Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Perimeter Defense: Sector Eight by M. Atamanov - read online

by Michael Atamanov

purchase: Book I, Book II


The battle was coming to an end. One thousand five hundred dreadnoughts were in siege mode conducting orbital bombardment on the planet below, turning all its space defense structures into dust and preparing landing zones for the space marines. A few hundred lumbering battleships were covering the heavy siege ships, while the faster assault and strategic cruisers, together with the interceptors, happily raced through the star system after the remnants of the enemy armada. All the other allies were out collecting trophies. There was such an abundance of valuable loot this time – it stretched as far as the eye could see. All visible space was carpeted in fragments of broken ships...
I took off my headphones and moved my chair away from the computer desk. I was still so excited from the massive space battle that my hands were shaking. There were thousands of players on each side! I went to take a sip from my beer can. Damn, it's empty already. When had I had the time to down a half liter of beer? I had to tear myself from my chair, stand up and hobble over to the kitchen fridge. There wasn’t any more of my favorite local unfiltered beer. The best I could do was a bottle of dark Czech beer at the bottom of the vegetable drawer left there two weeks earlier by a group of old college buddies. It reminded me of my younger days when my friend Pavel used to buy a whole crate of beer that we could never finish. It's not my favorite kind of beer, but it's still a bit better than average. As usual, the opener wasn’t where it should have been in the box on the table, so I had no choice but to open the bottle with a fork before taking a foamy swig so cold it hurt my teeth. Praise the Lord!
I walked over to the window. There were some lights hanging from the curtain rod left over from a New Year’s party. New Year’s was three weeks ago at that point so the decorations should have been down already. All the same, for the hundredth time I was just not feeling up to standing on a stool and climbing up on the window sill. I looked out at the street. Winter had come in all its darkness. A cold wind whistled as it swept its way up the street. It was just past six in the morning, and the cold black sky wasn't even offering a hint of the coming sunrise.
I looked into the cold haze out my window and held back a yawn. I had had to wake up with my alarm clock this morning at 3:30 A.M., then spend a whole hour gathering half-sleeping soldiers for the CTA (Call to Arms!!!) that had been announced yesterday and sneak our whole assault fleet between two stellar regions to the site of the grand battle. The unexpected arrival of our fleet on the battlefield brought chaos to the ranks of our numerically superior enemy. We attacked immediately, even though they outnumbered us twelve to one. We took advantage of the opportunity and got into battle formation, targeting a pre-prepared list of enemy commanders we knew to be talented as we regrouped.
Our plan went off without a hitch. The enemy commanders were sent to medical centers for respawn, which effectively took them out of the game for a while. All they could do was swear pointlessly in chat or try to awkwardly manage their troops through video from allied streamers. They had been deprived of the ability to react in a responsive manner to the quickly changing situation. The enemy armada, lacking adequate command, flew cluelessly in circles through space, which we took appropriate advantage of, radically thinning the herd of our bumbling prey. Moreover, any time the enemy was able to replace a downed fleet commander and get some kind of resistance together, they would already be outnumbered three to one, and in a situation like that there was no way my well-trained high-class soldiers could lose. After that, there were some long firefights and chases, in other words, tons of fun before the bloody battle ended in our unconditional victory.
Shivering from the cold in my apartment, I turned the knob on the radiator slightly and went back to my computer. The enemy station had already been taken over by our alliance. Huge transport ships were hauling in everything our alliance's military and industry would need for our new home. Our boys had already finished looting the wreckage of the enemy ships and were preparing to overtake the reserve combat ships from the intermediary station all on their own.
An atmosphere of unrestrained joy and celebration reigned in game chats. Dozens of unread private messages and chat invitations flashed on my screen. I immediately turned them all down because I was too tired and not in the mood to explain myself to anyone. I was just skimming the first line of the messages, not making a special effort to read them any further. There were people thanking me for a job well done and others wondering how long it would take them to get compensation for lost ships. Allies were congratulating me on the victory and tactfully reminding me about my earlier promise to give them half of the captured territory. Enemies were threatening to get revenge and take back their lost station. Some of them were even sputtering silly threats that they would find my IP-address, find me in real life and break my arms and legs, but there weren't many of them. I even came across enemies who expressed their admiration at the operation in broken Russian or English. Basically, just like usual. I was on the verge of deleting all unread messages without even looking at them, but one message just kept calling my attention. It was from a player I didn't know by the name Space_General123. Much to my surprise, he wrote in perfect Russian:
"Great job! Congratulations! I was listening in on your voice chat and watched the whole battle from the sidelines, start to finish. It was a very precise operation. I especially liked that fake panic you created. Really believable. I'm sure the enemy spies bought it. But enough empty words, let's get down to business. I have an offer that you might find interesting. There’s a job that you fit the profile for. A big alliance needs an experienced fleet commander. You'll be paid entirely in real money, no virtual bytes. Let me know if you're interested."
My hand froze on the mouse button as I sat there, not deleting the message. A big military alliance? And also is it a Russian-speaking one or at least one with a lot of Russian-speaking players? I considered it seriously. I was pretty sure I knew all the more-or-less serious alliances in the game. There really were quite a few Russian alliances out there. Well, to be more accurate, mixed Slavic alliances, including the one I was in then. There were three really serious ones, but none of them needed fleet commanders. Though there were rumors that the permanent leader and commander of one of the top alliances was about to get married, or something, and quit computer games completely. But I had talked to him literally yesterday, and he had a ton of big plans, so he didn't really seem like a person playing their favorite online game for the last time.
Plus, this weird guy, what was his name... Space_General123 wrote that he had been listening to our private voice channel. I looked at this mysterious character's information. A complete zero, made just three hours ago. Obviously, it was the alternate character of some other, much more experienced player who didn't want to reveal their identity. Nevertheless, he was listening in on our channel. That means he was either from our alliance or had somehow found out our secret password. In the first case, it would have meant that one of my thoroughly vetted people was working for the competition. In the second, it would have meant that one of our pilots had given top-secret information to a stranger! It’s hard to even say what would have been worse. In any case, we'd have to root out the traitor in our ranks, so I sent a message back:
"It's hard to answer right away like this. It might be something I'd be interested in. It all depends on the conditions."
Almost immediately, he sent me a voice chat invitation. I put on my headphones and got ready to listen carefully. I had an ear for voices. Ever since I was a child, I had been able to discern minute changes in a person's intonation and uncover tricks or bald-faced lies. Plus, I knew a lot of my team by voice and would have been able to pick them out, even if they were purposely disguising themselves. All the same, this guy's voice was new to me.
"Hi! I'm glad you agreed to hear me out." Judging by his voice, he was already quite a bit older than 40, but definitely not old yet. "Does it bother you if I speak informally? You're a young guy, it just doesn't seem natural to put on airs for you. You can call me Georgiy Innokentievich."
I did my best to call him by his full name but, in my sleep deprived and slightly drunken state, my tongue wasn’t in any condition to pronounce such a tooth-shattering combination of sounds on the first go. My admirer wasn't offended though and even chuckled back at my awkwardness:
"I don't know what my parents were thinking when they gave me that name. Not many people can say it right all the time. My international partners don't even try to pronounce it. To make it easier, they just call me Mr. G. I. You can do the same. Or call me George, or even Gordy, but that might be a bit too familiar.”
"Alright, Georgiy, what do you want from me?" I asked, deliberately not identifying myself by name and also choosing a name option for him that he had not suggested. I also opted to speak informally.
­"As I already told you, there's a job to be had, with good pay too. So good that you won't have to work anywhere else, or do anything but your favorite activity. In fact, that would even be a necessary condition of this arrangement. Nothing can be allowed to distract you from carrying out your mission..."
I couldn't hold it in anymore and laughed into the microphone. How naive this guy was! Did he really think you could hire a good fleet commander for the game under these conditions? I've obviously been taken for some kind of complete gaming addict who can sit for days on end in front of a monitor washing down delivery pizza with cola.
"That's impossible," I answered, laughing back. "I have a contract already with this alliance, and it's plenty good for me."
"You contract was completed as soon as you'd finished the mission at hand and taken the base," said my new acquaintance, revealing a surprising level of familiarity with my agreements with alliance leaders. "Now, your soldiers can spend some time fattening up in a new place and saving their money. There isn't supposed to be an active war for at least six months, so the alliance has no need for a fleet commander. And what kind of contract did they give you? Two hundred bucks a month for beer and cigs? Laughable! I'm talking about actually good money."
That's where he really got my interest. I don't know how he'd found out what I was getting paid or the specifics of my contract. Obviously, my employer had been indiscrete. But I really had suggested these exact conditions a few months earlier, and at the time they had seemed like a good deal: two hundred dollars a month, and for that, I'd agreed to train fighters every evening after work and on weekends and make them into a flight team that could win a war against a coalition of Eastern European alliances. For some reason, after Georgiy's speech, the conditions I had once negotiated for no longer seemed like such a good deal.
"What city do you live in?" wondered my mysterious acquaintance for some reason. For a reason I don't even understand, I answered honestly that I lived in Moscow.
"In Moscow!? That's impossible! I'm from Moscow too!" Mr. G.I. cried out in joy, as I suddenly picked up on his theretofore unnoticed native Muscovite accent. "Well, listen up then. Seeing how you're not gonna sleep anyway, let's meet up in an hour somewhere at a restaurant and discuss all of this one-on-one. Is anything open in the capital at this hour? Do you want to go to The Wishbone bar? It's by the Sokolniki metro station. Do you know where that is?"
"Do I know where it is? I live right next door!" I even got a bit offended at his lack of trust in my knowledge of my native city. "The only thing is that we need to reserve a table in advance. You can't just show up!"
"At seven A.M., in this blizzard? It's probably totally empty." "Well, I'll reserve a table under my name in any case. Sound good? It’s a deal. We'll meet at exactly seven at The Wishbone!"
The call cut off. I looked at the clock. It was six twenty in the morning. The mirror on the wall told me I was unshaven, disheveled, wrinkled, and swollen after a sleepless night of beer drinking. My potential employer seemed like a very mysterious person, so I wanted to create a favorable impression. I had to go to the bathroom, looking around my bachelor pad on my way for some more-or-less clean socks and an iron that I knew was hiding somewhere.

* * *

At exactly seven, I walked into The Wishbone. A pretty hostess took me from the entrance to the coat room, took my coat and pointed to the far corner of a totally empty, early-morning room where a hefty man in an expensive-looking suit was sitting solemnly at the only occupied table. He was younger than he had come across over the phone. Not fifty, but no more than thirty or thirty-five. Next to Mr. G. I., there were two men standing at attention who looked a lot alike, as if they were twin brothers. They were his bodyguards, and they were wearing identical gray suits. Both guards were keeping careful watch over how close I came to Georgiy. As soon as I got within fifteen feet of their employer's table, they both simultaneously reached with their right hands for the holsters hanging from their belts. Holy shit! They weren't even trying to hide the fact that they had guns on them! I was a bit taken aback by the guards’ wildly inhospitable behavior, and so I stopped sharply in place.
Georgiy said something very quietly, though both bodyguards heard their employer and pulled their hands back from their weapons. After that, my strange acquaintance said something else, but this time much louder so I could hear it. He asked his guards to leave us alone so we could have a confidential conversation. I took the seat I was offered and stretched out my hand to shake his: "Ruslan!"
Mr. G. I. froze for a few seconds as if he did not know whether to greet me, but then his expression faded into a smile and he answered me with a handshake, "Georgiy! Well, nice to meet you!"
My acquaintance's palm was quite soft to the touch and somehow feminine, as if he had never been subjected to either physical labor or exercise. And so what? It's not like that was impossible. Maybe he was the son of some Moscow politician. He had been living in complete luxury since childhood. He'd never had to worry about money or getting into an elite private school and meeting all the "right" people. Then to celebrate his graduation from University, his parents bought him a job as deputy director at a huge company, and Georgiy had never had to work his way up the career ladder from the very bottom.
As I looked over Mr. G. I. surreptitiously, they brought our food: grilled trout, a huge plate of shrimp with hot sauce, and a charcuterie plate. And alcohol too, of course: there was vodka in a rounded carafe and some kind of wine. I emphatically refused the vodka. Mixing that with the beer I'd just drank would make for a killer cocktail, and getting drunk in front of a potential employer wouldn't be smart. My new acquaintance didn't argue and poured me a glass of light white wine. We toasted to our meeting, and I couldn't hold back any more. I had to ask:
"So, what alliance are we talking about here, Georgiy? It's weird, because I basically know all the big alliances in the game and I can't for the life of me remember any fleet commanders leaving recently..."
"Ruslan, who told you we were talking about that game in particular?" Georgiy inquired, interrupting my awkward attempt at guessing.
His question threw me off. “Then what game are we talking about, if we aren't talking about the one we met in when we talked this morning?” I asked with a smile, thinking he'd been trying to make a joke. But he was dead serious.
"The game I'm talking about is called Perimeter Defense. It's a big game with a hundred thousand players.
"Perimeter Defense? I've never heard of it..." Seeing my confusion, Georgiy poured us both some more booze and made a toast, given that it had become clear that our conversation would be going on for a while. I noticed that my acquaintance wasn't chasing his alcohol with the food on the table.
"Where do I start?" he began. "You probably realize that rich and famous people also want to get away from hum-drum, everyday life by playing computer games. But add to this that those who have grown accustomed to considering themselves members of the elite are not at all happy with the fact that some players have a less than professional attitude, the so-called ‘casuals,’ who start to ruin the atmosphere of the game. Plus, games that are out there for normal people don’t satisfy such sophisticated gamers at all, neither in graphics nor in plot. Are you following me?"
Who does Georgiy take me for? Does he think I'm a total loser who cannot understand even the simplest words? Why spoon-feed me everything like a baby? Nevertheless, I held firm and didn't let my annoyance show, just nodding quickly up and down. Georgiy continued at a leisurely pace:
"One day the inevitable happened. A few rich people got together, talked it over and decided they would make a totally different game only for an elite private club. It wasn't very hard to make it happen. Most companies that make computer games eked out and still eke out a fairly meager existence and will go ravenous at the sight of a big contract. The made men I just described – you can even call them oligarchs – had everything they needed to bring their dream to life: an ocean of money, excellent designers and artists, the best programmers, and script writers. The clients were finicky and demanded maximum realism and the feeling that you were truly there. Nothing was too small for them, even the most minor details in the game world were reworked dozens and even hundreds of times. They demanded realistic and totally unique voice acting for every character, custom appearances for different species, changing weather, and an elaborate economy. It was a very ambitious project. But, one day, development ended and the game began.”
My new acquaintance poured another glass of vodka and wine and offered me a drink. And once again, he didn't chase it, despite the fact that there was more than enough food on the table. Georgiy coughed. It looked like his gulp of hard alcohol had gone down the wrong pipe. Breathing out with difficulty, he continued:
"There are rumors that, in reality, there are a whole bunch of games out there only ‘for a select few.’ Maybe that's true, but I won't lie because I don't have that information. I personally can confirm the existence of only one such game. It's not likely that you would have heard about it. But just accept it as fact that there is a game that no one ever writes about in computer magazines, isn't advertised on television, and isn't even findable by Internet search. Nevertheless, it is a very high-quality game. Its graphics are practically indistinguishable from reality. You feel so much like you're in the game that you end up just living in that virtual world. Getting in is no easy proposition, you have to have recommendations from other members of the private club...”
Here Georgiy paused, because a waitress had come up to our table to take the dirty dishes. Taking advantage of the pause, we had another drink and he continued, though he had started slightly slurring his words:
"So that's what I'm saying... There's this game, it's called Perimeter Defense... But I've already said that... The game is about space and starships. Like the very far future of humanity. There's a huge, practically limitless cosmos, and a character wouldn't even be able to fly to the edge of this virtual world if they had their whole life to do it. And, in it, there is a big and fairly strong Human Empire, which occupies just under one hundred star systems and two or three hundred inhabitable planets. What's more, you can visit every planet with your character, and all these planets are different. You'll never find two that are identical. The designers really put a lot of effort into it. Other than the Empire, there are a few hundred small states with all different forms of government... Some of them are Empire vassals, some are allies, and some are avowed enemies. Close to the borders of the Empire there are mostly Human states, but the further you go into space, the more variety you'll find in terms of species... So, I didn't tell you yet, but there's a whole bunch of alien races, I won't even tell you how many exactly right away... And, actually, I don't think there even are any players who know how many races there are all together... Yeah, and what difference would it make anyway?"
Georgiy poured me another glass of wine despite my protests. I was already feeling like I'd had one too many. I was in a really strange state. I felt like I'd be drunk soon, but I didn't understand how or why. Obviously, being this tired and not having slept was having an effect, because such little wine couldn't have put me in such a state on its own. Nevertheless my acquaintance proved to be stubborn, so I had to pick up the glass and drink it down. After that, he picked up a pickled mushroom on his fork and waved it around, continuing:
"All these races have really confusing relationships among themselves. It’s a hell of a mess trying to navigate their friendships, military alliances and irreconcilable hatreds. But none of that matters. What does matter is that there are these other, totally bizarre species that are one hundred percent different from those ones. I don't even know how to describe the difference between these ‘monster’ aliens and the ‘friendly’ aliens. The only thing I can say is that they're one hundred percent different. Very strong. Very dangerous. Very aggressive in nature. There isn't much known about them yet, except that they look different from one to the next, but all of them are deadly dangerous. It isn't even known if there's only one species or a few different ones. We’re not sure if they're working together or if they're solitary. But these freaks are attacking our galaxy from different sides, conquering territory as they go. And that's exactly what players are supposed to do: stop the invasion. And those, essentially, are all the rules of the game. What do you say?"
Georgiy took a look at me, clearly waiting for my commentary on his story. To be honest, I hadn’t understood a thing, though of course the thought of being able to take a look at this "game for the chosen," even from the corner of my eye, was very tempting. I nodded, and Georgiy poured us both another glass. I mechanically picked up the wine glass and wondered aloud:
"So, what's my role in all this?" Speaking proved harder than I thought. I was also slurring my words at this point.
"You? Didn't I tell you? Really? Strange... Well, listen up then. You'll be leading one of the Human fleets – like, you'll be playing for me. Actually, it's me who's the commander. It's my character, but I'm sure you'll play better than me. You're supposed to defend Perimeter Sector Eight. It's not the hardest sector, but also not the easiest. You'll have a small squadron of ships, as well as some resources and finances. There aren't many attacks on your defensive sector now, but they’re growing more frequent. You just need to hold out."
"I don't understand. What interest do you have in this if I'll be playing for you?" I asked in surprise.
"It's hard to say... I'll be honest: It turned out I had no potential as a strategist, and so far I haven't put up impressive results in defense either. But, all the same, I cannot shame myself before the other players. There are very influential people who play this game, and I want them to think I'm a capable fleet commander and a talented leader. It's useful for my career – which is why I'm prepared to pay you well to play for me for a while. Let's say... six months to start. But just keep in mind that it isn't going to be entertainment for you, but real work. You'll have to put all your energy into completing your mission. There are two main rules. The first is that you cannot, under any circumstances, tell anyone that you're playing in my place. The second rule is that you cannot break character, tell other players about real-life news, or tell anyone about your life outside the game. That really bothers people. They came into this virtual world to escape reality after all. If you ever break either of these rules ­– it's game over, the character is banned and, basically, we'll both be in a lot of shit. I hope you understand that."
"I see, I see..." I responded, finally wondering about how much I'd be getting paid.
Georgiy named an amount. It was about four times more than I was making at my current full-time job. Nevertheless, I immediately sensed a restless waver in his voice and figured that I could be asking for quite a bit more.
And, actually, he turned out to be quite generous in this regard. I was able to negotiate three times better conditions compared to Mr. G. I.'s original offer. I could barely keep myself from screaming in delight for the whole restaurant to hear. It was unbelievable! For that kind of money, I'd have been willing to spend day and night in the game! Of course, I would have to quit my job to devote more time to this mysterious game. But what kind of a job was that anyway? Part-time database programmer... what a joke.
"So, technically, I'll be playing someone else's character? Am I going to be sent the password and screen name?"
"No, nothing like that," chuckled my new acquaintance happily. "I doubt that your computer at home will be able to deal with the graphics and, well, I'd prefer to avoid any potential ‘crashes’ due to connection problems. So, you'll play from my place. It's a sin to spoil one's impression of an excellent game due to an insufficient level of immersion, which is why I’ve ordered the finest equipment. I already have a virtual reality helmet. I got the suit too. The virtual reality capsule I ordered is held up at customs for now, but, if they deliver it, your work station will basically be outfitted with all the best equipment."
Virtual reality capsule? It seemed scientific progress had left me in the dust. Unfortunately, I was not able to clarify that point, as the waitress came by again to switch out the dishes and bring us more plates of different delicacies. To be honest, food wasn't agreeing with me at all at that point, and it was even just starting to ask to be let back out. Was it from overeating or had I just drunk too much alcohol? And that after a morning beer?
Georgiy's monotone voice came to me as if through a thick fog. He kept droning on about the game's strict rules and how I could never reveal that I was taking his place. I looked in his direction from under my eyebrows, getting ready to say that I already had it all figured out. But the words were sticking in my throat. For some reason, it began to appear as if Georgiy was not wearing an expensive dark suit from a couturier, but some weird, almost military, dark blue tunic with gold epaulets. I shook my head to banish the illusion. The strange vision passed. Georgiy went back to normal. I put on a dumb smile. What a sight, though!
­"Are you listening to me?" Finally, Mr. G.I. had successfully gotten through to my drunken consciousness. "We still have to sign an official contract. We can't do it without a contract, because this is serious money. What are you doing, sleeping? Hello, don't sleep! Concentrate!"
I nodded, but the big stupid grin wouldn't leave my face. All that money! I'll have to get a driver's license and buy a car first thing... After that, I'll have to swap out my rented one-bedroom apartment for something more fitting... Or maybe just buy my own apartment right away? Is it going to be enough money for an apartment? The thoughts were slogging through my head with huge difficulty, which is why I was not able to calculate how much I was supposed to be getting for six months at this job. It was six months that Georgiy said, right? Or was it not six?
The smiling waitress came by again, but this time her tray had a stapled packet of carefully typed-up papers. I noticed that the waitress wasn't wearing the strictly mandated restaurant uniform, but it didn't really register. For some reason, she was wearing a strange, very revealing, semitransparent outfit made of wide pink ribbons that wrapped around her waist, arms and legs with bizarre bobs hanging down. After that, my attention trained in on the papers she'd brought. What is that, my contract? But when would the waitress have had time to print it out? And is printing out papers even a waitress's job? Or had the contract been prepared in advance and she was just bringing it out?
"In duplicate, as legally required. Acquaint yourself with it and sign on the last pages," explained Georgiy, his voice cutting through the haze. For some reason, he was wearing the dark blue military uniform again.
I earnestly tried to read the whole contract, but it turned out to be a pointless exercise. The lines were jumping around before my very eyes and, what was more, something was off with the letters in them somehow. Except for the word "contract" in capital letters on the first page, I couldn't read a thing. One of Georgiy's bodyguards came up to the table, but this time he wasn't a person but some kind of gray, bipedal lizard wearing bone armor. One thing hadn't changed though: he was still wearing a gun on his belt, but this time it wasn't a pistol but some kind of device that looked like a hair dryer.
"My Prince, we must hurry. Time is running short," uttered the lizard in an alarmed state.
"I know!" answered Georgiy sharply in his uniform. "But do you see how smashed he is? We were supposed to bring him in an unresponsive state, but now he's completely asleep! Miya, don't let him fall asleep!"
The girl wearing the pink ribbons skirted around the table, came right up close to me and sat on my knee. Without warning, she took a peck on my lips, and I tasted her floral, dark purple lipstick.
"Hey, hey, that's quite enough!" The one who they called “Prince” dragged his right hand, weighed down by many rings, across the table and turned the contract laying before me to the last page. Miya foisted an obviously quite expensive pen on me. It even looked like a real Parker with a golden nib. She jabbed with her finger where I was supposed to sign. Georgiy started to hurry me:
"Sign it now! It's time for you to get to work!"
With my limp hand, I mechanically squiggled out my signature on the long line. Then, I produced another signature on the second copy of this incomprehensible contract they shoved in front of me. And after that my consciousness left me at last, and I fell face-first into my unfinished plate of trout and salad scraps.

Waking Up

“Ahhhhh!” I never thought that the sight of my own hand would be so shocking.
I don't even know what it was exactly that scared me more: my nails being painted dark blue and green; the black-green ring on my pointer finger; the gold chain on my wrist, which was thin with a modestly-sized medallion that looked like two bodies merged in an embrace; or my hand itself, which was plump with short fingers that looked as if they were missing the last joint. What left me feeling afraid was probably all of it put together. The biggest thing was that the hand at the end of my arm wasn't mine! The dream vanished as if by magic, I sat up on the bed and looked around.
The place was unfamiliar to me. It was a rectangular space of average dimensions without windows or doors. The walls were made of stone tiles that were rough to the touch and slightly warm as if there were heating pipes behind them. I didn't see any lights but, nevertheless, the dim illumination allowed me to make out the outline of objects. The only piece of furniture was my bed. It was huge, as if made for three or four people. There was a burgundy carpet on the floor that gave a slight spring when you stepped on it...
Wait a second! I caught myself having an unexpected thought. How did I know that the walls were rough to the touch and warm, and that the carpet gave a slight spring when you walked on it? After all, I had just woken up and hadn't even gotten out of bed! In agitation at my discovery, I pressed my hand to the wall and quickly reassured myself that the wall really was warm and rough, as if it were made of porous stone. How did I know that? Maybe I had touched it while asleep. That was probably it. I stood up on the floor. The carpet really did give a slight spring as I’d thought. Maybe, I’d gotten up some time during the night and had found out that way? I took a walk along the wall. There was no door or even anything that hinted at a door. And, what was more, there was obviously not enough lighting in the room.
"Light!" I commanded, and the whole edge of the ceiling lit up brightly.
How did I know how to turn the lights on? I couldn't figure out the answer to that question. Maybe somewhere in the depths of my consciousness, I even knew how to get out of this locked room. For some reason, I began doubting that there really was an exit. And if it did exist, where would that exit be taking me? Was I ready for what I'd find outside? It was only at this point that I noticed I had been sleeping in the nude. There wasn't any clothing in the room at all, just those same plain walls and a big bed. And what if someone is watching me right now? The thought both stumped and scared me at the same time. I sat back down on the bed and covered my shame with a blanket. It was, by the way, a nice blanket, thick and warm, and inside the duvet cover I felt a soft, pleasant-to-the-touch comforter.
I kept sitting for a while, collecting my thoughts and trying to figure out how I'd gotten there. I couldn't concentrate because I was really thirsty. My throat got dry, and my heavy, clumsy tongue felt bristly and like it belonged to someone else. All my guesses and suppositions about how I'd gotten there turned out one less likely than the next. The only thing I could remember for sure is that I had "overindulged" the day before at the restaurant, then started feeling really bad. Did that even happen yesterday? With difficulty, as if through fog, I got through all the obstacles, gradually putting the pieces of yesterday's events back together. I went to The Wishbone, next to my house. That I remembered distinctly, so from there I could start figuring out what had come next. I was drinking with some guy I barely knew, named Georgiy. He hired me. I was supposed to play for him in some game. That's right. That's it, exactly. But then when I tried to remember what happened after that, my thoughts started getting muddled.
So, could I already be in the game? If I am wearing a virtual reality helmet, then it wouldn't matter what direction I turn my head, all I'd be able to see is screen. I lifted my hands and felt my head. I couldn't feel any helmet there, though that didn't really mean anything. It was possible I was controlling the game with my thoughts, and thinking about moving wasn't moving my actual body but my character's. But how could I test whether I was in a virtual world? I looked around again at the empty room. Even in the best rendered computer images you can see the pixels! It was a good idea, so I looked closely at the strange ring on my finger and tried to find imperfections. Either the resolution of the virtual screen was very high or the ring was real, but in any case, no matter how hard I tried, I was not able to make out the individual points that it would have been made of, if it were a computer image.
My thirst continued to grow. I stood up again and, after wrapping myself in the blanket, I set out to take a look at the walls of my... what was this place to me anyway? It was too comfortable to be a prison, but too empty to be normal living quarters. When I walked up to the next section of wall, a space noiselessly opened in it. A piece of stone just came out of the wall and slid to the side, exposing a semicircular archway leading into another room, which turned out to be a bathroom. It came in very handy, as it were – as did the entrance to the shower I found next to it. On the ledge in the shower, there was a plethora of containers I couldn't read strewn about, but that wasn't what stopped me at all. There was a mirror on the wall, and I looked into it.
"Ahhhhh!" A scream of despair and fear ripped its way from my chest again.
It wasn't me in the mirror! Looking back at me, from the mirror, was... what's his name... Georgiy Innokentievich! It was his face to be sure, swollen after drinking, looking back at me with cloudy eyes from a rectangular frame. That’s his dark hair, his nose and his eyes! How the hell…? I stepped back and practically fell down, obviously the fault of the previous day's activities. Along with all that, I had to constantly focus my vision. There were these dark spots constantly moving to obscure my view, and that bothered me a lot.
Think! Think now! The possibility that I was already somehow playing, and that was why I saw someone else's face in the mirror was seeming more and more likely. It was the face of a character created by a different player. Obviously, I would have to play for him now. But what do I even know about my character? I took another look in the mirror. A dark-haired, middle-aged man. Pretty bloated and with a noticeable gut. If he did play any sports, you'd never have guessed it from his figure. That was probably pretty far from something Georgiy did often. Folds of fat dangled loosely from my manboobs and flapped on my belly. Why the hell would you make such an egregiously repugnant character? By the way, what is his name?
As if answering my question, an information box appeared before my eyes:

Georg royl Inoky ton Mesfelle, Crown Prince of the Empire
 Age: 47

That put my bare butt right on the uncovered floor. So, now I was sure I was in the game. What more proof did I need?! And now it was my job to play this "Crown Prince" called Georg who, in his 47 years, has left his body in such a state that you couldn’t even look at it without wanting to cry!
I wanted to get some more information about my character, like his characteristics, you know, like, strength, agility, charisma... Though... how could you even think about charisma if just looking at this guy had made me react with complete disgust?! But, try as I might, I couldn't figure out how to get to any screen to see my characteristics. Maybe they didn't have that in this game. The only thing I could find out about Georg royl Inoky came from something like a popup:

Race: Human
Gender: Male
Class: Aristocrat, Mystic
 Achievements: None
Fame: +4
Standing: - 27

What's the deal with his standing? Why the hell would it be negative? I got embarrassed for myself somehow. I walked up to the mirror again, calmer this time, and looked at my new face. My eyes were expressionless, off-white with very bright irises that contrasted sharply with my dark hair. They had a reddish tinge, either from being tired or drunk. There were also dark bags under them. A straight nose. Slightly baggy cheeks. A bit unshaven. Teeth... In this department, Georg had actually made me happy. He had a full set, and they were ideally even and white. My real teeth had a chip on the upper right incisor (for some reason, idiot that I am, I once opened a beer bottle with my teeth) and I was missing two teeth on the left side. I was afraid of dentists and disregarded cavities when I was in my last few years of school. So, at least in that one regard, my virtual character was better than the real me.
My neck was solid, but not very long. My body... Well, it was so doughy that you couldn't even properly call it a body. I was reminded of a cruel nickname my friends and I used to call a fat classmate in school: “wide load.” Now, I was the "wide load." I had obviously weak arms, and there was an ungainly tattoo on my left forearm in the shape of some kind of cartoon character that was driving me nuts. It was either a badly drawn donkey with bulged out eyes and butterfly wings, or some kind of insect with four appendages and either hooves or claws. I had medium-length legs that were fat and strong. Also, my toenails were painted alternately dark blue and green. Between the legs... Well, at least the Crown Prince didn't have any problems in that regard. I even let loose a whistle and felt a pang of jealousy.
I was getting thirstier, so I took a risk and tried the water straight out of the tap. The local water wasn't too pleasant. It had some metallic undertones, but in any case it sated my thirst. After that, I took a shower (by the way, it was really classy with a big selection of functions and panels), dried off with paper towels and went back to the bedroom because there wasn't anything else to do in the bathroom. While I was out of the room, the bed had disappeared on its own up into a slot in the wall, leaving the room completely empty. I was standing in the middle of the room and looking attentively at the walls, but I couldn't find any doors other than the two to the toilet and shower I'd found earlier. But this can't be?! Funny, I'm stuck in my own bedroom!
"Building map!" I said loudly and clearly, not knowing how to get out of this ridiculous situation and trying the first thing that came to mind.
It worked! A detailed schematic of the floor with hallways, closed rooms, some kind of elevators and a "you are here” marker in one of the rooms appeared before me. But what caught my eye wasn't the semitransparent map that had appeared before my eyes but the writing below it:

Third (residential) deck of the heavy assault cruiser, Marta the Harlot

I didn't even know what to be more surprised by. Was it the fact that I was on an assault cruiser? Or the fact that I asked for a map and it just appeared at my command? Or was it that some moron named a military ship something so strange and unfitting? In any case, I decided to leave all these questions for later. What was important was getting out of my bedroom. Without effort, I expanded the image and found that there were three exits in my room. One to the bathroom, the second was a very narrow door for staff, behind the corner panel. (The plan showed there being a ventilation shaft and power cables there.) The third exit was right in the middle of the wall and went into the big hall shown on the map as the "Guest Room." I walked in the direction of the wall shown on the map, and the wall panel moved noiselessly up into the ceiling. I had finally found the exit!
"Ahhhhh!" I jumped back and covered my nakedness with my hands. "Please forgive me!"
There was a fat old lady sprawled out on a pink sofa in the big hall wearing a long bathrobe and golden hair curlers. There was a thick layer of greasy cream on the aged woman's face. The woman slowly turned her head toward me and bellowed out in an extremely annoyed tone:
"Georg, I'm being serious. That's quite enough! If you're going to scare me and scream like you're being cut every time you take crystals, I'm going to divorce you once and for all. Do you understand?"
There were a few things in her speech that caught my attention right away. The first and most important: that fat cow was my wife. It was extremely hard to believe, because she wasn't to my taste at all. Nevertheless, after looking at her again while averting my gaze, I read the information in the popup window:

Marta royl Valesy ton Mesfelle-Kyle, Princess of the Star Kingdom of Fastel, ruler of the planet Fastel-XI
Age: 38
Race: Human
Gender: Female
Relation to you: Your legal wife
Class: Aristocrat
Achievements: None
Fame: +2
Standing: - 9
Presumed personal opinion of you: -57 (hate)
Kingdom of Fastel's opinion of you: -11 (dislike)

She really was my wife! And, for some reason, she hated me! What a twist!
The second thing I paid attention to was that she had said "divorce you once and for all." What was that supposed to mean? Was it that we already basically were divorced but it wasn't "once and for all" yet? That struck me as strange; however, I was not able to find any more information about why our relationship was strained.
The third thing was also important. It would seem that this wasn't the first time I had reacted this way in front of my wife. Why? Could it be that I had already been in a similar situation? Or maybe this character has already been played by some people other than Mr. G. I. himself?
And finally, the fourth thing. My wife had made a passing reference to crystals. What was that all about? I wasn't even too surprised when a hint about that very question appeared before my eyes:

Crystalloquasimetal-cis-isomer valiarimic acid (slang: crystals). A synthetic narcotic substance with a pronounced hallucinogenic effect. Noted for the extended effect of its narcotic state (from 48 to 86 hours), which presents a non-negligible risk of death to the user due to dehydration. Addiction to crystals begins from the first use.
Consuming crystals became fashionable during the universal popularization of the "drang-musik" musical movement between 658 and 712 and was widely consumed by composers and artists. Later, consumption of crystals became popular among scientists and the upper aristocracy as well. At present, the manufacturing and distribution of crystals is strictly forbidden by the laws of the Empire and can be punished by death, as can consumption of crystals by individuals who are not on the special list of Mystics, reaffirmed yearly by the Emperor.
Effects of taking crystals: may cause detachment from distracting factors, with concentration of cognitive activity for solving day-to-day problems, often in an extremely nonstandard way. This kind of cognitive activity has produced results: from optimal algorithms for complex systems, to captivating scripts, brilliant financial solutions for firms, winning strategies at various logic games, and much, much more. There have even been recorded occurrences when the individual taking crystals had a very weak understanding of a subject, yet was able to make a scientific breakthrough in it.
Side effects: very strong narcotic dependency; the need to redose on crystals every 5-8 days, with a slightly higher dose required each time; serious weakening of the body's immune system; reduction of overall muscle mass; and a high probability of developing chronic diseases of the gastrointestinal tract and urogenital system. Notable reduction in sexual activity in individuals of both genders to the point of complete refusal of sexual contact.
Well, I'll be damned! I couldn't believe what I'd read. I have to play a fat, impotent drug addict! Thanks, Georgiy, you did me a solid. If I'd have known this from the start, I'd have told you right where to stick your “good deal!” And no bodyguards would have been able to stop me from giving you a smack right to the jaw!
"What are you looking at? Is your brain still switched off after the drugs? What are you doing walking naked around the berth, swinging your useless family jewels around? Don't embarrass yourself, go get dressed. Your officers could come in with a report any minute!" My fat wife pointed at a crack in the wall. That must have been where the clothes closet was.
Not giving an answer to her hurtful words, I set off for the closet and started getting dressed, trying not to pay attention to the shameless way Marta was looking at me. By the way, was it her that this ship was named after? I'd have to look up where the name of this cruiser came from and how my wife behaved herself, when I got the chance.
The clothes were bizarre. The underwear were form-fitting and very thin. The unitard was like a jacket and pants sewn together with self-correcting rubber bands, fitting it exactly to the shape of your body. I finally figured it all out and put the clothes on. It wasn't too fast, but there were also no particular problems. I especially liked the boots. They were high, practically to the knee, but soft, and you couldn't feel them on your feet at all. The situation immediately became easier to handle with clothes on. I had barely gotten dressed, when the trill of the doorbell rang out and a gray-haired old man came into the room in a severe, silvery-gray uniform. He bowed deeply and declared in an official tone:
“My Prince, officers from the ship are awaiting you in the entrance hall. Shall I let them in?"
I looked at the old man. A popup told me that the person standing before me was my 135-year-old, loyal personal secretary and butler, by the name Bryle:

Presumed personal opinion of you: +37 (loyal)

"Remind me, Bryle. What am I to discuss with these officers?" I asked my servant.
If he was surprised, he was doing a good job of hiding it. Bryle bowed again and told me that I myself had asked them to bring a detailed report on all skirmishes with the aliens and, also, that I was preparing to share my new defense strategy for Perimeter Sector Eight with my subjects. No more, no less! I laboriously swallowed the lump that appeared in my throat.
"Tell them..." I began, looking for a reason to get rid of these officers who had appeared at such an inopportune moment, but I suddenly changed my mind and said, "No, never mind. I'll tell them everything myself."
Bryle nodded gently at me and placed his hand on an illuminated circle, which opened the entrance door. Trying not to lose my resolve, I went out into the hall. There were six people there in military uniforms and one "nonperson," a ten-foot-tall insect that looked like a praying mantis with six appendages of various lengths. The upper pair of "arms" were hypertrophically huge, with spikes that gleamed menacingly on its chitin armor, and looked scary even when folded up. The middle pair of appendages were thin and maneuverable, the so-called "humanlike arms." And the lower pair looked something more like what you'd call "legs" with backward knees. The first thing to jump out about the insect's face was its eyes. They were enormous, each one was the size of a soccer ball. I could see myself, the hallway, and the frozen soldiers reflected hundreds of times in miniature form in its compound eyes.
I quickly looked around at everyone, but there was only information on two of them: the squat, almost square man in a heavily armored suit and the ten-foot-high praying mantis.

Mwaur Zen-Bey, captain of the Imperial Space Marines
Race: Human
Gender: Male
Class: Military
Achievements: Has combat medals for participation in interspecies conflicts
Fame: +2
Standing: + 2
Presumed personal opinion of you: -3 (indifferent)
Empire Military faction opinion of you: -10 (dislike)

There was very little information about the praying mantis:

Triasss Zess, assistant to the ambassador of the Iseyek State to the Empire
Race: Alpha Iseyek
Gender: Neutral, third clutch
Class: Diplomat
Achievements: None
Fame: +1
Standing: + 2
Presumed personal opinion of you: Unknown
Iseyek race opinion of you: 0 (indifferent)

I wondered what made these two characters different from the other four. Why could I find out more about them, but not the others? Were they real players, while the others were NPCs? That was probably it.
When I appeared, the people froze at attention, as did the extraterrestrial diplomat, pressing his arms to his torso, obviously copying the pose the people were making. I asked which one of them had prepared the materials I requested. The six military men exchanged confused glances. Either they were all counting on someone else to do it, or they all had just equally forgotten about my order. It looked strange. What were they doing coming to a scheduled meeting with the Prince and not even taking the time to prepare? The ambassador saved the situation. Triasss Zess stepped forward and, in a very clean-accented human voice, told me that he had prepared a whole collection of materials on all times people had encountered the mysterious race and added materials to that about encounters the Iseyek race had had with these aliens as well.
Instantly recognizing the opportunity that had presented itself to sit and study the materials one by one while simultaneously finding out more about the overall game world, I dismissed the six military men:
"My good men, I will have to first carefully study the materials brought by the honorable Triasss Zess in order to make any necessary corrections to our defense plans and take all information into account. Please forgive me. It seems I called this meeting prematurely. I'll need some more time..."
I lost track of what I was saying a bit when my gaze accidentally fell on the wide, oval porthole behind the soldiers. Behind the thick glass there were some long metal arms like cranes or claws on the backdrop of the inky blackness of space. It was then that I realized that the ship I was on, Marta the Harlot, was not a typical oceangoing ship but a real-life star cruiser.
"... Could you please leave me alone with the honorable ambassador?" I asked, finally having collected my thoughts and turning quickly away from the window.
It seemed that the soldiers weren't too happy with the fact that I wanted to conduct a discussion alone with the Iseyek; however, none of them chose to express their dissatisfaction out loud. I pulled back to the side, letting the ambassador into the hall. It seemed that I had done something wrong, as the praying mantis froze for a few seconds before coming through the door.
"I am grateful to you for the honor you have given me in allowing me to enter your personal chambers, my dear Prince Georg," said the praying mantis as he slightly lowered his head and came through the door. There was a beep in my head as if I'd just received an email. Some lines passed quickly in front of my eyes:

Standing change. Your relationship with Triasss Zess has improved.
Presumed personal opinion of you: +10 (warm)

Standing change. Your relationship with the Iseyek race has improved.
Alpha Iseyek race opinion of you: +2 (indifferent)
Beta Iseyek race opinion of you: +1 (indifferent)
Gamma Iseyek race opinion of you: +1 (indifferent)

Thankfully, that cow, Marta, wasn't in the room anymore. Bryle produced a remote control and nimbly pressed a combination of buttons. Immediately, the couch retracted into a gap in the wall, and two armchairs and a big, oval table came out in its place. Then, a ten-by-ten flat screen descended from the ceiling. I asked my butler to bring me a glass of some kind of juice as well as something for my guest. The praying mantis and the old servant shot me equally flabbergasted looks. At that moment, the old man's eyes looked a lot like the shifting compound eyes of the huge insect standing next to him. But Bryle nodded in silence and left the room, and I got another set of messages:

Standing change. Your relationship with Triasss Zess has improved.
Presumed personal opinion of you: +20 (trusting)

Standing change. Your relationship with the Iseyek race has improved.
Alpha Iseyek race opinion of you: +4 (indifferent)

Why were they all so surprised at what I was doing? What was wrong with these praying mantises? My question was answered almost immediately. An indistinct shadow rose up off the flat wall, quickly acquiring the appearance of a huge bipedal lizard. At first, I nearly shouted, but almost instantly I recognized the figure from my drunken dream. This was one of Mr. G. I.'s bodyguard lizards from the restaurant. Obviously, they must have been Prince Georg royl Inoky’s bodyguards. In other words, now they were my bodyguards. The information that came up on the lizard told me that he was pretty kick-ass:

Popori de Cacha, Bodyguard Division commander
Race: Chameleon
Gender: Male (at present)
Class: Military
Achievements: Has earned athletic awards in marksmanship and no-rules fighting, two-time winner of the famous Gug-V survival tournament
Fame: +7
Standing: + 6
Presumed personal opinion of you: -2 (indifferent)
Chameleon race opinion of you: +1 (indifferent)

"My Prince," explained the reptilian chameleon, keeping one eye on me, but not taking the other off the gigantic praying mantis. "Soldiers of the Iseyek race are extremely fast and deadly, and, insofar as the ambassador has undergone military training, there can be no doubt that he presents a risk. My division and I will simply not be capable of defending you as long as you are so close to Ambassador Triasss."
"I appreciate your concern, Popori de Cacha, but try to understand me. Our common foe is getting closer every day. No race will be able to make a stand alone. My defense strategy requires us to work actively together with several species, including the various Iseyek groups. Without trust, this is impossible. How can I trust the Iseyek state in the future, if I cannot trust their official ambassador now? What's more, I would even request that you and your soldiers take your leave of this room during the negotiations, so we can demonstrate our openness and level of trust to the honorable Mr. Ambassador. At the same time, I would like you to check the whole cruiser for all potential crystal hiding spots and destroy everything you find, no exceptions.”
Both of the chameleon's eyes turned to me at once. It obviously meant that he had been very taken aback, to the point that he even took his eye off the ambassador he had yet to stop being suspicious of.
"Excuse me. Could you repeat that, my Prince? I must have misheard you..."
"Yes, Popori de Cacha, you understood everything correctly. There is very little time remaining, and I cannot allow myself to lose any more to a drugged-up haze. For that reason, you must find and destroy all crystals you find on the ship. And, thereafter, everything and everyone coming on this cruiser must be monitored to prevent even one gram of that junk ending up here. Any attempt to bring it on the ship must be uncovered and intercepted with no mercy. Any person or nonperson who tries to offer me crystals is to be considered an avowed enemy and must be terminated immediately, regardless of their status. That is an order, now carry it out!”
Popori de Cacha let out a quiet, faltering whistle, and immediately three more lizards appeared in what was not even a very big room. What was more, one of my bodyguards turned out to have been on the ceiling, right above my head. The division commander whistled again and all four bodyguards exited the room in an unhurried and dignified manner.
When the door shut behind them, the ambassador, Triasss Zess, stood motionless for some time, looking around the room with his huge compound eyes. It seemed to me that the praying mantis didn't believe that all the guards had really left. Triasss Zess took a sip of a bubbly green drink from a long transparent straw on the side table. He savored the drink, wriggling his wet mandibles, then carefully placed the unusual vessel back on the table and... In the space of a second, the ten-foot-high praying mantis had already made it over to me, somehow having gone over the table that had been between us. In an instant, my neck was being pressed between the blades of the "unique" scissors, curved at the joint, which had once been his upper right appendage.
"How long I've waited for this moment!" whispered Triasss Zess directly into my ear, with a sinister tone. ­"You people are as blind and naive as you were on the first day you made contact with our civilization. How little you know about my race. How simple it was to trick you! As long as you're born an Alpha Iseyek, all the Empire's much-touted special services consider you harmless and will even let you in to meet a member of an Imperial dynasty... You see, I trace my lineage from the family of Igir-Gugorito, the hatchlings of whom were destroyed on the orders of, as it were, the Orange House of the Empire. The Sival-II Hive Massacre happened just 170 years ago, and you humans have already forgotten about it. But the Iseyek nation has not forgotten! How joyful it makes me to take my revenge on a member of the Orange House!"
I felt the praying mantis's spiny, razor sharp appendage slowly tighten around my neck. The chitin spines pressed into my throat, piercing flesh. It was very painful. I took a breath, but didn’t feel even a drop of fear. It was more like a detached interest. Will I see a “You have died” message? “Game over?” Will I have to make a new character? Or will I come back at a respawn point? The screen got darker and darker – and that was the first time I died in the game.

* * *

"So, what'd you think?" came a vaguely familiar voice from out of the absolute, pitch-black silence.
It took me a few moments to recognize the speaker’s voice. It was Mr. G. I., that son of a bitch! I took in a lungful of air, getting ready to launch into an uncensored tirade directed at the liar and cheat who had tricked me into a game I had never played before. But still I said nothing, as it struck me that I had died in the game but not respawned yet! There wasn't a new character creation menu, nor was there a "continue from previous save" option. What was that about?
"Don’t you have anything to say? How was your first day? Have you spoken with the staff officers yet? Were you able to come up with something worthwhile with them in your one day?" My acquaintance was pelting me with questions, making it impossible to concentrate.
"I haven’t had the chance to talk to them as much as I would have liked. I got killed by that praying mantis almost right away," I admitted in shame.
My new employer started to seem confused. Georgiy even asked me to repeat myself:
"What praying mantis? Are you talking about the messenger from the Iseyek embassy? How did he even get close to you? The cruiser is full of guards. Go into any hallway. You can't even spit without hitting a guard. Plus, there are four invisible chameleons that won't let anyone dangerous get anywhere near you under any circumstances.”
I had to explain in detail that I had dismissed the officers myself, let the assistant ambassador into my room and ordered the bodyguards to leave. Judging by his reaction, Georgiy had not foreseen this cascade of thoughtless actions on my part. He said nothing for a long time. It even seemed that he was consulting with someone.
"Here's the deal," rang out the familiar voice once again after I had already managed to lose interest. "So, they killed you. Don't worry about it. You'll wake up soon enough in the medical center; the doctor will tell you something about how they were 'barely able to get you out.' It'll be a good lesson for you in the future. There's just one thing I can't figure out. Why would a messenger from the Alpha Iseyeks attack a relative of the Emperor?"
"He said something about broken eggs and revenge on the Orange House. But to be honest, I didn't really understand what he was going on about."
"So, that's how..." my acquaintance remarked in surprise, even becoming noticeably scared. “So the praying mantis really did have a reason, even if it is quite an old story. On first contact with his race, we humans acted with too heavy a hand. Some pioneers found a nice planet for building a distant Human outpost, but there was already intelligent life on it. Our scouts reported that the praying mantis race inhabiting Sival-II was extremely technologically backwards and also too aggressive for negotiation to be feasible. Those people mistakenly decided that no one would ever find out about these events taking place on a faraway planet... Admiral Bayagor royl Stashek ton Mesfelle was acting on incomplete information and underestimated the military and economic power of the Swarm and their allies. Fifty years of interstellar war followed that fateful error. Now both sides have learned to respect one another's territory and interests, and there is peace with the Iseyek. Some unsubdued fanatics do remain among the Gamma Iseyeks, though. These insects, resentful of our race, think that the Orange House, to which Admiral Bayagor royl Stashek belonged, has not paid the full blood price for that long-ago aggression.”
There was a plethora of unasked questions spinning around in my head, but Georgiy suddenly informed me that our conversation would be ending, as I would soon be respawning. Immediately after his words, I saw a glaring white light, and the vile scent of ammonia filled my nostrils as I woke up.


"Thank the Creators, you're alive, my Prince!" Hunched over me was a man with a swarthy face, a big Roman nose, and huge, dark hazel eyes. He was wearing a white, plastic smock and a round, white cap that covered his hair.

Nicosid Brandt, your personal doctor
Age: 128
Race: Human
Gender: Male
Class: Medic
Achievements: Numerous awards for scientific works in the fields of psychiatry and rehabilitative medicine (full list available on next tab). His mastery in his field and loyalty to the Empire have been affirmed repeatedly. Approved to work with members of the upper aristocracy.
Fame: +5
Standing: + 19
Presumed personal opinion of you: +35 (loyal)

I took a sharp smelling flask from in front of my face and let out a sneeze. The doctor's face reflected a mix of tenderness and a certain concern.
"Have I been lying around here long?" I wondered, without greeting the doctor or giving a word of thanks.
"Not very, my Prince. Forty minutes have passed since you were brought to my office. I intentionally did not wake you up earlier, as I needed to examine the wounds on your throat to make sure that they did not present a risk."
After the doctor's words, I felt my neck and there really was some kind of moist bandage. The doctor, as if reading my thoughts, extended me a rectangular mirror. I noticed a wide, white, elastic bandage. Under it, there was some gauze soaked with some kind of yellow ointment.
"Nothing serious, my Prince, just grazes and scratches. They'll disappear without a trace in two or three days. The Iseyek that attacked you merely squeezed your carotid artery until you passed out.”
"What happened to him, by the way?"
"Triasss Zess did not resist. In fact, he opened the blocked doors to the cabin and called for medical aid. Your security force tried to kill him on the spot, but Princess Marta's guard intervened. The praying mantis is now sitting in the prison chamber awaiting the judge's ruling. Your spouse has locked herself in her personal chambers with her interstellar legal counsel."
"Should it not be me who decides the fate of the criminal? He attacked me after all."
"My Prince, if what took place had been an attack on a member of one of the Great Houses inside the Empire, your claim would be indisputable. However, the incident took place on a military starship belonging to the Kingdom of Fastel. Marta royl Valesy is the noblest representative of the Kingdom of Fastel on board this cruiser, which means that, legally, only she may rule on this case. Insofar as I understand, she is presently consulting with a panel of experienced lawyers to choose Triasss Zess's method of execution. They need to assure the Empire remains satisfied, while also keeping the Swarm from being overly offended."
The way this situation had turned out did not suit me one bit. To my mind, if the praying mantis had wanted to kill me, nothing would have been able to stop him from doing just that. But he only knocked me out, then called for first aid and turned himself in. His actions didn’t resemble those of a murderer. And so I decided:
"Nicosid, I need to have a meeting with the arrested Iseyek messenger immediately. He is in possession of information of critical importance to the Empire. I must familiarize myself with it."
"Not possible, my Prince," came the doctor, staggering back in fear. "The suspect is extremely dangerous! Especially now that he has absolutely nothing to lose!"
"Popori de Cacha!" I exclaimed, calling for my bodyguard.
I didn't see the chameleon; however, I had no doubt that he was in the room somewhere. And in fact the contours of the enormous lizard did begin to show on the backdrop of a big, abstract picture on the wall. In just a few seconds, the six-and-a-half-foot chameleon was standing in front of me, waiting for my orders. Before beginning to speak with the leader of the guards, I noted the fact that his loyalty to me had made a noticeable drop:

Presumed personal opinion of you: -7 (disapproving)

Obviously, my poorly-thought-out actions that had ended in my ridiculously foreseeable and preventable death had earned my bodyguard's well-deserved annoyance. I tried to correct the vexing misunderstanding:
"Popori de Cacha, you were right about the Iseyek messenger. I admit my mistake. In the future, I will try to listen to your wise advice. And, as a matter of fact, I am presently in need of the verdict of an experienced bodyguard. Can I speak with Triasss Zess without putting my life in excessive danger?"
"The safest method is to communicate via videophone, without coming into close contact with the arrestee," reasoned the chameleon.
"Holy hell, that does make sense," I agreed. "But I'm specifically wondering about a personal conversation with the praying mantis. We may end up discussing very confidential matters, so I would not like our secret conversation to take place over the ship's communication system. This way, we can be sure foreign spies aren’t listening in on our conversation. Just tell me your expert conclusion. Could you and your soldiers provide for my safety if I were to go into the praying mantis's chamber, or not? Having a conversation with the arrestee is very important to me, but I'll do whatever you conclude is best."
It looked like my question had put Popori de Cacha into a contemplative state. The chameleon's eyes stopped twitching in all directions, and a cloudy white film descended over them. It was a curious sight. It was the first time I'd seen a chameleon deep in thought. This intensive thought process continued for twenty seconds, after which his eyes opened and Popori de Cacha answered:
"My Prince, I officially guarantee your complete safety during your meeting with the arrestee in the name of the Ravaash race, known to humankind as the Chameleons. However, I will need to enter first, look over the space carefully and prepare the praying mantis for questioning. I'll only need two minutes."
"Excellent, take me there!"
The door to the hallway slid silently aside, revealing a short corridor packed with well-armed humans. I only needed one look to figure out that there were members of two different groups of soldiers present. There were a great deal more of the well-armored guys in light gray uniforms, armed primarily with light firearms. I looked closely at the emblem on one of their shoulders. A message appeared obligingly before my eyes telling me who was in front of me:

Space corporal of the Second Heavy Fleet of the Star Kingdom of Fastel

Mhm. I immediately figured out that the gray soldiers belonged to my beloved wife. Then, can I assume that the ones wearing gold uniforms are mine? I turned to the nearest lumbering hulk of a man.

Sergeant of the Space Fleet of the Orange House of the Empire

It seems I was not mistaken. But there weren't many golden soldiers – no more than 15. They were equipped with either an archaic rifle almost as long as a person is tall, or some baffling, obviously heavy gizmo that looked like a twisted fire poker. Some of them were even armed with nothing but blades. It looked somewhat strange and led me to think that I was seeing the remnants of an army that had been crushed, hurriedly gathered into one group made of different types of soldiers and hastily equipped with whatever weaponry was at hand. The sight of it left me visibly upset; however, I tried to maintain my stony expression despite having a whole bunch of questions running around in my head.
I took a harder look at the "golden" soldiers and determined that the sergeant I had looked at earlier was the highest ranked soldier among them. All the other soldiers were just privates. I turned to the sergeant and he froze at attention.
­"Your name, sergeant?" I wondered.
"Tavar Prest, my Prince. Senior gunner from the frigate Pyro-27 in Your Highness's fleet. One of three survivors from that frigate, after the recent battle."
I started to realize that I was not wrong: they really were the surviving members of the crew of my own personal fleet, which looked to have been completely destroyed. What happened? Why are my people in such a sorry state? I didn't have nearly enough information about the events that preceded my entering the game. Nevertheless, I couldn't show my subjects how confused and ignorant I was. Trying to make my voice powerful and confident, I issued an order:
"Sergeant, organize the survivors into an escort and have them accompany me to the prison chambers. I need to speak with the praying mantis that attacked me."
The sergeant obviously appreciated the high level of responsibility placed on him with this mission to guard such an important person, and quickly and skillfully ordered the "golden soldiers" into a three-part formation. We weren't able to get very far before we were blocked by an officer in a gray uniform. Based on his patches, he was the captain of my spouse's personal guard.
"Prince Georg, I have been ordered to provide for your safety and not allow further incidents similar to that with the Swarm messenger. For that reason, I must request that you either return to the infirmary or go, guarded by my soldiers, to the residential zone. Your wife, Princess Marta, will be very dissatisfied if you leave your designated area on the ship of your own volition."
Behind the insolent officer, other figures in gray were already lining up. It looked as if they were preparing to stop me by force, if necessary. I raised an eyebrow in dissatisfaction, trying to look as pompous and haughty as possible, and declared:
"Captain, can it be that a prince of the Orange House of the Empire is being held captive on the ship of an Imperial ally, the Kingdom of Fastel?"
The officer shook his head "no" in silence.
"Then allow me to pass and do not interfere in my business! Popori de Cacha, there is no need to kill him! This man is simply doing his duty. He is no enemy to us."
I only said the last part because the captain was hesitating about whether to get out of my way. I thought that mentioning the leader of my invisible bodyguards would be enough to push this slightly impudent dog of war in the right direction. But what happened, though, was even better. Behind the horse-stubborn officer appeared a chameleon holding a sharp, curved blade to his throat.
"Yes, my Prince. Disrespect to members of the House of the Emperor is supposed to be punished, but if you insist..."
Popori de Cacha slowly pulled his weapon away from the officer's neck and backed away while giving a very convincing imitation of a human bow. The captain hurried to make way. His people also stepped aside, many of them smiling nervously as they did. When my retinue had reached the end of the hallway and entered the elevator on its way to another deck, my bodyguard wondered:
"My Prince, allow me to ask a question that's been torturing me. How were you able to detect me? How did I reveal my position? I need to understand this in order to correct this shortcoming in the future."
I chuckled back happily:
"Popori de Cacha, you were flawless as always. You did nothing to give away your location. I simply assumed that my very capable bodyguard would be trying to keep the situation under control and would be as close as possible to the person who dared block my path. As you see, I was not wrong."

Standing change. Your relationship with Popori de Cacha has improved.
Presumed personal opinion of you: +10 (warm)

The system message that popped up was unexpected, but very welcome. It seems I was able to get through to my bodyguard and make a step forward in my standing, which had been ruined by my predecessor.
All four chameleons appeared at the doors of the prison chamber. Three of them got the hallway leading to the elevator secured, while the commander asked me to wait as we had agreed. Popori de Cacha entered a code into the keypad in the wall with his long, flexible fingers. Then, he unlocked the door and went into the prison chamber. Popori de Cacha finished his inspection of the room in even less than two minutes.
"My Prince, the prisoner has been subdued and does not present a threat to Your Highness," announced my bodyguard about a minute after entering.
I slid open the metal door and went inside. The praying mantis was lying down by the far wall. His upper appendages were folded up and handcuffed together, so his scary, sharp weapons would remain out of play. The long, spiny legs of the enormous insect were stretched limply out along his body. I don't know exactly who did what to him, but it seemed to me that the praying mantis's legs were broken or paralyzed. And his middle pair of appendages... was simply gone! Where the messenger’s "small arms" had been just minutes before, now there was nothing but jagged wounds showing through a yellowish slime. I looked around somewhat dumbfounded and noticed that Popori de Cacha had ripped out the praying mantis's thin arms and was holding them in his hands! The chameleon followed my gaze and took it on himself to answer:
"Alpha Iseyeks have no problem speaking without the middle pair of appendages. I did it for your safety, my Prince: the middle arms were not bound, so I preferred not to take any risks. In any case, the murderer who attacked you is going to be executed, so it doesn't really make a difference."
I hadn’t explicitly approved such a harsh method of preparing the prisoner for questioning, but the disabled praying mantis spoke out unexpectedly in agreement with his tormentor:
"Your bodyguard is right, Prince Georg. The small upper arms of my race are in no way connected with the speech function. As such, I will be able to provide you all the information I was supposed to have communicated to you initially: The Swarm first encountered the aliens less than two standard years ago, but have since grown quite afraid of their power – so afraid that evacuation of all egg clutches has begun in all peripheral Swarm star systems. And what would have earlier sounded totally unthinkable is that the eggs are not even being brought to the capital..."
"It's that bad?" Though I couldn’t understand why that situation should be surprising, as the praying mantis had emphasized it, I decided to support him.
"Yes, Prince Georg. The Swarm came to the conclusion that the Iseyek race is not in proper shape to prevent the capture and destruction of our capital planet, Dekeye, by the alien fleet. Given that, bringing the eggs to the capital would be a mistake that could put the Iseyek race on the verge of extinction. Because of this, the construction of gigantic transport starships made for holding billions of eggs has begun in all Swarm star systems. All these ships will be outfitted not only with standard warp drives, but also with other drives that are more powerful, if unstable. The Swarm thought that, if sending starships to the farthest reaches of known space couldn't save us, it was better to risk sending ships filled with our descendants to a random point in the Universe than to allow those freaks to completely wipe out our species. Now the only issue is the time factor. Although all Swarm resources are currently devoted to their construction, building such huge starships will still take several standard years. Nevertheless, the aliens are coming too fast and no one can guarantee that we'll have enough time. Our analysts have calculated that, given the present situation, the Swarm will not have enough time to launch the transport ships with our descendants. There are many reasons for this. The threat was detected too late and, due to insufficient information, a mistaken decision was made to construct such gigantic ships, but there isn’t enough time or resources left to change that significantly. So, the Iseyek race has sent ambassadors to the Empire to seek aid from the Human race. The Swarm is prepared to offer a lot to humanity to get the Imperial Fleet to defend our territory and buy us more time. As soon as the starships are finished and the eggs are sent to a safe place, the Swarm will turn all our many shipyards over to producing military ships, in order to give the aliens a fight and buy more time.”
I heard the praying mantis out, furrowing my brow and immersing myself in thought. How powerful must the alien fleet be if the large, developed, interstellar Iseyek civilization is already planning to turn tail? In parallel, I was thinking about something else entirely. There was also another matter that I couldn’t help thinking about. For example, it really hurt me when the praying mantis pressed my neck between its spines. But the creature I was interrogating, with his arms ripped out, couldn't seem to care less about the fact that he was missing appendages. Two arms had been ripped all the way out, and nothing, no emotion. I had no doubt that the creature before me was being controlled by a live player. Triasss Zess had an information popup, and he behaved too unpredictably to be an NPC. Why didn’t he feel pain? And how was he controlling his extra appendages anyway? Or are there totally different laws about playing alien races? I tried to banish these out-of-place thoughts and concentrate on the plot of the game.
"How long can your fleet hold back the aliens?" I wondered to Triasss Zess.
In response, the messenger could only squint his huge eyes, which was obviously supposed to indicate grief or sorrow.
"Prince Georg, the sad truth is that the Iseyek race no longer has a star fleet capable of offering any kind of resistance against an alien invasion. The Deeho reconnaissance squadron was completely destroyed while traveling in the direction of the nearest cluster captured by the aliens, Aysar. The Ayho fleet, which did a pretty good job of holding back Imperial attacks for many years, was destroyed entirely in the first battle. The only ships spared were not from the main classes. The Virho fleet took heavy losses and retreated to the capital, Dekeya. The Yuho reserve fleet is not fully equipped or manned and is in the Sival system, but it's really more of a response group than a full-on fleet. The Yayho border fleet is focused on its only mission: not letting any ships enter Swarm territory, so the fact that we don't have adequate defense capabilities will not escape our borders. The hardest fact in all this is that there are no more reserves to wait for, because all Swarm shipyards have been completely given over to building transports, not military ships.”
“Then why I have suddenly been entrusted with such critically important, top secret information on the deplorable state of Swarm defenses?” I really did not understand why such inappropriate trust would be placed in me, a member of the Orange House, which the Iseyeks themselves had no lost love for.
The ambassador's assistant silently shifted his mandibles, then said, slightly taken aback:
"Who else would it make sense for the Iseyeks to go to than the Crown Prince and official representative of the Empire responsible for guarding Sector Eight, where a large portion of Swarm territory is located? What's more, you, Prince Georg royl Inoky, have already fought against the alien ships yourself, so you have a better idea than other people in the Empire of how freakishly strong a whole fleet of them can be. Well, it was also of no small importance that the strongest stellar flotilla in this region is under your command, making you the most valuable Imperial representative for my race."
In regards to his last point, I could have disagreed with the praying mantis in that I had already figured that a large portion of the military ships out the porthole were from the Kingdom of Fastel's fleet, more subordinate to my plump wife than to myself. However, I did not emphasize that subtle distinction. Trying to take it the other way, I put on the most confident and majestic face I could.
"Very well, Triasss Zess. As the official representative of the Empire in Perimeter Sector Eight, I am prepared to approve military aid to the Iseyek race. Humanity shall aid the Swarm in the fight against the aliens; however, the Swarm must also participate in the defense of Sector Eight, and not only in Swarm territory but in neighboring territory as well.”
The praying mantis began turning his huge eyes, oscillating between expressing delight and apprehension. The ambassador's assistant spoke, carefully enunciating each word:
"May I request that you prepare a clear, bulleted list of what aid the Empire is expecting from the Swarm? I would also like to request that you convey that information to my homeland, in that I will apparently not be able to do so, in view of my impending execution."
"First, I will need all the information you have on all military engagements between the Iseyek race and the aliens: information on noted concentrations of alien ships, and any other information that has been collected. Second, I'll need official permission to move my fleet through Swarm territory as well as comprehensive information and technical support for my fleet. Third, I need the Swarm's military ships. I would not lay claim to the Virho fleet defending your capital, however the Yuho reserve fleet and the remnants of the defeated Ayho fleet must submit to my authority unconditionally. Given these conditions, the Empire will defend Swarm territory with maximum ferocity, as if it were our own."
The praying mantis made a surprising expression. He turned his head on its side and looked at me meaningfully, as if not believing what he'd heard. I thought I'd overplayed my hand with my demands. However, it turned out the reason was something else entirely.
"Does the Prince not require the Swarm's land-based armies? He would be refusing the best Alpha Iseyek assault troops in this sector of the Universe, as well as the famous Gamma Iseyek space commandos. Does the Prince suppose that this war can be won in space alone without recapturing the planets taken by the aliens?"
It seemed that I had once again blurted out something stupid, so I had to correct myself by improvising on the fly:
"My friend, I presumed that the great Swarm warriors would only fight at maximum effectiveness under the command of a talented general of their own race, who knows their strong and weak points. I wanted to charge you with the mission of finding such a great commander. Popori de Cacha, set him free! I completely trust Triasss Zess and am prepared to release him."
I was afraid that my overly careful bodyguard would disobey my order; however, the chameleon opted not to put that part of his nature on display in the presence of a stranger. The six-and-a-half-foot-high lizard appeared next to the prisoner, carrying the keys to his handcuffs. The only thing the chameleon allowed himself was to give me a slight, cautious warning:
"My Prince, Princess Marta will be extremely dissatisfied with this decision. Knowing your wife’s character, you should expect a severe reaction from her to such flagrant disregard for the rights of the Kingdom of Fastel to a fair trial. Should we not, in order to avoid excesses, relocate to one of Your Highness's ships?"
"Have there been issues with my release, Georg royl Inoky?" asked the captive, perking his ears.
"Yes, there have been certain complications. My spouse thinks that she may act independently and has other ideas about your fate, Triasss Zess. But I will try to smooth our family issues over. Popori de Cacha, open the handcuffs!"
The handcuffs fell off the praying mantis's enormous folded appendages. The huge insect stood up to his full ten feet, but stopped when he clocked his head on the ceiling. Both huge, compound eyes froze. I saw my own reflection in them hundreds of times over.

Standing change. Your relationship with Triasss Zess has improved.
Presumed personal opinion of you: +30 (trusting)

Standing change. Your relationship with the Iseyek race has improved.
Alpha Iseyek race opinion of you: +6 (indifferent)
Beta Iseyek race opinion of you: +2 (indifferent)
Gamma Iseyek race opinion of you: +2 (indifferent)

Right after that, another message came:

Standing change. Your relationship with Popori de Cacha has improved.
Presumed personal opinion of you: +12 (warm)

It seemed a bit strange that my constantly cautious bodyguard approved of the release of a dangerous prisoner, but the chameleon thought it was the right decision. At the same time, I was perplexed by a slightly related question. How do they do it? How do they show change in relationship to another player? Maybe I can do it too. I had already grown accustomed to dismissing the popup messages blocking my vision, so when one came up without me even looking at it, I froze for a moment and brought the window back, allowing it to temporarily obstruct my view.

Chance of expressing your reaction (unread message # 3254)
Change in personal opinion of Triasss Zess (choose an option: -5,-1, 0,+1,+5)
Change in faction opinion of Triasss Zess (choose an option: -1,0,+1, must be approved by the Head of the Orange House)
Change in Human race opinion of Triasss Zess (choose an option: -1,0,+1, must be approved by the Emperor)
Change in faction opinion of Iseyek race (inactive)
Change in Human race opinion of Iseyek race (inactive)

I skimmed the list of similar, dismissed messages containing more than three thousand skipped actions. Geez! Only the last three messages in the huge list were from me. The rest were describing events that I knew nothing about. It looked like my predecessor had been quite negligent in his duties and had simply been ignoring this function. Some messages that I saw were from a long time ago, but still had yet to be closed, even though the reaction time limit had long since passed. A message about some argument with my wife, dated last year, caught my eye:

Chance of expressing your reaction (unread message # 2751, expired).
Change in personal opinion of Marta royl Valesy ton Mesfelle-Kyle (choose an option: -15, -10, -5, 0)
Change in faction opinion of Marta royl Valesy ton Mesfelle-Kyle (choose an option: -3, -1, 0, must be approved by the Head of the Orange House)
Change in faction opinion of the Kingdom of Fastel (inactive)
Change in Empire opinion of the Kingdom of Fastel (inactive)

I did not want to dig through the Prince's dirty laundry, so I permanently deleted all the messages except the very last one. I did react to that one, increasing my opinion of the praying mantis by +5 and choosing the option to inform him about my decision. Triasss Zess bowed in reply, just like a person.
"My Prince, I would still recommend that you flee Marta the Harlot immediately and go to one of the ships of your personal squadron," said the bodyguard commander, reminding me.
"The shuttle dock is very near us. It's on this deck," offered Sergeant Tavar Prest, and I ordered him to lead the division there.
We passed through the cruiser's hallways without any resistance from the soldiers in gray uniforms observing us. We came out into a big hall with two identical, sleek shuttles. The sergeant walked up to the closest shuttle and knocked on the panel with his fist. With a hiss of escaping air, a part of the shuttle's chassis rose up, making room for the gangway to come out. Tavar Prest looked over the people and nonpeople swarming around and said perplexedly:
"The shuttle has a capacity of 11, but it looks like we've got more..."
"What's the problem? We'll take both shuttles," I said, asking the soldiers in golden uniforms if one of them could pilot the other ship.
A few hands rose immediately, and I pointed randomly at a pudgy, but very agile technician. Inside the shuttle, the praying mantis had to fold himself in half to be able to fit into the hallway, but somehow the enormous insect was able to ram himself into the shuttle, and just a minute later, both shuttles had left the dock.
It took considerable effort to hold back a cry of joy and amazement when a fabulously realistic map of space opened before my eyes. The game developers had done a first-rate job: both the bright orange sun and the multitude of statuesque ships looked surprisingly elaborate and well-rendered. Honestly, I had absolutely no idea how the mash-up of metallic objects and debris worked, but the others sitting in the shuttle obviously understood the map.
"Over there is where we sorted through the alien debris," remarked a young man in a pair of orange overalls, picking something out of the chaos.
"Well, because, back yesterday, they drove in a big transport ship and unloaded a whole space workshop from the Kingdom of Fastel. The whole rest of the day we spent cutting up debris and collecting everything of value," repeated the sturdy fellow with engineer's patches.
Tavar Prest's question bellowed out of the cockpit:
"My Prince, where shall I dock?"
With horror I realized that everyone else's conversations had gone silent, and they were all looking at me, expecting an answer. And I didn't really know what I was supposed to say! Popori de Cacha saved the situation, though. Seeing that I was in no rush to answer, the chameleon decided for me:
"Pilot, hold course to the Prince's yacht. The remaining ships in the squadron were damaged in the battle and cannot provide the proper level of security and comfort. Also, the yacht, Queen of Sin, is where the main fleet headquarters are located."
"I see. I'll set a course for Queen of Sin," confirmed the sergeant.
The world began sharply turning around me. The nearby sun disappeared below my feet somewhere. The stars and ships reshifted around us. I had basically never had a problem with sea sickness, but at that moment I was having a hard time holding back the contents of my stomach. The lack of reliable visual landmarks and the too weak, barely perceptible artificial gravity had put my sense organs into a state of stupor. I even had to close my eyes to not look at all the craziness on the other side of the glass.
About a minute later, there followed a smooth jolt, and I opened my eyes. The shuttle was on the snow-white deck of a long, cigar-shaped ship. The robotic arms turned the shuttle around and pulled it into an open gate. I breathed in with relief. The flight was finally over! I even managed not to make a fool of myself in front of my subjects. I was one of the first out the door. As soon as the little pressure gage by the door changed color to green, I was off the shuttle. Then I stopped, skimming the information on the stately officer welcoming me:

Oorast Pohl, captain of Queen of Sin
Age: 38
Race: Human
Gender: Male
Class: Military
Achievements: Two-time winner of the Imperial Space Racing Championship in the Frigate Class. His mastery in his field and loyalty to the Empire have been affirmed repeatedly. Approved to work with members of the upper aristocracy.
Fame: +3
Standing: + 15
Presumed personal opinion of you: +55 (trusting)

The captain stopped five steps from me and took a low bow.
"I'm glad to welcome you on board your yacht, Prince."
"I'm glad to see you as well, Oorast, but now is not the time for pomp and circumstance. Marta will soon find out that I’ve taken a captive out from under her nose. So, give an order to all our ships: be prepared for departure at a moment’s notice."
Despite the irregularity of the order (or perhaps it was the other way around, because orders like this from the eccentric Georg were not a rarity at all), the captain was not surprised in the least and merely asked me to clarify one thing:
"Where will we be going, my Prince? We can jump to three warp-zones from here: either to Fastel, to the recharging station at Himora, or to the Forepost-12 zone, toward the Iseyek border.”
"Well, definitely not to Fastel," I smirked nervously. "Let's go to Himora."
"Prince Georg royl Inoky ton Mesfelle," said the praying mantis, addressing me. "Would it be permissible for me to take my leave and set off toward the Swarm to complete my assigned mission? Any ship in your fleet would be suitable. As soon as I can get to secure communication devices, Iseyek ships will be sent to any point in Sector Eight that you ask. I am also prepared to hand over all information on the aliens I have right now."
With these words, Triasss Zess pulled out his neck, finding a row of spiracle cracks in his thin, gray-green skin, one of which contained a round metal ball. Keeping a careful eye on the praying mantis's actions, Popori de Cacha reached jerkily for his weapon, but the assistant to the ambassador made no sudden movements and asked:
"Due to my temporary lack of small arms, I myself cannot reach the drive. Could one of you do it? It's just a normal memory crystal. It presents no threat to the Prince."
Nevertheless, the vigilant chameleon looked the ball over carefully, even scanning it with a shining plate before taking it in his sticky hands.
"My Prince, I can spare a frigate for the honorable Ambassador, Pyro-14," offered Oorast Pohl, looking at something on a handheld screen. "It has full energy drives, so the frigate will be able to bring him home and quickly return to the main fleet."
I consented to this choice and parted ways with the huge praying mantis, who doubled himself up again to fit into the Human shuttle. After that, I ordered them to send a second shuttle back to Marta the Harlot to pick up my remaining people: the doctor, butler, and maybe some others who were still there. Then I followed the captain, left the airlock and, trying not to be too surprised at what I'd seen, went up on a high-speed, gilded elevator, before arriving at the officer's deck of my own luxury yacht.
As I had already figured out from the captain’s words, it was here, on an unarmed, civilian starship, that Prince Georg kept the headquarters of his fleet. The only reason I could figure for what could generously be called a strange decision was that the facilities on the yacht were much more comfortable. I secretly admired the idiocy of that decision and, also, the fact that no one in the Empire had told the Prince how surprised they were at his choice of flagship for a military fleet. Two royally armed guards in gilded armor suits preemptively opened the doors before me, and I passed through into a huge control hall.
"Get me a detailed report on losses sustained and what remains in service and what condition it's in!" I proclaimed loudly, having barely come into the hall.
The nearest officer, a girl, sprung up from the seat at her desk and practically ran to hand me a flat, almost weightless tablet computer, then froze next to me at attention. I looked in some wonder at my quick subject after reading the information that popped up:

Nicole Savoia, lieutenant of the Star Fleet of the Orange House of the Empire
Age: 22
Race: Human
Gender: Female
Class: Military
Achievements: Top of her class at the Academy in officer tactics
Fame: 0
Standing: + 1
Presumed personal opinion of you: +4 (neutral)

On top of this, the lieutenant was even nice just to look at. She was young, with dark hair and prim and proper facial features. The fact that she wasn't wearing makeup served to highlight her natural beauty. Under my overly analytical stare, Nicole got embarrassed and even blushed slightly. I sniggered bitterly to myself – they say you’ve got nothing to be afraid of, little girl… Your Prince Georg is a hopeless impotent... Not wanting to further embarrass my subject, I looked away, immersing myself in the rows of the table.
Prior to the fast-paced battle three days earlier with enemy ships, identified as standard Recluse-class alien destroyer scouts, the Sector Eight Fleet had two heavy assault cruisers, five light cruisers (including two cloaked cruisers), 11 destroyers, and sixty frigates. After the only 11-minute-long battle, all that remained were two light cruisers (one badly damaged), four destroyers, and 11 frigates.
"Play back the recording of the last battle! Pay attention, everyone!" I demanded, locking my eyes on the hologram that appeared in the center of the hall.
The battle began with a hussar charge by twenty high-speed frigates at one lone target. The alien ship threw open its gates, and a stream of drones started coming out. Jesus, what noobs! Instead of reducing the number of enemy combat drones, the small ships of my fleet were trying to get through the enemy's energy shield. After that, a heavy ship came, and it just got better from there. By that point though, there were barely any ships from the initial frigate wave left. It looked really rough. The alien ship would let loose one cannon volley, and one frigate from my fleet would go down. After the alien ship had taken down the small fries, it concentrated on the big cruiser. It was destroyed after five or six hits from the terrifying cannon. The second heavy cruiser that had also come to the battle didn't survive much longer. If it hadn't been for the Kingdom of Fastel fleet coming to finally take the enemy ship down, the defeat would have been even more terrible. The recording of the battle ended. I ripped myself from the screen and, after looking around unhurriedly at my silent subjects, depressed after being made to watch their defeat, I said calmly:
"Even though that battle was reported to the rest of the Empire as a victory, let's face facts. That was nothing short of them bending us over and having their way with us. And now I want every one of you to tell me why we got our butts handed to us, and what conclusions we can take from that painful lesson. Nicole, you start."
She straightened up even more and said loudly and clearly, looking past me somewhere ahead of her:
"I have no idea, Your Highness! It's beyond my level of competency!"
I slowly walked around my unmoving subject before stopping directly in front of her and repeating, softer this time:
"First thing, at ease, lieutenant. Second, when speaking with someone, make eye contact. It's hard to have a conversation with your ear or the back of your head. Well, and third: although you are a junior staff officer, if you really have no idea about the reason for the battle going the way it did, you aren't in the right line of work. So, Nicole, let me have it. Don't be shy – tell me your conclusions."
She blushed even harder, stumbling a bit, then spoke out loudly, eyes on me:
"My Prince, when the battle was beginning, an unconscionable lack of coordination was allowed to take hold on our side. Our second most important gun, the heavy cruiser Gentleman of the Night, only appeared on the battlefield after our first heavy cruiser, Flamboyant, had already essentially been taken out of commission. Thus, at no point did the alien ship have to fight against our two main ships at once."
"Excellent observation, lieutenant. You've proven that it's not for nothing that you work at my headquarters. In an hour, I want you to make me a detailed report on the timing of our ships' arrivals to battle position and a conclusion about why this inconformity in action between our two main ships occurred. So, who wants to talk next?"
After a few seconds of silence, a massive, chubby man with space corporal badges stepped forward.
"My Prince, allow me to speak. What I have to say may come across as direct and rude, but if panic hadn't taken hold, leading to six ships leaving the battle immediately in the second phase, the outcome would have been better."
"What was the reason for the panic?" I wondered, turning toward the corporal.
"The main reason was the heavy losses sustained in the first phase of the battle. Our fleet lost a third of its ships in four minutes," he said quietly, his eyes pointed down. "The second reason was your Highness's orders. They were not always appropriate to the situation at hand in the battle, and were nowhere near the caliber required to create the ideal conditions for maintaining discipline."
Everyone gasped at the space corporal's insolence. It looked like the staff officers gathered there were expecting me to rain down wrath. But, instead, I stated loudly and clearly:
"Popori de Cacha, there’s no need to kill this person! It took a lot of bravery to say what he said, and he said exactly the words I was hoping to hear."
As I had assumed, the commander of my bodyguards appeared directly behind the space corporal. The chameleon pulled his blade away and stepped aside, returning to invisibility as he went. God damn is that effective! The staff officers, already walking a tightrope in the Prince's presence before, started breathing in turn. When I spoke, everyone paid an inordinate amount of attention.
"Getting offended by the truth would be a dumb move on my part. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I too have never before come face to face with an enemy so fierce, so I lost heart, like many of you. However, I have already taken this new information into account and come to my own conclusions, and I promise everyone present that it will never happen again. Now I want the same from each of you. It is very important to me that you understand that this hard lesson was not in vain. I await your comments, advice and observations on the battle. You can relax. There will not be any punitive measures from me today.”
At first they were shy, but the officers gradually gathered more courage and started speaking out. The last to speak was the head of the staff officers, the gray-haired Admiral Kiro Sabuto, who said:
"My Prince, the error was due to our initial underestimation of the enemy. We should have joined up with the Kingdom of Fastel's fleet initially, before attacking the alien ship. We didn't want to share the victor's laurels and we paid dearly for that."
"That is partially true, my friend. But I promise everyone present that our fleet would have been capable of taking out the extraterrestrials' ship if it hadn’t been for our numerous errors. Our frigates were just screwing around. Instead of destroying the many drones to reduce the amount of damage the enemy could do, they tried to do a job they weren't made for and, for some reason, shot at the main target. The light cruisers didn't go down from just one hit. No one was stopping them from fleeing the battle. There were about twenty seconds between shots from the enemy ship. So why then were our cruisers dropping like flies?! It’s plain to see that it was due to weak preparation of our captains and commanders. They clearly haven’t learned to react quickly to changing combat conditions. The heavy cruisers took a long time to be destroyed. Their energy shields held out for a few strikes. Note that some frigates and destroyers tried to support the cruisers' shields. If these “healers” had not remained occupied until that moment and those that remained would not have died under attack from enemy drones, we would have been able to save the cruisers. Now, pay attention to what happens at 3:43. Don't tell me no one noticed something off?”
The hologram operator rolled the section of the battle clip a few times, as I ordered. The officers present remained silent. Finally, Nicole shyly postulated:
"It didn't shoot?"
"That's right! The alien ship didn't shoot, despite the fact that it had had enough time to recharge its cannon. Analyze all recordings and find me the reason why the enemy was not able to shoot. If we can figure that out, we'll have the key to defeating the aliens..."

Standing change. Your relationship with the Empire Military Faction has improved.
Present Empire Military faction opinion of you: -7 (mistrusting)

The message arrived unexpectedly and threw me off a bit. I stumbled through the middle of the phrase. I wonder who here did that? It was impossible to figure out. There were too many players around me. But, in any case, it was pleasant news: my speech had been judged worthy by those present.
"My Prince, what are our further instructions?" inquired Admiral Sabuto.
I noticed that the officers were listening avidly, and trying to speak confidently and clearly.
"You all realize that we need repair and reinforcements. The Kingdom of Fastel's fleet helped us in that battle, but it will soon be going back home, and we will not be going with them. We are going to the Himora station, where we'll be sending our ships in for repair, undergoing several training sessions and expecting reinforcements."
"Will more ships be joining our fleet soon?" asked the admiral, not hiding his joy at the good news.

"They absolutely will, admiral. The frigate Pyro-14 has just departed with the mission of bringing us reinforcements. And I am preparing first thing to deal with the specific problem of reinforcing our battered fleet. So, give our whole fleet the order to prepare for departure. In exactly 10 minutes, we'll be leaving through the warp jump to Himora.”

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