Alan was blinded. It was as if the light setting had been turned up to max. There was only bright white; Alan wished his implants functioned within Cyberspace as well. He shut his eyes.
Alan tried to speak, to get a sense of where the others were, but only a small whisper left his lips—the words were lost to the wind.
Alan stood still in the blinding white with no awareness of his surroundings. Minutes passed, and then the light began to dim. Alan opened his eyes.
Everyone stood on a golden white rectangle, a moving platform of light. Translucent strands of energy trailed behind.
There was an ethereal tone that hung in the air. It was like a fantasy world. No sun hung in the sky, no source for the bright light. Light was just there—embedded into the world.
Looking forwards, Alan saw that they were headed for a golden palace. It was magnificent, opulent, ethereal, Alan could think of a thousand words that described it, but each time his brain tried to fix a concrete shape—a structure to the building—it shifted.
No messages had appeared; nothing let Alan know he had switched phases. The entire messaging system was off. Paused. It was like they had changed dimensions, but that thought seemed absurd to Alan.
They were in Cyberspace, within the Game. Where else could they be?
The platform of light that carried them continued forwards. Alan felt no air, no forces pushing against him, but they were travelling forwards, covering great distances in short moments. A period of time later the platform slowed. It approached the palace gates.
“Let me speak. Do not draw attention,” Void said. He stared at the palace not with wonder or awe, but grim determination.
Alan nodded. He glanced at Lambda and Eve. Lambda’s dark skin was a stark contrast to the light all around, but Eve was an angel that fit the heaven-like aesthetic. All that was missing were a few clouds.
The party stepped off the platform onto a glossy marble surface. As Alan walked forwards he felt like he was gliding along, every step felt smooth. They approached the main gate, Void in the lead.
Two Predecessors stood as guards. They wore armor of bright light, literal knights in shining armor. Each also held a weapon of soulsteel, one a massive halberd, the other a greatsword.
Alan focused on the doorway. A massive gate, it looked solid, unbreakable. With just a glance Alan felt like even if he unleashed all his power, tried to delete the smallest part of the door, he’d barely scrape at the beginnings of the defense. These gates were designed to bar stronger powers than a single player.
A small hole appeared in the bottom of the doorway, just large enough for everyone to walk inside, single file.
Inside the light—
Alan woke up. He opened his status log. It said Alan entered then exited the capsule in Enigma’s quarters in the Black Rose Guild.
What happened? Alan asked.
Prometheus said we were not ready, or worthy, Lambda sent. He banished us with the wave of his hand.
I don’t remember that, Alan sent.
It may be a side effect from the dismissal, Eve sent.
Alan looked over at the capsules Phantom and Void were in. They were still active.
Enigma appeared from behind a closed door. The door blended in with the wall to such a degree that even Alan hadn’t seen it.
“Negotiations are underway, your assistance is no longer required,” Enigma said. “Please return to your quarters.”
“Wait, what happened?” Alan asked.
“Nothing that concerns a Squire,” Enigma said.
“But, I have a quest with the Archivists—”
“I will inform you when one of the capsules is available. Return to your quarters,” Enigma said.
Do it, Lambda sent.
“Okay, I’m going already,” Alan said. He walked over to the elevator that connected the Black Rose base. The doors closed automatically and took Alan back to his quarters.
Well, that was weird, Alan thought to himself.
Eve, what did Omega offer you? Lambda interjected.
Omega offered to turn me from an AI into a player, Eve said. I declined.
Wait, Omega was making you guys offers? To leave me? Alan sent.
Yes, Lambda sent. I too declined his offer.
At least, that’s what they tell me, Alan thought. He realized his AI could likely listen in on to those thoughts.
Have faith, Lambda sent. We’re still here. Grant us a bit of trust. Omega should not be capable of such a feat, though I’m of half a mind to report him to the Administrators. But that would require me giving myself up, and I don’t think times are that dire yet.
Alan felt tired. Whatever had happened, it had drained him, but before he could fall asleep Eve reminded him to exercise. Working out in his quarter’s personal gym, Alan gained a single point in strength and endurance. It seemed like too little for an hour of sweat and labor.
Alan drifted off to sleep.
Alan awoke to a message from Phantom telling him to report for assignment. He proceeded to Phantom’s workshop. The disorganized clutter that had filled the workshop was gone. In its stead were orderly rows of tools and parts surrounding an operating table with one of the so-called android specialists.
Phantom closed a display screen. “Good morning, Alan. Or perhaps I should say good night.”
Alan checked the time: it was late in the evening. “Hello, Phantom. I was wondering, when might I be able to access the Exchange again. Perhaps a Revenant capsule could be installed in my chambers?”
“Maybe when you are a Knight,” Phantom said. “I was recently reminded how… new you are to the Game. You’ve barely been with the guild a few months, and the only real missions you’ve completed were a bit, let’s say, unconventional. Prove yourself capable, and then we’ll see about future visits to the Exchange. There are dangerous forces there that I should not have exposed you to.”
He’s right, Lambda sent. I can see that you still think of the Exchange as part of the Game, but remember in Cyberspace any danger you face is real. Let us develop our capabilities within Cyberspace before we venture to such places again.
I concur, Eve sent.
“Alright, I won’t visit the Exchange anytime soon. Now that I’m a Revenant, can the kill switch in my implant be removed?” Alan asked.
“The implant will be removed when I’m sure I can really trust you, in other words, never,” Phantom said. “Never trust anyone in the Game. Take that advice to heart, Alan. Besides, you’re still clearly hiding something.”
“Clearly hiding something? What can I hide from you, you see everything!” Alan said.
“See everything?” Phantom scoffed. “I can’t see any of your in-game messages and status screens, even when you’re looking at them. Anything with a screen is blurry, and I can’t see what you’re up to in Cyberspace. I don’t even know when you acquired another AI. You’re my Squire, but I seem to be in the dark about you, your AI, and their relation to Omega! Will you let me run a full scan of this Lambda?”
I’m sorry, but I can’t allow that, Lambda sent. Such a scan might alert the Administrators, and I possess certain idiosyncrasies that might upset Phantom.
I find that slightly concerning, Alan sent.
Don’t worry, I’m right as rain, Lambda sent. Eve will back me up. We practically share a brain, or at least a storage device.
Lambda’s assistance is helpful for now, Eve sent. I agree that a scan would have negative consequences for everyone involved. I will update you if Lambda exhibits erratic or problematic behavior.
“Wait, you were supposed to see all that in-game information? Sorry, but I can’t let you scan Lambda,” Alan said, “and to tell you the truth I didn’t know anything about my AI’s relation to Omega. Apparently Omega even tried to recruit them and join his cause.”
“Well, that’s not worrying at all,” Phantom said deadpan. “You weren’t aware? I thought it was your doing.”
Phantom began pacing around the workshop. “The complications I had installing the cybernetic eye… I thought you had installed the safeguard into the Machine Lord Implant. If it wasn’t you, then never mind. That’s why I bought the data on the Abyss Labyrinth—the maps were all blurry in the recording.”
“Huh,” Alan said.
“For now, monitor the area around the Abyss Labyrinth entrance in the Undercity,” Phantom said. “I’ll send you a dossier on the factions and notable players active there. What we are concerned about are the comings and goings of anyone entering the Abyss Labyrinth as we increase activity in the area. This is a non-combat operation. You are only to watch and report. You are not to take any action without my or another superior’s permission.”
“What about my quest, the one to repair the Abyss Labyrinth and restore its power?” Alan asked.
“We aren’t willing to fix a system without discovering what we are fixing,” Phantom said. “I will be going with the next expedition with a crew of engineers to figure out exactly what we are doing by helping this ‘Warden.’
“Additionally, this endeavor requires greater man power than the Black Rose guild possesses. We generally are involved with clandestine affairs, not holding massive control points beneath all of Khersath. We are finalizing deals to either recruit other guilds into a joint venture or possibly sell the quest.”
“Wasn’t that the point of going to the Exchange?” Alan asked.
“The Archivists are making excessive demands,” Phantom said. “We are still reserving judgment on whether to trust Omega, but are leaning against it. Other groups are making moves too, which is why you are being tasked with monitoring one of the main entrances to the Abyss Labyrinth.”
A message appeared:
[New quest: Monitoring the Abyss
You have been tasked with watching the entrance to the Abyss Labyrinth in the Undercity. You are to record everyone and everything that comes in and out. You will be accompanied by one Specialist on this mission, who will forward on anything of note and relay orders from the Knights Phantom and Enigma.
Reward: 1,000 credits per day or the equivalent guild points.
Failure: Guild Penalties]
“This seems pretty simple,” Alan said.
“It is, so don’t mess up,” Phantom said. “Such a simple task does not count as one of the tasks you need to complete to reach the Knight rank within the guild. Your cover while performing surveillance will be a small time arms-dealer, we own a small property close enough to the Abyss Labyrinth’s entrance that you should have a decent view from the rooftop. The expedition may take upwards of a month, so you may be spending a while there. Details can be found in these files.” Phantom handed over a data cube to Alan.
Alan connected to the cube with his Machine Lord implant and downloaded the data. He disregarded Lambda’s complaints that they were out of room already and this required files to be shuffled around.
A few hours later Alan found himself on the rooftop of a small store in the Undercity, one of Enigma’s Specialists standing guard outside. The store sent a message to turn anyone without proper authorization away. As only Alan had permission, there would be no customers.
The entrance to the Abyss Labyrinth was across the street from the store, and Alan noted there were even more guards around the old building ruins. In addition to the guards that wore purple tabards with a silver crown on them, there were guards that had gold crowns. These guards tended to carry bigger guns and had more advanced power armor. Eve estimated their shields to have at least 10,000 energy.
There was a marked increase in activity surrounding the entrance, with a steady number of players entering the dungeon. A few merchant stands had popped up as well, offering various supplies and buying whatever players managed to retrieve out of the dungeon—after the guards had searched any emerging players and taken their cut.
Consulting the information provided by Phantom, Alan learned the gang members in charge of the entrance were called the Royals. The gang followed an almost feudal system, under the control of a single family rumored to possess the bloodline of a Predecessor. While direct bloodline descendants within the gang did display impressive physical strength, the Black Rose guild classified them as rank A threats. The gang’s territory encompassed roughly half the Undercity, with the guild members known to be fiercely loyal to the family.
The other major gang in the Undercity was the Crystals, but there wasn’t as much information on them. The Crystals operated on a cell-by-cell basis like a terrorist organization, thus gathering data on the gang as a whole was difficult. Each team within the Crystals seemed to operate independently, but just as often teams could appear together, demonstrating a wide network full of players of different species and abilities.
Alan scanned the Abyss Labyrinth entrance again with his enhanced vision, switching quickly between different electromagnetic spectrums, not wanting to waste too much computational energy. There wasn’t anything of interest, but he downloaded the data into one of the many data cubes provided to him by Phantom.
This is boring, Alan sent.
Now would be a good time to discuss plans for future growth, Lambda sent. You have need of training, and I know a number of skills you can train in and unlock.
And you didn’t tell me this sooner? I thought all the data you had was historical facts, Alan sent.
I needed to get a feel for things, Lambda sent. Obviously I encrypt some personal data so Eve can’t see it, and she does likewise. Let’s say meeting up with Omega stirred up my competitive spirit. We need to come up with a comprehensive plan for future development so that your abilities synchronize well. Don’t worry, Eve and I can organize the training plan, you’ll just need to follow it.
Just increasing Alan’s skills won’t be enough, Eve sent. His body and items must be upgraded as well.
Yes, I wouldn’t mind more space and faster processing power, but for now I’d recommend trying to train up major class skills, they tend to stack the best, Lambda sent. For instance, having two AI’s will let you more quickly upgrade and train Machine Lord skills. But this all depends on where you want to go, Alan. As the player you are in charge.
Well I’m obviously not going for a warrior build, Alan sent. But I don’t want to be useless in a fight, either. I like the idea of an assassin stealth hacker.
Then you should abandon the idea of being a berserker and Predecessor blood fueled drugs, Lambda sent. I’d recommend abandoning the idea anyways, because even if you managed to get Predecessor bone marrow you’d need a stronger heart to pump the blood through your body, and then that heart would need more oxygen, which would necessitate other upgrades and so on and so forth.
Lambda continued, To upgrade to the point that you were as strong as a Predecessor or only half as strong would not only be impossibly expensive, but it wouldn’t work with your current Machine Lord implants. Better to go through the withdrawal symptoms, otherwise even if you manage another dosage, even a synthetic one, you’d just go into withdrawal again. We’ll have to time it well though, can’t have you exhibiting symptoms while in the middle of an important fight.
But the Soulsteel knives… Alan thought.
The chances of recovering either are slim, Eve sent. Neither the Chief Administrator nor the Warden is likely to return the weapon they took without significant return.
So our plan if we run into a Predecessor is try to hide? Alan asked.
Pretty much, Lambda sent. I don’t think you have realistic expectations for your place in the Game, Alan. You are a human: a new, weak, humanoid species. You aren’t expected to fight Predecessors, not alone.
Then why was I given a quest to challenge and defeat one in the tutorial? Alan asked.
To give you something to reach for, Lambda sent. To push yourself. That’s all the Game wants you to do, to push the limits again and again. But I don’t think that’s the smart move here. Sure, you might succeed this time, or the next, but each time you fail will set you disastrously far behind. How many deaths have you had since entering the Game? You’re taking too many risks, pushing the boundaries too far too fast. Slow down; focus on a few key skills and improve yourself safely.
I concur, Eve sent.
You seem to forget the only reason you’re even here, Lambda, is the gamble I made that paid off, Alan sent.
Taking risks is also the main reason you are now a wanted criminal on your homeworld, Alan, Lambda sent.
Alan paused. He looked out over the city skyline, all the players moving about. He’d witnessed half a dozen crimes occur in the past hour alone; one so brutal he’d almost intervened. Eve had stopped him—he had to follow guild orders, after all.
It just seems too slow, Alan sent. I feel the need to grow stronger now, not some time in the distant future. Without a significant power boost, I feel helpless. Every day is another day closer to when Earth’s protection wears off.
Yes, and you can’t do anything about that now, Lambda sent. Let your government worry about it, rushing towards your death will only make things worse. Forget about all the excessive, impossible quests, the world aflame. Trust me, it’ll always be there. The universe hasn’t ended yet. Right now, it’s time to safely grind, Alan. Slow and steady wins the race.