Alan looked outside of the shuttle as they flew over a bright blue ocean at supersonic speeds. They were now in the private quadrant of Khersath, full of islands and small to medium continents, though none were larger than the size of Australia, at least according to the maps Eve showed Alan. They’d been flying for about three hours now, allowing Alan to get to know a bit more about the other Black Rose recruits aboard the shuttle. To his surprise, most of them had recently graduated from their own home world versions of high school in real life, and had just begun to play the Game as well. Apparently the age limit of 18 on the Game was a sort of universal law, where most players of any species could only began playing when they reached a minimum threshold of adulthood, the age varying planet to planet, species to species. That did make Alan wonder about the kids he’d seen in the Undercity though… he supposed it would just have to remain a mystery, at least for now.
All the other recruits seemed to come from exotic sounding places, planets light-years away from Earth, even in entirely different galaxies. They were all sorts and sizes, wearing varying types of clothing Alan couldn’t begin to describe. But their reasons for being here seemed rather… mundane. They talked as if this was a job application, or a college interview, rather than a chance to join a deadly fighting force. They discussed local sports teams, exchanged news about their sectors and gossiped about celebrity players. Still, even Alan could sense there was an underlying tension in everyone’s voices, as they were about to compete with each other for a limited number of spots in the guild. Alan answered a few questions directed at him, but once the other recruits learned he was from Earth, a new planet, a backwater, they seemed to leave him alone. Alan could tell that they didn’t see him as a threat. That was good.
He’d briefly tried to keep up a conversation with Kitana, but she answered nearly every question with a single syllable and it had turned into a one-sided rambling on his part. His interests in anime, manga and video games weren’t shared at all by her, and the more he thought and talked about them, the sillier the idea sort of seemed in his head. After all, it seemed like he was now living in one of these stories, rather than simply watching a part in one. That was his goal though, right? To become the hero. To protect the Earth, at least as best he could. Still, he had no idea how to go about doing that or what his best options were… he should just try his best to get into the guild and complete his quests for now, he supposed. Maybe some idea from a game he played or book he read would turn out useful. And so Alan stared out the window in the shuttle, watching the scenery breeze past.
A few minutes later, the shuttle began to slow down. Looking out the window Alan could see a bright blue spherical bubble, an energy shield with a radius of about 100 km by Eve’s estimates. After a brief pause, the shuttle soon entered this shield. To Alan’s surprise, once they had entered the radius of the energy field, all signs of it disappeared. The blue seas and skies were all that remained, as if there had never been any shield at all. Once they were within the shield though, Eve immediately highlighted a number of artificial islands and ships, all surrounding a larger hexagon-shaped island, each side around 50 km long according to Eve, a bit smaller than the Hawaiian island Oahu. Each smaller island and ship had clear defensive turrets, although they were too high up for Eve to evaluate the defenses any further. She just knew they were there. Alan thought this was a bit excessive. They were still in a safe zone, after all. Most of the island seemed to be simply green, left in its natural state, with a smattering of structures that Alan could barely make out.
The shuttle quickly began to descend, silently approaching a massive stone fortress in the center of the island. It reminded Alan of a medieval castle, except with its battlements and towers covered by futuristic gun turrets. It was a majestic structure, with four main towers at each of the outer wall’s four corners and a massive keep the size of a small skyscraper at the center. A number of other buildings were held within the walls, a few rectangular administrative type buildings, a hangar and a large, dome-shaped coliseum. At the tip of each of the main towers was a massive colored sphere, containing some undulating energy unknown to Alan. The keep had an even larger pyramid of energy at its tip. Each orb was constantly shifting in color, from a deep blue, to a plasma green, to a fiery red to a clear sort of cloud, and then back again. Alan wondered what the purpose of these spheres was.
A psionic defense system, capable of absorbing many psionic and energy attacks. The energy absorbed can then be used as a potential source of energy for psionic attacks launched from within the castle, Eve explained.
By this time, the shuttle had landed in a small designated area next to the castle, similar to a helipad, and Mason, the arms master, had begun giving out instructions.
“… always be prepared. Anyone caught in an area out of bounds with no good reason will immediately be failed and questioned. This is your only warning. Anyways, after the welcome ceremony is over, further introductions and instructions will be given. Dismissed.”
He then quickly turned around and strode out of the shuttle. More than a few recruits gave each other startled glances.
Uh, what did I miss?
We are to gather in the main hall, mingle, and wait for a speech by the Guild Master Elissandra.
Mingle? I’m not sure if I like the sound of that… Um, anything else?
He said something about constant vigilance, but I am always vigilant. I wouldn’t be surprised if the testing hasn’t already begun. Attend the opening ceremony and see where it goes from there.
Shrugging, Alan followed the rest of the recruits as they exited the shuttle and proceeded through the main gate of the castle, a massive open gateway over 20 feet tall. Each recruit was carefully scanned for “security reasons” by a guard at the gate, then given a metal mark to place on their armor or clothing, which they were told to keep on and visible at all times. On it was a single flowering black rose with a grey background. According to Eve, it was probably also a tracking device of some sort. Alan attached it to his shoulder like he saw most players wear theirs in the main plaza.
Within the castle gates, groups of players and machines moved about, entering the various buildings and leaving through the different gates. There was a flurry of activity about the central keep, as players entered and exited. Following the group, Alan made his way over to the main keep, and as he entered the main hall Alan stopped in wonderment.
There were hundreds if not thousands of players here, far more recruits than he was expecting. The main hall was a massive room with arched ceilings covered in paintings of mythical creatures, many which Alan had never heard of before. Dragons, phoenix and gryphon’s were accompanied by giant green slimes, six-armed monkeys and twin-headed snakes. The main hall was soon relabeled by Eve as the Great Hall. It was hundreds of feet wide and about two football fields long, with arched support beams along its two sides, reminding Alan of St. Peter’s Basilica, which he’d seen in pictures before. This room alone could likely hold tens of thousands of people.
Magnificent stone gargoyles gripping spheres of golden energy posed along the walls and corners of the Great Hall, illuminating it. Covering every surface were intricate designs and patterns, mainly colored in black and gold, holding a sort of ethereal beauty Alan had never witnessed before. In essence, the whole place felt magical.
Alan’s group made their way to the front of the hall, where all the other recruits had gathered around a few tables lined with refreshments, which consisted of multicolored blocks that looked like Jell-O to Alan. Still, they seemed like a step up from the dull, tasteless grey blocks that Alan had grown used to eating. Everyone began to disperse into different groups, mostly along the lines of species or alliances, as far as Alan could tell. He didn’t think it was very likely there would be any other humans from Earth here, but who knew.
Someone who had apparently seen one of Kitana’s fights began to try to strike up a conversation with her. She actually responded somewhat animatedly when talking about various fighting styles and swords. Alan stood to the side for a few seconds, awkwardly, before muttering something about feeling hungry and walking towards the tables of food. This sort of thing really wasn’t his thing. He generally avoided large gatherings, and usually spent most of his time on his phone when he did find himself at a party.
Alan grabbed a bright blue block and bit into it. He was pleasantly surprised by a fruity, cool sort of taste that filled his mouth, reminding him of a mix between blueberries and cherry. A message popped up as well.
[Energized! Increased energy for the next hour.]
Feeling suddenly refreshed, Alan gazed about suddenly bright eyed. He noted that his energy bar had completely filled for the first time, as even when fully rested it usually hovered one or two points short of full. He wondered if he could grab a few of these blocks stealthily and store them for later, when something caught his eye.
It was the girl. The girl that he’d run into getting off the lift into the Undercity. She had on a beautiful black dress, rather than an assassins outfit, but Alan was sure that it was her. The same stunning blue eyes and long blonde hair, the same pointed ears. He couldn’t keep his eyes off of her. He began to walk towards her, to try to strike up a conversation, scrambling for something to say, only to find his path blocked by a boy a bit shorter than him. The boy had pointed ears like the girl’s, green eyes and dark hair. He was wearing what looked to be a black spandex suit and a pair of gloves with pulsing green veins of energy running through them.
“A bit out of your league, don’t you think?”
“What?” Alan asked, a bit surprised.
“The girl you were staring at, you know she’s Aurora, the daughter of the guild leader, Elissandra, right?”
“Oh, um, actually I didn’t know that.”
“Alright, well, you’ll stay away from her if you know what’s good for you.”
“What do you mean? Did I do something to you?” Alan said, a bit taken aback.
The boy haughtily looked over Alan’s armor, then scoffed while staring at the blasters at his side.
“You’re obviously either a complete imbecile or one of the Administrator’s charity cases. You’re wearing Revenant armor in one of the places where they’re most hated, and are carrying blasters worth far more than any beginning player could reasonably afford. You have the bad manners of hiding your name and level among potential guildmates and attached your recruit’s emblem to your shoulder like some sort of guard’s badge. I could go on, but it would probably be a waste of both my time and yours.”
Alan hastily glanced about, and saw that everyone else was wearing their emblem on their chest. The whole Revenant thing might explain some of the not so-subtle glances he was getting as well, and why no one had approached him, even shying away from him a bit. Alan took the emblem off his shoulder and placed it on his chest where a nametag would go, then turned his level and name visible.
“Um, sorry, I didn’t know. No one has really explained any of this to me, if there’s any other things you think I should know I’d appreciate the help.”
Smirking, the boy, whose name was apparently Sidestep, said, “I’d advise you to leave here and maybe spend a few years learning about basic manners. People here,” he gestured about, “have been preparing for guild trials like this one all their lives. You don’t stand a chance. Or at least, you normally wouldn’t, but undoubtedly you’ve been handed a series of rare items because you were born on a backwater.”
Trying to be amicable, Alan said, “Look, I understand your concerns, but don’t you think maybe this special treatment is to counteract the fact that I haven’t been prepared all my life to enter the Game? I didn’t even know how important it was until about a month ago.”
Shaking his head, Sidestep answered, “Whatever. We’ll see during the assessments whether you really belong here. Until then, you should go stand in a corner and not make a scene. Or, better yet, not waste the guild’s time and leave.” Then, with a single step, he shimmered, then reappeared 10 feet away. A few steps later, he was at Aurora’s side.
Wait, was that teleportation?
No, simply a psionic movement skill of some sort, somehow using the energy built into his suit as well, I believe. Still, it seems quite powerful.
Yeah… Also, why didn’t you tell me those things?
The etiquette or manner or custom things.
Why should I have told you those things?
Well, so I wouldn’t piss off half the people here by wearing the armor of their enemy faction or whatever.
At this point I see no great benefit to explaining or following such customs. As players in the Game come from a wide variety of worlds and backgrounds, such things are largely ignored, especially in large gatherings. Most recruits probably have only seen clips of enemies of Revenant attacks, and thus are surprised to see you wearing their armor. Additionally, Revenant armor is far superior to most other faction’s, and has the invisibility ability. I don’t see why ruffling a few recruit’s sensibilities matter. If you haven’t noticed, none of the actual guild members like the arms-master or guards gave your armor a second look.
Oh, so I shouldn’t have revealed my level and name?
Alan felt Eve give a mental shrug.
Once more, I simply see no great benefit to acting in either way.
Um, right. Well, if that’s the case, I’m just gonna stand against the wall and review a few of your lessons on communication skills.
Do as you will. I am currently communicating with local guild AI.
Uh okay, let me know if anything interesting comes up.
Grabbing a red block of foodstuff, Alan strode over to an empty space next to the wall. He decided that he was better off alone, and not because of that jackass Sidestep. Silently fuming, he glared in Sidestep and Aurora’s direction. Shortly thereafter, he received a message.
Aurora: Sorry, but please stop looking at me, people do take notice of that sort of thing. You don’t know me, you’ve never met me. Don’t talk to me or approach me. Just ignore me.
Out of the corner of his eye, Alan saw Aurora send a brief, piercing glare at him. Then, she strode away in another direction, into the crowd. Pausing, Alan tried to send a reply message, but the Game’s system told him that Aurora had blocked him. Well, at least he knew she knew that he existed. She probably just didn’t want people knowing about her escapade to the Undercity for some reason. He told himself it wasn’t him.
Sighing, Alan took a bite out of the red cube he’d grabbed, to see if it gave a different buff. Disappointingly, it gave the same energized buff, but tasted of some other fruit Alan couldn’t quite name. A hooded figure slowly approached Alan wearing brown robes, his name and level remained hidden.
“May the bunny gods spare thee,” a deep, resonating male voice said from beneath the robes.
“Does thou not recognize our great and mighty overlords?”
“The bunny-lords, whose fastest of hearts and fluffiest of tails lead us all through the great fields of space.”
“Um, I’m sorry I don’t really-” The figure pushed Alan up against the wall with a tremendous show of strength.
“Are you a heathen? Do your DARE ignore their teachings-”
“Sorry! Sorry, I don’t-”
The stranger pulled down his hood, revealing a young trickster’s face with sparking black eyes and a Cheshire grin. “Sorry, I was just messing with you, newbies are just too easy. There aren’t any bunny-lords. At least, not yet.”
He then let Alan down gently, smiling. Alan felt a wave of anger began to rise up, infuriated and annoyed at all the jabs at him because of how little he knew, but he was able to push it down, and said politely, “Ah, um, no problem, and you are?”
“The Supreme Pontiff, the Blazing Star, the Herald of Them, the Grande Teacher of Minds, That Guy Over There, etcetera, etcetera. You can call me Him, if you want.”
Alan stared at this strange man blankly. He tried to think of something to say, but nothing came to mind. There was no logical response.
“Anyways, looks like Elissandra is about to give her speech. Time for me to head out then.” He threw his hood back up, and then began walking out of the hall as the lights began to dim.
I believe that was the guild’s Mad Priest, Void.
Wait, so he wasn’t a recruit?
But, he looked just like-
According to online records, he has the ability to shapeshift.
Alan looked up at the front of the hall, which held a simple black altar of some sort. Atop the dais stood a majestic figure, dressed in golden robes. Elissandra, the guild leader. Alan could see the resemblance to Aurora, as Elissandra shared the same blonde hair and blue eyes, but had an ageless face. She regally stood, arms outstretched, as energy from the orbs all along the walls and ceiling flew to form a ring of energy above her hands, plunging the room into darkness.
Smiling, she looked out across the hall full of potential recruits, standing in the shadows of her light. Alan felt her gaze briefly rest on him before continuing. The room had fell deathly quiet, as everyone’s attention rested on Elissandra.
“Greetings, recruits, and welcome to the Black Rose Guild Hall.”
A message popped up in front of Alan:
[Scoping out the Competition Updated:
2/10 Major players met
Bonus: 0/10 Objectives found]
Alan was reminded of the class quest the Chief Administrator had given him, tasking him with meeting 10 major players, players that were capable of massively influencing the game, and finding their objectives in the Game, if he could. This meant that Elissandra was considered one such major player. He closed the message. Interesting.
“I hope that I see you within these halls for many years to come, but before introductions are made I would like to offer a few words of advice. Year after year applicants make their way here with simple goals of wealth and power. I understand, as we are mercenaries, after all.”
The swirling gold energy above her settled into a mountain of glimmering of gold coins, exuding a faint warmth that even Alan, standing over fifty feet away, could feel.
“But we are so much more. We are a brotherhood, a united order. A guild. A band of allies with common purpose. If you have not begun thinking about this, you should begin to ask yourself, what will you do for the Black Rose Guild? And perhaps, more importantly, what can the Black Rose Guild do for you? Dream bigger than simple thoughts of credits and levels. Think of change, change that you can make.”
The thousands of coins suddenly began shifting into golden balls of light, floating high up above everyone, close to the ceiling, illuminating more of the room. Alan watched as slowly a single ball of light settled above the heads of every recruit.
“For, after all, we are one of the strongest guilds the Game has ever seen. We have conquered planets, assassinated emperors, sacrificed gods and amassed wealth far beyond imagination. But we have not come this far without developing enemies.”
To your right and left, Eve cautioned Alan.
Resting his back along the wall, Alan watched as out of the shadows created by the balls of light players stepped out, members of the Black Rose Guild. They appeared seemingly out of nowhere, stepping out of the dim corners of the room, all wearing similar black suits of leather or metal armor, hiding their faces, names and levels. Two knights suddenly stepped out from the shadows, standing to either side of Alan, hands rested on black metal broadswords at their sides. Glancing about, Alan could see most of the other recruits had only a single guild member next to them. He slowly moved his hands over to his laser pistols, wondering what was about to happen.
Elissandra continued in a somber tone, “And this is why I must now ask that you reveal your complete character information to the guild member next to you. Your character information, your faction allies and your quests. Everything. I realize this is a great deal of information, but this will help us determine if you have a place in our guild, and, if so, where. Unfortunately, we will have to fail and detain anybody allied with one of our enemies. If you have a quest to infiltrate this guild, then it goes without saying you, too, will be detained.”
A motion caught the corner of Alan’s eye, as a recruit suddenly tried to make a dash for the exit. The golden sphere of energy above him pulsed, turning black, sending a bolt of lightning that struck the recruit. They collapsed onto the floor, unconscious, as the guild member who had been watching the recruit calmly strode over, picked up the body and strode into the darkness.
All the players around Alan began to slowly open up menus, showing them to the players that appeared by their side. Alan began to do the same, but Eve messaged him.
I have transferred the requested information to the guild AI tasked with compiling the data.
Yes, it is rather crude but each of the Black Rose guild members seem to be inputting the data into this database. I simply uploaded it straight there.
The knight to Alan’s right coughed, holding up a tablet, motioning for Alan to open up his character screen.
Alan turned to look at him, and said quietly, “Check your database. It should all be there.”
The knight looked down, back up at Alan, then put the tablet away, shrugging.
Alan watched the sea of recruits. A few more tried to make their escape, for whatever reason. A few adamantly resisted showing their information, while others tried to grab a weapon at their side or make a break for it. All were quickly silenced by a single bolt of lightning from the golden ball that floated above their head, then dragged off to who knows where. One girl managed to deflect the bolt headed her way with an energy shield of some sort, but another two bolts quickly struck at her from either side, silencing her. The moment felt sort of surreal. By the time everyone had finished showing their information, perhaps 5% of the recruits were gone.
Suddenly, Elissandra, who had been calmly observing the proceedings, waved her hands, and the balls of energy all shot back to their respective places on the wall, illuminating the Great Hall once more. All around the room, the guild members began to take off their helmets and masks. The knight to Alan’s right was revealed to be a stone-faced cyborg, with the name and title, Specialist 3. To his left stood the cyborg’s mirror image, with the name Specialist 4.
Elissandra smiled briefly, then said, “Now that that business is out of the way, I would officially like to welcome everyone to the 307th guild assessment. The rules are rather simple. By the end of the tomorrow, earn 1000 guild points. Those with 1000 points or more are allowed to join the guild. Those with less will be asked to leave.
Guild points are the main currency within the guild, and can be exchanged with a 1:10 ratio for credits, or for items or other services within the guild. Monthly wages, as well as bonuses will be awarded in guild points. Ranks can even be improved within the guild with the necessary number of points, if you meet the requirements for the rank you are applying for. The way we do things are a bit unique, without the rigid structure of many other guilds and governments, but more about that will be told to you after you pass the trial. These guild points may also be traded, sold or gambled freely, like any other currency, but for the purpose of the assessment the points must be earned. Now, I’m sure you are all wondering how you might earn said points.
Well… earlier today, or at another point in time, you were likely given a task of one sort or another by a member of the guild. Each of these tasks were actually carefully examined and proctored events, and you will now be granted points according to how you did. The number of points you possess will appear on your guild mark, which must remain in clear sight at all times.”
A golden energy flowed out of Elissandra’s hands, spreading and striking every recruit, engulfing them in a sudden flash of light. Alan watched as a bright burst of energy snaked towards him, then struck him, engulfing him in a warm embrace. A message popped up.
[Faction Change! Title Established.
You are now a (temporary) member of the Black Rose Guild, granted the title Black Rose Recruit. Guild standings reset. Guild points awarded.
Increased renown for being affiliated with a well known guild. As a faction member, your Faction Standings will be influenced, and your actions will influence your faction’s reputation as well as your own.]
Suddenly, a slew of additional messages popped up, hundreds in total. Alan was barely able to close them quickly enough as additional messages continually popped up. They were along the lines of the following:
[Faction Bonus! 10% Discount at all stores on Khersath.]
[Faction Bonus! Increased experience gain while in Black Rose Guild territory.]
[Faction Bonus! Increased attack damage while in Black Rose Guild territory.]
[Faction Bonus! Allowed to travel to freely within the Empire.]
[Faction Bonus! Allowed to purchase a Republic Universal Travel Permit at a discounted rate.]
[Faction Bonus! Increased performance from Black Rose Guild equipment.]
Gaping at the huge number of bonuses, feeling a bit stronger, Alan grinned. Trying to join this guild was definitely the right choice. A new faction window appeared too, showing the Black Rose Guild’s reputation with hundreds of different groups.
Alan glanced at his guild mark, as a new icon appeared beneath the rose, for guild points. He looked at how many points he was awarded, then looked again. He’d been given 5000 points, 4000 more than he needed to join the guild. Grinning, he looked back up at Elissandra. He was already in, just like that, it seemed.
Looking in Alan’s direction, Elissandra suddenly gave a devilish grin, then spoke aloud to the crowd, “But like all other forms of wealth, these guild points may quickly change hands. After this presentation everyone will proceed to the Simulation Dome, and the first trial will begin. A series of free for all duels, with each recruit’s own guild points on the line. Each recruit is allowed to issue 10 challenges to any other recruit they desire, and each recruit must accept any challenge they receive. The person who is challenged will then be able to either choose the number of points wagered, a value from 100 to 1000 points, or choose the rules of the duel from pre-set rule sets. The challenger will then decide upon whatever was left undetermined. All recruits must go through at least five duels before retiring for the night. Any undefeated recruit will be given 100 guild points, any undefeated recruit with more than 10 wins will be given 500 points, and the recruit with the most wins will be given 1000 points.
To be fair, there are a few rules, like you can only challenge the same person multiple times if they agree, purposely losing a duel will lose you points, you can’t wager more points than a recruit has and if one recruit has below 100 points the duel value will automatically be fixed at 100. As if you lose the duel you lose the amount of points wagered, it is possible that there will be players with increasingly negative point values. If you have less than -500 points, you will be unable to continue dueling. The same goes for if you have more than 10000 points. You will be all be required to change into standard guild recruit equipment, and be given a choice of basic weapons, although the duel may be fixed with a certain type of weapon according to the rule set of the duel. Then, once all of the duels are finished, you may proceed to the lodgings provided and prepare for tomorrows assessments. There will be a general assessment of your abilities, followed by more specific testing by the major divisions within the guild. Points will be adjusted, depending on how these assessments go.
Now, I would like to introduce the heads of the guild’s main divisions, and what they are looking for in recruits. As the guild leader and one of the strongest psionics in the Game, I occasionally take apprentices from the guild’s Psionic’s Corps, more on which will be explained later. Other than that however, you will generally report to your direct superior, thus, unfortunately, my interaction with the guild at large is generally fairly limited. Good luck in the assessments.” She then turned, and strode over to stand at the side of the altar.
Mason, who had apparently been near to the front, stepped up.
“I am Mason, the head Arms Master. Each and every member of the Black Rose Guild is expected to be proficient in at least basic combat, and I’m in charge of training you lot in that regard. If you impress me or one of my fellow brothers at arms in tomorrow’s assessments, we will consider taking you as a trainee, or squire, as they are called in this guild. All members are expected to achieve at least an F ranking in tomorrow’s combat assessments. If you have decent combat skills, and no one else wants you, you’ll join our General Army. If you wish to join this force, you must have at least rank D combat abilities right now and achieve an expected combat rank of at least B. More on this later.”
Mason was soon followed by a thin, skeletal hawk-eyed man, who appeared tiny standing next to Mason.
He said in an excited, squeaky voice, “I am Admiral Thrag, one of the two commanders of the Black Rose fleet. The other commander being my wife, Thrasha. You may have heard of the fleet, as it was the one that led the Empire’s Prime fleet on a wild goose chase during the most recent rebellion. Now, it all began on a cold, clear night. Well, I suppose all nights in space are cold and clear, but this one seemed especially cold as my wife had just kicked me out of the bridge for-” Elissandra let out a small cough.
Thrag glanced over at her, then said, “Um, right, but that’s a story for another time. Talk to me later if you want to hear the grand and glorious tale of-” Another cough. “Um, never mind. Where was I? Right, while the fleet is rather small, with only a single capital ship, my baby, the Scarlet Rose, we are particularly looking for those who are able to distinguish themselves as exceptional, rank B or above fighter pilots and engineers skilled in ship repair, whatever rank. For those who wish to join the fleet as an Ensign, you will be required to undergo a series of additional assessments and rank highly in various other fields. Um, right, I’m done now.”
Next stepped up an odd-looking, squat man with a funny nose Alan couldn’t quite see, wearing what looked to be highly advanced Revenant armor. He intoned in an emotionless voice without inflection, “I am Enigma, quartermaster and lead research officer. You have already been informed if you may join our ranks, and will be receiving additional assessments as they are deemed necessary.”
A number of other guild officers slowly made their way up, introducing themselves, outlining what they were looking for, but Alan slowly began to lose focus. All this organization stuff was rather boring, and if he understood correctly it looked like he’d either end up under Phantom, who was under Enigma, or wouldn’t end up in the guild at all. The healers/medics, the psionic corps, the robotic specialists and researchers, none of those really mattered to him, at least not for now. Eve would record it all and give him any important information he missed anyways. Still, he had a few questions for Eve regarding what he heard.
What is it with all these rankings? Like I know some abilities have various rankings, but can overall combat ability or piloting skill be ranked like that?
With the proper tools, certainly. We shall see how it’s done tomorrow. Similar to how other systems categorize things in term of rare to legendary or normal to godlike, the Game simply assigns a rank and associated number. Overall abilities and creatures are similarly ranked, as well as things like ships and even guilds. As you have surely noticed, various enemies with the same levels have far different capabilities. A general rule of thumb used is it takes 100 players of the same rank to take on someone with one higher rank. Thus, the 300 rank C soldiers might take on 3 rank B soldiers evenly. This is, of course, just a generalization, as ranks are further assigned numbers in the range of 1 to a bit over two billion (2^31 – 1, to be precise), the lower the number the better. Predecessors and major bosses like space dragons are generally assigned a rank of S, humans a rank from F to A, depending on equipment and ability, and Haxlards a rank of D to S, for example. Once I possess more information, I will be able to also display enemies’ ranks in addition to level.
After a few more introductions, Alan and the rest of the recruits were sent out in groups to tour the guild grounds, at least the parts they were allowed into. Alan had Aurora and Sidestep in his group, but stayed at the back of the group, away from them. Even after the information they just gathered, it seemed like the Black Rose guild was still being cautious. The tour turned out to be rather simple. First, they were taken to a capsule center aboveground, which held hundreds of capsules, where they were told to set their spawn point. Then their guide, an android with very limited intelligence, like a city guard NPC that you might find in an ordinary MMORPG, lead them directly to an elevator within the keep. It showed them two floors, the training floor, which was a cool sort of futuristic gym, and their temporary rooms in an underground barracks. Those were the only floors they were allowed on, it turned out.
Then they were led to the Simulation Dome. The building was, as its name suggested, a massive dome. The dome was made up of a huge array of tessellated, silver metal triangles. Surrounding it were huge rectangular power generators, filling the air with a low humming sound outside of the dome. Alan stepped into the dome, which was about the size of a massive football stadium, wondering what he’d find. A message appeared:
[You have entered a simulated zone! All damage will be simulated and not actually affect the player. No death penalties. Severe XP penalties while in the zone.
Permissions: Recruit Level, unable to call into being or change the simulation. Basic interaction with simulated environment.]
Alan glanced around, it looked as if he had stepped into a different world. There was a giant wall that was splitting the dome in-half. On one side, there was a bright white artificial light, filled with a multitude of steel dueling rings about the size of a small field and stern looking arms masters in brown robes, Mason among them. On the other side though, there was a dark orange landscape, along with a squadron of Black Rose soldiers fighting what looked to be waves of Haxlardian soldiers.
Sidestep, who had been placed in the same group as Alan, looked over at Alan, who stood at the entrance gawking at the scene before him.
“You think this is cool, newbie? I bet you’ve never been inside a spaceship simulator either, where you’re able to drop into any major space battle at will. I’d like to see your first test run. You’ll probably fire on your allies or break out of formation before the fight even starts. I bet your planet didn’t even have spaceships. What planet did you come from again? Dirt?”
Alan tore his gaze away from the simulated exercise and glared at Sidestep. He knew that he didn’t even know all the rules of dueling, and the accused would probably be better off, but he angrily blurted out, “I challenge Sidestep to a duel.”
Sidestep grinned, and Alan instantly knew this was what Sidestep had wanted.
Shit, Eve, why didn’t you stop me?
I believe this is actually to our advantage. Sidestep likely highly underestimates you.
Confidently, Sidestep looked over at Alan, and said, “I accept.”
With a flash of light, Alan found himself suddenly standing in a silver ring the size of a kiddy pool next to Sidestep. Right next to them was Mason, who was looking bored, resting his hands and chin on the handle of his war axe.
With a great roar, Mason lifted up the war axe, and cheerily exclaimed, “Finally! Actual warriors. Usually recruits dick around for half an hour trying to figure out all the rules and who best to challenge, hesitant to challenge anyone else because of the supposed disadvantages of challenging anyone else, wanting to wait and challenge someone weak. 50 guild points to both of you for not standing about comparing dick sizes! Now, who challenged whom? Ah, Alan challenged Sidestep. Very well, Sidestep you may determine either the wager or rule-set now.”
Sidestep confidently stated, “Let the wager be 1000 guild points. How you got 5000 points I don’t know, but by the end of tonight I’d be surprised if you had a single point to your name. I’ll have to thank the examiners that felt sorry for your sad planet and wanted to give you a leg up at the start.”
Alan glanced at Sidestep’s guild mark, which showed Sidestep had 1550 guild points, then at the screen that showed up before him. It listed a number of dueling rule sets, which seemed to consist of an environment, and weapon loadout. Eve highlighted a scenario as Alan was scrolling down the list.
“Open field. Melee vs ranged, player may designate who uses a ranged weapon and who uses a melee weapon. Standard Recruit Equipment. Duel to First Blood (after shields have been destroyed). All abilities allowed. No technological or psionic limitations.”
Select that one, letting Sidestep be melee and designating yourself as ranged.
Um, are you sure? There seem to be a number of scenarios that are much more in my favor.
We are unsure of Sidestep’s abilities, and I believe this is more about demonstrating our abilities more than winning, although winning is of course important as well. Trust me.
Alan selected the scenario, designating himself as ranged, then looked up at Sidestep. A ten-second countdown appeared before him, as his equipment suddenly changed into light metal power armor with 100 shield energy, and a pair of basic laser pistols, which dealt 20 damage each shot. Eve likewise highlighted Sidestep’s armor, showing that it now had 100 shield energy as well. The blade he now held apparently did 50 damage a strike.
“Alright recruits, good luck. May the best fighter win. Oh, and try to put on a good show,” Mason said.
A good show? Alan thought, glancing around. To his surprise, it looked as though every other recruit was now crowding around the metal ring they were in, watching the battle. Eve highlighted Kitana, standing in the back of the crowd, and Aurora, who was at the forefront directly behind Sidestep, calmly analyzing the situation as well. A sudden spike of nerves rushed through Alan, as he looked around at all the onlookers.
Calm. Eve told him. Simply follow my guidance and we have an above 70% chance of winning this fight.
Taking a deep breath, Alan closed his eyes. When he opened them, he found himself standing in an open green field, all signs of being in a dome or of there being any spectators having vanished. Sidestep stood about 100 yards away. He let the adrenaline course through him, and activated his hypercognition ability, allowing him to experience every second as if it were hundreds. The seconds counting down until the start of the duel very slowly shifted down from 2 to 1, as Alan felt Eve calmly analyzing the environment around them, simulating almost every possible scenario.
Now that Alan was a Machine Lord, he no longer had to simply mimic a blue holographic projection that Eve gave him. Instead, he could incorporate Eve’s projections and calculations within his own mind, allowing him to act as if he were the projection, not simply following it. As each moment passed, Alan watched as the calculations and predictions shifted, as Sidestep begin to favor one leg over the other, demonstrating a high chance he was going to try to approach from Alan’s left, thus Alan should begin by stepping right. Alan aimed his laser pistols forward, aiming not at where Sidestep stood, but at where he was predicted to be. Eve made two simultaneous calculations, one for if Sidestep moved at the speed using his special blink ability Alan had seen earlier, one for if Sidestep simply ran forwards like a normal being, if his blink ability had been dependent on his armor and thus he wasn’t able to use it. A third projection began, though it was hypothesized to have a lower chance of happening and thus wasn’t prioritized. It predicted that Sidestep would still be able to use the blink ability, but to a more limited degree and shorter teleport distance. Predictions that Sidestep might retreat or step in a direction away from Alan were considered but shortly discarded. Projections into the future began, trying to calculate where Alan should fire his subsequent shots, before the first two even began to approach where Sidestep might be. These projections branched from the original two decisions, then expanded, then expanded again exponentially. Alan saw the optimal shots to take, one with each pistol, and the likely next places to fire, even as Eve began to incorporate data as new information came through, making miniscule adjustments as Sidestep adjusted his stance. Alan began to feel a slight headache.
Just concentrate on making the shots most likely to hit him, and the movements most likely to defend yourself. You don’t need to consider all of the simulations, just the best one.
Then the countdown hit 0, and the duel began.
Sidestep arrogantly glared at Alan. There was no way this human, this earthling, had actually earned 5000 guild points. They had been handed to him, like everything else most likely. Sidestep would show this fool the folly of his ways, perhaps even taking him under his own wing after thoroughly trouncing him. That is, if the human still made it into the Black Rose guild after losing all the points he possessed. Sidestep had purposely shown off his signature sidestep ability in the great hall, to get people to assume that it was his main ability, and that it depended upon his armor. While he had less psionic energy without the armor, Sidestep could just as easily use the ability and his others. With two short steps, he’d be within striking distance, able to end this farce.
The countdown reached zero, and Sidestep took his first sidestep, blinking 10 units horizontally towards the newbie, preparing to take a second sidestep. He was immediately met by a laser blast to the face, dealing 30 damage due to a multiplier as it hit his head. Assuming it was just a lucky shot, Sidestep prepared his second step forward, but to his surprise he saw a laser shot headed to the exact point he’d planned on stepping towards, arcing in such a way that it would hit him if he teleported in that direction. Sidestep quickly turned in another direction, but saw the human suddenly aiming one of his laser pistols at that spot as well. Sidestep shifted his feet once more, planning on stepping in a new direction, but saw the laser pistols fire off both towards this new planned destination, and directly towards him!
Slightly nervous, Sidestep stepped backwards and to the left, away from an oncoming barrage of laser fire. He continued to step backwards and to the side, away from the laser fire that spread further and further apart, trying to gather his thoughts. To anyone else, it would look like Alan was simply firing randomly in a wide spread, hoping to catch Sidestep, but Sidestep knew that each of the lasers hit a point that he was considering moving to. Sidestep couldn’t even imagine the years of training, the skill involved, to both anticipate an enemy’s movement and fire directly at those predicted targets, even upwards of hundreds of units away, far outside the range of a standard laser pistol! As far as Sidestep could tell, each shot was aimed perfectly to align with his head as well. He hadn’t wanted to reveal any more of his abilities, but 1000 guild points were on the line…
Alan watched as Sidestep retreated back, feeling more confident about his and Eve’s abilities, when suddenly Sidestep took a sidestep, but left behind a mirror image! Each Sidestep then took another step, leaving behind another. There were suddenly four Sidesteps! Luckily, those four clones then took a step in various directions, leaving no additional clones behind, but there were still suddenly four different potential targets, indistinguishable from one another at least as far as Alan could tell. Luckily, three were likely fake, mirror images, rather than actual Sidesteps. Otherwise, that would be too OP, right?
The four figures suddenly charged towards Alan, but all used the same left and right sidestep movements, which Eve easily anticipated. Trying to spread out the damage, with the hope it would reveal the real one, Alan managed to hit each Sidestep once as they closed half the distance between them and Alan. Nothing revealed any of the four as being the real Sidestep though. Alan managed to hit each one an additional time in the head right as the four converged on him, leaving the real Sidestep, whichever he was with 10 energy left on his shields. One more shot and Alan would have won the duel.
Alan dived to the right as the four Sidesteps converged on his position, narrowly avoiding a downwards strike as well as a sideways slash with perfect timing, firing twice to hit both duplicates in the stomach. They vanished in a shower of green sparks, revealing a single Sidestep stabbing forwards. Eve anticipated the fourth clone was behind him, and thus Alan fired once behind him and forwards while diving in such a manner that would both dodge the hypothetical attack from behind and the stab from the front.
Unbelieving, Sidestep could only watch as Alan masterfully evaded his every attack, even somehow dodging the unseen attack from behind. Alan simply aimed, fired and hit. And the duel was over.
With a flash of light, Alan found himself once more standing in the same dueling ring, and a message popped up, notifying him that he won the duel. To Alan’s surprise, Sidestep graciously bowed before him, and calmly said, “Well fought. It seems I greatly underestimated your abilities. I forget that worlds not touched by the Game are still full of actual warfare and killing. You must have trained for a great deal of time to be such a warrior.”
Embarrassingly, Alan could only say, “Thank you, you fought well too,” while feeling a bit guilty about how Eve and his augments were what had done all the work. It was better if people didn’t realize that though, thus he kept silent.
“I hope that you forgive me for trying to get a rise out of you, I knew a bit about the guild trials beforehand thus actually antagonized a number of people with the hopes they’d challenge me,” Sidestep whispered conspiratorially with a mischievous grin, “I look forward to working with you in the future.”
“Um, sure, no problem,” Alan said, a bit taken aback at Sidestep’s sudden attitude change. “Maybe later you could give me a few tips about the flying simulator as I actually haven’t ever used one before, or about the guild trials you know about.”
“Of course, just find me once the first trial is over. Well, I look forward to your future duels, don’t you dare lose to anyone else!” Sidestep said with a cheerful grin, as he stepped out of the ring.
Alan turned to look at the crowd, who looked more confused than anything else. There were some disappointed murmurs as well as surprised glances at Alan. It was clear no one had been expecting Alan to emerge victorious, and he noticed various objects changing hands as a few of the arms masters had apparently bet on the outcome of the fight.
“Congratulations on winning the first duel! A bonus 100 points to you, and 50 points to Sidestep for a valiant effort. That was quite the fight,” Mason’s booming voice sounded from Alan’s side, startling him.
“Um, thanks. You said to put on a good show, but people’s reactions are a bit strange…”
“Well, of course they are! They didn’t see the fight, after all. Only the arms masters and full guild members saw the fight, the rest of the recruits just saw you disappear then reappear. We realize that if other players saw your abilities it would give them an unfair advantage, after all, and I must say, both of your abilities were quite impressive. It’s a shame Phantom has his eyes on you, otherwise I’d like to test you in some one on one dueling myself tomorrow. Anyways, that concludes the duel!”
As soon as those words were out of Mason’s mouth, a large, heavyset giant that must have been 6 and a half feet tall with the same grey skin as Mason leapt into the middle of the ring, and challenged Alan to a duel. As he had no idea of what the other recruit’s abilities were, Alan hesitantly made the decision to set the duel’s wager at 500 guild points, as the other recruit only had 750. Shortly thereafter, Alan and his opponent, whose name was Skar, were transported into what appeared to be an underground fighting pit, about the size of a boxing ring. The duel’s settings that Skar had chosen were unarmed, unarmored combat until a combatant either lost consciousness or conceded. Looking at his opponent’s bulging muscles, Alan felt a bit nervous… until Eve reported a 99% chance of winning. The tactics she outlined were pretty simple. Go for the weak spots.
Skar assumed a combat stance, and the countdown neared 0 as Alan reactivated his hypercognition mode. To his surprise, he felt a slight headache as he reactivated the ability. It looked like there was a limit to how much he’d be able to use the ability, and it seemed as though these duels would help him learn that limit.
The duel began, and Skar took an aggressive step and fast swing at Alan, who sidestepped the punch and kneed Skar in the groin as hard as he could. Skar doubled over in pain as Alan let loose a fury of additional blows to Skar’s eyes, neck and the back of his knees. With a sickening crunch, the giant let out a roar of pain, and shouted, “I concede,” and thus the duel ended.
Alan shook hands with Skar as they were teleported back to the dueling rings, apologizing for the low blows, but Skar seemed to accept that it was within the rules he’d outlined. Given the speed of the victory, especially when Skar had been the one to set the terms of engagement, no new challenger appeared to try to best Alan, which suited him just fine. However, as Alan began to eye the recruits around him, wondering who would make for a good person to challenge, a sudden flurry of duels began, setting off a chain reaction as people tried to avoid being challenged by a dangerous opponent.
Alan decided to play it safe, and challenged a swordsman recruit in simple power armor that only possessed 250 guild points. The swordsman chose a swords only battle, and Alan chose to wager only 100 guild points, as he planned on not using most of his abilities. The subsequent duel was actually more challenging to Alan than he expected, only barely able to finish off his opponent due to his almost prescient knowledge due to Eve’s calculations. Eve’s ability to help him wield a sword didn’t translate nearly as well as the ability to wield a gun. With a gun, all Alan had to do was aim and shoot, but when it came to fighting with a sword, Alan had no idea how to grip the thing, or the proper movements. While Eve could show Alan the correct motions, he had little to no idea why they were the proper motions, and thus often found his balance way off. Finishing blows turned into glancing ones as Alan struggled to face off against insofar as he could tell, a middling opponent. It was suffice to say he had a ways for improvement, and should thus train more.
Alan quickly challenged another random recruit, who quickly set the wager to 100 guild points, given Alan’s string of victories. Alan let it be a simple pistol duel, and easily one with Eve’s help. He was about to challenge a 5th opponent, then retire for the night, when someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to find Aurora.
“Greetings. Sidestep tells me that you are surprisingly powerful, and would enjoy a duel, with certain conditions attached.”
“Um, what conditions?”
“First, don’t tell anyone about my abilities. I will not reveal anything I may learn about yours. Secondly, we duel for 500 guild points, in a free for all anything goes duel to the death. Are these terms agreeable?”
Wondering what Aurora’s abilities were, Alan readily agreed.
They were transported into the center of what appeared to be a roman coliseum, and the countdown began. Alan activated his hyper cognition ability, despite the steady pain that now accompanied its use. He felt like he might need it.
Despite the free for all settings however, Aurora made no motion to reach for the knife at her side. Instead, she calmly faced Alan, looking at him. Alan had a bad feeling about this. The countdown reach zero, and Aurora made a sudden hand motion, clutching her fist as a wave of energy emerged from her hands.
BELOW. Eve yelled at Alan, as ice began to emerge at his feet. Desperately, Alan tried to dodge to the side, but he was simply too slow, and the ice erupted from the ground, encapsulating Alan, sealing his movements. While he could see this happening, he simply did not have the speed or ability to stop it. He vainly tried to get off a laser shot at the ice, but it had no effect. Trapped in the ice, Alan could do nothing except watch as Aurora slowly walked towards him, alert. She seemed on edge, like she couldn’t believe how easy the fight had been.
God damn it, isn’t that ability too OP? Is there anything we can do? What was that attack?
That was a psionic ability, most likely some sort of element control. In our current state, it is rather problematic, and unfortunately it does not appear there is anything we can do.
So, every time we run up against a psionic player we’re just gonna die? Also why was everyone so cautious to face off against us if such a simple ability can completely shut me down.
Psionics users are actually fairly rare, with about one in a thousand users demonstrating much psionic ability at all. Fewer abilities are so combat oriented. Additionally, they often require a great deal of energy to power. This Aurora must be very talented or was taught a number of secret abilities by her mother, probably a combination of both. Additionally, many of the guild members, and some of the ones we faced, probably aren’t too heavily focused on one on one combat, and have invested their points or have classes that aren’t as relevant to these duels. In the future, we will hopefully have items or allies capable of counteracting such psionic attacks.
Suddenly, the headache from using the hypercognition mode became increasingly painful, transforming from a mildly painful headache into a splitting, mind numbing pierce. Groaning with pain, Alan quickly deactivated the ability.
Aurora stopped before Alan, tilting her head to the side, lips pursed, examining him with a thoughtful expression. Alan could only silently stare back, feeling his cheeks turn red.
“You don’t have any psionic abilities, do you?” Aurora questioned, removing the ice encapsulating his face with a wave.
“Um, no, not really,” Alan cautiously answered after a go ahead from Eve.
“Hmm, that’s too bad.” Aurora then took out her knife, and with a fluid, practiced motion, slit Alan’s throat. Shortly thereafter he died, and Aurora won the duel.
A bit demoralized after the loss, Alan left the dome, as he had little to no reason to continue past the initial five duels. Even with the loss he still had 6350 guild points left, and he wasn’t so certain he could continue winning without his hypercognition mode available. He was starting to feel pretty tired as well. The moment Alan left the building, a message popped up before him.
“Congratulations on completing the first guild trial. You now have free time to do as you please. Report to the designated simulation room at 0800 tomorrow morning Khersath Private Quadrant Rose Standard Time.”
Alan began to slowly make his way back towards the rooms he had been shown earlier, but Eve stopped him.
Aren’t you forgetting something?
You need to regain the abilities you lost from the death. I believe now is as good a time as any, and the training room looks like it would be useful.
Alan then headed to the training room he’d been shown earlier. This shouldn’t be too hard, right?
Thirty minutes later, Alan found himself running on a futuristic, omnidirectional treadmill within an enclosed space about the size of a small classroom. You could run any which way, and your position would stay roughly constant, while from the walls of the apparatus lasers that simply caused an unpleasant burning sensation would randomly fire. Drenched with sweat, Alan tried to continue to sprint onwards while dodging incoming laser fire, but couldn’t bring himself to do so, and collapsed onto the floor of the room, writhing in pain.
No abilities unlocked.
Get up. Continue working out. Reactivate hypercognition.
I’m… too tired to go on. Everything hurts. Let’s just… do this another time.
NO. GET UP.
DO YOU WANT TO HELP THE EARTH?
THEN GET UP AND WORK. Do you think that any player can become powerful enough to change the course of the Game? To influence the future of an entire planet? You must give it ALL of your effort. You must SURPASS human limits. The fact that this is a GAME means that your body’s limits, the pain that you feel, are NOTHING. Push yourself. Push yourself until you cannot physically go on, or let your planet disappear and fall into unknown hands BECAUSE YOU WEREN’T WILLING TO WORK HARD ENOUGH. NOW GET UP.
Silently, Alan heaved himself off the floor, and began to run once more. He reactivated hypercognition mode, despite the mind numbing pain induced, the elongation of every torturous moment into unbearable eons. He began screaming incoherently at Eve as she continue to coax him on. He mutely continued to stagger forwards with all his might, fearful that his mind would break from the unbearable pain. And, finally, he collapsed onto the floor into blissful oblivion, accompanied by a number of messages he took no notice of.
In another room of the keep, six figures sat. Before them, a multitude of screens showed flashing, deadly fights, with figures wielding weapons with skill, demonstrating unique abilities seldom seen, even within the Game. But all attention was focused on another screen, one which depicted a single, foolish human, slumped over unconscious in a training room.
“Did, did he just-?”
“Huh… I can see why you might want him. But still, 5000 points? What did he do, break into the Vault?”
“Well, yes, everyone escaped if that was part of the test they were given, what’s so-”
“No, you misunderstand. He escaped all pursuit and detection.”
“Yes, he escaped even the evaluators, who the recruits weren’t even supposed to be aware of. Do you really think we’d send possible guild members somewhere as dangerous as the Undercity without proper defense measures? Well, he managed to evade those, including the tail we set on him. Then, even with the guild members deployed throughout the city, he wasn’t seen again until he reached the quest area. Then, he managed to escape not only the elite guards, but us as well, reaching the hangar without alerting a single one of the watchers we had at every Undercity exit!”
“What? But that’s impossible! And he still managed to make it back with the item? How-”
“Enough. I take it he is your choice, then?”
“Yes. Unless he somehow completely fails tomorrow.”
“Alright. Well, you all know who my choice has been from the start. The rest of you should hurry up and make your decision.”
And the figures turned back to the screens, watching every movement.