Alan activated hypercognition.
Is this really necessary? Eve asked.
Yes, Alan sent as he scanned the room. It was similar to a machine shop, except instead of different machines spread throughout there were ten monolithic black boxes set up in front of each table. Forges.
Alan needed to decide where to sit. Some of the tables were full, while others had groups formed around factions. Those were no good. There was an empty table near the front, but he didn’t want to sit alone or be so close to the teacher. He could maybe-
Just sit there, Eve sent. She indicated a seat next to Luna and S, who had a table to themselves.
I feel like I’d be intruding. Maybe over there? Alan saw Ace, sitting with Daisy and an unknown third person. They wore a full suit of power armor, and had their name hidden.
Sit. Talk. Eve highlighted Luna and S’s table.
Do you really not know how to talk to people Alan?
Of course I can talk to people. I just prefer not to. It’s not… comfortable.
Hence the umm’s and ah’s?
Huh? Well, u- I like sending online messages, communicating through text. It gives you time to think, whereas in conversations you need to have a coherent answer on the spot. I mean, how else do you fill up an empty moment where you need to gather your thoughts?
With silence. Which would be preferable to most.
But then how do people know I’m thinking about the conversation, how do they know there’s a pause? I like to think it displays a sort of character… maybe a bit of weakness.
Like you’re a mentally handicapped person?
Shut up Eve.
Alan deactivated hypercognition and took a seat across from Luna and S.
“Hey, is it okay if I sit here?” Alan asked.
“No, go sit over there,” Luna said, pointing to the empty table in the front.
“Oh, okay,” Alan said as he began to get up.
“Stop. Where are you going? She was being flippant,” S said.
“Was I really?” Luna asked.
Alan sat back down anyways.
“Are you still in the assassins game?” Alan asked.
“Yes,” S said. He looked around the room. “Thanks a lot, by the way.”
“Huh?” Alan tilted his head slightly.
“As far as I can tell you didn’t make a single attempt on my life,” S said. “I was your original target, wasn’t I? It doesn’t take a genius to see that the sniper that took you out went after me immediately after.”
“You’re welcome, I guess.” Alan paused. “Do you have any idea who the sniper is?”
“I have a few leads, I feel I’m close. I’m trying to stay indoors, in enclosed spaces to avoid getting shot. Just not going completely off the grid like some people,” S said.
“Yes, have you heard from Aurora?” Luna asked. “I’m worried she might be taking this assassins competition a tad too seriously. It isn’t healthy to cut off all social activity, she’s missing out on the wonderful teaching opportunities, for what? A few commendations?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Alan said. “And even if I did, I don’t think I would tell anyone still in the competition.”
Luna smiled. “I had to try, didn’t I?”
“Wait, are you also in the competition?” Alan asked.
“Who knows,” Luna said. She looked over Alan’s shoulder. Alan turned around, and saw that their teacher had arrived.
They were wearing a version of power armor, like nearly every other person in the Game. But theirs was different. It was colored a brilliant neon, shifting in color as they moved. The shoulder pauldrons had jagged edges, making them appear like miniature wings.
Really? This is the teacher? They look like a miniature lightshow, Alan sent Eve.
“Welcome to customizing and accessorizing, your introduction to the Forge. I am the fabulous virtuoso of color, Vapegod.”
Alan coughed, trying to hide a smile behind his fist. He looked over at Ace and Daisy’s table. Daisy had a small grin, but Ace remained stone faced. The third person still had their helmet covering their face.
Vapegod turned to Alan. “Is there something that amuses you?”
“No, nothing sir Vapegod,” Alan said.
They’re a woman, Eve sent.
Vapegod examined Alan. “Well, it looks like we have our volunteer for the day. Strip.”
Alan stared at them.
“Take off your armor, if you can call it yours,” Vapegod said. Alan began removing the various pieces. Vapegod continued, “I doubt you’ve customized a single piece since you received it. Yes, the Revenants have their own sense of uniform black, ooh, darkness, mystery, black is always cool. But where is the emotion, the color? A single stripe of dark green or blue would really stand out.”
“I’d prefer to remain hidden, anonymous in battles,” Alan said.
“Anonymity is overrated,” Vapegod said. “How will you ever be distinguished, lead a group of soldiers or gain fame if you are anonymous? Reputation matters far more than you realize.”
“Not if you’re dead, or don’t want to lead,” Alan said. He removed the last piece of his armor, placing it on the table. He still wore a black undersuit, but felt like the material was a bit too tight. Everyone’s eyes seemed to be on him.
Vapegod began inserting the pieces into the Forge in front of the table, which opened up a compartment that ate each piece of armor like a large post box.
“You are in the wrong place then. The Academy trains leaders, whatever the field might be, and leaders need to look the part. You may not like it, but the moment you entered this Academy you were no longer anonymous. Analysts go over every student admitted, combing over their profiles in detail, because this is where the major players come from.”
A message appeared before Alan:
[Allow Teacher Vapegod to customize Modified Revenant Scout Power Armor (Advanced)?]
“Don’t worry, I won’t reveal its stats or anything like that, and you don’t need to accept whatever changes I make,” Vapegod said.
Fine, let her, Alan sent Eve. The message disappeared.
Vapegod blinked, staring at a screen before her, hidden from the rest of the class. She pulled her right index finger up to her face. The tip of the armor on the finger lifted back to reveal what Eve claimed was a futuristic e-cig. She sucked on it, then let out a cloud of blue gas, her gaze slightly glazed.
“A difficult project, then. We don’t have access to any Revenant accessories here, so all changes will have to be superficial. Alan is right, you don’t want to stand out on the battleground too much, or be too distinguishable. And for someone on the backlines, or behind enemy lines, this is even more important. Maintaining invisibility…
“Tell me, Alan, is there any symbol, any shape that resounds with your soul, your heart of hearts?”
Alan breathed in a tiny bit of the blue gas, which had a slight citrus taste. He coughed. “No, not really. Maybe my guild’s emblem.”
“Always a good choice, large organizations tend to like ass-kissing,” Vapegod said. She tapped a few icons, moved her finger about. “Well, I suppose that will have to do. Now I want everyone else to test a symbol or color on their armor, I will go around giving feedback and suggestions.”
As Vapegod stood up to walk around the room she turned the screen over to Alan, who examined her work. She had only made a single change, a small black rose head contained in a circle on the left shoulder, outlined with silver-chrome. The black was the natural black of the armor.
Can you add something else? Alan asked Eve.
A universal barcode on the right forearm.
What do you want it to say?
Eve generated the barcode, and sent it to the Forge unit. With Eve’s help, Alan placed the barcode where he wanted it and chose the same silver color as the rose’s outline. It cost 500 credits to make each change. Alan’s weekly budget for customization given to him by the Academy was 1000 credits. He finalized the changes and put his armor back on.
A message appeared:
[Customizing your armor, you have gained a new ability, Fashion Sense (Basic)! +10 Charisma]
“What is that?” S asked, pointing at the barcode.
“A signifier for machines on Earth, they would scan these codes that represent data,” Alan said.
“And why would they use these lines and bars?”
“Because at its base all data has to be stored in some basic form, for our classical computers bits of 1’s and 0’s, for the Game… I’m not sure.”
“But that basic element, that would be useful to know, would it not?” S asked as he carefully removed the right arm of his power armor and inserted it into the Forge.
“Perhaps, many improvements in efficiency can be done at the bit level, but the higher level is just as important. And everything has been abstracted away to such a degree that trying to understand such low level code is almost impossible,” Alan said.
“I’m lost,” Luna said. “Anyways S, what are you putting on your armor. Let me guess, a symbol of the empire?”
“Well,” S said, “I was thinking of a target sign.” He ducked low as a laser bolt raced above his head.
Alan activated hypercognition, just in time to see a figure dart of the room. Luna fired two blades of ice but they missed. She and S began to leap into action, it looked they were going to chase the figure.
Should I follow? Alan asked Eve. He began to rise from his seat.
Before heading out the door S said, “Stay. I don’t trust you.”
Alan looked around the classroom. no one seemed too surprised.
“I hate the assassins game,” was Vapegod’s only comment. She took a long puff from her finger then went back to looking at a student’s design.
Wondering what he should do, Alan walked over to Ace and Daisy’s table. Ace was trying to fit a large American flag and eagle on the front of his power armor’s chest.
“You should put the words: America, F*** Yeah! underneath that,” Alan said.
“What?” Ace said.
“Nothing. Hey, do you guys know who that was sitting with you, the person that just took a shot at S?” Alan asked as he took a seat.
Daisy looked at Ace, then said, “Yes, we know who it is, but they might not appreciate it if we told you.”
It’s Thiago, right? Alan asked Eve.
Based on matching heights and builds, there is a high chance it is, Eve sent. They were wearing slightly different power armor than what Thiago wore on Incipe, but he could have upgraded easily.
“I’m pretty sure it’s Thiago,” Alan said.
Daisy sighed. “Fine, it is, but you didn’t hear it from us. Why? Do you want revenge? Wasn’t it all part of this assassins game?”
Alan shrugged. “I was just curious. Wondering where he got the sniper rifle, and the skills to use it.”
Send a message to Red Tyrant, tell him I’ve identified my assassin, as Thiago of Earth.
“He spent his racial bonus points,” Ace said.
“Racial bonus points?” Alan asked.
“The points we got after the Tutorial because we were from Earth, and new to the game,” Daisy said.
“Oh, right,” Alan said, “I spent my points on upgrading my AI.”
“Have you thought more about joining the United World Government, Alan?” Ace asked. He looked up from the screen to stare at Alan. “The time to pick a side has almost passed, and whoever is not our ally must be an enemy.”
“That’s a bit harsh,” Alan said.
Ace stared at the design in front of him before deleting it. “Perhaps. The war could very well be over before we leave this academy.” He stood up and strode out of the room.
“Are things going poorly for the UWG?” Alan asked Daisy.
“If anything, it’s the opposite. The Legion of Man are absolutely crushed in any frontal assaults, and have been rapidly ceding territory. It looks like they’ll have to concede Earth any day now, which means Ace will never see combat. Things get more complicated after that, though.”
“And why is that?”
“The Legion of Man have Mars under their control, with defenses capable of stopping the UWG’s one capital ship from getting anywhere near close enough to land troops,” Daisy said. “They could try to ferry troops with civilian and merchant ships, but the cost is exorbitant, something the UWG wants to avoid at all costs. The UWG could also bombard the Mars Colony from afar, blowing it to smithereens, but they are trying to avoid any action that will hurt all of humanity.
“At the same time, the Legion of Man is incapable of getting supplies or troops to Mars or Earth, because again, the one capital class ship is controlled by the UWG. So I guess it is a stalemate, but one that the Legion of Man will lose as they run low in supplies. With the Game, however, they could have enough supplies to last them years on Mars.”
“You seem to know an awful lot about this,” Alan said.
“I talk to my mother. All of this info is on the globalnet anyways, I haven’t told you anything confidential,” Daisy said.
“Do you know where Thiago might be staying? I have something I want to talk to him about; it can even be after the assassin’s game has ended,” Alan said.
“I’m sorry but I can’t help you,” Daisy said. “Even I’ve heard about the bounty the Red Tyrant put on his head. Message him yourself. Anyways, you need to learn better manners. You didn’t even say goodbye after the knife lesson.”
“Oh, sorry,” Alan said.
Ask her if there’s any way you can repay her, Eve sent.
“Maybe I can make it up to you,” Alan said.
“What were you thinking?” Daisy asked.
“I was going to check out the Market,” Alan said.
“Been there, done that.” Daisy browsed through emblems for her armor.
“Have you been to the pets section of the Market?” Alan asked.
Daisy stopped looking through emblems. “No, I haven’t. Let’s go now.”
“Don’t you need to pick out an emblem?”
“I already have one, a white circle, the healer’s symbol.”
“Alright,” Alan said as he was practically dragged out of the room and to the nearby capsule room. He entered a capsule, and selected the Market as his destination after withdrawing an item from Administrator storage.
He skipped through the initial welcome messages, the Market was basically an auction house in a MMORPG except you could test out the items you wanted to purchase or go to the bazaar, where you could potentially find great deals. People seemed to enjoy the experience of shopping, and the Market tried to fulfill that need in every shape and form.
Alan would have preferred to just search through a list and find the best price, but Eve wanted him to handle a few transactions in-person.
Alan met up with Daisy in front of a pet store Eve recommended. It was unlike any pet store Alan had been in before, the size of a large department store.
On the left were a wide variety of cute animals, small furry creatures ranging in size from baby squirrels to panda bears. There were also little blobs of slime and small reptiles, each in their own tiny little habitat like at a zoo.
On the right were combat pets, deadly creatures to be trained for battle. Most were still young, with videos displaying the fearsome creatures they would someday become. Loyal hounds, venomous serpents and exotic pets like a flying fish that absorbed shield energy and discharged it in an attack.
In the middle of the store were combat pets that were also cute or just plain cool. On prominent display was a small dragons egg, priced at 100 platinum marks or 200M credits. Next to it was another egg that would grow into a fiery bird that resembled a phoenix, 50M credits. Next to it was what appeared to be a rock, for 10M credits.
A Crystal Golem, as it grows it will generate and shed power crystals that will sell for tens of thousands of credits. It is also quite adept at absorbing energy and almost impossible to damage with conventional energy weapons, Eve sent.
Daisy ran over to a fluffy animal that resembled a cross between a fox and a ferret. An attendant went over to help her.
Alan examined the combat pets, and was surprised to find that Razor Puffballs sold for 10k credits apiece. Maybe he should try to capture a few.
Yes, now it is time to sell that, if you are not willing to use it, Eve sent. Raising a pet could prove a good-
No. We’re not keeping it.
Very well, then we sell it. Ask for an appraisal.
Alan flagged down an attendant, and then brought out the prize he had received for reaching the center of the insect colony back on Incipe, a Queen Arachnid egg. He held out the egg at arm’s length. He hated bugs.
We should have gotten rid of it first thing, Alan sent.
Like I said then, the market price of 500k is likely to rise due to rarity, but we need credits now, and the Administrators were only offering 100k for the egg.
Why would anyone want to raise such a monster?
Players have strange taste. Additionally, Arachnid Queens can become fearsome Capture Point or dungeon bosses. There is a dungeon competition held every few years in which players or groups of players try to build elaborate dungeons, often themed. Prices for pets capable of becoming bosses at are their height then.
The attendant took the egg and placed it carefully onto an incubator like machine. After scanning it, they said, “Please wait here as I fetch my manager. He handles all of the larger deals.” They walked off behind closed doors.
Daisy walked over with the pet she had been playing with earlier, it was nuzzled against her cheek, resting.
“Are you thinking of buying it?” Alan asked.
“No, it’s cute, but it isn’t real,” Daisy said. She petted the animal slowly.
“Just because it’s digital doesn’t mean it isn’t real,” Alan said. “I find that the AI in the Game have a frightening amount of intelligence; I don’t think the creators had morality on their minds when it was created. Each small creature here may be capable of its own thoughts, its own decisions. Besides, nothing is really real.”
“Nothing is real? What do you mean?” Daisy asked.
Alan looked around. “You say that none of these animals are real, because they are simply bits of data within the Game. But how do we know that reality isn’t simply bits of data of a larger game, made of strings instead of electrical signals? All of our feelings, our thoughts, are just the product of random signals and noise. At least we know the Game has some underlying structure.”
Daisy looked at Alan, a look he couldn’t place on her face.
“Sorry,” Alan said. “A few too many philosophy classes, I think.”
“No, it was interesting,” Daisy said. She held up the small creature in front of her face. “Maybe I will buy you. My love will be real, at least.”
For some reason Alan blushed, and looked away. Too much cuteness, perhaps.
A Haxlard arrived, dressed in a green robes with a green mask. “Praised be the Three. Welcome to my humble shop. You’ve brought in quite the remarkable specimen. I am ready to offer 400,000 credits for it.”
Eve sent a table to Alan, a list of previously sold Arachnid Queen eggs.
“But I’ve seen in my research that the eggs have sold for as high as 750k credits,” Alan said.
“At the height of buying season, yes, but now the market price is different. I’m afraid 450k is my best offer.”
“I suppose I’ll have to find another buyer then,” Alan said. “I could always just hold onto it myself until the time is right. An easy investment.” He turned to leave.
“Wait, 500k is the best I can do,” the Haxlard said.
Alan turned his head back, and said, “500k is the market price, it isn’t the best that you can do.”
“Fine, and this is the last final offer. 500k and I’ll throw in a pet worth up to 25k for you and the 1k furgy for your girlfriend.”
“Deal,” Alan said.
“I’m not his girlfriend,” Daisy said, “and don’t think I’ll be bribed by gifts.”
Ask her if there’s any chance for you, Eve sent.
Do it. There is no risk in asking.
Alan looked over at Daisy. “Would you ever take a chance on me?”
“No,” she said immediately.
“Oh.” Alan looked down. At his hands. He opened his right hand, lifted it up. What do people normally do with their hands? He brushed back is hair, then tried putting it in his pocket. Except he wasn’t wearing pants, he was in a power armor, and so he banged his hand against the side of solid medal.
“Umm, right yeah, I’m going to go now. See ya around,” he said. See ya around? What was that?
“Aren’t you forgetting our deal?” The shopkeeper asked.
“Ah, yes, sorry, it slipped my mind,” Alan said, stopping mid-step.
“It’s nothing to do with you,” Daisy said. “I’m sure you’re a wonderful guy, a great gamer.”
“Of course,” Alan said. He began examining the combat pets. All those under 25k seemed inferior, he’d outlevel and surpass them all in strength soon enough.
Daisy put a hand on his shoulder. She leaned in and whispered to him, “It’s just that right now there’s this thing going on between Ace and I, something that really shouldn’t be going on, him being my bodyguard and all. Please don’t tell anyone, okay? I’d really give you a shot if I wasn’t already sort of in a relationship.”
“Oh, right,” Alan said, slightly red faced. “I’ll be sure to research any girls I might ask out in the future.”
“Don’t say it like that, it makes you sound creepy. Your approach was right, just ask,” Daisy said. “And rejection is a normal part of life, get used to it. Have you talked to Kitana lately?”
“No, I haven’t. I actually have no idea what she’s up to,” Alan said.
“Oh, right,” Daisy said, “I just remembered she was at the Hunting Grounds.”
“I thought there was a limit to the creatures you could hunt,” Alan said.
“There are rare bounties and bosses that you can fight in the deep jungle, inaccessible by vehicle, where they don’t care about population,” Daisy said. “The risks are much higher though, you have a real chance of dying, and have to spend days on end in the wilderness. I couldn’t do such a thing. The insects, the muck, the diseases, they’re all in the Game.”
“Interesting,” Alan said. He looked over to the shop owner. “Is it okay if I just keep that 25k on credit, potentially for a future purchase? There aren’t any pets that I want right now.”
“Certainly,” they said. “So we have a deal, then?”
“Yes,” Alan said. 500k credits were transferred to his character. A message popped up:
[Haggling for a better deal, you learned a new ability Barter! +10 Charisma]
“Thank you Alan,” Daisy said. “Goodbye.”
“Bye,” Alan said as Daisy vanished from the Market, teleporting to her Home.
Stop sulking, Eve sent. You wouldn’t have been a good match anyways. I also knew that she would turn you down. I just thought it would help build character and experience to have you be rejected.
Wait, you had me say that, even though you knew I had no chance?
Yes. None of the signs were there. It was obvious she didn’t view you as a potential mate.
Enough of this charisma crap, Alan sent. Tomorrow we shoot stuff or explore.