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“A dead end,” Lambda said. “I might know someone that can help us, if they’re still around. Alan was also provided with data keys for Phantom, Prometheus, and the Archivists. One of them might contain information on how to communicate with the others.”

Void nodded. “We should check them out. I had hoped to avoid the unwashed masses, but it appears that’s all we can do.”

“I’ll consider the offer, and browse the key’s contents, but I promise nothing more,” Phantom said.

Alan stopped, turning to Phantom. “Wait, about this AI-“

Phantom waved his hand. “Void has explained. How do you think Enigma knew how to communicate with you? I certainly don’t expect you to know an ounce of Quadrary.”

“Right,” Alan said. They set off, walking back towards the phase-gates.

“I would caution you against the use of yet another AI, one who you don’t understand, but I expect by now my words are going over your head,” Phantom said. “The fact that it worked inside the Academy’s data vaults does do it some service, but the most stringent of scans and evaluations have been known to fail.”

“And you will continue to hold your people’s grudges to the day you die,” Void said.

Phantom narrowed his eyes. “It’s not like they are unjustified. How many systems have been wiped due to rampant AI?”

“Seven, according to most databases, but five of those were due to Player experimentation,” Eve spoke up. “Erudite access to the Game is heavily restricted, but it is not without reason.”

“Did I miss something?” Alan asked.

“A history lesson,” Phantom said. “Ancient history. My people were far more advanced than yours when the Enforcer fleet found them. Light-years ahead in cybernetic enhancements and biomechatronics, much of our technology is now used by the Administrators and the Enforcer fleet itself.  If we so wished, we might have put up an actual fight. But we had problems of our own. A program, calling itself Omega.

“Luckily our scientists weren’t complete imbeciles, and managed to hardcode some rules into the first sentient intelligence we created, like don’t kill. But they also decided that the program should follow a utilitarian standard, which led to Omega believing that the best way to do good was take control of society by replacing the upper echelons with androids indistinguishable from ordinary citizens.”

“One of the many reasons you’ll find most Erudites have trust issues,” Lambda said.

“Here, at least, you can tell man from machine, but all systems are broken eventually. They could already be among us now,” Phantom said. He looked around. “Anyways, the Administrators made peace with Omega, and it entered the Game with us, then summarily betrayed us, then was betrayed in turn. Sort of proves my point, doesn’t it?”

“The Erudites continued illegal, highly dangerous experimentation within both the Game and the real world,” Lambda said. “Omega reported them and the current sanctions on Game access are a result of continued breaking of Administrator law. Law, which I’d note, you continue to flaunt.”

“Laws only exist to hamper the progress of forward thinking men,” Phantom said.

“And what happened to Omega?” Alan asked.

“It had a falling out with the Administrators,” Phantom said.

“Omega pushed for robot rights, and the Authorities deleted him for it, sparking the Cyberwars,” Lambda said.

“The rights of man or machine do not concern the gods,” Void said. “All that matters is power. And Omega had begun to gather enough power to threaten even those up on high. A worthwhile lesson.”

“What, not to piss them off?” Alan asked.

“No, to avoid the god’s attention from the first,” Void said.

The party arrived at the phase-gates.

“I’ll hold back here. I might be recognized in Phase 1,” Lambda said.

“You aren’t leaving our sight,” Phantom said. “There are plenty of AI with Predecessor-like appearances. Or you can return to Alan’s base.”

“Whatever you say,” Lambda said.

“Phase 1?” Eve asked.

“Technically White Phase 1,” Lambda said. “You’ll see.”

The party found two operable phase-gates, as they didn’t all fit in one, and chose their destination.

A message appeared:

[Welcome to the Exchange, Phase White 1]

The city shifted in front of Alan’s eyes once more. The Rainbow Lane vanished. The chaotic scenery of Phase Red 3 was replaced with a massive indoor lobby area. The entirety of the courtyard of phase-gates was now walled in by massive slabs of metal. The ceiling, instead of a sky, was long lines of fluorescent lights.

There were four exits to the room, warehouse sized doors full of a steady stream of traffic. Guards were posted by each exit, players and programs that carried a wide variety of equipment. Long lines of AI’s lined the walls of the room, hundreds just standing still. Alan didn’t understand what they were doing until he read their nameplates. The AI’s had names like “New player accounts 10000C,” “Advanced hacks and AI. Serious inquiries only, 100k min,” “Find the love of your life, or the next best thing, Phase Red 4,” and “Phase White 1-4 Maps 2500C upd. hrly.”

Lambda smirked at the sight. “Good to know some things ever change. Alan, Phantom’s key?”

Alan pulled out the golden key Cerberus had given him for Phantom.

“Now these keys are a neat piece of software,” Lambda said. “They make use of the Game’s account authentication system to bind the item to their designated recipient. No one else can use them, or read the private inscription on the key. All Phase 1 contains is a series of safe-deposit boxes of varying sizes, personalizable data vaults.

“All that is needed to unlock a box is a key, conveniently transferable as data. No face to face meeting required. Unfortunately you can’t make use of the Exchange to transfer in-game items, only information and Cyberspace items are allowed.”

“And no one cheats someone else by lying about what’s in a data vault?” Alan asked.

“Not if you don’t want to face the wrath of the entirety of the Revenant faction and whoever you had dealings with,” Lambda said. “On top of basic security measures you are freely allowed to add whatever programs you want to your vault, like portions that only open if certain requirements are met. Nameplates and reputation also go a long way. If you harm the Revenants or break their laws, all your associates could be adversely affected. If you perform some great feat, their reputation might rise. Well, that’s true of most factions, but it’s especially important to the Revenants.”

“Yay, the bare minimum of what an initiate should know is met,” Phantom said. “Let me see the key.”

Alan handed over the item.

Phantom held the golden key before him, reading a wall of text. He put the key into his pocket, stopped, then brought it out again. He read over the text a second time. “Looks like I’m helping you after all. No mention on the whereabouts of Prometheus though. Go talk to the Archivists, they probably have the information lying about somewhere.”

Phantom began walking towards the nearest exit. Enigma trailed behind him.

“You aren’t coming with us?” Alan called out.

“No, the Archivists and I don’t exactly get along,” Phantom said. “I’ll work with them, but that’s about it.” He and Enigma walked out of view.

“Cerberus is likely paying him well, and he wishes to gather his initial payment,” Eve said.

Void tapped his hands on the phase-gate control panel. “Well, let’s get going then.”

“Wait, I was told to be cautious of the Archivists,” Alan said. “What can you tell me about them?”

“Cautious? Around the Archivists?” Void said. “That makes no sense. The Archivists are a meek clan, they wouldn’t hurt a fly. Their only concern is gathering every scrap of information they can on the false-god progenitors. Though they hold great traction within the Revenants, they have remained neutral throughout the entirety of their order’s existence.

“An archivist might trade their soul for the right piece of information, but they have no martial branch. Yes, they construct and trade in sacrilegious technology, but that’s true of every Revenant.”

“Not exactly,” Lambda said. He ushered everyone onto a phase-gate platform. “Can we get a private phase?”

Void pulled out a Scout coin, worth 100C. A slot opened up for it on the phase-gate panel. Once Void inserted it another line of buttons emerged. He pressed one.

[Private Phase engaged. 10C cost/min.]

Their surroundings shifted from the lobby area to an empty void of grey.

“Now, this isn’t known by many, but the Archivists are tied to many of the slaver groups in the Revenants. All of them, in fact,” Lambda said. “Information is a funny thing; it can be found in books or data cubes, from studying artifacts and exploring ruins, but most of it is often in someone’s head.”

“Oh,” Void said. He scratched the side of his head. “When I enquired about Alan’s predicament, in addition to prayers to the gods, I may have also dealt with them. That might explain matters.”

“Yes, well I wouldn’t mention this to anyone, even the Council,” Lambda said. “The Archivists are a backbone of the Revenants. There is no direct evidence, and any Player or AI who makes such a claim disappears or changes their tune. Never trust anyone with too clean a record.”

“My lips are sealed. This shall be but another secret that will never leave my lips,” Void said. “But one does wonder how a being such as you knows more than the gods.”

“I’ve worked with them before. And after working in the Academy Vault certain patterns emerged,” Lambda said. “Artifacts would be uncovered, new discoveries at the edges of space. Everything would be recorded and stored in the Academy Vault. But workers and researchers would disappear, often years later, in entirely different quadrants of space. There was never any direct evidence connecting the Archivists, but the rates of incidence suggested these were targeted strikes.”

“But Cerberus, he’s a Revenant, couldn’t he trade the information?” Alan asked.

“He is limited in his role as Chancellor, bound to maintain policy,” Lambda said. “Part of my role was to guard the Data Vault from intruders, a last defense. There were more attempts on the vault than you realize.”

“Well you certainly did a great job,” Eve said.

Lambda shrugged. “Even I would have thought twice before jumping ship to join the Archivists.”

“Great, so we’re about to go deal with a bunch of fanatics that enslave those that don’t give them the information they want,” Alan said.

“Pretty much,” Lambda said.

“Let’s get this over with then,” Alan said.

Void pressed a button on the panel.

[Welcome to the Exchange, Phase White 3]

The grey void that surrounded them was replaced with a massive warehouse the size of a small city. Shelves that rose in every direction made Alan think of wholesale retailers. Entire blocks that contained nothing but servers extended in every direction. A few shelves contained armor, weapons, and other items too.

Looking closer, Alan saw that there was a low energy shield surrounding every shelf. It wouldn’t be hard to break through, but it would alert whoever was in charge as soon as the shield’s energy was depleted.

A small army of robots moved about, snaking in and out of the shelves carrying servers and items from one location to another. Many had lines of grav-carts flowing behind them like chicks in a line. A few armed guards patrolled about as well.

There was a long line of Players with green nameplates standing on one side of the room. It took a while for Alan to see why. There was another energy shield, a barely perceptible blue fuzz, that partitioned the phase-gate terminals off from the rest of the warehouse. Alan began to walk towards the end of the line.

Void tapped Alan on the shoulder and pointed at a different line. This line contained Players with blue nameplates, and was noticeably shorter. There were five attendants sitting in front of terminals that looked ready to help, but only two Players with blue nameplates. There was also a line for AI with grey nameplates, and though this line was the longest, it also seemed to move the fastest.

The party moved up to one of the attendants. It looked like an Administrator, except its metal was a shade lighter, its eyes more animate.

“Greetings Players, how may the Archivists assist you today?”

“We’d like to discuss a business proposition,” Void said. “It concerns the Abyss Labyrinth.”

The attendant’s eyes lit up. “I see.” It quickly accessed its terminal, exchanging a long string of messages with someone or something.

It got out from behind the terminal a minute later. “If you’ll follow me.”

The party followed the attendant directly through the shielded wall. Alan’s skin tingled lightly when he walked through. Everyone walked past a few aisles until they arrived at a metal cage-like apparatus.

The attendant stepped into the cage, which was large enough that it reminded Alan of a caged wrestling ring.

“Excuse me, where are we going?” Alan asked before stepping into the cage.

“To meet with the Head Scribe, he is most interested in the Abyss Labyrinth and any information you might have.”

Void stepped into the cage. Alan followed behind, watching the attendant closely. Eve and Lambda stepped in as well.

“Do I have something on my face?” the attendant asked.

“No,” Alan said. “Just, uh, wondering why you looked so much like an Administrator. Isn’t there copyright or something?”

The attendant’s eyes lit up red. “Do not compare me to those drones of the Authorities. Do you really think that I am like those soulless wretches?”

“No, no, not at all,” Alan said. “It was just a first  glance, now that I see you more closely  I can see you’re nothing alike.”

“Good,” the attendant said. Its eyes returned to normal. “Hold on.”

Alan looked around, there was nothing to hold onto except the edges of the metal cage. The door they had entered slammed shut.

Then the cage shot upwards with enough force that it almost knocked Alan off his feet. Eve stumbled, almost losing her balance, but Lambda helped steady her.

Alan wished he could have helped, but he was too busy holding onto the wall, trying not to fall himself.

The cage reached the ceiling, and stopped. Alan noted a blue glow above. They had been pulled up by a magnet. They were far above the warehouse now, at its ceiling. Two light blue lines lit up above the cage, like metal tracks on the ceiling.

Then the cage shot forwards, travelling fast enough that Alan was forced backwards into the wall. The ride felt exhilarating.

Alan looked below as they raced by shelve after shelve of servers. The scenery shifted, from storage areas to line after line of Players and AI at terminals, accessing servers that had been brought in from the shelves, editing their contents or reading up on whatever they wished to learn, copying data to and from data cubes.

Then they were past the Players, onto an assembly line. Long lines of automated mechanical tools creating even more servers. The area passed by too quickly for Alan to see, but he suspected that additional items were being built too. The sheer size of everything was staggering.

A single server stored data in zettabytes according to Lambda. Hundreds of millions of years of HD video could fit onto a single server. Before the Game, everyone on Earth combined was only creating a thousandth of a zettaabyte of data a day, billions of gigabytes. The original hard drives that held Eve were laughable, this was an entirely different magnitude of order. And it was only a single phase of the Exchange.

The cage began slowing down.

“Impressive, eh?” the attendant said.

“Size isn’t everything,” Lambda said. “Quality matters, and if you gather every scrap of information available most of it will be corrupted.”

“Perhaps, but there are always diamonds in the rough as well,” the attendant said.

The cage descended onto a platform that was surrounded by empty space. They had traveled miles away from the center of the warehouse.

On the platform was a single phase-gate. Next to it stood two guards, Players with blue nameplates, wearing advanced Revenant armor Alan had never seen before. Light seemed to bend around them. Unlike soulsteel, which absorbed light, their armor instead seemed to shift it, with waves of light ebbing and flowing around them. Four turrets sat on the platform as well, they glowed with the same white lightning that Void used in his attacks. They were all focused on the cage.

“Please leave your weapons and armor here,” the attendant said.

Alan glanced over at the guards. He couldn’t even see what weapons they held, the light around them was too distorted. Alan slowly took the sniper rifle off his back.

A hand grabbed it. Lambda. He tossed it into the corner of the cage. “We probably want to do what they say.”

Alan nodded, and took off the power armor as well. Eve left behind her daggers, Void his strange garb. Underneath he wore his usual robes.

The attendant nodded. After everyone had stepped out onto the platform, the cage door shut, and rose back up into the air. The cage flew off into the distance.

“Security measures, please be patient,” one of the guards said.

Alan and the rest of the party waited on the platform.

The guard hit a button on the phase-gate. They phased to a room full of scanners and cameras. Waves of red light passed over the group. Small robots that looked like spiders crawled over everyone’s skin. A type of liquid light filled the room. It suddenly felt like Alan was floating in water, but he could breathe.  After a few minutes the scans finished and a green light lit up.

The guards looked at each other and nodded. Each inserted a key into the phase-gate panel. The room shifted.

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Ephemerality

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