“Is that what you’re wearing?” Thiago asked.
Alan looked down at his power armor, then at Thiago’s suit. “Yes.”
“Do you have another outfit?” Aphrodite asked.
“No. Let’s get moving,” Alan said. He walked out to the armored black Mercedes-Benz that had arrived, sent by Thiago’s contact. It sat by the curb, motionless. Alan saw no driver, and when he tried the door it was locked.
Looking back at the warehouse, Alan listened in on Thiago and Aphrodite’s conversation.
“Are you sure I can’t come? I’m certain Kitana can handle any would be thief,” Aphrodite said.
“It’s not thieves that I’m worried about, but unwanted attention,” Thiago said. “You can deflect interest better than her. A trail of dead bodies is not what we want, not in the city. I also want you to talk to Kitana, see how amenable she is to the plan.”
“Fine,” Aphrodite said, “but I think I’d be better at convincing Alan.”
“You wouldn’t,” Thiago said. “He’s still convinced this is all a game.”
“Yeah, who only has a single outfit? I think he’s autistic,” Aphrodite said.
Alan sighed as Thiago came out of the warehouse. The armored car’s back doors popped open. Alan and Thiago got in; with the power armor on Alan was a tad cramped. The car had blacked out windows that prevented them from seeing where the car was taking them. Alan was sure this had been illegal at some point.
The car’s engines roared to life and it began moving.
The vehicle is also blocking all incoming and outgoing signals, Eve sent. However, based on acceleration forces I can estimate where we are headed.
“Alan, I am going to be direct,” Thiago said, turning to face him. “How happy are you with the Black Rose Guild?”
“Quite happy,” Alan said.
“Really? Even after they pulled you out of the Academy and forced you to pick a side in this war?” Thiago asked.
Be honest, Lambda sent.
“I learned what I needed to at the Academy, and at this point don’t care who I fight for. Both sides are trying to do what they think is best for humanity,” Alan said.
“But they can’t be paying you very well,” Thiago continued. “You stayed in a tiny room aboard the Titan, and have only been eating those tasteless gel blocks. As you’re aware, we’re funded, and can pay well.”
“I’m bound to the Black Rose guild for five years, and to buy out the guild contract would cost a million credits,” Alan said. “I’m not sure what your offer is here, but the Black Rose guild has contacts and tech that you don’t. And for your information my diet and quarters were of my own choosing to save credits.”
Thiago frowned, and said, “So we build those contacts and gather the resources ourselves. But fine, I can see you’re uninterested in leaving your guild. Still, fucking indulge a little, Alan. You can do what you want here, taste whatever forbidden fruits you desire. And you’re what? Sitting in your room all day training, eating sand.”
What an idiot, Eve sent. Alan agreed.
I’m not sure, he may have a point, Lambda sent.
“I’m happy playing the Game as I have,” Alan said.
“You have no desire for building something greater, something more? I could never be content being someone else’s lackey,” Thiago said.
“I think you should concentrate more on improving your abilities,” Alan said. “Then naturally whatever is more will fall into place.”
“Fine, fine,” Thiago said. He pulled something out of his pocket. “But here, I insist you take this. Don’t use it if you don’t want to.”
Alan examined the small clear capusle Thiago handed to him. It contained a red liquid:
[Berserker’s Blood (Rank C):
A battle stimulant. Grants greatly increased strength, stamina and health. Lasts 1 hour. Potential debuff after use.]
“I told you I’m good,” Alan said.
“Not even in case of an emergency?” Thiago asked.
Accept it, Lambda sent. He’s pushing this too hard, we should examine the stimulant’s properties at the very least.
Alan took the drug, pocketing it. “Fine, it might come in handy.”
Thiago smiled. “Trust me, it will.”
The rest of the trip continued in silence. When the car finally turned off its engine Alan checked his map. According to Eve they were in Downtown Manhattan, having only travelled a few miles despite half an hour of transit.
The car doors opened. Alan stepped out and found himself in front of a restaurant named the Wolf’s Head Steakhouse.
A bouncer stood at the entrance. “No weapons allowed inside.”
Try to detect their security scanner, Lambda sent. I would prefer to not enter this meeting defenseless.
Alan stretched out his senses. Other than the bouncer’s armor, a few tablets and the security cameras he didn’t detect anything. Maybe there weren’t any scanners.
No, they’re somewhere. Hand over everything, Lambda sent.
Alan slowly pulled his pistols, rifle attachment, and sword out and handed them to the bouncer. The weapons were placed in a keypad safe by the entrance.
The maître d’ greeted Alan and Thiago at the entrance to the dining room. It was lit by a crystal chandelier and held a handful of diners in formal wear. None wore armor.
“The sky was once blue,” Thiago said. Alan glanced outside, it was grey and cloudy.
“And how large is your party?” the head waiter asked.
“Two, but with the hope for more. If the resistance is not too great,” Thiago said.
“It is not. Please follow me.”
Alan and Thiago were past the main dining room and up a flight of stairs. Two additional guards stood outside a private room. The waiter knocked on the door.
“Your guests have arrived.”
“Let them in,” a familiar voice called out from inside. The door swung open to reveal Icewolf, seated at a table set for three, wearing a suit and tie. Three freshly cooked rib-eye steaks with all the fixings sat on the table alongside a bottle of wine and pitcher of water.
“Please, come in,” Icewolf said. “Good to see you, Alan, and nice to finally meet you face-to-face, Thiago.”
Alan and Thiago sat opposite Icewolf, shutting the door behind them.
“I hope you like your steak rare, I’d rather not be bothered while we eat, and the fewer that know you’re here the better,” Icewolf said. “Please, dig in.”
They began eating. Alan bit into the marbled beef. It was juicy and tender and quite possibly the best cut of meat he had ever tasted. Maybe he was missing out, he had half forgotten what real food tasted like. He felt Eve sigh.
“Now, to business,” Icewolf said after taking a few bites out of his food. “We’ve recently learned that the UWG has recalled their main players. We need to get off Earth and back to Mars before they arrive, so our schedule is tighter than I would like.”
“Their main players?” Alan asked.
“The original soldiers, the spec ops forces that joined the Game. They’ve been off who knows where training and leveling, but it seems the UWG think the Legion is enough of a threat to warrant their return,” Icewolf said.
“And they weren’t here originally why?” Thiago asked.
“I don’t know,” Icewolf said. He took a sip of wine. “We’ve been quiet, preparing other operations, maybe we spooked some official. Either way, these people have been in-game years longer than you have, level 1000 plus, bad-ass commandos. You do not want to be around when they arrive.”
“Okay, so what’s the operation?” Alan asked.
“New York is thriving,” Icewolf said. “On account of the nature of the Game it was only natural for all the financial institutions to transition to in-game offices. Faster connections, more time, unique technology, larger markets, and special abilities; what more could be asked for? That’s why you may see people wandering about unarmed, they have non-combat classes. Don’t harm them, it will give you penalty points.”
“So all the banks, they’re in the Game now,” Alan said.
“Yes, as are the stock markets and the quants and every other company,” Icewolf said. “The economy is run more or less the same way it’s always been. In other words, everyone continues to invest, trying to make a quick buck, except of course now the major currency is credits and the New York Stock Exchange is small potatoes compared to the Khersath Markets. Everything is more or less the same, the rich get richer, the fat get fatter. But we’re going to change that.”
“We are?” Thiago asked.
“Yes,” Icewolf said. “The plan is simple. We are going to cause the single largest market crash, the greatest recession, Earth has ever known. With the UWG already drowning in debt they’ll run out of money and take themselves out. We’ll sit back, comfortable on Mars, as they bleed to death.”
“So that’s why you had us transport the precious metals and commodities, they’re hedges,” Thiago said.
“Yes, plenty in the Legion are poised to make a pretty penny if this plan works out,” Icewolf said. “Also get that stuff into an Administrative Center Vault as soon as possible, even I don’t know what all the other teams are doing, and I think more than a few are planning on robbing a bank or two.”
“And how are you going to manage this great recession?” Thiago asked.
“Well, with the recent lull in the war, markets have rallied, stabilizing,” Icewolf said. “However, when new attacks begin, twice as fierce, concentrating on relatively undefended warehouses and factories, the market will take a sizeable hit. Compounded on that, we have a number of portfolios that we will liquidize, causing greater panic. A few other operations are underway as well, but they aren’t your concern.”
Icewolf pointed his fork at Alan. “Your job is to hack into the stock exchange and do everything you can to incite a depression. Make numbers disappear, corrupt data, overload servers, I don’t care. Get in there and mess them up, but not so bad they can’t sell their assets.”
“And when will this happen?” Alan asked.
“Day after tomorrow,” Icewolf said. “Get what preparation you can done. I have plans of the New York Stock Exchange building, and ID badges for you.” He handed a data chip to Alan. “I am playing the faithful portfolio manager, running Omnitech Industries’ investments.”
Alan raised a slice of meat to his mouth then froze. There were two additional presences outside the door, standing there.
89% chance of hostiles, Eve sent.
“We have company,” Alan said. He activated his power armor’s advanced invisibility.
Icewolf pulled a high powered laser rifle from beneath the table as Alan shoved the door open. The two guards looked his way.
Alan rushed passed them, downstairs through the dining hall to the safe at the front of the building.
He heard laser fire overhead. Diners began screaming; there was a mad dash for the exit.
1119, Eve sent as Alan reached the safe.
Alan entered the code, grabbing his weapons and two grenades next to them. He glanced at the other weapons in the safe.
No time, get back up there, Eve sent.
Guided through the crowd by Eve, Alan reached the upstairs hallway in time to see one of the guards beheaded by a silver masked Haxlard.
The other guard clutched their arm, screaming in pain.
Activating hypercognition, Alan attempted to hack into the Haxlard’s armor.
Their shields are too strong, we don’t have time to break through, Eve sent.
Time to put your sword training to the test, Lambda sent. A series of green outlines appeared in his head, various combo attacks. Alan executed one.
Right slash. Left slash. One dead Haxlard, he never saw Alan’s attack coming.
The other turned to Alan, raising a blue laser-sword.
Don’t directly block any attacks, your strength is inferior, Eve sent.
Besides, it’s bad for the blade, Lambda commented.
The Haxlard faced Alan’s crimson blade; Alan stared back. A flurry of laser bolts came through the door, striking the Haxlard.
Taking advantage of the distraction Alan lunged forward and with an upward thrust pierced the Haxlard’s faceplate, killing them.
Alan glanced at his experience bar; he’d gained 10% of a level.
“When did you start using a sword?” Thiago asked.
“I think we should be more concerned about why there are two Haxlard assassins here,” Alan said. “Aren’t they not allowed to interfere with the war?”
“They aren’t, but they can defend their assets, and right now they own most of Earth’s debt,” Icewolf said. “What I would like to know is which of you two tipped off the Haxlards.”
He raised his laser rifle.
Lambda? Alan asked.
It wasn’t us, nor was it Thiago. Who’s the weakest link? My bet is Aphrodite, Lambda sent.
Right, her friends with power armor, Alan sent.
“It was Aphrodite,” Alan said, turning to Thiago. “She told her friends we were here, but I have to imagine even she isn’t stupid enough to randomly let people know our whereabouts after your explicit instructions not to.”
“Shit, and she’d know where we were as soon as we emerged from the car,” Thiago said. He froze. “The goods, they’re all with her and Kitana.”
Thiago flipped open his tablet. “My messages aren’t getting through, neither she nor Kitana are responding.”
“They wouldn’t be able to, no messages can get into that warehouse,” Icewolf said. “Making sure that capital is safe is our first priority, I’ll take care of this.” He gestured to the dead Haxlards.
Alan and Thiago ran back outside. It was pandemonium, with screaming pedestrians and a number of military and police vehicles already converging on the scene. They hopped into the armored car which took off like a rocket as soon as they were inside. There were a few crashes as it raced through the city, but Alan paid no attention.
Eve and Lambda tried to develop simulations for potential battle plans against Aphrodite, Kitana, Thiago, or any combination thereof.
The car stopped and let them out a few blocks from away from the warehouse. Alan leapt out with basic invisibility activated. He sprinted to the warehouse, Thiago right behind.
Alan burst into the warehouse, and found Aphrodite sitting at a table, legs up on the desk, chatting with Kitana.
Kitana unsheathed her sword.
“It’s just us,” Thiago said, looking around the warehouse. He walked up to the metal boxes, making sure everything was still there.
“Back so soon?” Aphrodite asked.
“We had a run in with a few Haxlards,” Alan said. He watched Aphrodite’s and Kitana’s reactions.
Slight surprise on both their faces, but that could mean anything, Lambda sent.
“Neither of you would know anything about this, would you?” Thiago asked.
“No,” Kitana said.
“Of course not. Why, do you suspect one of us?” Aphrodite asked.
Push the issue, Lambda sent.
“Yes,” Alan said. “You specifically. Give me your entire data log for the past month. I can look up your friends, see if they’re legitimate.”
“What? You want to perv on my friends?” Aphrodite asked.
“Give him the names,” Thiago said. “The entire data logs includes personal stuff, like quests and abilities, I think handing that over would be overkill.”
“She can lie about the names,” Alan said. He thought for a second. “Show me the contract. If it’s broken, then we’ll know you’re working with the Haxlards.”
“What contract?” Aphrodite asked. “I never signed any contract with you. The one that I was forced into was by him.” She pointed at Thiago. “Maybe he’s the one you should be worried about.”
“The contract not to reveal any information gained before and during the Tutorial,” Alan said. “I’m fairly sure that’s the only information you’d have about me, and that the Haxlards would have wanted it.”
Alan looked around at everyone. “Actually, it would be best if everyone brought it out, just to make sure no one has broken it. I’ve learned a bit about contracts, and if someone did break it, that wouldn’t be revealed until we examined their contract screen. Here, I’ll start.”
Alan brought up his contracts screen in a menu that appeared before him, and showed it to the others. Unbroken.
Kitana revealed hers also unbroken.
Thiago sighed. “I got an offer from the Legion of Man I couldn’t resist. But hey, it’s how I got this job. Guess I owe each of you 125k credits.” He turned to Aphrodite. “However, there should be no reason for you to have broken the contract unless you really did backstab me.”
Thiago grabbed Aphrodite’s arm; she flinched.
“No tricks now,” Thiago said. “I know all your dirty little tricks.”
Aphrodite stared back at him, head held high. “Well then I’m glad I learned a few new ones.”
Aphrodite’s eyes flashed blue and a pulse of energy rolled through the room. Alan fell to the floor, clutching his head. Intense pain radiated through him, his implants scrambled. Eve and Lambda yelled at him, but they were muffled, behind a sound barrier.
His vision blinked in and out, he saw Kitana and Thiago knocked out cold on the floor. He fumbled around for his laser pistol, trying to locate Aphrodite. He saw her standing over Kitana trying to grab something. Kitana’s sword.
Alan fired off a round. The shots bounced around wildly, Alan was too dizzy to aim. He stumbled towards Aphrodite, tripped and fell to the floor.
When he looked back up Aphrodite had grabbed Thiago’s sniper instead and was preparing to fire it at him. Alan struggled through the pain to activate the bug placed on the weapon, forcing it to overheat.
Aphrodite let out a yell, dropping the weapon as plasma fire raced up her arms. Alan fired off a few more shots, he was closer to a hit this time. Aphrodite grabbed a metal box and ran out the door. Alan tried to give chase but ran into the doorway. He lay on the ground, trying to refocus his thoughts.
Minutes later Thiago and Kitana regained consciousness. Alan began to regain his balance; he felt Eve and Lambda reconnect.
What was that? Alan sent.
Some version of a mind blast, Eve sent. We’re lucky it’s a primarily mental based attack rather than psionic.
So there are players walking around that can just set off mental concussion grenades? Alan asked.
Yes, but they’re rare, an ability in one in thousands of psionics, Eve sent. And, such skills are generally banned by the Administrators as they can potentially cause permanent harm, thus many able Players do not ever learn the skill. I’m curious where Aphrodite learned it.
“Shit, what happened?” Thiago asked.
“Aphrodite used a mind blast, wiped you two out. I was able to stop her from killing all of us, but she managed to escape with a box of loot,” Alan said.
Thiago ran over to his precious goods. “Damn, that bitch stole a box of power crystals. You weren’t able to do anything?”
“You’re lucky to be alive,” Alan said. “Shouldn’t we be more concerned about the fact that we’ve been travelling around with a mole, one with abilities you weren’t even aware of.”
“Fuck, you’re right,” Thiago said. He looked around at the metal boxes. “Come on, let’s get this back in the truck and to an Administrative Center Vault. Who knows who she’s contacted by now.”
Our bug on her tablet, Lambda sent.
Alan checked it, and found that Aphrodite hadn’t sent any messages. Yet. He contemplated disabling it from afar.
Keep it on, the information gained could be useful, Lambda sent.
“I think I can track her down, get back the stolen crystals,” Alan said.
“No, the first priority is getting what we have to the Administrative Center vault where it’s safe,” Thiago said. He looked at his sniper, it seemed damaged by the forced overheat. “And what the fuck happened to my weapon?”
You used a skill, deflect, Lambda sent.
“Had to use a special skill,” Alan said. “You’re lucky she didn’t get Kitana’s blade. If she had we’d be dead.”
“She was not worthy to wield Murakumo,” Kitana said.
“You named your sword?” Thiago asked as they loaded the last of the boxes into the truck.
“Alan named his machines,” Kitana said. “Besides, a weapon is the clearest manifestations of one’s soul. More so in this Game than anywhere else.” She gripped her sword and it let out a flash of light.
Holy shit, I think the Administrators gave her an evolving weapon, Lambda sent.
One that absorbs the energy of defeated foes, increasing its own strength over time? Alan asked.
You got it, Lambda sent.
I was wondering why she was carrying the same weapon since the tutorial, Alan sent. He got into the back of the truck.
They headed north to the Bronx, where the nearest Administrative Center was located. Icewolf seemed to have smoothed things over with the local authorities, and had sent a single message.
Icewolf: Follow through, that’s all that matters. I’m a bit held up now with the investigation into what happened at the restaurant. Busy with the cleanup, don’t contact me unless it’s an emergency.
He wants us to focus on the plan to take down the UWG, and he’s now probably being watched, Lambda sent.
I got that, thanks, Alan sent.
The simplest of messages can be lost in translation, Lambda replied.
Alan rolled his eyes, scanning his surroundings for potential threats.
“I don’t like this, we’re sitting ducks out here,” Thiago said. “Aphrodite could have told half the thieves guilds in the city what we’re carrying.”
They were in a line of vehicles transporting goods to the Administrative Center Vault. The Administrative Center looked like it used to be an governmental office, a DMV on steroids. 10 lanes were open to vehicle traffic, five in and five out, but there was still a backup that rivaled a freeway at rush hour.
“We’re right next to the Administrative Center, attacking us here is tantamount to suicide,” Alan said.
“I still don’t like this,” Thiago said.
Alan sighed, then connected to a nearby Administrator standing outside the Administrative Center.
Greetings Traveler, the Administrator sent.
Hi, we’re here to deposit some goods in your vault, is there any way you can speed the process up? Alan asked.
Ten Administrator guards walked up to their truck, five humans in advanced power armor, five robots which scanned the truck and its contents. The truck began weaving through traffic to the front of the line, the other automated vehicles making space for it.
“What’d you do?” Thiago asked.
“I have some clout with the Administrators,” Alan said.
Once the truck had been guided inside and all the goods had been deposited into the vault Thiago finally let out a sigh of relief.
“Well that’s stage one of our mission complete at least,” Thiago said after he received a receipt from the Administrator. Now that his materials were in an Administrative Center Vault, he could retrieve them from the same vault. Alternatively, he could get them shipped to a vault at another Administrative Center, but the cost was prohibitive, which was why they had brought the goods from Khersath in the first place.
Items sold and bought on the Market, meanwhile, had to also be dropped off and picked up from the nearest Administrative Center Vault. Khersath and the Academy were outliers in that items could be traded from any nearby capsule directly due to their unique designations by the Game.
As they turned to leave, an Administrator stopped them. They connected to Alan.
Please wait, Traveler. Chief Administrator 170 has requested to discuss matters with you as soon as he learned of your whereabouts. Follow me, the Administrator sent.
“It looks like I have business to take care of, please wait here,” Alan said.
Thiago and Kitana watched Alan leave and enter the Administrative Center, unsure what was going on.