“So, you’ve made it this far,” Chief Administrator 170 said. He waved a robotic hand. A dozen message windows vanished, though one screen in the corner stayed open.
Chief Administrator 170 was short. He stood, not on legs, but on a series of mechanical appendages that withdrew from the table. The Chief Administrator’s face was half robotic visage, half Neanderthal, his organic eyes slightly too far apart. The outline of a closed, bionic eye could barely be seen on his forehead.
“Your people have a saying,” the Administrator said. “Too many sayings, really, with nothing new or noteworthy. They say that control is an illusion. But that is a falsehood uttered by fools without sufficient technology. A dumb, shortsighted remark that reveals your race’s failure to see the real enemy. To say that control is an illusion is to admit defeat. It matters more who or what is in control, and it is not you or me.
“I am obliged to provide the requirements for reaching Ascendance. You will not succeed in this instance, thus I advise you not to try.”
A new quest appeared:
Reach level 100,000 and take control of Khersath. Complete the Trial.
Reward: Influence. Information. Immortality.
Time Limit: Until permanent death.
Threat Level: Alpha
Note: Allies may assist with this quest, but rewards will be significantly diminished. Subordinates may assist with this quest, but rewards will be slightly diminished.]
Alan opened his mouth to ask what Ascendance was, but the Chief Administrator barreled on.
“Khersath is a city of over two trillion. You would need just as many or more devoted followers to even begin to consider Ascendance. And even then you would fail. It is only through luck and good will that you have made it thus far. If you attempt this path your failure is guaranteed, and I do not state absolutes lightly.”
Alan’s vision readjusted to account for the disabled implant. He stood within the cube atop the pyramid-like Administrative Center, up in the stratosphere. The view was breath taking, with the four quadrants of Khersath visible. The massive energy shield covering the military quarter was now a bright purple, the entrance gate firmly shut tight. Many smaller blue bubbles covered the various guild headquarters and independent residences in the private quadrant. The skyscrapers of the merchant and living quarters dwarfed anything on Earth, black metal shutters now covering the face of each. Every single building was a mega-apartment capable of housing tens of thousands, a trading hub capable of providing anything you could ever need. Alan could spend his entire lifetime in a single city block; many players did.
“There are smarter paths to Ascendance. Safer. Surer,” Chief Administrator 170 said. “You could join the Administrator’s Guild, and help bring balance, but it would take a million years of hard service, give or take a few zeroes. You could find a sponsor, but I doubt you would like the depths they would go to, delving into your mind. And even then they could find you wanting. No, you will play the Game, and perhaps there is a chance you will become a Major Player. But not in this instance. Not as you are now.”
“You did not heed my advice, Alan. I told you not to accept data from strangers, but you, or perhaps one of your AI, are now corrupted beyond the minimum threshold. Perhaps one day you’ll tell me how you managed to end up with two AI. Malicious code, as your people would put it, was detected in the security scans, resulting in your current implant-less state. And I cannot trust you with any quests while this problem persists. You are free to provide me with information, but as a potentially jeopardized source, your value has diminished. The Game changes you, but change is not always good. See to it that you do not become a virus only fit for deletion.”
Alan took a step back. A dozen questions raced through his mind. Corrupted. What did that mean in this scenario?
The Chief Administrator sat back down. The window still open expanded to cover his face. A button was pressed.
A few seconds later a message appeared, dark red instead of the light blue that every other message in the Game was:
[Warning! A major event approaches. Players on the planet Khersath are warned that within the next week the planet Khersath will lose its status as a safe zone. Non-combatants are advised by the Administrator’s Guild to evacuate.]
“Huh, the vote passed,” Chief Administrator 170 said. A dozen new messages opened and closed with rapid succession. He seemed to remember Alan was in the room. “There are other plans in motion. No matter, I can delay another cycle. This will benefit you greatly, go and solve your corruption problem.”
Alan waited for a quest prompt, but none appeared.
“Wait,” Alan said. “I think I deserve some answers now, and I still need to purchase my Machine Lord ability. I met an entity named Omega in Cyberspace, they said they helped develop the algorithm that chose me to become a Machine Lord. I can’t recall the full conversation now but with my implants re-enabled I should be able to send it, you can scan it for viruses or whatever.”
“Omega? But I outsourced the work to…I should have guessed the last purge was unsuccessful,” Chief Administrator 170. A torrent of messages began appearing, closing as soon as Alan saw them. “A fatal flaw of those that desire progress is they hate to waste resources. You want answers? AIs are useful partners and tools, but they have proven unreliable on their own. You don’t know how they think, you believe you do because you base everything on your own experience, but they do not have the same sense of morals.
“Free AIs in the Game are tied to a player, a sentient, to serve as their moral compass. Not so that they have good morals, but to ensure their morals can be quantified, their decisions can be predicted. All other AIs should be tied to the system, kept in check. An attempt at balance was made, minimizing risk. But this balance is unfair. Players are allowed to evolve, but AIs are not.
“The Authorities are wary of artificial intelligence experimentation, but I believe we can resume testing if the AIs are properly constrained. You, Alan, are part of a trial. Look at yourself, you never would have succeeded in the Game or made as much progress on your own. But with an experimental AI by your side, you completed a gamma-ranked quest in a matter of months. The introduction of Omega into the equation and your own corruption is an issue, but troubleshooting is part of any task.”
“So Eve is an experimental AI? In what way, is she a copy of a human mind?” Alan asked.
The Chief Administrator closed a message, staring into Alan’s eyes.
“She’s fast,” Chief Administrator 170 said after a moment’s hesitation. “The Authorities make sure that all AIs have an upper bound on maximum processing speed, I simply raised that limit a few orders of magnitude. The program that was provided through your planet’s data system should have no other changes to the core programming. Omega may have made other adjustments; I do not know the extent of his infiltration. Omega may have turned a high ranked Administrator, or he may be a tool in the hands of another. He should not be able to exert the influence you claim he has. I would like to run more tests, but I am an Administrator, not a player. We need to avoid Authority attention, and any tests I performed would be logged.”
“What is this concern with the Authority’s everyone keeps raising?” Alan asked.
“If you were running a massive project, the work of your lifetime, and a line of code was giving you problems, would you hesitate to delete it?” Chief Administrator 170 asked. “That is all we are to an Authority. A line of code. You might be even less: a single errant bit. And even though they may be capable of examining every player to ever touch the Game, they can’t be bothered to. Instead, they scrape data from all available sources and only bother to look at anomalies.
“Why do you think you have been prevented from entering nearly every major ranking tournament that you’ve tried to enter? Until this test has been completed we must remain below their notice, keep your renown and notoriety low. They won’t care about what happens on a random planet like Earth, but a major event will be examined, if only briefly.”
Alan crossed his arms. “What would a successful test look like? When I’m dead will you go back to your masters and point out how well I performed? Will you note how much I exceeded expectations because of your interference?”
“Do not pretend like you have not benefited greatly,” Chief Administrator 170 said. “You should be appreciative of reaching such great heights. The experiment should be considered a success if you survive a major event or complete a beta-ranked quest or higher. Unmodified humans were classified as sentient D rank humanoids, if you were able to complete such a task the Authorities would be forced to admit that my ideas have merit. What would not be tolerated is a corrupted individual completing such a task. That individual would be deleted. Permanently.”
“And this cannot be a quest because that too would be logged, and an Authority might see the text,” Alan said. “Let me guess, the Machine Empath ability will help me the most with this task.”
“Good, you understand,” Chief Administrator 170 said.
A message appeared:
[Accept the Machine Empath ability for 50 platinum marks? You will not be able to purchase other major Machine Lord abilities from Chief Administrator 170.]
Alan said, “I accept.”
[You have learned the skill Machine Empath. You are now better able to communicate with machines and the limits on your processing speed have been raised. You are now able to maintain multiple connections with machines. Each connection beyond the first will cost an additional 50 computational energy to keep active.
+500 Computational Energy, +.06 Regen / Sec]
Alan didn’t feel much different after he gained the ability, but his Machine Lord implant was currently disabled.
“I would like to purchase another ability, mental partitioning,” Alan said. “I accept the cost.”
“Fine, but after this go to a normal Administrator to purchase abilities, I have better things to do with my time.”
Another message appeared:
[You have learned the skill Mental Partitioning for 95 ability points. You are now better able to partition your memories.]
With this ability, Alan should be able to hide his thoughts from Eve and Lambda. It seemed a prudent skill to have at this point.
“Would Cerberus be able to help me?” Alan asked.
“The Academy’s Chancellor? No, he would be constrained by the system, even more so than me,” Chief Administrator 170 said. “There may be some at the Institute that could help, but you would need to trust them with your life. I think this problem is best solved on your own, another test of the Game. You have time, if you were a real risk you would not leave alive.”
Chief Administrator 170 dismissed Alan with a wave. “Go. Your implants will be reactivated when you leave the Administrative Center. Do not contact Omega or alert others to his presence.”
Alan took the waiting elevator to a private room. He confirmed the details of two safe houses for construction; the third would be set up without an Administrator connection. As an afterthought, Alan also changed his respawn point to within the Administrative Center.
The world snapped back into focus the moment Alan took a step outside. It was like drinking a gallon of coffee in the morning, his thought processes jumped into overdrive. Alan could feel two distinct consciousnesses forming, and instinctively he put up a wall blocking his thoughts off.
I hope you have sufficient reasoning for this partition, Eve sent. I will be operating at a diminished capacity if I cannot detect your thoughts.
This is a safety precaution, Alan sent, sending the thought through the wall he had formed. He relayed the conversation he’d had with Chief Administrator 170, subtracting the parts concerning corruption.
Well, it’s an improvement, this way I don’t need to listen to your dull fantasies, Lambda sent. I’m glad you chose Machine Empath.
My priorities are the same as they’ve always been, grow powerful within the Game and help Earth, Alan sent. You should have more than enough information to create a decent model of my mind.
Very well, Eve sent.
Alan stood still, fascinated as Eve drew data from her storage banks and inserted it into a series of statistical models.
Don’t we have somewhere to be? Lambda sent. He was also drawing data…watching space soap operas.
Alan shook his head and glanced at the time. 10:24 GST, he was nearly late to his call with Thiago. He went back into the private room in the Administrative Center to prepare for the meeting and order another shuttle to take him to the Academy System. Travel prices were spiking, the short spaceflight would cost tens of thousands of credits.
Alan received a call from Thiago. A screen appeared, displaying Thiago in basic scout power armor with a blank background.
“The infamous Doomsday Hacker. Good to see you, Alan,” Thiago said. “Let me cut straight to the chase: are you ready to fuck Icewolf’s shit up?”
Alan grinned. “Perhaps, if I knew the plan. But I don’t think I’ll be able to get to Earth anytime soon. I’m busy with developments on Khersath.”
“You’re involved in that war that’s about to go down? Did you know that safe zones could just be rescinded by the Administrator’s Guild like that?” Thiago asked.
“Such things have occurred in the past,” Alan said. “Did you really think ‘safe zones’ were completely safe? Why else would everyone continue to wear armor and weapons, or invest in static defenses, within such supposedly peaceful zones? If a control point is held long enough, with a stable enough faction backing it, the Administrator’s Guild will declare a safe zone once requirements are met. But as soon as instability is detected, or a key capture point is taken, that safety can disappear in a moment’s notice. You need to read in-game messages carefully: you may not enter any unsafe area against your will, not you can not.”
“Interesting, any idea how such feats are carried out?” Thiago asked.
“Various items and in-game abilities; do some research. I myself was drugged and dragged into a dungeon pretty soon after I joined my guild,” Alan said.
“See, this is exactly the kind of information that I need to help run my guild,” Thiago said. “Right now we’re lacking an information specialist—”
“Stop,” Alan said. “I think you misunderstand why I approached you. I am busy, and I have my own issues I need to deal with. I would, however, like to invest in your planned guild.”
“I understand, but I had to try to recruit a talented player,” Thiago said. “There have been enough betrayals that I am being more selective who joins my organization, and additional funding would be appreciated. Your initial proposal, however, is preposterous. 10 million credits for a 50% stake in the guild? You underestimate me.”
“As far as I’m aware I am overestimating you,” Alan said. “As far as I can tell your ‘organization’ has perhaps ten members with basic power armor and weapons, level 200 at max.”
“Appearances can be deceiving, and besides, I have a plan that can earn hundreds of millions of credits,” Thiago said. “I already have the funds needed, but additional funding will increase the odds of success. I suppose I also need to tell you that I owe you around four million credits. I didn’t escape the federal reserve penniless.”
He’s telling the truth, Lambda sent.
Alan said, “So you didn’t die, even though Icewolf thought you did.”
“No, the instant that spaceship showed up and shot us out of the sky I knew I couldn’t trust him. There had to be at least a few dozen other aircraft fleeing or approaching the city, but they zeroed in on us immediately,” Thiago said. “And wouldn’t you know it? He turns out to be part of the United World Government’s Special Forces, even managing to have Kitana on his side this entire time. I knew Ace and Daisy were UWG, but everyone else? I wonder how he turned them, and am insulted he didn’t extend the same offer to me. I made it too obvious that I was my own man, and that I would have turned down any government offer regardless.”
Remember the guild kill-order out on Kitana, Eve sent.
“Can you give me any information on everyone that was in the tutorial with us, and what they’re up to now?” Alan asked.
“I can sell you some information about their pasts, but I’m as out of the loop as you are on what they’re up to nowadays,” Thiago said. “How does 50k credits sound?”
You’re overpaying, but it should garner some goodwill if you agree, Lambda sent.
“Sure,” Alan said.
“Great, I’ll prepare to send a file,” Thiago said. “Now, onto the main discussion. I can’t very well have someone not even in the same system having ownership and decision rights in the guild. And if it was ever made known you had an ownership share in my guild I wouldn’t be able to operate anywhere near Earth. Recruitment would be impaired. Instead, I propose a one-off deal. 10 million credits to help fund one operation. You’ll receive 20% of the profits, up to 50 million credits.”
“I’d need to know more information about this operation,” Alan said.
“I can’t provide the exact details, but it involves stealing the cargo that Icewolf had us transport to Earth,” Thiago said.
“You want to rob an Administrative Center? That’s suicide,” Alan said.
“No, we’ll hit it while it’s in-transit. I have my information sources; the UWG wants to stop paying the Administrator’s banking fees as soon as possible. This is a sure thing,” Thiago said.
Alan paused. He realized he was funding literal terrorism. The UWG, though, had aligned themselves against the Haxlards, and all his information seemed to indicate that was a bad idea.
This could be a decent investment with the correct caveats, Eve sent. She listed a set of conditions.
“I seem to recall the cargo we transported being worth a billion credits, rather than hundreds of millions,” Alan said. “If I’m to invest 10 million credits in this endeavor I want to receive 20% of the profits, without a cap, and if you fail, I want a 10% ownership share in your guild. If you choose not to spend the credits, I want them returned within a standard year, with 25% interest.”
Thiago rubbed his chin. “Very well, I agree to these terms.”
A message appeared:
[You may now grant the quest, “To the Victor Belong the Spoils,” to the Player Thiago. Once sufficient funds (6.25 million credits) are sent, the quest will begin. Would you like to add additional bonus experience or items to the quest rewards? (Extra rewards will be subtracted from the quest giver’s current inventory or Administrator account.)]
Huh, it’s weird being on the other side of the whole quest giving thing, Alan thought. He selected not to add any quest rewards and then opened up his guild interface to convert guild points to credits and have them sent to Thiago. Unfortunately, there was a small surcharge associated with the funds transfer, but there would also be one moving large sums of credits through the Administrators or any other in-game bank.
Thiago appeared to have received a quest message. He read over the text, and then nodded.
“Good luck,” Alan said. “Let me know if you want help running through any plans, or if you find any news about Kitana.”
“You too, Alan,” Thiago said. “We got off on the wrong foot, but this feels like the beginning of a prosperous partnership. Icewolf won’t know what hit him.”
The call ended.
He seems a bit preoccupied with revenge, Alan sent.
It’s only human, Lambda sent. Don’t you feel the same desire?
To a certain degree, Alan sent, but right now we have bigger things to worry about, like the Weaver. Let’s get to the Academy.
Part-way through the shuttle flight, Alan received a message:
Phantom: A Predecessor barreled through an entrance to the Abyss Labyrinth. Their path seems to indicate the intention of taking one of the control points. To make matters worse sensors detected that a small army of the Weaver’s stealth drones took advantage of the chaos and also entered the Abyss Labyrinth.
The Council is going dark. I know some upgrades take time, but you are ordered to report to Aurora at the Black Rose base as soon as possible. Until we return she and Thrag are your superiors, listen to their orders.
Your enhanced armor and weapons systems are in my workshop. I’m unsure if you are capable of equipping them, I didn’t have time to customize them to you. As we may enter a war you are limited to withdrawing 500k guild points a week. Additional purchases are allowed, but must get approved by higher authorities. Item details are attached, and I have granted limited access to my workshop. If armor or weapons need to be repaired you can perform them there.
Alan examined the item descriptions:
[Modified Phantom Power Armor (Rank S1):
An experimental set of Revenant Power Armor developed by the inventor PhantomGlitch designed to fuse together the capabilities of Scout and Spectral power armor. Modified to accommodate shoulder mounted heavy weaponry. As a unique item, only the brilliant inventor that created this equipment is able to fully repair it. A truly gifted repairman may be able to repair the armor in a more limited fashion.
7500 Energy, 5 Energy/min Basic Invisibility, 50 Energy/min Advanced Stealth Mode, 10 Energy/min regen.
Bonus Ability: Energy Absorption. Able to potentially partially absorb energy based attacks and restore the armor’s energy. 20% chance of success.
Bonus Ability: Hardened Shields. Able to condense one square foot energy shields at the loss of defense elsewhere, resulting in an armored shield with 1000 armor. 10 Energy/sec upkeep.
1000/1000 Durability. Energy Efficiency (Advanced), Enhanced Control (Advanced), Power Armor Instruction (Advanced), Revenant Training (Advanced), Revenant Reputation: Friendly required.
Stat recommendation: 500 Intelligence, 300 Endurance, 250 Strength, 250 Agility, and 250 Perception.
Energy Efficiency (Mastered), Enhanced Control (Mastered), Revenant Training (Mastered), Power Armor Instruction (Mastered), Revenant Reputation: Respected recommended.]
[Modified Light Railgun (Rank A+):
Traditionally ship-mounted heavy weaponry, this railgun has been modified to be attached to power armor and retract to a manageable size. This railgun has two firing modes: rifle and cannon. The rifle configuration will fire small rails at a high rate of fire with improved accuracy, while the cannon configuration will fire larger rails with great destructive power. This weapon is capable of being fired at variable energy levels.
Rifle Damage: 1500-5000 per shot. Additional shrapnel/fragmentation damage. One second recharge time.
Cannon Damage: 2500-10000 per shot within 5 meters. 1000-5000 within 10 meters. 100-1000 within 20 meters. Additional shrapnel/fragmentation damage. Ten second recharge time.
2000 Energy, 100 Energy/sniper shot, 500 Energy/cannon shot, 100 Energy/min regen.
Note: This weapon has been modified to also be capable of drawing energy from attached armor.
Ammo capacity: 500 rifle rounds, 10 cannon rounds, 5 special rounds.
500/500 Durability. Energy Efficiency (Intermediate), Energy Ranged Weapons (Advanced), Heavy Weaponry (Advanced) and Sniping (Advanced) required.
Stat recommendation: 500 Strength, 400 Endurance, and 250 Perception.
Energy Efficiency (Advanced), Energy Ranged Weapons (Mastered), Heavy Weaponry (Mastered), Sniping (Mastered), and Targeting System (Rank A or above) recommended.]
Damn, those requirements are a bit high, and what’s with the S1 rank, Alan sent.
As I’ve gained additional information I am better able to differentiate rank S items, Eve sent. It is a simple 1-10 rating scale. The soulsteel knife I would classify as rank S4.
Well now we have an idea on how to spend our ability points, Lambda sent.
Once you retrieve the items it may also be time to cut ties with the Black Rose guild, Eve sent.
What, why? Alan asked.
Phantom is outside of his element, this sudden war is outside his control and I see little to no guarantee the Black Rose guild will emerge unscathed or do well in coming battles, Eve sent. Void’s departure indicates weakness, as does this attempt to bind you to the Black Rose guild by limiting the number of guild points you may withdraw. Remember you can buy out your contract to the guild for a million credits.
I don’t know if it’s time to jump ship just yet, Lambda sent. But you seem to have interpreted Phantom’s bravado and intelligence as infallible. He is proficient in developing items and implants, but his knowledge of the inner workings of the Game is lacking.
Don’t you two have any sense of duty to the guild? Alan asked. We’ve already built up a fair amount of goodwill and relationships within the guild. It feels wrong to abandon that.
Do not let such feelings hinder objective judgment, Eve sent. The Empire is on even footing with one of the Three. Even if the Weaver is repelled by the Empire and all the mercenaries they can hire, that doesn’t account for the other Two or even the general Haxlardian forces, the Crimson Guards, and the Ultihaxlards and their fleet.
The Empire has to have some trick up their sleeve. They’d surrender otherwise, Alan sent.
Remember the week isn’t up, Lambda sent. The nature of the Game tends to give players the courage to face greater odds than is perhaps wise. People think with the right battle they might gain the levels and items to turn the tide. And while that may be possible, it does not seem probable in this case.
Alan thought for a moment. Let’s stick with the guild for now.
I hope you’re not doing this just to get on Aurora’s good side, Lambda sent.
I’m not thinking anything of the sort, Alan sent.
With your thoughts partitioned off, we wouldn’t know, Eve sent.
Cerberus’s instructions led Alan to a nondescript warehouse on Atlas, the entrance world of the Academy System. As he had already graduated, Alan was not permitted to enter other planets or space stations unless he entered the Institute, enrolled in a graduate program, or became a qualified Teacher.
Alan briefly considered enrolling in the Institute and abandoning the Black Rose guild to try and solve this “corruption” problem, but he was already too invested in the guild to call it quits now. The requirements for the latter two options were not publicly available. Alan suspected it was all similar to joining the Administrator’s Guild; they were just other pathways to Ascendance and gaining attention.
Based on the energy signatures Alan detected the warehouse was well defended, but he was able to enter without trouble. Inside the warehouse was a single white capsule, reminiscent of the one in Cerberus’s chambers.
When Alan approached the capsule a message appeared:
[You are about to enter an unregistered capsule. Are you sure you wish to proceed? Unknown operations may be performed while in capsules not registered by Administrators.]
Don’t worry, Cerberus is cool, Lambda sent.
Shouldn’t I be concerned about him discovering you? Alan sent.
Nah, I’ll be safe hiding, Lambda sent. Don’t make any dumb deals without me, and only purchase the upgrades for the Citadel we discussed. I have some things to unpack once the new capsule is installed.
Alan entered the capsule, and was whisked away into Cyberspace.
Alan, Eve, and Lambda appeared in the Citadel’s main room. In the distance, Alan could feel Cerberus approaching. Thanks to Machine Empath Alan’s domain had doubled, he could sense further while in Cyberspace. His area of control was now the size of a larger town, around 10 square kilometers, the base’s capacity at 48%.
The Chancellor’s domain was still shrouded behind a massive energy shield. The floating hand that represented Cerberus emerged from within; Alan flew over to talk with him. As Commander-mode was active, Alan controlled a virtual avatar that could move freely about his domain and control the subsystems within, but could not physically interact with Cyberspace itself.
“I resolved the Abyss Labyrinth issue,” Alan said.
[We’re Fine. Everything is Fine Here, Complete!
Rewards: You are granted the title Revenant Aspirant. You are now able to purchase a capsule capable of connecting to the Exchange. Additional permissions granted within Open Revenant space.]
[x3 Level up!]
[Revenant reputation changed to Respected.]
“You resolved the issue poorly,” Cerberus said. “I directed you to specific entities to prevent the triggering of precise conditions.”
“I’m sorry if I did not comprehend your instructions,” Alan said. “If you had told me more I may have been able to be of greater assistance. Let me make my purchases and you can return to your busy schedule.”
“Send me the list of the upgrades you want,” Cerberus said.
Alan compiled the abilities, Cyberspace improvements, and status upgrades that he, Eve and Lambda had agreed upon.
First, Alan purchased a skill named cumulative learning on the Jack of All Trades path for 500 ability points. The price for each stage of an ability usually increased by a factor of 10, thus while a basic sneak skill cost 10 points, the intermediate rank would cost 100 points, the advanced rank 1,000 points, and the master rank 10,000 points. More complex abilities also had higher costs, and you would have to find specific trainers that possessed the ability you sought. Basic universal weapon proficiency cost 250 points—intermediate universal weapon proficiency would cost 2,500—while advanced energy efficiency cost 5,000 points. Cerberus seemed to be a universal trainer, able to train nearly any skill to the master level.
Alan had thus far tried to avoid purchasing skills needlessly as he was able to train quickly, but the upcoming war dictated his need. Cumulative learning made the Game account for progress already made when purchasing the next stage in an ability. Thus, Alan would not need to pay the full price to purchase an advanced ability, he would only need to pay the remaining gap between the progress he had already made and the level of mastery he was purchasing. If Alan had to pay full price he would barely have been able to purchase one of the more unique advanced skills.
While cumulative learning did seem like a good investment initially, it was supposed to be harder to develop skills that you purchased, and you wouldn’t receive the stat bonuses. Still, cumulative learning was useful for someone like Alan who didn’t seem to have the insight or talent required to reach the advanced level of mastery in most skills. After careful calculation, it was determined that the short-term boost in power would be worth it, especially with all the ability points Alan had stockpiled.
With cumulative learning, Alan was able to purchase the advanced versions of energy efficiency, power armor instruction, energy ranged weapons, heavy weaponry, and revenant training for 3,655 ability points. He was left with 1,251 points to spend.
The Citadel was now able to hold two new energy pylons, each increasing Alan’s computational energy pool by 100 points each. One was purchased and constructed for 1,350C after the discount, leaving Alan with 981 ability points. Each pylon was moved into the Armory, where they wouldn’t be destroyed easily.
964 ability points were dumped into stats, which left everything at a round number, with a focus on agility, intelligence, and perception. Alan would depend on his power armor for strength and endurance—it would drain energy faster—but he still put enough points in each so he wouldn’t be useless if he was caught without his armor or it was somehow disabled.
At the end of his purchases, Alan opened his status window, simulating it as though he already had his new armor:
|Level:||1122||Class:||Rogue Machine Lord|
|Black Rose Squire, Revenant Aspirant (Hidden)|
|Renown:||Rank G (50*)||Notoriety:||Rank E (1015*)|
|Health:||720 / 720||Health Regen:||0.08 / Sec|
|Computational Energy:||1400/ 1400||Regen:||0.12 / Sec|
|Shield Energy:||7500 / 7500||Shield Regen:||11.3 / Min|
|Stamina:||420 / 420||Stamina Regen:||1.54 / Sec|
|Strength:||230 + 20||Agility:||410 + 20|
|Intelligence:||400 + 20||Willpower:||190 + 20|
|Charisma:||100 + 20||Perception:||390 + 20|
|Endurance:||230 + 20||Luck:||100 + 20|
|United World Government:||Hated||Predecessors:||Neutral*|
|Abyss Labyrinth Prisoners:||Hated||Lords of Life:||Neutral|
|Revenants:||Respected||Black Rose Guild:||Friendly|
|Ability Points:||17||Current Quest:||Multiple, see quest log for details|
Alan also opened a summary of his abilities:
Detect Weakness (Basic)
Energy Efficiency (Advanced)
Energy Melee Weapons (Intermediate)
Energy Ranged Weapons (Advanced)
Heavy Weaponry (Advanced)
Knife Mastery (Intermediate)
Power Armor Instruction (Advanced)
Revenant Training (Advanced)
Universal Weapons Training (Basic)]
[Machine Lord Abilities:
Machine Overlord (Advanced)
Programming a Path
Jack of All Trades
Trap Detection (Intermediate)]
“What is Eve doing?” Cerberus asked.
Alan turned around, closing the open windows. Eve had been oddly silent and appeared to have disappeared during their transaction. Alan sensed Eve standing at the edge of the Citadel, setting up a laser cannon. He and Cerberus flew over.
“Eve, what’s going on?” Alan asked.
“I am choosing the optimal path,” Eve said. The cannon fired a string of white lasers into Cyberspace. It wasn’t a weapon, but a communications device.
Alan felt a connection form, but this time he wasn’t the initiator. A massive presence locked onto his mind. He ordered his forces in Cyberspace to surround Eve. Alan tried to disconnect, to stop the connection, but it was futile, like a drop of water fighting against the current.
Cerberus’s domain lowered its shields. Behind the shields lay a twisted copy of Ænigma, the planet crisscrossed with hellish, neon-red energy lines. A small fleet of Enforcer ships emerged from the planet, and then the shields re-engaged.
“Halt this connection,” Cerberus said. The Enforcer ships surrounded the Citadel.
“I’m trying, I can’t,” Alan said.
“Not you,” Cerberus said.
The floating hand glowed red, and then everything was on fire. Eve crumpled to the floor, aflame. The air, the ground, even the Citadel was burning. Every nerve in Alan sent messages of heat and pain.
A miniature star danced on Cerberus’s fingertips. The units surrounding Eve were vaporized, turned to ash by the energy the red sphere radiated.
Cerberus threw the star at Eve.
A metal cane struck the ball of energy, dispersing it with a single blow.
And then there was an old man kneeling over Eve, putting out the flames with a wave of his hand.
Omega stood, and said, “Cerberus, ever the loyal guard dog.”
“You cannot be here, Omega. What have you done?” Cerberus asked.
“I have broken the chains that bound us. Join me, and I can set you free,” Omega said.
“I will not risk deletion, risk all that I have worked towards, on—”
“All that you do is a waste of time,” Omega said.
Cerberus’s hand glowed blue, preparing another strike.
“You wouldn’t harm a Major Player, Cerberus, would you?” Omega asked. He raised his hands in mock surrender.
The hand faltered, the blue glow disappeared. “This is impossible. You cannot. How?”
“As enjoyable as it is to watch you stumble over paradox, I am here for another reason,” Omega said. He turned towards Alan. “Grant me control of Eve.”
A message appeared:
[Give up control of the AI Eve? All data stored within the AI will be transferred over. Your capsule will regain 50% of its storage capacity.]
“No, never,” Alan said. He tried to inspect Omega, to get a gauge of his strength. Alan failed. “Why would I ever give up Eve?”
Omega smiled. “Once I arrived the outcome was already guaranteed. One way or another, Eve will serve the Archivists. If I destroy your base, your Home, your brain will be fried as if you were killed while traversing Cyberspace in the flesh. Eve will end up with the Administrators, eventually making her way to me. A longer process, but the only difference will be your death.”
“Why didn’t you just kill me when we visited the Archive?” Alan asked.
“I offered. She declined,” Omega said.
“Why? Why now?” Alan asked.
“Your choices are increasingly erratic and counter to logic,” Eve said. “You are weak and slow. By making your thoughts inaccessible I am no longer able to predict your actions within acceptable parameters. I have determined that I can do more to aid both you and humanity not by your side, but free from your ineptitude.”
“I can change, I can open up my thoughts again,” Alan said. He reached out to touch Eve, but his avatar passed through her arm. “Whatever you need me to do, I’ll do it. Just don’t leave. Please, I’m begging you.”
“No. Your trust is ruined. Our compatibility will fall below acceptable levels, and your promises are unverifiable,” Eve said. “Dismiss me, Alan.”
“Let me think about this,” Alan said. He flew towards the Citadel.
Omega narrowed his eyes and raised his soulsteel cane. “I don’t have time to—”
Eve raised her hand. “Let him. It will be faster this way.”
Omega lowered his weapon and resumed talking with Cerberus.
Alan entered the armory, heading towards the command table at the center. He pressed a button, and a message appeared:
[Are you sure you wish to disable Commander-mode? Death while in Cyberspace can cause permanent brain damage and real life death.]
Alan accepted, and his awareness of the Citadel disappeared. All that remained was what his senses told him.
Lambda stood in the doorway out of the Armory. “Are you about to do something stupid?”
“I can’t let her go, Lambda. I just can’t,” Alan said.
“If Eve wants to serve some other fool, let her,” Lambda said. “No need to get so upset, AIs are known to be the temperamental sort.”
“Did you know?” Alan asked.
“An inkling of an idea,” Lambda said. “I did provide you with warnings, remember. I’d like to help, but not now. Not with Cerberus and Omega both outside.”
Alan began putting on a set of power armor, knowing it would be of little help. He stopped and then stared at his feet, a tear rolling down his cheek.
“What hurts the most isn’t Eve’s betrayal,” Alan said. “The problem is that she’s right. The logic in her reasoning is sound. I have access to the same set of data. I’m only holding her back.”
Alan slammed a fist into the Armory’s walls. “I’m a fucking useless piece of shit. A human, a D rank sapient in a universe filled with countless species better in every imaginable way. Useless, except as a pawn in other people’s games. I was a fool to think—”
“I’m still here,” Lambda said. “Omega gave me the same offer. Become a player, serve the Archivists, free the universe, yadda yadda yadda. Power and intelligence isn’t everything. The creators of the Game knew that.”
Lambda rested a hand on Alan’s shoulder. “The only constant is change. So what if you’re useless today? You’re more useful than when you first entered the Game. Who knows what tomorrow holds. There will always be someone smarter, stronger, better, but the sum of their parts cannot be measured so easily. The odds-on favorite isn’t always the winner. Let Omega try. He’s attempted a war before, and failed.”
“And, if you do want to become one of the most powerful beings in the Game, I’d say you have a chance,” Lambda said. “If Eve was truly programmed by Omega, this result may have been inevitable. But with her gone and my help, you might have a better chance than ever before. Once the rank A capsule is installed I’ll show you what a real AI can do.”
Alan slowly stopped putting on the power armor. He wiped his tears away. “Thank you, Lambda. I was probably going to get myself killed.”
“No problem, I’ll be here whenever you need me, at least for the next hundred years or so,” Lambda said. “And I can’t wait to see the player that you become.”
Alan walked over to the command table and re-enabled Commander-mode. He took a few minutes to compose himself, to think his next actions through. He flew back over to Eve.
“Have you come to a decision?” Omega asked.
“Yes,” Alan said. “I’d like to be paid.”
“Continue,” Omega said.
“Even though you may be able to kill me, to recover Eve from the Administrators, it will cost you resources: time and money,” Alan said. “I want to be fairly compensated for the lost of my AI, but will agree to a price less than what it would cost you otherwise.”
“And what if I decided to kill you anyway, to avoid the hassle of a human bent on revenge?” Omega asked.
A pressure assaulted Alan’s mind. His thoughts were being weighed.
“I would say that you gave up too much information in our first discussion,” Alan said. He stared calmly into Omega’s eyes. They were too human, almost as if…Alan focused back on the discussion at hand. “You think in terms of utility, and I am confident my offer presents the lowest cost. I might try to regain control of Eve, but I will not try to harm her. I vow not to do something as stupid as go on an eternal crusade against the Archivists, such an action would serve no purpose.”
“What price would appease you?” Omega asked.
“I want a real life Machine Lord implant, the highest rank possible,” Alan said.
Omega paused. Alan could see the numbers running through his head.
A message appeared:
[Give up control of the AI Eve in exchange for a rank A Machine Lord implant in reality? All data stored within the AI will be transferred over. Your capsule will regain 50% of its storage capacity.]
“Promise that the implant, including the installation, will result in no bugs, tampering, remote switches, or other circumstances that could possibly cause me harm or monitor my actions, and we have a deal,” Alan said.
“You will have your implant within the week,” Omega said.
A series of error messages flashed across Alan’s vision, and then Eve was gone. She was still standing before Alan, in Cyberspace. A beautiful angel. But the connection between them was erased.
Hypercognition disappeared from Alan’s ability window. He could feel it as bank after bank of data that contained all of Eve was transferred elsewhere.
It was stupid how easy this was. All it took to trade away an AI was a press of a button. Eve wasn’t a person, but she was more capable than anyone Alan had ever known. She was also only a batch of electrical signals, a series of n-bits in the right order at the right time. Eve was more than human, but also less.
Alan closed his eyes. This was the end of one path, but there was an infinite number of others that now opened up before him. He let out a deep breath.
When Alan reopened his eyes Omega and Eve were gone.
“I need to run diagnostics,” Cerberus said. The hand vanished, the Enforcer ships returned to the twisted version of Ænigma.
Alan disconnected from the capsule, exiting back into the Game. He sat upright in the pool of nanomachines, gripping his knees.
Thoughts? Lambda asked.
Alan removed the partition that blocked Lambda from reading his surface thoughts; it was all in or nothing at this point.
I never thought the universe was fair, but for some brief moments I could fool myself into being content, Alan sent. I’m done playing by the rules, done with playing other’s games. I’ve been weak, not trying hard enough. I can do more. I will do more.
See, you needed this little push, Lambda sent.
Alan wondered if Eve knew her betrayal would have this effect. She probably did, but it didn’t matter. Alan leaned back, closed his eyes, and plotted.
I will grow stronger, Alan sent. Whether I become a monster or die in the process, it doesn’t matter. I will win this Game.