In addition to the soulsteel knife, Alan received a case of three unpowered void crystals the size of baseballs. Without energy, Eve estimated each crystal to be worth around a billion credits on the market. Mason took the case of power crystals, while Void grabbed the soulsteel knife out of Alan’s hands.
“Hey, that was my bonus reward!” Alan said.
“You get 10% of all rewards,” Mason said. “You and S will receive your shares once we return to the base.”
After scouts were dispatched the expedition started to make their way back to the Black Rose base.
Alan, Lambda, and Eve had a heated debate about what to do with their newfound riches. At a minimum, Alan would gain half a billion credits, and deciding what to do with that much money was complicated.
There were a few obvious expenses, money would definitely be spent on a rank A capsule, new implants, improved gear, and points to improve Alan’s abilities. Alan didn’t have access to the Market, an Administrator, the Exchange, Phantom, or Cerberus, though, so the exact costs couldn’t be calculated. Other expenses were causing issues too.
Alan, still feeling guilty about his part in the terrorist attack on New York City, wanted to donate at least part of his newfound wealth to Earth-based charities. Eve disapproved of this idea, as there would be no personal benefit to Alan as he would need to make the donations anonymous. No charity would accept money from the Doomsday Hacker. Lambda was ambivalent.
As a compromise, Alan decided that he would invest in a decent Earth-based guild, one that would do some good but wouldn’t be too concerned about who their new sponsor was. Eve would also try to set up an information network on Earth through the globalnet. Alan hoped this influx of credits into the economy would help at least a few players and stimulate growth.
Lambda continued to push for real life implants. He estimated the cost to be at least 50 million credits. Lambda also wanted Alan to set up three safe houses with a million credits in marks, a basic capsule, and a backup set of equipment. Eve liked this idea, until Lambda mentioned that Alan should set up the safe houses without Eve or Lambda’s knowledge, lest they become compromised. Eve eventually conceded the logic in this choice, though Alan wasn’t sure how to set up such things without his AI’s knowledge.
Eve wanted Alan to invest heavily in Cyberspace, but as Alan still wasn’t sure what he could get with his money, or if he had the requisite reputation required for better programs, the thought was shelved for later. Eve also wanted Alan to choose Machine Commander as his Machine Lord ability. The ability to control an S-class drone (or its equivalent) would cost 50 platinum marks, 10 million credits. On top of that Alan would need to purchase a suitable combat drone. Alan favored Machine Champion so that he could improve his personal combat abilities. Alan wanted to be able to hold his own against the strongest of enemies. Lambda wanted Alan to select the Machine Empath upgrade. Lambda argued that Machine Empath would improve Alan’s capabilities in Cyberspace and open more doors later, but wasn’t willing to divulge the exact details of what this meant.
By the time the party reached the Black Rose base, Alan was still unsure which Machine Lord ability he’d select. He would have to find more information before he made the decision.
Mason and Void led Alan and S into an elevator down to what Eve labeled as a storage area. The entrance room contained a number of security turrets and guards, as well as a few measuring devices. Enigma was there. He carefully ran the void crystals and soulsteel knife through an appraisal machine that looked like an airport baggage scanner.
“The Empire will accept the empty void crystals as fair recompense,” S said.
Enigma pulled up a few charts, the price history of soulsteel and energy crystals flashed before him. Enigma nodded and handed the case of void crystals over.
“Come on, I’ll make sure you get back without losing your balls,” Mason said. He led S into the elevator, and they left the room.
A message appeared before Alan:
[Congratulations, you have completed the Abyss Labyrinth Expedition quest! Enigma will distribute the quest rewards.
x57 Level up!
+50 ability points for gaining over 50 levels with one action.
Major increase in reputation with the Black Rose guild.
After the completion of one additional quest of sufficient difficulty you will be granted the rank of Knight in the Black Rose guild.]
Enigma turned to Alan and said, “You are awarded 40,000,000 guild points, Squire. Congratulations, you are now one of the wealthiest members of the Black Rose guild outside the Council. Phantom informed me that you would be interested in certain purchases. You will find an updated list of items you can buy from the guild and the Mercenary Bloc on the console in your quarters. You may inquire through me if you want to make more exotic purchases .”
“I was expecting a few more points,” Alan said.
“You will find that my calculations are generous,” Enigma said. “The market value of such high-end items are not equivalent to their fair value. You would have little luck in selling a soulsteel blade or void crystals for their full market price.” Enigma sent a message to Alan.
Alan examined how everything was valued. After a series of calculations that Alan couldn’t follow, but Eve said made sense, the soulsteel blade was deemed to be worth 2.3 billion credits, while the three void crystals were priced at 2.1 billion credits total. Then there was a 10% deduction. Finally, for the quest completion, Alan was granted 400k guild points.
“Hey, wait a second, you charged me the guild tax on quests even though it was a quest granted by the guild,” Alan said.
“The guild tax still applies. When you reach Knight rank it will be reduced to 5%. Good day, Squire,” Enigma said. He turned to pick up the soulsteel knife.
“Wait,” Void said. He placed his hand on the knife. “I’m cashing out and taking this knife, as well as the rest of my share in marks.”
“I do not understand,” Enigma said. “You are leaving the guild? A council session will need to be held, and the contract termination fee will be deducted from your account.”
“This guild is on a precipice,” Void said. “It has performed sacrilegious rites on a holy ground. The wrath of the gods comes, and I will not be here when hell is unleashed. It may yet be saved, but I doubt the council will listen to the ramblings of a mad priest.” He turned and walked back into another elevator.
Alan ran into the elevator with Void. “Wait, you’re leaving the guild?” Alan asked.
“This one’s time is spent better elsewhere. I wish you luck, youngling,” Void said.
“But you’re supposed to be my rogue mentor. Shouldn’t I be able to buy improved abilities from you? How were you suddenly able to hear my AI?” Alan asked.
“There is no time,” Void said. “The riches we have turn to ash in but a second, ephemeral and imaginary.” Void reached into a pocket and took out a familiar black stone. A globe of darkness settled around Void and Alan. Once more, Alan felt tired, his connection to Eve and Lambda cut off.
“If you find yourself lost, go to the southwest quadrant of the Administrative Center on Khersath at 05:17 standard time. Say something crazy. Someone will find you. Real life, in-game, it doesn’t matter. There will be a price to be pay. But right now I don’t have time to play with babes,” Void said. “You know more, but not enough.”
Alan blinked, and then found himself alone in the elevator. Void had vanished.
Alan, are you there? Eve sent repeatedly.
LALALALALALA, Lambda sent.
Stop, I’m back, I’m here, Alan sent.
The elevator doors opened to Alan’s quarters.
I thought you went crazy for a second there. Void grabbed your head and then you just stood in a trance for a minute, Lambda sent.
I’m fine, but I think we should start spending all these credits and points, Alan sent.
I went ahead and submitted our after-mission report to the Black Rose guild and filed for two weeks of vacation so that we may purchase upgrades and adapt to them fully, Eve sent.
Great, thanks, Alan sent.
Alan checked his status screen, he was now level 1119. Converting the guild points he had 400,464,952 credits to spend, in addition to 577 ability points earned through leveling, 320 bonus ability points for earning large numbers of levels at once, and 127 ability points from talented. He would continue to distribute the points from gifted that could only go into attributes according to Eve’s wishes.
As Alan would need to repurchase any ability points bought using marks if he lost the levels from dying, he decided to only purchase 3,880 ability points so that he’d have a total of 5,000 bonus ability points purchased. Hopefully, he wouldn’t lose over 119 levels anytime soon. He purchased the marks with guild points, and though the marks wouldn’t be converted until he reached an Administrative Center, Alan effectively had 4,904 ability points and 392,704,952 credits.
Next, Alan ordered a top of the line rank A capsule to be set up and installed in real life. A brief search online didn’t return any results for rank S capsules. The total cost after taxes, shipping, handling, and a century-long warranty, was just over 30 million credits. Alan couldn’t wait to see what the benefits of an improved capsule would be. The capsule would be ready in four in-game days. That left him with over 360 million credits.
Alan then browsed the Market, the Black Rose guild exchange site, and the Mercenary Block’s trading forum for deals and possible item load-outs. Due either to his higher level or the completion of a gamma-ranked quest, Alan found that there was a wide variety of new options to choose from. Eventually, Alan made a list of items that satisfied Eve and Lambda, but he held out on making any purchases. He still needed to decide what skills he was getting.
Alan was sorely tempted to purchase a stealth fighter spaceship, but the price tag of 100 million credits forced him to hold off. As Lambda pointed out Alan was already trying to develop two classes, and couldn’t afford to branch out into a third to develop the skills required to pilot such a ship. The Black Rose guild would be able to handle all Alan’s transportation needs, he got a limited number of free rides as a Squire. It would only become a real problem if Alan suddenly needed to get to Earth.
The vast majority of Earth-based guilds Alan found on the globalnet were trash. They either were subsidiaries of the United World Government, were too small to be worth mentioning, or had no real organization. Alan didn’t have the time or ability to babysit a fledgling guild on Earth. One post stood out, however, a recruitment message by none other than Thiago. Thiago made it clear that the guild would be a mercenary guild independent of the UWG.
After a moment of hesitation, Alan sent a message to Thiago asking for details about the planned guild and to potentially set up a meeting. Alan also wanted to know what Thiago’s role in the fiasco on Earth had been. If Thiago had also been betrayed by Icewolf then they had a common interest, and Alan knew that Thiago was at least semi-competent.
Afterwards, Alan sent messages to other players inquiring about possible purchases. He sent a message to Cerberus, letting him know that the Abyss Labyrinth issue had been solved. Alan asked Cerberus if there were additional Cyberspace upgrades he could purchase once he was a full Revenant member. Alan then messaged Sidestep, asking him where he had gotten the implants to teleport, the cost, and if there were other implants Alan might purchase. Sidestep and Aurora should have just finished their semester at the Academy. Alan then asked Enigma about the possibility of purchasing a real life Machine Lord implant, visiting the Exchange, making modifications to items, and potentially getting him in contact with players that would be able to help him set up safe houses on Khersath.
Alan then went to bed. Tomorrow morning he’d go over message replies to plan out his day. He’d almost definitely be going to the main Administrative Center on Khersath to meet with Chief Administrator 170. Alan just needed to figure out which ability to purchase, and what information to share.
Everyone except Thiago wanted to meet face to face. Thiago was still on Earth, so Alan set up a time to have a secure call with him. Given the number of credits involved having face-to-face meetings made sense, but it was going to be a time-consuming process because many of Alan’s purchases would depend on how others turned out. Alan also didn’t want to spend all his money. It would be prudent to save some in case new expenses arose.
Alan also remembered that his parents were on a colony ship. He sent 10 million credits their way. They would probably send the money right back, but Alan felt that it was his duty as a son to at least send something. Eve didn’t quite get the sentiment, but Alan made the transaction over her protests.
Alan made his way to Black Rose Hangar Three in his Scout Power Armor, he’d scheduled a shuttle and a small guard squad to take him to the Administrative Center. Aboard the shuttle, he found Phantom and one of his Specialists.
“Hello Alan,” Phantom said. “I have some business at the Administrative Center so I thought I’d accompany you. Here are the marks you purchased. Going through those guild points awfully fast, aren’t you?”
Alan took the case of marks. He quickly checked that the contents were all there. In addition the to the marks that would be converted to ability points he’d ordered 50 more platinum marks for his Machine Lord ability. 340 million credits left.
“I guess Void’s words of warning got to me,” Alan said. “The points are just burning a hole in my pocket anyway, might as well get some decent upgrades.”
“Void’s a coward, he’s spent too long hiding behind his masks. Don’t worry, the Black Rose guild will emerge out of the coming storm energized and triumphant,” Phantom said. “Though, if it has any influence on your purchases, your next mission for the Black Rose guild will be diplomatic in nature. You’ll see plenty of combat in subsequent missions though.”
“Okay, good to know,” Alan said.
Another reason to get Machine Empath, Lambda sent. Machines can tell you things people won’t.
If we’re going to get caught up in a war we must optimize our combat potential, Eve sent. Machine Commander will allow us to maximize our combat ability in the shortest amount of time.
You don’t want to be a grunt fighting on the front lines, you want to be an operative on the sidelines lining your own pockets, Lambda sent. There will be plenty of opportunities to hijack valuable technological targets. Imagine being able to commandeer a capital class ship.
There are drones capable of performing hacks as well, Eve sent.
Well if we’re going to buy a drone for every possibility why didn’t you just say so? Lambda sent. Is there a drone that will shut you up?
Though I realize your answer is an attempt to model sarcasm, there is a drone capable of—
Enough, wait until we talk with the Chief Administrator, Alan sent.
“Moving on to the equipment you asked about,” Phantom said. “It is my understanding that you want to modify Advanced Revenant Scout Power Armor to increase its energy capacity and to accommodate a shoulder mounted extendable railgun with variable projectile capacities.”
“Yes,” Alan said.
“Well, while your design properly accounted for energy requirements, I think you failed to account for recoil at maximum speeds,” Phantom said. “The railgun you want is designed to be mounted on mechs or spaceships. Even with power armor augmenting your strength, it’s going to have too much of a kick. Why do you need such a high-power weapon?”
“To take down spaceships or mechs, and possibly Predecessors,” Alan said. “Don’t worry, I’m confident in my AI’s targeting abilities, and will be able to tone it down when wanton destruction isn’t appropriate.”
“Right, well the soulsteel rails, even three as small as needles, will cost five million credits each,” Phantom said. “The work to reroute and expand the power sources of the Revenant armor will need to be done by yours truly, and my prices aren’t cheap, especially now that we’re on high alert. I’ll give you some slack since you’re my squire. If you insist upon this particular weapon I have an idea on how to solve the recoil issues, though it will only matter when you’re firing at high to maximum power. I’ll send you a total invoice, but the equipment will cost around 60 million credits total.”
“Okay, hold off on beginning any work or purchases just yet, but this is the load-out I’m probably going with,” Alan said.
“Now,” Phantom said, crossing his arms, “the guild is unable to provide you with real life implants of any kind, and even if I were able to hypothetically perform such procedures, I would highly discourage you acquiring a Machine Lord implant of all things. Bad enough to share your mind with an AI in-game, what could possess you to want to do so in reality?”
Well excuse me, Lambda sent. Someone’s a pretentious jackass.
Alan shrugged. “I feel exposed in reality. Powerless.”
“A Machine Lord implant is not the answer. The Black Rose guild has plenty of precautions put in place to keep its members safe,” Phantom said. “The matter of creating your own in-game safe houses is a good idea though. I’ll put you in touch with some good people who will be unable to tell anyone else about the work. I’ve also updated your guild file to allow access to a few Black Rose guild safe houses, but our network could hypothetically be breached.”
“Thanks,” Alan said, scanning a data file Phantom handed over. After a payment of sufficient credits there were construction machines that would set up safe houses, then delete all memory of whatever work had been done. Given his capabilities in Cyberspace, Alan would be able to oversee the construction and guarantee that the transaction was erased. He might even be able to program in a discount, say, free. He set up an appointment later in the afternoon.
Phantom must have seen something in Alan’s body language, because he said, “Don’t try ripping these guys off. They’re tied to a Revenant faction. Also, you still aren’t cleared to visit the Exchange, especially with Void gone. Wait until you’re a Knight.”
“Right, got it,” Alan said. He’d need to somehow setup the construction so that he couldn’t see it, otherwise Phantom would know the details through his eye implants. Dealing with all these safety and security measures was a major headache.
The rest of the short flight was filled with Phantom spit balling possible members of the Black Rose guild that could replace Void. It sounded like none were capable of filling his shoes.
Alan wondered what he’d do if Void was right and the Black Rose guild fell apart. He honestly had no idea. But what could possibly happen to destroy the guild?
The shuttle landed at the edge of the no-fly zone that surrounded the central Administrative Center. As soon as they stepped off the shuttle Phantom began swearing.
“What?” Alan asked.
“The Haxlards just sent an ultimatum to the Empire, and by extension, us,” Phantom said. “We are to desist all operations within the Abyss Labyrinth and hand over control of all systems to the Three in a week. Otherwise they’re declaring war and sending the Weaver after us. Already rumors are popping up about a buildup of Haxlard ships near Khersath and Empire space. In response the Empire has launched their own fleet, while the Alliance declared a state of emergency and are amassing their own forces. Shit.”
Phantom rapidly scrolled through a list of incoming messages, replying and sending out orders.
The Weaver. According to Eve’s lessons, the Weaver was one of the Three that controlled a vast army of drones and a fleet of autonomous ships. The Weaver itself was a massive capital ship and factory the size of a small moon—a self-sustaining, self-repairing force of nature that could cannibalize defeated enemies to create additional armies and fleets. Whether the Weaver was the ship itself, or the commander of the ship, was unknown. The godlike existence was only known as the Weaver, and in-game limitations on autonomous forces didn’t seem to apply to them. It was estimated that the Weaver’s full forces could match the Empire’s or Alliance’s all on their own.
I suspect the production of void crystals by the Abyss Labyrinth could be used by the Empire to expand their capital fleet, Eve sent. The amount of energy those void crystals are capable of storing and outputting would be of little other use. The Haxlards can not allow this expansion of power and maintain the status quo.
But how did they find out what the Empire was up to? Alan asked.
We know someone that recently abandoned the Black Rose guild, Lambda sent.
“Void,” Alan said. Phantom looked up. “Do we know that he didn’t sell us out?”
“No, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he did,” Phantom said. “I need to return to headquarters. Do you want the armor and railgun or not? I’m not going to have much time to design anything soon.”
“I do,” Alan said. Eve and Lambda agreed.
“Very well, and forget about any diplomatic missions. Instead get ready to defend the Abyss Labyrinth with your life. I’m shortening your requested leave from two weeks to one week. This conflict might be solved through diplomatic channels, but I doubt it,” Phantom said. “We were going to send you, Aurora, and Sidestep to the Empire to help establish ties between the Alliance and the Empire, but now I have no idea what the status of the planned partnership is.”
Interesting, Eve sent. Based on the premise that the Game is designed to test and find those worthy, it would make sense that the Empire and the Alliance would attempt to make amends to survive whatever event was planned, but I wonder if in doing so they triggered this response from the Haxlards.
It is likely a confluence of events, but if we are facing the Weaver Machine Empath should be an even greater priority, Lambda sent.
We are preparing to fight an army of drones, what better way to train than watching a master at work? Eve asked.
The Three are not a force Alan is ready to fight. Steal from? Perhaps. But not face head on, Lambda sent.
Alan found himself agreeing with Lambda as he ran towards the Administrative Center. There was a tension in the air that Alan had never experienced before. Players rushed about with a new fervor—weapon and armor prices were already skyrocketing, hawkers loudly crying out news of a coming galactic war. Everyone was on edge, and hands never strayed far from weapon holsters.
Alan wished that he had made more purchases earlier; he was suddenly aware that he was carrying a case full of marks. Khersath was supposed to be a safe zone, but already Alan saw Crimson Guards—Haxlardian special forces—squaring up against a group of Empire servants. The plaza no longer felt safe.
The line into the Administrative Center was twice as long and growing, but there weren’t twice as many guards on patrol. Trouble was brewing. Eve highlighted half a dozen robberies as they occurred, the vast majority successful. An explosion sounded in the distance and a turret erupted from the paneled walls of the Administrative Center. A large violet laser fired from it and a second explosion occurred. A few of the thieves froze and dissipated into the crowds, while others took advantage of the distraction to pick a few more pockets.
Invisibility active, Alan pushed his way to an Administrator. Alan formed a connection.
I need to talk to Chief Administrator 170, Alan sent.
Affirmative, Traveler. Follow me, the Administrator replied. Led through the crowd, past the bank teller booths and defenses, Alan entered an elevator. It shot straight up, coming to a halt after a few minutes.
As a safety precaution, we are required to deactivate all implants, the Administrator sent. Please hold still.
Wait, what? Alan asked.
Remember, act like I don’t exist, Lambda sent.
Eve sent, Try not to do anything too stupid.
The Administrator replied, The Chief Administrators’ safety is of utmost importance. Do not worry, Traveler, pain and disorientation should be within tolerable levels. All implants will be reactivated and items returned when you depart the inner sanctum.
There was a flash of light as a shock ran through Alan’s nervous system. He involuntarily shivered for half a minute. The Administrator removed Alan’s armor and weapons, but he didn’t even notice, there was a just a haze that filled his mind. Thoughts were slower, denser. The air felt like molasses, then there was no air, and then the elevator opened.
Sitting at a desk Alan found Chief Administrator 170.
The Chief Administrator stood up and smiled.