The Founders' Station. Cargo docking area
If I thought that today's troubles were over, I would have to think again.
I cleared the tunnel without any additional hassle. It ended with a weak force field. A vacuum lay beyond it.
I only had enough chemicals left to ensure seven minutes' worth of breathing but I wasn't sweating it. There were plenty of them on board my ship.
I walked through the shimmering curtain of the power field and froze, speechless. My Condor towered proudly above the ruins of the dock. Its stealth mode was off, and the ship's board systems failed to answer my query.
Mechanically I switched the scanner on. It didn't register the ship's signature. It was as if someone had run all the batteries dry.
I cursed the Outlaws under my breath. Still, time was an issue. I studied the nearest structures and, having detected no danger, decided to go for it.
A hundred-foot abyss lay between me and the ship. In a well-calculated leap I kicked myself away from the station, floating through space. My heart thumped, measuring out the seconds. Below to my right lay the panorama of the ancient docking facilities. I could see the landing pads and the dark outlines of vacuum docks next to the oblong mouth of the transport hob oozing darkness.
The Condor's outline grew quickly until it filled my entire field of vision.
I grabbed at a landing support to kill my momentum and slid under the ship's belly. Still no contact with the board systems. I had to use the emergency hatch which was fitted with a simple hand mechanism.
The cockpit was dark. All the control modules were dead.
What kind of day was this?
I did a quick scan of the equipment. All the batteries were flat. But the worst thing was, I received no response from the reactor block!
So I had to climb out again. I walked around the ship. Only then did I notice that the emergency gate of the reactor module — the one serving to eject the power unit in case of critical damage — stood wide open.
I took a peek inside.
Empty. The power cables had been neatly detached, the cooling system circuits shut down.
Would you believe it? Someone in my absence had breached the force shield, hacked the emergency codes and pilfered the freakin' reactor block!
* * *
When I returned to the cockpit, I was so wound up I kicked the antigravity seat. It made me feel better.
Well, now I had to go and look for it. I opened the emergency supplies and replaced the life support cartridges and micro nuclear batteries. The nanites still sealed my helmet which was good news because I didn't want to change into a light onboard suit with its admittedly weak protection.
Now weapons were a problem. The integrated pulse guns didn't work. I rummaged through the stores Ralph had left me when I'd bought the ship off him the day before but only found a snub-barreled pulse assault rifle.
I checked its stats.
Firing speed: 3
Way not good enough. To go looking for my reactor with something like this was asking for a respawn. The mobs I'd studied earlier started with Armor 200+. If you did the math, I needed at least 10 bursts of fire to make a hole in the weakest of them.
It wouldn't work. So I had to go out again. The ship's network was dead, power was down, not a working device in sight, but with a little help from a toolkit I managed to prize open the launch tube diaphragm and produce a small recon probe.
Its independent power supply was fine. Such a shame I couldn't contact our other guys: the distance between me and the asteroid belt was too great. But it gave me an idea. I activated the probe and set it a task. The machine winked its micro engines at me and began gaining altitude (in respect of the station), transmitting the picture and scanning the frequencies the Outlaws normally used to communicate.
Yes! I had a signal.
Obeying my command, the drone moved another few hundred feet and hovered next to one of the hull structures, working as a relay. Even if the Outlaws located it, they'd have their work cut out climbing the mangled structure hoping to get to me. As it was, they'd be in for a surprise as I'd set the probe to self-destruct in case of enemy proximity.
Through the crackle of interference, I finally heard heavy breathing and the alarmed beeping of his helmet's inner sensors. He must have been running, trying to escape some mobs.
I listened in. Judging by the alarm processor's tone and frequent beeps, Jyrd lay in the sights of five aggressive machines.
“Zander? You alive?” I heard a short burst of his integrated gun.
“Apparently. Your men blew it.”
“So what do you want?”
“I need the codes to unblock my guns.”
“You don't want much, do you?”
“Not at all. Here's the deal. I've got an interesting quest here. I've been offered to pass information about Avatroid on to Eurasia command.”
“And?” his voice quivered. He wasn't good at taking informational punches.
“And I might consider leaving it on the back burner for a while. In exchange for unblocking my weapons, naturally.”
More interference and heavy breathing mixed with the dull echoes of gunfire.
“Well, fuck you!” he finally said. “You're stuck on the station, anyway. How did you know about Avatroid?”
I hung up. He wasn't going to give me the codes. At least I'd tried. Now I could dismiss the scenario of a few Outlaws who'd lifted my reactor and now lay in ambush nearby. As the result of the update they now had much more serious problems to deal with.
I reloaded the gravitech — my individual gravity generator — and shrugged at my own thoughts, then added another survival kit to my inventory just in case. I climbed out and studied the view of the dock.
Actually, whoever had stolen my reactor could have taken it anywhere. Hull structures towered everywhere. Still, my eye kept coming back to a tunnel I hadn't noticed before.
I tried to work out why it had attracted my attention. I switched between scanning modes until I noticed a weak radiation trail. The radiation was higher in that direction.
Oh well, this wasn't the worst option. Especially as the source of radiation proved to be tiny droplets of the reactor's cooling agent hovering in zero gravity.
* * *
It was a long hike. At first, the tunnel which was part of the docking system ran parallel to the hull. Only after more than half a mile did I encounter the first junction. The radiation trail went off to the right. I followed it, hoping to catch up with the thieves.
No idea who they might be.
I tried to walk softly, wary of disturbing the shaky floor. Vacuum and zero gravity reigned around me but at least my gravitech allowed me to walk properly past layers and layers of floating debris. The sheer amount of metal and plastic junk prevented me from seeing properly what lay ahead.
At the first opportunity, I replicated the nanites. You never know when you might need an extra colony of them! If only I had stealth...
I slowed down, my way blocked by a steel grating firmly lodged between the walls.
How on earth had they managed to drag the reactor past it?
The movement detector pinged anxiously. I glimpsed the outline of a scrambling serve high up under the tunnel's ceiling. My sensors barely registered its signature. I made out a smattering of crimson dots and realized that this grating had only just been installed, roughly welded into place moments ago.
These NPCs had a cheek! First they steal my power unit and now they try to cover up their tracks!
I carefully climbed over the deformed beams — it was better than attracting their attention. Subconsciously I braced myself, knowing I was asking for trouble, but what other options did I have? The station just didn't want to let me go, luring me deeper into its perilous depths.
I pushed aside a slowly rotating piece of mangled steel floating toward me and peered into the gloom.
A dull light was falling across the corridor, seeping from a narrowly opened hatch. The serve had already scrambled off somewhere, quick and agile as an insect. My sensors didn't detect its presence anywhere.
A force field met me by the entrance to the deck's next sector. The long hangar behind it had gravity and a rarefied atmosphere.
This was just another repair dock. Machines froze motionless along its walls. Fine specks of dust floated in the air. The light was coming from somewhere lower and further on, where the floor dropped sharply, sloping down.
The motion detector pinged again. My target monitor lit up with two bright-red markers.
Unwilling to tempt providence, I shrank back, taking cover behind the nearest machine. My mind expander outlined the mobs' shapes. My throat turned dry.
Scaled-down copies of Phantom Raiders were moving toward me. I gulped, then hurried to study their signatures. No force fields, their armor all scorched and patched, their weapons admittedly weak, powered by unusual crystal-shaped batteries. My shivering subsided. This was a joke, really — a laughable travesty of the Founders' lethal craft.
Mechanically my finger pushed the rate of fire slider into the boosted power position. No one had ever managed to study a Phantom Raider before. Normally you couldn't even get a scrap of them, as in the case of critical damage they exploded in a bout of spontaneous combustion. But these two didn't seem to have annihilation units on board which meant I could potentially lay my hands on a unique trophy!
I took aim. Their worn-out hulls had only 35 pt. Durability. Thanks to my Robot Technician skill, I could breach them with one burst of fire.
Back at Argus, I had practiced signature-based fire. I'd never skimped on implants — and now the half a million credits I'd invested in SynapsZ were about to pay for themselves. The picture of the phantom drones' internal structure overlapped their visuals, allowing me to see the maze of pulsating power lines and pinpoint the vulnerable spots with a swipe of my eyes. A couple of bursts of precision fire, and I'd be the proud owner of some unique technological artifacts.
My abject fear had subsided, giving way to excitement.
The very existence of these miniature copies of Phantom Raiders promised me quite a few perks. I lingered, waiting for the scanners to finalize copying the files.
Just a little bit more.
In the course of scanning, you have received access to the objects' damaged databases. An authentication code has been retrieved. Would you like to activate it?
The message had popped up unexpectedly. My body broke out in a cold sweat. I hadn't even realized until that moment how great had the strain been.
Yes! I barely stopped myself from opening fire.
One second. Two. Three...
The target markers blinked, turning green.
Friendly contact established! You have successfully communicated the authentication code. Your Mnemotechnics skill has grown 1 pt.
I was already within direct visibility of the drones but they ignored me. Instead, they turned about, retracing their course. What kind of weird location was this? First it was NPCs who could steal your own reactor from under you but somehow didn't aggro you! That was just too easy. I had this gut feeling there was a catch there somewhere. I just couldn't have hacked their systems with my meager Level 1 in Mnemotechnics. And I hadn't even tried to — I had other objectives to take care of. They might simply be luring me somewhere.
I checked the logs.
Indeed, I discovered the record of the authentication code. The scanning and the consequent data processing had been performed by a special-purpose scanner I'd received from Jurgen as part of my new gear.
All right. Let's presume it was so. Even though I'd have loved to have mown them down and gotten two unique artifacts in addition to their scanner files.
I hesitated, but not for long, curiosity taking over my more mercenary interests.
I followed the drones, keeping a respectful distance. They still sported the Friendly Contact buff. So far, everything seemed to be kosher. Or was it?
In the meantime, the light had become brighter, the machine outlines along the walls growing sharp shadows. I could make out a large jagged hole in the hull, blocked by a force field. Beyond it, the view blurred into a haze.
The sensors pinged another warning.
A Kamresh! The ugly outline of this creature which resembled a mole cricket leaped out of the utility hatch a few dozen feet behind me. The wretched thing had waited for me to go past, deciding to attack me from the rear. Still, the hungry mob's blistering leap ended in thin air. Gravitechs had this excellent zero gravity option, albeit only for a maximum of twenty seconds with a subsequent cooldown of two minutes. But I won't bother you with technicalities.
I reacted instinctively, my reflexes pushing me sideways into the air, simultaneously activating the gravitech. My main specialization as a pilot had got me accustomed to doing aerobatics in zero gravity. The Kamresh hadn't expected it. He screeched to a halt, his claws striking sparks on the floor — nippers that were known to snap their victim in two, armor and all. He hissed with disappointment, watching me float through the air, trying to work out how come his prey had suddenly soared up to the hangar's ceiling?
I landed on a small ledge just above the massive machines lining the walls. The Kamresh couldn't climb up there. These creatures indigenous to the gas giant's second satellite had evolved in their planetoid's narrow underground tunnels which made their inbred attack and defense skills rather limited. And scaling walls wasn't part of them.
I took a moment to take stock of my opponent.
A Kamresh. Xenomorph. Level 24.
No implants. No sign of any gear. This one had never been captured by Dargians. Just a hungry mob, savage and blood-thirsty. Without another moment's hesitation, I peppered him with short bursts of my pulse gun. In the constant flashing of the impacts, the bullets kept sinking into his thick natural armor without dealing him much damage worth mentioning. I wasted a whole clip on him and he was only 12% Life down. I absolutely had to do some leveling. Not a single crit of the whole lot, that's insulting!
The Kamresh raged below, furious from the pain and refusing to be a nice obedient target. My supplies weren't unlimited, either. Add to that all the power the pulse gun was burning. I switched over to single shots, trying not to waste ammo.
While I was thus busy, the Founders' drones had disappeared into the haze beyond the force field. So much for Friendly Contact! It was a good job I'd scanned them.
The Kamresh lasted another five minutes. Once his hits dropped below 50%, he started ducking out of my view; a couple of times he disappeared completely, holing up in utility tunnels laid under the floor. Still, he would leap out again and again, unable to stay there for long, and attack me.
Finally I smoked him, receiving a pittance to my XP and an unpleasant aftertaste from the prolonged monotonous firefight.
I couldn't help remembering the Crystal Sphere and the gory routine of its farm locations where I'd first learned to use the sword. There, even low-level combos looked awesome, their adrenaline drive taking the boredom out of leveling.
Enough self-pity. I was a pilot, after all. Outer space was my element of choice. I just needed to level light weapons a little more.
The gravitech's cooldown had already expired. Time to climb down and check the Kamresh for any loot. Then off I'd go in search of my errant reactor.
* * *
The force field let me out into an unexpectedly warm and humid atmosphere. The danger level indicators shrank back into the green sectors. Still, I didn't decompress the suit, suspecting yet another catch.
The enormous hall rose several decks high, their floors demolished by the ancient disaster leaving behind only a ragged fringe along the walls which formed multi-level terraces fuming with a dark brown dust-like substance. From under its cover, I could hear noises similar to the sound of gravel pouring out of trucks.
The space behind the force field was crowded with broken machines. A narrow trail threaded itself between them.
Droplets of moisture covered my armor plates. I gave the area a thorough scan. The terraces were blocked off by power shields which could explain why the brown dust hadn't spread over the rest of the hall. Deep behind the nearest heaps of cargonite I noticed several robot guards. The abundance of interference prevented me from identifying them properly. Their markers were gray, anyway: neutral to me.
Congratulations! You've discovered the Oasis!
Strange name. I couldn't see any signs of life around. It looked more like a techno dump.
Something crunched underfoot. I peered down. Decayed bodies. Further on where the trail turned I found pieces of Kamresh armor, peppered with holes as big as my fist. Was that how they greeted unwanted visitors here?
It began to drizzle. To the right of the sloping wall a light came on, throwing deep shadows across the indentations.
My mind expander automatically changed filters, lifting the gloom off the rain. Nearby, two scruffy utility robots were wielding their plasma torches, dismembering the deformed hulk of a larger counterpart. Sparks showered over everything around; smoking chunks of red-hot steel pattered to the floor. Five more robots hovered nearby, waiting for their turn to sink their manipulators into the savaged torso. Straining their mechanical muscle until their servomotors screeched, they smoothed out the crumpled armor and began stripping it of everything salvageable.
Oasis, you say?
More like an ancient technology museum. I had no doubt this was where my reactors had ended up. My overactive imagination proffered scenes of a futuristic scrap yard. Cyber NPCs swarmed around. The target monitor flickered with gray markers. Robots of every description scurried about.
I wouldn't be surprised if all this was Avatroid's doing. One thing I couldn't understand though was why they were neutral to me.
In any case, I wasn't turning back. There had to be someone here I could speak to. Without the reactor block, I could forget leaving the station. Besides, I was quite curious about all this. No one was paying any attention to me apart from the occasional wave of radiation that kept my defense systems alert.
I followed the trail.
* * *
Finally I left the heaps of cargonite junk behind. The drizzling rain had stopped (I never found out what had caused it). Visibility improved considerably, revealing a large area cleared of all debris and marked out for development. The fine rays of micro lasers defined the outlines of the future buildings and roads.
Next to the far-off wall where the broken edges of the ceiling structures sloped like ramps to the floor stood an unfinished domed building. Immediately my sensors detected a multitude of signatures inside and two very interesting power imprints.
I headed over there. The building hadn't yet been covered with sheets of armor: at present, it was little more than a grill with several equipment stands mounted at various levels.
Serves scurried up and down the curved beams. They seemed to ignore me.
I walked into the weak glow of holographic screens. Control panels flickered their colored lights; powerful cables ran the length of the supporting structures.
My reactor block turned up on the second floor. Next to it, a short fat gravitech-assisted man levitated in the air, soldering some unknown devices onto the reactor's casing.
Ingmud. Level 127. A Hybrid.
A Hybrid? That's something novel! I already got the feeling that getting my property back wasn't going to be easy. But leaving without even trying to talk to him would have been stupid.
His nickname rang a bell. I also had the funny feeling I'd seen him before.
'Excuse me!” I said, removing my helmet. I tilted my head up and raised my voice. “May I ask you where you got this power unit from?”
“The serves have dragged it in from somewhere,” he said without as much as a glance in my direction.
“Did you have any idea that it was stolen?”
“Stolen?” he sounded surprised. “Don't make me laugh. The station is long abandoned. Nothing belongs to anyone here,” he resumed his work, believing the matter closed and my claims ungrounded.
“The reactors have been dismantled from my ship.”
“Right, let me just get down,” he grumbled. “We'll see. Just give me a moment to finish something.”
I lowered my tired body into a chair that creaked anxiously under the weight of my armored suit. The damp stale air left a nasty aftertaste in my throat. Clouds of brown dust still hovered over the ragged terraces, preventing me from seeing what was happening there.
“So!” Ingmud floated down, glanced at the control panels and sat in a chair opposite. “What's your problem?”
I had to admit his appearance left much to be desired. He was flabby and bloated, unkempt like a junk dealer. A strange association flashed through my mind. Of course! This was the scrap cargonite trader who'd tried to rip me and Charon off on the first day of our arrival on Argus.
Incredible. How had he survived, then? When had he managed to settle down here, why had he changed his character class and more importantly, how on earth had he made level 127? Somehow I didn't think he'd done it by vending. During our fleeting first encounter he hadn't struck me as an ambitious player.
“I can see you remember me? I'm happy to see you too,” the hybrid chuckled, contradicting my thoughts. His weak triple chin quivered — but his gaze was surprisingly lucid and curious. “It's not often I see survivors here,” he explained. “Honestly, it's been a while.”
Now it was my turn to be surprised. “A long while?”
“Half a year, something like that,” Ingmud offered. “There were only five of us at first. Now there're thirty-two of us!” he announced proudly.
“All from Argus?” I was torn by quite understandable doubts. The attack of the Phantom Raiders had only taken place twenty-four hours ago. I knew of course that time was relative in a game — it was a tool in the developers' hands so even different locations could have their different time flows.
An explosion thundered on one of the terraces. A serve appeared on one of the sloping ramps and ran toward us, smoldering and limping.
The ex-vendor didn't look scared. “Some damage you've got,” he grabbed the robot by one of its lugs and activated an ability unknown to me, casting the Immobilization debuff. His gaze grew sharp and focused: he must have been studying the damage, then ran his right hand over the smoking gap in the serve's hull.
A lilac aura enveloped his fingers. Blood vessels showed clearly under the skin, glowing as if he had incandescent plasma running through his veins.
The sight was so familiar it gave me shivers. These were the kinds of visuals accompanying the activation of the Founders' neuronets.
Fine threads of energy emanated from Ingmud's fingers, reaching for the hole in the robot's bodywork. It sparked; its armored edges blurred, softening. The hybrid cast a glance around looking for something to patch it up with but found nothing. He mouthed something silently. Soon a small crab-like serve came running from the direction of the dump.
Ingmud's eyes pointed at the damage. The serve scuttled up to us and stopped. With a quiet whizzing sound it extended its manipulators and used them to secure the fragment of cargonite he'd just delivered, holding it in the required position.
The fine threads of energy entwining his fingers softened the cargonite with ease. It began to melt; then the thin purple streaks dissolved into a cloud of incandescent dust which rushed toward the hole, sealing it with a crimson film.
“Zander, hold him for me, will ya?” Ingmud suddenly asked.
I didn't mind, of course. My muscle enhancers worked fine, but the serve was rather large too. I had my doubts that I could do it. But I could try, I suppose.
“What are you doing?” Ingmud very nearly lost his concentration when he saw me stand up in my seat trying to get a good grip of his patient. “Hold him mentally!”
The hybrid was lost for words. The serve removed the debuff, forced itself free and ran off. After a couple of dozen feet, it stopped and flooded us with scorching waves of scanning radiation. The fresh patch on its hull still glowed crimson, cooling down.
“Shame. I wanted to add a couple more modules to him,” Ingmud complained. “Never mind.”
“What made you think I could immobilize him?”
He shrugged. “You've got two ancient neuronet modules implanted, right?” he said dryly. His piercing stare made me want to shrink. “And you've got the Mnemotechnics skill. Wait a sec... you don't use them, do you?” the amazement in his voice was sincere.
Pointless denying it. The hybrid could see right through me. “I'm a pilot, not a Technologist. I got them accidentally, both the nets and the skill.”
Ingmud's face darkened. What could have caused such a change in him?
“So what do we do about the reactor?” I wanted to ask him about so many things, of course, but business had to come first. The rest could wait.
“Sorry, Zander,” the hybrid answered reluctantly. “I understand it wasn't very nice. But I had no idea! You won't believe the things serves bring here.”
“Tell him to take it back, then!”
“Impossible. You see, I've already tweaked it a bit. Your reactor unit won't fit your Condor any more. But I'm sure we can sort it out,” he slapped my shoulder and scrambled back to his feet, groaning. “I'll need some time to find you a replacement.”
Oh. Did that mean I was stuck here at the station?
I tried to pull myself together. It wasn't the best of situations but I was sure I wasn't going to stay here for long. As soon as the Haash finished repairing their ships — forty-eight hours max — they were going to start searching for me. In the meantime, there was no point in ruining my relationship with the hybrid. Around me lay heaps and heaps of Founders' devices, unscanned and unstudied. A treasure trove for a novice Technologist. They would keep me busy, that's for sure.
“As far as I remember, you used to trade in cargonite? Where did you get all these abilities from?” I nodded at the serve still hovering around while I was rummaging through my video archives. After the Phantom Raiders' attack on Argus, Charon and I had done a quick check of the depressurized market deck in search of supplies. We'd popped into his shop too — that had been Charon's idea who said that he'd seen a set of gear in Ingmud’s shop suitable for his size.
There! Found it!
The view of a dark hangar consumed by cosmic cold appeared in my mind's eye. Cargonite piled everywhere. The only little spot free from scrap was taken by the vendor's chair. Ingmud slumped in it, his face distorted with a spasm, his tag missing — he was long and decidedly dead. Most likely, his own physical body back in real life hadn't survived the decompression shock. The neuronets they'd implanted us with knew no difference between real and virtual pain.
In which case who was it in front of me?
I remembered Ingmud as a greedy and cunning player. Somehow I had my doubts that he'd had a complete makeover within the last twenty-four hours, changing class and growing 82 levels. The only explanation I could think of was that he'd been made into an NPC. The update must have used his vendor avatar as a base for the new Ingmud. This version answered most of the questions and removed most of the doubts. I was pretty sure if I began asking questions, I'd hear a convincing well-plotted story, the product of the scriptwriters' imagination.
“Did you say cargonite?” Ingmud flipped a few switches on the control panels and nodded. “Yes, that's what I used to do. Ripped off a few, I'm the first to admit it. Greed is addictive, you know. It sucks you in like quicksand. The way I looked at it, you couldn't have too much money. I thought I'd always find what to spend it on.”
I listened to him closely, making up a mental list of questions to ask him. This location had proved not just interesting but also very useful. An independent human settlement on board a Founders' station was an exceptional precedent. Just think of all the new updated plot lines that must have been tied to its inhabitants.
Yes, it was probably worth my while not to lose contact with Ingmud.
“You've changed a lot,” I said matter-of-factly, encouraging him to continue our conversation.
“Have I?” he turned to me, raising a surprised eyebrow. “You and I, we've only met once and even then only fleetingly. Had it not been for your Haash friend and a couple of decent devices among your Dargian gear that you wanted to scrap, I'd have never remembered your face even.”
This set my alarm bells ringing. How could an NPC, no matter how well-plotted his backstory, know such minute details of his human prototype's past?
“But you're dead right,” he went on. “You've read my tag, that's what made you say that. Once a vendor, now a hybrid. But I tell you, Zander, it didn't happen overnight!” he lowered his body into the chair.
Ah, that did touch a chord! Would he issue me a quest, maybe?
“Think for yourself, I used to handle tons of cargonite on a daily basis,” the hybrid stooped as if the memory still hurt him. “Mainly useless scrap, fragments of station hull and such, but sometimes I came across various pieces of the Founders' devices. I just didn't have the heart to scoop them all into the furnace. So I started tinkering with the scrap for a bit, removing a part here, an unknown device there. With time I got seriously into it. I became good at dismantling them, I even got myself a special technological scanner. I set up a small workshop in my hangar. I knew, of course, that taking artifacts apart was an unhealthy idea, but temptation got the better of me. I'd find a neurochip among all the junk and I'd be happy as a pig. Why wouldn't I be? It costs an arm and a leg, normally. So I kept all these little gimmicks stashed in a nice little container waiting for their chance to fetch me a nice bit of cash.”
“They all melted, didn't they?” Ingmud shrugged. “One day I open the box and all my chips have turned to mercury. Or some such. A liquid metal, cold to touch. I didn't notice it at once though. I reached into the box — I had this habit of scooping them out, as if to feel my wealth, if you know what I mean. That's how it happened. I felt something wet and sticky run between my fingers. I looked at my hand and I nearly had a heart attack! By the time I found a cloth in my workshop to wipe the stuff off my hand, it had all soaked in, all of it, without a trace! Then suddenly I couldn't think straight, and the pain, you can't imagine — like someone was ripping my brain to shreds! I thought that was the end of me. No idea how much time I spent on the floor unconscious. When I finally came round, I was already like this,” he unbuttoned his well-worn jacket and bared his chest for me to see.
Jesus. His mangled flesh was fused with metal gleaming blue. You couldn't tell where one ended and the other started.
I felt uncomfortable. He must have suffered a torturous agony.
“You think it hurt? Nope. It didn't. At first this constant mess in my head really bugged me. Then I got used to it. It was worth the new abilities I got. Like when you brought me that Dargian gear, I could see right through it. I knew which devices were still in there.”
“Why didn't you offer me a normal price, then?” I couldn't help asking.
“Just a habit. A second nature, as they say. Had I noticed the Founders' neuronet inside you then...” Ingmud stared at the floor, silent. I understood him without saying. Had he noticed it, neither Charon nor myself would have left his shop alive.
“Zander, you need to understand. I wasn't myself then. The Founders' artifacts are sick bastards. Especially those AI modules. You're doing the right thing denying them access to your mind. Because they do things on the sly, you know. First they help you, then the next thing you know you're not yourself and the thoughts in your head aren’t yours anymore: they're cold and alien. And then there's this voice constantly whispering, Go and look... go seek the missing pieces... So many times I gave in to that whisper, and every time I ended up in places so deadly you don't want to know!”
“You're still alive, though.”
“Depends what you mean by alive,” he sighed. “I'm a hybrid, and that's that. I don't know all of my abilities yet, but as for Mnemotechnics and the Alien Technologies, I've already leveled them up almost to 100. How do you think I run this place? I see a mob, I immediately know what it can and can't do and whether I can use him. Then my head starts swimming with codes and commands until I cast a God-awful bunch of debuffs over him. Some serves just explode on the spot. Others freeze. Then I can come close and tinker with their programs. When it comes round it follows me everywhere like a dog.”
“You mean you don't know how you do any of it?”
“I didn't, at first. Honestly, I can't even remember leaving Argus. I spent some time wandering around this station, alone. The things I've been through! So, little by little I learned to understand and control my abilities. Then I met up with four mercs. They had set up camp under a dome shield on one of the decks and survived there by hunting xenomorphs. Basically, scavenging.”
“Mercs, you say? No girl among them? Her name is Liori.”
He shook his head. “Nope. Can't remember anyone of that name.”
“Shame,” still, I activated a holographic model of the station and marked the alternative start point through which I had entered Phantom Server. “Was it here you met them?”
“Oh, no. This is the other side of the station. I've never gotten that far. No idea what's there.”
Shame again. “Can I speak to the mercs?”
He closed his eyes, switching to the local network. “None of them are at the Oasis now,” he delivered the bad news. “They're all on Argus, raiding it for supplies. There're a few old stores there that aren’t yet completely looted. We're only setting up our life support system, you see. This,” he swept his hand along the ragged deck remains, “is what will become our eco system.”
“Will it really? All I can see is dust and force fields. What's in there?”
“Just some basic terraforming,” he answered cryptically. “I'll show you,” he focused, creating a holographic screen running with data.
I glanced at the people in safety suits picking at something resembling poor soil. Some of the mobs tamed by Ingmud helped them, bringing what looked like rubble, then pulverizing it. A thick cloud of dust hung in the air.
If you asked me, it looked aimless to the point of stupidity. Just a waste of time and effort. What did they hope to grow in these conditions on a space station, of all places? And even if they did it, what were they going to do with a dozen sickly saplings?
“The Oasis will live!” he snapped as if he'd been reading my thoughts. “And it will live up to its name!” Then he added in a quiet voice, “It's my redemption...”
Redemption? It sounded melodramatic. Which was actually quite normal for NPCs.
* * *
I cast another glance at Ingmud. He hadn't buttoned up his jacket yet. His flesh, infused with metal; spots of what looked like chemical burns; the steely purple sheen of his skin — all this didn't create a good first impression. By a sheer miracle, his face hadn't suffered at all, but it was repeatedly contorted by a strained expression — whether of physical or moral suffering, I couldn't tell.
I had a funny feeling that next to him, Avatroid was a joke. Especially considering the hybrid's uncontrolled and in many respects yet unstudied abilities.
“I have a proposal for you,” he finally broke a long pregnant silence. “Think you can help me?”
Ah, finally. A quest. I knew it wasn't for nothing his serves had pilfered my reactor block. They'd been luring me in. That's why they hadn't aggroed me!
The hybrid misunderstood my silence. “I'm not rushing you. But hear my advice. If you want to grow, you absolutely need to level Mnemotechnics and Alien Technologies. You just don't seem to realize their potential yet.”
I got the hint. “What kind of help do you need?”
“I want you to go to Darg. I have a daughter. She's an exobiologist. Kathryn's the name. She set off to Darg just before the Phantom Raiders attacked us. That was the last I heard from her. All I know is their landing coordinates and possibly the mission's objective. She might still be alive.”
That I didn't doubt. If Kathryn was a player, barely twenty-four hours had elapsed for her.
But Ingmud's story raised quite a few questions. Why did he remember Charon and myself? I couldn't get rid of the thought. True, you didn't forget Charon in a hurry but somehow I had my doubts that our lame attempt at selling him some scrap cargonite could have inspired the scriptwriters as they’d worked on this particular NPC's story.
Should I try and test him? I had nothing to lose, really. If Ingmud's new role in the game was mentoring the few players who'd chosen to level the rare Mnemotechnics skill, he couldn't very easily say no.
“A Darg mission takes quite a bit of preparation,” I said. “I'm sorry but you can see yourself that my level isn't quite up to it. I have a counterproposition. If you help me to contact my friends, I promise to come back in a few days with a well-prepared group. Then we'll talk about it.”
I thought he'd frown and change his attitude, maybe even reduce my reputation with Oasis. Instead, he just lost it.
He leaned forward out of his chair and grabbed my hand anxiously. “Zander,” tears glistened in his eyes. His chin quivered. “Help me. Please. In a couple of days it’ll be too late!”
I expected anything but that. I'd seen my fair share of NPCs and clever animation, but the way Ingmud behaved was far too human!
“Zander, I can teach you anything. For free. Please don't say no.”
Watching a hybrid capable of sending me to my respawn point within seconds as he collapsed in a heap on the floor, kneeling and looking askance into my eyes, felt weird — spooky even.
“You're not mad at me because of the cargonite, are you? It's because of your pet, right? This Haash, correct? You think if I wanted to buy him off you and sell him for organ harvesting, then I'm hopeless?”
A tear rolled down his puffy cheek. “I was doing it for my daughter! Fifty grand for a xenomorph! We'd had a falling-out, you understand? She had just started organizing this Darg raid. She knew I had a whole boxful of neurochips stashed away so she came to me asking for money. She wanted to hire a good ship and pay for the mercs,” his voice broke. “Tell me,” he wheezed, “how could I have told her I wasn't even a human being anymore? I couldn't tell her the truth. And she took offence, you see. She thought I begrudged her the money! She stopped talking to me. Then they left in an old transport module without a support group. And... and they disappeared. And there's not a moment when I'm not thinking about it!”
He let go of my hand and wailed, bitterly and hopelessly.
Admittedly, I was shaken.
Ingmud wasn't just any old NPC. He was something much more than that. True, the scrap dealer I'd met on Argus had died there. But his neurograms had survived.
I shuddered as I stared at the hybrid, realizing that he lived and suffered for real.
You say it's not possible?
And I tell you that the corporation had the technology for producing artificial neurons. They were used in the implants we had, mine included. The tiny device processed the gaming events, filling the user's mind with a whole range of unique experiences — but it also streamed the user's neural activity to a dedicated server.
Basically, Ingmud's was a synthetic identity, a neuromatrix pieced together out of the many neurogram fragments collected during his lifetime. Was it a daring attempt of a superpower gaming corporation to create an artificial brain? Is that why he could remember the slightest details of his own past?
Why do I care, might you ask? Wasn't it the corporation's business to create whatever it fancied? It made the characters more real, your emotions more authentic — so why did a shiver ran down my spine every time I thought about it?
Because I lived in cyber space. I too had a neuroimplant. Reluctantly I tried on the skin of an NPC — and it didn't make me feel good. I couldn't help thinking, one day you die, then they'll use you as a base for another “advanced” NPC, patching your identity together like a quilt as they hadn't yet learned to do it any better...
I honestly felt sorry for the hybrid. “Okay. I'll see what I can do. Just tell me, you've been waiting a year already. What difference can an extra couple of days make?”
“Don't you understand? The Eurasia fleet! Darg is their primary target!”
“How d'you know?”
He cracked a smile, pulling himself together. “I have a level 36 Founders' neuronet and the location tower just outside. I patched it up so now I can listen in to the command frequencies. Will you help me?” he asked me again, his voice brimming with hope.
“What are our chances?”
He grunted, scrambling back to his feet, and waved his hand in a practiced gesture, commanding the air to thicken into a holographic map of some Dargian location. “This is where the raid was heading. You can see a rocky range shielding a plain followed by a wooded area. Lots of exo ingredients and virtually no Dargians. Once Kathryn and the others heard about Argus being attacked, they must have realized they had nowhere to come back to. So they must have set up camp somewhere deep in the forest hoping to sit it out.”
There was logic in his reasoning.
The freshly-patched serve came into view again. It shinnied up the beams and froze overhead. I had the impression it was listening to us and could understand everything we were saying. The unpleasant feeling of being watched washed over me.
My nerves had definitely been playing up since my encounter with Avatroid. My imagination was getting out of hand, too. What would a utility robot want with our conversation?
“So you think they're still alive, then. You don't think they've been captured and enslaved? Why didn't you go there and see for yourself?
“I wanted to! I tried! But I couldn't. Something won't let me off the station. Like I'm tied to the wretched place! No matter where I point the ship, I can't go further than one light second away from the station! I pass out,” his voice dropped. “All these neuronets, may they burn in hell! You see, Zander, most of those fragments I foraged for chips were from this station. So now the Founders and their AIs won't let me go and look for her! But I'm getting better at resisting them,” unconsciously he clenched his fists. “Although if you bring Kathryn back to me and rescue the artifact, there'll be no need for me to go anywhere anymore. I'll just settle down here for good.”
I pricked up my ears. “Which artifact?”
“Didn't I tell you?”
“No. You didn't.”
“It's a Founders' device. Its name is complex and difficult to translate, something that can be described as ‘Genesis’. It's basically what the raid went to get.”
“Can you expand on this, maybe? What would exobiologists want with a technological artifact? That's not what they specialize in, is it?”
“There, take a look,” he changed the picture on the screen. “It might help you understand. This is how this station used to look millennia ago.”
I was looking at a chiseled spatial structure permeated with light and made up of a multitude of transparent domes. The glow of force fields, the intertwined support beams, the fragile petals of shield-protected external platforms that recreated landscapes of yet undiscovered planets — all this was humbling.
So the way the station looked today was only a miserable shadow of its past glory — only what was left of its sturdy technogenic frame?
“Genesis stores all the databases and DNA samples designated for cloning,” the hybrid's voice interrupted my thoughts. “From what I know, it can turn dust into fertile soil within days. It's not science fiction, Zander. There are certain types of bacteria capable of feeding on metal, ore, toxic and nuclear waste,” he pointed at the terraces still enveloped in dust. “I'll use the artifact to recreate the station. I'll call it Oasis and will invite everyone who wants to come and settle here. It's a good project, trust me.”
“But how did the artifact end up on Darg?”
“I don't know for sure. The past events are not clear. The Exobiologists clan deciphered a few of the Founders' log entries that said that after an accident at the station, its AI had rescued Genesis' core unit by sending it to the nearest planet. The coordinates point at these ruins in the forest,” he gestured at the map. “The Dargians don't seem to know anything about it, otherwise they'd have already dug the whole place up.”
No player would ever miss a chance like this. This yet unassigned quest was in fact a whole scenario with a multitude of unique plot lines.
If I refused it, I'd be forever kicking myself. But this Ingmud wasn't that simple. He'd forgotten to tell me about the artifact, yeah right.
“I still don't get it,” I keep pushing the envelope. “Are you worried about your daughter or are you trying to lay your mitts on the artifact?”
“The two aren't exactly incompatible, are they?”
“Do you ask everyone who happens past to go to Darg? How many people have already gone missing there?”
His face darkened. “My men tried to do it. They couldn't.”
“They don't have pilot's skills. Most of the Oasis settlers are either Mechanics or Vendors. Darg's orbit is patrolled by the slavers' ships. It's not easy to slip past them unnoticed. But unlike all the others, you'll have help.”
“What kind of help?”
“I'll tell you all the details later,” his tone switched to businesslike suspiciously quickly. “We'll make a contract,” now he was speaking like a gamer. “I offer you one neuronet upgrade of your choice. In return for this, you stop asking questions. When you come back from Darg, I'll teach you lots of things I've already learned. That'll raise your Mnemotechnics and Alien Technologies at least twenty levels.”
I tensed up. If after all this I don't receive a new quest, all my speculations about corporation-made AIs would prove pure fiction.
Quest alert! New quest available: Restoration of the Oasis.
Quest class: Script (within the alternative plot line).
Step 1. Ingmud seeks your help to bring his daughter from Darg back to him. You can accept his proposal.
Immediate Reward: you will receive a unique neuronet upgrade of your choice.
Future reward: The hybrid will teach you for free until you reach level 20 in both Mnemotechnics and Alien Technologies. Your relationship with Oasis settlers will improve considerably.
Step 2. Find Kathryn.
Reward: Unknown, varies.
For your information: if you choose to complete the quest chain within a group, all other group members will receive a unique set of gear (depending on their character class)
Fine for failure or quest rejection: your relationship with Ingmud will be ruined irrestorably.
It looked like he was one of the key figures on this station. I wondered why the quest message hadn't mentioned the artifact. Or could Kathryn already have had it?
I absolutely had to accept the quest, no doubt about that. Gaming balance wasn't something I could ignore. If I received this quest, it meant it was doable for someone of my level.
Also, I had to remember that both Mnemotechnics and Alien Technologies were the key to restoring the Founder's frigate.
I focused on Accept, activating it. Still, the quest left a lot of unanswered questions. What kind of help had Ingmud meant? How was I supposed to safely clear the planet's orbital defenses? Was my char's level up to tackling that particular region?
At least Ingmud had cheered up. He must have already received the message informing him of my decision. “So, Zander. I'm going to send you a list of all available upgrades.”
I waved his offer away. “Don't need it.”
“Why? What's up?”
The decision flashed through my mind instinctively, at gut level, and I wasn't going to reconsider. “I want to ask you about something,” I kept pushing my luck.
“Okay,” now it was his turn to look puzzled. “Tell me.”
“You were right saying that I have two of the Founders' neuronets implanted. I would like you to remove one of them without damaging it. Think you can do it? Here's its icon,” I forwarded him the pictogram I’d noticed during the test activation.
He didn't say anything for a long time. Finally he nodded. “It won't be easy but I think I know how to do it. Would you like to get rid of it completely or do you want me to throw in a handful of nanites and form an external connection module?”
I had to think quickly. “That would be good.”
He scratched his head. “You sure you're up to the risk?”
“I know I am. Just do it. No, wait. One more thing. My friends will be looking for me.”
“You mean the Haash?”
“He too. His name is Charon. I know he'll come and he won't be alone. Tell him I'm gone to complete your quest and that I'll be back in a few days.”
“Will do,” Ingmud nodded. “But I'm not going to tell him anything about Darg.”
“Deal. Now you can do it.”
“Sit down,” he removed his jacket, exposing his mangled torso. “And close your eyes,” he added with a sinister glint.
“I'm not easily scared.”
“As you wish.”
I sat in the chair and clenched my teeth. The next moment, pain flooded over me. I tried to resist it and remain lucid — in vain.
The last thing I remembered was a message on Ingmud's holographic monitor,
Hyperspace transporter activated. The object will be teleported when ready. The target within the station's transmitters' range. Warning! The receiving equipment is not compatible with the transmitter. Would you like to proceed anyway?
My tortured awareness crumbled under the pressure. Darkness swallowed me, merciful.
* * *
I was breathing.
The air was clear but so cold it brought me out of my stupor. My gear was gone. All I was wearing was a light onboard suit.
My head swam; my vision blurred. I was weak and completely disoriented. I forced my head up and bumped my forehead on a translucent barrier.
Where was I? What had happened to Ingmud?
I heard the sharp hissing of hydraulics. My eyes closed weakly. Messages flashed against the backdrop of my shut eyelids,
You have lost one of your neuronet implants.
You have a new cyber module installed. Type: Connector.
You have one unread message. Would you like to open it?
I forced my eyes to click Yes.
You've been out for quite a while which is why I decided to act at my own discretion. While removing the implant, I came across some very interesting information. I'll keep it as my security in the meantime. If ever you decide to abandon the quest, I'll forward the frigate's coordinates to the Outlaws.
You will receive help as promised. May nothing surprise you. More importantly, don't resist anything. Once you're on Darg, you'll have to play it by ear.
He was something else, really! In some cases being a vendor was a diagnosis rather than a trade!
I forced my eyes open, trying to work out where I was after all.
I could make out the outline of a translucent lid sporting the logo of the Colonial Fleet and the following inscription,
Reserve cryogenic chamber 34672
The hydraulics hissed again. The sealer made a smacking sound. The chamber filled with vibration and the humming of engines.
Attention all personnel, a voice said. A cryogenic platform approaching Dock Five.
A soft jolt.
Attention all new arrivals. Heavy equipment is working in the personnel collectors of the Eurasia station airlock area. Please be careful.
You can preorder the book on Amazon - http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01728IKC2/
The release day Jan 12, 2016