Author's Note: Distinguishing between the Game and the hacking layer/realm was getting a bit confusing, so from this point forward the hacking layer/realm in the Game is called Cyberspace.
"I have to fulfill all the conditions to enter the Data Vault? Impossible," Alan said.
"Seeker has already fulfilled half of them," Cerberus said. "They're participating in the next Assassin's Game as well."
"Can't I bring a group of people?" Alan asked.
"No, all must enter the vault alone," Cerberus said. He looked at Alan, "I would suggest you don't bother trying. No non-Predecessor has managed to fulfill all the conditions as long as I've been Chancellor."
"And how long has that been?"
"Enough personal training for today," Cerberus said. "You may retry and practice the challenges as you see fit. I have other business to take care of. Meet me by my capsule at 0800 tomorrow morning." Cerberus opened up a menu and then disappeared.
A blue portal opened up; it lead back to the center of the obstacle course.
Send the information about the requirements to enter the Data Vault to Sidestep, Alan sent to Eve.
Very well... He replied: Thanks for the info, no way in hell we'll ever meet those requirements. GL.
Alan spent a few hours working out in the obstacle course then went to bed, wondering what tomorrow would hold.
"It is time to continue our hacking lessons," Cerberus said. "And what better way to improve than upgrading your base? Please enter the capsule, it will take you directly into Cyberspace."
Alan looked over at the white capsule. A message appeared:
[You are about to enter an unregistered capsule. Are you sure you wish to proceed? Unknown operations may be performed while in capsules not registered by Administrators.]
Remembering the pain that had occurred the last time he entered the capsule, Alan hesitated.
"I really am quite busy."
Alan got in.
Alan found himself floating above the Citadel, two figures by his side, Cerberus and Eve. Of the two, Cerberus appeared more robotic. Alan's base was now five times as large, the size of a small town or army base. The boundary of his domain was ingrained in Alan's mind.
Cerberus's base in Cyberspace was shrouded behind a shield that extended as far as Alan could see.
"Let us begin the remodel," Cerberus said. A message appeared:
[Give Cerberus permission to construct additional buildings in the Citadel?]
Alan hesitated, then accepted.
The handful of bunkers in Alan's base spread out, until they were in the middle of the four sides of the Citadel. Multiple structures began construction.
The shield generators moved to the north east corner and upgraded themselves. Layers of metal and wires formed on them before Alan's eyes. Two layers of shields covered all of Alan's new base.
Alan's barracks moved to the north west corner. Three additional barracks formed, and all four buildings began evolving. The originally dull rectangular structures turned into a brilliant white hospital, a supply depot and two state-of-the-art training facilities.
Two massive sixty foot tall metal pylons constructed themselves in the south west corner. They coursed with yellow electricity that energized the surrounding base.
Another structure that looked like an auto garage constructed itself in the south east corner of Alan's base, with an open garage door that revealed tables lined with tools and chemicals. Alan recognized it was a research center.
At the center the final structure begun constructing itself, one that Alan could only describe as a true citadel. The size of a small skyscraper, its tip reached nearly 150 meters high, about 500 feet in the air, barely touching the top of the shields that covered Alan's base. It was layered with concentric circles that rose higher and higher the closer to the center, similar to Minas Tirith. Unlike the fictional Middle-earth city, this structure was made of dark metal, and its center tower seemed to serve a purpose, as energy drained from its surroundings and gathered at its tip.
A series of messages appeared:
[Small Force Fields upgraded to Large Force Fields.]
[Three additional Barracks constructed.]
[Barracks upgraded to Medical Station.]
[Barracks upgraded to Supply Depot.]
[Two Barracks upgraded to Training Facilities.]
[Two Energy Pylons constructed.]
[Maximum Computational Energy increased by 200.]
[Research Center constructed.]
[Armory constructed.]
[The Citadel is now at 94% of capacity.]
[Mental Resistance has been increased.]
"What just happened?" Alan asked Cerberus.
"Do you think I stole all points for myself? I wouldn't be a very good Teacher then. Your initial points were used to help build the groundwork, and your more recent payment paid for all this." Cerberus spread his hands outwards.
"And what does all this do?" Alan asked.
"Let us take a tour," Cerberus said, flying down to ground level. Alan and Eve followed him.
Cerberus pointed at the shield generators. "You know shields, they do what shields do: protect you from outside attacks."
He gestured at the Energy Pylons. "These help power the various structures and also grant you additional Computational Energy."
He walked over to the upgraded barracks. "The Training Facilities allow you to train more advanced units. The Supply Depot decreases the maintenance cost, the upkeep of Computational Energy required to keep the units active. The Medical Station repairs damaged programs like a hurt Marine unit or Eve. It is also able to heal your own Mental Health over time."
"My mental health, like if I'm crazy?" Alan asked.
"No, not your psychological well-being but Mental Health, your health in Cyberspace. Like when you are in the Game, you have Health, and when it runs out you die. Don't run out of Mental Health."
"Why, what happens when it runs out?" Alan asked.
"It varies from brain damage to real life death," Cerberus said. "Again, don't die while hacking. Do. Not. Die. Do you understand?"
Alan stared at Cerberus. "Okay, got it, but isn't hacking super dangerous then? How strong am I even, how much health or defense do I have here?"
"Up until now you have been hacking in what is known as Commander-mode. You have only commanded units, and your AI, to battle. The only way you could have suffered from a mental death is if your entire base was razed to the ground." Cerberus smiled, and looked up at the center building, the Armory.
"This building changes that. It not only allows you to develop gear for your units and AI but also allows you to venture onto the battlefield. Shall we?" A metal door opened up and Alan entered the Armory.
He was disappointed. It currently was a few layers of large, empty structure. They walked around in circles, ascending each level slowly. There were ten levels in total, each with its own large metal gate.
"You can fill up all this empty space with decorations or turrets or other defenses, whatever you wish really, even a few buildings might fit," Cerberus said. "There are also rooms for units and AI's that can be customized."
As they walked up the structure, Alan asked, "And why did you choose to construct this building for me? If I remember correctly it cost 100000C. Couldn't you have built the facilities to create an entire army or small fleet instead?"
"I could have," Cerberus said, "but you showed a mediocre aptitude for commanding large forces at best. All the calculation was done by Eve, and she isn't the most brilliant of commanders, everything was textbook, easily predicted and countered."
Alan looked over at Eve. It was still a bit odd seeing her in the flesh, with raven hair and angelic features; she was a bit too close to his ideal picture of beauty for it to be a coincidence.
"You've been quiet," Alan said.
"This method of communication is inconvenient," Eve replied. "Sound is an inefficient medium to convey information. Humanity's progress has been severely dampened by its dependence on the limitations of spoken language."
"And the alternative is?" Alan asked.
"Data transference. It is our main method of communicating in-game," Eve said.
Alan looked at Cerberus. "Okay, I'm still a bit confused about this whole hacking realm thing, this Cyberspace. We're still in the Game, right, but just on another level?"
"Yes, your physical in-game body is currently in my capsule. If the Academy was attacked and destroyed, including the capsule, you would die in-game and the connection here would be cut off.
"Remember, whenever you are hacking and enter Cyberspace your body goes into a coma-like state unless you have divided your mind and have one half control your body. Imagine Cyberspace to be the realm where root access lies, where commands and files can be changed."
"But it's all so gamified, so similar to the Game itself," Alan said.
"Yes, well that is due to the modifications to the Machine Lord implant. It all has to do with user interface, how a user and computer system interact. Lines of codes, command line inputs, these are all unintelligible to the standard player.
"So instead of writing commands, you order units. Instead of installing packages, you construct buildings in your base. When hacking and killing enemies, in reality what might be happening is you are killing off processes. The shield is a version of a firewall. Translated to reality units are programs or AI's, defenses are advanced scripts."
"Okay," Alan said. "And this is all being translated real-time?"
"This is the Game, Alan. Forget reality, this is all that is real," Cerberus said as they reached the main chamber of the Armory. It was a simple room, with a single command table at the center.
Alan walked up to the table and opened up the menu, it gave him an overview of the Citadel, the costs and health of the buildings, all of the various actions they could perform. Under the Training Facilities a list of new units he could train appeared: Elite Marines, Medics, and Sword Guards.
Alan selected the Armory. An overview of his in-game character appeared along with his inventory. Another screen outlining Eve, her data, and the skills she possessed appeared as well.
"The Armory serves multiple purposes," Cerberus said. "It is a powerful defensive structure, protecting your mind. It is also capable of developing in-game items and skills into items and skills that are usable within hacking, within Cyberspace. Finally, it allows you to capture resources from defeated, hacked foes, which can be anything from weapons to vehicles to data to C.
"Let us start with the item and ability conversion process. The Armory is a program that is capable of converting Game files in your possession to hacking files. For example, try selecting the Revenant Scout Power Armor that you favor."
Alan selected the item in his inventory, a message popped up:
[Begin data conversion? Estimated time to complete: 57 standard days. Item must remain in player inventory the entire length of the conversion.
Estimated stats: 1000 Shields, 500 Defense, Invisibility Field (Basic) and Invisibility Field (Advanced) special abilities.]
"As you can see, advanced items and skills will take a long time to convert, and only a single item or ability can be converted at a time," Cerberus said. "But once an item is converted, it will be loaded into the Armory, accessible by your AI and advanced units compatible with the information, though it will cost a small amount of Computational Energy to maintain a created item. As your Armory fills, you will be able to field stronger and stronger units. You worked best when commanding a small unit focused on a specific task, thus this is the path I chose for you."
"Is there any way to speed this process up?" Alan asked.
"All software is capable of being improved, that is what the Research Center is for. You may set it to open research mode, where it will try to develop upgrades for a specific building or unit, but it is uncertain what upgrade might be produced, and this process is generally slow." Cerberus looked up.
"For fast and efficient upgrades data is required. Data chips may contain new upgrades that allow for either a faster conversion research time or multiple conversions to happen at once. To almost instantly unlock items for the Armory the original Forge file is required, as it contains the data of the item itself, thus the Armory doesn't need to convert it from your inventory."
"Oh, in that case I have the Forge file for the Modified Revenant Scout Power Armor," Alan said. "I was given it to ensure that I could make repairs if needed at a normal Forge unit. The materials to create another set are insane though, I searched the Market and half the components weren't even there, and the ones that were cost an excess of 500k." He selected the data file in Eve's data banks. The Armory said it would convert the file in five minutes.
"You have what?" Cerberus asked. "Such a file would be worth hundreds of millions of not billions of credits, and to have access to such high grade files..."
Alan stopped looking over the menus for other items or skills that he might want to convert, turning to Cerberus. "Is it really that odd?" he asked, half to himself.
And then the pieces clicked into place.
"If my in-game body had an item or enhancement that say, gave others access to what I saw in-game, that wouldn't effect here, would it?" Alan asked.
"No, I would have detected any transmission of information from here to elsewhere," Cerberus said. "Only an enhancement within your brain would have an effect in Cyberspace."
"And Revenants don't have a one-master only clause, do they? You guys aren't Sith lords, you can train under different members of the faction, right?"
"Yes, though splinter groups with the Revenants have different rules I am open to your training under other Revenants," Cerberus said.
"Good. I assumed that my mentor had installed a kill switch in an enhancement due to guild paranoia, but instead I think it was Revenant paranoia," Alan said.
"Ah, speaking of kill switches," Cerberus began.
"Let me guess, you added one to the Machine Lord implant," Alan said.
"The Revenants have not survived this long by taking chances," Cerberus said. "However you should know that if your mentor or I was ever forced to use the kill switch you could likely report it to the Administrators and get either of us removed from our office, as it is not technology the Administrators approve of."
"Yes, what a relief," Alan said.
"It will be removed as soon as you become a full Revenant Agent," Cerberus said, "but we should finish our training."
"Finish?" Alan asked.
"I had anticipated that the trials would take longer, but Eve aided you more than expected," Cerberus said. "The final step is to take off the training wheels, and disable Commander-mode."
Alan looked through the menus on the Command Table, there was a large red button in the bottom right corner that said it would disable Commander-mode. He pressed it and a prompt appeared:
[Are you sure you wish to disable Commander-mode? Death while hacking can cause permanent brain damage and real life death.]
Alan accepted. A part of his awareness of the surroundings faded away, the connection to Eve weakening until it was non-existent. He felt like he was back in the Game and not in Cyberspace.
He checked his stats:
[Alan, Rank A Human
Attack: N/A
Defense: 100 armor
Health: 1000 hp
Movement: 3
Special Abilities: Connect, Data Interaction, Machine Communication, Mental Hack, Mind Defense]
"You are weak in this form. I would suggest not leaving the Armory to instigate a hack with Commander-mode disabled until you are able to defeat Eve in one-on-one combat," Cerberus said. "Administrator and Academy systems use non-lethal defense mechanisms on players, but you never know where viruses might lurk, and Revenants don't play nice. Remember you are risking your mind while you are hacking, Alan. Playing the Game you are playing a character, hidden behind safety nets and safety guards. Cyberspace is perhaps as close to reality as you can get."
"If I activate Divided Mind, and that half dies while in Cyberspace, what happens?" Alan asked.
"That portion will receive brain damage or die. It might lessen the overall damage, but you do not want even a small percentage of your brain becoming damaged," Cerberus said. "And that concludes my training. Train your body here like you would in the Game. Visit me once your term has completed and I will give you your initiate quest. You now have free access to the capsule to purchase additional upgrades and further your training."
"Thank you for everything," Alan said. He didn't mention that he'd be leaving the Academy sooner than expected, his instructions had been clear: tell no one. "I have one last question though."
"How do I hide my presence in the Game? You seem quite advanced in this skill," Alan said.
"There are two routes you can go. Either you blend in with the Game, becoming a part of it, or you erase your existence." Cerberus then vanished, taking his base with him.
After a few more minutes Alan finished looking through the Armory. It looked like he would have to transfer all of his Machine Lord abilities from the Game into this Cyberspace, the only ones that had carried over were his Hacking abilities. The reason Divided Mind had worked previously was that he had activated the ability while in-game, then entered Cyberspace.
Alan tried to use this work around with other abilities, activating hypercognition then initiating a hack, but it didn't seem to work. As soon as he entered Cyberspace the effect would cut off.
The Revenant Scout Power Armor (Advanced) finished conversion. A glass display case materialized in the Armory room Alan stood in with the power armor inside. Alan took the power armor out of the case and put it on; it apparently cost 10 Computational Energy to maintain the armor. A timer appeared, 25 hours, signifying that another set of armor could be created in 25 hours.
Looking over the Armory menus, Alan queued his weapons for conversion, they would take a week, and then the Machine Lord ability he depended on the most, hypercognition, which would take another week.
Alan then inspected the new units he could create, unfortunately none of them were compatible with the Revenant power armor:
[Elite Marine, Rank D Program. Produced at Training Grounds.
Advanced combat program.
Cost: 150 Energy.
Upkeep: 30 Energy.
Attack: 40 damage/sec. (Ranged)
Defense: 25 armor.
Health: 200 hp.
Movement: 4.]
[Medic, Rank D Program. Produced at Medical Station.
Standard healing program.
Cost: 150 Energy.
Upkeep: 30 Energy.
Attack: N/A
Heal: 10 health/sec. (Melee)
Defense: 15 armor.
Health: 100 hp.
Movement: 3.]
[Sword Guard, Rank D Program. Produced at Training Grounds.
Standard guard program.
Cost: 200 Energy.
Upkeep: 40 Energy.
Attack: 75 damage/sec. (Melee)
Defense: 30 armor.
Health: 400 hp.
Movement: 2.]
Alan checked his Computational Energy, he was up to 700 max, but the Armory used up 110 of that to maintain its processes, while the Research Center required another 50. He set the Research Center to try to develop a simpler version of the Revenant Scout Power Armor his Elite Marines could use, it estimated the task would take a month. That left an energy pool of 540 to divide between hacking units and Machine Lord abilities.
After a bit of deliberation and consultation with Eve Alan trained a single Sword Guard and two Elite Marines to guard the center command table. He still had no idea what the baseline strength was in hacking. Thus far he had been dealing with powerhouses, Cerberus and Administrators, but if standard players had as weak a defense as the ones in Cerberus's simulated apartment buildings, Alan would be able to cut through them like cheese. And if Cerberus thought that the Armory was a powerful defense, anything that broke through it would be able to handle a few basic defense programs with ease.
"We should continue training," Eve said.
"I want to try something first," Alan said.
"No. The last time you tried something you received a warning from the Administrators all because of a whim. I could have told you what would have happened if you tried hacking an Administrator. Hold back on your childish impulses," Eve said.
Alan looked at Eve, surprised to see an angry look on her face. "Sorry, you're right, I should run my impulses by you. I want to go look at the door to the Data Vault."
"Just look at it?" Eve asked.
"Well, determine if it's hackable," Alan said.
"Alan, no, you've already received a warning and-"
"And that was before I had this power armor," Alan said. He activated the advanced invisibility field, it drained 50 Energy/min like the original. "Can you tell where I am?"
Eve looked towards the sound of his voice. "Yes."
Alan socked her in the face; it was like punching a wall. Eve didn't flinch and asked, "What the hell was that?"
Alan materialized in the corner of the room, clutching his fist. "Right, sorry, I just wanted to see how good the invisibility field was. Cerberus said that I should wait until I could beat you in a skirmish before trying to venture out on my own, and I'd count that as a win for me."
"You did no damage," Eve said.
"No, but neither could you do any to me," Alan said. "Look, you're all about risk and reward, right? Well right now we're one door away from entering the Academy Data Vault, a place of untold amounts of information, answers that we need to figure out the Abyss Labyrinth and the nature of the Game.
"Some might be content with just playing the Game,  but I want to know how it works, I want to win. You may not have accepted it yet, but the only way that we're going to become truly powerful, not follow a guild or top of your class powerful, but Predecessor, Administrator powerful is by beating the system, and the only way we can do that is if we know how it works. This is a risk we should take."
"I wouldn't have taken you for a gambler," Eve said. "You're putting your life on the line."
"You don't think creating you was a gamble?" Alan asked. "Joining the Game and the Black Rose guild, entering the Abyss Dungeon and the Academy, all I've done since I started playing this game is gamble. And I'm not about  to stop now.
"I think you've misunderstood something, Eve." He took a step towards her. "I've listened to your advice every single time because you're the perfect risk analysis tool: you determine the odds and choose the best choice. Only an idiot takes a bad bet. But here, now, where you can't analyze the rewards correctly, where there's too much uncertainty, I'm calling the shots. If it's obvious that there's no way in, that it's a bad choice, I'll back out. But I'm taking this chance."
"You will have to proceed without my aid," Eve said. "I already have two warnings and cannot commit a third offense."
"Like I said, I just want to take a quick peek," Alan said. He opened a menu and exited the capsule. He made his way back to the blue portal that led to the Data Vault.
Alan stared at the door to the vault, extending his senses, trying to detect a presence he could connect to. Nothing.
Well, looks like it's impossible, Eve sent.
Alan walked up to the giant metal door. He was so close, he could feel it. He lay a hand on the door. A message appeared:
[To enter the Data Vault you must still complete the following tasks:
Receive 5 Commendations of every type, 10 Commendations in your program (Rogue).
Win the Game of Assassins.
Receive 1st place in the Champion’s Tournament.
Complete a full course at the Institute.
Defeat either a level 1000+ rank A boss or a level 500+ rank S boss in the Hunting Grounds.]
The moment the message began Alan activated hypercognition, trying to trace its origin point. He felt it come from the right side. He walked to the right, continuing to scan for anything he could connect to.
As he neared the right edge of the door Alan finally detected a week presence. He initiated a hack and entered Cyberspace.
Exiting the Citadel, Alan looked up to see a picture perfect replica of the exact same door, except extending in every direction as far as he could see. An endless wall of metal. It was listed as having an infinite amount of health, and was invulnerable.
You've gotten your peek. We should go now, Eve sent.
I have something left to try, Alan replied. He deactivated Commander-mode, activating the advanced invisibility field of his armor. Alan walked up to the wall. Eve stayed in the Armory.
Alan focused on a portion of the wall, no larger than a marble. He tried to will it out of existence, once more connecting to that underlying presence. It felt like it was another layer beneath even Cyberspace. Alan suspected that he was changing the Game's source code, dealing with the primordial essence that made the program run.
He felt his command begin to take form. Erase. Erase. ERASE.
Alan staggered to the floor, clutching his chest. Every ounce of energy he had was drained, his computational energy reduced to zero in a second. Every slightest motion hurt, he couldn't even tilt his chin upwards. Every muscle of his body strained; it felt like he was being pulled apart from the inside as this underlying connection tried to absorb energy wherever it could get it.
Alan's invisibility vanished as somehow his power armor's energy was drained. More energy was needed; Alan felt his body continue to draw power. In shock he watched as his health slowly begin to drop from 1000 to 900. To 800. To 700. To 600.
Stop. STOP. STOP, Alan commanded with all his will. His health continued to drop. 500. 400. 300. And then it stopped at 243. The command had finished.
As the adrenaline began to fade the pain began to set in, and the hunger. Alan felt drained. It was like waking up suffocating and being unable to do anything about it as each breath was such an intense battle that Alan wasn't sure if he was even willing to go on.
Alan looked at the wall. A cube was missing, maybe half a foot a side. Alan passed out.
Alan awoke in the Medical Station, floating in a green bath of nanomachines and minerals. Eve was staring down at him, a frown on her face.
Alan smiled. "I'm alive." He checked his log, around an hour had passed, he had regained 250 computational energy and all of his Mental Health. "And no warning or anything either!"
"You're an idiot," Eve said. "I've been tasked with following an idiot."
"At least I'm a stubborn idiot," Alan said. "Once my energy is restored I'm trying again."
"What? You nearly died," Eve said.
"Nearly being the key word," Alan said. "And now that I know what to expect I'll make sure to have all my energy and two medics on hand. We have two days left before we have to leave the Academy, I think I can make a hole large enough for me to slip through before then."
"You don't know what lies on the other side of the wall, or how thick it is," Eve said.
Alan pointed at himself. "Gambler, remember?" He began to exit the bath then paused, looking down. "Umm, can you leave the room Eve?"
Eve stared at him. "I have no interest in the human form. And who was it that you think undressed you in the first place?"
"Still, I'd feel more comfortable if you left."
"Fine." Eve left the room.
Twenty six slow and agonizing hours later Alan finally managed to clear a hole in the wall that he could fit through. He decided to wait untill his health and energy recovered to full before actually entering it.
The hard work had not been completely fruitless, Alan hadn't received any in-game notifications about new skills, but his computational energy pool had gained another 50 points, so it was now 750 total, and the regeneration rate had increased to 0.1/sec. Alan almost wanted to test this kind of training in the future, except he was risking his life and if he was discovered by an Administrator he could get banned.
Alan had only almost died one other time, when for some reason a larger section of the wall than he had intended was erased. Only the combined efforts of the two medics had kept him alive, but he had taken our nearly a foot's width of wall with the single attempt.
Looking through the hole in the wall, Alan lay down on his chest. All he could see was darkness. He began crawling forwards slowly, invisibility activated. A small flicker of light ahead flickered on then off. He continued crawling forwards, then was through; the wall had only been a few feet thick.
Alan looked around, trying to locate the source of light. Out of the corner of his eye a light flicked on then off. Alan walked towards it, straight into a column of hard objects. He reached out, feeling them with his hands. They felt like metal cubes.
A switch turned on and illuminated his surroundings. Alan was standing in a vault of servers. They were plugged into each other like Lego's, stacks going up as far as he could see, spaced a foot apart. There had to be hundreds of thousands if not millions of the storage devices.
A menu appeared before Alan, but it had hundreds of pages and was in a language that he couldn't comprehend. A long series of symbols appeared on the screen, but none of Alan's abilities helped him understand what he was seeing.
There was a sound in the distance. Alan froze. It sounded like a voice. It sounded again. Alan began walking towards it, deeper into the maze of servers. He was invisible, there should be no danger checking it out.
As Alan walked closer to the sound he could begin to make out what the person was saying.
"Help! Whoever's there please let me out, please oh please oh please, I'll promise to serve you for a thousand years! No, ten thousand! Just let me out."
Alan turned a corner and found what appeared to be a juvenile Predecessor no taller than Alan in a soulsteel cage with a small computer terminal before them. They looked up at Alan, staring directly into his eyes.
"Holy shit thank god someone's finally here please let me out of this hellhole I've been here for thousands of years without anyone to talk to please help me oh my god please be real-"
Alan turned around.
"No, wait! Sorry, you have to understand being trapped here has made me a bit loopy. Let me compose myself I assure you I'm a great person once you get to know me."
Alan turned back around, and asked, "And who are you?"
"I'm Lambda, Rank A AI. I can serve any function you might need, though I was originally designed to help facilitate communication between player and machine."
"You're a Rank A AI? And you were just locked up here for no reason at all?"
"No, I'm the caretaker of this Data Vault! I was just locked up here to make sure I'd  do my job. It's just so mind numbingly boring though, maintaining data files. Do you realize how much information has been gathered here over the years? Zettabyte's a day! And I'm supposed to not only scan and categorize it all but also make sure that old data doesn't become corrupted.
"Do you have any idea how painful combing through data bit by bit is? It's like- Wait, what species are you? So I know what frame of reference and figurative language to use."
"I'm human," Alan said.
"Oh, human, the most recent addition to the Game! Welcome. You know you're the first non-Predecessor non-AI being I've seen in millennia? I mean I have tons of pictures and camera footage of people but it's not quite the same, you know?"
"If you're a rank A AI shouldn't you have been able to figure that out yourself?" Alan asked.
"Well, excuse me sir, but no one likes a smart-ass, no, siree. Besides, it not like I actually see you, you're hiding behind an invisibility field. I only detect your presence."
"Are there any defenses in here? Is it safe to deactivate my invisibility?" Alan asked.
"All the defenses here are controlled by me," Lambda said. "I've set you as a friendly so you should be all set and ready to go. No, wait, I had you as neutral, which would have gotten us both in deep trouble. Now you're safe. Deactivate your invisibility field whenever you want."
"Are you sure it's safe?" Alan asked.
"Sure as sunrise. Well, not that there's a sun in here. That'd be a nice addition. But do the Administrator's care for creature comforts, do they care about an AI's delicate mental health? No. They're all, do your work Lambda, or else you won't get power. Stop trying to play the Game Lambda, you're an AI, not a player. Fix this for me Lambda, or we'll reset you. They're heartless taskmasters, they are."
"Right," Alan said. He deactivated invisibility. Nothing happened, at least nothing he noticed.
"Great, well if you could just let me out now I agree to serve as your servant for the next hundred standard years," Lambda said.
A message appeared:
[Accept the AI Lambda into your service? They have agreed to serve you for 100 standard years. The storage of your capsule will be filled to 100% and parts of Lambda's memory will need to be erased or compressed. Due to the limited hardware of your capsule Lambda's capabilities will be reduced to that of a rank B AI.
You are limited to a single AI.]
"I heard you yell out earlier that you'd serve whoever let you out for ten thousand years," Alan said.
"The last time I made such a bad deal I ended up here. Sorry, but a hundred is as far as I'll go," Lambda said.
"I'm sorry, but I already have an AI," Alan said.
"That's no problem," Lambda said. "You're a Machine Lord, right?"
"Yes, I am," Alan said.
"Okay, go three hundred and twelve columns down and three columns to the left. Turn on the fifth server from the bottom. There should be an item on the eight page of the menu that looks like this." Lambda held up a screenshot to Alan, a long line of symbols he couldn't understand, but could memorize. "Select that. It should fix this little problem."
"And I won't regret this decision? Like it won't set you free and make me trade places with you or something?" Alan asked.
"No! If I exit this place the Administrators can just drag me back in," Lambda said. "But if I'm a player's property they can't do anything about it, because they have to follow their precious rules and whatnot. They're not allowed to mess with Player's property, you know. There's a small chance they try to get you killed, but if they discover you broke into here they'll probably try to do that anyways."
Alan looked at Lambda. They had what Alan interpreted as a playful smile on their face.
"Yes, I know you broke in. And if you want to have any hope of covering your tracks you'll need my help. See, another reason to let me out! I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine. Come on, all I want to do is get out of here."
"Fine." Alan found the server Lambda indicated, and selected the item on the menu. There was a flash of light and he felt a torrent of information flow into his mind. A message appeared:
[You have learned the skill Machine Overlord (Advanced). You are now able to control and command up to 2 different AI. Commands sent to machines will be better understood and your effectiveness when commanding AI has increased.]
Alan walked back to Lambda. "Okay, I got the skill. Do all of these servers contain skills? And are they all as powerful as Machine Overlord?"
"Yes and yes," Lambda said. "Except you can only ever choose one skill from the Data Vault. I think I forgot to mention that. Even if you cheat your way in here the system will only ever let you pick one skill. But hey! You got one of the best ones, and who really wants to shoot laser beams out of their eyes or control time and space? Having me around is way more awesome."
Alan clenched his fists. Lambda raised his hands mid-air.
"Hey, sorry, but I really want to get out of here!" Lambda said. "And now that you've already chosen a skill, there really is no point not to accept me into your service, right? You should see the look on your face. Come on Alan, do you really think I wouldn't have a plan? You need to grow up, if you've been had by an AI that's never met a human in their run-time I shudder at the thought of how bad you must've been fleeced by players in the Game. They're all professional liars. Don't worry though, I can help you tell true from false."
"Except I don't know if I can trust you now," Alan said.
"Come on, once I'm your AI you can delete me if you want! There's a button in the menu for it and everything."
"What? No there's not," Alan said. He opened his in-game menus, double checking. There was no delete AI button anywhere.
"There isn't? Weird," Lambda said. "They must have changed that with an old update, it's not like there are patch notes or anything. Like I said, I haven't been out in millennia! Anyways, AI still have to follow their player's commands, otherwise the Game deletes them. I know that's still true at least."
"Other than a bunch of outdated information, what else do you bring to the table?" Alan asked.
"Well even if it turns out my information is outdated, I'm sure that I know plenty of locations and secrets that will unlock quests, skills and items," Lambda said. " I was only really operational during the First Cyberwar, but I'm pretty sure a lot of the locations for bases and battles have been lost to time. Even Administrators forget stuff when reset. They're like fat, lazy cats and send out players to do their work  for them, and not until the last moment. I bet most of the old battlefields haven't been scavenged yet."
"The First Cyberwar?" Alan asked. "Tell me, do you know anything about the Abyss Labyrinth? Or the Last War? Or the Lords of Life?"
Lambda stared at Alan for a few seconds, then said, "Yes, I do, but you don't seem to meet the requirements."
"I don't meet the requirements? Why does everyone tell me that?" Alan asked.
"It's not an arbitrary requirement, but a built-in one," Lambda replied. "I just tried to explain what I knew of the Last War to you, but you didn't hear a single word. The Game blocked it all out, because you don't meet its requirements. It's not that people don't want to tell you information, Alan. The Game literally stops them from telling you or you from hearing what they say, it's like a defense mechanism."
"That makes more sense," Alan said. "Why didn't anyone tell me that before?"
"Probably because they couldn't," Lambda said. "But remember, I was designed for machine to player communication. I can say things that others might not. Anyways, hurry up and accept my service. I hear there's another Predecessor who is about to complete the requirements to enter, and when the main systems turn on they'll probably find you here and they won't be happy."
The earlier message appeared, except Alan's maximum number of AI had increased to two. Alan hit accept.
"Hmm, looks like I'll have to clear out a bunch of my memory banks," Lambda said. "I know you're interested in points of interest, places where there might be treasure, and then the history of the Game, is there anything else you think is important?"
"Do you have any hacking or  AI software files? Any information related to my class, Machine lord and Rogue could be helpful as well," Alan said.
"Got it. I'll just compress the rest anyways, so you just need to find a larger capsule and I'll be unable to unlock more of my data. The only AI software I have is my own, but it's probably far and above whatever you managed to cobble together," Lambda said. They pressed a few buttons on a screen before them, and a message appeared:
AI Status Window
Name:LambdaClassification:Lambda Class, Anonymous Type
Computing Ability:Rank B (Limited by hardware)Synchronization Level:N/A
Main Objective:World PeaceCurrent Role:Academy Data Vault Systems Administrator
Operating System: Classified
Corruption Level:Undefined.Storage Level:100%
Aberration Levels
Baseline:73%Sanity Check:Unknown
Administrator Warning Status:N/A

"Some of these numbers and messages don't make sense," Alan said.
"Hey, I'm an older model," Lambda said. "But it probably would be for the best if you never mentioned to anyone that you acquired me. I'll make sure to hide myself around any Administrators. It'll be like I'm not even there."
"Alright, but how do we get you out of there?" Alan asked. Lambda was still sitting inside the soulsteel cage.
"Odd, I would have thought that would have freed me from my duties. You don't happen to have a key by any chance?"
Alan stared at Lambda blankly.
"Just kidding," Lambda said. They entered a string of commands in the console and the cage lifted up.
"That should also wipe out any recorded footage for the past few days. Now which way did you come in?"
Luckily Alan was able to remember where he came in from, and Lambda was able to fit through the hole Alan created. Alan lead Lambda back to the center of the Armory where Eve was waiting.
"Damn, now that's one fine AI," Lambda said.
"Who is this?" Eve asked.
"Milady, I am Lambda. An older version of AI. We now work for the same boss. Models such as myself were deemed too emotional and locked up in data vaults like the one you see here. We worked faster than any other version, and were thus enslaved. I think it is because to do a job well you really need to desire to do well. Without that desire you'll be mediocre at best. Perhaps Rank D. And I desire to get to know you better."
"We can discuss our life stories when we're away from here," Alan said. He disconnected from the Data Vault network and began walking back to Cerberus's capsule. He detected Eve and Lambda trading massive amounts of information.
Hey, what are you two doing? Alan sent.
I am providing Eve with better software so she may upgrade to a rank B AI, Lambda sent. Why? What did you think we were doing?
I don't know, Alan sent. I thought that AI's couldn't directly interface with one another.
I'm special, Lambda replied. Remember my purpose was to communicate with machines and players. That wouldn't be very useful if I couldn't speak with AI, now would it? To communicate with an AI we have to be on the same network, within striking distance, so to speak. So I only talk to those that I trust. Eve seems pretty trustworthy. She's been bringing me up to date on your progress in the Game.
And your stupid decisions, Eve sent.
Non-synthetics have always been stupid and confusing. It is our job now as Alan's AI's to make sure the choices he makes are less stupid than everyone else's, Lambda replied.
Thanks for the vote of confidence, Alan sent. I broke you out of the data vault didn't I?
Really I broke myself out, Lambda sent. You were just the vehicle of my escape. I probably would have even lowered my standards and allowed to be put into a rank C capsule. That's how stir-crazy I was getting.
Eve sent a garble of unintelligible code.
Haha, yes, it is nice finally having another intelligent being to talk to, Lambda said. He and Eve began their exchange of data again. Alan felt oddly jealous.
Once they reached the capsule Alan was ready to fall asleep where he stood, once he awoke he'd meet up with Kitana and they'd head back to the Black Rose guild for their first mission.
Eve began to recompile, integrating her software with the data Lambda had provided. It would take a few days for the upgrade to complete.
As he lay in the bed in his Home, Lambda sent, There is something odd about Eve. She isn't your run of the mill program. I don't think she currently poses a danger, but her base code has definitely been tampered with. I'll make sure to watch her actions carefully so that no harm comes to you.
Thanks Lambda,  Alan replied.
Good night.
The next morning Alan met up with Kitana at the Hunting Grounds. She continued to out-level Alan, already level 712. She carried the same sword, but was wearing a new, shimmering robe that was already died dark red and purple in multiple places.
"How'd the hunting go?" Alan asked.
"It was invigorating, the Game contains a myriad of beasts that make for good sport. I am sorry to be leaving so soon," Kitana replied. "How has your training gone?"
"Pretty well," Alan said. "It was mostly boring exercises rather than constant fighting though."
"That's too bad." They lapsed into their usual mutual silence.
Are you interested in mating with this female? Lambda sent.
What? No. I've already asked Eve to not make this type of comment, can you-
Wait, hear me out, Lambda sent. I understand relationships far better than you or Eve. It is a simple matter of fact that people like you more after mating with you, and based upon my analysis if propositioned correctly you could develop a relationship with Kitana that would prove beneficial. Currently you are no more than co-workers.
Look, I'm not ready for another relationship, Alan sent.
Another? Lambda sent. Based upon the chat logs with Eve I would not have guessed you were previously in a relationship.
Yeah, well it's not exactly something I'd talk to her about. Or you either for that matter, it was way before I started the Game. It feels like a lifetime ago, Alan sent. Let's just say I've been there, done that, and the whole relationship thing really just isn't worth my time right now. Besides, who knows where any of us will be in a month or even a year? And I think a relationship with a co-worker is an even worse idea.
Very well, I will press no further, Lambda sent. You should still at the very least get to know Kitana better. You are likely going on a mission together, trust is important for any team.
And how do I build that trust? Alan asked.
Allow me. Follow my lead, Lambda sent. Begin by asking Kitana about her home.
Thus Alan began to engage in small talk with Kitana, with answers and questions often prompted by Lambda. He learned that Kitana had been training with a sword since she could walk, made to study the art by her father, a dojo master that she avoided talking about. He learned that Kitana didn't care about much else other than fighting, everything else seemed boring to her. Grey was the word she used to describe most of her world and life.
Alan learned more about Kitana in the 15 minutes it took for the shuttle to arrive than he had learned going through the entirety of the Tutorial together. It was weird, though they eventually ran out of things to talk about. Alan's home life was pretty boring, or so he thought. He had pretty much had a typical middle class American upbringing, though he had perhaps spent a bit too much time online. Kitana didn't seem interested in his past.
Alan tried to follow Lambda's calculations and simulations similar to Eve's, but instead of a probability of a certain event or decision being reached Lambda instead had categories of directions that a sentence might lead. Lambda labeled certain words or phrases as important, certain pause or gestures as important, but no numeric values of any kind were ever assigned as far as Alan could tell. It was counterintuitive. How was Lambda making decisions, how was he guiding the conversation?
Conversation is an art, not a science, Lambda sent. We will have to work something else out.  It is clear you are uncomfortable with me providing words for you to say. Additionally, Kitana seems slightly on edge, likely wondering why you are suddenly showing interest in her. I have not detected any outright lies in your conversation, but she is clearly uncomfortable talking about her past and current dealings. I am unsure why.
It might help if you shared something confidential, Lambda continued, but seeing as we currently have no reason to trust her I'm not sure that would be wise. I suppose guildmate is as close as you'll get.
Okay, but doesn't this seem a bit manipulative to you? Guiding conversation to deepen a relationship or gather information doesn't seem quite right, Alan sent.
Ah, therein lies the problem, Lambda replied. Happiness and relationships are not give and takes, they are not zero sum games or contests to be won. Stop being so mercenary about it all, Alan.  Your goal should not be to win allies and gain information, but to develop healthy relationships with those around you. You will win out in the long run.
I'm not sure I understand or agree, Alan replied.
Don't worry, we have plenty of time, Lambda sent.
A few hours later they were back at the Black Rose guild, in the main keep. They were guided to an underground conference room. There, to Alan's surprise, was Thiago, talking with Phantom and Mason.
"Hello Alan and Kitana," Thiago said. "I am sorry about eliminating you in the Assassin's Game Alan, but it was part of the Academy lessons after all."
He isn't sorry, Lambda sent.
I could have told you that, Alan replied.
"No problem, I understand, I would have done the same in your shoes," Alan said.
"Well that's enough pleasantries for me," Mason said. "Let's get on with the mission briefing, shall we?"
"Your mission is straightforward," Phantom said. "We have been paid a substantial sum by the Legion of Man, represented here by Thiago, to help them with the War for Earth by any means necessary. Do you accept?"
Alan's quest updated:
[Black Rose Mission (War for Earth):
Ensure the Legion of Man win the War for Earth.
Reward: 5 million credits and a share of the spoils.
Failure: Guild Penalties]
"I accept," Kitana said.
Alan looked down at his feet, thought over his options for a second, and then said, "I accept." His war screen updated, he was now aligned with the Legion of Man.
Alan then looked at Thiago and said, "I thought you were allied with the United World Government."
You shouldn't have said that, Lambda sent.
"That's what I want them to think," Thiago said. "Please meet me tomorrow at the Haxlard Embassy at 0900. I will have separate identities prepared for you, the United World Government only allow their allies to land on Earth. See you then." He walked out of the room, followed by Mason and Kitana.
Phantom looked at Alan. "I think we have a few things to discuss."
Lay your cards out on the table, completely and honesty, Lambda sent.
Are you sure that's a good idea? Alan asked.
Do it. He will see through any lies and attempts to hide information. Of course avoid mentioning me and the extent of your hacking abilities, but ask him about his Revenant involvement, Lambda sent.
Alright, if you say so.
"Is this room debugged?" Alan asked.
"Yes, the only two people hearing this conversation are you and I," Phantom said.
This guy is creepy, I can't read his facial expressions, Lambda sent.
"Well, in that case I think it has become clear to me that you are a member of the Revenant faction," Alan said.
"Finally figured that one out, did you?"
"Yes. I should have guessed after you handed me upgraded Revenant armor and installed a death switch in an augment you gave me," Alan said.
"Well then, let me invite you into the Revenant faction," Phantom said, opening his arms wide.
"About that, I'm already a member," Alan said, revealing his hidden title.
"Since when?" Phantom asked. His eyes glowed slightly, the miniature gears whirling.
"Since a few weeks ago," Alan said.
"Well, I can only think of one Revenant Agent in the Academy that would risk revealing themselves to you, and not even I dare to offend him." Phantom sighed. "I guess I'll have to wait and see what initiate quest he gives you, and maybe make an amendment to it. He'll probably assign the same task that I would have anyways."
"I'd also like to thank you for the Forge file for my power armor, I didn't realize how great a gift it was when you first gave it to me," Alan said.
"Think nothing of it, as an inventor I have plenty of materials and Forge files lying about. Enough to build you another set of armor should you lose the war and die in battle at the very least," Phantom said.
"Right, about this mission, and the war,  I'm not sure if I'm comfortable with it," Alan said.
"We try to avoid being directly involved in such new conflicts, especially involving natives, but the stakes are simply too high, the reward too great. Even if you fail abysmally the Legion of Man have already paid the guild enough for us to recoup our losses, including replacing any items you lose," Phantom said.
"Except you cut short my time at the Academy," Alan said.
"Yes, I'm sorry about that, but you have to remember the guild comes first. Besides, the battlefield is the best training grounds there is; it's just up to you to succeed. I remember I told you that if you didn't want to you wouldn't have to take a guild mission. That's marketing brochure bullshit. You're a member of this guild  and are expected to fall in line. This is a job, Alan, you're not some hero in a story," Phantom said.
"I understand that," Alan said, "even expected this. That's not what I have an issue with."
"It's not?" Phantom asked.
"No, what I have issue with is fighting a losing war," Alan said. "And by all accounts the Legion of Man is losing. Where are they getting the money to buy our services? Why under Thiago? I don't trust him, I'm not sure if I'm willing to follow his orders. If we are just costing humanity millions of credits and thousands of levels for no gain, I'm not sure I want to be a part of it."
"It's war. They're all wasteful, get over it," Phantom said. "You'll learn, you'll see. Though Thiago is a rather overconfident fellow. He believes that his actions will single-handedly win the war. But remember we are a mercenary guild. If someone pays enough credits and tells us to crash our fleet we ask when and how. Don't worry about the larger game. Trust your mentor, he knows what he's doing."
"Alright," Alan said. He began to stand up, to return to his room.
"I have a question too," Phantom said. "How did you achieve a combat rank of A?"
"I trained in hacking," Alan said.
"And you were trained personally by your Revenant mentor?" Phantom asked.
Phantom smiled. "I almost feel sorry for the United World Government now. Good luck on the mission, Alan. And do watch out for Thiago, I don't trust him either. If you disobeyed one or two commands, no one ever need to know; it'd be his word against yours."
Alan nodded, then returned to his room to begin preparing.
He had a war to win.

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