“Looking for something?” Phantom asked. He and Alan stood alone in the Titan’s hold, where the items from the Black Rose guild had been stored, as well as the power armor, weapons, and miscellaneous drops from the crew Alan had eliminated.
“Checking what was nabbed,” Alan said. “This has to be what, at least a few billion credits? I should get credit for retrieving some of it.”
“Don’t count on it,” Phantom said.
“I remember in the original message that if the Extinction Event is too brutal on the infrastructure then game areas may be reset,” Alan said. “Where did the nukes go?”
“They’re in a safe location,” Phantom said. “I couldn’t help but notice you took an interest in my bomb designs. Looking for something in particular?”
“Trying to figure out a weapon capable of killing one of the Three,” Alan said. He manipulated Counterfeit to bring up only the reverse option of the end to an empire quest and showed it to Phantom.
“That’s why you want to meet the Emperor, to complete a quest? Alan, let me tell you now, you do not want to meet the Emperor,” Phantom said. “Twice, twice I have met the devil, and each time brought new levels of suffering that I had not imagined possible.”
“Thanks for the warning, but I can handle myself,” Alan said.
“That’s what I thought too, but all dreams come to an end,” Phantom said. “I came down here to let you know we have decided to keep Aurora in a medically induced coma until we arrive at the Imperial Homeworld, Domus. The latest communications stated that the palace still stood. The Black Guard is busy wiping out the outer planets, converting serfs and citizens dissatisfied with the Empire.”
“Yes, the Empire and Alliance are much more spread out than Khersath, aren’t they? Many separate solar systems contained within each,” Alan said.
“I’m sorry, Alan, for not being a proper mentor. For leaving you with Enigma. There are too many other problems, too many—”
“I think you’ve had enough to drink,” Alan said. “Get some rest. Besides, you, and everyone else in the Game have taught me the most important lesson of all. The only person you can depend on is yourself.”
Getting through border security had been tough when they showed up outside the Empire in a Haxlard ship, but S knew the right people. They transferred to an Empire ship and were inbound to the Imperial Palace within hours of their arrival.
A few days later and here they were, in a shuttle above Domus.
The planet Domus was a small planet, but with great mass. Without power armor or increased stats, the increased gravity would have been oppressive. Instead, it was merely uncomfortable. Covered by dark grey and black rock, all Domus’s natural resources had been mined up long ago. Every dungeon was carefully mapped out and belonged to the Empire.
Domus was also known for harsh heat and short nights. It was an odd choice for a capital planet. Fuel, food, water, everything had to be imported to the Imperial Palace.
“I have arranged your quarters. They’re a bit sparse, but room is tight. Many of the Imperial families have retreated to the palace, in addition to various diplomatic envoys,” S said.
“I don’t care about nice things,” Alan said.
“Yes, well, I think it is best if you keep to your room until the Emperor meets with you. Don’t want to piss off the wrong people,” Phantom said.
“No, Alan should mingle, introduce himself to other servants,” S said. “I’ve had many stimulating conversations in the stone gardens.”
“And when will the Emperor meet with me?” Alan asked.
“The Emperor’s schedule is not known to one as low as I,” S said. “I only know that I was instructed to bring you to the palace, help you get settled in. Your feats must have reached the Emperor’s ears, but I don’t even know if they’re on Domus; the Emperor is often off traveling with no rhyme or reason.”
“Even with an extinction event taking place?” Alan asked.
“The Empire does not coddle the weak. Citizens do not beg for help, they earn it,” S said. “That being said, yes, we might benefit from a more proactive leader, one that was willing to make public appearances. But the Smith has only made minor moves thus far. A deeper game may be taking place.”
The shuttle landed a few miles away from the palace. Enigma and Phantom left with a medical capsule Aurora was placed in.
“Be careful Alan, the palace can be a nest of vipers that eat their own,” Phantom said.
“It’s not that bad, but you will need to leave your railgun behind,” S said.
“Of course,” Alan said. He left the weapon behind and followed S on a stone pathway towards the palace.
Two presences followed them. Alan’s bionic vision saw nothing there.
The Imperial Palace looked more like a fortress than a palace. It looked like it could hold anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand people, many less than Alan had expected.
A dark, stone construction embedded to the side of a mountain, the palace looked like something that would have been built in Mordor, dating back as far as the Middle Ages at least. There were no towers or spires, everything was built either close to the ground or was already part of the natural mountain.
A gatehouse leading into the palace was guarded by two Predecessors wearing black armor. Each held two spears, one in each hand, tipped with soulsteel. A single throw could end Alan’s life in an instant.
Alan scanned for mechanical defenses: turrets, shields, and the like, and was surprised that he didn’t find any.
“Where are the defenses, are those Predecessors guards?” Alan asked.
S said, “The denser atmosphere serves as natural shielding against a few weapons, but the true defense lies in the nigh-indestructible nature of the outer black rocks of the palace. Many years of psionic ritual and sacrificed blood empower the walls. Little escapes the Imperial Guard, Predecessors with soulsteel blades need not worry about laser or missile attacks from space.”
“I’m surprised Predecessors would be willing to serve as guards,” Alan asked.
S smiled. “Once subdued, Predecessors are quite reasonable. All humanoids can be found within the Empire’s ranks. You are no longer in a small guild, a planet new to the Game. We are at the center of one of the strongest empires ever known.”
“Imperial Governors have to at least have an S rank combat rating to even be considered for the position,” S said. “Don’t worry though; no one will kill you for your soulsteel without the Emperor’s permission.”
“They will if they think they can do it without getting caught,” Alan said.
“In ordinary times I would agree. But during an extinction event? No, you don’t need to worry,” S said.
As they neared the palace it was like Alan had entered a cell-phone dead zone. No signals were coming in or out of anywhere. He could barely access his own power armor. Anytime Alan tried to reach out, connect to any device, the signal would be devoured by a massive force emanating from every direction.
It was the walls. The black stone that Icewolf had used to stop communications must have come from here. Only it wasn’t one small, tiny piece of stone. It was everywhere: embedded in the walls, the artwork, the paved floor. A hacker’s worst nightmare.
Alan began to wonder if coming here had been the right choice.
S led Alan on a short tour of the open areas of the palace, places he was allowed to visit. Alan noted that the guard’s barracks was behind the heavily fortified gatehouse.
The stone gardens near the entrance consisted of Zen designs that calmed the mind. Black, grey, and white stone painted pictures of universes being born, stars collapsing, and haunting geometric patterns. Alan noted a subtle undercurrent as well. The different colored stones seemed to be fighting for space. With a slight nudge, the balance would be broken, and the stone garden would turn from a calm lake into a raging, chaotic storm.
Stone statues of great servants also lined the hallways: a Predecessor wielding a massive soulsteel sword, a psionic Ælven woman with an orb of energy, and a masked person in Revenant power armor caught Alan’s eye.
There was little vegetation, little color in the palace. Everything seemed to be a shade of black or white. Even the few players that roamed the halls wore white or black, with the occasional grey. Alan and S fit right in, as each wore black power armor.
The dining hall was a large hallway with wooden benches across the room, an elevated platform for higher ranked servants at the front. S let Alan know meals were served every four hours, and that he was also allowed to visit the kitchens and dine in his quarters.
The palace also contained a library, a room with actual, physical books, instead of servers or data cubes. Alan browsed the titles in the room. The books seemed to date quite far back, histories and treatises written by Empire scholars.
It felt like Alan had stepped out of the Game and into the past, into a simpler time before machines had taken over. The only difference was that many objects varied in size to account for a range of players, from dwarf to Predecessor.
Most of the palace was off limits to Alan, and the tour mainly consisted of S noting places that Alan couldn’t go. Eventually, S got around to showing Alan his quarters, a small room the size of a closet at the far end of a side hallway. Half the room was a stone slab with a feather mattress on top of it.
Alan asked a question he had been wondering. “Where are the capsules, where do people update their abilities and their respawn points?”
“The catacombs. That’s where Phantom and Enigma went with Aurora,” S said. “Certain pieces of technology are not allowed inside the palace. They wouldn’t work anyways. I agree that it seems a bit backward at first, but you’ll adjust with time.”
“How did you end up in the Emperor’s service, one of the servants?” Alan asked.
“I was born to it,” S said. “I have other business to attend to. The Emperor will visit you. Do not cause any trouble in the palace.”
“Thanks for the tour,” Alan said.
S left the room.
Alan sat down on the bed. With Doppel’s help, Alan ran through scenarios in his head. Perhaps he’d seemed too overenthusiastic about joining the Empire, serving the Emperor.
Alan shook his head. He had other things he needed to concentrate on. The lack of Eve and Lambda, of someone to bounce ideas off of, was distracting. He could talk to Doppel, but that would have been like talking to a virtual assistant: sad and meaningless.
After asking a few guards, Alan managed to discover Daisy and Kitana were staying in another part of the palace. Ace had fallen in battle. He’d visit later when he could move about undetected.
One of the invisible presences had continued to follow Alan, even after he’d entered the palace grounds.
Alan knocked on the door. Then, after a moment’s consideration, he took a few steps backward.
The door opened, revealing Kitana. She had gained new scars and seemed to have grown even more deadly in the process. Her presence had intensified. A greater aura of blood and death.
There was a pause, and then Kitana’s sword was in her hands.
“Wait! I’m here to talk,” Alan said as he scrambled backward further into the hallway. He raised empty hands.
Kitana lowered her weapon. “Talk. But a betrayer’s words are meaningless.”
“We should talk privately,” Alain said. He took a look inside Kitana’s room and caught a glimpse of a figure sitting on the bed. Daisy. A few puzzle pieces clicked into place.
Kitana began to raise her sword, but Daisy called out, “Wait. Let’s hear him out.”
Alan stepped into the room. “Do either of you have an ability to ensure our conversation isn’t heard? Most of the technology I possess doesn’t work with all the signal draining stone.”
“No hello, no good to see you?” Daisy asked.
Alan shrugged. Last time he’d seen Kitana she had tried her best to kill him.
“Straight to business, then,” Daisy said. “As an ambassador, I can guarantee our conversation will not be overheard. So tell me, Alan, why did you betray humanity?”
“Betray humanity? Me? I’ve done nothing but the opposite. If anyone was betrayed it was me,” Alan said.
Doppel brought up information on diplomat classes in the Game. Daisy should have the ability to tell if he was lying, which would hopefully make this conversation easier.
“No,” Daisy said. “Kitana knew that the attack on Earth’s financial institutions was a ruse, a ploy. You did not. You wanted to cripple the United World Government any way possible.”
“Because I believed at the time, and still do, that the path the UWG is on leads to humanity’s enslavement or extinction,” Alan said. “That’s why I came here today. I have new information that—“
“How are we supposed to trust anything you say? You have demonstrated repeatedly that you are an independent actor, obsessed with gaining levels and growing more powerful in the Game,” Daisy said. “Power comes at a cost. I don’t even know how you arrived here or knew how to find us.”
Kitana opened her mouth like she wanted to say something but then closed it.
“I’m human,” Alan said. “I was born on Earth, I grew up there. I love my family, my country, my world. My people. But you don’t need to trust me, just take a look at this data, away from here.”
Alan took out a data cube and tossed it to Daisy.
“On there you will find information on the Empire’s plans for Earth,” Alan said. “From the beginning high level quest givers, faction leaders or their subordinates, have been recruiting players from Earth into the Empire. Often players don’t even know those they are working for are servants or androids. It does not matter if Earth cannot be attacked physically or financially if its best have already been tricked into another faction.”
“I am here to maintain peaceful relations and to discover what joining the Empire might entail,” Daisy said. “Thus far the Empire has been nothing but accommodating and—”
“No. You don’t understand,” Alan said. “You do not join the Empire. You are enslaved by the Empire. No one is free; they are all tied to another’s will.”
“What are you doing here, Alan?” Kitana asked. “What’s your plan?”
Alan smiled, and said, “I’ve stopped trying to stick to one plan. That’s a lesson in futility. Instead, I’m shaping the future, nurturing and developing ideal outcomes. Imagine the future is a tree of possibilities, growing ever upwards and branching out in innumerable paths. We all stand at different points on the tree, only able to see so far, only able to change so much. Many paths are hidden, yet to be revealed.”
Alan’s eyes glowed. Mechanical gears spun, turning faster and faster. “I see fruits, waiting to be picked, and bountiful harvests. But I also see death and destruction. Permanent ends. I am doing my best to prune the bad branches and to help the good. But time is a river that is ever flowing, pushing upwards, and the tree continues to grow beyond anyone’s control. I only hope to make a difference.”
Alan closed his eyes. When he reopened them they were dull. Alan whispered, half to himself, “I will make a difference, no matter the cost.”
“Why are you here, why come to us, if not to claim the bounty the Black Rose guild placed on my head?” Kitana asked.
“Like I told you before, trying to open new pathways, branches in the future,” Alan said. “It’s what the Empire has been doing form the start, planning every step of the way. Ensuring that the only path available to Earth is to join the Empire. The major tournament organizers, the ones that are Icewolf and your mentors? Empire agents. The Black Rose guild, that recruited us at the start of the Game? Empire agents. The backers of the Legion of Man? Empire agents. And you are playing right into their hands.”
“What? How do you know all of this?” Daisy asked.
Alan pointed at the data cube he’d handed over. “It’s all there, on that cube.”
“Even if what you say is true, and this sounds more like a conspiracy theory than anything else, what can we do?” Daisy asked. “We are a single planet, new to the Game. We won’t survive a month after our new player status is revoked. Would you rather everyone join the Three and become religious zealots?”
“No, not at all,” Alan said. “I have started down two paths that will lead to either the destruction or crippling of the major factions arrayed against Earth: the Empire and the Haxlards. That will open up new opportunities, new options.”
“You’re crazy Alan,” Daisy said. “I don’t know where you’ve been or what you’ve been up to, but if you think that you can take out two major factions you’ve lost it. Earth’s entire army would barely have an impact, let alone a single person.”
“They might if they were willing to risk it all,” Alan said. “It is dumb, I think, to choose to side with my home planet above my own interests. An illogical choice. But like I said it’s my home. Where my friends, my family are from. People I’ve loved.”
Alan looked from Kitana to Daisy. “People do stupid things for love. I hope I’m remembered as a hero. That’s probably at least a small part of why I’ve come to you here today. In case you lose that data cube, or it’s wiped, there’s a safe house on Khersath that I set up with the same info. I’ll give you the access codes.”
“Stop being so melodramatic and self-aggrandizing,” Daisy said. “You’re not a martyr.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m doing everything I possibly can to try to make it out of this alive,” Alan said, “but the odds aren’t great.”
“Should I kill him?” Kitana asked.
“No,” Daisy said. She turned the data cube in her fingers. “Leave us. I’ll need to verify this, see if the information you brought is true.”
“Goodbye, and good luck,” Alan said.
Alan made his way back to his room in the palace and then stopped. A Predecessor was waiting for him. The Predecessor. Over 10 feet tall, with soulsteel embedded and infused into its skin, a blur masking its face. It had killed Alan during the Tutorial.
Alan activated divided mind, hypercognition, and mental partitioning.
“Stop that,” the Predecessor said. A force pushed against Alan’s mind, trying to end the abilities and break his focus. This time Alan fought against the mental attack, pushing back, but he was too weak. Divided mind broke, and then hypercognition. A silent roar erupted from Alan and with grim determination he managed to keep the smallest of mental partitions alive, hiding a few thoughts in the back of his mind.
The Predecessor looked Alan up and down. “Better, but still not there. You think you have found answers, but all you possess is more lies. A foolish child eager to share their half-truths and force their views upon the world. But your reality is warped, twisted in ways you cannot imagine. I will save you by forcing you to serve.”
“You. You’re the Emperor, a Predecessor and some type of mental-psionic ability user,” Alan said. He slipped his hand into a compartment in his power armor.
The Predecessor smiled. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. The potential I saw before has blossomed, grown into more. But it is not there yet. Serve me willingly, child, and I will bring you closer to Aleph than you have ever imagined.”
Alan began to kneel. He reached out his mind, started to concentrate on—
The Predecessor backhanded Alan into the wall. Faster than Alan could react it ripped the void crystal out of his armor and examined it.
Alan tried to reach out, to form a connection with the crystal through the Game, but the stones in the walls ate away at every attempt. A block was placed in his mind, disconnecting Alan from his own Machine Lord implant.
Alan slumped to the floor, defeated.
“A decent attempt, but it would have failed,” the Predecessor said. It held the void crystal next to its head. “A point-blank blast of all the energy contained within this crystal would only halve my health. I have desecrated my body, broken my soul. And for what? So that energy weapons and the tools of the enemy have a lesser effect. I am forced to play by their rules. They know this, and thus sent the Smith to face me. But they aren’t my match. They lie in wait, waiting for their brethren to join the crusade. I will prove that they are right to fear me.”
The Predecessor looked down at Alan on the floor as if just remembering why it was there in the first place. “All your actions are futile, your plans meaningless. You are still playing a game you cannot win. Join me and I will show you the way. Pick up your feet and serve the righteous cause.”
Despair raced through Alan. Apathy. He had failed, and there was nothing he could do. He was nothing. A speck of dust, a single human being in an uncaring universe. Nothing he could ever do would matter. He might as well give in.
No, there was still hope. He had progressed. He would become stronger, and put up more and more of a fight until either he won or died.
Alan recalled a memory, and then stood up, staring into the Predecessor’s eyes.
“You came to Earth in search of allies, not servants,” Alan said. “You do not want another dog begging at your feet for scraps, but someone that can fight by your side. I challenge you, Emperor, so I may prove my species worth.”
A soulsteel blade was at Alan’s throat the next instant. “I warned you I would not be lenient.”
“No, not a battle here and now, but one with all my allies and items gathered, in an open field of battle,” Alan said. “I know I stand no chance against you alone.”
“So you can run back to the Three for reinforcements, and become another enemy? Pledge yourself to me now, or die,” the Predecessor said.
“No. If you strike me down I swear I will come back once this crusade is finished and devote myself to ending you and your empire for all eternity,” Alan said. He closed his eyes. “Death is life.”
The Predecessor stared off into the distance, playing about with a shard of soulsteel in its hands. Small cuts on its scarred hands appeared, but it only lost 0.2% of its health.
Alan tried to run a few calculations, but without his implant could only hazard rough guesses. If Alan stabbed the Predecessor with his knife it might only be a glancing blow. And the Predecessor possessed such speed that it outpaced every enemy he had faced before. Any movement would be detected immediately. There was no escape.
“Yes, I did have a few questions, didn’t I…Who’s soulsteel do you now carry?” the Predecessor asked.
“The Lord of the Abyss,” Alan answered.
“I will accept your challenge, then, on the condition that you receive no aid from the Haxlards. Only players that willingly join you. And, when you lose, you pledge that you will forever be a loyal servant afterward, devoting yourself wholly, mind and soul, to my cause,” the Predecessor said.
Alan’s quest updated:
You have discovered the mysterious Predecessor to be the Emperor, and have challenged it to battle. Due to the Emperor’s acceptance, all other requirements are waived. Do you agree to its conditions?
Penalty: Should you lose the fight you will become the Emperor’s lifelong servant.
Reward: ??? The Emperor’s death. Soulsteel.
Time Limit: A minute to accept the offer. Battle will take place one day forth on Domus’s surface away from any fortifications or war zones.
Threat Level: Beta – Gamma]
[Warning! By agreeing to the updated quest you may potentially become the lifelong servant of another within the Game. It is highly advised that you do not accept these terms.]
“Return access to my implant, let me think over the choice,” Alan said.
The Emperor ignored Alan. The timer on the quest text counted down. 30 Seconds. 25. 20. 15. 10. 9. 8. 7. 6. 5. 4. 3. 2. 1. ε.
Epsilon? Alan thought, and then blurted out as the timer expired, “I accept, given I am allowed to use all my items and abilities.”
“Very well. Tomorrow the barren earth’s thirst will be quenched. Tomorrow you die and will begin your next life anew, serving for all eternity. But you are already a servant, unaware of the masters you serve, so I suppose it is no great change,” the Emperor said.
It tossed the void crystal to Alan, and then disappeared from view, moving too fast for Alan to process.
Alan’s Machine Lord implant returned to him. He ran a few calculations in his head.
I am confused, Doppel sent. Is this winning?
Alan ignored them, and then made his way back to Kitana’s room. He knocked on the door and said, “I need your help, a new path has opened.”