Cian marveled at the landscape zooming by beneath them. The whole trip they had spent weeks walking only took an hour by gunship. How much different would his first weeks in-game have been if he hadn’t been stranded in the middle of nowhere? The remaining 140 or so miles to Gregar’s Hill flew by in only fifteen minutes.
It took much longer explaining things to the local patrol, who sent three ships to intercept them right outside Gregar’s Hill. Luckily, Borano woke up before things got too heated – and quickly set things straight. It turned out he had been captured by the pirates when they raided the local cargo delivery shuttle, and was presumed dead. After scarfing down a ration bar, Borano proceeded to fill everyone in.
Corissa had tried to get him to reveal information about shipping routes and warehouses where precious metals and gems were stored. Her crew had stolen several million credits worth of refined metals, but had been forced to dump them to escape after taking engine damage during a firefight with a patrol craft. The lone patrol craft had been shot down, but not before calling for reinforcements and hitting the pirates with a Peacekeeper missile – a device designed to disable engines.
The authorities had recovered the dumped cargo, but fell for Corissa’s trick and followed the decoy projecting a sensor ghost out of the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the pirates headed back toward Gregar’s Hill and landed right under their noses, mere minutes from the town. From what Borano could tell, their plans were to wait until things cooled down and hit the town’s primary warehouse where the valuable output from their refinery was stored. Gregar’s Hill mined and refined several valuable metals from the rich mines underneath it – including magnesium, chromium, and corzanthium. The magnesium and chromium were both used to create the various alloys that starship hulls and components were made from, and corzanthium was a very rare superconductor used in starship reactors and high end energy weapons.
It turned out the hold still contained a small crate of stabilized corzanthium, valued at a bit over two million credits by itself. Cian almost naively agreed to hand it over without reward, but Borano and Vanna stepped in and negotiated on his behalf. It turned out they had already put out a bounty on the thieves and were offering a reward for its return. The local mining company grudgingly paid the offered 10% bounty to recover the stolen goods, netting Cian and Vanna a cool 203,500 credits. Vanna insisted on them getting a chunk of the money put onto two credit chips, which were basically prepaid credit cards.
The patrol officers took the ship’s black box recording without any compensation. Vanna was irate at that, but quieted down when she found out what the pirate’s bounties were worth.
The bounty on Corissa and crew wound up being extremely lucrative. She was wanted dead or alive pretty much everywhere – with bounties across five solar systems and three governments. Her and her crew were wanted locally for murder, destruction of property, piracy, kidnapping, and a long list of other charges. Vanna helped file the necessary paperwork and turned over their frozen corpses as proof of bounty completion to the patrol craft for delivery back to the station. By the end of it, they had claimed another 3,245,700 credits – just under three million of it from Corissa herself. It would take some time for the bureaucracy to confirm delivery and transfer the funds, but Vanna insisted it was as good as done and they would get it all eventually. Cian couldn’t figure out how to access his character’s credit account (the whole 25 credits worth), and Vanna was surprised to learn that Cian didn’t have a global bank account; but she helped him set up a secure account for the funds to be transferred to remotely.
Cian immediately had to spend 100,000 credits on a salvage license in order to legally claim ownership of the gunship, and another 20,000 for a military salvage claim on the ship’s weapon systems. Vanna insisted it was all worth much more than that in salvage, so he complied without too much complaining. They had to turn over the ship’s missiles, which contained miniature fusion warheads and were illegal across the Kiana system. They could have probably hid them and sold them on the black market, but Cian wanted to stay on the good side of the local authorities and they knew the ship had illegal missiles – the downed patrol craft had been hit by two.
In addition to helping them get all the legalities straightened out, the patrol officers updated them on recent events. The town hadn’t been unaffected by the Pa’Ran raids, but the presence of the local patrol base and larger population of human players had made the difference. The raids had went on for another week after the events in Chalo, with a back and forth battle going on above the planet and surrounding space the entire time. Finally a larger Peacekeeper armada had arrived and sent the Pa’Ran running. The pirates had struck in the confusion during the aftermath of the Pa’Ran raid.
News from Chalo was nothing but bad. The patrol had searched the city and the place had been left abandoned. There were no other survivors. Vanna took the news stoically, but Cian knew she was missing her friends.
“I’m sorry. I’m here if you want to talk, okay?” said Cian as he offered her a hug.
Vanna stepped into Cian’s arms and he held her tight. They stood like that for a few minutes, with the patrol officer politely waiting quietly. “Thanks.” she mumbled into Cian’s side, wiping away a few tears that had formed in her eyes.
After hearing the current events, they went back to finalizing all the legalities. It was after noon by the time all the paperwork had been filed and everything was in order. Finally the patrol ships let them go, and they paid the 100 credit landing fee to set down near the town and embarked into Gregar’s Hill. True to his word, Cian split the money they had left with Vanna. Cian now had 11,750 credits in his account and 30,000 on the credit chip.
He checked his status. He had gained four levels from turning in the bounty, and had finally fully recovered from the fight with the Pa’Ran.
Quest Completed! – Claimed the bounty on Corissa Vannu’s crew. Reward: 3,245,700 Credits (Pending), +50000 Experience.
Level up! +1 Will. +5 Character points.
Level up! +1 Will.
Level up! +1 Wit.
Level up! +1 Presence.
|Name: Cian Kemp|
|Total Experience: 104125/105000|
Traits: Iron Will
Character Points: 5
He had five character points. He could use them to raise his attributes, but he still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with them. You were supposed to be able to buy bonus traits with them, but he didn’t see the option on his interface. Maybe you needed ten or more at once? He decided he would save them for now.
Borano and Vanna went off to a local restaurant to catch up over a meal. They had invited Cian, but he politely declined – he wanted to find some answers now that he could finally find some other players.
Cian started to repack his backpack to get rid of extra weight before heading out, dumping the tent and other survival equipment in the ship’s hold. He paused when he saw the artifact again – carefully packed in the bottom of his bag. In all the confusion, he had forgotten about it. He had planned to figure it out with Vanna present, but now that he was recovered, his curiosity was getting the better of him.
With the artifact in hand, Cian went to the captain’s quarters and stood in front of the wall mirror. With one last look at his hair – he really hoped it didn’t actually end up being a head shaver – Cian pulled the artifact over his head. At first, nothing seemed to happen. Cian felt a bit silly, sitting there with the silver thing stuffed over his head. But when he wiggled it around a little, it suddenly tightened down over his head and began to glow.
Cian panicked at first – the thing had shrunk down and wrapped his entire head except for his face. But it didn’t hurt, and soon the entire device was glowing with the same silvery energy that he and the Pa’Ran Boundless had used. Was this thing what made that Pa’Ran so powerful? It hadn’t asked to activate like the hand device, but it seemed to be working already. He reached for a small metal cup on the desk on the other side of the room and tried to move it toward him. The cup zipped across the room toward his hand like a bullet and nearly broke his finger.
“Whoa.” he said as he looked at the cup in his hand. He tried to move it back, slowly this time. Silver lights were dancing around his head, and the cup floated around. Before he had to push everything he had just to slightly alter the trajectory of something; now he was moving it around effortlessly. This thing was seriously amping up his abilities.
Suddenly, a screen appeared in his vision.
Errors detected in interface. Activate nanite projection amplifier installation? [Yes] [No]
Nanite projection amplifier? Cian hadn’t heard of any kind of nanite technology in Worlds & Empires. Hesitating, but intrigued, Cian mentally hit “Yes.” Immediately, the lights became blinding and everything went white.
Everything gradually shifted from white to a hazy, disorienting view. As his vision cleared, he noticed that the colors of the walls and everything were dull and muted. Cian suddenly noticed that his perspective had changed – the ceiling was much closer. Looking down, he saw the top of his own head. The device on his head seemed to be… dissolving? Bits of it were floating off and drifting toward him in a steady stream. As it progressed, a strange feeling began building. It was satisfying in a way, almost like the feeling of drinking water after being parched for hours. Suddenly pain overwhelmed him as the stream intensified. Cian felt like he was being torn apart, and the little lights swarmed around and into him with alarming speed.
Soon the entire device was gone, and Cian’s vision swam again. He was vaguely aware of falling, and found himself on the ground. Everything looked and sounded vibrant, even more so than usual. All of his senses were different – more defined, more real.
To an outside observer, Cian would have looked a bit unusual. He tapped on the metal walls. He stared at his own hands in awe, as if seeing them for the first time. He spoke, surprised at his own voice. To him, everything he was experiencing was fundamentally different. It felt like he had lived his whole life in a simulation, and suddenly he was immersed in reality. His real life, outside this game, never felt so real. Cian laughed at that – is this what other players had meant when they said the game was more real than reality?
Moving past the newness of everything for the moment, Cian reached up to see if the device was really gone. He felt all over his head and ran his hands through his hair. He checked all over the floor of the room and in his bag. He couldn’t find a trace of the device. Checking his interface, he found a log of what had happened and read through it.
Nanite projection amplifier installation started.
Checking package compatibility . . . Confirmed.
Corporeal decoupling initiated.
Scanning . . .
Error: Tampering detected in nanite swarm.
Correcting . . . Critical error. Failsafe triggered.
Initiating full nanite replacement . . . Complete.
Consciousness preserved. Scanning . . .
Error: Consciousness corruption detected.
Connecting to remote storage . . .
Retrieving backup . . .
Error: Backup corrupted. Switching to heuristic analysis.
Correcting . . . Success. Full mental function restored.
Uploading backup to remote storage . . . Success.
Initiating corporeal reintegration . . . Success.
Nanite levels optimal.
Nanite projection amplifier installation failed.
Notice: Device detected fatal error in swarm. Failsafe conditions tripped.
Device sacrificed to preserve integrity of consciousness.
Defective nanites deactivated and replaced. Full mental functions restored.
Medical examination recommended. See local node administrator for more information.
What? Instead of answering questions, Cian just found more. Not only was the device gone, but he still didn’t know what it did. Plus he felt a bit sick at the thought of a million bucks literally dissolving. And what was all this about nanite swarms and mental function? The thing did some kind of analysis of his consciousness and ‘corrected’ something? It had to be why everything seemed so vibrant now, but it was a little concerning. Scratch that, he was sitting in a full immersion rig that apparently had full access to his brain and, unless this was part of the game lore somehow, the rig was playing around in his head. It was downright terrifying.
Cian got even more of a shock when he checked his menus: Most of the options were just gone. He could still access his status screens, but everything else was gone. Before he had options for Log Out, Help & Support, Billing, Game Options, Forums, Account Status, Map, Communications, and Banking. Now those were all gone, and in their place was a new screen entitled Specialization Packages. His class Boundless, was listed on it as “Active” with a little notice stating that it was “Military Grade” and “Spec. Ops.”
Cian was determined to get some answers, so he headed out of the gunship and toward downtown Gregar’s Hill.
Another shock came as he made it to the market. Various alien species hawked their wares in the same monosyllabic language he had heard the raiders use, only this time his interface alerted him “translation module activated” as he heard everything in plain English. A dozen or so players were there too, speaking English with varying accents as they shopped at the stalls and talked among themselves. None of them had the usual name tags and character information that he expected.
Cian tried to speak to several players, but none of them seemed to pay him much attention. He cornered one and tried to ask him for help submitting a bug report, but he barely got out ‘Can you help’ before they said “Decline.” and pushed him aside. Another group didn’t even grace him with a reply, simply pushing him aside and walking past. Finally he got a bit of a hint of what was going on when he tried to speak with a pair of players who were walking through. They simply ignored him, speaking like he wasn’t there.
“Just me, or are these NPCs getting pushier?” said one of them.
“Yeah, the quests suck around here too. That other scrub only offered a thousand credits to rescue some chick being beaten in the alley. Not worth the time.” replied the other.
“Yep. Great place to farm resources, though.” the first said.
Cian stood there, confused.
A burly male player walked up and shoved a bag full of rock in his face. “Sell!” they shouted in his face.
“Uh, what? I …” Cian started to reply.
The player seemed to look him over for the first time, pulled the bag of rock away, and walked to a shopkeeper a few steps away. He repeated the “Sell!” command.
The shopkeeper sighed and grabbed the bag. He dumped what looked like some kind of ore out and scanned it with a handheld device. He weighed it in a scale, tapped a few buttons on a tablet device, and showed the player the tablet.
The player merely grunted in acknowledgment and tapped the device, which finalized the deal and transferred a sum of credits to the player. Then he just grabbed the empty bag and walked off, with nary a word of ‘thank you’ or ‘have a nice day.’
“Hey, what’s going on?” Cian asked the merchant.
The merchant replied in a bored, monotone voice, “I buy ore from the local mines at 80% market rate. These tools on the table here are for sale. The price is marked beneath each item. If you try to steal, my friends over there will remove your arms. No returns or buybacks.”
“No, I mean why is everyone acting like this? That guy tried to give me the bag and just yelled ‘Sell’ at me. The rest act like I’m a leper.” asked Cian.
“Don’t know what a leper is, but you were standing by my sign. The sign that says ‘Sell ore here.’ They’re human. They’re stupid, culturally insensitive, elitist jerks who treat anyone who isn’t human like a tool to be used. Say, aren’t you human?” replied the merchant, looking Cian up and down.
“Yes, but… humans aren’t…” Cian began, then he thought about how the other players were acting. He thought about how everyone had treated the NPCs in the market in Valcim. About how he had treated NPCs when he first logged in. Like they were just pieces of code, a means to an end, unworthy of notice except to check for quests or deals. “Oh, I guess we are. Sorry.” he finished.
The merchant gave him a funny look. “Well, you seem different. Name’s Joxal.”
“Cian. Nice to meet you, Joxal.”
“Why are they treating you like the rest of us? Get kicked out of the human club or something?” asked Joxal.
“That’s what I was trying to figure out.” answered Cian.
Another player rolled up with a large anti-grav cart loaded down with ore. There must have been several thousand pounds of it there.
“Well, good luck figuring it out Cian. Good meeting you, I have profit to attend to.” said Joxal, smiling at the new arrival.
The player simply said “Sell it all.” and walked over to look at the selection of tools.
Cian tried to talk to him, but he dismissed Cian with a “Decline.” and wouldn’t listen to another word he said. Cian even tried yelling in his face, but it was as if the guy couldn’t hear a word he was saying. Joxal gave him a stern look for distracting his customer, so Cian gave up and walked off.
Joxal called out as he left, “If you ever find yourself in the market for quality mining equipment, look me up! Have a good one, Cian!”
“Thanks. You too, Joxal.” replied Cian halfheartedly.
Cian found a quiet bench and stopped to think over his situation. Somehow Cian had become trapped in-game, and after using the Weaveborn artifact he was apparently even more glitched. Now he was identified as an NPC, and the only people who could alert the company to get him help were players. All of whom ignored him and acted like he was nothing but an annoying bit of computer code, merely background noise. He had to do something to get the word out.
It was getting late, and Cian was hungry. He had agreed to meet Vanna at the ship later to make plans on what to do with it, so he resolved to try getting another player’s attention again tomorrow. Cian made his way back toward the gunship.
Upon arriving at the docking area, Cian was surprised to find the gunship missing. A group of a dozen or so heavily armed men in sleek black power armor were walking around the area using some kind of handheld devices. It looked like they were scanning for something right where the gunship had been parked.