What now? Alan sent. He lay down on the bunk bed. It felt lumpy.
What do you mean? Lambda asked.
Are we going to continue with lessons? Alan asked.
I dunno. Do you want to? This is your play, your game. You decide what you want to do, I’m just along for the ride, Lambda sent.
Can you teach me to code? I mean real code, what the Game runs on. You seem to know your way around, Alan sent.
There are limitations in place, but I can try. This isn’t a suitable location; let’s find the Administrative Center.
Alan exited the bunkhouse, everyone else had already vanished into the city. As evening fell the streets grew less crowded. Bright signs with painted Asian characters lined the streets. If Alan concentrated on one the Game would provide an English translation.
But something is always lost in translation, Lambda sent.
What? Alan asked. He was browsing the local net for a decent map, Lambda apparently couldn’t be bothered with such trivialities.
Nothing. Thinking to myself, Lambda sent.
Alan located the Administrative Center. It was in the center of the city, in the aptly named Administrative District.
He set off.
Just, Lambda sent, I wonder sometimes.
Get on with it.
Well what DaLong said earlier about warriors awakening psionic power, that shouldn’t be possible. Yet he believed it had happened, so either something was lost in translation or…
Or what? Alan asked.
Well, psionic powers in the Game are a bit like magic. No, they are magic, Lambda sent. Except all the systems are unique, tied to a culture or a belief or some underlying idea that the Game somehow pieces together. But there are always rules, fundamental principles that bind them together. Things like qi, medieval wizards, enchantresses, mystical swords, these all have a basis in myths, which often hide greater truths.
But they’re all what most would call scientific magic, nothing crazy like a portal to another world will open out of nowhere. That’s all that’s ever ported into the Game, systems and signals, no omnipotent God or Devil. There are power levels associated with every ability, psionic energy caps that make sense for the most part. What most psionic users find is that becoming a powerful psionic is about testing the rules, figuring them out, mapping them, and then manipulating them to their advantage. And the Game helps, with skill trees and ability lists and whatnot. But I wonder.
Alan walked along the streets, looking out for any signs of danger. A number of people were eyeing his armor. He debated activating invisibility, but wasn’t sure if that would make him more of a target or less. Eve would probably give him a suggestion about here.
Lambda continued his monologue.
I am no longer sure if the Game is structuring psionic ability systems to limit the Players to what is possible, or if it is making them follow what they want, Lambda sent. Maybe it is all about balance, like the Administrators claim.
Eve taught me that psionic abilities were theoretically possible in real life, that people had displayed feats mirrioring their in-game psionic abilities, Alan sent.
Anything is possible theoretically. You have to understand, Alan, that Eve is teaching you what the Administrators teach, word for word. But I’ve been around long enough to see what’s true today, and what’s true tomorrow, ain’t always the same.
Sure, they’ll say it was a mistake, that new tests in real life showed what was thought to be true is not, that something was mistranslated, Lambda sent. And maybe it was. But translation software is amazing now. Intent, humor, idioms that should be language specific, everything is somehow being broadcast. But that shouldn’t be possible, not without some loss somewhere, right?
If you say so, Alan sent. Looks like we’re here.
This Administrative Center looked like an office building, the busiest place around, though it did have a fountain which might be considered opulent in the dry Martian climate. In the center of the fountain stood a soldier holding a spear. They looked like a terracotta warrior.
Alan bypassed the lines and got into a capsule.
C’mon, let’s check how that program did, the salami slicer, Alan sent.
He entered his Home and went straight into the Market, which was where Lambda had set up a dummy storefront that received the illegal funds.
Alright, give me a minute, Lambda sent. I didn’t make the funds easy to view or even find.
As Lambda was doing his thing, Alan opened up a menu to look at the local market, the items that were stored and sold at nearby Administrative Centers on Mars.
Most of the items being sold were mining goods and equipment, common metals that might be found anywhere else. Everything seemed to be made by the Legion of Man, the few items that were either rare drops or shipped from off world cost thousands of credits. Basic tools only cost a few hundred of credits.
Hey Lambda, what do you think minimum wage is here? Alan asked.
Ask someone else, Lambda sent. The Administrators or a local information broker will probably sell you an information packet about regional dealings.
Ordinarily Eve would sift through that data, highlighting anything of note, sent Alan.
I’m not Eve.
Alan sighed. He’d ask someone later.
Got it, Lambda sent. Sam’s Salami Shop current has a balance of 464,952 credits, with a bunch of decimals I won’t mention. Not bad for a day’s work. Unless the UWG continue to use the servers we infected, that’s all we’ll get from there though. Too bad the UWG shut the servers down. Let’s leave the credits in the shop for now, it’s safe there, whereas we might die or be attacked at any moment.
That’s it? Alan asked.
What do you mean that’s it? That’s undetected pure profit! I doubt any other scheme would have produced a bigger take. Billions of transactions had to be made for us to earn that much. Either a number of alien investors had their hands in the Earth markets or a few firm’s AI settings were a bit trigger happy.
Okay. Alan closed the menus he’d been looking at. He returned Home, then sat at the desk and terminal there, bringing up a mouse and keyboard. Now I want you to teach me how to program.
As Eve’s been telling you, if you want to program as you call it, you need to understand more math, Lambda sent. Far more.
Because of n-bits.
Because of every fundamental part of game coding: n-bit’s, evo’s, phase spaces, the whole gamut. It’s all beyond you. Your society had began playing around with qubits, quantum bits that can be a superposition of 0 or 1. N-bits can be the superposition of any number of variables, of 0, 1, 2, 3, all the way up to n. Any polynomial can be represented in a single n-bit with the right formula and tricks.
The entirety of one of your programs, an entire operating system and hard drive, could be stored in a single n-bit. Of course that’s impractical due to the limitations and requirements to physically build an n-bit of that size, anything past Quadra’s Constant is impractical, but you get my point. The fundamental minimum to understand these building blocks require you to be well beyond what you’d consider PhD level work, and you’re not even past college at this point.
So what, I just give up? Alan sent.
No, you continue to use the tools the Game provides, the research center and armory in the Citadel. Accountants work with calculators, not by hand. Programmers don’t use any programming language for any problem, and programming languages have evolved from languages to forces of nature to laws of physics. It’s more like choosing the right reality for the job at hand, sent Lambda.
But I know that’s inefficient, Alan sent. To be a great hacker, not a decent one, I need to understand these fundamental systems. Optimization can happen at every level. Let’s continue with the math lessons then.
Lambda paused. At your current rate of progress it will be years before you’re at an adolescent Erudite level. I’m not sure this is the wisest course of option of how to spend our time. If you insist, however, there may be another way.
And what’s that? Alan asked.
I will attempt to edit, write and review programs. You, on the other hand, will need to try to follow along. But don’t focus on the minute actions. Try to get a feel for what’s going on, extend your senses. Who knows, maybe this will work.
Very well. Alan closed his eyes. He focused on Lambda, his current actions, tuning out everything else.
The AI was editing a massive wall of text, numbers and equations and symbols that Alan barely recognized. A hundred different windows opened, some weren’t even full of text, but moving pictures of varied pixels.
Alan tried to copy the scene in front of him.
No, focus on the feeling, Lambda sent.
The feeling? What was Lambda feeling? Could he feel? Alan tried to put himself in Lambda’s place, put himself in his shoes.
He got nothing for a moment, a wall of calculation. And then there was a burst of color and a wash of music.
Alan was conducting a symphony of color, of shapes, of numbers and symbols.
He was composing music after it reached his ears, free styling while following convention, delving deep into the back of his mind for every song in memory while at the same time adding his own flair and alien harmonics.
The shapes came fast and quick and were fitted together like tetris, but now he had to make the pieces into flat planes, now cubes, now hypercubes that were the connection of too many dimensions.
Colors that Alan had never seen sprang into existence, expanded into his mind and colored the shapes. The music that was he was writing, or was writing him, came faster. The pieces flew together faster than Alan could figure out how to place them, the colors ranged from normal to bizarre to ever changing.
Everything came to a crashing crescendo.
And then there was silence.
A mysterious object floated in front of Alan, a pale white egg that was the fruits of his labor.
Alan opened his eyes.
[Skill Learned! Hypertranslation]
[Synchronization rank with AI Lambda increased!]
[New data created. You have acquired a ??? program.]
Alan examined the skill, which cost 10 Computational Energy a second, like hypercognition:
|Skill Name:||Skill Rank:||Skill Proficiency:||Skill Rarity:|
|Allows the user to enter a state of accelerated understanding, able to translate in-game data at an accelerated rate.|
Well that was unexpected; I thought we’d need a few months, a few bonding moments, Lambda sent.
Well, AIs typically have what you might call a signature ability. My original job was to abstract functionality, to translate software from languages to other AI. But with how far the Game’s translation code has advanced I can see why my work is no longer needed.
Machine Lords may gain access to these signature abilities once their synchronization rank with their AI is high enough, Lambda sent. Basically how well you mesh with them. I’m not entirely sure how the implants do this. Eve seems to focus on speed, she performs exhaustive searches and split second decisions that I couldn’t handle. Thus hypercognition. With time, as your synchronization rank increases, you may gain new sub abilities or improve the main ability itself.
And how do I increase synchronization rank? Alan asked.
That’s what’s odd to me. Increasing your synchronization should be a slow and steady process that takes months as you work together with the your AI on a wide variety of problems or have a strong connection form. But we just had a epiphany out of nowhere. It felt like I was back… back a long time ago.
I suppose the Administrators chose me to become a Machine Lord for a reason, Alan sent.
I suppose they did.
Now what’s this mystery program? Alan asked.
That’s what I was trying to create. What we created. Enter the Citadel.
Alan entered his base in Cyberspace. The white egg in his vision appeared in his hand. He laid it down at his feet.
A moment later it hatched. A metal hawk with a piercing red glare like a Terminator looked up at him.
A message appeared:
[New unit available! You are now able to summon Signal Hawks. These units are able to block incoming and outgoing symbols in a 500 meter radius below them for up to five minutes at a time before requiring a rest.]
Alan examined the Signal Hawk’s stats:
[Signal Hawk, Rank C Program. Produced at Research Center.
Advanced surveillance program.
Cost: 40 Energy.
Upkeep: 5 Energy.
Defense: 25 armor. 50 evasiveness.
Health: 50 hp.
Special Abilities: Signal Jamming]
Awesome, let’s test this thing out, Alan sent.
He hacked into the bugs placed on his armor and lasers. The Signal Hawk flew above the bug’s shields, jammed any signals, and then Lambda took down the shields in under a minute.
Lambda messed with the bugs’ settings. They would no longer be able to mess with Alan’s items, and would tell whoever had placed them what Alan desired. For now he kept the location in sync with his actual location.
They also traced the bugs back to Icewolf, as Alan expected.
Alan ran through what everyone was up to. Icewolf was gathering information about the city and the Legion of Man’s status on Mars. Alan learned there were roughly 15 large dome cities divided into three regions in Mars.
Even now people divided themselves in familiar ways, with a Russian quadrant, a Chinese quadrant with a small number of Korean and Japanese districts, and a Middle Eastern quadrant that further divided itself by predominant religious beliefs rather than country.
Each district had its own main military base with a capture point, and then there was the Red Sentinel, a 10,000-man space station that orbited Mars. Only select personnel were allowed into this base that controlled Mar’s main defense, an orbital laser cannon. The higher ups were all purported to be on this station.
DaLong in the meantime interrogated Kitana about everyone’s trustworthiness and abilities. Kitana held little back, though she was as terse as usual. She vouched for Alan and Icewolf.
Merlin and Arthur seemed headed towards an adventure, and it looked like the two were sketchier than even Kitana expected:
Merlin: Bro, I found an awesome quest to clear out a nearby mine, apparently some giant sand worm is guarding its nest. Wanna check it out?
Arthur: Sure. Should we tell the others?
Merlin: Nah, we got a week, remember? It’ll be boring if we go crying to them about every little detail. Have you found a good mark yet?
Arthur: No, but I’ll keep looking. Most of the people I’ve talked to are miners. I wouldn’t feel good swindling working class folk, and it’s not like they’d have much. Maybe we should focus on gathering information we can sell instead, I’m sure the UWG is interested in mine export and production numbers.
Merlin: Let’s consider it. I want to kill this worm. Meet me at the west gate, I’ve arranged a ride there.
Alan debated following them but decided against it. They’d return to the bunkhouse or message the group eventually.
Instead, Alan returned to his Home and tried to design additional programs with Lambda.
But the magic was gone. Creations would be broken and error-prone, or Alan would freeze, forget where he was, and have no idea what he was doing, even with hypertranslation active.
The ability was odd, to say the least. It would take Alan out of what he was doing and put an ordinary creative task in front of him, like painting or designing. Instead of writing code he’d be baking a cake, cooking a pie.
But every time something would go wrong, the cake would be a charred mess, Alan couldn’t draw in a straight line, he wouldn’t recognize an ingredient and it’d be poisonous or combustive.
A charred smoking mess sat in Alan’s mind, with an acrid, foul smell.
Can we debug this mess somehow? Alan asked.
Debugging doesn’t work like how you expect anymore because of how interconnected everything is, Lambda sent. You can’t go back and change one variable without the entire equation changing. There are forms of debugging, delicate surgeries to replace or fix pieces, but a worthless piece of crap like this isn’t worth the effort.
Hours later Alan called it a night. There had been little progress, but Alan enjoyed hypertranslation, the little acts of creation. A few tasks had repeated themselves, and drawing on past experience Alan felt like he was improving slowly.
He received a single message from Icewolf, which was sent to the entire group.
Icewolf: Report to the bunkhouse at 0900 Standard Time for a general report.
Alan decided to sleep in his Home, it was far more comfortable than the bunkhouse. He told Lambda to wake him up at 0830 in five hours and fell asleep.
BOO! a voice shouted in Alan’s mind.
Alan jolted awake. He admonished Lambda then set off for the bunkhouse.
He got a white steamed bun from a street vendor for breakfast. It was tasty, sweet and slightly salty, and only cost two credits. Alan didn’t ask what type of meat was in it.
As he walked down the streets Alan saw a building advertising work for anyone, no matter species, shape or size. It didn’t seem too busy, the morning rush had passed.
What caught Alan’s notice was that they had a comprehensive security system, the strongest Alan had detected since New York. He was managing to develop an intuition for these types of things.
The business was named Empire’s Sun. Alan stepped inside. It looked like an entrance hall to a mansion. White and gold adorned the walls, along with a red crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling. A grand piano sat in the corner of the room.
Next to the entrance a pretty Chinese lady in red power armor that fit like a dress sat at a welcome desk.
“Greetings sir, how may we help you today?” she asked.
“The sign outside said you had work,” Alan said.
The lady looked over Alan for a moment.
“I’m sorry sir, but I expect most of our work is too low level for you. Might I refer you to our offices on Khersath?”
The Empire, Lambda sent. He was examining the building’s network. This whole place reeks of them.
“I’m staying in town for now, sorry,” Alan said. “I’d be willing to perhaps take a low level job, what would the pay be like?”
“The best I could offer is a VIP bodyguard position, 500 credits a day.”
“500 credits?” Alan asked.
“A miner can be expected to earn 50 credits a day.” The lady thought for a moment. “A pair of gentlemen took an advanced task, perhaps if they do not complete it successfully we can give it to you. Come back in a week.”
50 credits a day, Alan thought to himself.
That’s about standard, Lambda sent. It usually takes about five years in-game for someone to pay off their capsule. Now we should get back.
Alan thanked the lady but declined the offer then left. He arrived at the bunkhouse right before the meeting time.
Everyone else was present, gathered around a table in the kitchen area. A pink box filled with baked goods was open. Alan grabbed another white bun.
“Alright, now that we are all present, we can discuss our findings,” Icewolf said.
He proceeded to launch into a summary of what he had learned. He didn’t seem to omit anything obvious, as far as Alan could tell.
“Well, we’ve found a dungeon,” Merlin said. “Out in the desert, or whatever you call it. We were following this massive worm. Face just full of teeth, gob like you can’t imagine. It was only level 250 or so, easy pickings.
“But then it burrows underground after a bit of pyrotechnics and a slight case of the stabbings. So we followed it down, and despite Arthur’s pansy whining, you can see we’re still here. Well, we found a massive pit, inside of which there were these worms everywhere, even one massive green thing with a custom name, Acid Jaw.
“We took one look then hightailed it back. Put a marker on our maps. We weren’t prepared for a dungeon dive, had this meeting to get to. And you know what else was inside there?” Merlin paused for emphasis.
“Power crystals,” Alan said.
“Power crystals,” Merlin said. “Hey! How’d you know that mate?”
Alan shrugged. “Power crystal mines always have relatively high level creatures guarding them. 250 is high if the average miner is level under 100. It’s common knowledge. What color were they?”
“I dunno, why’d that matter?” Merlin asked.
“A deep blood red,” Arthur said. “There should be thousands, though they were small.”
Alan recalled the market prices. “A weak red crystal the size of a pen is worth 50 credits. It only has the power to run a car for a few years, but people here don’t seem to need too much energy. We’d need a mining crew to gather them, though with the right equipment I’d probably be able to mine them myself.”
“Let us go and slay these beasts,” Kitana said. She turned to the door.
“Hold on everybody,” Icewolf said. He gazed at Kitana. “Slow down and think for a bit.”
“Yes si-sir,” Kitana stammered. Alan stared, that fumble was odd.
“Dungeons and hunting grounds are the property of the local ruling government. We would gain little experience clearing this place compared to local Players, and I doubt we’d gain many favors clearing it ourselves. I’m sure the local Elders will reward you for finding this dungeon,” Icewolf said, looking at DaLong. He nodded.
“Besides,” Icewolf stood up straight, “you all seem to forget our purpose here. How does this help us with our goal of capturing the UWG starship?”
“It, uh, gains us favor with the locals. We were also to maybe train a bit, get stronger for the assault,” Merlin said.
“And what progress did you make?” Icewolf asked Alan.
“I’m still recovering,” Alan said. “I did discover an Empire outpost though, and acquainted myself with the local Administrative Center.”
“In other words you did nothing,” Icewolf said. “Can’t you still plan and calculate while recovering? Or can you not think? Do you need to lie in bed and have me mother you? I will, if that’s what it takes.”
“No, I’ll have a basic outline of a plan tomorrow,” Alan said.
“I will develop my own, and we’ll compare,” Icewolf said.
DaLong stepped forward. “The Elders did have a request, after which they said they could get us an earlier audience with a general, the one who wished for you to develop your plan, to hear you out. They were hoping that we could train a few select squads of their warriors. This dungeon sounds like an ideal place to do so.”
Icewolf nodded. “You, Kitana, Merlin and Arthur will handle that. Alan and I will focus on our plans. Meet here tomorrow at the same time. Dismissed.”
Alan returned to the Administrative Center, re-entered his Home.
How did one take over a massive starship anyhow?