As a result of the prior battle and Aurora’s destruction of a capital ship, the Black Rose guild was in the clear. Barring an exemplary showing from every other player in the Game, no guild personnel would be deleted. Anyone in the bottom 10% of the population at the end of the crusade could be bailed out with survival points earned by guildmates. Everything from here on out would be a bonus.

The Black Rose guild’s council was conspicuously absent from the leaderboard. Either they were still in the planning stages of an action or something had gone very, very wrong. Alan hoped for the former, but suspected the latter, given Seeker exited from the Abyss Labyrinth where they should have appeared.

Sidestep and Alan were flown up to the Black Rose base. They made their way to the tunnel near the Council’s meeting room. Progress seemed to take forever, Sidestep waiting for Alan to make sure he didn’t trigger any of the traps that led up the entrance.

The halls were barren, most personnel either above in the bunkers on the fourth floor or on the ground floor in the infirmary preparing for a potential retreat into the Abyss Labyrinth. A squad of scouts led by two Knights had been sent into the dungeon to investigate if the way was clear.

“Sure you want to do this?” Sidestep asked.

“The base will be lost, that’s inevitable. What we manage to salvage is another matter,” Alan said. “Either we get what’s inside, or the Haxlards do.”

“Breaking into our own vault, I wonder what’s inside.” Sidestep stopped. “What if it’s platinum marks? Money’s not going to help us; we should turn them into ability points for everyone.”

“One problem at a time,” Alan said. They finally reached inside the Council’s meeting room. “First thing we need to do is destroy the base’s data core and a few servers. That will disable the defense programs and allow me to hack into the vault’s controls.”

The proper server was identified, a grey metal box behind solid metal paneling on the floor. Alan looked at Sidestep.

“What?” Sidestep asked.

“Shoot the box, or stab it with your sword,” Alan said.

“This was your idea,” Sidestep said, taking a step back.

“Together. So we’re both accountable,” Alan said. He raised a crimson blade.

Sidestep walked over slowly, raising his blade. It looked new, a line of the same pulsing green energy spiraling the edges.

Estimated damage: 4,000-5,000. Suspected ability: the weapon may teleport forwards and backward similar to Sidestep, Doppel sent.

“On 3,” Alan said. “1, 2—”

There was a whoosh of air as an overhead ramp was released, a series of clicks as mechanical locks and gears disengaged.

“Give me one good reason I shouldn’t kill you two,” Enigma said, walking down the ramp that led up into the central vault. He was flanked by Phantom and S.

Alan scanned everyone. He detected nothing abnormal about the people, other than Enigma being a robot, but there were trace amounts of radiation leaking from out of the vault.

What the fuck, Alan sent.

I can read Phantom’s facial expressions now. It looks like he is as surprised to see us as we are to see him, Lambda sent.

Processing the new developments, Alan ran through his memories with Doppel, hypercognition active. He had seen both Phantom and Enigma enter the Abyss Labyrinth, and they couldn’t have made their way all the way into the vault without his knowledge. They needed to have been inside from the beginning.

Pieces began to fall into place.

Enigma and Phantom are two separate players, each with android duplicates, Alan thought. This entire time I’ve thought I’ve been training as Phantom’s squire, but the Phantom I’ve been under is an apparition. Who I’ve actually been talking with most of the time is Enigma, controlling the Phantom android.

We would have noticed if Phantom was a robot, your cybernetic eye— Lambda stopped mid-sentence.

My cybernetic eye implant was installed by Phantom, and we know it contains at least one backdoor I have no control over, Alan sent. Easy enough to feed us the wrong information whenever I scanned Phantom, Enigma, or even one of the Specialists. Who knows what other false information we might have been fed.

Phantom is known as an inventor, an engineer, Alan continued. The façade is kept up because it’s true. The weird, drunken personality that played pranks was the real Phantom, PhantomGlitch, and it was only later that I came to Enigma’s attention. That’s still assuming that Enigma is the one in control. Maybe they’re partners.

That still doesn’t explain S’s presence, Lambda sent.

More information required, Doppel sent.

Alan looked up at S, putting away his weapon. “Because you need our help getting off Khersath and back to the Empire.”

“No, we’re where we need to be,” S said. He looked at Enigma. “Until the contract is complete, we remain here.”

“Enigma, what’s going on, how are you here? The Haxlards are about to destroy this base, we thought to remove the items from the vault beforehand,” Sidestep said.

Alan looked carefully at Sidestep, then S. Could S be Sidestep’s android? No, he was getting paranoid now. That shouldn’t be possible. The androids were controlled by dumb AI’s, that was fairly certain. Lambda couldn’t read their faces because they lacked the sophistication to display realistic emotion. And S and Sidestep had been in two separate places, performing two complex tasks enough times that they couldn’t be the same player.

Androids aren’t allowed to be enrolled in the Academy as students. They also cannot display psionic abilities, Doppel sent. That was good to know, otherwise, anyone in the Game Alan had interacted with could have been an android.

As Enigma spoke, Alan watched Phantom. It did look like he was concentrating on something, controlling an android perhaps.

Enigma said, “We are awaiting the return of the others. The guild has plans in motion you two are yet unaware of. Return to your posts, and do not bother us again.”

“In all likelihood, the council have failed. Seeker came out of the Abyss Labyrinth and attacked us,” Alan said. “By the way, my power armor needs to be repaired. Thanks again for the upgrade to the eye implant, Phantom, it’s acting up a bit though so I think we should discuss some things.”

“Upgrade? Yes, if it’s causing issues we should talk. Come up to my workshop with your broken armor,” Phantom said.

S said, “Are we sure that’s the best idea? Given recent developments—”

“Given recent developments, if the council has failed, we will need to keep all options open and under consideration. Our contract contains contingencies that will be discussed,” Enigma said. “Alan, retrieve your broken armor and report to Phantom’s workshop. Sidestep, stay here and guard this room. Any further insubordination will not be taken lightly.”

“Yes sir,” Sidestep said.

“Very well,” Alan said.

Enigma, Phantom, and S walked back up the ramp leading into the central vault. It closed behind them, defenses rearmed.

Doppel, that radiation leaking out of the room, can you identify it? Alan asked.

It appears to be from radioactive materials commonly found in nuclear devices, Doppel sent.

Nukes. The Black Rose guild is keeping nukes in its vault, Alan thought.

It is highly probable, in addition to other unidentified objects, Doppel sent.

“Any idea what just happened?” Sidestep asked.

“No, but I’m about to find out,” Alan said.


Alan entered Phantom’s workshop with a dozen questions running through his head. The field in the room that disabled his AI and implants was still up and running, but he had considered and gone over various scenarios in his head before entering.

The need to disorient Alan, to put him off his game when speaking with Phantom made more and more sense. Lambda also suspected it was to prevent Alan from hacking into something he shouldn’t, like the controls for his bionic eye implant.

Dumping his broken power armor in a pile, Alan looked over at Phantom, who was busy repairing the hole in the floor. The ceiling had been covered by a new, seamless patch.

“I’m glad you brought this hole to my attention, Alan, it needed to be repaired,” Phantom said.

“But it’s not what I came here to discuss,” Alan said.

“No, it’s not,” Phantom said. He put down a welding torch and wiped a bead of sweat off his forehead. “Do you know what the organization of the Black Rose guild is modeled after?”

Alan tried to remember if he’d noticed perspiration on Phantom before. He didn’t think so, but everyone was always wearing power armor so it was hard to tell, and a bit of water would be easy enough to mimic.

“No, I don’t,” Alan said.

“The Empire. The Imperial Realms rank their citizens much like the Black Rose guild, only Knights would be considered rank D. Above them, Knight-Commanders, Generals, and Guild Leaders, whom the Empire would probably call Marshals.

“Above all them would be Imperial Governors. Rank S citizens that rule over planets. They tend to be native to the world they rule over,” Phantom said. “The military equivalent would be an Admiral. Imperial positions are based on merit, and there are many roles ranging from the military to civil service to research.”

“And espionage too, perhaps,” Alan said. “From what news I’ve seen on the Globalnet, the Empire isn’t faring very well against the Blacksmith. It might lose 10% of its population, maybe more. Also, everyone is subservient to the Emperor, that’s the point of an Empire.”

Phantom turned to look down at the floor. “Emperors don’t live forever. Holes can be found where you least expect them.”

“What are you offering, what are you saying?” Alan asked. “Is this not your thing, more Enigma’s?”

“Put two and two together, did you? It took you long enough,” Phantom said. He walked over to a panel and opened it, pulling out a bottle of beer. The label read Haxlardian Brew. Phantom popped the cap. “Gods, is it tiring to play the serious intelligence officer. With S breathing down my back I’ve barely had time to relax. Young people always expect their superiors to be so formal, so orderly. Sit back, relax and enjoy life.”

“I really can’t tell if you’re fucking with me right now,” Alan said.

Phantom grinned and took a sip of beer. “And that’s the beauty of it. There will always be that uncertainty. Eccentricities never explained or understood. Want a beer?”

“No, I’m not here to drink,” Alan said. “I’m here for answers.”

“That drive, that directness. If there’s one thing I admire about you, Alan, it’s that desire for power,” Phantom said. “But it worries me too. There’s this stubbornness, this rebellious streak. If you betrayed your homeworld for power, what’s to stop you from doing it again.”

Alan tapped his eye. “You can watch my every move, and kill me whenever you want. Isn’t that enough?”

“No. You and I both know that as soon as you manage to hack your way in or replace the implant any deal or agreement will be thrown out the window,” Phantom said.

“We’re at an impasse then,” Alan said.

Phantom started to take a look at Alan’s damaged power armor. “I guess we are. Unless…”

Alan narrowed his eyes. “What?”

“Unless you gave me information or a piece of evidence that, when revealed, would get you banned,” Phantom said. “There are rumors that the AI freed from the Academy was the result of hacking the Game itself. Real deletion. A demonstration, a recording, would go a long ways towards trust.”

“That’s insane. If I had such an ability and demonstrated it I’d be in the Empire’s service forever. I’d have to do whatever you told me,” Alan said.

“Do you think an empire is built on sunshine and rainbows?” Phantom asked. “Every servant has either proven themselves to be unswervingly loyal or has as large a sword hanging over their heads. Power comes with a cost. Time to pay up or get out.”

Phantom drained the rest of his beer and then smashed the bottle against the wall. Glimmers of glass splintered and fell apart like broken dreams.

Alan took a step back. “I, um, I need a second to think.”

Phantom took another beer out of the panel in the wall.

“Look, I can’t make this decision without my AI, without my implants,” Alan said. “Turn off whatever is blocking them, and then I’ll give you my answer.”

“Take your thoughts outside into the corridor. Don’t move too far outside my workshop or take any unexpected actions, or the next thing you know the extinction event will be over,” Phantom said.

Alan nodded, and then exited the room. Lambda and Doppel reappeared.

Boy, Phantom needs some serious help, Lambda sent. See, this is what I mean about developing human relationships. If he trusted you more, we wouldn’t be in this bind.

Don’t act like you saw any of this coming, Alan sent. We need serious answers.

There are two options, Doppel sent. Serve the Empire, or don’t.

Thank you, Doppel, for that very serious answer, Lambda sent.

You are welcome, Doppel sent.

That was the choice here though, wasn’t it? Either Alan played along or didn’t. If he refused to be blackmailed, Alan had no illusions about Phantom letting him go scot-free. He knew too much.

I don’t know, your memory might be cleared to the point of your last save, perhaps even to before the Haxlard Crusade, Lambda sent. They’d probably kick you out of the guild, remove the implant, but it wouldn’t be that much worse. Remember, it’s illegal for them to put the kill switch in your head, and use it.

The last thing I want is to lose my memories. They seem to be pretty good at hiding things from the Administrators, Alan sent. If I could get a message out…

An idea popped into Alan’s head. The silver capsule in the workshop. If he could enter it, and talk to the Administrator in his home, displaying the multiple ways that Phantom had broken the rules, maybe he could get Phantom banned. The only problem was his evidence was circumstantial: an implant that might have a kill switch and an association with Revenants he too was guilty of.

No, any of those offenses might have been performed by Enigma or the Empire, nothing he had tied down Phantom directly. Phantom’s cards were too well hidden, and Alan was too scared to find out if he was bluffing

Phantom has just as much dirt on us as we have on him, Lambda sent. He already suspects you broke me out of the Academy and introduced us to the Revenants, if he points the Administrators at us we’re in just as bad a position too.

So we try for mutually assured destruction and hope he lets us go? Alan asked.

Yes. Or we do what he wants, Lambda sent. Join the Empire, swear loyalty to Phantom. We can’t beat the game on our own, and if the Empire as anywhere as strong as it appears to be this might be our best shot. And like Phantom said, people don’t live forever.

But one mistake and I’m done. If whatever is recorded is leaked or falls into the wrong hands, that’s it. I’m banned from the Game, Alan sent.

Sure, but that’s true of a lot of stupid stunts you’ve pulled, Lambda sent. Hacking into the data vault was as risky if not more so. And if you are banned? Well, let’s just say there are contingencies in play.

Power. Power to win the Game. Power to prove Eve wrong. That’s all that Alan wanted, all that he needed. And here was a path in front of him, joining one of the greatest factions in the Game. But it didn’t feel like his power. It was another’s. This Emperor, whoever they were.

Everything came with a cost. Everyone sacrificed something to move forward. Time, energy, money, health. Was Alan prepared to sacrifice his freedom?

He’d finally know where on the board he lay. He’d pick a side, pick a faction: his allies and enemies would become clearer. He’d be trusted, put in the time to develop lasting relationships. He’d have a home.

Alan would become more than a pawn, but at the same time be nothing but a pawn. Any chess piece but the king was just another type of pawn, weren’t they? They might have a few more moves, but at the end of the day if you wanted to win the king was all that mattered.

Alan didn’t want to be a pawn. He wanted to be a king.

You’ll always get one chance, Lambda sent. One chance to act before you’re banned, to disobey the Empire before they can act. You can leverage that, plan around that. Who knows what the future has in store. Maybe the Emperor is a really cool dude.

Maybe, or maybe they’re the devil incarnate, Alan sent. Quiet. I need to think.


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