Alan awoke with a major headache; someone was shaking him awake. He opened his eyes and saw Eve, a beautiful raven-haired angel, wielding twin blades. She was covered in ash, but was quite possibly the prettiest being Alan had ever seen.
A description popped up as Alan stared at her:
[Eve, Rank C AI.
Attack rank: D. Twin blades, standard deletion equipment.
Defense rank: ???. Protected by unknown armor, core located within Alan’s mind at unknown location.
Movement rank: B. Highly agile with the aid of unique angel wing software.
Estimated Attack: 250 damage/sec.
Estimated Defense: 300 armor.
Estimated Health: 700 hp.
Estimated Movement: 9.
Special Abilities: ???]
“Get up. A handful of bunnies survived, and have already begun repopulating. If something isn’t done soon they’ll be back to their old numbers in hours,” she said. Her voice was like music to Alan’s ear, a perfect cadence that—
She kicked Alan. Hard. “I said get up.”
Groaning, holding his hurting head, Alan stood up, looking around. He had fallen unconscious near the edge of the army base, as far away from the fire as he could get. Everything was covered in a thick layer of ash, the burned remains of whatever the bunny virus was. Still, Alan could see small forms hopping around, already beginning to repopulate. Once more a description appeared:
[Bunny, Rank D Virus.
Non-existent attack and defense.
Health: 15 hp.
Special Ability: Repopulate.]
Wondering what had happened, Alan checked his message log:
[Unknown augmentations have been made to the Machine Lord implant. Additional UI elements have been added.]
[Connect, Data Interaction, Machine Communication, Mental Hack and Mind Defense abilities have been reorganized under Hacking.]
[You may now change your class from Machine Lord Rogue to Machine Lord Hacker. You may also choose to change Talent (Undeveloped) into Talent (Hacking), which may unlock new Hacking abilities and allow you to train more easily.]
[You have received damage from a sustained mental attack.
Mental Health: 78%
Rate of recovery: 0.25%/min]
“Are you done?” Eve asked.
“Yes, where to?” Alan said.
“The center,” Eve replied. She turned around and began walking. Alan stumbled after her, trying to ignore his ringing headache and failing miserably.
The base felt desolate, empty, with layers and layers of ash covering everything. Not that there was much to cover. All that remained were two laser turrets, too powerful to fire in the confines of his mind, according to Eve, and three metal bunkers, two smaller ones, about the size of a shed or dorm room, and a larger one, about the size of a classroom. The smaller bunkers supposedly guarded access to Alan’s weapons and armor. The larger protected his mind. When Alan was last here, there was a force field covering it, but now none could be found.
Alan approached the central bunker, but couldn’t see any entrance. One appeared before him, as if it was sensing he wished to enter. The bunker was devoid of any furnishing, simply a metal grey dome covered in ash, at least until Alan looked up.
When he looked up, Alan did not see a ceiling, but empty space. Eve wrapped her hands around Alan, and began flying upwards. She felt hard, metallic, not at all like the soft flesh Alan had been expecting. In between jabs of pain he wondered why she hadn’t carried him like this in the first place.
“Because I am trying to save energy,” Eve said. “Crucial systems have been damaged. It is also why we are talking, and not sharing a direct mental connection.”
They reached the ceiling, and Alan found himself thrown to the side like a sack of potatoes. He landed on his butt, but the pain barely registered, just another drop in the bucket. Alan slowly turned his head, looking around. He was now in his Home, or at least what was left of it. It was no longer bright white as far as the eye could see. Instead, Alan found himself sitting in a circle of bright, white space the size of a football stadium. Outside there was now darkness. Oddly, there was no Administrator to be seen either. Only a hand, floating in the air.
“Hello, Alan, we have much work to do,” Cerberus said, his voice emerging from the ether.
“Work? What sort of work?” Alan asked.
“Why, redesigning your mind,” Cerberus replied. “As you’ve no doubt noticed, I’ve made a few upgrades. Like the new game descriptions, I’ve programmed them myself; I apologize for their rough nature. You can improve the UI yourself if you so desire, but I’ve never had the time.
“Welcome to hacking. True hacking, not the nonsense Wraith taught you. He toes the line, limiting himself to what Administrators allow: pre-designed, pre-limited programs. But that’s not what hacking is. Hacking is overcoming limits, exploring the tools that the Game provides. And it provides so much.”
A screen appeared before Alan:
[Hacking Defense Upgrades:
Bunker [50 C]:
Basic defensive structure.
100 Armor. 10000 hp.
Small Force Field [100 C]:
Small spherical force field.
2000 shields. 50 regen/min.
Laser Turret [200 C]:
Automated defense system that defends against large oncoming threats.
1000 damage. 700 armor. 2500 hp.
Large Force Field [500 C]:
Large spherical force field.
10000 shields. 200 regen/min.
Hacking Attack Upgrades:
Unavailable at this time.
Barracks [500 C]:
Training grounds for infantry units.
Factory Floor [750 C]
Construction grounds for mechanized units.
Energy Pylon [1500 C] (2 max.)
Increases computing energy pool by 100.
Armory [100000 C]
Allows for the development of program upgrades. Possible to develop equipment for player to use while hacking.
Research Center [15000 C]
Allows for the development of customized programs.
Airfield [20000 C]
Construction grounds for air units.
Spaceport [100000 C]
Construction grounds for space units.
Current C: 1000]
“What are these C-points? What do these upgrades mean?” Alan asked.
“At the fundamental level, ability points are tied to the computing power of the Game,” Cerberus said. “Whatever massive network of servers or machines or n-bits that it’s run on, at the base level it has jobs, correct? Processes to be run. Well, each change, each power up, requires the tiniest bit of energy, some bit of code saying that particular change should be made. That energy is points, which players gather as they level. Normally, Administrators help players spend these points, taking a portion of the computing power themselves.
“However, others can also help you spend these points. All it takes is a little hack. I simply converted the ability points you provided and took my cut. Your current balance is the C you have after I performed a few basic upgrades. If you want I’ll convert any additional ability points you might gain to C, the conversion rate is 5C for 1 ability point,” Cerberus said.
Alan checked his logs. He had a new ability, but it was simply listed as [Error].
“Wait, but if you found a bunch of new players and took their points, couldn’t you become ultra powerful?” Alan asked.
“Not exactly,” Cerberus responded. “The Game doesn’t let you use other people’s points to improve yourself, but the processing power can be devoted to… other tasks. No more questions, we’re wasting enough time as it is.
“The basic model for defenses is a standard outline, I was surprised that someone had already set up all the basic defenses for you. Can you tell me who it was?”
Thinking back to the mysterious existence, way back during the Black Rose Guild combat examination, Alan shook his head. “I never got their name.”
“You just let them mess with your head?” Cerberus asked. “Wait, I don’t care. Moving on, I don’t trust you enough to let you acquire any of my specialized offensive software, thus we are left with the versatile production buildings. These buildings are capable of spawning programs that you can direct. The capacity of your mind limits the number of programs you can have active at any one time, and you have to have a source file to create the desired program. Certain specialized programs will require other resources to create, energy crystals and the like. I’ll give you a standard one.” A data chip appeared in Cerberus’s hand. Alan reached out and touched it. There was a flash of light and a message appeared:
[Marine, Rank E Program Learned. Produced at Barracks.
Standard combat program.
Attack: 20 damage/sec.
Defense: 10 armor.
Health: 100 hp.
“I assume you want me to purchase the barracks building?” Alan asked.
“Do what you want,” Cerberus said. “I just won’t give you any other programs for free. I’d require a quest or two at the very least. And if you really dislike a past choice I can recycle a building for 85-90% of the C spent.”
“Can you recycle the defenses already there? And what’s with the glowing flash of light instant skill gain?” Alan asked.
The hand made some undecipherable gesture. “Nope, those seem firmly tied to your mind somehow, erasing them could damage your brain. And this is your mind after all, it allows for an easy transfer of knowledge.”
Nodding, Alan asked Eve, Think this is a good idea?
I require more information, Eve replied.
“Do you have more information? A basic guide or something you can send my AI?” Alan asked.
Another data chip appeared in the hand; Alan absorbed it.
Yes, Eve replied a minute later, These programs will greatly aid in deleting the bunnies.
After selecting the barracks building a top-down view of Alan’s current base appeared. Alan placed the building directly south of his main bunker. The two side bunkers were positioned to the east and west, while the laser turrets were also to the east and west but closer to the center of his base. It showed that the shields were currently being repaired, thus they weren’t completely destroyed, just recharging.
An odd sensation ran through Alan, like a connection in his mind had suddenly formed, but looping back into itself. It had always been there, at the edge of his thought, but his mind was now rewired to understand it. Two messages appeared:
[A new structure has been constructed in your mind: The barracks! You are now able to select and control structures with a new base menu.
The base is at 15% of capacity.]
[You are now able to train a Marine for 80 Computational Energy.
Upkeep: 20 Computational Energy.]
Upkeep? Alan asked Eve as he brought up his current Computational Energy stats: 400/400 total energy, 0.05/sec regen.
It will lower your total energy pool by 20 for each Marine active. I suggest you train the five marines you are currently capable of. 300 total energy should be enough for foreseeable encounters, Eve sent.
Opening the base menu, Alan found it similar to his status page, except it was much more graphical, with a blue outline of his base appearing before him rather than a simple screen with stats. He selected the barracks, and a menu appeared.
Train: Marine (80 energy)
Armor: 50 armor.
Health: 3000 hp.
Upgrade Cost: 1000-5000C, Improved Design]
Alan selected train five times, and five faint shadows appeared in his mind. When compared to Eve or Cerberus, their presences barely registered.
“Good,” Cerberus said. “Now for your first task. Divide your mind and combat the virus while navigating the laser grid.”
Alan found himself ejected from his Home, back in the white capsule; apparently Cerberus was able to end the connection at will. He climbed out, walking back towards the gymnasium. Once Alan’s Computational Energy reached 100 he activated Divided Mind. He suddenly found two minds in his body. One him took control of his body; the other half directly connected to his base, a new feature that Cerberus’s upgrade had provided.
It still felt strange, but each part of his mind acted independently, intent on its own goal. As Alan glided through the randomized laser beams he marveled as within his mind he guided Eve and five marines on a bunny extermination quest.
“This is amazing, but I thought that I couldn’t leave part of my consciousness out of my line of sight,” Alan said.
“The line of sight limitation on Divided Mind is highly deceiving, for you any object or server in your line of sight that you can hack counts as someplace you are able to send part of your mind. It is not your direct line of sight that matters. A basic connection is made by the Game whenever you see something, and hacking takes advantage of that connection,” Cerberus said to Alan. He nodded, and continued the training.
A week had passed. Added on to the time that Cerberus’s improvements had taken, there were five hours left until the Champion’s Tournament. But Alan had one more task in front of him.
Painstakingly, Alan had managed to clear 35 of the ten-story apartment buildings of all their inhabitants, which ranged from random mobs to groups of highly trained soldiers. It hadn’t been easy, Alan had died many times along the way, but luckily once he cleared a building it remained empty. As he progressed Cerberus allowed him the use of more and more of his original gear; Alan now had everything that he might have in the actual Game.
All that was left was one highly fortified structure. The first floor was crawling with hundreds of guards, five psionic users, and two deadly sentry turrets that could see through Alan’s basic invisibility. He had spent the last few hours scouting the building, dying multiple times in the process. It was time to put his plan into action.
Activating Divided Mind, Alan hacked into the building’s security network, accessing it through a visible security camera on the outside of the building. He focused on it from the roof of another building with the help of his bionic eye, invisibility activated.
The security network’s defense was set up similarly to Alan’s own mind, with one large force field protecting everything, smaller force fields protecting subsystems, and robotic guards wandering the perimeter. Alan commanded Eve to begin a full frontal assault. She led 10 marines, and in total they did nearly 500 damage a second, whittling away the 10000 shield energy quickly.
Outside, alarms begin to sound, scouts sent to scan the surrounding, but they didn’t come close to finding Alan.
Soon, the shields were down. A fierce firefight between the robotic defenders and the attackers began. Eve tanked the brunt of the damage, dodging and weaving laser fire as she flew in and secured a number of kills. A single marine fell in the initial assault, but the rest were able to clean up the remaining defenders. The security cameras were soon shut down, shortly followed by the lights in the building. It was time for the second phase.
Alan crept down from his vantage point, invisibility still activated. He withdrew from the security network. Instead, he began testing the scouting guards’ shields as his counterpart began readying his twin pistols. Then, he began. The guard’s power armor were defended by trivial mini-force fields, barely able to take two to three hits from Eve and the marine programs. As soon as the shields were down, Eve was able to shut down the power armor, which made it simple for Alan to kill them with a single headshot.
The guards swarmed around like a nest of angry ants, but retreated back into the building after Alan had halved their number in minutes. Now the real fun began.
Alan activated a specially programmed feature of his bionic eyes, which kept them open and focused as he sent both halves of his consciousness into the security network. They focused on a separate subsystem within the network, the turret controls. It took a few minutes, but soon Alan had complete control, each half controlling one of the two turrets in the lobby. Using the camera systems, Alan had Eve highlight the five psionic users. He waited until they were in a sensible location for a decent firing pattern, then unleashed pandemonium.
The laser turrets ripped through the first two unsuspecting psionic users with ease, and managed to turn and fire on two others before they were able to get any defense up. The fifth psionic user managed to throw up a shimmering blue bubble defense, but under the sustained might of two laser turrets soon fell.
Meanwhile, the guards had come to the realization the turrets had turned against them, but the enclosed nature of the lobby worked against them, as they had to avoid friendly fire and work through the laser turret’s shields. Alan managed to take our another quarter of the guards before they finally managed to destroy their own defenses.
That done, he systematically began hacking all of the guards shields, deactivating them all and even a few of their weapons before they managed to destroy the security cameras, realizing that they were the source of their problems. Though it was harder to hack through another system, halving the effectiveness each layer Alan needed to go through, it was still a very useful ability that made Alan want to invest in some sort of drone. When he had the credits and points, maybe.
Bursting through the front lobby entrance, Alan began taking our guards left and right, each hand acting independently, taking out any guard that even began to raise their weapon in Alan’s direction. Thirty seconds later, the first floor was clear.
Alan rested, regaining energy and retraining the marine program he had lost earlier, then cleared the next eight floors in a similar manner. In the end, he was fighting a preprogrammed encounter, so his enemies weren’t the brightest. They didn’t learn from their mistakes, only increasing in strength and number. Whenever Alan was in any real danger, he activated his armor’s advanced invisibility, retreated, and recouped his energy. Still, Alan felt more powerful than ever.
He entered the tenth and final floor, advanced invisibility active. It was a completely open room, with no one in it. Alan quickly cycled through the electromagnetic spectrum, but didn’t detect anything. However, when he reached out with his other senses he detected the faint signature of four different sets of power armor.
Alan attempted to hack into them, but the connection was so faint that it was like crawling through a thin trench. Still, Alan managed to finally form a connection, and initiate a hack. The armor had a defense unlike anything he had previously seen. There were no shield barriers, instead there was a massive metallic pyramid, without any noticeable entrances. Eve tried an attack, but only did 50 damage to the structure’s 100000 HP, its armor simply too high to attack effectively.
The four sets of power suddenly leapt into action about the room. The attempted hack seemed to have been noticed. Exiting the floor, Alan wondered what he should do. There were four unknown enemies, and he didn’t have time to re-clear the entire building before the tournament if he died here. He stared at the corpse of a previously defeated enemy, then grinned. The corpse still had all its items and armor equipped, as the simulation was set on a war zone setting. In a war zone, every item a player possessed dropped on death, regardless of rank.
Basic invisibility active, Alan went about floor to floor, looting every piece of explosives that he could find. If his enemies didn’t want to reveal themselves, he’d just blow them all up.
LEFT, Eve shouted. Alan immediately activated hypercognition as he leapt to his left. A fiery blue sword of pure energy stabbed where he had stood a moment earlier, a Haxlard in grey power armor emerging. Alan fired a torrent of shots at the Haxlard as he retreated, throwing a handful of grenades he had unlocked for good measure. He split his consciousness to begin an attempt to hack the Haxlard’s energy sword, which hopefully had a weaker defense than his armor.
The Haxlard evaded the majority of the laser fire, deflecting laser bolts that he couldn’t dodge with his sword. A single laser bolt hit the Haxlard, decreasing his shield energy from 76% to 74%. They made a powerful swinging gesture, and a wave of force erupted, knocking the thrown grenades back at Alan. Two exploded before Alan was able to dodge, halving his shield energy.
Meanwhile, Alan had connected to the Haxlard’s sword. It had a similar pyramid defense, but the smaller pyramid only had 10000 HP. It would take a little over three minutes to break it down, which didn’t seem like that long in reality, but in the heat of battle could take forever. It also didn’t take into account what defense might lie inside the pyramid, and Alan wasn’t sure if Eve could do what she wanted him to do.
I can, she sent. Just keep the Haxlard busy.
Easier said than done, Alan sent as he ducked under an overhead swing. He threw a body in the Haxlards path. The Haxlard cut through it like butter, unimpeded. The combined drain on his Computational Energy from hypercognition as well as Divided Mind and maintaining a set of marines was too much, he had maybe a minute of its use remaining. Alan wasn’t confident he’d be able to survive the encounter.
As he was about to round a corner Eve yelled, STOP. Alan froze, barely able to dodge a blow as he tumbled to the floor.
You must maintain line of sight for hacking! Eve sent. Alan analyzed the next attack coming from the Haxlard. There would be no way to escape unscathed. He defended the sword swing with his left arm as he began to scuttle backwards. The sword cut through his arm, eliminating the rest of Alan’s shields.
Alan screamed in pain, leaping to his feet. The Haxlard continued its onslaught, showing no signs of tiring.
Just three more minutes, Eve sent. Recall your divided mind, I know what I’m doing, it can be done without your help.
Alan reformed his full consciousness, somehow managing to maintain composure mid-battle while it occurred. A few minutes passed, the Haxlard chasing Alan without success, Alan mindful to keep his enemy in his line of sight. It wasn’t hard, considering the Haxlard was generally an inch from slicing off his head at any given moment.
Finally, Eve sent to Alan that she was ready, and a series of moves sprang into his mind. He charged the Haxlard as they thrust forwards. As the blade was about to pierce Alan’s chest it vanished, turned off by Eve. Alan used the Haxlard’s momentum to throw it off balance with a knee to the groin. The Haxlard loosened its grip on the sword, about to pull out another weapon, but before it was able to Alan kicked its legs.
Already unbalanced, the Haxlard fell to the floor as Alan grabbed its outstretched weapon. He pointed it at the Haxlards head, and Eve reactivated the weapon. The blade re-extended and pierced straight through the energy shield and helmet of the Haxlard. They died instantly.
One down, three to go, Alan sent, staring at the left stump on his left hand.
The next three enemies turned out to be trivial kills. Having learned from his mistakes, Alan set up a series of explosive booby traps on each floor as well as the entrance to the tenth floor. Then he gathered more explosives. A second invisible enemy was blown to smithereens this way, and the last two enemies decided to stay on the top floor. A mistake.
Once Alan had gathered every single grenade, remote controlled explosive, and energy weapon he could find, he set them all up on the 9th floor, directly underneath the final two enemies. He set every explosive on a timer, then sprinted down to the first floor.
He emerged outside just in time to see the beautiful display of pyrotechnics, a massive explosion that took out the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the building.
A message appeared as Alan’s arm reformed, good as new:
[Intermediate Combat Test concluded. You have been awarded a Combat Ranking of A188723231, and Potential Combat Ranking of S+.]
[+200 Levels +100 ability points for gaining 200 levels with one action.]
Aww, I didn’t get +200 ability points, Alan sent to Eve.
100 seems to be the max the Game grants at once, Eve replied.
“Good, you can hold your own in combat now,” Cerberus said. “Catch.”
A coin appeared out of nowhere. Alan caught it with his superhuman reflexes. He stared at it, it was a Black Coin. This one however had an armada of spaceships on one side, a picture of the Enforcer fleet, and a pile of energy crystals on the other.
“I would like to formally invite you to the Dark,” Cerberus said. “Also known as the Revenants.”
A message appeared:
[New Faction Invite: The Revenants!
A unique faction, you may join the Revenants regardless of your guild or government. However, many factions will deem you hostile should they discover your involvement with the Revenants.]
“Despite what many would have you believe, we have no goals other than the sharing of knowledge, a marketplace for anything game-related,” Cerberus said. “We have no leaders, only members, who are free to act in whichever way they personally desire.
“Past so called Great Cyberwars were simply portions of the faction believing more information, such as hacking, should be more widespread, to better protect players from the dangers of the Game. Other wars were portions of the faction intent on wealth and fame, such as the reckless group that attempted to invade the Vault on Khersath.
“The Black Coins are our own version of Marks, the Scout coin you had is worth about 100C, the Enforcer coin is worth 10000C. Should you join you will be provided with a wealth of new information, new quests, and access to our network, the darknet. I’ll be able to sell you actual attack programs, provide you a 10% discount to upgrades, and can connect you with members that are able to acquire advanced capsule upgrades as well as improvements for your AI. So, what do you say?”
“I… need to think about this,” Alan said.
“Take your time, the offer is always open,” Cerberus responded. “If you spread information about me know that it will be traced back to you and will never see the light of day. Our members are within positions of power of nearly every major power, even the Administrators, and don’t take kindly to those that would reveal our secrets.”
Make your way to the coliseum, the tournament begins in 30 minutes, Eve sent.
Alright, Alan said. He began making his way back to the entrance portal.
“Where are you going? You still haven’t cleared the last section of the obstacle course,” Cerberus said.
“I’m going to the Champion’s Tournament,” Alan said.
“Ah, yes. Head back right after.”
“Oh, and I almost forgot, Celeste told me that she wanted to talk to you face to face,” Alan said, head still swimming.
“You told her I sent you? Why would you do such a thing… I’m using you as my excuse, as this is your fault, you took a week to deliver her message!” Cerberus said.
Alan shrugged, then made his way to the capsule room on Aenigma, and teleported to Coliseum. He sent a message to Aurora, letting him know he was on his way. As he walked up to the coliseum, he examined and prodded people’s defenses. It seemed like most only had large energy shields protecting their equipment. This was going to be fun.
What do you think, Eve, should I join the Revenants? he sent.
It seems like a good choice. You can always deny membership to the group, and the potential benefits seem appealing.
I agree, Alan replied as he walked up to the Coliseum entrance.
There was a flash of blue light.
AC— Eve began to send.
And Alan died.