Khersath was the cleanest city Alan had ever been in. It was also the quietest.
It was odd, standing here on an alien planet galaxies away, when he had boarded the Titan a day earlier in-game, headed back to Earth. Khersath certainly didn’t look alien. If anything it looked gamelike. An old game, with the same skyscraper apartment copied and pasted thousands of times until the sky was filled with nothing but grey skyscrapers. They were all uniform, like they had been spat out by the same 3D printer. A single design, a single mold.
There were more security checkpoints than Alan had expected, one when he landed, one every eight blocks in the city. The checkpoints were simple metal arcs manned by an Enforcer that performed non-intrusive scans, but from these scans the Enforcers knew more about what Alan carried than he did. It was technology the TSA dreamed of.
Alan arrived at the apartment building in Khersath that supposedly held a large number of the Black Rose guild, taken there by an autonomous shuttle. No one came out to greet him.
The only thing that set apart this particular building from all the others was that the tablet Alan had been given marked it with a green dot. Alan had seen a few players using a tablet in-game, and found that the real life one provided by his guild wasn’t much different.
It was a light device that fit in the palm of his hand, but could display small holograms. It functioned like a miniature Eve, providing a map and translation software in addition to a button that, when pushed, would summon the nearest Enforcer patrol. They were supposed to show up in a minute, anywhere on Khersath. The tablet had a constant globalnet connection, and wouldn’t need to be recharged in Alan’s lifetime.
To Alan’s surprise, he found that he could even link to the simple device. The connection was weak, but it was there in his mind, demonstrating that at least part of what the Chief Administrator had told him was true. He was changing.
Alan checked his schedule. It would take another few hours for his capsule to be set up and installed. With nothing else to do but browse the globalnet, Alan decided to explore the city. He knew there was at least one landmark that existed, the Administrative Center.
As he walked down the empty streets Alan realized why the city was so clean and quiet: no one went outside. Besides the occasional overhead shuttle, he didn’t see another soul; everyone was inside, playing the Game. Alan could already feel the desire to return, to connect. His body felt weak, his mind slow, like he was hung over and just woke up. The feeling wasn’t going away either. Alan supposed he was addicted to the Game. So what?
Alan approached the Administrative Center; the Black Rose building was close, maybe an hour’s walk away. A few other figures began appearing, all headed in the same direction. Inwards and onwards.
Alan was stopped by an Enforcer at one of the entrances. He tried to reach out and form a connection to the Enforcer, but he couldn’t detect anything in front of him. The Enforcer was like a blank space. They held him up with a laser rifle. Alan was suddenly aware that he wore no armor here, only a simple flightsuit.
“What business do you have here?” the Enforcer asked.
“I just arrived on Khersath, I wanted to sightsee a bit,” Alan said.
The Enforcer paused, then pulled a pair of glasses out of a compartment, handing them to Alan.
“If you wish to see sights, look into the Game, Player. This place is for business only,” the Enforcer said. They didn’t let Alan into the Administrative Center.
Alan put the glasses on, the lenses flickered. A stream of images filled his vision, lines of players flowing past, spaceships flying overhead, hawkers selling wares. Alan lifted the glasses up. He saw an empty public square, maybe 50 beings walking around at most. The glasses showed Alan what was happening in the Game, here at this very spot, but sped up four times due to the time difference. They didn’t have any wires on them. Alan wondered how they worked.
There was a loud roar to Alan’s right as a large reptilian thing was dragged out of the Administrative Center by an Enforcer and shoved into a shuttle that flew off. A long line of beings were escorted out and into shuttles by another squad of enforcers. They made sounds, unintelligible to Alan’s ears. He looked down at his tablet, and activated its translation feature. It took a moment for the yelling to be translated, appearing in his head:
You cannot do this, it wasn’t my fault, unban me!
This is disgraceful, if I can’t get back the Empire will fall, do you understand? No, you don’t you stupid machines. I demand to talk to a Chief Administrator. They will hear me out.
The capsule just kicked me out, it wouldn’t let me back in. The capsule is defective, the Game bugged! Let me back in.
The truth will get out, it always does. Where are your master’s now? Where are your-
Alan took half a step back. A large slug-like alien had somehow snuck up right next to him.
“Blar ghlll dar bghar.” The slug waved two antennae up and down.
Alan looked down at his tablet, it took it a second to find the language the alien spoke and download it:
Disgraceful. Those players have no grace.
“Um, right,” Alan said.
Another series of grunts and antennae waving.
I can’t understand your moon-language, turn on the two-way translation.
Alan did so, a series of runes appearing on the screen, facing the slug creature.
Those players have no grace. No hope. But you, I can see you still have hope. 50,000 credits. New character. New capsule. Untraceable. Play as new race. Human. Good deal, very good.
“Thanks, but I’m good,” Alan said, glancing at an Enforcer a few feet away.
Your loss. The slug ambled away.
Alan began walking out of the square surrounding the Administrative Center, but an Enforcer stopped him and herded him into a shuttle. Alan was flown back to his room, where he waited for a robot to finish installing his capsule.
“And what is the plan?” Alan asked. He was back in-game, aboard the Haxlardian ship Titan, sitting in the luxury suite with Kitana, Thiago, and Aphrodite, who had been studying at another academy.
“The plan is simple. Easy. We,” Thiago pointed at Aphrodite and himself, “are merchants. You,” he pointed at Alan and Kitana, “will protect us as we do business at the various trading hubs. You will be bodyguards. No more, no less. In case you’ve forgotten, most places in the Game don’t just let you hop around teleporting everywhere.”
“But how will that help us win the war?” Alan asked.
“That doesn’t concern you,” Thiago said.
“I’m not going to travel around with you, doing nothing but look intimidating,” Alan said. “I’d get no experience that way.”
“Yes you will, though it won’t be much. I am in charge of this mission, and you will listen to my commands,” Thiago said. “No surprises, no risks. Besides, what could you possibly do that would change the course of an entire war?”
Alan leaned back in his chair. “I could probably sneak into wherever the AI that oversees the UWG military operations is kept and hack into it. Maybe disable it. Or I could find wherever they’re keeping the nukes, maybe activate a couple.”
“I think you’re overestimating yourself,” Thiago said, arms crossed.
“Are you? Overestimating yourself, that is,” Aphrodite said.
Eve, what are the odds? Alan asked.
Roughly 30% with a high margin of error. Us escaping unscathed is roughly impossible, Eve sent. She had finished recompiling, and though there was a slight increase to her processing speed, not much seemed to have changed.
“I don’t know,” Alan said. “I’d give myself a one in three chance, maybe.”
“Maybe you’re much more talented than I think you are, maybe I’m misusing your talents,” Thiago said. “But no going on your own secret mission. No nuking anyone or anything. This is a war for the control of Earth, to defend it against the alien invasions that will come afterwards. Both sides are keeping damage to infrastructure to a minimum. Besides, nukes aren’t particularly effective against shields. Their use would only mean that the winners of the war would need to buy a bunch of expensive, radiation scrubbing robots.”
“You can’t win a war without breaking a few eggs,” Alan said, prompted by Lambda.
Thiago scoffed, turning to Kitana. “Speak some sense into Alan, he clearly won’t listen to me.”
Kitana looked up from her tablet. “Listen to orders,” she said to Alan. She turned to Thiago. “But I’m with him if things get boring. Sitting around guarding cargo isn’t my idea of a good time.”
“It’s work, work that needs to be done,” Thiago said, throwing his hands in the air.
“Look, I’ll follow orders,” Alan said, “I just want to know why I’m following orders. I need to know there’s some game plan, a path to victory. I can’t perform to the best of my ability if I don’t know why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
“Fine,” Thiago said. “This information is confidential, if you breathe a word of it to anyone it’s your head, not mine. We are going around the trading hubs gathering information from Legion of Man spies, maybe doing a bit of the legwork ourselves. Hell, I’ll even look into extra tasks for you two to help sate your bloodthirst.
“But our primary goal is information gathering, not disrupting United World Government operations. We will then return to the Legion of Man main base on Mars, to discuss a plan of action with their leaders. Once we’re on Mars you can be their problem, not mine.”
“Information gathering? I can work with that,” Alan said. “So what are we selling? As a guard I need to know what I’m guarding.”
“Materials for power armor and laser rifles, a bunch of assorted items that the UWG requested. You saw me talking to Ace and Daisy, they were the ones that hooked me up with this deal,” Thiago said. “I’ve also brought an assortment of stims.”
“Stims? Aren’t they supposed to be highly addictive?” Alan asked.
“They’re also expensive, and can increase an average soldier’s fighting potential nearly five-fold,” Thiago said. “I’ll let you try a free sample if you want.”
“Thanks, I’m good,” Alan said. Based on Eve’s research stimulated combat drugs worked similar to his Machine Lord implants, thus using both could cause unintended side-effects.
“Your loss,” Thiago said. “So we’re clear then? You are guards, you keep to yourself and hide your user info at all times. If anyone asks too many questions, let me know, I have a few counterfeit ID’s, but I’m not sure how well they’ll work with the Game and all. And no sneaking off to secret missions or underground fight clubs without conferring with me first. Understood?”
“Yes sir,” Alan said. Kitana nodded.
“Good. We can discuss specifics when we near Earth,” Thiago said.
Alan left the suite with Kitana, they began walking down the hallway back to their rooms.
Ask Kitana if she trusts Thiago, Lambda sent.
“Do you trust Thiago?” Alan asked.
“I trust my sword,” Kitana replied.
Try to be less blunt and obvious in conversation, Lambda sent. Though I suppose being direct with Kitana is the best option. That conversation with Thiago was interesting.
It was? Alan asked. All I got from it is that we’re expected to follow orders.
Oh, I don’t mean in terms of information gained. I just mean in terms of team dynamics. I suggest we plant a few bugs on Thiago, Lambda sent.
And how do we do that? Alan asked.
Simple, hack into his armor and communication devices, change a few settings, leave a few software bugs, and you’re set. If you want to perform a more complicated attack. like a man-in-the-middle attack, where you can actually alter the communication between Thiago and whoever he talks to, that requires specialized software. But to just listen in is simple as apple pie, Lambda sent.
Alright, Alan sent.
Of course, whatever data we acquire will be encrypted, but the key to the encryption should be found on whatever communication device he uses, Lambda continued. Besides, between Eve and I I’m sure we could break the encryption in a matter of days.
What if I wanted to view past messages Thiago sent and received? Alan asked.
That is more complicated, Lambda sent. To hack into message and player logs requires hacking into the Game itself, which is a big no-no. Players used to directly access capsules in real life to do that work, but if you were caught red handed by the Enforcers you’d get banned from the Game, and probably lose the hand.
Okay, let’s stay away from that, Alan sent.
If you do successfully hack into a real life capsule you can cause some serious havoc, Lambda sent. Depending on the level of the hack, you could hold a player’s account hostage, make them spend ability points/credits or even turn them into a zombie-bot under your control. When you upgrade your capsule you need to be careful, make sure there aren’t any backdoors or potential Trojan horses.
Great, now I’ll constantly worry about my capsule’s safety, Alan sent.
On the top floor of Khersath? You’ll be fine. I’d be more worried about your Earth friends, Lambda sent.
Let’s just focus on planting the listening bugs for now, Alan sent.
I suggest planting bugs on Aphrodite and Kitana as well, Eve sent.
Yes, better safe than sorry, Lambda sent.
Alan stepped out of Thiago’s suite, advanced invisibility activated. Planting the bugs had been laughably easy, Lambda and Eve doing the work in the Cyberworld as Alan directed them. Gaining access to the suite had only required hacking into the Titan’s network, which was defended by a small laser shield and a few Haxlard soldier programs. Lambda and Eve took them apart.
Alan also didn’t need to go far to plant a few bugs on Aphrodite; apparently she and Thiago were a thing. Planting a bug on Kitana proved more difficult, as she wore no power armor that Alan could hack into. Instead, he had to leave a single bug on her tablet. He felt slightly guilty, spying on his guildmate.
As Alan began walking back to his room he received a message:
Pharaoh: Meet me in the bridge.
Alan sprinted back to his rooms, deactivated his armor’s invisibility, then walked to the bridge. It was best to keep up appearances.
Two Haxlards which Alan now knew were Crimson Guards stood by the entrance to the bridge. They let Alan in.
Pharaoh looked down at a 3D star map that Alan now knew represented the Haxlard region of space, with Earth at its edge. Eve continued to teach him galactic geography, but it was difficult for Alan to wrap his head around spatial coordinates that used three dimensions. He got lost without a GPS, and apparently distances couldn’t be measured with simple Euclidean, straight-line measurements due to various factors. Space travel was complicated.
“Blessed be the Three. Welcome back aboard, Alan. You’re back sooner than I expected,” Pharaoh said.
“Sooner than I expected too,” Alan said, walking up to the command table and the star map it held.
“I called you here to ask that you not hack into the Titan’s systems. My ship is precious to me, almost as precious as the Three,” Pharaoh said, looking up from the table. Due to the mask Pharaoh wore Alan could not read his facial expression.
Alan prepared an excuse, but Lambda sent, Never lie to an Ultihaxlard. Acknowledge his request.
“I understand,” Alan said.
“Good. I trust my old AI has been helpful. A new one has been installed, but it just isn’t the same. Not that I’d ever question the Three’s orders,” Pharaoh said.
“The Three had you give me the ship’s AI?” Alan asked.
From Eve’s lessons, the Three were Haxlard gods. Unlike most gods, they seemed to be real, with physical presences. Most suspected they were a few of the original players of the Game, grown so strong that they were able to cultivate an entire race of beings. They were rarely seen, never outside of Haxlardian space, but were purported to be as powerful as the strongest of Predecessors, maybe even stronger.
“The Three, give a command to one as low as I? I wish to be so blessed,” Pharaoh said. “No, it was one of their agents who gave the order. But the Three’s wishes are not the concern of outsiders. This War for Earth, however, is. Many are unsettled by this new development, for when my brethren and I held discussions with the United World Government we were under the impression we were dealing with the de facto human government.
“Apparently not. We do not care who wins the war, only that they maintain close ties to the Haxlard Empire, and the Three. I ask that you extend these sentiments to the leaders of whichever faction you represent. And, should you discover information that your leaders have no desire to keep to the treaty they signed, and throw in with, say, the Empire, you will be greatly compensated.”
A quest appeared:
[A Diplomatic Envoy:
Get word to the Legion of Man or United World Government leaders of the Haxlard’s wish for closer ties.
Penalty for failure: Decreased Haxlard reputation.
Reward: Increased Haxlard reputation and 250k credits.
Bonus: Discover if either side is supported by the Empire. 10m+ credits for hard evidence.]
“Can’t you talk to them yourself?” Alan asked.
“No, for the United World Government has stopped all contact with Haxlardian envoys, while the Legion of Man ignored us from the start,” Pharaoh said. “Payments by the United World Government continue to be deferred, citing the ongoing war for the reason for deferment. Due to the nature of the war, now that it has reached a standstill, it does make one wonder.”
Odd, Lambda sent. They should have at least left the lines of communication open. Otherwise the Haxlards were bound to assume something fishy was going on.
“I understand,” Alan said. “I’ll try to deliver your message, find out what’s going on.”
“Good, good,” Pharaoh said. “Thus far we have been most helpful to Earth and its people, helping bring your civilization out of the stone age. Any foolish idea of rebellion will only result in Earth being sent back to the stone age; no faction within the Game can withstand the might of the Haxlard Empire.
“I hope you have a pleasant journey. I am sending one of my personal guard to help keep you safe, please bring them with you if you ever need to go anywhere on the ship. They will also check in on you periodically to ensure your safety.”
Thank him for his kindness, and bless the Three, Lambda sent.
“Thank you, blessed be the Three,” Alan sent. Pharaoh nodded.
Alan exited the bridge, escorted back to his room by a Crimson Guard. It looked like there would be no more late night escapades.