Wake up, Eve sent.
Alan awoke. A jolt flashed through his brain. What? It’s 06:22.
You have an important message from Phantom. Alan opened his messages.
Phantom: Your first official guild assignment has been determined. You and Kitana will return to the Black Rose Guild within 30 standard days. The details will be discussed then; you are not to tell anyone that you are being sent on a mission, even fellow guildmates. We understand that this mission shortens your Academy semester, thus you have been sent five platinum marks. Depending on mission results, additional rewards may be given. If you are concerned about further training, guild trainers and facilities are up to academy standards and will be available for use once your mission has been completed. Please acknowledge receipt of this message.
Alan: Message received.
Phantom: Good luck, spend your remaining days at the Academy wisely.
A quest appeared:
[Black Rose Mission (Hidden):
Report to the Black Rose base within 30 days.
Failure: Guild Expulsion]
Alan laid back on the bed, staring up at the ceiling.
So I guess we should throw away any hope of reaching Volta, he sent Eve.
Yes. Mastering two skills and acquiring ten Rogue Commendations in 30 days seems unlikely, Eve replied. We do not require Teachers or the Academy to reach a basic or intermediate proficiency in most abilities; I have acquired the data from Academy servers to do so. Instead, we should focus on acquiring specialized, advanced knowledge.
Like hacking, Alan sent. With the Revenant discount, Cerberus’s training will cost 13500C; we have an Enforcer coin worth 10000C. Five platinum marks are worth 500 ability points, another 2500C, and we can buy two more for the last 1000C with the profits from selling the pet. We’ll have 100k credits left.
Very well. It should be noted that while you can only exchange marks for ability points equal to five times your level, once those ability points are exchanged to C they are freed up once more. We currently have bought 500 extra ability points, 100 levels worth, Eve sent.
Got it. Alan began to connect to the Administrator and teleport to the Market.
Why hacking though? Eve asked.
Alan cut off his connection to the Administrator, making sure none of the conversation would be heard by them. He looked around the empty white space in his Home. This place almost feels like my base, doesn’t it?
The hacker base-thing that defends my mind from attacks and lets me launch hacks of my own. Let’s call it the Citadel. The Citadel feels like my Home, there’s this same presence. Don’t you feel it?
No. I have no such feeling.
Well the two feel similar. My theory is that Homes, the places people go to spend ability points, their inner sanctums, are a version of hacker bases, just on another server or something. Disconnected. Somehow Cerberus connected the two when he did his operation. But that means that I could hack the Game, hack my character. I feel like all the answers about what the Game is, how it works, are connected to hacking.
Such acts and exploration would likely be deemed highly illegal, Eve sent.
I know, Alan responded. But I wonder. I’m never going to become as strong as a Predecessor following the rules. You’ve been teaching me about the Game, you know stats have diminishing returns. Even if I gain 1000 points in strength I won’t be as strong as a Predecessor with 10 points in the stat. Stat points are like percentage points of your race’s natural values, but logarithmic.
Let’s use base 10 as an example, Alan continued. With 1000 points in strength I might be three times as strong as an average human, 1000 log 10. But the Predecessor will be as strong as a single Predecessor, 10 log 10, hundreds if not thousands of time stronger than a human. With just 90 more points in strength, they could double their entire strength, while I’d never even reach their original strength with billions or trillions of stat points.
Now, I know the scale also has a bunch of constants, and differs from player to player, species to species. It might not even be logarithmic and that’s just speculation on players, but even so there’s no chance I’ll ever be as strong as a Predecessor. With hacking, there’s a chance. I feel as though this ability is key.
Alan brought the ability up:
|Skill Name:||Skill Rank:||Skill Proficiency:||Skill Rarity:|
What ability? Eve sent.
Oh, right, you can’t see it, Alan sent. Just trust me it’s there. It’s called data interaction. Now, I’ve wanted to try something for a while. I think it will confirm my decision to train in hacking.
Alan broke off his connection to Eve, reconnecting to the Administrator. He activated hypercognition and hacked them.
Alan found himself in the center bunker of his base, the newly named Citadel. He exited the bunker and flew upwards. The Citadel was a circle with the radius of a few city blocks. In the distance was an entire city, the Administrator’s “mind.” Alan began flying closer, trying to get a better look.
It was grey, divided into separate quadrants of buildings that Alan couldn’t begin to determine the purpose of. Most of them were just large grey rectangles, with large power lines extending outwards. A dark grey wall twenty feet high protected the city. Spherical turrets that had single straight barrels were spaced every few meters on the wall, thousands of them.
A shield appeared, obscuring Alan’s vision of the city. A ball of blue electricity emerged from the shield. It moved faster than he could dodge, hitting him square in the chest.
Alan’s vision flared black, and when he could see again he was back in his Home. The Administrator turned to him.
Player. This is your first warning. You are not to attempt to hack into Administrators or the Game itself. If you break this rule again you will be given a large number of penalty points. A third attempt at such unlawful actions will result in rejection from the Game and a temporary banning. You will not make a fourth attempt.
Got it, sorry, I was just testing a new ability, Alan sent.
Greetings traveler, how may I aid you today? the Administrator replied.
Alan stared at the Administrator for a second, then sent, How do I remove warnings?
Warnings may only be removed by Chief Administrators. They will often require a certain level of reputation with the Administrators, a fee, and a redemption quest to remove.
Okay, thanks, Alan sent. He collected the marks the Black Rose Guild sent, went to the market to purchase two additional platinum marks, exchanged the seven platinum marks for 700 ability points, and then proceeded to Cerberus’s chambers.
“I’ve decided to become a hacker,” Alan said. He was in Cerberus’s specialized capsule, about to spend far too many ability points.
“Very well,” Cerberus said. “Might I make a suggestion first? Buy the Thrifty rogue talent and specialize in hacking for Talented. Each will decrease the cost of training by 5%, allowing you to double dip by decreasing the ability points and the C you spend.”
“Why is your training cost decreased by those abilities?” Alan asked.
“This is the Academy,” Cerberus said. “Teachers discount as if you were spending your points with an Administrator. Now spend.”
Alan accepted Cerberus’s suggestions. Two messages appeared:
[You have learned the Thrifty skill! Costs to develop your character’s skills decreased by 5%. Discount is not retroactive.]
[Talented (Undeveloped) has become Talented (Hacking)! With your newfound talents the cost to develop Hacking abilities has been decreased by 5%. Additional Hacking upgrades unlocked. The Citadel’s capacity has expanded. The base is now at 3% of capacity.]
Alan felt a rush of knowledge as a light engulfed him, connections forming in his mind. He turned to Cerberus.
A message appeared:
[Accept Cerberus’s training for 12000C? 400 ability points will be converted to 2000C, resetting the total ability points bought to 800. One Enforcer coin will be exchanged for 10000C.]
Accept. Alan was left with 172 ability points.
A thin ray of light shot out from Alan to Cerberus; Cerberus stood straighter, a spark in his eyes that Alan had not seen before.
“Excellent. Let us finish what we stared.”
Alan stood at the center of the laser grid, back in the obstacle course, Cerberus beside him. Laser beams struck Cerberus, but appeared to cause no damage.
“There is but one path left,” Cerberus said. Alan turned towards the left, the forest clearing. He maneuvered through the laser grid with Eve’s help, wondering what type of training would be next.
As he entered the forest clearing four soldiers appeared, wearing basic power armor and wielding laser rifles. Accompanying them was a single psionic medic, identified by the white dot emblem on their power armor. The medic carried no weapon.
“Your first task is to escape the forest without casualties,” Cerberus said. “You may not help or hinder your squad in any way and you may not move more than five meters away from your squad. You may give out orders.”
Alan looked around, there was only forest. He looked at the NPC soldiers, then said, “Move forwards.”
The soldiers begin moving forwards.
The soldiers stopped.
“Dance the Macarena.”
They began dancing in sync.
“Fire into the trees about 50 meters ahead, 10 meters to the right.”
The soldiers fired at the approximate location Alan gave while dancing. They missed a lot. He tried connecting to their minds, as he detected they had faint presences.
Cerberus stretched out a hand and stopped him. “That’s cheating. You’re leading this squad, not controlling them.”
“Alright,” Alan said, “not sure what the point of all this is.”
Have the soldiers take the following formation, Eve sent, an image accompanying her message.
Alan turned to the soldiers. “Find your way out of the forest, be wary of traps and enemies. Two of you in front, two behind, with the medic at the center of the formation. Keep an eye out for movement.”
As they continued walking through the forest Cerberus asked, “Have you done this before? There’s a game in the Arcade that is similar to this test.”
“It’s not too different from playing a RTS, except without the top down view,” Alan said. He didn’t mention that Eve was feeding him advice and commands.
Enemy detected ahead. Have the front two soldiers advance forwards slowly, the back two soldiers providing covering fire if needed. Keep the medic at the ready, Eve sent.
Alan relayed her orders. The two soldiers cautiously advanced, found two enemy soldiers, and eliminated them with the help of the squad.
“This is too easy. New scenario,” Cerberus said. “Defend the base.”
An explosion sounded in the distance.
“Forward, now!” Alan shouted. The soldiers began sprinting forwards; Alan ran along with them. They emerged from the forest to find smoke and explosions. Laser fire intermittently pierced through the smog, but it was all the same red color. There was no convenient color coding to tell friend from foe.
Alan rapidly switched between the different wavelengths of light that he could see; the only one that was slightly helpful showed the outline of a few buildings under attack.
“Follow me,” Alan said as he ran towards the nearest structure. A guard stood by the entrance.
“Status report!” Alan shouted, struggling to be heard.
“Why should I report to you? You’re a squad captain,” the guard said.
“Well what am I supposed to do then? Who’s in charge?” Alan asked.
“Aren’t you part of the raid party?”
A message appeared, notifying Alan that he was now part of the raid group entitled Defenders. An interface appeared, similar to group messages but with layers. Alan could send messages to either individual NPC’s, which were named Defender 1 through Defender 100, to a specific squad, or to the entire raid group. He could even customize how messages appeared to others. Alan’s squad were Defender’s 96-100. Defender 1 had a star next to his name, which Alan knew denoted the raid leader.
Alan contacted Defender 1.
Alan: Give me control of the raid group.
Defender 1: And why should I do that? Report on what you found in the forest.
Alan: Two enemy soldiers. They were eliminated.
Defender 1: Good. Defend the base.
Alan turned to Cerberus, who shrugged. “This is the scenario. Lead. It’s more than giving orders.”
Alan began to lead the squad back outside.
No, find the command center, Eve sent.
Listening to Eve, Alan lead the squad deeper into the building until they reached the command room. Two soldiers, Defender 2 and 3 guarded the door, equipped with intermediate ranked power armor and laser swords. Defender 1 stood before a command table. These tools for war displayed a 3-dimensional image of the battlefield, like a chess board, but real time and far more detailed.
Eve had been taught Alan the basics of reading these boards, and from what he could see the defenders were outnumbered three to one. The enemy also had a tank, while the base had no defense other than a laser shield.
Eve rapidly began making calculations that Alan tried to follow. He couldn’t follow all the details but he got the gist of things: they were screwed if they continued following Defender 1’s plan, which was to simply stand guard and wait for the attackers to advance.
“The base will be destroyed in ten minutes if you continue like this,” Alan said.
“Do not bother me, return to your station,” Defender 1 said.
“Look, if you just concentrate those defenders deeper in the structure here, move the snipers back there and prepare an ambush in that hallway our chances for success go way up,” Alan said.
“Cease your insubordination, return to your station,” Defender 1 said.
Alan stared at the NPC for a second, then told his squad, “Shoot Defender 1.” They shot Defender 1, killing them.
Defender 2 became the new raid leader. They immediately marked Alan’s squad as hostile and sliced through them with Defender 3.
There was a flash of light as the scenario reset. Alan found himself standing at the edge of the forest with his squad, the base under attack.
“Sometimes you will have dumb superiors that won’t listen to you,” was all Cerberus said.
Alan tried leading his squad on an assault of the enemy force, he had seen how they were arrayed and even managed to take out 75 enemies before his squad was wiped out by the tank and the scenario was reset. Cerberus offered no advice.
Alan tried hiding his squad in the command room. The defenders managed to eliminate a third of the attackers before they reached this point. Another 30 were defeated by Defender 2 and 3, but Alan’s squad still eventually fell.
Alan spent multiple attempts trying to take over the tank, waiting until it was damaged or had reached a certain place in the battlefield before charging it with his squad. It never worked.
“Just because they won’t listen to your commands doesn’t mean they won’t listen to your advice,” Cerberus said.
“What do you mean?” Alan asked. “The commander didn’t listen to my advice.”
“Yes, because he believed you were being insubordinate,” Cerberus said.
“Wait, these defenders have their own personalities?” Alan asked.
“Yes. They have their own abilities and level of ability too,” Cerberus said. “Did I not mention that?”
“No,” Alan said.
The next attempt Alan remained in the command center, but sent detailed advice to how the enemy would advance and where enemy snipers were to the defenders individually, information Eve had analyzed from previous runs. This time they managed to defeat half the attackers, and a minute before they all died Defender 1 even promoted Alan to be in charge of two squads rather than one.
The next attempt Alan split his consciousness; one half lead his squad to kill as many attackers as possible while the other offered advice to the defenders. Alan got around the need to stay within five meters of his squad at all times by leaving the medic behind in the command room; the advice he offered wasn’t useful if it wasn’t up to date and in this fast paced battle the medic was almost useless, soldiers often eliminated before the medic could do anything.
This time Defender 1 gave Alan a control of a second squad much sooner, the kills his squad racked up seemed to impress them. With the second squad Alan managed to eliminate two thirds of the attackers before the base fell.
Finally, on the eight attempt, Alan won the scenario by having his squad and the squads he gained control of loot fallen defenders and attackers with specialized weaponry, defeating the tank by kiting it around with a few snipers. The NPC’s driving it weren’t the smartest.
“Good enough,” Cerberus said. “The common strategies to defeat the scenario are to either convince Defender 1 to relinquish his command or discover you just needed to hold out till reinforcements arrive, distracting the enemy force with your squad, but that worked too.”
“What? How was I supposed to convince Defender 1 to follow me?” Alan asked.
“Maybe by talking to them more? The NPC is actually quite complicated, with an entire back-story and everything. You could have blackmailed him by discovering an affair with another defender or plotted with Defender 2 to throw a coup. Anyways, these scenarios are supposed to have multiple solutions, and yours was fairly unique. Moving on: Defend the planet.”
Alan was transported to the insides of a spaceship, a command table before him. Instead of showing a single battlefield however it showed an entire planet with nearly thirty simultaneous large-scale battles with a large amount of additional units moving about or preparing for battles. Alan could use the table to zoom in on a particular location, but many parts of the planet were covered in black, where the only information that came in was from messages sent by scouts instead of a live 3D video feed. Eve was overloaded by the information, it took her nearly a minute to digest it all and by that time two of the battles had already finished.
This time Alan was the commander, in charge of ten million defenders against an invading force twice his size with both space support and superior gear. Alongside the command table was a data terminal that contained detailed information about all the defender’s: their levels, stats and personalities were all recorded.
Eve began a list of orders that Alan communicated as quickly as possible.
“Move this unit there. Retreat. Chase them. Prepare an ambush here,” Alan said.
“Lose the bioform mindset,” Cerberus said.
Alan stopped giving commands. “What?” Alan asked.
“You are a machine lord, not some dumb ape that depends on their vestigial organs to communicate and show off how large their ego is. Use your abilities to their furthest extent.”
Activate hypercognition and give orders through in-game messages, Eve sent.
Oh, right, Alan replied. Alan activated hypercognition and split his consciousness. One half handled the macro decisions, overall movements of thousands of soldiers, while the other handled micro decisions, sending messages down to the squad level and combing through the data terminal to reassign individual defenders. Aided by Eve, he discovered some of the information on the defenders was incorrect and uncovered a few spies hidden in the ranks.
As the war progressed and the number of defenders decreased Eve was able to provide commands with finer and finer detail, which Alan followed.
“Do you feel bad at all, letting your AI do all the work?” Cerberus asked.
“No, delegating is what leaders do,” Alan said.
Cerberus waved his hand before him and the simulation sped up, time began progressing ten times as fast. Still, the numbers had progressed to the point that Eve was never too overloaded, and within an hour Alan defeated the final attacker.
Three messages appeared as Alan was teleported before a large metal door that looked like it would fit on an aircraft hangar:
[Managing to lead a large force to victory you have gained a new sub-stat of Charisma, Leadership! For every five points in Leadership you will gain a point in Charisma. +25 Leadership]
[Managing to effectively formulate a winning battle strategy you have learned a new Machine Lord ability, Tactical Analysis! +15 Intelligence + 10 Leadership]
For completing the Chancellor’s Trial you have gained access to the entrance of the Academy Data Vault. To enter the Data Vault complete the following tasks:
Receive 5 Commendations of every type, 10 Commendations in your program (Rogue).
Win the Game of Assassins.
Receive 1st place in the Champion’s Tournament.
Complete a full course at the Institute.
Defeat either a level 1000+ rank A boss or a level 500+ rank S boss in the Hunting Grounds.
Gain the Chancellor’s approval.]
“You’re the Chancellor?” Alan asked.
“Finally catching on, are you?” Cerberus asked. Two titles appeared beside his name: Academy Chancellor and Revenant Agent.