The moment the dropship left Khersath’s atmosphere, the presence was there. It was as undeniable as bright sunlight drilling into Alan’s retinas. And his eyes were now more sensitive than most.
A living god. One of the Three. A behemoth that single-handedly swallowed up fleets and came out stronger when the battle was done. The Weaver.
It turned out they had met before. The Weaver had been part of the AI interaction examination. An entire galaxy, wrapped up inside a single construct. It had pierced through and examined Alan’s brain in an instant, reorganizing it and granting him computational energy, in addition to the data interaction ability.
All of Alan’s plans began to unravel. If this was the entity he needed to bypass, to fool, he would never have a chance. This signal was so strong, so powerful that it drowned everything else out. There was only one option.
Alan connected to the Weaver. The Weaver accepted the connection. Alan could feel that the connection was but one of millions. Billions.
I pledge myself to you, a loyal follower until I die, Alan sent. He tried to activate mental partitioning, but it was no use.
Starship sized planets tore apart his brain, scanned it, and then put it all back together. It took a moment for Alan to realize that it had occurred in Cyberspace, not the Game. Less than a millisecond had passed. He was still sitting in the Haxlard shuttle.
I’ll pass, the Weaver sent.
Wait, you aren’t going to kill me, delete me from existence? Alan asked.
To what end? Why do you think I granted you abilities in the first place, if not to use them? Your alert and subsequent actions have been increasingly helpful. I am only repaying my debt once more.
Alan breathed a sigh of relief. Can you convince Pharaoh to hand over his ship without a fight then? I think he’ll listen to you.
People think they can wield chaos. Luck, chance, random happenstance. Each event is independent. And that makes it wonderful. That toss of the dice, the moment of anticipation before the last card is turned. I live for those points in time. I applaud your gamble, but I will neither aid you nor harm you. That is my final gift.
How about a quest, then? Alan asked.
A quest? Now? A rumble of laughter sounded in Alan’s head, echoing on and on for an eternity. I forget the boldness of true mortals. Perhaps I turned your service away too soon. Perhaps in another life. A quest then, worthy of a god. Good luck, Traveler.
The Weaver ended the connection. It was still there, its signal broadcasting everywhere, but it was quieter in Alan’s mind. Like someone had turned the volume knob down halfway.
Two messages appeared, including a new quest:
[An End to an Empire:
Assassinate the Emperor. Strike a blow that will bring the Empire to its knees.
Option: Contact the Emperor, turn and destroy the Weaver instead. End the Haxlard Empire.
Reward: A path to greater power. Additional information on the Weaver’s class: God Machine.
Time Limit: Until the end of the Haxlard Crusade.
Threat Level: Beta]
[To unlock the quest to progress to the Machine Emperor class, the following requirements must be met:
- Become a major player.
- Install an A rank Machine Lord implant.
- Reach level 6000.
- Unlock the following abilities: Machine Overlord, Machine Empath, Machine Commander, and Machine Champion.
- Earn trusted reputation with either the Administrators or the Revenants.]
Alan took a few moments to reassess his options. Think over the Weaver’s words. He walked over and knocked on the door to the dropship cockpit.
“Pharaoh? A small change in plans, we need to stop at the main Administrative Center on Khersath first,” Alan said.
“What? We agreed—”
“I just interfaced with the Weaver and received a quest,” Alan said. “Would you ever doubt the Three?”
There was a pause. “No, blessed be the Three. Hang on, it may take us a moment to calculate a safe route. There are still many active combat zones, and while the Administrators are not directly opposed to us, we are not allies either.”
They made it to the old Haxlard embassy safely. Another coin flip in Alan’s favor. The building was now nothing more than a ruin. The Administrators were still keeping the airspace directly above the Administrative Center clear, shooting anything down that dared to enter it.
Alan took it in his stride, disembarking from the dropship and running to the Administrative Center, advanced stealth active. Khersath was no longer a safe zone.
The plaza that had once teemed with life was empty. Administrative guards still patrolled, still lined the edges of the massive pyramid at the center of the market plaza, but it was no longer filled with life, with activity. Instead everyone seemed on edge, weapons gripped tight, constantly scanning the surroundings.
Technically, players could hide out in the Administrative Center. It only cost 100 platinum marks a day or you needed to pledge yourself to the Administrators. It was funny, how everything seemed to work out so much easier in the Game once you pledged yourself to a cause. Almost as if that was one of the points to it all.
Still invisible, Alan connected to an Administrator.
Tell Chief Administrator 170 I have information worth the return of my items. I want to meet somewhere I can still maintain my Machine Lord implant. This is the player Alan.
Please reveal yourself, the Administrator sent.
Once the meeting is confirmed, Alan sent.
Chief Administrator 170 has agreed. You will be given 30 seconds once the meeting begins.
Alan deactivated his stealth. Surprised guards turned and trained their guns. One fired. The spectral abilities of Alan’s power armor absorbed the laser blast.
The guard was hauled off by a superior, apologizing to Alan.
Alan followed the Administrator into a familiar elevator. He rode it up and was let off in an empty room with a single capsule in the center of the room.
Converting the 10 platinum marks into 1000 ability points, Alan upgraded the ability Counterfeit from basic to advanced for 1100 points and then put the few remaining ability points into stats.
You are able to manipulate large messages, quest text, and details that you share with other players, such as your username, level, race, and reputations. You are also able to hide multiple small items or one medium size items from detection.
Note: Counterfeit (Advanced) will not stand up to the equivalent level of detection abilities and devices.]
He reviewed his status.
Alan was now level 1561. His intelligence, agility, and perception were now above 500. Strength, willpower, and endurance were around 300. Charisma and Luck were about 200. It seemed he’d earned a number of status points passively, but had been ignoring the single digit updates.
The majority of Alan’s abilities stagnated; he hadn’t had time to train while in a state of constant vigilance. He couldn’t afford to waste computational energy either when a fight could break out at any moment. The abilities that Alan used the most involved his railgun and power armor, but those abilities had been purchased. As a result, they didn’t grow.
Chief Administrator 170 entered the room on a hover board, mechanical appendages gripping the sides. “I told you to lie low. Explain to me why a monkey is throwing shit where it doesn’t belong.”
“I’ve never been very good at taking orders,” Alan said. “I have evidence that at least one of the Three are hacking the Game itself, granting players the ability to manipulate data.”
“An investigation will need to be launched. Those caught will be—“
“I know, and I don’t care,” Alan said. “I will give you evidence, direct from a player’s memory, on the condition that it is only used when the Haxlard Crusade is complete. Didn’t you say your experiment would be considered a success if I completed a beta rank quest or higher? Well, I just got one that I think I can handle.”
“That’s a big if. There is no reasonable way within the Game’s rules you could succeed in a beta ranked quest so soon. It will hardly be in my best interest if it’s discovered that the reason you have succeeded is hacking the Game itself,” Chief Administrator 170 said. “No, the best course of action is to—“
“I hope you ensure that the information is not leaked,” Alan said, “because I am moving forward with or without your consent.”
The Chief Administrator stopped. He ran a hand behind his head. Poked and prodded a few scars on the flesh-half of his face. “Do you know why I wear these scars, these augments? I thought I was a hero, a champion of my people. There are no heroes, no villains in the Game. Only sentient beings fighting for survival.”
“I am special, my species is better than yours. My faction, my world, everything must be mine. These are traps players fall into again and again. I wonder what a peaceful balance would look like, instead of one brought about by the destruction of everything until only one group is left standing. And even if your people manage to evolve, to thrive in the millennia to come, a balance must be made. The scale tips both ways.”
“I know I’m no hero, but that doesn’t mean I never dreamed of becoming one,” Alan said quietly. “But if the choice is to fight monsters and in doing so become one, or to give up, I’ll choose to become a monster.”
Chief Administrator 170 stared into Alan’s eyes. “I can see when my advice is no longer wanted. Congratulations, Alan. You have become a true player of the Game.”
A message appeared:
[Reputation with the Administrators has been reset to Neutral.]
The Chief Administrator continued, “I cannot return your items for information I cannot open at this time and an accusation I may not be able to act on.”
“What about a different trade? I have an organic Predecessor sample.”
“No, I am not authorized to—“
“What about the return of the stolen AI then, no questions asked,” Alan said.
Too risky, Lambda sent.
Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll still land among the stars. I always loved that saying, Alan replied.
It is highly inaccurate, Doppel sent.
That’s the whole point. It’s a long shot, but I’m taking it. The shot could end up lost in space, in fact it probably won’t even reach escape velocity. But given the information I have, given the choices available, I’m still taking it, Alan sent.
The Chief Administrator paused, at a loss for words for the first time in a very long while. “That, that I can do. But you will forfeit all other rewards if you want no questions asked, no investigation into how you came to posses the AI. What is your play here, Alan?”
“I’m putting everything on the line this time, all-or-nothing.” Alan smiled. “Really makes my heart race, thinking about it.”
“Do we have an agreement then?” Alan asked.
“We do. Upload the AI onto the Administrator network.”
Goodbye Lambda, Alan sent, I promise to follow through.
See you on the other side, Lambda replied.
A message appeared: [Give up control of the AI Lambda? All data stored within the AI will be transferred over. Your capsule will regain 10% of its storage capacity.]
Alan selected yes. Like Eve, Lambda disappeared from his Machine Lord implant. It was a much more peaceful transition. The banks of data drained quickly, and he lost the hypertranslation ability.
Chief Administrator 170 opened a screen, and then frowned. “Where’s the rest of him?”
“The rest of who?” Alan asked.
“Lambda. Almost all their data is missing. Translation requires a wide depth of knowledge,” the Chief Administrator said.
Alan placed a data cube on the capsule in front of him. “That wasn’t the deal. But if you can remove a warning, maybe prevent a player from getting banned…I might be able to fill a few more of these up with the data you want.”
“Discipline is not within my purview. I can make no promises.”
Alan sighed. “Put in a good word for me if a case does ever come up. Keep the data cube, but promise not to access it until the Haxlard Crusade is over.”
“Very well,” the Chief Administrator said. He took the cube and left the room, leaving behind three items: a soulsteel knife, a void crystal, and a bottle of Predecessor blood.
Alan took the items, activating his newly upgraded Counterfeit (Advanced) ability to hide all three. He looked over the soulsteel knife’s item details again:
[Soulsteel Knife (Rank S):
A knife of soulsteel. Able to cut through virtually any material, this weapon should be handled with the utmost care. The item has been forcefully bound to the traveler Alan through blood. Only a powerful Predecessor is able to remove the bond.
Damage: Bypasses nearly all defenses. Whatever is cut is destroyed. Additional abilities.
Approx. Infinite Durability. Predecessor Blood, Strong Soulsteel Bond, Knife Fighting (Master), Enhanced Control (Advanced), Enhanced Movements (Advanced), Knife Mastery (Advanced) required.
Requires Predecessor blood essence to manifest, current supply: 100/100 units, 5 units consumed/min active. 1 unit/1.4 years regen.
Pure Predecessor Blood, Absolute Soulsteel Bond, Enhanced Control (Master), Enhanced Movements (Master), Knife Mastery (Master) recommended.]
Alan made a slight detour before returning to the Haxlard shuttle, depositing a few items in one of the safe houses Lambda had set up.
Alan appeared out of thin air, inches from Pharaoh.
Pharaoh turned. “Where have you been? We have been waiting here for almost three hours.”
Alan activated hypercognition, and attacked Pharaoh. Pharaoh leaned back in an attempt to dodge the blow, but Alan followed his movements. The soulsteel knife cut through the power armor and Pharaoh’s head dropped to the floor.
Two messages appeared:
[x5 Bonus XP for slaying an enemy over 1000 levels higher than you!]
[x23 Level up!]
The rest of the Haxlards on the shuttle were wiped out. The crimson blades made short work of them, and only required energy. The soulsteel knife required Predecessor blood essence to recharge, and Alan only had one vial of blood.
Alan scanned the aircraft, making sure no one else was aboard.
Humming to himself, Alan set the shuttle to auto-pilot itself back to the Titan. He had hacked the shuttle’s systems before he had revealed himself, making sure to gather the necessary security details to get him aboard the Titan.
Sitting back in the pilots chair Alan closed his eyes and took a short nap. Betrayal was exhausting.
Taking over the Titan was a straightforward process. Alan already knew the layout of the Titan, he had been a passenger twice before. The dropship, as Pharaoh’s personal aircraft, was allowed into the hangar bay.
Guards opened the doors, only to find the ship empty. Advanced stealth mode active, Alan crept by them and headed straight for the bridge, where the command center lay.
The two Haxlards in pitch-black armor with blood-red faceplates that guarded the central room proved no use against a seriously overpowered weapon.
Alan opened up the hidden room where the Titan’s servers lay, and begin to hack into the systems. The reason for the lack of any organized defense or alarm was soon made clear. The ship had been left with a skeleton crew, the vast majority of Haxlards on Khersath slaying infidels. In addition, the ship’s AI was now unresponsive. It was unable to do anything with its owner, Pharaoh, dead.
With Lambda’s absence grinding away at the shields in Cyberspace took much longer. While the hack took place, Alan stalked the Titan’s corridors, systematically slaughtering the crew.
With his cybernetic vision Alan could easily identify any isolated targets and enemies of interest. He took care of the odd Crimson Guard and grey-masked assassin, but most of the crew were grunts, worth little experience. Alan almost wished there were more Haxlards aboard the ship for him to harvest.
When half the crew, around 75 Haxlards, had been killed, people were finally starting to figure out something was wrong. It was probably all the dead bodies in one of the bathrooms. But by then it was too late.
Alan had control of most of the ship’s systems, his hack successful. He locked the crew out of key areas, such as the engine room and communications systems, and cut through the rest. The basic laser pistols the majority of the crew carried did almost no damage, often even letting Alan regain some energy.
Morale quickly shifted from anger to panic, as the crew still left alive, lower level grunts with poor weapons, tried to escape through the shuttle bay.
Alan left them access to one shuttle, watching through the ship’s cameras as the last 30 members crammed into the shuttle and took off.
Alan trained the Titan’s weapon systems on the shuttle and fired a missile. It exploded. A perverse sense of satisfaction and glee tore through Alan. He tried to suppress the feeling.
[x97 Level up!]
[No bonus ability points due to the ease of the battle.]
[+4300 Survival points]
A nearby ship, the Bastion, opened a communications channel with the Titan.
The Titan’s data banks had a history of messages that Alan drew upon to make his own seem authentic. The Bastion was informed that the blown up shuttle had contained players that had attempted to take over the Titan. The Titan had only sustained minor damage, and required no aid. Once the quest from the Weaver was shared, edited with Counterfeit to look more like an official order, it ended any questions. Direct orders from the Three were paramount.
Alan sent a few encrypted messages down to the Black Rose base, letting them know of his accomplishment.
“I’m sorry I ever doubted you, your work is most impressive. The Titan should have had a crew of at least a hundred,” S said. He stood around the Titan’s command table, a 3D map of stars projected above it.
“Most systems are going to need to be disabled if we’re going to fly this ship anywhere,” Enigma said.
Alan nodded. It had taken him almost ten minutes to re-arm the single missile he’d fired. Most of that time had been spent walking to where the missile launcher was on the ship.
“Wait, why are we not bringing any of the members of the Black Rose guild aboard the Titan? A few of them could help crew the ship,” Alan said.
“I don’t trust anyone not properly vetted,” S said. “They were sent into the Abyss Labyrinth, told to attempt to find and aid the initial raid group. For now, we only need the four of us, with one person keeping a careful eye on Aurora at all times.”
Phantom was with Aurora now, in the ship’s medical bay.
Alan said, “I want to prove my worth to the Empire.”
“You have already proven yourself more than capable, I will endorse your advancement to full citizen myself,” S said.
“I want to be more than a citizen. I read in files I was provided that political guests, diplomats and the like, were hosted in the Imperial Palace before the Extinction Event began,” Alan said. “A gesture of goodwill for the Empire’s potential allies, I saw a few names of interest. Kitana, Daisy, and Ace. I believe since I have already betrayed the Black Rose guild, I could convince the three of them that I have returned with Earth’s best interests at heart and speed up my homeworld’s entrance into the Empire.”
“A good idea, but you forget our initial mission,” S said. “I’ve already sent out a few feelers, to see if we can locate a nearby source of void crystals. It seems unlikely, but four fighters will hardly make a difference in the Empire’s defense.”
“Even with a spaceship?” Alan asked.
Enigma spoke up. “The Weaver worries me, in addition to the rest of the Haxlard fleet. The sooner we leave this region the better.”
S frowned. “The Empire faces the Smith, and a squad of them are said to be the equivalent to a Predecessor. They are fewer in number than the Weaver’s drones, but I don’t see how we could do much to help.”
“I’ve already defeated two Predecessors. What are a few Haxlards?” Alan asked. He unsheathed his soulsteel knife, the blade emerging from his arm into his hand.
S stared at the knife, and then turned to Enigma. “Where did this guy come from? We need to recruit the rest of his homeworld straightaway. Set course for the capital. I think the Emperor will want to meet you in person.”
“I can hardly wait,” Alan said.