A single capital-ship was an army in and of itself. Each capital-class ship required a crew of at least ten thousand, and had a length of over a thousand meters, four Titanic’s put end to end. Each had the firepower to wipe out any city, not counting the escort of hundreds of smaller ships or self-contained armies stowed onboard. The entirety of Earth’s Space Force contained a single capital-ship. Ten were headed towards the Private Quadrant.
But only one of them is targeting the Black Rose guild, Lambda sent. They’ve done their homework.
A screen flickered into place beside Aurora. It came from the communications station, an adjacent room that handled the incoming and outgoing messages.
“A few other guild leaders are demanding to speak with Elissandra to form a united front against the incoming fleet and develop a plan of defense,” the officer said.
“Tell them that the Black Rose guild will see to our own defense,” Aurora said. “What are we facing?”
“A single capital-class ship, the Helios, as well as an assortment of smaller battleships: the Bastion, the Titan, the Rhea, and the Pile of Junk are currently set on a direct course for our location,” the officer said.
“Excuse me, what was that last one?” Sidestep asked.
“Quiet, we need a plan of defense,” Aurora said.
Each guild is being attacked by a set of ships prepared to counter them, Lambda sent. They know the Black Rose Guild has no real fleet. They can just sit up in space and fire off their lasers, saving the smaller fighters to help defend other capital-class ships.
Alan looked over Lambda’s analysis and then said, “We need to evacuate the upper floors and shift the important locations two levels down. The Helios’s lasers will make short work of our surface defenses. The Haxlards will send in ground forces to make their way past the first underground level of the base unless they want to wait a few months burning through.”
“We need to start setting up traps, have pockets of defenses layered out in such a way to try to draw in and ambush Haxlardian forces without giving away where our generators and command center are placed,” Alan continued. “It’ll be like Stratego, this Earth board game that I used to play, but in three-dimensional space with—”
“Stop,” Aurora said. She pointed at Alan. “Your job is cybersecurity. To defend the base from Cyberspace attacks. This is not one of your board games. The rest of the guild is not under newbie protection. This is a matter of life and death for us. I have men and women who have trained their entire lives, who have years of experience defending this base. I will meet with them now, and we will come up with a method of defense.”
Aurora left the room, telling the communications officer to connect her to all available squad commanders.
Don’t worry, they’ll probably come up with the same conclusions and plan, Lambda sent. I believe this to be Aurora’s first real command. Your suggestions need to be more like advice, less like orders.
I’ll keep that in mind, Alan sent. He checked his divided mind, the half of his consciousness in Cyberspace defending the base. Nothing had happened.
“She’s right, this is a matter of life and death,” Sidestep said. He walked over to Alan and lowered his voice. “You and I both know that there should be weapons, items of great power in the inner vaults. They won’t do us any good sitting there, we need to get them out and use them to defend this place. Do you think you can hack the vault, get us in?”
Alan hesitated, checking his permissions in Cyberspace. The eight outer rooms were available, but he couldn’t enter the central square building of the 3x3x3 cube. It was there the controls to open the vault lay. Alan realized that he couldn’t detect anything that was in that part of Cyberspace, another inner-shield with a million energy lay between him and the room.
With Lambda’s help, Alan could probably handle the twenty B-ranked defense programs that were at the four corners of the base, but he had no idea what was inside this center chamber. A mystery, one that Alan didn’t like at all. Why was Aurora so insistent about keeping the central vault closed and off limits?
Back in the Game, Alan looked up at Sidestep, then shook his head. “No, we’d probably end up shooting ourselves in the foot, weakening our own defenses with only a chance at success. We should listen to Aurora, sit tight and defend for as long as we can.”
Alan didn’t voice his other thought, that this might be a set-up, a test of Alan’s trustworthiness. Sidestep had been a little too insistent about going against Aurora’s wishes.
Sidestep stared at Alan for a moment, then shrugged and sat down in one of the council chairs, resting his feet on the table. He began browsing the globalnet.
Alan scanned the globalnet too, trying to find any news from Earth. None was found. It was too small of a place, too far away to be mentioned in the newscasts now that every major system, every capital planet, was under attack. Alan sent a message to Thiago instead, though he didn’t expect a reply anytime soon. The message had to be relayed through a series of ships and satellites instead of the in-game system, thus there was no guarantee Thiago would even get it. He wondered if Thiago would be emboldened or hindered by the extinction event.
A few minutes of silence passed, until Sidestep closed what he was reading.
“They never mention the waiting, the suspense,” Sidestep said. “All the holovids show is action. The thick of the fight, the heroic battle. But we’re useless here, aren’t we? All that matters is happening elsewhere. We’re no longer in control of our own destiny, we never have been. I should have become a pilot.”
“Never too late for a career change,” Alan said.
“Oh, but it is,” Sidestep said. “The cost to get my abilities and implants replaced would be soul-crushing. I can’t just re-specialize. I was chosen, as a child, for this class, this career path. I don’t have the training for anything else.”
Sidestep stood up, blinking in front of Alan. “Because the Game demands excellence. Whatever field you choose, whatever abilities you want to master, you had better be damn good. Otherwise a million others that want your place, that want to kill you, will take it. And the sad truth is you’ll never be the best. Not with a trillion others. Not with the Game as big as it is.”
What? Where is this anger coming from? Alan asked Lambda.
He’s a young man about to head off into his first war, a few nerves are to be expected, Lambda sent.
Alan shrugged, palms up. “So don’t specialize, learn as many abilities you can, grow in experience and wisdom slowly, but always continue to move forward. But I will tell you one thing. I won’t ever stop trying, no matter the odds, the forces set against me.” Alan smirked. “I want to be the very best, like no one ever was.”
“Didn’t peg you as such an optimist,” Sidestep said.
Alan smiled, and then stopped. Since when had he been such an optimist? He had always thought himself more pragmatic than anything else, yet now there seemed to be this constant undercurrent of hope, of calmness inside. Why wasn’t he as nervous as Sidestep, even though he was about to head off into an extinction event that would have lasting effects that forever changed the landscape of the Game?
Lambda, what have you done? Alan asked.
Nothing much, just readjusted a few chemical imbalances that Eve introduced, the kernels of truth—
I don’t want to hear anymore proselytizing. Tell me in plain words what you have been doing, Alan sent.
What the Game has been doing, what Eve did, Lambda sent. The Machine Lord implant, the capsules, not only regulates and influences your brain, but also introduces various chemicals into your system. It’s why you had such adverse side effects to the Berserker’s Blood, the chemicals compounded and didn’t mix well.
Why do you think Eve hasn’t had you on a regimen of steroids from the beginning? She not only configured the Machine Lord implant to have your body creating natural testosterone from the get-go, but she introduced other things to make you feel more apathetic towards pursuits that wouldn’t have increased your in-game potential. I simply undid these changes. The positivism and general content might be due to a rebound, a rebalancing. Your brain is now capable of much faster re-adjustments now that the A-rank Machine Lord implant is installed.
What? When did that take place? Alan sent.
It occurred discretely, through the capsule. As you are connected to the Game, I let the Archivists in, Lambda sent. Their team upgraded your implant without disrupting the connection, and I monitored the process. Nothing got past me.
But I never felt a thing, where is the in-game message? Alan sent.
This was an illegal transaction, the upgrade is not detected by the Game, but it is nevertheless present, Lambda sent. I was going to bring it up with you soon, as the upgrade allows for a few options for our yet to be named AI.
I thought you understood, Alan sent. I just want to be myself.
Are any of us ever just ourselves? Lambda sent. We’re amalgamations of surroundings, circumstances beyond our control. Nothing exists in a vacuum. When we change, the space around us changes. And vice versa. When would you ever not want to be the best possible version of yourself?
When it’s no longer me, Alan sent.
You’re always you, Lambda sent. No matter how you feel, or think you should feel, you will always be you. You can always complain and say that it was the drugs, the Game, the implant, but you will always be you.
But it’s not my own free will—
Will? Who said anything about free will? The only truly free will that exists within the Game is the creator’s, and even then whether the choices were made freely is up for debate, Lambda sent. This isn’t about free will. This is about who you are, and what you can do. And I am telling you that all you ever will be or can be, is yourself.
What? I don’t understand, Alan sent. You’ve told me yourself, that the Game, the implant, are changing the chemical balance in my brain. That isn’t me.
Except, it is you, because it’s already happened. You said it yourself, didn’t you? That you’d do whatever it takes to get stronger? Well, I would say objectively, you have grown stronger. Optimism and self-confidence can be powerful tools when used correctly. Inner-strength to draw upon in moments of crisis, Lambda sent.
It just feels…fake. I can’t help but think this will backfire somehow, Alan sent.
Don’t worry, I’ve got it all planned out, Lambda sent. You can trust me.