It turned out that Eve was just as proficient at piloting as she was at everything else. Following her directions, Alan was able to deftly maneuver the simulated ship, a sleek space fighter called a Blade. Like its name suggested, it had a blade-like appearance, similar a smooth’s sword edge. The ship was powerful and fast when travelling in a straight line, but it turned slowly comparative to other modern spacecraft and could only fire laser fire straight in front of itself. Still, thanks to Eve’s calculations and Alan’s own super-human reaction speed, they’d managed to complete the first few tests with ease, simple simulated battles against a handful of other spacecraft. Now, however, they were engaged in the final test, a large space battle over a control point, with so many different things happening that not even Eve could keep track of them all.
Admiral Thrag, for one reason or another, had decided to sit in on the test. As Alan darted by an approaching starship twice the size of his own, the Admiral simply shook his head, keeping up a steady, squeaky monologue as the test progressed.
“You’re flying like a god-damned machine. Your maneuvers are textbook, mechanical. Look! You just missed taking out that enemy because you’re scared, concentrating on the main objective of getting to the capture point. A real man would have tried to destroy him for good, rather than turning and running. Who knows what that ship is going to do now!”
Incredulously, Alan could only listen faintly to the Admiral’s remarks, as he didn’t want to get distracted. Surely, the Admiral must know that going up against a ship superior in every way, an entire class above his own fighter, was akin to suicide.
“It’s like I’m watching the step-by-step solution to the simulation as demonstrated by the AI that designed it. But that’s not what flying is about. It’s an art. It requires soul. The pilot needs to have gumption. You have to soar like a leaf on the wind, strike like a space viper. Beautiful things, space vipers. I had a pet one, by the name of Mamba, died trying to bite my wife, bless her soul. Mamba’s soul, that is, not my wife’s. I doubt she has a soul.
Now, if I wanted a bunch of spiritless, programmed pilots I’d buy a Swarm from the Revenants. They, I know, don’t have souls! They have orders, algorithms, minds capable of miraculous calculations, but no soul. That’s why they’re often so easily defeated, when someone simply acts outside their calculations, upsets their precisely balanced simulations of how the fight’s supposed to go.
War isn’t chess, it’s not some organized battlefield with set moves. Rather, it’s a bit like fighting for a woman, you have to take risks, you have to be daring, even if you don’t understand why you ended up winning or not. Hell, I don’t think I did end up victorious, now that I think about it. I think I probably lost a while ago, continuing to trudge on despite inevitable defeat.
Because that’s what a pilot needs to do! Continue on despite the odds, despite the damn nagging of your wife. Um, well, minus that wife part, although you can consider your ship to be your wife, I suppose. Actually, I wonder if there are some places in the world that allow pilots to be married to their ships, it’d probably be a step up…”
Unable to take the rambling anymore, Alan saw an opportunity, and took it. He artfully crashed his ship into a destroyer-class enemy, a ship 100 times longer than Alan’s own 20 meter Blade. His suicidal charge aligned perfectly with a set of incoming missiles, Alan’s own ship piercing the enemy shields, allowing the pair of missiles through to destroy the ship. Unfortunately, Alan’s own ship was caught up in the explosion as well, ending the simulation. He turned to look at the Admiral expectantly.
The Admiral simply looked at him, and sighed.
“That was rather foolish. What about the objective? You can’t complete it if you’re dead, you know. Every good pilot knows the main objective comes first. Oh well, maybe there will be a decent pilot among the recruits next year.”
Alan could only stare open mouthed as the Admiral stumbled out of the simulated cockpit, mumbling to himself. How someone so insane, so illogical could be the leader of Black Rose’s fleet baffled him.
Alan continued on to the capital class simulation, which was undergone with other recruits on a fake bridge. Unfortunately, these simulations didn’t go as well either, with Admiral Thrag there voicing his doubts about every action taken by every single recruit that took the captain’s chair. During each test the admiral acted as the first officer, the second-in-command of the ship. As all the recruits rotated stations aboard the bridge the two things that Alan managed to do decently in were managing the weapons systems and navigation. In both regards, he managed to increase the ship’s efficiency, with his navigation skills even earning him an offhanded compliment from Thrag. “You almost do that as good as my wife!” Alan had stopped thinking of him as the Admiral on principle. Surely his wife must be the real Admiral of the fleet.
The navigational ability, Alan was sure came from the Haxlardian AI that had merged with Eve. Still, Alan couldn’t sense any difference in Eve other than these ship-based capabilities, at least as far as what he was aware of. The tests continued, each recruit taking a turn as the captain of the ship, Thrag’s remarks washing over them, causing them to fail. Until, finally, one recruit couldn’t take it anymore.
A short, raven-haired teen leapt out of the chair, yelling at Thrag, “Would you shut up!? The only reason I crashed is because I followed your stupid suggestions. You know where you can take those suggestions? You can take them and shove them up your wife’s-”
Thrag clamped his hand over the recruit’s mouth, grinning broadly.
“Now, there’s the fire I wanted to see! That there is the demeanor of an officer, psychotic rage! Congratulations, recruit, I’d like to offer you a position as Ensign.”
Everyone stared dumbly at the Admiral. The recruit in question blinked, looked at a screen that had appeared before her, and then mutely stood still, like she was caught in the middle of some unspeakable act.
“Great! Well, I was only looking for one Ensign, so the rest of you can go to the next assessment. See-ya.”
The recruits all trudged out of the simulator. Alan, for one, never wanted to step aboard a ship Thrag captained. As they emerged, a message popped up:
|Congratulations, the fleet assessment is over! You have been awarded 100 guild points, for undergoing this optional assessment. We did mention it was optional, didn’t we?
All recruits will now have free time to get lunch and prepare for the final assessment, a round-robin objective-based combat tournament. Teams will be decided based upon previous assessments. The tournament will begin at 1400 Khersath Private Quadrant Rose Standard Time in the Simulation Dome.
Groaning to himself, Alan proceeded to lunch.
As Alan emerged from the Black Rose Cafeteria, which simply consisted of a metal vending-machine like dispenser that provided the strange grey blocks of food that seemed standard both in and out of the Game, he received a message from Phantom.
P: Come to my location, simply enter an elevator in the keep and it will take you to me.
Alan hurried over to the closest elevator to the keep’s entrance, wondering what Phantom wanted. Alan waited for an empty elevator to arrive, as strangely the common etiquette was to wait for an empty elevator cabin to arrive rather than simply getting in together and getting off at different floors. It seemed there were secrets aplenty in the Black Rose Guild, not least of which was where people worked.
A few minutes later, Alan finally found his way into an empty elevator without other, higher ranking members of the guild commandeering it on “important business.” He silently entered the cabin, waiting for it to descend. And descend it did. Alan stopped paying attention after Eve guessed they had gone 100 floors downward. Whatever the outer appearance might show, it was clear that the Black Rose compound was much larger than most people believed, going deeper than Alan even thought possible. Alan wondered what they might be hiding down here, what could possibly require so much space. Then, suddenly, Alan passed through an electric field of some sort. He felt a strange tingling as his feet slowly passed through it, followed by his legs, body and finally-
A soft beep sounded in Alan’s mind, and then Eve was silenced, gone from Alan’s consciousness. He suddenly stopped feeling the familiar presence, carefully analyzing everything. A part of him felt free, clearer, yet another part felt oddly empty. There was suddenly no background noise, no constant calculation or outlining of his surroundings. Just the basic in-game interface. And silence.
Shortly thereafter, the elevator doors began to open. Alan tried to hide against the wall and prepare himself for whatever emerged. This was surely some sort of test, to see what use he was without Eve. He pulled out his laser pistols, ready for whatever horror awaited him. Instead, he was greeted by a nervous-looking Phantom, wearing the same old lab coat.
“Um, I must say, good job on the assessments, I never imagined a recruit would achieve a combat rank of B, much less five of them. Now, I’m sure you have many questions, but before we get started, please come in and have a seat,” Phantom said, completely ignoring the laser pistols pointed directly at his face.
Alan hastily stowed the laser pistols, then slowly walked out from the elevator into what appeared to be either a mad engineer’s basement or a small car repair facility. They were in an underground room about the size of a large car garage, with the space for about four large vans. Strewn about the floor were mechanical devices of varying sizes that Alan couldn’t make heads or tails of. Before he could get a better look at any however Phantom guided him over to a seat beside a bright silver capsule. Phantom then promptly grabbed an odd metal helmet directly connected to the capsule and put it on Alan’s head.
“Shh, just let me calibrate this, it’ll take a minute or so. Sit still and be quiet,” Phantom admonished, rapidly accessing some digital terminal that had appeared before him the instant the helmet was placed on Alan’s head.
Alan silently accepted the order, gazing about the room. The majority of the space was dominated by three things, the capsule, a large server or computer of some sort connected to said capsule, and then finally a third machine up against the wall tied to the computer on the other side of the room, opposite the capsule. At first Alan had thought it was an overly large microwave that could fit an entire person or small car, but that was frankly ridiculous. He silently examined the machine until he noticed a large screen on the side of it with various diagrams and blueprints, realizing what it was. It was what was called an Advanced Foundry, essentially an advanced 3-d printer.
Eve had taught Alan that in the Game the majority of crafting professions that one might normally consider, like blacksmithing or tailoring, were of course obsolete. However, even their modern day counterparts, gunsmiths and armorers that specialized in advanced technology weren’t generally needed. Instead, there existed what were named Advanced Foundries, often just called Foundries. These devices could, given the materials and a blueprint, create practically anything, from weapons to armor to even hypothetically spacecraft. However, as the largest Foundries could only generally create something the size of a small sedan, larger projects were generally created piece by piece then assembled by other machines. Still, such technology meant that the creation of all items within the game was met with one simple bottleneck. Designs.
Companies guarded their designs like Coca-Cola guarded its secret formula, like the White House protected its nuclear launch codes. There was often no greater secret, no document more precious. For, if someone managed to steal, say, the design for a Haxlardian fighter, they would then be able to quietly construct as many Haxlardian fighters as they wished, given they had the resources and facilities. Of course, the design was not needed to make repairs, and separate machines were constructed to make such repairs often for simple things like armor and weapons. Still, you would have to find the right machine for the right type of equipment. That was another reason why guilds were quite useful. They could build up a supply of a number of repair machines regardless of faction the armor or weapon was tied to, while governments generally shied away from keeping machines capable of repairing their enemies’ technology. It was a simple rule within the game that such machines could not be tampered with, similar to Administrators.
Therefore, the gunsmiths, the armourers and the shipwrights, were generally all one thing. Inventors. There was no grinding to raise a level in such skills. Instead, there was designing, and tinkering. Crafters endlessly experimented with the Game’s built in system for creating blueprints and designs, for even the smallest of improvements could lead to never-ending riches. They could either improve on designs in their possession or create add-ons for existing designs. A few designs were generally public knowledge and could be found on the globalnet, outlines for a very basic laser pistol or spaceship capable of interstellar-flight, for example. Occasionally, long lost or new designs were found in unexplored regions of the Game, but these were of such rarity that they were hardly mentioned.
The interesting thing about all this was, however, was that the designs had to work. When Eve had first said this to Alan, he simply assumed that she meant that they had to work in-game, which seemed rather obvious. But what she meant was entirely different. The designs had to follow physics, they had to make sense. They had to work both in the Game, and in real life. That was mind-blowing to Alan, for it implied that the technology found within the Game was hypothetically technology capable of being created in real life! The spaceships, the weapons, the armor, all of it. Even the various implants and what not. Of course, it also meant that all of the crafters also had to be actual engineers, going through years of schooling, learning genuine knowledge. They had to be actual chemists rather than simply fake alchemists following some strange mythical formula taught to them by a game. Otherwise, they were doing real science. In a game.
There was one issue with all of this however. Resources. While there was a technically limited amount of resources found within the Game at any one given time, mining sites replenished eventually and enemies with loot respawned in the universe without end. In real life, however, there was a finite amount of metal and fuel. According to Eve, to gather the metal required to create a single capital class ship, entire solar systems would be needed to be broken down, due to rare and abstract materials needed. And, of course, the Enforcers would never allow the creation of such weapons of war. All Foundries in real life were heavily guarded and observed, while resources such as rare metals and fuel were carefully reserved and doled out according to one’s standing in the Game. Still, it was sort of nice to know that what could be created within the Game could also be created outside, that the knowledge of humanity, or Alan supposed, sentient races, was being expanded upon.
“Hello, Alan, are you there?” Phantom asked, breaking Alan out of his reverie.
“Hmm, what? Oh, yeah. Can you tell me what I’m doing here now, and why Eve is gone and I’m wearing this helmet?”
“Well, the two are actually sort of interrelated. I’m doing a full scan of Eve, to make sure there are no hidden viruses or other issues before she is given more access to the guild network. It’s standard procedure, and the AI in question needs to be off for this type of scan. Of course, the complete results and everything I learn from the tests will be shared with you. This also gives me the opportunity to discuss a few matters with you.”
“And those are?” Alan wondered, glancing at Phantom a bit suspiciously.
Phantom pulled out a flask from within his lab coat and took a swig of whatever was inside. He offered it to Alan, who politely declined. Phantom glanced around warily, as if uncertain these quarters were safe, then said, “Well, frankly, as you have probably already worked out, I’m not just an inventor. I have a side job as well.. a gatherer of information, if you will.”
“A spymaster?” Alan asked, as Phantom for some reason winced at Alan’s question.
“Yes, yes, something like that.” He took another swallow of whatever was in the flask.
“And the Chief Administrator, for one reason or another, thought you would be a good squire for me. To be quite frank, franker than I usually am, you would end up being my primary agent. To assemble all this,” he paused for another drink, “information, I need to stay here. I am unable to venture off Khersath or perform various… tasks. You would instead be the one who would perform these tasks. They would range from something simple, like handing off a package or bit of information, to infiltration and assassination. Is that, um, something you’d be able to handle?”
Phantom glanced at a screen in front of him, hitting a few buttons. Alan noted a bead of sweat on his forehead.
“Well, that actually sounds pretty cool to me, just, I don’t think I really have the skills or equipment to do some of the things you’re suggesting, especially not against governments or factions that have existed for millennia. Also, um, is everything alright? You seem rather nervous,” Alan replied.
“What!?” Phantom exclaimed. “Oh, yes, well, honestly when I first joined this guild my every intention was to stick strictly to inventing, getting a good look at some of our diagrams and inventions. I never imagined that Enigma would single me out to do something so important as…” Phantom winced.
“I don’t think you should of heard that, although I suppose most people would assume Enigma was in charge of this whole thing. Anyways, I’ve never planned on getting involved in anything so dangerous as running such missions, or even leaving the safe zone of Khersath, for that matter. Like most people I imagined I’d end up spending most of my time in a safe-zone.
Honestly, I’m still half expecting you to be a spy that is going to suddenly leap up and torture me. You have a combat rank of B, after all! Then again, I suppose that’s why the Chief Administrator sent you, as you’re from Earth you probably have next to no ulterior motives, no connections to any such groups that… Well, I’m rambling, does that answer your concerns?”
“Um, training and equipment?” Alan asked, a bit uncertain if he wanted this trembling figure as his mentor. Phantom was continuing to drink out of the flask, getting seemingly drunker by the minute.
“Oh, yes! You’ll be sent to the finest of Academies, the one and only rank S academy simply known throughout the Game as the Academy. You’ll surely be joined by the guild leader’s daughter, and perhaps also your friend Kitana, depending on how much she impresses Arms Master Mason. A few others might make it as well, though tuition is quite expensive, and you’ll be put a million guild points in debt.”
Phantom seemed to have calmed himself, though whether it was due to the drink or because of some other factor Alan wasn’t quite certain. Phantom had stopped glancing over and hitting keys on the screen in front of him a short while ago.
“A million guild points? That’s 10 million credits, right!?” Alan questioned.
“Hmm, yeah. The education and opportunities being a graduate of the Academy presents are worth far more than that. Doing the missions I’ve outlined you should be able to pay us back in a few years, assuming you do just mediocrely.”
“Um, I’m not sure I have a few years. Right now, my one goal is really to try to help Earth and-”
“Oh, right! I never did mention that part, did I? You’re mainly going to be working around and on Earth. Tell me, how much do you know about your planet’s current situation?”
“Um, honestly not much, I’ve mainly been focusing on getting stronger,” Alan said sheepishly.
“Well, this should help.” Phantom brought up a 3-d star map of thousands of galaxies, and highlighted the solar system Earth was in, a tiny blip in space. “Here is what you call the Virgo Cluster. And here are the various powers within said Virgo Cluster.” The map was suddenly highlighted three different colors, red, blue and green. Earth was barely at the outside edge of the blue space, near where the red, blue and green sections of space intersected.
“The blue space represents the space the Haxlards control, while the red represents the Empire, and finally the green represents free space, the space around Khersath, which is generally controlled by guild alliances. Frankly, Earth is in a prime location for a staging point for anyone wishing to attempt to attack or defend against any of the other three forces! This is the reason why the Haxlards tried so long to stop Earth from entering the Game, and are now so keen on having the Earth governments as an ally.”
“Staging point?” Alan asked questioningly, wishing he had Eve to help explain some of this to him. He was also feeling a bit nervous about Phantom, something about the whole situation putting him a bit on edge. Not having Eve around made him feel oddly naked, revealing just how much he had started relying on her guidance.
“Hmm? Oh, yes, I suppose you don’t yet know much about warfare in the Game. Well, suffice it to say that like in most wars, supplies and travel routes are of the utmost importance. Having a fortified refueling and respawn point right at the edge of enemy territory is as good as say an entire fleet of capital ships. Thus, the guild alliances, or at least the Mercenary Bloc, of which the Black Rose Guild is a part of, desire for Earth to be either under their control or at the very least neutral in any conflicts to come.
Honestly, being neutral in the face of any future conflict, charging everyone else, is probably the best outcome for the planet’s future. Now, of course, even though no one is able to openly act for another three years or so, there are already plans in motion with humans from Earth acting as intermediaries, pawns for these various factions. Our hope is that Earth remains free, and any missions you perform for the guild will be with this goal in mind, which I’m sure you find acceptable.”
“Okay, I guess that makes sense. Um, I’d honestly like to do some calculations with my AI’s help before anything else though,” Alan said.
“Of course, of course, the scans should be just about complete. I’ll bring them up on your AI Status Window for you,” Phantom calmly stated, as he pressed a few buttons.
“My what!?” Alan asked.
“What do you mean, your what!?” Phantom exclaimed. “This should of been one of the first windows you saw upon entering the Game!”
Then, a screen popped up in front of Alan.
|AI Status Window|
|Computing Ability:||Rank C||Current Synchronization Level:||N/A|
|Main Objective:||Save Earth||Current Role:||General Functions|
|Corruption Level:||17%||Storage Level:||12%|
|Administrator Warning Status:||2 Warnings|
This was quickly followed by an additional window giving Alan information about the hardware Eve was running on, and even a list of abilities. He could only stare at the wealth of information that he had never seen before, wondering why it had never been showed to him before…