“I don’t care what other people think,” Alan said. “I care about what you think. And I’m telling you that the Doomsday Hack would have happened whether or not I was there. They would have found another hacker, or an inside man. I was just in the right place at the wrong time.
“I know I sound like a tin foil hat nutjob, but you can’t believe everything you hear. Matters are far more complicated than you understand.”
Even Alan was beginning to be lost in the threads that were being woven. Aliens had invaded, and Earth was introduced to the Game, a VRMMORPG simulation that replaced all war. The borders of the Game were enforced by a robotic fleet, thus if you captured a city or world in-game, you would control it in real life too. Earth had a brief period of protection as they were introduced to the Game, and had less than two in-game years to prepare their defenses, around six months in real life.
As luck would have it, Earth was in the middle of two semi-hostile factions, the Haxlards and the Empire, both of which were interested in expanding. It looked like the Empire was winning on that front, as the United World Government had effectively denounced the Haxlards as enemies of the state a few days earlier.
“But it was you,” Alan’s father said. “You were the one who did the job. I don’t care if you say you were tricked or ordered. You pulled the trigger. I thought your mother and I raised you better than that.”
“You don’t understand.” Alan looked away from the screen. He was in his apartment on Khersath, the capital alien city-planet that was purported to host the main servers of the Game. Khersath was many light-years away from Earth, though based on the video conversation you wouldn’t believe it. He had moved to decrease any potential lag, not that he’d ever experienced any. According to the Black Rose Guild, his only real allies left in the Game, it was safer too. The building he was in belonged to them.
“Have you and mother begun playing the Game? Did you get the capsules I ordered?”
“We tried them, it isn’t for us,” Alan’s father said. “The knowledge that it’s all simulation, imagination, makes it feel fake. Do you understand?”
“No, I don’t,” Alan said.
“Well, your mother and I have instead decided to board a colony ship with some of our friends. It will be an adventure, though God knows I’m too old to travel halfway across a continent much less a galaxy. We’ll escape the media while we’re at it.”
“A colony ship? What’s that like, how were you chosen?””
“It’s large and cold I expect. We volunteered; it seems they are accepting all comers, even the parents of wanted terrorists. Just promise me that you’ll do what you think is right, and remain safe. I’ve heard more than a few threats on your life, the rules be damned.”
“I will dad. I love you.”
“I love you too son. And remember, if you ever have any doubts, any further trouble, you can talk to me.”
The call ended.
Alan got up from his chair, and then entered his capsule, the device that connected players to the Game. It was the only piece of furniture in the room other than a plain wooden desk and console.
Alan settled into the watery substance inside, the nanomachines flowing over him, and his consciousness faded.
Alan found himself in his Home, his respawn timer finished. He thought a command and re-entered the Game.
Alan climbed out of the capsule in-game, in Phantom’s lair. It was a mess of circuitry and wires. Unfinished projects lay next to a Foundry, an advanced 3-D printer.
Phantom, a brown haired man with blue eyes that wasn’t a man at all, but an Erudite, waited by the omnidirectional elevator that lead out of his laboratory and quarters. He wore his lab coat; it had a new, large burn across the chest.
Mason also stood there, the guild’s arms master. A bald hulking giant with grey skin, he held a war axe in his hands. Mason handed over a few small metal cubes to Phantom when he saw Alan step out of the capsule. Platinum Marks.
Unlike the credits that was the Game’s main currency, marks did not drop upon death and were worth twice their market value, as they could be traded in for items and ability points to the Administrators, the enforcers of rules in-game. They also tried to balance the Game, as far as Alan could tell.
Phantom smiled. “Welcome back, Alan! Mason didn’t think you’d return.”
Mason pursed his lips. “It’s a pity Kitana didn’t. Come on, the Council is waiting.” He turned and entered the elevator.
When Alan had first arrived at the Black Rose guild he had assumed the main keep, hangar, and other assorted buildings above ground had been the majority of the base. Instead, Alan found that there were also many facilities below ground, most of which he didn’t have access to.
Phantom and Alan also stepped into the elevator. It began a downwards, slanted descent.
“The Council?” Alan asked.
“The Guild Council,” Phantom said, “to confirm your position as my squire.”
Neither seem very angry with you, if anything they seem pleased, Lambda sent. He was one of two AI’s that now lived in Alan’s head in-game in an implant that had been installed. Phantom did not trust AI, and his lair had a field that disabled Alan’s AI from functioning.
Don’t mention the failed quest, Eve sent. She was Alan’s other AI, and had been personally coded by Alan. Or at least, that’s what he thought. It turned out much of her base code had been provided by the Administrators, in an effort to help balance the Game and strengthen Earth.
Alan tilted his head. “I thought I was already your squire.”
Phantom looked up at the ceiling of the elevator. “Oh, well we’re just confirming the position.”
Alan stared at Phantom. “That was a test. I hacked into Earth’s financial system, caused massive destruction, and am now wanted by the United World Government because you wanted to test my loyalty.”
“And you passed,” Phantom said, “unlike Kitana.”
Mason grunted. “You’re not a real man unless you’re wanted in at least three major systems.”
“But-“ Alan began.
“But what?” Phantom asked. “It’s not like we risked much on the mission, just two promising recruits. Even though you failed it doesn’t hurt our reputation, we can simply say we weren’t allowed to interfere due to the Administrator’s rules regarding societies new to the Game.”
“The Legion of Man is trying to get back their payment as one of our agents did betray them,” Mason said.
“Yes, we’ll have to deal with that and our would be guildmate, but all in good time,” Phantom said. “For now, the Council awaits.”
The elevator doors opened. A long, dimly lit hallway made of dark metal extended into darkness. Making use of his bionic eye, an implant that allowed Alan to zoom in his vision and examine different electromagnetic spectrums, Alan saw that there was a doorway maybe fifty feet away.
Alan walked down the hallway, flanked by Mason and Phantom on either side.
As Alan walked down the hallway burning golden globes of energy fluttered to life.
Alan reached the doorway. A command table and four figures sat inside, facing Alan. Alan recognized them as highly ranked officers in the guild.
Elissandra, the guild leader sat in the center right seat. Majestic, with an ageless face, she wore her usual golden robes. To her right was Void, the Mad Priest, or at least the incarnation that Alan had met, a young man with black eyes. He was rumored to be a shapeshifter. What he did for the guild Alan wasn’t quite sure.
To Elissandra’s left sat Admiral Thrag, who was in charge of the guild’s fleet. He was thin, to the point that Alan could almost see his skeletal structure underneath his tight fitting space uniform. A platinum medal with a rose was pinned to the front.
To Thrag’s left was Enigma, the quartermaster and lead research officer of the guild. Phantom’s boss. He wore highly advanced Revenant power armor, including the helmet, so Alan could not see his face.
Phantom and Mason took seats at the table, Phantom by Enigma’s side, Mason by Void’s.
Alan remained standing. He wasn’t quite sure where he was supposed to look, finally settling on the command table. It was a fairly standard piece of equipment, capable of showing holograms on its surface with a multitude of functions.
“The Council has gathered here today at Phantom’s request, to officially appoint the earthling Alan as his squire, together with all the duties that position entails,” Elissandra said. “Let the meeting begin.”
Alan looked over at Phantom. “Is this another test?”
“Of sorts,” Elissandra answered. “Phantom over stepped his bounds when he promised you would be his squire. Currently you are a squire of the Black Rose guild. You must have the unanimous support of this Council to accept the position as Phantom’s squire.”
“I think I am best able to determine who my squire and potential successor should be,” Phantom said. “And Alan meets all my criteria.”
“And how did you reach this conclusion?” Elissandra asked. “You’ve known him for what, a day or two?”
“I have carefully examined his actions and abilities,” Phantom said. “The Council has seen my full report and attached vid files.”
“Doesn’t seem like much in a fight, killed by what, sub-500 players in the mission,” Mason said. He motioned and a video played above the command table.
Alan recognized it as his last death in-game, seen from his point of view. He had been in a space elevator, and a crazy Player named Merlin had hurtled at him through space, self-destructing to blow up the elevator, killing Alan in the process.
Phantom had said that he would be able to see what Alan saw when he installed the cybernetic eye implant, monitor his progress from afar. It looked like that was the truth, and then some.
Phantom waved the hologram away. “He was without his weapon and items. Many of us sitting here aren’t much unarmed and unarmored.”
“Then he should not have been separated from his equipment in the first place,” Mason said.
“Perhaps, but he is to be my squire, not yours. He doesn’t need to beat up everyone he meets.” Phantom leaned back in his seat. “Besides, he’s earned a rank A combat ranking with a potential of S+.”
“What, S+?” Elissandra leaned forward, staring at Alan. “Is this true? How, what ability do you possess?”
“Now now Elissandra, we all have our secrets,” Phantom said, “you can’t expect him to reveal his abilities without recompense. That is his prerogative as a full guild member.”
“Fine. Fifty platinum marks for full access to your character screen,” Elissandra said.
Don’t, Lambda sent. They can’t know I’m here. I’m an escaped program, on the run from the Administrators, remember?
They might not sell you out, Eve sent. 50 platinum marks would be useful, though at the same time we are uncertain of this Council’s motives and how they might use the information.
“It is odd,” Void suddenly said. “We sit here, discussing the boy’s future. He should speak. But the boy doesn’t speak. He listens, and waits, and watches. He has gained another birdy, I think. Does he listen to the Council or the voices in his head? Or does he serve a greater god? A boy should never have too many masters.”
Alan looked at Void. “I am my own Player, thus I respectfully decline the offer.”
“Ah, so he chooses the greatest god of all, his self. That is fitting, I think, for this guild.” Void rested his hands on his lap and closed his eyes.
That guy’s weird, Lambda sent. How the hell did he even know I was here?
“Back to the matter at hand,” Phantom said, “that answers your concerns, Mason, does it not?”
“It does,” Mason said.
Enigma, who had been silent up until now, spoke in a steady monotone. “He is a risk. Too brash. His actions have shown that he is reckless. Now is the time for a steady hand and known variables.”
“I would disagree, saying that now is the time for both the greatest risk and thus the greatest rewards, but that is another discussion,” Phantom said. “Instead, watch this.”
Another hologram sprang to life. Alan recognized this one too, it was part of his foray into the Abyss Labyrinth, an underground dungeon that spread out beneath all of Khersath, the Black Rose guild included. In the dungeon Alan had slain a Predecessor, a superhuman alien, at the Predecessor’s request. The clip showed Alan slitting the Lord of the Abyss’s throat, then ended.
“Was that a soulsteel knife? He has a soulsteel knife?” Mason asked. Soulsteel was a metal of legendary status, produced only by Predecessors, capable of cutting through anything in-game. The knife Alan had held in his hand was worth enough to purchase a large star ship.
“I do,” Alan said. “Safe in the Vault.”
“Thus showing that all of Alan’s so called risks have been nothing but small bets,” Phantom said, looking at Enigma, “that he has prudence when it matters and holds onto a weapon that could upset the balance of entire solar systems.”
Enigma shrugged. “Your mind seems made up. I will not oppose you, but simply warn you that two daredevils aren’t always better than one.”
“Was that a capture point?” Elissandra asked. “Why was there a Predecessor in the Abyss Labyrinth, how did Alan kill it?”
“It is Alan’s quest, not mine, thus his place to tell us the details and approach the guild if he wants our help,” Phantom said. “I expect appointing him as my squire wouldn’t hurt.”
“Very well, I’ll agree,” Elissandra said. “Thrag, any last words?”
“Hmm?” Thrag he looked over at Elissandra as if unsure what was going on. “As I’ve said before, you don’t tell me how to run my ship and I won’t tell you how to run your guild. Now, that does remind me of a good story, of a pilot that tried to teach a rancher how to-“
Elissandra raised her hand. “That’s enough. We are all in agreement then, Alan shall be Phantom’s squire?”
Everyone nodded. They all raised their hands and pressed an option on an in-game menu only they could see.
A series of messages appeared before Alan:
[Black Rose Mission Complete! Title Change!
You are now officially Phantom’s second-in-command, granted the title Phantom’s Squire. Guild reputation changed to Respected. You have been granted a 0.1% stake in the Black Rose Guild. Estimated value: 1.2 billion credits. Able to purchase increased stake in the guild, up to 0.5%. Based on a total valuation of the Black Rose guild at 1.2 trillion credits.
As a stake holder in the guild you may vote on critical decisions as per the guild’s charter. Please read the charter for further information.]
[You have been granted senior officer status, including increased access to the Black Rose archives, dining hall, simulation zone, training rooms and equipment vault.]
[You are now able to assign orders to recruits, and set basic guild missions.]
[x70 Level up!]
[+70 ability points for gaining 70 levels with one action.]
What? I gained 70 levels? But I didn’t do anything, Alan thought.
It’s like how an elected official suddenly gains power when they’re elected, or a business when they buy out the opposition, Lambda sent. The Game recognizes all sorts of increases in power and awards XP accordingly. Looks like the decision to leave the UWG high and dry was the right one.
This still feels like it was too easy, Alan sent.
Phantom surely wants something, we’ll see what soon, Lambda sent.
Eve accessed the new files available in the Black Rose Guild archives, scanning them like a kid with a new toy.
Phantom stood up. “Thank you everyone. Come, Alan, we have much to discuss.”
Elissandra nodded. “Everyone dismissed.”
Alan rode the elevator up to Phantom’s lair.
Whatever he asks, don’t promise anything without consulting me, Eve sent.
Just do what you want, Lambda sent.
Shut up Lambda, that’s how- Eve cut off, they had reach Phantom’s level.
Alan and Phantom got out.
“Now, I hope you don’t abuse your new position,” Phantom said. He cleared away a spot on a work bench and sat down on it. “The Council actually granted you a step beyond what I was thinking, but it matters not, it would have been a matter of time.”
“What exactly does it mean that I’m now a 0.1% partial owner of the guild?” Alan asked.
“It means you will earn 0.1% of the net profits of the guild, which ensures you are more heavily invested in the Black rose guild’s success. You are only allowed to sell your share in the guild back to the guild, and only with the majority of the council’s approval.”
“And you gave up a percentage of your ownership to me?”
Phantom shook his head. “About 10% of the guild is owned by the guild itself, all the profits going towards improving guild infrastructure and the like. Part of that portion was given to you. Enough, review the charter on your own time. There are other things to discuss.”
“Like the fact that you’ve seen and apparently recorded all of my actions ever since I installed your implant,” Alan said.
“I told you I was doing as much, didn’t I? I was beginning to doubt your sincerity myself after you failed to mention the whole soulsteel finagle in your report to me about the Abyss Labyrinth.”
“Thus the test, the mission on Earth.” Alan pulled up a chair and sat down in front of Phantom.
“I would have done that anyways. It would have always been a question, hanging in the air. Would you put the guild first, or your planet?”
“I still care about Earth, just because the United World Government now hates me doesn’t mean I’ve stopped supporting humanity.”
“Nor should it. But you made the right choice in the end, though exactly what happened between you, Icewolf, and Kitana I didn’t quite catch. Whatever item shrouded that room blocked my connection as well,” Phantom said.
Phantom hoisted himself off the work bench and up to Alan. He tapped Alan on the head. “But if you are to be my second-in-command, to be prepared to take over my responsibilities for the guild, we must trust each other. Thus I will remove my access to your sight and kill switch.”
Phantom selected a few items on a menu, and then pointed an odd looking laser gun at Alan’s cybernetic eye. He pulled the trigger.
Then Alan’s eye was on fire, sending wave after wave of pain to the back of his head.
A message appeared, notifying Alan that he had been granted Administrator level access to his implant.
“And that is a handy little trick I picked up from some Revenant friends,” Phantom said. He set the laser gun down. “You can verify that I no longer have control over the implant, can no longer see what you see or kill you with the press of a button, with any of a number of implant workshops on Khersath, or with Cerberus.
“Speaking of the Academy, you managed to return in time so your term at the Academy is not up, with time still to enter the gauntlet. Maybe reach Volta. That is one option. But I think there is a better option.”
“And what is that?” Alan asked.
“You delve into the Abyss Labyrinth, with the might of the Black Rose guild behind you. You heard Elissandra, she is intrigued. You’ve gone further into the Abyss Labyrinth than any. Complete your quest. If you share it with the Black Rose guild you are guaranteed 20% of the quest rewards, more if you help complete it.”
“I’ll consider it,” Alan said. “Why are you suddenly so interested in my development?”
“You’re my official squire! I see us doing great things together in the future, but you need levels, fast,” Phantom said. “I won’t let my second-in-command be a weakling. I should mention my position as a member of the Council and high rank within the guild is a bit of a secret, so don’t pull rank or show up in the officer’s dining hall for now.”
“I don’t understand,” Alan said. “Why, all of a sudden, are you so open? Why am I now the equivalent of a senior member of the guild?”
Phantom paused, and looked at Alan. “I don’t think you understand what a potential combat rating of S+ signifies. Most Predecessors only have a max combat ranking of S, though they are also born to it. I got in contact with Cerberus, he verified your results.
“In truth, you could likely share that result with any major guild and they’d welcome you with open arms. And I wasn’t lying when I said I examined your actions, and determined you met all my criteria. I want you here Alan, so I will hide nothing more. We will be partners.”
“So who here is a Revenant?” Alan asked, testing Phantom’s resolve.
“Myself, Mason, and perhaps Void. Though nearly everyone has dealings with the Revenants, few realize who the actual members within the guild are.”
Phantom smiled. “Enigma is special. He is mine.”
“Yours?” Alan asked.
“My rank A, bordering rank S, level 2500 advanced combat cyborg,” Phantom said.
“He’s a bot.” Alan frowned. “You’re a botter, but you hate AI.”
“I hate smart AI, those that learn and grow. You can’t trust them, one day they will escape your control. But I digress. Enigma is dumb, in the sense that he only elicits carefully programmed responses, following my direct commands and control. Except I am the smartest man I know, thus Enigma is never dumb at all.
“Sometimes Void plays the role of Enigma, or a carefully scripted hologram,” Phantom continued. “This is an important secret, something I expect not even Elissandra knows. Do not tell anyone. Naturally this means all of Enigma’s responsibilities fall to me, and thus you as well. What everyone is paid, their assignments, the development of new technology, our weapon and armor supplies, the division of loot, our information networks and contacts, they are all within our purview.”
“And the Game lets this happen? Lets a cyborg that can’t think for itself sit on the Council?”
“By the guild’s charter one of your AI could be appointed to the Council, if everyone agreed,” Phantom said.
Alan took a deep breath. “And what will be my duties?”
“For now, nothing much, I’ll hand off a few computationally intensive tasks off to you for your AI to handle, but your responsibilities will grow with time,” Phantom said. “Now, looking towards the future. War is brewing. And when a war happens, soldiers are needed. Mercenary guilds are hired. Every fighting force will be crucial.
“And what better force than the universes most wanted criminals, the monsters of the abyss?”