02.11 – Yang Station

Cian piloted the Voidraptor, a patrol gunship of questionable legality. He was following Jolan in the LT Flying Brick, which was an old bulky cargo ship that lived up to its name. They were only a few minutes out from Yang Station now, and the traffic controller was sending them flight paths and designated docking bays.

“You never taught me how to land, man! I’m gonna crash and kill everyone!” yelled Jolan over their private comm with panic in his voice.

“Hey, hey, calm down. Just accept the flight path that the station is sending you and turn on flight assist mode. It should set the path for you and control the thrusters. You just have to ease the throttle, go in really slow, and engage the landing gear. The station’s gravity generator will compensate and pull you to a stop as long as you’re going slow enough. It’s not a race, just take it slow.” said Cian. He had already lined up for his own landing and was approaching his assigned docking area.

“Okay. Okay. I accepted the flight path. Flight assist mode on. Dude, I’m way off! I’m gonna crash!” said Jolan.

“Hold on, I can see you. You aren’t that far off, it just looks like it from right there. Don’t touch the throttle, just let the computer correct your trajectory.” said Cian.

“Okay. I’m rotating. I think its starting to line up. Yeah, okay, I’m facing the dock now.” said Jolan.

“Good. Now just ease really lightly on the throttle and start a bit of forward thrust, then pull back on it and let momentum carry you in. Don’t forget to engage the landing gear.” said Cian.

“Okay. I got this. Engaging engine at 1%. Okay. Disengaging. I’m doing it! This is so cool. I’m landing a space ship! All the lights are lining up, I’m almost there!” said Jolan.

Cian’s ship sailed into his docking bay and he eased it down for a soft landing in his designated spot. A security team was standing by. “Just remember the landing gear, Jolan. I might be a bit, I have a welcoming committee.”

“Oops. Uh, engaging landing gear. Okay. That scraping didn’t sound too bad. I don’t think it was too late. I’m landed.” said Jolan.

“Right. Just pay the docking fee and hang out for a few. I’m going to talk with security.” said Cian. He opened the doors and a five man security team made their way in, armored head to toe with rifles in hand. They were eyeballing the bodies in the hold and two of them were moving up the hall toward the bridge, their rifles trained on Cian.

Cian made a show of sliding his rifle away from him across the bridge. “Hey friends. No resistance here, I spoke with the station on our way in. I have five pirates that we killed in self defense and a properly filed salvage title to this ship. I’m not too familiar with Coalition law, but I want to comply with all legal requirements and I can fill out other forms if needed.”

One of the team walked in and stood next to Cian, in between him and the gauss rifle on the floor. The rest of the team checked the ship room by room. Once they were done, the one next to Cian said “Clear” on his radio.

A greying Boralan entered the ship. He was dressed in a crisp, light blue uniform with a service cap that reminded Cian of an Air Force dress uniform – only several shades lighter. He walked with a limp all the way through the ship, slowing to look at the bodies as he passed them, and stood a few feet from Cian before he began to speak.

“Captain Kemp, I am Admiral Tygon. I reviewed the logs you sent. There were a few holes in the recording, but I saw enough. You defeated a boarding party and captured this ship.” said the Boralan man.

“Yes, sir. I believe I filed the proper salvage forms. I wish to sell this ship and claim any bounties that may be on these pirates.” said Cian.

The admiral motioned to one of the security team, who pulled out a tablet and showed it to him.

“I see. Yes, you filed the proper salvage form. There is an additional fee for military grade salvage, but I’m sure that won’t be a problem – we can collect it when you sell the vessel. These pirates did have a small bounty. However, you are not a licensed bounty hunter in Coalition space. Neither is your compatriot aboard the cargo vessel. I’m afraid unlicensed bounty hunting is illegal.” said Admiral Tygon sternly.

“Erm, I wasn’t aware of that. Uh. It was self defense, I didn’t go out hunting them. What’s the requirement for a bounty hunter license? I want to make this right.” said Cian, getting increasingly nervous.

The admiral stared sternly at Cian for a minute, then stepped over and slapped him on the back hard, causing Cian to nearly double over. He smiled. “Hah, just messing with you, son. Privilege of rank to mess with the youth now and then, I hope you won’t hold it against me. You only need a hundred thousand credits and the approval of a ranking admiral for the license. You took down five pirates with two crew with no casualties and hauled their ship in for salvage. You got balls kid, and the kind of initiative that this sector needs more of. That’s enough for me. I could use you in my patrol fleet. I’ll backdate you a license to yesterday. Their bounties will barely cover the fee, but it’ll leave you with five thousand credits and the license doesn’t expire. I’m sure someone with your gumption can find a use for it in the future.”

Cian laughed in relief. “Thank you, sir. You had me going there.”

“No trouble at all. We need more good captains on the right side, too many pirates and thugs about. So you said you wanted to sell this ship? We could use another patrol ship in good condition. If you sell to us it bypasses the paperwork for the military gear and illegal missiles. See the quartermaster if you’re interested, we’ll make you a fair offer for it.” said Admiral Tygon.

“Thank you, sir. I’ll do that. It was a pleasure meeting you, sir.” said Cian.

The admiral slapped Cian on the back again. This time Cian was braced for it and didn’t stumble. “Good lad. I’ll get out of your ship now and get someone started on the paperwork.” He walked off, limping back out of the ship and down the ramp. The security team fell in behind him and followed him out.

Cian watched as they all left the ship. “Well, that was different.” He mumbled to himself. He pulled up the public information about the station and located the quartermaster’s office. It wasn’t far. He searched for ship dealers or scrap dealers. There was a small scrap dealer, but it didn’t look like a place you could sell a ship. The quartermaster was probably it, unless he flew the ship somewhere else. He switched to channel eight of his comm and called Jolan, “Hey man, I need to speak to the quartermaster to see about selling this ship. Are you okay over there?”

Jolan answered back a few minutes later. “Sure dude. I had a chat with a couple security guys over here to verify our story. They invited me for a drink afterward. I’m at the Red Minx on level four. There’s dancing girls! Oh, don’t worry, I locked up the ship. There wasn’t a docking fee.”

“Uh. Okay. Just… Okay. Try not to get drunk. It’s barely past noon ship time. I’ll meet you there once I’m done with the quartermaster. I’m going to try to get us a good price on this ship. I think it’s probably worth about four or five million with the missile system and Weave drive and stuff.” said Cian.

“Sweet. I get half right?” said Jolan.

“Yes, you get half. We might have to renegotiate that if I have to do all the paperwork while you go to bars.” said Cian.

“Cool. See ya in a bit.” said Jolan.

Cian sighed. He hooked his helmet on a loop at his belt and debated taking his gauss rifle, but decided against it. He got up and walked out of the ship and headed for the quartermaster’s office.

A few minutes later, Cian arrived at a posh little office with fancy, expensive looking decor. The door was propped open. There were beautiful tapestries of various planets, detailed and colorful works capturing the different worlds’ natural beauty and iconic landscapes. A solid wood desk sat in one corner with a little bell on it. A sign read “Quartermaster’s Office.”

Cian walked in and tapped the bell.

A tall, stern looking Erisian woman walked in and sat at the desk. She had graying hair and a flawless complexion. She was dressed in a slim black pant suit. “Yes, can I help you?”

“Hello miss, I am Cian Kemp. I just came in with a patrol gunship and filed the salvage title for it. Admiral Tygon told me that I should come here. I’m in the market to sell the ship and he said that you would make me a fair offer for it.” said Cian.

She pulled a tablet out of a drawer and pulled up information. “Yes. I have the details of the ship here. Weave drive. Armament of Peacekeeper missiles. Stock everything else. Heavy damage to the port engine.”

“Uh, that sounds about right. I was unaware of the engine damage. Miss.. I don’t believe I caught your name?” said Cian.

She looked at him. “I didn’t provide it. I can offer you three million for the ship.”

“Whoa, I was told I would get a fair offer. I sold a similar ship in much worse shape for five million.” said Cian.

“Yes. Likely on an industrial world with shipyards. You may have noticed that you’re on a remote trade station.” she said with a sneer.

“A remote trade station with a need for patrol ships. The Admiral told me himself, he needs more ships. Surely you can give me four and a half?” said Cian.

She tapped on her screen and zoomed in on the engine. It showed external and internal damage to the port engine. “This will cost half a million to fix by itself. I’ll give you four if you throw in the gear from the previous owners, and not a penny more.”

“Wait, I don’t even know how much their gear is worth.” said Cian.

“Offer is good for the next five minutes.” she said.

“Four after all salvage and all other fees. You keep their equipment. But I need my gauss rifle in the bridge delivered to the LT Flying Brick.” said Cian.

She typed at her pad, it looked like she was running some numbers. After thirty seconds or so, she replied “Fine. Pleasure doing business, Mister Kemp.” She swiped at the tablet for a few seconds, then held it out with a form with a contract.

“Uh, I need to read over this.” said Cian.

“Take your time. It’s a standard ship transfer. Fill in your banking information and I will make a direct deposit.” she said.

Cian looked it over. It had stipulations that any additional cargo or valuables found within the ship except for the gauss rifle located on the bridge were included in the sales price, but otherwise seemed pretty normal. “Hey, did you scan and find some kind of valuables hidden in the ship?”

“No. It’s a standard contract. We don’t want you coming back looking for Aunt Martha’s hidden gemstones in a month while we’re trying to get the ship in service. If we find anything, its ours.” she said.

“Hmm. Fine.” said Cian. He had scanned the ship and didn’t see any signs of hidden stashes. He really didn’t have time to search it, anyway. He signed the paperwork and put in his bank info.

The quartermaster transferred four million to Cian’s account. It was nice to have some real money again, even if two million was going to go to Jolan.

“Pleasure doing business, miss?” said Cian.

“Yes, yes. Nice buying your ship, Mister Kemp. Enjoy your money. Get out of my office now, please.” she said.

“Fine. Have a good day.” said Cian. He walked out of her office and she walked back into a back room.

“Hey Jolan. I sold the ship for four million. I get the feeling she ripped me off, but I don’t know if I could have done better anywhere else here. The station manifest doesn’t even show a ship dealer here, just some scrap yards.” said Cian over their comm.

“Sweeet mann. You coming here now? These purple swirly drinks are awesomme. You have to try one. The bartender called it a Boralan Sunset. It’s like, sweet, but not too sweet to be girly, and it has like a hopsy flavor that reminds me of a good beer.” said Jolan. He sounded drunk.

“Jolan. Man. You need to cut back, okay? We’re supposed to be securing supplies. We can’t do that if you’re drunk.” said Cian.

“I’m not drrunk! I only got four drinks and they were all fruitsy ones! Dis one is the best though. You gotta come try one.” said Jolan. He was slurring his words a bit. He was definitely tipsy, if not drunk.

“Fine. I’ll be right there.” said Cian. He pulled up the station map and found the route to the Red Minx and headed there. Fifteen minutes later, he arrived at the pub. It was a shady looking establishment. The sign was a provocatively dancing hologram of what looked like a Rastlin woman with long red hair, red fur, and a slinky red dress.

The bouncer at the door pointed at the knife that was still strapped to his leg. “No weapons.”

“Okay. Uh, where can I store it?” said Cian.

The bouncer pointed to a cabinet with multiple safes. “I tag it and put it in there. You get it when you leave.”

“Alright.” said Cian. He took a tag from the bouncer and tied it to his knife with his name and ship name on it, then handed it over.

The bouncer read the tag, nodded, then opened one of the safes that had other knifes in it and tossed Cian’s in, then closed it. “Alright. Don’t make trouble. Don’t touch the girls. Have fun.” He opened the door to let Cian in.

Cian went in. There was a Celduran, two Erisians, and a Boralan sensually dancing on the stage in revealing outfits. A huge reptilian looking alien sat in a corner booth, towering over everyone. Cian remembered seeing someone like this before in Valcim, and tried to identify him.

Yeegan – Sentient. Humanoid. Reptilian. Native to the swamps of Xiasla in the Xias system. Ranging from 7’ to 9’ in height. Intelligence inferior to humans. Tough, scaly skin generally in the brown to dark green pigments. No hair. Known to be highly aggressive. Believed to be the result of unconfirmed genetics experiments.

“What you lookin’ at?” yelled the Yeegan from across the bar. Cian had been staring.

“Uh, sorry sir. I apologize for staring. I hadn’t seen your species before.” said Cian.

The Yeegan laughed at him and went back to talking to a Celduran woman in the booth next to him.

“Heyy Cian! Over here man!” yelled Jolan from the bar. He was sitting in between two Erisian women. His helmet was hanging from a strap on his back. They all had large purple drinks with a swirl of orange in them. The colors were bright and seemed to actually be emitting light, and the orange swirled near the top yet somehow didn’t mix in with the rest of the drink. Jolan’s was mostly empty while the other two were mostly full.

Cian walked over. “Hey Jolan. I asked you not to get drunk.”

“Not drunk! Just tipsy. This is only my fourth drink. I didn’t get another! I was telling these ladies about our daring battle with the evil pirates. Cian, meet Charlotte and Jehenna. I hope I’m saying that right!”

Jehenna smiled and draped her arm over Jolan’s shoulder. “You’re saying it just fine handsome. Did you and your captain want to move to better quarters now?”

“Jolan. We have work to do.” said Cian.

“Oh, so do we sweetheart. Work can be oh. So. Fun.” said Charlotte. She squeezed up to Jolan’s back.

Jolan smiled and leaned back against her. He spoke in English for a moment, “Dude, these girls are super into us. They wanna come back to our ship!”

Cian hadn’t really tried speaking English intentionally before like that, but he concentrated and managed it. “Jolan. I’m pretty sure these are working girls. Do not take them back to our ship. Just give them a little money for their time, apologize for the mix up, and lets get out of here.”

Jehenna giggled. “Oh, I love your exotic language. Are you talking about little ol’ me?” She held out a lit cigar of some kind and Jolan took a puff of it.

Jolan coughed for a moment, choking out neon green smoke. He stared at Cian for a minute. “Wait. You mean? Like… They want us to pay them? No way, they’re just into me.” Jolan looked offended.

“Look, you can get yourself out of this one. I have work to do. Just don’t get yourself killed or robbed and meet me back at the ship. I’ll be sending an order there and someone needs to be there to sign for it. And don’t you dare bring either of them back to our ship.” said Cian in English.

Cian concentrated and switched to speaking Erisian again. “Sorry ladies, I have duties to attend to.” He turned to walk out.

“But you said your captain wanted to party at your ship. You still want to party, don’t you?” said Jehenna, pouting theatrically.

“Yeah, don’t mind him. He’s a stick in the mud.” said Jolan. He called after Cian in English. “You’re wrong dude, these girls just want to party. We have a whole day here at least to get the stuff we need, you have to live a little!”

Cian turned back for a moment and replied in English, “We’re supposed to be laying low, not bar hopping. Do you even know what you’re smoking? I’m going to get our mission done.” He turned and walked out. He got his knife back from the bouncer and walked back toward the business district. He had merchants to see about buying metals.

After half an hour of walking and two elevators, Cian arrived at the professional market area on level two. There were a number of commodity traders and various shops. He looked at the advertisements and located prices for the various commodities he needed. Some of the metals were expensive, but he didn’t need a lot of each. There were a lot of different traders and middlemen here. He wandered down a bit until he found a large shop with a lot of customers called the Yienna Exchange, the advertisements boasted direct from factory pricing on metals from Yienna II. Dozens of traders seemed to be doing business there, so Cian decided it must be a decent place to start.

Cian walked in and a well dressed Erisian man came up after a few minutes. “Greetings my friend! I am Curtis. Are you here to buy? We have the best selection of refined metals this side of Boralas!”

“Yes, thank you Curtis. I am Captain Cian Kemp. I need a variety of metals. Can I get a list of your prices?” said Cian.

Curtis whipped a tablet out of somewhere in his coat. “Of course. Here are the current market rates. As you can see, we are at least one percent lower than our competitors. If you find a better price, we will beat it by 1%.”

“I see. How is your availability? Can I take delivery today?” said Cian.

Curtis tapped at the tablet and changed the display. Now it showed prices and weights. “This is our current stock on hand. Our next delivery is in five days. If you need more of a particular element before then, we can help you source it, but the prices may be a bit higher.”

“Ah, thank you. Let me look through this.” said Cian.

“Of course. You may keep that and record your desired purchases. The amounts available will update in real time, you may add them to your list and reserve them for the next hour. Please only reserve metals you intend to buy, we have a busy clientele. Find me when you are ready to complete your purchase.” said Curtis.

“Great, thanks.” said Cian. He sat down at a table and got to work. They had all of the rare earth elements in stock. He did a quick search to compare prices with other shops that had them publicly posted, and they really were slightly lower than the rest. He quickly went down his list and reserved all of the purchases he needed. The only thing they were short on was tungsten.

Cian found Curtis. “Hello, I am ready to order. Are there bulk discounts for any of this? I really need these prices to be just a bit lower.”

Curtis frowned at him. “I am sorry, sir. Our prices are market rates plus a very small handling fee, we do not negotiate. If you wish to place your order, you may do so, but all bulk pricing has already been applied.”

“Okay. That’s fine. I need this order. I need delivery to the LT Flying Brick. Also, I need ten additional tons of tungsten.” said Cian.

Curtis smiled. “Excellent, sir. You’re in luck, I believe I can help you source the tungsten at our usual rate. One moment.” he went to the back room for a few minutes. Soon he came back out. “No problem, sir. The tungsten is available. Here is your final price. Please sign the contract, transfer the required funds, and we will process the transaction.”

“Great, thanks.” said Cian. He signed the contract, then logged into his bank and entered his details. He transferred 8,328,500 over and they finalized the deal.

“Excellent. Your resources will be delivered within the next three hours. Thank you for using the Yienna Exchange.” said Curtis.

“Great. Uh, do you know a good parts dealer? I need a variety of ship parts too.” said Cian.

“Ah. While we do not deal in parts, I can highly recommend the Rusty Wrench. They are a bit… uncouth, but their prices and quality are far beyond their appearance. You can find them on level three. When you go down the elevator, take a left and follow it down. You can’t miss their sign, it’s a giant red wrench.” said Curtis.

“Okay, thanks!” said Cian. He left and headed for the elevator. It only took him fifteen minutes to find the place. It was a scrap dealer, but with as much as he spent on the metals he would have to get used parts to fill out the list.

02.10 – Cargo Inspectors

The next three days were strange. Cian worked, went home, logged in, ate and took his mineral supplement, then logged back out. Then he worked, went home, logged in, ate and took his mineral supplement, and got some sleep. Then he did it all again the next day and the next. It was weird working at the hospital again after six weeks of fighting aliens and pirates and ship combat and running for his life. He exchanged a few emails with Jolan, but Jolan was happily partying and barely logged out once a day to eat. Cian didn’t see him at all. Tina never did show up, and he only got troll replies to his forum post.

After his last hospital shift, Cian logged in again and sat in their ship’s mess. He was exhausted and felt dirty, despite showering before logging in and technically being in a totally different body now. After all the deductions, he should have close to $300. He would have to fill his car up soon, which would take $30. That was still close to 27k credits. It was actually pretty good for three days of working hard, considering the cargo job he had taken with Vanna before going to Vindale only paid 50k and took two weeks. But he would owe another $650 for rent and $250 for the TIVI unit at the end of the month, and he would have to buy food. If he was going to keep up this working on Earth thing he had to find a better job or find a cheaper apartment.

Then he had to worry about trying to save up for a ship since this one was a loaner. And ships needed fuel and parts. And if he was the captain he would have to pay his crew. Gah. Finances and budgeting and making money loomed over him. It sucked in any universe. Come to think of it, he didn’t even negotiate a payment with Bann. How much was he making on this cargo gig? Vanna had said the 50k job was a low paying humanitarian thing that they took to avoid running empty. How much did these jobs usually pay? Did he really want to be a cargo captain slash hospital janitor?

Jolan woke up and walked into the mess, interrupting his musings. “Hey man, we’re almost there right? I didn’t time it wrong?”

“Hey Jolan. We’re about six hours out. I was going to eat and sleep before we exited the jump. Even if my body isn’t tired, my mind is.” said Cian.

“Oh. Yeah that’s a good idea. I didn’t sleep yet.” said Jolan.

“You didn’t sleep at all the last three days?” asked Cian incredulously.

“Naw man. I had a big party with my girlfriend. I don’t know if she’s real or not, but she can party. She helped me clean up the place and invited some girlfriends over and we had a big bash at my place.” said Jolan.

“Oh. Didn’t that cost a bunch of money?” said Cian.

“Yeah, but it was fun dude. We’re making money on this job aren’t we?” said Jolan.

“Uh, sure. I actually didn’t negotiate payment, but I’m sure we’ll be paid fairly. I’ll split whatever we get evenly.” said Cian.

“Cool. So what’d you do the last three days?” asked Jolan.

“Uh. I tried to find Tina, a girl I worked with. But I think she quit the job and is focusing on playing the game. Nobody could tell me where she was or how long ago she quit. Then I worked to make some money since I don’t have a lot and I think I need to keep the rent and TIVI unit thing paid for.” said Cian.

“You spent all the time working? Boring. You gotta live a little man.” said Jolan.

“Yeah. It just seems like a waste to trade real money from here for dollars to spend on fake stuff. Didn’t we agree that almost everything out there was probably fake?” said Cian.

“It’s entertainment, dude. People pay money to do fun stuff. Even if our logged out world is fake, there’s a lot of fun stuff to do there.” said Jolan.

“But the money is going to the Dromon, the same people that are probably enslaving our entire species as slave soldiers.” said Cian.

“Eh, my few bucks are a drop in the bucket. The top players pull millions out of the game.” said Jolan.

“Yeah… they’re milking us for everything we make.” said Cian.

Jolan shrugged. “I’m gonna catch a nap. See you in six.”

“Okay.” said Cian. He finished making himself some food and took his mineral supplement, then went to the captain’s quarters. He stripped out of his armor and went to sleep. He set the alarm to wake him up five minutes before Weave exit.

Cian woke to his alarm and went to the bridge.

Jolan groggily walked into the bridge right as they were exiting the Weave.

The ship quietly dropped from the Weave. Their ship’s sensors took in the Yienna system. It was a K type orange dwarf with three planets and a sparse asteroid belt. Cian pulled up information about the system from the database. The second planet was a temperate world with water covering about 60% of it. It was sparsely settled by the Coalition of the Far Reaches and was rich in metals. There was a significant mining and refining operation on the planet. Yang Station was a trade station and gas refining operation orbiting the third planet, a large gas giant that was rich in elements of starship fuel. Yienna II didn’t have a large spaceport, so Yang Station handled most of the trade for the system. It sold cheap fuel and operated as a trade hub between the markets in Redstone and other Coalition colonies in Zavus and Xias. Cargo was ferried back and forth from Yienna II using in-system shuttles.

“Setting course for Yang Station. Their current orbit puts them only two hours from us.” said Cian.

“Cool. Uh, I’m gonna catch another nap.” said Jolan.

“Alright man, I’ll wake you when we get there.” said Cian.

Fifteen minutes later, the ship’s passive sensors detected a heat signature on an intercept course. Cian changed their course, and the signature changed course to match them.

“Why can’t we just have a milk run go like a milk run.” said Cian. He switched to ship’s comms, “Hey Jolan, we got company. Looks like we might have contact in thirty minutes. They might not be hostile, but with my luck? They’re definitely hostile.”

Cian hopped up and went to the armory to get his gear. He put his armor on, strapped his knife to his leg, and made sure his gauss rifle was loaded and ready. Then he went back to the bridge. Jolan was just getting up and walked in about the same time.

“You said we have company? What kind of ship is it?” said Jolan.

“The signature we’re getting suggests something small and fast. It’s burning hot but doesn’t seem to be very big.” said Cian.

“Can’t you scan them?” asked Jolan.

“This rust bucket doesn’t have active sensors. I’m going to send in a mayday to the station.” said Cian.

He sent a tight beam toward the station on the emergency channel. “This is the LT Flying Brick on approach to Yang Station for trade. We have an unidentified vessel on an intercept course. Please advise.”


“I think they’re jamming us already. I can’t even tell, this stupid ship has the technological equivalent of a couple tin cans with a string and a set of toilet paper roll binoculars. I can’t even tell what class of ship they are.” said Cian.

“Well that sucks.” said Jolan.

“I’m gonna try communicating with them, maybe they’ll identify themselves.” said Cian.

Cian got on the ship’s comm and sent a tight beam on all channels to the ship’s location. “LT Flying Brick to unidentified ship. Please identify yourself.”

Cian waited a few minutes. The ship was getting closer.

He tried again. “This is the LT Flying Brick to unidentified ship on an intercept course with us. Please identify yourself and your intentions.”

They were only twenty minutes out now.

A reply came over the ship’s comms. A woman’s voice spoke, “LT Flying Brick. Nice name. We’re just your friendly neighborhood cargo inspectors. Kindly pull over and let us inspect your cargo.”

“Unidentified ship, we have no cargo. We never even made it to the station to pick up any. Give us a break, huh?” said Cian.

Another reply came back, “I find that hard to believe, Flying Brick. That’s a mighty big ship you have there, and I just saw you jump out of the Wastes. People don’t take leisurely strolls through the Wastes and come out without some loot. We’re a small ship, we can’t hold much. Just share a little and we’ll let you be on your way. Call it a not getting blown up tax.”

Cian sighed. He got back on the comm. “Fine. Cutting engines. You can board us at your leisure and we will open the doors. We don’t need any new holes in this ship.” Cian cut the engines and let the ship drift along their course.

The woman replied after a moment, “Wonderful. For being so courteous, we’ll only take 20% of your cargo value. But no funny business!”

“You’re just letting them board us?” asked Jolan.

“Oh no, we’re going to be fighting. I’m tired of this crap. Everywhere I go, someone is trying to hunt me or rob me or shoot me for no dang reason. We’re going to open the doors, let them come in, and take them down. Then we’re going to board their ship and capture it.” said Cian.

“Uh, there’s only two of us. What if there’s a bunch of them?” said Jolan.

“We’ll figure it out.” said Cian.

“Alright, you’re the boss. I just hope you’re not getting us killed on our first mission.” said Jolan.

“Hey, let me see your helmet.” said Cian.

“What? Why?” asked Jolan.

“I want to set up a secure comm. Vanna showed me how to do it.” said Cian.

“Oh, okay.” said Jolan, handing over his helmet.

Cian tinkered with it and his own communicator for a few minutes. “Okay. Channel 8 is an encrypted channel now. We can communicate without anyone listening in.”

“Nice. Thanks.” said Jolan, putting his helmet back on.

Eight minutes later, they got a visual of the approaching ship. It was a small gunship, not unlike the one Cian and Vanna had sold – albeit in much better condition.

Cian got up and slung his gauss rifle over his back. He went back into the open cargo bay and waited.

Jolan walked out and stood next to Cian.

Cian invited Jolan to his party. “Party up.”

Jolan accepted.

Joined with Jolan. All experience will be shared equally. Current party bonus: 20%

Two minutes later the ship came alongside theirs and slowly backed into their back door. The docking clamps engaged and the two ships were secured back to back.

Cian pushed a button and their cargo door opened, revealing the door of the gunship.

The gunship door opened and four armored figures walked out. Two had swords, one had an axe, and one carried a rifle.

The one with the rifle spoke up. “What the hell. Where’s all your cargo?”

Cian was silent.

The four of them walked across the hold. The two swordsmen had their blades out.

The rifleman spoke again, “Hey. I’m talking to you. Where’s your cargo? Is it in the front of the ship?”

Cian used Surpass Limits to enhance all of his physical attributes. Then he reached out his hand and channeled an empowered neural spike at the closest swordsman. Immediately the man crumpled to his knees. Cian kept channeling.

“Whoa, what’s that? Stop!” yelled the other swordsman.

Jolan pulled his sword and moved in to engage the swordsman who spoke.

The swordsman Cian was attacking fell over. The attack only took five seconds.

The one with the axe leaned over the downed swordsman to see what was wrong.

Cian focused on the downed swordsman and sent a tendril of control at him like he had the Pa’Ran before. It took a bit more push than the Pa’Ran had, but he broke through after a moment. Immediately he could see through his eyes. He had the swordsman get up and attack the one with the axe standing over him. In one smooth motion, the swordsman stood and rammed his blade into the chest of the one standing over him. It partially penetrated the armor and stuck an inch into his chest.

The rifleman finally pulled out his rifle and started firing at Jolan. It was a pulsed laser rifle of some kind.

Cian hit him with an empowered neural spike, but it didn’t seem to affect him nearly as much as it did the swordsman and he didn’t even stop firing. He must have higher mental attributes.

Jolan took a few hits as the lasers burned into his armor. He met the other swordsman. The swordsman swung at him and he parried and pushed his blade into a thrust. His sword ignited in plasma and he lunged for the swordsman’s chest. The swordsman stepped back and attempted to dodge, but Jolan’s blade found his shoulder and cut deep.

Cian unslung his gauss rifle and unloaded full auto into the rifleman.

The swordsman that Cian controlled slammed his fist onto the axeman’s back while he pushed the sword deeper.

The man with the axe fell back and finally swung his weapon, hitting the controlled swordsman in the side.

The axe bit into the armor, cutting into the swordsman’s side, but he ignored the pain and rammed into the axeman again. This time the blade pushed through, impaling the axe wielder through the chest and scraping the cargo bay floor.

The rifleman kept trying to fire at Jolan as he maneuvered to put the fighters in between him and Cian.

Cian walked to the side and continued to fire on him. His armor looked ruined and bullets were obviously penetrating. After another few shots, the rifleman stopped returning fire and Cian stopped firing. He had fired 25 rounds over five seconds.

The rifleman fell over.

Jolan pushed his foe down and pressed his plasma sword through his chest. The blade melted the armor and burned through.

The axeman managed another hit on the controlled swordsman, his axe biting deep into his side and drawing a gush of blood. The pair of them fell to the ground, their weapons still embedded in each other.

Cian pinged the three downed opponents with his neural spike. He found no resistance. “You good?” he asked Jolan. Cian’s armor had a few burnt slots from laser fire, but it wasn’t penetrated anywhere.

“Dang man. You got good at this. I’m hit in the leg and a few times in the side. I’m down a lot of health but I’m not bleeding.” said Jolan.

Cian walked over and put his hand on Jolan’s side. He channeled mend into him for five seconds, healing the laser burns and restoring his health.

“Wow, you can heal too? Thanks.” said Jolan.

“Let’s move. Bound to be more in the ship.” said Cian.

“These are all players. Shouldn’t we try to reason with them or something?” said Jolan.

“Alright. I’ll try to talk to the rest.” said Cian.

“Okay, I’ll take point. I got the sword.” said Jolan, hurrying to get ahead of Cian.

The two of them stepped into the enemy ship.

A woman came down the hall with a pair of pistols. She was much more lightly armored than the others. “What the hell? Where are my boys?”

“They’re dead. If you want to play nice, drop your pistols and surrender. I’ll drop you at Yang Station. I won’t even turn you in for piracy and you can keep your gear.” said Cian.

“How about no?” she said as she pulled two large caliber pistols and started firing at Jolan.

Jolan took two hits in his chest and fell to the side.

Cian took aim and shot her in the head.

She fell limply to the ground.

“So much for diplomacy.” said Cian. He walked over and checked out Jolan. He had two bullets in his chest. He channeled mend for a couple of seconds to stabilize him. The bullets were still in the wounds.

“Gonna have to get those out.” said Cian.

“Ow.” said Jolan. “Did you get her?”

“Think so.” said Cian. He channeled a neural spike at her. No response. “Yep. She’s down.”

Cian walked to the bridge and checked the ship’s internal sensors. Him and Jolan were the only life signs.

“We’re good. There was only five of them.” said Cian.

Cian checked through his combat log.

Surpass Limits activated. +22 Agility, +22 Strength, +22 Endurance. Cost 44 Willpower.

Channeled Empowered Neural Spike on Yolosword for five seconds. Hit for 330 Willpower (66/s). Cost 40 Willpower.

Yolosword rendered unconscious.

Attempted mind control of Yolosword. Success! Lose 100 willpower.

Empowered Neural Spike on XPatheos. Hit for 66 Willpower. Cost 8 Willpower.

Cian skipped over the twenty five messages about shooting the gunman, suffice to say he shot him a lot and he died. He continued reading.

XPatheos killed.

Channeled Mend into Jolan for five seconds. Cost 187.5 (Influencing external body +50%) Jolan Healed for 220.

Neural spike on invalid target. Cost 4 willpower. x3

Attacked Reb3cca with Gauss Rifle. Critical hit x5! 650 damage.

Reb3cca killed.

Defeated Yolosword, Xpatheos, Henrry, Futility, Reb3cca. Assessing. Self defense, no penalty points. Gain 1/10 total target experience of: 3,602,000. Split for party. PvP, party bonus not awarded. +180,100 experience.

Level up! +1 Will

Level up! +1 Wit

Level up! +1 Presence

Level up! +1 Will

Level up! +1 Wit

Level up! +1 Presence

Level up! +1 Will +5 Character Points.

Level up! +1 Will

Level up! +1 Wit

Level up! +1 Presence

Marksmanship increased by 4% to 16.9%

Mental Projection increased by 2.7% to 30.1%

Mind over Body increased by 2% to 47.6%

Small Arms increased by 5.2% to 25.1%

Channeled Mend into Jolan for two seconds. Cost 75 (Influencing external body +50%) Jolan Healed for 94.

Surpass Limits faded. Attributes returned to normal.

“Holy crap. I just gained ten levels.” said Cian. He checked his character screen.

Name: Cian Kemp
Class: Boundless
Strength: 25
Endurance: 25
Presence: 47
Health: 250/250
Willpower: 119/590

Nanites: 39.5%
Agility: 25
Wit: 47
Will: 59
Stamina: 210/250
Level: 23
Total Experience: 284225/300000
Traits: Iron Will
Character Points: 10

“Yeah, I got three myself. PvP is pretty good experience. These guys were fairly high level. Kinda sucks to know they died for real, but I guess they’ll respawn. Wait, how did you get ten? Did you get a bigger share somehow?” asked Jolan.

“I was only level 13. Now I’m 23. No bonus from party, though.” said Cian.

“Oh. Yeah party bonus doesn’t apply to PvP. I was 45. I’m 48 now. Man, how are you so much stronger than me at level 13? Boundless is OP.” said Jolan.

Cian laughed. “You seem pretty okay with killing all these people, considering what you were saying before.”

“Eh, it’s like you said, they made their choice. They’ll respawn anyway. That stupid chick at the end should have surrendered.” said Jolan.

Cian sat down at the bridge and tried to access the ship’s systems. “Yeah. Man, I wish I had Vanna here. She knows how to hack stuff like this. She would have us in control of this ship in no time. Then we could fly it into the station with us and sell it.”

“Oh, I got you bro.” said Jolan. He sat down and pulled out a small device. He connected it to the console and pushed a few buttons.

“What’s that thing?” said Cian.

“Been wanting to put this thing to use. I spent a bunch of money on this thing. It’s a cracker, supposed to circumvent control of ships. It will take like half an hour, but if it works like it’s supposed to we’ll have control.” said Jolan.

“Wow. I didn’t know they made those. Vanna hacked the last one by hand.” said Cian.

“Well, I don’t know how to do that. And this thing cost me 250k.” said Jolan.

“Dang. I hope it isn’t single use?” said Cian.

“It’s not supposed to be.” said Jolan.

Forty five minutes later, as they slowly drifted toward Yang station, Jolan’s tool finally beeped.

“Did it work?” asked Jolan.

Cian tried to access the ship’s systems again. The ship’s control computer was reset, it was asking him for initial settings. “Yeah, I think it did.” he said. He quickly set it up for him and Jolan to have full access to the ship. The ship’s name was the Voidraptor and it was still licensed to Reb3cca. It was a patrol gunship that had been retrofitted to include a Weave drive, and it had an armament of eight Peacekeeper missiles onboard. The transponder had been disabled, and Cian didn’t see a way to turn it back on.

“Sweet! I was worried that thing was a dud. Glad to know it works.” said Jolan.

“Okay. Which ship do you want to pilot?” asked Cian.

“Wait, what?” asked Jolan.

“Well, we have two ships now. One of us has to fly the cargo ship in, the other has to fly this gunship in. We can sell this thing and then fly back in the cargo ship.” said Cian.

“Uh. I guess I’ll take the cargo ship, it’s the only one I’ve flown before. And it’s less likely to be shot down by system security forces.” said Jolan.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m filing a salvage title.” said Cian. He was filling out the same paperwork him and Vanna had filled out before.

“Okay. Um. So should I go to the cargo ship?” asked Jolan.

“Oh, we still have to get those bullets out of you. This ship has a medbay, let’s go.” said Cian. He hopped up and led Jolan toward the medical bay.

“You sure you know how to do this?” asked Jolan.

“Nope. But we have to get the bullets out if the wounds are going to heal. I can heal them once they’re out. Just take off the armor and lay back.” said Cian.

“Alright. I guess I trust you.” said Jolan. He carefully removed his chest armor and lay back on the medical bed. He had two open wounds, one on his shoulder and another at his ribs. The bullets were embedded in the flesh and bone beneath.

Cian looked at the medical tools, then looked at Jolan. “Uh, let me try something.”

“Shouldn’t I get anesthetics or something?” asked Jolan.

Cian looked over the medicines available. “Uh. I don’t know which ones are anesthetics. Don’t worry, this will be quick.” said Cian. He held his hand over Jolan’s shoulder wound and let his nanites float down into it. He could feel the slug and some broken pieces embedded in his shoulder. He pulled at it like he had done before with the broken bits in the jammed turret. The bullet and a few pieces slid out of the wound and Cian caught them.

“Augh, that hurt!” said Jolan.

Cian channeled mend for a second and closed the wound. “Doesn’t that feel better?”

“Okay, yeah, that’s a lot better. Just… just do the other one quick, okay?” said Jolan.

Cian repeated the process with the one in Jolan’s chest. It had bounced off a rib and was dangerously close to penetrating his lungs, but Cian eased it and a few broken pieces out and quickly closed the wound. A huge headache came over him as he used the last Mend. He had nearly bottomed out his Willpower.

“Okay. I’m tapped out. But I got everything out of you.” said Cian.

Jolan felt at his chest and shoulder. “Dang dude. I’m still missing a few hit points, but I feel good. We gotta work out how I become a Boundless, those powers are epic.”

Cian laughed. “Yeah, it would be useful if you had them too. I don’t know how class change even works.”

“You can opt to change every ten levels. I guess it probably still works the same. You set it before you reach a multiple of ten, then when you get there you can select a different class. You have to have all the prerequisites, though. All the attributes, and you have to already have whatever the starter skills are to swap mid-character. Do you know what Boundless needs?” asked Jolan.

“It takes really high mind attributes. Fifty Will and forty Wit and Presence. And it has a bunch of special skills. I don’t know how you would learn the skills.” said Cian.

“Oh. Dang. I’m not even close on the mind attributes. I don’t get any on levels, so I would have to save up a bunch of character points. I guess it’s probably not doable. Wait, how are you so strong? Your physical attributes should suck if you pumped your others so high.” said Jolan.

“Oh, back when everything glitched out I wound up getting a new body and it reset my physical stats to 25.” said Cian.

“What? That’s so unfair.” said Jolan.

“Yeah. Let’s get these ships to Yang Station. Use the encrypted channel eight for communication. It should have enough range if we stay close together and should reach across most of the station once we get there. Help me move the bodies to the gunship, it will be easier to hand them over to the authorities that way.” said Cian.

“Eh. Okay.” said Jolan.

The two of them hauled the four bodies to the gunship. Cian got out a mop and cleaned up the blood.

“Okay. That looks better. We don’t want the delivery guys to see blood all over our cargo hold when we buy supplies, we’re trying to not draw attention. I’m headed back over to the gunship, you take control here and we’ll get moving.” said Cian.

“Right. They definitely won’t notice the laser burns.” said Jolan.

“Laser burns?” said Cian. He looked around and realized the gunman had hit the interior of the ship in a few places, leaving burn marks. A few places had splashes of slag where it had melted the hull a little bit. “Dang. I’m sure that will buff out.”

“Sure. Okay, let’s do this.” said Jolan. He walked toward the bridge of the Flying Brick to take control.

Cian went back to the gunship and sat down at the bridge. “Okay. You got this man. I’m going to close the doors over here, you need to do the same. Then I’m going to release the docking clamps.” said Cian over their comm as he closed the ship’s door.

“Right.” said Jolan. He closed the Flying Brick’s door.

Cian released the docking clamps and gently fired thrusters to move the ships apart. “Okay. Now we just have to set course for the station. I’ll follow you in.” said Cian.

The Flying Brick’s engines came to life as Jolan set course for the station. “Got it! We’re only an hour and twenty minutes out now.”

Cian matched his course.

Suddenly a message came over Cian’s Ship’s radio, “Unidentified ship, you are approaching Yang Station. Please turn your transponder on and identify yourself.”

Cian replied, “Yang Station, this is Captain Kemp. I am escorting the LT Flying Brick, whose transponder is currently on. We were boarded by pirates and defended ourselves. I am aboard the Voidraptor. I have claimed this ship as battle salvage. Its transponder is currently disabled and I am unable to turn it on. I am sending you the appropriate salvage forms, as well as details on the ship’s prior occupants and records of them attacking our ship.”

There was silence for a few minutes before a reply came back, “Captain Kemp, this is Yang Station. Received and verified. You are cleared to approach and dock. Please contact station security when you arrive to discuss the situation.”

“Uh, I just verified that you were with me by the way. The station asked me if I was in need of assistance and if I was under duress. I just told them we got jumped and we fought them off and took their ship.” said Jolan over their communicator.

Cian replied to the station first, “Yang Station, this is Captain Kemp. Acknowledged. Coming in now, ETA 1 hour 20 minutes. I will see station security as soon as I arrive.”

Cian switched to his communicator to reply to Jolan, “Don’t worry about it. Everything should be fine. Just dock where they tell you and I’ll do the same, we’ll meet up on the station.”

02.09 – Job Opportunities

The two of them walked out of hangar and down the hall. Several other uniformed crew were walking down the hall, but they kept to themselves and didn’t greet Cian or Jolan. They found hangar six after a bit and walked in. There was a large, boxy cargo ship inside. It was basically a big rectangle with engines on both sides and bridge on the front. Three bulky landing gear was extended and holding it up, and a small ramp was extended from the back. It must have several times the cargo space of the Equinox, but wasn’t pretty.

“There you are. We need someone to make a supply run. It should be quick, the link to Yienna from here is only three days and Yang Station is close to the edge of the system. The round trip should only take you a week. Get in, buy some supplies, and get out. There may be humans in the area, so we can’t make the trip – but you two shouldn’t have a problem. Neither of you have Coalition bounties, do you?” said Bann.

“I don’t.” said Cian.

“Never been to coalition space, so I don’t think so.” said Jolan.

“You two can pilot a cargo ship, right? You owned one Cian, but I never asked.” said Bann.

“Yeah. I can handle it.” said Cian.

“No clue how to fly a ship, but I can provide moral support!” said Jolan, smiling.

“Okay. Two is better than one from a security standpoint. I took the liberty of repairing your armor and we had your gauss rifles maintained. Do you need other weapons? We can outfit you from our armory. We need you to buy a lot of expensive supplies. You’ll need to be discreet and don’t tell anyone you’re heading into the Wastes. This cargo ship doesn’t have weapon systems, try not to attract attention.” said Bann.

“I use swords. You got any plasma swords?” asked Jolan.

“I’ll have a plasma sword delivered.” said Bann.

“The gauss rifle is fine. Did you happen to find my Pa’Ran knife in the armor?” asked Cian.

“Augh, yes. I have the disgusting thing. Do you realize that thing is alive?” asked Bann.

Cian shrugged. “It works. I took out Gumbo with it. His armor was so thick, the gauss rounds wouldn’t penetrate it. Even Jolan’s sword didn’t cut through it. The knife did.”

“Fine. I’ll have it returned to you.” said Bann.

“You have a Pa’Ran knife that’s alive? That’s creepy, dude. Is it like the spears they were using?” said Jolan.

“Yeah. It’s a spear tip I took from them. I had a bunch of them in my bag, I’m not sure what happened to it. I guess it must have gotten left behind at some point.” said Cian.

“I can’t argue with its’ effectiveness, but I don’t understand how you can hold and use that thing. It pulses and moves. It feels like a viper in the hand, just as eager to strike me as the enemy. I didn’t realize it was your sidearm when we found it in the armor’s storage compartment. Can I at least make you a wrapped handle for it?” said Bann.

“Sure, I would appreciate that. It was a weapon of convenience, but seeing how effective it was I don’t want to give it up. I killed a very powerful cyborg with one of those things, too.” said Cian.

“I’ll see what I can do. I transferred control of the ship to you, Cian. It’s in your name for the mission, but it’s a loaner. If this works and you want to keep helping, there is a lot of stuff we need done. I’m trusting that you’re with us. I’ll be transferring ten million credits to your account to cover the purchases we need. I have a list, we need you to source everything you can in a day. Don’t linger. The elements and alloys with the star next to them are the most important, we can manufacture a lot of the stuff if we have the raw materials.” said Bann.

“Okay. I have to be honest, Vanna would be better at this stuff. I’m not that experienced with sourcing materials. I’ll do my best.” said Cian.

“I’m sure you’ll manage. Are you okay with leaving Vanna here? We will take good care of her. I can understand if you would prefer to take her with you. She is not a hostage and her treatment does not depend upon your acceptance or performance on this mission.” said Bann.

“No, she’s better off here where she can get proper medical care. I never thought she was a hostage. You guys are the best link I have to getting answers, okay? I’m with you.” said Cian.

Bann smiled. “Good.”

“Oh, what’s the significance of this?” asked Cian. He pounded his fist over his heart, “Strength and valor. Till freedom or death.”

Bann smiled again. “Have you been talking to some of our Rastlin crew? That’s an old Rastlin creed from the time of their slavery under the Dromon. It spread to the Heralds when we joined with them and became a sort of farewell among our people, especially when going on dangerous missions. It has fallen out of use of late, but the Rastlin among us keep it alive.” said Bann.

“Ah. That makes sense. I like it.” said Cian.

“Yes. It is a fitting symbol of their people. Even under twenty two years of harsh oppression and complete desolation of their world, they were never broken and never stopped fighting. Hundreds of thousands died fighting the Dromon. Their resistance movement was key in freeing the Celdurans and they have operatives on Drom to this day working to free those who are still enslaved there. Technically they act as an arm of the Heralds, but we are no longer in communication with them. They are the only Heralds operation that still exists outside the Wastes” said Bann.

“Cool. Rastlin are badass.” said Jolan.

“Well, if you need any more information just ask. I’ll leave you to review your ship and the details of the mission. I’ll have your weapons brought by soon.” said Bann. He turned and walked out of the hangar.

Cian and Jolan walked up the ramp into the ship. It was a huge empty cargo space. A small living area was toward the front of the ship, with a small captain’s quarters and communal bunk room on the left and a mess and armory on the right. The bridge was a small room at the end of the hall.

“So you’re the captain, huh?” said Jolan.

“Guess so. Captain, pilot, and engineer. Do you have any skills associated with ships?” asked Cian.

“Nope.” said Jolan.

“I can give you some piloting lessons on the way if you want. It’s a useful skill to have.” said Cian

“Cool. I’m gonna check out my armor and see what I have left of my stuff.” said Jolan.

“Okay. Me too.” said Cian.

The two of them went into the armory and checked their gear. The two gauss rifles they had on the Equinox were there, along with two sets of armor. The armor had been repaired, with armor plates replaced where it had taken damage. A discolored mark could still be seen in Jolan’s set where the spike had penetrated his chest. Otherwise it was all in order. Jolan sat down and started cleaning his armor, despite it already looking as pristine as it was going to get. Cian went to the bridge.

Cian found the list of things they needed to source for the Heralds. He checked his account and found that they had already transferred 10 million credits to it. The list was a laundry list of various mechanical parts and materials. The items marked with a star were all elements. They wanted a variety of rare earth minerals, metals, and alloys. They also wanted several tons of tungsten and an even larger amount of star alloy, which was a proprietary alloy produced by a Boralan company that most ships were made from. It was a big list. There was a route to the jump point and a map of the Yienna system, with a similar route to and from Yang Station.

Cian looked over the route and the list and started checking over the ship systems. It was basically a flying cargo brick. It had a basic flare and chaff system, but had zero defenses. It was a Pack Mule class Freighter. It was a licensed trader but didn’t have a name, so Cian dubbed it the LT Flying Brick.

Half an hour later a Boralan woman came into the ship. “Hello! I have a delivery!”

Cian and Jolan both walked out to greet her.

“Hello, I’m Cian and this is Jolan. You have something for us?” asked Cian.

“Hello Cian, Jolan. I’m Brakka. I have a plasma sword and a knife for the two of you.” She pulled out a large plasma sword, much like the one Jolan had used before, and a small cloth wrapped parcel.

Jolan grabbed the sword. “Sweet! Thanks!” he said. He had already dressed in his armor and was quick to strap the sword to his back.

“You know, you don’t have to be battle ready all the time. We’re going to be flying through the Weave for days.” said Cian as he took the package. He unwrapped it to find his Pa’Ran knife with a leather wrapped handle and a sheath made to strap around his leg.

“Uh. I knew that. Um. I might just log out until we get there?” said Jolan.

“Uh. Okay. Thanks for bringing this stuff over Brakka. Have a great day.” said Cian.

“You too! You guys have a good trip! See ya!” said Brakka as she left.

“Huh. Are we supposed to leave now?” said Cian.

“Beats me. Ask Bann.” said Jolan.

Cian tapped his comm and spoke, “Hey Bann. Thanks for the knife. Uh, are we good to go right now? I reviewed the supplies needed and I see the route you have for us.”

Bann’s voice came back over the comm a few seconds later, “Yes, you are good to go. Huh. Did you name our ship the Flying Brick?”

“Uh. Yes?” said Cian.

“Hmph. I guess it’s fitting. Everything is ready on our end. Just power up the ship and talk to the traffic controller, they’ll open up your hangar. Channel 1 on your ship’s comm.” said Bann.

“Great, thanks. We’re heading out in a few. See you in a week.” said Cian.

Cian put his knife away in the armory and went to the bridge. Jolan joined him and tried to maneuver his sword so that he could sit down. He eventually strapped it to the side of the seat.

Cian just shook his head. He was still in his regular clothes. “Gimme a sec. I’m gonna leave a message for Vanna in case she wakes up.”

“Okay!” said Jolan.

Cian started a recording. “Hey Vanna. If you’re seeing this, I’m still away on a mission. The Heralds picked us up and you’ve been in a coma. I’m getting supplies for them. I hope to see you soon!” He finished the recording and sent it to Reema, then called Reema. “Hey Reema, can you make sure Vanna gets this if she wakes up before I get back?”

Reema’s face appeared on the screen. “Hey guys! Sure Cian, I’ll put it on a tablet and keep it in her room for you. Have a good trip, thanks for getting us supplies!”

“Thanks Reema. See you in a week or so.” said Cian.

“Bye! Good luck! Don’t forget to take your supplements, they’re stocked in the mess!” said Reema. She disappeared from the screen as the call ended.

“Okay. Now the traffic controller.” said Cian. He flipped the ship’s comm to channel one. “LT Flying Brick preparing for takeoff. Permission to launch?”

“LT Flying Brick, this is Rising Star control. Permission to launch granted. Depressurizing hangar and preparing to open bay doors. Strength and valor, till freedom or death.” came back over the comm.

“Strength and valor, till freedom or death.” Cian replied.

“Rising Star?” Is that the name of the ship we’ve been on?” asked Jolan.

Cian turned to Jolan. “Huh. You know, I never asked. I guess it must be. So, we’re on another mission together. Once we launch we can head to the jump point and be on our way.”

“Sweet. Make it so!” said Jolan.

Cian looked at Jolan. “I’m the Captain here.”

Jolan smiled sheepishly. “Sorry, I always wanted to say that.”

The hangar doors opened. The gravity in the room turned off. Cian punched in the command to withdraw the landing gear and carefully maneuvered the ship out of the hangar. The ship’s navigation labeled the system they were in as “WL-1026.” Once they were out, he turned the ship toward the jump to Yienna and set off toward it. It was two and a half hours away.

“Why don’t you take the wheel here? Free flying with no obstacles to hit, it’s a perfect time for you to learn to fly.” said Cian.

“Uhhh. Okay.” said Jolan.

Cian spent the next three hours teaching Jolan the basics of flying a starship, the same way Vanna had taught him.

“Sweet, I unlocked starship piloting.” said Jolan after the first few minutes. Soon he was looping and flipping the ship like he was performing combat maneuvers.

Cian showed him how to set a straight course to accelerate and then turn and decelerate to reach their destination. Jolan punched in several different destinations and flew a bit before setting it to the jump point.

“Wow, this is really fun. Thanks dude. I’m getting a bunch of skill gains.” said Jolan.

Starship Piloting increased by 1% to 36%.

“Heh, I apparently learned something from teaching you. I gained some skill too. We’re at the jump now, do you want to do the honors?” said Cian.

“Uh, I think I’ll leave this part to you.” said Jolan.

“Alright.” said Cian. He punched in the calculations and spun up the Weave drive. A minute later, they entered the Weave toward Yienna system.

“So. Are you really just going to log out while we’re flying?” asked Cian.

“Uh. What else is there to do? We’re in here for three days, right?” said Jolan.

“Well, we could play cards or something.” said Cian.

“Uh, no offense, but I think I would strangle you after three days cooped up in this brick together.” said Jolan.

“But what are you going to do while logged out? I thought you said everything felt plastic?” said Cian.

“I don’t know. It does. But it’s still my normal, you know? This whole thing is messed up. Maybe I’m dumb, but I want to feel normal. My girlfriend is probably fake, but she’s… fun. Life’s too short to skip out on the fun.” said Jolan.

“Okay. Um. I guess I might try logging out a bit too. Maybe I’ll learn something. You should log in at least once a day to eat and stuff though. It’s probably not healthy to go days without drinking, even with these crazy nanites. We’re recovering now anyway, so they probably wouldn’t work like they used to. We need to drink the mineral supplement so we can regenerate the nanites.” said Cian.

“Huh. Yeah, that makes sense. Guess I should eat before I log out.” said Jolan.

The two of them went to the mess and made some food. They had stocked them with a big supply of the burger patties along with a variety of vegetables. The two of them mixed up a serving of the mineral supplement, then Cian had Jolan help him chop some things and they made a stir fry.

Cooking increased by 9% to 10%.

“Huh. I just gained 9% in cooking. I guess this was the first time I showed that I knew how to cook?” said Cian.

“It ist pwetty gwood” sputtered Jolan as he shoveled his mouth full of food.

“Gross. Chew your food before you talk.” said Cian.

Jolan shrugged and kept eating.

Cian ate his food and drank down the chalky drink.

“Kay. I’m gonna log out now. Um, I guess I should lay down or something first.” said Jolan. He walked into the bunk room and lay down on the bed. He grabbed a strap and strapped himself to the bed. He strapped his sword down next to him.

“Uh, see you I guess. Is there any way we can communicate while logged out, in case we need each other?” said Cian, walking over to Jolan.

“Oh. Uh, maybe my email address? Here’s my email and my phone number.” said Jolan. He grabbed a tablet from a pouch at the side of the bed and entered them into it before handing it to Cian.

“Oh. I don’t think I have cell service anymore, I didn’t pay the bill. Email might work, though. We shouldn’t send anything too detailed, they might read it or something. Just like hey lets meet back in game asap or whatever.” said Cian. He gave Jolan his email address too.

“Cool. I’ll write it down when I log out and send you a test email to make sure we got it right. See ya.” said Jolan. He sealed his helmet and lay back. Sixty seconds later, he went limp.

Cian sat in a bed next to Jolan’s in silence for a bit, thinking. He really didn’t want to log out. He was afraid of what he might find. Was anyone he knew real?

He went back to the bridge and went over their route. There wasn’t anything he needed to do – the trip through the Weave was automatic, as long as some crazy person didn’t jump them in the Weave they would exit in three days. Could Cian relax? What if there was another Gumbo out there, flying through the Weave and ready to jump them? Thinking about it, it seemed pretty far fetched – they would have to somehow be in the WL-1026 system without the Heralds detecting them.

Cian procrastinated for another hour before he decided to try logging out. He put his armor on, just in case the ship lost pressure while he was out, and went to the captain’s quarters to lay down. Laying down in the armor wasn’t all that comfortable. He hit the logout command and waited. Sixty seconds later, he woke up in his TIVI pod.

His room was the same as it was a couple days ago. He hopped up and got himself a cup of water. He looked over his email. The email from Jolan had already arrived. He sent a reply back confirming receipt and telling Jolan to have a good time. Other than that, he didn’t really have anything important. Pretty much every service he had been paying for had been canceled for non payment. He still had the TIVI system, since it came out of his game account automatically. The internet he was using was tied to it. All his streaming channels were canceled. He was kind of glad they weren’t on auto pay – at this point everything felt like a waste of money. His crappy car was paid off, so it was still in his parking space.

Cian hopped in his car and drove to the hospital he had worked at. He wanted to see how people responded to him being gone for six weeks. Maybe he could get in touch with Tina. If anyone in his life was real, surely she was. She played the game.

Half an hour later, he was at his old job. Ms. Hawthorne, the head nurse, was at the front desk talking to others there.

“Uh, hey Ms. Hawthorne. How’s everything?” said Cian.

She looked up. “Cian? You looking for a job again? We’re short staffed, I’m sure you could start again.” she said.

“Uh. Maybe. Is Tina in?” said Cian.

“Tina? No. She quit too.” said Ms. Hawthorne.

“Oh. Uh, how long ago was that?” asked Cian.

Ms Hawthorne looked puzzled for a second. “I don’t know. I don’t keep track of you kids. In one day, back the next, gone the next.” she said.

“Uh. Do you know how long I was gone?” asked Cian.

“Stop asking me stupid questions. You know how long you were gone. I have work to do. If you want a shift, talk to Barry. If not, get out of my ER!” Ms. Hawthorne yelled and stormed off.

Cian asked around, but nobody seemed to know how long Tina had been gone. Some of his old coworkers acted like they had just seen him yesterday. It was surreal. Was everyone here fake?

Cian tracked down Mike, one of the other janitors he and Tina had worked with. He was hanging out in the break room. “Hey Mike. Long time no see. Do you know when Tina left?”

“Hey dude. She’s been gone for a while. She quit like you did. You coming back to work?” said Mike.

“Uh, maybe. Do you have her phone number or email address?” asked Cian.

“Nope.” said Mike.

“Any idea where she lives?” asked Cian.

“Nope.” said Mike.

“Okay. Uh. See you, Mike.” said Cian.

“Bye.” said Mike.

Cian went to Barry’s office. He was Cian’s old boss. If anyone, he should know when Tina quit and maybe he could get her contact details from him.

“Hey kid. You back for work? We’re short, we need you. I can rehire you, no questions asked. I can’t offer a raise, but I can put you back at your old salary.” said Barry as Cian walked in.

“Uh, maybe. I’m trying to reach out to Tina. I have something of hers and need to return it. Do you have her email or phone or anything?” said Cian.

“Sorry kid, that’s confidential. Tina’s left us on good terms but she didn’t authorize giving out contact info.” said Barry.

“Uh, can you contact her on my behalf? Just send her an email or something?” said Cian.

“Sorry kid, no can do. So, you want a shift? You can start now.” said Barry.

“No thanks, maybe another time.” said Cian. He left Barry’s office. This whole thing was a waste of time. Maybe he could find Tina on the game’s forums? He didn’t know her username, but he knew she wanted to be a fashion designer.

Cian left the hospital and went back home. When he arrived, he went back in and got on his computer. He made a post on the forum. “C looking for my fashion designer friend T” and wrote out a few details that she should recognize. Maybe she would see it and send him a message.

He was hungry again, so he ate another can of soup. His pantry was almost empty. If he stayed here, he would have to go grocery shopping and transfer more of his credits to buy stuff. His car had almost a full tank still, but that wouldn’t last forever either. Was there some way he could make money here without working at the hospital? He didn’t really want to do that. What else could he do? He had three days in the Weave and another three days back for the return trip. Did it make sense to work a crappy job to get money? It felt like a waste of time. Everything here felt fake. But the money could be transferred to credits… He didn’t have any other way of making money while flying in the Weave, and sitting around by himself on a ship wasn’t very appealing.

Cian called Barry at the hospital. “Hey Barry. Uh, I’m pretty busy, but I might have some time to work certain days. Could I be hired part time and just come in when I have time?”

“That’s not how we usually do it kid, but we do need the help. When were you wanting to work?” said Barry.

“Uh. Maybe six, six hour shifts over the next three days? I’ll need a couple hours in between the six hour shifts for personal reasons. Then I can do it again after the weekend.” said Cian.

“Sure kid, I can make that work. That’s almost a work week. When can you start?” asked Barry.

“Uh, how about now? I can be back there in half an hour.” said Cian.

“Alright. I’ll get the paperwork together. See you soon.” said Barry.

Cian put on his old uniform and drove back to the hospital.

02.08 – Finding Perspective

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.”

02.07 – Saving Jolan

“Cian. Bann is ready.” said a feminine voice.

Cian woke up and looked up. It was the Erisian women from before. “Reema?”

“Yes. Hello again. Bann sent me to get you. He’s ready to begin examining Jolan. He wanted you to escort Jolan there.” said Reema.

Cian hopped up. He was still dressed. “Okay. Lead the way.”

Jolan was laying on his bed with a book when Cian got there.

“Hey Jolan. They want to run some diagnostics on your interface. Are you feeling well enough to do that?” said Cian.

Jolan hopped up. “Sure dude, I feel fine. The food was great. Just a little freaked out about being stuck logged in. Did you get a chance to have someone check on me IRL?” said Jolan.

“Uh, yeah. You’re OK. They didn’t tell me details for privacy and all that, but they said your vitals are fine.” said Cian.

“Well, that’s good. Where do we have to go to run these diagnostics?” said Jolan.

“Right this way. You can bring the tablet with us. It’s a test lab. There’s this little helmet you have to put on, then you just have to agree to the prompt to connect to it for diagnostics. Then you just lay back and they examine the connection. I just did it the other day.” said Cian.

Cian and Jolan left the room. Reema was in the hall.

“Uhhh, it says she’s a Flesh Reaver.” said Jolan.

“Oh, that’s a glitch in the system. They said it might identify people you’re unfamiliar with as NPCs, even hostile NPCs. That’s why they’re having me work with you, since I’m familiar enough to you.” said Cian.

“Okay. Weird. She looks like an NPC too.” said Jolan.

The three of them went down the hall to Bann’s lab. Reema excused herself and left.

“Uh, she just said she was going to go and get her hatch mates and return to eat me.” said Jolan.

“Whoa. That’s weird. I didn’t hear that at all. We definitely need to get your interface checked.” said Cian.

Bann was hidden behind a two way mirror on the side of the lab. The diagnostic equipment was left out with a bed.

“Good work. Get him connected and we can proceed. I will remain unseen so as to not trigger any potential visual kill switches related to seeing more of us. I should not have had Reema seen by him, but it was enlightening that his visual and auditory control filters are still in place.” said Bann over the comm directly to Cian.

“Right over here. Here’s the weird helmet thing, you just have to put this on and agree to the connection. These wires here too, to monitor your in-game vitals.” said Cian.

Jolan hopped onto the medical bed and started hooking up. Once he was done, he popped the helmet on. “It’s asking to interface with an unknown system for diagnostics?” said Jolan.

“That’s the popup I mentioned. I don’t know why it says unknown system, but you just have to hit Yes. Worked for me.” said Cian.

“Kay. I hit yes. Is it working?” asked Jolan.

“I’m getting data. Hold on.” said Bann.

“Yes. They’re looking at the diagnostic readout now. You just have to chill out in here for a while. It might be a couple hours. You can keep reading your book.” said Cian.

“’Kay.” said Jolan. He grabbed the tablet from the table where he had laid it down and got back to his book.

“I’m gonna go see if there is anything they need me to do. Call me if you need me, okay Jolan?” said Cian.

Jolan gave him a thumbs up.

Cian stepped through the door to the other section of the lab where Bann was. “So, find anything?”

“Plenty. It will take a while to sort this. They made some significant changes to the nanites, but it’s a hack job. I’m surprised this mess even works. It’s done on a mechanical level, though, so I don’t know if I can fix this. I need to study it more.” said Bann.

“Okay.” said Cian. He sat and waited.

Nearly an hour later, Bann spoke up. “I think I found it. The dead thread severed his connection to the main system, and it failed to reconnect properly – likely due to these changes that they made. Their changes broke a lot of the protections that the system normally has – it should have immediately reconnected once he got back within range of a node. Thanks to the connection being broken, I can spoof the system and make it think that I’m the node. I think I can trigger a maintenance cycle and flag the nanites as corrupted and in need of replacement. The problem is, I don’t have a canister of new nanites to give him.” said Bann.

“Can you use some of mine?” said Cian.

“Maybe. The nanites are replenished in nanite factories that are situated in different areas around the body, in bone marrow. They produce nanites based on a template. The template is corrupt, thus all nanites produced are corrupt. However, if I trick the system into thinking it has been producing corrupt nanites, it should let me inject some good nanites and use them to reprogram the nanite factories to produce the same good nanites. The problem is, this sort of maintenance cycle expects a full nanite replacement. You’re already short on nanites, so we can’t harvest near enough from you to provide anything close to a full replacement.” said Bann.

“Well, it sounds like the best shot we have.” said Cian.

“It will take hours to harvest any number nanites from your blood.” said Bann.

“What do you normally suspend them in?” asked Cian.

“Standard saline media. But at your current nanite levels, we’ll have to process liters of your blood to get enough.” said Bann.

Cian grabbed a test tube and filled it with saline. He focused on his nanites and projected a bunch of them out. He was at 24% nanites. Within a minute he was down to 14%, and the test tube had a slight metallic sheen to it.

“Did you just… dump nanites into that tube?” asked Bann incredulously.

“Yep. I can still feel them though, so I need to disconnect from them somehow?” asked Cian.

“No. Let me examine them.” said Bann. He grabbed the tube and ran a scan on it. He took a small sample and put it under a microscope. A moment later put the whole tube into a small device and started tapping in commands on a computer. “This is perfect. I think these should work as-is.”

“Great.” said Cian.

Bann put the tube into an auto injecting syringe and siphoned out the air. “Okay. I need to initiate the maintenance mode. You need to inject these into him once I start it. Any major artery would be fine. He will probably have to accept it, there are a lot of safeties involved in this. Just get him to agree to it, okay?” said Bann.

“Right.” said Cian. He grabbed the syringe and walked back out to Jolan.

“Hey man. Y’all find anything?” asked Jolan as Cian entered the room.

Cian held up the syringe. “This sounds a little weird, but your interface code is broken. This sparkly bottle of water here is a transfusion of my own nanites interface stuff. We literally just pulled it out of me. Weird, huh? We just have to put your interface in maintenance mode and inject my transfusion, then it will pick up on the proper code and start working like it should.”

“Nanites interface? Cool. This is so meta, it’s like a euphemism for the code or something? So this will let me log out again?” said Jolan.

“Once this is done we can reconnect you to the system properly, and you’ll be able to log out again, yeah. It might take a second trip into that helmet doodad once we get the interface fixed, but you should be logging in and out and sideways in no time.” said Cian.

“Cool. Beam me up, or whatever.” said Jolan.

“Starting now.” said Bann over Cian’s comm.

“You’ll probably get some kind of popup. I didn’t do this particular thing so I don’t know what it says.” said Cian.

“It says my nanite swarm has been detected as corrupt. It’s asking if I want to enter maintenance mode for nanite replacement. I just hit yes?” asked Jolan.

“Yep. And it if asks to accept donor nanites or anything, be sure to agree to that too.” said Cian.

Jolan slumped down in the bed.

Cian moved over and injected the nanites into Jolan’s shoulder. He immediately got a popup.

Nanites injected into individual. Attempt at transfusion detected. Do you wish to relinquish nanites to Jolan? [Yes] [No]

Cian hit [Yes] and waited. Jolan looked to be unconscious.

“Good. It’s working. Your nanites are interfacing with his. They are spreading out and going to the various nanite factories. All of the existing nanites are powering down. It’s working on replacing everything.” said Bann.

“How long do you think this will take?” asked Cian.

“I don’t know. Both of you will have to recover from the lost nanites before your technology functions at full. His maintenance could last hours or even days, it’s having to reprogram every nanite factory in his body and swap over control of the entire system from his old nanites to the new ones. Your bodies are dependent on these things, so you actually need them for normal cell function. You need them to live.” said Bann.

“Okay. I should probably be nearby when Jolan wakes up. I don’t know how we’re going to break it to him that what he thinks is a game is real.” said Cian.

“You seem to have already adjusted to this information before you arrived here. How did you cope with it?” asked Bann.

“Well, I was stuck unable to log out for weeks. Then things just got more and more ridiculous. I guess the idea just crept up on me. Even after logging out and seeing myself just fine after six weeks, I can’t help but wonder what’s actually real. I know it’s not logical to be perfectly okay after laying down and not eating or drinking for a month and a half, but the crazy stuff that has gone on here is equally insane. I mean, I heal people. I controlled gravity. I’m pretty sure most of the structural damage to my ship is from when I made the entire contents of the cargo hold slam into the back door, bust the whole thing open, and fly out into the Weave. All with the wave of my hands.” said Cian, waving his hands around.

“That is an impressive ability. Do you still possess this level of gravity control? When you have recovered, I would be appreciative if you gave me a demonstration. Weaveborn technology is incredible, and this nanite-based system is the peak of their technology before the fall.” said Bann.

“I don’t know. Being in the dead thread seemed to amp up my abilities somehow. I guess I can probably still do it, but I don’t know if I can make things move like that again.” said Cian.

“An amplification from being on a dead thread? That is interesting. I had theorized that these nanites are somehow based upon Weave drive technology for their movement, I wonder if they are able to use the unique radiation present in the Weave? That would be remarkable.” said Bann.

“You sure are excited about all of this. I appreciate that you’re working to help free Jolan, but what’s your end game in all of this?” asked Cian.

“My end game? I am a scholar. Studying Weaveborn artifacts is my life. This nanite system that is present in humans is the most advanced Weaveborn technology that I have ever seen. These last few days has been a dream come true, the culmination of two years of work. I have made more progress in the last forty eight hours than I did in the last two years. Ultimately, my goal lines up with that of my organization – we seek to utilize Weaveborn technology for the betterment of all. We seek to free the oppressed and overturn oppressive governments and regimes. And, of course, we seek to survive. Fighting the humans has made that a difficult prospect in itself. Your species is terrifyingly efficient at killing.” said Bann.

“Are we really so much worse than others?” asked Cian.

“I don’t know. The Dromon are a very warlike people, and it may be selection bias, but it seems the humans are even a step beyond the Dromon. Your people seem to possess a knack for finding and killing us that the Dromon never had. I suppose this nanite technology plays a large role in that.” said Bann.

“The nature of the simulation that they’re in plays the key role in that. They think they’re in a game. No one they kill is real. Even a sociopath might balk at the things that we do in games to get ahead. Gumbo chased me and destroyed a Republic patrol just because the system told them I was worth a billion credits. They’ll never stop fighting you as long as the Dromon tell them you’re worth credits. Your people are worth a million credits each. Your ships are worth even more.” said Cian.

“You have a point. I have played games before. I never thought twice about destroying the objective – enemy combatants, ships, cities. If this is truly how the Dromon control the humans, it is an insidious thing. They perform heinous actions all in the pursuit of nebulous objectives that the Dromon control. No wonder your people pursue us with such ferocity.” said Bann.

“Exactly. The only way to put a stop to it is to either destroy the others like me, or free them.” said Cian.

“Well, that is my end game in all of this. I want to free your people and save my own in the same action.” said Bann.

“I don’t know if I would call them ‘my’ people, but that’s a goal I can get behind. I hope this thing with Jolan works.” said Cian.

“I’m sure it will. From these readings, he’s well on his way to recovering using the donated nanites. With those, he will be free from the filter that controls him. I’m going to get some sleep. I haven’t slept in the last forty eight hours. I suggest you do the same, you need additional rest due to your low nanite levels. I will have someone wake us as soon as Jolan’s situation changes.” said Bann.

“Alright. See you later, Bann. I do appreciate what you’ve done so far.” said Cian as he walked out of the room.

Reema was waiting in the hall. “Did it work? Will we be able to communicate with your friend, too?”

“Oh, hey Reema. Yes, Bann said it worked. We just have to wait until he recovers. I’m heading back to my room.” said Cian.

“Wonderful! I’m so glad! I knew there was a peaceful solution to the human problem. Do you need anything? How are you finding your stay here? I know we don’t have the amenities of a real city, but we do what we can. Do you mind if I walk you to your room?” said Reema.

“I’m doing well, thank you. I would welcome the company. Your ship is very roomy. For all your supply issues, you seem to have plenty of food. The menu seems to be endless.” said Cian. The two of them walked toward his room.

“Oh, our supply problem is mostly technology and spare parts. We harvest our food from the Wasteland worlds. Once you know where to go, there is a cornucopia of food. The burgers you have been eating come from a small animal that grows a meat patty as part of its core musculature. They’re a bit of an ecological disaster with how quickly they reproduce and consume things, and they can be quite dangerous without the proper safety equipment, but our ships visit the planet every few weeks and harvest them by the thousands. It’s a very popular food among the crew. Eating the same thing can get old after a while, but the meat can be used in a variety of dishes and it’s quite tasty.” said Reema.

“You’re kidding. There’s a burger patty animal? It’s not ground meat from a larger animal?” said Cian.

“No, it’s a small creature that grows the patty. The rest of the animal isn’t fit for consumption, but the patty is easily skinned from the rest of the creature with a few cuts. It’s quite remarkable. They breed and grow very rapidly. It would be an ideal farm animal if not for their extremely aggressive behavior and ability to bite through almost anything. There are many strange, bio engineered animals on these worlds. I believe they are failed experiments from many, many years ago before these worlds were the Wasteland.” said Reema.

“You’re messing with me. A swarming killer burger creature? There’s no way that’s real. How do you know so much about this stuff?” said Cian.

“Oh, it’s quite real. We refer to them as the ‘patty maw’ due to most of its body consisting of the meat disk and large mouth. I can show you a video of them if you do not believe me. I am a biologist, I study the wildlife in the Wasteland worlds. I would show you one in person, but the last one I tried to keep onboard ate its way out of an alloy cage and attacked Kodai in the hall. He’s still cross with me over it.” said Reema.

“Okay. I have to see this burger monster.” said Cian.

Reema pulled out a tablet and worked at it for a few minutes. Soon a video of creatures appeared on the screen. The view was from some kind of vehicle hovering over the creatures. They were squat, fuzzy, round creatures about five inches across with dark brown skin, beady little eyes, and a thin coat of fuzzy hair covering them. Half a dozen of them were sitting on the top of a sandy soil. They each had six squat little legs and a large mouth in between them where their bellies should have been. Someone threw what looked like a large, dead bird of some kind on the sand near them – it must have been at least the size of an ostrich. Immediately the creatures on the surface rushed at the bird. The soil churned and hundreds more of the creatures swarmed out. Within seconds, the entire carcass of the bird was gone – bones and all. The creatures settled back into the sand, burrowing back down. In less than a minute there were only four sitting on the surface.

“That is absolutely terrifying. What if a person walked near those things?” said Cian.

“They would be consumed. They are capable of biting through armor. Creatures like these are why these worlds are considered so hazardous.” said Reema.

“Well, with that horrifying thought, this is my room. I’m going to go sleep and dream of being eaten by hamburgers.” said Cian.

Reema laughed. “Good night.”

Cian went into the room he shared with Vanna. She was still in a coma.

“Hey Vanna. I just found out those burgers are made of the most horrifying creatures. Swarming burger sand piranha things that can eat anything in seconds. I’m sure you’re used to this crap, eating Kel rats and having to worry about Rinjorn, but damn if every animal I hear about isn’t more terrifying than the last. You need to wake up soon. I might have helped fix Jolan, I bet the two of you would get along. He’s a nice guy. He’s in a coma now too. Maybe you can wake up together? Here’s hoping.” said Cian.

Another meal had been left. This time it was a Salisbury steak, probably made with the same horrifying burger creature. He had what looked like peas and a small brownie on the side. It reminded him of a microwave dinner, but it tasted good. There was a mineral supplement drink on the side that tasted considerably more chalky than Vanna’s smoothies, but he drank it anyway. He needed to get his nanites back.

Once Cian was done with his meal, he lay down and quickly drifted off to sleep again.

02.06 – Dreams of Earth

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.

02.05 – To Save a Friend

Cian resolved to try to save Vanna, at least until he was sure he couldn’t get the jump shield back up. She was showing no physical signs of pain, and was, as far as he and the medical scanner he had found could tell, completely unconscious. Her brainwaves were like someone in a deep coma. He healed her for a while, getting her back into a stable condition, then went to working on the jump shielding. He read every scrap of information he could find on jump engines, their shielding, and how to re-engage it when it failed.

It was twenty four hours and several cycles of healing Vanna later that Cian finally chanced on something it might be. The activation of the shield normally required the initialization of a Weave jump. The error he was getting was basically that there was no Weave jump available – they were already in the Weave. But his first attempt at going through the convoluted shield start-up method failed. It jumped from 0 to 50 to 100 and right back to 0 in ten seconds.

It was another twelve hours before he found a method of slowly raising the shields. It was considered impractical as it took too long, but was supposedly foolproof. Foolproof was good. An hour later and the shield was at 20% and rising.

Cian celebrated by eating watermelon jerky. He was exhausted and starving, but he had done it. Now he just had to keep Vanna alive until the shield was up. He resolved to heal Vanna until it was at 100% and got started.

Cian woke with a start. He looked around. How long had he been out? He checked Vanna. She was still alive, but barely. The jump shields showed 100%. Cian checked his nanite levels. It was down to 9% – all the healing had been wearing them out or something.

He spent the next few days just healing and caring for Vanna before passing out for longer and longer periods. The cell damage stopped the day after the shields had came back up, but no matter what he did Vanna would not wake up. The strange background song didn’t end even when the shield came back up, and Cian was having a harder and harder time keeping himself awake.

The last memory Cian had in the Weave was laying his hands on Vanna and channeling mend. It had been getting increasingly difficult to channel mend as his nanites dropped lower and lower.

Cian woke suddenly in a cell. He was stripped to his boxers and chained to a metal chair by his arms and legs. A bright overhead light reflected off the table in front of him. He shook his head to clear the fog from it. There was a Boralan man with jet black hair and long beard, an Erisian woman with flawless white skin and long silver hair, and a blonde haired Celduran man with an androgynous appearance and a faint greenish tinge to his skin. The Celduran was working on a tablet device of some kind. All were wearing a form fitting, jet black dress uniform with a multi pointed half star insignia on the lapels that seemed to represent a rising sun.

Cian’s nanites had risen to 19%, so it must have been at least a few days since he was last awake.

The woman spoke up first. “Greetings, human! Please verify if you can understand us.”

“I can understand you fine.” said Cian.

All three of them did a double take and stared at him.

“Uh, you can? I mean. Great! Uh. What’s your name?” asked the Erisian woman.

“Why am I being held? Where is my friend? The Rastlin. Is she awake yet?” asked Cian.

“You’re the one being interviewed, human!” said the Boralan with a sneer. He reached his hand across the table as if to hit Cian, but the Celduran grabbed his hand and shook his head disapprovingly.

The Celduran spoke up in a deep voice. “I apologize for my colleagues. We are unused to being able to speak with humans. This is the first time our attempts have proved successful. I am Bann. This lovely woman is Reema. The gruff fellow is Kodai. Your friend has yet to regain consciousness, but appears to have suffered from fatal Weave exposure. She has symptoms of Weave Fever, and it is unknown if she will recover.”

“Okay. I’m Cian. I still want to see her. Why am I chained up?” asked Cian.

“You are not a prisoner here. We chain up our… guests, due to the violent reactions they generally have upon seeing us. From what I can deduce, your masters, the Dromon, programmed an intense hatred for us into all of you in order to use you as a weapon against us. Kodai, remove this man’s bindings.” said Bann.

“But!” said Kodai.

“Please, Kodai.” said Bann.

Kodai grumbled and walked over. He slowly fished out a key and began unlocking the chains entangling Cian to the chair.

Once that was done, Cian got up and stretched his arms and legs. Reema offered him a robe and he put it on.

Kodai never stopped giving him a dirty glare.

“Come, I will show you your friend and we may talk on the way.” stated Bann.

“Okay.” said Cian. He followed Bann out of the room and down a hall.

“I sincerely hope this disconnect between yourself and the Drom control system lasts long enough for us to study it.” said Bann.

“Pretty sure it’s been going on for a few weeks already.” said Cian.

“So you are aware of it?” asked Bann.

“Look, I appreciate that you unchained me and you’re bringing me to my friend, but who are you people? Where are we? Why should I give you my life story?” asked Cian.

“Ah. I thought you knew. Is our symbol so lesser known already?” said Bann, looking at the lapel of his uniform. “We are the Heralds of the New Dawn. Friend to the oppressed everywhere, and sworn enemy to every oppressor. We are aboard one of our base ships, currently traveling between two Wasteland systems.”

“Vanna spoke of you guys. I remember reading about you too. You freed the Rastlin, right?” said Cian.

“We helped them fight for their freedom, Yes. That was fifty five years ago.” said Bann.

“This is going to sound weird, but humans think you are flesh eating monsters. They’re all under complete mind control. I was chased here by a cruiser and nearly killed because I got spotted and somehow detected as a free human and they were all intent on killing me.” said Cian.

“I see.” said Bann. They arrived at a door and Bann opened it. “Here is your friend’s room. We have been caring for her, but she has been in a deep coma.”

Vanna lay in the middle of the room on a fancy looking bed, hooked up to monitors and an IV. A young Erisian attendant finished checking her and left the room.

Cian went in and touched her. She looked better. He had 19% nanites again, so he risked healing her more. They were silver again instead of the strange kaleidoscope that they were within the Weave. He spent half his Willpower channeling Mend into her. It didn’t seem to do much – he felt bits of damage here and there healing, but couldn’t isolate the problem that was keeping her from waking.

“Remarkable. Do all humans possess this technology? Is that how you kept her alive in the Weave? I suspected you had lost Weave shielding for at least some period of time.” said Bann.

Cian looked over, “I don’t know how many others have the technology. We lost shields for a couple days. Is there anything we can do for her?”

“I am afraid that we have never had anyone survive a coma during Weave Fever. However, her body is significantly less damaged than those patients we have records of. If there is to be a first, it would be her. It is a matter of time.” said Bann.

“I see.” said Cian. He held her hand and sat there for a few minutes.

“May I come in and continue to speak to you, or would you prefer to be alone?” asked Bann.

Cian looked up. “You can come in.”

Bann walked in and sat across from Cian.

“So, you said you somehow broke free and were hunted because of it? Would you be willing to tell me more? We have been under attack by humans for two years with no reprieve. If they are truly prisoners of the Dromon, we would wish to find a way to free them and end the bloodshed and injustice.” said Bann.

Cian took a deep breath and decided to tell Bann what he knew. Maybe this would be where he could figure out what’s really going on? “If I answer your questions, will you answer mine?”

“Surely, Cian. That I can speak to you at all is remarkable. That you are a self-freed slave who escaped a system that not even we could detect as slavery? Incredible. Any knowledge I have is yours to ask.” said Bann.

Cian continued, “I think it was a Weaveborn artifact I got from a Pa’Ran that broke things at first. I used one in order to switch bodies, then died and jumped around a bit more, then floated around kind of… incorporeal for a bit. A spawn room made me a new body, and ever since then I wasn’t able to log out anymore. You see, for humans it’s like a game – we don’t know what’s real. We log out to a world of humans and peace where credits here can be transferred for great wealth there. I don’t know how much of that is real or if Earth even exists, but to all the humans it’s home and here is just a game.”

“Truly? That makes a lot of things make more sense. The way the humans gather great wealth and hand it over freely to the Drom. How they fanatically ignore any words that try to sway their worldview. It must be an audio visual filter of some kind. They claimed that you were all from some lost colony in the Wastes. As far as Earth, assuming it is the one of legend, I must regretfully inform you that the location of Earth is lost. It is known as the cradle of sentients, as all sentient life is believed to have originated from there. The Weaveborn came from there.” said Bann.

“Lost? Could it be that maybe they found it, and it’s this lost colony that they’re talking about?” said Cian.

“Mmm, that is possible. There are numerous shifting connections in the Wastes, and we have barely scratched the surface in our wanderings. They did find something somewhere in the Wastes before this began, but we were unable to intercept them. We have not detected Drom fleets moving through the wastes, but it is possible they have found a route that bypasses our systems. We haven’t mapped many connections to Vim, that’s the Dromon controlled system connected to the Wastes.” said Bann.

“Okay, another thing to research. Anyway, ever since then I’ve been unable to log out. I thought the game was just broken, so I continued on like it was a game for a while. I still have the weird game interfaces, although they haven’t gained experience since the second Weaveborn artifact and I stopped gaining skill at some point too.” said Cian.

“A second Weaveborn artifact?” said Bann.

“Yes. I got it from another Pa’Ran Boundless. It was a helmet device. It was called a … nanite projection amplifier, I think? When I tried to use it, it said something about detecting tampering in my swarm and replaced all my nanites. It said it sacrificed itself to preserve my consciousness.” said Cian.

“Why, that is interesting. It sounds like this device is what fully disconnected you from their systems. Alas, we cannot recreate this particular activation – that type of Weaveborn artifact is extremely rare. I studied one once, years ago, but have never again seen its like.” said Bann.

“Yeah. After that, we got chased by black clad commandos. We got out of there, only to get involved in an altercation in the Valcim mall. Some official claiming to be a game master scanned me with something and demanded my player name and information. That’s when I really thought things were wrong. It ended in a shootout that I barely survived. This woman here, Vanna, saved my life. Removed the bullets. Nursed me back to health. Got a ship. Flew us out of the system. But some player, that is other human, tracked us down. That’s why we ended up jumping here. We got caught in the Weave, they sent a boarding pod into the weave and boarded us during the jump.” said Cian.

“Ah. And yet you fought them off. Impressive. I believe we found some of your attackers. We scooped up the boarding pod, complete with a cruiser jump drive. I suspect your story was much more exciting than you supplied. Onboard were twelve dead men. I had been studying the results of their autopsy before coming to witness your interview. It was quite enlightening to finally have access to bodies where the technology had not self-destructed, as usual. We also found one live soldier, but it sadly seems his interface reconnected when he entered real space again.” said Bann.

Cian looked up sharply, “Did you say one live soldier?! I think that may be a friend of mine. He came with the enemy, but helped me against them when he saw who I was.”

“Interesting. Mmm, let me see.” said Bann. He slipped a controller out of a pocket and tapped some buttons on it, pointing it at the wall. A camera view of Jolan, unconscious on a bed much like Vanna’s, appeared projected on the wall.

“Yes! That’s him! Do you think I could talk to him?” said Cian.

“Ah, I suspect his reception of you would be poor outside of a dead thread. That anomaly is likely what cut him and the others off from their controllers and let him choose for himself. From what I can tell, he is reconnected to the system now.” said Bann.

“What? Dead thread?” said Cian.

“Ah, yes, I should explain. You see, you and your friends came out of what is known as a dead thread. Something caused severe instability during the jump and blew the connection. Both ends immediately closed. Usually everything exiting a jump like that is dead from Weave Fever, although the exact mechanism of it is not understood. I suspect we won’t see a jump going from here back to where you came from for quite a few years. Why, this phenomenon or something like it is what I suspect caused much of the instability in the Wastes. The connection between Drom and Redstone is one such lost link. Dranus and Bora were similarly, but the link came back five years ago.” said Bann.

“It was strange. I didn’t realize that’s what happened. They blew a breaching charge. Then a secondary explosion went off in the form of some kind of prism. It was like a hallucinogenic trip. I heard colors. I saw music. I tasted the colors and music. The whole time I was in there, there was this eerie song. The dead ones in the ship you found died immediately, they weren’t part of the fight. They just dropped like their strings got cut. Vanna dropped immediately too. She was almost dead seconds after, so it must have came with a big dose of whatever causes Weave Fever.” said Cian.

“Interesting. Some kind of sensory effect. I would love to have a recording of this phenomenon, if you possess one. That explains the hundred percent fatality rate – no normal person can withstand that high a dose of the Weave radiation. I wonder if those humans respawned? I suspect when they were being disconnected, it pulled them as a safeguard. Why the others were left, I don’t know. Bandwidth limitation, possibly?” said Bann.

“I don’t think I have a recording, unless the ship made one. If you can pry one out of our ship, feel free to review it. I would like to see it too. Wait, you mean the others – the ones who fought me – might not respawn?” asked Cian.

“Oh, very likely not. I know the Weaveborn respawn system from my research. I have studied many of the rooms and back-end systems. I studied the ones on Kiana Prime early in my career. While it uses backups of consciousnesses, it actually pulls the stream of consciousness from the person. It can then work with it and fix it if it’s data is corrupted, but it will not – cannot – create a clone using a backup. They installed very specific, unbreakable safeguards to that respect when they built the system. No matter how much the Drom alter it, I doubt they could bypass that aspect. Any attempt to alter the system to do otherwise merely produces an empty, sub-sentient body that dies seconds after appearing.” said Bann.

“Huh. I can’t say I would miss seeing Gumbo again. That’s the guy who tried to kill me repeatedly and hunted me down.” said Cian.

“What unusual names. Isn’t that an English word for a type of food?” said Bann.

“You know English?” asked Cian.

“I know a lot of old languages, but a few in particular – English, Russian, Portuguese, German, Spanish, Mandarin, French – we studied to attempt to talk to humans that we captured. I didn’t expect to find you speaking fluent Celduran and Erisian.” said Bann.

“Ah. Heh, to me everything comes out English. I think it’s a translation feature or something.” said Cian.

“Interesting. The Humans are stuffed full of Weaveborn tech. How did they get their hands on so much of it, I wonder? I suppose that would be necessary to let you use the old languages and still speak to us. Probably hooked into whatever filter it is that keeps humans hearing what the system wants them to.” said Bann.

“Yeah. So, uh, anything else you want to know?” asked Cian.

“Oh, plenty. Nothing I need to know right now. Any important questions from you?” asked Bann.

“Everything about the Weaveborn. How the Earth got lost. What the Weave really is. Um. Lots.” said Cian.

Bann laughed. “Is that all? I happen to have some notes on the Weaveborn and our recorded history that I created as an outline for a research paper that I haven’t completed yet, I’ll get a copy on a tablet for you. No one knows exactly how the Earth got lost or where it might be, so no luck there. A lot of old colonies mentioned in the histories have never been found, either. The Weave is mostly theory. We know that it connects systems that contain life. Many of the systems are many thousands of light years apart, but every one of them contains life. We have lost connections to systems where ecological disasters have destroyed life on worlds. Other connections go dead, like the one you came in on, for different reasons – only to come back suddenly years or decades later. Then we have the Wastes, the connections here are scrambled and unstable. We have charted many connections along it, but have never found a reason for the instability or a reason for all the worlds in here being so extremely inhospitable to sentient life.”

“So it’s some kind of force highway between the stars?” asked Cian.

“Mmm, I don’t get the reference, but the weave is in effect a star path that connects all life in the universe. The Pa’Ran worlds are on the network too. Links exist that leave the galaxy as well, although no one has ever been able to take a jump along one. There’s a built in safety that prevents you from jumping anywhere that would take years to arrive. I suspect a galactic jump would require a generational ship. There have been a few initiatives to add links to the Weave, but they require years of slowly flying to nearby stars and attempting to produce enough life on habitats in the system to force a link to form.” said Bann.

“Wow. That’s incredible.” said Cian.

“This has been very enlightening, and I would like to speak with you again, but I need to get back to my dissection of the bodies. I don’t know if they’ll remain viable long and I need to find a way to disconnect other Humans from the system.” said Bann.

“Alright. Uh, do you have food?” said Cian.

“Oh! Of course. I am sorry, I got carried away with the talking and forgot to get you a room and food.” said Bann.

“Can I just sleep here? I want to be here if she wakes up.” said Cian.

“Oh, you may get interrupted by the nurses when they come in.” said Bann.

“That’s fine.” said Cian.

“I’ll have a second bed brought in. What would you like to eat? I’ll have something brought in. Would you like a burger?” said Bann.

“Burgers? Do you mean like a cheeseburger? With fries? And iced tea?” asked Cian.

“Of course. It’s a common street food on many planets. Fried meat on a bun with cheese and vegetables. We have a surplus of burgers, it’s a popular meal among the crew. I don’t believe we have the potatoes that you may be familiar with, but there is a red root vegetable with a similar taste profile. We have a variety of teas, but I suspect you want what was referred to as sweet tea? We have something similar.” said Bann.

“Sounds great. I look forward to it.” said Cian.

“I’ll see you later. Enjoy your meal.” said Bann as he left the room.

“Bye.” said Cian. He relaxed in the chair.

A few minutes later a group of attendants came in. Two of them moved in a bed while another brought a table and finally a tray of food. It was a piping hot cheeseburger with purple fries next to it. A big cup of iced tea sat beside it. Another carried a small tablet.

Cian moved himself in front of the meal and quickly bit into the burger. He chewed, savoring the taste. “Oh man, you gotta try one of these when you wake up Vanna. It’s amazing.” He slurped the tea. It tasted a bit different than he expected, but it was still good.

He picked up the tablet and looked over it. “Bann’s Notes on the Weaveborn & Recorded History” was the title. It was a 4600 word essay listed by date and major event, going from 6000 years pre-collapse to 2452 after-collapse. Most of the information was from something called the Heritage Project, which was apparently a huge archaeological find – some kind of mega time capsule that an ancient people put together. He spent a few hours reading and re-reading the notes.

“If this stuff is accurate, Earth as I know it doesn’t exist… Jupiter was destroyed. I think I would remember Jupiter not existing. Then again, if I’m really from some Wasteland colony… maybe Earth does exist in the Wastes somewhere. Some kind of Earth 2.0 with just the same names as the ones used in this historical cradle of sentients place.” mused Cian quietly to himself. He had more answers than ever, but they left even more questions. Where the hell did the Humans actually come from? Were all of them actually Weaveborn? The tech and immunity to Weave radiation fit.

“Vanna… you gotta wake up soon and help me make sense of this mess. I’m way over my head here. You would at least know if these people are pulling my leg or not.” said Cian.