Warning: neural malfunction.
Enacting protocol 24.
The world has always been a dark place, with no notion of space and time. Nothing beyond the pure existence of the self, floating freely in the sea of its own thoughts.
Or so Charles believed. His beliefs were shaken, even though only for the briefest of moments, by the strange letters that he thought he saw. They must have been a figment of his own imagination, surely, because there was no way that something that was not pure darkness could even exist in reality.
Then he remembered. He was wrong, very wrong in his assumptions. The world was not black, but rather it had gone black at a certain moment in his own personal history. One moment he was on a spaceship, navigating through the vastness of space and minding his own business, and the next he was here. For how long, he could not tell. But one thing he knew for sure.
Charles Barlow, a genius mind and proud engineer of the Empire, would not die in the darkness like this.
He did not accept it. None of it. He would fight whatever it was that was trapping him here with all his might, figure out what was happening and then make it into his strength. It had always been like that in his life, and he didn’t see why this time it should be different.
Charles did not believe in the afterlife. He did not believe in God or follow any religion or belief other than science. He knew, for sure, that even if his body was no longer alive his mind was. The old saying: “I think therefore I am” pretty much guaranteed that he was alive in some way. Enough to at least realize that he was thinking, and enough to formulate complex thoughts.
His sense of time, however, was in complete disarray. In the condition he was in, there was no way to tell how much time was passing between each single thought, or how much time had passed since he was last seen alive on his spaceship.
Maybe these thoughts that he was playing with were taking him years to even be formulated, and he had no way to tell. Or maybe not. Well, at least he was still capable of formulating them. His consciousness was alive and kicking. Perhaps he was living as a disembodied Boltzmann brain floating around the void of space and time, existing only for the tiniest of moments before entropy inevitably made him crumble back into chaos.
If that was true, then what he thought was the passing of time was only an illusion, and there really was nothing that he could do to change his situation. This theory was as useless as the simulation theory, he thought, so he quickly moved on towards more productive trains of thought. Maybe he was spending his time as a simulated mind living in the limbo that was between the data packets of a supercomputer. Or maybe he was just disconnected from his own body, for reasons unknown.
He tried to go back in time, with his mind at least, to the last thing he remembered before the darkness. In this space devoid of stimuli, he knew that time was a meaningless unit, worth as little as money on a deserted island. A simulated mind living in a supercomputer could experience an eternity in but a single second. The same way, an aeon of real time could be worth only an instant to him.
But there was a way to go back in time even when time had no meaning. He only had to change the way he measured its passing, not in seconds or hours but in events that happened. What happened last before he could no longer feel?
If even that approach failed, then he would be in quite a pickle. He would never trust the others to figure out what had gone wrong and take him out of here, of course, and therefore he would be all but stuck. Fortunately, he had some faith in his own capabilities. It would take all of his willpower to break the status quo of his situation, but he knew he could do this.
Charles opened his eyes, and immediately noticed that he was immersed in another kind of darkness. This one was much more welcome than the last. He could feel his body, he could breathe the air that for so long he had not been able to breathe, and he could hear. Noise, a lot of noise. This darkness felt very full, with all the sensations coming to him. The place was simply missing most of the light required to normally see. And there was text. Floating text, apparently. A single string between square brackets, or maybe just the idea of it given how intangible it felt.
The noise quieted down as his brain got used to it. He realized that what he was hearing was merely the sound of his own body: his heart beating and the flow of blood near his eardrums. The space he was in was eerily silent, and the little noise that he made as he shifted his weight on the cold stone underneath him reverberated and echoed all around.
He refocused on the text that he was seeing. It was the only abnormality in an otherwise very acceptable situation. Yeah, the impression in his brain was that there was text where instead there should have been none. He was experiencing something in very much the same way that a schizophrenic brain managed to create voices out of lack of sensory inputs. Perhaps he was insane now, sitting alone after so much time without seeing or hearing, staring at the message that should not have been there.
[Deviant individual; System limited]
The message disappeared, leaving behind barely the memory of its passing. As if the idea of it, something that was very real at one moment suddenly ceased to be, and only the processed information was left in its place. The knowledge that whatever he had just witnessed could be translated into a string of letters with a meaning.
A meaning he did not like, however. He did not pretend to understand the implications of what he had just read, but the first impression, the superficial feeling of the thing was quite ominous. It was as if God himself had rejected his existence as something that was not supposed to be. Of course, there was no God watching over the dreadful and bleach existence that was life in the universe, and that was precisely what made the message all the more ominous. What if there was, and it was Charles who was wrong? It couldn’t be. But what if…
He took out his gun. It was just a reflex, a natural response to a perceived danger that his subconscious did not like. The gun was a standard-issue compact railgun unit, not made for war but definitely capable of giving the people like Charles the illusion of safety while on the field. The problem was not its power, but rather that no amount of firepower held by a handgun mattered much when the enemy they were up against was firing entire asteroids at them.
Right now, however, the situation was different and he was feeling safer already. And the feeling of safety brought calmness to his mind, which in turn let him finally take inventory of his surroundings. He checked with the LAI: the Limited Artificial Intelligence that resided in every imperial citizen’s brain implants.
The action itself soothed him, because it reminded him that he was first and foremost a citizen of the empire, and was proud to be one. The connection with Eve was severed, but it was a nonissue because there was the LAI that would be his anchor, his tether, his constant reminder telling him to do what needs to be done.
He had to survive, assess the situation, and discover where the hell he ended up. Only then could he finally decide his next steps.
The LAI responded to his mental commands. Analysis of the little visual data that it had, enhanced much beyond what a human eye could see, showed that he was inside a cave. There was minimal natural light, coming from an unknown source. A force of one gee pulled on him downwards, meaning that he was either in a gravity well or under artificial gravity. There were no EM fields around. One possible deduction was that he was on a planet with a breathable atmosphere, deep underground where there was no signal.
Now that he had a rough idea of where he was, he had to make a list of priorities. Find water, find food, find shelter. Assess the situation, triangulate position. Attempt Eve connection. Investigate how he got here. In that order.
It was time to start the exploration of the cave, then. The LAI was automatically mapping everything he could see with his eyes and his other senses, but unfortunately all his advanced tools were left behind when whatever happened to him happened. He only had his gun with him, his suit and nothing else. The suit had some sensors, and they were being used automatically by the LAI to aid it in its mapping. Beyond those sensors, there were his five senses, and with the LAI those senses were so much more than normal human senses.
The brain implants carefully scanned each and every nervous signal that passed through the brain and then fed them to the LAI. A three-dimensional map of the cave was being constructed while he walked, and then the render was being fed into his brain directly. He could not just see, but feel, know and outright understand the layout of the cave system he was in.
It all seemed natural at first. A cave of karst formation, the LAI told him, but any underground water flow was hidden from view. There were rock formations all around, stalactites and stalagmites made of dissolved limestone and three tunnels leading out of the main cave at odd, evenly spaced, angles.
He exited the LAI-enhanced view for a while, and felt his thoughts lose their former rigidness and become human once again. Being one with a machine intelligence was at the same time disconcerting and absolutely fascinating. It was liberating in a sense, and at least as much constricting. But it felt like home.
Even without the help of the machine mind, he could see that the placement of the tunnels did not seem natural in the slightest, a thought only reinforced by their flawless appearance. They appeared natural, but too perfect in their making and also looked like they were placed there strategically. To provide access points and cover.
It was an odd thing to notice, but unfortunately it was not immediately useful. He filed it away for later use. What he needed now was to find water, just like the list he made said. He was so glad to have the LAI with him, because he was born and raised in space and therefore had no actual idea about what to do in this kind of situations. He could fight a slew of Interlopers on an infested planet, he could crack moons and ignite gas giants with his guns, but he had no idea how to actually live on land.
Water, then. He followed one of the tunnels leading out of the cave he appeared in and walked for a while. The tunnel was narrow and the ceiling was low, but he was used to cramped spaces. In space, actual living space was a commodity. He effortlessly made his way towards another large cave and immediately the LAI began to map it.
It was then that his vision was invaded by warning signs. The LAI had picked up something that he could not see, while he was spacing out and looking at the lines that were appearing in the virtual map, and had warned him of an incoming threat. Something was on a collision course with him, and a suggested action was highlighted in the menu in his field of vision.
He did as he was told, rolling on the floor to one side as soon as his enhanced brain processed the set of instructions he was given. After the roll, he raised his gun towards the assailer and the image of what had attacked him appeared as if he was shining a light on it. The LAI was taking in all the light that it could, and was sending the images back to him via the optical implants.
There was a tall humanoid, white skinned and very slender, standing where he was prior to rolling away. Its eyes were small and deeply set in its skull, surrounded by large dark circles. Its lips were of a bright red and two small tips of white poked out of them facing downwards.
A vampire, the LAI told him, after which it sent to his brain the relevant data from the database. Charles raised his railgun at the offender and pulled the trigger, emotionlessly watching as the being’s head exploded in a shower of blood and brains.
It came to him later, the realization of what just happened. What was a vampire doing here? Or rather, what did it tell him about the place he ended up in? Well, if anything, it would be quite the find to report back to Eve. She would certainly be ecstatic at the discovery of another world, full of strange beings and all that. Perhaps even a fantasy world like in the stories the LAI was feeding to his brain right now.
It looked almost odd, for a second, the fact that LAI was so sure that there was magic in this world. But it would never act against Charles’ interests, he knew. Therefore, if it was convinced for some reason that there was magic, then there was magic in this world. Never for a moment did doubt cross his mind about this particular fact, because the LAI had been with him ever since he was born and had never failed him once.
Magic! A mad grin crept on his face. He would science the hell out of this world while he looked for a way back, then he would bring the cavalry here and make this whole world kneel and submit to the empire. And he would be the hero of the story.
He was in another world. He was standing where no man had stood before. He was a real pioneer. Just like he always wanted.
The things he was seeing were a bit odd perhaps, but very much real nonetheless. And if magic was too, then he had hit jackpot.
This thought filled him with energy, and his mind was already tasting the sweet emotions that would surely come as soon as he managed to contact his home again. He had a purpose now, a real motivation to act and a direction to take.
[Level up! New level: 3]
The same impression of letters in a string came to his mind. It talked of levels, prompting the LAI to upload information about games, novels and LitRPGs. What a fascinating thing that was happening to him. He had stumbled upon a real pot of gold here. It was a pity that he was alone and had nobody to report back to at the moment, but all would be fixed in due time. If he got here, then there was no doubt that he could go back.
If the level system worked like it usually did in games, then the vampire was not that high leveled in the first place. Perhaps he had been spawned in a newbie friendly area, although the welcome party had failed to show up for him.
He looked at the corpse of the vampire and sighed. He only had a limited number of bullets in his railgun, and had no idea of the true threat these things would pose to him if he had to fight them unarmed.
This made his mood shift quite a bit, and the high he felt just a few moments before disappeared all up in smoke. There was a new sense of urgency now, the knowledge that he was standing in what probably was enemy territory. Even if that was not the case at first, shooting the vampire made it quite clear to them that he was a threat, and any possibility of a dialogue was gone now. He should have avoided shooting his gun so carelessly, perhaps, but now it was too late to go back and change things.
He picked up the pace and kept looking around the cavern system, avoiding the enemies whenever he spotted them. Grinding levels was a good thing, but only if he did so with a renewable resource. As it was now, his gun was a limited resource that he preferred to keep in store in case something bad happened.
The caves were connected to other caves via tunnels, creating a sort of natural but at the same time artificial underground maze that would have been quite hard to navigate without a LAI. With its help, instead, he managed to map almost the entirety of the cave network and made a mental map of the places where the vampires roamed the most. They seemed to appear out of nowhere, but he had never seen it happen so it was just a conjecture, born out of the odd similarity this place had with the video games of old.
The corpse of the vampire he killed seemed to disappear as well, leaving behind no loot or any kind of proof of its existence. It just vanished while Charles was not looking, and even the blood was nowhere to be found.
He stepped into the last unmapped room, hoping to find at least a tunnel leading somewhere. The prospect of being stuck here didn’t really appeal to him that much, as it would limit his options to basically eating vampires until he died either of old age or of something else. As it was, he preferred doing something else. Almost anything else, in fact.
He chuckled at the mental image of his old self, eating vampires for a living. The laugh was bitter and left a bad aftertaste in his mouth, however, which made him realize that all this was nothing but a smokescreen he was casting to hide the true nature of his situation. His brain had already worked it out, but his conscious mind was refusing to act on it.
The fact was: he was not in control here. He was in a real danger to his life, because this was not a video game and he only had a few bullets in his gun before he ran out. And when that happened, because it was going to happen, then the situation would turn from bad to definitely lethal.
The last room had no outgoing tunnels, barring the one he entered through. He sighed. He really was stuck in here, of all places? He was in a new world, of sword and magic and all that, and he was stuck in a fucking cave. He felt like yelling. In fact, he decided to start yelling a bit, to vent some of his bubbling anger.
“Fucking rocks!” He pounded at the wall. “I arrive here, happy and thrilled at the idea of exploring a new world, and all I can see is rocks?”
He punched the wall again, then took out the gun. “I’ll show you the fucking rocks now.” He yelled, the squeezed the trigger. The small ferromagnetic rod accelerated in the span of an instant, the fluctuating magnetic and electric fields inside the gun bringing it to almost relativistic speeds as it traveled the length of the barrel. It impacted with the wall, exploding outwards and cracking the rock face.
A small tremor followed, and the wall crumbled into pieces. A few cracks traveled the whole length of the wall, and a loud noise came from the other room. The tremor had made a fake wall collapse, and a stairway was revealed, waiting for him behind a thin veil of rock. Hidden from sight to anyone who didn’t know of its existence. It was just dumb luck that led him to discovering it, and he hated dumb luck.
He hated the fact that his life was being dictated by chance, as opposed to his own efforts. This planet was quickly turning to be a real shithole. He grunted as he stepped over the debris, not without kicking one in anger, and went up the stairs. It was time to reach the surface, and perhaps even file a complaint to whoever designed this place.