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Connection Unknown by Michael Chatfield Builder's Legacy Book 1

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Connection Unknown by Michael Chatfield Builder's Legacy Book 1 Read Online And Epub File Download


Overview: Luke Tavares has dreamed of joining the vast gaming guilds of the hypernet. After recently graduating high school, his parents have given him the same ultimatum as his siblings; he has one month to get a job to pay for his air, gravity, and water aboard the Dahlia.

The freighter needs more hands, but Luke doesn’t want to be a trader-ship engineer. In Sphere World, he can mine asteroids, build bots, and make weapons to fuel the system-wide war between nodes.

As a free player, it is his own credits on the line. But when his opponents are the very guilds that he wishes to join, he’s going to have to use every trick he knows to win.


Connection Unknown by Michael Chatfield Builder's Legacy Book 1 Read Online Epub - Pdf File Download More Ebooks Every Category Go Ebooks Libaray Online Website.



Connection Unknown by Michael Chatfield Builder's Legacy Book 1 Read Online Chapter One


08, March 2242

Luke yawned and stretched, hooking his number two line to the wire runner alongside the maintenance catwalk. He tested the carabiner with a pull before disconnecting his number one line. His mag-boots clanked on the ladder as he continued up the second cargo arm, humming to himself.


He glanced over the containers stacked and interlocked within the Dahlia’s superstructure. Different markings, old and brand-new—all identical in size—created an orderly mass.


The running lights of the freighter blinked against the backdrop of vacuum and stars. He focused on his breathing and kept climbing. You’ve been on a hundred space walks, you’ve been on a thousand.


The medium freighter was made of four parts: the boxy engines/living quarters at the rear, glowing with constant one gravity acceleration. Massive, long struts that acted as anchor points for the thousands of cargo containers, reaching forward to the forward armored bow. A big composite pyramid protected the rest of the freighter and its cargo from micro-meteors and other debris.


Grounders always found it weird how, under accel, the pyramid was above your head and the engines under your feet. Starships were laid out like skyscrapers rather than boats.


Everyone thought that in space you were weightless all the time. With Fusion plants and proper ion engines, constant acceleration was a must to keep the universe on time. Humanity always wanted to go faster. As long as you were in contact with the ship, it was like being on Earth. Only the ground was in whatever direction the main engines were pushing the ship away from.


It was also why he had to climb a kilometer of ladder. He paused, cooling down. Sweating in a spacesuit was no fun. Elevators would be nice.


Luke hooked his arm into a rung and adjusted his twin safety lines. Grabbing his space suit’s sleeve, he turned it to see the screen built into the forearm. “Echo-Nine-Bravo.”


He’d grown, but not enough to fit his father’s hand-me-down suit. The shoulders and chest were filling out, but it was still a bit too tall.


He checked the surrounding markings, spotting hatch E-9-B.


“There you are.” He climbed up, adjusted his lines, and stepped off the ladder onto the platform, taking a moment to shake out his arms and legs.


“Bridge, this is Luke. I’m at maintenance hatch E-9-B.” He tugged on his lines to make sure they were secure.


“Hey, Luke. This is Marissa. I hear you.”


“Yay,” Luke said in wry amusement.


“Don’t get too excited,” Marissa returned in the same tone. She paused, probably to read the logs.


He was just about to check if she was still there when she continued. “We’re showing a warning light on the thruster comp.”


“Got anything more specific?” Luke frowned, loosening the hatch locks.


“That’s all I’ve got.”


“Thanks, sis. Okay, let me have a look.”


He opened the hatch and secured it. A developing headache with the rat’s mess of lights, circuit boards, and wiring greeted him.


“Awesome.” Luke unhooked a scanner from his tool belt, a safety line running out from a small tension spool. He pulled it out to the bite and worked through the mess.


Fifteenth time’s the charm. Luke bent the connector’s metal prongs outward to make a better connection and inserted it back into position.


“Marissa, try a reboot.” He leaned on his lines, stretching but not letting his hopes build.


“Got it.” She went silent as he waited for the report back. “Looking good on my end.”


“Awesome. I’ll clear this up and head back.”


“Only took an hour!” Marissa tried to inject some faux excitement.


Luke grunted, clearing his gear away, and locked the maintenance hatch. “All secure. Coming back in.”


“All right. Mom is working on her chicken bake.”


“Is it actually chicken?”


“It’s something. Smells good, though.”


Luke could picture Marissa shrugging in her place in the captain’s chair. “Yum. See you in a bit. Luke out.”


Luke hooked his lines to the ladder’s guides and turned his mag-boots off, resting them on the ladder’s front. Glancing at the light plume from the engine below, he released, sliding down just inches above the ladder. He tightened his grip, slowing and controlling his descent and stopping at the next wire guide.


He hummed tunelessly, undoing his old safeties and putting them onto the new wire guide. 


“Away we go.” He released, sliding down. His wrist screen vibrated against his forearm. 


He came to a stop at the end of the railing, bracing his feet against the rungs and his elbow around a handrail, leaving his wrist screen viewable as he tapped on the notification.


[Jynx] Was gonna jump online in an hour. You in? 


Luke stopped at the next break in the wire guide, hooking a leg in the ladder. The inside of his helmet lit up with a keyboard as he used the press balls inside his glove’s fingertips to scroll and tap out his reply.


[Luke] I’m just heading back in. Gotta have dinner. Then I’ll join you 


[Jynx] K, meet you at Wally’s. 


Luke was panting when he reached the air lock. The freighter was as silent as the grave, other than his breathing. Beneath his feet were several floors of engineering, ending in Dahlia’s main engines, which lit up the area behind the ship.


The air lock door, double-walled metal a foot thick with a tiny viewing window, rolled sideways on heavy gears. He squeezed inside as soon as he could reasonably fit sideways. A blue light blinked silently.


He worked the touchpad in the middle of the room.


The door slowed and reversed, closing. Heavy locking mechanisms and seals cut him off from space; air and noise returned. The air lock’s light turned yellow.


When the light turned green, the inner door took a half-second to unseal and open. Luke went through the door, into the locker room, and hit the touchpad next to the door with his left hand. The airlock closed as Luke turned his helmet, unlocking it and pulling it off. He opened his locker and put the helmet up top; a quick press and pull unhooked his metal collar. He took his boots off and shed the outer suit; he wore coveralls underneath. He checked his securing lines and the rest of the outer suit. It had patches in several locations, but it was tried and trusted.


He slid his feet back into his boots and ran his hands over his space suit, muttering the saying that had been burned into his brain since he was old enough to wear his brother’s. “No cracks, burrs or tears.” 


He hung it up and connected the wrist screen and air tank port to chargers. He repeated the quick check on his gloves and stored them in the suit’s pockets.


He patted his emergency hood and gloves, making sure they were in the right place on his coveralls, shutting his locker and leaving the room.


The hatch opened to the smell of herbs, spices, tomatoes, and possibly chicken.


“Wash up!” his mother, Adeline, called out.


Sneaking past wasn’t possible in mag-boots unless they were turned off, clanking and clicking on every piece of metal decking. Thankfully, they were underway and their nine point eight meter per second thrust pushed him into the decking just like on Earth.


Luke dodged into the bathroom for a sani-cloth, wiping away the sweat from his face and running it over his hands. He threw it into the cleaner, following the smell of the chicken-something.


His mother came from a settled system, a mining colony. She’d lived in mining and hauling ships most of her childhood. She had the long bones of a spacer to prove it, although she was still shorter than Stephen, his father. They prepared the meal together. Stephen opened the ration boxes—hard plastic containers with magnetic feet and a cover that would snap shut if someone didn’t hold it down—as she served up dinner.


Luke gained his perpetual scowl, darker skin tone, and bulk from his father.


Stephan had grown up on Bajra, a planet in the Federation-controlled Redeemer system. He’d joined the Federation Navy to see the stars and never returned. He finished his service, jumping from ship to ship in his younger years, getting as far away from Federation-controlled space as he could until a miner’s daughter stole his heart. They made the Dahlia their home. She’d been a rust bucket then, but they’d kept her flying.


Joey climbed the ladder up from the work areas and engine bays below. Thank the stars. Luke relaxed, happy not to be eating alone with his parents, as Marissa was on watch. They nodded to each other and approached the dining area.


“Smells good,” Joey volunteered.


“I added in some of your father’s tomatoes,” Adeline said, giving Stephen a proud smile and hip tap.


Stephen laughed, embarrassed but proud. “Not much right now. Should have tons over the next few weeks.” He turned, his smile halting as he saw Luke.


Luke’s gut tightened.


Adeline pointedly cleared her throat as she picked up two more boxes.


“How are we looking with the reactor flush?” Stephen asked as they moved to the seating alcove. Luke let Joey in first, wanting the outside seat for an easy exit.


“Reactor looks good. As you said, probably a buildup. Though when we get to Odessa station, I’d like to get a scan on reactor two. I’m getting some strange readings. Like to run on the backups if we can,” Joey said, accepting a box with a nod.


“I’ll give you a hand. Gut feelings can save a ship.”


“Thanks, Mom.” Luke smiled as she put down the box in front of him, clicking it to the table surface.


“Looking to get ahead on your certification?” Stephen laughed.


Joey grinned, downplaying it with a shrug and getting a sporkful of food.


“You’ll be tearing apart a reactor and putting it back together in no time. Or you could build them. I heard from a friend working in the Sigma system shipyards. Said that they’re looking for some engineers.” Stephen’s low-key statement drew Joey’s attention.


He opened his mouth to talk and got a glare from their mother.


Luke hid a smirk and kept eating as Joey speed-chewed.


“Really? What are they working on?”


Stephen leaned forward, his eyes shining as he shared a smile with Joey. “Got three yards going—freighter, cruiser, and private, but they’re looking to concentrate on the luxury cruisers and private builds. The mega-yards out of Kari and Gongdian system are beating all the others with their mega-freighters.” Stephen added the Chinese inflection to Gongdian. It served a trader well to know how to pronounce the systems they were selling in.


“I don’t get why Gongdian is a settled system,” Luke said.


“People like their freedom, and Tiankong Gongdian was created by old China, before the council of Sol was created. They didn’t want to be under the Coalition or the Federation’s rules,” Adeline said.


Stephen grunted in understanding.


“Anyway, no politics at the table. I heard that you got that thruster chore done?” Adeline smiled at Luke.


“Just a connector run down. I bent it back into shape, fired it up again. Marissa said it was working fine.” Luke shrugged and kept eating.


“Well, there is plenty to be done on the ship,” Stephen said in a light, wheedling tone.


Luke hid his expression behind another mouthful of food. There always is. 


Adeline’s smile became strained as Joey focused on his food and Stephen took another sporkful.


Luke grunted and shoveled down food without tasting it.


“So, Luke, have you thought about what we talked about?” Stephen looked up.


Luke twisted his lips, noticing Joey paying more attention to his meal than before.


“You’d get a cut of the profits from every run we do and get to work on your associated skills.”


“Dad, I just… I don’t know if being a trader is what I want to do.” Luke hunched his shoulders.


“If you tell us what you want to do, we can help you, honey,” Adeline said.


“I—” Luke grimaced, then drew himself up, looking at them both. “I want to play for the guilds.”


“Gaming isn’t a job,” Stephen said, trying to soften his words. 


Luke dropped his gaze. “It is if I get accepted. They pay well enough, and I’ll get a career contract, bonuses, benefits—.”


“You’ve been playing nearly non-stop all the way through high school,” Adeline said.


“I know, but I always had school or chores taking up my time. I’ve only been out of high school a month!” He ate faster to give himself something to focus on.


“Luke, this is the time to focus on your future,” his mother said.


“You might have more responsibilities now, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have free time,” Stephen said.


“What about when Marissa goes to pilot cruisers? Or when Joey goes to work in the shipyards?”


“Then we’ll hire on people. We’ve been thinking about hiring some more people anyway to spread the work out, bring us up to a ten-person crew. It’ll mean fewer shares for everyone, but we’ll all get more free time.” 


Dahlia was their home. Having strangers wandering around would be weird.


“Who?” Joey asked.


“Your cousins. There are plenty who would jump at the chance to work on a wormhole capable freighter,” Adeline said.


“Luke, if you don’t want to work on Dahlia, that’s fine, but can you please consider options other than becoming a guild player?” Stephen asked.


“It would be easier if I didn’t have the impending rent hovering over my head.” Luke spooned the last of his dinner into his mouth, not missing the glance between his parents.


“Rent isn’t a punishment. You’re an adult now, and you’re going to have things you need to pay for. We know it isn’t easy.”


“So get a job or we’ll press gang you into working on the freighter.” Luke shook his head and escaped from the table. “Thanks for dinner. I’m gonna go work on my useless dream.” 


“Luke…” Adeline’s wounded voice bunched up Luke’s shoulders as he shoved his box and spork into the cleaning unit.


“You know Dahlia’s systems. Another two years working as an apprentice, and you’ll get onto any of a hundred ships.” Stephen ran over the all-too-familiar argument.


“I don’t want to work on ships. I don’t want to rebuild thrusters or pilot us into unloading docks! I want to fight. I’m good at it. You won’t let me join a military, so this is the next best thing. If I did the other things, I wouldn’t be me.”


Their faces twisted, struggling.


“I know you care for me, but I don’t know what I’m going to do. Thanks for dinner.” His shoulders slouched, leaving for the net room.


He breathed in the smell of sweat and grease as he closed the door behind him. 


Several bays lay open. Hardened plastic and alloy net suits, worn over the years, took up three. Closed, they appeared like powered armor. They stood on their charging pads, an oversized mechanical arm fastened to their backs, connecting them to the ceiling.


The tension left his back, arms, and neck as he ran a hand over the cold surface of the suits. He patted his trusty net suit, wiping his hand. “You’re going to need a clean soon. I’ll pull your fans and get all that dust out.” He tapped the screen built into the suit’s chest. It flickered, going fuzzy on one side.


A few well-placed taps brought it into clarity. It needed a new screen, too. It was falling apart, like everything else on the ship.


A bare glance told him what he needed to know.


“Servos good, sensors good, net connection good.” He cleared the checklist and hit the power button. The suit’s plates unlocked and retracted, and the helmet hinged back.


“Fresh as always. Even with sweat cleaner can’t get out the smell.” He took off his boots, leaving them mag clamped to the floor, and pulled off his coverall to reveal a worn t-shirt with a peeling logo. His shorts were similarly well-used.


Clipping his semi-armored coveralls to a hanger, he checked the readouts once more and stepped back into the net suit. 


After all these years, there was still a familiar thrill as his feet slid home and he wriggled his arms into their sleeves. 


He took a breath and let it out, pressing the roll balls at his fingertips. The servos on his back hummed as gears moved under the surface of the plates. From his hands and feet upward to his chest, the plates closed and locked into place with a series of clicks. The suit’s inflatable pillows expanded, tightening around him like an old-fashioned blood pressure test sleeve, before releasing slightly, pushing up against him without restricting him. 


The heat exchangers kicked in, briefly chilling Luke as they flushed out the stagnant coolant laying just under the next-to-skin layer.


His helmet hinged down, entombing him in darkness before projectors flickered in front of his eyes. 


A light blue welcome screen appeared in the visor.


He rolled his fingers and thumbs over the familiar input balls and entered his net account information.


“Welcome to the net, Luke Tavares,” a soothing, computerized voice said.


Light poured in as Luke rose. The arm in the net room lifted him, but inside the net suit he was flying toward a golden hex of light in the ceiling. He flew through, coming to a halt as he stood inside the net. Noise, light, and people stretched through the Odessa public net. A virtual city spread out in every direction, packed with humanity’s avatars, with physics—and gravity-defying buildings, parks that were designed like a fishbowl, with streams and trees curving along the walls. Airships and shuttles shot through the skies. People flew—in cars, or by themselves as they desired.


Luke moved his fingers and rolled his shoulders, his avatar just a few inches shorter than his own size. After a lifetime of gaming and using the net—being shorter or taller was like wearing jeans instead of shorts.


He called up a mirror and checked his avatar. Similar enough to his own appearance, he wore simple cargo pants and a t-shirt he’d won in some giveaway contest run by the Star Kings Guild.


At least she didn’t mess with my avatar. He ground his teeth, remembering the makeup palette she’d used on his avatar last time he left it unlocked.


Shaking his head, he stepped forward, moving five astronomical units from a station or populated planet. He walked into the noise and roving sea of humanity.


People could be whoever they wanted to be on the net, and wherever. The hypernet’s faster than light communications connected humanity across dozens of star systems.


His eyes swept the walkways and roads. Avatars appeared and disappeared at random. Giants, armored soldiers, people made of plastic, or with blue, purple, and orange skin. Mechas and elves. Humanity and their online personalities as one.


He stepped off the platform and entered the press of people. A sea of adverts assailed Luke: different piloting schools, the latest fashion, multi-tools, net suits and dating services. Whole buildings were an advertisement, or floating billboards, even business avatars along the walkways. If you looked at any of them, their message would focus on you and the sound would play.


Marissa must have been on last.


The advertisements disappeared and Luke muted the local chat as well, removing anyone talking publicly.


The net went quiet as the low-level chatter disappeared. He returned a smile to the lady with a bob cut—green on one side, red on the other—wearing gold and black clothes broken into geometric shapes, next to a man lizard with pink scales and aquamarine eyes.


A group of schoolgirls in the same uniform laughed and weaved through the crowd, off to or coming back from school. With dozens of inhabited systems and stations, the times you went to sleep and woke up across the human sphere were varied. Jynx lived in the Maxxel system, Fin in the Hydrea system, and Luke jumped between systems on a nearly weekly basis. In the age of the hypernet, classes were hosted on the net instead of in buildings. He and Jynx had shared several classes together, becoming quick friends as they shared a passion for gaming. 


People chatted, walking into stores along the mainway or teleporting into them, purchasing games, online cosmetics, offline deliveries—anything you could do in the real world, you could do on the net and more.


[Jynx requests chat]


Luke accepted. “Where you at? Just logged in.”


“I’m at Wally’s Burgers.”


“All right, one sec. I’m on the Odessa system.” Luke swiped through locations he had previously visited and transited to Wally’s.


His vision crawled together in lines of light before it reversed, and Wally’s Burgers appeared. The diner was done up in a nineteen seventies decor. The most eye-catching thing was the huge plastic automaton caricature of a chef with a massive mustache moving a burger to and from his mouth, smiling the entire time.


Jynx was sitting outside—only paying patrons were allowed inside Wally’s. She was wearing her black jeans, a T-shirt of some guild, and a limited-edition Orion’s Belt hoodie. Her hair was deep brown on her left side and blonde-streaked, pulled into a ponytail that draped across her shoulder.


To Luke, she was stunning.


“You get something to eat?” He grinned and gestured at the burger house, trying to divert his thoughts.


“I’m here to game, not eat.” Jynx rolled her eyes, hiding a smile. The joke was as old as their friendship.


[Fin is online]


“I got him,” Jynx said. She opened her screen as Luke sat down on the bench, watching people go by.


Dozens of floors disappeared above and below. Here in the mainway, everything was rated for all ages. No guns, no violence, no drinking, and no nudity. All of that was restricted to private nets, DLCs, stores, or games.


Fin popped into being in the same place Luke had. People walked through him as he materialized. “I swear, one of these days, Wally will get a bite, like some Prometheus stuff. You’re nearly there, bud!” Fin yelled at Wally, gathering stares.


“Jackass,” Luke muttered.


Jynx snorted as Fin boasted an unrepentant grin. His jumpsuit was just on this side of casual wear, a preset standard outfit. He didn’t want to pay any corporation for extras, let alone cosmetics.


“So they’re really shutting down Orion’s Belt?” Fin looked at Jynx.


She nodded. “Last day.”


“Orion’s Belt. See the stars.” Luke tried to imitate the games slogan.


Fin pushed his shoulder.


“Still one of the best games out there.” Luke said.


“Where we all met,” Jynx said.


Fin nodded.


“You up for a run?” Luke stood. “We can jump in on a raid of Kat’uzar.”


“Ah hell, one last time! Go all out, use all the consumables!” Fin slapped his legs and stood. They both looked at Jynx.


She threw her hands up with a grin. “Alright, one last time,” 


“Let’s go!” Fin drew let’s out into lezz.


“Keep your jumpsuit on,” Luke muttered as Jynx worked her interface.


[Group Transit to Orion’s Belt?]


Luke accepted. His vision crawled as they appeared before the familiar lobby with the sign for Orion’s Belt floating above the entrance. Buildings that had been modern at one time were now old. Still, it was a second home, a place he knew as well as his own room. 


“I’m going to miss this place,” Fin said, taking it all in.


Luke cleared his throat. They hadn’t moved in several minutes. “Come on, then.” He waved them forward.


Jynx led the way. Inside, stands were set up for people to check out their gear, a range to test their weapons, and stores to buy in-game gear, loot boxes, cosmetics, and the like.


The log-in doorway to the game was framed to look like an air lock. People touched it, disappearing and entering the game. There was a solemn quietness to the lobby that Luke didn’t remember.


Whispers and low chatter gained volume off to the side, like a bug in his ear.


A crowd gathered around a holographic star map. Some disappeared as if they were logging onto a game. “What’s going on over there?”


Fin screwed up his face. “Another log-in entrance?” 


“That doesn’t make sense. There was only ever one login location,” Jynx said. ”Sphere World?”


“I don’t remember anything called Sphere World. I don’t even remember that area being there.” Luke frowned. It was tucked away in a corner, hidden behind stalls. If not for the chatter, he wouldn’t have noticed it. Luke glanced at Jynx. “Did your dad or uncle—”


“They never mentioned anything, and I don’t think I’ve heard them talking about it.” Jynx’s brows pinched together as she bit the side of her mouth.


“Could be a demo for something they’re working on?” Fin suggested.


Jynx made a noncommittal sound.


“Why don’t we check it out?” Fin grinned.


“We came for Orion’s Belt,” Jynx said.


“Come on. One quick look, then we’ll roam around Orion’s Belt!” Fin glanced between them and focused on Jynx.


“Fine. All right.” Jynx threw up her hands and smacked them on her legs with a grin, spreading to Luke and Fin.


They walked through the people as if they were ghosts, reaching the space map.


Luke brought up his terminal, connected it to Sphere World. Everything but Sphere World itself was greyed out, showing several spawn points. 


“It’s free to play, but we have to do a tutorial first and we can only spawn on Sphere World.” He clicked on the location; the map spun, zooming in on the spherical station circling the fifth planet, a remote ice ball. “Orbits Valhalla.”


“Looks like a lovely planet. Cold as shit little iceberg. Check the numbers for the Sphere World station. It’s freaking massive,” Fin said.


“Well, let’s get the tutorial over then,” Jynx said.


“I’m in. Looks like there are camps on Valhalla. Wonder what we can do?” Fin tapped the holographic map going through the menus.


“All right, see you in there.” Luke clicked on the tutorial, the only option highlighted on the menu, and joined the game. His projectors darkened, his arms and legs gently pulled down straight. He let the servos do their work. They locked into position, and his vision brightened.


“Step forward, please,” a woman’s voice said from somewhere.


Luke stepped out of the rack onto the steel decking, his boots locking to the ground. He looked down, noting his metal appendages as a mirror dropped from the ceiling in front of him.


A humanoid combat bot stared back at him, similar to the security bots that protected the corporate elite: mechanical and electronic systems supported by a heavy-duty frame and anodized armor plates, making him look clean, functional, and powerful.


A bracket appeared in the mirror, highlighting him.


[Bot]


[The user’s way to interface with Sphere World]


He moved his metal fingers and looked down at his body. It wasn’t his boots mag locked to the ground, it was his bot’s feet. He moved around, feeling the inertia of his movements. “Actually feels like I’m in a three-hundred-pound metal monster.” Luke laughed and jumped lightly.


“Welcome to the Sphere World tutorial,” the voice continued. “You are currently using a bot. First, we will go through the basics of Sphere World. Please proceed into the testing chamber.”


A door opposite the rack opened to reveal a corridor.


“Please walk down the corridor.”


Luke didn’t hurry, checking his movements to get used to his action and the reaction of the bot. Then he went through the settings and loadout screens.


[Bot]


[Primary Weapon:__]


[Secondary Weapon:__]


[Upgrades:__]


[Misc.:__]


[Carrier:__]


“All right, enough messing around. Time to get this done. Gonna guess the first thing is crouching.” Luke went through the door and entered the corridor that was half the height a few meters deep.


The door closed behind him, but he didn’t slow.


“The bot has been manufactured to interface with human users. Please duck under the following obstruction and crawl under the next.”


Luke was already crouching and moved to his belly to crawl under a shorter barrier and into a larger room with several white crosses and black squares on the walls.


“Please adjust your peripheral vision and brightness. You should barely see the white lines in the black squares.”


He tweaked the settings, dialing up the brightness so he could see the white crosses and opened his vision out to a range he was comfortable with. Don’t want to miss things in a dark corner.


Luke went through some more calibration checks.


“Please continue to the next room.”


He walked through and found several other doors.


“You have completed the basic movement checks and integration. Currently, you are in the simulation. You can proceed into Sphere World actual with your own bot or continue to further tutorials.”


Hatches appeared in a semi-circle with words above them: Mining, Building, Combat, Flying, Ground Transport, Space Flight.


Luke opened his party chat and invited the others.


[Jynx has joined your party]


[Fin has joined your party]


“You going to do the tutorial or jump in?”


“Jump right in. Don’t know how long this is going to be up,” Fin said.


“I agree. This might be a leak. They might not have realized it’s hooked up to Orion’s Belt. They’re going to figure it out sometime and close it down,” Jynx said.


“You want to go into the actual game or the simulation? What’s the difference?” Luke asked.


“I asked Sphere World. She actually answers questions. This is one hell of a demo.” Fin laughed. “You can play out a scenario in the simulation but it’s sandbox—use whatever gear you want, whatever map you want, or create your own, but you don’t earn any plat.”


“Plat?”


“Platinum. It’s the in-game currency. It’s like two thousand platinum to one credit. Anyway, in the full game, we spawn into bots in Sphere World and can do whatever we want, and it has one hundred percent persistence.”


“And persistence is?” Luke muttered.


“It means that if you, say, pick up a coffee cup from Sphere World station and you took it out to an asteroid and put it out there, then someone else could come along and pick it up,” Jynx said.


“So I can move stuff around?” 


“Say you mine an asteroid. The next person who comes along would find what you left behind.”


“Oh, so it’s like the real?”


“Yeah, but with robots and a huge megastructure hanging over that planet!” Fin emphasized. “If you shot a rail gun across a system, you could hit a planet or another ship. If you mine an asteroid, and harvest it all, then no one can mine that asteroid ever again. It’s not just persistence of objects always staying where they are. There are limited resources.”


“We going to game, or talk about what the dev team is doing?” Jynx asked.


“I vote game!” Fin said.


“Same here. Gonna go spawn on Sphere World.” Luke exited the tutorial.


The room dulled and a blueprint of Sphere World appeared in front of him. Several points were highlighted on the map. He clicked on the docks. A shuttle, fighter, and troop transport could be selected, though each would cost creds.


Actual money? The hell? “Looks like you can buy gear with creds, or use plat to get it.”


Luke shook his head and selected an area where he could spawn in a bot for free.


“Yeah, we get a free bot every day, if they have them,” Jynx said.


“If they have them?”


“Finite resources in the system might mean limited resources in Sphere World itself, to keep things balanced. So it won’t pump out bots every time someone logs in,” Fin said.


He accepted and appeared in a new rack. Identical to the one he had just been in.


“Huh, these feel different from the ones in the tutorial. like, more solid,” Luke said.


“Where did you spawn?” Jynx asked.


“Uh…” Luke looked around. He pulled out his map and winced. “I’m pretty far away from you two.”


“Meet at my position? Looks like I’m between you both, and near the docks.” Jynx snorted. “And there’s like a hundred docks and hangars in this place.”


“Sounds good to me,” Fin said.


“Hey, move out of the way! You’re blocking the rack!” someone yelled behind Luke.


“Oh, sorry!” Luke toggled to local and moved. A large catwalk went left to right, branching off with ladders between levels.


He brought up his map and put a way point on Jynx; a route traced through the catwalks and ladders. That’s convenient.


“Hurry up!” Fin yelled.


“Coming.” Luke closed his map. His Heads-Up Display showed a glowing line forward. He broke into a jog, then brought himself up to a run.


Holy shit.


“These things can crank up the speed!” Luke laughed as he raced down the corridor of racks. There was no wall at the end, revealing the heart of Sphere World. Automated arms were welding, painting, printing or assembling gear, some recognizable as ships. Others were not far enough along the process to be identifiable.


Raw materials and components flowed through the structure like a river.


“We’re in low-G here. Watch you don’t launch yourself into a catwalk or out into the factory spaces,” Jynx warned.


Areas lit up as Luke approached. He worked to slow himself. Slowing down in low-G was a careful process: your momentum would continue, and your feet remained planted to the ground, by your mag-boots. It was a quick way to turn forward momentum into angular momentum, breaking your ankles and slamming into the deck face first.


“These things are heavy,” Luke muttered as he fought momentum and inertia, slowing down to a stop.


“They’re made of metal, right? And they look human-sized, so that’s what—seven point eight, like eight times the weight?” Fin started.


“Please, no math,” Jynx begged.


“Fine, fine! Ignoramuses!”


Luke came to a stop. He grabbed the catwalk with his metal fingers and tapped his heels together, turning off his mag-boots.


“Oh yeah!” Luke whooped, looking up along the catwalk.


“That sounds like a Jynx hell-yeah,” Fin said cautiously. “And she just gave me the middle finger. Look—there’s an armory!”


Luke adjusted his grip and pulled and moved forward just inches above the catwalk. He grinned as he repeated the movement, gaining speed with each pull and release. He worked hard to keep himself within arm’s reach of the catwalk, careful not to veer off into the barriers on either side, or the space beyond.


Getting the feel for it, he increased his speed.


“Low-g express!” Luke laughed as he shot forward, several times his previous speed and without the jerkiness of mag-boots.


The map popped up in his vision, and he checked his route.


Luke returned to normal view, tilting his feet; jets activated. “Oh, okay… so maneuvering jets built-in.” He brought himself closer to the catwalk.


“You see all this?” Jynx let out a low whistle. “You can get a dropship, a shuttle, even a fighter! And look! Increased armor, machine guns, rifles, and sub-machine guns. But it’ll cost you a pretty credit.” 


“Are you sure your dad didn’t say anything about this?”


“No, he’s been talking about how he and Uncle Stuart are looking forward to retirement. I know they wanted to build a new game, but I didn’t think they were this far along.” 


Luke tried to slow his pace, hands on the catwalk like a dog running on a hardwood floor, trying to turn around a corner.


“Shit!” Luke dodged a bot coming the other way, just managing to turn himself, colliding with the railing and bouncing off.


The other bot tripped and shot off into a spin, yelling on local: “Watch where you’re going, asshole!”


“Sorry!” Luke winced.


“What happened?” Fin asked.


“Bouncing down the halls!” Luke adjusted his feet on the banister and his hands on the catwalk. Reorienting, he increased his speed, eager to get away from the spinning and cursing bot.


He followed the HUD’s arrows and dove down an access hatch, taking the ladder.


“Thinking about the shotgun,” Fin said.


“I looked it up on the forums. Seems like we’ll be fighting on that ice planet. Its like Conquest, where you attack, or defend the different nodes across the planet,” Jynx said.


“Sniper it is,” Fin said sagely, as if it were his choice all along.


“You even listening?” Jynx said.


“Conquest. Capture the nodes. Shooty things.”


“How we getting down there?” Luke asked, slowing at some ladders. He used his hands to pull himself along the ladder in the direction he wanted to go. Down, left, up or right: it was a frame of reference spacers tried to remove from their minds in low-G.


“Remember those docks and the dropships?” Jynx couldn’t hide her excitement.


“Badass.” Fin laughed, causing Luke to grin.


“This is one hell of a demo, or DLC,” Luke said, studying the detail as he passed through decks, past running bots, and all the different layers of assembly lines.


“This is a whole new game,” Jynx said. “The graphics—they’re some of the best I’ve seen. Like, if you scratch your bot, it actually leaves a mark.” 


Luke turned another corner. “And she’s gone, into the land of the game dev nerd.” 


“Ah, it was good while she was sane,” Fin commiserated.


“Dicks. But seriously, this is next-level graphics. All these bots, and there’s no lag jump between connected servers? The net-code must be unreal.”


“Yeah, seems pretty smooth.” Luke used the ladder rungs to spin, orienting his feet to the new catwalk. He clicked his heels together and released the ladder. His mag-boots brought him to catwalk firma once again.


“I think I’m here.” The volume of bots was thicker, funneling into large hatches with Armory, followed by a number stenciled in white above.


Luke grinned as he walked inside. The walls were covered with displays of weapons, attachments, and bots.


“Pull up your in-game terminal when you’re inside the armory and it should give you weapon buying options,” Jynx said.


“Got it.” Luke brought up a terminal in mid-air. 


[Bot]


[Primary Weapon:__]


[Secondary Weapon:__]


[Upgrades:__]


[Misc.:__]


[Carrier:__]


Clicking on the different slots gave him the option to pick out rifles, machine guns, snipers, pistols, attachments for his bot, non-combat-related gear, and his storage capacity.


[Rifle]


[Cost: 1926 Platinum/1 Credit(s)]


“What are you running for weapons and gear?”


“Got a pistol, and a machine gun,” Jynx said. “The pistol is free, but the machine gun costs thirty-three thousand, eight hundred and twenty-two plat. That’s like twenty real creds,” 


“Big spender,” Luke said.


“Bite me, freighter boy.”


“Fin?”


“I got an Anti-Material Rifle, or big sniper to the uninitiated. A little cheaper. This game is gonna be hella expensive unless we make some plat.”


“How many free-to-play games have we played, and how many times have we spent more than what a normal game would cost?” Luke asked.


“Haven’t paid a credit more, but it’ll turn into a grind fest to earn platinum to compete with the pay-to-play people,” Fin grumbled.


“Yeah, no way I could spend this much every day to play. Damn.” Luke scrolled through the gear. “Wait a sec. There’s a sell button. Gives me a price on the button. Less than the buy price, but still a price.”


“I just found the marketplace. Pretty damn empty, but you can trade with. Holy—you can trade for credits!” Fin sucked in a breath between his teeth.


“What do you mean?”


“Like straight gear for credits. You put it up on the marketplace and you can buy and sell in credits. Don’t need to use plat.”


“That’s a thing?”


“A few games use it. Most don’t want to because it means people can move money out of their economy,” Jynx said. “It’s also a little game breaking because it makes the game currency a real currency. People put a value to it with credits.”


“So you’re saying we could get a bunch of gear in here and sell it for credits?”


“Yup! And that’s not all,” Fin said. “I checked the store. There are miners, factories, everything. We can sell raw materials, components, and even ships.”


“Before you two start coming up with plans for Sphere World domination, let’s get into the fight, huh?” Jynx said. 


“Break some skulls,” Fin said.


“Fine, just give me a sec.” Luke tried to balance out the cost versus reward of all the weapons. He’d picked up creds here and there—not much, though—and was holding onto every credit he could. He needed two thousand a month to keep his dad off his back and keep gaming.


Luke bit his lip. He had a few hundred creds. But this could be the opportunity I was looking for. If I can get gear and sell it… He cleared his throat, pulling himself back.


“Guess that leaves it to me to get something more reasonable. You got the firepower and long-range covered. Gonna stay with the rifle and take the pistol, too,” he mumbled, hitting [BUY] before he could second guess his options, again.


[Rifle]


[Cost: 1926 Platinum/1 Credit(s)]


[Pistol]


[Cost: 0 Platinum/0 Credit(s)]


[Proceed to Armory 5-Port 18]


“All right, we’re on the other side of the pickup,” Fin said.


“Right,” Luke said. A new way point line appeared in his vision, tracing to the far end of the room.


A dozen armored doorways with numbers above them were ringed in a green or red light.


Bots stepped onto the conveyor belts in front of some of the doors, locking their feet down. The lights turned green, and the conveyor pulled the bots through the doorway. Arms reached down, attaching gear, taking off components, plugging others in, and locking it to the bot’s frame.


Luke’s line took him to a different door. It went green and slid open, revealing others standing at ports where gear was being delivered.


He’d only gotten a glance, but the room was like a vending machine of weapons. Rifles, machine guns, ammunition, and grenades were pulled from the wall by arms, deposited in crates, and delivered to the different ports.


Luke went to the one labeled 18.


A crate pushed out of the port. Luke opened it. A rifle and magazines in an ammo belt were laid out.


He grabbed the rifle and blue areas highlighted in his vision. A diagram of the bot rotated in the corner of his HUD, showing [mag clamp surfaces]: two on his chest and back, more on his lower back, his stomach, his hips, and legs.


“Nice.” Luke examined the rifle. It worked just like a normal rail rifle: charging handle, magazine, trigger—simple and effective. Best of all, it felt right in his grip. He cleared the rifle and fired off the action. “Feels crisp as hell. Nice feedback.”


Luke pulled a mag from the belt and loaded it. The readout screen blinked red, the weapon forcefully safed.


He attached his rifle to his back and hooked the fighting belt around his hips. It slipped into fasteners built into the bot.


“Yeah, it’s just sharp… The gunplay is sweet,” Fin said.


The crate closed and dropped down and away, and a red light appeared above the port.


Luke headed for the door on the other side of the armory. He came out into another wide hallway. Corridors and armories led to air locks with red chevroned exteriors leading to the docks. “Looks like we don’t need to cycle through air locks. Guess they’re going full out with the robot thing.”


“Dude, we could walk on the surface of Sphere World without a suit. Double bonus!” Fin whooped.


Fin and Jynx were waiting for him. Fin’s sniper was on his back. Jynx held her machine gun.


“Armory is pretty cool, too. They went into every detail.” Jynx let out an appreciative noise.


“So, how do we get to the planet?” Fin asked.


“Follow the people?” Luke gestured at the bots heading through the air locks.


“Sure.”


The flow of people guided them through the doors to the docks. Dozens of squat dropships caused the deck plates to hum with their massive articulating space/atmo engines, landing and taking off. Dual turrets mounted on their belly, sides, and roof rotated. Some bounced and moved to a random beat.


[Turtle Dropship]


[Used to transport troops into combat in space or on planets]


The game’s soundless communication was alive and well as some of the bots returned the turret’s gesture by squatting.


Luke snorted as the dropships closed their ramps, their compartments filled with bot lights splashing off of them and the deck as they silently rose on thrusters and pushed forward and out of the massive bay doors that looked over the planet below.


Valhalla was a swirl of grays, whites, and blues. Icy peaks peered through layers of cloud as storms rolled across its landscapes. As harsh as it was, it was beautiful, as only nature’s spaceships could be.


Amber lights spun as a barricade rose around a landing pad. Bots moved back as a dropship was carried out from Sphere World’s depths. The dropship was lowered to the pad. Sections of the pad dropped away, and mechanical arms reached out from the open sections to add in new weapon systems. Belts fed in rounds and missiles rose up, cradled by the underwing racks. 


Printing arms ran down the ship, changing the dull grays and black into a winter pattern with a polar bear charging into battle below the enclosed cockpit at the front of the ship.


A bot walked toward the ship, jumped up using jets built into the bot to land on the lowering ramp. “All aboard the Polar Express! I need four gunners!”


Bots swarmed the dropship as Jynx hit Luke. “Look!”


Another landing pad, amongst possibly a hundred other landing pads in this section alone had been barricaded off.


This wasn’t a dropship, but a space fighter with cutting lines and a small profile. It landed on the pad and belts and arms sprouted from the floor, arming the craft like the dropship had been.


[Hellcat Fighter]


[Atmospheric and Space Capable Fighter]


A bot jogged up to the ship and climbed the short ladder. The canopy opened for them to jump into the cockpit. They wasted no time in bringing systems online and left in a trail of engine plume.


“Come on. We need to find a ride… That one looks good.” Luke pointed at a dropship coming in.


The dropship rotated and landed on its pad. Sections of the deck parted as ammunition loaders hooked to the ship, feeding it rounds, and arms replaced spent missiles.


Luke and his group ran up to the ship.


“Welcome to the Comet! Grab your seats! Once we’re loaded, we’re going!” the pilot said over the local chat, broadcasting to everyone in range.


The ship filled quickly. Luke took the farthest seat and sat. Locks in the back of the seat—like the locker and rack—hooked into his bot and secured him in place. 


Gunners sat in chairs forward from the cargo hold, two on either side of a central walkway that terminated at the pilot’s seat in the nose of the craft. The gunners faced projections of what their turrets could see.


Fin nudged Luke. “Someone found the cosmetics.” He gestured at someone with several warning stencils across their bot.


“Dunno if it’s a paint job or a hazard.”


The lights inside the dropship flashed red as the ramp rose.


“Hey, you can access the dropship’s cameras,” Jynx said.




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