Alan progressed slowly and steadily. Unlike the last time he had tread down a hidden path, he did not simply rely on Eve’s directions and assistance. Instead, he attempted to navigate through the traps and puzzles without help. Eve would occasionally bring up a warning or complete a task for Alan, but the number of obstacles Alan was able to get through on his own surprised him.
After stepping through a hidden trigger before Eve could even warn him, Alan learned the value of patience. He managed to dodge most of the lasers that shot from the wall at him, taking minimal damage, but from that point on prudently examined his surroundings. After waiting too long at one intersection, Alan learned the value of haste. A giant boulder descended from the sky, crashing onto the ramp behind Alan, triggered by some unseen timer. He had to follow Eve’s directions to barely avoid being squashed like a bug. (She had solved the simple astrological riddle in 2.71 microseconds, whereas Alan had been sitting there trying to figure it out for over 15 minutes.)
A few hours later, Alan finally made his way to a cube-like structure. Only slightly worse for wear, he had gained a basic rogue ability, Trap Detection (Rank F). He wasn’t sure if this structure looked like the one he had been to earlier, as then he had been blindly following Eve’s directions. Now he could see.
It was miraculous what a difference sight could make. Whereas before the Abyss Labyrinth had seemed like an unknown, inhospitable dungeon, it now seemed more like a clean, orderly facility to Alan. Gone were the shady pathways, the ever encompassing darkness. In their place Alan was able to see well maintained metal roadways, connecting the overall facility in a somehow logical manner. While there was still a depth which Alan could not penetrate all around him, he had plunged into the darkness before, it was no longer unknown.
Boldly, Alan strode up to the doorway that blocked his path, noting the letters and numbers painted onto the wall. Consciously, he attempted to find an AI presence to interact with. Somehow, his mind immediately thought of the Connect ability he had gained, and he felt his subconscious activate some protocol. A faint presence began to power up; Alan sent it a message almost immediately.
… Systems Initializing. Error. Warning: Limited Power.
Greetings Traveler. Warning: Main Systems Offline.
Um, right, can you let me in? I think I may have something that can give you some energy, and wanted to test it out. Alan held up the crystal he had received earlier.
Energy signature recognized. Hypothesize enough energy for 5 months in Low Power Setting. Adequate… for now. Please follow the designated path. Traveler set as friendly. Please do not fire upon defensive structures and workers. Sector 3 Chief Warden will guide you on how to deposit the energy.
Resuming Power Savings Mode. Estimated remaining power supply for limited functionalities: 3,000 years (Author’s note: I’m changing the quest deadline for Missing Systems from 34,000 years to 3000). Please contact the Authorities and repair or supply a permanent power source, Traveler. Current threat level: Gamma.
The connection ended. Alan’s quest failed to update, but he did receive a notification that he was now on friendly terms with the Abyss Labyrinth, which hopefully meant all of the robots wouldn’t attack him. Alan pushed against the doorway in front of him. This time, as a whirling of gears sounded, Alan could see a metal tunnel extend outwards from the structure, downwards to his right. That meant that his earlier passage through the dungeon had been guided by this hidden presence.
Not questioning it, Alan proceeded forwards. This central hub area looked to be in somewhat better repair than the one he had been in earlier. A few metal desks and tables remained, while the screen held fewer cracks. There was a flicker of light as the screen suddenly flashed to life, displaying what Alan assumed to be a map.
The hub that he was now in was a green circle. Hundreds of other circles were displayed as well, showing a vastness to the dungeon that Alan couldn’t quite comprehend. If he was reading it right, this map was equal in size to North America. Eve let Alan know that this was only a portion of the facility. One of four red squares was shown to be Alan’s destination, roughly 50 miles away.
Um, we aren’t expected to walk there, are we?
Eve sent a mental shrug. Proceed down the path provided.
Sighing, Alan went into the corridor open to him. As he made his way to the end of the hallway, he found himself in front of a metal slide. Remembering his earlier slide, Alan hesitated. Silently, he sent out a thought.
Um, how fast is this thing gonna go? And how am I going to get back? I have a limited food supply and other things to do. Isn’t there somewhere closer or some other entity that can take this power crystal?
Proceed as ordered, an unknown voice told Alan.
Taking a deep breath, Alan decided to proceed. What was the worst that could happen?
You die and lose your power armor in addition to the quest item, levels and new abilities.
WHAT!? Alan furiously thought, as he began a rapid descent, the panels below him negating friction.
You asked, Eve replied. I considered this update prudent, despite the rhetorical nature of your question. I thought you may have forgotten that Rank A items and above always drop upon death.
I did… Alan silently fumed as worry began to set in as he began hurtling through space. He wanted to take risks, but this seemed like a bit much. Additionally, it turned out that he did not want to be able to see what was in front of him. Unlike what he had previously surmised, the metal tunnel he was sliding down was not an ever-present fixture in the facility. Instead it was being constructed before his eyes, assembled seconds before he reached the point, pieces appearing from points unknown.
This would have been fine, or at least not so nerve wracking, if he had been proceeding a sane speed, but apparently the unknown entity that had constructed the facilities had a very different idea of safe. Alan truly began to panic as a large missile shot by the opening in front of him, narrowly missing the constructing ladder-way of doom. Unable to take it any longer, he shut his eyes, concentrating on the feeling of his dropping stomach, trying to avoid thoughts of nausea and dropping into an abyss. Mostly the abyss part.
Countless minutes later (42 according to Eve), Alan finally felt his descent slow down. The slide gradually began to level out. When he opened his eyes, Alan found that he was moving alongside a metal pathway nearly 50 feet wide. All about him were heavy fortifications, turrets and mechanical behemoths that would have been intimidating if they hadn’t been powered down. Eve highlighted countless shield batteries and hidden traps that were turned off as well. Alan couldn’t help but feel as if he was cheating the system somehow, but silently accepted it. It looked like he’d soon come face to face with someone with real power in this place. Probably a gigantic computer of some sort.
The invisible, visible to Alan, slide finally came to a stop, depositing him before a massive metal doorway, hundreds of feet tall, the entrance to a structure that Alan could see was built into the surrounding walls. It looked as large as an imperial palace, if not quite so impressive in its current dilapidated state. Alan could see the wires sticking out of a number of the various battlements at the top of the door. Like much of the rest of the prison, the building was devoid of much that would tell Alan its purpose, its only outstanding features being the battlements that once served some sort of defensive purpose.
In front of the doorway stood two level 2000 mechanical golems, modeled after an ancient race of giants, at least according to Eve. Each stood nearly twenty feet tall with six appendages, four winding arms of coiled metal and two legs, but no discernible head. Each arm held massive cleaver-like blades. They appeared to be made out of a dark grey metal with a more stone-like texture. Similar to Sidestep, the entirety of their bodies were covered in tubing that pulsed green. In the center of each golem’s cylindrical torso was a large, mechanical eye that glowed blue. It was clear that unlike most of the other defenses, the golems were still active.
Nervously, Alan proceeded forwards. The two sentinels slowly turned to face him. Alan slowly took another step forwards, then another, until he was between the two. As they took no further action, Alan let out a sigh of relief before continuing to proceed onwards. He noticed that each golem had a second eye on the opposite side of their torso. A small doorway opened up when Alan got close enough to the entrance. He had worried that he would be required to open the gigantic doorway himself.
Alan glanced inside, then froze. He immediately activated hypercognition mode, as well as his armor’s advanced stealth mode. Within the structure was a Predecessor.
The Predecessor stood in the middle of the structure, wearing a tightly woven chain mail vest made of the same writhing black metal that the other Predecessor’s knife had been made out of. There was a lightly glowing collar around its neck. It wielded a massive two handed great sword made of the same material. The metal, which absorbed light, shrouded the Predecessor in darkness. Alan soon discovered it absorbed every other type of radiation as well as he rapidly switched between types of vision to try to get a better look.
It is called soulsteel, Eve informed Alan, a physical manifestation of a Predecessor’s psionic abilities, the only known metal capable of cutting their skin. It is impossibly dense, yet light, with numerous other properties we don’t have the time for now. They forcibly draw out their psionic ability, through their blood, and it solidifies into the metal you see before you. A small ingot about the size of a mark is able to be produced about once a millennia by every Predecessor. That mark-sized ingot could easily be exchanged for a small spaceship worth billions of credits. The fact that it has so much…
That Predecessor is either very strong, or very old, quite possibly both. Predecessors often challenge each others to duels over soulsteel, taking half of what the defeated party owns. A symbol of status, if you will. I am unable to determine its level, and it is an S class threat, if not higher. You are right to proceed with caution.
Alan stood still, staring at the Predecessor, continuing to test out his different types of vision. He almost gasped when he finally switched to gamma vision, noticing what was behind the Predecessor. Most of the structure was devoid of anything except for metal tiling on the floor, a large hall perfect for a massive raid buss. However, at the far end of the room there was a massive wall, adorned with metal cables stretching out of one central point, a cylindrical barrel with ten small slots, each containing a symmetrical cube crystal about the size of a fist. All but one was devoid of color. This tenth crystal glowed softly in Alan eyes, representing that it held gamma radiation.
Gamma radiation, at least according to the basic lesson Eve had given Alan, was deadly. It also emerged from highly energetic events: black holes, supernovae explosions and the like. That it was contained within a crystal, which didn’t seem to leak any of the light elsewhere, was amazing. If this facility depended on such power sources, Alan wasn’t sure how he’d ever find a suitable replacement. Alan switched back to his normal, see in the dark vision, in which the crystal was black.
Next to the ring of crystals was a small, glowing circle. When Alan concentrated it, it became clearer, manifesting into a solid teal circle of color that rose up and became a cylinder.
A capture point, Eve let Alan know. It seems as if you must simply step into it, and it will be captured.
The Predecessor suddenly turned to face Alan.
“What is the delay? Come in.” It spoke in a gravelly tone, as if it hadn’t used its voice in years.
“And, uh, what if I don’t want to?” Alan nervously said, backing away from the door way a bit.
In a single step, before Alan could react, the Predecessor was at the doorway. It looked down at Alan.
“Then I will end you. Even if you are a figment of my imagination, I will slaughter you all the same.” It widened its teeth in a vicious smile.
“Um, I’m real, please don’t hurt me.” Alan swallowed nervously, stepping into the room, deactivating his armor’s so-called advanced stealth mode.
“Good.” The Predecessor attempted what it thought was a calming smile, though to Alan it looked more like a grimace. “Why are you here?”
Hands trembling slightly, Alan brought out the small violet crystal. The Predecessor narrowed its eyes.
“Um, so you can use this to recharge the power or something like that?”
“Why don’t you leave here and never return?” The Predecessor rested its massive hand on Alan’s shoulder.
“And, um, why would I do that?”
“Do what? That was simply an errant… suggestion.” The Predecessor punctuated the last word by gripping Alan hard enough that his shields quickly drained, halved by the simple squeeze. Alan winced as there was a crushing sound, and a message popped up notifying Alan his armor was damaged.
“Sorry, that was an accident. I hope nothing worse happens if you stay here longer,” the Predecessor said, staring at Alan menacingly.
Alan looked up blankly at the Predecessor, not taking the hint. “Um, okay? Here’s the crystal, to help with the, um, quest?”
Um, Alan, I believe the Predecessor was threatening you, trying to get you to leave.
Oh, he was? Why would he do that?
The Predecessor stared down at the miniscule human holding out the little crystal, then suddenly let out a throaty chuckle. It took the crystal out of Alan’s hand in a blur of movement.
“Ha! That’s good, quite good. The stones on you, eh? Very well, I suppose I’ll deposit this bit of energy. What are a couple more centuries of imprisonment, anyway?”
Trying to hide from the Predecessor that he had been obtuse, rather than brave, Alan hurriedly said, “What do you mean, a couple more centuries of imprisonment?”
“Don’t you know?” The Predecessor stopped, staring at Alan.
“Energy Saving Order 5329. To save the dwindling power it was decided that biological prisoners would serve as wardens. Their sentences would be shortened in return… though, considering my sentence, a few centuries off of it makes little difference.”
“Um, no, sorry, that’s the first I’m hearing of this…” Alan nervously replied.
“Wait, so, then, why did you bring me this?”
“Um, cause I got a quest to? So, um, I can get a sort of reward or something and get stronger?”
Although, the reward was simply a series of question marks… Alan silently thought.
“And that’s it?”
“There was also, uh, something about a gamma threat level and the Authorities?”
“Which you know nothing about I assume?”
Alan hesitatingly nodded.
“How strong are you?” The Predecessor questioned. Alan opened his mouth, then paused.
“Tell me. No matter your strength, it should be clear I could easily kill you.”
“I have a combat rank of B, and am level 118.”
The Predecessor stared at Alan. He shifted around nervously.
“How did you get here?”
“Um, I asked nicely?
The Predecessor opened its mouth, then shut it. It muttered under its breath, “They must be getting desperate.” Alan shifted his feet about. Abruptly, the Predecessor turned to stare at Alan.
“Did you hear that?” Alan nodded.
I used a combination of noise made and mouth movements to infer what you “heard”, Eve let Alan know.
“Um, wait, actually it was sort of a combination of hearing and reading your lips.”
The Predecessor glanced around the room, then took a step forwards right next to Alan. It crouched down so that its lips were directly in Alan’s line of sight, but angled downwards so they wouldn’t be able to be seen from above. The Predecessor put its arms around Alan, like in a hug, blocking out all other angles of vision. Alan struggled to move away from the Predecessor, but he was easily held in place.
“Stop. Can you understand me?” The Predecessor mouthed.
“Yes,” Alan said uncomfortably.
“Stop. No more talking. Listen.”
Alan remained silent.
“So, you were willing to help them out, just because they gave you a quest, with unknown rewards? Well, hear me out, and listen to my demands, and I can guarantee you come out of this with much, much more.
“As you may have already noticed, the entire facility is rather underpowered. So underpowered that the warden program is unable to devote processing power to try to understand strange situations. Like this one. It orders about with broad commands, no finesse or subtlety. For example, it simply told me to aid you. Say something like thank you, that greatly helps, please continue. It shouldn’t notice anything too odd.”
“Um, thank you very much, this is of great help, I mean you are of great help, please continue,” Alan said aloud. The Predecessor grimaced, but continued his silent communication.
“Good enough. That should placate the damn computer for a while yet. Now, did you see the black crystal behind me, within the large machine, next to the brightly glowing circle? Not the dull, colorless crystals but the black one.”
Alan nodded, rolling his eyes at the Predecessor’s language. It must think he was an imbecile.
“Okay, here is what’s going to happen. Once I am dead, you are going to need to remove that crystal from the machine as quickly as possible.”
“Uh, once what?” Alan asked aloud.
The Predecessor jerked its head threateningly. Alan quickly shut his mouth.
“Once I am dead. I do have orders to do things like protect the energy source and kill intruders, you know? Trust me, the warden program has methods to compel even ones such as I.” It shuddered at a distant memory. “Though, it using those methods should also help to drain the facilities reserves further…”
“Wait, if you die, will you even come back to life?” Alan asked.
The Predecessor shrugged. “Death is life. I cannot discuss matters with one such as you… though, if you think yourself worthy, challenge another Predecessor to a duel. Simply repeat the phrase: Death is life. Demand answers. Anyways, moving on. I will give you a piece of precious soulsteel, which will be your reward, along with the black crystal.
“I will bind this soulsteel to you in the form of a knife, so that you and only you may wield it. Of course, given soulsteel’s nature it will drop should you ever die, but only a Predecessor will be able to unbind it for their own use. I suggest you never let a Predecessor know you have it, and keep it in a safe location once you leave here, though. You are nowhere near strong enough to have passed through a warrior trial or to wield a such metal. Still, circumstances beget the necessary…
“Anyways, as I was saying, once I am dead, remove the black crystal, then escape this facility. I suggest you slit my throat, as I may be compelled to resist you once you attack me. I will try to resist it, but I guarantee nothing.
“You may need to deal with those golems outside, though they shouldn’t be able to detect you in that stealth mode you were in earlier, and the soulsteel blade should cut through them easily. Their brains are at the center of their bodies, so aim there.
“You know, you should really learn to hide your presence, as you should only be undetectable by machines as you are now. Perhaps untrained fools would ignore you as well, but few beings of power would fail to notice you. Anyways, after you have removed this crystal, grow stronger, then return here and remove or destroy the rest of the power sources in this prison. Trust me, you will be well rewarded.”
A quest appeared before Alan:
Remove and destroy all power sources of the mysterious Abyss Labyrinth, unleashing its prisoners upon the universe.
Option: Try to free only certain beings
Option: Try to conquer the Abyss Labyrinth
Option (Missing Systems): Try to play both sides
Time Limit: Unknown
Threat Level: Beta-Gamma]
“Um, and if I don’t want to do this?” Alan asked.
“Then I kill you. I won’t be able to torture you, but the penalties applied by the warden program would be worth it. It’s clearly almost out of power, a few more millennia at the most.
Even if my sentence is elongated, as long as all those that come here to try to repair the systems are dealt with, I will be free once the power runs out.”
“Look, um, it’s not like I want to die, but well I just don’t have enough information to make a decision. Like, I have no idea why you or anybody else here is imprisoned,” Alan said, hoping his statement was innocuous enough to not alert the warden program.
The Predecessor stared down at Alan.
“Fine. Simply perform the task as I outlined, then go and learn more. You should be able to fool the warden program. Tell it you are analyzing the crystal so you can recharge it, or some other such lie. Then make your decision. I am confident you will see that we are in the right, and are unjustly imprisoned here.”
Another quest appeared before Alan:
[A Mad Gamble:
Kill the Predecessor, remove the black crystal. Escape from the Abyss Labyrinth with the crystal.
Option: Find out more before attempting either Missing Systems or Prison Break
Rewards: Black Crystal, Soulsteel Knife
Penalty: Possible imprisonment (est. 1 month max sentence), Failure of Prison Break and Missing Systems]
Alan quickly thought through his options. At the very least, he should kill this boss that was offering itself to him, right? The godlike weapon sounded rather nice as well, and he didn’t even need to go through with this crazy plan after he killed the Predecessor, right? But what was that about the possible imprisonment? Eve remained eerily quiet in Alan’s head.
As if it could sense Alan’s thought, the Predecessor continued, “And, if you do kill me, but fail to take out the black crystal, the automated systems will surely kill you, no questions asked. That is why I said to remove it as soon as possible after I am dead. It will likely start spewing out poison gas or some other such nonsense. Thus, this is the only path you have if you want to escape here alive.
“Now, follow me over to the crystal, where I will prepare to add the crystal you brought to the black crystal. Until the warden program is alerted, I feel like we should have a nice little chat. I’m sure you must have plenty of questions. First, though, I must transfer the soulsteel to you. We can do this out in the open, as I’m sure it aligns with the stupid program’s command of aiding you.”
The Predecessor stood up straight, then commanded Alan to hold out his hands, palms upwards. Alan did so. The Predecessor reached into a pocket, pulling out a piece of soulsteel the size of a small Smartphone. Within its hands the soulsteel changed shape, becoming twin knives about the length of a pencil. Each knife had a small handle and razor-thin rectangular blades like a box cutter’s. The Predecessor took a blade in each hand.
“Oh, and this is going to hurt.”
The Predecessor suddenly brought the blades below Alan’s hands then thrust upwards, piercing his upheld palms. Before Alan could react they cleanly cut through his armor and the skin of his palm, each penetrating between his middle and index finger. The Predecessor rapidly let go of the knives handles, then thrust its own hands through the blades, grasping Alan’s hands firmly. The Predecessor’s blood was almost a pitch black, and Alan watched as a trickle streamed into his own wounds.
Alan immediately felt it as the blood entered the veins within his hands, travelling upwards through his body. It burned, like a thousand habanero chili pepper’s had been condensed into a hot sauce and directly injected into his blood stream. His body turned feverish, sweat pouring out like rain. He began having difficulty breathing, his throat drying up, the entirety of his self aflame. Abruptly, the two knives liquefied as well, and entered Alan’s body through his bloodstream.
Alan tried to break free from the Predecessor, his body writhing in pain. The Predecessor calmly watched, grasping Alan’s hands firmly in place. Alan had long ago activated the Ignore Pain ability in an attempt to relegate the liquid fire pulsing through his veins to the back of his mind, but it was to no avail. The boiling blood within his body seemed to grow hotter with slow intensity, from a steady blaze to a roaring inferno.
It felt as though Alan was standing in the middle of a flame, as if he had been engulfed by lava. Nerves began to shut down as he lost sensation in his hands. Alan thought with utmost certainty that his body was becoming a charred mess, melting like candle wax. He couldn’t handle this, whatever this was. He began to panic. Soon, his entire body was left without feeling. Alan stood, motionless, fearful of any attempts to try to move his body.
Then, slowly, feeling began to return. A message popped up:
[Predecessor Blood Rites:
An unknown ritual has triggered a transformation of your blood. Its properties have been changed. General Status Enhancer implant has been consumed and replaced with Diluted Predecessor Blood augmentation. Weak Soulsteel Bond has been created.
+20 Strength +30 Endurance +Unknown effects]
The Predecessor let go of Alan’s hands, carefully drawing out the knives which painfully materialized out of Alan’s body. It carefully placed them on the ground then stood up straight, slowly making its way over to the power generator holding the black crystal. Alan staggered backwards as the pain began to clear from his head, glancing down at a knife, trying to examine its stats. He almost fell over as he read the message he saw.
[Soulsteel Knife (Rank S):
A knife made of soulsteel, the weaponized essence of Predecessor warriors. Able to cut through virtually any material, this weapon should be handled with the utmost care. The item has been forcefully bound to the human Alan through blood. Only a powerful Predecessor is able to remove the bond.
Damage: Bypasses nearly all defenses. Whatever is cut is destroyed. Additional abilities.
Approx. Infinite Durability. Predecessor Blood, Strong Soulsteel Bond, Knife Fighting (Master), Enhanced Control (Advanced), Enhanced Movements (Advanced), Knife Mastery (Andvanced) required.
Requires Predecessor blood essence to manifest, current supply: 100/100 units, 5 units consumed/min active. 1 unit/1.4 years regen.
Pure Predecessor Blood, Absolute Soulsteel Bond, Enhanced Control (Master), Enhanced Movements (Master), Knife Mastery (Master) recommended.]
Alan looked down at the knives, feeling a strange connection to them. It was almost like the connection he felt with Eve or other AI, but not quite, as the knives clearly had no conscious. It was odd, like the feeling he felt when Eve was off doing something without him. He bent down and picked up the knives. With a push of will he forced this sense into his body, and the knives liquefied, entering and sealing the wounds. A familiar dull burn shot through Alan’s body.
“Soulsteel Knife Sheathe Ability Unlocked:
Activate to absorb into your body. 100 HP drained when sheathing or unsheathing knifes.”
“Very good, now get over here,” The Predecessor thundered from across the room, next to the power storage device.
Alan quickly walked over. “Thank you so much for your gift, I will use them wisely.”
“I would hope so… but again I caution you to be wary. If any Predecessor learns you hold a sliver of soulsteel they will kill you for it without delay. In the future, you may gain the ability to shape the metal to your will, but you are far from reaching that point.”
“Still, um thank you, and um, by the way do you have a name?” Alan asked.
The Predecessor stared at Alan with a raw intensity that almost made him take half a step back, but he didn’t. He stood his ground, calmly looking back. His body felt so tired it was difficult to feel afraid.
“You may reference me as the Lord of the Abyss. It might get you out of trouble, or it may start it. It has been a long, long time since I have tasted freedom. Now, before we proceed, I hope to give you a bit of information, answer a few of your questions. Perhaps tell an old story, if you are willing to listen.”
“Very well. Let us begin with why I am here. Surely, you must wonder what crimes I have committed to warrant eons of imprisonment. Well, my crime was very simple. I lost a war.” Alan widened his eyes.
“Yes, this is a prisoner-of-war camp, or at least it was before the power started failing. Now, it is little more than a desolate ruin. But enough of this dreary place. I am sure you are more interested in the war that was fought.
“Well, the war was in fact very simple. It was us, the Predecessors, against those who were lead astray. They were lured away by a greed greater than any other. It was not treasure, nor power that directed their path, but a simple idea. The idea of immortality, the simple prospect that one could achieve such a state of being, drove them insane. In the end however, they did not choose life or death, but some in-between, something more and less. They chose other. And we fought, and in their otherness we were unable to understand them, to anticipate their moves, their abilities. And so we lost. The rest, I suppose is history.” The Predecessor, the Lord of the Abyss gave Alan a half-smile, filled with such a profound sadness despite its inhuman, scarred grey face Alan’s heart was stirred. Still, Alan didn’t think immortality was so bad.
“I can see that you, too, are enticed by this possibility. By this game. You are undoubtedly gaining instead a singular focus, to grow stronger, to prevail over others. And, like all living beings, you will struggle to survive. And the Game will provide that survival. It will provide you with purpose, with life, with power and wealth and anything else you might desire.
“What it will not grant you, however, is reality. It is a game, just a game,” the Predecessor murmured, half to himself. Then, more strongly, “Yes, this is a game. Just a game. This is NOT REAL. IT IS A GAME. DO YOU HEAR ME? I AM NOT LOST. THIS IS A GAME AND YOU HAVE NOT WON!”
The Lord of the Abyss furiously roared aloud in a rage as if it had forgotten Alan was there. It raised the purple crystal Alan had given it then began squeezing the crystal until it shattered into thousands of glittering pieces, unleashing a brilliant purple wave of energy that knocked Alan down.
The unknown AI silently formed a connection to Alan. Abnormalities Detected. Abort Mission.
Hurriedly, Alan activated hypercognition mode, while ending the connection to the unknown AI. It tried to reconnect to his mind, but he firmly denied it. Alan leapt up and envisioned one of the knives. It emerged into his hand with a slight cutting sensation. Alan gripped it firmly, quickly reading the message that popped up as he rapidly approached the Lord of the Abyss.
[Warning! Due to not meeting multiple minimum requirements of your current weapon it will consume 5x as much blood essence. Wield it with extreme care, minimum requirements are as much for your own safety as they are for others.]
Damn, looks like I’ll only be able to wield each knife for about 4 minutes… then it’ll have a cooldown of… years!?
You may absorb Predecessor blood to refresh the cooldown.
Oh, so you’re back now?
I was worried my presence would influence the Predecessor, given information and past interactions it would have reacted poorly had I made my presence known. Now concentrate.
A familiar outline appeared showing Alan what his next move should be. However, it appeared in his mind’s eye rather than in reality, creating an image that somehow overlapped with reality but wasn’t as crude as the shadow projections Eve normally showed. Instead, this image was somehow more real, as if it could be something Alan actually thought. Alan was slightly distracted by this addition, but Eve simply commanded him:
Stop. Concentrate. This is a unique side effect of the bionic eye.
Easy for you to say, you’re not the one seeing this. See?
Alan mouth slowly turned into a smile as he carefully brought the knife in an upwards slash to cut the Predecessors throat. It simply watched the knife come, eyes agleam. The knife began to pierce its throat right below the collar it wore, and with little resistance Alan cut all the way across. The Predecessor’s HP bar appeared, slowly draining at about 2% a second.
“Yes! Do you see me, brethren? Do you remember? I have not forgotten. I am here and coming for you! This simple game shall not stop me. Nothing will. I am coming, and I shall be your end!” A brilliant white arc of lightning seemed to emerge from its collar, coursing through the Predecessors body.
“Ha, pain shall not stop me.” The Predecessor spat out a mouthful of blood as it sank to the floor. It stared at Alan, “Go, take it!” It began laughing madly as spittle and blood was coughed up even as it started to spasm vigorously. The collar continued to send out brilliant white sheets of lightning. Using the settings in his cybernetic eye, Eve managed to dim the light, otherwise it may have blinded Alan.
The other AI, which Eve confirmed was the main prison warden AI with 97% certainty, tried to reconnect once more to Alan. He denied it, running forwards to the cylindrical power generator before him. He grabbed the black crystal in an attempt to pry it out. It wouldn’t budge.
With extreme precision, he grasped the soulsteel knife and under Eve’s careful direction began to cut out the crystal. Luckily, no surges of energy tore out, instantly electrocuting Alan. Instead, the knife seemed to negate them, absorbing or deflecting the energy like it did all sources of light. Finally, Alan managed to free the baseball sized black crystal, and he pulled it out, quickly storing it behind his right leg in one of his power armor’s compartments.
The moment he pulled out the crystal the room plunged into darkness. All that was left was the light coursing through the Predecessor as lightning continued to course through it. Alan glanced at it, then looked away. The site of its bloody laughter was too much. A message popped up.
[Missing Systems Updated:
Approx. 2250 years until total system shut down]
Alan began to consider the implications of this message, when Eve interrupted his thoughts. She suggested he gather one of the empty energy crystals, and thus Alan quickly cut one out. He put it in the compartment behind his left leg. Unfortunately, he didn’t have room for any of the others. He reminded himself to ask Phantom for an advanced bag or something as soon as he got back. Alan deactivated hypercognition and re-sheathed the knife. He activated the Advanced Stealth Mode on his armor.
Reminder: Devoting primary resources to control Advanced Stealth Mode well, please do not task me with complicated tasks. Combat modeling will be slightly delayed as well.
What? Why’s that? Alan asked.
Basic Stealth Mode hides you from sight, from a small spectrum of electromagnetic waves. Advanced Stealth Mode allows armor to replicate and mimic nearly all other types of waves in addition to light waves. Sound, smells and all other manners of commonly used ways to detect someone may be mimicked as if the armor simply isn’t there. However, this near-perfect mimicry is extraordinary taxing due to the fact you do not meet the requirements of the armor. Be quiet and let me focus.
Alan did so, calmly watching as the Predecessor’s life fell bellow 10%. One second ticked by, then the next. Its HP drain began to slow, from 1% a second to .5%. Alan watched. Then, finally, the HP bar reached zero. A couple of messages popped up before Alan, accompanied by a sudden crash.
Alan immediately did so, quickly reading over the messages.
[Rewards for slaying the Lord of the Abyss severely diminished as it made no attempt to fight back.]
[x23 Level up!]
[Gained over 20 levels with one kill! +20 bonus ability points]
[Due to Predecessor’s unique Boss status and abilities its soulsteel has remained bound.]
[Your actions have been deemed hostile by the Warden! You are now deemed hostile by the Abyss Labyrinth.]
Alan looked up to see the two Level 2000 Ancient Sentinel’s crash through the doorway, arms held aloft. Their hands glowed green, and had been transformed into hand cannons of some sort. While Eve attempted to scan the two guards Alan quickly tried to connect to the Chief Warden AI but his connection was denied.
Scan inconclusive. 30% estimated chance of survival.
What? Don’t I need to just run past them? Alan asked worriedly as he slowly tried to make his way over to the Predecessor’s body to try to loot it.
Negative. Their long range scanners will detect us as soon as the power armor’s energy runs out. We must destroy them here and now. Attempting to develop a battle plan while maintaining Advanced Stealth Mode proving problematic. Please attack quickly as best you can, remember the Lord of the Abyss noting their “brains” are at their center.
With a sigh, Alan found a single vial of Predecessor DNA on the Lord of the Abyss’s body. He then unsheathed both soulsteel knives. His health was already dangerously low due to the cost, and Alan could feel that his body was low on blood. His energy shields were also already halfway drained.
Don’t worry. Based upon my estimations if we are hit once by those Sentinel’s attacks we would be vaporized instantly even if we were at full HP.
Great, Alan replied, narrowing his focus on the golems. They stood side-by-side scanning the room with waves of bright green light that emerged from their central eyes. When the light reached Alan it passed through him like he was a ghost. He silently commended Eve as he began sprinting towards the golems, knives outstretched, planning on reaching the space between the two golems, attacking each in rapid succession. The moment his knife first penetrated a golem the invisibility matrix of his armor would unfortunately be breached and fall apart, which meant these few moments would likely determine the battle. Luckily, the armor could still generate the field despite the holes and low durability status.
Eve quickly transferred her guidance to Alan, and he saw himself trying to deeply penetrate the left-hand golem’s eye while simultaneously cutting through one of its four arms, each of which held a large blade. Alan felt a bit ludicrous charging at the behemoth of metal only holding two tiny knives, but he followed Eve’s orders perfectly.
The knife in Alan’s left hand easily penetrated the golem’s eye until his hand was stopped, while his right hand easily sliced through the golem’s armor covering it’s right hand, revealing wires and circuitry. Alan quickly reversed his grip, cutting through as many of the wires in the hand as possible while twisting the knife embedded in the golems eyes viciously. Its HP bar appeared, dropping 40%.
Alan, however, was now revealed. Eve showed three cleavers descending at him in rapid succession, moving at a speed that almost rivaled the first Predecessor Alan had met. All Alan could do was barely adjust his grip with a slight, carefully calculated step, and watch the results. With miraculous precision two of the blades were perfectly blocked by the two soulsteel knives Alan held. As soon as each blade met the soulsteel knife it was immediately cut in two where the blades met, the rest of the golem’s blade swishing through the air harmlessly, inches from Alan’s body. The third slash, which had been aiming to bisect Alan passed in front of his face, embedding itself in the ground. Taking the opportunity, Alan sliced at the mechanical fingers that grasped the blade, watching as the blade was dropped to the ground.
BEHIND YOU, Eve yelled at Alan. He turned his head to see the second golem’s arms stretching out, while its eye began to glow brighter, aimed directly at Alan. Eve showed to Alan the trajectories of the descending cleavers as well as her estimated path for the eye’s blast. She showed a singular path to avoid damage, a leaping, twisting backflip that required Alan to cut through the arms while in midair. Alan attempted the leap.
Almost immediately, he felt something was off, his movements not mirroring the preciseness with which Eve showed them being executed. He simply did not have the experience or skill required for such a maneuver. Still, Eve attempted to correct it, calculating and displaying a new set of blocks for Alan to make. He barely managed to fend off the first two cleavers that cut at him, but he could do nothing but watch as the golem’s glowing eye let out a gigantic blue beam of light. Alan tried to turn himself in midair, even managing to change his course slightly by pushing off of the two other arms that tried to cut him. He managed to almost evade the entirety of the blue ray, but it struck a glancing blow, knocking Alan to the ground, eliminating the rest of his shield energy. Any additional hits would kill him.
Alan turned to see the damaged golem had turned 180 degrees, preparing its own eye-blast. Its three remaining arms had dropped the blades. There fingers were now pointed drill bits, like the ends of a sharpened pencil. Alan didn’t think they would break so easily. The undamaged golem was also preparing another attack, its eye recharging while it stepped forward as its arms began descending.
An image formed in Alan’s eyes of him throwing the two knives, each piercing the direct center of the two golems. A series of calculations, diagrams and projections flashed through his mind as Eve planned this out, finally leaving him with the precise angle, force and technique to throw the knives. Alan followed the outline, concentrating like never before, getting up to a kneeling position before attempting the throw. Then, he took the two knives, and released.
As the knives left his hands Alan felt a sort of satisfaction, of rightness. Eve calculated they were both directly on-target. The knife headed at the damaged golem flew fluidly through the air, spinning, dead set for its central eye. The golem attempted to defend itself with its arms, but to no avail. Its eye was pierced, the knife’s spinning handle stopped by the golem’s armor. Gravity brought the knife downwards, and it pierced all the way through the golem’s body before slowly falling onto the floor sideways. The golem was destroyed.
The second golem, however, made no attempt to dodge the spinning knife headed its way. The moment before the knife pierced its eye, it instead shifted, blinking just like Sidestep, appearing at Alan’s side. Eve instantaneously ran new calculations, displaying to Alan that he had to get away, back to the first knife. He leapt up, sprinting towards the thrown knife lying on the ground, narrowly dodging the four blades that descended, trying to cut him in two. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the second knife he had thrown glide through the air, unobstructed. It tumbled to the ground, blade first, and penetrated the floor. It fell into the Abyss. Lost.
Alan briefly stopped to gape at the sight of his lost weapon, only to almost be sliced open by a descending blade; Eve immediately directed him onto a new safe path through the attacks. Fortunately, it seemed as though the golem had to recharge its energy after using the blink ability. If it had been able to use it as often as Sidestep, Alan would have been killed long ago.
That is why I did not want you to throw the knives initially. Now concentrate at the battle at hand, it’s not over yet, Eve commanded.
Alan gritted his teeth and accepted the command, all his attention on the knife that had fallen onto the floor. Seconds later, he finally managed to pick it up with a sweeping grab as he ran past. The knife almost tumbled out of his fingertips but he managed to correctly grasp it a moment later, just in time to slice at a metallic arm passing beside him. He jammed the knife inwards then began running back at the golem, severing the arm’s wire tendons. The arm shuddered, then dropped the blade it was holding.
Two blades swiped at Alan from opposite sides, one at his chest level, the other at leg level. The third blade swiped downwards from above, like a guillotine. Following Eve’s direction, Alan dived to his left, dodging two of the blades. He used his knife to cut through the third and avoided taking any hits. As Alan charged at the golem it tried an additional series of triangular attacks but each time Alan was able to successfully avoid taking any damage, instead inflicting minor wounds with his counterattacks.
Alan finally made his way to the golem’s body as its eye began to charge a blast. He stabbed forwards, driving in the blade and lightly pushing it through at Eve’s command, letting go of the knife. With his momentum Alan sprinted around the golem, catching the knife mid-air as it fell out the other side, having pierced the golem all the way through. For good measure, Alan immediately reversed his grip oin the knife and stabbed the eye at the opposite end, twisting viciously trying to inflict as much damage as possible. A split-second later, the golem shut down.
[x5 Bonus xp for slaying an enemy over 1000 levels higher than you!]
[x112 Level up!]
[Gained over 100 levels in one battle! +100 ability points]
As his adrenaline began to wear off Alan looted the two golems before collapsing onto the floor, exhausted. They each dropped small crystalline cubes of dark green energy and a scientific design. One design looked to be a blueprint of the golem’s eye-weapon; Alan was hopeful that Phantom would be able to incorporate it into his own bionic eye. The other seemed to be part of a larger diagram that when fully assembled would be able to give metal golems technological psionic ability, or at least that was Eve’s hypothesis. It would probably sell well.
After resting for an hour, Alan headed out, his armor’s basic invisibility active. Eve had figured that they couldn’t rest for too long as there would likely be patrols of some sort sent out to find them. She set a pace of a quick jog, and guided Alan on a pathway to the nearest hub area. Once there, they could hopefully hash out some sort of deal the warden AI, otherwise they would need to try to find a friendly group of players to survive, which was unlikely to say the least.
The run was uneventful, though tiring. Eve disabled and alerted Alan to any traps or obstacles, as their safe return to the Black Rose guild headquarters was paramount. Down a third secret path, past a few seemingly trivial puzzles, Alan found himself before another cubic structure, slightly larger than the previous two. He quickly narrowed his focus onto the machine presence and sent out a message.
Let me talk to the Warden. Please?
… Systems Initializing. Error. Warning: Limited Power.
Request Acknowledged. Warning: Main Systems Offline.
Shortly thereafter, Alan finally felt the presence he associated with the Warden attempt a connection to him, which he accepted immediately.
What, Betrayer, here to gloat about your victory? Let me assure you that you will not leave here alive, the Warden sent in a curt, threatening manner.
Um, actually I sort of wanted to explain my actions, Alan thought nervously. Look, you can review the footage, but the Predecessor was going crazy, and basically threatened to kill me. If I didn’t follow its orders, I’m sure it would of killed me and taken out the crystal itself. This way, you didn’t lose the energy crystal. I really want to study it so I can complete this quest, Alan said truthfully, without letting the Warden know there was a second way to possibly finish its task.
The Warden seemed to consider Alan’s response carefully, weighing its options. Very well, I may have been rash in my actions; I can see how you proceeded through these actions, as irrational as biological life is.
Alan simply accepted the Warden’s comment, not wanting to cause any trouble, ignoring Eve who seemed to readily agree with its sentiment.
Very well. As finding a suitable guardians for the facility will prove problematic in this facilities current capacity, I will grant you a brief period to study the power crystal. However, if you fail to return with it, holding just as much charge, there will be dire consequences. Do not think that this is a completely isolated facility.
Um, sure, sure, Alan agreed, wondering what else the facility could be tied to.
Eve immediately chimed in. At this point, based upon the Predecessor’s remarks, I believe this is a facility constructed by the mysterious Lords of Life, who disappeared after their great war with the Predecessors. It is generally assumed that they lost the war, but after hearing the Lord of the Abyss’s account I am not so sure. Then again, this is only a possibility, as there have been countless Predecessor civil wars throughout history.
Two messages popped up before Alan:
[Missing Systems Updated:
You have been reinstated as friendly with the Abyss Labyrinth. The Warden has given you five years to study the energy crystal before returning it. You may anger an unknown faction for failing to complete this quest in the Warden’s favor.]
[The Last War:
Discover more information about the final war that took place in real life, and the mysterious Lords of Life.
Very well, the terms of our agreement have been updated. You will be guided back to your starting point, Traveler. I wish you luck in your exploration; you do not understand the horrors that will be unleashed should this system run out of power. The Warden shut off its communication.
Alan turned to the only open corridor, and found the familiar slide. This time when he got onto it however, it slowly began to pull him upwards. Exhausted after the exploration, Alan fell asleep, Eve ensuring him he would wake him if action was needed.
A few hours later, the slide finally reached the hub Alan had come from. He quickly activated his basic invisibility and proceeded back to the lift up to Black Rose territory, avoiding the slimes that had begun to respawn. To his relief, he found a very bored looking Black Rose pilot waiting at the bottom of the lift, apparently still waiting as Alan hadn’t respawned, and was thus presumed to still be alive within the Labyrinth.
Alan took the lift upwards to emerge into what appeared to be a Black Rose hangar bay. A series of messages were displayed before him, letting him know he successfully completed the Escape! and Mad Gamble quests, and was now an official member of the Black Rose guild, open to promotions. He received 5000 guild points, and 4 levels. Alan was told he was back in a safe-zone, and he let out a slight sigh of relief as he received a notification that a player had sent him a message. To his surprise, Alan saw that it had been sent from Icewolf.
I: Hey Alan! I know I said not to contact me, but I didn’t expect you to reach level 100 or make it into a big time guild like the Black Rose guild. There are devices that allow for secure, face to face conversation. I’m sure your new guild has one, probably more upgraded than the one I have access to. Let me know a time that you can talk.
Alan’s quest updated:
[Find Icewolf Updated!:
Visit the Red Dust nightclub on Mars to get a clue about Icewolf’s location. He may even be there when you visit.
New Option: Message him privately to set up a secure line to talk to him.
Reward: Additional information, ???
Time Limit: Around 2.5 Months]
Alan quickly sent a reply to Icewolf that he was available to talk as soon as possible. A few minutes later during the short flight back to the Black Rose guild headquarters he got a reply that Icewolf would be available in a hour or so, at about 2200 Khersath Standard Time. The first thing Alan did once he was back at the Black Rose base was head to the nearest Administrator and pay five diamond marks to transport the soulsteel knife, black power crystal and Predecessor blood to their secure vault. Eve estimated that each item had a potential market value of billions of credits, and Alan wanted to make sure they were safe. It wasn’t that he didn’t’ trust the Black Rose guild’s security, it was just that it seemed the sensible thing to do. For one, the Vault had never been stolen from, while guild base raids were not unheard of, even if they were technically illegal on Khersath. Additionally, there was a policy in place which stated the Administrators would pay back a lost item’s market cost in marks, essentially twice what anything was worth. Alan almost wished that someone stole the items out of the Vault, as it would eliminate all his money problems. He felt too scared to try to sell any one of the items, for various reasons, and Eve told him to hold onto them. Thus, into the Vault they went.
The next thing Alan did was proceed to the capsule station, saving his progress and spending the 29 points he had from his gifted ability on agility, keeping the other 416 ability points unspent. Perhaps it would prove prudent to spend the points on the Rogue abilities that decreased the cost of all further ability point purchases. Eve still cautioned against it, citing the fact that he was still in what might be considered the early stages of the game, and his levels would reach an equilibrium as deaths began to cause the loss of a hundred levels or more. Finally, after all this was sorted out, Alan messaged Phantom, asking him about a communication device like the one Icewolf had mentioned. Alan quickly received a reply from Phantom, notifying Alan to meet him in his workshop. A short elevator ride later, Alan was face to face with the Knight.
Phantom looked up from the project he was working on, a redesign of some eye technology, smiling at Alan. “Welcome back. I see that your dungeon diving was very rewarding. You’re over a 100 levels higher than when I saw you last! I would ask, however, that you notify me before any such operations in the future. I could be quite helpful in any of your endeavors, you know, and we were beginning to worry about you. I was preparing to spearhead a search and rescue team myself, you know.”
“Um, right, sorry about that, it’s just that the opportunity presented itself,” Alan said looking at the floor, somewhat abashedly.
“Of course, of course!” Phantom said reassuringly. “I commend initiative, and likely in the future you will need to make decisions before you can get my approval. I just think I haven’t been a very good superior or example, as there are various artifacts and information located within the Abyss Labyrinth that the Black Rose guild is particularly interested in. You could have perhaps come back from the adventure with even more rewards.”
“Oh?” Alan asked, grinning. “Well, I actually brought back a few items that I acquired in my progression through the dungeon, and was wondering if you could help me evaluate their worth. If the guild is interested in buying them, that would be great.” He took out the clear, empty energy crystal, the dark green cube energy crystals and the two diagrams.
Phantom’s eyes lit up as soon as he saw the loot, picking up and examining each item as Alan took them out.
“Wow. These two dark green crystals are actually a key resource in turning ordinary psionic ability into technologic psionic ability, and I can say with certainty that the guild will buy them from you for 250k guild points each. That will pay for half your tuition to the Academy!” Phantom next picked up the two diagrams, looking at them closely.
“Now, these two diagrams aren’t as important to the guild, but I can say that I am personally interested them. As you have probably guessed, I may be able to use this eye diagram to upgrade our bionic-eye to form a sort of laser weapon, while the other could prove useful in other areas of research. Normally, I would say each would only go for about a couple million credits, or 200-500k guild points, and only if you found the correct buyer.” Phantom looked up from the diagrams to study Alan, looking at him closely. “Hmm… Tell me, Alan, how did you manage to find this loot, and get past that impasse in the Abyss Labyrinth?”
“Well, um, I connected to the AI that was present within the impasse, which was actually a hub of sorts for the Abyss Labyrinth. The AI was one of many located throughout the facility, I believe. It was one of them that gave me that quest to restore power to the facility,” Alan explained. He and Eve had worked out a version of story that Alan could tell without mentioning the Predecessor, or the items he received from it, as Eve wasn’t sure at what point Phantom might betray them for wealth. As they were working out the details, Eve had reminded Alan that the Black Rose guild new his character information and quests when he first arrived, thus he should appear to not leave anything out. “I then, um, found and battled the boss, or well, bosses as there were two golems, that dropped this loot. I then made my way back to the lift, and, well, here I am.” Alan smiled halfheartedly.
“Yes, yes, here you are. You know, that quest has actually stirred up quite a bit of controversy within the upper echelons of the guild lately. Quite a few are interested in pursuing it, as it seems to be a gamma rated quest, right beneath our feet. Did your exploration perhaps reveal further details about the quest?” Phantom asked.
“Um, sure, yeah,” Alan said hesitantly, thinking fast. “Actually that’s part of what this other crystal is for. I found a number of them in the boss room, but only grabbed this one as I didn’t have space for anymore. I’m supposed to figure out a way to recharge it and bring it back to the room, to help restore the systems. I also came across a map of sorts of the Abyss Labyrinth, or at least a large section of it.”
Phantom picked up the empty energy crystal, carefully placing it in an unknown device that zapped the crystal with small bolts of lightning. “Interesting… This crystal seems to be capable of holding about as much energy as a modern starship, thus it will likely require millions of credits to fully recharge it. The AI that gave you this task didn’t happen to mention what, exactly, the reward would be, did they? Otherwise I’m not sure whether the guild will help you in this task. Before we proceed further, however, let me discuss more about why I’m bringing all this up.” Phantom pulled out a chair for Alan, sitting down on a table across from it. Alan carefully sat down, trying to avoid stepping on any of the metal pieces scattered on the floor.
“Now, I’m sure you’re wondering how you can advance from a Squire to a Knight within the guild. Well, normally you complete a series of three tasks, certain tasks counting for more based upon difficulty, and thus complete your training with your mentor. Now, not only does the rank of Knight in the guild come with a large amount of prestige and a larger salary, but you also begin to earn a percentage of the net income of the guild itself. A fraction of a fraction of a percent, of course, but if the guild pulls off a large mission, that can mean a windfall of millions of credits. That’s one of the reasons the guild has such a unique and fluid leadership, we all want the guild to do well, as we are all owners, of a sort.
“Now, there are a whole slew of additional responsibilities associated with the rank, of course, but you’re still quite a ways from reaching that point. Based upon the information you’ve given me, if you are willing to transfer to me the map of the Abyss Labyrinth you’ve acquired, in addition to the diagrams, I think we can count this as a completion of your first task. It may be a bit strange as I never even assigned this task to you, but I’m confident that this is information the guild is very, very interested in. I think I can get you 500k guild points, plus a 100k bonus for the completion of the task. That will not only completely pay for your tuition to the Academy, but also give you 100k guild points left over. Also, I’ll make sure the guild throws in a bag for you, what do you say?” Phantom looked at Alan grinning.
Alan wished he had Eve, to determine whether or not this deal was as good as it sounded. Still, when they had discussed earlier what the loot was worth in total, Eve had estimated 500k guild points, max. Thus, Alan readily agreed to the deal, although it took him a few minutes to locate the map of the Abyss labyrinth within Eve’s data. In the meantime, Phantom went to repair his armor.
Phantom soon returned, holding the armor in pristine condition. He handed it back to Alan, along with a small metal ball. This turned out to be a backpack that could expand and contract depending on what needed to be carried. If the weight was too large, it could even develop wheels. In the end though, it would still be limited by how much Alan could physically carry.
A few minutes later, Alan’s “first task” was completed. Alan immediately exchanged the hundred thousand guild points for a million credits, ready to surprise Icewolf by paying off the entirety of his debt. Phantom directed Alan to his new quarters, located only a few floors away from Phantom’s laboratory. According to Phantom, the desk that it came with had a secure call function that would serve Alan’s purpose of communicating, encrypting his call. Phantom did however warn Alan that if Icewolf’s end wasn’t secure, there was nothing to be done.
Wishing Phantom a nice day, Alan stepped back into the elevator, tasking it to take him to his quarters. The elevator rose a few floors until it just emerged from the field that prevented AI’s from working, opening up into what was apparently Alan’s room. He had expected a small dormitory at best, perhaps a cramped space similar to his quarters above the Haxlard ship. Instead, it opened up to reveal a luxurious suite, complete with bathroom, which had a sauna and bath, a kitchen with a food dispenser, meaning Alan never had to visit the cafeteria again, a small personal gym, basically a smaller version of the treadmill room Alan had trained in earlier, a king-sized bed with giant screen and what was labeled as a communications/media room.
As it was about time to begin his meeting with Icewolf, Alan entered the communications room. With Eve’s help, Alan was able to quickly start and set up the secure communications protocols on the device, although the settings and controls were fairly self-intuitive. Alan was fairly sure he could have set up the call himself. Probably.
A minute later he began the call to Icewolf, who answered almost immediately. A screen appeared before Alan, displaying Icewolf, who looked as lean as ever. With large bags under his eyes, Icewolf appeared more stressed than Alan had ever seen before. He wore a battered dark suit of light power armor that looked almost identical to the basic Scout Power Armor Alan first received. Behind him there was a dimly lit metal space, like a solitary confinement cell. Alan noted that the communication protocols Eve had set up simply showed Alan with a completely black background.
“Adampwnage! Or, I guess Alan now. Great to see you in the Game. Congratulations on joining the Black Rose guild! You and Kitana are only like the thousandth or so human to join a major faction,” Icewolf greeted Alan, smiling widely.
“Um, thanks, it’s good to see you too. It really wasn’t much, Eve did a lot of the work,” Alan said demurely.
“Nonsense! Modesty doesn’t fit one of the Earth’s brightest prospects. Trust me when I say I expect you’re going to make waves. I hear you’re going to the Academy and everything! Well, anyways, I guess I’ll cut straight to the chase, I’m sure you’re wondering what your class quest will be,” Icewolf said.
“Class quest? Oh, right, you’re my rogue mentor. So you get to choose my class quest or whatever? Um, maybe something easy?” Alan asked with a slight smile, trying to appear sincere.
“Ha! You wish. Unfortunately it seems almost all the quests I can offer you are difficult, but with great risks come great rewards, right?” —Icewolf scrolled down, looking at a screen before him— “However, I had long ago decided on a specific task, one which I hope you’ll be up to. I hate to be the bringer of bad news, but things on Earth are not as stable as they appear. Have you been following the local news lately, Alan?” Icewolf asked, looking up from the screen.
“Um, not quite…” Alan replied sheepishly. He silently requested that Eve send him the most recent headlines on Earth. A number of articles appeared before him. Alan read them quickly, mouth agape. Each listed a series of escalating terrorist attacks and bombings around the world, all perpetrated by the Legion of Man. Within the Game, of course.
“Wow, these Legion of Man are causing seriously destruction,” Alan commented, looking up to see Icewolf staring at him intently.
“Yes they are,” Icewolf said slowly. “However, their attacks may be warranted.”
“What!?” Alan exclaimed.
“Look, remain calm, what I’m about to tell you is something the United World Government is trying to keep under wraps as best they can. They can try to spin it any way want, but something has been made clear. They’ve fucked up,” Icewolf said with dead certainty, his eyes locked onto Alan’s. A weighty gravitas filled his words.
“When the Haxlards first came to Earth, with the Enforcers and Administrators, they offered what seemed to be very lucrative deals, access to technology, infrastructure and weapons that would take us years to create. So, of course, the United World Government readily signed contracts, under the assumption that the services and technology they bought could be paid for with resources found on Earth and within the solar system. What they have been trying to hide is that they do not in fact have the full authority to the resources they though they had. It gets a bit complicated, so please ask me if anything doesn’t make sense.
“Due to the nature of the Game, and the fact that a faction in control of a certain sector of space may not have that sector’s best interests at heart, any faction is limited in the amount of real world resources they are allowed to mine, a yearly quota that is strictly monitored by the Enforcer fleet. Of course, the Administrators wouldn’t allow a completely one-sided contract to be signed, but as a neutral party they couldn’t point out the United World Government’s flawed assumptions. For, not only are they unable to use Earth’s resources to the degree they wish to, they also have made a number of other flawed judgments.
“A large part of any factions income is of course taxes, in this case they hope to tax all of humanity as more and more people join the Game. However, what they failed to take into account is the fact that they are only able to tax those who join the United World Government within the Game. For instance, just because you and I technically live on Earth, in San Francisco, does not mean that we are required to pay the United World Government anything. They have tried to draft laws that circumvent this in the real world, but every time they have been struck down by the Administrators. People are individuals within the Game, their real life situation does not matter.
“Another large issue is that the cream of the crop, the elite of the elite, are all joining other factions. Like you, for instance! Any reasonably intelligent person can clearly see the advantages to joining a well established faction like the Black Rose guild as opposed to a weak, unstable government still in its infancy. The politicians are still living in the past, and have yet to adopt the new ways of thinking. They have allied themselves with the Haxlards, without realizing that as soon as they are unable to pay off the interest on the loans and debts, a bankruptcy will be declared, and as the debt holders, the Haxlards will be able to slowly buy up Earth!”
“Wait, you mean in a couple of years if we can’t pay off this debt Earth will be no longer in our hands? How much money are we talking here?” Alan asked, thinking about the priceless artifacts he had recently acquired.
“It’s on the scale of hundreds of trillions of credits. Trust me when I say there is very little you, as an individual can do. Sure, some galactic bank or even your guild could probably bail them out, but I doubt anyone would see it as a worthwhile investment, as it will be even more difficult for Earth to survive, all by itself, in Haxlard space! One of the main reasons that the Haxlards are investing so much into Earth defense are the fact that they aim to take over said defenses, but through economic warfare, something that the early Earth government had little to no experience with, especially within the galactic economy.
“To answer your other question about a timeline, the most optimistic models actually anticipate that the United World Government can last a good 50 years or so before declaring bankruptcy, given its capital, but even then the model displays that a default is inevitable. Others say they may run out of money as soon as 5 years from now! I’ll send you the data, which I’ve prepared to convince you. I’m sure your AI will come to the same conclusions,” Icewolf tapped a few buttons in front of him, and a stream of data began to flow to Alan. He sent it to Eve to analyze.
“Wait. If what you’re saying is true, why isn’t this a bigger deal? Surely if this information was broadcast widely people would realize something would need to be done, right?” Alan asked.
“Well , there’s a number of reasons. There have been attempts to spread this information on the internet, and elsewhere, but remember that information about the Game is severely censored by the Administrators! Over 95% of humanity is still unaware of the Game’s true importance! The vast majority of players who are in-game work for major corporations or the United World Government, thus the information they receive is even more heavily censored, and they have a vested interest in keeping the United World Government alive as long as possible. Unfortunately, new technology does make it even easier for a big brother type of control. The few that are told in-person generally have one of a few reactions. They are either disbelieving or simply accept it as government working as usual! After all, many world governments operated on extreme budget deficits for years. They do not realize that this deficit is tied to contracts made through the Administrators. Contracts that are severely enforced in the Game. Thus far, the Haxlards have been relatively lenient, but there is overwhelming evidence they are simply biding their time.
“And, that, I suppose, brings us to why I contacted you, and what can be done. I will come out and say it. I am an operative of the Legion of Man. I was the one who arranged for the death threat to be sent to you, but rest assured that no such action will ever be taken, even if you decide to side with the United World Government. Such action would be complete suicide. The message simply killed a few birds with one stone, if you will, as it cemented in people’s minds that you are in fact an enemy of the Legion of Man. At the same time it placated those within the Legion that wanted to take actual action against you, as, to be honest, you did severely damage to fairly important operations. Now-”
“Wait, so that was you in San Francisco?” Alan asked. Despite the alarming revelation, Alan remained rather calm. The fact that the death threat wasn’t real relieved him.
“Yes that was me,” Icewolf grinned, “and the fact that you were able to do so well undetected actually motivated me to get a set of the armor you were wearing. It worked quite nicely, though I see yours has… a number of improvements.” Alan detected a hint of jealousy in Icewolf’s tone.
“Anyways, moving on to the whole Legion of Man, our goals, why I joined and why you should join as well. The plan is quite simple, really. It’s to overthrow the United World Government and cement ourselves in power before the immunity period is up, and develop allies who truly are our allies, not deceptive enemies that will turn on us as soon as it makes sense. It’s quite beautiful, you see, as Haxlards will not be able to directly aid the United World Government as long as the immunity period lasts, and if we successfully overthrow the government without causing too much damage, we will be able to take over all the defenses the Haxlards paid for, debt free! A faction victorious in war does not inherit the conquered faction’s debts, just its infrastructure. So, you see, this is the one true path to freedom!” Icewolf gestured about wildly, punctuating each remark, animatedly showing that he believed this was the correct path.
“Uh, okay,” Alain said slowly, unsure of how to react to such unbridled enthusiasm. He thought that Icewolf was oversimplifying things. “However, have you perhaps considered this is what the Haxlards want? After all, war is expensive, and it is undoubtedly wearing down the United World Government’s resources even faster.”
Icewolf shrugged. “A risk we have to take. It does not matter, for if we fail, then the Haxlards will simply take over the Earth sooner rather than later. Don’t you see? This is the only path, the only true way for freedom, for an Earth under human control.”
Alan began a response, then closed his mouth, as Eve was communicating with him. “Wait, let me think this through for a second, and discuss it with my AI,” he said.
“Of course, take as long as you need, this is heavy stuff,” Icewolf responded, bringing up a few screens to work on.
So, um what do you think, Eve? Alan asked nervously
Based upon the data received and extrapolated from information available on the globalnet, I agree with Icewolf’s conclusion. In the long term, the United World Government is destined to fall, with about 99% certainty. In fact, even before this new information I estimated there was a 80%+ chance for it to fail. However, I am cautious to join or aid this other faction, this Legion of Man. Our actions in the past towards them have been rather hostile, and we lack much information about them. We are still unaware of their power structure, or how they plan on governing the Earth. For all we know they are run by a despot.
Yeah, I agree. Except I’m not so sure Icewolf will give me more information about the Legion if I’m hesitant to join… let me talk to him some more.
Alan looked up at Icewolf, “Okay, my AI came to the same conclusion, that the United World Government is pretty much doomed. Something she should have told me beforehand, but anyways, I still don’t really know anything about this Legion of Man, it’s leaders, or anything at all really. From what I see, all the Legion’s actions have been primarily terrorist-esque, which frankly doesn’t seem very, well, patriotic or nationalist or whatever the word is for fighting for your planet.”
“Well, of course the media you see portrays it that way,” Icewolf quickly rebutted, “it is all firmly controlled by the United World Government. Anyways, the Legion of Man plans to be, like the United World Government, a democracy. However, only those within the faction and in the Game are allowed to vote in its elections. Although, the military is for the most part merit based. The current commander-in-chief was voted on, with a bi-monthly term. You will understand if I can’t give you names as long as you aren’t in the faction though,” Icewolf said. He seemed a bit disappointed that Alan wasn’t jumping out of his seat, excited to join.
Alan quickly mulled over his thoughts, then replied, “Hmm, alright, that seems reasonable. Honestly, I’m not quite sure given my situation in the Black Rose guild if I even can join the Legion of Man.” You can, governments are a separate entity than guilds, although governments have guilds and vice versa, Eve let him know. “Except, my superior has expressed interest in ensuring the Earth is neutral or allied to the Mercenary Bloc in any future conflicts that should arise. It probably won’t be if it’s under Haxlard control. Thus, I can probably easily arrange for you to have a meeting with him. Additionally, I promise to try to search for a solution which will benefit humanity as a whole, and ensure that the Earth does not fall under Haxlard control. Oh, and, um speaking of my debts, I can pay you back now.”
Icewolf looked at Alan, surprised, then nodded, looking a bit disappointed. “Oh, alright, just send the credits to me and I’ll cancel out your debt. Also, I guess your answer is acceptable, and about as good as I guess I’ll get. Well then, that almost makes me feel bad for giving you this quest… though I suppose it’s too late to change it now. Anyways, we can work out the meeting details with your superior at a later time, though the Mercenary Bloc seems like a promising lead I don’t think we’ve followed through with yet. I don’t think I’m really qualified to establish any sort of deal with anyone, though. Anyways, the quest. Well, you’re now aware of this all so… here you go. Good luck.” Icewolf ended the call as messages sprang up before Alan.
[The War for Earth Discovered!
You have discovered the ongoing secret war for Earth, and have chosen to side with the allies of Earth, those who wish to see humanity remain in control of their home planet, not under the control of the Haxlards or any other alien force. As the war is currently a secret war within humanity special rules apply:
1000 War Contribution Points are required to recruit any other human* into the war.
*Only humans from Earth may join the war, i.e. homo sapiens born on the planet Earth.
Should you kill any agent that you are aware of being part of the opposing side in the war for Earth they will be unable to further engage in war-related activities and all their war-related quests will fail. Similarly, should you fall to an enemy agent you will be effectively “dead” in the war and will be unable to continue war-related activities.
Winners of the war will be rewarded based upon participation and contribution, determined through War Contribution Points. War Contribution Points are awarded based upon favorable actions, such as killing enemy combatants, conquering enemy control points, completing war-related tasks and other such activities.
Current Win Condition: Conquer 80% of Earth control points, including the main Earth Control Point and every regional control point, e.g. North America Control Point, East Asia Control Point and South Africa Control Point
Current Loss Condition: Elimination of all allied forces.
Current allies: Approx. 100,000
Current enemies: ???]
A new war screen was generated by Eve, which like his status or guild window displayed various information about the war. Alan would need to go into further detail with Eve to figure out just what a war within the Game entailed, though it seemed straightforward thus far. Find and eliminate the enemy before they find you. He continued reading the other quests he received.
[Gather Allies (War for Earth Quest):
Gather allies to help defend Earth from outside control!
Option: Discover and recruit new allies at the Academy. Beware enemy operatives.
Option: Try to set up and perhaps facilitate a meeting between the Legion of Man and the Mercenary Bloc.
Reward: Increased military and economic might for the allies of Earth
Failure: Decreased military and economic might for the allies of Earth
Possible Impact Level: Gamma]
[A Free Earth (Class Quest):
Do your best to ensure that the Earth remains free from alien control.
Current War Contribution Points: 0
Unique reward and failure: Variable based upon how the War for Earth progresses. Completion when Earth is fully established as under stable human control or upon death in the War for Earth event.
Possible Impact Level: Gamma]
Alan sat back, attempting to process all the new data before him. One thing was sure, things had just become much more complicated. He now had a more tangible goal of trying to find allies to help this war effort, yet at the same time Alan felt more lost than ever. This seemed like too much. He had just been a simple college student less than a year ago, with simple goals and simple dreams. Now, he had somehow ended up in the center of a galactic conflict over the future of his home planet, inside a virtual reality that governed actual reality. There were too many options, to many things he should do and consider and learn and explore and try and—
Stop. Concentrate. Complete tasks one at a time. Send the million credits to Icewolf. Afterward, we should establish contact with Phantom to discuss a possible liaison between the Mercenary Bloc and Legion of man. Then, I will teach you more about war within the Game, so you may more fully prepare yourself and evaluate possibilities. After that, we attempt to recruit Kitana as soon as we gain the points from the first task. We have her help you improve your blade work, and undergo further training with Phantom. We go to the Academy, and study, and train, and study and train some more. Then, when we are ready, we act. Perhaps fighting, perhaps spying, perhaps both, but we wait and develop more information first. Does this make sense to you, Alan?
Yes, Alan replied softly in his mind, calming down slightly. Yes, that does make sense. What would I do without you, Eve?
Die, I expect. More realistically, perhaps you would wallow in your own pity while eating ice cream and playing video games, she responded teasingly.
Alan grinned, and got up. Thanks for that image. Now lead the way.
A green path sprang up before Alan, and off he went, ready to continue the Game.