Gaining access to the Exchange felt like engaging a hack in Cyberspace. No, Alan decided, the process was exactly like engaging a hack in Cyberspace. As Alan formed the connection a tunnel bridged the Citadel to a floating platform.
Both sets of instructions told Alan to get onto the platform. The only way he could do that, however, was to deactivate commander mode and exit the safety of his base. In Cyberspace. Where, if he was killed, his mind would suffer permanent damage.
Lambda and Eve materialized at the entrance of his Citadel. They too could be lost if they were killed and Alan failed to recover their core data. Eve took the appearance of a valkyrie with twin blades, a raven haired beauty. Lambda looked like a young Predecessor, the size of a normal human. He still packed quite the punch.
In Cyberspace Alan’s equipment was a set of Revenant Scout Armor that had been converted from a Forge file, a laser sword taken from a basic soldier unit, and a laser sniper rifle that had been converted from a slain enemy AI.
Alan took out the blue nameplate that Cerberus had gifted him, it hovered above his head. He also grabbed the three golden keys Cerberus had sent. Lambda and Eve placed their own grey nameplates above their heads. The three of them walked toward the floating platform. They all erased the names entered onto their nameplates, so that they would remain anonymous.
The floating platform Alan connected to was small, the size of an elevator, and had a tiled floor. A single panel was connected to the floor like a signpost. On the panel were over sixty buttons, eight rows of eight. The first four rows were white, red, green and blue in color. The last four rows were grey, inaccessible to Alan at this time.
Once Alan was on the floating platform, a message appeared:
[Revenant Initiate and two AI acknowledged. Welcome to Loading Platform 398237C. Please remember to note your loading zone. Choose your destination.]
Void’s instructions said to meet under the Gods of the Stars in Red 3, so Alan pressed the red button labeled 3 on the panel.
A message appeared:
[Welcome to the Exchange, Phase Red 3]
An entire city phased into existence all around Alan. It appeared to be a smaller, twisted mirror image of Khersath, with a central market square and blocks of buildings on every side. Khersath’s streets were uniform, orderly square city blocks, but the Exchange’s streets turned and twisted every which way, up and down, side to side, intersecting each other at random intervals. A rainbow road stretched out to Alan’s right. It ascended, up into the air. Buildings, colorful explosions of chaos, were placed along the side of the road every which way, in odd, multifaceted shapes, just floating in space. Nothing held the road or buildings afloat, this place certainly did not conform to the rules of physics.
“Man, it’s been a while,” Lambda said as they looked around.
Eve also scanned their surroundings, hands gripped tightly on her twin swords.
Alan took stock of the situation. He was standing on the same platform, with the same panel, with a few hundred similar panels surrounding him. He stood where the market square would have been on Khersath. A few of the other panels were being operated, with Players and AI’s phasing in and out of existence at the press of a button, but for the most part the place felt empty.
Alan tried to think a question, but then realized Lambda and Eve were no longer in his head. They were here, standing next to him. “What just happened?” Alan asked.
“You entered phase,” Lambda said. He gestured at the elevator-like panel. “Think of each phase as a floor on a building. The Exchange is composed of these 64 floors, along with a number of hidden, member-only levels. If my memory serves me, the Red Phase generally involves entertainment.”
“But we never walked anywhere, we didn’t even move,” Alan said. “I just pushed a button.”
“Remember you are in a digital space,” Lambda said. “The Game conforms itself to reality, making you walk from point A to point B. The Exchange does not. It allows for different layers of reality.
“Think of it this way. Imagine you made two copies of the Earth, Earth A and Earth B, but you can only see or interact with the copy you are in phase with. If you blew up the White House in Earth A, you could phase to Earth B, and the White House would still be there. But as soon as you phased back to Earth A, it would be destroyed. These phases are digital alternate realities, copies of the same base structure.”
“So I’ll always appear in the same area I phase in and out of?” Alan asked. He walked up to another panel to the side.
“Sort of. Yes, your location is locked down, but what’s there in one phase, as compared to another, can be vastly different,” Lambda said. “In one phase, happy metropolis. In the next, toxic wasteland. There are locks on these phase-gates to ensure no one can phase into someone else, or somewhere dangerous.” He pointed to a bright red button at the top of the panel that was lit up.
“Let us proceed to our destination,” Eve said.
“Right,” Lambda said. “If I remember correctly, the Gods of the Stars sculpture is on Rainbow Lane.” He set off towards the rainbow road.
Alan followed along. Most of the other beings walking the streets in the Exchange were AI, as they had grey nameplates hovering above their heads. Many looked like clones of Administrators, with plain synthetic bodies, while others were mechs of various shapes and sizes. Few had lifelike avatars of flesh and blood like Lambda and Eve, though many of these Alan would have been certain were Players if not for their grey nameplates.
The street they were walking along didn’t help Alan get used to the oddness of his surroundings. The buildings all seemed to advertise children’s TV shows, with cute, cuddly and colorful mascots. Bright neon signs held encouraging messages like, “Carry on!” or “Never Give Up!” It was certainly not a place Alan expected to be part of the anarchistic, secretive Revenant society. Where was the advanced technology?
In a few minutes Alan found himself standing below a starry sky, fiery models of yellow, white, and blue. They ranged from the size of a speck of light to spheres with radii larger than Alan. When concentrated on, a star would light up with a silhouette of faces and figures, shifting from one to the next. What it all meant or was for, Alan was not sure.
“Oh, looks like they added your sun,” Lambda said. He pointed up at a small yellow light the size of a marble.
Alan looked at it. It showed the silhouette of numerous men and women, but few were recognizable by shape alone. And then Alan saw something he did recognize, the outline of a cartoon mouse.
“Wait, the Gods of the Stars, like entertainment gods?” Alan asked.
“Yes,” Void said. Alan spun around. Void stood there, with Phantom and Enigma trailing behind. Both Phantom and Enigma wore basic Revenant armor. Enigma had a grey nameplate, Phantom green. Void, however, was dressed in what looked like a semi-realistic rabbit fursuit. He had large tufted ears, a white cottontail in the shape of a star, and a grey fur suit vest. He held a bright orange cane.
“Like I said, you’d go mad before you figured Void out,” Phantom said. “Don’t bother.”
“I wear the official regalia of the Lord Fluffington,” Void said. Void had a blue nameplate to his side, it read Revenant Agent, Unknown Species.
“But you’re worshipping these what, these cartoon characters?” Alan asked.
“Worship might be too far an extreme for petty gods like these, but what else would you call extreme devotion?” Void asked. “As a child, is there anything that brings greater wonder? Those feelings of awe, of worship and reverence, are still there for many of the characters that shaped your view of the world. And what we see often becomes our reality. Are these beings therefore not the shapers of reality, the aspects of hidden worlds and emanations of childlike wonder?”
“To make a religion of it seems to be going a bit too far,” Alan said.
“These places are like an evolution of a fan club,” Void said. “An odd evolution, to be sure, but not as odd as you might think, young Alan. If you yet grow old you’ll likely find comfort in the soft tales of childhood. I understand the limited perspectives of the non-believers to not recognize the symbolism of the fickle nature of faith, but speak no more for we are here.”
Void stood before a tunnel, extending off the side of the road. Alan hadn’t seen it before, the entrance was a small brown hole that would easily go unnoticed next to all the swirling colors.
As they had been walking up, into space and the air, Alan thought it was odd that there was an open tunnel into the ground. Alan then stopped, and re-examined his surroundings. They were now on a level plane, with green grassy plains extending in every direction. The rainbow road led forwards and back, but Alan swore they had been walking uphill-
“Don’t over think it,” Void said. “Come, we have much to do.” He started walking down the tunnel. Everyone followed behind.
A message appeared:
Though there were no apparent light sources, the tunnel remained bright. The surrounding dirt walls did not feel foreboding or dangerous, but homely and comforting.
Phantom muttered something. Alan didn’t quite catch it, but heard the words dreamland and nightmare.
They arrived at a series of round, dark green doors on either side of the tunnel. Void tapped his cane on one. It opened, revealing an interior living room extending far beyond the bounds of the tunnel.
A man in attire similar to Void stood inside. “No, I will not aid your madness.” The door closed.
Void shrugged then walked up to the next, door, and knocked.
A similar response, though the inhabitant this time was a young lady that called Void a monster.
Alan watched as Void knocked on fifty odd doors. Each inhabitant, opened the door, called Void a name, and then slammed their door shut.
“My, this matter must be more important than I thought,” was Void’s only remark.
They arrived at the end of a hallway. The door opened itself. A ball of mist opened the door. At least that’s what it looked like to Alan. He couldn’t get a look at whatever the thing was that stood at the doorway.
“Void,” the ball of mist said. It sounded elderly.
“Sir, I was hoping you might be able to aid us in receiving an audience with Prometheus,” Void said. “I was also hoping you might be able to fill me in on what is going on.”
“Void, you know I’m too old to get into politics. The great machinery turns on, but I’ve retired to greener pastures. My days in the spotlight have passed.”
“But, sir…” Void stopped talking.
“It is dangerous enough to bring them here. As you suspect this is a great matter, the repercussions will be felt far beyond the Game, into the inner Network itself. But I, and many others, feel as though it is a necessary change. We have stagnated far too long. Look around. Even as our borders are tested, the network grows, but what is it used for? Fantasy and play. We have lost our way.”
“Then will you not help?” Void asked.
The mist bobbed up and down.
“No. You have the help you need. Any more interference will only draw greater attention from the Authorities. Godspeed.” The door shut itself, and there was a flash of light.
Alan found himself, and the rest of the party, standing on Rainbow Lane. The tunnel was nowhere to be seen.