INTERLUDE : EARTH 3A
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Author's Note: Just a reminder that INTERLUDE : EARTH chapters have a different pacing than the main story.

EARTH 3A

Day 56; 0741 (Morning)
Focus: TL7

While 513 was busy dismantling monsters and looting corpses on Halios, on Earth, a large crowd of people had gathered to attend a private convention held by Project Prometheus. 

Due to security reasons, every guest had been flown-in and escorted into the undisclosed location of the convention, while seated inside a specially designed cube which prevented any and all means of communication with the outside world.

Upon their arrival, the guests were then re-screened and escorted into rooms which used short-burst EMPs to destroy unseen electronic devices that may have eluded initial inspections.

Only those who worked directly for Project Prometheus knew the whereabouts of the convention, which coincidentally took place inside the 4th Research Facility’s largest conference room.

The reasons for such secrecy was obvious. Although Project Prometheus’ facade was that of an independent research group -- which tests and validates new technologies -- its true identity was that of a clandestine operation whose purpose was to explore and research the planet: Halios.

As such, the majority of people on the guest list were wealthy investors and influential peoples from across the globe, all of whom were interested in pledging their support for Project Prometheus’ research into future tech, such as full-dive VR. 

Entertainment, medicine, education, industry, leisure, military, science...the list of possibilities for full-dive VR technology were endless. Because of this, the guests were all expectant.

As the crowd of guests trickled into the large conference room, looking for optimal seating, a large, elegant oak table situated over-top a raised podium drew their gazes. 

Behind the oak table were twelve individuals all dressed in varied attire. Among the twelve was TL7, who, like usual, was dressed comfortably in grey sweatpants, loafers, and a royal-blue, hooded sweatshirt donned with the Laughing Man logo from Ghost in the Shell.

His assigned title for the convention was: Lead Developer of Spatial Realism. Naturally, it was a made-up position provided by SC5’s subordinates to further the operation’s smoke-screen.

Beside him, were the six team leaders responsible for monitoring test subjects holding unique archetypes -- TL1 to TL6. Next to them, were five section chiefs in charge of their own specialized departments. 

Like TL7, both his colleagues and superiors were assigned fake titles, such as Director for QLI Interface and Full-Dive Production Lead. These titles were all neatly engraved onto gaudy name plates which hung in-front of the large, oak table, and made visible to every guest. Of course, their names weren’t actually engraved on the name plates, which was hypocritical, but necessary to maintain the masquerade.

From the crowd’s perspective, the convention was almost certainly formatted for a Question and Answer session, given the important positions the individuals held on the podium, behind the luxurious oak table.

As the seconds tick down for the conference to start, the guests gradually settle into their seats. 

*MUMBLING* *CHEERS*

Faint murmurs between the guests turned into random cheers of excitement, as the highly anticipated convention was ready to begin.

For TL7, the pure boredom he felt was masked behind his impregnable, placid poker face. He believed the convention was an act of tedium, but he acknowledged that the operation needed more support. Because of this, he willingly buried his complaints to himself -- at least, for the moment.

It could be said that he had no real interest in the crowd or the guests. Due to this, unlike his eleven counterparts who were all mentally preparing themselves for the convention, TL7 spent the remainder of his free time staring at the oppressive-looking oak table in-front of him.

[This looks no different than the oval table where we normally hold our meetings. I've come to favor its domineering design, but…] TL7 briefly looked around the conference room before returning to contemplation. [...it just stands-out too much inside a room void of any decorations.]

◊◊◊◊◊◊

Day 56; 0800 (Morning)
Focus: TL7

*TAK* *TAK* *TAK*

SC5, who was in charge of operational security and public relations, rapped her intricately designed wooden gavel on the rectangular oak table three times, gathering the crowd's attention.

As the room fell silent, she started the conference.

SC5: "Thank you all for coming today. This private convention, which will be held over two days, will not follow the traditional format of discussion or presentation. Instead, as some of you may have accurately guessed, we will be entertaining your curiosity with a lengthy Question and Answer session."

"However, before that…"

SC5 continued her scripted monologue which briefly explained Project Prometheus’ purpose and goals. However, just like the fake title she held -- Director of Project Communications -- the description of the organization was deliberately made ambiguous and designed to deceive, just like every piece of information Project Prometheus had released in the past.

SC4: "Okay, now that that's over, we can start taking questions."

*MUMBLING* *WHISPERS*

Unhappy with the lack of introductory information they had been given, the crowd of guests began to angrily whisper amongst themselves. 

Many thought they had wasted their time, effort, and monetary assets attending a convention with nothing new being brought to the table -- a presumptuous conclusion for a convention that had just begun. However, amongst the crowd were individuals who already knew the truth behind Project Prometheus. 

Those select few could not help but laugh in their hearts.

White Gloved Man: "So that's the strategy they are going with."

One of the guests in the crowded room -- wearing a distinct pair of plain white gloves -- mumbled to himself out of earshot of any eavesdroppers. He was delightfully amused with how the operation planned to handle the guests.

[Just how many here will become new investors and collaborators of the operation?] The white gloved man pondered.

Finally, after some time had passed, a brave soul stood-up to ask the panel of twelve a question. It was an action that quickly quieted the noisy crowd. 

By this time, some of the more haughty guests had already left the conference room, fuming with rage regarding their treatment, or lack thereof.

Brave Soul: "What is your mission? What is the ultimate goal for Project Prometheus?"

It was a simple question. One that should have been answered by SC5's introductory monologue.

However, that did not stop her from responding.

SC5: "To explore and understand. This is the most basic and fundamental answer I can give."

"If you want an in-depth response, then please ask a more specific question."

Unfortunately, the answer given to the brave soul was rather curt and inelegant. 

Understandably, the majority of guests felt attacked and mocked by SC5’s unrefined answer. 

Investor A: "What the hell is this?! Tell us what we want to hear, damn it!”

Investor B: That's right! I've never been this insulted in my life! How do we know this company isn't a crock-of-shit? I came here to invest in future tech! I didn't come here to listen to some poor-excuse of a sales pitch!"

Brave Soul: “Let’s all calm down, I’m sure they have their reasons. We should do as they say and just ask better-”

Investor C: “Weakling. I am not interested in any of that.”

The third investor to voice her livid complaint cut-off the brave soul’s plea for peace. She then turned her attention to the panel of twelve individuals representing Project Prometheus, and continued her rant.

Investor C: “I am here to invest. So far, I have seen nothing worth investing in! What kind of company are you running? To make a mockery of your guests and hold-back on critical information during a time where you should be grovelling before our feet? You need funding, do you not? You need investors to spread word of your research and technology, do you not? End this ambiguity and tell us what we deserve to hear!”

Investor D: “YEA!”

Investor E: “I CONCUR!”

Investor F: "We DEMAND answers!"

*RABBLE* *RABBLE* *RABBLE*

As the wily investors proceeded to voice their contempt, a clear distinction behind their rage emerged.

Rumors.

There were rumors that the private convention was the platform Project Prometheus intended to use to announce their advances in full-dive VR technology. These rumors indicated that the research group had planned to unravel their findings by holding several deep-dive presentations. After which, a short Question and Answer session would entertain supplementary and follow-up questions.

Of course, given the situation, no new findings or information were announced as the convention went straight into Q & A.

White Gloved Man: “Oof. What a pain. These people must have been fed bad information through confidence men. To be this angry when the convention has just started...wait a tick. Are they also part of the strategy? Ohoho...this is getting spicy.”

Amongst the rabble of incensed guests, the white gloved man carelessly whispered his thoughts into the noisy air, confident that no one would hear his musings.

The man had convinced himself that either [1] the con-men that had spread the rumors amongst the guests were actually part of the operation, and had socially engineered the current outcome; or [2] that a select few investors participating in the ruckus are acting as sacrificial pawns to sew chaos into the minds of the guests, all in order to remove weak-willed and self-important individuals from the convention.

If his suspicions were correct, then the information Project Prometheus was willing to disclose must be monumental.

*RABBLE* *RABBLE*

Complaints became more heated as the number of angry guests rose. 

Of course, it didn’t help that, with every rage-induced question screamed-out by the guests, SC5 would smile and robotically respond with:

SC5: "If you want an in-depth response, then please ask a more specific question.”

Eventually, those seething over the situation stormed-out of the conference room, leaving about half of the guests remaining.

*CLAP* *CLAP* *CLAP*

Once SC5 was satisfied that no one else would leave, she clapped her hands three times, causing the doors of the conference room to close.  

From there, every entry point leading into and out-of the conference room began sealing themselves shut. This automatically activated sound-proofing and other security measures which protected the conference room from the outside.

Looking around at the remaining guests, a gentle smile appeared on SC5’s face.

SC5: "Good. Good. There's more of you than I thought! Now we can start the REAL convention."

*MUMBLE* *MUMBLE*

To no one’s surprise, a few whispers of astonishment and fear echoed in the half-empty room. 

Many were alarmed by the sealing function of the room. And although some had forced themselves into showing fake smiles to dismiss their looming anxiety, a clear glint of terror shone in many of their eyes.

SC5 ignored this and resumed her monologue after the guests had settled down.

SC5: "Format is the same: Question and Answer. This time, however, any questions asked will receive fitting answers."

"For those of you confused by this, I would like to sincerely apologize. We at Project Prometheus, are not interested in working with investors looking to take-over our operations. So, we simply weeded those bad apples out."

“That said, our methods do not guarantee that all rats and contaminated fruits have been purged. This is why we would like to propose a simple request: ask your questions at your own risk.”

"No need to worry about the other guests. Those who have voluntarily left this room have already been escorted away from the premises, in the same manner as all of you had arrived."

"Those with weak mentalities will not receive a second chance. Luckily, those of you that chose to remain in this room have passed the initial test."

"I will say this again: ask your questions...At. Your. Own. Risk.”

As SC5 was giving her monologue, TL7 curiously scanned the room for familiar faces. Many of those that still remained were foreign dignitaries, influential persons of various tech sectors, and a few highly educated civilians. 

Among them was the white gloved man and the brave soul who asked the first question.

[Lots of new faces.] TL7 thought to himself as he started sifting through notes in preparation for answering real questions.

◊◊◊◊◊◊

Man: "Very well, I'd like to start us off...Firstly, you may all call Fred."

The man calling himself Fred fixed his pink bow-tie before speaking again.

Fred: "Now that the uncultured have left, could you tell us any specifics regarding the world Project Prometheus has created? Such as its ideal location, size, what-have-you... Basic information is preferable."

SC5 smiled upon hearing the question. It teetered on the edge of ambiguity and specificity. It neither confirmed the truth behind Project Prometheus, nor did it deny the possibility of its involvement in areas other than what it had claimed. Simply put, it was an ideal question to start things off.

[Perfect. We can spin our answers to fit the confines of a VR world. Even if we embellish or speak too fervently over any one subject, the information we give-out would still be rooted under the context of a full-dive virtual space, still under development. For such an impromptu convention, context is everything.] SC5 gleefully mused.

As the guests began to discuss Fred's question amongst themselves, SC5 continued her train of thought. [If not for our foresight to name our experimental phases under software development cycles, we may have run into problems. At least for now, we can continue to successfully label test subjects as 'participants' in full-dive virtual tests.]

While Fred waited for an answer from the panel, those who failed to analyze the words spoken by him began to question his inquiry.

Woman: "World? Creation? I thought this convention was about the latest-and-greatest tech, like full-dive VR. Not exploring planets or creating worlds."

A woman dressed in all-black spoke with dissatisfaction.

After her, a few guests also chimed-in to voice their concerns, however, none wanted to leave the room in fear of missing out on privileged information. 

Clearly, the guests had been drawn-in by the allure of secrets.

*TAK* *TAK* *TAK*

Once again, SC5 rapped her gavel on the oak table three times, silencing the crowd.

SC5: "Everyone, please calm yourselves. Fred, would you like to clarify your question before our panel gives you an answer?”

She asked with a faint smile.

Fred: “Yes, my question pertains to the VR world Project Prometheus is currently developing and testing.”

Fred replied with a smirk.

Turning to the woman who started the commotion, SC5 addressed her inquisitiveness.

SC5: “Miss, does that clarify things for you?”

Woman: “Y-yes. My apologies for the interruption.”

The woman replied, embarrassed.

SC5: “Good. In that case, I would like to make myself clear...To our remaining guests: we will answer ALL of your questions in due time. So, please relax and get comfortable.”

Turning to SC1, SC5 continued.

SC5: “Since Fred’s question relates to your field, would you mind giving the answer?”

SC1: *nods* "Of course."

After shuffling her paperwork and briefly evaluating her fake title: Director of Inception Technology and BGP, she looked at the crowd and briefly closed her eyes.

[Background Planet, BGP.] SC1 sighed in her heart. [Let’s hope no one asks what it means.]

After taking a deep breath, SC1 started.

SC1: “The world in question has been in development since 2009…”

In truth, 2009 was the year Halios was discovered. However, SC1 needed to tell a convincing lie to secure new investors while simultaneously providing pertinent information to those aware of Project Prometheus’ true objectives. 

SC1: "...the alpha phases of development spanned several years. During which, we expanded our development of the virtual space and produced several prototype full-dive modules."

"In 2014, we initiated our first alpha test utilizing both prototype modules and live participants. From these tests, we were able to synchronize time between the virtual space and reality, allowing our researchers to establish direct contact with participants in the virtual space without removing them from their full-dive modules."

"This was only Project Prometheus' first steps into full-dive VR technology."

“After several iterations to the program...from rewriting the code from the ground up and tearing it down to start again...we eventually succeeded in producing a program capable of procedurally generating realistic planetary, star, and galactic systems based-on data provided to us by planetary scientists.”

“As our research moved-on to the first phase of closed beta testing, we were able to generate a habitable rocky planet, roughly the size, if not larger, than Saturn, which orbited the dominant star of a binary star system. We named this rocky planet: Halios.”

“We have confirmed that Halios is the 4th planet orbiting the dominant star, and is within the goldilocks zone of habitability. We have also confirmed that Halios has a total of eleven satellite moons, two of which have moons of their own. Like Halios, we believe these planet-sized moons contain intelligent or sapient life.”

“When looking at the macro scale, Halios is located inside, what we believe to be, the intermediate zone of a unique, double-ringed galaxy, rife with old and new star systems.”

“We believe this double-ringed galaxy is modelled after a mapped galaxy called PGC 1000714…”

SC1 paused briefly, and pretended to shuffled through her paperwork as-if looking for missing information.

[...that was close. It’s a good thing I stopped when I did...I was basically listing facts.] She sighed internally.

Meanwhile, her pause gave rise to murmurs and whispers from the guests -- even those aware of the truth. 

It was new information to everyone.

SC1: “Distinguished guests, if you don’t mind, I will be dimming the lights so that you can fully appreciate the spectacle I plan to unravel. Please look towards the center of the room.”

The guests waited in anticipation as SC1 slowly dimmed the lights. 

Then, with a flick of a switch, a massive hologram depicting the grandeur of Halios, appeared in the center of the conference room, delighting and mesmerizing anyone who was there to witness it.

SC1: “As you can see from this hologram, the current beta test involving close to 500 participants is underway."

"Halios is home to several unique sapient life forms. More are being developed and evolved as we speak. Sapient life on the planet has advanced to the point of building settlements and structures large enough to view from space.”

As the guests stared in awe at the massive planet, SC1 highlighted several key locations on the hologram, depicting areas similar to sprawling cities on Earth but on a much grander scale. The highlighted areas also included massive towers and gargantuan defensive walls that would put Earth’s greatest buildings to shame. 

As the hologram of Halios continued to spin on its axis, similar to Earth, SC1 continued her information dump.

SC1: “From orbit, as Halios spins on its axis, we can clearly see four major land masses and countless islands of varying sizes, scattered all over the planet. For example, this island here…”

As SC1 paused, a small island -- which is lost to the eye when compared against the massive planet -- was highlighted on the hologram.

SC1: “...is roughly the size of Earth.”

*GASPS*

Several gasps could be heard amongst the crowd. 

Seeing a visual comparison was clearly more convincing than simply being told the planet was roughly the size of Saturn.

Feeling that she hadn’t done enough to convince the potential investors, SC1 decided to give a little more information regarding fake programs they had ‘developed’.

SC1: “Our program to procedurally generate realistic worlds like Halios is just one of many that work in tandem to create an immersive environment.”

“In this world, every living creature, be it sapient life or lame beast, has a backstory -- a history. Every nation, structure, and landscape -- whether it be mountains taller than Olympus Mons or megalopolises more far-reaching than any seen on Earth -- each has a unique identity and moment in time.”

[I should hammer-in the VR aspect to conclude my performance.] SC1 thought to herself.

SC1: "The full-dive VR world we have been developing over the years is full of opportunities. Opportunities which are currently being explored by several hundred closed beta testers; opportunities we are prepared to share with you, if asked the proper questions."

The hologram fades from sight and SC1 gradually turns the lights back on, allowing the guests’ eyes to adjust without irritation. 

Then, turning towards Fred, SC1 concluded her answer.

SC1: “Fred, does this satisfy your inquiry? I apologize that I cannot reveal anymore. Please understand.”

Surprised, Fred adjusted his bow-tie once more and replied.

Fred: “Yes, thank you. Your answer was beyond imagination.”

Fred responded with a wide smile.

In the corner of the conference room, separated away from all other guests, stood the white gloved man. He incoherently muttered to himself, seemingly overjoyed by all the information.

White Gloved Man: "Hohoho. Star map location, confirmation of sapient life, potential evolution, orbital surveillance, and a successful mass transit of test subjects for observation...truly amazing information from just one answer."

"It seems my patronage is not being wasted after all! To think that this convention has just begun...I wonder what other world-shattering information they have in-store for us."

As he finished his silent soliloquy, the white gloved man looked around the room, eager to spot like-minded individuals. 

Just like him, several veteran guests scattered around the room displayed similar looks of excitement on their faces.

---Chapter End

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