By the time they reached the spaceport Lambda had managed to place listening bugs back on everyone in the car.
How exactly do your bugs work, anyways? Alan asked.
Ownership of an item in-game creates a direct line between the Player and the item. Thus, if you are able to hack into the item you can manipulate that line to allow you to listen in on the messaging system, if you know the right tricks. The item does have to be on one’s person. It’s how listening devices were designed to work in the game, otherwise people could always send in-game messages and no one would ever be able to listen in, Lambda sent.
Then can’t I track the signal that the bugs on my weapons and armor use to find the person controlling them? Or hack into them and bug them back? Alan sent.
You can, but shouldn’t now. Both actions risk detection. Remember your eyes glow like a ghost when actively scanning and bugs are designed to immediately alert their controller if anything odd happens, like someone hacking in. I feel as though our next step should be to develop a signal jamming program, so the cries of alarm go unheard… Yeesh I sound a bit grim, don’t I?
I suppose, sent Alan.
They arrived at the spaceport. It looked very similar to an airport, except in addition to runways, a security checkpoint, terminals, and a food court, there were what appeared to be massive missile silos that held rocket powered shuttles.
Outdated tech, only good for a trip to the moon, Lambda sent.
Everyone got out of the car once they arrived. The spaceport was not crowded, Alan had only seen a single departure of an ordinary passenger plane in the half hour it had taken to drive along the coastal road.
They made their way through security and were on their way to a shuttle before too long.
The terminals for the spaceport were spaced much further apart than an airport’s, a full city block between each. Luckily there were only a few. The stores and food courts were unmanned, operated by in-game machinery. As they reached the terminal a shuttle landed. It looked familiar.
“A gift from our Haxlard friends,” Icewolf said.
“Before we went radio silent, I assume,” Alan said.
“Is that what Pharaoh told you? The Haxlards started making unreasonable demands, and ceased to do business with us until their demands were met,” Icewolf said.
“Conversion,” Alan guessed.
“Who told you that?” Icewolf stopped and turned sharply, staring at Alan.
Alan shrugged. The information had been in the Black Rose guild database, taught to him by Eve. Any humanoid being could, with a pledge to the Three and an unknown process, be converted to a Haxlard. By all accounts the person would remain sound of mind and be entirely the same psychologically, but would gain increased base stats and a place within the Haxlard caste system. It was unknown if the converts only put on a mask or if they were changed at a biological and/or mechanical level as well. The converts would also unerringly serve the Three and never be able to revert to their old race.
Alan really wanted to see what was beneath Haxlard masks, but in-game their bodies would always disappear once their mask was touched.
“Is that’s what’s in store for us then, either we end up religious nut jobs or empire slaves?” Merlin asked.
“Historically, all new sentient civilizations found and introduced to the Game that were present in Haxlard space were either converted or forced to move to another solar system,” Alan said. “However, Earth is a special case, as it is further out than any previously found sentient planet, at the edges of the boundary between the Haxlards and the Empire.
“The Empire, on the other hand, has also subjugated or removed every newfound species in its space. Everyone enters the Empire as servants, but many liken it to a guild apprenticeship, many servants hold much more power than free citizens of the Empire. Every governor in Empire space is the Emperor’s servant, for instance.
“Each new servant to the Empire is auctioned off at the start of their service, and if you wish you may purchase yourself and earn yourself freedom and citizenship. Prices plummet when an entire new planet joins, a few thousand credits for an able bodied worker. You serve your master until you pay off your purchasing price. There are accounts of many cruel masters, but the Empire frown upon most of these acts. And if you catch the Emperor’s eye you’ll be treated better than royalty.”
“You’ve done your research,” Icewolf said.
Eve had, but Alan didn’t mention that. She’d even suggested trying to gain the Emperor’s attention, but Alan had no interest in becoming someone’s servant, no matter how nice the furnishing.
The passenger boarding bridge finished connecting to the arrived shuttle. Alan heard movement, there were passengers getting off.
A ten man squad of bulked out soldiers with military buzz cuts and heavy power armor stepped out, lugging large trunks behind them. One soldier was flanked by two robotic canines, one with what appeared to be a massive laser cannon on its back, the other a Gatling gun.
Another soldier was wearing armor so thick and wide that he appeared to be wearing giant silver-grey marshmallows on all his limbs.
A third soldier had two missile launchers mounted on their back in addition to a jetpack. Their loadout seemed to model a certain famous space bounty hunter.
“Damn, it’s nice to be back.”
“Home sweet home.”
“I dunno, did you look outside as we were landing? We’re going to have to travel around in cars, can you imagine?”
“Shouldn’t we have a welcome party? Who are these folks?”
“Stow it.” The soldier in front raised their fist. They had no special equipment, only a UWG symbol emblazoned on their chest, a beautiful blue Earth with heavens light shining down from above.
“Who are you?” the soldier asked Alan’s party.
“We’re the next passengers,” Icewolf said. “I’m to take these recruits to Khersath for further training.”
“Where’d you get that armor?” the soldier asked Alan.
Lambda sent a suggestion.
“It was my tutorial reward, sir,” Alan said.
“Really now? You must’ve done awfully well. How about I take it off your hands, I doubt you have the abilities to wield it effectively as you are now. I’ll give you a fair price, a few hundred thousand credits.”
“Thanks, but I’m good. I’m going to train to learn how to use it,” Alan said, surprised the soldier recognized his armor.
“Items mean nothing if you don’t have the power to hold onto them. And right now, it seems to me that you don’t have that power.” The soldier looked over everyone. “What are your levels?”
“Look, sir, I assure you I can keep my recruits safe,” Icewolf said. He revealed his level. it was only 536.
The soldier revealed his level. 1359. Alan swallowed. Kitana gripped the hilt of her sword, a smile at the edges of her mouth.
Icewolf looked around. “We’re all friends here, citizens of Earth. God bless this forsaken world if we begin to fight amongst ourselves.”
“C’mon captain, I’m hungry,” another soldier said. “There’s pizza. There’s nachos. There’s sushi. And I’m starving.”
“Fine. Thirty minutes of R&R,” the captain said. He turned to Alan. “Have a safe journey.”
“Bless you sir,” Icewolf said.
“Don’t bless us; bless the enemies that we meet in our path.”
The soldiers unloaded their gear from the shuttle, then charged toward the food court like a horde of stampeding bulls.
Alan noted a tick sized bot leap off one of the dogs and onto his armor. Once the shuttle began takeoff he hacked into it and disabled it. It was a tracking device according to Lambda.
Only when the shuttle was up in the air, leaving Earth behind did Icewolf relax.
“That’s what I was worried about, those were part of the UWG’s main forces, they’ve been recalled in light of the recent terrorist attacks,” he said.
“The legion has no idea what abilities or special forces they might bring back so they’re bringing everyone in from the dark.”
“And this UWG shuttle will take us to Mars?” Arthur asked.
“Well, that’s where I was hoping that Alan could help. Can you take over the shuttle systems?” Icewolf said.
Alan sighed, and closed his eyes.
“Not from here,” Alan said. “Kitana, cut through the doors to the cockpit. If anyone’s in there disable them.” He activated his armor’s invisibility. Icewolf frowned.
I think he was hoping to see you hacking in-action, Lambda sent.
Kitana nodded. Her sword glowed brightly, then cut through the cockpit doors. There was no physical pilot.
Alan connected to the system, Lambda took down the shields and defending Haxlard AI. A few minutes later and Alan was in control. He changed the shuttle’s course to coordinates on Mars Icewolf gave him. Alan added a few codes that he was given to the ship’s identification system as well. This way Legion of Man turrets wouldn’t shoot them out of the sky.
I’ve found something interesting, Lambda sent. He was rooting through the shuttle’s systems. Looks like the ship has some weird dead man’s switch. Not sure who it’s tied to, but if the right signal was broadcast it’d just shut down.
Interesting, Alan sent. Let’s keep this to ourselves for now.
Agreed. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the tech the UWG got from the Haxlards had some neat party tricks like this, Lambda sent.
“We’re on our way to the Mar’s now. What’s it like?” Alan asked.
“When I left it was mining posts, construction jobs and military bases,” Icewolf said. “The UWG in their infinite wisdom didn’t want to foot the bill for a full terraform so unless you have an oxygen tank or converter I would suggest not going outside the domes. I need to send a few messages.”
No one else seemed talkative; everyone took out their pads and worked on them.
Alan studied his as he went through the messages everyone else was sending and receiving with Lambda.
Merlin and Arthur mostly seemed concerned with keeping up appearances back in London, sending notes that they had fallen ill, or were going on a business trip. As Merlin had hinted earlier Arthur did seem to be messaging a large number of women, but the messages didn’t seem romantic in nature.
Icewolf was messaging contacts and getting updates but used code phrases and code words that Lambda couldn’t decipher yet. He did seem angry at someone, but Alan had no idea who or why.
Kitana had a single exchange with Icewolf. She asked: When? Icewolf replied: When the mission is complete.
They reached Mars with little fanfare. It was dusty and stormy outside, thus Alan couldn’t get a good view of anything but red sand with the shuttles camera’s. They were directed by the Legion of Man to land at a settlement named Red Dragon City.
The city was enclosed in a large dome of transparent, glass-like metal. One of maybe three they flew by. Within were towering skyscrapers and a dusty haze that rose to the apex of the structure, slowly filtered out through some complex ventilation system. Four large cannons that looked like observatories defended the dome.
An enclosed, cylindrical walkway extended from where they were directed to at the base of the dome. As they exited the shuttle and were on the walkway Alan felt gravity weaken. It felt like he was walking on clouds.
I can adjust the armor to normalize your senses, Lambda sent.
It’s fine, Alan sent.
“Whoa,” Merlin said as he stepped onto the walkway. He leaped into the air, and with a single bound covered quite a distance. He grinned. “Watch this.”
Merlin leapt up, his palms flat facing the ground. Two miniature explosions erupted from his hands. Merlin was propelled up, straight into the ceiling. His head banged against the wall.
Arthur started laughing. “Nice, with a bit more practice you might become a real wingman, but without the wings!”
“Stop playing around, we’re here on serious business,” Icewolf said.
“Chill bro, I was just experimenting,” Merlin said.
“And if your experiment depressurized the room, opening a hole in this walkway and let all the air escape so we all died?” Icewolf asked.
We’d be fine for a few minutes, Lambda sent. Revenant power armor is nice like that, it’s adaptable, at least before the energy runs out.
“Relax, the exit is right up ahead; I’m sure someone would rescue us if something happened,” Arthur said. “You worry more than Thiago.”
“Now I know why Thiago handed you two over to me,” Icewolf muttered to himself.
They reached the end of the walkway, which was behind a closed metal door. Icewolf sent a code to someone and the door opened.
Everyone stepped through. There was an odd barrier that felt bubble-like, once Alan was through he felt gravity return to normal.
Within a small waiting room stood DaLong, flanked by two Asian soldiers in army uniforms, not power armor. They held automatic weapons. DaLong wore a black leather jacket and jeans. He had gained a small scar on the ridge of his nose.
“DaLong,” Icewolf said. He bowed.
“Icewolf,” DaLong said. He didn’t bow. “Here are your orders.”
Alan’s quests updated:
[War for Earth Updated:
For capturing a UWG shuttle you have gained 50 war contribution points.
25 War Contribution Points (UWG)
5050 War Contribution Points (LOM)]
[Black Rose Mission Updated:
Develop a plan to capture the UWG warship.
Time limit: 2 weeks
Point of contact: DaLong]
The two soldiers entered the walkway to the shuttle, the metal door closed behind them.
“I was expecting a to speak with a general,” Icewolf said. “And wasn’t this place a small miners town with only a few buildings and a bar or two?”
“Things change,” DaLong said. “Where’s Thiago?”
“He died,” Kitana said.
“Too bad,” DaLong said.
“That’s it? We’re supposed to develop a plan?” Merlin asked.
“Yes. Here is the relevant information the Legion of Man has gathered,” DaLong said. He held out a data chip.
Alan took it. Lambda scanned it.
“Blueprints,” Alan said. “Though a few key systems are missing. Also layouts of refueling stations, a possible schedule, and resources at our disposal. I’ll analyze this for a bit.”
He sent everyone a summary of the data for now, the key points Lambda sent him, minus a few details.
“Follow me, I’ll show you to your quarters. They were provided by the Elders, the council that run this city,” DaLong said.
Everyone followed DaLong out of the waiting room into a building that could have been an ordinary office building. They stepped out of the building and into the city.
What surprised Alan was the sheer number of people. The streets and sidewalks were a sea of people, largely of East Asian descent. On the main roads moved wave after wave of bicyclists. Alan saw no cars or motorized vehicles.
“How did these changes come about?” Icewolf asked, looking around.
“People follow the work,” DaLong said. “Most here are day laborers, with the hope they’ll gain some special skill or ability, maybe make a big find. Then they’ll be able to do more than provide for their families, perhaps join the Legion of Man fighting forces or move off planet.”
“Day laborers? But what of the Tutorial rewards?” Alan asked.
“Most do not progress as far as we did, or even experience such an elite Tutorial. These are working class people,” DaLong said. “They fight a few thugs in a simulation room, take a few written tests, and that is it. As their reward they take credits, to spend on capsules to help get friends and family into the Game. They do not bet it on classes or powers that might be worthless.”
As they walked down the street the sea of people parted. Most seemed to recognize DaLong, bowing to him, calling him Brother Long. Alan found it odd, as DaLong had been nothing but cold and abrasive in the short time he had spent with him during the Tutorial, but greeted these admirers with warm respect.
Alan noted a high number of martial arts dojo’s with practicing students lining the streets. He caught glimpses of young men and women practicing punches, kicks and holds. They sparred as if their life depended on it. Perhaps it did.
A roundhouse kick will do little versus a laser gun or even a pistol. Someone should tell these people they’re wasting their time, Lambda sent. Either you are born with psionic abilities, or you aren’t. They don’t blossom out of willpower even though that might be more fair.
Alan relayed Lambda’s thoughts.
DaLong shrugged. “It keeps them busy, and their bodies strong. How can that be a bad thing? And there are a few that awaken their qi, your psionic energy.”
“You seem to have quite a few admirers,” Merlin said. He winked at a cute girl that had bowed to DaLong. She ignored him. “How’d that happen?
“There were a few bullies that wanted to be gangsters. I didn’t like them. They were put in their place,” DaLong said.
Kitana nodded in approval. DaLong was probably her type, Alan thought to himself.
“So you’re a de facto leader of the youth here?” Icewolf asked.
“You might say that,” DaLong said.
“We should talk later,” Icewolf said.
“What’s the average level of the people here?” Alan asked.
“50, maybe 75,” DaLong said.
“That seems low,” Alan said. He knocked away someone’s hand. They had reached out to feel his power armor. “I thought the median level in the Game was in the thousands.”
“The weak do not show their level,” DaLong sneered. “Why show anyone how easy they are to rob? Everyone hides their level to protect themselves, like all of us. The only ones who wear it openly are public figures and gladiators, so that gamblers can place accurate bets.”
Looks like I’ve been making more than a few bad assumptions, Alan thought to himself.
They won’t be the last, Lambda sent.
“And here are your quarters,” DaLong said. He stopped before a bunkhouse that was little more than a shack. They were near the edge of the dome. It had been a few mile walk. Lambda estimated the dome to have a five mile radius.
“Inside you’ll find working water and appliances, let me know if you there are any problems or need a capsule, there is an Administrative Center downtown. They arrived as soon as the population hit 100,000,” DaLong said. “You will need to purchase your own amenities if you desire more than gel paste.”
He looked at Arthur and Merlin. “Try not to cause too much trouble while you’re here.
“Kitana, you will be staying in other quarters. The elders do not approve of unmarried women and men sharing the same living space. Please follow me.”
Kitana departed with DaLong, who headed towards the center of the city.
Alan entered the bunkhouse, it was little more than a barn with a kitchen and bathroom tacked on. There were five bunk beds all in the same center room. The building was, however, bug free.
“So,” Icewolf said, elongating the vowel. “I should probably explain a few things right about now.”
“Yeah, like why we’re in this shite hole,” Merlin said.
“Well, as you’ve likely figured out, I may not be as high up in the Legion of Man ladder as I may have lead you to believe,” Icewolf said. “I defected from the UWG about the same time all of you entered the Game. For some odd reason, it seems the Legion of Man still don’t trust me all that much. Or maybe all their operations are like this, like splinter cells. All we can do for now is prepare a plan. Alan?”
Delay until Eve is revived, Lambda sent.
“I still need a week to recover from the hack,” Alan said. “Until then let’s just try to gather more information here, maybe procure better quarters and earn a better standing with these Elders.”
Icewolf smiled like a wolf. “Sounds like a plan to me.”