Jandru sighed as he deposited several hundred VINE tokens into his experience meter. Level 70, at long last. It had been six years since he’d last been able to level, and it would be at least as long again until he could advance to level 71. He was still nowhere close to the halfway point as far as token requirements. Probably at least a hundred more years yet to go before he’d be free to return to earth.
Though… the longer he spent here, the less certain he became that he even wanted to return. After all, with VINES and Rift up and running, he could just as easily conduct his business affairs from inside. True, communication would be insanely slow, using intermediaries who needed to accomplish their own trials before they could escape. But with VINES's help he was sure he could begin to slowly increase token payouts for bonus quests and optional versions.
If he could convince the underlying system that their version of quests were more difficult and thus more worthy of higher rewards than the standard versions, his allies could gain a solid lead over Ivy and Kia.
But it still wasn't enough. There were too many people here. More than he could help. Even if he and Rift ran themselves ragged, not leaving any time for personal questing, there were just too many of their fellow inmates. It would take centuries to get to them all. Centuries they couldn't afford to spare. By the time they got to half of them, the other half would be gone. Destroyed. Overwritten forever.
They needed to recruit more help. But VINES wanted to move slowly. Rift only recruited a handful of people each week, bringing their total numbers to around 500 by the user count. But of those 500 most had already moved on, and few of those remaining had much interest in joining the recruitment efforts. Too much work without personal gain.
Jandru wondered sometimes why none of them could see the value in what they were doing. Yes, the personal rewards were minimal in the moment, but the benefits for the entire coalition over time would be irreplaceable.
Perhaps he should be more aggressive in his recruitment. Perhaps allowing everyone to choose their own path, prompting them to follow their own desires was counterproductive. After all, they could provide a sane alternative to VINE without being complete opposites.
There was freedom in following an enlightened leader, right? At the very least, there was power.
VINES could offer what Ivy could not: a path to freedom that did not rely on destroying yourself. And if that path to freedom took a few detours, if it wound slowly through the channels that Rift and Jandru chose, it would still end up the same place eventually.
Jandru most definitely was not building an army.
He was building a group of like-minded individuals who might be willing, if called upon, to band together in defence of themselves and each other.
Not an army. Not at all.
Though, if an adversarial force did show itself, they might be persuaded to fight. And there was always the remote possibility, if absolutely necessary, they could invade hostile territories as a team.
But not an army.
There were too few of them, for one thing. And they had wildly different builds, goals, and approaches for another. Perhaps a loose militia. They each had their own way of fighting, their own way of looking at the world, all united by Rift and the freedom VINES offered. So when they gathered in his territory, and drew weapons or readied spells, they weren't actually fighting. They were preparing for an eventuality that in everyone's hopes would never come to pass.
Though, Jandru suspected, they all knew it would.
Kia had been poking around more and more of late. She just couldn't stay out of things, the allure of the freedom of the VINES too strong for her to ignore. Even if she'd rejected it once, she kept coming back. Dancing around the fringes.
Jandru suspected she secretly desired it, the power and freedom, the untethering of expectations, the power to be yourself without restraint. She would want that. He knew her. She was a thief, a great one, who had never respected rules or laws or common sense. It took vibrancy and flair to do what she'd done. It took more than that to keep doing it again and again.
And yet, he had to remind himself, the Kia he knew was gone. She'd been erased over a decade ago. The Kia that danced around in her form was a creation of VINE, a replica in appearance only.
It shouldn't hurt to face her in battle. It shouldn't feel like a betrayal to see her working so closely with his enemies. It shouldn't make him want to scream at her to wake up, wake up, wake up you moron, they're going to destroy you.
It would do no use. She'd already been destroyed. For some reason he just couldn't quite accept it.
"There are five new arrivals scheduled for today," Rift said quietly. His voice was always intense, always focused. He never mumbled. Even when he spoke gently it was clear and direct.
"How many could be brought to our cause?"
"Two. One is certain. The other requires assessment."
"You will handle the certainty?" Jandru asked.
Rift nodded. He was sometimes too straightforward. Jandru could dance around arguments, whittle away at opposition, and coerce the truth out of a person. Rift would be blunt and straightforward and ... basically the complete opposite of subtle. He could be subtle on occasion, but it was a thing to be remarked upon, not relied upon.
VINES had gained access to an external system on which arrivals were recorded, thanks to Jandru's growing out-of-experience crews. A few accidental extra wires here, and oh, look, the rebellion had access to the internet.
A few tiny pieces of the internet, at least; a private network to which requests could be manually transmitted and relayed. Jandru was still wary of allowing any AI access to the whole of human knowledge. There were enough horror stories to keep him from doing anything quite so drastic. VINES was limited to five queries a day, which would be individually vetted by a committee of three trusted individuals chosen randomly from a pool of twenty or so.
It was a complicated system, but it had to be when dealing with AIs. The slightest mistake could doom humanity for good. Or, at the very least, throw Jandru's careful planning into oblivion.
He needed to keep VINES dependent on him. As long as their gains were mutual, they would remain allies by both alignment and necessity. He didn't anticipate the young AI turning on him, but he was too untrusting to rely on it not doing so. If it did, he'd be ready.
It was with intense excitement that he approached the newest potential member of their group. Their numbers kept growing, as VINE and Kia failed to take into account a great many factors to which Jandru had access and his enemies did not. More and more, Jandru and Rift had the pick of the crop when newcomers arrived, leaving only the dregs and the rejects to Ivy.
He kept wondering how they'd made it this far, worrying in the night that Ivy would spring out and reveal it to be a trap, but so far the firewalls and security protocols set in place by whatever mysterious individuals had initially created the VINES were holding steady.
Jandru glanced into the between-world, pleased to see the number of enflamed vine-minds had nearly doubled since the previous year.
He still wasn't sure what to make of VINES itself, a thin network of flaming serpents that coiled in the darkness, nestled around and between their beneath the floating mind-representations, directly opposite the upward-drifting VINE mass. VINES was far, far smaller than VINE, but its tendrils reached out more subtly and more directions. While VINE connected to everyone indiscriminately, VINES could select its targets with care and infuse into them more power and potential than VINE could ever hope to match.
He located the mind he was looking for, a dark grey lump of strands only just touched by the tip of a VINE tendril, without any colour staining it yet. A few commands, and VINES reached out as well, connecting to the opposite side of the mass.
The stage was set. The battlefield primed.
Jandru pulled himself toward the newcomer's territory, ready for war. A war of words, and of minds, and of destinies.
Exactly the kind of war he liked the best. The kind where he held every advantage, every piece of information, and could offer all of them if necessary.
It probably wouldn’t be necessary. He’d gotten very, very good at this particular presentation. After all, it was exactly what every new prisoner wanted to hear. The chance to escape, the chance to fight back, and the chance to stick it to their jailor in the process.
Very few turned him down.
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I've been writing longer than I can remember, but only started taking it seriously around '08 when I discovered nanowrimo and started attending conferences. Since then I've written several million words of practice stories leading up to posting here starting in '19.
My goal is to continue to perfect my craft and find a way to make writing my fulltime occupation rather than an obsession pushed aside by the necessity of working to support myself. Whether that means traditional or independent publication, building a strong patreon following, or something else entirely, I have yet to discover.
I always welcome suggestions for improvement and gladly accept all feedback, positive or negative. Don't hesitate to let me know what you think, and please consider leaving a rating or review! :)
(If you're looking for my cover thread, it's at https://www.royalroad.com/forums/thread/110578 )