I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again. You need to start paying more attention, Lambda sent.

What? Alan asked. He was busy reorganizing squads and ordering a group of medics to set up an infirmary on the ground of the cavern.

The Knights have names, the squads have histories. People have relationships. These aren’t robotic units to be commanded about, Lambda sent. I’ve been smoothing over the rough edges, but a leader is more than a taskmaster.

Half these soldiers will be dead by the time first Haxlard wave is finished, the rest soon after. I’m busy evaluating the defenses. My time is best spent figuring out how to save lives, Alan sent.

What about after this war? You’ve talked to four, maybe five people on a regular basis, and only when a mission required you to group together, Lambda sent.

I can acquire any personnel information that I require from the database, Alan sent. He walked over to a temporary lift to head back into the base.

It’s not about combat efficiency or info. Society depends on strong relationships. And they don’t spring out of thin air, Lambda sent.

It isn’t worth the effort, Alan sent. People move on, they disappear. I’ll talk to people I think will be around longer, that really matter, like Aurora and Sidestep, but the rest I can’t be bothered with unless they do something noteworthy.

People talk, ponds have ripples. Conversations can be meaningful in the moment, bring momentary joy or have lasting consequences. Being antisocial is detrimental to future opportunities. Not everyone is doing constant calculus to determine loyalties and future utility, Lambda sent

Maybe they should be. Maybe things would be going a lot better if they did, Alan sent.

I get it. You enjoy the Game, you want to win, Lambda sent. But there’s more to life than games. Perhaps we’re only momentary flashes in time, and all that matters are those we’ve touched along the way.

Nah, fuck that, Alan sent. I have time. And I’m here to win.

Parameters confirmed, Doppel sent. Fuck interpersonal relationships. Win the Game.

Alan laughed. See? Doppel gets it.

If that’s really what you want. I’ll handle raid communications, for now, Lambda sent.

Thanks, Lambda. It’s not like I’m boxing the entire world out, just the grunts. There are bigger fish to fry.

There’s always a bigger fish. Hope that it doesn’t devour you, Lambda sent. I’ll come to your aid when you need me, but more friends never hurt.

It can when they leave a void you never fill, Alan sent. Enough chit-chat. Double check my squad assignments, then monitor comms and fix any problems that could arise.

Yes, master, Lambda sent.

Alan shrugged. Lambda would get over it. Maybe he was pissed now, maybe they’d continue this conversation when the ceiling wasn’t about to cave in with a flood of aliens hell-bent on destruction. But there were more important things to do than talk about feelings.

Alan made his way to Phantom’s workshop. It was on the fourth floor, directly above the vault.

Just to be safe, Alan thought. Doppel and Lambda cut off once he entered.

The metal helmet that Phantom had first used to determine Eve’s status lay in the same position, next to a silver capsule on a desk. It hadn’t detected Eve’s maliciousness at that time, but she hadn’t been planning on betraying Alan then. Probably. Hopefully.

The Advanced Foundry lay where Alan remembered it too, along the opposite wall. Alan had brought a backpack of gear from the fallen soldiers that could be melted down and transformed into better weaponry for a few of the recruits. He didn’t have the capabilities to modify higher ranked items, and there were professionals that were also doing this job, but every little bit would help.

What Alan didn’t remember was a gaping hole in the middle of the room, revealing a bright metal surface beneath the floor. The blast appeared to have originated from the ceiling, coming from Helios’s laser. But why hadn’t any of the squads reported anything, where were the cameras?

Alan gazed up, wishing he could use his bionic implant to scan upwards. Solid rock and metal surrounded the hole, but towards the surface, there might be a bit of light. It looked like the hole had been covered with the collapse of the main keep, but without further inspection it was fuzzy.

It was a miracle that the Haxlards hadn’t discovered this entrance into the depths of the Black Rose base. Whatever blocked Alan’s mechanical implants in this space seemed to block sensor scans too. The Haxlards were busy trying to drill their way through the thick base of the inverted pyramid when there was already a hole here.

Did Alan want to order a squad here, or was this a secret that he needed to keep to himself?

Alan paced the room. Charcoal black streaks lined the ground, but the blast had been neutralized by something. The vast majority of energy seemed to have been used up on the surface, but enough had been left to go through four floors. Active shielding could be detected surrounding the metal beneath the floor.

The central vault was a few feet away. A powerful railgun blast might open it right up. Had the Helios purposefully been aiming for the vault? If so, why?

Alan entered the capsule and put all his available points into bases stats. The gain might be small, but every little bit would help him survive.

After placing the helmet on and activating the scanner, Alan sat down in thought. Everything was harder, his mind muddled without the Machine Lord implant. A minute later a window popped up, displaying Doppel’s status window.

It looked completely normal. Doppel’s computing ability was rank B, their main objective was to help Alan win, and their corruption and aberration levels were quite low.

Lambda’s status window remained a mess of unhelpful junk. Lambda’s main objective was now “Get Alan a best friend or girlfriend,” his corruption level was still a question mark, and his storage level seemed low at 22%.

To be safe the hole in the ceiling was covered up with materials produced by the Advanced Foundry. Alan exited the room, making sure its defenses were active. He wasn’t about to break into the central vault without his implants or AI. With a clearer head and additional insight, he’d re-evaluate the choice.

You still don’t trust me? Lambda sent as soon as he returned. The radius of the security device stopped at the entrance of Phantom’s Workshop.

Wanted to double check everything was fine with the new AI. Doppel, you passed all the tests. Good job, Alan sent.

A self-diagnostic would have provided the same results more efficiently, Doppel replied.

Check out what I found out inside. Think we should break in? Alan sent. Lambda and Doppel scanned the memory he projected.

You made the right choice, Lambda sent. We don’t know enough. Let’s concentrate on defending against the Haxlard assault. They are about to break through in three locations.

This will be fun, Alan sent.


A squad of Haxlards dropped down into what appeared to be a storage room on the third floor. Two blue-masked soldiers carrying assault rifles took point, making sure the room was empty before taking a position by the doorway.

Carrying a portable scanner, a technician ensured the room wasn’t booby-trapped. Once they gave the all clear a pair of green-masked Haxlards dropped down with a large laser drill. They held the device to the floor. Nothing happened. The drill seemed to have turned itself off.

Crimson blades appeared, piercing a hidden Haxlard clad in grey power armor.

Alan was revealed, a menacing figure in black power armor. A soft, blue energy field outlined him, the powerful shielding visible to the naked eye. The retracted railgun on Alan’s back looked like a massive sword sheathe.

The two soldiers by the door turned their weapons on him. The rifles failed to fire. Alan was upon them in an instant, twin swords piercing forwards. Two critical blows ended the Haxlards lives.

Discovering their pistols did no significant damage to Alan’s superior armor, the technicians scrambled in retreat. A grenade was tossed, ending their lives. Alan gained a single level.

The other two breaches have been cleared, Lambda sent. Sensors detect six new points that are about to be broken through. They can be handled by the Knights.

Alan nodded and began to climb up through the hole the Haxlards had made. He reactivated his power armor’s advanced stealth mode. A constant stream of data poured into his brain. Minimal losses on their side thus far, a few well placed mines destroying what Lambda designated Haxlard drilling squads.

On the surface a few hundred Haxlards had gathered, temporary shields and laser turrets set up on the remains of the keep. The shields were set up such that any counter-attack out of one of the tunnels being dug would be contained. Alan found himself trapped inside one such shield. Two new squads were being prepared to drop down into the hole he had just climbed out of.

Dropships flew above, ferrying Haxlard reinforcements and equipment from spaceships that maintained a steady orbit. Bright flashes of light covered the sky, a cloud of rainbow dots and bright orange flashes in every direction. It was complete chaos, with no way to tell who was friend or foe.

The Weaver loomed in the distance, a new swarm of ships emerging every few seconds like clockwork. A few black scars now lined the space station, but scores of drones were actively repairing the damage.

A grenade was tossed down into the hole. The Haxlards followed it down after it went off. Lambda directed a pair of Knights to handle them.

Gathering information, Alan looked around with his bionic eye activated. Six Crimson Guards directed the landing dropships and organized the battlefield. Dark crimson power armor and blood red masks made them easy to spot. Each held a unique weapon and was the equal of any Knight.

Upon further inspection, Alan noted that three more Haxlards gave off similar energy patterns. Two were posing as ordinary blue-masked soldiers, while a third was in a technician’s green mask. None of them had entered the Black Rose base yet, but Alan had Lambda make a special note and alerted the Knights to potential wolves in sheep’s clothing.

No Ultihaxlards were readily apparent. Alan had never figured out what the exact distinction was between the upper echelon and lower class, or if Crimson Guards were included in their ranks. Lambda suspected the Ultihaxlards were still up above in the spaceships, and would only descend if absolutely necessary.

For now, the Black Rose guild held the advantage, overwhelming the invading Haxlards with gear, levels, and numbers. The ability to pinpoint where enemies gathered let Lambda distribute forces optimally, destroying isolated Haxlard squads with repeated pincer movements and superior positioning. With only a few narrow chokepoints to enter through, the Haxlards couldn’t get enough bodies inside. Firefights broke out throughout the base, but always in the Black Rose guild’s favor.

As minutes passed the Haxlards successfully drilled additional holes with explosives, laser drills, and even orbital strikes from spaceships. The tide began to shift. More and more Haxlards entered the base fighting and began to grow chaotic, sheer numbers allowing the Haxlards to gather a foothold.

Haxlard reinforcements continued to arrive. A familiar dropship began its descent. It seemed like a lifetime ago when Alan had undergone the tutorial. The Titan had been listed amongst the attacking Haxlard fleet, hadn’t it?

Concentrate, we’re going to need to begin the retreat to the fourth floor soon. You can’t be caught aboveground, Lambda sent.

Let’s leave them something to remember me by, Alan sent.

Preparing his railgun to fire a heavy projectile, Alan braced himself against the ground. The railgun extended itself, barely inside the stealth field that Alan projected. Alan hacked into the shield generator nearby, preparing to turn it off the moment he was ready. A few calculations later, he fired.

The shield surrounding Alan flickered. The momentary lapse allowed the heavy projectile to slip through and hurtle towards the dropship.

Not sparing the time to follow his shot, Alan leapt back into the base. A few shots were fired by soldiers that had superior discipline and reaction time, but they barely did 300 damage to Alan’s shields. He still had 2000 energy left.

Alan didn’t receive a notification for destroying the dropship. Either something had stopped his attack or its shields had been upgraded.

Grenades, Doppel sent.

Alan dove towards the room’s exit. A hexagonal energy shield flickered into life where the greatest explosive force would be applied. The explosion struck, blowing Alan back out of the room and bringing his energy down to 250.

Running back into the hallway Alan calculated the quickest route down to the lower levels. It looked like he’d poked the hornets’ nest, as sensors showed waves of Haxlards pushing into the base. Based upon the numbers now coming down it looked like the Haxlards were sending in everyone they had.

17 Knights, 127 Lieutenants, and 605 general staff remain alive. We face approximately 1100 Haxlards and 9 Crimson Guard. If the plan succeeds am confident in our ability to hold, Lambda sent.

It’s the next battle I’m worried about, Alan sent. Any word from Sidestep?

Negative, Lambda sent.

Multiple solid thumps sounded from the storage room. A quick scan of energy signatures confirmed it; the full six-man squad of Crimson Guards was now in pursuit.

Activating advanced stealth mode, Alan took a deep breath. With his remaining energy, any damage could be fatal. Unfortunately, the Crimson Guards moved faster than he did. His advantage lay in the fact that they would be uncertain which way he went, and would be delayed or possibly killed by traps.

Squads en-route to delay their advance, Lambda sent.

Alan confirmed Lambda’s calculations: the likelihood that he died here without help was too high. A squad of guildmates moved forward to aid him.

Two seconds later a massive pillar of flame engulfed the corridor Alan had been standing in. The heat and fire continued to radiate outwards, setting off a few explosive mines that had been placed earlier. The Crimson Guards waded through the flames like they were nothing.

Doppel attempted to mimic the signals required, but it proved to be too difficult a task. Alan was revealed by the absence of heat at his location, 20 feet from the storage room. The Haxlards gave chase.

Laser beams narrowly missed Alan as he turned at the intersection, ignoring the squad of guildmates that had come to back him up. They had a job to do. Militaries depended upon necessary sacrifice. Soldiers fought. Soldiers died. They wouldn’t be fucking soldiers otherwise.

Crimson weapons tore through the squad and the Lieutenant that led it, but they bought Alan the time he needed to enter a slanted, wide passageway that went down to the fourth floor.

The fourth floor had been set up differently than the others. Gone were the labyrinthine passageways and hidden dangers. Instead, there was open space and four heavily fortified bunkers facing the open entrances that led down to the floor.

Apart from the bunkers, the only cover lay in the center, a massive metal pillar. Alan knew that there was a hole right down the middle of the pillar, but no one else should. A solid blow to it might cause serious structural problems, but it was too late now to reconfigure the base. Not only had the vast majority of power been used up, but two generators had been destroyed. They couldn’t afford to lose this floor.

Alan made his way to the nearest bunker, choosing his steps carefully. The bunker was only about six feet high but dug down into the fifth floor. If the Haxlards came through the ceiling the bunker underneath wouldn’t have a clear shot but the other three should.

An array of laser turrets, Black Rose soldiers, and four Knights wielding heavy weaponry lay in wait inside the bunker. All weapons were trained on the entrance Alan came out of.

A Crimson Guard checked the corner and was met with a barrage of energy weapons and explosions that was complete overkill. Nothing dared peek out afterward.

Alan joined his guildmates in the bunker, setting up his light railgun so it aimed upwards.

Unlike Seeker, the Haxlards were not arrogant enough to ignore the sensors and cameras they passed by. Slowly the information stream died down as Lambda ordered the retreat of remaining personnel to the fourth floor.

It’s almost time, Lambda sent.

Are we sure the structure can take the weight? Alan asked.

Affirmative. The ejection of the bottom floors reduced strain and additional support beams are in place, Doppel sent.

All squad have been notified and are prepared, Lambda sent.

A button in Alan’s mind was pressed, and a series of detonations went off. This time, the floor dropped out from underneath the Haxlards. With the collapse of the third floor, enemies rained from the sky.

Activating his cybernetic vision Alan detected the three Haxlards he had pinpointed earlier. He lined up his railgun.

One. Headshot, finished off mid-air.

Two. Headshot, killed as they landed.

Three. Headshot, disoriented and eliminated.

They were all slain before they could use any of their abilities or items. Instakills, just the way Alan liked it.

The ordinary Haxlard soldiers fared no better, unable to aim or get their bearings as they fell from the sky, lasers, rockets, and grenades tearing apart any large clump of soldiers.

The falling debris set off the minefield. Explosions rocked the battlefield as the Haxlards took even greater losses. Trying to regroup, the Crimson Guards that had been chasing Alan pointed at his position, yelling at survivors to put up a concerted resistance.

Two Crimson Guards carrying massive metal screens covered by red energy shielding led the charge, shrugging off plasma and laser fire. Remote-detonated mines surrounding the bunker, manually controlled by Alan, put an end to that.

The Crimson Guards were blown back up into the air, heavy fire continually raining down upon them.

A Crimson Guard landed next to bunker. Miraculously, they stood back up, their armor and body covered by grievous wounds. They tossed a bright red grenade before a sniper from across the battlefield finished them off.

Without prompting, a Knight in heavy power armor leapt over the grenade, while another shoved Alan backward, hard. There was a solid crack as Alan crashed into the wall. Bright light and then flame washed over Alan.

Shield energy depleted, Alan took large amounts of damage, his body on fire. He fell unconscious.


Alan woke up in the infirmary he had set up on the floor of the cavern. His wounds had been mostly recovered. Thanks to the Knight that had leapt over the grenade, Alan had lived, only taking severe burn damage.

Messages appeared:

[x147 Level up!]

[+50 ability points for gaining over 100 levels in one battle.]

Lambda replayed footage from the previous battle. The remaining Haxlard forces were cleared out after Alan lost consciousness. Left without leadership or cover, underleveled and outplayed, they put up much less of a fight.

The Black Rose guild was left with 416 personnel: 13 Knights, 85 Lieutenants, and 318 general staff. They had taken out over three Haxlards for every person they lost, but they couldn’t do it again.

The Haxlards hadn’t sent in another wave of soldiers, but it was only a matter of time before they amassed the numbers to do so. And they wouldn’t be tricked by the same tactics twice. Besides, there was no longer a third floor.

In the meantime, the Haxlard spaceships were now constantly bombarding the Black Rose base from above. It might take a few hours to a day, but by Alan and Doppel’s calculations, the base would collapse, too much structural integrity lost from the repeated self-destruction of floors and the Helios’s initial blast.

The power armor Phantom had designed hadn’t survived the battle. Without the ability to repair it, Alan was forced to equip advanced Revenant scout armor instead, abandoning his railgun and replacing it with a high-powered laser sniper rifle. The crimson blades, however, were still in working condition.

Sidestep stood over a nearby bed, hovering over an unconscious Aurora. She was hooked up to a series of machines pumping blood into her body.

“My main priority is to keep her safe, I’m sorry that I didn’t join the battle. You had things covered though,” Sidestep said without looking up. His hand rested on Aurora’s arm.

“Is she going to be alright?” Alan asked.

“Medical coma, for at least another day,” Sidestep said.

Alan took a second to think, mulling over the current options.

“Well,” Alan said slowly, “I think it’s about time we figured out what’s inside that vault, don’t you?”


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