01.20 – On the Run

Cian woke with a start. Someone was stabbing him in the back!

“Shh, shh. It’s okay. We gotta get these out.” a familiar, comforting voice said.

Pain lanced through his spine as they cut deeper. He faded in and out of consciousness as someone kept stabbing him in the back. He heard a ‘tink’ as something dropped next to him. Then another.

Agonizing seconds passed as they kept digging around in his back with something sharp. Finally, with another ‘tink’ of something falling next to him, the torturer stopped cutting.

“There we go. Can you use your power?” the same voice asked.

Cian suddenly remembered he could heal. He felt for the power, but it seemed distant. Focusing on it, he managed to activate Mend for a few seconds before passing out again.

When Cian woke again he was face down on soft, breathable fabric pad and had something heavy on his back. He panicked and tried to get up.

An arm shot out and pushed him back down. “Shh! Don’t move! Someone will see!” whispered a familiar, female voice. What was her name again?

Cian struggled to remember, but everything was fuzzy. He felt motion, moving on a rolling table or something. He managed to activate his interface. Character status? Right, he was playing a game. He checked his status.

Name: Cian Kemp
Class: Boundless
Strength: 2.5(25)
Endurance: 2.5(25)
Presence: 44
Health: 25/25
Willpower: 110/110
Nanites: 5%
Agility: 2.5(25)
Wit: 44
Will: 11(55)
Stamina: 25/25
Level: 13
Total Experience: 104125/105000
Traits: Iron Will
Character Points: 5
Ongoing Effects: Overexerted Will,
Severe Trauma, Nanite Depletion

Basic Energy Equipment: 8.4%
Combat Reflexes: 26%
Cooking: 1%
Knife Fighting: 4.7%
Marksmanship: 4.9%
Mental Projection (C): 27.4%
Mind over Body (C): 36.5%
Perception: 9%
Polearm Fighting: 8.3%
Psi Defense (C): 24.2%
Psionics (C): 27.5%
Small Arms: 7.7%
Starship Engineering: 11%
Starship Piloting: 3%
Survival: 19%
Tracking 10.9%
Unarmed Combat: 3.9%

Overexerted Will – By reaching your limit and pushing past it, you have overexerted your will. Until you have recovered, your Will functions at 20% of its total.

Severe Trauma – You suffered severe physical trauma and nearly died. Until your body recuperates, all physical attributes function at 10% of normal.

Nanite Depletion – Your nanite levels are dangerously depleted. All nanite-based abilities and regeneration capability severely diminished. Until nanite levels reach 25% of maximum, all abilities cost (25/Nanite Level)X multiplier due to inefficiency. Current usage rate is 5X. Please see local node administration for treatment.

Everything came rushing back to Cian. The Pa’Ran. Being stuck in the game. Vanna and their journeys. The massacre at the mall. The soldiers and the Peacekeeper officer who claimed to be a game master with a weird scanner. The strange way the Gumbo player had responded. Nanite depletion was a new one, but all things considered – Cian felt lucky to be alive.

But what was going on? Cian felt like he had almost enough of a glimpse behind the curtain to see the picture. That man was no game master, and something was obviously manipulating players’ perceptions. He saw it at Gregar’s Hill when people ignored everything he said. He saw it even more in Gumbo’s strange freezing reaction to being told Cian was stuck in the game. It had shut Gumbo down mid-word. And whatever it was had wiped Gumbo’s memory of what Cian said and offered him a billion credits for Cian’s death.

The ‘Non Player Characters’ were all a little too real to be computer code. The ‘players’ were all obviously being controlled. And the ‘game’ felt more real than ‘reality’ ever did. Cian wanted answers. He wanted to rip the curtain down. But where was it, and who was behind it?

Cian’s world tilted and the ride got rougher. Whatever he was rolling on was going uphill across bumpy terrain. A familiar ‘Beep, Beep, Beep’ and whirring motors reminded him of the boarding ramp closing on their patrol ship that they had sold.

“Okay, lemme get you out of there now.” said Vanna as she started moving boxes. Within a few seconds, she pulled away the half-empty crate with a false bottom that had been fit over his head. “Hey handsome. Thought you’d never wake up.”

Cian struggled as he rolled over, coughing as he tried to sit up. A blanket was covering him, but he was still wrapped in bandages and wearing nothing but a pair of shorts.

“Whoa, easy now. You had a lot of holes in you. Don’t want to spring another leak.” said Vanna.

Cian looked around. He was on a thin, soft mattress perched atop a bunch of containers on an old cargo dolly. The room looked like the cargo bay of the gunship. The hold was full, loaded to the ceiling on both sides with secured crates and boxes. “Whose ship are we on? Is this a patrol ship?” he asked.

“Ours. Hope you don’t mind me spending most of your money. I, uh, might have synthesized your voice and used your fingerprints to access your bank account. And you’re close enough on the ship type. Juniper found a nice old Trade Runner with some sweet upgrades for seven mil. The LT Equinox. We were a bit rushed on needin’ a ride out system, so I took the deal. We’re both in it for three and a half. Trade Runners aint bad. They’re engineered on the same hull as the gunships, only a little stretched out with a larger hold. Looks about the same though, yeah?” answered Vanna.

“Oh. Kay.” Cian said as he flopped back onto the mattress. He was too exhausted to care.

Vanna laughed. “Hey, don’t go sleepin’ on me just yet. Let’s get you to your room. The mattress is much more comfortable than that thin pad, trust me.” She rolled him along through the halls, chatting as they went “LT stands for Licensed Trader, it’s got a valid trade license everywhere and we backdated the transfer so it looks like we were the ones flyin’ it in. Should add a bit o’ confusion to anyone tryna find us.”

The layout was much the same as the gunship, and soon they were in the captain’s quarters. The rest of the room was a bit spartan, but the bed looked expensive.

Vanna rolled him over next to the bed. “Here, let me help you.”

With Vanna’s help, Cian managed to move onto the bigger mattress. It felt as nice as it looked, and Cian sighed as some of his body aches eased. “Thanks Vanna. You saved me again.”

Vanna smiled. “Yeah, we keep doin’ that for each other, don’t we? Here, drink this.”

Vanna pulled out a gallon sized pouch with a tube for a straw and put it beside Cian.

Cian took a tentative sip. It was gray and tasted like some kind of fruit smoothie, but had a strong, metallic aftertaste. “What’s that?” asked Cian, making a sour face.

“Just drink it, unless you want me to break out the feeding tube again. Scanner says you got a severe deficiency in most of your minerals. Iron, magnesium, chromium, copper – pretty much all of ‘em. That’s my fruit smoothie with plant based mineral powder. I know it tastes weird, I tried some, but you need it.” insisted Vanna.

“Ugh, feeding tube? When I was out I guess? Well, thanks.” said Cian, sipping the grey concoction.

“Just don’t ask about the other tubes I had to put in you.” Vanna quipped, smirking at him.

“Gah, I better not have a catheter.” said Cian, looking down.

“Don’t worry, you don’t currently have a catheter.” said Vanna.

“Okay. I’ll just forget we had this conversation.” said Cian, sipping his metallic smoothie.

Vanna giggled. She talked while Cian sipped. “We’re still in Valcim, if you were wondering. We had to lay low for a couple days while the heat died down. I don’t know what you did that stirred up this shitstorm, but it’s a big ‘un. Peacekeepers been goin’ crazy, and them black clad commando groups like the ones we saw in Gregar’s Hill are everywhere with their scanners. Not to mention the humans, there must have been a couple thousand out lookin’ for you. Apparently you got some kinda big bounty on you, but I don’t see it on any of the regular bounty boards. Thankfully they don’t have your name or your picture. They’re just looking for the human that don’t scan as a player, whatever that means. If it weren’t for Jin and Riva we woulda been found already. They wouldn’t take a credit in payment, either.”

“Wow. Jin and Riva?” Cian asked between gulps.

“The friends you made when you saved their boy. They own the store we hid in. Jin’s got his head on right, he built a secret door and passage out as a backup plan in case anything ever went south. Even rigged up a remote to take down his store’s security field if he got stuck outside it when it activated. He hid us in his safe house in the city. The Peacekeepers ripped his whole store apart looking for you. They threatened to arrest him and his whole family, but he denied everything and never gave us up. Good man, Jin. His wife Riva shocked the hell outta you when you died and got you runnin’ again. Even helped me get the slugs out of your back and neutralize the toxins, too. Those Peacekeeper rounds are a real piece o’ work.” said Vanna.

“Oh. I died?” asked Cian, incredulous.

“Yeah, you got better.” Vanna smirked. “Riva put some voltage through ya and your heart started again. Peacekeeper rounds are coated and filled with a nasty nerve toxin. Causes weakness, paralysis, and eventually death if you don’t get ‘em out. Armor piercing jackets, too. Nasty design that penetrates armor but embeds in flesh. They punched right through your armor. You had seventeen of ‘em in your back and legs and one glanced off your skull. You’re one tough nut to crack, you know that? Can’t believe you walked as far as you did.” she said.

“Oh. Dang.” said Cian, yawning.

“Yeah. You just drink that and rest up in here. I got us a legit gig flying medical supplies and food out system to Spriggan station in Vindale. Only pays fifty kay, but it’s a rush job headin’ in the right direction. That’s two weeks out away from Peacekeeper territory. Peacekeepers don’t much go out that way, being so close to the Heralds’ space.” said Vanna.

“Heralds?” asked Cian, as he downed a few more gulps of the mixture.

“Heralds of the New Dawn. They’re a pretty reclusive bunch that live out in Weave capable stations scattered around the wastelands. They’re at war with the Peacekeepers.” said Vanna.

Cian yawned again. “Oh. Cool. What are the wastelands?”

“It’s a region of the Weave that’s real dangerous. Most folk don’t go there because none of the worlds are livable. They’re all full of life, just killed everybody who ever tried to tame ‘em. Plagues, parasites, man eating plants – you name it. Flyin’ through there is full of hazards too. Old battle sites spitting out deadly radiation. Anomalies along the threads that take down your shields and expose you to the raw energy of the Weave. The place aint charted, and some say the threads shift. There are legends of threads leading to giant, ship eating space creatures – but the disappearances are prolly just pirates.” explained Vanna.

“Oh. That sounds like Flesh Reaver space.” said Cian. He remembered Jolan, and briefly wondered what had happened with him. He was probably hacking apart Kel rats in Holroy again, unless he had already graduated to whatever the next step was in his character restart plan.

“Never heard it called that. Everyone just calls it the Wasteland or the Wastes. Why don’t you finish that and get some rest? I can answer your questions after you wake up.” suggested Vanna.

“Thanks for taking care of me Vanna. I need to let you in on some stuff. Human stuff that I didn’t think you would understand, but I think I was wrong. Ask me about it when I wake up, okay? You deserve to know as much as I do.” said Cian.

Vanna gave Cian a funny look. “Human stuff? Well, now I gotta wonder ‘bout it for hours while you sleep. Thanks, ya jerk.” she said, winking at him.

Cian laughed, then winced as a sharp pain hit him in the chest.

Vanna frowned. “You get some sleep now, okay? Don’t make me drug you. You need to heal.”

“Yes, mother.” said Cian.

Vanna playfully tapped him on the shoulder lightly with her fist. “Don’t you start! Sleep!”

Cian quickly sucked down the rest of the awful smoothie, closed his eyes, and drifted off to sleep. He had a fitful sleep full of strange dreams of Kitani Syndicate hit squads and hordes of players chasing him for his bounty.

Cian woke to someone saying his name, a savory smell in the air that reminded him of chicken soup. He felt a lot better, and it seemed like some time had passed.

“Cian. Cian. Cian! Hey, Cian. I brought you some real food. I need to check your wounds, too. You been sleepin’ all day. Feel any better?” said Vanna softly from beside his bed. She held a bowl with some kind of soup that smelled wonderful and a bottle of water.

Cian started to speak, but ended up croaking and coughing instead. His mouth was uncomfortably dry.

“Oh, sorry, probably a side effect of the mineral supplement. Here.” said Vanna, handing Cian the water.

Cian sat up and drank a few gulps, the water burning a little as it passed down his parched throat. “Thanks” he managed to say.

“This soup should help. It’s a family recipe.” said Vanna, offering him a spoon full.

Cian took the spoon and ate from it, reaching for the bowl. “You don’t have to feed me. I’m feeling a lot better.”

“Oh, alright, but I really wouldn’t mind. You do look a lot better.” said Vanna, setting the soup down on a side table and continuing, “Let me check your wounds at least.”

Cian turned so Vanna could access his back and helped her unwrap the bandages. Once that was done, he grabbed the soup and ate heartily as she checked his wounds.

“Wow, you heal fast. All sign of infection is already gone, and they’re almost all closed up. You been using your powers?” asked Vanna.

“I don’t think so. Probably the nanites. I’ve learned that my powers are nanite based. I think I’m full of Weaveborn tech. I think all the humans are. I have been making some connections and figuring things out. There is a lot I need to tell you.” said Cian, clearing his throat.

“Weaveborn nanites? In every human? Whoa. That’s military Weaveborn tech. Are you sure?” asked Vanna, looking shocked.

“Pretty sure. We all regenerate. The coming back from the dead thing. It’s all Weaveborn tech. It’s a lot more than that. You saw how that guy in the mall froze and reset like some kind of robot. Every one of the humans is being controlled or manipulated, they all think this is a game. Until recently, I was still holding on that belief. That I was stuck in a game.” admitted Cian.

“A game? What kind of game?” asked Vanna.

“I have memories of another world. I don’t know if it’s real and I was stolen from it, or if all of it was a lie. I grew up on Earth, a lush world full of billions of humans. There weren’t any other intelligent species. We didn’t have space ships or the Weave or artificial gravity or most of the tech that exists here. What we did have was entertainment – lots of it. The biggest new thing was virtual reality entertainment. This world, what I now am recognizing is the real world, was a game. A virtual world where we could go to escape our boring lives to live a life of adventure. Where we could escape and do whatever we wanted without real consequences, because we could always just log out back to the real world on Earth.” Cian explained slowly, coughing a bit and drinking some more broth from the soup.

Vanna was flabbergasted. “Wait… So all the humans believe this? What are we to them, then?”

“Code. Artificial intelligence. A simulated person.” answered Cian.

“So that’s why… That’s why humans are like that. They aren’t actually sociopaths or specieist. To them, humans are the only ones who are real? But you. You’ve seemed different. Why? When did you realize I was real? Have I just been a toy to you?” asked Vanna, anger rising in her voice.

Cian paused as he thought about it. “I don’t know. You’ve always felt real to me. Maybe I knew, deep down? I don’t know. Honestly. Logically? I knew, like, yesterday. That’s when it finally sunk in. It took a while to accept that my whole life might be a lie, that this thing that I thought for years was a game could be real. That the thing that I thought was real could be fake. I don’t know.” he held his face in his hands, tears streaming unbidden through his fingers as he continued, “Everything feels upside down. Are all my memories fake? My whole life, years of memories? My parents, my friends, my world? Am I only a few weeks old, some kind of construct? Or were we all somehow stolen away? Is Earth out there somewhere? I don’t know. I don’t know.” Cian cried.

“Oh, man. I’m so sorry. I didn’t even think about it from your perspective.” said Vanna, her anger evaporating as she continued, “Man. That’s gotta be real messed up. I’m sorry.”

Cian wiped his face and looked up. “You were never a toy. You have been my only friend in all this. If my past is a lie, you might be the first real friend I have ever had. The only one I have. Maybe I only admitted to myself that this world is real yesterday, but you have always been real to me.”

Vanna pulled Cian into a tight hug. “Thank you. For bein’ different. For overcoming whatever mind shit they did to you and bein’ real with me. For saving my life even when you thought I was just a puppet. I know you think I got all my shit together, but I don’t. I needed a friend too. I need to admit some stuff too.”

She paused for a minute, sniffling, before she continued. “My parents aren’t out there, somewhere, on a cargo ship with lots of credits. They’re gone, whole ship disappeared five years ago without a trace. Me and my brother are all that’s left of my family, and he’s a damn privateer for the Peacekeepers. So was I, but I got sick of all the death and killin’. I got connections, but I aint never had real friends. That’s why I went to Chalo. But everyone just died again. And then in that mall. All the damn death and killin’ and pain just follows me. You still thought they was code then, didn’t you? But you helped them. And then I thought you was gonna die. I about fell apart when your heart stopped.” She was crying too, now.

“Oh Vanna, I’m sorry.” said Cian.

They held one another like that for a while, both of them crying. Cian grieved over Earth and his other life. Vanna cried for Chalo and all the death that had followed her throughout her life. Finally they came apart, both feeling a little better.

Cian was the first to break the silence. “We’re in this together, okay? We have a ship and freedom to fly where we want. Maybe we can find answers for both of us. I need to know if Earth is real.”

“Yeah, we’ll get your answers. Don’t worry ‘bout me, though. It’s been five years, I already gave up on lookin’ for ‘em.” said Vanna.

“Doesn’t mean we can’t look. So, what’s next?” asked Cian.

“We’re a few minutes from the jump point, then we got ten days on the Weave to get to Vindale. Then another day and a half to Spriggan Station. Once we’re there, we deliver these supplies and refuel. From there? Where ever you want. You’re the captain, Captain Kemp.” explained Vanna.

“Heh, maybe I’m the captain, but you’re the one doing most of the work. I’ll need a lot of advice, First Officer… Uh, what is your last name, anyway?” said Cian.

“As it should be! And the name’s Voidsail, Vanna Voidsail. And don’t you dare call me Vee Vee!” said Vanna sternly.

“I would never, First Officer Voidsail. Say, Voidsail? Like Venin Voidsail?” asked Cian.

“Yep, that’s me brother. My parents liked V’s.” said Vanna.

“Whoa. I saw a lot of people talking about him. He’s a big time bounty hunter that takes out a lot of human criminals. I guess that’s what being a privateer for the Peacekeepers entails? You worked with him?” said Cian in awe.

“Yeah. Yeah, we flew together for a while. He’s pretty good at what he does, even if what he does aint pretty. Don’t you ever dare tell him I said he was good either, he’s too full of himself already.” said Vanna.

An alarm beeped.

“That’s the jump point. Gotta go calculate our Weave jump.” said Vanna.

“Right. Well, make it so!” said Cian, smiling.

“Aye aye, Captain Kemp. Now lay your arse back down and get some more rest.” said Vanna, smirking.

“Yes, mother.” said Cian.

Vanna punched him in the shoulder.

A few minutes later, the small Trade Runner class cargo ship slipped into the Weave and began its journey along the threads from Kiana to Vindale.

A big man with full power armor and a two handed sword on his back walked into a room and took a seat. The armor had a jetpack and an obvious shield generator, and the sword had a battery attached to the handle. Three dozen or so others were sitting around the room talking among themselves, none of them paying him much attention. Most of them had a guild insignia of a white ‘A’ surrounded by five stars, the rest were free agents.

He looked around, grunted, and removed his helmet. Jolan hummed to himself as he hooked his helmet onto his belt and adjusted his sword. He was sitting in the mess of the PMV (Private Military Vessel) Full House, a Jongleur class light cruiser, waiting for his meeting with a big shot guild leader. If he played his cards right, he might make a fortune on this gig. It was risky, maybe even more risky than his trip into Flesh Reaver space, but like he always said – no risk, no reward.

Jolan hadn’t ever seen any of them before, but he knew the ones with the A insignia by reputation. Aces High was a powerful guild with a solid reputation – if they said they had a lucrative job, it was money in the bank. He only managed to get in on this gig by helping power level one of the recently-deceased members. Something big had went down in the Valcim mall a week ago that left a bunch of the Aces High top brass re-rolling new characters and started a guild war between Aces High and Voracious. Somehow, the guild leader had already jumped up to level 80 again. He didn’t know how they did it – he had been power leveling for a month straight and was only level 45, and he had used every trick in the book. Maybe he had dumped a big wad of cash on buying the levels back?

If the rumors were true, Voracious’ capital station had been nuked – completely annihilated – with some kind of antimatter warheads just yesterday. He didn’t even know antimatter warheads were a thing, but he had seen the explosion. It was visible from Kiana Prime and the station had been all the way out in the asteroid belt.

Suddenly the door opened, and everyone got quiet. A big man in power armor carrying a duffel bag walked in. He unzipped the bag and walked from table to table, dumping out piles of bloody scraps of fabric onto every one. At least a dozen landed on the table in front of Jolan. Each one had a red V with embroidered blood drips, ironically dripping real blood all over the table.

“Some of you know me, the others will learn. This is what happens to our enemies! Aces High!” said the man, Gumbo.

“Aces High!” nearly everyone yelled with him. Jolan joined in late, catching it on the “High.”

“Now, I called you here” the man continued, “for a lucrative mission. Everyone here is either a member, or a trusted friend of a member. The rest of our guild is busy exterminating the rats. I received a lucrative bounty last week, and I intend to claim it before anyone else. All of you will get a fair share, One point five percent a man.”

“Only one and a half percent?” Jolan thought, but he didn’t dare say it out loud. A few others seemed hesitant, since that number would leave Gumbo getting the lion’s share of whatever the bounty was. The hesitation vanished when Gumbo shared the bounty notice. That was the biggest bounty Jolan had ever heard of. Even at 1.5%. That would be enough to buy a ship – maybe two ships. What did the target even do to get that big of a bounty?

“All we have to do is track one man down and kill him. It’s a system bounty, so the payout is immediate. All you need to join is to sign this agreement.” said Gumbo as he pulled tablets out with a contract on them, placing one on each table before continuing “No one learns about this, not even the rest of the guild. No one tries to go out on his own. No one tries to take the bounty for himself. Aces High don’t play, we will know. I will know. We leave in fifteen minutes. Now, who’s in?” said Gumbo.

Everyone signed the agreement.

01.19 – A Spot of Trouble

It only took a few minutes for the two of them to make their way back through the crowds, down the elevator, and to where the sky bridge to the hotel was. But that was as far as they could go – the sky bridge was off and a large crowd had gathered. They could hear sounds of fighting and shouts from the center of the crowd, but couldn’t see anything.

“What’s going on?” Cian asked a random person. They only glared at him and moved away, ignoring his question.

“Hey, what’s up?” Vanna asked another Rastlin in the crowd.

“Humans causing trouble again. Best try to make it to another exit.” they replied, stepping away from Cian and through the crowd.

A gunshot echoed, followed by three more. Several people started screaming, and the crowd panicked.

“Shit, we need to get out of here.” said Vanna, looking around frantically.

People were being pushed against the walls and trampled as the crowd tried to get away from the commotion. Cian put on his helmet and shielded Vanna as best he could as they tried to get away from the violence – she had left her armor and guns in the hotel room. More gunshots and the telltale flash and sound of a laser being fired added to the chaos, and soon the sickening smell of blood and burnt flesh was in the air.

The high pitched sound of coils charging was the only warning before someone opened up with a rotary Gauss cannon. Red hot pellets tore through the crowd as those in the path of it screamed in agony. Several shots pelted Cian and one hit Vanna in the leg. Cian used Surpass Limits to boost his attributes, scooped up Vanna, and ran. He took several hits to the back of his armor before vaulting over the bar into a little ice cream shop in the middle of the path. The glass was all shattered, but the metal of the bar was holding. The terrified employee was huddled under the cash register, hyperventilating.

Metal barriers and security force shields suddenly popped up all around the walls and ceiling, blocking off entrances to stores. More came up a hundred or so feet down both paths leading out, trapping everyone who hadn’t gotten out in a roughly 30’x200’ tunnel. More gunfire sounded as others pulled weapons and joined in.

“Lord help us!” someone shouted. Others screamed incoherently.

Cian set Vanna down and huddled down behind the ice cream bar with her, inspecting her leg. The bullet had missed the bone, but had left a gaping hole straight through her calf that was bleeding freely. He channeled his Mend ability on the wound. It was the first time he had used it since his interaction with the Weaveborn artifact, and it looked different – more defined. Instead of being a blurred silver strand, it looked like a stream of fine glowing dust left his hand and entered the wound. The wound closed, and a silvery cloud drifted back up and seemed to vanish back into his skin.

Vanna looked relieved. “Thanks. For that and the quick thinking, you saved my behind. Guess I shoulda brought the armor. You okay? Felt you take a few rounds.”

Cian could barely hear over the screaming and sounds of gunfire. “I’m okay. The armor held. What is going on? Where do we go now?!” he said frantically.

Vanna tested her leg against the side of the ice cream bar. “This is prolly the best spot for us till the fighting dies down, we aint gettin’ through those security fields. Probably two human guilds fighting. Been goin’ on ever since humans showed up here two years back. The patrol tries to keep the peace, but it’s hard to police folk who value money more than their own lives and can come back from the dead.”

“Yeah. I didn’t know it was this bad. No wonder people hate humans.” said Cian.

Cian peeked over the bar. Survivors were laying on the floor and huddled against the walls and behind other shop stands. Bodies were scattered everywhere, draped over benches and piled up near the far force field. The man with the rotary Gauss cannon was standing in the open near the far force field. It was a monster of a gun, sporting eight barrels and a heavy drum full of pellets. He was heavily armored, but his armor had taken a beating and he was bleeding from several holes in the suit. He was firing off bursts of fire at several groups who were hunkered down behind impromptu cover – concrete planters, flipped over carts, benches, and piles of bodies. They kept popping up and pelting him with various small arms fire. His opponents were mostly armored humans, but a few shoppers in plain clothes had pulled guns and joined the fight.

Vanna peeked over the bar. “Yeah, it’s a guild. See the white ‘A’ insignia? Looks like his buddies are all down, I count seven dead with the same logo. Most of the ones shooting at him have that red ‘V’ logo. I count five still up, at least ten down. A dozen others helping shoot at him. He drew the rest in when he opened up with that damned rotary cannon.”

Cian noticed the insignia. He remembered seeing both of those markings before on the recruitment section of the forums. “You’re right, I’ve heard of them. The white ‘A’ with five stars around it is a group that call themselves the Aces High. The red ‘V’ with the blood drips is a group called Voracious. I knew guilds had rivalries, but I didn’t know they fought in the open like this.”

The one with the rotary cannon shouted “Cowards! Come and face me like men! I’ll kill you all!”

One of the guys with a V logo shouted back “You already lost Gumbo! Even if you somehow live through this, you’ll be chased out system by the Peacekeepers from all the penalty points! Who brings a minigun into a mall? Stupid! We win! Hahahahahahaha!” he laughed maniacally.

“You attacked first, and I’ll put you all in the ground for it! Aces High don’t play, we’re gonna bury your entire guild!” shouted the man back at them. He jammed some kind of syringe into his leg where the armor had been shot away and started limping toward the nearest group of opponents. They were hiding behind a concrete planter, two armored with the Vs and three civilians in plain clothes.

“Help! Please, anyone, help!” someone shouted.

Cian looked over and spotted a young couple with a small child behind a flipped bench. All three of them had been shot, but the boy looked to be near death. The mother was calling for help while the father tried frantically to stop the bleeding.

“Here.” Cian handed Vanna his revolver and jumped back over the bar, headed toward the couple.

“Watch your back!” said Vanna.

More gunfire erupted as the man they called Gumbo made his way to the ones hiding behind the planter. He was running now, and opened up with his rotary Gauss cannon again as he made it there. Within seconds, all five of the ones behind the planter were dead. The man had taken many more shots and was losing blood fast, but it didn’t seem to slow him down any.

Cian took a stray shot in his side, but made it to the woman asking for help. She screamed at first, but he held up his hands “I’m here to help!”

“If you can help, please.” the father said, letting him to his son.

The boy had a hole straight through his lung. Cian put his hand on it and channeled Mend into him – instead of the clunky individual starts and stops he was accustomed to, he simply willed it to heal and poured power into it in one steady stream. It took 150 Willpower, but when he was finished the boy was breathing easy again. He used another 75 stopping the bleeding on the parents’ wounds.

Both of them stared on in awe. The father quietly said “Thank you.” and the mother embraced him, crying.

Cian looked around and saw many that were dying. They might be NPCs, but they felt real enough to him. He decided to do what he could, and started moving between them and using his abilities to stabilize as many as possible. Bullets were still flying and ricocheting unpredictably, but he moved quickly and ducked from cover to cover.

Gumbo had killed most of his opponents by now, but was missing an arm and had a hole in his helmet. He looked like he should be dead, but he propped his gun against a barrier and slammed another injection into himself. He took several shots of laser fire as he reloaded his gun.

As he approached the last group of five that had fired at him, four of them threw down their guns and surrendered. The fifth was one from Voracious, who jumped up and started firing his laser rifle into a hole in Gumbo’s chest armor. A high pitched whine sounded as his gun started firing. Slugs pelted the one with the rifle’s energy shield, then tore through his armor. Gumbo kept firing, and quickly cut through the other four who had been behind the barrier.

“No mercy! Death to all who oppose us! Aces HIGH!” shouted Gumbo. Blood gushed from a chest wound and he dropped to his knees, spent. “Who else?!” he shouted, waving the gauss cannon over his head weakly.

Cries of the dying was the only reply. Everyone who had been involved in the fight was dead. The only other human left alive was Cian, but Gumbo didn’t pay him any attention.

Cian was getting low on Willpower already, but he pressed on. Vanna had puled a trauma kit from somewhere in the ice cream stand and was helping stabilize people. Several others who weren’t too injured saw what they were doing and moved to join, but most still cowered behind cover and waited.

The entire fight had taken less than five minutes. It was another three before the barriers dropped and a response team of thirty heavily armed and armored Peacekeeper soldiers marched in. They pulled Cian away from a woman he was healing and confiscated his weapon, which still hung on the holster on his back.

“Wait! Can’t you see he’s helping? This woman will die without him!” screamed Vanna.

The soldiers simply pushed her away wordlessly and herded Cian toward the center of the area. Cian tried to speak, but one of them hit him with a taser to make it known that words weren’t allowed just yet. They moved him over to where Gumbo was.

Gumbo had removed most of his armor and had been using an expensive trauma kit to seal all of his wounds and clumsily give himself a blood transfusion with his one remaining arm. The soldiers pushed Cian over next to him and stood around in a perimeter near them as others moved to check on the wounded and dead.

“’bout time you bots arrive. Voracious attacked us right in the middle of the mall! My boys are all dead. But I’m sure you’ll pin this shit on me. Don’t look at me like that, I got the credits. I’ll pay the fines.” said Gumbo. He seemed to read something for a moment, and continued “Over nineteen thousand penalty points? That’s uncalled for! They shot at me first! I’m not responsible for collateral damage in self defense!”

“Dude, you fired an automatic weapon into a crowd and killed dozens of innocent bystanders. Are you a maniac?” said Cian.

Gumbo seemed to notice Cian for the first time. “Who the hell are you? They got human NPCs now?” asked Gumbo, looking Cian over.

Wait, this guy was talking to him. Cian saw his chance to finally get someone to help – not exactly the best situation, but when else was he going to do it? “Uh. No, I’m not an NPC. The game screwed up. I’m stuck in my pod and can’t log out. Actually, can you submit a help request for me? I’ve been trying to get help for a while but everyone thinks I’m an NPC.” said Cian.

“Wait, you mean you’re a player stuck in th…” Gumbo started, but he suddenly froze mid-word. His mouth was open and his tongue had just stopped in the middle of the ‘th’ sound. His eyes were staring ahead.

“Uh, you okay?” asked Cian.

A Peacekeeper without a helmet walked up. He had a circle insignia with two right-facing chevrons in it on his armor over his left breast, probably showing rank, but Cian wasn’t familiar with it. The others stepped aside to let him pass and stood at attention for him.

He pulled out a scanner and ran it over Gumbo. “Player Gumbo. You have been involved in the deaths of seventeen other players and at least fifty civilians, plus property damage on the structure. Pending investigation, you may not be charged with the deaths of the active combatants. You will be held until such a time as your penalty expires or you pay reparations. If you come peacefully, you will not be harmed. If you resist, we will use deadly force.”

He then moved to scan Cian. He ran it over him several times, tapped it a few times, and tried again. He looked at Cian and at the scanner, and seemed nervous. “Uh… Player. You will be detained pending investigation into these matters. Please provide your name and number of penalty points received from this altercation.”

“He didn’t do anything! He was helping!” Vanna shouted over the soldiers. Several other voices joined in, insisting that he had helped.

The woman whose boy he had saved shouted “He saved my son!”

One of the soldiers interrupted, “Sir, his weapon hasn’t been fired recently. He was found tending to the wounded.”

The Peacekeeper officer attempted to scan Cian again. “Regardless, you must be detained pending an investigation. Please provide your name.”

Cian was confused. Gumbo was still frozen like a statue, and whatever scanner this guy was using wasn’t picking up his player information. Yet he was still treating him like a player. Was this guy a game master? Maybe some of Vanna’s paranoia was rubbing off on him, but he didn’t want to drop his name if he could avoid it. “Uh, I received no penalty points from this altercation. I’m sorry, I’m having some difficulties with my interface. Are you a game master? I need assistance.”

The officer was still trying to scan him and seemed increasingly nervous. “Yes. I am a game master. Please remove your headgear and provide your name, player. Assistance cannot be provided until I have your name and likeness.” he insisted.

Now Cian was even more suspicious. If he really was a game master, he would have full access to his in-game name, real name, and any other information – he should even be able to pull up his vitals and see that something was wrong with his pod. And what the hell had happened to Gumbo?

At that thought, Gumbo suddenly jerked back to life. “ee game. Er, what? What was I saying again?” He paused to read something, and continued “Whoa, is this for real? A billion credit quest reward for offing one guy? Bonus quest! Freaking JACKPOT!”

The officer blanched and stepped away, talking quietly in his comm. The rest of the soldiers seemed confused.

“Are you okay? What are you talking about?” asked Cian.

Gumbo didn’t seem to hear. He quickly pulled three syringes out of his bag with his one arm, jabbed himself systematically in the leg, shoulder, and neck; then suddenly jumped at the soldiers. With a feral look on his face he barreled through and past them, going for his Gauss cannon that had been set aside nearby.

One of the soldiers fired at him, and everything went crazy. He took a few rounds to the chest, but kept moving – amped up by whatever combat drugs he had injected into himself. As soon as his hand wrapped around the rotary cannon he flipped the switch to cycle it up, pulling the trigger a split second later. He swung it around in an arc as it spit dozens of rounds. Several of the soldiers fired back, but most dove for cover.

Cian turned to run through the soldiers as a round pelted into the back of his helmet. Gumbo was firing full auto at Cian, tracking him as he ran through the crowd and hitting soldiers and civilians alike who got in the way.

The soldiers ignored Cian, trying to fan out and fire back at Gumbo without getting in the way of friendly fire. Their rounds were tearing Gumbo apart, but he just kept shooting. Bullets pinged off cybernetic implants in his head and chest, encasing his vital organs and spine. Others penetrated the metal, but failed to take him down.

As Cian ran, he saw Vanna motioning to him from one of the stores nearby and ran for it. She ducked inside to avoid the wild gunfire following him, and Cian used the last of his Willpower to boost his speed and dashed madly for the entrance.

Gumbo finally dropped to their sustained fire, and the Peacekeeper officer managed to get the soldiers attention. He shouted something about the fugitive escaping, and the soldiers turned their attention to Cian.

“Stop or die, player!” yelled the Peacekeeper officer at him.

Cian kept running, he was almost into the store.

The soldiers opened fire, sending white hot pain through Cian’s back and legs as the rounds tore through his armor.

Cian dove and slid into the store like a runner stealing home plate. A bullet pinged off his head mid-slide and his vision swam.

Vanna grabbed him and jerked him out of the line of fire, pulling him up and through the aisles at a frantic pace.

Cian’s health was falling rapidly and his sight was fading. Blood poured out of his back and down his legs. He channeled his Mend ability to try and stop the bleeding as Vanna drug him along, but that put him at negative Willpower and only made his vision blur more. Still he kept channeling, going deeper and deeper into negative Willpower but keeping himself moving.

They turned down an aisle near the back of the store and the man whose child Cian had healed earlier was waiting, holding open a hidden hatch and beckoning for them to come.

Cian stumbled down the steps into the hidden basement of the store, then fell down.

“Is he dead?” a timid child’s voice asked.

“No, help me move him!” said Vanna.

“He will be if we don’t get him help!” said a woman’s voice.

The last thing Cian saw was the worried face of the mother of the child he had healed.

01.18 – Return to Valcim

Vanna pulled out a tablet and sent a text message. In a few minutes, she got a reply.

“I need to get me one of those.” said Cian.

“What? Oh, the tablet? Yeah. Picked it up in Gregar’s Hill. Only two thousand credits. Got a new portable comm relay for my helmet, too.” said Vanna.

The pair got in an automated taxi shuttle and Vanna put in the address. Cian paid the 25 credit fee. Soon they were flying over downtown Valcim, heading toward a large office building.

“Who is this guy we’re going to see?” asked Cian.

“He’s a professional middleman. I only know him by his code name, Juniper. He finds things for people, for a modest fee. He’s a little eccentric, but he’s good. He’ll find us a deal and even negotiate the price for us. His fee will be included, but with his negotiation skill it’ll be ‘bout the same or less than what we’d pay if we found it ourselves. And it’ll be a private sale, just in case the Syndicate is looking for you by name.” said Vanna.

“I thought you said there was no chance they could track us down?” asked Cian.

Vanna laughed. “I pride myself in bein’ overly paranoid when it comes to powerful criminal syndicates and black ops orgs.”

Cian smiled. “Fair enough.”

Their shuttle landed on a small balcony landing pad attached to one of the larger high-rises and the two of them hopped out. Several large offices were on this level, but most of them weren’t labeled beyond a number. Their destination was a small office down a side hallway. Unlike the other offices, there weren’t any windows facing the hall, and the door was solid starmetal. A camera overlooked the door and a small intercom and number pad was next to it.

Vanna pushed in a twelve digit code and spoke into the intercom. “Hey Juniper. It’s Vanna. Got a friend with me. We need your services.”

The door clicked and slid open. Inside was a small hallway with another, identical door.

Vanna walked in and motioned for Cian to do the same. He followed, and the first door slid closed. A scanner beam swept the room, and an automated spoke over a speaker in the ceiling. “Please place all weapons and explosives in storage.” A small panel slid open beside the far door, exposing a storage cubby.

“Don’t worry, we’re safe here. Juniper just takes his security seriously.” said Vanna as she put her pulse pistol and pair of Gauss pistols in the tray.

Cian followed suit, putting his pulse laser gun and the revolver he had taken as his sidearm on the tray. “Okay.” he said when he was done.

The tray closed, and another scanner beam swept the room. The automated voice said: “More weapons detected. Please place all weapons and explosives in storage.” The tray popped open again, empty now.

“Oh, sorry.” said Cian as he slid his backpack full of Pa’Ran spear tips into the tray.

The tray closed again, and another scanner beam swept the room. The automated voice said: “Thank you. Have a nice day.” as the door opened.

The inside of the office was not what Cian had expected. It was cluttered. All kinds of toys and knickknacks were all over the place. Newton cradles, Rubix cubes, mechanical puzzles, 3d puzzles, and various logic puzzles and gadgets that Cian didn’t even recognize took up most of every surface. The walls were covered in various optical illusions.

A stocky fellow a bit shorter than Vanna, around 4’4”, stepped out from a back room. His skin was a dark gray and he had a long, graying, black beard. He was dressed in a black business suit and wore a gray fedora with a bright red feather in it. What stood out the most about him were his eyes – they were jet black, seemingly all pupil with no sclera. In his hand was a large caliber sub-machine gun of some type.

Cian recognized him as a Boralan.

“Vanna my friend! Always a pleasure to see your lovely face. I heard about what happened in Chalo. I’m sorry.” Juniper gave Vanna a side hug with his free arm, seeming to notice Cian for the first time. “And a human!” Juniper sneered as he said ‘human’ and his demeanor instantly went from warm to ice cold. “Who’s your friend, Vanna?” he said, casually waving the SMG at Cian as he asked about him.

“Juniper, meet Cian. He’s saved my life several times over now, you can trust him. Like I said, we need your services.” said Vanna.

“But he’s a human. A human!” insisted Juniper, waving the SMG around with fervor.

Cian just stared at the gun and at the two of them. “Uh… I don’t m-”

“Shush, human!” interrupted Juniper, anger evident in his voice. He was pointing the gun directly at Cian’s head now.

Vanna stepped in between the two of them, right in front of the gun. “Hey! Don’t point that at my friend. If you don’t want our business, we’ll go elsewhere.” she said firmly.

Juniper’s demeanor instantly warmed again and he lowered the gun. “Fine. If you vouch for him I guess I can tolerate his presence.” He smiled sweetly at Vanna. “What do you need, my lovely friend?”

We need a ship. Something basic for delivery runs with decent agility and some teeth. If it’s got aftermarket defense upgrades that’s a plus. Maybe an upgraded Merchantman or Trade Runner. Or an old Express Hauler if you can find a smuggler refit. Nothing that stands out too much. Budget’s around five, seven if it’s got all the bells and whistles.” explained Vanna.

Juniper smiled. “Oh ho ho, I get to put the great Vanna back in a ship? Never thought I’d see you headed off world again. I’ll find you something good, love. Don’t you worry.”

“Thanks Juniper. Lemme know when you find something. We’re gonna head out. Been a long month, gonna find a nice place to relax.” said Vanna.

“Thank you Juniper. It was nice meeting you.” said Cian.

“I’ll have you something by end of day, my friend.” Juniper said to Vanna. He ignored Cian entirely. He walked back into the other room, and the door to the entry hall opened.

Cian and Vanna went back into the entry hall. The panel in the wall opened with all of their weapons in it and they gathered their gear.

“Sorry about that. I knew he’d had bad dealings with humans, but I didn’t think he would behave like that. ‘Specially after I vouched for ya.” apologized Vanna as they left the office.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m starting to see how humans have been treating others, and I can understand how people feel about us.” replied Cian as they walked toward the building’s exit.

“That still don’t excuse his prejudice. Ya can’t just treat someone like that ‘cause of their species, even if other folks done ya wrong. It aint right. He’ll do the job and get us a good deal, but I don’t think I’ll be usin’ him again.” said Vanna.

Cian got the door and followed Vanna out, then leaned against the wall on the balcony. “So, what now?” he said.

Vanna pulled out her tablet. “Gotta get you some kinda device so we can keep in touch. Then I wanna go rent a room to stow this gear and find me a nice spa. You can join me if ya want.” said Vanna as she tapped away on her device.

“Yeah, I do need to get me something.” Cian agreed. He wasn’t accustomed to needing a device to interact with the world – his interface normally provided maps, communication with other players, and bank account information. But it hadn’t done that ever since he used the alien device. “I’ll let you have your spa day to yourself, though. I have some things I need to do.” he finished.

Vanna smiled. “Fair enough. I called us a taxi. We can hit the mall and get you fixed up.”

An automated taxi shuttle landed in front of them and the door popped open. The two of them hopped in and Vanna set the destination and paid the fee. The taxi lifted off and zoomed toward the mall.

“Been a while since I been shopping at a proper place! You ever been to the Capital Mall? It’s pretty great.” Vanna said excitedly.

“Not really. Just the clinic here. Last time I was here things were a bit hectic, I didn’t get much shopping in.” replied Cian.

Vanna’s enthusiasm faded. “Oh, right, you said you were here during the attack.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring it back up.” apologized Cian.

“No, it’s okay. Heard they hit this place a couple days before Chalo. How’d you end up on the other side of the planet after that?” asked Vanna.

“Uh… It’s… complicated. I’m not entirely sure what happened.” Cian said.

“What do you mean?” asked Vanna.

Cian wasn’t sure how Vanna would react if he told her everything, and he didn’t understand it himself, so he edited it a bit. “It’s a bit confusing to be honest. I fought in the attack here, we lost. The Pa’Ran took me with them to Chalo. I witnessed the end of the attack and tried to help the defenders, but they blew us apart with the ship guns. Then I woke up in the Chalo spawn bunker.” he explained.

“Oh. Like, they took you as a soldier? And you broke off and fought against ‘em?” asked Vanna.

“Something like that.” agreed Cian.

“Then you died. And came back to life in the bunker?” asked Vanna.

“Yeah. I know, it’s weird.” said Cian.

“Yeah, but it’s okay. I know you humans can use those things. It makes you a new body and uploads your mind or something, but you don’t always come back out quite the same. Would you pop back up in one if you died again?” asked Vanna.

“I’m not sure. That artifact did something and things don’t feel the same now. That’s one thing I wanted to look into while you visit the spa. I want to figure out what it did and what’s different.” explained Cian.

“Oh. Wish I knew someone to help, but I don’t know anyone who knows about any of that in Kiana. If my pa was around he might be able to help, he’s dealt with Weaveborn relics since I was a babe. But who knows where he’s at now, probably on some lucrative cargo run on the other side of the network. Not too many folk know much about those things ‘cept the Kitani, but they aint sharing. It’s a dangerous hobby to have.” said Vanna.

“Yeah. I’m going to try to talk to other humans. Maybe one of them will be able to help me figure out what’s up.” said Cian.

“Just be careful what you say. You don’t want any word getting out about what went on that attracted those goons. I doubt they’ll take your word for it that the device is gone now, and even if they do they might wanna take you apart and study you.” warned Vanna.

The taxi shuttle approached the mall. The structure was immense – the center was a huge skyscraper topped with an ornate spiral spire that towered over neighboring buildings, and four shorter but still large buildings connected to it by sky bridges. The entire thing was covered in advertisements for various products. A shirtless, plain looking Boralan man with a strikingly beautiful Erisian woman twice his height in a swimsuit were advertising some kind of cologne. A Celduran woman in lingerie with a laser cannon much like the one Cian had was advertising a gun store.

“What does a half naked woman licking a gun have to do with quality guns?” asked Cian, laughing.

Vanna giggled. “Beats me. Look at that one!” She pointed to a holographic ad showing a Rinjorn dancing a jig. It was an ad for a restaurant called the ‘Happy Rinjorn Saloon.’

Cian and Vanna shared a good laugh at the ridiculous ads as their taxi landed.

They landed on a rooftop pad on one of the outer buildings of the mall. It was a luxury hotel, which only had parking zones for taxis. They quickly departed the taxi and a couple that was waiting hopped into it. Cian and Vanna took the elevator to the lobby, located at the center of the building next to the main sky bridge to the mall.

“I’m gonna get a room to stow my stuff. You getting one too?” said Vanna.

“Isn’t this place expensive?” asked Cian.

“Only like five thousand credits. Live a little!” said Vanna

Cian blanched. Five thousand for one night? “I’ll think about it. I’ll wait here for you.” he replied.

“Righto, see ya. Gonna grab a quick shower too.” said Vanna, approaching the front desk.

Cian looked over the interactive map on one of the terminals in the lobby while he waited. It turned out that the other three of the four surrounding buildings were mostly parking – the ground floors were parking garages, and the top levels had landing areas and hangar systems similar to the setup at DD Shipworks. Sandwiched between the parking areas were levels with a large daycare area, food court, and compact apartments for rent. The small apartments were the type that most players rented, since they didn’t sleep in the game and just wanted a place to store things and safely log out.

The mall proper was all located inside the high rise. Each level was nearly identical, laid out as a loop with stores all along the outside and inside of it. Some of the larger stores were located in the center of the building and on the corners. Elevators going between levels were located in the middle of the walkway at each corner, and a single stairwell was located in the center of the building. Filtering by product type, Cian found over two dozen different stores that sold communicators and other electronics.

Just then, Vanna walked up wearing a modest white, floral print summer dress with blue flowers. All her fur was neatly brushed out and her hair was pulled back into a pony tail. “Miss me?” she said.

Cian looked her up and down. “Hey, wow. You clean up nice. Where did you get the dress?” said Cian appreciatively.

Vanna blushed “Oh, just a little something I picked up in Gregar’s Hill. Hadn’t got a chance to wear it till now.” said Vanna, then she noticed what Cian had been looking at on the map and continued, “Oh, you don’t need to find a store. Most of those places only sell branded junk. We want unlocked hardware. We need to go to Unlimited Power. Goofy name, great stuff.”

“Oh, okay. Lead the way, oh wise and beautiful one.” said Cian, smiling as he beckoned for her to take the lead.

Vanna punched him on the arm, smiling and shaking her head as she moved toward the sky bridge.

They stepped out to the sky bridge. It was a sealed tunnel, and a steady stream of little platforms full of people zipped back and forth at alarming speeds. Cian followed Vanna through the crowd and onto the little platform. He was surprised when the noise of the crowd suddenly vanished and the platform zoomed across the skybridge without any feeling of motion. In seconds they reached the other side and outside noise resumed.

“What was that?” asked Cian as they disembarked the platform.

“Huh? Oh, you never been on an inertialess platform? Just uses force shields and antigravity to keep you from feeling the air or the G’s. Same tech they use on ships.” said Vanna.

“Oh, okay. First time is all.” said Cian.

“Yep. Let’s hit the elevator, Unlimited Power is on level 115.” said Vanna.

The mall path was wide, about 30’, with stands scattered around in the middle of it. The mall was crowded with all kinds of different people, but it only took a few minutes to find the elevator and make it to level 115. The elevators and shafts were all made of glass or some other clear material, and used the same inertialess technology that the platforms did to move at extreme speeds between levels. All the levels and people blurring by as the thing moved was a bit disorienting.

Unlimited Power was a small shop in the middle of the 115th level. It was fairly busy, and the walls were stacked from ceiling to floor with various electronics and components. They even had a section for cybernetics with implants and limbs. Cian felt a bit out of place. Not a single other human was in there, and all the other customers were giving him a wide berth.

“So whatcha want for communication? Over the ear headset? Handheld communicator? Tablet? Cranial implant? They got comm links that go in the helmets too, but you gotta put it on to use it.” asked Vanna as they looked over the available options.

“I guess the same thing you got. A tablet and a comm for the helmet.” answered Cian, picking up a tablet box and reading about it.

Vanna pointed out a tablet and a comm link in plain, unbranded white boxes. “These are good. Not bad price either. Only 2150 and 1550. This tablet’s better than mine, will work good for ya. The comm link installs in your helmet just like mine, be good if we get in a combat situation. I’ll help you flash em both to a custom firmware my family uses, more secure than the mass market crap.”

“Okay, that works for me. Thanks.” Cian said, grabbing the suggested items and heading for the checkout.

As they left the store, Cian had a thought and asked Vanna “Aren’t purchases like this traceable? If they knew who I was, couldn’t they see where I’ve been from where I’m spending money?”

“From credit chips? Nah, they’re anonymous. That’s why people like ‘em, just gotta make sure not to lose it or keep too much on it. And the bank we’re using doesn’t collect any location data when you transfer funds to or from a credit chip. That’s why we set it to use your fingerprint combined with voice and the password you set for any external transfers out – anyone transfers money out of it, it aint comin’ back. Now let’s head back to my room to set your stuff up.” said Vanna.

“Okay.” agreed Cian.

They both headed back the way they came, with Cian in the lead this time.

01.17 – Liquidating Assets

Cian stood there staring at the empty space where his gunship had been less than an hour ago. The men in sleek black power armor were scanning the site and questioning bystanders, but hadn’t noticed him yet. He was still standing there staring at them when a pebble suddenly pegged him in the side of the head.

Cian looked over and spotted Vanna behind a building, motioning to him frantically. He quickly stepped back and away from the docking area and moved to meet Vanna.

“What’s going on?” asked Cian in a hushed voice.

Vanna shushed him and motioned for him to follow.

Cian followed Vanna through alleys and around buildings for a good twenty minutes before they came upon a large building. Vanna punched a code into a keypad and a door opened to let them in.

Inside was nothing but a huge empty space, and in the middle stood their little gunship. The roof had enormous retractable doors. It was a private hangar.

“What’s going on? Where are we?” asked Cian again as the door closed behind them.

“Private hangar owned by a friend of Borano’s. I had to pay two thousand credits to use it, plus another three thousand to scrub the dock logs. I don’t know what you did, but it attracted some real bad attention. Kitani Syndicate, or some other black ops with serious power who don’t like flying their colors. You do something with that artifact we found?” explained Vanna accusingly.

“Uh… Yeah. I forgot about it until you and Borano left. Sorry, I didn’t mean to do it without you.” said Cian sheepishly.

“Don’t worry about that. What’d it do? Where is it?” Vanna asked.

“It said it was a nanite projection amplifier. It was letting me move stuff with my mind, but it did something weird when I activated it. It said something about restoring my mental function and replacing nanites. Then it just dissolved, and I feel different now. A hundred mil down the drain, sorry.” Cian said, looking at the ground.

Vanna paled. “Nanite projection amplifier? And it let you move things with it? Oh, hell. Forget the money, we might be in deep. That kind of nanite tech is military grade. Military Weaveborn tech is highly desired by damn near everyone. Especially the Kitani Syndicate. It must have emitted some kind of signal.”

Now Cian looked pale. “Oh. It, uh… may have connected to some kind of remote storage?”

Vanna shook her head. “Leftover Weaveborn tech. Controlled by the Syndicate or I’m a raging rinjorn. You just kicked up one hell of a janga’s nest.”

Cian had no idea what a janga was, but got the idea. “Yeah. How did you get the ship away from them?”

“Stealth shuttle buzzed right over us. Real low, in restricted airspace. Had a bad feeling so I booked it back to the ship. They were buzzing the area triangulating whatever signal they had. I messaged Borano and as soon as they set down I took off for this hangar. Figured a couple thousand credit gamble is worth being wrong if wrong means dead.” said Vanna.

“Dang. Good job, I was in the market and didn’t even see anything. So what do we do now?” said Cian.

Vanna put her hand on her head and sighed. “Gotta get out of here. Whatever that artifact did, if it left a residual on the ground it prolly left something in the ship an’ on you too. Need to unload the ship somewhere and you gotta lay low for a bit. We aint been here long enough for too many lips to be talkin’ about us or know the ship’s registry. Pretty sure I got the dock log scrubbed ‘fore they tracked it down, so we may just get outta this.” She looked terrified.

“You know, you could just walk away. We already set the bounty payout to be split between us. If I manage to sell the ship I’ll send you half that too. I don’t want you to get killed because I screwed up.” said Cian.

“You didn’t walk away when I was bleedin’ out in the sands. I aint walkin’ just ‘cause things got more interesting. I’m with you, captain.” said Vanna, clapping Cian on the shoulder.

“Heh, I won’t be much of a captain when we sell the ship. But I appreciate the sentiment.” said Cian.

“We should head out soon, ‘fore they track us here. I’ll coordinate with Borano and make sure we launch when they aint looking. Let’s head to Valcim. It’s the biggest ship market on the planet, and I’m sure we can unload this thing quietly at a decent price. The weapon systems on this thing are restricted to most civilians unless you buy ‘em used or get ‘em in a salvage haul, so it should fetch a nice price. The missile fire control alone should fetch close to a mil, even without the ammo.” said Vanna.

“Oh, wow. I guess the salvage fees weren’t as bad as I thought. Ok. Let’s go, then.” said Cian as they started toward the boarding ramp.

Cian hesitated for a moment as they entered the ship. This was all still a game, right? He still needed to get a player to contact support for help. But avoiding death when he was stuck in game like this seemed prudent, and he reasoned that Valcim had more players to ask for help anyway.

Vanna contacted Borano on the ship’s communications. “Hey Bee. Need a clear day for our picnic. Got a weather report for me?”

It only took a few seconds for Borano’s reply to come back over the comms. “Hey girl. Got a clear day for now, but the rain clouds are moving in here from the west in another five. Maybe make that picnic quick, yeah? See you out there girl. Thanks for catchin’ up.”

“Thanks Bee. See you when I see you.” Vanna replied.

Vanna sent a command to the hangar, and the doors above started opening slowly. As soon as they were open enough Vanna gunned the engines and zipped out, narrowly avoiding the doors. She darted toward the northeast and dipped into the other traffic heading into orbit. Vanna pointed out the sleek black ship flying low over the city, heading toward the hangar they had just left from the west. Only her keen eye spotted them, the ship’s sensors hadn’t detected them. If their pursuers saw them, they didn’t make any effort to follow.

Now that they were out of harm’s way, Cian used one of the ship’s computers to quietly send Vanna five thousand credits to cover the money she had spent saving their ship. If she noticed, she didn’t say anything.

Valcim was on the opposite side of the planet, but with Vanna’s orbital flight path and the speed of the gunship the trip only took thirteen hours. Vanna spent some time explaining the controls and the basics of space flight to Cian before letting him take the first shift at the controls. Both of them had a turn sleeping for a few hours, and they arrived at the city in the early morning.

The city was much different from what Cian had seen the last time he was here. Billboards were lit up everywhere he looked, projecting advertisements for shops from restaurants to scrap dealers to about anything else you could imagine. A steady stream of small shuttles flew through a giant rotating hologram of a grenade launcher, detailing the specs of it and a list of local arms dealers that stocked it. The airspace was full of shuttles and all manner of flying vehicles.

The ground traffic was even more diverse, with large animals, mechanical walkers, hovering vehicles, and wheeled vehicles moving along the same roads. The sidewalks were crowded with foot traffic, with humanoids of all shapes, sizes, and colors among the crowd. A hulking reptilian looking creature stood out in the crowd, wearing simple clothes but towering above everyone else, but Cian’s interface didn’t provide any helpful hints anymore on what its species might be.

There were a few signs of the Pa’Ran attack – a damaged building here, a bit of rubble there – but for the most part the city looked to have bounced right back to the status quo.

“You ever been here?” Vanna asked, interrupting Cian’s musings.

Cian nodded. “Yeah. Right before the attack and a bit during. Was a lot different then. Looks like they bounced back pretty quick.”

“Always do. Can’t stop capitalism. I aint ever been too fond of the bigger cities. Too crowded, lotta crime. But Valcim aint bad. It’s the best place to get pretty much anything ya need. Or to quietly sell anything ya don’t.” said Vanna.

“Yeah, it’s pretty impressive. So, where we headed exactly?” asked Cian.

“DD Shipworks. Already got us docking clearance. My brother has done some work in, heh, formerly owned ship acquisition. He’s used these guys before. Salvaged patrol ships like these are tracked with a keen eye, but most of the customers who want the firepower don’t want the attention. They’ll pay us a good price and piece it out as upgrades for their other ships. Most of the stuff on this thing aint available on the open market without expensive licenses, but having a valid salvage number gets past that if they ever get searched.” said Vanna.

“Won’t the Kitani guys just track it down here and figure out that we’re involved, then come after us?” asked Cian.

“Even if they track it down, in a couple days there won’t be enough left to scan. There won’t be a record of the ship being sold here, it’ll just be scrapped and listed on the docket of some company that don’t exist. In a couple months the transponder code will be sold on the black market. The parts’ll digitally pass through a couple holding companies and won’t show up as part of any ship, unless they get tagged by the authorities and their salvage history traced. At this point we’re just bein’ paranoid, they prolly don’t even know this ship was parked in that spot when it happened. But if they’re extra thorough and scan every ship that had been spotted in it, they won’t find this one. No chance of ‘em tracking us down.” said Vanna.

“Alright. I don’t know how any of that works, but I trust your judgment.” said Cian.

Vanna showed Cian a list of valuable parts in the ship and what she had expected to get from them. If they played their cards right, she expected they could get four million for the gunship. It was more than Cian expected, considering the little gunship didn’t have an FTL drive and had so much damage. The two of them made a plan to let Vanna do most of the negotiation.

Soon they arrived at DD Workshop. Their logo was a flying dog with ship engines on its sides, and the DD stood for Dependable Dog. Cian hadn’t really noticed any dog references until now, but it seemed man’s best friend made it into the game after all. It was a busy used ship lot on the side of the city, with a massive automated ship garage and a lot of paved real estate. It looked like they had quite the stock – most of the outside space was taken up by large cargo ships.

They landed on the top level of the garage and were secured with an overhead docking clamp. A series of tracks whisked the ship along to an elevator and down into the building past many other hangars. Some were empty, but most were occupied by ships of varying types and sizes. After about five minutes, their ship was dropped off at a small hangar at the far end of a basement level.

As they disembarked a tall, lithe man with flawless pale skin and an equally flawless white suit came out of a doorway and headed toward them. He was about seven and a half feet tall, and his short hair was trimmed neat and had a metallic sheen to it like polished chrome. As he approached, his eyes flashed in the light – a bright aquamarine, almost glowing in the dim lighting. Cian’s interface wasn’t offering any details, but from what he remembered he was pretty sure this guy was Erisian – a species known for being ridiculously tall, having freaky blue glowy eyes, and for the pale skin and shiny metallic hair.

As he approached, the man smiled with a smile even brighter than his hair. He moved with effortless poise and style and spoke eloquently with a lilting, sing song tenor. “Ahh! You must be Cian and Vanna! I am Lorian Kenratha, but you may call me Lor! You spoke to my secretary on the comms. I am so tremendously pleased to make your acquaintance!”

Vanna said “Hi Lor. We’re here to sell.” and offered her hand for a handshake.

Lor bowed, grabbed the offered hand, and quickly kissed it. “Oh, no talk of business yet, lovely one!” He smoothly switched targets and gave Cian a firm handshake. “Come, come! You must be famished from your trip! I have delightful sandwiches in my office!” At that, Lor beckoned them to follow and glided off toward his office.

Vanna and Cian shared a look as they were led into the office. This guy was slick, and Cian recognized a used car salesman in any universe. The office walls were covered in images of captains and crews standing in front of newly purchased ships, huge smiles plastered on their faces. A family photo was prominently displayed on his desk. His wife was also Erisian, and her and their three kids were immaculately dressed and groomed – it was a picture perfect family.

Lor gestured to the sandwich platter on his desk, and didn’t sit until everyone had taken one. “So, tell me of your adventure! How did you come to fly a patrol gunship? I love to hear what brought friends to my door!” enthused Lor.

“We acquired it as part of a salvage venture. Now we are looking to liquidate and reinvest. Just business, friend.” said Cian.

“All claims and salvage licenses have been filed. The ship has been checked and acquisition approved by the patrol base who formerly owned it. Here is the relevant paperwork with the choice components highlighted. You’re a friend of my family, so we came to you first. We want fair market value.” added Vanna as she handed Lor a tablet with all the information on it.

“Oh, just business is so boring! Your brother always has a wonderful tale to share! But fine, fine. I’m a professional after all! Let’s have a look.” Lor said as he pulled out his own tablet and started looking up the parts that Vanna had marked.

Cian tried to follow along as Vanna took over the negotiations. She obviously had more experience with these kinds of deals, so Cian let her do most of the talking as they had agreed. The two went back and forth over every little piece of the ship, and it seemed Vanna was getting the upper hand.

“Ah, I can do six for that and one for the launcher.” said Lor.

“Six hundred? Not a credit less than ten! You can get twelve for it easy, these fire control systems are in high demand. You can see the logs, it locked onto the other patrol craft and took it down in under fifteen seconds despite countermeasures being launched. And the launcher has two second auto-loading. Twelve for the set.” Vanna countered.

“But you didn’t bring me the missiles! Ten for the set.” said Lor.

“Missiles are easy. Eleven and a quarter, but only if you give us three quarter for the chaff system.” Vanna said, pointing at another item in the list.

Lor punched a few buttons on his tablet, threw his hands up in the air theatrically, and said “Fine!”

“Now on to the retractable Gauss turrets. Two on the belly, one on the top. Linked fire control system included. Standard belt feeding ammo loader. Perfect hidden defense system for a cargo ship. I know you can get at least twenty for it. I want eighteen fifty.” said Vanna.

“Eighteen fifty? Are you trying to starve my family? The absolute most I can do is sixteen!” countered Lor energetically.

“What do you think Cian? Can we let that beauty go for sixteen? I know you wanted more.” said Vanna calmly.

Cian did as they had rehearsed, shaking his head and pretending to think. “Maybe seventeen fifty?”

“I’ll do seventeen, not a credit more!” shouted Lor.

The two went back and forth like this for over an hour, with Cian occasionally being pulled in and agreeing or commenting on something. The ship’s reactor system was another big ticket item, fetching another eight, or 800,000. The dual engines were a bit damaged, but Vanna managed to get 200,000 for each of them. Just the biggest items added up to 4,100,000. They negotiated another 477,000 for the rest of the ship in misc parts, leftover cargo, and scrap value.

Lor transferred the 4,577,000 credits over to their accounts, evenly split. Cian was surprised to see that he had 1,629,600 in his account already – the bounties must have paid out sooner than expected. Now he had 3,918,100 in his account. Plus he had the credit chip with 30,000 on it.

“Are you sure I can’t interest you in a quality pre-owned ship? I have an almost new Razor courier with Weave capability that I can let go for only three mil. Racing engines and genuine leather seats!” pitched Lor.

“Clean title?” asked Vanna.

“Erm, well. A few entanglements. Nothing in system. Still a great deal! I also have a gently used Merchantman cargo vessel. Clean title, one working engine. I’ll let it go for three and a half mil.” insisted Lor.

“We’ll think about it. Thanks Lor, we’ll be in touch.” said Vanna as they walked out. They headed back into the ship to grab their equipment.

Both of them dressed in their power armor and grabbed their weapons and backpacks. Cian grabbed the tent, canteen, and other equipment and stuffed it back in his backpack. Cian mused that you never knew when survival gear might come in handy. Plus, it wasn’t part of the sales price. Since they didn’t expect to be seeing any combat, they both hooked their helmets onto the side of their bags.

Vanna laughed as they left DD Shipworks and headed toward the nearby taxi stop. “Great place to sell ships discreetly. Not the best to buy from. Good work in there, went better than I expected. Not a bad deal.”

“Yeah. So, what now?” Cian said.

“Well, up to you. The Syndicate aint no joke, if I were you I’d get out of Kiana for a bit. Either get a spot on the crew of a ship heading out system, buy a ticket to somewhere else on a transport, or get your own ship and head out. If you do want to get your own ship, I might be persuaded to come on as engineer.” suggested Vanna with a smile.

“I do, and I would love to have you – but I need a first officer more than just an engineer. How about as partners?” Cian said.

Vanna smiled. “Partners it is then. You’re still the captain, though. I can chip in my share for the ship sale. We’ll need it to get our new ship. And if we’re partners, I should be in on the investment. ‘sides, I already got over a mil and a half from the bounties this morning. If we need it I can invest it too. No need for us to be flying a clunker, our lives might depend on it.” she insisted.

Cian smiled back. “Okay. I’m glad to have you with me Vanna. So, where should we go to buy a good ship?” asked Cian.

Vanna winked. “I know a guy.”

Cian chuckled. “Of course you do. Lead the way.”

01.16 – At Last, Civilization

Cian marveled at the landscape zooming by beneath them. The whole trip they had spent weeks walking only took an hour by gunship. How much different would his first weeks in-game have been if he hadn’t been stranded in the middle of nowhere? The remaining 140 or so miles to Gregar’s Hill flew by in only fifteen minutes.

It took much longer explaining things to the local patrol, who sent three ships to intercept them right outside Gregar’s Hill. Luckily, Borano woke up before things got too heated – and quickly set things straight. It turned out he had been captured by the pirates when they raided the local cargo delivery shuttle, and was presumed dead. After scarfing down a ration bar, Borano proceeded to fill everyone in.

Corissa had tried to get him to reveal information about shipping routes and warehouses where precious metals and gems were stored. Her crew had stolen several million credits worth of refined metals, but had been forced to dump them to escape after taking engine damage during a firefight with a patrol craft. The lone patrol craft had been shot down, but not before calling for reinforcements and hitting the pirates with a Peacekeeper missile – a device designed to disable engines.

The authorities had recovered the dumped cargo, but fell for Corissa’s trick and followed the decoy projecting a sensor ghost out of the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the pirates headed back toward Gregar’s Hill and landed right under their noses, mere minutes from the town. From what Borano could tell, their plans were to wait until things cooled down and hit the town’s primary warehouse where the valuable output from their refinery was stored. Gregar’s Hill mined and refined several valuable metals from the rich mines underneath it – including magnesium, chromium, and corzanthium. The magnesium and chromium were both used to create the various alloys that starship hulls and components were made from, and corzanthium was a very rare superconductor used in starship reactors and high end energy weapons.

It turned out the hold still contained a small crate of stabilized corzanthium, valued at a bit over two million credits by itself. Cian almost naively agreed to hand it over without reward, but Borano and Vanna stepped in and negotiated on his behalf. It turned out they had already put out a bounty on the thieves and were offering a reward for its return. The local mining company grudgingly paid the offered 10% bounty to recover the stolen goods, netting Cian and Vanna a cool 203,500 credits. Vanna insisted on them getting a chunk of the money put onto two credit chips, which were basically prepaid credit cards.

The patrol officers took the ship’s black box recording without any compensation. Vanna was irate at that, but quieted down when she found out what the pirate’s bounties were worth.

The bounty on Corissa and crew wound up being extremely lucrative. She was wanted dead or alive pretty much everywhere – with bounties across five solar systems and three governments. Her and her crew were wanted locally for murder, destruction of property, piracy, kidnapping, and a long list of other charges. Vanna helped file the necessary paperwork and turned over their frozen corpses as proof of bounty completion to the patrol craft for delivery back to the station. By the end of it, they had claimed another 3,245,700 credits – just under three million of it from Corissa herself. It would take some time for the bureaucracy to confirm delivery and transfer the funds, but Vanna insisted it was as good as done and they would get it all eventually. Cian couldn’t figure out how to access his character’s credit account (the whole 25 credits worth), and Vanna was surprised to learn that Cian didn’t have a global bank account; but she helped him set up a secure account for the funds to be transferred to remotely.

Cian immediately had to spend 100,000 credits on a salvage license in order to legally claim ownership of the gunship, and another 20,000 for a military salvage claim on the ship’s weapon systems. Vanna insisted it was all worth much more than that in salvage, so he complied without too much complaining. They had to turn over the ship’s missiles, which contained miniature fusion warheads and were illegal across the Kiana system. They could have probably hid them and sold them on the black market, but Cian wanted to stay on the good side of the local authorities and they knew the ship had illegal missiles – the downed patrol craft had been hit by two.

In addition to helping them get all the legalities straightened out, the patrol officers updated them on recent events. The town hadn’t been unaffected by the Pa’Ran raids, but the presence of the local patrol base and larger population of human players had made the difference. The raids had went on for another week after the events in Chalo, with a back and forth battle going on above the planet and surrounding space the entire time. Finally a larger Peacekeeper armada had arrived and sent the Pa’Ran running. The pirates had struck in the confusion during the aftermath of the Pa’Ran raid.

News from Chalo was nothing but bad. The patrol had searched the city and the place had been left abandoned. There were no other survivors. Vanna took the news stoically, but Cian knew she was missing her friends.

“I’m sorry. I’m here if you want to talk, okay?” said Cian as he offered her a hug.

Vanna stepped into Cian’s arms and he held her tight. They stood like that for a few minutes, with the patrol officer politely waiting quietly. “Thanks.” she mumbled into Cian’s side, wiping away a few tears that had formed in her eyes.

After hearing the current events, they went back to finalizing all the legalities. It was after noon by the time all the paperwork had been filed and everything was in order. Finally the patrol ships let them go, and they paid the 100 credit landing fee to set down near the town and embarked into Gregar’s Hill. True to his word, Cian split the money they had left with Vanna. Cian now had 11,750 credits in his account and 30,000 on the credit chip.

He checked his status. He had gained four levels from turning in the bounty, and had finally fully recovered from the fight with the Pa’Ran.

Quest Completed! – Claimed the bounty on Corissa Vannu’s crew. Reward: 3,245,700 Credits (Pending), +50000 Experience.

Level up! +1 Will. +5 Character points.

Level up! +1 Will.

Level up! +1 Wit.

Level up! +1 Presence.

Name: Cian Kemp
Class: Boundless
Strength: 25
Endurance: 25
Presence: 44
Health: 250/250
Willpower: 550/550
Agility: 25
Wit: 44
Will: 55
Stamina: 250/250
Level: 13
Total Experience: 104125/105000
Traits: Iron Will
Character Points: 5

He had five character points. He could use them to raise his attributes, but he still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with them. You were supposed to be able to buy bonus traits with them, but he didn’t see the option on his interface. Maybe you needed ten or more at once? He decided he would save them for now.

Borano and Vanna went off to a local restaurant to catch up over a meal. They had invited Cian, but he politely declined – he wanted to find some answers now that he could finally find some other players.

Cian started to repack his backpack to get rid of extra weight before heading out, dumping the tent and other survival equipment in the ship’s hold. He paused when he saw the artifact again – carefully packed in the bottom of his bag. In all the confusion, he had forgotten about it. He had planned to figure it out with Vanna present, but now that he was recovered, his curiosity was getting the better of him.

With the artifact in hand, Cian went to the captain’s quarters and stood in front of the wall mirror. With one last look at his hair – he really hoped it didn’t actually end up being a head shaver – Cian pulled the artifact over his head. At first, nothing seemed to happen. Cian felt a bit silly, sitting there with the silver thing stuffed over his head. But when he wiggled it around a little, it suddenly tightened down over his head and began to glow.

Cian panicked at first – the thing had shrunk down and wrapped his entire head except for his face. But it didn’t hurt, and soon the entire device was glowing with the same silvery energy that he and the Pa’Ran Boundless had used. Was this thing what made that Pa’Ran so powerful? It hadn’t asked to activate like the hand device, but it seemed to be working already. He reached for a small metal cup on the desk on the other side of the room and tried to move it toward him. The cup zipped across the room toward his hand like a bullet and nearly broke his finger.

“Whoa.” he said as he looked at the cup in his hand. He tried to move it back, slowly this time. Silver lights were dancing around his head, and the cup floated around. Before he had to push everything he had just to slightly alter the trajectory of something; now he was moving it around effortlessly. This thing was seriously amping up his abilities.

Suddenly, a screen appeared in his vision.

Errors detected in interface. Activate nanite projection amplifier installation? [Yes] [No]

Nanite projection amplifier? Cian hadn’t heard of any kind of nanite technology in Worlds & Empires. Hesitating, but intrigued, Cian mentally hit “Yes.” Immediately, the lights became blinding and everything went white.

Everything gradually shifted from white to a hazy, disorienting view. As his vision cleared, he noticed that the colors of the walls and everything were dull and muted. Cian suddenly noticed that his perspective had changed – the ceiling was much closer. Looking down, he saw the top of his own head. The device on his head seemed to be… dissolving? Bits of it were floating off and drifting toward him in a steady stream. As it progressed, a strange feeling began building. It was satisfying in a way, almost like the feeling of drinking water after being parched for hours. Suddenly pain overwhelmed him as the stream intensified. Cian felt like he was being torn apart, and the little lights swarmed around and into him with alarming speed.

Soon the entire device was gone, and Cian’s vision swam again. He was vaguely aware of falling, and found himself on the ground. Everything looked and sounded vibrant, even more so than usual. All of his senses were different – more defined, more real.

To an outside observer, Cian would have looked a bit unusual. He tapped on the metal walls. He stared at his own hands in awe, as if seeing them for the first time. He spoke, surprised at his own voice. To him, everything he was experiencing was fundamentally different. It felt like he had lived his whole life in a simulation, and suddenly he was immersed in reality. His real life, outside this game, never felt so real. Cian laughed at that – is this what other players had meant when they said the game was more real than reality?

Moving past the newness of everything for the moment, Cian reached up to see if the device was really gone. He felt all over his head and ran his hands through his hair. He checked all over the floor of the room and in his bag. He couldn’t find a trace of the device. Checking his interface, he found a log of what had happened and read through it.

Nanite projection amplifier installation started.
Checking package compatibility . . . Confirmed.
Corporeal decoupling initiated.
Scanning . . .
Error: Tampering detected in nanite swarm.
Correcting . . . Critical error. Failsafe triggered.
Initiating full nanite replacement . . . Complete.
Consciousness preserved. Scanning . . .
Error: Consciousness corruption detected.
Connecting to remote storage . . .
Retrieving backup . . .
Error: Backup corrupted. Switching to heuristic analysis.
Correcting . . . Success. Full mental function restored.
Uploading backup to remote storage . . . Success.
Initiating corporeal reintegration . . . Success.
Nanite levels optimal.
Nanite projection amplifier installation failed.
Notice: Device detected fatal error in swarm. Failsafe conditions tripped.
Device sacrificed to preserve integrity of consciousness.
Defective nanites deactivated and replaced. Full mental functions restored.
Medical examination recommended. See local node administrator for more information.

What? Instead of answering questions, Cian just found more. Not only was the device gone, but he still didn’t know what it did. Plus he felt a bit sick at the thought of a million bucks literally dissolving. And what was all this about nanite swarms and mental function? The thing did some kind of analysis of his consciousness and ‘corrected’ something? It had to be why everything seemed so vibrant now, but it was a little concerning. Scratch that, he was sitting in a full immersion rig that apparently had full access to his brain and, unless this was part of the game lore somehow, the rig was playing around in his head. It was downright terrifying.

Cian got even more of a shock when he checked his menus: Most of the options were just gone. He could still access his status screens, but everything else was gone. Before he had options for Log Out, Help & Support, Billing, Game Options, Forums, Account Status, Map, Communications, and Banking. Now those were all gone, and in their place was a new screen entitled Specialization Packages. His class Boundless, was listed on it as “Active” with a little notice stating that it was “Military Grade” and “Spec. Ops.”

Cian was determined to get some answers, so he headed out of the gunship and toward downtown Gregar’s Hill.

Another shock came as he made it to the market. Various alien species hawked their wares in the same monosyllabic language he had heard the raiders use, only this time his interface alerted him “translation module activated” as he heard everything in plain English. A dozen or so players were there too, speaking English with varying accents as they shopped at the stalls and talked among themselves. None of them had the usual name tags and character information that he expected.

Cian tried to speak to several players, but none of them seemed to pay him much attention. He cornered one and tried to ask him for help submitting a bug report, but he barely got out ‘Can you help’ before they said “Decline.” and pushed him aside. Another group didn’t even grace him with a reply, simply pushing him aside and walking past. Finally he got a bit of a hint of what was going on when he tried to speak with a pair of players who were walking through. They simply ignored him, speaking like he wasn’t there.

“Just me, or are these NPCs getting pushier?” said one of them.

“Yeah, the quests suck around here too. That other scrub only offered a thousand credits to rescue some chick being beaten in the alley. Not worth the time.” replied the other.

“Yep. Great place to farm resources, though.” the first said.

Cian stood there, confused.

A burly male player walked up and shoved a bag full of rock in his face. “Sell!” they shouted in his face.

“Uh, what? I …” Cian started to reply.

The player seemed to look him over for the first time, pulled the bag of rock away, and walked to a shopkeeper a few steps away. He repeated the “Sell!” command.

The shopkeeper sighed and grabbed the bag. He dumped what looked like some kind of ore out and scanned it with a handheld device. He weighed it in a scale, tapped a few buttons on a tablet device, and showed the player the tablet.

The player merely grunted in acknowledgment and tapped the device, which finalized the deal and transferred a sum of credits to the player. Then he just grabbed the empty bag and walked off, with nary a word of ‘thank you’ or ‘have a nice day.’

“Hey, what’s going on?” Cian asked the merchant.

The merchant replied in a bored, monotone voice, “I buy ore from the local mines at 80% market rate. These tools on the table here are for sale. The price is marked beneath each item. If you try to steal, my friends over there will remove your arms. No returns or buybacks.”

“No, I mean why is everyone acting like this? That guy tried to give me the bag and just yelled ‘Sell’ at me. The rest act like I’m a leper.” asked Cian.

“Don’t know what a leper is, but you were standing by my sign. The sign that says ‘Sell ore here.’ They’re human. They’re stupid, culturally insensitive, elitist jerks who treat anyone who isn’t human like a tool to be used. Say, aren’t you human?” replied the merchant, looking Cian up and down.

“Yes, but… humans aren’t…” Cian began, then he thought about how the other players were acting. He thought about how everyone had treated the NPCs in the market in Valcim. About how he had treated NPCs when he first logged in. Like they were just pieces of code, a means to an end, unworthy of notice except to check for quests or deals. “Oh, I guess we are. Sorry.” he finished.

The merchant gave him a funny look. “Well, you seem different. Name’s Joxal.”

“Cian. Nice to meet you, Joxal.”

“Why are they treating you like the rest of us? Get kicked out of the human club or something?” asked Joxal.

“That’s what I was trying to figure out.” answered Cian.

Another player rolled up with a large anti-grav cart loaded down with ore. There must have been several thousand pounds of it there.

“Well, good luck figuring it out Cian. Good meeting you, I have profit to attend to.” said Joxal, smiling at the new arrival.

The player simply said “Sell it all.” and walked over to look at the selection of tools.

Cian tried to talk to him, but he dismissed Cian with a “Decline.” and wouldn’t listen to another word he said. Cian even tried yelling in his face, but it was as if the guy couldn’t hear a word he was saying. Joxal gave him a stern look for distracting his customer, so Cian gave up and walked off.

Joxal called out as he left, “If you ever find yourself in the market for quality mining equipment, look me up! Have a good one, Cian!”

“Thanks. You too, Joxal.” replied Cian halfheartedly.

Cian found a quiet bench and stopped to think over his situation. Somehow Cian had become trapped in-game, and after using the Weaveborn artifact he was apparently even more glitched. Now he was identified as an NPC, and the only people who could alert the company to get him help were players. All of whom ignored him and acted like he was nothing but an annoying bit of computer code, merely background noise. He had to do something to get the word out.

It was getting late, and Cian was hungry. He had agreed to meet Vanna at the ship later to make plans on what to do with it, so he resolved to try getting another player’s attention again tomorrow. Cian made his way back toward the gunship.

Upon arriving at the docking area, Cian was surprised to find the gunship missing. A group of a dozen or so heavily armed men in sleek black power armor were walking around the area using some kind of handheld devices. It looked like they were scanning for something right where the gunship had been parked.

01.15 – Three, two, one, liftoff!

Now that they had a closer look, they could see that the gunship had seen a lot of fighting. The entire thing was covered with slightly misaligned welds where armor plates had been replaced and hundreds of small welds revealed the patches where they had filled in smaller holes.

The pair of them entered the ship. It really did smell like burnt rats. Spatters of blood and bits of debris lined the cargo bay – shell casings, plastic bits, flecks of metal, burnt out wires, and various small used parts lined the floor. The raiders had apparently not been very keen on cleaning.

The inside of the ship wasn’t in any better shape than the outside – holes, cracks, and dents marred the metal walls. Open panels exposed areas where wires and whole conduits had been ripped out and replaced. The ship had boarding defenses at the back of the cargo area – automated turrets and walls with embrasures – but they were ruined. The turrets had been shot apart and the embrasures melted or torn open. This ship had been violently captured and hadn’t been cared for well since.

The cargo area was two stories and open, with stairs right behind the boarding defenses against the far wall going up to a catwalk above that wrapped around the room like a U. The large cargo door they had walked up as a ramp would fit in between the two catwalks. A large door was folded up into the ceiling. In space, the door would be kept down and act together with the cargo ramp to form the ship’s airlock.

At the bend of the U there was a door heading into the bridge of the ship. On the first floor, below the stairs, a similar door led into the bottom section of the ship.

“Let’s check out the bridge first. If we can access the sensors we can check the rest of the ship remotely.” said Vanna.

“Good thinking.” said Cian as they headed toward the stairs.

The door opened easily and the duo walked into a long hall. On either side were two doors, with a fifth door at the end of the hall. Checking each door as they came to it, they found four sets of sleeping quarters. Three of them were made to fit four crew each with two sets of bunk beds. The fourth room, nearest the bridge, was made with a single larger bed and a desk area with chairs – obviously meant for the captain. The captain’s room was meticulously clean – the rest were filthy.

At the end of the hall they found the ship’s bridge. Some of the consoles were damaged and put back together a bit haphazardly, but everything appeared to be functional.

Vanna checked the consoles. “The main systems are all locked down with command codes. Internal sensors aren’t locked though.” said Vanna.

A few button presses brought up the ship’s internal cameras. Most of the rooms were empty, but the ship’s brig had an occupant.

Vanna gasped. “Bor!” she exclaimed.

A bloodied Rastlin male was behind the bars, wearing nothing but a pair of dirty shorts. From the look of him, he had been badly beaten.

“You know him?” asked Cian.

“That’s Borano! He’s one of the crew aboard one of the trading shuttles in Gregar’s Hill. They’re the one that came most often, they bought a lot of meat from Chalo.” answered Vanna.

“Where is this? He doesn’t look good.” said Cian.

“Let me see…” said Vanna, tapping on the console to bring up the layout of the ship. “This way!” she said, rushing from the room.

The two of them went back down the hall and down the stairs, heading toward the door on the bottom level. It was still ajar, and they quickly pushed it aside and went in.

Vanna led them through the kitchen and mess area, down a hall with several doors. She went straight to a door and opened it, finding the brig area with two small cells on the other side. She pushed the button to open up the one with Borano in it and rushed to his side.

“He’s still alive! Bor, Bor, can you hear me?” Vanna said, as Cian rushed over to them.

Borano was badly beaten, but still very much alive. He didn’t look like he would be in any risk of death in the immediate future, so Cian held off on overtaxing his already overexerted will.

“Can you heal him?” asked Vanna.

“Yeah, but I have to rest first. He’s got a strong pulse, he’ll be okay to wait a few hours. Does this ship have a medical area?” said Cian

“Yeah, it’s right down the hall.” answered Vanna.

Cian gingerly picked up Borano. “Lead on, maybe we can find something that will help for now.” said Cian.

Vanna nodded and headed out the door.

The medical bay was as meticulously clean as the captain’s room had been, and various mechanical bits were stored around the room. It was obvious that this was where Corissa maintained her implants. The room had two beds and a variety of supplies.

Cian laid Borano down on one of the medical beds. He recognized a medical scanner from his trip to the Valcim Mall clinic. Picking it up, Cian managed to initiate a scan and check out Borano’s injuries.

“Oh, you got med training?” asked Vanna.

“Nope. Just pushing buttons. Pretty sure this thing only scans, though. Looks like he has a lot of bruising and a few injured spots in his chest. Cracked ribs, I think? Says he’s a bit dehydrated and mild infection in the open wounds. Nothing that it identifies as life threatening and nothing out of place. If I knew how to put in an IV we could give him some fluids.” said Cian.

“Oh. Good. I can do the IV.” said Vanna as she looked through the drawers in the room. “Got it. We’re gonna fix you right up Bor.” she said.

“You have medical training? Why was I the one using the scanner?” asked Cian.

“None of that. Gettin’ more blood in someone is important for keeping ‘em alive after repelling boarders. My Pa taught me.” replied Vanna; as she expertly put an IV in Borano and put a canister of saline in the slot in the bed next to him.

“What else did your Pa teach you about surviving on ships?” asked Cian.

“Oh, only basic stuff on runnin’ ships. Navigation. How to fix a breach, patch up an airlock, field strip thrusters and fusion drives. Rewire consoles, bypass overloads. Manage cargo.” Vanna explained.

“Whoa. Field strip fusion drives? You can do all that? Why were you working as an unskilled ranch hand? You could have gotten a job on a ship!” asked Cian.

“Didn’t wanna be on no ship. Been on a ship all my life. Wanted some fresh air. But here I am back on a ship again. I expect you’ll want me to get control of it and get it flyin’ again too.” said Vanna, sighing.

“You can do that? I thought it was locked down and needed command codes.” asked Cian.

“Naw, just gotta hack it and bypass ‘em. Take a few hours, tops. Gotta see whats wrong with the engine ‘fore I can say about that part, though.” said Vanna.

“Just hack it and bypass it. You can simply hack a gunship AI core in a few hours. Of course you can…” said Cian, shaking his head in astonishment.

“Aint touching the AI. Only big navy ships use custom AI with this stuff integrated. Everybody else uses common AI packages with an encrypted interface. Only gotta crack or bypass it. Doubt this one is up to date on security patches. Locals are bad about that. Why, few years back a raider managed to ground almost the whole patrol fleet by spoofing their maintenance protocols. Put em in maintenance mode just like they was in dry dock. That hole had been patched three years ago, but out of hundreds only half a dozen of their ships had gotten the update. Them raiders looted a dozen warehouses and got away while the local patrol sat on their behinds tryin’ to get their ships in the air.” said Vanna.

“Wow. Your father sure did teach you a lot.” said Cian.

“Oh, I learned that part from me ma. Gotta know how to crack em if you wanna make sure yours aint cracked, me ma always said. She was in charge of security on our ship. Can’t have raiders hackin’ your ship, ‘specially if you’re hauling high value cargo all the time like we was.” said Vanna.

“Right. Well, if you can get this ship flyable it would be nice. We can fly it back to Gregar’s Hill and get your friend some proper medical attention. Then we can cash in on the bounties and sell the ship. Should leave us with a nice sum to share.” said Cian.

“I do like the sound of that. This junk pile would be worth a bit in salvage alone. We might even get a little extra from the local patrol base if we bring ‘em the black box recording so they can see how one of their ships ended up in pirate hands.” said Vanna.

“Well, that settles it then. Lets finish clearing the ship and make sure there aren’t any more surprises, then we can work on getting it off the ground.” said Cian.

Cian and Vanna left Borano in the medical bay and searched the rest of the ship. The galley area had a good stock of the most basic food rations, but nothing extravagant. They found some spare parts in a storage locker, a few pieces of expensive looking jewelry in the captain’s quarters, and two sets of armor in the armory – previously belonging to Corissa and Jean. The armory also contained extra energy cells and ammunition for their new weapons.

Class M Universal Energy Cell – Medium energy cell used for various equipment and mid-sized firearms. Rechargeable. Charge: 4000/4000. Durability: 100/100

Class S Universal Energy Cell – Small energy cell used for various equipment and small firearms. Rechargeable. Charge: 1000/1000. Durability: 99/100

Gauss pistol clip – A clip containing 25 5mm ferrous slugs designed for a Gauss pistol.

Crate of 5mm Ferrous slugs – A crate of ferrous slugs designed for Gauss weaponry. Contents: 4725/5000 slugs.

Box of standard 12.7mm cartridges – A box of 12.7mm cartridges. Standard tungsten alloy bullets with gunpowder based propellant. Contents: 487/500 rounds.

As Cian and Vanna sat down on the armory bench to snack on some prepared rations (the mess tables were filthy), Cian looked over the armor they had found.

Class VIII Armored Pressure Suit – Pressure suit with Class 8 armor, capable of blocking small arms fire and resisting laser and larger caliber rounds. Capable of automatic sealant of leaks to maintain pressure in vacuum. Max Absorb: 50U, Armor Max: 800, Durability: 100/100, Size: S.

Class VII Armored Pressure Suit – Pressure suit with Class 7 armor, capable of blocking small arms fire and resisting laser and larger caliber rounds. Capable of automatic sealant of leaks to maintain pressure in vacuum. Max Absorb: 40U, Armor Max: 700, Durability: 100/100, Size: L.

Both sets of armor had a little interface showing the actual Armor of the various parts of it – the helmet and front chest pieces were showing the “Armor Max” value, the back and extremities had less. It was color coded to show damage, but both suits were fully repaired. Checking what the numbers meant, Absorb meant how much damage the armor absorbed outright without taking damage – the U being the type. Universal in this case. As the armor took damage the absorb would drop, but something had to hit harder than the absorb to even damage it.

This was some heavy armor – their little pulse pistol wouldn’t have even scratched the woman’s suit. Even the heavier arms that the raiders had used would take a lot of direct shots to penetrate it. The third suit was also a class VII suit, and the cyborg had crushed the poor man in it like it was a tin can. Neither of them wanted to try to salvage it, so they just left the poor battered Richter in it.

Cian realized that they were very lucky to have survived this encounter. Even an ambush with their spears would have taken multiple hits to get through the body armor, and that Corissa woman could have punched right through his head even without her weapons.

“Think the lady’s armor will fit you?” Cian asked Vanna.

“Sure, with a little jiggering. Big ‘un should fit you. I can prolly take the heavier plates outta the lil’ set and put ‘em in yours if you want.” replied Vanna.

“No, you don’t have to do that. No reason to risk damaging the stuff, it doesn’t matter who gets the best set.” answered Cian.

“Oh, right. I forgot you aint like the other humans, heh.” remarked Vanna.

“So, how…” Cian started, before being interrupted by an alarm sounding.

“The proximity alarm! Something tripped their net.” exclaimed Vanna.

Both of them rushed out of the ship, readying their weapons and scanning the area. Nothing seemed to be amiss.

“Careful. Could be stealthed.” said Vanna.

Suddenly, she fired a shot right past Cian. He turned and spotted a large Kel rat with a gaping hole through its head. It was about the size of a large dog, with its body blending with the surrounding grass.

“Got dinner.” smirked Vanna.

“Ew. Are those even edible?” asked Cian.

“Yep. What’d you think when I said there’d be game to hunt out this way?” replied Vanna.

“Not that.” answered Cian.

Vanna showed Cian how to gut and clean the Kel rat. The process was unpleasant, but the meat it yielded looked good enough.

Cian put the bodies of the pirates in cold storage in the medical bay, gathered up their tent and equipment, and swept most of the trash out of the ship while Vanna cooked.

Vanna turned out to be a very good cook, given a proper galley and some spices. The meat reminded Cian of some alligator he had tried before – lean, chewy, and a bit like a cross between fish and chicken.

Vanna rigged the ship’s environmental system to flush out most of the smoke and foul odors, and by evening the ship didn’t smell of much except the delicious cooked meat. The pair ate good that evening, and Cian checked in on Borano and channeled some of his healing into him before they found rooms to sleep in.

Cian told Vanna to take the captain’s quarters since it was the cleanest room in the ship, but she insisted that Cian take it since he was the one who wanted to be a captain and it was bad luck for the crew to sleep in the captain’s quarters. Cian didn’t argue too much – whatever else Corissa had done, she cared about comfort and had installed a very comfortable bed. He was very ready to sleep in a real bed.

By noon the next day, Vanna had cracked the ship’s command interface and gave both of them full control of the ship. It turned out Richter had finished the repairs before coming out to attack his bosses, but Vanna spent the rest of the day and on until midnight making additional repairs and adjustments to the “bloody deathtrap” before she gave the OK trying to start it.

Cian watched Vanna work and helped where he could, but even with his knowledge in real world engineering and her explaining things, he understood less than half of what she was doing. Again Cian marveled at the game’s realism – he might not understand all of it, but everything made sense and looked like it could work in the real world. By the time they were done he had a pretty basic idea of how ships worked in Worlds & Empires. The interface recognized his contribution by awarding him with a new skill.

New skill learned! Starship Engineering.

Starship Engineering increased by 11% to 11%.

Starship Engineering – Most of society relies on starships, but few actually understand the function of them. This skill encompasses a broad area of study in multiple fields combined that allows one to manage basic field repairs, maintenance, and upgrade of starships of all shapes and sizes.

To her credit, the ship fired right up and the ship AI reported the ship had been restored to 82% reactor function and all thrusters were fully operational. Cian was impressed, but Vanna seemed disappointed.

“Coulda got it above factory spec with decent parts. But I guess it’ll do for a short trip.” said Vanna.

Borano still hadn’t woken up, despite Cian continuing to heal him as he could. They decided against showing up in town after dark in a pirate gunship, so they spent another comfortable night in their new beds.

The next morning they woke up early to start prepping to launch. By the time dawn arrived, the two had gathered the proximity sensors and stowed and secured everything in the ship. Vanna made sure to carefully strap Borano into the medical bed so the launch didn’t fling him around.

Vanna showed Cian the ship’s controls and gave him a quick rundown on piloting. After a few false starts, he was able to take off and make a loop around the area before Vanna stepped in and programmed their flight path.

In the early morning light, the small beat up gunship headed toward Gregar’s Hill and the first interaction Cian would have with other players in weeks. Just the trip had taken eighteen days, plus the day or two he had been unconscious before that.

As they flew toward the town, Cian couldn’t help but wonder how his real body was doing. Had it really been nearly three weeks since he logged in? How had he even survived this long without water? Was someone taking care of him? HAD he survived?

01.14 – Raiders?

Cian and Vanna hid in the entrance to their tent, obscured by the stealth field generator. The gunship, presumably full of raiders, sat on the opposite side of the small pond.

They watched quietly as the boarding ramp opened. Three armed and fully armored figures were coming out of different parts of the ship, heading down the ramp. They spoke, and Cian felt the same static shock in his head as he had felt when first talking to Vanna. They were speaking quickly in a monosyllabic language. He could understand them, but it felt strange ‘knowing’ what they said as complex English words despite hearing it as a string of single syllables.

“Why’d you have to dump our dang cargo, Jean? That was most of our haul!” said one, a large revolver on his hip.

The one referred to as Jean, with a sleek black gun on his back that reminded Cian of a scaled up P90, spoke “Coris told me to do it! I didn’t…”

“Shut your traps! We had to ditch the weight. Would you rather we take another missile and scatter our cargo and ourselves across the whole dang planet? We barely escaped that patrol ship.” interrupted the third in a feminine voice, presumably Coris. She had a pair of bulky pistols in a cross-body harness.

“Sorry, boss. I really hate dumping our haul like that. We killed good people for that loot!” said the first one, laughing at his own joke.

Jean groaned and rolled his eyes.

Coris scornfully looked at the first one like he was the most insufferable idiot.

“How long till you get the engines back up?” said Coris.

“Eh, ‘bout a day.” replied the first one.

“Fine. Get your ass back in there and see to it. Jean, refill our water tanks.” commanded Coris.

“But it smells like burnt Kel rat in there. Can’t we let it air out a bit?” whined the first one.

Jean quickly moved to get out of her way, walking toward the ship to get the water tanks.

With inhuman speed, Coris backhanded the as yet unnamed one across his armored face, knocking him back against the bulkhead.

“If you don’t get your scrawny ass back in there and fix this ship right now, poor Jean’ll be cleaning up blood for a week and I’ll have to fix it myself!” she yelled.

The other two looked at her timidly, obviously not doubting her sincerity. Jean quickly got out of sight.

“Yes boss.” the other said, holding his head and going back in the ship.

Coris took off her helmet and shook out her hair. In spite of the sweaty helmet hair, she was beautiful. She had shoulder length, platinum blonde hair and flawless pale skin with a light greenish tinge to it. She didn’t look sickly, the color simply looked natural. Other than the strange skin tone, she looked human – like a supermodel in body paint.

Cian’s interface identified her as a Celduran.

Celduran – Sentient. Humanoid. Original origin unknown, largest population existing on the planet Celduras. Ranging from 4.5’ to 6.5’ in height. Intelligence similar to humans. Highly resistant to UV radiation. Known to have slight photosynthetic properties.

Vanna gasped. “I think that’s Corissa Vannu. Real bloodthirsty. She been raiding shipping lines around Kiana for years. Big bounty on her. I thought she had a bigger ship.” whispered Vanna.

Cian tried to see if he could check her bounty, but his interface just gave him an error telling him he was offline. It seemed he could access pre-programmed info like species, but trying to get live information like bounties didn’t work.

“So, do we fight them? I doubt we could slip away without them noticing, and if they stick around for a whole day they’re sure to stumble on our tent. Plus, we have no food. They probably do.” Cian whispered.

“Mm, yeah. Don’t think this pistol is penetrating that armor. If I aint mistaken, that’s an automatic pulsed laser cannon on Jean. If he opens up on us with that thing, we dead. The other guy’s gun looks like a big revolving slug thrower, low rate of fire but good at getting past energy shields – not that we got any. Can’t tell what Corissa has. Looks like energy cells in the back, with magazines too. Maybe coilgun? If so, high rate of fire and plenty of hurt. Could be some kind of plasma too. If it’s plasma, low rate of fire but enough bang to stop a raging rinjorn in one shot.” Vanna whispered back.

“Where did you learn so much about guns?” Cian whispered, clearly impressed.

“Pa wasn’t one to leave our fates to chance. Can’t be a good trader in these parts without repelling a few boarders. Been learning since I could talk and shooting since I could walk.” Vanna replied.

“Well, it seems we’re outgunned. Our spears should cut through their armor. Maybe we can ambush them?” Cian quietly suggested.

“Maybe. I could probably put a laser through her head from here, but if she got as much metal in her as I hear that probably wouldn’t put her down. I’d expect a energy shield, too. Guess we gotta wait.” Vanna whispered.

“Metal in her? Like implants?” asked Cian.

“Yeah. Pretty face now, but from what I heard she once took a railgun round to the head and survived. More metal than meat.” Vanna whispered back.

The duo watched from their stealth field as Jean brought out a large hovering sled full of empty barrels and a big pump. He hooked up the water purifier to the first barrel and dropped a hose in the pond.

Corissa motioned to him, saying “Alright, set up a perimeter. I’ll finish the water.”

Jean nodded and went back in the ship, coming out with a large rolling case. Inside was a bunch of little stakes with sensors on top.

“Uh, are those going to detect us?” whispered Cian.

“Not unless they put ‘em right on top of us. They connect with the ship and make a sensor bubble, anything in or out and they trip. We should be good, long as they don’t focus their sensors on us.” answered Vanna.

They watched as Jean walked out about 300 feet and started setting up the sensors. He made a broad circle around the ship and the pond, far away from their tent. Once the last one was down, they all made a low hum for a few seconds when the field activated. Afterward there was no indication that they were active. Jean went back over to the water filter apparatus, where Corissa had filled half the barrels already.

“I can finish these up, boss.” Jean said.

“Yeah. Do that.” replied Corissa.

She went over to the pond, taking off her boots and dipping her feet in.

“Well, they set a wide net. Must be paranoid. Too bad they didn’t scan the inside of their little oasis.” whispered Vanna.

“Good thing for us.” replied Cian.

“True. The biggest threat is gotta be Corissa. Unless we can get ahold of one of their big guns, we probably need to cut her head off with a spear. Just to be sure she stays down. Other two are probably not as badass, but overkill is better than underkill.” whispered Vanna.

“How are we going to cut her head off? Think we can catch them sleeping?” asked Cian.

“Maybe. If they’re too reliant on their sensors. Maybe we should wait till dark to see.” answered Vanna.

“It’s still morning. That’s a long time to sit in this tent with our stomachs rumbling.” whispered Cian.

“Yeah.” agreed Vanna.

Not having a better plan, the two of them got comfortable laying on the edge of the tent facing out. Watching the raiders as they moved about. Jean finished gathering the water and went back in with it. Corissa splashed about in the water a bit, then went back in too.

Several hours later, Jean and Corissa came back out. They had removed their armor, but still had their weapons. Jean was a Celduran like Corissa, but was more homely in appearance. His olive toned skin was darker, almost brown, and his hair was a muddy blonde.

They had a large glass bottle of amber colored liquid – likely strong alcohol of some sort. They were sharing it and commiserating over the past.

“And you remember the Red River? Ah, that was a good ship. Best one we ever flown in. Still sore about that mutiny. I mean, yeah, we blew ‘er up with all the treasonous hands aboard. But it was a good ship. This little thing just don’t cut it. We almost got blown down by a peacekeeper patrol craft. One patrol craft! The River woulda taken five down by itself!” said Corissa.

“It was a good ship. You know, everyone aboard wasn’t in on the mutiny. Ol’ Gorgie and his boys woulda helped you retake the ship.” Jean said as he took another swig and passed the bottle.

“Oh, don’t get me started on Gorgie. He woulda cut out my heart and served it on a platter if he thought it would get him ahead.” said Corissa coldly.

“If you think so, boss. Seemed alright to me.” said Jean.

“Everyone seems alright to you, Jean. Remember that time on Pelrune? Haha, I had to kill five of those goons just to get you back aboard.” said Corissa, taking a heavy swig of the bottle.

“Yeah, yeah. You always bring up Pelrune. Aint I saved your skin enough times too?” asked Jean.

“Eh. I guess. But thas’ your job as my bodyguard, right?” said Corissa, her speech slurred a little. She took another big gulp of the bottle and passed it back to Jean.

“Pirates don’t have bodyguards. I’m supposed to stab you in the back first chance I get and take your share!” said Jean, throwing back the bottle and draining the rest of it.

“Ha! Like you ever stood a chance against all of this!” said Corissa, waving over her body as she said ‘all of this.’

“It weren’t your winning personality, that’s for sure!” Jean teased.

“Oh oh, you remember dat time on Varlun? Oh, and my leg joints all locked up? Haha. We had to call Spark to come help. With him adjustin’ my legs and you screamin’ that I was smushin you. Oh, I don’t miss those malfunctionin’ pieces of junk.” said Corissa.

“That wasn’t funny Coris! Your dang legs crushed my pelvis. I almost bled to death! I had to get half my pelvis replaced!” said Jean.

“Hahahahahaha. Yeah! Good times, good times.” said Corissa.

Jean sighed. “What ever happened to Spark, anyway?” he asked.

“Oh, I shot him.” answered Corissa.

“Oh, right.” said Jean.

Corissa put her harness with her pistols down at the edge of the lake and started taking her clothes off.

“What you doin’?” asked Jean.

“Whass it look like? Skinny dippin’!” said Corissa.

“Oh.” said Jean, watching her lecherously.

She stripped down and dove in without caution.

Jean stood there staring at her for a minute, then dropped his gun and started stripping. He eagerly dove in after her.

“This may be our chance!” whispered Cian.

“Yeah. If we can sneak around and get their guns we can shoot ‘em with their own weapons.” said Vanna.

Right as Vanna started to slip out of the tent, the third raider came down the ramp – still in full armor.

“What the hell are you two doing? I’m in here bustin’ my ass trying to fix the ship and the two of you are swimming?” said the man.

“Shut up, Spark! Get back to work. You always were too nosy for your own good.” said Corissa.

“That’s not Spark, Coris. He’s, uh… What was your name again?” said Jean.

“Jordan? Jones? Jimmy?” offered Corissa.

Incensed, the man picked up Jean’s gun as he said “My name is Richter, you air headed, stuck up, cheap, metal bimbo! I am SICK of dealing with you! This ship is mine now!”

Both Corissa and Jean moved to get out of the water, but they were too slow.

As he finished his rant, Richter opened up on Corissa with the pulsed laser cannon. Dozens of bolts pelted her. An energy barrier flared to life around her, but it was down within seconds. Half a dozen bolts hit her flesh, leaving bloody holes in her chest and head. She went under, and Richter turned his focus on Jean.

Jean was out of the water and running toward Richter, juking to avoid his fire. He made it almost to him before he took a hit in the leg, going down.

Richter went to fire on the downed Jean, but the gun cycled to cooling – overheated. He tossed it aside and pulled out his revolver, firing four shots into Jean’s chest and one in his head. The high caliber slugs tore him apart.

Corissa was back out of the water, missing one arm, with holes in her face and chest revealing metal beneath. A pink tinged gel had expanded from her body, filling in her wounds and stopping the bleeding. She ran with inhuman speed and stealth toward Richter from the other side. She stumbled a bit as she approached – suffering a little from the alcohol she had consumed despite her cybernetics.

Richter turned to see her as she was almost to him, shock evident on his face. He fired four shots into her chest, but it didn’t even slow her down. He fired his last shot directly into her face point blank, knocking out one of her cybernetic eyes and denting the frame of her metallic skull.

Falling down from the impact, Corissa leapt back onto her feet like a master martial artist.

Richter dove for Corissa’s other pistols, but it was too late.

Her metal arm slammed into his back, knocking him down hard.

“Gah! You know how much this is gonna cost to fix? And you took my last fleshy limb! I liked having a soft hand!” Corissa screamed as she repeatedly beat Richter with her metal fist – now completely devoid of flesh, her voice sounding more robotic now that most of her face and neck was missing and wires in her neck were sparking.

Richter tried feebly to resist, but she was far too strong. After nearly a minute of gruesome pounding, his armor was busted and cracked – leaking blood from numerous holes that the suit could no longer seal.

Corissa slammed her fist into his faceplate and with one final, sickening crunch – Richter was dead.

Corissa looked over at Jean. “Aww. Jeany poo. I’ll have to clone you again.” she said.

Cian and Vanna simply looked on in shock through all of this, unsure what to do.

“How the hell are we supposed to kill that thing?” whispered Cian.

Vanna just glanced at Cian and stared at Corissa.

“Is she even alive anymore? Is she a robot? Do you think the spear would cut through that metal? Is there even anything squishy inside that head?” rambled Cian, in shock.

“I don’t know. But I’m glad we didn’t attack.” whispered Vanna.

“Yeah.” agreed Cian.

Corissa dug around for a few minutes, then sat back – attempting to put her eye she had found back in its socket.

“Well, it’s now or never. I’m going to try and sneak up on her while she’s fiddling with her eye.” whispered Cian.

“You sure? If she spots you, she’ll tear you apart.” whispered Vanna.

“If I don’t do it now, she’ll fix her eye and we won’t have another opportunity.” replied Cian.

“Well, I’m coming with you.” said Vanna.

Both of them eased out of the tent carefully, spears in hand. Cian enhanced his attributes, helping him to move silently.

They got to within ten feet of her before her head snapped around, looking at them with her one good eye. The motion sent her other eye loose from the socket again, flying off to the side.

“No! Who are you?! How’d you get past my perimeter?!” Corissa screamed.

Cian wordlessly rushed her with his spear, attempting to swipe it across at her. An energy barrier flickered, blocking most of the impact of the swing and forcing Cian to step back and adjust his grip.

Corissa leapt at him, swinging her arm downward like a hammer.

Cian deftly dodged aside, swiping at her leg as he went, cutting a deep notch into the knee.

Corissa moved to crush him again, but Vanna flanked her and hit the back side of the same knee. It spasmed and sparked.

Cian moved in again, driving his spear into her other knee.

Corissa backhanded him, sending him flying – his spear still embedded in her knee.

Vanna, seeing her chance, hit at the same knee – neatly severing it and sending Cian’s spear flying to the side.

Cian was up, rushing back toward the fight and his spear. He readied a neural spike as he approached.

Corissa spun on one malfunctioning leg, swinging at Vanna. A thin silver line connected with her head and Cian’s neural spike hit mid-swing, disorienting her and making her swing go wide.

Vanna jabbed her arm as it sailed past, pushing Corissa further off balance.

Cian bent to grab his spear as he kept running toward them.

Corissa attempted to grab one of her pistols from the ground, but Cian jammed his spear into her wrist – severing her metallic hand. She screeched and swiped her arm at his legs.

Cian jumped her arm, bringing his spear back down on her head. He jammed it into the back of her skull and pushed.

Vanna jammed her spear into Corissa’s shoulder joint, stopping the flailing arm as Cian continued to press his spear into her skull.

After several tense seconds, Cian’s spear made it through the thick metal skull and rushed forward with a squelch.

Corissa twitched once, twice… and was still. Expanding gel swelled around the spear as a whirring came from her chest. A grinding noise, then a loud BZZT followed by a trail of smoke. The spear tip was ruined.

She was finally dead.

Cian and Vanna sighed in relief.

Cian used most of his spare Willpower to heal himself twice, still missing a lot of health but feeling better. That single backhand had done 380 damage, taken nearly all of his health even with the extra 210 from surpass limits, and left him badly bruised with internal bleeding. He checked what he had gained in the fight.

Combat Reflexes increased by 3.9% to 17%

Mind over Body increased by 0.1% to 32.5%

Polearm Fighting increased by 2.8% to 11.1%

Psionics increased by 0.1% to 27.5%

Defeated Corissa Vannu. Gain 10000 experience.

Level up! +1 Presence.

Quest Alert! – Claim the bounty on Corissa Vannu’s crew. You must bring their remains to the nearest Peacekeeper patrol base or office. Reward: [Error:$Bounty] Credits. +50000 Experience.

The experience reward from claiming the bounty on the raiders was impressive, even if it didn’t show the credit reward due to his interface showing him as offline. This must have been considered a high level quest. Cian couldn’t wait to see how much the bounty was – plus their ship was free to take now, if they could get it off the ground.

He checked his character sheet.

Name: Cian Kemp
Class: Boundless
Strength: 25
Endurance: 25
Presence: 43
Health: 113/250
Willpower: 16/106
Agility: 25
Wit: 43
Will: 10.6(53)
Stamina: 27/250
Level: 9
Total Experience: 54125/55000
Traits: Iron Will
Ongoing Effects: Overexerted Will,
Minor Internal Bleeding

Combat Reflexes: 17%
Mental Projection (C): 27.4%
Mind over Body (C): 32.5%
Psi Defense (C): 24.2%
Psionics (C): 27.5%
Basic Energy Equipment: 8.4%
Cooking: 1%
Knife Fighting: 4.7%
Marksmanship: 4.9%
Perception: 9%
Small Arms: 7.7%
Polearm Fighting: 8.3%
Survival: 19%
Tracking 10.9%
Unarmed Combat: 3.9%

Vanna was gathering up the guns, looking them over. “Nice haul! These twin pistols are Gauss. Good guns. The laser cannon is pretty nice too. They’re all well taken care of. This ten shot revolver isn’t bad either, but hard to find bullets that fit a gun like this. Bet there’s some clips for the Gauss and revolver in the ship. If there aint, Gauss rounds are easy to get. Just magnetic slugs.” she said.

“Nice. Can I see them?” Cian asked.

Vanna showed him the guns.

Gauss Pistol – Advanced magnetic coilgun, fires ferrous slugs at 1,000 m/s. Damage: 100. +50% against shielding. Selective fire: 5 rps auto or semi auto. Uses 5mm ferrous slugs and class S energy cells, 20 charge per shot. Effective range: 200 meters. Maximum range: 4000 meters. Clip: 25/25 Charge: 1000/1000 Durability: 100/100.

Pulsed Laser Cannon – Advanced automatic laser weapon, fires pulsed lasers. Highly accurate. Highest stability if used two handed. Damage: 100. Selective fire: 10 rps auto or semi auto. Fifty shot firing cycle. Up to 20 second cooling time between cycles. Uses class M energy cells, 40 charge per shot. Effective range: 200 meters. Maximum range: 1000 meters. Charge: 4000/6000 Durability: 99/100.

12.7mm Revolver – Large caliber revolver with inertial stabilizer to reduce recoil, fires standard 12.7mm cartridges at 600m/s. Damage: 200. +50% against shielding. Semi-auto, ten shot capacity. Effective range: 100 meters. Maximum range: 1000 meters. Ammo: 0/10 Durability: 91/100.

Cian checked the energy cell slotted into the laser cannon.

Class M+ Universal Energy Cell – Medium energy cell used for various equipment and mid-sized firearms. Plus variant stores 50% more power than standard. Rechargeable. Charge: 4000/6000. Durability: 97/100

Cian didn’t know what high end equipment looked like, but compared to their other pistol this was some pretty nice stuff. He took the laser cannon and test fired a few shots at a stick a little ways off. After adjusting his aim, he hit it on the second shot.

“I like this one. Mind if I keep it?” asked Cian.

“Go ahead. You need a good gun.” answered Vanna.

“Thanks. Grab the pistols and lets look inside. Might be another one in there that never came out.” said Cian, handing the pistols back to Vanna.

“Right. Lead the way.” said Vanna, attempting to adjust the pistol harness to fit her. It was too big and didn’t adjust down enough to not be loose, so she just stuffed the pistols in her belt and set it aside for now.

01.13 – Greener Pastures

Clean and refreshed, the duo sat down with the last of their rations. They had stretched their food supply as best they could, but now they were completely out. The only other food in the area was the questionable dried meat from the Pa’Ran – which neither of them wanted to even think about.

“So, what can we eat out here? We have plenty of water, but it’s a week of travel to our destination and we’re out of food.” asked Cian.

“Precious little. Normally there are animals and insects at oasis like this one. There are a couple plants that are edible. The Pa’Ran look to have eaten or scared away all the wildlife and insects. You notice that ship of theirs is a bug magnet? The goop attracts em and they stick. Other than that, we can eat the starchy paste from the Paiai bush. The one with the sharp thorns I was using on our clothes. Taste bitter, but it’s food.” Vanna answered.

“Paiai? Why is it called that? There is a similar plant on our world called an Agave.” Cian asked.

“Oh, the first one that found it bumped into it. Stuck a thorn in his arse. He yelled ‘Paiaiiii!’ Name stuck. Like the thorn.” Vanna deadpanned.

Cian just stared at her. “That’s a joke, right? I swear, I can never tell if your joking or serious.”

Vanna smirked mischievously, but didn’t say anything.

“Well, we should gather some of the edible bits before we go. How far till we get to the greener land that you said we could find game in?” Cian asked.

“About three days.” Vanna replied.

The two of them spent an hour gathering up all the Paiai they could find. Vanna explained they would grow back from the roots and that the roots weren’t edible, so they cut most of the leaves away. That done, they spent a few minutes gathering water. The canteens purified the water and they carefully poured it all into their other containers. Then they packed all their gear back up and headed out toward Gregar’s Hill.

They were both still armed with the Pa’Ran spears. Vanna had her pistol, and Cian had his bag filled with Pa’Ran spearheads. He had went back into the ship and gathered them all – twenty seven had fit in the bag with his other gear. He left his badly corroded knife.

The next morning Cian used Mend on both of them. They chewed the Paiai leaves for the first evening and two more whole days before they ran out. By the end of them, Cian never wanted to see a Paiai leaf again. But it kept them going, and the constant fluid intake finally had his dehydration cured. Vanna continued teaching Cian what she could as they traveled, and they even sparred a bit with the spears – neither of them really knowing how to properly use them.

They were out of the dunes by noon on the third day. The terrain was rapidly changing, with the sand becoming rocky soil and a few more green plants growing around them. Setting up camp at the end of the third full day of travel, their bellies were empty and they were grumpy, snapping at each other.

“If you didn’t eat so much, our food would have lasted longer!” said Vanna.

“What?! I barely ate any more of the Paiai than you, and I’m twice as big and carrying most of our supplies!” said Cian.

“You ate at least twice as much of it as me. I knew I should have rationed it out evenly.” said Vanna.

“I did not! I could always find out what roast Rastlin tastes like!” said Cian.

“You try it, jackass. I’m the one with the gun.” said Vanna.

“Shoot me, then.” said Cian.

“Maybe I will!” said Vanna.

Cian huffed and crawled into the tent to lay down.

Vanna insisted she would sleep outside the tent to be away from him, but she came in when it got colder.

They were both feeling weak from hunger the next morning.

“Sorry for blaming you for the food and calling you a jackass. I get grumpy when I’m hungry.” said Vanna.

“It’s okay, I was being a jackass. I get snippy when I’m hungry too. I shouldn’t have joked about eating you. I’m sorry too. How much farther do you think until we find anything edible?” said Cian.

“Tonight if we’re lucky, another day or three if not.” said Vanna.

“Well, at least we have water.” said Cian.

Vanna just grunted in response.

They pressed on. By mid-morning on the fourth day, the rocky badlands gave way to lush grassy plains.

Around noon, Vanna suddenly shot her pistol off into the grass. “Whoo! Got it!” she said.

“What? Did you hit something?” Cian asked.

“Plains rabbit! Come on, pretty sure I hit it!” Vanna replied, walking toward the spot.

Sure enough, in the thick grass lay a large golden rabbit with a hole through its side. Its fur was almost an exact match for the tall grass growing here.

“How did you even spot it?” asked Cian, incredulous.

“We been walking on the trail for an hour. How’d you not spot it?” replied Vanna.

“Trail? Is that why we turned back there? I thought we had just gotten off course.” said Cian.

“But I shushed you and pointed it out! Why would I shush you if we wasn’t tracking something?” Vanna asked.

“I thought you were just tired of talking?” Cian said.

Vanna sighed and shook her head, tossing her kill in her bag. “Pay attention. There are probably more along this path, it looks like a well used rabbit trail. If you see one, tap me on the shoulder and point. I’ll prolly already shot it, but you need to learn to see.”

A few hours later, Cian spotted movement!

In a flash, before Cian could point it out to her, Vanna had her pistol up and put a smoking hole in it.

“Hey, I saw that one before you shot it!” Cian said proudly.

“Good! You can learn. Let’s stop and make a fire. Help gather up bundles of dry grass. Twist it and tie it off tight with a few of the fibery bits. Will burn longer that way and we can cook these. One for you and one for me!” said Vanna.

An hour later they sat around their dying fire, nibbling on the piping hot rabbit. Cian looked over the skills he had picked up the last few days.

Combat Reflexes increased by 0.8% to 13.1%

Mind over Body increased by 1.1% to 32.4%

Basic Energy Equipment increased by 2.3% to 8.4%

Marksmanship increased by 1.7% to 4.9%

Small Arms increased by 2.1% to 7.7%

Polearm Fighting increased by 0.5% to 8.3%

Tracking increased by 5.7% to 10.9%

New skill learned! Perception.

Perception increased by 1% to 1%.

Perception – Better than 20/20 vision is cheap in a world of high technology. The skill to actually see is priceless. Improves ability to spot hidden things.

New skill learned! Survival.

Survival increased by 1% to 1%.

Survival – The ability to live off the land is a rare skill in a world of star ships and galactic markets. The knowledge to find edibles, build fires, and make shelter.

New skill learned! Cooking.

Cooking increased by 1% to 1%.

Cooking – The skills necessary to prepare food, from basic to extravagant.

Cian mused over his progress. The physical skills seemed a direct benefit – his aim was getting a little better with the pistol, but he still couldn’t shoot anything like Vanna. His combat reflexes skill helped him to dodge and move quicker. He was getting defter at swapping energy cells and maintaining the rechargeable gear they had. And now that he was following trails, he was quickly picking up tracking skills and spotting things he hadn’t noticed before.

But his highest skills, the mental skills he had, he wasn’t sure of. He felt like he knew how they worked better and guessed he was a bit quicker in using them, but for being his highest skills they didn’t seem to be actually improving his ability as they went up.

“Credit for your thoughts?” Vanna interrupted.

“Oh, just thinking about my progress. I’m getting better at tracking! I actually saw the trail the last time.” Cian replied.

“Good. Won’t be much use on a starship I’m afraid, Mr. Future Starship Owner, but at least you can learn!” said Vanna, smiling.

As they sat there, snacking on the remnants of their meal, Cian thought about his real life. It didn’t seem so important anymore, like a distant memory. If he was stuck in the game, maybe he should just embrace it? He felt happier and more alive than he ever had as Cian the Janitor. “This is nice. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever been happier.” Cian said.

Vanna gave him a funny look. “Wandering through the wilderness. Almost killed by bugs. Starving. You must have had a lousy life.” she said.

“No, no. When you put it like that… But no, I mean now. Out here on our own, sitting here by the fire, enjoying a good meal with a good friend by the firelight. It’s peaceful. Nice.” Cian said.

“Yeah,” she replied after a few minutes, “it is kind of nice. I miss old Garlo though. He was a good boss.”

“Yeah, sorry. I keep forgetting what you went through, losing your friends at Chalo.” Cian said.

“S’okay.” she replied simply.

They sat there like that for a few more seconds.

“Right, we better get moving. Burnin’ daylight!” Vanna said, interrupting the moment.

Right before dusk they spotted another rabbit trail and managed to bag a third one. They set up camp next to a small pond and Vanna gutted it while Cian gathered grass. They roast it over another fire, sharing it. They washed their clothes again and took turns rinsing off a bit in the pond before they went to bed.

“We’ve meandered a bit, but we’ve kept up a good pace. We should be in Gregar’s Hill in four or five more days. Maybe a little more, since we gotta hunt on the way.” Vanna said.

Cian agreed, and they went to sleep.

The next morning Cian got up early and took a look around while Vanna was still asleep. This area was much more lush than the terrain they had passed through so far. He sat by the pond and relaxed.

Something made a swirl by the bank.

Cian stood up, alarmed. He went closer and watched closely. Fish! It was a fish swimming near the surface! Cian started to turn to go tell Vanna.

“Mornin’” interrupted Vanna from behind him.

“Vanna! There are fish in the pond! We should try to catch some before we go!” said Cian.

Fish, big and small, were swimming around the shallows near the bank. Some were hunting bugs that lighted on the surface, others were hunting the smaller fish.

“Good eye. What we gonna catch ‘em with, though? I aint got a net or fish hook.” said Vanna.

“What about the spears?” said Cian.

“Hmm. Good idea, but I aint eating nothin’ that touched those blood sucking things. We can make a fishin’ spear from some of the bushes here.” said Vanna.

“Ah, I didn’t think about that. These spears are kind of gross.” said Cian.

The two of them gathered a pair of strong saplings and began making fishing spears. Cian already had a pretty good idea of what to do from watching survival TV shows, but Vanna provided vital tips to get them made correctly.

The split tips were sharpened and tied with extra Paiai fiber that Vanna had brought along and held apart with two small wedge shaped sticks. Vanna showed Cian good knots to tie them off with the fibers and how to fire-harden the tips in the coals of their fire. Soon they had two long, very sharp, four-pronged fishing spears.

Cian stripped to his shorts and waded into the shallow water with his spear.

Vanna tied her robe up at her waist and followed him in with hers.

The two of them worked the shallows, standing still and quickly spearing any fish that got close.

Cian took to fishing much quicker than he did to hunting. He was using his surpass limits skill to boost his agility and was surprised at how well he was doing. He was catching more than Vanna!

“Wow, Cian, good job. You’re a natural at this.” she remarked.

“I can’t believe there are so many fish in this small pond!” said Cian.

“It’s small now, but look around – this whole area floods in the rainy season.” said Vanna.

“Oh. Well, we can catch a bunch and bring them with us. We won’t have to stop for food at all and can make better time.” said Cian.

“Yep. You keep going, I’ll make a fire and start gettin’ these ready. I’ll cook us up some breakfast and we can cook the rest slow over a fire most of the day. They should keep till we make it to Gregar’s Hill.” said Vanna.

Vanna made a fire and prepared the fish that they caught and Cian caught a few more before breakfast was ready.

Cian checked his interface. His skills were going up pretty fast.

Survival increased by 12% to 13%.

Perception increased by 6% to 7%.

“Why you keep looking off into space like that, anyway?” asked Vanna as she handed him his fish, served on a stick she had cut to roast them on.

“Oh, uh. Just thinking.” Cian said. He wasn’t sure how to explain the game interface.

“Huh. Alright. Good one spotting the fish, this will make the rest of our trip much better.” said Vanna.

“Hey, this is really good. What did you season it with?” said Cian as he tore into the fish.

“Was some herbs around the area. Wasn’t just gettin’ firewood when I was walking. I found enough for the other fish too.” said Vanna.

“Nice. Good work. It’s delicious.” said Cian, finishing the first fish and reaching for another.

The two of them ate their fill and chatted amiably for a few minutes, then got back to fishing. The rest of the day went by much the same, with breaks for lunch and dinner. By the end of the day they had a sizable pile of roasted fish, and Cian had improved his skills even further.

Survival increased by 6% to 19%.

Perception increased by 2% to 9%.

The two of them sat there in front of a dying fire as the light faded.

“I still can’t believe we caught so many fish in such a tiny pond.” remarked Cian.

“You caught most of ‘em. It sure is an awful lot, though. I bet you caught almost every fish in the darn thing.” said Vanna.

“Oh, there are plenty more. The smarter ones just never came close enough.” said Cian.

“Hah. Guess we get ta eat the dumb ones then, eh? Don’t you humans say ‘you are what you eat’ or somethin’ like that? This mean you gonna be dumb by the end of this?” Vanna said, smirking.

“Actually, I’m pretty sure fish are rich in something that makes it brain food. Omega fats or something.” said Cian, trying to remember.

“Right. Omega 3 fatty acids. Don’t mean you aint gonna get dumber, though. It’s already working, you forgot what they was called!” said Vanna, giggling.

“Oh, hush you. I aint any dumber than you are.” said Cian, catching himself and laughing “Damnit, now I’m talking like you.”

“What’s wrong with the way I talk? You calling me dumb? Now you done offended me.” said Vanna, giving Cian a serious look.

“Nothing! Nothing! I just talk differently is all. You talk perfectly fine!” insisted Cian.

Vanna grunted and gave Cian an angry look.

“Look, really. I think you talk beautifully. I didn’t mean anything by it. Honest.” said Cian apologetically.

Vanna stared him down for a few tense seconds, then broke out laughing. “Gotcha! Hahaha. I don’t care, it don’t offend me none. I know I got a different way of talkin’. Picked it up flying on the Weave. You should hear my brother, aint half his crew that can understand half o’ what he says.”

“You suck. I thought I really offended you.” said Cian sourly.

“Oh boo hoo. You shoulda seen your face!” said Vanna, smiling and giggling.

Cian laughed. “Okay, you got me. You’re really hard to read!”

The two of them sat quietly, chuckling for a few minutes and snacking on some fish as the flames got low and the embers glowed.

“Tomorrow we can head out for Gregar’s Hill. Since we got the food solved, we should make it in four days.” said Vanna.

“Sounds good. I think I’m going to lay out here a bit and watch the stars. It’s a nice night, not too cold and not a cloud in the sky.” said Cian.

“Mmm. That sounds nice. We should stay close for the stealth field, no tellin’ what’s out here at night.” said Vanna.

Cian grabbed a couple of blankets and the two of them sprawled out between their tent and the embers of their fire. At some point Vanna got up and buried the fire, then the two of them climb into the tent and went to sleep.

The duo awoke to a loud roaring noise. It sounded like… Ship thrusters? What were the chances? They shared a bewildered look before peeking out of the tent, staying within their stealth field. A small gunship was landing on the other side of the small pond.

“Oh no. Raiders.” whispered Vanna.

“Raiders?” asked Cian.

“Yeah, likely. No police markings. No reason to land an unmarked gunship out here unless you can’t land in a city.” Vanna said.

The ship’s engines sputtered out and it came down hard, sinking into the dirt.

“Well, maybe they’re just having engine trouble and making an emergency landing?” Cian said.

“Engine trouble my arse. Look there, blast marks. Ships been in a fight. And on the aft. Looks like they took a Peacekeeper missile. That’s their ‘engine trouble’.” Vanna replied.

“Shit. I hope they don’t see our camp.” said Cian.

“Mmm. I buried the fire last night. Paranoia done paid off again. Everything else oughta be hidden by the stealth field.” said Vanna. “Oh hell, the battery’s almost gone.” she said. She moved quickly and swapped the battery with a fresh one almost instantly, the field flickering for a mere moment.

“I hope they didn’t see that!” said Cian.

“Me too.” said Vanna.

Suddenly a loud clank and some grinding noises came from the boarding ramp. It began folding down, slowly revealing the interior.

01.12 – The Artifact

Cian awoke in complete darkness, disoriented. His entire body ached and his thoughts were sluggish. He was wrapped in something and felt something fuzzy against his arm. Trying to move was agony. Mentally checking his status, he saw that he only had 10 health left. He tried to use mend, but it was slow going – like wading through thick mud. Managing to heal himself a bit, he passed out again.

He had nightmares of Pa’Ran invading earth. Vast armies of human soldiers with blank faces marched through cities, cutting down civilians. Their ships filled the skies, laying waste to the meager air forces of Earth. The Pa’Ran chased him through alleys, over fields, and through bunkers. Nowhere was safe, and they mercilessly killed him again and again in dream after dream. In one strange dream, Cian was a janitor at the hospital again – but he was cleaning halls full of the dead under the yoke of Pa’Ran masters. Between delirious dreams and bits of wakefulness, Cian managed to heal himself again.

When he awoke again he was sweating. His body still ached, but his mind was a bit clearer. He was in his underwear, covered in a blanket with bandages wrapped around his chest and limbs. He realized he was in their tent, and the fuzzy thing was a body next to his.

Vanna! Pushing off the blankets, he checked her. She was alive! She lay next to him wearing thin shorts, her chest and neck wrapped in bandages. She was burning up with fever. Who had bandaged them up? Looking around, he spotted his clothes and Vanna’s robes off to the side – bloodied and ragged. He spotted their canteens, full of clean water. His throat parched, he sipped the water. He sprinkled a bit on Vanna’s lips, but she was out. Checking their bags, he found one more clean bandage and wet it.

As he was placing the wet cloth over Vanna’s forehead, Cian realized that he no longer thought of her as only an NPC.

She was his friend, the only friend he had right now. He was starting to wonder if he had died in real life, and was just some remnant of thought stuck in the game. He had been in this game for over a week, and still he had not been logged out or contacted by anyone from the real world. With those comforting thoughts in mind, Cian checked his notifications, skipping most of the basic combat ones and focusing on what was affecting him.

Defeated 4 Pa’Ran Soldiers. Gain 2000 experience.

Warning: Willpower negative. Loss of consciousness imminent.

Loss of consciousness resisted.

Trait gained: Iron Will.

Defeated Pa’Ran Boundless. Gain 10000 experience.

Level up! + 1 Wit.

Channeling Mend into Vanna. Cost 75 (Empowered +100%, Influencing external body +50%) Vanna Healed for 62. Vanna stabilized.

Ability learned! Empower Psi.

Empower Psi – Force extra Willpower into a mental ability. +100% cost, +50% effect.

Warning: Willpower negative more than 10%. Immediate loss of consciousness.

Effect Gained: Overexerted Will

Name: Cian Kemp
Class: Boundless
Strength: 12.5(25)
Endurance: 12.5(25)
Presence: 42
Health: 92/125
Willpower: 106/106
Agility: 12.5(25)
Wit: 43
Will: 10.6(53)
Stamina: 125/125
Level: 8
Total Experience: 44125/45000
Traits: Iron Will
Ongoing Effects: Overexerted Will,

Combat Reflexes: 12.3%
Mental Projection (C): 27.4%
Mind over Body (C): 31.3%
Psi Defense (C): 24.2%
Psionics (C): 27.4%
Basic Energy Equipment: 6.1%
Knife Fighting: 4.7%
Marksmanship: 3.2%
Small Arms: 5.6%
Polearm Fighting: 7.8%
Tracking 5.2%
Unarmed Combat: 3.9%

Iron Will – You have developed a strength of Will that few possess. You can push yourself through trials beyond what others could hope to endure. Increased resistance to mind control. May use abilities and remain conscious even below 0 Willpower.

Overexerted Will – By reaching your limit and pushing past it, you have overexerted your will. Until you have recovered, your Will functions at 20% of its total.

Dehydrated – You are dehydrated. Until you have recovered, Strength, Agility, Endurance, and Stamina Regeneration functions at 50% of normal.

No wonder Cian felt so bad. He sipped a bit more water, and focused on Vanna.

She was pale and still running a high fever. The flesh around the wound on her neck and chest was an angry red color and the wounds oozed.

He didn’t know how they had got back in their tent, but he knew that she wouldn’t survive much longer. He used his Mend ability on her twice more, pushing the infection out and using 75 Willpower. He used the wet bandage to clean up the seeping wounds.

The color started to return to her skin, and within a few minutes her temperature had come down. Her wounds had mostly closed and the infection seemed to have all drained out. He used the last clean bandage they had and wrapped her chest again.

Confident that she would recover, Cian got out a ration and spent a few minutes nibbling on it and sipping water. Cian thought to check the tent’s stealth generator and found that it was out of power. Their extra cell was already slotted in it, and another empty one lay beside it. He looked around more, found the pistol, and took the cell from it. It had enough juice for another twelve hours. Taking the two empty cells and their two backpacks, he placed them outside the tent to charge.

Looking around outside, he saw the dead Pa’Ran boundless a few feet away, covered in sand. Someone had moved the tent to him, not the other way around. But who? Had Vanna somehow managed to go and retrieve the tent and put them both inside it? He glanced around but saw no one else nearby, so he went back in and used the last Mend on himself before laying down and going back sleep.

Hours later, Cian woke up again. It was starting to get dark, and he was cold. Vanna was still out, but looked far better than she had. He pulled the covers back over her and used mend on her once more, then sprinkled some water on her dry lips.

Sputtering, she seemed to come to a bit and swallowed.

Cian spent the next few minutes slowly feeding Vanna water, with her swallowing and muttering. She was still delirious, but was rapidly improving. Cian swapped out the power cells again and set up the chargers to charge the canteens. He decided to look around a bit before the light faded completely.

After digging around a bit, Cian managed to find his spear. It had been left on and was completely drained. He stuck it in the dead Pa’Ran and watched it start to recharge. He didn’t think he would ever get used to blood sucking weapons. Remembering the device he had seen the large Pa’Ran wearing before, he tried to pry its helmet open. He was pretty sure he was tugging on the seam, but it wouldn’t budge.

He went to where he remembered seeing his knife fly to and dug around in the sand a bit more, nicking his finger but finding his knife. It was badly corroded from whatever goo had come out of the Pa’Ran.

Using it as a lever, Cian pried the creature’s helmet open with a wet schlock. Something like phlegm splattered out of the helmet. White, lidless, compound eyes sat motionless. The smell was almost overpowering. Silver shone through the goo. It was still wearing it.

Cian pried the device off the Pa’Ran’s head. It was filthy, covered in slime and muck. Suppressing his urge to vomit, Cian used sand to clean the nasty off of it.

He examined the thing more closely. It was some kind of open face headgear made of a silver metal, with openings made to fit snugly around the ears and a back that went down the curve of the back of the head. It looked like it was designed to fit a large human – the Pa’Ran just had the thing jammed onto its head and stuck to it with goop. The metallic mesh in the joints between the plates had a bit of stretch to it, and it looked like it would probably fit snugly on Cian’s head. It was completely smooth inside and out, and had a matte finish. He looked to see if his interface would give him any details about it.

Artifact – An ancient artifact of high archaeological value. Value: 100,000,000 credits. Immediately return to any Dromon Peacekeeper banking facility for conversion to credits.

Shocked, Cian almost dropped it. This thing was worth over a million bucks! Ten times what the other one was worth. Most starships weren’t worth that much. A fully outfitted warship was worth less than that. A million dollar prize item? What did this thing even do? Was it a stronger version of the other one? It must at least be related to it.

Now that he thought about it, he had been using his powers without the other artifact – and it had been easier than when he had used them with the artifact. Did a few levels make that much difference, or was something else going on?

Resisting the urge to just slip the thing on and find out, Cian decided it best to wait until he could better identify it. Or at least until he was recovered. This thing went on his head, and if it did the same thing as the other one did it could very well kill him.

He had another thought – how many of these things got left on Pa’Ran bodies because nobody cracked their armor open? Did the powerful Boundless he killed back in Valcim have one, in addition to the hand artifact? Cian went back and started to peel and crack the rest of the armor off the thing. It was dark by the time he was done, and all he accomplished was making a mess – nothing else was under the armor. He did find the used shield generator stuck in a pouch in the armor, but it was burned out – apparently not a reusable item.

He used sand to scrape the goop from his hands and went back into the tent, his recharged spear and the priceless artifact in hand. Going from the fresh night air into the tent was a shock – the tent stank. He sniffed – he stank too. Bad, like dead alien and infection and the worst BO. But he was far too tired to care right now, so he tucked the artifact in his bag and got back under the blankets. He used Mend on himself again and was sleeping within a few minutes.

It was approaching noon when Cian woke again to movement. Vanna was awake! “Hey! How are you feeling?” he asked.

She threw the blanket off, grunting, and said “Ugh. Hot. Thirsty.”

Cian passed her a canteen, saying “Take it slow. We’re both dehydrated. By the way, did you move the tent here?”

She grabbed the canteen and took a few gulps, then said “Thanks. Yeah. I woke up and you were out cold on top of me, bleeding all over me. We were both cut up pretty bad, but you were worse off than I was. Was night, getting cold. Went and got the tent and stuffed you in it. Went and got some clean water. Cleaned our wounds. Wrapped some bandages around the both of us. You’re heavy as hell, by the way. How long I been out?”

Cian laughed, saying “Can’t believe you were able to do all that. When I woke up you were near dead from infection. Been at least two days, I can remember about 36 hours.”

Vanna checked her wounds, “Infection? How? You find some kind of healing tech from the Pa’Ran? This cut on my chest was way worse. Only two days ago?” she asked.

“Well, I healed you. Found out I can do it for others too.” Cian replied.

Vanna looked incredulous, saying “Wow. Wait, is that how I survived? Last thing I remembered before waking up the first time, I felt that bug crush my windpipe and slice open my chest. Woke up with you draped over me in even worse shape than me, but I was breathing again. You did that?”

“Uh, yeah. You saved me too by getting the tent.” Cian replied sheepishly.

Vanna smiled, saying “Ha. If you had healed yourself instead of me you woulda been fine. Well, you saved my behind yet again. Thanks! Now, uh. Don’t take this the wrong way, but you smell like the arse end of a Kel rat. How about we go wash off?”

Cian laughed, agreeing with her assessment.

Cian used mend on himself once and Vanna twice more, closing up the last of her wounds and refreshing himself. He didn’t have any more open wounds, but it seemed to be helping with his body’s recovery from dehydration.

“Nice, thanks. Don’t think I got a scratch left on me now. You’re nice to have around.” Vanna smirked.

“Well, I figured if I healed you, you might wash and mend my clothes for me.” Cian joked.

Vanna playfully swatted him on the side of the head, shaking her head as they gathered up the tent and everything and headed toward the oasis.

“There may still be one Pa’Ran alive, that one I had controlled.” said Cian.

“Yeah, I never saw it again. We should check the ship first.” replied Vanna.

Cian nodded.

As they approached the ship, everything looked quiet. They dropped their equipment and tattered clothes near the water and headed toward the ship to look around, wearing mostly bandages. Vanna had her pistol and Cian his new Pa’Ran spear.

A pile of Pa’Ran bodies was thrown off to the side of the entry. On the top was the one they were looking for, its neck crushed.

“Well, that answers that.” said Cian.

“It does? Did the big one choke his own soldier?” asked Vanna.

“Yeah. Pissed him off when he realized I had control, guess he squeezed a bit hard.” answered Cian.

Remembering the artifact, Cian said “Oh, let’s check and see if those overseers have anything. I found something valuable on the leader.”

“Valuable?” Vanna asked.

“Yeah, it’s in my bag by the water. I’ll show you later” Cian replied, mentally cursing himself for leaving such a valuable item unattended.

Cian pried open all of the overseers’ helmets. He found nothing but stink inside.

Vanna made a disgusted face and went in the ship after he opened the first one.

When he finished, he went in behind her.

She was coming out of the galley area, looking nauseous.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Ugh, no. They got people strung up in there. Been eating us. Their dried meat, at least half of it must be people.” she replied.

Cian frowned. “Yeah. I saw that when I was controlling the soldier. Disgusting stuff.” Cian said.

Together they searched the rest of the ship. They found an armory full of the spears that the Pa’Ran used, but not much else. The ship seemed to be rapidly deteriorating now that the Pa’Ran were gone, with goo from the organic parts corroding and eating into the few metallic components remaining. The bridge of the ship seemed to be controlled through some kind of chemical interface. Most of the ship was organic in nature, and neither of them could figure out how to use any of the technology. Giving up, they went back to the water. Cian showed Vanna the artifact.

She recognized it from her time with her parents’ trading ship, saying “Wow! I’m pretty sure that’s a Weaveborn artifact, or a really good counterfeit. My parents traded in minor ones on occasion. That metal is an extremely strong alloy, and the tech of whatever that thing does is actually built into it. They’re practically indestructible. Lot of people will pay a fortune for those. Be careful who you show it to, especially around here. The Kitani Syndicate has operatives that will happily kill for even the most simple Weaveborn tech.”

Cian was surprised she knew so much. “Hold up. Weaveborn? Kitani Syndicate?” asked Cian.

“The Weaveborn were the first species to reach the stars. The Weaveborn Dominion spanned all of known space. They’re the ones that settled all the worlds that we live on, the ones that discovered the Great Weave that connects the habitable worlds. Some say they even created the Weave, and that they left on the threads that we can’t follow. The ones that leave the galaxy. I don’t know much more about ‘em, but I know their tech is incredible. Most of the biggest breakthroughs in tech have come from researching their artifacts.” Vanna said.

She continued after thinking for a few seconds, “The Kitani Syndicate are an extremely dangerous shadow government. Most people would call me a conspiracy theorist for even sayin’ this, but they are the ruling force behind several of the large empires – including the Dromon Peacekeepers. My pa insists that he has seen their operatives. He said that they use the spawn rooms, like you humans do. That the rooms existed, hidden away, even before the humans started appearing, and that only the Kitani Syndicate operatives used ‘em then. They hunt Weaveborn tech like its their holy mission, killing anyone who gets in the way.”

Cian thought over this new information. He had heard about some precursor civilization in discussions about the game’s lore, but a Weaveborn Dominion hadn’t ever come up. The Weave was the game’s FTL travel system, some kind of thread that connected all the game’s worlds but didn’t let you go to unexplored space. He had never heard of any Kitani Syndicate or shadow government. Was the Kitani Syndicate the one who would buy the artifact for 100,000,000 credits?

“So, any idea what this thing does?” asked Cian.

“Beats me. Something amazing, probably.” answered Vanna.

“Is it dangerous?” asked Cian.

“Possibly? Never heard of a Weaveborn artifact hurting its user, but I haven’t really heard of too many of them period. A lot of them are simply really advanced personal items. My pa traded for a Weaveborn tooth tool, sold it to a wealthy businessman for double what he paid for it. Just stuck it in your mouth and presto, clean, white, flawless teeth. It even repaired cavities. Real convenient.” answered Vanna.

“I had another one before. It shocked my arm pretty bad, but it let me use my powers better.” said Cian.

“Not sure about the shock, but that makes sense. Those powers are based on Weaveborn tech, pretty sure that’s where the Pa’Ran learned them. Not sure how you ended up with ‘em” said Vanna.

“Yeah, I’m… not really sure either.” Cian said. He decided he would try the thing out as soon as he recovered his attributes – it had to be something useful for the Pa’Ran to have been using it.

“What ya gonna do with it?” asked Vanna.

“I don’t know. I want to see what it does first. If I do end up selling it you can have half.” answered Cian.

“Really? You’d really give me half? Things gotta be worth a fortune.” said Vanna, surprised.

“Yeah, we found it together right? But if it does something really useful I might want to keep it.” said Cian.

“Well, I hope it’s a head shaver then, so we can sell it!” said Vanna, smiling.

“Head shaver?” Cian said, looking at the thing and feeling his hair, “I hope not.”

They washed their clothes, the blankets, the cloth parts of their bags, and the tent in the oasis. Once everything was clean, they laid it out to dry on some large rocks in the center of the oasis area. Satisfied that they had washed the worst of the stink out of their gear, they bathed. Cian stayed on one side of the U shaped body of water, giving Vanna some privacy on the opposite end.

When Cian was done, he found Vanna in her shorts stitching up their clothes. She was using a thorn and some fiber from a plant similar to an Agave growing nearby, deftly stitching up all the holes. It didn’t look the greatest, but when she was done it was functional.

“You know, I was kidding about you sewing up my clothes. Thanks.” Cian said.

Vanna laughed, saying “I know. But it needed doin’ and you’re welcome.”

Cian looked at his repaired pants, the stitches looked strong. “Where did you learn to do this?” asked Cian.

“Oh, back when I was a galactic spy. Seamstress was my cover.” answered Vanna flatly.

“Fine, don’t tell me.” Cian replied.

Vanna giggled and kept working.

01.11 – Payback

The Pa’Ran on watch called out and soon all six of the soldiers and one of the overseers had run over to see what was going on.

Able to understand them through the Pa’Ran, Cian had it say simply “Attacked. Two big rinjorn. Ugh, hit head. Others dead.” The overseer asked why they hadn’t used their communicator. Cian emphasized the head injury and acted confused. The overseer seemed a little skeptical, but the others simply tended to their fallen and helped both of them into the ship. Inside, they were led to a room with six sleeping soldiers and dozens of empty bunks. The overseers were all resting in individual rooms off to the side. One of them came in and grumpily agreed to help heal the paralyzed one. The two overseers channeled the same silvery thread of energy that Cian had used into the wound, and after a few minutes the wound had closed.

Both of them stopped after that, insisting they would both be fine the next day and that they needed to conserve power for the ship. The grumpy one went back to bed, while the other woke two of the sleeping soldiers and went back outside. From the stealthed tent, Cian could see that four soldiers were moving to stand guard while the two woken soldiers plus two others and the overseer were heading out to follow the trail toward the scene of the battle.

Cian whispered to Vanna and relayed what had been going on.

“Stupid. We should have realized they had some kind of long range communication. We got lucky. What now? If they see the bodies with laser wounds this farce is over.” Vanna asked.

“Well, at the speed they’re going it will be a good fifteen minutes before they get there. Then at least five to come back at a dead run. That gives us fifteen minutes before the rest know something is up, and twenty minutes before they get reinforcements. I say we hit them from the inside like we planned. Go looking for the most important targets first – if they catch us wandering we can just go back to the barracks room.” Cian said.

Vanna agreed, so Cian had the Pa’Ran get up and slip his spear’s head into the opening in their armor where they stored rations. Moving as quietly as possible, Cian’s puppet searched the rest of the ship. Avoiding any rooms with noises to check later, he found and killed five of the overseers they had seen outside the ship. A quick chop with the powered spear head beheaded the sleeping Pa’Ran, armor and all, with barely a noise. One of the rooms had multiple voices coming from it, another had a voice seemingly talking to itself, and another had the same grumbling one who had healed the paralyzed one – still grumbling to itself about being woken up. Heading into the room with the single voice seemingly talking to itself, he found a Pa’Ran babbling and rolling in its bed. After thinking it saw him, he realized it was sleeping with its eyes open and talking. Another head found its way to the floor.

It had been at least ten minutes, so Cian hurried up and went into the grumbling one’s room. It was still awake and spotted him as soon as the door opened, so he simply whined about his head hurting and asked for healing. The Pa’Ran overseer berated him and told him to get out of his room while walking past to open the door. Cian took his chance and had his puppet quickly sink the blade into the side of its neck and yank it across the back. The Pa’Ran dropped – it seemed the back of their armor was thinner than the front, and despite only making it half way through the armor he had completely severed the creatures’ neck. Pausing a moment to close up the door, Cian’s Pa’Ran headed back towards the barracks to finish off the five there.

Vanna tapped Cian on the shoulder, bringing his focus back to his own perception. “It’s been thirteen minutes. How’s it goin’?” asked Vanna.

Cian relayed what had happened as he guided the Pa’Ran back to the barracks.

Vanna smiled widely at the news, “We just might make it. Get those soldiers and see who is in the other room.”

Cian started with the closest one, then moved on to the next – quickly killing the five soldiers in the bunks one by one, severing their necks through the back of the armor. His gruesome work done, he headed toward the final room.

When Cian’s Pa’Ran entered the final room, his heart thudded in his chest. It was a large room set up as a macabre galley. Bodies of animals and people alike were on hooks in an adjacent room, with rows and rows of racks of drying meat in the main room. Two Pa’Ran were in the room, one with a large, wicked looking chitin carving knife preparing strips of some kind of meat; the other sitting at a bloody table with its helmet wide open, eating the meat raw. The one at the table was larger than the rest of the Pa’Ran and had some kind of gleaming, metallic device on its head. It yelled at him as he looked around, “Get back to your place, worm, or I will hollow out what’s left of your mind.”

Cian’s Pa’Ran eased into the room, mumbling apologies and pretending to want a taste of the meat.

The ‘chef’ stepped back beside Cian’s Pa’Ran and the larger one stood up, irate.

Suddenly, the voice of the overseer from earlier came over the comm channel that Cian’s puppet was apparently tuned into, “Missing group killed by laser fire. I repeat, killed by laser fire. Question survivors immediately.”

Knowing the jig was up, Cian quickly drew the knife and buried it in the neck of the Pa’Ran with the carving knife. As he withdrew it and turned to face the big one, a large hand grabbed his neck and squeezed.

Compound eyes bored into his, and suddenly Cian knew… this thing was a Boundless, and it saw him. Not the Pa’Ran, or even the physical body he was in, but the intangible person that was him. In a rage, it pushed into the soldier’s mind, and for a moment Cian felt it worming its way through the connection to his human body.

Cian quickly put up his walls and pushed back with all he had, ending the connection. The residual emotions and sheer hatred from the alien mind left Cian gagging and vomiting. He pulled up his combat log and glanced over it as he recovered for a moment.

Defeated 6 Pa’Ran Overseers. ¼ experience from helpless targets. Gain 3000 experience.

Defeated 1 Pa’Ran Overseer. Gain 2000 experience.

Defeated 5 Pa’Ran Soldiers. ¼ experience from helpless targets. Gain 625 experience.

Defeated Pa’Ran Butcher. Gain 1000 experience.

Level up! + 1 Will.

Pa’Ran Boundless ripped control of Pa’Ran Soldier from you. Lose 25 Willpower.

Mental attack from Pa’Ran Boundless through link. Blocked 84. Lose 28 + 4 Willpower.

Mental attack from Pa’Ran Boundless through link. Blocked 84. Lose 28 + 4 Willpower.

Mental attack on Pa’Ran Boundless through link. Hit for 21 Willpower. Cost 4 Willpower.

Pa’Ran Boundless attempts mind control through link. Link broken for 100 Willpower.

Psionics skill increased by 0.5% to 21.7%.

Psi Defense skill increased by 5.6% to 21.1%.

“What happened?! Are you okay?” whispered Vanna loudly, concern evident on her face.

Cian retched for a few more seconds before answering, “I … th… there is a strong one in there. It… it saw me for what I was. Took back control of the soldier. I killed all the rest, I think there are only those two and the four outside left.”

“Oh hell. If it did that to you, we might be in trouble.” replied Vanna, handing Cian a canteen.

Cian checked his Willpower – thanks to his high Will, he had regenerated some of what he used to control the Pa’Ran back. But that short battle had left him with a mere 42, even with the bonus 10 from leveling Will. Another mental battle with that thing would leave him as a vegetable.

Cian drank the rest of the water, still shaking from the encounter. “I can do this.” he said to himself. He steeled his nerves and detached the tent’s stealth field generator, stepping out into the dark night and announcing “I have an idea. Follow me and try to cover our tracks.”

Vanna looked shaken, but did as she was asked.

They walked silently along the same path the Pa’Ran had left on for two or three tense minutes before Cian dropped down and buried the stealth generator right in the middle of the trail.

“What are you doing?” asked Vanna.

“Setting our ambush. Get your spear ready.” replied Cian.

“How do you know they will come along this same path?” asked Vanna.

“Look at the tracks. They followed it exactly out, I’m betting they follow it exactly back too. And at a run. We sit tight and brace our spears right inside the field. Let them impale themselves on them and clean up the rest. Aim for the back of the neck, the armor is weak there.” replied Cian coldly.

Vanna only nodded, looking hesitant but doing as instructed.

They were both shivering from the cold, but they didn’t have to wait long. Half a minute later, five Pa’Ran crested the nearest dune, the overseer in the lead with the four soldiers behind.

Cian whispered a plan, “Let the overseer slip between us if you can, aim to hit the next two right where their neck meets their upper body. Activate the spear right as they hit. Then pull your pistol and swing around for the overseer, try to hit him in the same spot on the back. I’ll take care of the two soldiers.” He sounded much more confident than he felt, preparing to use his Mind over Body skill to augment his abilities.

Vanna just nodded and braced herself.

Seconds later, their luck held – the overseer in the lead ran right between them and over the stealth generator without stopping. The next two ran headlong into braced spears, skewering themselves right through the neck and severing their spines.

Vanna let go of her spear and pulled her gun in one smooth motion, whipping around and shooting the overseer in the back before it even stopped to turn around.

Cian ripped the spear free and plunged it right through the chest of the next Pa’Ran soldier.

The last soldier, hardened by experience, immediately went on the attack.

Cian grabbed a dropped spear and faced the soldier down, trading blows but coming out alive.

The overseer managed to hit Vanna with a fear inducing attack, and Vanna, panicking, simply kept shooting the overseer until it stopped twitching.

It was only after they had stopped focusing on combat that Cian was notified of the full tally of the fight.

Surpass Limits activated. +21 Agility, +21 Strength, +21 Endurance. Cost 40 Willpower.

Attacked Pa’Ran Soldier with braced spear. Critical hit x5! 945 damage.

Pa’Ran Soldier killed.

New skill learned! Polearm fighting.

Attacked Pa’Ran Soldier with spear. Critical hit x3! 567 damage.

Pa’Ran Soldier killed.

Spear attack from Pa’Ran Soldier. Dodged!

Attacked Pa’Ran Soldier with spear. Missed!

Spear attack from Pa’Ran Soldier. Hit! Take 167 damage.

Attacked Pa’Ran Soldier with spear. Hit! 189 damage.

Spear attack from Pa’Ran Soldier. Dodged!

Attacked Pa’Ran Soldier with spear. Missed!

Spear attack from Pa’Ran Soldier. Glancing Hit! Take 83 damage.

Attacked Pa’Ran Soldier with spear. Hit! 189 damage.

Pa’Ran Soldier killed.

Tracking skill increased by 3% to 5.2%.

Mind over Body skill increased by 0.2% to 27%.

Combat Reflexes skill increased by 7.1% to 8.1%.

Polearm fighting skill increased by 3% to 3%.

Defeated Pa’Ran Overseer. Gain 2000 experience.

Defeated 4 Pa’Ran Soldiers. Gain 2000 experience.

Surpass Limits faded. Attributes returned to normal. Lose 52 health, stamina.

Name: Cian Kemp
Class: Boundless
Strength: 25
Endurance: 25
Presence: 42
Health: 157/250
Willpower: 5/530
Agility: 25
Wit: 42
Will: 53
Stamina: 3/250
Level: 7
Total Experience: 32125/36000
Ongoing Effects: Moderate Bleeding.

Combat Reflexes: 8.1%
Mental Projection (C): 27.4%
Mind over Body (C): 27%
Psi Defense (C): 21.1%
Psionics (C): 21.7%
Basic Energy Equipment: 6.1%
Knife Fighting: 1%
Marksmanship: 3.2%
Small Arms: 5.6%
Polearm Fighting: 3%
Tracking 5.2%

Vanna looked over at the bloodied and panting Cian, grinning sheepishly “Uh, sorry I froze up there. That bug did something to me. Your plan worked, though! You okay?”

As Cian applied two bandages to stop the bleeding in his leg and shoulder, he replied “Yeah. You did great. Can’t believe that worked. We just killed a whole Pa’Ran dropship. Well, almost.”

Vanna let out a nervous laugh, replying “Yeah, we did didn’t we? What now? It’s late, we’re exhausted, your leg and shoulder there don’t seem to be healing, and it’s gettin’ cold.”

Cian’s head was throbbing from the mental fatigue and he was absolutely exhausted. “Yeah, I’m tapped out,” he said, “Maybe we can sneak back and retrieve our tent?”

Vanna looked him over, replying “I’ll sneak back and retrieve our tent. You look like hell. Dig up the stealth generator and plant it behind the dune over there and wait for me.” She pointed at a nearby peak of sand.

Cian just said ‘Yep’ and started digging.

Twenty minutes later, Cian was laying on the warm sand, shivering from the cold wind. He was starting to get worried when he heard something.

Peeking over the dune, he saw five Pa’Ran – the big one and four soldiers – looking at the dead. Cian quietly inched back to his stealth field, hoping his attempt at covering tracks and twenty minutes of wind would prevent them from finding him.

He heard them chittering angrily, but without the psychic link to one of them he couldn’t understand them. Again his luck held, and they left back toward their ship. Trusting and hoping that Vanna hadn’t already been killed and knew what she was doing, Cian waited.

Fifteen minutes later Cian heard a quiet shuffling and looked up to see a dark figure easing over the dune. It was Vanna! Cian waved his hand out of the stealth field, getting her attention.

She had brought back their blankets. “They were poking around the tent when I got back. I had to wait until they gathered up and headed down the trail. I only saw five, not sure where the soldier you had controlled is. I just slipped in, grabbed the blankets, and came back. Figured they would notice a missing tent.” Vanna explained.

“Good job Vanna! I was getting worried. At least we won’t freeze now. Think it’s safe to sleep without the tent?” Cian replied.

Vanna looked exhausted, saying “It will have to be. The stealth field still works.”

The two of them huddled together, wrapping up tightly with both blankets. Without the tent to deflect the wind, the night was bitterly cold.

Cian woke early the next morning with Vanna tightly wrapped around his chest. Extricating himself and wrapping her back in the blankets, he went off over the dune to relieve himself.

He had regained 300 Willpower, so it must have been nearly six hours. His wounds ached, they hadn’t gotten any better in the night, and it took three uses of his Mend ability to heal them. When he got back Vanna had woken up, and he looked away as she emptied her bladder less than a dozen feet from their spot – still wrapped in their blankets.

Noticing his look when she returned, she quickly said “What? It’s cold!” Vanna passed him a blanket as the two of them wrapped up to eat some travel ration breakfast. Their bellies no longer growling, they lay down and went back to sleep.

When he next woke, the sun was high in the sky and Vanna was sitting off to the side cleaning sand out of her pistol. The blankets were folded up nearby. Cian’s Willpower was almost fully restored, so it must have been nearly six more hours.

Noticing he was awake, Vanna said with a smirk “Afternoon, sunshine. Sleep well?”

“I did, actually.” Cian replied.

Vanna finished putting the pistol back together and said “Figured you needed it. Our canteens collected a few more sips of water through the night, but we gotta get to that oasis today. Up for finishing off the bugs?”

Cian nodded. He drank his water and stuffed the blankets and stealth field generator in his backpack, then they both headed back toward the Pa’Ran ship.

When they got near they quietly skirted up the edge of the dune and peeked over. Immediately, one of the Pa’Ran soldiers shrieked. They had been spotted! The four soldiers were on high alert and had spotted them immediately, with the large Pa’Ran boundless stopping repairs on the ship and heading toward them. The five of them were quickly forming up and heading their way, weapons raised.

Cian and Vanna quickly backed down from the top of the dune and ran towards the next one.

“Well hell, you got any more miraculous plans in that head of yours? Five to one aint good odds without something in our favor.” said Vanna.

Cian thought quickly, pointing at a high spot off to the side and replying “Take this stealth generator over there. Bury it, power it, and lay down quiet. Have your pistol out but keep your spear next to you ready. I’ll keep running and stop over that way to rest. If they come straight for me they’ll go down in the low spot. When they’re between us, aim and fire at their backs from inside the field. Same as before, the armor is weak just below the back of the neck. Try to hit the big one first if you can.”

Vanna barely had her field activated when the Pa’Ran cleared the dune.

Cian had crested the next dune and stopped to regain his stamina, acting like he was talking to Vanna behind him.

The Pa’Ran took the bait, rushing across the field toward him. They didn’t quite take the lowest circuit, but it was close enough.

As they reached the bottom of the dip, Vanna started firing. Her first shot took the big one in the back and it dropped. The other nine shots took down two of the soldiers.

Cian rushed the other two, and they didn’t seem to notice where the shots were coming from.

Seeing his charge, they kept heading toward him.

Boosting his attributes with Surpass Limits, Cian managed to parry the first soldier’s spear and slice off one of its arms.

It adjusted its grip on the spear and fought on.

Vanna’s pistol had cycled and another ten shots came as supporting fire.

Cian took a glancing hit from the Pa’Ran’s spear in his arm, but managed to finish off the three armed Pa’Ran quickly. No more supporting fire came from Vanna, but Cian was too busy facing off with the soldier to notice.

Tense seconds later, he emerged victorious with two additional glancing wounds in his side and leg. Looking back toward Vanna, Cian’s stomach dropped.

The large Pa’Ran was holding her by the neck and channeling a line of silver into her head. She was choking, flailing around and clawing fruitlessly at its hand on her throat.

Cian grabbed a second spear and ran as fast as he could across the field. As soon as he was in range, Cian activated and threw one of the spears, not stopping his charge.

His aim was true, but a split second before it impacted, the Pa’Ran simply waved one of its hands. The spear diverted course, splashing uselessly into the sand.

Closing rapidly, Cian unleashed a neural spike on the Pa’Ran boundless.

It seemed annoyed at his interruption, and pulled out the same serrated, chitin carving knife he had seen in the ship. Seconds before he reached them, the Pa’Ran swiped the knife deeply across Vanna’s chest and tossed her lifelessly to the side.

Shouting in rage and anguish, Cian reached the large Pa’Ran – his spear readied and vengeance on his mind. His spear struck at the creature’s head, but an energy barrier sprung into place and deflected the blow. Another swift strike had the barrier flickering, but the Pa’Ran’s cold eyes didn’t seem worried.

It flicked the knife at him, and it flew inerrantly into his chest like a homing missile.

Choking up blood, Cian swung again – shattering the force shield and scratching at its armor. It made a motion, and Cian’s spear flew from his hand into the sand.

Another motion and Cian was pressed into the sand, feeling like a hundred pound weight was crushing him.

Cian strained, enhancing his attributes again and breaking free from the hold. Drawing his knife, he lunged at the Pa’Ran and stabbed it in the chest.

It reeled away in shock, exposing its side.

Cian pressed his advantage, striking the creature twice more and severing one of its arms.

Shrieking, the Pa’Ran flung Cian back with another mental shove and again disarmed him, his knife flying and burying itself into the sand. It reached, and the knife in Cian’s chest came out with a wet slurp and raced back to its hand.

Cian choked, using mend to keep himself from bleeding out. He grabbed at the nearby spear, but as his hand touched it, it skidded several feet away. Attempting to rise to his feet, Cian felt another force pushing him down.

The Pa’Ran closed on him, sending its knife flying toward his chest again.

Panicked and acting on instinct, Cian focused his Willpower on deflecting the blade. It narrowly missed him, flying past and burying in the sand.

The Pa’Ran looked shocked, and Cian leapt onto it, knocking it to the ground.

Cian pummeled it in the head with his fists repeatedly and unleashed neural spikes into its mind.

Regaining its composure, it grabbed his two arms and put its third, strongest hand around Cian’s neck and squeezed.

Cian neural spiked it again as it locked eyes with him.

It hit him with a dizzying mental attack of its own, and Cian felt it worming its way into his mind.

With his enhanced strength, he broke free of its arms and grabbed its head with both hands – jerking and twisting with all his might.

With a crack, the mental attack stopped and its hand released his throat. Cian felt at the jagged tear in his throat where it had grabbed him, using mend again to fix his crushed windpipe and gasping for breath. Cian’s thoughts felt sluggish, as if his head was full of mud.

Silver fog floated out of the Pa’Ran boundless, gathering above it.

Cian rolled and grabbed the nearby spear, flicking its power on and swiping it back and forth through the cloud of silver.

It seemed to try to dodge, but he was faster. After a few seconds their light dimmed and the cloud of silver dust faded, blowing away with the wind.

Dropping the spear, Cian rushed over to Vanna’s bloodied form. She had a ragged tear across her chest and neck, and her lips were blue.

Aghast, Cian reached for her and found she wasn’t breathing. In a panic and not knowing if it would work, he channeled his Will into her and tried to heal her. He felt a strong resistance, but pushed past it as hard as he could – dumping everything he had into Vanna.

His vision swam and everything went black.