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Alan stared up at the ceiling of his room. It was grey, slightly curved, with a small vent in the corner.

Alan are you listening? Eve sent.

Yes, I'm listening. It takes a month to travel from Earth to Khersath, right in the middle of the line between the Haxlard Empire and the Empire, Alan sent. To get from one end of the Haxlard Empire to the other takes about three months. The Alliance, the Empire and the Haxlard Empire all meet at about where Khersath is, which is contained in a strip of free space under Administrator control.

That is the general information, now repeat the specific measurements, Eve sent.

Wait, my travel in real life from Earth to Khersath took half that time. Why's that? Alan asked.

Perhaps the craft you were in was more advanced. It was Administrator sponsored, was it not? They may hold technology others do not. Enough stalling, what is the answer? Lambda asked.

I've forgotten. There's only so much I can memorize, Alan sent.

If you wish to become the best-

Then I have to give it my all, I know, Alan sent. But studying is so boring. Who needs to know the diameter of the Milky Way is about 100,000 light years? Besides, you have all this information, why do I need to memorize it?

To know it by heart, Lambda sent. Connections are everywhere, but to make them you must have the required knowledge. However, this constant tutoring does seem to be in-effective.

Yes, the rate of retention of information has proceeded in a downward trend, Eve sent.

Well sorry if I can't absorb information like I'm a machine. My brain isn't a hard drive, Alan sent.

It is no fault of your own, simply a flaw in your biological nature, Lambda sent.

Also, if the Earth is so close to Khersath, the center of the universe for any star map, why was it we weren't introduced to the Game until now? Alan asked.

How many stars are in the Milky Way Galaxy? Eve asked.

Around 300 billion, Alan sent. Okay, I can see why it might take a while to search outwards. But what pattern do the Enforcers use to search for sentient species? How far out into the universe have they searched?

We have divulged from the lesson and forged into dangerous territory. Do not ask questions about the Enforcers and their real life capabilities, Lambda sent. How about we play a game instead?

A game? Alan and Eve asked.

Yes, a match between you and Eve. Enter the Arcade and find a game called Cyberwar. Purchase it, Lambda sent.

Alan exited his room. The Crimson Guard standing by the entrance looked down at him.

"I would like to enter the Arcade," Alan said. The guard nodded, and led Alan to the capsule room.

Alan entered a spare capsule; Kitana and a few Haxlards were in the others.

A familiar prompt appeared, asking whether Alan wanted to set the Titan as his respawn point. He declined. His current respawn point was the Black Rose guild headquarters, and it would be kept that way until he died or finished the mission. Wars prevented Players who died from re-entering the combat zone. Phantom had one of the specialized Revenant capsules, though he'd told Alan he would only exchange 3C for 1 ability point, compared to Cerberus's 5:1 exchange rate.

Navigating the menus in the capsule, Alan entered the Arcade. Screens appeared, a cube enclosing him. Ads for the latest content, special deals on games, and the results of arena runs.  A screen showed a scantily clad Ælven woman, advertising adult holofilms. Holofilms were supposed to be the Game's equivalent of movies, but were multi-dimensional and often interactive. Alan had yet to try one due to Eve's incessant training.

The game is called Cyberwar, Lambda sent.

Right. Alan cleared away all the ads from the screens, and searched for Cyberwar.

The game seemed to be popular, with daily tournaments that had prize pools of tens of thousands of credits. A yearly tournament called "The War" even had a prize pool of tens of millions of credits and assorted other prizes, whatever that meant. Guides to Cyberwar and ongoing matches appeared as well. Alan looked at the price.

5,000 credits for the base game, 25,000 for the complete expansion set? That's absurd, Alan sent.

It used to cost more, a pound in flesh so to speak. Purchase the complete version and look through the text version of the game guide. I'm interested in the changes they've made, Lambda sent.

Not one to question his AI, Alan purchased the complete version of the game, as well as the 500 credit game-guide. The other guides, interactive and AI led, were in the 1000+ credit range.

Alan started reading through the guide.

Wait a sec... Alan thought.

Yes, Lambda sent, Cyberwar is a hacking game. A recreation of Cyberspace, but where you can rebuild your base and choose which units you are fighting with or against each time. The most popular mode of the Game is base defense, where each player builds up their own base, gathering a set amount of resources over time, and try to destroy their enemy's base. It can support as few as two or, in the case of The War, hundreds of thousands of players.

But for now set up a private skirmish, you vs. Eve, Lambda continued, guiding Alan through Cyberwar's menus. Let each of you control a squad of marines, I'll act as a dumb AI, providing raw processing power for simulations you wish to run, but I won't provide any advice.

Alan set up the battle to Lambda's directions; he could sense Eve's attention on the settings and the game manual.

Wait, how is Eve going to control one side? She's an AI in my head, I can read her thought processes, and she can get a sense of mine, Alan sent.

That's what I love about this game, Lambda sent. You can add an AI as a player, the game will then cut off your connection. This game is built around hacking after all, where AI's can command units or even have their own bases.

Alright, Alan sent. He set himself as Player 1, Eve as Player 2, and Lambda as his AI assistant.

The match began.

The randomized map began with a forest setting. Alan tried to anticipate what Eve would do. He set his squad into a defensive formation, and waited.

Five minutes passed.

Alan wondered if he should move his units forward. Maybe-

Rounds of laser fire flashed, taking out three of his five marines. His two remaining marines fired back, but the number disadvantage was too much. They were eliminated.

Eve won, an overview screen of the match appearing. Eve hadn't lost a single unit, and still had four units at full health.

Good game, Eve sent.

Not the brightest of plans, Lambda commented.

Be quiet, the both of you, Alan sent. He reviewed the replay. Eve, like him, had initially settled into a defensive position. But when nothing had happened, she had moved her units around his, attacking from the right flank.

How did you know where I was? Why did your units see mine first? Alan asked.

Read the settings and check your map, Eve sent. Beginning positions are marked, and units are like real soldiers, they possess a further detection range in front of them, hence my attack from the side.

First lesson: Be proactive, Lambda sent. Nothing good comes from just waiting around. Except maybe when preparing an ambush, or if you have a highly defensible location. I guess the real lesson is that you should be proactive when you can.

Thanks, Alan sent. Rematch.

The skirmish restarted. This time Alan moved his units out immediately, but around the left side, as he knew statistics dictated that he would choose the side of his dominant hand, the right side, which would be the direction Eve believed he would take. Unless of course Eve knew that he knew that she would anticipate this. Alan squashed the thought.

He activated hypercognition, running a series of scenarios with Lambda to figure out a formation that would best counter Eve's which had been three soldiers in front, with one on point, and two soldiers defending the rear. He decided on having four soldiers in front, two on point. It would favor him if he met Eve first.

He did, and managed to win the firefight with two soldiers left.

Good game, Alan sent.

Alan detected Eve running through the replay.

Good game, she replied after a second; Alan knew this was virtually an eternity for her.

Second lesson: Be original, Lambda sent. You can't keep repeating the same tricks on the battlefield, especially when people analyze your replays or play styles.

Let us play again, Eve sent.

Alright, Alan sent.

A new battleground appeared this time, barren hills. Logic dictated that Alan should try to hold the high ground somewhere, but... Alan ran a few simulations with Lambda, then had him flip a coin. Heads.

Alan sent a lone soldier towards Eve's camp, firing up into the air, yelling loudly. Eve's soldiers ambushed the soldier, but Alan's soldiers managed to ambush and take out two of Eve's squad in return. His forces won the four vs three battle.

Eve looked over the replay. Why did you do that? She asked Alan.

Well, I'm glad you asked, Alan sent. You see, I knew that Lambda just told you to be unpredictable. So I had him calculate the second best route to ambush my soldier. There were two, so I had him flip a coin, and had my other soldiers set up to ambush that route.  

An interesting plan, Eve sent.

A dumb one that should have resulted in the death of a soldier with no gain, Lambda sent. Your logic doesn't even make sense. Eve, how did you choose the path to take?

Weighted randomization, Eve replied, with better paths having higher weights.

Right, so your plan should have had less than a 50% chance of working, maybe 20% at best, Lambda sent.

Hey, I won, didn't I? Alan sent.

Fine, the third lesson should be don't gamble, but instead it's be lucky, Lambda sent. Betting against the house is bad, Alan.

Except when it works, Alan replied. And thus far it's working.

Let's move on to a different format, small battles are too much of a die roll, Lambda sent. Alan set up another match. This time he and Eve each controlled a contingent of units and buildings, with a fixed income. The match begun.

Alan was crushed. There was too much to do: ordering units around, preparing attacks, planning supply routes, responding to ambushes, training new units, performing research, building defenses, erecting structures, raiding enemy supply lines and scouting the map was just the tip of the iceberg, because somehow he had to form an overall battle plan while responding to a dozen situations.

Even using Divided Mind, Hypercognition, and Lambda Alan could barely keep up with Eve. Once his computation power ran out Eve seized a base Alan wasn't paying attention to and then clawed her way across the entire continent with the small foothold.

Good game, Eve sent.

Was it really? Alan asked. That phrase seems so overused that it loses its meaning.

You were the one that commanded I always use it after the completion of a match, Eve sent.

Oh, right, you can stop if you want, Alan sent. That was just for when you were being programmed.

Really? And how was Eve programmed? Lambda asked.

I'm sure I've said it before, but I basically gave her internet access then set her loose on a number of online games and puzzles, Alan sent.

That's it? Lambda sent.

Affirmative, Eve sent.

Odd, they must have come out with a newer model of software, Lambda sent. While AI's can learn, none that I'm aware of taught themselves up to C rank.

I did a bit of optimization and added some code myself too, Alan sent, I don't remember all the details though.

No matter, Lambda sent. Back to the task at hand. Cerberus was right, multitasking and leadership aren't your strong suit. But you can improve. I'll train with you and Eve a few hours each day here, it should be beneficial for everyone. Now queue us for an unranked match, standard rule set. I'll show you how it's done.

Very well, Alan sent. He began looking for a match in the AI assisted division.

An opponent was found.

Lambda dismantled them. Somehow, with a single scouting marine Lambda was able to figure out the opponent's game plan. With a few tanks, the opponent's infantry army was destroyed. Their base soon followed.

Tell him he got REKT, Lambda sent.

No. Alan instead sent the message good game, he didn't know what gaming protocol was but that was probably better than nothing. His opponent left the match lobby.

You're no fun, Lambda replied. Anyways, that was the definition of a hard counter. As I'm sure you know, units in games generally have counters, units that are best against another type. Generally, land vehicles counter infantry, aircraft/spacecraft counter land vehicles, and infantry counter large aircraft/spacecraft if they can get aboard, which is a big if. Same as in the Game. There are specialized units that disregard these rules, but that's the meat of the matter.

And defenses? Alan asked.

Defenses are specialized. While laser turrets and shields are all-around good defenses, armor is good against infantry, weak against everything else, Lambda sent. There are more specialized defenses, like EMPs and ion cannons that disable electronics and psionic systems that better counter biologic attacks too. Haven't you been going over these matters with Eve? You should know this.

I do, just wanted to make sure it applies to Cyberwar as well, Alan replied.

Queue up another match, maybe a large free for all. I'll show you my mad skills, Lambda sent.

Alan queued for another match.

True to his word, Lambda proceeded to win the next match, and the four after that. He somehow predicted who would attack him, with what, and always had the perfect counter ready. The only time he came close to losing a match Lambda was set upon by two different enemies. He asked Eve for help and they managed to pull out a win swarming the enemy with low-cost units each controlled perfectly.

Alan offered his help. Lambda ignored him.

That's micromanagement, micro for short, Lambda sent once the match was done. People always underestimate the ability to control individual units. If you have the ability you can minimize the chance of attacks working or failing by positioning units well.

These matches seem too easy, Alan sent.

It's the scouting, Lambda sent. Information is powerful, and I'm just too good at reading people.

Good enough to win a tournament? Alan asked. The credits could be useful.

No, it's highly unlikely but someone may detect my play style, Lambda sent. If you want to enter a tournament you'll have to enter on your own. Even these unranked matches are a slight risk that we should not take too often. Remember this game is a hacking simulator; often the Administrators will try to recruit top ranked players into what they call their Cyberwarfare division.

Got it, Alan sent.

This has been enlightening, but we should return to studying, Eve sent.

Alan sighed.

What about exercise? Alan asked. I've been cooped up in that room so long, I need a chance to stretch my muscles.

I have an idea, I am an excellent swordsman, maybe I can teach you something, Lambda sent.

Really? An excellent swordsman? How does that work without any physical body parts? Alan asked.

It's a mindset. I could show you in Cyberspace if I had a decent opponent, but sword fighting is like an advanced form of rock, paper, scissors. A game of hard counters. But first you must master the movements, Lambda sent. Running is also paramount, I think we should focus on sprinting.

Can't I just follow your direction? Alan asked.

I could be otherwise indisposed or occupied with hacking or analyzing the battlefield, Lambda sent. Additionally I will not be able to help you to the same degree in Cyberspace. Besides, the main purpose was for exercise, correct? Before you learn any skills or techniques you must first master basic movements.

And that entails what exactly? Alan sent.

Waving your sword around for hours on end, Lambda sent, followed by sprint intervals.

I see no reason lessons cannot continue while you are performing basic exercises, Eve sent.

Great, Alan sent.

He settled into a routine. Wake up. Exercise with the Crimson Blade, with Eve quizzing him on previous lessons. Running. Move on to other lessons. Practice matches in Cyberwar. More lessons. More exercise and quizzes. And the cycle continued.

***

As they were nearing the Solar System Lambda awoke Alan and highlighted a message sent by Thiago. Up until now the planted bugs had only detected standard transmissions between the UWG and Thiago, details of trading deals that were being negotiated. The message read:


Thiago: Arriving on schedule. Package to be delivered. Operation is a go. No contact as of yet.


What is this? Alan asked.

An heavily encrypted transmission, sent to unknown parties, Lambda sent. Unlike the UWG transmissions, there have been too few messages to use as data to fully break the cipher. Comparing to codes I do possess I was able to make a best guess.

Don't you need like a key to decrypt stuff? Alan asked.

If we were not in-game, perhaps. Cryptography has moved past the point of only involving keys. Besides, it is not the locks that I break.  I can read between the lines, and possess all the keys of the kingdom, Lambda sent cryptically.

When Alan enquired further, Lambda said that Alan would need to learn a great deal more math before it could be explained. At the rate Alan was learning Lambda estimated another 50 years at least.

Alan went back to bed.

***

"Thank you, Pharaoh, for allowing us back on your ship," Thiago said.

"It was my pleasure, and I will just as gladly carry you back to Khersath once you have completed your task, the Three will it," Pharaoh said.

"You're waiting here then?" Alan asked. They were docked in the Haxlard space station just outside of the Solar System.

"No, my business takes me further into our empire, but I expect to make a return journey to Khersath. How long were you expecting to be on Earth?" Pharaoh asked.

"I'm not sure, but thank you for your offer, we will consider you as soon as we are done," Thiago said. He clapped Alan on the shoulder, almost shoving him into the dropship doors. Kitana and Aphrodite followed behind.

"Have a blessed journey," Pharaoh called out as the doors shut.

Alan took a seat. The dropship was identical to the one they had taken from Earth to the Titan the first time. The only difference was that this time the cargo bay was filled to the brim, metal boxes of unknown goods. Alan tried to see through them with his different layers of vision, but the boxes were solid. No electromagnetic waves escaped from any of them.

"You need to watch what you say," Thiago said to Alan.

"I was just trying to gain more information. Exhaust the dialogue tree, so to speak," Alan said.

"I'd prefer a bodyguard that kept their mouth shut," Thiago said. "I expect that Pharaoh made you an offer to deliver a message to the leaders of either Earth faction. I ask that you ignore this request." Thiago stared at Alan.

Say that you agree, for now, Lambda sent. Alan complied.

"Good. Now that we are landing on Earth you need this," Thiago said. He pulled out a tablet and an ID card. He handed the card to Alan. "This is your fake ID, we will be landing in the DC Spaceport and will have to proceed through customs." Thiago tapped a few buttons on his tablet. "I have just sent you a message with the data on this new identity in case you are questioned."

Message received, Eve sent.

"What about you three?" Alan asked.

"Aphrodite and I are here under our real names, while Kitana received her ID earlier as we expected it would take more time for her to memorize the details of her new life," Thiago said. "After we land and proceed through customs, you and Kitana will proceed to the Administrative Center and change your usernames to GuardA and GuardK."

"What? Why?" Alan asked.

"Because even though you can hide your username, people may demand to see them," Thiago said. "And though there are many players using the same username, identifying you will be much easier once they have that information. I am not an idiot, Alan. I have planned for every contingency."

That's technically impossible, Lambda noted. But ignore that. Just nod and smile, Alan.

Alan nodded, smiling.

He felt Lambda give a mental wince. Maybe we should have spent more time practicing facial expressions in a mirror and less time swinging a sword. Make that the new first lesson, Eve.

Affirmative, though it should be noted I have tried such lessons previously and they have been unsuccessful, Eve sent.

I have a few ideas, Lambda sent.

"Aphrodite and I will begin to fulfill trade agreements once we land," Thiago said. "We will travel in a convoy for a short ride to New York City, where the capture point for the Eastern Seaboard is. After a few days of additional trading we will then fly to London, and travel through what was the EU to Russia, China and eventually Japan."

"And when are we meeting up with the... underground contacts?" Alan asked.

"I've been told we'll meet up with them in New York," Thiago said. "I think I'll  leave you to scout out the area beforehand, assuming you are as good as you say and won't be detected."

"Whatever you want boss," Alan said.

The dropship slowed its descent.

Alan had returned to Earth.


Thanks to everyone that's left a review, hard to believe The Gam3 is now the 2nd best rated fiction on RRL :D
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