The catacombs were laid out like a graveyard, a mass burial site for the living. It was as heavily guarded as the imperial palace, if not more so. Predecessors, giant mechs, and numerous servants stood at the gate and patrolled the grounds.
Extending his senses, Alan found that this place amplified signals rather than absorbing them. It felt like he could reach out and connect to the satellites and starships orbiting the planet.
A massive half-sphere mausoleum that looked like a space observatory lay at the center of the catacombs. A massive wave of signals was constantly being broadcast from it. Smaller half-sphere buildings dotted the grounds as well, also trading signals with the stars.
Alan was still a mile away from the shields that surrounded the catacombs when two Predecessors approached and grabbed his arms. “What are you doing here?”
“I am here to find a player named Phantom,” Alan said.
“You are not allowed to be here. Return to the palace.”
“I am preparing to face the Emperor in a duel. I am allowed to gather my allies, some of who I believe to be in the catacombs,” Alan said.
The Predecessors traded a look of confusion. “Duel the Emperor? Weakling, this is not a place for jokes.”
“Is a servant by the name of Phantom or Enigma present? Send a message to them. Or perhaps the Emperor,” Alan said. He stared into one of the Predecessor’s eyes. “I am serious about the duel. I would not bar my way.”
One of the Predecessors disappeared, forcing Alan to activate hypercognition to track its movement back into the catacombs. A minute later it returned, and Alan was led through shields and security checkpoints into one of the buildings.
Phantom and Enigma stood inside. Capsules filled the graves instead of caskets. Alan detected that Aurora was in one of them. Most were filled. Almost 50 players lay in this building alone.
Within the room a massive parabolic satellite dish hummed with power, amplified by an unknown force. The catacombs were both sending and receiving signals. Alan realized that this was likely where the Specialists came from. They were androids tied to players here, safe in their capsules. But what were the players doing?
“Leave us,” Phantom said. The Predecessors left the room.
“What is this suicidal duel I hear about?” Phantom asked.
“I only wish for a chance at power,” Alan said. “It seemed like my only way out at the time. I assume that you don’t want to help?”
“No. I suggest you beg the Emperor for a more lenient sentence.”
“You and I both know that would never work,” Alan said.
“No, it wouldn’t,” Phantom said.
Alan turned to Enigma. “If you won’t help, what about Void?”
Phantom laughed. “Void? What are you talking about?”
“The best lies contain a hint of truth,” Alan said. “I was re-examining Void’s departure from the guild, your story about how you and Enigma were sent by the Empire. Things just didn’t make sense or add up. But then I realized you’re too smart to put your eggs in one basket. You have a partner, but it wasn’t Enigma, if they even exist. It was Void.
“You know the Black Rose guild could potentially be wiped out, but leaving would be betraying the Empire. Void, however, could leave, even join the Haxlards. With a man on each side of the Extinction Event you win no matter what. I checked, and the rules allow you to revive Players from the enemy side. Plus if Void follows every god, would that not also include the Three?”
Alan didn’t voice another reason. He had attempted to hack into Enigma the moment he’d entered the room but failed to detect a presence in Cyberspace to connect to.
Enigma removed his helmet, revealing a grinning Void. He looked taller and older, grown to fit Enigma’s build.
“What item or skill allowed you to replicate an android? There are a few I worked out on my own, but all seem rather expensive,” Alan said.
“But how do you know I’m not an android? What if we are all only robots, pretending to be human?” Void asked.
“We are not here to play mind games,” Phantom said. He looked over at the capsule Aurora lay in. “Now that Alan knows this secret, the Emperor will discover it. Better to end the problem now.”
“Surely you have a way of contacting the Blacksmith,” Alan said. “We can catch the Emperor unguarded and—”
“Plans unravel, traps are sprung. Men die and time moves on,” Void said. “It cannot be done. Have your birdies left you, Alan? Or is it you that have abandoned them?”
Alan lifted his head. “I am prepared to sacrifice myself. That is the decision that I have made, to do whatever it takes to accomplish my goals. Do not get in my way. Will you help me in my duel against the Emperor or not?”
“You do not understand the moves you are making,” Void said. “A childish gambit to save one’s homeworld? A sacrifice to take a powerful piece off the board? It matters not. They still win in the end. I did not join the Empire because it was the wisest decision, but because the Emperor knows where the true enemies lie. You do not. Better for you to become a servant, I think.”
“That wasn’t a yes or a no,” Alan said. “The Emperor is giving me a chance, why don’t you?”
“Leave,” Phantom said. “Get off this planet and avoid the Empire at all cost. You are still the owner of the Titan, are you not? I’m sure you are resourceful enough to get on the ship and try to fly far, far away. It is in orbit, being retrofit to become a spy ship. The Game will place you against Haxlard fleets that will destroy you, but it is a better life than a servant to a monster you cannot understand.”
Alan could hear echoes of what his AI would tell him. They would both advocate for leaving, running away to fight another day, to grind out levels and skills. But they weren’t Alan’s AI anymore. And Alan already knew the Titan was in orbit: he had hacked together the orders that had brought it here.
Alan was a gambler. It didn’t matter that the deck was stacked against him, that it was the poorest choice mathematically. He had a feeling that he could pull this off, no matter the odds. More than a feeling. He could see the path ahead; he just needed to follow it.
“Why are you so scared of the Emperor, Phantom?” Alan asked. He walked over to Phantom, staring him down.
Alan gripped his soulsteel knife and tore through Phantom’s skull. Phantom tried to raise his arm, to react in time, but the knife cut through everything. Void stood to the side, still smiling, and slipped his helmet back on.
[x10 Bonus XP for slaying an enemy over 1000 levels higher while taking 0 damage in the process!]
[x93 Level up!]
[Gained over 90 levels with one kill! +90 bonus ability points]
[Warning! You have violated the Black Rose guild contract. You will be required to pay a fine, may be expelled from the guild, and your title of Phantom’s Squire has been removed.]
[Warning! You have murdered a servant of the Empire. Reputation with the Empire set to hostile.]
The next moment two Predecessors had burst into the room. Alan raised his hands nonchalantly.
“You are under arrest. You—“
“I am to duel the Emperor. Phantom was unwilling to return my items,” Alan said. He shared the details of his Become Worthy quest with the guards. He didn’t tweak the text as he suspected that they would possess detect forgery skills high enough to notice any changes. “I will become the Emperor’s servant soon, and if you make me miss my appointment I will hold you accountable.”
The guards hesitated, they didn’t know what to do. They finally decided to run this problem up the chain of command. S entered the room a few minutes later.
“Alan, what are you doing? This is hardly the proper way to treat your fellow servants,” S said.
“I’m not a servant yet,” Alan said, “and I want to prove my worth. Care to join the fight?”
“No, I think not,” S said. “I bring a message. No more destruction of Empire property or personnel. Is that understood?”
“Yes, won’t happen again,” Alan said.
[Reputation with the Empire reset to neutral.]
“For some reason, I don’t believe you,” S said, staring at Alan.
“You don’t need to; the Emperor wants me to put up a fight. I am obliging,” Alan said.
“We will follow him, make sure that he stays out of trouble,” one of the Predecessors said.
“No,” S said. “Alan is to be left to alone for now.” He left the room with the guards.
Alan turned to Void. “Do you see now? The Emperor’s arrogance has grown too much.”
“When Phantom respawns he will report you. Your secrets will be left open to the world and you will be granted eternal rest,” Void said.
“Not if I kill the Emperor. That will make Phantom pause, stop him from making any drastic decisions,” Alan said. “There’s also the possibility that Phantom’s memory of the death will be wiped or other measures I’ve taken will come into effect. Where is the real Enigma, the android? As an item, it should be mine. I killed the owner.”
“Ah, the joys of hope,” Void said. “How foolish. How fresh. Very well, I will aid you in your duel against the Emperor. It will serve as a useful lesson in humility; there is no avoiding the gods now. The faceless man is stored nearby.”
Alan nodded and walked over to a capsule. “Let’s see if Aurora will help.” He pressed a few buttons.
Aurora was brought out of her coma. Liquid silver nanites poured down her body as she sat up.
She turned to look at Alan. “What’s going on?”
“We are on the Empire capital planet, Domus. Phantom,” Alan gestured at the dead body, “betrayed the Black Rose guild to the Empire. He kidnapped you as a hostage; I played along until I had the opportunity to kill him. Now, I am to face the Emperor in a duel to the death. I would be grateful if you would aid me.”
Aurora scrolled through a list of messages. “Where’s Sidestep? Why should I believe you? The last thing I remember was being in the Black Rose guild base.”
“I killed Sidestep. I made a mistake,” Alan said. “I wasn’t sure where anyone’s loyalties lay and wish that he was here to help us now.”
“I also wish that he was still among us,” Void said, using Enigma’s voice. “But all that matters is the present.”
Aurora blinked. “Enigma. What happened to my mother, what happened in the Abyss Labyrinth?”
“I wish I knew,” Void said. “I left early on a separate assignment. My forte is not my combat prowess. Phantom was also holding me hostage.”
Aurora thought for a few moments and then nodded. “I will do what it takes to ensure the Black Rose guild’s safety. If that means getting revenge against the Empire that has betrayed us, so be it. What is the plan?”
“Well,” Alan said, turning to Void, “I assume you still have the two nukes…”
Four figures stood on the hill. The landscape was featureless, devoid of anything except the mound of dirt.
Kitana gripped her blade. The edge now contained soulsteel, the cost of her support. The weapon would do far more in her hands. Her heart raced, the world awash with color. The fearsome killing intent of a monstrous killer pressed down upon her.
Daisy stood behind, at the center of the hill, prepared to administer medical aid. She knew that it wouldn’t make much of a difference, not in this fight. But she would do what she could, for Earth. The Emperor did not respect diplomacy, only force.
Aurora spread out her hands and made clear walls of ice. They wouldn’t do much, but a fraction of a second could be the difference between life and death. Still confused, reeling at the betrayal and self-implosion of the guild, she wasn’t sure what to believe. So she focused on the ice, and the familiar cold.
Enigma stood still, constantly analyzing and reanalyzing the surroundings to determine if he should act. Sky clear? Affirmative. Do not act. Approaching enemy? Negative. Do not act. The checks cycled: a monotonous loop that would continue forever if nothing changed.
“Where is Alan? He went invisible to scout an hour ago,” Daisy said.
“Focus on the battle at hand. It could be over in an instant,” Kitana said.
Aurora glanced at the blade Kitana wielded. “Can you take a single strike? I do not see how we win this fight.”
A dot appeared in the sky. Enigma readied himself.
A figure in power armor with a railgun deactivated its invisibility, and said, “We’re the bait, the sacrifice.”
Then the Emperor was upon them. It crashed through the walls of ice, barreling into the center of the formation before any except Enigma could react.
Enigma flipped a switch, but too slow, too late. The Emperor swept Enigma off his feet and crushed the android like a trash compactor. The nuclear bomb activated; the Emperor let it explode and leapt backward.
But there was no explosion, no burst of radiation. Instead, there was a flash of light, and the Emperor’s life decreased by 5%. A diagonal line appeared on its chest.
Kitana lifted her sword to swing again. The Emperor raised its hand and blades of soulsteel shot out. The Emperor’s life decreased by 2%, but the soulsteel went through Kitana’s head.
An explosion sounded in the distance. A mushroom cloud expanded above the catacombs. The Emperor froze. Should it return, deal with the fallout? No, it would extract payback later.
Aurora tried to encase the Emperor in ice to stop its movement. It shrugged the ice off, and a series of soulsteel blades went through Aurora’s head as well.
Daisy desperately tried to repair the damage to Kitana, to bring her back to life. She was killed almost as an afterthought. A flick of the Emperor’s finger crushed her skull.
The railgun fired, and a soulsteel needle pierced through the Emperor’s thigh. It still had 90% of its health.
“This is all you could—”
And then the Titan crashed into the Emperor, with all the speed and force of a meteorite, its engines running full throttle. Void, wearing Alan’s armor, was crushed to death.
Alan stood in the control room, focused on the void crystal in his hand. Hypercognition activated, Alan connected with the Game itself, forcing his consciousness out and into the fabric of reality with Data Interaction.
Time seemed to slow down a step beyond even what Eve had been capable of. Every detail of Alan’s surroundings was absorbed. He was suddenly able to see. New senses burst into being like he’d stepped out of a dark cave and into the light.
Messages popped up. Alan already knew what they said; he didn’t need to spend the time to read them:
[By becoming aware of everything within your perception, you have gained a new ability, Minor Omniscience!]
[By ERROR, you have gained a new ability, Minor Precognition!]
[+100 Intelligence, +100 Perception, +100 Willpower]
The precise force the Titan was crashing into the Emperor with, the Emperor’s health and damage resistance, the amount of energy that would be released by the abyss crystal, it was all as clear as day.
And it wouldn’t be enough.
The Emperor would survive, with 2% health remaining.
Alan froze, trying frantically to figure out what he could do. He knew all the variables though. All of his energy and his entire health bar were being used up. It took everything he had to reach this point, to keep the skills he had active and use Data Interaction to release the void crystal’s antimatter. It wasn’t enough.
The only thing that Alan had left to burn was his consciousness. The lights, the mind that traversed Cyberspace, the part of the Game that made up himself. His soul.
Was a single kill worth the risk, the sacrifice?
No. Alan wanted to live on. To exist.
But minor precognition was active, and Alan could see down the branches of the future. He would become a slave or be banned from the Game. Earth would fall under the Empire’s control. Millions, perhaps billions, would be deleted fighting against the Game itself. No progress would be made. Only war and destruction.
On the other hand, Alan would die. A true end. The Empire would crash and burn in the Extinction Event. Earth would be given room to grow, its future uncertain. A path towards a new hope revealed itself.
But that world would not contain Alan.
It was funny, now, how Alan felt like he was freest from the Game’s influence on his mind when he was most intertwined with its systems. It didn’t try to change him because he was part of the Game.
And Alan realized he didn’t care as much as he thought. Everyone died. If all it took was the press of a button, so be it. He’d kill himself. The pain, the joy, the sorrow, everything would end. There would only be nothingness, or he’d find out there was an afterlife.
That didn’t sound so bad. Alan made his choice. To save others, but also because he couldn’t be bothered to continue living.
A tiny shard of soulsteel was created mid-air as the Titan crashed into the Emperor and the void crystal exploded, releasing all its energy in a massive explosion. The shard went through the Emperor’s head.
The Emperor died.
And Alan vanished, erased from existence.