The next day, Cian healed Vanna more – but nothing had changed. She was still in a coma. They had set out plain looking clothes for him – a plain shirt and trousers, along with his boots from before that had been cleaned. Cian got dressed.
They brought in food for Cian and fed Vanna some kind of nutrient solution using a feeding tube.
Cian scarfed down his breakfast and finally went to take a look at his ship while they were taking care of Vanna. It was a wreck. One engine gone. Holes in every bit of it. Another chunk had broken off the upper hull at some point, leaving a gaping hole into the cargo bay. The structure of it was completely twisted and mangled – all the main support beams were crumpled. Vanna would probably point out that one engine was still fixable and that it still had a military grade point defense system, but to Cian’s eyes it was nothing but a scrap heap.
Cian sat with his head in his hands. He felt numb. His ship was gone. Vanna was unconscious. He had a grand total of 418,100 credits left in his bank account – barely anything compared to the seven million they had put into the ship. Even if he somehow got another ship, the other players were probably still hunting him. What was he going to do?
To add to it, none of the game systems made sense anymore. He gained no skill while fixing the whole dang ship. No experience from defeating an entire boarding crew of marines. Outside the game system, everything just felt… bleak. There was no progress to be made. No help understanding any of the powers he apparently had.
Bann walked in. He had bags under his eyes and it looked like he hadn’t slept, but he still had a spring in his step. “Hey, there you are. Sorry about your ship, rough shape huh? You might be interested in some of the discoveries we made. I managed to initialize an offline proxy of the system and have been playing with it.”
“What did you find out?” asked Cian.
“This game of yours is a hacked training and ranking system for Weaveborn soldiers and civilians. From what I can tell, the technology can be scaled with many different plugin packages varying from civilian crafting assistance up to powerful military applications – all on the same platform. These are the classes. They have all kinds of abilities and technology packaged into these classes. From what I can tell, Boundless is a military spec ops one meant for high level military operatives. The skills shown are a grade on your actual knowledge of topics. There’s some kind of neural learning system that plants knowledge directly in your head for some topics, depending on the package you’re running, but the rest of the skills are rated based on actual learning.” said Bann
“What about the attribute system?” asked Cian.
“From what I can tell, it actually physically enhances your body permanently using the nanite system. I believe it must affect your mind as well for the mental attributes. It’s supposed to be a slow enhancement system, with the person gaining them over time as they get used to the enhancement and are ready for more.” said Bann.
“But what about character creation? I went from having mostly physical stats on my first character to dying and coming back as mostly mental stats.” said Cian.
“Hmm, I’m not entirely sure how that system might work. It is supposed to be pulling your attributes from your actual physical body when the system is initialized. It gives you boosts in areas and allows your body to adjust to them, but it isn’t supposed to set initial attributes. It’s obvious the Drom have modified the system and utilized existing functions for their own goals. The whole experience point system appears to be only slightly modified. From what I can gather, the initial system worked on a system of social and military ranks. There was some kind of point system awarded by the higher ups as a reward for completing different social tasks and jobs – not points for killing things. I suppose military missions may have awarded points for neutralizing enemy targets, but that’s speculation.” said Bann.
“So how does this help us?” said Cian.
“Well, for one, I believe I know why you have stalled out. You’re disconnected from the system. Without a back and forth with the hubs, your system stops working. The Dromon have complete control over all of the nodes of the system and they created their own network. You’re still technically connected to it on some level, but you’re accessing the old network – which isn’t fully functional anymore and doesn’t allow progression. After a period of being disconnected, it completely stopped assessing your progress. Sadly, we have no way of increasing your rank – if you wanted to do so it would need to be done using the Dromon system.” said Bann
“So I can’t ever progress again? I’m stuck at my current power level?” said Cian.
“No no, nothing like that. We just have to reconnect you to the Dromon systems.” said Bann.
“What?! Wouldn’t I just go back to being a mindless drone under their control again?” said Cian.
“No. The filters that control perception and phone home constantly aren’t built into the system. They’re implanted directly onto each actor, built into the modified nanite swarm. Your nanites were completely replaced and contain no trace of it. Without physically replacing your nanites, they can not regain control of you. Now, if you died and respawned in their system – then you would have their nanites again and likely end up fully under their control again.” said Bann.
“Okay. So don’t die.” said Cian.
Bann chuckled. “Same as the rest of us on that front, I’m afraid.”
“They’re already out to get me, though. Wouldn’t they detect me reconnecting and send someone to kill me?” said Cian.
“That is possible. However, I suspect the Dromon do not have that fine a level of control over the system. It is incredibly advanced, and I seriously doubt they have been able to gain full understanding and control of it. The only way to know for sure would be to hack into the live system.” said Bann.
“How would we do that?” asked Cian.
“Ah, that is where you would come in. All of the bodies I have access to have already respawned in the system. I was able to determine that they are still active in the system, but was locked out as the security had refreshed when they respawned. Your security keys should still be valid. Your friend Jolan’s would be too, but I have tried this before – as soon as I attempt to connect the body self destructs. You shouldn’t have the automatic trigger for the self destruct system.” said Bann
“I shouldn’t have a self destruct trigger? But I do have a self destruct? This thing could trigger a self destruct and kill me?” said Cian.
“That is highly unlikely. As far as I can tell, the self destruct is part of the technology as a way for operatives to eliminate themselves and trigger a respawn in case of capture. But it should require a willful command from you. You should at least have an option to not self destruct should the system trigger.” said Bann.
“It doesn’t sound like you’re very sure.” said Cian.
“There are no certainties with this technology. But I see no other way to learn more about it and eventually develop a way to disconnect others. If you wanted to disconnect your friend, this is likely the only way to work toward that goal.” said Bann.
Cian sighed. “Okay. Let’s do it. What do you need from me?”
“I simply need you to come to my lab and allow me to connect to the system through you. You will remain conscious through the procedure.” said Bann.
The two of them left the hangar where the Equinox was and went down the hall. They took an elevator and walked down a few more corridors before coming to Bann’s lab. A dozen dissected human corpses were on tables under stasis fields. Inactive nanites and other components were laying nearby in small containers.
“This is a bit gruesome.” said Cian.
“I apologize, but these are the first corpses we have had that were intact in the last two years of war. The knowledge from the technology within them was invaluable. If it bothers you, I can put them away before we begin. We will be working on the opposite side of the lab.” said Bann.
“It’s fine.” said Cian. He took a seat at the spot Bann pointed out.
Bann pulled out a silvery cap that resembled the nanite projection amplifier Cian had used before. “This is an interface I developed based on Weaveborn technology. It should allow us to interface directly with your nanites.” he said.
Cian put it on his head. It fit snugly. A popup appeared.
Interface with [Unknown System] for diagnostics? [Yes] [No]
Cian mentally hit Yes. Nothing seemed to happen.
“Perfect!” said Bann, “It’s working. Give me a moment to process this.”
Cian leaned back and relaxed.
A few minutes later, Bann said “Ah! I got it. I’m connecting to the remote systems now. Intriguing.”
“Find something?” asked Cian.
“There is a lot of data here. I’m seeing maps. Forums. A banking system. It won’t let me reconnect you to any of it. It shows that you are currently logged out. I’m trying to access that part of it now.” said Bann.
A few minutes later, Bann spoke up again with confusion in his voice. “I… think I’m looking at you. Inside a capsule of some kind. You’re unconscious. It states this as your current location, but I do not know where this is.” said Bann. He projected the image onto the ceiling above Cian.
The image was of Cian on Earth, sitting in his TIVI unit. He was still breathing and didn’t look worse off for having been sitting there for weeks.
“How is this possible… That’s me, sitting in the thing I used to log into the game. But it’s been a long time. I should be dead from dehydration and starvation by now.” said Cian.
“I believe this may be some sort of simulation. I am going to try to connect to it. Your perspective may shift to the simulation, but I should be able to communicate with you through the link. Get ready.” said Bann.
“Okay.” said Cian.
Suddenly everything went black for a moment. His eyes opened. Cian was in the TIVI unit. The pod was open. He felt… normal. He got out. His tiny apartment was the way he had left it. According to the calendar, it had been over six weeks since he last logged in.
“Do you hear me?” said Bann from inside Cian’s head.
“Ugh. Yeah. What is this?” said Cian.
“I am not sure. I am getting some data about your surroundings. It appears we were successful in reconnecting you to the system. I am able to access your bank account and other details now. It appears you earned some credits at some point. You have a balance of 175,525. It appears you had a balance of 25, a deposit for 200,000, and a withdrawal of 24,500.” said Bann
Someone started banging on the door.
“Uh, I have company. Someone banging on my door.” said Cian.
“I’m not getting data on any nearby actors. My data may be incomplete.” said Bann.
Cian checked the door. It was his landlord. He had to push aside a pile of mail to open the door.
“You’re behind on rent!” he pointed at an eviction notice on the door. “Today’s the last day! Pay or get out!”
“Uh, sorry, I’ve been sick. I’ll… wire it to you now.” said Cian.
“Last day to pay! You’re behind. Second month due now. Pay both or I’ll be back tomorrow with the constable. You didn’t answer your phone. I only let it go this far because you were never late before.” the man said.
“Okay, okay. I’ll pay it.” said Cian. He closed the door as the man walked off.
“This is so weird. That was my landlord. I’m a whole month behind on rent and the next month is due now. Is this real?” said Cian.
“I am uncertain. I suspected this to be an elaborate simulation, but I can’t tell. All the readings I am getting suggest that these are views to a real world location somewhere. I am seeing things through your eyes. However, your having sat for six weeks without food or water with no ill effects suggests that something is off.” said Bann.
Cian grabbed his mail and sat down at his computer and turned it on. His internet had been disconnected, but the TIVI had its own internet that he was able to connect to. Thankfully his power bill was bundled in with his rent. His bank account had received two deposits from his work, a grand total of $900. Rifling through the mail, he found a termination notice from his job at the hospital. They had cashed out his vacation and sick days and sent him the balance, in addition to his last paycheck of $600. Most of it was junk.
He didn’t have enough for his rent. It was $650 a month, and he needed two months of it.
“Uh, do I need to pay this rent? I don’t know if I need to keep a… presence here. Is any of this even real? It feels so… hollow.” said Cian.
“As far as I can tell, this – whatever this is – is tied into your character in their system. If you wish to progress using the Dromon system, you will likely need to keep a minimal presence here. You can transfer some of your credit account here to cover it. It appears there is a 98 to 1 ratio of transfer to whatever currency you are using there.” said Bann.
“Okay.” said Cian. He transferred 39,200 credits for an extra $400 and paid his rent. He had 136,325 credits left, not counting the credits he had in his other bank account that Vanna had helped him set up. He still wasn’t sure what gave him 200,000 credits. Maybe the fighting in the Pa’Ran event?
Cian checked his fridge. Everything was spoiled. He dumped it all out into a trash bag and took it out to the hallway chute. He felt very hungry. He grabbed a can of soup and heated it in the microwave. It wasn’t very good soup, but it stopped the hungry feeling. Everything felt so surreal.
“I’m going to try to log back in now.” said Cian. He got back into the TIVI and went through the steps.
Cian woke back up in the room with Bann, still connected to the diagnostic equipment. A bunch of messages came up.
Combat Reflexes increased by 11% to 37%
Knife Fighting increased by 19.3% to 24%
Marksmanship increased by 8% to 12.9%
Mind over Body increased by 9% to 45.6%
Perception increased by 5% to 14%
Psionics increased by 14% to 41.5%
Small Arms increased by 12% to 19.9%
Starship Engineering increased by 24% to 58%.
Starship Piloting increased by 32% to 35%.
“I just got a bunch of skill increase messages. But no experience or increase in attributes.” said Cian.
“If my theory is correct, the skill assessment is done on current knowledge by utilizing a scan of short term memory and determining what skill levels you demonstrated. I don’t believe it logs events like the primary system that awards experience. The points awarded while you were fully offline might not come back. It’s probably good for the system to not scrutinize your recent exploits too much – as far as I can tell, you haven’t been flagged by anything.” said Bann.
“Huh. I have options to log out and see forums and stuff again. And it shows my credits. It doesn’t show my main bank account, though.” said Cian.
“That’s probably for the best. Hiding most of your assets outside the Dromon system would be a wise precaution in the future. As far as I can tell they have complete control over this banking system and it has no ties to real banks, they could likely empty out your assets on a whim.” said Bann.
“Huh. And make you forget you ever owned it.” said Cian.
“That is likely, although you would be immune to such mind altering effects now. With you being back in the system, you might be able to interact with other players without it tripping anything. As far as I can tell there was never a name attached to any of the manhunt associated with you. They are still searching the Kiana system.” said Bann.
“What about Vindale? Surely Gumbo’s group would have publicized their chase of me through that system. They attacked a Republic patrol, so that had to trigger some kind of something.” said Cian.
“I have been looking through your ‘forum’ system while you were investigating your apartment. Utilizing Republic news sources and cross referencing these forums, I have come to some interesting conclusions. According to this, the Aces High guild associated with Gumbo has imploded. There are several of these forum threads on the topic. There seems to have been memory loss associated with the ones who were disconnected during the dead thread event, as they all claim they were uninvolved with the situation. The sole remaining human aboard the cruiser was killed by Republic forces shortly after their ill fated attack on you in the Weave. Their cruiser was crippled and without a Jump drive, so they could not escape. They refused to surrender and fought to the death against a Republic heavy cruiser. Their current location is unknown, although they likely respawned on Kiana Prime. All of the guild assets disappeared with Gumbo, and there are claims that he and his top leadership quit the game and stole the guild’s assets. I suspect the Dromon used the opportunity to take the considerable sum of credits for their own means and play off his running away with the money as a way to cover up the fact that he and the others did not respawn. Your name is not on any of the official reports, and I don’t believe the Dromon have made the connection.” said Bann.
“But I gave my name to the Redstone captain who fought them. Wouldn’t he have put it in the report?” said Cian.
“Considering the nature of your pursuit and you having no bounties within Republic or Coalition space, the captain may have redacted the name from his public report in an effort to help you avoid potential Peacekeeper pursuit. Despite there being no open war, there is no love lost between Republic and Peacekeeper forces.” said Bann.
“Huh. So I might actually be in the clear?” said Cian.
“I would suggest sticking to Republic and Coalition space as much as possible, but it is very likely that you are no longer being actively pursued by anyone.” said Bann.
“Well, it’s not like I have anywhere to go anyway. My ship is scrap and my first officer is in a coma.” said Cian.
“In that regard, I may be able to help. If you would be willing to act as our liaison, I would be able to provide you a ship. We are short on a number of supplies, but human ships hunt us at every port of call. If we can verify that you are no longer hunted by humans, you could procure our much needed supplies.” said Bann.
“Okay… How do we verify that I’m no longer hunted?” said Cian.
“Well, we have a human on hand. We can put you and this friend of yours in a room together. If he mentions a bounty, we know that you are still somehow flagged. If he is able to communicate with you normally, then we are likely in the clear.” said Bann.
“What if it makes him attack me? I want to free him from this mess. He’s a good guy. I don’t want him to die on my account.” said Cian.
“If he attacks, we will use nonlethal force. As it is, there is a limited amount of time we can hold him before he inevitably engages the kill switch and respawns. We have had this particular human in holding before, about six and a half weeks ago. As soon as we attempted communication, he engaged his kill switch. That he is still here must mean that he does not realize who is holding him and still has some hope of escape.” said Bann.
“Okay. Take me to him.” said Cian.
“Here, put this comm device in your ear. In case I need to communicate with you discreetly.” said Bann. He handed Cian a small link that fit in his ear.
Jolan was in a small room with a plain looking bed. He was unconscious. They sent Cian in before triggering a dose of a drug to counteract the sedative. Cian sat on a chair near the bed.
Jolan woke with a start. He looked around wildly, his eyes wide in terror. He settled on Cian. “Cian! Man, is that really you? You gotta help me! Something is wrong. I can’t log out!”
“Wait, you can’t log out?” asked Cian.
“No, no man. I just tried again. It says I’m already offline. It won’t let me log out! I can’t access the forums or put in any support tickets. It’s already been days I think. I gotta get off and get some food and water in me. I don’t wanna die hooked up to this game!” said Jolan.
“Okay. Wow. I’ll contact someone. I’ve been having some weird issues too. Do you get any weird popups or anything if you look at me?” said Cian.
Jolan looked at him. “No dude, you just show up as Cian Kemp. Wait, did you pay for a last name? That’s a ripoff man. Should have saved the cash for a better ship.”
“Okay. You’re being held in this station, but you aren’t a prisoner. They know something is wrong and I’m here trying to help them figure out what’s going on, okay? It’s just to isolate you from the rest of the gaming simulation until we figure out what’s wrong. I’m going to make sure someone checks up on you and that you’re okay out of the game. I was stuck and unable to log out for a while too, but we just got that fixed.” said Cian.
“Whew, man. I don’t know exactly where we are, but I am glad you’re here. I was really freaking out. How long were you stuck?” said Jolan.
“A while. I was just logged out and I’m fine, though. I just had to pay my rent and I ate a can of soup. You’re in good hands man, I’ll make sure we get to the bottom of this. There’s some kind of glitch causing some people to see and hear weird stuff, so let me know if you hear anyone threatening you or anything okay? It’s a problem with the game interface. Maybe I can get you some books to read or something?” said Cian.
“Okay man. This is some weird stuff. Thanks for stopping in. A book would be good. Scifi or fantasy, just surprise me.” said Jolan.
“I’ve prepared a selection of books. I’m sending it to the tablet on the table.” said Bann over the comm directly to Cian.
Cian grabbed the tablet and checked. A bunch of assorted fantasy and science fiction novels were loaded on it. “Here man, you can read any of the stuff on here. It has a messenger you can use to contact me too okay? You can order food on there too. The burger and fries is really good. I’m going to go talk to some people and make sure we get to the bottom of this.”
Jolan grabbed the tablet. “Thanks man.”
Cian walked out and shut the door. Bann was waiting outside.
“I don’t know if that was a valid test. He’s still disconnected from the system somehow.” said Cian.
“Interesting. Yes. It likely invalidates any test of whether or not you would be attacked by other humans, but this could be an opportunity. If you can convince him to willingly hook up to the same interface that we used on you, we may be able to examine the changes that they made to the nanite swarm in real time. If I can find a way of undoing the changes, we could free him. He may have difficulty adapting to the truth, but having an actual method of freeing humans under Dromon control could be invaluable.” said Bann.
“Wouldn’t that just trigger his self destruct? He doesn’t have modified nanites like I do.” said Cian.
“It’s possible, but it is the best chance I see of one day freeing humans other than you.” said Bann.
“Okay. How long do you need to set this up?” said Cian.
“A few hours. We will bring your friend some food and let him relax while I set it up.” said Bann.
“Okay. You have to do it in an empty room, I don’t think he would take the sight of his old team mates dissected on a table as openly as I did.” said Cian.
“Er, of course. I will have the room cleared out before we begin.” said Bann.
Cian went back to check up on Vanna. Her situation hadn’t changed. He tried healing her again, but it didn’t feel like it was having any effect. There wasn’t anything physically wrong with her anymore. Why wasn’t she waking up?
Cian lay down in the next bed over and started chatting with her. He told her about his trip to ‘Earth’ and getting back into the system. About how his forums and stuff were working again. About Jolan and their plans to try to find a way to free him too. After a bit there wasn’t any more to say, so he just lay there. Before long, he fell asleep.