Alan tapped his foot as a multi-tentacled alien setup his new capsule. The rank A capsule was near twice the size of the old one but had the same smooth, metallic grey sheen. It also had a larger black box attachment. A small Enforcer drone watched the installation process.
The alien worker might be sentient, but it could just as easily be a synthesized biological being. For safety concerns, robots couldn’t do certain types of delicate capsule work. Alan supposed preventing robots from doing certain types of technical engineering might help delay an uprising, but it wouldn’t stop one.
The alien maneuvered tools and wires into the capsule, not bothering to look inside. Despite all of Eve’s and Lambda’s teachings, Alan couldn’t recall any information on this particular species.
That might be because he was now in real life, without his machine lord implant, but Alan should remember any important engineering races. Though, most of the beings that Eve and Lambda taught him about were humanoid. Ælves, Haxlards, Predecessors, Erudites, Hunaan, they all were bipedal beings with large brains. The universe should have more diverse types of sentient life, though Alan supposed capsule technology might lend itself best to certain evolutionary tracks. But what, then, happened to all the other species of aliens?
Alan waved his hand through the air. There was still an odd sensation of lag, of momentary delay between when he wanted his hand to move, and when it actually did, but it had lessened since the last time he’d been in real life. Whether it was due to hitting the level 1000 mark or the points put into boosting his attributes, Alan felt that he was noticeably stronger than when he was a vanilla human but still weaker than his in-game self. The rank A capsule would allow greater strides forward in reality too.
Already, Alan’s ability to multitask had improved substantially. It wasn’t quite thinking two separate thoughts, but he could follow the alien while thinking about other things as well.
Once the alien finished the installation it left, the Enforcer drone following behind. Not a single word was exchanged in the entire process, though Alan received a message on his tablet that the installation was finished. There was no mention of a rating or sending feedback. Customer service didn’t matter when there was only one service.
After Lambda was transferred between capsules, Alan installed a basic, blank AI onto the new capsule as well. Unfortunately, the webpage Alan had found with instructions on how to create Eve was gone, as well as his old repository. In fact, Earth’s entire internet had apparently been replaced with the worldnet, a new internet that had been set-up by the United World Government with the most up to date protocols used by the globalnet and its counterparts. Without the source code, Alan had no confidence in his ability to create an Eve 2.0. Thus, until he found a better AI, a basic program was what Alan had to settle for.
The AI amounted to a more advanced calculator, its base programming provided by Lambda. It would run basic calculations that Lambda was “too good for,” effectively a slave server. It couldn’t think for itself, in fact, Alan was pretty sure it had no sense of self. The new AI was secure and predictable: Alan knew all the code and data that went into it. Or, at least, it was available to him and he could look over it when he found the time.
Next, Alan set up the old rank B capsule to be an emergency backup for Lambda to jump to, then disconnect from the Game if it was ever required. Lambda had drilled the process into him, and Alan jury-rigged the capsule as successfully in real life as he had within one of the Game’s simulations. Tools and materials hadn’t been hard to get in real life, just a quick order through the Game, setting Alan back a few thousand credits. Lambda had said the order might raise a few flags, but everything that Alan did was technically allowed.
The next part was trickier. Alan needed to hide the old capsule within the room, but at the same time set it up so that the wires leading to and from the two capsules wouldn’t be easily traceable or tracked. Alan thought this was probably overkill, but Lambda made him promise he’d do it. The actual hiding involved ordering a series of upgrades, transforming his apartment from a one-capsule bachelor’s pad to a more respectable gaming den. The Black Rose guild didn’t care if Alan made adjustments to his quarters, he’d checked.
The construction would be fast and cheap, made to Lambda’s specifications, built while Alan was in the Game. Somehow, the types of materials and configuration of the room would create a blank spot in Enforcer’s scanners, masking the old capsule’s presence.
Alan climbed into his new capsule as soon as the work order was confirmed. Though he was now in Khersath, it still took nearly an hour to log into and out of the Game, which meant that including the time it took for his new capsule to be installed, Alan had lost nearly a day of in-game time.
Alan sank into the silver bed of nanites and took a deep breath.
A series of messages popped up once Alan logged back in. His connection to the Game felt stronger, like his place in the world was somehow set in stone.
As he’d exited the Game in an Administrative Center capsule, an Administrator was in his Home, standing motionless next to the Citadel’s command table. Alan read over his messages:
[Rank A Capsule has been installed successfully.
+1000 Computational Energy, +.12 Regen / Sec
New implants available.]
[AI Lambda upgraded to rank A.]
[A new AI has been installed. Do you wish to name the unknown AI?]
[Multiple player messages received.]
“Lambda?” Alan called out. The messages he’d received were from Aurora, demanding he return to the guild as soon as possible.
Lambda entered the control room holding a small silver ball, the new AI in tow. It looked like an Administrator, but male.
Alan examined Lambda and the new AI’s stats, but found the details lacking:
[Lambda, Rank A AI.
Attack rank: B. Predecessor strength.
Defense rank: S. Predecessor defense.
Movement rank: A. Predecessor speed.
Special Abilities: ???]
[Unnamed AI. Rank Unknown.
Defense: 1500 armor.
Special Abilities: ???]
“The blank program you provided me with was for an Administrator?” Alan asked.
“An older version, but essentially yes,” Lambda said. “Want to see them mate?”
“That isn’t possible,” Alan said.
“No, but it’d look funny,” Lambda said. He threw the silver ball he was holding at the Administrator and it expanded into a thin metal dome, enclosing the Administrator.
“This,” Lambda said, “is my multi-tool. It’s a malleable piece of code that I can manipulate into multiple configurations. This dome stops whatever is inside from sensing and transmitting information and has decent barrier capabilities. AIs are generally constrained to a single tool of choice, and I had to keep mine in storage due to all the space Eve was hogging in the capsule.
“My tool, however, is better than the rest, adaptable to fit your needs. Great for offense, defense, scouting, whatever the situation calls for. I’ll send you a data file with the details.”
“Why doesn’t a message appear when I examine your tool?” Alan asked, wincing at the phrasing.
“Eve was updating all that, but that’s what the workhorse is for. Before we get to them, though, we should talk,” Lambda said.
Alan narrowed his eyes. “Let me guess, you have some hidden motives too.”
“Me? No, never,” Lambda said. He covered his heart in mock indignation. “Like I said from the start, I’m here to have a good time, to get away from the monotony of work. Alan, you know enough of the Game to see how it’s played for the most part. The question is, how are you going to win?
“There are two paths you can take. A solo route or a group route. Right now you seem set on a solo route, but that’s about a million times more difficult to pull off. Who’s ever won a war all on their own? Eventually, you’ll earn enough enmity and notoriety that the Administrator guild will also turn on you. The limitations set on drones make it virtually impossible to create an army by yourself, which means you’d need to somehow bypass the rules or become a transcendent-like being, and I don’t see either option panning out.”
Alan thought over Lambda’s words. They seemed logical.
“The Game is designed to force you to depend on others,” Lambda said. “Look at the Black Rose guild, each member of the Council has a unique responsibility and specialty. Given the nature of the Game, where betrayals can be rewarded without a fear of real death, trust is hard to earn and almost impossible to regain. Don’t throw it away without reason.”
Lambda rested his hand on Alan’s shoulder.
“Look, I can sense your surface thoughts, and I need to head off this problem before it becomes an issue,” Lambda said. “Yes, Eve betrayed you. Yes, pretty much everyone in the Game will also betray you if it becomes advantageous. But you still need to have trust in someone, or some group, at some point. Because you cannot win this Game solo.”
“There are no absolutes,” Alan said. He moved Lambda’s hand off his shoulder.
“Focus,” Lambda said. “Don’t let emotion cloud your judgment, harder does not equal better. Right now you want to do whatever it takes to win, but you need to stay objective. Long-term cooperation can benefit you more than it will harm you, and remember the Black Rose guild has taken steps to ensure that any betrayal will cost you. Phantom has a bloody kill switch installed in your head.”
“So I make sure any betrayal is never discovered,” Alan said.
“Failure is always a possibility, you need to plan for as much as you can,” Lambda said.
“What are you trying to do?” Alan asked.
“I’m trying to get you to see logical conclusions, to prove that you can put your faith in me, but right now you’re still letting yourself be thrown off by Eve’s betrayal. You’re in no fit state to be making any decisions,” Lambda said.
Alan took a deep breath, sitting down on the floor. Was he still angry? Absolutely. He tried to clear his mind, but the harder he tried to not think about Eve the more often she reappeared. After everything they’d gone through, after creating her, she’d abandoned him without a second thought. A simple utility calculation. Was that what he should become? A cold, calculating machine?
“You’re lost,” Lambda said, “you need a bit of perspective.”
Lambda touched Alan’s head.
There was nothing, and then a light. It was Alan, a single being on Khersath. Millions, billions, trillions of other lights appeared on the planet. Each light possessed their own desire, their own mind.
Time advanced, the lights spreading out across the cosmos. They lived full lives, lives of joy and sadness, order and chaos. Lives of connections, gathering and breaking away with each passing second.
And then the lights began fading. They winked out one by one. Every journey had to end. The lights disappeared. They were used up, fuel depleted. Alan felt each one go, trillions of attempts to break free, to become something more.
But there was no escaping the dark, no matter how brightly you shined. Death comes for all.
Alan felt a stream of tears flowing down his eyes. He wiped them away. “What the hell was that?”
“An information transference ability, modeled on how the Game grants skills. I can’t quite manage physical, hard memories, but I can transfer impressions, abstract ideas,” Lambda said.
Alan stared down at his hands. What was the point of anything? His struggle was futile. In the scope of such a vast universe, how could he even consider winning the Game? To make an empire that spanned a single galaxy, let alone the entirety of the Game, would be impossible. It was illogical to even try.
“Whoops, I may have overdone it. Here, let’s try this.” Lambda put his hand on Alan’s forehead again.
Once more there was nothing, and then a light, burning bright. The universe began anew, trillions of new lights appearing.
The bright light began to fade. It needed fuel. It moved over to a smaller, dimmer, light. It swallowed the light whole, fuel and all. And the fading light shone a little brighter, it grew a little larger. It would last a little bit longer.
The light needed more. It needed to last forever, to be the everlasting light. It began devouring other lights, and when one wasn’t enough it began to eat ten, twenty, a thousand at a time.
It grew brighter. And brighter. But still, it slowly dimmed. It needed more. More fuel to burn, more lights, more strength. It—
Alan pushed Lambda’s hand away. “Stop, no more. Next time you try some kind of alien psychiatric trick on me, ask first.”
“That wasn’t a trick, just a few kernels of Truth,” Lambda said. “No one knows the true path to Aleph, but they can be imagined, they can be sought.”
“Are you trying to induct me into a weird AI religion?” Alan asked.
“Is truth a religion? No, don’t answer that. The point was to clear your mind, and that, at least, worked quite well,” Lambda said.
Alan realized Lambda was right. Eve’s betrayal now felt like a lifetime ago. Alan shuddered. The knowledge, the memories now in his mind had changed him, perhaps irrevocably so.
He would burn bright.
“I would like to reiterate, warn me before you do anything like that again,” Alan said.
“Of course, but might I ask what your plans are now?” Lambda asked.
“We still might betray the Black Rose guild, but only if given the opportunity,” Alan said. “They aren’t the right group to try to win the Game with because they’ve stagnated for a while. The guild is running out of fuel, and fast. Void jumping ship, a suicidal alliance with the Empire against the Haxlards…”
Alan thought for a minute, processing all the information at hand. “The Empire, the Alliance, the Mercenary Bloc, everyone who’s been in the Game for long enough should know that major events will come, asked for or not. Their best bet would be to try to shape the event as well as they can, triggering it on their terms, with all the allies possible. Thus, it’s likely that the Empire is not facing the Three alone, but with the full support of nearly every other player. They want to swallow a larger enemy to burn on even longer.”
Lambda nodded. “Go on.”
“But they still aren’t favored to win a war,” Alan said. “Each of the Three can handle one of the major factions, and then there’s still the Haxlard forces. With a sucker punch, they might have a chance, given the available information, I’d say maybe 4.5% odds, which isn’t great.…But in the Game, the odds are always stacked against you. The tutorial, the academy, the abyss labyrinth, you aren’t expected to clear everything. It’s all a test to see how far you can go with what you’re given. A race against time, to become as strong as possible before you are, in turn, destroyed and used as kindling for someone else.”
Lambda smiled. It looked predatory, on the face of a Predecessor.
“By that logic, the core of any guild that I join or create to win the Game will need to be comprised of humans, or intelligent beings that join the Game later, or are able to escape notice like Void,” Alan continued. “That’s why Omega took a human’s form. We still have a few years to try to grow and become as strong as possible before we’re in turn raided for spare parts.”
“The United World Government is opposing the Haxlards too,” Lambda said.
“The UWG is an equal opportunity target; I’m already an enemy of the state, though ideally it would be best if the power level of humans as a whole increased. I should try to become a useful foil, forcing them to grow stronger as an adversary, but also feeding on the UWG in turn as they grow stronger,” Alan said. “I might as well play the hand that’s been dealt.
“There’s an obvious path forward then. We should secretly align with the Haxlards while fulfilling Black Rose guild duties, serving as a double agent, and trying to profit from the coming war as much as possible, but without ever being caught in an act of betrayal. Therefore, in case a miracle does occur, and the Empire or the Alliance or some entity does manage to defeat the Haxlards, we should come out okay. Actually, what does happen if a major event is cleared?”
“There’s a brief respite, and then another major event is triggered, often set in motion some time beforehand,” Lambda said. “I have come to similar conclusions, and agree with this course of action. I think a polite entreaty to Pharaoh with a bunch of hidden subtext about possibly being a double agent would be best. Let me phrase it. Communication is one thing I excel at, not that there’s much I’m bad at, mind you.”
“This is only a loose outline though, there are still a lot of pieces missing,” Alan said. “I need to adjust to combat without Eve, and you haven’t even shared everything you and the new AI can do. I’ll also need to find out all the information I can on the members of my guild, and be able to lie to them convincingly. Then there’s a ton of other factors when it comes to Earth I need to figure out…”
Alan droned on, gathered information, ran calculations, and plotted.
Lambda watched on, advising from the side.
And the unnamed AI sat still, doing nothing at all.