Alan made a decision. It probably wasn’t the correct one. An unoptimal choice, as Eve would have put it. It still felt right to Alan. He had picked a side, though probably for all the wrong reasons.
“I am willing to serve the Emperor, with a few conditions,” Alan said.
“Go on. Though you wouldn’t be answering to the Emperor, more the Empire. Various cells working independently, it’s a complex beast, yadda yadda yadda,” Phantom said while waving a bottle in the air.
“I want access to all information the Empire has, including scans of high-rank AIs, a clear path to upgrading my Rogue class, and improved implants without the kill switch,” Alan said.
“That, and more, I can promise you. But only with time, only if you serve the Empire well,” Phantom said. “You can’t jump out of nowhere and start demanding the world. It doesn’t work like that. I can give you the information I have, the scan of Eve I performed when you first arrived. But that’s all I have on hand other than platinum marks.”
“Everything else will need to wait until the extinction event is over. I can promise you rank D citizenship in the Empire. Enigma is probably one of the best class mentors you can find, but given how things are going he’s probably dead. The Empire has a wide array of implant plans and options.”
“Do you know any that involve Predecessor physiology?” Alan asked.
“Yes, but there are no free lunches,” Phantom said. “Like guild points, there are citizenship points. Rules that you will need to learn, customs to follow. It’s best for you to take the citizenship test after the extinction event is done or by some miracle we make it to the Empire.”
“What about the guild? Is everyone part of the Empire?” Alan asked.
“What? God’s no. But before I tell you more, before I fill in any details, there’s that other matter,” Phantom said.
“Yes. If you would enter the silver capsule, you will be able to connect to an adjacent, private server. I’ll let you turn your implant on.”
In the back of Alan’s mind, he could still detect the Data Interaction ability, even without his implants. Only, it was much weaker. To attempt to do anything would likely kill him. But Phantom was under the impression Data Interaction only worked in Cyberspace and required his Machine Lord implant. Alan did nothing to disabuse him of this notion.
“The capsule isn’t connected to the Administrator?” Alan asked.
“No, it’s Revenent tech,” Phantom said. “Don’t worry, you should also probably set your respawn point if able. Delete a decoration, anything unimportant. It will be recorded.”
Alan entered the capsule and closed his eyes. There was a brief moment where he considered changing his mind, trying to fight his way out, but that would be within Phantom’s expectations. Who knew what tricks the capsule contained.
Phantom’s Home was like his workshop. Cluttered, and filled with junk. A few programs that looked like Specialists patrolled the space. Drawings and sketches were stacked in piles on a desk. Phantom was researching bombs.
Alan walked over to the desk.
And then Alan’s implants were reactivated, his cybernetic energy pools refilled. Alan stared at the chair by the desk. He connected to the source code, the layer beneath the Game, beneath Cyberspace.
The erase command took form in his mind, easier now that he had more energy, more experience. The chair’s data was also insignificant, unimportant to the Game. That seemed to matter, when determining the energy costs of Data Manipulation. How much it would effect the Game.
And 500 Computational Energy later, the chair was deleted. Gone. Wiped from existence. But Alan did notice an almost chair, a phantom chair that hovered in the same space. He ignored the backup, and disconnected.
“That was impressive,” Phantom said. “I know an instance or two where that ability would have come in handy.”
“There were details, information I should have,” Alan said. He noticed that his implants were still available and active in the workshop.
“Yes, in a moment. Just confirming that my recording of your demonstration is in a safe and secure location. Away from here, sent to the Administrators if something happens,” Phantom said. He opened a terminal, nodding to himself. “Answers, you wanted answers didn’t you? Have at it.”
Information was uploaded to Alan’s Machine Lord implant, including the scans of Eve.
Well, I guess it’s better than nothing, Lambda sent. This is from a B rank scanner when Eve was still a lower rank. It will take me a few hours, but I should be able to boost Doppel’s ability about 2.5 times, letting you use hypercognition to experience reality 10 times as slow.
Alan acknowledged Lambda’s response, combing over all the data Phantom had handed over. He spent hours analyzing it, and then recalculating what it meant for his potential plans. Phantom and Enigma had started as two D rank servants in the Eyes of the Empire, which appeared to be similar to the CIA. They had been given one simple directive: expand the Empire, maintain its interests, and gather information. They had chosen to start up the Black Rose guild with the goal of turning Elissandra and the rest of the council.
Many guild members had specific ties to Enigma and the guild information apparatus, not realizing that they served the Empire. There were a few details on contacts, higher ranked servants in nearby areas and Empire forces available. Missions performed and information passed on had allowed Phantom to reach a C rank within the Empire.
The duo had the citizenship points to also increase Enigma’s rank, but had chosen not to, instead preparing for an upcoming event. The Haxlard Crusade. The details of what had been planned was missing. There was also no information on what the Empire had on Phantom, or why he and Enigma had such a deep connection.
Continuing to look over recent developments, Alan noted an interesting fact. One of the initial contacts between the Empire and the United World Government had been between Icewolf and Enigma.
Quickly scanning the packet of information for anything on Earth, Alan made a startling discovery. Seeker’s words rang in his mind. Your homeworld is already the Empire’s in all but name.
There were only bits and pieces, part of a fragment of a whole, but with Doppel’s help Alan could extrapolate the whole.
The leadership of the United World Government was preparing to sell out. Cushy positions as high ranked servants on Earth would be promised, portions of land and people divided up to be sold to the highest bidder. Newbie protection would do nothing if the players that had all the control points voluntarily sold everything off.
Many in the UWG were stating that this was in the people’s best interests. There would be a peaceful transition of power, without a long and bloody war against an Empire that they’d inevitably lose. These people didn’t understand the nature of the Game.
Players respawned. Enemies respawned. Resources respawned. The cycle of life and death was no longer finite. Peace, if anything, would stunt Earth’s growth. It seemed so clear to Alan’s eye. He didn’t need a firsthand account or to talk to common people to know what was correct, only facts on a page.
Newbie protection wasn’t in place so new players in the Game could turtle up and build high walls; it was designed to let new players fight anything and everything that stood in their way, to grow as fast as possible without repercussion.
The United World Government also didn’t realize that the Empire was playing all sides to each argument, preparing to replace key figures with compliant servants or android replicates. The Empire had even backed the Legion of Man, another servant that lost out to Enigma and Phantom.
This doesn’t change anything. We move forward, Alan sent.
Agreed, Lambda replied.
“Has that sated your appetite for information?” Phantom asked. “I’ve finished repairing your armor.”
“Yes, though I’d like to know more about current dealings,” Alan said. He took the phantom power armor and put it on. “What is the guild’s plan for the extinction event?”
“Follow me,” Phantom said. He walked over to the Advanced Foundry, entered a code, and then stared into an optical scanner that appeared on the side of the device. A trapdoor opened with a ladder leading down into the central vault.
“By the by, don’t tell S or any other Empire Servants about me and Enigma,” Phantom said. “I wouldn’t trust many servants at all. People can get strange ideas about what’s best for the common good.”
Alan followed Phantom down into the vault. A series of scans and trained plasma turrets followed them as they descended down into the vault, which turned out to be the size of a small classroom. Alan wasn’t quite rubbing elbows with Enigma and S, who were waiting inside, but it was close.
The ladder retracted and hole in the ceiling closed.
At first glance, the vault contained what one would expect: stores of great value. Platinum marks, precious materials, and energy crystals were in metal containers that lined two walls.
On another wall were safety deposit boxes, silver rectangular cuboids labeled with the names of the council. One box was missing its name. Void had left the guild, and had yet to be replaced.
Two nuclear devices lay on the final wall, mounted like guns over a fireplace mantel. There was room for a third, but it was missing. These device weren’t sleek missiles. They were capsule shaped solid grey hunks of metal.
Enigma said, “I see you’ve noticed our store of nuclear materials. Despite nuclear devices ineffectiveness against shields, we’ve found that it can be quite easy to find ourselves inside of shielded areas when the need arose.”
S took a look at Alan, then Phantom. “Is he?”
“Alan will become an obedient servant of the Empire,” Phantom said.
S smiled. “Welcome to the team then. Welcome to the fire. Glory to the Empire, but boy, are we screwed.”
“That’s not what I was expecting to hear,” Alan said. He looked at Phantom. “I thought there was a plan.”
“Oh, there was a plan alright,” S said. “But that plan depended on someone doing their job and not getting caught as a servant of the empire.”
“The current hypothesis,” Enigma said, “is that Void alerted Elissandra to his suspicions. Elissandra confronted my double, and they were forced to detonate the nuclear bomb they carried.”
It was all Phantom that said that, Lambda sent. The Enigma that went below controls an android Phantom, while the Phantom here controls an android Enigma. It seems so obvious now.
Why didn’t you detect this when we were in the council room and they were together? Alan asked.
It must have been the two players present then. They would let Void control the Enigma android on occasion, but must have also never allowed Void to meet with the player Enigma, Lambda sent.
“With luck, Elissandra won’t remember what led to her death,” Phantom said. “They were in the Abyss Labyrinth, anything could have wiped the raid.”
“It’s still too risky. Pull all assets out of the Black Rose guild, re-enter the Empire’s main forces at the soonest possible moment,” S said.
Alan scanned the files he had been sent. S technically had the same rank in the Empire as Phantom, but as a direct servant of the Empeooror had greater authority. S was the boss here.
“We have spent many years, credits, and lives to develop the contacts we now have and the Black Rose guild,” Enigma said. “We’re abandoning it because we may have been compromised? Elissandra will see reason.”
“Elissandra was raised in the Alliance, Aurora’s father is a senator,” S said. “We will never be certain of Elissandra’s loyalty, even if she did pledge herself to the Empire. You two were too scared to ever bring up your true allegiance with her, and for good reason. You were to watch, to wait. Not to help her grow her powerbase.”
“Isn’t the answer right in front of us?” Alan asked.
“Yes,” S said. “We prepare the decisive strike now. Attempt to leave with everything in the vault after the Haxlardian Crusade ends. Without the Empire’s support, an insurrection in the guild will fail. With the Empire’s support, the cloak of secrecy is ripped off, and the entire purpose of the Black Rose guild is defeated.”
“But can’t we do that while still maintaining the possibility of retaining the Black Rose guild?” Alan said.
“How?” Enigma asked.
“Aurora. Aurora is still alive, and if she can be turned or held hostage, Elissandra would do anything for her, including join the Empire,” Alan said. “Plus Aurora has a ton of survival points, they could be used to help the Empire.”
“Sure,” S said. “And I wanted to defeat the Weaver. What I’ve learned from this entire debacle is to set realistic goals, Alan. We are stuck on this planet with no backup and no friends. We’re about to be destroyed by the Haxlards, as you’ve pointed out. No way off Khersath. To bring the vaults contents into the Abyss Labyrinth would be like handing over gold to a drgon.”
“The Empire has wasted too many resources on this endeavor, this mad gamble. The fight with the Blacksmith has gone so poorly that all our army can do is huddle up in the palaces and wait for the end. Citizens may be deleted. Not serfs, but citizens that have earned a rank. Can you imagine? The Empire might never recover from that blow.”
Maybe we chose to join the wrong faction at the wrong time, Lambda said.
No, this is good. Great, even, Alan replied.
“I may have a way off Khersath,” Alan said. “An Ultihaxlard by the name of Pharaoh thinks I will turn, join the Three. I will hijack their ship, we’ll load it up with the contents of the vault, along with Aurora.”
“Yes, sure, go ahead and try to take over a light battleship by yourself, Alan,” S said. He turned to Phantom. “Are you sure this guy is servant material? He seems crazy to me. Nothing he did at the Academy was very noteworthy.”
“You might be surprised,” Alan said. “You don’t have much to lose by letting me try. Stay holed up in here. I might have a better chance with Sidestep’s help, or Phantom’s, or even yours. I think I could have taken a capital ship with a party of five, this time I’ll get to test if I was right or not.”
“We need to stay here, in the unlikely event the council returns,” Enigma said.
“What was the plan, anyways?” Alan asked.
“The plan was to create an antimatter bomb, capable of dealing serious damage to the Weaver,” Phantom said. “The only problem is that the Void Crystals we acquired were unpowered. The Empire sponsored the Black Rose guild to re-enter the Abyss Labyrinth, delve deeper to discover a way to recharge them.”
“Energy crystals. Energy crystals hold antimatter,” Alan said. “But, but matter and antimatter annihilate each other in a massive release of energy. E = MC2. It’s 100% efficient, the mass of the matter and antimatter combined multipled by the speed of light squared. Anyone holding an energy crystal with a single milligram of antimatter would be carrying around a bomb with the force of over 40 tons of TNT.”
It did make sense though. In the Abyss Labyrinth, the powered void crystal had been releasing massive amounts of gamma radiation, one of the expected products of particles and antiparticles colliding.
“It would require crystals to be perfect, naturally forming vaccuums inside, with internal magnetic fields or optical lasers holding the antimatter in place at all times. The antimatter itself would have to manifest inside magically, like it was created by a program out of thin air. Almost, almost like all the other items generated,” Phantom said. “Like many things in the Game, energy crystals are a black box that Administrators don’t want you to explore. They are simply a convenient energy source. But remember, everything in the Game should be physicallly possible, even if it’s very, very improbable.”
“When energy crystals are destroyed there should be a massive release of energy. They should be antimatter bombs all on their own,” Alan said. “But when they’re destroyed, they release much less energy than the output you can get from them over a long period of time.”
“Maybe the antimatter is stored in a separate dimension, somehow, maybe there’s a different explanation,” Phantom said. “Black box, like I said. We don’t know the details of what’s going on inside. It’s worth a warning and massive penalty points if Administrators catch you messing around too much.”
“Which is why this was mad gamble in the first place, one I never should have approved,” S said.
“But still, my design would have worked,” Phantom said. “If only we’d been able to gather powered void crystals…”
And then Alan knew. Knew why his potential combat ranking had been so high. Things kept on getting better, choices expanding. And it would only take one choice, one moment of sacrifice.
“Can I go now?” Alan asked.
“Yes, take Sidestep,” S said. “I don’t trust him, he’s up to something.”
“How about platinum marks and a nuke? Both would increase my chances,” Alan said.
“Take 15 platinum marks, split them with Sidestep. That should alleviate some suspicion,” S said. “No nuclear device.”
“Okay then, bye,” Alan said. He grabbed the platinum marks then went back up through Phantom’s workshop, going the long way around. It would be a bit too suspicious if he came out of the vault too, but Sidestep wasn’t allowed in.
It would also give him more time to think. To plan.
Sidestep was lounging in the council’s meeting room, feet up on the table again. Alan entered the room and threw five platinum marks at him.
“Hey, what’s this for?” Sidestep asked.
“A suicide mission,” Alan said. “How do you feel about trying to hijack a Haxlard spaceship?”
“Beats sitting around here,” Sidestep said. He motioned upwards. “How do they feel about it?”
“Like it’s a long shot. But let’s prove them wrong,” Alan said.
Sidestep said, “Weird, isn’t it, how they’ve just been there, the entire time. Waiting. I thought Phantom and Enigma were with the raid that entered the Abyss Labyrinth. How’d they end up back here?”
“Sorry, can’t say anything,” Alan said.
He and Sidestep made their way to the surface, taking a side passageway that led to an exit away from where the base was being bombarded. They avoided any Haxlards they discovered along the way. With Alan’s invisible scouting and Sidestep’s ability to blink forward, avoiding most enemies was simple.
Once they reached the surface Alan went ahead alone. He spotted a familiar face, or at least faceplate. Pharaoh, the Ultihaxlard that had brought him to Khersath and started the tutorial. Once-ambassador to Earth, he had gained another white stripe on his green mask, and wore dark emerald power armor.
The dropship he had shot his railgun at earlier was being repaired nearby. It looked like he had managed to down it, but not destroy it. Four to five squads of Haxlards walked patrolled nearby.
Alan went back down, and told Sidestep, “We need to kill an Ultihaxlard first, the rest will be easy. He’ll be easy to spot. Green mask, two white stripes. There’s an open dropship I see that I can hack into once we eliminate the threats present.”
“Wouldn’t it be better to take a stealth approach?” Sidestep asked.
“No, I’m going to need to disable the shield surrrounding this entrance, that will give us away,” Alan said. “At that moment I’ll have my railgun trained on Pharaoh, but you need to attack him with everything you have. Do not take this enemy lightly, do yo uunderstand?”
“Very well, I’ll go on your signal,” Sidestep said.
Alan nodded, then made his way back to the surface. He got into a good position, setting up his railgun. He hacked into the nearby shield generator then gave Sidestep the go ahead.
Hypercognition active, Doppel sent.
Sidestep burst out of the hole in the ground, stepping forward with a green flash of light. Alan deactivated the surrounding energy shield.
With three successive blinks forward Sidestep was approaching Pharaoh. He began to glow with a bright green as he charged forwards, energy condensing in his hands. Sidestep teleported behind Pharaoh, ready to unleash his blow.
Alan fired. The soulsteel needle pierced through Sidestep’s brain, killing him instantly.
A message appeared:
[x6 Level up!]
[Warning! You have violated the Black Rose guild contract. You will be required to pay a fine and face an inquiry.]
Sorry, Alan thought, but I can’t have an unknown variable messing things up for me.