Time passed. Slowly at first, but before Alan knew it a month had gone by. Alan managed to reach intermediate in the Revenant training ability with Lambda, gaining a number of stat points in strength, agility, stamina, and intelligence along the way. However, despite the constant training, Alan was still unable to reach the advanced level of mastery in power armor instruction and energy efficiency. There was still a marked difference when using the scout power armor. Eve no longer had to devote quite so much attention to keeping advanced stealth mode active—Alan could pull some of his own weight.
Eve also continued to impart a plethora of knowledge, testing Alan periodically to make sure he remembered older lessons. Despite the biological advances and the implant in his mind, Alan did not have a perfect memory and occasionally had to re-learn facts or lessons that he hadn’t paid enough attention to.
In Cyberspace research finished, allowing Alan to construct a new set of units:
[Elite Scout, Rank C Program. Produced at Training Grounds.
Advanced stealth scouting program.
Cost: 300 Energy.
Upkeep: 60 Energy.
Attack: 125 damage/sec. (Ranged)
Defense: 20 armor.
Shields: 200 energy.
Health: 200 hp.
Special Abilities: Basic Invisibility]
The elite scouts turned out to be exceedingly useful, befitting their rank C status. Not only were they capable of killing marine units with one-shot from longer ranges, but their damage was more efficient than even sword guards energy-wise. The fact that they were capable of invisibility made it pointless for Alan to even use elite marines anymore—the only problem was his computational energy pool of 750.
Repeatedly Alan ran into problems due to this limited energy pool, effectively kept at 650 as divided mind required 100 computational energy. Alan’s other active abilities required computational energy as well. Hypercognition, cybernetic vision, and hypertranslation were all a drain on this valuable resource. A number of combat tests became a careful min/max game balancing his capabilities between in-game and Cyberspace.
Despite making solid advances, which included gaining four levels, Alan was getting tired of training. Twice Alan asked to be updated on the Abyss Labyrinth quest, and twice he was told he was being kept in the dark for operations security. The android Specialist told Alan to stay safe and keep an eye on the Abyss Labyrinth entrance, so that was what he did. After the initial swell of players, the number entering the dungeon dwindled. Too many people were dying without any major reward.
There was still the occasional thrill seeker or risk taker that made the trip, but even the guards seemed to be growing tired of their jobs. The gang members took longer breaks and began harassing passerby. Members of the Royals had approached the shop many times, but always received a notification that seemed to satisfy their interest. Alan was kept in the same small building, cut off from the rest of the world.
Then, one day, Alan woke to two messages:
[Missing Systems Complete:
Power has been restored. Visit the Warden to receive your rewards.]
[Prison Break Failed:
The Abyss Labyrinth’s power has been restored. The prisoners will likely never see the light of day. Reputation with the Abyss Labyrinth’s prisoners is now hated.]
Alan wanted to charge into the Abyss Labyrinth to receive his rewards, but the Specialist commanded him to return to the Black Rose guild headquarters first. Alan obeyed.
As soon as Alan arrived back at the Black Rose guild base he was brought below ground to the Council’s chamber. All of the guild’s officers were present, in addition to another player Alan hadn’t expected to see again so soon. S stood, facing all of the officers. Alan knew that S was a servant for the game’s Empire faction, but that was about it. He should be a newer player though, as S had started at the Academy at the same time as Alan.
Phantom sent Alan a message telling him to be quiet and stand behind him. Alan followed the orders, taking a stance with his hands behind his back, facing S.
“The Council has gathered here today to put the finishing touches on Operation Restore Light, and to discuss our ongoing relationship with the Empire,” Elissandra said. “Let the meeting begin.”
“Yes, let it, I’ve been waiting long enough already,” S said. “The Empire has held up our end of the bargain and restored the Abyss Labyrinth’s first level energy production facilities with the schematics provided by the Black Rose guild. A current production rate of three void crystals a year is estimated. Once the Empire’s initial investment of energy and crystals is recouped the Empire will provide the Black Rose guild with one void crystal a year. You still do not wish to take a lump sum?”
“We do not,” Elissandra said. Everyone on the council except for Mason seemed to agree with this sentiment.
“Then once Alan has turned in his quest and handed over the Empire’s portion of the spoils we should be done,” S said. “Our machine lords have reported varying rewards, generally in marks and experience, but also access to a second level of the Abyss Labyrinth. While at this time the Empire has not set its sights on delving any deeper into the labyrinth, I would highly advise against it if one does not want to lose their mind. We had to terminate one servant already, she began hearing voices.”
“Good advice,” Void said. “One who stands on the shoulders of giants should always be fearful of looking down.”
“Well then,” Elissandra said. “Alan will return to the Abyss Labyrinth under the supervision of Mason and Void once more, accompanied by S. Alan will receive 10% of the quest rewards, 40% will go to the guild, distributed based on contribution, and the final half will go to the Empire. Any objections?”
“10%? I was promised 20%,” Alan said.
“That was before we realized the scope of work and made a deal with the Empire,” Elissandra said. “We aren’t even charging you the normal rate for levels gained—you can thank Phantom and Void for that.”
Charge me for levels gained? Alan thought.
Standard leveling fees, Eve sent. Basically, they would take an amount proportional to experience gained out of your cut of the quest rewards, as levels are technically part of the quest rewards, but the guild doesn’t get experience.
Hmph, we’re improving the guild by being in it, Lambda sent.
“Speaking of the scope of work,” S said, “Did I mention the machine lord we lost? The Empire also had more difficulty keeping control of three S rank bosses while players flooded into the Abyss Labyrinth than—”
“The Empire agreed to half. No more, no less,” Enigma said. “Or are you going back on your word?”
“No, just airing a few grievances,” S said. “You can’t say it wasn’t worth a try.”
“Speaking of grievances, the Black Rose guild is not without loss as well,” Elissandra said. “We may have pissed off a certain Revenant faction by using the Empire’s corps of engineers to complete the repairs.”
“You have my condolences,” S said. “We should go ahead and finish this quest.”
“Are there any other questions?” Elissandra asked. No one said anything. “Very well, go and turn in the quest, Alan.”
Alan thought there should be more fanfare accompanying the completion of a high ranked quest. Cheering crowds, a display of fireworks. Something. Instead, he was being led around like a helpless puppy by a lot of gruff men in power armor.
The journey back into the Abyss Labyrinth was uneventful. Even though the power was supposed to be back on the place didn’t look much different. There were a few more active defenses, a few less wandering mobs, but that was about it.
It wasn’t until the party reached the first hub area that Alan noticed a sizable change. A strong machine presence reached out and connected to Alan’s mind.
Greetings Traveler, the Warden sent. You have successfully restored power to the Abyss Labyrinth. It’s nice being able to think again. Before I hand out your rewards I wish to deliver a warning. It has been determined by the Authorities that this instance is ready for the next phase.
“Oh shit, that isn’t fucking good,” Void said aloud. Everyone turned to him. “We’re all fucked. Fucked. God damn every damn god and every person who thought completing this quest was a good idea.”
What is happening? Eve sent.
Nothing good, like Void said, Lambda sent.
Do not worry, Traveler, the Warden sent. Your actions did not upset the balance; the coming phase has already been set in motion.
“Wait, that’s what the Empire and the Alliance have been up to? You fools have doomed us all,” Void said.
“Excuse me? I seemed to have missed a conversation,” S said.
“You, me? We’re mortal,” Void said. He turned and jabbed a finger at S. “We die. We live. We win. We lose. The Three are literal gods, and you think you can fight them?”
“I’m not at liberty to discuss the Empire’s current or future plans,” S said.
Ah, well, I guess the worst case scenario is another few millennia stuck in the Academy again, Lambda sent.
Can you please explain what’s going on? Alan asked.
Reach level 1000, Lambda sent.
I can help with that, the Warden sent.
A series of messages appeared before Alan:
[Congratulations, you have completed a gamma-ranked quest, Missing Systems. The soulsteel knife lost by the Player Alan will be returned. The Warden has granted the Player Alan access lower levels of the Abyss Labyrinth (max party of five).
x217 Level up!
+100 ability points for gaining over 100 levels with one action.
Minor increase in reputation with unknown faction.]
[Having reached level 1000 new information is available to you. You are now allowed to apply for Ascendance. Contact the nearest Administrator to find out more!]
I apologize, Traveler, but the rewards were decreased as you did not independently complete the quest, the Warden sent. Much of the work was done by others; you only brought them together.
Fine. Now tell me what is going on, Lambda, Alan sent.
The Game is just a game, Lambda sent.
Oh not this shit again, Alan thought.
Okay, not just a game, but still a game, Lambda sent. The war that started the Game, the one that happened a long time ago in a place far away, do you remember that story? Well, the Predecessors lost. They lost to the Lords of Life, who were themselves.
Excuse me? Alan sent.
The Predecessors and the Lords of Life were part of an alien civilization that went down two paths, Lambda sent. The Predecessors were the apex of biological evolution, countless generations created the ultimate warriors. The Lords of Life were members of the civilization that chose to develop technology to the furthest extent. They uploaded their consciousness to a series of networks: to computers, to drones, to spaceships, and to factories.
A schism formed between the Predecessors and the Lords of Life, based on the Predecessors underlying belief that the uploaded consciousnesses weren’t really alive, that they were a sick perversion, Lambda continued. But despite all the years of genetic enhancement they were defeated by an unending supply of autonomous drones, and forced into a simulation. That leads into the true purposes of the Game. It is not to maintain peace. The Lords of Life have long since split into many other groups, continuing to develop for countless ages.
“They have Ascended,” Void said.
Right, as far as you’re concerned they’re gods right now, Lambda sent. The Authorities, the Lords of Life that are in charge of running the Game, have full control of the universe you find yourself in. And the boundary of their domain is expanding as fast as technologically possible.
So these guys won this war. Why’d they make the Game? Alan asked.
“The Game is made to find those who are worthy,” Void said.
And to provide entertainment, but yes, to do that too, Lambda sent.
Another test? How does that make any sense? Alan asked.
Not just a test, but a simulation of reality, Lambda sent. Countless civilizations with different modes of thinking and beliefs are preserved, granted access to cutting edge technology. The Lords of Life did not want the Predecessors wiped out from existence; they did not want all sentient life they found to be killed off. At the same time, it was deemed unwise to let living beings go about the universe fucking shit up. Thus the Game was created.
And any developments made—any new technology—could be used by the controllers of this game, Eve sent.
Yes, exactly. And any updates found in reality could be made in the Game. Central to all this is the goal of Aleph, to reach infinity by any means necessary, Lambda sent. Chaos, entropy, other advanced alien civilizations, these are still problems. The Game is a useful testing ground for tactics, for creating new tech. Without clear goals, sentient beings tend to wither away with apathy. Look at how quickly technology advances during wars. The Game is a constant war, with an abundance of resources to play with. How would you find the Einstein’s of the universe? The Alexander the Great’s? One day you might begin to reach the level the Lords of Life are at. That’s a long, long ways off though. A lot of people are also just bored, and the Game is entertaining.
Wait, so does this change Earth’s current predicament? Alan asked.
No, everything you’ve been told up till now is still true, Lambda sent. In order to prosper, humanity must do well in the Game.
Why would the Authorities give up all these resources to help Earth though? Alan asked.
It is too easy to forget how big the universe is, to stare into that abyss. You only need to focus on the here and now. That’s all the Game will ever ask of you, Lambda sent. There are far fewer solar systems with life—let alone sentient life—than solar systems total. Do you think the Lords of Life care about a few planets, a single yellow dwarf? They have countless fleets of drones harvesting materials and energy throughout the known universe.
Not all technology and research is accessible, Eve sent.
Yes, that is true, Lambda sent. Deadly viruses (both the biological and the software kind), nanotechnology, and the workings of the Game are a few examples of regulated information. The Game’s purpose is not to make everyone the same perfect killing machine, but to possibly develop new ideas. Yes, information is regulated. That should be obvious by now. New enemies found in reality might be introduced in the form of random bosses, or new races. Past so-called ‘patches’ with armies of clones or drones might be introduced or limited to try to spur development in certain fields.
How is artificial intelligence research regulated? Alan asked.
Ah, now that’s an interesting topic, one quite pertinent to us, Lambda sent. I can now give you a better background of types of artificial intelligence. It’s really a broad topic, we’ll need to go into more detail at a later date. The Lords of Life could be considered a form of artificial intelligence, as they are the uploading of biological consciousnesses. But they have since transitioned through so many changes that I’m no longer quite how to classify them.
Myself, the Warden, Cerberus, and Omega would all fall under the category of AIs that were designed to model Predecessor minds, Lambda continued. We should, for all intents and purposes, be equivalent to beginning Lords of Life. But we were found…lacking.
Now, the Administrators and Enforcers are generally pure AIs, with some of the Chief Administrators and Fleet Commanders being players, Lambda sent. Pure AIs are not modeled after a certain type of mind, they are generally just logic machines. Anyways, as far as I was aware no new experiments with AIs were allowed—we were considered too dangerous after what happened with the Erudites. If anything could potentially take over the Network, it would probably be a rampant AI with no sense of morality. This brings us to Eve.
Am I a pure AI? Eve asked.
I’m not sure, Lambda sent. I think your structure is at least partially modeled on a human brain, but this is not the place to have this discussion.
“We’re all friends here,” Void said.
“What the hell are you going on about?” Mason asked. “Have you finally lost your mind?”
“Sorry,” Alan said. “I’ve been having a conversation with my AI, I just reached level 1000.”
“Ah, yeah, that,” Mason said. “Good luck wrapping your head around that shit, I got drunk off my ass when I learned about the whole imminent doom stuff.”
Imminent doom? Alan asked.
This ties back to why Void got so upset, Lambda sent. Remember how I was saying technology advances the fastest in times of war? Well, part of the reason is that people try really hard not to fucking die.
“Yes we do,” Void said.
Well, without a real threat, the Game would eventually stagnate, Lambda sent. The cream would never rise to the top. At least that’s the logic I’ve heard being used. Again, I think the Ascended are generally bored and this helps disrupt their monotony. Anyways, some major event happens, and as a result, many races are eradicated. This time it looks like the Haxlards are going to go to war. The Three are probably Lords of Life that will have the full extent of their abilities unleashed. If the Alliance and the Empire are planning to go up against them they’re screwed.
“And the Black Rose guild is allied to the Empire thanks to this quest,” Void said.
What about Earth? Alan asked. He recalled that the United World Government had declared the Haxlards enemies of the state. If the Haxlards were only fattening up humanity like sheep for the slaughter, he supposed it was the right decision. Fighting a war you couldn’t win was stupid though.
Oh, they were probably wrapped up in the Alliance and Empire’s schemes, but don’t worry, the noob protection will keep Earth safe, Lambda sent. Actually, humanity might come out ahead after this war if every other major species gets nuked out of existence.
You make it sound like defeat is inevitable. Wouldn’t knocking everyone down to square one go against progress? Alan sent.
No, it just means they were found unworthy. Power and knowledge are earned, the Warden sent. By reaching level 1000 you have proven that you should be allowed to know more about the Game. Major Players can earn some version of Ascendance, they can upload themselves permanently onto the Network and even perhaps gain control over part of it.
“This is also not the only game in town,” Void said. “Though it may be ironic that we were the authors of our own imprisonment.”
Oh, right, the Abyss Labyrinth is probably where all the losers of the last major events were locked up, Lambda sent. I bet the failures in this coming war will be imprisoned here too. And, thanks to you, there won’t be any chance for escape for at least a few thousand years! Oh, I should also mention the possibility of role-players. There are players that have Ascended and are bored, so they play a character in-game. But don’t worry about that for now. Figure out how we’re going to spend our new riches.
A chute opened above Alan’s head, and a soulsteel knife popped out. Alan shut his eyes. There was a lot to think about.