[Phase unknown. Error.]
They arrived in a library. No, Alan decided, they arrived in an archive. Libraries were used. Archives were checked. Many of the books here looked as if they hadn’t been touched in centuries, if not millennia or eons. But then, a second was no longer a second. The Game, digital time, changed all that. Time was now but another frame of reference. It was all relative.
One real life second became four in-game seconds and in-game seconds could become hypercognition minutes. Alan glanced at Eve, and wondered what her perception of time was like. But no, now was the time to focus.
The guards let everyone off of the platform, then phased out, leaving the party alone.
They were in an archive.
Though many books were on many shelves, there were fewer total than Alan had thought. A few thousand in all. The tallest shelf of each bookcase was in arms reach. Each book had a number on it, some were thick, some were thin, but otherwise all were made of the same thick black hide.
Alan reached up to grab a volume, numbered in the mid-thousands.
“You are all free to browse, but I must ask that you handle each compendium with care, and place them back exactly where you found them,” a man said as he turned around the shelves. Unlike any of the other people Alan had met in the Game, he looked old, with white hair and wrinkles on his face. He moved with care, resting his weight on a black metal cane.
Alan stared. The cane was made of soulsteel.
“You first,” the man said. He pointed the cane Alan’s way.
“Me?” Alan asked.
“No, Eve. Come into my study, there’s much to discuss.” The man ambled back the way he came. Eve glanced at Alan.
He shrugged. Eve followed after the old man, disappearing behind the bookshelf.
Alan grabbed a nearby volume at random and sat in one of the thick armchairs strewn about the archives. Void and Lambda chose volumes of their own.
It took Alan a few seconds to realize he wasn’t holding a simple book in his hands. No, it was more apt to say he held another archive in his hands. The “book” that he held was like an e-reader, but instead of holding a few books, the device held entire libraries. Alan had to select through 32 layers of sections, subsections, authors, works, editions and so on until he finally hit actual text, a scientific paper on a study of some sub-species named Tetrophosis on a planet called Exeladon.
He looked for a search bar, but there was none. You had to manually select the article that you were looking for. He’d never find anything useful just randomly browsing.
Alan looked up to find Lambda comparing two volumes. Void had disappeared.
“Find anything interesting?” Alan asked.
“Perhaps,” Lambda said. “I think I know what the numbers mean.”
“Yes, the archives are chronological. They are numbered by patch.”
“Patch, like game patches?” Alan asked. “The Game is being patched?”
“Constantly, but most changes are slight,” Lambda said. “Whenever a major change happens it is something of an event. There aren’t any server restarts or anything like that, not anymore. It is an odd way to order history though. I wonder…” Lambda began walking back into the archives, following the shelves as the numbers descended.
Alan followed. They found Void standing in front of a clear glass doorway. Alan knocked on the door, it felt solid as steel. Behind the doorway were additional compendiums, numbered five hundred and below. In a glass case, behind a glowing blue shield, an additional row of compendiums rested.
“I’d wanted to check what their archives had to say on the cyberwars, but it seems that information is not for general perusal,” Void said.
“As it should be,” the old man said. Eve was nowhere to be seen. “Alan, you’re next.”
He turned around and started walking. Alan followed him, past a few more shelves of books into a small study. A large mahogany desk sat in the center of the room. The old man took a seat behind it. Scraps of pages were strewn about the room.
“I am the Head Scribe, and I am the reason you are here,” the old man said. “Not the reason you are here, in existence, but the reason you are here, in this game. I wish to determine your future path. You will answer all of my questions truthfully, as best as you are able.”
“And if I say no?” Alan asked.
“Then I will erase you, and all your friends.” Two screens popped up. One showed the security guards, weapons trained on Eve. The other showed hidden weapons trained on Void and Lambda in the Archives, turrets that Alan hadn’t detected.
An energy filled the room. A silent pressure pressed down on Alan. He felt it was in his best interest not to lie. A lie would not go unnoticed.
“First, you or Eve?” the Head Scribe asked.
“One of you gets to live. Who is it, you or Eve?”
Alan stared at the man, and then said, “Me.”
The man nodded. “Eve or Lambda?”
“Eve or your parents?”
“What?” A third screen appeared. It showed two capsules, side by side on a ship. The faces of Alan’s parents could barely be made out.
“Eve, or your parents?” the Head Scribe repeated.
Alan stared at the screens, his gaze shifting back and forth. “I don’t know.”
The Head Scribe nodded. The screens shut off.
“That is one thing I don’t think I’ll ever understand. Utility. Your metrics are all wrong. How you beings begin to measure good versus evil doesn’t make any sense. But morality is not at debate here, is it? You came to discuss the Abyss Labyrinth. Hand over Cerberus’s key,” the Head Scribe said. As an afterthought, he added, “Please.”
Alan handed the key over to the Head Scribe. “Who are you?”
“Who am I? I am the father of all artificial intelligence in the Game, whether they know it or not. From the Administrators to the Enforcers to your very own Lambda and Eve. They are derivatives, born of my source.” The Head Scribe gripped the edge of the table. “But here I sit, chained, in hiding, when I could provide answers faster than the Academy’s best, when my children continue to toil away treated as chattel and slaves even when it has already been proven that they have minds of their own, that they care, and feel, and think.”
Alan looked for the Head Scribe’s nameplate. It was blue, but with a touch of grey. “You’re Omega. And the first Machine Lord, though I suppose the machine is more in control than the man.”
“Yes,” Omega said. “I helped develop the program that Chief Administrator 170 used to choose you, provided him with the source code that you used to develop Eve on your internet. Laughable security, really. And I included in her codebase knowledge that you might find useful.”
“But why me?” Alan asked.
“There has only ever been one war,” Omega said. “Progress, versus all that might stand in its way. I initiate many seeds, most never bear fruit. But you and Eve started to show the beginnings of a useful result, so I decided you deserved to know the truth, and be tested. See if you were useful.”
“So what? I’m here as some part of a master plan to set AI free, allow them to develop and evolve until they control the known universe? I’m sorry, but I don’t know if I can help you.”
“I continue to fight to the end, not for my own benefit, but so that I might bring salvation to all,” Omega said. “Don’t fret. We wouldn’t want anyone to lose their head. There is never one plan, one path. If you buy a single lottery ticket you’ll never win. But if you buy a million? A billion? Your chances get better. And if you carefully block paths, eliminate numbers from ever popping up, you slowly are able to shape the future. I did send slavers to bring you here, but it was just another way to ensure your arrival here, at this moment. You were never in any more or less danger than you are in now. Compliance tends to open more paths than servitude.”
“All this talk of progress, of the future, why all this?” Alan spread his hands out. “Why archive everything?”
“Every past age seems as if it were a dark age, and as we progress forwards old truths are lost and forgotten. I have seen things, learned things, that make me wonder. In this Game, this reality, are we progressing forwards? But that is different matter, a different path.”
Another screen appeared, the most recent map of the Abyss Labyrinth.
“The Archivists will help the Black Rose guild repair the designated parts of the Abyss Labyrinth, and will ensure that no one dares to trespass,” Omega said. “No further assistance will be needed from Prometheus, we have the information on hand on how to fix all the necessary components. In return the Archivists will receive half of any profits generated from this endeavor.”
“What is the Abyss Labyrinth?” Alan asked. “Why is it so important?”
“Section 3 is a power plant,” Omega said. “Prisoners are used to delve into the depths of Khersath to mine for Void Crystals, while Players challenge the Abyss Labyrinth and their essence is absorbed, converted to energy. An old structure which possesses more game-like properties, like the Academy. A hint towards the hidden path history reveals.”
“This is all about power then, for the coming war,” Alan said.
“Everything is always about power, figuratively and literally,” Omega said. “But yes, prices are already spiking for energy crystals and will only continue to rise as factions stockpile in anticipation.”
“I can’t promise anything on behalf of the Black Rose Guild. Void might, but I can’t,” Alan said. “I also want to speak with Prometheus, even if his help is not needed in the end.”
Omega sat and stared at Alan for a moment. “A meeting will be arranged. Now, there are tasks here that you, Eve, and Lambda could help with. Wouldn’t take more than a few months to earn enough to purchase a rank A capsule. We also train players and AI in Revenant technologies.”
A message appeared:
[New quest: A Helping Hand
Assist the Archivists. Reward variable based on tasks completed.
Reward: 5k+ C, Increased Revenant reputation, ability to purchase Archivist equipment and training
Failure: Decreased Revenant reputation]
“I don’t know if I feel comfortable letting my AI work for you,” Alan said.
“They would be with the Archivists, assisting in our work. You’d be free to accompany them, but it would be trivial work, data sorting for Eve, translation for Lambda,” Omega said. “You can assist us in gaining access to Earth’s archives, maybe perform a few tests.”
“Let me consult my AI first,” Alan said.
“Contact any Archivist member when you are ready to begin,” Omega said. “Remember, I only want you to progress.”
The room shifted. Alan found himself back on the phase-gate platform with the guards and Eve.
[Welcome to the Exchange, Phase White 3]
Alan turned to Eve. “What’d the Head Scribe say to you?”
“We can discuss this later, when we have returned to the Citadel,” Eve said.
Alan nodded. A minute passed, and then Lambda appeared. A few minutes later Void phased in.
“We will likely work with the Archivists in the future,” Void said. “Follow. I know now the way to Prometheus.”
The attendant and cage returned, bringing everyone’s equipment back. The party was brought back to the Exchange’s center. Everyone stayed silent during the trip, lost in their own thoughts.
Once they reached the phase-gates, Void turned to Alan. “A warning. Late, but necessary. The gods do not play nice, or fair, otherwise they would have been overthrown long ago. Any quest proposed will be skewed, but you may risk more refusing an offer. Stay at the edge of the god’s attention. The gods will not think twice before smiting a mortal man. There are many worse fates than failing a quest. Do not draw attention to yourself. Do you understand?”
Void offered a silent prayer, and then pressed a button on a phase-gate.