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Alan woke up. His head hurt. Someone was trying to talk to him, but it was like they were behind a soundproof wall, only muffled noises reached him. He was nauseous and sweaty; everything hurt. Each moment stretched on for eternity.
 
He passed out again.
 
***
 
Alan flitted in and out of consciousness for what felt like months. He was on a bed and his interface wasn't working. Sometimes someone would be by his side, but when he tried to look at them, to hear what they were saying, all he sensed was a discordant array of bits.
 
There were 0's and 1's, but they felt different, special, with colors and sizes. They spun about the room in every direction, defying conventional three-dimensional space. They moved through walls, through dimensions Alan couldn't see but thought he felt. Maybe he was going crazy.
 
Everything still hurt, but maybe a bit less.
 
***
 
When Alan next woke it was with a jolt. Everything seemed to be back in order.
 
About time, Lambda sent. I was worried you were a dead man walking. Or breathing, at least. A capsule could have eased this pain, maybe mitigated some of the damage.
 
Where are we? What happened?
 
Aboard some cargo ship, Lambda sent. I believe Kitana picked you up, it was hard to tell. When you crashed you took most of the sensory systems with you. Do you remember the battle?
 
Bits and pieces, Alan sent. I remember cutting through people, maybe a conversation or two with Kitana, that's about it.
 
Alan checked his message log:
 
[Warning! Unintended side effects detected from Berserker's Blood. Please report to nearby medical center to avoid permanent damage.]
 
[Pure rage fills and consumes you. By letting all restraint fall away and fighting all in your path you have unlocked a new Predecessor blood ability, Berserk (Basic).]
 
[+30 Strength +45 Endurance -25 Intelligence +Unknown effects]


[td colspan="4"]When overcome with the desire for battle you are able to enter a berserker state, improving your physical condition and battle prowess at the cost of mental capacity.[/td]
Skill Name:Skill Rank:Skill Proficiency:Skill Rarity:
Berserk (Basic)C*???C

[Your desire for battle and destruction has manifested into a palpable aura. For cutting through 25 humanoid enemies you have gained a new Predecessor blood ability, Bloodlust (Weak).]
 
[+10 Strength +/- 20 Charisma +Unknown effects]
Skill Name:Skill Rank:Skill Proficiency:Skill Rarity:
Bloodlust (Weak)D*???E
Having bathed in the blood of your enemies you can release a faint aura of blood.


Plus minus? Alan asked.
 
Different people respond differently to certain traits. Some people find danger sexy. Most don't, Lambda sent.
 
Alan tried thinking back to the fight. The flashes of him cutting through his enemies were uncensored, nothing was pixelated. He wasn't sure this was a good thing. There wasn't much blood though, the laser sword had cauterized wounds.
 
Alan continued reading the message log:
 
[War for Earth Updated:
 
For crippling UWG financial services you have gained 5000 war contribution points.
 
25 War Contribution Points (UWG)
 
5000 War Contribution Points (LOM)]
 
[x3 Level up!]
 
[Warning! Berserker's Blood will wear off in five minutes.]
 
[Error. Berserker's Blood withdrawal and Machine Lord implant incompatible.]
 
[Warning! You require an additional infusion of Predecessor Blood. Please report to nearby medical center to avoid permanent damage.]
 
[Warning! Partial shutdown of mechanical implants to avoid Player brain damage. All planted bugs have been removed.]
 
[Black Rose Mission Updated:
 
Commanding officer slain. Report to Legion of Man forces for new orders.]
 
[Safety thresholds met. Restarting mechanical implants.]
 
[Due to unforeseen compounded effects you are currently suffering from Predecessor Blood withdrawal.
 
-50 Strength - 50 Endurance -50 Health -50 Stamina -50 Computational Energy until you receive an additional transfusion of blood essence. You are unable to activate Berserk while suffering from blood withdrawal.]
 
Damn, what a waste, Lambda sent. A Predecessor berserker can fight another Predecessor twice their level.
 
I lost to Kitana, Alan sent.
 
You weren't really trying, I'm sure some part of you recognized her and held back, Lambda sent. Besides, she's a special case. A warrior of a different class. Why couldn't she have been the one that freed me? We would have ruled empires together.
 
Anyways looks like Eve was right, but not in the way she expected, Lambda continued. Who would've guessed some knockoff stimulant was based off of Predecessor's Blood? It must've triggered a chain reaction with your own Diluted Predecessor Blood augmentation that made you burn through blood essence. We should get that debuff removed as soon as possible, or better yet sell the blood and the soulsteel knife and just buy a better biological implant, one you can actually use.
 
Alan closed his eyes. His body and mind still hurt all over. Right, Eve. He needed to revive her. He started the process in Cyberspace.
 
About that, we should talk, Lambda sent. I'm not sure reviving her is the best idea. I don't recognize most of her codebase, and who knows what directives she picked up when she merged with that Haxlard AI. I'm sure I can locate some friends or even help you construct another, even more powerful-
 
No. I trust her, Alan sent. She is vital. I can't lose her. Not again.
 
Not again? Lambda asked. Is there something you want to tell me?
 
No.
 
Alan, if I am to assist you I need to know everything, Lambda sent. You can't play cards without a full deck.
 
Fine, Alan sent. Evelyn, Eve, was my girlfriend. She was an aspiring pro gamer. Smart, talented, beautiful, she even signed with an all-female squad. The Valkyries. I never knew what she saw in me. She died in a car crash, months before all this happened. Before the Game.
 
Alan turned to look up at the ceiling. It felt too close, inches away from his head.
 
I'm sorry for your loss, Lambda sent, but I think naming your AI after a deceased loved one is unhealthy, a step backwards-
 
Don't worry, I've moved on. The name was an impulse, nothing more. I know there is no connection between a dead girl and my AI. I'm tired, let me sleep, Alan sent. He closed his eyes.
 
***
 
Someone shook Alan awake. He found Icewolf standing by the side of his bed.
 
"Can I help you?" Alan asked. He rubbed his eyes. He sat up, or at least tried to but banged his head against the ceiling. It was inches away from his face.
 
"Lie down, rest," Icewolf said. "I just wanted to update you, check on your condition."
 
Alan lay back down.
 
"We're on board a cargo ship headed for London. We should be there by tomorrow, you've been out of it for a week. What happened?"
 
I'm not sure telling him our weaknesses would be the best idea, Lambda sent.
 
Alan thought for a moment.
 
"The hack, I took a lot of damage, nearly died," Alan said.
 
"Yes, Kitana briefed me on what happened in the server room. She's on board," Icewolf said.
 
"No. I don't mean died in-game, I mean died in real life. For good, gg no re," Alan said.
 
"What do you mean?" Icewolf asked. "I've met a few hackers, nothing about their class seems life-threatening."
 
"Well I'm not most hackers," Alan said. "You may have noticed that I'm quite a bit better than most hackers. But there are dangers to my methods as well, dangers that hackers that hide behind AI and simple programs don't face."
 
"If it's so dangerous you should have mentioned it sooner," Icewolf said. "I wouldn't have sent you on this mission if I knew that you were risking your actual life. You're young, there will be later battles-"
 
Alan shook his head. "It wasn't your fault. I would have been safe if I hadn't made a stupid decision. What happened with the other missions?"
 
Icewolf sighed. "We were crushed. The United World Government's capital ship moved faster than we thought it could. It blasted any points of resistance to kingdom come, dropping off troops and supplies before proceeding to the next destination.
 
"We had hoped to airlift the gold we got out of the Federal Reserve, but our ships were shot out of the sky. Thiago was among the players lost. Within a few hours of the first attack the UWG recovered all Capture Points lost and took out half our combatants. The only move that seems to have had any lasting damage was yours."
 
"The document leak?" Alan asked.
 
"Yes," Icewolf said. "The UWG also claimed that the Legion of Man caused irreparable damage to the servers containing and dealing with financial transactions. They've shut down the markets after making the unprecedented move to not bail out sinking financial institutions, but buy them out instead."
 
"Can they do that?" Alan asked.
 
"They can and have," Icewolf said. "A number of private firms, arms manufacturers and engineering companies have been purchased as well. The only laws that are in existence on Earth are the UWG's, the armies' martial law, and the Administrator's rules. There are precious few checks and balances. Besides, the UWG is a conglomeration of so many different ideals and governments that state-owned enterprises might seem commonplace to many."
 
What exactly does this mean? Alan asked Lambda.
 
It means that your government is taking control of private industry, taking power out of the hands of the people, Lambda sent.
 
"But the leaders are still democratically elected," Alan said.
 
"For now. It's quite easy to rig an election when you control the avenues for information and all the running candidates," Icewolf said. He sat down on the edge of Alan's bed. "Most countries didn't have functioning democracies before, you think they're suddenly all working now? I know a number of high ranking military officers that desire more power. Besides, a four-year term in real life means a 16-year term in-game. Term limits are but one of many issues that must be sorted out, but the elected officials are too busy figuring out the lay of the land, who they need to please."
 
"Aren't people furious about this? Where are the protests?" Alan asked.
 
"The majority of people aren't in-game. The government is only buying up in-game property and companies, virtual assets," Icewolf said. "Most still don't' realize that those are the only assets that matter now. Or they're thinking that these are necessary precautions to take after the terrorist attacks knocked out key infrastructure, that we're at war and the government can do whatever they must to win.
 
"You helped bring this about. Your revelation was the impetus the UWG needed to make these changes. And mine, I suppose. This entire op was a mess."
 
He seems almost happy, Lambda sent.
 
Alan looked at Icewolf's frowning face. I don't see it.
 
His body language tells a different story, Lambda sent.
 
"Shouldn't the UWG be reeling, their credit shattered?" Alan asked.
 
"The UWG claim circumstances have changed," Icewolf said, "that the leak was an insider who was privy only to a small portion of the budget. They have made statements saying they are preparing to present a full, audited yearly budget that shows they are not drowning in debt, but are thriving. The failed attack on the gold reserves also allowed them to sell a portion, citing a lack of security. But instead of paying off existing debt, they're buying up companies."
 
"So that's it? They've won? What do we do next?" Alan asked.
 
Icewolf stared at the wall across from him. "I don't know."
 
He speaks truth, Lambda sent.
 
"Why London, then?" Alan asked.
 
"To meet up with a few familiar faces," Icewolf said. "I had hoped to hit the financial institutions here as well, our transport was booked in advance, but with the markets frozen there isn't much point. I also looked into what you said about reversed transactions. You were right, buying and selling on the Market fraudulently is a dead end. Getting out of the America zone was also ideal. We're wanted terrorists now."
 
Alan nodded. From what Eve had taught him the UWG had added another layer of government. Now there were local, state, federal and global levels. Roughly towns, then provinces, then countries, then the entire world. Due to how votes were weighted, often by wealth, many players had been off put by the very Western leaning government.
 
"Why are you fighting for the Legion of Man again?" Alan asked.
 
"Because there is no peace without victory," Icewolf said. He stood up. "You should rest. Let me know if you have any ideas on how to win this war."
 
"Just one so far," Alan said.
 
"I'm listening."
 
"We take over the capital class ship," Alan said. "It must be its own floating city, with tens of thousands of crew, right? No one will notice a few more. And it has to stop and resupply at some point. So we sneak aboard and take it over."
 
"I'll think about it, see what my superior's think," Icewolf said. "But I'm not sure what we would do once we took control. Remember the goal is to win without severely damaging infrastructure, so we couldn't fly around blowing up cities or self-destruct it even if we did take it over. That's why I didn't want you to release those financial documents, I feared that Earth's economy would never recover."
 
"Just an idea," Alan said. He still felt tired, and his head hurt. He closed his eyes.
 
***
 
When Alan next woke he felt much better. The ship had stopped moving. He stepped out of bed, ducking his head to avoid the ceiling. He found his items stowed in a locker beside the bed. He equipped everything. He double checked everything was there.
 
Scan for bugs, Lambda sent.
 
Alan found three, physical devices that looked like coin cell batteries on his power armor and weapons.
 
Leave them, Lambda sent when Alan went to pick them off. They are likely Icewolf's; it's better that he feels safe.
 
Alan glanced at the bugs. But we don't know what they do, he could shut down our items at any point.
 
If he wanted to kill you or harm you he could have while you were sick and knocked out cold. Leave them, Lambda sent.
 
Fine. Where's the map? Alan asked.
 
Must I do everything? Lambda sent. Use your sense of direction.
 
Alan sighed. He looked out of his room. There was a long hallway that stretched left and right, other small cabins on either side. He started walking right.
 
Don't walk randomly, Lambda sent.
 
What am I supposed to do? Alan asked.
 
How do you think Eve constructs the mental maps? Use your senses. The smell of sea air, the pressure of metal; scan outwards, detect what's there and construct a mental image.
 
Alan used his cybernetic eye. He spotted traces of solar radiation and followed it. He had chosen the correct path.
 
Well that works, if it wasn't exactly what I was going for, Lambda sent.
 
I'll train later, for now I need to figure out where we are and what we're doing, Alan sent.
 
Outside, on the ship's deck he found Kitana and Icewolf talking to a man from the Port of London Authority. That's what his uniform said, at least. Automated cranes were lifting large cargo containers and moving them ashore.
 
Icewolf waved Alan over.
 
"And this is the last of our group. It seems he has recovered from his sea sickness, the sick bed is not necessary."
 
The man nodded, ticking off items on a checklist. "Are there any items of note on his person you wish to declare?"
 
Icewolf handed over a gold mark. "No."
 
The customs officer looked around before pocketing the mark. "Alright, everything seems to be in order. Have a pleasant trip."
 
Icewolf smiled. He lead Kitana and Alan off the ship, onto a gangway. Alan clung to the siderail.
 
"Careful, have you recovered?" Kitana asked.
 
I'd say we're operating at about half capacity, Lambda sent.
 
"Partly," Alan said. He felt dizzy back on land, even though he had barely taken a few steps on the ship.
 
They found a town car waiting for them. Icewolf opened the door, letting Kitana and Alan in first. Two people were sitting inside.
 
"Heya chaps, what's up? Sorry the boss man took a tumble. Well not really now, I shouldn't lie. Never really liked him. Don't think he liked us neither, eh?"
 
"KingArthur. MadMerlin." Kitana greeted the two. Alan nodded.
 
"It's just Arthur and Merlin now. Maybe Squire Arthur. Don't want to be throwin about airs," Merlin said. He turned to Icewolf as the door shut behind him. "So, new boss man, what's up?"
 
"There's been a change of plans. We're headed to Newquay spaceport, on the west coast in Cornwall," Icewolf said.
 
"The spaceport? Why we're headed there? I still have trials to complete," Arthur said. He had abandoned the knights metal armor for a set of silver power armor that looked remarkably similar. The Royal coat of arms, a crowned lion and unicorn atop a royal crown was emblazoned on it.
 
"You'll have to hold off on your plans, don't let anyone know you're heading out of town," Icewolf said. "The powers that be are interested in an idea Alan had, we're headed off to Mars, to see if it's feasible."
 
"What plan?" Merlin asked. He had replaced his blue wizards robes with a blue suit.
 
"Not here, you'll learn more later," Icewolf said. "What have you two been up to?"
 
"Well you told us to nosy up to the money, so that's what we've been doing. I've been establishing myself as a respectable business man while Arthur's been playing up the ladies as a knight-in-training," Merlin said.
 
" Didn't the tradition of squires die out years ago?" Alan asked.
 
"Well it's had a resurgence, hasn't it," Merlin said. "The Queen re-established an order of knighthood as a military order instead of an old boys' club; I think she has her own faction or guild and everything. Who wouldn't want to fight for Queen and Country?" Merlin grinned.
 
"You," Arthur coughed.
 
Merlin snapped his fingers, a burst of flame appeared in front of Arthur, causing him to whip his head back.
 
"I'd fight if the price was right," Merlin said. "But wizards aren't meant for such drudgery."
 
"How are your psionic abilities progressing?" Icewolf asked.
 
"They're coming along," Merlin said. He glanced at Alan and Kitana.
 
"This next mission will involve us working together as a team, it's too much for one person to handle," Icewolf said. "Thus I think it would be a good idea for all of us to get a better understanding of our current abilities."
 
"Why don't you go first then?" Merlin asked.
 
Icewolf nodded. "I'm a rogue, specializing in assassinations though I bet Alan could give me a run for my money. I have a few abilities that make it easier to go about undetected, blend in with my surroundings, and make bodies disappear."
 
He's likely holding something back, Lambda sent.
 
No duh.
 
"Well, I blow shit up and set stuff on fire," Merlin said. "Haven't figured out how to do much else."
 
"The maximum force?" Alan asked.
 
Merlin shrugged. "Maybe a stick of dynamite. What about you? Never figured out your AI exactly."
 
"I'm also a rogue, but instead specialize in hacking," Alan said. "There probably aren't many systems on Earth I can't get into at this point. Well, once I've recovered from the last mission. It'll take a few more days."
 
"I remain a warrior," Kitana said.
 
"Me too," Arthur said, "though I've mostly learned how to take a beating. I'm also naturally likeable." He smiled. Alan did feel Arthur was trustworthy when he looked at him.
 
Likely an ability, don't trust the feeling, Lambda sent.
 
"Wait, recent mission? Were you the badass that erased the stock exchange?" Merlin asked.
 
"I didn't erase anything," Alan said. "That was the UWG covering their mistakes." He turned to Icewolf. "Also, as my rogue class trainer, are you sure you can't teach me any new abilities? I understand the Game wants the class quest to be completed first, but any new abilities are sure to come in handy."
 
"Sorry, I can't. I do regret choosing the most difficult class quest for you now," Icewolf said. "But with great risks come great rewards."
 
The rest of the ride consisted mainly of Merlin and Arthur trading banter, Alan interjecting every now and again on Lambda's wishes. His mind was elsewhere. He was finally going to visit the Legion of Man base on Mars. He wondered if it'd be dusty.
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Ephemerality

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