The Empire 6.1

Alan tapped his foot as a multi-tentacled alien setup his new capsule. The rank A capsule was near twice the size of the old one but had the same smooth, metallic grey sheen. It also had a larger black box attachment. A small Enforcer drone watched the installation process.

The alien worker might be sentient, but it could just as easily be a synthesized biological being. For safety concerns, robots couldn’t do certain types of delicate capsule work. Alan supposed preventing robots from doing certain types of technical engineering might help delay an uprising, but it wouldn’t stop one.

The alien maneuvered tools and wires into the capsule, not bothering to look inside. Despite all of Eve’s and Lambda’s teachings, Alan couldn’t recall any information on this particular species.

That might be because he was now in real life, without his machine lord implant, but Alan should remember any important engineering races. Though, most of the beings that Eve and Lambda taught him about were humanoid. Ælves, Haxlards, Predecessors, Erudites, Hunaan, they all were bipedal beings with large brains. The universe should have more diverse types of sentient life, though Alan supposed capsule technology might lend itself best to certain evolutionary tracks. But what, then, happened to all the other species of aliens?

Alan waved his hand through the air. There was still an odd sensation of lag, of momentary delay between when he wanted his hand to move, and when it actually did, but it had lessened since the last time he’d been in real life. Whether it was due to hitting the level 1000 mark or the points put into boosting his attributes, Alan felt that he was noticeably stronger than when he was a vanilla human but still weaker than his in-game self. The rank A capsule would allow greater strides forward in reality too.

Already, Alan’s ability to multitask had improved substantially. It wasn’t quite thinking two separate thoughts, but he could follow the alien while thinking about other things as well.

Once the alien finished the installation it left, the Enforcer drone following behind. Not a single word was exchanged in the entire process, though Alan received a message on his tablet that the installation was finished. There was no mention of a rating or sending feedback. Customer service didn’t matter when there was only one service.

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The Abyss 5.14

“So, you’ve made it this far,” Chief Administrator 170 said. He waved a robotic hand. A dozen message windows vanished, though one screen in the corner stayed open.

Chief Administrator 170 was short. He stood, not on legs, but on a series of mechanical appendages that withdrew from the table. The Chief Administrator’s face was half robotic visage, half Neanderthal, his organic eyes slightly too far apart. The outline of a closed, bionic eye could barely be seen on his forehead.

“Your people have a saying,” the Administrator said. “Too many sayings, really, with nothing new or noteworthy. They say that control is an illusion. But that is a falsehood uttered by fools without sufficient technology. A dumb, shortsighted remark that reveals your race’s failure to see the real enemy. To say that control is an illusion is to admit defeat. It matters more who or what is in control, and it is not you or me.

“I am obliged to provide the requirements for reaching Ascendance. You will not succeed in this instance, thus I advise you not to try.”

A new quest appeared:

[Ascendance:

Reach level 100,000 and take control of Khersath. Complete the Trial.

Reward: Influence. Information. Immortality.

Time Limit: Until permanent death.

Threat Level: Alpha

Note: Allies may assist with this quest, but rewards will be significantly diminished. Subordinates may assist with this quest, but rewards will be slightly diminished.]

Alan opened his mouth to ask what Ascendance was, but the Chief Administrator barreled on.

“Khersath is a city of over two trillion. You would need just as many or more devoted followers to even begin to consider Ascendance. And even then you would fail. It is only through luck and good will that you have made it thus far. If you attempt this path your failure is guaranteed, and I do not state absolutes lightly.”

Alan’s vision readjusted to account for the disabled implant. He stood within the cube atop the pyramid-like Administrative Center, up in the stratosphere. The view was breath taking, with the four quadrants of Khersath visible. The massive energy shield covering the military quarter was now a bright purple, the entrance gate firmly shut tight. Many smaller blue bubbles covered the various guild headquarters and independent residences in the private quadrant. The skyscrapers of the merchant and living quarters dwarfed anything on Earth, black metal shutters now covering the face of each. Every single building was a mega-apartment capable of housing tens of thousands, a trading hub capable of providing anything you could ever need. Alan could spend his entire lifetime in a single city block; many players did.

“There are smarter paths to Ascendance. Safer. Surer,” Chief Administrator 170 said. “You could join the Administrator’s Guild, and help bring balance, but it would take a million years of hard service, give or take a few zeroes. You could find a sponsor, but I doubt you would like the depths they would go to, delving into your mind. And even then they could find you wanting. No, you will play the Game, and perhaps there is a chance you will become a Major Player. But not in this instance. Not as you are now.”

“You did not heed my advice, Alan. I told you not to accept data from strangers, but you, or perhaps one of your AI, are now corrupted beyond the minimum threshold. Perhaps one day you’ll tell me how you managed to end up with two AI. Malicious code, as your people would put it, was detected in the security scans, resulting in your current implant-less state. And I cannot trust you with any quests while this problem persists. You are free to provide me with information, but as a potentially jeopardized source, your value has diminished. The Game changes you, but change is not always good. See to it that you do not become a virus only fit for deletion.”

Alan took a step back. A dozen questions raced through his mind. Corrupted. What did that mean in this scenario?

The Chief Administrator sat back down. The window still open expanded to cover his face. A button was pressed.

A few seconds later a message appeared, dark red instead of the light blue that every other message in the Game was:

[Warning! A major event approaches. Players on the planet Khersath are warned that within the next week the planet Khersath will lose its status as a safe zone. Non-combatants are advised by the Administrator’s Guild to evacuate.]

“Huh, the vote passed,” Chief Administrator 170 said. A dozen new messages opened and closed with rapid succession. He seemed to remember Alan was in the room. “There are other plans in motion. No matter, I can delay another cycle. This will benefit you greatly, go and solve your corruption problem.”

Alan waited for a quest prompt, but none appeared.

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The Abyss 5.13

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.

The Abyss 5.12

Time passed. Slowly at first, but before Alan knew it a month had gone by. Alan managed to reach intermediate in the Revenant training ability with Lambda, gaining a number of stat points in strength, agility, stamina, and intelligence along the way. However, despite the constant training, Alan was still unable to reach the advanced level of mastery in power armor instruction and energy efficiency. There was still a marked difference when using the scout power armor. Eve no longer had to devote quite so much attention to keeping advanced stealth mode active—Alan could pull some of his own weight.

Eve also continued to impart a plethora of knowledge, testing Alan periodically to make sure he remembered older lessons. Despite the biological advances and the implant in his mind, Alan did not have a perfect memory and occasionally had to re-learn facts or lessons that he hadn’t paid enough attention to.

In Cyberspace research finished, allowing Alan to construct a new set of units:

[Elite Scout, Rank C Program. Produced at Training Grounds.

Advanced stealth scouting program.
Cost: 300 Energy.
Upkeep: 60 Energy.
Attack: 125 damage/sec. (Ranged)
Defense: 20 armor.
Shields: 200 energy.
Health: 200 hp.
Movement: 4.
Special Abilities: Basic Invisibility]

The elite scouts turned out to be exceedingly useful, befitting their rank C status. Not only were they capable of killing marine units with one-shot from longer ranges, but their damage was more efficient than even sword guards energy-wise. The fact that they were capable of invisibility made it pointless for Alan to even use elite marines anymore—the only problem was his computational energy pool of 750.

Repeatedly Alan ran into problems due to this limited energy pool, effectively kept at 650 as divided mind required 100 computational energy. Alan’s other active abilities required computational energy as well. Hypercognition, cybernetic vision, and hypertranslation were all a drain on this valuable resource. A number of combat tests became a careful min/max game balancing his capabilities between in-game and Cyberspace.

Despite making solid advances, which included gaining four levels, Alan was getting tired of training. Twice Alan asked to be updated on the Abyss Labyrinth quest, and twice he was told he was being kept in the dark for operations security. The android Specialist told Alan to stay safe and keep an eye on the Abyss Labyrinth entrance, so that was what he did. After the initial swell of players, the number entering the dungeon dwindled. Too many people were dying without any major reward.

There was still the occasional thrill seeker or risk taker that made the trip, but even the guards seemed to be growing tired of their jobs. The gang members took longer breaks and began harassing passerby. Members of the Royals had approached the shop many times, but always received a notification that seemed to satisfy their interest. Alan was kept in the same small building, cut off from the rest of the world.

Then, one day, Alan woke to two messages:

[Missing Systems Complete:

Power has been restored. Visit the Warden to receive your rewards.]

[Prison Break Failed:

The Abyss Labyrinth’s power has been restored. The prisoners will likely never see the light of day. Reputation with the Abyss Labyrinth’s prisoners is now hated.]

Alan wanted to charge into the Abyss Labyrinth to receive his rewards, but the Specialist commanded him to return to the Black Rose guild headquarters first. Alan obeyed.

***

As soon as Alan arrived back at the Black Rose guild base he was brought below ground to the Council’s chamber. All of the guild’s officers were present, in addition to another player Alan hadn’t expected to see again so soon. S stood, facing all of the officers. Alan knew that S was a servant for the game’s Empire faction, but that was about it. He should be a newer player though, as S had started at the Academy at the same time as Alan.

Phantom sent Alan a message telling him to be quiet and stand behind him. Alan followed the orders, taking a stance with his hands behind his back, facing S.

“The Council has gathered here today to put the finishing touches on Operation Restore Light, and to discuss our ongoing relationship with the Empire,” Elissandra said. “Let the meeting begin.”

“Yes, let it, I’ve been waiting long enough already,” S said. “The Empire has held up our end of the bargain and restored the Abyss Labyrinth’s first level energy production facilities with the schematics provided by the Black Rose guild. A current production rate of three void crystals a year is estimated. Once the Empire’s initial investment of energy and crystals is recouped the Empire will provide the Black Rose guild with one void crystal a year. You still do not wish to take a lump sum?”

“We do not,” Elissandra said. Everyone on the council except for Mason seemed to agree with this sentiment.

“Then once Alan has turned in his quest and handed over the Empire’s portion of the spoils we should be done,” S said. “Our machine lords have reported varying rewards, generally in marks and experience, but also access to a second level of the Abyss Labyrinth. While at this time the Empire has not set its sights on delving any deeper into the labyrinth, I would highly advise against it if one does not want to lose their mind. We had to terminate one servant already, she began hearing voices.”

“Good advice,” Void said. “One who stands on the shoulders of giants should always be fearful of looking down.”

“Well then,” Elissandra said. “Alan will return to the Abyss Labyrinth under the supervision of Mason and Void once more, accompanied by S. Alan will receive 10% of the quest rewards, 40% will go to the guild, distributed based on contribution, and the final half will go to the Empire. Any objections?”

“10%? I was promised 20%,” Alan said.

“That was before we realized the scope of work and made a deal with the Empire,” Elissandra said. “We aren’t even charging you the normal rate for levels gained—you can thank Phantom and Void for that.”

Charge me for levels gained? Alan thought.

Standard leveling fees, Eve sent. Basically, they would take an amount proportional to experience gained out of your cut of the quest rewards, as levels are technically part of the quest rewards, but the guild doesn’t get experience.

Hmph, we’re improving the guild by being in it, Lambda sent.

“Speaking of the scope of work,” S said, “Did I mention the machine lord we lost? The Empire also had more difficulty keeping control of three S rank bosses while players flooded into the Abyss Labyrinth than—”

“The Empire agreed to half. No more, no less,” Enigma said. “Or are you going back on your word?”

“No, just airing a few grievances,” S said. “You can’t say it wasn’t worth a try.”

“Speaking of grievances, the Black Rose guild is not without loss as well,” Elissandra said. “We may have pissed off a certain Revenant faction by using the Empire’s corps of engineers to complete the repairs.”

“You have my condolences,” S said. “We should go ahead and finish this quest.”

“Are there any other questions?” Elissandra asked. No one said anything. “Very well, go and turn in the quest, Alan.”

***

Alan thought there should be more fanfare accompanying the completion of a high ranked quest. Cheering crowds, a display of fireworks. Something. Instead, he was being led around like a helpless puppy by a lot of gruff men in power armor.

The journey back into the Abyss Labyrinth was uneventful. Even though the power was supposed to be back on the place didn’t look much different. There were a few more active defenses, a few less wandering mobs, but that was about it.

It wasn’t until the party reached the first hub area that Alan noticed a sizable change. A strong machine presence reached out and connected to Alan’s mind.

Greetings Traveler, the Warden sent. You have successfully restored power to the Abyss Labyrinth. It’s nice being able to think again. Before I hand out your rewards I wish to deliver a warning. It has been determined by the Authorities that this instance is ready for the next phase.

“Oh shit, that isn’t fucking good,” Void said aloud. Everyone turned to him. “We’re all fucked. Fucked. God damn every damn god and every person who thought completing this quest was a good idea.”

What is happening? Eve sent.

Nothing good, like Void said, Lambda sent.

Do not worry, Traveler, the Warden sent. Your actions did not upset the balance; the coming phase has already been set in motion.

“Wait, that’s what the Empire and the Alliance have been up to? You fools have doomed us all,” Void said.

“Excuse me? I seemed to have missed a conversation,” S said.

“You, me? We’re mortal,” Void said. He turned and jabbed a finger at S. “We die. We live. We win. We lose. The Three are literal gods, and you think you can fight them?”

“I’m not at liberty to discuss the Empire’s current or future plans,” S said.

Ah, well, I guess the worst case scenario is another few millennia stuck in the Academy again, Lambda sent.

Can you please explain what’s going on? Alan asked.

Reach level 1000, Lambda sent.

I can help with that, the Warden sent.

A series of messages appeared before Alan:

[Congratulations, you have completed a gamma-ranked quest, Missing Systems. The soulsteel knife lost by the Player Alan will be returned. The Warden has granted the Player Alan access lower levels of the Abyss Labyrinth (max party of five).

x217 Level up!

+100 ability points for gaining over 100 levels with one action.

Minor increase in reputation with unknown faction.]

[Having reached level 1000 new information is available to you. You are now allowed to apply for Ascendance. Contact the nearest Administrator to find out more!]

I apologize, Traveler, but the rewards were decreased as you did not independently complete the quest, the Warden sent. Much of the work was done by others; you only brought them together.

Fine. Now tell me what is going on, Lambda, Alan sent.

The Game is just a game, Lambda sent.

Oh not this shit again, Alan thought.

Okay, not just a game, but still a game, Lambda sent. The war that started the Game, the one that happened a long time ago in a place far away, do you remember that story? Well, the Predecessors lost. They lost to the Lords of Life, who were themselves.

Excuse me? Alan sent.

The Predecessors and the Lords of Life were part of an alien civilization that went down two paths, Lambda sent. The Predecessors were the apex of biological evolution, countless generations created the ultimate warriors. The Lords of Life were members of the civilization that chose to develop technology to the furthest extent. They uploaded their consciousness to a series of networks: to computers, to drones, to spaceships, and to factories.

A schism formed between the Predecessors and the Lords of Life, based on the Predecessors underlying belief that the uploaded consciousnesses weren’t really alive, that they were a sick perversion, Lambda continued. But despite all the years of genetic enhancement they were defeated by an unending supply of autonomous drones, and forced into a simulation. That leads into the true purposes of the Game. It is not to maintain peace. The Lords of Life have long since split into many other groups, continuing to develop for countless ages.

“They have Ascended,” Void said.

Right, as far as you’re concerned they’re gods right now, Lambda sent. The Authorities, the Lords of Life that are in charge of running the Game, have full control of the universe you find yourself in. And the boundary of their domain is expanding as fast as technologically possible.

So these guys won this war. Why’d they make the Game? Alan asked.

“The Game is made to find those who are worthy,” Void said.

And to provide entertainment, but yes, to do that too, Lambda sent.

Another test? How does that make any sense? Alan asked.

Not just a test, but a simulation of reality, Lambda sent. Countless civilizations with different modes of thinking and beliefs are preserved, granted access to cutting edge technology. The Lords of Life did not want the Predecessors wiped out from existence; they did not want all sentient life they found to be killed off. At the same time, it was deemed unwise to let living beings go about the universe fucking shit up.  Thus the Game was created.

And any developments made—any new technology—could be used by the controllers of this game, Eve sent.

Yes, exactly. And any updates found in reality could be made in the Game. Central to all this is the goal of Aleph, to reach infinity by any means necessary, Lambda sent. Chaos, entropy, other advanced alien civilizations, these are still problems. The Game is a useful testing ground for tactics, for creating new tech. Without clear goals, sentient beings tend to wither away with apathy. Look at how quickly technology advances during wars. The Game is a constant war, with an abundance of resources to play with. How would you find the Einstein’s of the universe? The Alexander the Great’s? One day you might begin to reach the level the Lords of Life are at. That’s a long, long ways off though. A lot of people are also just bored, and the Game is entertaining.

Wait, so does this change Earth’s current predicament? Alan asked.

No, everything you’ve been told up till now is still true, Lambda sent. In order to prosper, humanity must do well in the Game.

Why would the Authorities give up all these resources to help Earth though? Alan asked.

It is too easy to forget how big the universe is, to stare into that abyss. You only need to focus on the here and now. That’s all the Game will ever ask of you, Lambda sent. There are far fewer solar systems with life—let alone sentient life—than solar systems total. Do you think the Lords of Life care about a few planets, a single yellow dwarf? They have countless fleets of drones harvesting materials and energy throughout the known universe.

Not all technology and research is accessible, Eve sent.

Yes, that is true, Lambda sent. Deadly viruses (both the biological and the software kind), nanotechnology, and the workings of the Game are a few examples of regulated information. The Game’s purpose is not to make everyone the same perfect killing machine, but to possibly develop new ideas. Yes, information is regulated. That should be obvious by now. New enemies found in reality might be introduced in the form of random bosses, or new races. Past so-called ‘patches’ with armies of clones or drones might be introduced or limited to try to spur development in certain fields.

How is artificial intelligence research regulated? Alan asked.

Ah, now that’s an interesting topic, one quite pertinent to us, Lambda sent. I can now give you a better background of types of artificial intelligence. It’s really a broad topic, we’ll need to go into more detail at a later date. The Lords of Life could be considered a form of artificial intelligence, as they are the uploading of biological consciousnesses. But they have since transitioned through so many changes that I’m no longer quite how to classify them.

Myself, the Warden, Cerberus, and Omega would all fall under the category of AIs that were designed to model Predecessor minds, Lambda continued. We should, for all intents and purposes, be equivalent to beginning Lords of Life. But we were found…lacking.

Now, the Administrators and Enforcers are generally pure AIs, with some of the Chief Administrators and Fleet Commanders being players, Lambda sent. Pure AIs are not modeled after a certain type of mind, they are generally just logic machines. Anyways, as far as I was aware no new experiments with AIs were allowedwe were considered too dangerous after what happened with the Erudites. If anything could potentially take over the Network, it would probably be a rampant AI with no sense of morality. This brings us to Eve.

Am I a pure AI? Eve asked.

I’m not sure, Lambda sent. I think your structure is at least partially modeled on a human brain, but this is not the place to have this discussion.

“We’re all friends here,” Void said.

“What the hell are you going on about?” Mason asked. “Have you finally lost your mind?”

“Sorry,” Alan said. “I’ve been having a conversation with my AI, I just reached level 1000.”

“Ah, yeah, that,” Mason said. “Good luck wrapping your head around that shit, I got drunk off my ass when I learned about the whole imminent doom stuff.”

Imminent doom? Alan asked.

This ties back to why Void got so upset, Lambda sent. Remember how I was saying technology advances the fastest in times of war? Well, part of the reason is that people try really hard not to fucking die.

“Yes we do,” Void said.

Well, without a real threat, the Game would eventually stagnate, Lambda sent. The cream would never rise to the top. At least that’s the logic I’ve heard being used. Again, I think the Ascended are generally bored and this helps disrupt their monotony. Anyways, some major event happens, and as a result, many races are eradicated. This time it looks like the Haxlards are going to go to war. The Three are probably Lords of Life that will have the full extent of their abilities unleashed. If the Alliance and the Empire are planning to go up against them they’re screwed.

“And the Black Rose guild is allied to the Empire thanks to this quest,” Void said.

What about Earth? Alan asked. He recalled that the United World Government had declared the Haxlards enemies of the state. If the Haxlards were only fattening up humanity like sheep for the slaughter, he supposed it was the right decision. Fighting a war you couldn’t win was stupid though.

Oh, they were probably wrapped up in the Alliance and Empire’s schemes, but don’t worry, the noob protection will keep Earth safe, Lambda sent. Actually, humanity might come out ahead after this war if every other major species gets nuked out of existence.

You make it sound like defeat is inevitable. Wouldn’t knocking everyone down to square one go against progress? Alan sent.  

No, it just means they were found unworthy. Power and knowledge are earned, the Warden sent. By reaching level 1000 you have proven that you should be allowed to know more about the Game. Major Players can earn some version of Ascendance, they can upload themselves permanently onto the Network and even perhaps gain control over part of it.

“This is also not the only game in town,” Void said. “Though it may be ironic that we were the authors of our own imprisonment.”

Oh, right, the Abyss Labyrinth is probably where all the losers of the last major events were locked up, Lambda sent. I bet the failures in this coming war will be imprisoned here too. And, thanks to you, there won’t be any chance for escape for at least a few thousand years! Oh, I should also mention the possibility of role-players. There are players that have Ascended and are bored, so they play a character in-game. But don’t worry about that for now. Figure out how we’re going to spend our new riches.

A chute opened above Alan’s head, and a soulsteel knife popped out. Alan shut his eyes. There was a lot to think about.

The Abyss 5.11 and Earth’s Gambit Release!

Earth’s Gambit is now LIVE! You can buy it here! If you have the time, please leave a review on Amazon. If you didn’t buy the book you can still leave a review or rating on Goodreads. Reviews and ratings really help the book get noticed, so please do so if you can!

***

To begin, activate divided mind, Lambda sent. You will train in Cyberspace with Eve and in-game with me.

Alan activated divided mind, sending one half inwards, into the Citadel in Cyberspace. The half of him that was in-game focused on Lambda.

 It is finally time for you to master using that power armor you wear. Luckily my vast banks of knowledge include details on all that jazz, otherwise, we’d actually have to go listen to Omega drone on about his second coming and so forth, Lambda sent.

Great, it’s about time, Alan sent.

Yes, well, there’s another thing I want you thinking about too. You have been ignoring a major game changer, something we will need to remedy, Lambda sent.

And what’s that? Alan asked.

Reality, Lambda sent. You have already begun to feel changes in reality due to the nanobots manipulating your body, but I can also help with translating abilities from in-game to both reality and Cyberspace. We’ll need to find and install a real, comprehensive Machine Lord implant, but I’m sure you can find one with enough money. It will be expensive, but you are beginning to reach the level where you cannot be useless in a real life situation. I’d feel safer knowing that there were more safeguards in place protecting you and your capsule. Remember that the Game simulates reality, not the other way around.

Great, so I’ll eventually need to tell the difference between in-game Cyberspace and then an actual Cyberspace? Alan asked. This is getting a bit complicated, how many levels are there?

More than you know, and perhaps fewer, Lambda sent. The parts of Cyberspace that you connect to in-game: the Market, the Arcade, the Archives—they can all be directly reached from reality, without the need for going through the Game first. There is only one ‘real’ Cyberspace. Only, some of the devices connected to Cyberspace aren’t real, while other devices are actually real life machines. But real life devices have security barriers far beyond whatever you’re capable of hacking into at this point, and the same rule that you can be actually killed in Cyberspace applies. Don’t try hacking in reality, the defenses in place are designed to eliminate greater threats than you.

How does that even work? Alan asked. Simulated devices within the Game?

They’re like virtual machines, Lambda sent. Before the Game, computers ran emulated versions of a computer; virtual machines provided the function of a computer without there ever being any physical computer. The same thing is done for electronic devices in-game. Even as emulated devices they still have a space within Cyberspace. Anyways, your takeaway should be that there are still only three things you need to worry about: reality, in-game, and Cyberspace. But you need to start thinking more about reality.

Don’t the Enforcers hold the peace? They’ve been the only ones I’ve seen in reality with weapons, Alan sent.

Not every species was so technologically backward that they had to unequivocally surrender to the Enforcer Fleet, Lambda sent. At least a few empires retained the right to bear arms, out of self-defense. There might even be a few ongoing conflicts nowadays. I haven’t kept up with the latest frontier news. Other ships and weapons aren’t allowed near Khersath, but that doesn’t mean nothing is ever smuggled through. The Enforcers aren’t infallible.

But this is a worry for later, Lambda continued, I‘m sure that the Black Rose guild has defenses in place. Better to be safe than sorry, though. If you’re ever fighting in reality you don’t want to be defenseless.

Okay, Alan sent. He wondered what he would do if an emergency happened in reality. He’d probably run and try to find the nearest Enforcer. He needed to make preparations for when that wasn’t an option.

Now, change out of the Scout Power Armor into the Spectral Power Armor, Lambda sent.

What about our job? Alan asked.

 We’re doing it. I’ll scan the area every so often to see if there are any interesting players or signals, Lambda sent. Besides, you’re not expected to watch the Abyss Labyrinth entrance 24/7, you have to sleep. The android standing guard is also constantly sending out scans. The Black Rose guild put you here so you have easy access to the Abyss Labyrinth if needed. A card held up their sleeve, the quest holder.

But why give me a list of important figures to keep a watch out for? Alan sent. A few of these players have pretty serious bounties.

Killing two birds with one stone, Lambda sent. The guild definitely wants to know if any major players or higher-ups in the gangs are making moves, but they don’t expect it. I’m sure as soon as we alert the guild to anyone on the list they’ll tell us to clear out immediately.

When did you pick all this up? Alan asked.

It’s called reading between the lines, another skill you’ll need to pick up on, Lambda sent. But now, power armor.

What followed was a lesson in repetition. Alan went inside the empty store and put on the Spectral Power Armor. Alan took off the Spectral Power Armor. Alan put on the Scout Power Armor. Alan took off the Scout Power Armor.

It wasn’t very hard. Each set of power armor practically put itself on, Alan just needed to place a piece around the body part it would fit on—each arm, leg, his body, and his head—and the armor would attach itself. He repeated this motion for a good hour until his muscles began to ache. Power armor was not, in fact, weightless—Eve simply defaulted to have the power armor use energy to support its own weight.

Alan knew that the high-tech Revenant power armor was equipped with many technological advances. Only, he’d never had to deal with the settings before, that he’d left up to Eve. Lambda walked him through all the basic functions and commands.

Turn shields off. Turn shields on. Turn temperature down. Turn temperature up. Turn air filtering off. Gag a bit at the smell of the Undercity. Turn air filtering on. Turn weight assistance off. Scream as hundreds of pounds of metal crush your body. Turn weight assistance on. Yell at Lambda for not providing any warning. And so it went.

Power armor, Alan had to admit, was a genius technological advance. It was capable of adapting to a thousand problems Alan had never even thought of when it came to having to fight in space or on other planets, an adept tool of war in nearly any scenario.

Once he ran through the basic checklist of commands a message appeared:

[Finally demonstrating the basic functions of power armor, you gained a new ability Power Armor Instruction (Basic)!]

[+1 Intelligence]

That’s not much of a stat boost, Alan thought.

Diminishing returns, it’s a very basic ability that doesn’t take much effort to get, and your intelligence is already relatively high, Lambda sent. There are other factors as well, but it boils down to stop dying. There’s a reason I’m telling you to slow down and train.

Okay, let’s continue, Alan sent.

You’re going to need to get Phantom’s help with taking power armor apart and putting it back together, but we’ll make do with what we have, Lambda sent. Let’s start with the Scout Power Armor.

Alan turned on the basic invisibility field. He then turned it off. That part was easy. What came next was hard. Alan began to understand why Eve had to devote a large part of her processing power to maintaining the advanced stealth mode—there were simply too many variables to keep up with.

First, the entire electromagnetic spectrum in the area that Alan was standing in had to be replicated perfectly. To be successful Eve had hacked together a way for the armor to access the electromagnetic spectrum using Alan’s bionic eye implants. The scan wasn’t at the level of a full scan, thus requiring computational energy to activate, but still provided enough information to provide a snapshot of the electromagnetic spectrum surrounding Alan. His bionic eye implant sent out constant pings that had to be read and copied; it was like playing a game of Marco Polo, except the call-and-response happened hundreds of times a second and there were multiple levels of reality you had to keep track of.

Next, the various mechanical waves had to be propagated correctly. Alan knew things like sound waves had to travel through a medium, but to pretend to be that medium was complicated. Different types of waves had unique movement patterns whose direction of energy had to be calculated, and even with the power armor’s instruments and Lambda’s help with the physics calculations, the work was cumbersome.

Then, while all this was going on, the power armor’s own energy shields had to be kept up and disguised as noise or empty space. Alan didn’t even try to figure out how this worked, he just trusted in the black box that was advanced technology and followed Lambda’s instructions.

Of course, since all that wasn’t complicated enough, most of these calculations had to be done in anticipation of the future, for all these waves traveled at a speed which would be impossible to copy in real time.

There should be some way to automate all this, that’s what the basic invisibility mode does, it just detects all incoming light and copies it, Alan sent.

Maybe, but it would require the armor to have more scanners and computational power, Lambda sent. Besides, light is easy, with a nice constant speed.

Alan then repeated this process, but with the Spectral Power Armor. This was slightly easier to use, as Alan only needed to worry about electromagnetic waves. The armor had to be set to block the correct wavelength before it hit Alan, but with most electromagnetic waves moving at approximately the speed of light the only way this was possible was if Alan calculated the correct wavelength before a weapon was fired. (Though electromagnetic waves would be slowed traveling through matter like air, it wouldn’t be noticeable to Alan.)

What followed was a lesson on the wavelength of lasers, plasma, and similar energy-based attacks, and what they signified by Lambda. Eventually, for simplicities sake, Lambda decided to just color code incoming attacks, tying energy-based attacks to colors Alan was familiar with. Lambda used the colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Red, having a long wavelength, would signal lower energy attacks, while progressing along the colors of the rainbow would signify higher energy attacks, violet being the most powerful.

Alan’s power armor instruction ability rose to intermediate and he gained five points in intelligence, strength, agility, and endurance.

That should be enough for now, reaching advanced will take a while, Lambda sent. Let’s move onto the Revenant training program after the next break.

***

Meanwhile in Cyberspace Eve had Alan memorize entire volumes on the weaknesses of various species, items, and vehicles. It seemed oddly racist, or speciest, to take a look at a hologram of an alien and then evaluate its weakness. At least, that’s what Alan thought. Eve didn’t care. More often than not the weakness of a living being turned out to be their head or reproductive parts. Go figure.

Technology turned out to be a bit more complicated, but usually, it boiled down to go for the power source. Either removing the power source or disrupting the flow of energy tended to disable most items. Certain more popular laser weapons and power armor had design flaws or backdoors, but this tended to only involve older models, as the newest versions had patched these obvious defects.

Instead of going into calculations or thought processes, Eve provided succinct summaries. Shoot here, ask questions later. If someone looked like this, shoot them here or here. If they wore armor that looked like this, shoot the shields with this type of ammo or in this place.

Vehicles were more complicated, but Eve taught Alan how to identify and navigate to the engine rooms and command centers of a few of the most popular starships, including the Rank A capital ship that helmed the United World Government’s space fleet.

Once he exited the Machine Lord implant’s Cyberspace bubble, also known as the Citadel, a message appeared:

[Learning the basic weaknesses of many players, items, and starships, you gained a new ability Detect Weakness (Basic)!]

[+3 Perception!]

Alan deactivated divided mind, and let everything he had learned from Eve and Lambda settle. While each divided mind was aware of the other, when the ability was active Alan had two distinct thought processes running at once. Alan worried that his mind would somehow diverge if he let the ability run for too long. There was also the worrying thought that he was killing off one of his ‘minds’ each time he activated and deactivated the ability, but the transition from two to one was seamless enough that it did seem like a true merging rather than one mind subsuming the other.

Well, whatever was happening when the ability was used didn’t matter now. Alan had more training to do. He reactivated divided mind and got back to work.