Cian woke and ate breakfast. Thankfully he didn’t dream of being eaten by hamburgers – he didn’t remember dreaming at all. He had sausage and eggs. The sausage looked suspiciously like the burger patties he had been eating, cut into thin slices and seasoned differently. He had a shower in the attached bathroom and changed into fresh clothes that had been provided.
Once that was done, he said goodbye to Vanna and headed out and down the hall toward where Jolan had been. On his way, he got a call on the comm that he was still wearing.
“Cian, Jolan is waking. If you are available, please proceed to his location. It would likely be best if yours is the first face he sees.” said Bann.
Cian tapped the comm to reply to the message, “On my way.” He was only a short distance down the hall.
He arrived a minute later and entered the room. Jolan was sitting up and eating a provided breakfast – the same sausage and eggs that Cian had eaten.
“Hey man. I feel different. Everything feels… vibrant, I guess? Feeling kinda weak, though. Is this the interface thing working?” said Jolan.
“Yeah. I experienced the same thing. You’ll recover from the weakness. There’s a lot we have to talk about.” said Cian.
“Okay. When do we fix my logout issue? I still need to make sure I’m okay before I keep playing.” said Jolan.
“Right. We’ll work on that now. Bann should be here soon, he’s the guy that’s been working with us.” said Cian.
Bann opened the door and walked in. “Hello! Do you understand me?”
Jolan looked confused. “Uh. Hi. Yes I understand.” he lowered his voice and nudged Cian before he continued, “Hey, Cian, this guy’s a … Celduran. Um. You know he’s an NPC, right? Is an admin using him as an avatar or something?”
“Yeah… that’s one of the things we need to talk about. But lets fix your logout issue first. Right Bann?” said Cian.
“Of course. Please put on the diagnostic device and we can begin.” said Bann. He had pulled a work station over and was working next to Jolan now.
“Oooo kaaaay. Uh. Guess you haven’t led me wrong yet.” said Jolan. He grabbed the diagnostic helmet and put it on again. A moment later the data started coming in to Bann’s workstation.
“Good. It’s working the same as with yours, Cian. Jolan, you should experience a shift in perspective. You will be back in your home. You should still be able to hear us.” said Bann.
“Uh. Kay.” said Jolan.
Bann initiated the transfer and Jolan went limp. On the screen Cian could see things from Jolan’s perspective.
Jolan opened his eyes and climbed out of his TIVI unit. He looked around. His apartment was a bit messy with a plate of moldy food laying on the table. “Ugh. I thought they said someone checked on me? It shows it’s been a week since I logged in. I hadn’t even been moved from the pod? Huh. I feel okay.”
Jolan grabbed the moldy plate and scraped it off in his trash can, then chucked it into his sink. He opened his fridge and wrinkled his nose. He grabbed a sports drink from the fridge and found some noodles in a cabinet and made himself a quick meal.
“You feeling okay, Jolan?” said Cian over the connection.
Jolan started. “Huh?! That you Cian? How’re you sending me messages?” He felt around at his head as if trying to find the communication device.
“Like we said, you would still be able to receive messages from us. You’re still here connected to the diagnostic machine. We’re sending them through that.” said Cian.
“But that’s in the game. It sounds like you’re in my head. Am I losing my marbles?” said Jolan.
“Think about it man. You’ve been logged in for a week. A week with no water. No food. Yet here you are, perfectly normal. And I can communicate with you while in the game. Something’s wonky, right?” said Cian.
“Uh huh. Okay. You got me, this isn’t right. Am I still in the game? Is this some kind of fake logout?” said Jolan.
“I was in the game for six weeks. Six weeks with no food or water. I logged out to the same thing as you. A little bit hungry, apartment a mess and late on rent, but otherwise just fine after laying there for six weeks.” said Cian.
“That’s not possible.” said Jolan.
“I know. It shouldn’t be. But it happened. I hadn’t been able to log out since shortly after the Pa’Ran event when we were last together. Look around. Everything feels just as real as it always has, doesn’t it?” said Cian.
Jolan looked around. He turned his computer on and checked the news. He opened the door and walked outside. He walked out to the street and down the street a ways and watched cars and pedestrians go by. “I’m logged out.” he said.
“You are. And yet, you’re still connected to us in the game.” said Cian.
“This isn’t possible.” said Jolan.
“Listen, I’m in the same boat as you. It’s weird, right? Something is wrong, but I don’t know exactly what. Log back in and we can talk about it.” said Cian.
“Dude, leave me alone for a bit. I need time to think. I don’t wanna touch that TIVI pod right now.” said Jolan.
“Okay. We’ll give you some time. Just don’t do anything stupid, okay? Something weird is going on, and the two of us are together in it. I don’t think the game devs are on our side. That bounty Gumbo was ranting about? It was real. When I tried to ask for help, they put a 1 billion credit bounty on me. We need to help each other.” said Cian.
“Okay. Just… I need a bit. I’m gonna go do some stuff. I’ll log back in when I’m done. Can you… turn off the monitoring stuff? I want privacy.” said Jolan.
Cian turned off the speaker and spoke to Bann. “Do you think he’s going to be okay? What do we do if he won’t log back in?”
“I don’t know. I think I can forcibly pull him back, but I don’t know what that might do to him. It could prove to him that what we’re saying is true, or break him in some way.” said Bann.
“Okay. Let’s just give him some time.” said Cian. He turned the comm back on to speak to Jolan, “Okay man. We’re turning everything off. See you soon.”
“Thanks.” said Jolan.
Bann entered a command and the screen went back to showing Jolan’s vitals.
Cian sat next to Jolan’s prone form and read over the history that Bann had given him on the tablet again. He would have to show this to Jolan.
A few hours later, Jolan suddenly stirred. He sat up and looked over at the monitor. “You guys weren’t listening in, were you?” he asked.
Cian put down the tablet he had been reading. “Nope. We shut all that off when you asked. You okay man?”
“Not really. I know I logged out. I know it’s the … real? Earth. But… it’s plastic. I guess I felt like this for a while, playing the game more and more. Now the difference is even more stark. I spent some time with my girlfriend.” said Jolan.
“Oh. I didn’t have anyone when I logged back in, was she worried about you being gone?” said Cian.
“That’s just it. She didn’t even realize. She normally comes over every weekend. She didn’t even register that I hadn’t logged out and spent time with her. She always felt like the perfect girl, she didn’t care that I played most of the time. Every time I was offline, she was ready and waiting to go out. Today I just called her and she came over to hang out. It’s not even the weekend. She should have her own stuff today, but she was ready to go like some robot on a shelf. I don’t think she’s real. She’s a damn NPC money sink, a built in way for me to blow all my money on my fake life.” said Jolan.
“Oh. Wow. I didn’t think of that. Do you think a lot of the people aren’t real when we’re logged out?” said Cian.
“I don’t know. But nobody acts like she does. I never really realized before, I was so self absorbed and just happy to have a girl who was into me. But if she was so into me, she should have noticed when I disappeared for a whole week! She has a key to my apartment! She should have found me laying there and called 911!” said Jolan.
“Yeah. Someone should have found me during those six weeks. I just got quietly let go from my job and even the eviction waited for the day I logged back in.” said Cian.
Bann walked in from the other room. “Jolan, I am glad you’re back. You were successfully reconnected. It seems you and Cian are back on the network. How are you feeling? Do you have any lingering animosity towards me?”
“Uh, not really. So… You’re not an NPC, are you?” said Jolan.
“I’m not familiar with the terminology.” said Bann.
“Non player character. Part of the simulation. Basically not a real person.” supplied Cian.
“Ah. I see. Well, as far as I am aware, I am quite real. ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ and all that.” said Jolan.
“Huh. I know what that means, but it didn’t translate that. That’s Latin. Why didn’t it translate that?” said Cian.
“Perhaps the translation recognizes classic phrases? It is a very old phrase that still finds use in philosophy since its rediscovery.” said Bann.
“How do you still have that phrase? Going by your history paper, it must be something like nine thousand years old.” said Cian.
“The Heritage Project. We found it fifty nine years ago and shared it with everyone. It gave us countless works of art, science, philosophy. Ancient languages. It was a treasure trove of culture that has affected every aspect of our lives since it was found.” said Bann.
“Uh, for the record, I didn’t hear any Latin. He just said ‘I think, therefore I am and all that’” said Jolan.
“Wait… So it translated for him and not me?” said Cian.
“Ah! I know why. You are familiar with the phrase, and thus it did not translate. Jolan here doesn’t know the phrase in the original language, so it translated it in order to bring it to his level.” said Bann.
“My level? … Did you just call me dumb?” said Jolan.
“Of course not. It is merely a difference in perspective.” said Bann.
“And I’m the dumb perspective?” said Jolan.
“No one is dumb. I just recognized the Latin phrase. And we’re off down a rabbit hole again. To answer your question Jolan, Bann is not an NPC. No one here is an NPC.” said Cian.
“Well, technically there are artificial intelligence. We have one installed on the ship. But they have specific rules preventing them from pretending to be real and are actually quite limited in scope. They are very good at what they are programmed for, but cannot learn beyond what they are programmed to.” said Bann.
“Okay, but the gist of it is everyone that we thought was fake is actually real. All the alien races are people.” said Cian.
“Oh man. I am really sorry. I killed some of you guys when we attacked before. And the pirates I hunted down… And those bounty missions. I’ve… I’ve killed a lot of people.” said Jolan.
“You were effectively under mind control as an enemy combatant. You were controlled by your oppressor. We do not hold your prior actions against you.” said Bann.
“I’ve killed people too. At least ten fellow humans just recently.” said Cian.
“That’s different. They’ll respawn.” said Jolan.
“Uh, actually. The specific way that went down when we fought? Gumbo and the others didn’t respawn.” said Cian.
“Oh.” said Jolan.
“I don’t regret defending myself. It was them or me and they made their choice. Gumbo was the driving factor that caused them all to die.” said Cian.
“I fear this revelation may reduce your combat effectiveness. This world is no less violent than it was yesterday. You will need to continue fighting. If you are boarded by pirates, you will need to fight them off. If the Dromon come for you, you will need to kill them to protect yourself. It is even more important than before – if you die and respawn you will be back within the thrall of the Dromon.” said Bann.
“Wait, I can’t respawn anymore?” said Jolan.
“It would be very ill advised. The act of respawning may even alert them to my tampering and hurt further efforts to free the others.” said Bann.
“But… I’ve respawned like twenty times. I die a lot!” said Jolan.
“Well, I would highly recommend not doing so again. Do I really have to recommend to someone to not die violently? Death bad. Don’t be reckless.” said Bann.
“But I’m reckless! That’s me! Oh man, I am so screwed.” said Jolan.
“Stick with me. I only died once. Well, twice. Well, I guess I kinda died three times if you count the number of bodies I went through. Maybe four if you count the Pa’Ran? But this body here has been a keeper for the last six weeks. Well, there was that one time after the mall, but I got better.” said Cian.
Bann stared back and forth between Cian and Jolan. “You… Just. Augh. You can’t respawn again. Neither of you can die! It will undo all my work! I can’t replicate your nanites! I don’t even know how to trigger the disconnection that allowed the whole thing yet! I… I’m taking a break.” said Bann. He stormed out and slammed the door behind him.
“Hey, we broke the scientist. High five!” said Jolan.
Cian chuckled and gave him a high five. “I don’t know if that’s something to be proud of. Hey, so, I never got a chance to thank you yet. I know we only knew each other like a day before I went MIA for six weeks, so it was really cool that you stood up to Gumbo for me. Thanks for that.”
“Gumbo is a douche. Well, I guess he’s dead now. But he was a douche. He was on a mega power trip. We only played together that one day, but we were a kick ass team. I looked for you after the Pa’Ran event, I wanted to team up again. I even made a forum post trying to connect with you after that. I was afraid you had quit the game. I was really glad to see you again on the ship. It was like you dropped off the face of the earth.” said Jolan.
“Yeah. I had a bit of an adventure. Some weird stuff happened and I was unable to log out like you were, then I got stuck in some itty bitty town that got destroyed by the Pa’Ran and spent weeks walking to the next town with Vanna. Then we hijacked a gunship from pirates and sold it and bought another ship and left the system with it. Well, you know how that ended. You would like Vanna, she’s really cool. She saved my life several times.” said Cian.
“When can I meet her?” said Jolan.
“Oh. She’s in a coma. That boarding action in the Weave almost killed her and she hasn’t woke up since.” said Cian.
“Oh. Dude that sucks, I’m sorry.” said Jolan.
“Yeah. I’m sure she’ll wake up soon. Wait, you should read this. It’s a history of… Well, everything. I don’t know exactly where our Earth fits into everything, but there is a lot of information in it.” said Cian. He handed Jolan the tablet containing Bann’s notes.
They sat there in silence for half an hour while Jolan read over the notes.
“Dude. This is some heavy shit. I don’t know what I just read. This is way different from the game lore.” said Jolan.
“I know, right? This is the real history according to Bann. They’re the Heralds of the New Dawn, the Peacekeepers have the humans hunting them down thinking that they’re crazy cannibals.” said Cian.
“What about all this history of Earth? Like, it makes sense for game lore. But I don’t remember any of this stuff. They blew up Jupiter?” said Jolan.
“I don’t know. If our Earth is actually out there, it might not be the same one. Maybe it was like Earth 2.0 with the planets named the same thing.” said Cian.
“Or maybe they sucked us out of a time warp and we’re from Earth before all this?” said Jolan.
“Heh, I don’t know man. I don’t know. Wanna see what’s left of my ship?” said Cian.
“Sure! I never had a ship before, but I rode on some cool ones.” said Jolan.
The two of them walked down the hall and took an elevator to the hangar deck, then went to hangar 2 that was holding the Equinox.
“There it is.” said Cian.
“Dude. I knew we shot you up a bit, but dang. It’s all twisted and full of holes. How’d you even fly it like that?” asked Jolan.
“I don’t think I did. I jury rigged the Weave drive and holed up in the bridge. I wasn’t awake when they scooped me up.” said Cian.
“How much you pay for it?” asked Jolan.
“Me and Vanna had seven million into it.” said Cian.
“Ouch.” said Jolan.
“Yeah. I only have a fraction of that left now.” said Cian.
“Yeah. I’m pretty broke too. Lost my good sword. Did you happen to get that, by the way? I spent a lot of money on my plasma sword.” said Jolan.
“Uh, I think it got blown into the Weave when everything else did. Sorry.” said Cian.
“Oh well, I can get a new one. What about that boarding shuttle I was on?” said Jolan.
“Oh, I didn’t ask about it yet. Let me see.” said Cian. He got on his tablet and sent a message to Reema. “Hey Reema. Can I see the boarding shuttle that you got Jolan from?”
A few seconds later Reema called him on the tablet. A video appeared with her face. “Hey Cian! Sure, I don’t see why not. It’s not under guard or anything. It’s in hangar three, right down from where your ship is.”
“Okay, thanks Reema! Bye!” said Cian. He closed the connection and looked at Jolan, “I think it’s over here.”
The two of them walked down the hall to the next hangar and peeked in. Kodai was in there with two technicians, a lithe Erisian man and a short stocky Rastlin woman, looking at the jump drive inside the boarding shuttle.
“Uh, Hey. Kodai right? Mind if we take a look at the ship? Reema said it should be okay?” said Cian.
Kodai grunted and continued directing the two technicians with him. It looked like they were disconnecting the jump drive and preparing to move it.
“Uh, is that a yes?” said Cian.
Jolan walked in. “Dang, this thing took a beating too. I was stuffed in this thing for days after Gumbo stuck a spike in my chest and chucked me in there. I didn’t realize the thing was crumpled like that.”
“Wow. I think that was me, I kinda slammed everything from my ship into the shuttle and pushed everything out into space. It did a lot of structural damage to both ships.” said Cian.
“Sweet. How’d you manage that? Some kind of bomb?” said Cian.
“Uh, I can kind of control gravity and move stuff with my mind? Or probably the gravity thing is what moves things and it’s the same power? It was way amped up in the Weave for some reason, but yeah. I control gravity.” said Cian.
“Dude. No way. What class did you get that does that?” said Jolan.
“Boundless.” said Cian.
“What?! Like those crazy bugs that were flinging people around?” said Jolan.
“Yep.” said Cian.
“No way. Can I get one more do over where I respawn as that?” said Jolan.
Cian laughed. “I don’t think we get any more do overs. Respawning as a different class is kind of freaky anyway, isn’t it? I mean your whole body changes and it even affects your mind.”
“Huh. I didn’t think of that. Weird. Nevermind, I’m good.” said Jolan.
“We should still be able to change classes as we level up, I think? I assume it will still work like that. Our nanites are the same, you just have to unlock their capabilities.” said Cian.
The Rastlin technician walked up to them. “Hey. Cian and Jolan, right?” She had pointed to the wrong people.
“I’m Cian and this is Jolan, actually. Nice to meet you.” said Cian.
“Right. I’ve been wanting to meet you two. I’m Ridlana. Is it true you were under the control of the Dromon before? Bann helped you break free?” she said.
“Pretty much.” said Cian.
“Yep. It made me see you folk as monsters and made me wanna kill you. I had no control over what I was actually seeing. Was actually Cian here that broke free on his own and helped Bann get me out after I came with other humans to kill Cian.” said Jolan.
“Wow. That’s horrible. It paints the war with the humans in a new light.” said Ridlana.
“Hurry up over there! We need to finish salvaging this drive.” called Kodai.
“Be right there!” yelled Ridlana. She turned back to Cian and Jolan and continued, “Don’t mind Kodai, we lost a lot of good people to the human raids. He never agreed with the communication initiative that Bann and Reema were leading. He lost his son last year. It’s hard to process that the humans are slave warriors that need to be freed after fighting them for two years.” said Ridlana.
“I can imagine. I am deeply sorry for the losses you’ve taken. I’m going to be helping where I can. It was an honor meeting you, Ridlana.” said Cian.
“Yeah. Sorry for fighting you folks. I’m glad I don’t have to anymore.” said Jolan.
Ridlana pounded her fist over her heart. “Strength and valor. Till freedom or death.”
It seemed important, so Cian repeated the gesture and pounded his fist over his heart. “Strength and valor. Till freedom or death.”
Ridlana nodded and walked off back toward Kodai.
“What was that? Some kind of secret handshake?” whispered Jolan.
“I don’t know. It must be a motto or something. I’ll have to ask Bann or Reema.” said Cian.
Kodai, Ridlana, and the other technician finished disassembling the jump drive. They loaded all the pieces onto a hovering cart and left with it.
“So over twenty of you guys were packed in this thing for days?” asked Cian.
“Oh, Gumbo told us when we would be there. We logged off in transit and only logged back on an hour before we reached your ship. But yeah, we were all crammed in there like sardines around the jump drive.” said Jolan.
“Then you survived in there by yourself for days?” said Cian.
“I don’t know man. I remember waking up with my chest hurting. I couldn’t log out. Everyone else was dead. I couldn’t get the spike out, so I crammed a whole tube of wound gel all around it. It was scary. It told me I was already logged out, didn’t let me access anything, and I could hear an eerie song in my head. Like out of one of those fantasy movies with sirens and stuff.” said Jolan.
“Yeah. I heard that weird song too. It kind of was like a siren song out of Greek myth, it made me want to go out and find it. It made me sleep too. I still don’t know what it was.” said Cian.
Suddenly Bann’s voice came over Cian’s comm. “Hey. Got a job for you guys if you’re ready. We just came out of our Weave jump and the jump to Yienna is just opening. Come down to cargo bay six when you’re ready. Bring Jolan.”
“Bann wants to talk to us about a job. Wanna head that way?” asked Cian.
“Sure.” said Jolan.
Cian tapped his comm to reply, “Okay, on our way.”