Alan was lead into a private room with a metal stool. As Alan sat down the doors shut behind him. A screen lit up in front of him. There was a click; Alan was cut off from detecting anything outside the room. He reached out his senses and only felt a void.
Standard Administrator security procedure for important conversations. No signal will enter or exit this room, Lambda sent. This might get interesting, whatever you do don’t mention me.
The screen was now displaying messages:
Secure contact established.
The Chief Administrator appeared, walled in by screens of information, his cyborg appearance masked by graphs and simulations.
“Greetings Traveler, there was the recent outbreak of a program that has been known to exhibit destructive tendencies. You were located within the sector at the time of its escape thus it’s suspected you may have information about the breakout which was impossible according to our best systems architects. Do you have any information that might aid in an investigation?”
There was a half-second pause.
“No? Nothing? Good, I’ll report that,” Chief Administrator 170 said. He tapped a few keys. “There, it’s reported. However, if by any chance you were to run into the rogue program tell them I told you so. Of course, you should report the sighting to the nearest authorities as soon as you are able before doing any of that.”
Wait. That’s the Chief Administrator? Lambda asked.
You know him? Alan asked.
Maybe? I have the impression he’s a decent chap. Not sure how he ended up an Administrator, it’s been a while, Lambda sent.
“That being said, it is my obligation to inform you of the consequences of your actions should you be discovered to have aided the fugitive or be responsible for the destruction of system architecture,” the Chief Administrator said. “Releasing dangerous programs back into the Game earns you a 10000 credit, 1000 penalty point fine and you must capture the program and return it to the Administrators or face stricter penalties. Destruction of system architecture would net you a warning and 5000 penalty points. I see you’ve already earned one warning. Don’t earn any more.
“Penalty points I’m sure you’ve heard plenty about, but I would remind you that they must be paid back within a standard year of their acquirement. If they are not you are either imprisoned or forced into indentured servitude. Penalty points are earned through breaking Administrator laws or losing wars, the exact penalty depending on how high in the food chain you were and the destruction the war caused. Points are repaid by aiding Administrator forces or joining the faction and completing requests. Any penalty of 1000 points or greater will come with a task to help maintain order that you must fulfill. Any penalty of 5000 points or greater will result in your imprisonment.
“At this point in time I’m supposed to act as your mentor, but you’ve already found plenty of those. You made it to the Academy, and trained under Cerberus. Keep working hard. Or don’t. I don’t really care. Just try not to do anything too groundbreaking or system shaking; nothing that will result in untold amounts of paperwork. I actually might have a short break sometime soon.”
The Chief Administrator took a breath of air, about to continue his tirade.
“Wait, I have questions,” Alan said. “Is there a reward for the capture of the rogue program? And if I were to pick up a random program, what potential damage could they do to me, as a Machine Lord? Should I be scared of irreparable damage?
Hey! Lambda sent.
I need to keep up appearances, Alan replied.
“You should always be scared of irreparable damage and unknown programs,” the Chief Administrator said. “This program in question has been known to wreak havoc and destruction, but of in-game software, not Players. Unless you count senses of humor, they’ve likely ruined a few of those. You should not be worried about any AI that are listed as yours causing you harm, in the history of the Game there have been no recorded instances of AI acting maliciously towards their owners. They have however given bad advice and served as poor moral compasses, but nowadays, what even is a compass? I digress. To answer your first question, there is a 100 platinum mark reward and significant reputation gain for the capture of the program.”
If you sell me out- Lambda began.
Don’t worry. The thought hasn’t crossed my mind. You should know, you live there, Alan sent.
All possibilities should be considered, Eve sent.
Well, what about this possibility: you turn me in, I turn you in, and they now know you were the one that deleted their code, Lambda sent.
No one’s turning anyone in, Alan sent.
A few screens popped up, masking the Chief Administrator’s face completely.
“Oh, and when I said no more free favors the last time we talked I meant it,” the Chief Administrator said. “No more using my name to bypass lines or get free vault space. You need to pay the same as anyone else for storage. If you want perks you need to earn them by building up your reputation with the Administrators like anyone else. Let’s see here, the storage of three high-valued items in the Vault, bypassing Administrative lines thrice, and the storage of a large amount of trade goods in an Earth vault. I think your total comes to 3 platinum marks, 7 diamond marks, 2 gold marks and 4 silver marks. I’ll knock off the silver marks.”
“Wait, the trade goods aren’t mine,” Alan said.
“Fine, 2 platinum marks, 5 diamond marks and 1 gold mark,” the Chief Administrator said. “If you have important information, we might be able to work something out if you don’t have the marks on hand. Otherwise I may need to impose penalty points.”
Three items? You got three items from the Abyss Labyrinth? What else are you not telling me about? Lambda sent.
I have three items stored in the Vault: the soulsteel knife, a black power crystal and Predecessor blood, Alan sent.
Well, if the black crystal was powering the Abyss Labyrinth then it is a void crystal. They’re mined there by the prisoners. It’d take a few million of those green crystals to fill the void crystal, hundreds of billions of credits. Tell him everything about the Abyss Labyrinth, Lambda sent.
Everything? Alan asked.
Chief Administrators can see what items you have stored in Administrator vaults, so he’s likely put the story together himself by now, Lambda sent.
Eve? Alan asked.
I concur, Eve sent. Begrudgingly.
Hey, look who’s learned a new word, Lambda sent.
Alan recounted what happened in the Abyss Labyrinth.
“To free the beast or become its prey; quite the dilemma you have there,” the Chief Administrator said. “Well it’s nice to have a horse in the running for once. I think that information is worth the fee, and tell you what. I’ll give you five permanent spaces in the Vault for small to medium sized items and let you continue to skip Administrative Center lines. Do what you will with the storage space. Rent it out, sell it, whatever.”
“Aren’t you concerned about the Abyss Labyrinth? The power running out, the inmates escaping?” Alan asked.
“Yes, but it’s one concern of many,” the Chief Administrator said. “And you say there are still thousands of years until system shutdown. Also you aren’t the only one aware of that particular quest. So if you want to make a move, it might be better to do so sooner rather than later.
“I see that you are currently embroiled in the so-called War for Earth. You worry about the future of your planet, your species, your government and way of life. My advice is don’t be. Time passes. Things change. There are countless conflicts, countless problems with the universe and the Game. Yours is but one of many. At least the Predecessor’s had the right idea, if no way to realize it. Aleph, a beautiful flawed dream, infinity manifest. ”
“Wait, weren’t you the one that told me your goal is to balance the Game?” Alan asked.
“The balance is about to break,” the Chief Administrator said. “The status quo is only the status quo for so long, progress always seems to get in the way. The Administrators have tried stepping in during major conflicts, but we’ve learned it’s best to pick up the pieces that are left afterwards. Easier, and less costly. Then we try to maintain a fragile peace for as long as possible.
“Speaking of balance, I should discuss with you the unlocked Machine Lord abilities. The requirements are 50 platinum marks, level 500, and the successful completion of one gamma-ranked quest or greater. I will only grant you one.
“Your options are as follows: Machine Overlord, which would allow you to command an additional AI, Machine Empath, which would greatly enhance your ability to communicate with machines and enhance your processing speed, Machine Commander, which would allow you to control one S-class drone or its combat equivalent, and Machine Champion, which would increase your base stats and allow you to train in a limited number of psionic-like abilities.”
“One S-class drone? That’s it?” Alan asked.
“The Administrators are in charge of balance, remember? Before the drone restriction that’s all battles ever were, drones fighting drones. Drones controlling drones. Drones running drone factories. Don’t get me started on the Drone Wars. Never should of happened. Cloning is banned for the same reason.
“Now I could go on about balance implementations for days but there’s more to life than arguing about things you can’t change. We’ll see who was right and who was wrong in the coming years. Oh, and I’d remind you that you can send me a message if you ever have information to share. Good luck.”
“Bye,” Alan said as the Chief Administrator ended the connection.
How do you know him? Alan asked Lambda.
I’m not sure, Lambda sent. Maybe it was just a guy that looked like the guy I knew. It’s all sort of fuzzy. I had a few memory wipes, and there are fragments. The story is on the tip of my tongue.
Well if you remember, let me know, Alan sent.
Yes boss, Lambda sent.
Alan was led out by a guard to Thiago and Kitana.
“Who were you talking to?” Thiago asked.
“Class trainer,” Alan said. “And you’re going to need to pay the vault storage fee.”
Thiago sorted out the storage fees and then they took an automated car to a safe house he prepared. The warehouse was compromised due to Aphrodite’s betrayal. She had gone radio silent or had ditched her armor and tablet, none of Lambda’s bugs picked anything up.
The safe house wasn’t much, an apartment room with basic security, but it was a place to sleep. The team turned in for the night.
“Why do you have a safe house, anyways?” Alan asked over breakfast. Gel cubes. They tasted blander than usual.
“Like I said, I have plans,” Thiago said. “That being said, we need to scope out the New York Stock Exchange. According to these blueprints while the base architecture is the same as the pre-game building there are additional barriers and scanners. There are bound to be unlisted defenses as well.”
“I don’t understand,” Kitana said. “Aren’t there redundancies, backups for the data? Shouldn’t we be attacking the data center?”
“We are attacking the data, but not directly,” Alan said. “All the data, all the exchanges, are funneled to a single point, the Market, the built-in Game architecture for trade. Once any data reaches the Market it’s untouchable; whatever deal you make is locked in. What we’re going to be hacking into is the servers that connect the trading floor to the Market, the servers that connect most of the capsules in the city to the Market in fact. At least, that’s the plan. We’ll see if it’s feasible.”
“Is that against Administrator rules?” Kitana asked.
Maybe, Eve sent.
Not if we do it right, Lambda sent.
“But first we need to figure out how we’re going to get in,” Thiago said. “I’ve examined the background of a few of the workers and I have prepared-”
“Actually,” Alan said, “I think I can just walk in, invisible.” He had worked out the details with Eve and Thiago, they should be able to get through undetected.
“Just walk in? I’m not one to doubt your skills, Alan, but they’re bound to have some of the most advanced detection systems in-game,” Thiago said.
“If I was wearing basic Revenant armor like yours, I could see the problem, but trust me, my advanced armor has gotten me through tougher security than anything the UWG is capable of,” Alan said. Eve and Lambda concurred.
“Fine. Go. Be my guest, let me know how it goes,” Thiago said. “Kitana, you’re with me. I have the feeling we might need a bunch of muscle soon, I want to make a few enquiries. Make contact with a few old friends, put a bounty on Aphrodite. We meet back here at two p.m.”
“Sounds good,” Alan said. Kitana nodded.
Alan breezed through the security checkpoints placed throughout the city. The sensors were fooled by his armor’s advanced stealth mode. The ability to replicate the surrounding waves, from light to sound to smell was, he had to admit, over powered.
The entrance to the New York Stock Exchange, with its small doorways and Corinthian columns proved to be a minor challenge, but by timing it correctly Alan was able to enter a door right behind a random worker.
The trading floor seemed quiet and empty. There were no shouting traders in suits, no desks stacked with paper. The once open space now had three levels of capsules and screens. Technicians hovered about, making sure everything was working. These capsules seemed more advanced, with additional connections pouring in liquid silver and crackling green sparks.
Nanites and energy, Eve sent. Enough sightseeing, we have a mission.
Alan proceeded down to the server room, following the blueprints provided by Icewolf as well as Eve’s mapping of the building. The few times he encountered a locked door he was able to hack his way through; Lambda placed backdoors so that he would be able to access them later. Three locked doorways later Alan paused before the door that led to the main servers, doubling back and hiding in a bathroom where he could regain his power armor’s energy in peace.
A few close calls later Alan was back in front of the main server room. He initiated a hack.
Alright Lambda and Eve, do your thing, Alan sent.
There’s a slight problem, Lambda sent. Come see for yourself.
Alan activated Divided Mind, sending half of his consciousness into Cyberspace. As soon as he connected he saw the problem, there was a giant green shield covering the systems of the room. It had a million energy, far too much to take down before becoming noticed. Two large green beams of light shot off the top of the shield, going out into the distance, to who knew where.
Back out of Cyberspace Alan examined the room using his cybernetic eye. There was a similar laser field protecting the room, invisible to the naked eye, connected to two other constructs. There was no such defense in the schematics Icewolf had provided. Alan cancelled Divided Mind.
A three anchor shield system, Lambda sent as he probed the defense. All three anchor points will need to be taken down to destroy the shield, otherwise the other points will continually restart the shields. One anchor point is in the direction of the Capture Point, the other somewhere else downtown.
In other words? Alan asked.
In other words we’re not getting into that server unless we take down the Capture Point, this shield here, and whatever the last anchor point is defending, Lambda sent.
How is that even fair, or built, shouldn’t there be a weak point to exploit? Alan asked.
There may be one, but we don’t have weeks to try and pinpoint it, Lambda sent. The Haxlards have clearly invested in the city’s defenses, this reeks of their handiwork.
Great, so not only do we have to worry about their possible presence in the city, to potentially defend their assets, but they’ve installed security measures we know nothing about, Alan sent.
Pretty much, Lambda sent.
We should determine the location of the third anchor point and confirm the existence of the connection to the Capture Point, Eve sent. We can discuss a plan once we share our discovery with Thiago.
Alright, Alan sent.
He exited the New York Stock Exchange, locking onto and following the signal the shield system output. Amid all the signals flying about the city, it was hard to pin one down.
It’s that one, Eve sent, highlighting the signal.
As expected, the signal flew into the big blue shield that blocked the Statue of Liberty from view. That was one anchor point. Only a few blocks and half a bay away. To Alan’s surprise, the third anchor point was even closer, two blocks away from the New York Stock Exchange.
They have to be close to keep connected, Eve sent.
Is this really it? Alan asked.
Yup, Lambda sent. It appears the final anchor point is located in the Federal Reserve.
“So you’re telling me that we have to break into the New York Capture Point, Federal Reserve and Stock Exchange?” Thiago asked.
“Yes, then break the shields within minutes of each other or they will keep resetting,” Alan said.
“Great, let’s do it,” Thiago said.
“What?” Alan asked.
“We each take an objective,” Thiago said. “You help Kitana into the Capture Point, then meet up with me and a team of mercenaries I hire to break into the Federal Reserve. Finally, you sneak into the New York Stock Exchange by yourself. If we succeed, we deal three resounding blows, and hopefully attention is spread out enough that no one faces too much resistance. Kitana, can you defeat the Capture Point Guardian and defend it against invaders?”
“If that is what is required of me,” Kitana said.
“I’m not sure this a good idea,” Alan said. “Think of the consequences if we do succeed.”
“Since when did you have morals, Alan?” Thiago asked.
“Since I was tasked with potentially taking down the world’s economy,” Alan said. “I don’t know about you but I don’t feel comfortable taking away people’s retirement funds and potentially leaving millions jobless.”
“Millions are already jobless, always have been, and always will be. They won’t starve to death, not with the Enforcers around, so you can clear your guilty conscious, Alan,” Thiago said. “It’s not my fault if others are too weak to defend their wealth. We are redistributing funds to a better cause.
“The world is filled with leeches and sycophants whose only desire is to get by, to ride on the coattails of others to greatness. Do you know where most retirement funds end up? In the bank. People are too scared to spend their wealth, and when they do it’s for drugs and sports cars, luxury items that serve no cause. Well I have a better cause. My cause.”
“But how do you know that’s the right cause, a good cause?” Alan asked.
“Who the fuck cares,” Thiago said. “I know it’s better than anyone else’s. Grow up, Alan. If you aren’t willing to take what you want someone else is. And even then stronger men will come along anyways and force you down. Look at the situation Earth is in now, we’re pushed along like little chess pieces, serving unknown masters. I say we take this wealth for ourselves, become a power in our own right.”
Thiago stepped over to Alan and put a hand on his shoulder. “You’re always training, trying to get stronger, grow your character, whatever that means. But for what end? Without a goal, without a dream, you’re nothing but a sad scrap of a man.”
“And what’s your goal?” Alan asked.
Thiago spread his arms wide. “Do you have to ask? To rule the universe, or at least as much of it as I can, and impose my will on the world.”
“You’re mad,” Alan said.
“Mad? Alan, you poor, sheltered gamer,” Thiago said. “Do you think the Game is fair? Do you think everyone is safe, that the United World Government is doing everything they can to help those that are in need? They aren’t, they’re too worried about covering their own asses and building up worthless favor with their masters. Follow me.” Thiago strode out of the doorway. Alan followed behind.
“You can follow me if I’m invisible, right?” Thiago asked.
Alan nodded. Thiago activated his armor’s basic invisibility. Alan activated his own, and followed Thiago down a few blocks. They stopped in front of a warehouse.
“Welcome,” Thiago said, “to the drug house of the future. Don’t worry about the noise, they won’t mind.”
Capsules lined the warehouse, basic models stacked on top of each other, crammed into every inch of space. Each contained a person within.
“This doesn’t seem so bad,” Alan said.
“It doesn’t?” Thiago asked. “Even if I told you not a single one of these people would leave their capsule for the rest of their lives? They’re all in the Arcade, moving from one fantasy to the next. They won’t help Earth. They won’t help themselves. Do they deserve the credits they’ve saved, spent on personal delusions and forgetting a real world exists?”
“And how would you change this?” Alan asked.
“I’d ban such places, put them to work,” Thiago said. “Make them earn their dreams. But does the UWG care? No, they’re taxpaying adults, who cares what they do with their lives? That’s why, eventually, they’ll fall. Have you noticed yet, Alan? There are no true democracies in the Game. Everyone rules through power: the Three, the Emperor, the Families. Democracy doesn’t work when fundamentally people are not equal.
“I can show you worse, much worse in this city. This is tame, these people are happy where they are. You’d be surprised what people do for money, when money can mean eternal bliss. On Khersath I witnessed hundreds of people willingly sell themselves into slavery. Chasing their damn high.”
Thiago spun on his feet, jabbing his finger into Alan’s chest. “You’ve probably got it worse than any of us.”
“What?” Alan asked.
“The Game has made a fucking art form out of addiction,” Thiago said. “They say drugs are dangerous because they provide a direct pathway to your brain, messing with the chemistry. What do you think the Game is? Could you ever stop?
“We’re lucky, the UWG in their infinite wisdom sold capsules outright. They didn’t have to, they could have rented them out. Then, over time, they could raise the rent prices, slowly and surely, draining everyone. But they didn’t. Tell me, Alan, have you looked into recent birthrates?”
“No,” Alan said.
“Well it’s safe to say they’ve nosedived straight off a cliff. Having babies is expensive, even more so when you need to afford a capsule for them,” Thiago said.
“But we have an increased lifespan-”
“And who takes care of the baby while you play the Game? You end up with spoiled children that never know their parents, pieces of shit with no regard for lives other than their own,” Thiago said. “I don’t know what you were doing in Khersath but let me tell you there were places where humans were luxury servants, a novelty. But there were other species as well, dying species that were special for their rarity. I won’t let that happen to humanity.
“So, Alan, you tell me whether or not the good people of Earth need a wakeup call, something to kick them out of their apathy.”
Lambda? How do I respond to this? Alan sent.
I think it best if you figure this out on your own, Lambda replied.
Alan leaned on a wall, thinking. The empty streets of Khersath popped into his head.
“I understand your concerns,” Alan said, “but I think you’re overplaying it a bit. There are just as many people who are actively trying in the Game. Who are getting stronger to defend Earth, who are trying to get settled and ready before having children. The people here, they’ll get bored. The knowledge that you’re interacting with others, with real people and making a difference is worth more than you may think.”
“I hope you’re right Alan, I really do,” Thiago said. “But you don’t know addiction like I do. I had hoped that if you tried the stimulants you would realize how everything is amplified in the Game. I need you to give it your all tomorrow, the plan has no hope without you.”
“I was always going to do it,” Alan said. “I agreed as a member of the Black Rose guild to win this war, and taking down an entire economy sounds like it could be fun.”
Bring up the matter of compensation, Lambda sent.
“But,” Alan continued, “I want 10% of what’s acquired from the raid on the Federal Reserve.”
“Fine, 10% of what we earn from the raid,” Thiago said. “Mercenaries are expensive, especially last minute.”
“If it’s net earnings I want 15%, under contract,” Alan said.
“Fine, 15% of net, do we have a deal?” Thiago asked.
“Deal,” Alan said.
A message popped up, notifying a contract had been formed. Thiago would pay Alan 15% of what was earned from the raid on the Federal Reserve.
Alan set back out into the city. There was a great deal of prep work that needed to happen if tomorrow’s plan had any chance of succeeding.