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|
|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%
Knife Fighting: 4.7%
Mental Projection (C): 27.4%
Mind over Body (C): 36.5%
Polearm Fighting: 8.3%
Psi Defense (C): 24.2%
Psionics (C): 27.5%
Small Arms: 7.7%
Starship Engineering: 11%
Starship Piloting: 3%
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.