Cian stared out the window as the shuttle zoomed over fields and farms toward Valcim. Within a few minutes they had passed the farmland and were flying over sprawling neighborhoods. The city grew larger in the distance.
Even from this distance, the city looked impressive. Towering skyscrapers dominated the horizon, and thousands of ships like insects dotted the sky, buzzing up and down in a never ending stream. The capital of Kiana had the biggest spaceport in the system and almost all of the interplanetary trade, both inbound and outbound, went through it.
Jolan saw Cian’s expression and smiled. “Pretty epic, huh? I remember the first time I saw Valcim. Just wait till we get closer! It even has these big, holographic ads that play in the sky. I like the one for Supernova Rum, it’s catchy and has this hot green chick. They call them Celduran but they’re totally renamed Orion slave girls.” he said.
Cian laughed. “Yeah, this place is pretty epic. I’m glad I met you, it’s nice to have a guide!”
“Feelings mutual, man. Soon as we get some more blood in us we can hit the shops. Maybe pick you up a better gun. Get me a helmet so I don’t lose my damn scalp again.” said Jolan, pointing at the bandage on his head.
Cian grimaced. “Ugh, yeah, that has to hurt. Will that, uh, grow back? Or are you just gonna be rocking your bare skull from now on?”
“Eh, they’ll fix it at the hospital. You should check out the implants while you’re there. All the good ones are out of our price range so far, but there are some pretty sweet marksman upgrades you might want to save up for. Bionic eyes with aim assist and crap. I had the TrueSight 5005 bionic eyes the last time I played a marksman. They came with 10x zoom, aim assist, heat vision, low light vision, the works.” said Jolan.
“Cool.” said Cian, although getting his eyes replaced didn’t sound very fun if things were this realistic.
Jolan tapped away at the taxi’s console, booking them reservations with the clinic for blood transfusions.
“Better if you book ahead. Save us a bit of time.” said Jolan, punching in his player details.
Cian did the same, then sat back and tried to relax. His head was still spinning and his heart was pounding.
Twenty minutes later, a broadcast came in over the shuttle’s speakers. “Attention citizens of Kiana: This is not a drill. Prepare to seek shelter. All militia units report to your local militia captains. A Pa’Ran hive ship has entered the system and is on approach for Kiana. All non-military vessels are advised to land and seek shelter. All military vessels are required to report to Admiral Eregann immediately. Failure to do so will result in loss of military license. I repeat, a Pa’Ran hive ship has entered the system and is on approach for Kiana. This is not a drill.”
“Oh man, a Pa’Ran event! I heard about these but I never saw one. You’re really in for a sick first day now, bro.” said Jolan.
“What’s a Pa Ran hive?” asked Cian.
“Eh, typical bad guy race. Insectoid, kills everyone, et cetera. They’re real bad news if you get jumped by them in space, but on a planet like this? They send down drop ships, which are basically loot pinatas. They drop cool tech and the occasional special loot worth serious dough.” said Jolan.
“Oh. We’re only level three, though. Wouldn’t we just get killed?” asked Cian.
“Maybe. But we’re only level three, so our investment is tiny. Not much to lose, lots to gain. Best thing is, if we happen to find some poor decked out player with high tech equipment and a hole in his head… Well, we just got ourselves some new toys. Buddy of mine died in the last round of Pa’Ran attacks, but he managed to store away half a mil worth of junk before he bit it.” said Jolan.
“I don’t have the hundred thousand credit respawn fee, though. If I die without making that, I’m screwed.” said Cian.
“No real world bankroll, huh? I was the same way when I started. I make enough to live on playing now. But get this: The best thing about these events? If you die during it, the respawn fee is waived! You even get half off on buying back levels. It’s to encourage participation.” said Jolan.
“Oh. Well, in that case, let’s give it a shot.” said Cian.
“That’s the spirit! We’ll still have to hit the mall. Get our blood fix and maybe find you a better gun. I’m gonna need some better armor. You can borrow my mesh suit once I upgrade, if you want.” said Jolan.
“Cool.” said Cian.
The remaining ride seemed to go by quick. Jolan used the taxi’s console to confirm that their appointments at the clinic were still good. By the time they made it to central Valcim, the place looked mostly abandoned. The streets and sky was practically devoid of traffic. All the ad billboards had been powered off. Some of the bigger screens were repeating the earlier warning, telling everyone to get to the nearest shelter.
The Capital Mall was impressive, even without the lights and holographic billboards. The structure was immense – the center was a huge skyscraper topped with an ornate spiral spire that towered over neighboring buildings, and four shorter but still large buildings connected to it by sky bridges.
“Crap.” said Jolan.
“What?” asked Cian.
“Just checking the news in my HUD. The whole dang shopping area is closed. Clinic is open, but that’s about it. No new toys for us.” said Jolan.
“Oh. Dang.” said Cian.
The shuttle landed on a small pad on the side of one of the mall’s surrounding buildings and the doors popped open.
Jolan hopped out. “Let’s go get our fix. I for one will be glad to get rid of this crap status effect.” he said.
“Yeah. Me too.” replied Cian.
The two of them went in the doors and down a narrow hall. A small sign said “New You Clinic & Mod Shop.”
Jolan tapped a button on the door.
A moment later, a monotone, vaguely feminine voice said “New You, how can we improve you today?”
“Got an appointment. Jolan and Cian. Blood transfusions.” said Jolan.
The door clicked. “Please proceed to waiting room four and seventeen. Thank you.” the same monotone voice replied.
Cian pulled the door open and the two stepped through. After a few moments they had arrived at room four.
“Uh, which of us is room four, and which is seventeen?” asked Cian.
Jolan checked the paperwork stuffed in the little rack on the door. “Looks like this one’s me. You must be seventeen. See you in a bit.”
“See ya.” said Cian, walking down further.
Room seventeen ended up being down a separate hallway. Once inside, the same monotone voice came over the speakers. “Please confirm identity by placing your hand on the scanner and wait to be served. Thank you.”
The room was almost completely empty, save for a small medical bed and a little booth in the corner. Cian found the scanner in the corner inside the booth, a small pad against the back of it. Once he put his hand there, the booth lit up and a scanning beam quickly went from head to toe. It chirped and showed a green check mark before fading to a shopping list.
All manner of services were listed – from bionic hearts to nose jobs. Blood transfusion was already checked, with a price of 900 credits. Something called rapid recovery was listed under ‘suggested’ services for only 50 credits more. He clicked to accept both services and transferred 950 credits to the clinic.
“Thank you. A clinical professional will be with you shortly.” said the same monotone voice. The way it said “Thank you” was already starting to get on Cian’s nerves.
Cian barely had time to sit down before the door opened and the strangest person he had seen yet walked in. Hot pink, shoulder length hair, bright orange cybernetic eyes with no irises, a tiny nose, bright green lips topped with a pink mustache, broad shoulders wearing a too-small yellow tank top, an impossibly narrow waist, and bulging, shiny metal legs barely covered by yellow short shorts. He looked more metal than man. Cian tried not to stare, but failed miserably.
A boyish, overly excited voice spoke up. “Hiii! I’m here to fix you right up! Just lay back and I’ll have you patched up in a jiffy, m’kay? Trust Tryst!” the man smiled.
Cian noticed a name tag that said ‘Tryst’ and forced himself to stop gawking. “Erm, nice to meet you Tryst. You’re my doctor, then?”
“Clinical professional, dear. Yep! Just lay back now.” said Tryst, pulling a variety of medical equipment from a metal cabinet that Cian had thought was a wall.
Well, he was in this far, Cian thought. He lay back on the table and let Tryst do his work. For his part, Tryst was very professional. He quickly got Cian hooked up to an IV blood transfusion and began using some kind of metal tool on Cian’s arm. It hurt and felt like Tryst was scraping at his scabs at first, but when he was finished Cian was surprised to find unblemished skin where his wounds had been.
“Wow, what’s that?” Cian asked, pointing to the strange metal tool.
“Oh, this little thing? Just a shaper tool. The injection is doing all the work, dear. I’m just making sure you stay beautiful.” said Tryst, beginning to work on his leg wounds.
“Oh. Thanks. Say, is there any way to order things from the rest of the mall while I’m here? I need more ammunition if I’m going to help fight the Pa’Ran.” said Cian.
“Sure, dear.” Tryst said, grabbing the pad from the booth in the corner and handing it to Cian, “The tab at the top lets you select from one of our partners. Just put it back in the slot when you’re done. Hold still, please.” he said as he got back to work on Cian’s leg.
“Thanks!” said Cian. He tapped the tab and a list of stores appeared. He chose ‘Reliable Armaments Military Supply’ and a huge list of guns, ammunition, batteries, shield generators, armor, vehicles, and other supplies appeared.
A few minutes later, Tryst interrupted his browsing “M’kay, I’m heading to the bunker. You can just yank that IV out yourself when it beeps, m’kay? Leave the equipment in the room or you will be charged for it. Thank you!” said Tryst as he quickly stepped out of the room.
“Wait! How long do I…? Crap…” Cian said, finding himself talking to the door.
Cian found that his health was still only at 62. A small pump was still steadily pushing blood into his veins. With nothing else to do, Cian got back to browsing the shop. Most of the more advanced guns required skills he didn’t have and couldn’t learn yet due to low Wit. It was the same problem with the shield generators and most of the special armors.
After browsing for a while, Cian settled on a gently used large caliber heavy rifle that was on sale half off at 3,500 credits. It was the most powerful weapon he could find that worked with his Long Arms skill and didn’t require more advanced skills to operate and maintain. He added a 120 round case of ammunition for another 1000 credits, a box of fifty rounds for his pistol for 220, and a tube of wound gel like Jolan had been using for another 150. He wouldn’t have a proper first aid kit, but it would have to do since he only had 25 credits left.
Cian confirmed the order and transferred the credits. The pad informed him that his order would be available for pickup at the front lobby in locker 11 once his treatment was finished. He then found a map of the clinic and looked up how to get from room 17 to the lobby. With that done, he lay back and started looking through the in-game forum.
Some privateer named Venin Voidsail had managed to take out an entire coalition of exiled players that came together against him – apparently he was one of the ones the game sent at people with high penalty point bounties, and few players ever survived an encounter with him. Someone had found a resource rich asteroid in the Kiana asteroid belt and several local guilds were fighting over it. There were reports of ongoing pirate attacks in the Vindale system that were hurting local shipping.
He looked for information on random events and the Pa’Ran. From what he was reading, the game occasionally had random events – pirates would raid, hostile aliens would attack, or things like plagues and famines would happen. The Pa’Ran were one such hostile alien race, who were apparently at war with the Dromon Peacekeepers, the empire controlling the Kiana system. They were an insectoid race that weren’t that advanced or physically imposing – but their bodies regenerated and some of them supposedly possessed some kind of magical abilities. They were thin with six limbs, two large rear legs and four appendages with pincer-like hands. The middle limbs would serve dual roles – they would get down on the back four limbs to run and fight with the front four.
There wasn’t actually a lot of information about the Pa’Ran beyond the basics – they had only ever attacked Kiana once before, and the raid was over pretty quickly. There were some conflicting reports of weird things happening during the event. Seeing things that weren’t there, enemies appearing or disappearing from nowhere, highly geared players being thrown to their deaths by some kind of force projection. A few people insisted that the Pa’Ran had taken over their characters and forced them to kill other players, but that was widely agreed to be an excuse for player killing during the event. All of the accounts of attacks on ships were simply the ship being boarded and overrun by a swarm of soldiers wielding spears that cut right through armor.
A buzzer sounded as the machine Cian was hooked up to stopped, and he realized it had been over an hour. He spent a few minutes pulling at tape and carefully pulled the IV out. Once that was done, Cian left the room and headed toward the lobby. Once outside the room, he could hear sirens from outside.
Jolan was pulling a bulky set of armor out of a locker when Cian walked in. His head was completely healed, although the new scalp didn’t have hair so he looked like he was suffering from a pretty severe receding hairline. The rest of the lobby was empty and the office was already closed up.
“Hey Jolan, looking good.” said Cian.
Jolan looked over, “Hey Cian! Yeah, feels better to have a scalp again. You get a chance to buy anything? I forgot to tell you about the shopping interface. The stores are probably all closed now, so I hope you got some bullets at least.”
“Got me a new gun. Took all my cash, but it’s a nice upgrade for me.” said Cian, walking over to locker 11. All it took was a hand print and the locker popped open, revealing the weapon and boxes of ammunition. It was smaller than Cian expected, about 38” long with a bullpup layout and a 24” barrel.
“Sweet gun. You got that for under 5k?” asked Jolan.
“It’s used and was on sale. But it looks good to me. Was only three and a half thousand.” said Cian as he looked over the stat screen for it.
12.7mm Heavy Rifle – Large caliber rifle with inertial stabilizer to reduce recoil, fires standard 12.7mm cartridges at 600m/s. Damage: 200. +50% against shielding. Selective fire: Single, 3-Burst, Auto. Twenty one shot capacity. Effective range: 300 meters. Maximum range: 2000 meters. Ammo: 0/21 Durability: 96/100.
“Nice. I paid fifteen for this armor, and that would probably shoot right through it if you went full auto on me. It’s class five, so pretty strong. It could probably tank… three shots from that gun? Assuming you were hitting me in the same spot. Something like that. It could take a whole clip of your pistol just fine. Armor has an absorb value and an armor value that works like extra hit points. By the way, here’s my chain set if you want it. Not sure if it will do much good against the Pa’Ran, but better than nothing.” said Jolan, handing Cian the still bloody set of chain mesh.
“Cool.” said Cian, taking the mesh and examining it.
Chain Mesh Suit – A mesh made of interlocking alloy links. Protects against slashing attacks. Weak against piercing. Useless against bullets. Durability: 91/100, Size: L.
“What class is this? I don’t see it on here.” asked Cian.
“That’s specialty armor, it doesn’t work like most. It doesn’t have a class and doesn’t seem to have an absorb value. It works great against animals and low tech blades, but it won’t do much against high tech stuff or guns. I use it on Kel rats because they don’t chew it up much and it’s really cheap to repair. For the suit I’m wearing, the repair bill wouldn’t be worth fighting them.” said Jolan.
Suddenly a voice came in over the speakers. “Attention! Attention! Pa’Ran vessels approaching Valcim city! Seek immediate shelter. All those with military training and equipment who have not already done so are to report to local militia captains. Prepare to repel ground troops!”
Shortly after, another message came over the speakers. “Attention visitors to the Capital City Mall. Bunkers are located on basement levels three through five. All elevators and doors will be secured in ten minutes. Automated defenses will be initiated in fifteen minutes. This is your final warning. If you cannot leave an area being secured within that window, immediately seek a conveniently located kiosk and press the Help button for assistance. Capital City Mall takes no responsibility for casualties due to refusal to leave closed areas. Looters and squatters will be shot on sight. Thank you for visiting Capital City Mall.”
“Dang, they don’t play. We better get moving.” said Jolan.
“Yeah. Uh, where to?” asked Cian.
“Outside. Follow me, we can try to find a group on the street.” said Jolan.
The two of them hurried to the nearest elevator and took it down to ground level. Outside, the city looked busier than it did before. Groups of players and NPCs were everywhere. Some were organized with military precision, others were standing around in loose groups. Everyone was looking in the same direction.
The tall, grey skinned man in full-coverage heavy armor with his helmet tucked under his arm seemed to be the focus of everyone’s attention. He must have been at least eight feet tall. His head was shaved and his face was badly scarred. Both of his eyes were obviously cybernetic. Cian’s interface identified him as Dromon.
Dromon – Sentient. Humanoid. Home world: Drom. Ranging from 6.6’-8.6’ in height. Intelligence superior to humans. Tough, grey skin. Generally black to dark brown hair. Known for great feats of strength.
They had obviously caught the tail end of some speech, as everyone was looking at him when he finished with “… assigned groups is crucial. You know your duty. Move out! Glory and honor!”
The huge crowds dispersed, heading in all directions. Cian had lost sight of the man who had spoken. He must have put his helmet back on, and was blending with the hundred or so other tall soldiers in identical armor. They were like walking tanks.
Jolan whistled quietly and pointed at the group of heavily armored soldiers. “See those guys? That’s at least class 9, maybe class 10 armor. I don’t know if your gun would even scratch it. Those are the Dromon Royal Marines. They’re the guys who kick your teeth in if you start trouble around here. I saw one eat a missile and get back up to blow the brains out of the guy who shot it from five hundred yards away.”
“What’s it mean by intelligence superior to humans? Great strength? That’s BS. We can’t choose race, and the game has a super race that’s smarter and stronger than us?” said Cian.
“Eh, it is what it is. Just game lore.” said Jolan.
“Whatever. Should we try to join one of these groups? Since we missed the event speech.” asked Cian.
“Can’t hurt.” said Jolan.
The first five groups they asked rejected them.
“You noobs are a liability. Get to a bunker.”
“Sorry, my guild doesn’t do power leveling sessions. Find someone else.”
“This fight’s for the big boys. Go home kiddos.”
“Thousands of Pa’Ran are about to flood this place. You two are gonna get eaten alive out here without proper gear. Run while you still can.”
“Hahahahaha. No thanks, we don’t need any more cannon fodder.”
Finally the sixth group they asked actually talked to them. It was a small group of only six. Three guys, three girls – all wearing the same shade of purple. Cian introduced them both and the leader spoke, “Hey lads. I’m Booker, this is my first officer Leisal. The other goons here are Jockee, BulletSponge, HellzRaiser, and BarbieGrl. We’re the Purple Legion. You can join if you want, but non-Legion only get half shares of any loot. If you impress us and accept our invitation to join at the end of the night you can get three quarters.”
Leisal saluted crisply when her name was mentioned. The others waved casually. Jockee, BulletSponge, HellzRaiser, and BarbieGrl wore armor similar to Jolan’s. Booker had better armor with a shield emitter built in and a big energy cannon of some kind. Jockee had a rifle similar to Cian’s. BulletSponge had a pair of revolvers. HellzRaiser and BarbieGrl, both women, had identical energy rifles. Leisal, the third woman in the group, had a big axe with a battery attached. Her armor looked even heavier than the leader’s and had what looked like a jet pack attached to the back.
“That sounds fair to me. What do you think Cian?” said Jolan.
“Sounds good. Nice to meet you all.” said Cian.
“Let’s get ready to kill some bugs, then! We’re supposed to follow the ninth militia, over there.” said Booker.
A group of NPC troops of various races were gathered in loose formation. They were armored in a grey, full-body suit that looked a lot like riot gear on steroids. Most of the players gathering up to follow them had similar gear in a variety of different colors. It wasn’t near as impressive as the Royal Marine gear, but it made Cian feel downright naked in his chain mesh.