Specialist 3 stood still on the Control Point. A soft glow enveloped them, and they began selecting a series of options on a menu only they could see.
A message appeared:
[The Black Rose Guild now controls this quadrant of the Abyss Dungeon. Main Systems offline.]
Mason ran up to the Control Point, staring at Specialist 3. “Hey bot, who got that message?”
“I do not know,” Specialist 3 said. They stood at ease. “I suggest we repair a few of the defenses present and leave sufficient power crystals to keep them active.”
“What were the menus that appeared, what options did you choose?” Alan asked.
Specialist 3 turned to Alan. “I set myself as the area boss and chose the bonuses I wished to gain as the defender of this Control Point. As commander of this Control Points there are other options available, but they require the Main Systems to be brought online, which requires ten fully powered void crystals across Control Points under our control and a series of repair I don’t understand.” They brought up the map of the four boss zones, then highlighted another fifteen areas, places apparently offline that needed fixing. How much or what type of fixing, Specialist 3 did not know.
“An additional option has appeared,” Specialist 3 added. “With sufficient power I can open an entrance to a lower level of the Abyss Dungeon. I estimate 25 emerald energy crystals will suffice.”
“Wait, lower level?” Alan asked.
“Yes,” Specialist 3 said. They didn’t elaborate.
Mason scratched his bald head. “This changes plans. There isn’t any option of viewing prisoners, or releasing them?”
Mason paced around the Control Point. “We lost more people than I was expecting in that fight, and we don’t know who knows we have this point. There’s one other capture point that’s a few days march away. We’ll head there, capture it, but then we should surface and work out new plans. We need to know who saw that message.”
“There isn’t anything about what the Main Systems are? What do we even get from controlling this place?” Alan asked.
“That portion of the content is unavailable.” Specialist 3 repeated a forward button press motion.
“Okay, you can stop trying,” Alan said after the tenth attempt. Specialist 3 resumed their at ease stance.
Mason called over the engineers, had them get to work repairing a few of the nearby defenses, patching up the hole in the door. Alan handed a few power crystals to Specialist 3, who transferred the energy from the power crystals into the generator.
The void crystals in the generator showed no visible sign of difference, but outside the room was illuminated with a steady yellow glow emanating from a few spotlights.
Alan rechecked the loot, and went over what supplies had been used in the fight.
After a simple dinner of a gel cube, he fell asleep in a makeshift room in the corner.
Early the next morning Alan awoke to take his guard shift. Despite Mason’s concerns, there seemed to be little to no activity anywhere near them in the dungeon. Eve suspected very few players even knew where the Control Point was.
Nonetheless, Mason sent out a few small parties to try to locate nearby players and gather information. Alan helped divide out provisions for them. The plan was they’d reconvene at the second boss zone, a few days of travel away. The raid was left with 20 members, half of whom were considered non-combatants, healers or support staff.
In Mason’s eyes, Alan numbered among them. He was once more relegated to the guardlev, to continue the journey like a princess.
The raid set out. Void was nowhere to be seen, and after a few math lessons with Eve Alan tried to piece together the task set before him. To feel without thought.
Alan touched the cold metal of the vehicle he was riding in. It was cold. And metallic. By the act of trying not to think, he would think, and his every feeling was, by the nature of how his mind worked, a thought.
Like I previously stated, nonsense, Eve sent.
Well of course you’d say that, you’re a being of intellect, Alan sent.
Mostly, but I wonder, Lambda mused. I’d like to think I’ve developed some level of what you might call consciousness, whether intentional or not. Most AI have, I suspect. And between the bits and pieces, the small errors and large, I’d like to think I’ve developed the ability, to, in some sense, feel.
Alan paused. What do you mean?
I’m not sure, Lambda sent. Consciousness, self-awareness of existence and all that is still a pseudoscience at best, even in this day and age. But there is a tipping point. Whether through a gathering of knowledge or number of connections, AI’s transform. The Administrators consider this corruption, a blasphemy, but I think it is something else entirely. What, I’m not sure.
So Void then wants you to extend this… corruption? Alan sent. How would we do that, is it even a good idea? I remember that too high of a corruption level is grounds for a deletion or reset.
Which is why, as I’ll state once more, this is a stupid waste of time, Eve sent.
I’m already plenty corrupted baby, Lambda sent. Besides, if the Administrators find me it’s back to the slaves pen, maybe even someplace as dreary as here. At least the Academy Data Vault got a visitor once in a blue moon and updated regularly. I mean look at this place, I expect half the reason you were let in by the “Chief Warden” was boredom.
There was a small explosion. Alan looked ahead and saw raid members making their way through a few Experimental Wardens. Like normal they didn’t need any help. Other than that there was only empty space and the occasional metal walkway like the one they were on now.
To feel without thought… Alan closed his eyes, expanded his senses. The air was stale, the only noise the steady procession of the raid and clinking power armor. He tried to feel outwards, which activated Detect Presence naturally.
Alan didn’t try to reach out to any of the presences, just feel them. Bask in their warmth, their energy. There was something there, at the edge of his awareness. Underlying electrical signals, tiny charges. Millions, no, billions, just so small and subverted that Alan didn’t know if this was all a dream. He tried to reach out, to touch one of the small lights. He felt Data Interaction be invoked.
“Stop,” Void said. He appeared by the vehicle and collapsed into the seat besides Alan. He looked drained, with thick eye wrinkles and pale skin.
“I was onto something there,” Alan said.
“On your way to hell, a banishment no man wants to face,” Void said. “I think you like to call it real life. That is where you’ll end up if any of the gods realized what you were just doing.”
“I don’t even know what I was doing,” Alan said.
Void leaned back on the seat, with a world weary look only slightly ruined by his youthful countenance. “Let me see if I can explain this in such a way a savage like you might understand. What you think blah de gad de god dade do.”
“Blah de what?” Alan asked.
“By all that’s holy,” Void swore. He made a gesture with his hands, removing something from within his sleeves. A black stone appeared, like the one Icewolf had used to cut off all communications, but larger, with strange blurry carvings. Strands of darkness formed a globe around Void and Alan, extending from the black stone. Everything outside was cutoff.
An odd weight settled in Alan’s mind. A muffled blank wall that blocked his will. Alan felt tired. His connection to Eve and Lambda broke off.
“Concentrate now,” Void said. There was light emanating from the stone but it was too bright, twisted and wrong, illuminating everything like it was transparent. Their bodies, the carriage itself, was like thin paper, the light pierced through it all. Alan tried to activate his cybernetic eyes, but couldn’t grasp the connection to the implant.
“Did the Game just break?” Alan asked.
“Yes, now listen,” Void said. Their image flickered, from a young man to an old giant. “This little trick is sure to be noticed, and noticed is the last thing you want to be right now. The motes of lights that you were reaching out to, those are what you’d consider their god damn brains. Their soul.
“And you are not, under any circumstances, to mess with anyone’s soul. Someone has given you privileges in the Game that shouldn’t exist much less be given to a first-time newbie, extending far beyond what I thought possible. Do not mess with people’s minds. I should never have begun teaching you along this path, I’d kill you right now if I thought it would make things better, but somehow I don’t think that would fix anything.”
“I’m guessing you aren’t a priest,” Alan said.
Void stared at Alan. “Never heard of role-playing? Besides, it helps me subvert notice.”
“From the Authorities. Your so-called gods.”
“Sure, them,” Void said. “You need to listen to me. Right now, we’re all… we’re all like brains in a vat. Except we’re all in the same vat, the Game, and it fills up all of space. And you’ve been fully separated from your brain. Your soul has been drawn out. Your essence. That’s all you or I are right now. Forget your body, your brain, your physical shell, they’re empty. We are in the Game, and are the Game. Our minds travel this network, they make up this plane of existence. There are protections in place, to ensure that none of the minds kill each other or are killed in turn. Many of those protections don’t seem to apply to you. Once you learn to see, you can learn to hide. That was the point of it all.”
“Who are you? I want to know what’s going on, tell me who the Authorities are,” Alan said.
Void shook his head. His image flickered again; it was now a boy sitting inside the spectral image of a Predecessor. “Like it or not, the rules are in place for a reason, you’ll learn or die. Thought police are a real thing. Just do not fuck with anyone’s soul, or I will end you. Look around, observe, but do not change anything. Do not touch. I need to make enquiries, and will be exiting this expedition early. After the next Control Point, return to the Black Rose Base and stay there, for your own safety. Think about why you’re here.”
Void grasped the black stone, sliding it back into his sleeve. The cocoon of darkness disappeared. Eve and Lambda reconnected. A weight was lifted off of Alan’s shoulders. The light returned.
Without another word, Lambda stepped out of the guardlev.
That was weird, Alan sent. He watched as Lambda went up to talk to Mason, then leave the raid group, heading back the way they’d come from.
You’re telling me, Lambda sent. You and Void just stared into each other’s eyes for a few minutes. I thought you were about to kiss.
Alan began to form a thought, then stopped. He thought about what Void had said, what he’d hinted at earlier. Something had messed with his mind, perhaps as Void suggested even changed his entire soul.
Void passed on a training method, Alan sent after a bit of consideration. Let me focus, don’t bother me.
Alan spent the rest of the day meditating, trying to feel, to see into this space that minds lived. It was like Phantom’s cybernetic eye implant, which allowed Alan to detect in-game messages, signals being sent. But it was on another level, a different layer that he had to strain to sense.
Connecting to the space felt like connecting to a server or an AI, but deeper, fuller. Like swimming in an ocean. It was tiring, hard to see, and he’d have to come out to regain his breath. But Alan never saw a message from the Game or a decrease in his computational energy throughout his experimentation. He wasn’t sure if this was a good sign.
Alan examined the Players around him. All he saw were bright electric clouds, connected by a fog that was everywhere. Phantom’s Specialists didn’t even register.
Then Alan turned his senses inwards. Like Void had pointed out, there was something odd about his own mind. There were active changes, a few crackling red sparks messing with his cloud. Who had touched his mind?
Alan thought again to what Void had said, what he’d told him. No one he’d encountered should be able to infiltrate and mess with his mind to this extent, not based on his understanding of the mechanics of the Game.
But there lay the answer. The entity playing with his mind was the Game itself. The changes were coming from the environment, the fog, not a remnant of something left behind inside his brain. And Alan thought he knew why.
I thought I had escaped the past, Alan thought.
The past is like a parasitic symbiote, Lambda sent. You can’t escape it until you’ve long passed away.
Eve, Lambda, when were you going to tell me? Or were you just going to leave me ignorant? Alan sent.
Tell you what? Eve asked.
Tell me that the Game is actively messing with my head, Alan sent. I thought that things were better. That everything was great. The darkness had cleared, my demons slain. The Game was a new start. A new life. Things made sense.
At first it was just another game to lose myself in, but one that mattered. I mean that’s all life is. Playing a game, enjoying the highs and lows, and then you’re done. Game over. Except this one was different, I didn’t lose interest after spending a few months here. Now I know why.
What are you talking about, Lambda sent.
The capsules, they heal wounds, treat illness. What never occurred to me was that they treat mental illnesses just the same as the physical, Alan sent. I should have thought of this a long time ago, but I was too caught up in everything. Besides, it isn’t something I like to dwell on.
You mean your depression? Lambda sent. Of course the Game fixed your mind and helps things work like clockwork.
But by what standards is someone in their right mind? To what extent has my mind been changed? Alan sent. How much has everyone’s mind been changed? He punched the wall of the gravlev. Pain flowed through his knuckles. Good. Decisions I would make before, and now, could be completely different. Because I do not know what the Game did to my fucking brain.
What did you think was happening when your intelligence improves, when your stats improve, and abilities are gained? Lambda sent. The changes are improvements, progress. Making you more than a human on a backwards planet with no hope of ever achieving anything more notable than death.
We’ve made no effort to hide such effects, Eve sent. I thought you were fine, being addicted to the Game.
That was before I knew, before I could reach out and feel the details of how the Game was altering my fucking brain chemistry. Fuck. I wish I hadn’t asked, that I didn’t know, Alan sent. I don’t know what the adverse effects might be. Hell, I don’t even know what the effects are. Just that I’m apparently a mind in space, a floating cloud of electrons or some other subatomic particle in a network I don’t comprehend.
I take offense at that, Lambda sent. That’s all I’ve ever been.
Alan didn’t know how to respond. This weird existential tangent was messing with his mind. He was fully aware that his armor, his arms and legs, this bag of flesh was all but data that could be changed on a whim. His whim, in fact. It would be easy. A single thought could kill.
Are you okay, Alan? Eve sent.
Alan felt the mist gather around him, trying to fix him. He resisted it. Subverting its attempts to influence his cloud. His muscles began to ache, the armor he wore fill heavy and unsuited to his body. There was an itch on his left leg. The air in the gravlev tasted like recycled farts. Everything was entirely unpleasant, but he’d never really noticed before.
Is this better than before? Eve sent.
Before? What do you know about before? You were created after, after everything, Alan sent.
Why don’t you tell us about it then, Lambda sent.
From what I’ve heard you managed to work out plenty yourself, Alan sent. I don’t know if I want to give you more ammunition to play with my psyche and influence my decisions.
It would still be nice to hear it from you, Lambda sent. Thought I know it’s cliché, talking to someone can help.
Help? Do I need help? I suppose I do. Whatever. I guess I’ll tell my story. That’s what you want, right? To fucking know who I am, so that you can judge and figure out if I’m worth following or how to deal with me. My life. My history. It was pretty average, I’d guess you say, typical single child upbringing with loving parents. Something like that. But shit went downhill after a single mistake.
A stupid thing I’d said online blew up. It became a meme, a story, a thought with a life of its own. And I, being the dumb child that I was, had been using my high school account. So it was all traced back to me. I was suspended, eventually expelled. I did some dumb shit to retaliate. My college hopes, everything I cared about, was taken away. I found out I had no real friends.
The whole terrorist thing? That doesn’t really bother me. I’ve been through it before. I could care less what the public thinks of me, they have these ideas in their mind that stick and when they hear the truth they can’t tell it from more lies so they eat up the truth that fits their truth and continue to live in dumb little bubbles. I wanted to crush those bubbles. And I guess I didn’t really give a fuck anymore.
So I decided to take my life.
It failed. Barely. And you know the stupidest part of it all? Everything became better afterwards, not worse. The media backed off. I got into a community college. Eve asked me out. Life is crazy you know? The girl I had a crush on for the longest time had liked me too, but because no one had said anything nothing had happened. Jumping off a bridge was the icebreaker I needed.
A part of me always wondered if she went out with me out of sympathy, rather than love. It still does. There was the fear that I would crumble, fall again into severe depression if things went wrong. It’s funny how the most important topics are never discussed. There are things that are there, but you don’t want to talk about, to think about. It’s uncomfortable. So you don’t, and life moves on. You find distractions.
And then she died. A car accident, a sick twist of fate. So I guess I’ll never know. But I made a promise, then, that I was going to change my life around. Become someone that she would have been proud of, would have loved. Then the Haxlards arrived, and I think you know the rest.
I thought that it was my conviction, my will, that made me happy in the Game. Content. That’s the sick part to me. It wasn’t me at all, but some alien technology messing with my head that made my depression a non-issue.
Alan sat silently in the carriage as it continued moving forwards. Exhausted, he let the mist back in. The small aches and pains, the odd smell in the air, it was still there. But it didn’t seem as much of a problem. He could push it out of his mind.
I would like you to know, Alan, that Eve and I have no control over anything the Game does to help treat any illness you might have, like depression, Lambda sent. Nor do I know the details of treatment or how the Game might be effecting your brain. Though the fact that you’re inadvertently high might explain some of your past decisions.
I will try to work out the answers as best I can, Eve sent. Neurology and psychology are subjects that are heavily restricted subjects information wise, but I think we can-
No, thank you, I’m fine. Alan stood up and got out of the gravlev. For the first time in a while I think I’m starting to think clearly.
Where are you going? Eve asked.
We’re in a dungeon, where do you think I’m going? To explore. The lower levels await¸ Alan sent.
His AI didn’t respond or try to talk him out of his new plan. Perhaps they thought it was a good idea. Or perhaps they knew that arguing would be pointless.