nearby lasers.
“Well, things have been going pretty well thus far,” Alan said.
“You’ve faced dumb, low level opponents in non-chaotic environments,” Cerberus said. “Taking the heuristically optimal path is easy to anticipate. And even then you are unnecessarily limiting yourself; there will always be lag between what Eve tells you to do and what you can do.”
“So what then?” Alan asked.
“How many times must I repeat myself you imbecilic time-wasting ape,” Cerberus said. “You are having Eve evaluate what she thinks is best, trying to take everything into account. Not only is this ineffective planning, but it is slow. You need to start making active decisions. Make your own choices.
“You may have Eve run background checks to make sure you don’t make a colossal mistake, but optimization is key. Act on your own based on information she provides.”
A slow realization began to come over Alan, or perhaps Eve, as he continued to dodge lasers. Eve began constructing a model of the present, of all the variables at hand. Not a simple picture, but a snapshot of reality, the equations of motion and gravity and energy woven into the model. Alan was amazed by his sudden awareness of where everything was, of its speed and direction, the model more detailed than any outline had ever been. There was so much information.
Concentrating, Alan focused on his immediate surroundings. He began moving towards the exit, finally making progress. The model was amazing, showing him how much force he should exert to counteract the shifting floor, where each laser was. Each next step was obvious to Alan, the way ahead clear as day. He didn’t need an outline to show him what to do.
As Alan approached the exit he learned what Cerberus meant by a lesson in control. The number of lasers that began to block his path meant that he didn’t have time to process it all, and after a few attempts he activated hypercognition.
“Remarkable,” Cerberus said, his voice sounding the same as ever despite the fact that Alan was experiencing time at a fraction of its speed.
“Give every task I assign you your all, hold nothing back.”
He tried and failed. Once, twice, a hundred times. A message appeared, and then another shortly after. Alan ignored them, intent on making his way through the laser grid. After a remarkable run of near misses he finally made it through, a final laser moving out of his way.
Alan found himself standing before massive apartment buildings, each an identical metal structure of hundreds of units over ten stories high. His Revenant Power Armor had been replaced with a basic set, his weapon with a standard laser rifle. He checked the messages.
[Your awareness of surroundings have improved, you have gained a new sub-ability of Enhanced Control, Enhanced Awareness! +5 Intelligence +5 Perception]
[Enhanced Control (Intermediate) has advanced to Enhanced Control (Advanced)!]
“Barely passable control, but we have far too little time,” Cerberus said. “Continue to train. One of the perks of being a Machine Lord is the ability to multitask. Maintain awareness of the present while planning for the future, accounting for the actions of the past. Now clear a building.”
Alan looked left and right, there were dozens of buildings.
“Eradicate all opposition.”
Alan shrugged, activated Hypercognition, and walked into the closest building on his right.
A dozen Haxlards stood within a spacious lobby area, raising their weapons as Alan entered. A sentry turret at the center of the room swiveled towards Alan as he began firing at the Haxlards. He took out two Haxlards before they began firing back.
Alan dived behind a piece of furniture as he took out another three Haxlards with multiple headshots, only taking a single glancing hit before—
Alan froze. He found himself standing back in the middle of the apartment buildings. The scenario had been reset.
“What?” He asked aloud.
“A guard hit a security alarm,” Cerberus answered. “You should have been paying more attention.”
“To what? I was there for a few seconds—”
“Which is far more time than you will ever be given in combat. Divide your mind to focus on both the present and the future.”
“Divide my mind? I can rapidly switch thoughts but I can’t think two things at the same time.”
“You can’t? It’s trivial,” Cerberus said.
Perhaps the Machine Lord class quest must be completed, Eve sent, bringing up the quest.
[Scoping out the Competition:
6/10 Major players met
Bonus: 1/10 Objectives found]
(Author’s note: I forgot to update this quest after the Lord of the Abyss and Cerberus introduced themselves.)
“Does my class quest need to be completed?” Alan asked.
There was a pause.
A flash of light later Alan found himself pushed out of the blue portal, back into the hallway.
“Come back once you’ve finished the quest. I’ve sent you a list of major players in the Academy System, ordered by proximity. Most of them are teachers too so you might as well not waste time and learn something from them while you’re at it,” Cerberus said.
Alan checked his messages, there was a list of 54 names with rough directions and basic descriptions. The first line read: Wraith, Hacker, Revenant ties. Follow the neon purple light.
As Alan had predicted if he followed the dark blue light strips backwards it seemed to lead him to a more central hub area, the number of colors lining the wall growing until there was a rainbow of color covering the walls and ceiling. There was dark purple, almost black light, and a pale lilac glow, but no neon purple.
Voices began to rise in the distance, a commotion of yelling and excitement. Alan activated his basic invisibility as another student sprinted around the corner. It wasn’t anyone that he recognized, but Alan remained vigilant nonetheless.
Alan scanned the lights again. Maybe he’d miss something. But no, the entire ceiling and wall was covered. In fact, it seemed like he’d reached the main corridor, there was no space for another light…
Alan blinked, then began cycling through the electromagnetic spectrum. Everything seemed normal until he switched to ultraviolet. There was a solid, bright neon light on the floor. Alan turned around and followed the light, almost running into another player passing by. Everybody seemed to be in a hurry, but he could always make it back to the hub area later. People were probably just worried about the 100 day term limit they had at the Academy.
Following the ultraviolet light Alan made his way down one of the unlighted corridors he had passed by earlier. He made sure to stay on top of the light, never straying, avoiding who knew how many traps. After around 15 minutes light appeared, leaking out of a room. Alan ran up to the doorway and looked in.
Adjusting his eyes to the influx of light, Alan saw what he could only describe as a massive man cave. Two massive walls were covered by about a hundred displays. On one side, games of every sport that Alan could imagine were being broadcast, on the other, every esport that he could think of was shown. Posters of holostories, masterfully crafted models of the Enforcer fleet, a small shrine to a goddess, a decent sized snack bar and a liquor cabinet decorated the cavernous area.
The center of the room was devoted to one massive screen the size of a movie theatre, broadcasting an arena death match in-game. Splayed out on a couch, wearing a helmet with wires that extended into the massive screen, was a short human-looking figure.
Watching the screen in front of them, the figure called out, “Who are you?”
“Um, I’m Alan, my teacher Cerberus thought you might be able to help me.”
“Cerberus is but a loyal dog. He’ll teach you the fundamentals, but no more.”
“So you teach me,” Alan said. “Also, just to make sure, you are Wraith right?”
The figure leap out of their seat, removing the helmet to reveal a middling aged man. The screen turned dark. He turned to face Alan. “Wraith I am.”
A message popped up:
[Scoping out the Competition:
7/10 Major players met
Bonus: 1/10 Objectives found]
“Do you even know what hacking in the Game is?” Wraith asked.
“It’s like chess,” Alan said, thinking about what Eve had told him.
“Sure, if each player had a couple thousand pieces of a couple hundred variations, any number of players could take part, everyone moved their pieces all at once, and you changed the rules of the game all the time, sure, hacking is just like chess.”
“Okay, so more like a real time strategy game, with a base to defend and units to attack with,” Alan said.
“Sure, except there is no upkeep, no gathering of resources, and units are programs that can be corrupted and lost permanently,” Wraith said. He pointed at another helmet laying on a table. “Let’s do a demonstration.”
Alan put on the helmet, a grey screen encompassing all his vision. He moved his hands about. It was like he had been teleported to another plane of existence; rather than simply being shown a world, he was now inside it. Unlike when he was normally within the Game, where he had his body and moved and looked about normally, he now had a sort of top down, all encompassing view that he could zoom in and out of. The experience was quite disorienting.
Alan’s perspective shifted, and he found himself hovering above a green control point, behind a wall of stone that had a line of what looked like knights defending it.
“Here’s a basic scenario. Walls, like pawns, simply stand there waiting to be taken. Swordsmen, like slightly better pawns, able to attack a bit and move about.”
“Wait, isn’t hacking like programming and using the command line to do what you want on a computer?” Alan asked.
“Hah! Maybe on the world you’re from things are still simple enough that you can manage to work with typing, but what you consider computers or programs have evolved to the point that the only way us dumb bags of flesh can begin to decipher the mess of data effectively is with visual representations like this,” Wraith said. “Plus, it’s fun.”
Alan paused. Okay, so hacking, which as far as he could tell was the Game’s equivalent to lock picking, turned out to be a real time strategy minigame. He could work with that.
“So I just order the swordsmen about.”
“Sure, try it out.”
Alan directed all the swordsmen to exit out a gate, that slowly opened at his command. His vision was still mostly filled with a dense grey fog that extended out in every direction, but as his swordsmen, his units, began advancing forward they gave him more vision. A wall was sighted in the distance. Alan ordered his swordsmen to attack the wall. They slowly walked over to the wall, and began banging against it with metal swords.
A whistling sound was heard, and Alan looked up. Something was falling from the sky; he couldn’t quite get a good look at it before—
BOOM. There was a massive explosion, and his swordsmen were nuked out of existence, a smoldering blast zone was all that was left. The wall, which slowly faded from view, looked as pristine as ever.
“And there you have it,” Wraith said. “Despite how weak those swordsmen programs might have seemed to you, they’d still have probably sold for around a hundred credits each. That is, if you were actually hacking. Still, I don’t think there is anything quite like real experience, so let’s try a real test. I’ll probe your defense, and you can try mine if you want. Try not to kill any programs, just maim.”
Alan’s vision turned black, and felt his consciousness return to his body in-game. He moved his hands to lift off the helmet, and looked over at Wraith. Wraith calmly stared back at him.
“Are you going to start this, or should I?”
“Uh, I will,” Alan stammered. He reached out with his mind, detecting Wraith’s presence like an AI, just slightly denser. Once Alan formed a mental connection, he heard Wraith in his mind.
Let’s keep an open communication channel, but no attacks using it, Wraith sent.
Alright, I’m starting the hack, Alan sent.
He focused on his ability Mental Hack, and found himself transported to the center of a massive army base, once more viewing everything from above like a god. He looked at his mind’s defense, and felt rather impressed. Rather than simple walls, his base was defended by two layers of force fields, a few bunkers, and laser turrets. The outer shield, his overall mental resistance, covered the entire compound, while the smaller shield covered his main control point, his mind. This shield felt far stronger, and Alan knew that it was a result of his Mind Defense ability. There were two, smaller control points also in his base, one for his armor, the other for his weapon. Each had a bunker of their own. If someone was able to breach either one they’d be able to mess with his equipment.
And then Alan saw Eve. She was an angel, a valkyrie wielding twin, glowing blades, flying above the base, moving about the base as fast as thought and constantly scanning for signs of an enemy. Whichever direction she looked in immediately cleared the fog of war, allowing Alan to get his first glimpse of Wraith’s mind, a large dome wall. A faint, underground tunnel connected Alan’s base to Wraith’s, their mental connection.
There was a shift in Wraith’s base that Eve immediately picked up on. A small drone emerged from the top of the metal dome, flying toward Alan’s base. As soon as it reached the outer shield Eve appeared beside it and cut its motors, causing it fall to the ground and break into pieces.
And now you should see the unfair advantages Machine Lords receive, Wraith sent. Your AI is a powerful program that can be tasked with automated attack and defense, leaving you to effectively do what you want. An AI can hack while you fight in real life, disabling an opponent’s equipment or gathering data. Based on my scan I think your defenses are solid enough that nothing short of a small army is getting through.
Alan thought back to the entity that had provided him with the Mental Hack and Mind Defense abilities. The programs that it had sent his mind had interpreted as massive starships; he still had a ways to go to defend against attacks like that.
Alright, can I try an attack then? Alan asked.
Knock yourself out. I won’t even try to fight back, just try to breach the wall. If you manage it I’ll give you a commendation, Wraith sent.
Go for it Eve, Alan sent.
Affirmative. Eve darted forward, and began rapidly striking at the metal wall with a blur of blows. If he activated hypercognition, which Alan knew would be crucial in future hacks, he would probably be able to follow them, but Alan didn’t feel like showing off this trump card to Wraith. A minute later after no progress, Alan had Eve stop.
Are we done, can I get back to the match? Wraith sent.
Let me try one more thing, Alan replied.
He focusing on a tiny section of the wall, enough for a peephole, and tried to will it out of existence. He felt reality began to give a bit, some greater underlying presence forming a connection with his mind. His computational energy began draining rapidly, 100 gone in a second.
STOP, Wraith sent.
Why, do you admit defeat? Are my abilities too strong?
No, your abilities are illegal. Banned. Red flagged. The worst kind of foul. That is not a hacking ability, but an ability that changes the very nature of the game. If any Administrator finds that you’re messing with the underlying structure of the Game, you’ll be blacklisted faster than a ref reports an offense.
Blacklisted? Alan asked.
No, I’ve taught you enough, I’ll give you your commendation. If you want to buy legal attack programs come back with marks and ability points. Go ask Cerberus, or Phantom, if you want to know more blacklisting. Oh, and remind Phantom that he owes me two bottles of Haxlardian whiskey!
Wraith ended the connection, took out a Rogue Commendation, tossed it to Alan, put on the helmet, and then proceeded to ignore Alan, focusing on the match that once again appeared on the screen. It looked to be close to over, both fighters bleeding from numerous wounds.
He knows Phantom? Alan wondered, pocketing the commendation. Two down, eight to go.
Really? You don’t see the connection? Eve asked.
Well… Eve said, talking slowly like she was educating a young child, Wraith is an Erudite. He is tied to the Revenants. Revenant. Wraith. Phantom. See a theme here?
Hey, I didn’t know he was an Erudite, and I thought the names were coincidental…
I highly doubt that.
Alan nodded, then proceeded back to the hub, where all the noise had been coming from. None of the other major players on Cerberus’s list were on Aenigma, and were instead spread throughout other Academy worlds.
As Alan stepped into Aenigma’s hub area, a lounge filled with rogue students watching various screens there was a sudden deafening roar of cheers and screams of anguish. Alan noticed a large number marks and items changing hands as the energy in the room increased, becoming almost palpable. A message popped up:
[A new Rogue Challenge has started!]
[ Another Game of Assassins:
Kill your target without being killed in turn! After killing your target, their target becomes yours.
Hunted by: ???
Rewards: 1 Rogue Commendation for each undetected target assassination
1 Rogue Commendation to the Assassin with the most kills
3 Rogue Commendations to the last Assassin standing, final two challengers will be teleported to a randomized death match arena]