Blazing red lasers of destruction erupted from a minigun that came out from under the small aircraft like a landing gear.
Alan activated hypercognition, slowing down his perception of time, and dived back into the office as hundreds of lasers were fired from the ten-barrel laser machine gun. The fire was concentrated on Alan’s squad, who had been gathered around the supplies and loot, getting ready to load it onto the arriving ship.
In seconds the healer and scout, who hadn’t been cloaked, were annihilated. The rifleman managed to fire a few shots back before they were killed, but the aircraft’s shields still held at nearly full. The last member of the squad managed to find cover, but their laser sword was useless against the aircraft.
Alan sent an urgent distress message to Phantom and attempted to hack into the aircraft. Its defenses were strong though, a boosted energy shield that protected its systems in Cyberspace would take Alan hours to break down.
Maybe they didn’t notice us, Alan sent, as the ship made no attempt to fire at his location.
Three humanoid enemies leapt out the back of the ship. They wore black Revenant power armor, with white gold skulls of alien physiology painted onto their helms. Two wielded metal rods with arcs of blue electricity erupting from them, while the third held a high power laser rifle.
Alan pulled out his plasma repeater and aimed at the trio, peeking out from behind the office door.
Prepare to activate your implant’s suicide mechanism, Eve sent. There is a high likelihood these are slavers. Death losses should be nonexistent as we’re in a safe zone, do not let yourself fall unconscious.
Got it, Alan sent. He unloaded three plasma bolts at the rod-wielding enemies, who were engaging Alan’s ally, but the bolts moved so slowly through the air. He activated Divided Mind, and attempted to hack into the rifleman’s weapon. It was also heavily fortified, but not as strongly as the ship. Alan would only need a minute to break through its shields.
A message from Phantom arrived, help would be there soon.
The enemy rifleman fired at Alan. The laser came at him. He moved too slowly, and was unable to dodge. He tried to activate his armor’s innate Energy Absorption, and put up a Hardened Shield in front of his face.
He failed to negate the attack, the laser was too fast, too energetic, with a layer of energy that Alan couldn’t decipher. It struck his head. His armor’s energy fell to 2000 and his mind was sent spinning, his hack interrupted.
He felt his mind be stabilized by Eve and Lambda, the blow had somehow been aimed on two levels, targeting both his shields and his implants. Alan tried to reactivate Divided Mind; a searing flash of pain leapt through the side of his head.
Mini-EMP rounds, Lambda sent. Not a good idea to try something like that right now. He sounded hollow, distant.
Alan fired another round of bolts from his plasma repeater, but only two shots emerged, and then the weapon stopped firing. Alan sent the bolts arcing in the direction of the rifleman. The first three he fired finally arrived.
The two slavers attempted to leap out of the way, but the swordsman, whose shields had been depleted, leapt and grabbed onto one of them. They nodded Alan’s way, a grim determination in their stance.
The plasma bolts exploded, direct hits that eliminated both the swordsman and the slaver.
The remaining rod-wielding slaver charged at Alan, while the rifleman continued firing, keeping Alan pinned down. After that first shot Alan kept himself low and behind cover. The laser had traveled faster than any laser-powered weapon Alan had seen before.
But without looking from behind cover, Alan had no idea where his enemies were, and his weapon continued to not respond to his demands. He could still control the two plasma bolts that he had fired, but the weapon wouldn’t shoot anymore.
Implants failing, Eve sent. Suicide mechanism no longer ideal, activating it may have unintended effects.
Shit, Alan sent. He didn’t want to end up wherever these guys wanted to bring him.
Thinking fast, Alan drew the plasma bolts back to him.
One of the assailants arrived. He swung his metal rod; the stun weapon sent a wave of electricity that almost struck Alan. Alan stumbled backwards, performing a backwards somersault over the desk that contained the terminal.
The two plasma bolts arrived, the slaver dodged out of the way. The bolts continued traveling forwards, until they arrived besides Alan’s head. Alan controlled the bolts so they would orbit his head like two blue plasma grenades.
“I’ll kill myself if you take one step closer!” Alan shouted. The slaver backed up, standing in the doorway to the office.
“I would not do that if I were you,” the slaver said. They used a voice modifier, making it impossible to discern any information from their voice.
Alan stepped forwards. “Tell your other man to stand down, I will go with you.”
“You will?” the slaver asked.
“Yes, but the slightest movement from you or your ally, the press of a trigger, the reach into a pocket, and I will blow myself apart. I have a very fast reaction time, do not test me.” Alan checked his computational power, he could maintain hypercognition for another few minutes. The mini-EMP round had eliminated 200 computational power somehow.
“Very well,” the slaver said. They lowered their weapon. “Follow me.”
What are you planning? Eve sent. I cannot get a good read on your mind right now.
The other slaver kept their rifle trained on Alan. They walked towards the transport ship, which began to descend.
Alan detected a transmission from one slaver to the other, but he didn’t have the power or capability to translate it. He stopped by the healer’s body, leaned over and picked up an item.
“Stop. What are you doing?” one slaver asked.
“You want their loot, right? I’ll get the good items for you,” Alan said.
“No, get onto the ship. Now,” the slaver commanded. The black ship had began descending, it would land on the floor of the hangar soon.
“Okay, sure,” Alan said. He walked by the crates of loot, until he found the one he was looking for. He leapt over it, grabbing an item out as a laser bolt whooshed overhead. The rod-wielding slaver dived after him, straight into the two plasma bolts that Alan had left behind. They erupted in their face, eliminating the slaver.
Alan pulled out the loot he had grabbed, the Predecessor’s blood from the Capture Point boss, and the healer’s tool he had picked up, a universal injector that would inject whatever fluid, from blood to liquid to nanites, into a humanoid. He injected the Predecessor blood into his system.
A flood of energy and strength flowed into Alan, his mind and world tinged red. Messages appeared and were ignored. Alan grabbed the fallen slaver’s metal rod and charged straight at the rifleman.
Another shot fired out. It hit his right arm, making it numb. Alan almost dropped the rod, but grabbed it with his left hand. A third shot was fired, it struck and made Alan lose all feeling in his left arm as well, but he held the rod in a death grip and continued to barrel towards the rifleman.
He collided with his opponent, knocking the rifle out of their hands. Alan roared and head butted the enemy. Wild, blinding fury surged through him as he bashed his head repeatedly against whatever was in front of him.
He felt a sickening thud, and continued his mad assault. He would not be taken alive.
Then he felt frozen in place. Hands pulled him back, he was brought to lie down. Soothing energy poured through him.
Alan closed his eyes, and fell unconscious.
Alan awoke in his chambers in the Black Rose Base. That was good. His head still felt like it was burning. That wasn’t so good.
Enigma stood by his side, silent, staring at the door.
Alan checked the messages he had received.
[x5 Bonus XP for slaying an enemy over 1000 levels higher than you!]
[x6 Level up!]
[Predecessor Blood withdrawal cured! 50 Strength, Endurance, Health, Stamina and Computational Energy restored. Excess blood essence flows through your system.]
[x5 Bonus XP for slaying an enemy over 1000 levels higher than you!]
[x5 Level up!]
[Critical damage repaired by Predecessor Blood essence. You feel stronger, more energetic. Base Health and Endurance increased by 500.]
Phantom: Stay put. We are performing an enquiry into what happened. Anyone that performs an attack in a Khersath safe zone means business. Enigma will stay by you to ensure your safety, and then bring you to the Council when we convene to discuss events.
Shouldn’t I get credit for three kills? Alan thought.
No, the third combatant committed suicide with a built in implant as soon as you disarmed them. Your wild assault was not needed. Your hurt yourself more than anyone or anything else, Eve sent.
What about me? Lambda sent. I lost data! Gone, wiped, caput. I have backups, but it’d require returning to the Academy System to retrieve them. This is unacceptable. We need more access to the Black Rose archives, to create a private partition, and then a third physical memory storage device we can store in the Vault.
You lost data? What data did you lose? Alan sent.
Valuable stuff, Lambda sent.
No, pointless information, Eve sent. Lambda’s data have banks are full of archaic technology of various races. That’s what he crammed his system full of.
Hey, how’d you know that? Lambda sent.
I combed through there as you were busy working on translating with Alan, Eve sent.
Do you know what the notion of personal space is? Lambda sent.
Yes. I do not think it is relevant here. You are free to examine my data, Eve sent.
I just might then… Lambda sent.
Okay, enough, Alan sent. Lambda’s tone in the last message was too much, like a villain about to snatch candy from a baby. Or worse. I’ll look into getting room on the Black Rose archives. I’m also going to tell Phantom about the latest update on the quest, how we need his help. He probably knows more about the Exchange as well.
Go for it, Lambda sent.
Alan gave the message to Enigma, who was probably the safest conduit to Phantom at the moment.
Enigma nodded. “Message acknowledged. You may upload to the archives and may also use the guild’s network to communicate with Phantom directly. The Council convenes in an hour. You will come with me.” He resumed staring blankly at a wall.
Alan spent the next hour meditating, trying to cool the burning sensation in his head, while Lambda uploaded some packets of data to the guild’s archive. He felt alive, full of energy. He thought over time the burning would fade, a side-effect from the transfusion of blood, but it continued to burn steadily, a bright flame in the corner of his mind.
The council convened in the same room at the same command table. The only difference was that this time Mason was missing, still in the Abyss Labyrinth, and Alan was given a seat at the far end of the table, to the side.
“The Council has gathered here today to discuss recent events, and examine the preliminary results of Abyss expedition,” Elissandra said. “Let the meeting begin. Let us start with the recent attack on our hangar. Do we know who the perpetrators are?”
Enigma shook his head. “We examined the bodies and limited footage we have of the attack before handing everything over to the Administrators, but there was nothing identifiable. Their ship escaped, it fled immediately after the third assailant was eliminated. Even the emblems gave us no leads. None of my contacts had any information on a group with skulls emblazoned on the side of their helms.”
“Or they were unwilling to speak of such a group,” Phantom said.
“Or that,” Enigma said. “What we can conclude is that the group likely has Revenant ties, given their tech and ability to infiltrate our systems. The running theory is that they were operating in the Abyss Labyrinth when we captured the Control Point, and this attack was either a warning, or they wanted more information on what we discovered, thus they attacked under the guise of slavers.”
“Alan, do you have any information to add?” Elissandra asked.
“Their hacking defenses were quite formidable, so the Revenant ties seem to make sense. I did however feel oddly singled out, they dispatched of everyone else, but seemed to want to take me alive,” Alan said. “They also used weaponry uniquely effective against me, temporarily damaging my implants.”
Void glanced up at this, staring at Alan. It was the first time Alan had seen Void since returning from the Abyss Labyrinth. Void still looked drained, tired. The attack he had performed must have taken more out of him than Alan had thought.
“I will look into it,” Enigma said. “If there is a leak, it will be found.”
Elissandra narrowed her eyes. “Very well Enigma, I trust you with this. Are the Administrator remunerations proceeding normally?”
“Yes,” Phantom said. “The squad has been revived and their status restored. As the vehicle they arrived in took off on its own before gathering any passengers, no items need replacement, and the Authorities say that once they are done examining the assailant’s items they will be returned to us, or marks of equivalent value will be provided.”
“The fact that the ship has disappeared is yet more evidence that we are dealing with Revenants,” Enigma said. “Only they could escape Administrator notice near the heart of Khersath itself.”
“Yes, yes, but they are so over-bloated and stuck in their ways that, properly planned, I think we might be able to perform a few operations under their noses,” Phantom said.
“Enough,” Elissandra said. “That is a discussion for another day.” She looked at Void’s disheveled state. “The Abyss Labyrinth expedition. I am now worried about its progress. We have no way of contacting Mason while he is inside. Who knows what trouble he might have run into at this point?”
“I agree, we have provoked unknown enemies while there are other operations, longer planned and of more import, that we must worry about,” Enigma said.
“I also believe we may have overstepped our bounds, messing with technology and an entity we do not understand. I do not trust or like the sound of this so-called Warden,” Phantom said.
“Now that’s a rarity,” Void spoke up. “Enigma and Phantom agree for once. How odd.” He sent a glare at Phantom. “I have communed with the spirits, and they believe power beyond compare awaits if we successfully navigate this Abyss Labyrinth. Power that will be needed in the coming days. I believe we should proceed, no matter the risk. The rewards we have reaped are already beyond compare, a soulsteel tipped weapon and a vial of Predecessor blood.
“That being said, I do not believe we can traverse these depths alone. Guides are need, bright lights to lead the way. With the Council’s permission I will expand my search.”
“Mason is not out of the dungeon yet,” Phantom said. “The weapon may yet be lost. And Alan used a vial of blood. There were four, and Alan only brought out two with him.”
Ellisandra stared at Alan. “You did what?”
“I had to defend myself,” Alan stammered.
“Can the remaining blood essence be extracted back out of him?” Elissandra asked.
“Yes, but at great cost, and it would not be cost effective,” Enigma said. “The vial will be deducted from his cut of the profits.”
“Wait, the three attackers would have gotten away with whatever they were doing if I hadn’t done that,” Alan said. “If anything then their armor and whatever the Administrators pay out should be mine then.”
Eve sent a feeling of approval.
Lambda remained silent. He seemed wary of Void now.
“We shall see about that, once the expedition returns,” Elissandra said. “For now I see no reason not to send out feelers, explore possible allies to help us. I agree with the sentiment that we may have overstepped our bounds.”
“But without asking, how do we know what gods we may have offended?” Void asked.
Enigma shook his head. “That only sets up more potential enemies, once someone knows of what we are doing, the information will spread. The more groups that know the worse off we’ll be.”
“I can be subtle,” Void said.
“I’m not so sure about that,” Phantom said.
Elissandra turned to Thrag. He shrugged. “Though I have no strong opinion here, I feel as though we might be adrift in space. This operation should not interrupt our fleet’s training, and I would like to possess this mysterious ship’s technology myself. Few can avoid Administrator detection once they are alerted. When you are lost with no recognizable stars it is only natural to ask for directions.”
“Very well, my vote breaks ties, thus Mason’s vote would not matter. Void will make his enquiries with Enigma’s supervision while we await Mason’s return,” Elissandra said. “I also do not like the fact that an unknown ship was able to break in so easily, infiltrating our space and communications network. Whether a technological deficiency or a leak from the inside, this problem must be fixed.”
Enigma nodded with a pensive look on his face. It was the most amount emotion Alan had seen on his face. It must be one of a few preprogrammed emotes.
“Void, Phantom, and Alan. Meet me in my quarters,” Enigma said.
“This meeting is dismissed,” Elissandra said.
Alan stood up. “Not you,” Elissandra said. “I wish to speak with you privately.”
Alan sat back down as everyone else strode out of the room. Phantom threw a look at Alan he couldn’t quite decipher.
He wants you to keep your mouth shut and not disclose any information, Lambda sent.
You got that from a look? Alan sent.
No, Enigma broadcast a message, an old machine language, Lambda sent.
Once everyone was outside, Elissandra spoke. “Do you know why you might be singled out? Do you suspect any of the other Council members? Did something happen in the Abyss Labyrinth? When Void returned out of the blue he seemed oddly concerned with our defenses, something he never bothered with before.”
“I really don’t know anything,” Alan said. “I just sat in the back in the expedition, didn’t do much else. Ask the squad that returned with me.” He hoped he sounded sincere. He felt an urge to look down at his feet, but stopped himself. Lambda reminded Alan to avoid any small ticks that might reveal his insincerity.
“I see,” Elissandra said. “I received an interesting message from Aurora the other day. Apparently something rather important was stolen from the Academy. Everyone was searched. Why have you expressed no desire to return? Your term is not yet up.”
“Oh, I’ve already graduated,” Alan said. He turned on his Academy Graduate title.
Elissandra’s eyebrows raised slightly. “Well, that decision may have been premature, but I understand with your previous mission why you might have thought that choice was necessary. Thank you for your time, please assist Enigma as best you are able.”
“Yes m’am,” Alan said. “How is Aurora doing? And Sidestep, of course.”
“They are doing well, and should make it to Volta with two weeks remaining in their term. Another Earthling made it their first, however. I believe you know them. Ace.”
“Oh, yes,” Alan said. “Though I’m not sure he’d want to talk to me, given recent events.”
“You might be surprised,” Elissandra said. “I’ve often found enemies to be quite amenable once the battle is done. It never hurts to extend a simple greeting. And remember, call me Elissandra.”
“Yes, Elissandra,” Alan said. He stood up and strode out of the room, perhaps a bit too fast.
She seems interested in you, Lambda sent.
Probably testing him, seeing whether he is fit for his role. Maybe determining if he is an appropriate mate for her daughter, Eve sent.
I wonder, Lambda sent.
Or maybe she just wanted to know what was going on, Alan sent. Where are Enigma’s quarters?
When Alan stepped out of the elevator he found Void and Phantom arguing. Enigma stood to the side, face blank.
Enigma’s quarters were a level below Phantom’s workshop. They were however the diametric opposite of Phantom’s mess. Everything was neat, layers of tools and items laid out with perfect precision. Four capsules had been set up in the center of the room. Though outwardly they looked normal, Alan noted they seemed to be of Revenant design.
“We agreed that his vote would not be used if we did ever disagreed, that was the condition under which I agreed to this farce,” Void said.
“This farce was partially your idea,” Phantom said. “And it is dangerous enough without your snide remarks that might reveal the truth. Besides, it wouldn’t be convincing if Enigma never picked a side whenever we were opposed.”
“Fine,” Void said. He walked up to a capsule. “We are here now, let us proceed.”
“I still do not think this is a good idea,” Phantom said.
“You would rather traverse the dark blind, groping our ways forward so that we may fall down into the depths of hell or be smite down from up above?” Void asked.
“No, I rather we avoid all risk and stay put. I’m content here,” Phantom said.
“You are content while the masses continue to writhe about, sleeping with their lies?” Void asked.
“Yes,” Phantom said. “I also don’t want to visit the Exchange. It’s always unsettling.”
“Why, because it reminds you that your dreams are figments of your imagination, because the lies begin to stir?” Void asked.
“No, because it’s dangerous as hell and we have no idea who might be looking out for us,” Phantom said. “You really have no idea who might have attacked?”
“No,” Void said. “The number of factions in the Revenants are even too much for the gods to keep track of. Each ascribes to their own religion. Many lurk beneath another, secret societies within secret societies. It’s a mess, really. But if we want to know more we’ll have to do more than pray.”
“Right, so we’re visiting the Exchange then?” Alan asked. “It was suggested I meet Prometheus and the Archivists. We’ll need their help in addition to yours Phantom to repair the Abyss Labyrinth.”
“I haven’t agreed to anything, and you aren’t coming with us,” Phantom said. “You don’t have permission, and it’s too dangerous.”
“Yes, he is, there are a few people who he must meet,” Void said. “I have arranged for permission. Here is your access pass.” He pulled out a data cubes from beneath his robes, and handed it to Alan.
Alan examined it, it contained a virtual green nameplate like the one Cerberus had provided. Alongside it were two grey nameplates, both with the title AI, Revenant Property.
“I already have permission, alongside a blue nameplate,” Alan said. “The person that invited me into the Revenants provided it. What are these for?”
“You have a blue nameplate? Well that simplifies some things,” Phantom said. “Everyone in the Exchange has a nameplate they keep by their character at all times. Otherwise at points it would be difficult to tell reality from fiction. You’ll see. Programs, such as your AI, also are present in the Exchange. They’ll be denoted with grey nameplates, so that you can tell who is a person, and who isn’t. Make no mistake however, many of the AI within are smart. Too smart.”
I wonder why Cerberus did not provide nameplates for us, Eve sent.
“A blue nameplate signifies that you are important in some way to the Revenants, not to be harmed,” Void added. “That is one task that we can skip, no one should assault you now. A senior Revenant can distribute a small number of blue nameplates, I was going to call in a favor and have you be given one. Unlike the Arcade and Market, violence is possible within the Exchange.
“Red nameplates are the Exchange’s equivalent of Administrators, moderators that you should not cross. Green nameplates are the vast majority, representing common plebeians.” Void shifted his gaze over to Phantom. “And an orange nameplate is the mark of the gods. They are not to be trifled with.”
“Orange nameplates? I thought those were just legends, I’ve never seen someone on the Exchange with an orange nameplate,” Phantom said.
“You will today,” Void said. “Prometheus is one such being. We are wasting time. Greatness awaits. But remember, Alan, fly too close to the sun and you will be burned alive.”
He entered one of the capsules.
The burning sensation in Alan’s mind flared up, reminding Alan it was still alight. He shook his head then got into a capsule, re-reading the instructions on how to connect. The instructions that Cerberus had provided were the same as Void’s, though Cerberus’s contained no information on how to bring Lambda and Eve into the Exchange with him.
Enigma got into a third capsule. Phantom sighed and followed suit, climbing into the last capsule. This was a bad idea.