Saturday, March 3, 2018

Reality Benders: Countdown





Reality Benders by Michael Atamanov
Book 1: Countdown



Release - April 23, 2018


Introduction. First Contact


At long last, an extraterrestrial civilization reached out and the First Contact was made. No one on Earth took it for the genuine article, though. Even fewer appreciated just how little time our new suzerains had promised to keep our planet safe. But the end of their address showed humankind how to access a mysterious game. The purpose of this game is unclear. No one can say where its servers are located, and its inner workings are beyond comprehension. Nevertheless, the game slowly gained momentum, pulling in more and more players. Soon enough, it became impossible to ignore that events in the game had a direct impact on our reality. And not only ours...

But as we learn to play this mysterious game, the countdown timer is ticking away. And no one can say exactly what will happen when Earth’s safety is no longer guaranteed.

 

Introduction. First Contact


How many ways have writers, astronomers, philosophers and military theorists imagined humanity's first contact with a celestial intelligence? Earths observatories receiving intelligible signals from deep space? What about the discovery of interstellar artifacts or even living aliens when excavating ancient burial mounds or pyramids? And the appearance of ominous extraterrestrial starships over our major cities? Heavenly bodies falling to Earth, UFO's crashing? Meeting brothers in intelligence on far-off planets? Invasion? War? The extinction of everything alive...?
But when it really happened, it looked like a stupid joke, hoax or intrusive advertisement, so humanity didn’t believe it was the real First Contact. One day, a popup window appeared on many popular websites, blocking off the whole screen. Despite every computer user’s habitual and instant reaction, it was impossible to close. It played a video showing a furry humanoid that was somehow distantly reminiscent of the abominable snowman, but with thick dark-red fur. The tall bipedal alien had piercing black eyes, a flat dark nose and a wide mouth. Its clothing was somewhere between a suit of armor and a helmetless spacesuit. The first thing it did was raise a clawed hand and give a friendly wave to its captive audience. With a very strong accent, the humanoid gave a speech adapted to the language of the receiving country: 

"People of Earth, by right of first discovery, the civilization of Shiharsa declares its authority and jurisdiction over your planet. We will provide one Tong of safety to your world, but the fate of humanity depends exclusively on what you do with that time. You have now made sufficient progress as a species, and may take part in the great game, the game that bends reality. So, come play and earn the right to take your place among the great spacefaring races!”


That was followed by strange diagrams and blueprints, then the fifty-second clip ended, and the popup window closed all on its own. You surely understand that only stupid people would believe such a primitive and artless sham. Even the most gullible viewers thought it was just an actor in a hairy suit delivering a clumsy advertisement for some new computer game.
But some naive individuals had questions. Television studios invited experts to inspect the “blueprints” from the ad, and they all came to the unanimous conclusion that even the most surface-level examination revealed them to be pure gobbledygook. The technology depicted, they assured us, didn’t even have a power hookup, so it could not work even in theory.
Interest in the video of the furry alien didn’t last long. The ad kept coming though. Eventually, when yet another movie, news site, or sports broadcast was interrupted by the obnoxious popup, no one cared what it was for, and just got mad. Unhappy internet users the world over installed pop-up blockers and wrote all kinds of complaints to the tech support services of affected sites.
The authorities tried to combat the viral ad and threatened grave consequences to the mysterious hackers whod played this stupid practical joke. Sys admins learned to quickly block the bothersome video. Data-security specialists tried to determine its source, but it was skillfully masked. They all assured us, though, that they would soon pick up the trail of these impudent scofflaws. And although they were never tracked down, after just a few weeks, the ads stopped coming and the whole earth breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Thus, the greatest event in human history, settling an age-old dispute about extraterrestrial intelligence, came and went as a chaotic flop. Sure, lots of people noticed it, but practically none of them realized what it was.
There were lone enthusiasts, though, who wanted to find out more about the game that bends reality.Despite the expert testimony calling the designs absurd, these stubborn weirdos believed they had seen a miracle and some even built the device depicted in the blueprints...

Chapter One. Online Tournament


Yes, we knew it was risky and illegal. We understood perfectly that wed be booted out of university and fly home with a whistle, if it was discovered that we were hosting these for-profit online gaming tournaments. And especially if they found our gambling software. Nevertheless, we took the risk. Why? Hard to say. At first, it was easy to understand. My roommates and I organized the very first tournaments from our dorm and purely for money. After all, we were borderline-poor university students. But, after we'd earned some cash, we simply couldn’t stop ourselves. By then, money no longer played the biggest role. Adrenaline, the thrill of the game, respect among our classmates and popularity with girls were motivation enough.
We understood perfectly that, as the scale of the tournaments grew, more and more people would find out what we were up to. That would make it harder and harder to hide it from our teachers, the police and university security. All the tricks we used to maintain the anonymity of the players and organizers were primitive. Eventually, serious information-security professionals would investigate, and the jig would be up. We were keenly aware of that. More and more often, my friends and I would say it was time to close up shop or say that the next online tournament would be the last. But that was always followed by another one, then another and another...
This time, our grand PvP tournament had attracted students from every dorm in Moscow. It had begun midday on Saturday and was still underway now, at five oclock in the morning on Monday. Out of eight hundred players initially, just thirty-two had filtered through the qualifying matches. And I was among them. Yes, unlike my roommates, who handled the servers, encryption software and bookkeeping, I often took part in the online battles. And, a decent chunk of the time, I even won, earning the sizable monetary prizes.
And I never used any immortality mods,cheat codes or other unfair methods. All I needed was my powerful computer with a top-of-the-line graphics card and good processors, fast ping, knowledge of game maps and weapons and, most importantly, nimble fingers. I always used different pseudonyms and was sure none of the usual players had guessed that the same person had won many of the recent tournaments.
And now, I was playing. With the virtual reality helmet on my head, and my fingers on the buttons of the ergonomic glove controller, I was totally immersed. To me, the outside world just didn't exist...

***

I was running up a steep spiral staircase to the third and highest floor of a luxurious palace. I stopped to catch my breath. Endurance practically at zero, my thick column legs were shaking, and my sides were puffing out like a smith's bellows. I rasped heavily and opened my mouth like a fish out of water. There was just not enough air. How hard it was to be a giant!
I spontaneously chose an Ogre Fighter just a minute before the start of the final match. The randomly selected map was a medieval castle with huge gloomy rooms, narrow passageways and steep staircases. That would be very disadvantageous for the Drow Archer I'd played in the earlier stages so, at the very last moment, I changed it up.
I had never played such a large character before, and the inconvenience of this heavy body came as an unpleasant surprise. My six-hundred-fifty-pound Ogre was unable to run or clamber up drainpipes. Even a steep stairway was a serious obstacle, eating up all my endurance. Also, there was nearly a second of delay between inputting a command and the character reacting, which was particularly hard to get used to.
That inertia nearly cost me my life in a recent scuffle with a crafty Human Assassin, who had easily dodged the blows of my huge two-handed pole-ax. I had to take an unusual tact I wound up to swing my weapon but, instead of striking, I splayed my arms and jumped forward. That knocked the crouching man off his feet and I luckily managed to pin my agile opponent to the floor. The main advantage of the Assassin class was mobility, and I’d deprived him of that. So, I finished him off easily, just twisting his neck with my bare hands. That assassin was my fourth frag in the final, so I had just thirty-seven percent life remaining. Too little to win. A critical situation.
While my endurance dawdled back up, I opened the leaderboard. After nearly an hour of gameplay, just four of thirty-two players remained: my Ogre, a Human Spearman, an Elf Archer and another unknown character. Since no players had managed to spot them yet, their race and class were listed as a question mark. And meanwhile, this unknown person had racked up three kills. Pretty cool. Must have been some kind of invisible stealth character, attacking people from behind while cloaked.
An alarm rang out, informing me that the tournament would be over in five minutes. I needed to hurry. I opened the map. There was a long straight corridor behind the closed door in front of me. If I were playing an elf archer, I would be keeping watch for my opponents there, shooting them down from afar. A very convenient place. I needed to keep that in mind.
Loudly throwing open the doors, I made a decisive step forward, then took a sharp jump back. And right then, a long arrow with red fletching slammed into the doorframe at the level of my head! I was not wrong. The Elf Archer had hidden exactly where I supposed. Not wasting a second, I ran forward, giving a terrifying savage roar. A loud shout could sometimes cause enemies to freeze in confusion and fear, which was a real boon. The effect was only increased coming from a huge man-eating giant.
Even the greenest amateur can understand that one arrow to the chest will not stop a massive killing machine. Where was a feeble archer to aim? Obviously, for the head, which would do increased damage. So, just as the elf loosed her bowstring, I blocked my face with the broad blade of my pole-ax.
Clink! I got lucky. The arrow ricocheted aside, and my weapon gave a shudder. Dumb move! She should have shot at my legs and slowed me down. Then she could get a couple more shots off. But the pointy-eared Elf was acting too predictably. After that failure, she lost courage. Staying in place, she loosed another arrow, then tried to run away. But it was too late! I hacked diagonally down from the right, and the pretty long-eared girl's head rolled along the stones, lopped off by my heavy pole-ax. A fifth frag! And without losing any health!
I stopped and opened the map again. There wasn't much time left. Where could I find two more enemies? Just then, as if answering my question, a distinct yelp sounded out twenty steps in front of me, behind another door. Another enemy down. I wonder who died this time? I opened the player table. The name of the Human Spearman went dim, then the number opposite my last remaining rival flipped to a four. And again, the victim didn't manage to see his killer. Skillful bastard, no two ways about it...
In the upper right corner of the screen, the timer was ticking away, telling me there were just two minutes until the end of the match. If several players survived to the end, a rematch would trigger, and the eight best cyber-athletes of the final would meet again on the same map. Oh, please not that. After the prolonged gaming marathon, I could barely think as it was. What was more, I had an important test in third period today, which I wanted to study for then, ideally, get a little sleep. Well, forward! Nothing ventured, nothing gained!
Throwing the door open, I quickly leapt back, repeating the trick I used on the Archer. But no one attacked me. Strange. Somewhat calmer, I looked around. The gloomy little room was strewn with furniture. It had two exits, one to the left and one to the right, but they both led to the same semi-circular ivy-covered balcony. There was also a round hatch in the ceiling and a rope ladder hanging down. Perhaps the mysterious stealth character was up there. But most likely, my opponent was still somewhere in this small darkened room, hiding in invisibility and waiting for me to slip up. Now, my mission was to discover them without exposing my vulnerable back. Many game classes could land a critical hit by stabbing a rival in the back, and that meant increased damage.
I cut the rope ladder down, then made a crisscross in the air with my pole-ax and abruptly led the blade along the floor a few times. Nothing. Either my enemy was skilled enough to dodge silently (which was hard to believe), or just wasn't here. But then, where were they? Waiting up above? Hardly. After all, they probably also wanted to end this here and now, not play a rematch. Could they really be waiting for me on a sunny balcony? Come on, that was nonsense. Why would a stealth character come out of the shadows?
I looked around again. There was simply nowhere to hide in this small room. Shelves, a little table, an open cabinet with crooked doors. Cutting through space with my weapon again, I convinced myself that my opponent was not here. Another alarm screeched out. Just one minute left in the final. So, I needed to make up my mind. Should I go out onto the balcony through the right door, or the left? My rival must have been waiting for me behind one of these doors. They were probably sitting in invisibility and me agonize right now. Luck of the draw. Would I manage to come face-to-face with my opponent and kill with my advantage in strength, or would I make the wrong choice, get stabbed in the back and lose?
With a heavy sigh, I made my decision and... with all my might, spending all my endurance, I slashed the cabinet with my pole-ax!
My heavy weapon cut into something soft. Bingo! Instead of boards and splinters, blood spattered, and a cloven body fell to the floor. A Shapeshifter. This class sat in waiting to attack an unsuspecting victim from behind, usually killing them in one blow. They were used very rarely in online tournaments because they moved slowly, had to be right next to their victims, and would be absolutely helpless if the first blow didn’t kill. Unexpected choice, but I had to admit that it had very nearly brought them victory.
Hell yeah! Did you see that?!I shouted joyfully to my roommates, removing my virtual-reality helmet.
And froze...
My dorm room was full of people wearing the dappled gray uniforms of the Moscow Police Department. My friends were pinned to the floor, their wrists cuffed behind their backs.
Yes, we saw,” chuckled a mustached man holding a snub-nose machine gun. He looked to be in charge here. How bout you make like your friends and get on the floor, spread your legs and put your hands behind your back. Dont make me repeat myself, champ.

Chapter Two. Expelled


Am I gonna be expelled?I asked when the important investigator finally found the time to interrogate me.
What do you think?the middle-aged mustached officer answered with a question. Based on his shoulder loops, he was a captain. He skimmed a stack of papers on the table and signed a few of them. It would have been just fine if you and your little friends were only playing computer games instead of studying at the best university in the country. Cant say I’d approve, but at least I could understand. But you just had to let people make bets! So, theres nothing I can do here. Russian Federation Criminal Code article 171.2 item 2. Up to four years in penal custody. Kirill, you really did step in it.
I shuddered, then nodded stupidly. Of course, I already knew this, because I had looked last year to see where our illegal enterprise might land us. Four years in prison... I groaned and shuddered, trying to gather my scattered thoughts. I was so exhausted and panicked that my head was working very slowly. Before this, I had spent three unpleasant hours on a bench in lockup at the local police department. My cellmates were a group unbearably stinking bums, who had also shit themselves. I did everything in my power to stay away from them and not sleep, but I did drift off eventually. A little while later, I was shoved awake by a police sergeant, and he led me down the hallway into this office. I was told he was an investigator, but he didn’t ask me any questions, just confirmed my first and last name and the short biography in my personal file.
And I answered his questions eagerly. Yes, I am Kirill Viktorovich Ignatiev, twenty years of age. A native of the small town of Suzdal in the Vladimir Oblast. No brothers or sisters. I dont remember my mother. I wasn’t even four when she died. But my father died relatively recently. It hadn’t even been three years. He was a geologist, and his group happened upon some illegal gold miners in Eastern Siberia, who didn’t want any witnesses to their criminal enterprise. After that, I stayed in Suzdal with my aunt, finished high school and was admitted to the Geology Department of Moscow State University.
The investigator listened attentively, marking something in his papers. Then it was as if he forgot I existed. He turned on his computer and searched for a long time, scanning through screens of text.
And where are my roommates?I asked just to break the prolonged silence.
The officer finally tore his gaze from the screen, set the ball-point pen on the stack of papers and looked attentively at me.
Those two losers? For now, theyre being held in a cell and not told what will happen to them. It's the usual procedure. Were we’re trying to make them nervous and fill their heads with horror stories. And tomorrow or the day after, when they're morally prepared, we’ll offer them a simple choice: either go to court for the illegal gambling software, or voluntarily join the army. Your sidekicks havent finished their mandatory reserve-officer training programs, so they’ll go serve as privates in the engineering corps. That's usually where students expelled from the Geology Department are sent. They’ll serve the Motherland, gain life experience and get a good lesson about what happens to lawbreakers.
I considered it, but it was very hard to think in my sleep-deprived state. On the one hand, it was good that there was some alternative to prison. On the other, I had no idea why the officer was telling me that, and why I was being held separately from my classmates. Former classmates, to be more accurate.
And why am I being held separate from my friends?I finally asked.
Because you, Kirill, are not a mere participant, but the ringleader of this whole illegal enterprise. It's been quite the public fiasco, and someone has to answer before the law. Although as for you, it isn’t decided yet. We need to first confirm some details. Maybe we’ll stick you with your friends, then you can all go build pontoons and raise bridges in the Far North or something. Although, it’s also possible that you’ll have a richer choice than your roommates."
The officer fell silent and again delved into his documents. I meanwhile tried to understand what exactly he had in mind, and what details he might be interested in. I was left in silence long enough that I started nodding off. But suddenly, the telephone on the investigator's table rang and I nearly jumped in surprise. The officer took the telephone, silently listened to a message, then lowered the receiver.
They've just finished decrypting all of your accounting, and the list of prizewinners and totals from all the past tournaments,he shared, not hiding his self-satisfaction. Now, all the players can be punished. Some will be expelled, if they’re already struggling. The rest will be given a quick kick in the ass to put them back on the straight and narrow. But as for you...the man stopped sharply, setting a few pieces of paper out before him. He gave a whistle of surprise, underlined something with a pen, then raised his eyes. Based on the finance reports, Kirill, you played in fifty-three online tournaments. Twenty-seven of them you won, and you ranked high enough to get some money in all the rest. Is that right?
Yes, yes it is,I said, not trying to worm my way out of it. I only fell below prize level in two tournaments. In the rest, I got at least some reward. Although what does that matter now...?
However, based on the noticeable change in his behavior, my results were important for some reason. The investigator carefully placed all the papers on the table in a plastic folder, covered it and leaned in my direction.
Strange as it may seem, it really does matter. Just yesterday, we got a very unusual request from the tip-top: compile a list of inveterate gaming addicts from Moscow's student population and send that up the chain. Luckily, we happened to find all the information we needed on your game server.
Who might want a list of student gamers?
The mustached officer shrugged and sat back in his chair.
I only know what I’m told. Some institute in the Moscow Oblast working on virtual reality wants a few experienced gamers to test their programs. I don't know how many vacancies they've got and I dont know the exact conditions but, for you, this is a great alternative to prison clothes or army boots. So think, Kirill. Such a chance doesn’t come along very often. You can avoid punishment and get a good job instead. Just think fast. This loophole won’t stay open forever.
I considered it feverishly. Work for a bit in an institute in the Moscow Oblast while all this brouhaha settles down? It sounded amazing! Even if the salary was modest, that didn’t matter now. What was more, apparently, they weren’t going to confiscate the money I’d won, because all my debit cards were still in my wallet. So that meant I had some savings to live on.
What's to think about? I'm in!I loudly declared. Where do I sign?

Chapter Three. Comrades in Misfortune


I was awoken by a girl shouting angrily in surprise.
So the freaking contract with the institute is for two years?!the girl moaned, nearly in hysterics.
I peeked open an eye and... finally woke up. I was in an unfamiliar place, a dark room, filled with bags of cement and old furniture. It took me a few seconds to get my bearings and remember where I was. Some hangar or warehouse I'd been brought to directly from the police department in a vehicle with blacked-out windows. To be honest, I couldn’t say how long the drive was or which direction it went, because I fell asleep as soon as I hit the seat. I only remembered being pushed out, led into this room and told to wait for the rest of the group.
My body was aching and numb. I'd fallen asleep in an unmerciful pose on the hard and uncomfortable bench, which was like those usually found in bus-station waiting rooms. The kind with armrests between the seats so bums couldn’t spend the night on them. But today, I was so tired I somehow contrived to splay out my extremities and lie down. But when I tried to move, I felt a sharp pain in my numb leg.
Well, well. The yogi awakens!someone quipped, which was met with laughter.
I somehow got out of the trap, straightened up and turned to see who else was in the room. Three young men and two young women, the whole group approximately my age. Were they also expelled gamers, taken to work at the mysterious institute?
Maybe, but one of the girls didn’t fit the image. She immediately caught my attention. A flashy long-legged blonde with a pretty doll-like face, she a mind-blowingly perfect figure and... a clever attentive gaze that immediately undercut the rest and betrayed a high intellect. She had on a stylish travelling dress and shoes, a designer bag and expensive emerald earrings. This elegant beauty didn’t look like the kind of person who needed virtual worlds to replace reality.
The other girl, in contrast, was totally unremarkable: short, dark-haired and modestly dressed with a pair of thick glasses perched on her nose, something of a classic plain jane.
Hey everybody!I greeted them all with a smile. Did I miss anything interesting? I heard someone mention a two-year contract?
Yeah, Artur,the plain jane pointed at a long-haired hippy-looking boy with an ring in his left ear. “He said that, in his dean’s office, he was presented with a two-year contract.
Yep, totally!the hippy confirmed. He was dressed in tattered jeans and a black t-shirt with a Pink Floyd logo. I got expelled today. I was already in my third year! It’s a long story, but they had their reasons. I tried to fight it, though, and even wrote a statement to the dean like, I’d learned my lesson and wouldn't do it again bla bla bla... But that asshole said I have to prove I meant it, and work on a special assignment in a paramilitary institute in the Moscow Oblast. He said they’d reinstate me after I’m done. And he made me sign a contract that said two years’ in black and white.”
Artur finished his speech, lowered his head and fell silent. The others were also silent and looking unabashedly at me.  
What about you? Expelled student, like the rest of us?” asked a squatting boy. His hair cut short, this was the most gopnik-looking person imaginable. He was wearing a black leather jacket, track pants, running shoes with no socks, and a newsboy cap. To complete the picture of the classic low-class Russian, all hed need was a black eye and a rumpled Belomorkanal cigarette in his mouth.
I had nothing to hide, so I told them my real name and said I had been expelled from the Geology Department of Moscow State University because, instead of studying, I had been playing an online game for money.
Just like the rest of us,the plain jane chuckled bitterly. While you were asleep, we all introduced ourselves and figured out that we were all in the same online tournament. What was more, we all got to the final. Worst of all, I almost won the last round with my archer. I was one of the final four surviving players. I had a stroke of bad luck. I missed a few times and a fighter shredded me...
You should have shot at the ogres legs and walked backward so he couldn’t get you,I said, giving some belated advice. The girl exclaimed in astonishment:
So that was you, Kirill?! It was your ogre that killed me? You won the final! You probably got a ton of money, come clean!
Hmm, how the...I got embarrassed and lowered my gaze to the floor. Sure, I won, but I didn’t get a single kopeck. As soon as I took the helmet off my head, the cops had me in cuffs. I didn’t even get up from my comp.
Here, a previously silent muscular boy who looked to be from the Caucasus region cut into our conversation. Until then, he had been trying fruitlessly to get his cell phone to work.
As for the tournament, I'm telling you it was the organizers that called the cops! After all, only they knew all the players IP-addresses. And they gave us all up to the fuzz so they wouldn’t have to pay out. They just pocketed all the money, the sons of bitches!
Everyone there held the same opinion. Curses and abuse flew at the tournament organizers. And I complained loudest of all so no one would suspect me of having a connection to the mysterious conmen. Finally, everyone had said their fill and fell silent. I took advantage of the pause and asked everybody to introduce themselves again.
The blonde said she was Anya from First Medical. She didn’t regret being expelled at all, because she couldn’t bear the sight of blood, and it was all her parentsstupid idea to push her into medicine in the first place. The second girl was called Masha and, skipping over the details, said she was a grad student at a technical university in Moscow, and was also glad to be out of school. For her, it was a prolonged torture with constant lack of money, and humiliating begging for stipends and dorm rooms.
The gopnik grudgingly squeezed out that his name was Denis, and that we dont need to know the rest, because that’s all in the past.The last guy was more open, though. He said his first name was Imran and that he was a sambo expert. Imran had graduated last year from the Athletics Institute at the top of his class but was in no rush to return to his native Dagestan, continuing to live by hook or crook with his friends in the dorm as he waited for his golden ticket.
Some friends promised good work in Moscow, but something happened,he said, getting into the details of his failed plan.
Imran spent another minute poking around with his phone, then stuck it back in his pocket, saying:
Cant connect to the network, the stupid thing! Its probably this damn iron roof.
That is part of it,came a derisive voice from the darkness. But this is a military site, so there are also signal jammers.
Along with the rest, I turned to the voice and saw a middle-aged strong-looking man in a dark-blue uniform jumpsuit. On his sleeve, there was an unusual colorful emblem with a gold Greek helmet inside a white circle. Under that was a crest and cursive writing that read Second Legion.He didn’t seem to be armed, but his military bearing and army experience were immediately apparent.
Without letting us think over what he said, the man motioned into the dark depths of the hangar:
Walk that way, into the darkness. In the very corner, you’ll see a stack of roofing tiles. Move them aside and go down the stairs beneath them. Go down into the tunnel and walk until you’ve reached the dome. The other newbie groups are already here. The intro session will begin shortly. The meeting hall in the dome is not very big, so make sure you hurry. The presentation lasts a few hours, and latecomers have to stand. 

***

We quickly found the tiles. It was a stack of twenty, and they were absolutely immovable. But a light push launched a hidden mechanism and the whole stack slid aside. There was a round hatch underneath, and when we opened there were metal rungs leading down into the darkness. Imran went down first and soon shouted that he'd found a switch on the wall. A second later, a light turned on below, and everyone could see that it was actually quite a short ladder.
But the tunnel, lit sparsely by dull bulbs, seemed endless. We walked for a long time past unadorned gray concrete walls, looking at the pipes and bundles of wire along the floor. A few times, our group's path was blocked by metal doors, but they opened silently as soon as we walked up to them. Despite myself, I was impressed at how sturdy the doors were. Each was ten inches thick at least, if not twelve and made of strong hard metal. Finally, after yet another door, we discovered a ladder up.
I batted my eyelids, getting used to the bright light in the small room. A beefy guardsman standing next to a metallic frame, again in a blue Second Legion uniform told us to place our documents, phones, wallets, keys and other objects on the table.
You won't be needing those for a long time,he assured us. His partner, standing not far away, gave a chuckle.
Anya from First Medical was standing at the front of the line. She blushed an unexpectedly deep shade of red and spent a long time hesitating about whether to demonstrate the contents of her bag with everyone around. I had no idea what could be so compromising, and I didn't find out, because the guards asked us to walk away and spare her the embarrassment. 
But then came my turn, and I also was forced to shake out my pockets. My government ID card, my now invalid student ID, a handful of change, an unopened pack of condoms and keys to my now former dorm room. After that was my wallet with the debit cards that gave access to all my savings... I was made to walk through a metal detector, then quickly and professionally searched. After that, sure that I hadn’t hidden anything, the guard returned only the pack of condoms. The rest he placed in a large transparent \ bag and sealed it with a special device.
I dont even know if that's a good sign or a bad one,Denis commented spitefully on the selective return of my property. After me, it was his turn.
Dont hold up the line, keep moving into the dome! Remember, your number is one thousand four hundred seventy!the military man hurried me along, attaching a numbered label to my bag.
Before that, plain-jane Masha had received 1469, while hippie Artur was 1468. So, the numbers went in order. That meant almost fifteen hundred people worked in this mysterious dome.The scope was impressive. This must be a very, very serious project!
The guardsman stuck my bag through a little window in the wall and someone immediately grabbed it. Then I walked down the corridor, repeating my number to myself and trying to memorize it: One thousand four hundred seventy!

Chapter Four. Subterranean Dome


I had heard the word domea few times, but I was not expecting it to be this large. Just as its the name implied, it was a reinforced concrete hemisphere, but of truly unbelievable dimensions. The diameter at floor level was no less than a quarter mile. The far wall was blurry and lost in a blue-gray haze. The top was on the order of a hundred, and maybe even a hundred and sixty feet high. A vast number of bright spotlights high above our heads created the illusion of a midday summer sun. Under this Dome, there was a little residential neighborhood with apartment buildings, a soccer field, a few tennis courts, a green park and white sand paths.
“Woah, I had no idea there was anything this huge in the Moscow Oblast,said Artur, also impressed.
And it isn’t even all that far from Moscow. Our drive from downtown took only an hour,Masha added. Although there are some big hangars along Dmitrovskoye Highway, they are many times smaller than this...
Guys, look!Anya shouted, pointing at a silver cigar-shaped object flying just under the ceiling.
I turned my head and first took the aircraft for a helicopter. However, its strange sleek shape, lack of rotors and total silence showed that it was unlike any flying vehicle I’d ever seen before.
Is this some kind of joke?!We exchanged glances in complete incomprehension.
After hearing our surprised exclamations, a blonde in a silver track suit, her skin red from an evening run, stopped next to our group.
Newbies? Its obvious. They're testing an antigrav built with Miyelonian designs. It’s actually the second prototype. A bad pilot crashed the first one a month ago on one of the corncobs.
Ah, that clears things up. Of course, it's just a normal, everyday antigrav. We should have known!Denis answered, clearly trying to get a rise out of her. We see this stuff every day. And no duh it slammed into a piece of corn!
The girl didn’t answer, just sized-up the boor with her gaze, furrowed her brow contemptuously and continued her jog. Her uniform had the number 343 on the back, alongside the skull of a bull with large horns. Below that, in angular Gothic script, there was text reading: First Legion. 
Based on her number, she's been under this dome for a long time,I said thoughtfully, advising the gopnik not to start a fight with the locals.
In reply, he swore rudely and said not to try and teach him any lessons. After that, Denis went off the handle and started discussing the body of the athlete in totally vulgar and insulting terms. Then, he began to generalize about all women. He didn’t manage to finish, though, doubling over after taking a sharp jab to the stomach from Imran, who was standing next to him:
Dont you dare insult women around me! You have a mother, I have a mother. Everyone has a mother. You must be respectful to those who blessed us with the gift of life.
The conflict did not continue, although the gopnik spent some time whispering unintelligible threats. We walked down the sand path and stopped at a fork next to a sign with directions. It had three arrows:
Shooting range. Corn. Labyrinth.
There was no sign of a conference hall, meeting room or introductory information session, so we stopped. Fortunately, I spotted two guys playing tennis not far away and hurried to ask them the way. They answered me eagerly and, in a few minutes, our whole group had taken their seats in a small semi-circular room reminiscent of an enclosed summer movie theater. There were already fifty people there and, although there were seats for everyone, we were nearly late. A man tall enough to play basketball wearing an austere business suit was testing the microphone, preparing for his speech.
Ivan Lozovsky, deputy director of the Dome and diplomat of our faction,he introduced himself and asked for the light to be turned off.
Then the room went dark, and the screen behind him lit up. There was an anthropomorphic creature looking back at us from the screen with thick brown fur and wearing a bright crimson cloak over a suit of metal armor. It had powerful brow arches, a broad forehead, black eyes with no pupils, a wide nose and a massive chin. Its furry ears were pressed against its head and its tightly pursed lips had the protruding fangs of a predator. Both of the humanoid’s hands were gripping the handle of a wide glistening blade.
So then, newbies, I’ll start from the beginning. Before you is Krong Daveyesh-Pir. He is one of the rulers of the powerful space-faring Geckho race, and the all-powerful sovereign of expansive territories in our galaxy. Among those territories, by all interstellar laws, is our home planet of Earth. I understand that may sound unbelievable and shocking, but the fate of humanity is entirely in the hands of this creature. Let me clarify one thing: the Geckho are not our enemies. They're more like our protectors and mentors. In any conflict with another race, they will fight on our side. However, you must always keep in mind that Krong Daveyesh-Pir has the right and power to remove humanity from Earth and even entirely annihilate our civilization, if we express the slightest disrespect of or disobedience to our Geckho suzerains.
In the room, not only did all conversations go quiet, everyone was so shocked they started to skip breaths. The presenter then made a brief pause and made sure that everyone understood the importance of what he'd said, then continued:
Now that we all understand our political reality, let's discuss why you were all brought here: the Dome, the game the bends reality, and your role in all this.

***

I was probably the only person in the room seeing the fifty-second clip of the furry alien for the first time. I remembered hearing about it annoying internet users the world over last year, but it just so happened to come at a difficult period in my studies. I had recently fallen in love for the first time, lost interest in school and gotten three failing grades. I was on the edge of expulsion so, I spent days on end in the library, studying textbooks, writing summaries and preparing painstakingly for my tests and exams.
But, like millions of people the world over, if I had seen this clip last year, I most likely would not have believed it was the First Contact, either. Now, however, after Ivan Lozovskys message about our shaky position, I watched the video with rapt attention. One Tong of safety, how long was that? I was not ashamed to stand and ask the presenter.
Excellent, very good question!the diplomat answered, inspired. We studied the Geckho races time reckoning system a while ago, and a Tong is approximately three and a half years. But there are two unclear aspects. First of all, we know that, on the Geckho homeworld Shiharsa, time passes more quickly than on Earth, so a Tong there would be somewhat shorter than it would be here. Six percent shorter, and that is no more and no less than two months and seventeen days. Second, we still havent received an answer about when the countdown began. The clips of the Geckho messengers were broadcast for twenty-three days and, each time, they gave the very same one Tong. Some even believe the countdown started, not when the information was first broadcast, but when the first virtual reality pod was built on Earth and the first human entered the game that bends reality.”
Virtual reality pod? asked four-eyed kid, his interest piqued by the odd term.
Yes, thats right, a virtual reality pod. The blueprints at the end of the clips show the general design of virtual reality pods, and how to assemble them. Each diagram is a different element, but its all fairly logical and fits together. The first one was assembled in South Korea one year and seven months ago. The first person to enter the virtual world was named Kim In-Hun, a young engineer from a South Korean electronics company. He was also the first person to successfully pass the Labyrinth. Fortunately, he had the good sense not to stray far from where he entered and left to tell the authorities what he’d found. Soon, another few researchers entered the game, then a whole group of thirty Korean soldiers. A month after that, our military intelligence discovered a construction project near the city of Yeongju, a subterranean complex called Nop-Eun Ogsusu, which in translation from Korean means 'tall corn.' Very soon, we also built a couple virt pods and we started construction on the subterranean Dome base in the Moscow Oblast, which is where we are now located...
You mentioned a labyrinth. What was that about?the nerd interrupted the presenter again.
The diplomat gave a dissatisfied cringe, but still answered:
Yes, after creating a character, every newbie appears in the center of the Labyrinth. It’s supposed to help you get used to the virtual body, train your skills, and test your aptitude. If a new player gets out of the labyrinth within a certain time limit, they will earn extra stat points. It's a very rare chance to strengthen your basic attributes. Other than that, you can basically only level them by training. For that very reason, we have an exact copy of the Labyrinth next to the administration building, and you must learn it by heart before entering the game. Approximately one half hour is given to exit the labyrinth. You must learn to finish it in fifteen minutes. Only after that will you be allowed into a virtual reality pod. Then, when you finish the labyrinth, you are not to spend any stat points. You must take down all your parameters and exit the game. Our experienced mentors will look that over and tell you what skills to take to play effectively and what statistics to reinforce with your unused points.
And what about this corn?’” Our four-eyed colleague just wouldn’t shut up, even though some in the hall had begun to hiss at him.
The diplomat finally changed to the next slide and, instead of the furry face of our alien master, we saw a tall cylindrical building that looked quite a bit like a corncob.
The corn question is the last one I’ll answer right now. If you want to know anything else, ask after my speech, otherwise we’ll never finish,Ivan Lozovsky said unhappily. So, the corn and its purpose... One lone virtual reality pod can be placed anywhere, and it will work, drawing energy from the gravitational and electromagnetic fields of our planet. But with multiple pods, it's much more complex. We now have hundreds and must arrange for them to work in concert. After all, a newbie merely entering the game isn’t enough. They must appear precisely in the right place and be correctly identified by the system as a member of our faction...
The diplomat took a quick break and splashed some mineral water into a cup. In fact, due to the number of people in the room, it was getting quite hot, and I could stand to wet my whistle as well. He took a few swallows, then continued:
By the way, our faction is called Human-3, or H3 for short. That abbreviation will always be shown on your equipment, and it cannot be removed or erased. The Koreans are H0, which means we were the fourth human faction to enter the game that bends reality. Returning to the corn... This arrangement of virtual reality pods was taught to us by the Geckho. It is a tall structure with a central core and separate kernels for each pod. In theory, the height of a corncobis unlimited. But in the Dome, we started with one hundred pods per cob, which results in a twenty-story structure. So, your group will be working in corncob number fifteen. It is ready now. We’re working on number sixteen already but getting another hundred people to join our faction is going to take quite some doing!
I perked up my ears, preparing to listen to the important information about our player limit the difficulties connected with it, but the diplomats speech was interrupted by the deafening wail of a siren. The sound, which was shrill and rattled my bones, reminded me of an air-raid drill. My ears started twitching, then shivers ran over my whole body. After that, a voice thundered out, filling the Dome:
ATTENTION, THIS IS THE DOME DIRECTOR. BORDER POST FOUR IS UNDER ATTACK! THE DARK FACTION HAS INTRUDED THROUGH A FOGGY PASS! MORE THAN FOUR HUNDRED ATTACKERS! FIVE ENEMY TOP PLAYERS HAVE BEEN SPOTTED! TO ARMS!!!

Chapter Five. Entering the Game


And at that, intro session was put on hold. Ivan Lozovsky said he was not only a diplomat, but also a high-level player, and that it was of vital importance that everyone who could hold a gun went to the front lines. So, the diplomat rescheduled the rest of his two-hour speech to seven AM the next day.
There were lots of questions being asked, some about the Dark Faction, others about how many border posts we had, and some even more general about the overall situation. But Ivan Lozovsky did not answer of them. Instead, already in the doorway, he turned and told us to head to the residential area and get situated in our dorms, then go to the cafeteria and eat dinner, familiarize ourselves with the daily schedule and rules of the Dome and get some rest. Starting early morning the next day, we were to return for the rest of this presentation, then study the Labyrinth and generate our characters before we finally entered the game that bends reality.
We left the meeting room. The siren was wailing everywhere. Many people were running in the same direction.
Looks like it’s serious. Maybe we should go help?I suggested but didn’t find any support.
They all made excuses, saying we’d been given clear instructions on what to do this evening, and no one wanted to break the presumably strict rules on their first day. I took a heavy sigh and walked off after the others. The path to the dorms passed between the corncobs, and I finally saw the tall buildings with my own eyes. To say I was astonished wouldn’t even begin to cover it! They were cylindrical columns two hundred and thirty feet tall, with spiral staircases looping around the outside. The glass kernels protruded from the sides and each housed a metallic germ. Clearly, these were the virtual reality pods.
Hey, theres ours, number fifteen!Masha said, pointing at one of the corncobs.
I stopped and, pointing my head up, looked at my future workplace. The height was intimidating. Wed have to go up those stairs day in and day out. Good thing I wasn’t afraid of heights, otherwise I had no idea if Id make it.
Other than the big easily visible number fifteen on a concrete post at the entrance, there were player numbers from 1401 to 1500 inside. I also noticed people rushing into every tower except that one. In a rush to their pods, they were pouring into their corncobs. I looked at number fifteen again. Strange. There were no guards at the entrance. What could stop us...?
I wanted to tell my new acquaintances but discovered that they were already quite a ways down the white sand path. I was all on my own. What if...?
I trusted my intuition. It had practically never led me astray. So now, as with the spontaneous character change in the final round of the online PvP tournament, I could feel in my bones that I needed to learn this new game and not waste any time.
Carefully, expecting someone to shout at me at any second, I headed to tower number fifteen. No one stopped me, and no one even seemed to notice. Now more confident, I started climbing higher and higher up the spiral staircase. Ugh, it was unbearable. Could they really not build an elevator?! By the time I'd reached the eighth story of the tower, my legs started to shiver in strain. My pod was on the fourteenth floor, though, and when I’d made it up there, I was practically crawling on all fours, with my tongue hanging out in exhaustion. Ugh!
I saw my number 1470 on the wall, and a short corridor leading to a small glassed-in room with a metallic ovular bed in the middle topped by a transparent lid. My virtual reality pod! I stood there, looking at the high-tech device and admiring its smooth flawless curves. The lid easily slid aside as soon as I touched it. The bed, covered with a soft porous material was alluring and called me to lie down as quickly as possible.
Should I take off my shoes? Did I have to get undressed? There were no coatracks in the room, but that didn’t mean anything. I looked at the neighboring towers through the transparent glass. In corncob number eleven, right at my level, an unfamiliar lady walked into her little room and, quickly closing the lid, lied down in her pod right in her clothes and shoes. Alright, no need to undress. I carefully stepped onto the springy cover. Alright, it held my weight. I lied down and wanted to stretch my arms for the lid, but it had already started moving on its own. At that, the lid material, which had seemed like glass, became opaque and everything looked totally black. Not like coal, or the color of a ravens wing, but some absolute darkness that didn’t reflect any light whatsoever.
An ideal black!I thought as the world around me changed.

***

I found myself in a tiny round room with totally white walls, ceiling and floor. There was just over a step of space on all sides. The source of the dim light was not visible, and it seemed to be streaming in from all directions. The only object other than me and the cold smooth walls, was a large body-length mirror.
Neither glass nor metal, it was some kind of image projected on the wall. Everything I did was reflected in it, but I could turn the image with my mind and see myself from all sides. And I did that, taking a critical look and cringing in dismay.
My hair was far too long. I should have gone to a barber long ago... A moment later, I saw myself in the mirror with a close short cut. Wow! And what if I left it a bit longer, with slanted bangs? Obeying my will, the image changed obediently. And if I change my hair color? No, I dont like that. Lets go back.
I finished playing with my hairstyle and left it a sumptuous shade of black, then moved on to eye color. I wanted emerald green eyes. They were generally considered the rarest! It looked pretty good but didn't go with my hair at all. What about an icy blue? And hey, why not make my eyes glow like a wizard’s? It looked fearsome, but I left it that way.
Now for toned muscles. I wanted to be tall, have broad shoulders and all that... I tried to give myself the flawless body of the athlete, so any girl would want me, but I was just a weenie and couldn’t change my body composition. In some parts, I could only change the skin tone and remove or add birth marks and scars. Too bad. But alright, what next?

Name: Kirill Viktorovich Ignatiev

The words appeared over my image in the mirror, and I shook my head in dismay. No, that won't do. Anyhow, did I want every random person I met to know my real name? What if I made someone mad? This would make me too easy to find in the real world.
So... I managed to shorten it to Gnat, but I couldn't remove it all the way. Gnat? That was my nickname in school, so it felt natural. Alright, let it be Gnat. What next?

Available classes: Geologist or Surveyor

What the crap?! This was a violation of my rights! Why only two? What if I wanted to be a tank driver, sniper or even starship pilot? I tried to widen the miserly choice in all kinds of ways or go back to a previous menu, but I couldn’t do any of it. Only Geologist or Surveyor. Dang... So, how were they different?

Geologist. Specializes in discovering and mining valuable minerals, sedimentary deposits and ore veins. As level and skills grow, mineral discovery chance and extraction volume increase.
Primary skills: Minerology, Forager, Explosives.

Class limitations: May not equip heavy or power armor. May not use sniper weapons or rocket systems.
All the information I needed was shown on the mirror above my character. Alright, I see. So then, what made the Surveyor different? Instantly, obeying my mental request, the mirror displayed a different text:

Surveyor. Specializes in discovering secret locations, anomalies and minerals with electronic scanning devices. As level and skills grow, discovery chance and value are increased.
Primary skills: Electronics, Scanning, Cartography.
Class limitations: May not equip heavy or power armor. May not use sniper rifles or automatic weapons. May not pilot starships or any kind of flying vehicle.

Ugh, dang... the Surveyor class had so many limitations! And although I was intrigued by searching for hidden locations and anomalies, being unable to use automatic weapons seemed like a serious handicap. I’d be helpless at sniping range, too. But the Geologist class had similar problems. At medium or close range... I didn’t know. I had no idea what kinds of weapons were available in the game. Perhaps there would be something non-automatic, but still totally fine. But maybe not...
I pulled up the information about the Geologist again. Seemingly a more balanced class, and such a path felt right, considering my education and training. I was ready to make my choice, but then my eye caught on the words miningand extraction.
What did that mean? After discovering useful minerals or ore veins, I would be forced to mine them all on my own? My character had a bonus to extraction, so who better? That unhappy perspective threw me. I didn’t want to spend the next two years of my life breaking rocks with a pick. I might go mad from boredom...
But the words secret locations,” and “anomalies,” on the other hand, were tempting to any gambling man. The Surveyor path also seemed to promise other interesting aspects. So, I made up my mind.
The mirror went dim, then I saw a table:

Gnat. Human. H3 Faction.
Level-1 Surveyor
Statistics:
Strength
12
Agility
15
Intelligence
17
Perception
19
Constitution
10
Luck modifier
+2
Parameters:
Hit points
176
Endurance points
114
Magic points
0
Carrying capacity
53 lbs.
Fame
0
Skills:
Electronics
1
Scanning
1
Cartography
1

I read it carefully. It was hard to say if it was good or bad, although the low Constitution did upset me. Just ten points. And also, having zero magic seemed less than ideal. It wasn’t that I was expecting spell-casting abilities from a Surveyor, more like the opposite. But seeing that part of the table meant magic did exist! And if that was the case, my level-1 Surveyor had lower magic than someone else.
Anyway, I could read short hints on all the statistics. For example, Strength influenced the amount of weight a character could carry, how far they could throw objects, and damage done by melee weapons. The number of health points, meanwhile, depended on Constitution, level and a class multiplier. About magic, it said that the amount of manadepended on Intelligence, level and game-class coefficient. Clearly, the Surveyor simply had a zero there.
Overall, I didn't discover anything new. All my characters statistics were as usual, more or less like I’d seen in other games. All I didn’t understand was fame.How was it calculated, and what were its effects? Either it was some kind of karma,a positive or negative number depending on previous actions, or a modifier that influenced the reaction of other characters in the game world. After all, it's one thing when you're asked a favor by a totally unknown person and, you could care less if they are offended by your refusal. But it is quite different, if the very same thing is asked by a famous figure, respected by all.
I quickly realized I couldn’t edit any parameters in the table, and I would have to accept what the game system gave me. The only prompt asked whether I was familiar with the introductory information and ready to enter the game world or would prefer to wait and think.
The right thing to do would be to leave the virtual reality pod, wait until tomorrow, listen to the two-hour introduction, then study the Labyrinth, and pick up from here. But it’s so hard to tear yourself from a new toy!
I understood that as soon as I gave my confirmation, I would be dropped into some labyrinth made to test my abilities. I had a perfect idea of how mad the leadership would be, if I failed the test and lost the chance to strengthen myself. On the other hand, I wasn’t a child. This wasn’t my first time in a videogame. I already understood how to move and orient myself. I was a fairly experienced gamer and had seen the darkest depths of many game worlds. I mean, come on, this labyrinth was made for newbies. With all by abilities and experience, how could I fail?!
So, concentrating and wishing myself luck, I confirmed that I was ready for the test.

Chapter Six. Testing by Labyrinth


The picture changed instantly. The mirror disappeared, and a semi-circular gap in the wall replaced it. It was filled with a glowing blue force field that periodically glistened with sparkles and electricity. And then, one after the next, I saw little bars of different colors. One for life, one for endurance and another for hunger. When each bar appeared, a popup hint came before my eyes with a notification, so I had no misunderstandings or questions about the new features.
I turned my head, but the semi-transparent bars remained in the upper left part of my field of vision as if glued there. They didn’t obstruct my view or annoy me, though. All the scales were at maximum, and I nodded in approval, speaking aloud for an unknown moderator:
I understand, no questions. Except one. What am I supposed to do, go through that force field? Is the electricity gonna shock me?!
Predictably, I didn’t receive an answer, but a small icon appeared at the bottom of the screen showing several concentric circles, like ripples left by a stone in a calm pond.

Scanning. Class ability. With skill growth, scanning radius and discovery chance will increase, type of results will expand, and reload time will decrease.

Well, well! What is this? I use echolocation like a bat? But what about the electronic scanning devices mentioned by the class description? I was somewhat confused, especially because I was unable to test my new ability. The little icon remained inactive.
Meanwhile, my introduction to the game abilities continued. A progress bar appeared on the bottom of the screen.

Using skills and performing other actions fills the progress bar. When the bar is completely full, character level will increase. Dying zeroes out the progress bar.
ATTENTION!!! If the progress bar is at zero, dying will cause your character to lose one level, some skills and all unused skill points. Dying again with progress bar still at zero will cause your character to lose two levels and even more skills.

Now that was very important information. First, dying in the game was entirely possible, and it was not final. Beyond that, if the progress bar was even a bit filled, death wouldn’t cause any serious or irreversible consequences. However, death with an empty progress bar came with a hefty penalty.
By the way... I looked at the empty bar and my level-one character. What did that mean? If I were to die right now... was there a level zero? Or would I just die once and for all? I started feeling a bit beside myself. I suddenly didn’t want to go through the force field and test this out.
Meanwhile, Gnats inventory opened. A jean jacket and jeans, a turtleneck, a pair of tennis shoes, and underwear. The items of clothing were in their equipment slots and had almost no properties, just +1 armor from my jean jacket, but it was half worn down. Most of the boxes were still empty. No headwear, my belt slot was inactive, no weapon, either main or secondary, no gloves, glasses, bracelets or rings. In my so-called backpackthere were just six slots, one of which was occupied by a pack of condoms...
Great equipment for a test. No compass, no coil of rope, no set of colored chalk to mark dead ends or turns I'd already been down. Not even a basic flashlight if it got dark or the most primitive knife. I sharply came to my senses and was astonished by my recklessness. What had come over me? Why sneak unprepared into a place I knew nothing about?!
A wave of fear swept over me, replacing my rash self-confidence. I had already nearly made up my mind to try and open the virtual reality pod, but the glowing force-field flickered, went dim and turned off. Just then, a countdown timer appeared in the lower part of the screen. I was given thirty minutes to get out of the labyrinth...

 ***

Naturally, I was no longer thinking of exiting the game. Onward! I had nearly walked through the doorway when the scanning icon changed color from gray to violet. I could use my skill! I immediately turned around to see how the gap looked from the other side. But the wall behind my back was totally smooth and stable, without the slightest sign of gaps or holes. A one-way portal! Dang! There was no way back. Now I could only look for the way out.
Anyhow, there was plenty of diffuse light coming from the walls, so I wouldn’t need a flashlight. But where to go? I could only see smooth white walls everywhere. About ten feet above me, there was a solid ceiling. Perfect time to try out scanning.
I didn’t know if it was the scan, but a map of the corridors suddenly appeared on the bottom of my screen, showing a ring labyrinth. And what was more it wasn’t only the parts I could see with my own eyes. It also showed behind the walls. Nice! So that’s what scanning could do!
But the reload time was a whole ten minutes, and the draw distance on the map was not very large, just fifteen steps or so. I could only see a couple rings of wall, gaps and forks. However, it was valuable to know that the labyrinth was circular, and that I was in its very center.
Just thirty second later, basing myself on the map, I ran down the only corridor leading outward, leaving the revealed part, then stopped at a fork. Right or left? I turned left at random and ran along the wall, as is usually advised for those trying to escape small mazes. Following one wall was a reliable, though fairly slow way of finding an exit. But I guessed that this labyrinth was not large, as it was designed to test the abilities of new players. So sooner or later, this method would lead me out. It was also important to walk quickly so I would exit the labyrinth in the time allotted. What was more, I immediately noticed that, as I moved through the labyrinth, the map grew larger. This was child’s play! I couldn’t even get lost!
Wait... four minutes after starting, I reached a small round room with a ramp down and a ramp up alongside three other doors. My confidence blew away like the wind. The main difference between multi-story labyrinths and one-level ones, other than their greater complexity, was that following one wall no longer guaranteed exit. What was more, this meant there must have been much more ground to cover than my extremely slow method could handle. I needed to change tactics.
I expanded the map to the whole screen to get my bearings. No hint had told me how to open the map, but it happened automatically, and that surprised me. So, had I gone far from the center of the labyrinth?
Just one look at the interactive map and I began to howl in impotent rage all the sections I had already been through were gradually disappearing! The center was already entirely erased, and the other corridors were also going away. So, I had an approximation of how long the map would last: three minutes. Just what I needed! How could I get my bearings in this multi-level labyrinth?!
Leave marks or objects at the forks so I wouldn’t duck into a dead end multiple times? Sure, that was an option. I took out the pack of condoms from my inventory, ripped a small piece of colored cardboard from it and threw it down the hallway behind me. It was meant to mark places I didn’t need to go again. I didn’t delve into the upper and lower floor yet and continued running through the maze.
My endurance points were gradually falling, and I was starting to get tired from so much running. Another five minutes, maybe six and Id have to change to a walk. In this indefinite nerve-wracking situation, the only good part was that my progress bar was filling up slowly but surely. So, even if my Surveyor managed to die in the labyrinth, my character would respawn.
My scanning icon turned purple again. I immediately made a scan and looked at the map. Another circle thirty steps in diameter, including part of the room with ramps I had run through. What was more, based on the map, I would end up back there soon. I’d chosen the wrong hallway. So, a minute later, there were two corridors marked with a piece of torn-off cardboard.
Just one unchecked corridor remained on this level, but I decided to go up. I was now running totally at random, ignoring some forks and diving down others. A few times, I saw holes in the floor, which I had to jump across, and another time I had to crawl through a small section of corridor with a low ceiling. Then suddenly... I was in a circular ramp room. What was more, some hallways were already marked with cardboard! How?! I had gone up already!
But there was no time to fill my head with such questions. I was already down to less than ten minutes. I went down a floor and was no longer running so much as keeping up a fast walk with short bursts my endurance was hovering around zero.
One more scan...
And then, when I had almost no hope left, I saw the outer edge of the maze on the map! The circle of halls and walls just ended on one side! I also noticed a marker on an internal wall very near me. I hadn’t seen anything like it before. I got my bearings and turned toward it, then found an unusual section of cracked wall. Probably, this wall was weak, and could be broken...
But what was the point of breaking through, if I had already seen on the map that I could also go the normal way?! I didn’t break the wall, just ran to the outermost halwayl. Perhaps the exit was somewhere there.
Unfortunately, I did not find an exit in that section. All paths led back to the center of the maze. But I did discover something else a part of the outer wall with cracks! If I broke the wall here, I'd be outside the maze!

***

After breaking a hole in the wall, I emerged into a dark void. There were just six seconds left on the timer. I fell painfully face-down from a decent height onto sand, which knocked the wind out of me and made my nose bleed. My clothes were all dusty, my knuckles were bloody, and both of my tennis shoes were now tattered and untied. My health bar was balancing somewhere around thirty percent, while my endurance had been at zero for some time. But I made it!

Five stat points received
Scanning skill increased to level two!
Cartography skill increased to level two!
Fame increased to 1.

Strange way of leaving the maze. I see Leng Radugin finally followed our sage advice and stopped giving his recruits information about the Labyrinth.
This was said just a step from me, and with a strange and entirely unfamiliar accent. The voice was dull, quiet and too distant, as if it belonged to someone who didn’t care what happened to me.
Writhing in pain, I raised my head... and struck gazes with a pair of worn metallic boots about size twenty five if not thirty.

Kosta Dykhsh Geckho. Clan Waideh-Dykhsh. Level-56 Diplomat
i>
An alien! I could not afford to make an impression of weakness and worthlessness. It might reflect badly on the whole human race. I gathered my strength and got to my feet, though I was still stumbling after the fall. The huge furry humanoid towered over me by two heads, carefully looking with his piercingly black eyes and tusked grin, as I tried to stand upright. He had the very same metal armor as the extraterrestrial from the video clip. And perhaps, that was Kosta Dykhsh.
I bowed respectfully, hoping it would look like a gesture of deep respect, and not an inability to stand.
Greetings! My respect to the great and powerful civilization of Shiharsa!
In response, the diplomat made a cough or laugh. It was like a muted bark through tightly clenched teeth.
I see, Gnat, that you were told about my race. But stop trying to express reverence. It doesn’t come across as sincere. But I want to know, did you pass the labyrinth test?
It was hard and, I seemingly had an unusual method, but I think so,I smiled with my bloodied lips. I got five points to improve my statistics.
Five? Excellent result. That means you did not know about the maze. Usually, the Leng of your faction prefers not to risk it. One in the hand is better than two in the bush. His words. Recruits learn the way through the labyrinth by rote before entering the game. Sure, they get just two points, but thats guaranteed. I'm glad your commanders have allowed newbies to risk it and test their mettle.
I got embarrassed and lowered my gaze.
Yes, well, no one said I was allowed. Everyone was busy because of the Dark Faction attack, and I just walked in.
I was a bit perplexed by your outfit,the humanoid shook his head in reproach like a person. Oh, your bosses are gonna give it to you tomorrow. What do your people say...? Ah! You’ll get knocked into next week!
How do you know? I passed the test! No one judges the victors!
But Kosta Dykhsh was certain my punishment was inevitable. As it turned out, the problem was not only my badly-considered risk. The diplomat told me that, when newbies first enter the game that bends reality, they their inventory contains everything they had on them in the real world. It was the only way to bring the things we needed to survive and grow the colony into the game.
Dielectrics and superconductors. Circuit boards and processors. Batteries and molybdenum steel springs. Machine parts and rare materials such as lanthanoid alloys or transuranium elements. Every newbie was supposed to carry useful cargo for the needs of the colony. Everything we couldn’t produce or didn’t have the resources for. Plus, thermal lenses, optical and collimator sights, hard-to-produce bullets and detonators, and personal weapons...

The more the diplomat told me, the gloomier I became. First of all, I no longer hoped I might not get chewed out. Now at the very least because I had not brought any useful things and had thus disadvantaged our whole faction. Second, what was I supposed to equip myself with? Just keep running in this ragged jean jacket and torn tennis shoes?

Chapter Seven. First Night


I could no longer see the maze. There was just sand, the odd short bush and the somewhat distant treetops of a dense tall forest before the crimson horizon. I shouted in surprise that the Labyrinth was gone, and Kosta Dykhsh explained that the mysterious structure appeared only at the very beginning of the game, was not part of the main world, and was impossible to return to. The Geckho diplomat told me he had been standing on the doorstep of his home and listening to the far-off battle when I just popped into the air ten feet up and splatted into the earth ten steps from his dwelling.
I had already seen the hemispheric metallic structure nearby. It looked like a tent or small yurt, with a dull greenish light emanating from it. It was giving off the tempting aroma of roast meat and aromatic spices. But only after the diplomat reminded me did I also notice the distant flashes on the dark horizon and strange crackling sound.
The enemies are attacking your main base,the diplomat explained, yawning carelessly and demonstrating his large sharp predatory teeth. They already managed to get through to the second row of fortifications. I dont remember them ever getting this far before.
Shouldn’t the Geckho be supporting us?I asked hopefully, which made him truly surprised.
Whatever for? Both you and your opponents, as well as all other factions on this planet are vassals of the Geckho race. We do not intervene in your internal struggles. We merely trade with all and take our tribute. If your world is attacked by the aggressive Miyelonians, though, or anyone from the Meleyephatian horde decides to found a base here, we will defend you. That is our duty as your suzerains and protectors.
We spent a bit longer standing there, watching the flickers of the far-off battle, then Kosta Dykhsh lost interest and turned around, preparing to return to his tent.
Tell me, diplomat, are there many races in the cosmos?I asked somewhat belatedly, and the Geckho stopped.
There are plenty. And all races are different. They each have their quirks.The diplomat considered such an answer sufficient and was preparing to end the conversation once and for all, but I stopped him again.
Kosta, how might one learn to speak the language of your kind?
The furry giant didn’t even try to hide his surprise:
 “Gnat, why would you want to do that? You're a Surveyor, not a Diplomat or a Translator. You're never gonna have to talk with any Geckho other than me. I know the language of your faction, and that is well enough to communicate.
But those seemed like empty pretexts, and the diplomat was clearly happy to see me expressing interest in his language. So, I answered with a slight bow:
“You are a great space-faring race with a great culture and history. You possess colossal amounts of knowledge in various spheres of science. All that is extremely valuable to me, and humanity as a whole. There are probably a huge number of texts with truly invaluable information for my people, but they cannot be understood without knowing Geckho...
The furry giant gave a bark of approval and a line of text appeared before me:

Kosta Dykhsh offers you the Astrolinguistics skill. Would you like to take this skill?

Of course! For some reason, I was certain that the Geckho diplomat was nowhere near the only representative of the alien civilization I would meet in the game that bends reality. Understanding their language would be a huge plus!
You have taken the skill Astrolinguistics level 1.
A heavy furry paw came down on my shoulder, which made me somewhat bend at the knee. With a reassuring pat, Kosta Dykhsh barked in approval:
Gnat, you're the third person in the whole H3 faction that wanted to study our language. I like that you do unusual things. Thats just how the game is played. Don’t stay in the confines others make for you. So then... if Leng Radugin and his retinue scold you too much, refer to me. Tell them the Geckho race approves.
After these words, the furry giant wished me a good night and crawled into his tent. I meanwhile batted my lashes, looking at the lines of text that ran by:

You have reached level two!
You have received three skill points!
Fame increased to 2.
Attention!!! All skill points that have been saved for more than 24 hours will be lost if your character dies.

Well, well! Level two so fast! And I met a Geckho diplomat! Now life will get easier!

***

Walking a bit further from the tent in order not to embarrass the Geckho or disturb his sleep, I sat down on a boulder covered in dry lichen. It was still warm from the daytime sun. I opened my characters stat table and familiarized myself with all the numbers unhurriedly and thoughtfully. I needed to use my stat and skill points to eliminate weak spots and reinforce my strong sides.
Yes, I understood perfectly that newbies were advised against taking this important matter into their own hands and expected to rely on experienced mentors. But in videogames, I preferred to think through my own development plan rather than copying others or taking advice. Also, the Geckho Diplomat had advised me to forge my own path.
Five free points... Very little, if you think about it. Where would they find the greatest use? Above all, I was interested in Constitution my weakest stat.

A characters Constitution determines the total number of Hit Points and Endurance Points, as well as resistance to disease, poison and radiation. Higher Constitution will speed up healing and decrease bleeding time. Characters with high Constitution can hold their breath for longer, and are also more resistant to corrosion, encumbrance and high gravitation.

Considering how hard it was for me to finish the newbie Labyrinth, this game must be very difficult and hardcore. There were a huge number of challenges and dangers before me, and my character’s survival would depend on hit points and endurance points, which were derived from Constitution. My pitiful ten points there were not good enough. So, Id invest two points in Constitution!
My health grew right to 211, and Endurance to 125. It even felt my lung capacity increase, my ribcage expand, and my turtleneck stretch and rip a bit. Also, the fine abrasions on my hands and face immediately healed over. It was an amazingly pleasant sensation to suddenly feel healthier! It took massive effort, but I resisted the temptation of putting another point or two into Constitution. No, enough. Moderation in all things.
Now, Perception. After all, it was not just the aggregate of vision, hearing and other senses. For my Surveyor, it was the most important statistic, as it directly determined the success chance of my scanning. So, I added one point, raising it to twenty. I instantly perceived that change as well. The dusky evening around me became sharper, and the cannonade of the far-off battle was now more distinct.
On to Intelligence. After all, it was not just for mages. My Surveyor would have to work with all kinds of electronic scanning devices and other complex high-tech instruments, so Intelligence would certainly come in handy. One more there.
There was just one statistic point left. Increase Strength? It was a good idea. I'd be able to carry more spoils of war. And my muscles would grow visually, which was also a plus. Or should I go for Agility? Or another point in Perception?
But then I realized I was totally ignoring one statistic Luck Modifier. It could also be improved.

A characters Luck Modifier increases hit chance with any type of ranged weapon, success in gambling and critical damage dealt.
Attention! For the Surveyor class, as with any other class, the Luck Modifier does not increase discovery chance but there is a certain chance the things you find will be of higher value.

It sounded, of course, tempting. But I wished I knew what that chance was, at least approximately. Ten percent or, maybe, just one one-hundredth of a percent? The difference was very, very significant. Was it worth the trouble? By which I meant, was it worth investing in the Luck Modifier?
After a minute of thought, I decided to take the risk and spent my last free point on the Luck Modifier, bringing it to +3.
I finished with the stat points, now onto skills. There were three points to spend here. It was irrational and dangerous to save them up for the future in the game that bends reality. Unlike most games, just one death could burn them up. So, I needed to use them, if not right away, then at the very least within twenty-four hours.
Scanning, as Gnat’s main skill, seemed to be the obvious choice. But I could level it simply by periodically activating the icon, which I was already doing every time the skill reloaded. Cartography? That, it seemed, was leveling all on its own...
Probably, it would be wisest to place the points into skills that I did not yet understand how to level. For example, Electronics or Astrolinguistics.

Electronics skill increased to level two!
Electronics skill increased to level three!
Astrolinguistics skill increased to level two!

Now, all my points spent, the time had come to go somewhere. I couldn’t just sit all night on this stone, after all. I stood up and looked around. It was totally dark. There were bright and unfamiliar stars in the sky. I wasn’t such an astronomy enthusiast, but I could find the Big Dipper, Orions Belt or the North Star in the night sky. But I didn’t find anything among the millions of pulsating stars. I also dismissed a thought about the Southern Hemisphere quickly. There was no Southern Cross either. So, I was not on Earth...

***

The warm night wind rustled my hair, thousands of crickets were fiddling frantically, and bats occasionally flew overhead. If not for the colored bars of life, hunger and endurance, the progress scale, and the map before my eyes, I might have taken the world around me as genuine.
Where to go? There was a scary black forest on two sides, dense like a solid wall. A fearsome howling sound was coming from somewhere beyond those trees. Clearly not the best place to walk at night, especially unarmed. And so, I decided to head toward the distant cannonade where my faction’s soldiers were holding the line. I laced up my raggedy tennis shoes, then went to find my allies.
I had no idea what I would say to them or how to explain my appearance. But probably, they would at least hear me out and tell me what to do, where to go and how I could help. I walked straight through a flattened field until I hit upon a road. First, I saw it on my mini-map, then a minute later, I was standing on the dusty well-trodden path with clear tire tracks. Right or left? I chose left at random and saw a sign a quarter mile later at a fork. Two wooden arrows pointed the way to the nearest structures:

Prometheus Technology Complex 2 miles
Shooting Range 0.5 miles

I had no idea what they did at the Prometheus, and I wasn’t sure Id find anyone there at night anyhow. The shooting range was much closer and probably under guard all day and night. That meant there would be people there from my faction, and that I would be able to go to them for help and explanations about the game.
In both directions, there were fields of a tall strange grain. Before Id managed to go half way to the firing range, to messages jumped in simultaneously:

Scanning skill increased to level three!
Cartography skill increased to level three!

Not bad, not bad at all. My scanning radius grew noticeably. I activated the icon again and, on the roadside one hundred feet away, I saw a group of round red markers. Danger? I crouched down at once and quietly crawled off the road on my stomach into some high grass. A short while later, I managed to see the enemy:
Field Pest. Insect. Level 4.
It was a spiny bug the size of a spaniel. A whole group of the scoundrels was devouring our crops, destroying my faction's fields! I had to stop them, but how? I understood perfectly that trying to attack the insects unarmed or even with a stick would end very badly for me. A level-2 character had, to put it lightly, very bad chances against seven or eight level-4 enemies, even with a decent weapon. But I was unarmed, so there was no way. I was just six hundred fifty feet from the firing range, though, and I might find support there!
Carefully, trying not to make noise or reveal myself, I crawled in a wide arc around the dangerous insects. To do that, I had to get deep into the field opposite the Pests.

Would you like to take the skill Farmer?
Would you like to take the skill Stealth?

These messages surprised me so much I shuddered. No, I did not want Farmer, it didn’t fit my character. But Stealth? At the very least, not now. These were just a few partially blind overgrown bugs, not enough to scare me into taking a skill.
I refused both suggestions and, further from the bugs, went up on the road and ran to the shooting range at full speed. A few minutes later, I looked over the closed gates and high sturdy chain-link fence. It was totally dark at the exit. The grounds weren’t lit either. In any case, I shouted loudly a few times, calling for security. But I already rationally understood that there was no one here. Either this place was not guarded at night, or everyone capable of holding a weapon was on the front lines, fighting back the Dark Faction onslaught.
Had I really shown up here for no reason? I looked through the fence at the dark angular buildings of the firing range. Storehouses, containers, plaques that were too far to read... I spent a long time squinting and tried to make out at least the nearest one on the wall of the covered brick building and seemingly guessed one word: Arsenal.That’s where the weapons were!
Now, I had to get through the fence somehow. My first idea was to simply climb the ten-foot-high chain-link fence. But that was a no-go. There was barbed wire strung atop it and it was affixed with porcelain insulators. I didn’t see any warning signs like Danger!!! High voltage!" But I still didn’t risk it.
Instead, I walked up to the locked gates. Next to the nearest post, I found a metal pad with numeric keys. Ugh, I wish I knew the code...

Successful Perception check

I noticed that the buttons: 1,” “3,” “8,and 0were more worn than the others. Curious... these buttons had been pressed most of all. And if some numbers in the code were not repeated, then there were only factorial four combinations (1*2*3*4), which gave twenty-four possible options. Not too many. I could try to press them all.
The code 3180 worked. The lock clicked, and the gates slowly moved aside.

Would you like to take the skill Break-in?

I laughed. What kind of break-inhad this been? Childs play, not a serious obstacle! But this time, I didn’t dismiss the message and read the skill description.

Break-in. Allows a character to overcome electronic and mechanical security systems, open locks of any type and take control of automated defense systems. Minimum statistics: Intelligence 15, Agility 15, Perception 15.

Hmm, bit of a mixed bag... The Break-in skill combined hacking, programming, lock-picking, and skill with various other thiefs tools. Well if this was the terminology the devs had chosen, let it be simply Break-in.A useful skill, not for everyone, but also not made for boring gameplay. I had to have it!

You have taken the skill Break-in level 1.

Great! Feeling inspired, I walked through the grounds of the firing range, looking around in search of something useful. My scanning ability reloaded at the perfect time, so I now had a map of all these buildings. After that, it became easier to find my way around.
Above all, I was interested in the arsenal, where I could hopefully find a weapon. But there was a massive lock on the metallic door. I walked up and looked closer.

Your Break-in level is insufficient to open this lock. Requisite level: 18.
You lack the tools required to open this lock.

Alright, I guess I couldn’t even try. I walked further into the complex. Soon, my eye was caught by a pile of boxes wrapped in plastic film, and I acquainted myself with the markings on the packaging:
82-millimeter grenade launcher grenades... 122-mm howitzer rounds. That would pack a punch... Power cells, what the heck were these?! Handheld antipersonnel grenades, twenty boxes. I could use these against the bugs, although it may have been a bit overkill. I’d mow down the new plants, and I couldn’t use them if the bugs ran at me. Although it still was a good idea not to forget grenades. I opened the map and placed a marker. No hint told me to do that either, I was helped by experience from other games.
Then I left, heading for the firing range itself, with rows marked by little flags, bags of sand and targets in the distance... Under a nearby canopy, there were tables for assembling and cleaning guns, and a large locked safe. This also had a numerical keypad like the other one but, this time, only three buttons were worn: 2,” “5,and 6.A three-digit combination? I checked all six possible options quickly, but none of them worked. It wasn’t quite so simple...

Successful Perception check

The 5 key was a bit more worn down than the two or six. Perhaps it was used twice in the code and this was another four-digit combo. So it was! The second code I checked, 2565, was correct.

Break-in skill increased to level two!
You have reached level three!
You have received three skill points!

Ha! It worked! I opened the heavy creaking safe. Inside, in even rows, there were fully automatics, a couple machine guns and a few other weapons. The safe also held boxes of rounds. Bingo! I was starting to love this game!


Chapter Eight. Quick Death


FOR STARTERS, I wondered what might happen if I tried to use an automatic or machinegun. After all, my class limitations said unambiguously that I could not use an automatic weapon, and I wanted to figure out what that meant. I reached for a machine gun and picked it up:
PKP Pecheneg 6P41N 7.62-mm machine gun (modified)
Statistic requirements: Strength 15, Constitution 16.
Skill requirements: Machinegun 16
Class requirements: Shock Trooper, Machine Gunner, Space Commando
Attention! This weapon contains unidentifiable modifications from a space-faring race.
Attention! Your character has insufficient Strength and Constitution.
Attention! Due to limitations of the Prospector class, you cannot use this weapon.
Ugh, dang! Three whole reasons against it… I could carry the heavy gun, but equipping it in my weapons slot was impossible. That was clear, no more questions. I placed the Pecheneg back in the safe and checked a few different types of automatic. The situation was similar. I couldn’t place them in my main or alternate weapon slot.
But as for the rifles, everything was different. I could get the weapon into the slot, but the scatter radius took up my entire field of view. There was no accuracy to speak of. I could shoot it only in a general direction. What the crap? First, I blamed it on the fact I'd checked a shotgun, but the Saiga, which was renowned for its accuracy, was the same.
Not right away, but it dawned on me that I needed to take the right skill to effectively use the weapon. But which one? The answer was in the weapon description. Every carbine, rifle or shotgun had a description that showed requirements. They all needed the Rifles skill, and beyond that, had requirements for Agility, Perception and Strength. So, Rifles:
Rifles. Determines proficiency with non-automatic smooth-bore and sawed-off firearms, rail guns, pneumatic and plasma weapons (except sniper or heavy rifles). Improving this skill increases shooting accuracy and unlocks more advanced weaponry.
You have taken the skill Rifles level 1.
Then, for the first time, I considered how many skills a character can even have. Was there any limit at all? I opened my information and started studying the settings. Unfortunately, there were limits:
Below level 10, a character may have up to 8 skills
Between levels 10 and 24, a character may have up to 10 skills
Between levels 25 and 49, a character may have up to 12 skills
Between levels 50 and 99, a character may have up to 15 skills
Between levels 100 and 149, a character may have up to 18 skills
Above level 150, a character may have up to 25 skills
Well, well... How many had I already taken? Scanning, Electronics and Cartography had been with me from the very beginning. Astrolinguistics, Break-in and Rifles I'd already taken. That meant I had just two remaining skill slots, out of eight. Yikes! I had basically just started...
It seemed Stealth and the rest would have to wait. Id first talk with my faction and find out what was vitally necessary both for my character and the whole colony.
Now it would be nice to shoot a bit to level my Rifles skill.
I took the most basic hunting rifle, which had only one requirement, skill level one. It was called just Old Rifle. I picked up a handful of rounds and walked over to the sandbags. The spread circle was half its previous size, but remained very, very large.
I aimed, shot, went to check the target and shook my head dejectedly. I hadn’t hit once from one hundred fifty feet. I returned a few times for bullets and shot probably around a hundred times, raising my Rifles skill to level three before I got my first hit. After that, I almost immediately hit the target again, and again.
I put all three of my unused skill points into Rifles, then got a significant reduction in my scatter circle. Of the next ten shots, seven of them hit the target at least somewhat. Alright, enough abusing the old rifle. I was at level six now and could use a better gun.
Two more weapons were now available to me: Simple double-barrel 12-caliber hunting shotgun,and Simple 6.35-mm PCP pneumatic rifle.Everything was extremely clear with the double-barreled shotgun. There was only one box of 25 cartridges with large leaden shot. Its large spread was made up for by its application: short distances or point blank as the last option in a critical situation. I gave it just one lone shot to test it out, shredding the target sheet from five steps away. That’ll do. The overgrown cockroaches devouring our crops would certainly not survive that.
But as for the air gun, I had my doubts. To me, air rifles belonged in children's attractions and carnival shooting games, not alongside serious weaponry. I filled its air reservoir with a special pump and tested the weapon in action. Its accuracy wasn't bad, but as for force, it was predictably somewhat weak. From fifty steps away, it might not even pierce the chitin armor of the large bugs. However, it was the best rifle I could use, so I'd have to risk it and get closer to the Pests.
I took the pump and two boxes of metallic bullets of a hundred a piece, then put the ammunition in my pockets, slung both guns over my shoulders and headed out on my first hunt in the game that bends reality.

* * *

Carefully locking the gun safe and outside fence behind me, I returned to the road and unhurriedly started on my first serious mission. The distant cannonade hadn’t fully stopped; however, the explosions and gunfire crackle had become noticeably rarer. The battle was gradually quieting down, although I also had no idea who had won.
My ripped tennis shoes were clearly hindering me, and periodically catching on the dirt, making noise and giving me away. So, I removed my shoes and went barefoot. Nearer the bugs, I crouched all the way down, stealing up on my haunches. Taking the air rifle in my hands, I looked excitedly into the dark. I was ready to throw myself to the earth at any second. Step by step, I got closer to where I saw the large bugs before. My heart was pounding. It was quite a tense moment.
Would you like to take the skill Silent Walk?
I was caught off guard by the text. I was aiming and instantly fell to the ground. Dang! I couldn’t afford to get startled like that! I stood with a grumble and shook the dirt off my jeans. No, I didn’t want that skill, or any other. My mind was made up — nothing new until I talked with the other people. Hey, wait, where'd the bugs go?!
They were around here somewhere. Although... I wasn’t sure. Ugh, why didn’t I mark where I'd seen the dangerous pests on the map? Carefully, waiting for an attack at any second, I started to look for tracks, either the stalks I’d flattened when I left the road to crawl through the grass. Or plants trampled by the Pests. But I didn’t find anything. Maybe they’d had eaten their fill and crawled away? Or maybe this wasn’t the right place?
Fortunately, my scanning ability reloaded, and I activated the icon.
Scanning skill increased to level four!
There they were, the scoundrels! The bugs were noticeably farther from the road than before, practically on the edge of my scanning circle. There were seven. I determined the direction to the targets and walked toward them. I stopped one hundred thirty feet from the nearest Pest and, evening out my breathing, aimed the air rifle. Fire!
A short quiet clack sounded out, and the air-propelled bullet sped off toward the target. No effect. The bug Id fired on didn’t stop devouring our food. I shot again. And again. Nothing. Either I was constantly missing, or the bug didn’t care one bit about the tiny metal bullets.
And then, when I was about to get closer to my victim, I hit! Even from a distance, I could hear the clear sound of impact. And the bullet went through its shell!
The contours of the bug lit up an alarming crimson. I saw a life bar over the insect. It was down to half. It spread out its three-foot wingspan and the huge spiny Pest lifted into the air with a heavy buzz. It determined my location, turned and flew at me.
I was hoping the bug would crawl. Then I'd have managed to kill it with the air rifle at this distance. But I had already considered that it might fly and was planning to run away if it did, kiting the insect farther from its buddies, then shooting it with the shotgun.
But it was flying much faster than I planned. I couldn’t run away from this. And I certainly wasn’t expecting all the Field Pests to swarm and race toward me. What was more, there weren’t just seven, there were more than thirty!!!
I shot from the hip at the wounded bug and missed again, then put the air gun away and took out my shotgun. I had to shoot practically point blank, just seven to ten feet, but the large pellets from two barrels tore the bug to shreds!
You have reached level four!
You have received three skill points!
But then I realized the tragedy of my situation. I had just barely reached level four, and my progress bar was empty, so my inevitable death would lose me a level, three skill points and some skill levels. And now, with a ghastly hum, there were three enraged beasts flying straight at me!
Surviving in this situation was hardly possible, but theres death and then theres death. If I managed to do something that filled the progress bar by even a hair, then I stood to lose practically nothing. That thought fully occupied my consciousness. It was surprising, but I wasn't afraid of death. I was only afraid of dying stupidly.
I ran headlong for the road, hopping like a hare and dodging the bugs divebombing me. I ducked away from two or three insects, and kicked another like a soccer ball, but then I was knocked off my feet by a blow to the back. It felt like a red-hot knife had been driven under my right shoulder blade.
My life bar immediately sagged to half. Dang that hurts!
Poison! You will lose 5 HP every 3 seconds for 3 minutes.
Bleeding! You will lose 4 HP every 3 seconds for 40 seconds.
Well, that meant death... I didn’t have enough health points to survive these negative effects. Strange as it was, I was entirely calm and stuck to a clear goal for my remaining seconds: take at least one enemy with me.
I abruptly rolled onto my back, throwing off the bug that got me, and sending another back with a punch, then stood back up. I tried to reload the shotgun with my trembling hands, dropping cartridges in the tall crops.
Would you like to take the skill Dodge?
Would you like to take the skill Sprinter?
Would you like to take the skill Hand-to-Hand Combat?
Would you like to take the skill Entomology?
These obtrusive skill suggestions were getting in my face! Would I really be reading this spam in the very last seconds of my life?! With a kick of my bare foot, I sent another bug flying back, finally reloaded the double-barrel and met the next enemy with a shot from both barrels as it sped at my face. Got it! I hit!!!
Rifles skill increased to level seven!
My face was spattered with stinking orange goo, but that didn’t matter now. I could clearly see that the progress bar was more than a quarter filled. And then... I suddenly felt better.
Healing effect applied.
Antivenom received.
Your wounds have healed.
As I was reading these messages, I was suddenly stunned by thundering fire. Just above my ear, someone was mowing down the Field Pests from a high-caliber and very loud weapon. On the mini-map right behind me, I suddenly saw a marker, a green circle. Ally!!! However, I would put my head on the chopping block to bet that, just a few seconds earlier, there was no one there.
I turned around sharply and stuck my nose into a worn sheet of armor with a Second Legion emblem. I looked higher. And higher. And higher. There was a ten-foot-tall armored robot standing next to me spitting fire from a high-caliber machine gun as the Field Pests flew away in panic. To be more accurate, it was not a robot. There was a frail dark-haired girl firing from the machinegun, inside of an automatized armored suit. She was a young beauty who looked to be no older than eighteen.
Gerd Tamara. Human. H3 Faction. Level-78 Paladin
My team! Not ceasing fire, the girl started rebuking me:
Who let you out alone at night, newbie? And who said you could waste these rare cartridges?!Here, the girl lowered her head, met gazes with me, shuddered in fear... and stuck me through the chest with the wide sharp blade on the right arm of her suit, killing my Gnat in one blow!

* * *

The world went dark. After that, I saw only bright red words on a black background:
Your character has died. Respawn will be possible in fifteen minutes.
Would you like to review your statistics for this game session?
I was so dumbfounded that I didn’t immediately react to the question. The words soon faded and disappeared, then the virtual-reality pod opened. But I spent some time lying on the soft bed and, looking dumbly at the ceiling in disbelief.
An ally killed me, a member of my faction... Why? What for? Could my actions in the game really have been taken so negatively that my character deserved to die? Was I now a criminal?
But first, that Tamara had saved me from the bugs and even healed me. What happened after that to make her opinion turn on a dime? And by the way, from a technical standpoint, how had she healed me? After all, she hadn’t given me medicine or made any injections. Alright, that isn’t so important. The much bigger question was what I should do now.
Because no one had yet come to arrest me, I crawled out of my virtual reality pod and went down the spiral staircase from corncob fifteen. It was nightunder the dome. The majority of the spotlights had been turned out, which submerged the huge space in partial darkness. Also, I could see sprinklers driving unhurriedly over the park paths.
Once down, I didn’t see anyone waiting for me. No one wanted to see me, and what was more, no one was preparing to immediately arrest me. I calmed down and quickly walked to the dormitory complex, asking the night guard where my dorm room was located. The tranquil sweet-looking lady, totally not surprised to see me arrive at three oclock in the morning, found me in her list, gave me my keys and explained in detail how to find my building and room.
I was on the third floor in a four-person room. Three beds were already occupied, and one was empty. I immediately recognized all three boys I had come to the Dome with: Artur, Denis and Imran. I took the towel, soap and toothpaste from my bed, then headed into the bathroom. And there, I looked in the mirror and nearly dropped everything: looking back at me was a boy with close-cut black hair and piercingly blue eyes that glowed in the darkness.


Chapter Nine. Performance Review


FOURTEEN-SEVENTY, Tyulenev would like to see you,” said a small boy of around fifteen with a shaved head, tapping me on the shoulder.
Children under the Dome? Startled awake mid-dream, I figured this was just an extension of my fantasy. But no, the bald kid wasn’t going anywhere. Standing next to my bed, he continued to try and rouse me. I suppressed a yawn and sat up, now looking around consciously. It was still dark out the window. My roommates were sleeping.
What time is it?” My phone was the only time-telling device I owned, and theyd confiscated it, so I had no way of knowing.
Just after seven,the boy answered quietly. Daytime lighting will be turned on soon. Get dressed quick and go see Tyulenev. He’s a serious man and does not appreciate having to wait.”
Who is this Tyulenev, and where can I find him?
The boy shook his head in reproach, as if I had just asked the stupidest question he’d ever heard. Thankfully, he at least did give a detailed answer:
Tyulenev is third in command under Radugin, head of the Dome. A real big shot, he develops individualized levelling plans for each team member based on the faction’s needs. His office is in the administration building. Do not make Tyulenev wait. He is already in a bad mood...”
I asked the boy what had our third-in-command so uptight, but he didn’t answer. He just made sure I was really up and had understood what he told me, then quietly left as I stewed in anxious guesses.
But I had some idea why he might be upset if staff issues were his domain. My mindless rule breaking! As not to annoy him even more, I got up, dressed myself and washed up. I got startled again when I saw myself in the mirror. Hmm... My eyes were still purplish blue, glowing and totally inhuman.
Just five minutes later, I knocked on Tyulenev's office and entered. He was a corpulent man of middling years. Despite his loose clothing, I could see his huge gut sway with every movement. It was quite strange to see such a fat man under the Dome. Everyone else I’d met down here had a fit athletic figure.
Take a seat,” said Tyulenev pointing me to a chair near the table, and tell me about it.
My superior then spent a few long seconds staring at my face, studying my eyes, after which he gave a snort of delight and turned his gaze away. I obediently sat down and asked what he wanted me to tell him about.
The man frowned and answered with a now more official and severe tone:
One thousand four hundred seventy, we received a report about your from a very respected player, Second Legion Commander Gerd Tamara. She said you were loitering around during an official CtA and wasting rare ammunition. Now I need to know: how did you even get there?! So, tell me in chronological order what you did in as much detail as possible.
I had nothing to hide. I felt my motivation was noble and praiseworthy, so I told him I went up the corncob and into my virtual reality pod out of a sincere desire to help the faction. I described how Id edited my appearance changed my eye color, adjusted my name, and familiarized myself with my character statistics...
Tell me more about that,the fat man unlocked his computer to enter my data. Strain your memory. I need all your character’s initial parameters for our records.
For my part, I didn’t have to try very hard to remember. I could recall my initial stat table perfectly: Strength 12, Agility 15, Intelligence 17, Perception 19, Constitution 10.
Doesn’t add up. Something must be off,the fat man objected after hammering in the numbers. Every newbie is given exactly 75 stat points regardless of race or profession, but yours adds up to just 73...
And Luck Modifier +2,I added. He nodded in satisfaction.
Alright then, sounds like a decent character without serious imbalances,Tyulenev commented. What class did you get?
My options were Geologist or Prospector. I chose Prospector...
The fat mans kindhearted attitude blew away like the wind.
No, no, no! That was a mistake!Tyulenev exclaimed and stood up sharply, even damaging the seat a bit.
His gut swinging, my superior headed to the coffee maker. He just kept criticizing my choice and wouldn’t calm down:
You should have exited then and consulted with me! It’s too bad. You could have done such great things as a Geologist! That’s all down the drain now! You have high Perception and positive luck, so that would have been perfect! We could cover so many gaps in our colony with a Geologist like that! But instead, we have another worthless player... We already have a starship pilot, a space commando, and a paleobotanist. Well, it looks like team useless has four members now. You’ll be assigned menial labor like taking out trash and digging ditches.
Extremely surprised by the volatile reaction, I asked boldly what was wrong with my Prospector.
Everything is wrong with him!the fat man shouted, his hands shaking in agitation as he dropped cubes of refined sugar into his mug. The Prospector class is meant to work with electronic scanning devices. But human beings do not have such technology! And I cannot tell you how long it will be before we develop it, or if we ever even will!
I nearly fell off my chair from the shocking news. We didn’t even have the technology?! Well I’ll be damned! What could I do now?! All the other players would be able to level their primary skills, but I’d be left behind! Apparently, Tyulenev felt irritated and dejected, just like me. He was sulking and, seemingly, had lost interest in working on my development path.
I was utterly discouraged as well. But I tried to reassure him by saying I’d passed the maze and been given five stat points for my performance.
Five?Tyulenev asked, perking up. I told him how I’d spent those points and he marked it down in his computer.
I was expecting reproach or at least commentary, but the fat man had no reaction. I continued with the story of meeting the Geckho diplomat, walking down the road at night and breaking into the arsenal. Tyulenev didn’t interrupt me once. He didn’t even comment on me taking the Astrolinguistics skill, which I figured he’d also think of as wrong.
Only when I'd finished, after describing the short battle with the bugs and dying at the hand of the paladin girl, my boss said thoughtfully:
I understand Gerd Tamara’s reaction. She was on duty last night. Her nerves must have been fried. Plus, she got fragged twice. Everyone in her Second Legion respawned at least once, too. The Dark Faction assault was strong and focused. But most importantly, the Dark Faction took two of her soldiers prisoner. Tamara was especially upset by that.
But can murdering a faction member in cold blood really be justified by the frazzled nerves of that... Gerda? Or Gerd? What is it? I’ve never heard of a name like that before. Gerd?
The fat man looked at my strangely and shook his head in reproach:
I can see right away, Gnat, that you are still inexperienced and practically know nothing about the game that bends reality... Gerd isn’t some last name. It isn’t a title and isn’t a military rank... How to put it... It’s more like an achievement or rank. It comes from an ancient proto-language used all over the game that bends reality and means something like worthyor esteemed.Its an achievement that cannot be bought or received by vote. It is automatically placed before the name of a player that becomes widely-respected in their faction.
Are there higher ranks?I asked right away. “I think I heard the Geckho diplomat refer to the Dome leader as Leng.’”
Yes, Lengis the next highest rank. It means viceroy,’ ‘faction leaderor, if you’d like a more direct translation: master of the fortress.After that comes Kung,which means leader of many divisions. And highest of all is Krong,top of the hierarchy. So then, there is a clear rule: A Gerd is immeasurably higher in status than simple players and never has to explain their actions. To you, a Gerd is like...
Tyulenev faltered, trying to come up with an apt comparison and I suggested:
Like a Geckho?
Exactly! Great comparison! Exactly right! You are not always required to obey them, but you must give them respect and not enter into conflict with them. In any dispute between human and Geckho, the Geckho is always right. It is the same way with Tamara. She killed you, so she must have thought that was the right thing to do, and now she has no need to justify herself or apologize to you.
Somewhat strange logic, but I understood that it was useless to argue. Rules are rules.
But could I at least know why she did it? After all, I need to understand what I did wrong, so I don't do it again!”
The fat man went silent for a bit, then suggested I look in the mirror.
Your eyes! They’re inhuman. Also, glowing eyes are a kind of calling card of Dark Faction mages. They are our most cunning and insidious enemy. Tamara has many unsettled accounts with them. But the leader of the Second Legion is also a splinter in their ass. She is the only one who can use magic in our entire H3 Faction. Perhaps, when she saw you on her way to the arsenal, a person with glowing eyes, she thought it was a trap and acted on instinct.
But the night receptionist and the page boy today also saw my eyes, and they didn’t react!
The fat man laughed happily and turned the monitor to me:
So you thought, Gnat! Here, look at your personal file. There are two more reports. Today, two thirty AM. The night receptionist suspected you might be working for the enemy. And the second came at six ten this morning from the boy that woke you up. He requested the Security Service to test you for magical abilities. What were you thinking when you created your character? Ask the supply officer to issue you some sun glasses as soon as possible so you don’t cause so much panic.
I had no objections, I just asked him to tell me how many of our players had that higher status, so I could morally prepare and not fall to their hot temper.
In our faction, only three players have the status Gerd. They are a level-88 Sniper, First Legion Commander Igor Tarasov, a member of the Russian army and the highest-level player of our faction; a level-77 Scientist, head of the science complex Valentin Ustinov; and the level-78 Paladin you met yesterday, Second Legion Commander Tamara. And that’s it.
Just three? Great. If I memorized these three names, I could behave naturally with everyone else. Meanwhile, it suddenly grew light out. The many spotlights under the Dome were turned on. Daytime here had begun. Tyulenev also noticed the coming of morning, but had a somewhat strange reaction, closing the thick curtain over his window.
Old habit,he commented. “When I was brought under the Dome, I had stage-five diabetes. And it was type one, which is worse. My doctors said I had two weeks to live at most, and more likely a matter of hours. My retinas had deteriorated, and light gave me a horrible headache. But, like many here under the Dome, the game that bends reality saved my life. A healthy character in the game means a healthy body here on earth. My diabetes went away, and my vision returned to normal, but I still cannot bear bright light.
I kept silent, digesting the valuable information. As it turned out, many people under the Dome had once been hopelessly ill, and the game had cured them. After all, the bald fifteen-year-old who woke me up this morning, had most likely ended up here for a similar reason. Meanwhile, Tyulenev calmed down and we finally returned to the topic at hand.
I do not see anything criminal in your actions, Gnat. You were acting on noble impulses and, although your gameplay was somewhat chaotic, you did a good job. Sure, you entered the game without permission, but that reflects more on the fact that no one was guarding the corncobs. You didn’t study the labyrinth, but you still passed the test, and no one judges winners. Sure, we could have sent forty-five pounds of supplies into the virtual world with you but, in that case, I suspect you wouldn’t have succeeded.
I agreed fully with my boss. Even without the extra encumbrance, I finished just six seconds before my time was up, with my endurance nearing zero. If I had forty-five pounds of bales and boxes on me, there was no way I’d have made it. So, Tyulenev continued:
Your only serious oversight, as I already said, was the improper choice of class. But that isn’t as hopeless as I first thought. You have two more skill slots. You must now take Mineralogy and level it as a priority alongside Scanning. Consider that an official order. You will work as assistant to our other Geologist, because Mikhalych is too old, and it would take him ten years to climb around all the cliffs and hills in our faction's territory. And as for an electronic scanner... well, I saw one in the electronics shop at the Geckho base. I can’t remember how much it cost. We have a severe deficit of Geckho currency, so we only use it to buy things we really need. But let that be a dream for you in the game. If you save up the funds to buy yourself a scanner, you won’t have to languish as a Geologists assistant, you can be a fully-fledged Prospector!


Chapter Ten. Initiation


I WAS VERY LATE to Ivan Lozovskys introductory lecture, but it was not my fault. Tyulenev sent me to see the supply officer, and it took me a long time to find him. And when I got to the huge warehouse, he’d plunked along at a turtle’s pace to dig out a set of athletic clothes, a couple changes of underwear, shoes, and the rest of the standard kit for a newbie under the Dome.
So, at ten to eight, late by a whole fifty minutes, I quietly stole into the pitch-black room. Crouching down, I walked over to a free armchair near the door. The presenter, passionately speaking about a table on the big screen, didn’t even seem to notice.
Lozovsky told us about your little mishap last night,the girl next to me whispered unexpectedly. Much to my surprise, I’d sat down next to Anya from First Medical. He said it was a perfect example of how not to play.
What did he tell you?I asked. I wasn’t so surprised it came up but hearing it had been cast in a negative light caught me off guard.
Anya, not even trying to hide her mockery, told me the whole story. In it, a newbie had entered the game with no equipment or weapon, and no idea how to find our base. He then wandered at random and almost got eaten by bugs, but a better player shot him first, just to spare him the torment... A strange retelling, to put it lightly. But I didn’t dispute it. Let the newbies believe that tall tale. No skin off back, if it’s for the good of the faction.
“Say, Kirill, show me your eyes?Anya asked barely audibly. They said you made them really crazy.
Why not? I removed my dark glasses. Anya didn’t recoil but froze and stared at me with her pupils wide in astonishment. In them, I saw a reflection of a dark blue flame.
Pretty spooky...the girl admitted, but I think it’s nice and even cute. I could drown in those eyes. When I enter the game, I’ll try to make mine just like that. If I dont like it, I’ll just put it back before I start.”
The other people around us started looking back and shushing. Our conversation was making it hard for them to hear. I put my glasses back on and concentrated on the speech by our faction diplomat. Ivan Lozovsky was just finishing a section about, as far as I understood, the history of the Human-3 Faction’s settlement in the game that bends reality.
Unfortunately, I missed most of it, but the very end was also informative. The diplomat mentioned that recently, our faction had been recruiting too many soldiers and not enough scientists and inventors. It was making it hard for us to understand and reproduce the new equipment, weaponry and technology we got from our neighbors. And that, he said, was why our leadership had ordered approximately fifty students brought in from technical institutes. Character class in the game was, as a rule, related to what the person did in real life. And so, Ivan Lozovsky was confident that our faction would be gaining a few dozen sorely needed scientists, architects and technicians.
What could I say? Now I had a good explanation for yesterday's mass expulsion. Apparently, the alarming situation with aggressive neighbors in the game had caused a need for a large number of soldiers with real-world experience to defend our lands. But there were enough of those in our faction now, and the best our country had to offer were already under the Dome. But even if they did take the Construction, Chemistry or Physics skills, natural-born warriors would be about as much use in laboratories as tits on a boar. They didn’t have the base knowledge, nor the mathematical background, nor the high Intelligence. Building such a workforce required a different foundation. So, the leaders of the Dome had decided to recruit students from the upper classes of bachelor’s programs, graduate courses and science institutes.
I looked at the young specialists around me. All of them were listening attentively, hanging off every word. I could read sincere enthusiasm on their faces. They wanted to dive headfirst into their work. I was getting the impression that practically everyone else was a volunteer, who had signed up without any blackmail or police pressure. That made my small group of expelled gamers look even more surprising. They must have needed us for some reason, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
I got distracted, because the presenter brought up a new image on screen. Some kind of honeycomb pattern with differently colored hexagons. Ivan Lozovsky adjusted the microphone on his collar and continued his speech:
So then, we’ve already got a handle on classes and skills. We discussed the motivation and reward for your difficult work. We have studied the history of our faction and had a brief run-down of our neighbors. Now is the time to talk about geography.
He zoomed in on the honeycombs and I could see that the hexagons were overlaid on a topographic map of forests, rivers and swamps. Ivan Lozovsky narrated:
The Geckho told us that our entire planet in the game that bends reality is divided into perfect hexagons with edges of approximately six miles. These six-sided boxes are called different things: hexes, hexagons, cells, although recently the term nodehas been catching on, taken from some computer game. Anyway, these nodes form a kind of mosaic that covers the whole surface of the planet. Any faction in the game controls at least one node by definition. Each node has a surface area of eighty square miles — that is easily enough to build a starting base and begin producing a colony’s essential survival needs.
So, can a faction control several of these nodes?The nerd was back with another question.
However, today the diplomat was not so annoyed and answered eagerly:
Yes, of course. If they have the forces to capture and hold the territory, why not? All nodes have different climate, landscape and resources. No one territory contains every necessary resource, but most things can be found in a relatively small area. So, a faction must expand to continue to grow. Our Human-3 Faction currently controls five hexagons. We captured the fifth just four days ago, and that was what allowed us to bring more people into the game that bends reality. Those people are all of you.
Everyone started chattering and looking around. Then the nerd asked another question:
So, is there a strict formula of how many people a faction can have depending on the number of these nodes?’”
Ivan Lozovsky again reacted fairly positively to the question and answered in great detail:
Yes, of course. We only figured it out recently. But the number of nodes is less important than their development level. A level-one node allows eighty-seven players. A level-two node allows two-hundred sixty-one. A level-three, then, gives seven-hundred-eighty-three players. We do not yet have a development-level-four node, although such a well-developed hexagon would allow us to bring a whole two thousand three hundred forty-nine people into the game. Right now, we have just one level-three node — our Capital. When you first enter the game, you’ll appear right at its center, which is approximately half a mile west of our main base. Beyond our highly developed and fortified Capital, we have another three nodes to the south. Two level-two: Yellow Mountains, and Jungles, and one level-one, the farthest away: Antique Beach. Finally, our most recent addition, the Eastern Swamp, which is to the east of our Capital. We just finished conquering it from the forest spirits. We are actively building roads and fortifications there now. And so, the Human-3 Faction can have a total of one thousand four hundred seventy-nine players.
Well, well... I didn’t understand what he meant by forest spirits, but no one sitting in the hall was surprised, so he must have talked about them earlier. But my attention caught on something else. I was number 1470, and there were just 1479 people in our faction. That meant we had already used practically our entire limit! And until we captured new territories or built up the nodes we already had, there could be no reinforcements. So thats what the diplomat meant yesterday when he said we would not be needing a sixteenth Corncob any time soon!
The lecture continued. From there, though, it covered only narrow and specific topics such as what resources are necessary to construct certain buildings, how many people can work in one laboratory, and what bonuses a good leader can give to science or production teams. It was of little importance to my Prospector and, to be honest, I got a bit bored and barely made it to the end. What was more, I was fearfully hungry. It was scary to think, but I hadn’t eaten for a whole day, since right before the final match of the online tournament!

* * *

Over breakfast, our group of six sat at a separate table. And though Anya and Masha were trying to memorize the maze, Denis was trying to get under my skin with jibes about my change in appearance. I refused to give the girls any advice, not wanting to spoil their chances of getting a higher stat-point bonus. The gopnik, though, I just ignored, which got him more and more worked up.
We had already finished breakfast, when the same First Legion girl we met last night came to our table. For a second, she just looked over all six of us, then confidently stopped her gaze on me:
Gnat, youre already in the game, so you’re on the schedule. You’ll be going with Kislys group to Antique Beach at ten oclock for a standard four-hour shift at border patrol.
To say I was surprised would be saying nothing. How could my level-4 Prospector make any kind of border guard, when he couldn’t even deal with a swarm of flying bugs?! As if reading my thoughts, she added:
The border is usually patrolled by the First and Second Legions, but we were working all night, so today we will rest. That means other people have to take that duty. Antique Beach is calm, prime territory for a newbie to get his bearings. Whats more, the leader of the group, Kisly, is a level-40 Machine-Gunner, so he can explain stuff and protect you if anything happens.”
The girl with number 343 on her shirt turned around and left. I got the feeling my relationship with my new acquaintances had changed. I now sensed a certain respect and even some envy. They hadn’t yet seen their virt-pods, but I was already a fully-fledged player. I was on the schedule and the faction was counting on me. Breakfast soon came to an end, I said goodbye and headed for my Corncob.
Kirill, tonight, you have to tell us what centaurs are like, alright?Masha asked. With a confident voice, I promised I would, trying not to reveal my confusion.
What was this about centaurs? Although the name of the place I was going, Antique Beach, did seem to imply centaurs, minotaurs and various other creatures from Greek mythology. Could they really exist? Was I going to see them today with my own eyes?!





Chapter Eleven. Getting Ready for Patrol


THIS TIME, when entering the game, I didn’t fall from up high. I just appeared standing on even ground. The place, though, was the exact same — right next to the Geckho diplomats tent. Kosta Dykhsh himself happened to be there again as well, speaking with Ivan Lozovsky. It was somewhat unusual to see him not wearing an austere business suit, but a spotted camouflage smock over heavy armor. The sniper rifle slung over his back just added to it. But he was at level eighty, which inspired respect.
I walked up closer to the conversing diplomats.
Kento duho, Gnat!the furry humanoid greeted me with a slight bow.
Kento duho, Kosta Dykhsh!I echoed the Geckho diplomat and gave a bow, which inspired a fit of bark-like laughter.
Astrolinguistics skill increased to level three!
Ivan Lozovsky spilled out a long sentence in Geckho, turning to our resident suzerain, but I didn’t understand one bit, just my name, which was repeated a few times. Kosta Dykhsh, clearly justifying himself, answered in his own language. Then he pointed to me and repeated in Russian:
I didn’t make him do it. Gnat wanted to learn Geckho all on his own. I told him not to, but he insisted.
Why would he need that skill? To study a foreign language, one must speak it with a native. But how can Gnat do that? He’s a Prospector and will spend practically all his time hiking around remote cliffs and swamps!
The diplomats returned to the alien language and argued for three minutes. I even thought I caught a few select phrases in Geckho. Then my Astrolinguistics improved again:
Astrolinguistics skill increased to level four!
Finally, Ivan Lozovsky finished his argument and turned to me, looking critically at my street clothes and bare feet:
Gnat, you should run to base to get decent attire. Actually, wait... It’ll take you more than an hour to get there on foot. I’ll call a driver.
He took the radio from his belt and gave an order:
Zheltov, get your starship to the furball’s house. I need you to bring someone to base.
In reply, a high-pitched squeal came from the radio then two barely distinguishable words: “Three minutes.”
Furball?Kosta Dykhsh asked, baring his teeth. I’d seen that expression before, and it wasn’t a threat, but an imitation of a human smile.
Well, I figured your race needs an informal name, and you get offended by Wookie, yeti and abominable snowman!Ivan Lozovsky chuckled.
Yeti and Wookie are entirely different races. What’s more, they are fictional. Humans using such terms for the Geckho shows ignorance,” Dykhsh answered very seriously. Then, he suddenly started barking or coughing through clenched teeth. Furball is fine. It’s mostly an accurate description, so I cannot be mad.
I tried not to be surprised at the casual, and even friendly interaction between the two diplomats. After all, Ivan Lozovsky himself had implored us to treat all Geckho as respectfully as possible. And that was putting it lightly. But Kosta Dykhsh didn’t object, and even seemed to like it, so our diplomat must have known what he was doing.
Just then, I heard a strange hum and whistle in the distance, and soon an astonishing vehicle flew in from the forest. It consisted of a set of curved metal pipes welded together, attached to four bucket seats and something that was not quite a steering wheel, not quite a helm. The craft was somehow reminiscent of a racing buggy, but instead of wheels on the ground, it had three horizontal metal disks that made it hover. This makeshift transport was piloted by a young redheaded man covered head to toe in fresh mud and wearing an old-fashioned racing helmet and leather overalls.
Dmitry Zheltov. Human. H3 Faction. Level-28 Starship Pilot
Starship pilot?! Was this the guy Tyulenev mentioned earlier? I suspected we didn’t have a starship, so now he was working as a pilot of this... what was this by the way? The strange machine didn’t touch the ground and hovered four inches in the air. It didn’t look like an air pillow, or magnets. So, was this an improvised antigrav?
Ivan Lozovsky pointed the pilot to me:
Bring this newbie to base, right to Vasiliadi’s warehouse. Tell him to give Gnat proper equipment, because he’s going on patrol soon. Also, stay on call. There are going to be lots of trips today. We’ve got a big group of newbies. Fifty people.
The red-headed boy whistled in surprise, then pointed me to the front passenger seat. I didn’t need to be asked twice and hopped right in. The vehicle sagged a bit to one side. The pilot abruptly turned the helm in one direction, restoring balance and evening out the flying buggy:
Wo-o-oah! Careful! Cant you see? Were hovering here. This takes a gentle touch. By the way, make sure to buckle up, otherwise you might fly out when we turn. Also, there are helmets in the back. Put one on. We might need it.
I took his sage advice, donned a protective helmet, sat back in the chair and buckled the seatbelt. At that, I noticed a gnarled word scratched into the back bumper: starship.
We’ve got a couple of jokers in the faction...the pilot said, when he saw me looking. As soon as I get it repainted, they scratch it back in. But one day, I’ll catch them in the act and then I’ll show them!!!
Is that because of your class?I clarified, hoping not to seriously offend him.
What else could it be...? I was brought in from the Mozhaysky Military-Space Academy. I graduated with honors from a special course to pilot near-space vehicles, successfully passed a harsh selection process and was sent under the Dome. And when I got there, the game offered me just two professions: Starship Pilot, or Heavy Robot Operator. Of course I chose the first... But no one told me how far our faction was from getting actual starships!”
Dmitry grated his teeth and turned the helm without warning, which made the vehicle sharply start forward, pressing me forcefully into my seat.
You in a rush? You care if we go around the forest?the pilot enquired, not turning his head as he maneuvered between bushes and stones at enormous speed. Its just that, it rained yesterday and there are little streams everywhere. I got stuck in one earlier and, with two of us, we’ll probably hit another. My batteries are low. These pancakes dont have enough power. I’ll have to charge up at base...
Cartography skill increased to level four!
Only then did I notice with surprise how quickly my progress bar was filling. Another minute, or minute and a half at most, and my character would hit level five. I was actively using some skill. Cartography? Seemingly. On the dark unexplored map, a strip was slowly being colored in. So, riding the blisteringly fast buggy, leveled Cartography many times faster than going on foot.
Cartography skill increased to level five!
Scanning skill increased to level five!
You have reached level five!
You have received three skill points! (total points accumulated: six)
Whoo, if I rode around like this a couple hours, just think how much I would level! But, unfortunately, we were already there... He gave the vehicle another sharp jerk and we went around a rather sparse grove, then I saw a tall reinforced-concrete wall with watchtowers. Before it, there were rows of barbed wire, trenches and firing points for heavy artillery. The hovercraft slowed down, took a bridge over a river, then stopped next to the open gates.
Dmitry Zheltov removed his driving helmet and took his hands off the helm. I followed his example and removed my helmet. A guardsman with an automatic walked up and trained a strange camera-like device on us. His partner meticulously studied an image on his tablet. Clearly, we were being checked. We waited patiently until a command came in from the sentry up above:
All clear. Come on through!

* * *

The mountain of items on the table before me grew at a frightening speed. A whole camouflage uniform. A helmet strung with mosquito netting. Ballistic goggles. A knife in a case. High boots. A canteen. A belt. Kneepads. A backpack. Tactical gloves... Was I supposed to wear all this???
You want light or medium armor?” asked Vasiliadi, the huge hairy stock keeper.
How should I know? The Prospector class only forbid heavy and power armor. This was the first I was hearing about medium and light. I asked for medium. He plopped down a kevlar jacket with extra inserts.
Have you already taken the Medium Armor skill? Otherwise, there’s no reason to pack on the extra pounds. It wont do any good!
By the way, the stock keeper was right... I had already taken Mineralogy as my seventh skill, as directed by my boss, and was busting my brains over the last one. That was right! Protection!
You have taken the skill Medium Armor level 1.
Dont even ask for 12-caliber cartridges. We havent had them in stock for a long time. But we’ve got a ton of air rifle bullets!
But what's the use of that...?I asked in disappointment. But Vasiliadi disagreed:
Dont say that! Before we had a production facility for automatic bullets, even the First Legion used air rifles. Sure, they had a higher caliber and power than your burp gun’ but, just so you know, a 9-mm PCP pneumatic rifle can splatter the brains out of a bear! But a weapon like that needs high skill. At least level-30, and preferably higher.
Level thirty? My rifle skill was still just seven, so I had a long way to go... I asked what he had for Rifles thirteen or even ten, which made the hairy stock keeper chuckle:
What are you talking about, Gnat?! I’ve got a serious arsenal here, not just playthings. To be more accurate, I have weapons for level-zero beginners, with no skill requirements, but you’ll get a better one. Level the skill to at least twenty, then come back and we’ll take a look. Or ask our mechanics. They can improve your weapons for some coin. All kinds of modifications are available: accuracy, damage, silence. By the way, you asked about Kisly. Here he comes.
I turned sharply and saw a sprightly old man with his head shaved bald and a thick black full beard. But I ignored his unusual hair distribution. The first thing that caught my eye was his perfectly square figure. Kisly was not tall, a half a head shorter than me. But at that, his shoulders were those of a real brute. Each arm was the width of my leg, and although his huge fists were not watermelon sized, they were at least as big as a cantaloupe. And Kislys voice, as immediately became clear, was about as loud as a foghorn:
Gnat, why the hell aren’t you dressed?! We’re leaving in ten minutes, and youre not ready!
They told me to be ready by ten, but its just nine fifteen...I tried to object. But the commander barked in reply:
You dolt! We’re supposed to be at the Border Post Eight on the Antique Beach by ten. But it's a half hour away! Get dressed quick!
I caught myself off guard with how quickly I changed clothes but, just thirty seconds later, I was standing before the commander with all my items equipped. Kisly nodded in approval, but couldn’t hold back a snicker:
Gnat, what was that? You have experience getting changed in a jiffy? Maybe your girlfriend’s parents come home at odd hours? Did you forget you were in a game? Just open your inventory, set the object in the slot and it appears on your body. You didn’t have to hop on one leg to get your pants on.
Dang, that was dumb... I really had not considered that, in a virtual world, I could just move objects in a window and not have to monkey around with buttons and laces. Meanwhile, the radio on Kislys belt started sounding. With a sullen face, the high-level soldier listened carefully, confirmed and signed off. After that, he flared up again:
What is this preschool?! Listen, Gnat, there are another two coming with us. Some newbies. They say you know them. Zheltov is bringing them here right now. But, we’ve got a few free minutes, so set your respawn point on the base and use up all your skill points, if you’ve got any. Antique Beach is fairly calm, but you still might die there.
I didn’t ignore his valuable advice and dug around in the settings for how to change my respawn point. Ah, there! Some coordinates and even a mini-map. Apparently, my respawn point was right where Id first appeared in the game that bends reality. I even managed to find the Geckho diplomats tent on the mini-map.
Would you like to change your respawn point?
Yes, I would! I found a spot on base free of buildings and set new coordinates to respawn at in case of death. Great! Now I needed to spend up my skill points.
All six into Scanning and Minerology, as Tyulenev wanted? I would have done that, but according to my calculation, I would hit Scanning level six any time now. Since arriving to base, I had activated the icon a few times, so it would be dumb to lose the progress. Meanwhile, it would be totally irrational to spend my free points on Mineralogy. The very first levels of a skill always come fast, and I figured Id first get to five or seven the usual way before wasting any valuable points.
So, hoping greatly that Tyulenev would never find out, I put all six points into Rifles, raising it to thirteen. Patrolling the border was a dangerous and important mission, and with my harmless burp gun(as Vasiliadi had disrespectfully called it), I felt very unsafe.





Chapter Twelve. Antique Beach


EVEN FOR A MAKESHIFT VEHICLE, this mode of transportation looked very exotic and sluggish. It was a huge wooden box, with sheets of metal tied to the outside and eight wheels plugged right on the frame. Inside, there were four wooden benches, polished to a shine by innumerable butts. The walls had carved firing slits and the canvas roof was full of patches and stitching. And that was all the protection this moving coffin had from rain and dangerous beasts.
Half of the inside was taken up by cargo space. The driver had to look through a heavily smudged sheet of armored glass, with matte white streaks on the outside. All eight wheels of the hell cart were not rubber, but metal rings, with a contraption of wire and springs stretched over them. Perhaps that would increase their resilience to perforation, but it clearly increased wear, and my poor butt felt each time we went over a rock.
I was sitting on the very first bench next to a level-63 Mechanic-Driver by the name San-Sanych. A red-headed joker with curly hair, he had already been regularly ferrying members of the H3 Faction to their shifts on his bone-shaker for half a year. The driver turned the donut-shaped wheel, pressed the pedals and jerked the levers, yammering the whole time about himself and his unusual method of transportation.
As far as I understood, the “little bus,as San-Sanych tenderly called his vehicle, was the very first transport our faction constructed. The diesel engine had been carved and assembled in the Capital, along with the majority of the other parts. The remainder had been bought from the Geckho or brought in from the real world.
This is the border of the Yellow Mountains node,the driver declared loudly, demanding that the passengers in the back pull on the canvas roof. Before us is a forest full of nasty predatory flowers. They spit fluoric acid,San-Sanych said, turning my attention to the whitish blotches on the windshield. Very corrosive, it even eats away at tempered glass. And most importantly, there’s no way to get rid of the white marks. We have to change the windshield once a month because it just gets pure white. A loogie from one of those things will kill a person instantly if they’re lucky. Either that or they have to walk around with a burn that doesn’t heal until they die and respawn.
Anya was sitting behind me. Now a level-2 Medic, she gave a sob and started wiping indignant tears off her pretty face. Today, she had been sulking since arriving to the Capital, just crying and cursing her bad luck. It was easy to understand, though: no matter how Anya tried to distance herself from medicine, the game hadn’t given her much choice of profession: either Medic or Veterinarian. And she hated animals even more than the sight of blood, so she had to agree to the role of Medic.
Over the ten minutes we had been underway, we had already heard all the possible ways Anya could lament her hated and, most importantly, useless profession. She asked things like, “why do they even need Medics in this game? It’s easier to die and come back in fifteen minutes totally fine!” Group leader Kisly, which I found quite strange, agreed completely. When base is not far away, as a rule, a bleeding or crippled soldier would rather die on the battlefield and respawn, returning with a full store of health points and clips of bullets. The commander’s words had a very dismal effect on the already severely upset Anya.
The second of my newbie friends was Imran, a level-2 Gladiator. The Dagestani athlete was in a very bubbly and even motivated mood today, and it was all because of his class. From what I understood, he had the choice of either Bodyguard or Gladiator, made it consciously and intelligently. Imran had even left to get advice from Tyulenev. Bodyguards were a masters of shooting light firearms off the cuff, had a huge store of life points and could absorb some damage taken by other group members. Gladiators, though, specialized in hand-to-hand combat. To facilitate that, they had a cool unique ability to leap one hundred to one hundred fifty feet, so they could get right next to their enemies and shred them like cabbage with their deadly blade. Imran already had the blade, too. It looked something like a large sickle. And, it should be said that the Gladiator class could also use automatic and semi-automatic firearms, though was forbidden from using heavy weaponry or rockets.
Other than us three =, Kislys group had another four players at levels twenty to thirty-five. But, from what I understood, they were supposed to get out earlier at a different post. Kisly was going to maintain constant communication with them so that, in case any thing happened, both groups could quickly join together and come to one another’s aid.
Cartography skill increased to level seven!
Scanning skill increased to level six!
Scanning had, as I suspected, leveled quickly to six. However, Cartography was growing even faster. In the Capital, Vasiliadi told me all newbies are issued a full map of our faction’s territories, but I told him I didn’t want it. After all, if there was nothing to discover, my Cartography skill would remain inactive, and that just wouldn’t do. And practice was proving me right. Although it wasn’t as quickly as in Zheltovs starship, riding in the little bus levelled my Cartography skill at a decent pace. What was more, I was watching the surrounding country not through a narrow gun slit, but through a full windshield.
The eight-wheeled bus passed through the dangerous forest without any incidents with spitting plants. Then, its engine groaning in strain and bouncing on stones, it started climbing higher and higher up the mountain road.
You should have seen the battles for these passes three months ago!the driver continued, bringing us up to speed. This node didn’t belong to any faction but that didn’t stop the centaurs, forest spirits and atlantes from regularly sending sabotage and recon groups up here. Look at that burned tower over there. Our faction was trying to build a fort here, but the centaurs burned it down. Then, at another pass, the First Legion torched the surrounding forest with flamethrowers and managed to fortify. After that, we built posts around the perimeter and things settled down.”
Eventually, the bus drove up into a gray cloud, and I could no longer make out anything through the damp glass. Together with that, my Cartography skill stopped levelling. I spent a long time staring at the progress bar to make sure. I had no idea how San-Sanych could see anything through this fog. He must have had a secret skill like “daredevil driver” or something because the bus just kept bouncing confidently, and he kept yammering.
Let us out here!The four soldiers threw back the canvas, jumped out and got lost in the fog.
This is the highest point in the pass,Kisly commented for the newbies. There are usually two watchmen here. Now, its cloudy and damp but, when the fog disperses, you can see twenty miles in every direction. With good optics, you can even see the Geckho base on the other side of the gulf. Normally, there are two soldiers down below monitoring the path into the mountains as well, so no one slips through here from the forest.
Perhaps, in clear weather there were excellent views from up here, but now I couldn’t even see two or three yards. Now though, we were going down and, a few minutes later, we abruptly emerged from the gray fog.
Look, the sea! How pretty!!!Anya shouted out, her bad mood instantly gone.
Far below, I could see the azure ocean starting at the foothills and stretching to the horizon. Our bus, turning for a few minutes on the mountain switchbacks, went down to the very water. There we were awaited by four shirtless sunburned soldiers.
Hurry up! These guys need to get back!Kisly sped us along, and we rushed out of the bus.
Cartography skill increased to level eight!
I looked around. The sea was stormy. Heavy waves were breaking on the shore one after the next and shells and small rocks rolled up with a rustling onto the wide sandy and pebbly beach. Nearer, past the raging waves, I could see a whole heap of seaweed on the beach that stunk of iodine. Behind me, there was a sheer rock face, going steeply upward, seemingly to the very sky. From there, it looked so impassable, I had no idea how our unprepossessing bus could have made it across.
Alright, newbies, everyone listen up! That stone tower over there,Kisly pointed at the massive square construction behind us, is Border Post Eight. Its got a good firing position, embrasures on all sides and, in case of attack, can be locked up tight until reinforcements arrive. Other than the beach, which is just fifty steps wide, our neighbors can only get here from high in the mountains where our soldiers got out of the bus. So, I’ll man the tower with my machinegun. That’ll stop the centaurs and whatnot from trying to cross the beach. They've already tried a few times, and always get lit up. They know me and my machinegun well, and they fear us.
A couple seconds later our muscular commander was wearing a suit of metal armor like that of a medieval knight. Another second and a huge heavy machinegun appeared in Kisly's hands. Bluish green light glinted off it, and it had a sophisticated sight and a bunch of little doodads screwed on.
My favorite toy!the professional soldier said with tenderness in his voice, clapping his hand on his fearsome gun. It’s based on a mounted Kord, but I invested heavily in modifications to reduce weight and increase firepower. And look what that got me! Once, a level-80 Minotaur came at us from over there, slashed his way through a whole division, but couldn’t stand up to my little sweetheart. Watching the bullets go straight through his horned head was a delight!
Kisly turned around and, throwing the machine gun on his shoulder, headed for the stone tower. The three of us exchanged surprised glances.
Uh... Commander, what are we supposed to do then?Imran called out to the machine-gunner as he walked away.
You?Kisly turned around in surprise. Well, I guess do whatever you want. I can hold the tower down by myself, and you three are too low-level to help. If you want, come up on the watchtower. From there, you can see living centaurs. Or walk down the beach and collect shells. Some of them have pearls. But dont try to swim. The game rules are pretty strict on that. If you don’t have the Swimming skill, you’ll just drown as soon as you get into deeper water. In four hours, the little bus will come to take us back to base. I’ll make sure to write in my report that you all did a great job keeping watch.
Well I’ll be damned... Kisly thought of us as nothing more than useless ballast. And he didn’t hide that. Perhaps he was right, but it stung a bit to hear it out loud. So, what could we do for a whole four hours? I went up the tower after the machine-gunner and looked out an embrasure. From there, I could see pillars going into the sea with barbed wire running between them, though it was torn in a few places.
The barbed wire doesn’t hold them,Kisly shook his head, having noticed my interest in our broken defenses. The minotaurs tear through it with their bare hands, and many centaurs as well.
Just then, I noticed that the machine-gunner had taken his armor back off and was now wearing only Bermuda shorts.
So, where are the bad guys?Anya asked in surprise, standing behind me.
Fair enough. All I could see past the barbed-wire border was a lifeless beach and some cliffs. In reply, Kisly pointed to some far-away bushes and tall grass:
The centaurs aren’t idiots. They dont hang out under the burning sun all day. Over there, by the bushes, a small stream runs into the sea. They usually gather there in the shade near the cool clean water. Just so you know, that is the only source of fresh water on the whole beach. It’s morning now, but by midday, the sun here is so scorching that some soldiers have suffered heatstroke. So, I usually dont wear my armor without a good reason. Sure, it isn’t regulation, but this thing is like a tea kettle, and it’ll boil your brains before a shift is up.
He was right. It was sweltering in this tower. I was afraid to even imagine how blistering it could get in the hotter part of the day. And my canteen was totally empty. I hadn’t thought to fill it in the Capital. Id been rushing and figured Id have time later. Anyway, I could make it four hours without water, but it would be a lesson for the future...
I walked over to the opposite embrasure. I just saw more beach running along a mountain ridge. Far in the distance, there were some buildings.
Whats over there?I asked the commander.
Kisly looked where I pointed and, cringing in disgust, answered:
It's a pier. It is on our land and technically belongs to our faction, but the Geckho run the show. They bring our trade goods and tribute there, then haul it away by sea. We are their vassals and pay thirty percent of every resource we gather: crops, lumber, metals and ore... Ivan Lozovsky assures us that's the way things should be, that we owe it to them for protection, and we could easily be exterminated if we fail to provide for our suzerains. But I don’t like it one bit. It makes me feel like we’re being occupied and robbed blind...
Kisly spit loudly through the embrasure, expressing his feelings on the matter. But at that, as if answering himself, continued:
“But you're newbies. You must be curious about the aliens. You cant see the centaurs right now anyway, and if you sit around here with nothing to do, you’ll get bored. If you want, go over to the pier. The Geckho won't let you into the warehouses, but you can take a look at the outside. By the way, you can ask the Geckho to fill all your canteens. They’re usually pretty good about little favors like that.”

Chapter Thirteen. First Patrol


Everyone liked the idea of walking to the dock. I don’t know why Imran or Anya wanted it, maybe they were just curious, but I saw many upsides. First of all, I could level Cartography by walking the nearly two miles of unmapped coastline. Second, our path took us along a crumbling rock cliff, and I was hoping to practice Minerology. Third, speaking with Geckho would increase my Astrolinguistics skill. And of course, I was just curious to see new parts of Antique Beach and didn’t want to get bored just sitting in the tower.

Medium Armor skill increased to level two!

The sudden message made me think. The sun was scalding. Following Kislys example, I was about to stash nearly all my clothing in my inventory and get back into my jeans. I planned on keeping the army boots on though, because the sand was red-hot, and I didn’t have any other footwear. But given that just wearing the kevlar jacket was gradually levelling my Medium Armor skill, I decided against changing clothes. I could bear the heat. The Medium Armor skill was very useful, and leveling it would not only increase my defense stat, it would also improve the armor bonus of my equipment and let me use better armored vests in the future.
Unlike me, Anya changed practically at once, getting into a bright crop top, short shorts and a baseball cap. She wasn’t afraid of getting a sunburn here, either. She was tanned bronze, which meant she either spent a lot of time down south on the beach or frequented a tanning salon. Imran stripped down to the belt, demonstrating his athletic body with clear pride, especially showing off for the pretty girl. I even caught Anya staring at his rippling muscles, though she didn’t say anything out loud.
And then I got startled by an alarm. My food bar had dipped below half. I got some briquettes of dried food from the warehouse in the Capital today, so I dug into my inventory. There was dried meat, bread and some dried green blocks which must have once been plants. Sure, I was glad to have food, but it was pretty hard to chew. I needed water, which I could get at the Geckho base.
Lets hurry up!I turned and shouted at my companions, who had lowered their speed to that of a tortoise, stopping frequently and poking around in the sand.
Anya was crouching down in the surf and looking closely at something. She stood up and wiped her wet hands on her light shorts:
Wait, Gnat! The storm brought all kinds of shells here. Some of them are beautiful. And there’s something alive in practically all of them. Maybe I’ll find a pearl.
Hey, I just found one!Imran shouted in satisfaction, having opened one of the shells with his blade and showing us the quarter-inch-diameter pearlescent sphere.

Sea Pearl (trade good)

I walked up and took a closer look both at the pearl and oyster shell. The gnarled outside of the mollusk was a blackish-brown. The inside was white and contained the torn remains of a tiny shellfish. The game system obligingly told me the oyster counted as food. Sure, why not? I tore out the slimy veiny meat and carefully stuck it in my mouth.
Ick, how can you eat that crap?!Anya cringed and hurried to run away so she wouldn’t have to watch the unpleasant spectacle.
I delicately chewed the mollusk and swallowed. Hmm... Well, what could I say...? The flavor was, of course, unique, but not bad. My hunger bar went up noticeably. I took another look at the shell and activated the Scanning icon, wanting to search for similar ones in the area.

Scanning skill increased to level seven!
You have reached level six!
You have received three skill points!

Oh yeah, sweet! Although, before using the points, I looked to see what the scan had found. Now this was even cooler. There were now a few dozen oysters on the mini-map. That meant I could set priority targets for a scan! A few minutes later, I had shaken out thirty brownish-black shells and tossed them up to Imran.
I dont get how you open them,I admitted. It seems too tight to get a knife in!
The Gladiator chuckled and gracefully opened all the shells with his sickle in just under a minute. Only four of them contained pearls. I wanted to split the bounty evenly with Imran, but he refused:
No, those are yours. I already took my reward. Opening those shells raised my Blades skill by two levels in the blink of an eye! I got my character to level three! So, throw me all the oysters you can find. I'm more than happy to shuck!
I didn’t argue and, working the meat out of the shells, I started eating them raw. My hunger bar quickly filled to eighty percent, but would go no higher, no matter how much of the slimy meat I forced down. Why? I asked my friends, and Imran explained:
Gnat, you missed the beginning of the presentation today. That high-level diplomat... I forgot his name... told us about the game menu and interface. Somewhere deep in the settings you can customize the hunger bar display, but there’s no real reason. You just need to know that game characters need three kinds of food to live. He called them red, blue and green. Most dishes contain just one type. Red is in meat-heavy dishes, blue in seafood and green is veggies. It's all relative, but I think you understand.
I see. You need to eat a varied diet, like the food pyramid,I chuckled.
Yeah, thats right. By the way, our medic friend Anna said that she was a firm vegetarian and wouldn’t eat any meat, even in the game. Or fish either...
We both turned our heads toward the girl. Anya, who was now at level three, had managed to climb pretty high up the stone slope. Digging at one of the boulders distractedly with her knife, she was trying to pick something out of it. Finally, she managed, straightened up and called us to join her. Imran, using his jumping ability, bounded over to Anya in a second, and shouted to me from there:
Gnat, come up here! She found gold!
Gold?! Very interesting! My level-6 Surveyor took a bit longer to get up there but, gracefully jumping from rock to rock like a mountain goat, I ascended the crumbling boulders to meet my friends.
Here! Gold!Anna pridefully showed me a chunk of golden fine-crystalline nodules she'd worked out of the large stone.
I didn’t even have to hold the fragment of stone to realize my friends were mistaken. Nothing to be ashamed of, though. It was a common error. Almost everyone who saw crystalline iron sulfide for the first time thought the same thing. Pyrite, or “fool’s gold,” as it’s also known, looks quite similar to native gold ore. That was what I told my friends.
Are you sure?the pretty blonde asked with doubt in her voice.
She clearly didn’t want to part with the dream of striking it rich. I saw a marker over the chunk reading Unknown mineral.” The "prospecter" probably saw the same.
Yes, I'm one hundred percent sure this is pyrite,I repeated with emphasis and a miracle happened:

Mineralogy skill increased to level two!
Mineralogy skill increased to level three!
Mineralogy skill increased to level four!
Mineralogy skill increased to level five!
Mineralogy skill increased to level six!
You have reached level seven!
You have received three skill points! (total points accumulated: six)

Woah... The game system gave a very generous reward for identifying just one mineral. The sheer number of messages spooked me a bit. A clear explanation immediately came to mind, though. Most likely, a player had to reach Mineralogy level six to identify pyrite, and the game had brought my skill level in line with my real-world knowledge.
It isn’t gold anyway, just some crap,the level-3 Medic threw away the stone, which she considered useless.
I didn’t agree and explained that pyrite was used in chemical manufacturing to make sulfuric acid, iron sulfate and many other things. Just in case, I marked the source of iron sulfide on my map. Id tell the higher-ups when I got back to the Capital and let them decide whether it was economically justifiable to mine and process.
***
It took us another hour and a half to reach the pier. In that time, I discovered another rich vein of hematite, chalcopyrite and, I believe, skutterudite. To be honest, the game wouldn’t identify the matte-white crystals as skutterudite, so I couldn’t be certain. At any rate, I managed to get my Minerology skill to level eleven, and I was very satisfied with that.
I also leveled Cartography, Scanning and Medium Armor by one, and reached the Geckho pier as a proud level-eight Surveyor! My companions also leveled noticeably during our walk along the Antique Beach and were now both at level five. Anya was especially fortunate to use her primary skill. Imran, training his long-jump ability had once miscalculated and slammed full speed into a granite cliff.
It hurt to even look at his broken body after that. His whole face was bloody, he had a huge dark bruise on half his torso and his left arm was hanging down limp... But Anya took out her big first-aid kit and patched up our friend in just half an hour, even fixing his broken collar bone. Near the end, clearly satisfied with her work, she proudly declared that she had made peace with her profession, and no longer wanted any other.
The Dagestani was very grateful for the aid and, whether joking or serious, promised Anya to sometimes purposely break his body from now on. He said he liked being cared for by such a pretty girl and wanted to help her level her medical skills.
I used my nine free skill points as well: three in Rifles, three in Scanning, and the remaining three in Astrolinguistics. I figured we would be meeting aliens soon, and it would help us all if I could speak their language.
But, after another bend in the coastline, it became clear that there was a ways to go before that. Our path was unexpectedly blocked by a sturdy ten-foot-tall chain-link fence. It was exactly like the one outside the Firing Range, right down to the high-voltage barbed wire on top.
The fence extended far into the ocean on one side, the other end stuck into a tall and nearly sheer cliff. There was no way around. We stopped in indecision, discussing the unexpected obstacle. Anya took the radio off her belt and called Kisly to find out how other players had gotten around this before:
“Commander Kisly, this is Anya. There’s a tall fence on the beach and we cannot reach the pier.
In response, we heard a high-pitched squeak and a few poorly audible words:
What the hell... there wasn’t... (distortion)... fence... damn Geckho... (distortion)... come back.
And although we didn’t get the full meaning, I got the impression the commander didn’t know about this obstacle and thus couldn’t tell us how to get around it. Imran noted in dismay:
How can there be any talk of antigravs and other high tech stuff, if our faction cant even make a decent radio?! We’re just under two miles from the Border Post Eight, and we can already hardly hear a thing.
It also seemed strange to me that, if the Dome project was so high-priority and had huge government investment, our faction couldn’t even get decent radios. But I didn’t discuss it. First of all, I didn’t know all the details, and there might be good reasons for the distortion. Second, I had spotted a gate in the fence.
However, it immediately became clear that the door was locked from the other side, and this side didn’t have a lock or even a handle. Although... I looked higher. At around eight feet above the ground, there was a device that looked like an intercom with buttons and a microphone. I asked Imran to let me stand on his shoulders, so I could reach it.
I pressed the button for the next four minutes and tried to say who we were and why we were here. At the same time, all three of us were shouting through the gate, hoping any Geckho on the other side might hear us. But it was no use. No one answered, no one opened the door, and no one came to the fence.
We were screaming so loud a deaf person could hear. I dont think there’s anyone there,Imran said.
I have one free skill slot. I could take Swimming and get around the fence by the sea!Anya offered, but it seemed wasteful to have her use a valuable skill just for this.
Meanwhile, having tested all ways of communicating with the guards via intercom, I decided to try speaking Geckho:
Kento duho!I said the traditional greeting phrase. In response, a Geckho phrase came through the speaker:
Sabi fsen vari.
Some nearby sand started rustling, and a metal pillar with a square white sensor panel rose up five feet. It was seemingly a sign to identify myself. I jumped off the shoulders of the Dagestani athlete, walked over to the panel and placed my right palm against it:
Gnat, Human, H3 faction,I introduced myself, but the system didn’t like that answer, and the post went back underground.
Hm... No dice. It seemed I was not on the list, or it simply only allowed Geckho to enter. The sensor panel was too large for a human hand, so that seemed only natural. So, I remembered the only Geckho I’d met, a diplomat by the name of Kosta Dykhsh. His huge hand had a hairy palm with four fingers. I hadn’t seen any parts free of fur. All his fingers ended in large claws. The scanner couldn’t be reading fingerprints through all that fur. What if...
I dug through the sand on the beach, picked up a couple empty shells, cleaned them off and stuck them on the four biggest fingers of my right hand. I said the Geckho greeting phrase again, calling up the sensor panel. I placed the shell-hand up to it, trying to touch the white surface only with the shells:
Kosta Dykhsh Geckho. Waideh-Dykhsh.

Electronics skill increased to level four!
Astrolinguistics skill increased to level eight!
Break-in skill increased to level three!
Break-in skill increased to level four!
The gate slid silently aside, letting us through to the pier and warehouses.

Chapter Fourteen. Talking with Centaurs


As soon as wed gone a hundred steps and turned around the jutting cliffs, we could see the long sturdy dock, some hemispheric hangars and a large stack of containers. We stopped and took a look around.
Dont touch anything!I immediately warned my friends.
Imran and Anya nodded in agreement, also understanding that, if we stole anything from the warehouse, our Geckho suzerains would react very badly, and might even destroy human civilization. We walked across the pier to the opposite fence, then looked into the locked hangars. They had stacks of lumber ready for export and many sealed freight containers with incomprehensible markings.
We very quickly realized that there was nothing to do here at the warehouse. There were no living people or Geckho here, and we did not find any fresh water. And naturally, we were not going to break into the buildings or crack open the containers. Especially after I noticed the security system. On the building roofs and the fence, there were cameras keenly tracking our every movement and constantly holding us in frame.
It was midday. The sun was burning. A few times, my friends suggested I remove my jacket and dress a bit lighter, but I said I’d rather get soaked in sweat to level my Medium Armor skill. Anya then, as she was planning, took the Swimming skill and went for a dip, diving off the pier. Imran stripped down to his trunks and, right on the pier, started practicing with the sickle-like blade, also leveling his skills and showing off for the pretty girl.
I meanwhile walked the perimeter of the warehouse and used my shell glove to trick the sensor system two more times. My Break-in skill leveled to six, along with Electronics. But as for Astrolinguistics, it didn’t get any better. Then my radio turned on. Through distortion, I heard Kisly saying the centaurs had come out of hiding and could now be seen from the tower. Our commander suggested we start making our way back to catch a glimpse with our own eyes. Also, he said we should leave soon just to be at Border Post Eight by the time the little bus came back.
We all turned and started back. But we didn’t manage to leave the fenced-in area before we heard a whistle and hum from over the sea. Flying very low over the water, a strange silver vehicle was speeding along just above the waves. It looked most of all like a fat airplane with miniature wings. When it got closer, I managed to read some information about the object:

Shiamiru. Geckho cargo shuttle.

We’re here illegally. We should move our asses!Anya suggested, alarmed by the approaching guests.
Its no use. They probably already saw us. And we’ll be in plain sight on the sandy beach. There’s nowhere to hide...Imran objected.
In the end, we didn’t run. In fact, we stood on the pier for all to see and watched the heavy vehicle climb higher, flying over our heads and landing in a free space in the middle of the warehouse. The heavy craft didn’t entirely quiet down before the doors slid aside. Many strong figures in dark armored space suits poured out. Their furry faces weren’t visible due to the darkened helmets, and there was no more information available about these extraterrestrial newcomers no names, levels or classes.
There were fifteen Geckho but, surprisingly, they didn’t pay us three any mind. Quickly, in a business-like manner, the furballs unfolded a crane attached to the side of their shuttle and started loading containers into their flying vehicle. And they weren’t loading at random, but very selectively running up to certain containers, attaching hooks and transferring the goods into the cargo bay. Some boxes were negligently shoved out of the way because they were blocking more desirable ones. While they rushed to load the containers, a couple dark figures split off from the main group and forced open the doors to one of the buildings with crow-bars and hatchets. It took them around a minute to get inside. They took out something in a small transparent bag and threw it into the shuttle.
After just four minutes, the whole team of loaders was folding the crane back up and hurriedly returning to the flying vehicle. It took off vertically at an extreme pace and disappeared into the sunny sky in less than a minute.
They sure worked fast,Anya commented. Although it was also quite careless. Look how many boxes they knocked off those piles! And I'm not even talking about the door they broke! You think they were in such a rush they just forgot their keys?
Yeah, they were acting weird,Imran agreed. It was like they were pressed for time, and didn’t care if they broke stuff. All that mattered was taking what they wanted.
Guys, do you think we just witnessed a warehouse robbery?I suggested, as if I had second sight.
At the same time, both from the sea and the path leading into the mountains, many flying armored vehicles appeared and rushed toward the warehouses. Another couple minutes later, the pier was packed to the brim with armed and very angry Geckho soldiers. We were surrounded, had our weapons confiscated brusquely and were searched, including with some kind of scanner. An enraged dark-brown Geckho by the name of Sysa Kuttsh yelled something, clearly demanding an answer. But my friends didn’t understand him at all, while I could only make out at most one word of five, but that didn’t add up to anything sensible.
“...Shuttle ...ore... sea... idiot... damn... Geckho...”
I simply didn’t have the words to explain what we'd seen, or how wed gotten near the guarded warehouses. However, hearing his select phrases noticeably enriched my vocabulary, raising my Astrolinguistics skill to nine. Fortunately, another fifteen minutes later, a representative of our faction arrived on a two-seat antigrav. It was Ivan Lozovsky accompanied by the Geckho diplomat Kosta Dykhsh.
They conversed with Sysa Kuttsh in elevated tones for five minutes. At the end, the dark Geckho, seemingly responsible for defending this warehouse, took out a short high-caliber sawed-off and... shot himself, placing the weapon to his own forehead and pulling the trigger!
As soon as his body hit the sand, both diplomats walked unceremoniously over the lifeless corpse toward us.
Well... Looks like you guys landed yourselves in some shit...Ivan Lozovsky told us in the dismayed tone of a teacher whod caught troublemaking students near a broken window. The security camera footage has been wiped, the safe of monetary crystals was broken into, and there are only human fingerprints on all the entrance scanners... If it weren’t for the disappearance of thirty shipping containers, I cant even imagine how you'd get out of this... But the Geckho, despite being extremely angry, understand that you would not have been able to make off with thirty containers.
I need to know what the people saw,Kosta Dykhsh said in an even tone that expressed no emotions, not addressing any of us specifically. And the Geckho will have a look...
The three of us exchanged glances, and I stepped forward. I started honestly telling why we came to the warehouse, how we got into the fenced-in area, and what we saw in greatest possible detail.
Show me!the diplomat pointed his furry paw at the nearest gate.
I repeated my trick with the shell glove, though this time I used a different name: Sysa Kuttsh. The gates opened obediently, and I saw Gekcho expressing surprise for the first time. All the furballs around me had their nostrils flare, while their eyes turned into narrow little slits.

Fame increased to 3.

After a seconds pause, a heated argument began between the extraterrestrials crowded around the gates using many select and idiomatic expressions. Funnily enough, I partially caught the sense of their argument. Stock keeper Sysa Kuttsh had decided to scrimp on security systems and had either bought or just taken as tribute the very cheapest thing he could get his hands on. And it turned out those systems were totally useless and not even able to distinguish between a human and a member of a different race.
The Geckho seemingly forgot about the humans all around them. Taking advantage of that, Ivan Lozovsky took the three of us aside:
They aren’t going to accuse you of theft. But, unfortunately, your vague description was not enough to identify the true thieves. The Geckho have many clans, groups and independent military divisions. And Shiamiru isn’t the name of a single ship, but a very widely-used class of cargo shuttle, which doesn’t help the investigation one bit. Nevertheless, Gnat, I’ll be expecting you this evening in the real world. We need to have a very serious discussion about your risky gameplay. It threatens problems not only for you personally, but for our whole faction, which I cannot allow! But now, while the Geckho are concerned with other things, I suggest you get back to Border Post Eight as fast as your feet can take you, and dont stick your heads out or get caught up in any new adventures!
***
With all the twists and turns, we forgot why we had even come to the pier. Our canteens were still empty, and I remembered that only half way to the border post. Meanwhile, the heat had become totally unbearable. By my estimation, it was no less than one hundred degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, and maybe more. To even take that measurement, I’d have to find some shade first! In the sun, it was far beyond acceptable. I finally had to put all my kevlar armor in my inventory and strip to the waist. Then I twisted my shirt into a makeshift turban to avoid heatstroke. Levelling be damned, if it meant nearly fainting in the heat! It wasn’t worth sacrificing my health!
But I planned to take a different way back to Border Post Eight, going higher up the mountain slope, so I could level my Cartography and my Mineralogy. But in the oppressive heat, I had no energy to scramble up rocks, and time was pressing. There was just an hour left before the end of our shift, so I resigned myself to scanning for oysters a few more times and giving them to Imran. In the end, that netted me ten more pearls, and got my Scanning to twelve. What was more, my character had reached level nine!
I put all three skill points right into Scanning. I didn’t want to get scolded tonight for disobeying direct orders on top of the almost guaranteed lecture for my risky behavior.
Kisly was still sitting on the very top of the tower with his trusty machinegun but, despite the heat, our commander was now suited up. The machine-gunner listened to the story of our misadventures on the pier, and didn’t hide his dismay:
I told you to come back! You didn’t listen, you wanted to go where you aren’t allowed. It's your own fault!
Imran noted fairly that, with such bad radio signal, we couldn’t make out more than a couple disjointed words. Also, the level-6 Gladiator asked why it was like that. Despite himself, Kisly agreed that our communications devices were atrocious:
All our soldiers complain about that... Our technicians initially blamed it on a lack of pure crystalline silicon to make semiconductors, and how hard it is to make capacitors, diodes and other transistors from scratch. The quality varied a lot. In the end, we just brought in components from the real world, but there were not enough. That allowed us to make okay radios for the First and Second Legions with encoding and other bells and whistles. But newbies are still issued old devices that just barely work...”
The experienced soldier went silent in thought, then changed the topic:
So, you wanted to see centaurs. There are a couple near the barbed wire fence now.
I looked through an embrasure and saw two centaurs just three hundred feet from our tower! One was a large male with a chestnut-colored horse body that gave way to a muscular human torso. And next to him was a relatively small female with stripes like a zebra. Kisly, holding his sights on the couple, commented:
They aren’t crossing the border, just stomping around their territory. They probably came to trade. They sometimes have fabrics, pearls or forest berries to sell. I'm not coming down from my position but, if you want, you can go talk to them.
Anya was categorically opposed, honestly admitting that she was afraid. Imran was also hesitant, but in the end decided to stay. He said hed already had enough adventure for one day. So, I had to go it alone.
Just put your rifle into your inventory,Kisly advised me. Centaurs are strong, clever and utterly unprincipled. They’ll take your weapon from your hands and run off with it. Then, you’ll have to explain yourself to the leadership and ask Vasiliadi for a replacement.
It was reasonable advice, so I followed it, but I couldn’t fathom why the centaurs might want a rifle without bullets. I came down from the stone tower and walked unhurriedly to the border and read the information about these mythological creatures:

Ness. Centaur. Antiquity Faction. Level-68 Gladiator.
Phylira. Centaur. Antiquity Faction. Level-48 Archer.

The centaurs were watching me carefully. The male periodically made loud sounds similar to a horses neigh, while the female remained silent and smiled just like a person. I didn’t see any weapons on them, although I understood perfectly that they could take them from their inventory in an instant. I stopped three steps from a gap in the barbed wire and gave a bow.
Greetings, Gnat!Phylira said in quite clean Russian. Dont be afraid, we come in peace. I found a good pearl and would like to trade. Have you got any bullets for sale? Or some of that burning white wine?
Vodka?I suggested, and Phylira nodded in joy:
Yes! Vodka! I’ll give you a big handful of pearls, there are even some large ones!
But I didn’t have any spare bullets, and especially vodka. Also, I didn’t have anything in my inventory to trade other than more pearls and condoms. Should I try and sell them? I took out one packaged condom and showed it to the filly:
I havent got any vodka. But I have got something better. This little thing can buy you a magical night of love no foals guaranteed.
The centaur woman either snorted in dismay or chuckled, then cast a sidelong gaze at her four-legged companion and turned back toward me:
Ness doesn’t understand your language, so we can speak freely. So, can it be with any stallion? A magical night of love?
I realized my unusual trade good had intrigued the lady, and she wasn’t trying to hide it. I assured her the miracle item was effective, and Phylira gave a whinny of satisfaction, then extended me her cupped hands full of pearls:
Gnat, will this be enough? This is all the pearls I have on me. I could add my throwing knife or...here the centaur lady gave a neigh, myself. I see how you people look at me. You find me attractive, admit it!
The bare breasts on Phyliras female torso really were exceptional, prim and perky. She also had a nice face and head of hair. But everything below Phylira’s waist was just like a zebra, and I had no idea how she envisioned this going, just from a technical standpoint. Real pervert stuff! Of course I refused. Instead, beyond the pearls, I asked for the right to take water in my canteen from the river behind the centaurs.
Water?!Phylira asked in surprise, seemingly somewhat offended. Thats up to Ness. He’s in charge here.
The language of the centaurs was a mixture of horse-like neighing, short one-syllable words and many tongue clicks. The male had a very stormy reaction to his companions request. He neighed in dismay, reared up, and I even saw a short spear appear in his hands. But Phylira was insisten, seemingly even promising something. Ness spent a little while longer being stubborn but eventually allowed himself to be convinced. Both centaurs stepped aside ostentatiously, allowing me through. I politely thanked the border guards and gave a deep bow. Ness gave a contemptuous snort and galloped away.
Come back tomorrow, Gnat. I’ll gather more pearls and we can trade again!Phylira promised, then hurried off after her companion.
I walked the 100 feet to the dense bushes lining the banks of the small river at a deliberate confident pace and stopped five steps away. I could already see the babbling and tempting water through the greenery, but there was an unnatural silence in the shrubbery. No insects chirring, no birds singing. And that unnerved me

Successful Perception check

My intuition was right. I looked closer and saw a figure practically stock-still blending in with the leaves. A dryad with a bow at the ready. And not just one! I activated Scanning. Woah! So many red markers! There was a whole squadron of them! For a moment, I met gazes with one of the archers, and gave a respectful bow, saying in a calm quiet voice:
Greetings, esteemed ladies of the forest! Your border guards gave me permission to gather water.
In reply, I heard a rustling of leaves. On the mini-map, I noticed that practically all the red markers started moving away. Thirty seconds later, only the first dryad I’d spotted remained. It seemed I was being allowed to approach the river. I removed my canteen and started poking through the thick bushes.

Fame increased to 4.
Astrolinguistics skill increased to level ten!
Cartography skill increased to level ten!

Fortunately, it was a fast-flowing river, so it was untainted by salty sea water. I drank some water at my leisure then filled the canteen and clipped it onto my belt. I thanked the dryad, turned around and headed back to my factions territory with just such a deliberate gait.
As soon as Id passed the rows of barbed wire that marked the border, Anya flew at me in anger:
Why did you leave our node??? We were dying in worry! The commander said he’d pummel you into the ground if the centaurs didn’t do it first!
Kisly was so upset he abandoned his post and came down from the stone tower to give me a piece of his mind:
Bonehead! Idiot!! Imbecile!!! What were you thinking going that far?! You could have been kidnapped! To be honest, I was sure youd be attacked. I was holding you in the sights of my machinegun until you reached the bushes to make sure they wouldn’t take you alive. I nearly pulled the trigger when you crawled into the bushes! I thought it would be better to shoot you myself than to have the whole faction gather goods to ransom you back from the centaurs!

Chapter Fifteen. Return to Base


Anya’s disapproval of my thoughtless behavior did nothing to stop her from greedily drinking from my canteen, though. Kisly also stopped frowning fairly quickly and changed back to his usual relaxed and confident face. The commander heard out my story and even chuckled at the negotiations with the centaurs.
Huh, how didn’t I think of trading rubbers with them before?!the machine-gunner moaned. But it's too late now. Such a great trade opportunity, and you cut it off at the root…”
Why do you say that?I didn’t understand.
Kisly gave a wry chuckle and explained in great detail:
Did you see the wood the centaur stallion was packing? Below the waist, he’s just like a horse with all goods that go with it. A human condom will never fit a centaur! Phylira will think you tricked her after the magical night of love does not work out. And it's too bad, it was such a good idea. It weighs practically nothing, and it would be easy to bring even a hundred from the real world and get a whole handful of pearls for each!
And what’s the use of pearls?I asked the experienced commander.
You can exchange them with the Geckho. The Geckho have been using electronic payment amongst themselves for a thousand years. But with savages like us, they use a special form of currency: artificial red crystals cut in a special way. They’ll give one crystal for thirty pearls, and you can use the crystals to buy goods in their shop. But everything they have is expensive. For example, one blaster battery is seventeen crystals while the blaster itself is just under a thousand!
I just whistled at the sky-high prices. A thousand crystals was thirty thousand pearls, and there was only one pearl per ten shells… I’d have to gather pearls for a whole year to save up enough for one blaster! I said just that out loud.
Exactly,Kisly agreed, theyre robbing us blind! The Geckho pay us outrageously low prices. A ton of good, sanded lumber is just twelve crystals! When we bought an exoskeleton armor suit for the leader of the Second Legion, our whole faction had to grub along morning noon and night for a whole week to gather the crystals!
The leader of the Second Legion? Gerd Tamara?I clarified, and the machine-gunner confirmed with a nod.
Choosing his words very carefully so he wouldn’t accidentally offend the esteemed girl, I enquired what made Tamara so special that the whole faction had worked together to pay for her armor.
Do you really not know?our commander was surprised and even seemingly somewhat flabbergasted.
Neither I nor Anya knew, which we told Kisly honestly. He looked around nervously, as if we might be overheard and told me quietly:
Alright, I’ll tell you. But if it comes to anything, you didn’t hear this from me. Got it?
Anya and I nodded in silence. Our commander then, taking another look around, started his story:
As I'm sure you already know, many terminally ill people were brought under the Dome once it was discovered the game that bends reality could cure them. But no one had a story as gruesome as Tamara. Her father was a judge, and one day he sent a few high-level of drug traffickers to jail. He wasn’t afraid of taking them on, but he should have been. They came from a large and influential gang. For years, they controlled a whole city in the Urals. With connections both in the administration and police, they basically ran the place. They barely even had to hide. Higher-level investigators and the prosecutor's office were constantly trying to hook them by the gills, but they never did. Some witnesses would disappear without a trace, others would get scared and refuse to testify. Everyone in the city knew about these drug traffickers, but they were afraid. Plus, city administrators and local police were actively defending them. Tamaras father was also pressured during the trial, and he and his family were threatened many times. But he wasn’t afraid of giving them long prison sentences...
Kisly lowered his gaze and spent a long time in silence before continuing his story barely audibly:  
At night, a group of armed men broke into the judges house and the whole family was violently murdered. Tamara was tortured while her dying father looked on. They broke her arms, pulled out her eyes, punctured her ear drums, stabbed her in the chest and left her to die. But despite it all, she survived. Her wounds were so severe, the doctors said she’d never make it, but she eventually crawled back from the brink. Even when she got better though, she couldn’t see or hear, so she might as well have been a vegetable. That all happened four years back... Tamara spent a few years in a hospital, cooped up with her thoughts until she was brought under the Dome. I didn’t see her before her recovery, but I’ve heard it was a nasty sight. Practically no one believed Tamara would get better. But miraculously, in just a few weeks, she fully regenerated her lost body parts, and her sight returned. After that, Tamara came forward on her own accord and testified against the men who murdered her family. She’s been under the Dome for six months now. In the game, she is always on the front lines in the toughest battles. She’s garnered a reputation as an extremely strict leader with no patience for anyone who doesn’t quickly carry out her every order. The Second Legion adores her. They’d tear their enemiesteeth out if she asked. Also, Gerd Tamara is the only player in our faction who can use magic. When Leng Radugin announced we were collecting funds to buy exoskeleton armor for Tamara, practically everyone in our faction pitched in. And I was one of them. Without hesitation, I gave up all my crystals and spent seven days from morning to night slaving away as a lumberjack.
Kisly finished the story and went silent. After that, I knew no one in our faction would support me if I complained about Gerd Tamara. Her status as a Gerd was not even the biggest factor.
I see the little bus on the mountain road!Imran shouted down to us from the tower.
Our commander glanced at his wristwatch, gasped and started getting ready to go. He put his trusty machinegun into his inventory, changed his metal armor for civilian clothing and ordered all three of us to line up in formation outside the tower.
All in all, I’d say you had a good first patrol!the group leader declared. The enemy did not cross the border, and all the newbies are still alive. You leveled up, improved your skills, and learned something about the game. So, I’d say I did my job. As for Gnats unauthorized border crossing, I will not mention it in my report, because it all ended for the best. But don’t go wagging your tongues about it. Agreed?
My friends and I promised the commander to keep silent on the minor incident. Just then, the familiar little bus came around a bend in the mountain switchback.
"Now thats great! Take your places, lets go back to the Capital. If we don't get stuck on our way, lunch wont even get cold!

***

We ate lunch in a dining hall identical to the one we had breakfast in this morning. We even sat at the same table. But this time, we were in a virtual game at the central base of our faction. It was a very bizarre sensation. Unfortunately, there were too many people around, so I was too embarrassed to ask my friends whether the virtual food would nourish my real body.
At the table, we were reunited with Masha, Denis and Artur. It immediately became clear that none of them had done any border patrol. Instead, those three had spent the first half of their day in science buildings: Masha in a chemistry laboratory, hidden from prying eyes in the Jungles node, while Artur and Denis were stationed at the Prometheus.
We're synthesizing explosives in a remote location in the middle of an endless forest, and testing various priming compositions for detonators and capsules. Some are working with lead azides, others with hexogen or peroxides. I was assigned to experiment with mercury fulminate. I even died once today!Masha boasted, as if that was something to be proud of. A flask blew up in my hands, and I came back at the respawn point!
While Masha the level-four Chemist had lots to say, Artur and Denis had nothing to share about their work, saying it was top secret. All I could do was glean some clues from their game data:

Artur Ganin. Human. H3 Faction. Level-5 Constructor.
Denis Tormashyov. Human. H3 Faction. Level-5 Engineer.

Unlike them, Anya and the normally taciturn Imran sang like nightingales, describing our shift on the border with the centaurs. They showed off the shells and pearls they’d collected, and even a piece of pyrite. It was clear that our scientist friends were secretly jealous, though they wouldn’t admit it. But I was busting my brains over why the leadership had split us up like this, sending half of us on a combat mission, and the other half to laboratories. Was it due to our classes? Probably.
Then, I felt a wave of déjà vu. Before we were done with our meal, the same fit First Legion blonde walked up to our table. In the game, she didn’t wear tight athletic clothes, but a formless baggy camouflage garment that quickly changed color to match her surroundings. Just like a chameleon! I’d never seen technology like this before, so I saw that before paying any mind to the athletes information:

Svetlana Vereshchagina. Human. H3 Faction. Level-64 Assassin.

Assassin? A murderer?! I was struck by the sweet young girl’s class. Gopnik Denis, who was wolfing down a plate of greasy plov started choking and couldn’t catch his breath. Svetlana gave him a confident slap on the back, immediately breaking out the piece of trapped food.
Thank you,he squeezed out grudgingly through his teeth. Then he immediately groaned: I didn’t ask for help, though. I could have managed.”
No, you would have died and had to run to my phys ed class from the respawn point! And you need to save your energy with those smoked-out lungs! By the way, I was ordered to gather all the newbies on the athletic field in ten minutes. So, finish your food quick, drink your compote and go fall in line!
We were almost done with lunch, though, so we were practically ready. Anya, who had yet to touch either the meat broth or the plov limited herself to salad, so she was done. She stood from the table first, setting an example for the rest. We followed her to the athletic field. There was already a large group of level-three-to-five newbies there. Some of them looked comical in their camouflage military uniforms. Most of them had clearly never held anything more dangerous than a fork before.
Why schedule exercise right after a meal?!Imran didn’t hide his incomprehension. The PE instructor measured up the muscular Dagestani athlete and gave a good-hearted chuckle:
Imran, in the real world you’d be right. That is not how it’s done. But this is just a game, so dont you worry!
Anya and Imran, both level-seven, immediately stood out from the motley crew. And it wasn’t so much their higher level as it was the fact that they at least distantly looked like they could fight. At level nine, I felt like a hardened veteran, until I was rudely put in my place by the instructor:
Gnat, I was ordered to keep an especially close eye on you,she said, stopping next to me and not hiding a mocking smirk. With your ability to worm your way into places you have no business being, and knack for finding trouble, I just hope you don’t die before class is over. So, I never want you to leave my sight. Everyone else, run up this path to the stadium!”
To be honest, I was shaken by the mistrust, but I tried not to show it. The whole group of fifty newbies jogged ahead. Svetlana and I walked unhurriedly after them. Just after the last runners were past a bend in the path, my companion said quietly, without turning her head:
All that is the honest truth. Ivan Lozovsky is very upset with your behavior, especially what happened at the Geckho warehouses. He has spoken with Tyulenev about drawing up an individualized training schedule for you, to make sure someone always has an eye on you, so you don’t get up to any more hijinks. But that wasn’t the only reason I sent the others away. I’ve heard a rumor you’ve got pearls, and you're looking to trade.
I immediately knew the source of this rumor. Kisly must have been blabbing to everyone about me trading condoms with the centaurs. Regardless, I didn’t deny it.
One hundred forty pearls, two large,I confirmed.
I’ll take the standard ones at a rate of twenty-five pearls per crystal. I’ll need to see the large ones before I name my price. In any case, it will be a better deal for you than selling them to the Geckho.
Well, why not? I showed the two larger pearls to Svetlana, and she gave her conclusions:
I’ll give eight red crystals for all the pearls. You’ll never find a better price. But my character has high Trading, so I get a better exchange rate.
I agreed and received eight identical multifaceted red crystals. They seemed to pulsate with an internal glow. The assassin girl was very satisfied with the exchange and put the pearls in her inventory, then suggested we start jogging to catch up with the rest of the group. Just after the athletic field came into view, I got a few system messages in a row:

Cartography skill increased to level eleven!
Medium Armor skill increased to level four!
You have reached level ten!
You have received three skill points!
Congratulations! You now have two more skill slots!!!

Despite the fact that Svetlana was running two steps ahead of me, she noticed my character levelling up. Did she have eyes on the back of her head or something? Maybe she saw detailed information about all characters on the mini map. At any rate, Svetlana stopped sharply, and I nearly ran into her.
So, you’ve reached level ten in less than a day?she clarified.
I just nodded, because it was hard enough to breathe after the long run. Talking was out of the question. The instructor commented with clear approval:
Excellent result, Gnat. You could even try to beat our faction record: thirteen levels in the first day. If you manage, I bet faction leadership will be much more understanding of your risky behavior. You can say its all been part of your leveling plan. It may be unusual, but they will not be able to argue with your results. Everyone loves a winner, after all.
So, who set the faction record?I asked, having just caught my breath, and the assassin grew embarrassed and lowered her gaze to the ground.
Well, I was actually the first to get thirteen levels on my first day. Another three in our faction have done the same since. You’ve got six hours left to beat my record.

Chapter Sixteen. Free Time


It wasn’t that I was exactly afraid of getting chewed out by leadership, but I wasn’t looking forward to it either. And so, given there was a way to avoid being picked apart, I needed to try and level up as much as possible in the next six hours. To beat the record, I would have to get another four levels before sunset. To my eye, it was totally possible. Each subsequent level was harder to get, though. To get to level two, I just had to activate scanning a few times and see part of the labyrinth map. For ten, Id needed to raise a skill seven or eight times.
So then, how could I do this? Scanning? I was already using it every time it reloaded. Cartography worked automatically when my character saw new areas. Medium Armor also leveled on its own, although quite slowly. I just had to make sure not to remove my Kevlar jacket. Those three skills were basically passive and leveled on their own. But I strongly suspected they would not be enough to get me four more levels in the time I had left.
But the rest of my skills Electronics, Astrolinguistics, Break-in, Rifles and Mineralogy could only be used in certain conditions. And so, I would have to try and bring as many of them together as possible. Ideally, converse with an alien or foreigner somewhere with valuable mineral ore, while soldering an electronic security system and occasionally shooting a rifle. I couldn’t hold back the stupid ear-to-ear smile, imagining such a surreal picture.
Gnat, did I say something funny?the phys ed instructor threw out, peeved.
She was now telling us how to raise our base stats. It was very, very difficult. To raise ones Constitution by just one point required exhausting monotonous work-outs, pushing your body to the very edge for around eight hours. After that, to raise Constitution by another point, you’d have to endure similar torture for around three weeks. And although the Geckho assured us that a third point could be added to Constitution, no humans had yet managed to do so.
No maam, there’s nothing funny about hours of torturous exercise,I answered, and she finally stopped boring into me with her dismayed gaze.
Svetlana, may I ask a question?I didn’t even turn my head. I knew that little nerd by voice. He was asking yet another pointless question. My character is a scientist specializing in theoretical physics. I’ll spend all my time in a laboratory. Why do I need to level Constitution and Strength?
The assassin was instantly ten steps from the newbie, and I didn’t understand how she did it. But just a second later, the nerd and all the newbies standing next to him were lying on the ground, writhing in pain and gasping for air, like fish out of water. Svetlana, not paying any attention to the fallen scientists, turned to the rest:
Let me tell you all the cautionary tale of why we do not have a player number two hundred twenty-four in the Human-3 Faction. His name was Valentin. He, by the way, was also a physicist. And he assured us that he didn’t need phys ed, or any combat skills, because he was not planning to leave the laboratory ever. That stubborn ass also, despite many warnings and even direct orders from leadership, had not spent any of his free skill points since he entered the game. He said hed use them all after it became too hard to level his skills the normal way.”
But thats a good strategy!gopnik Denis interrupted Svetlana. People do that in every game!
The assassin girl looked severely at Denis, and I thought he would get laid out too. But Svetlana just gave a wry chuckle and continued her story:
For three months, Valentin insisted on doing things his way, becoming the weakest link in the laboratory, significantly behind his colleagues. It was really getting on our nerves. He just fed us all promises that eventually he would catch up and be the highest level. But then, a group of Dark Faction saboteurs attacked... The Prometheus is just some four miles from the border, and that’s two minutes on an antigrav. Our enemies went straight for it, blew up a few workshops, and a couple scientists were sent to respawn. Among them was Valentin the physicist. And he, by the way, was level thirty-nine. All one hundred fourteen of his unused skill points burnt up. That day, Valentin locked himself in his room and hung himself... And so, like it or not, there’s a clear order from Leng Radugin: all skill points must be spent within twenty-four hours. Whats more, every member of the H3 faction must undergo basic physical and military training, so they can hold their own if need be. No one is expecting military greatness from you, but in case of danger, at the very least you’ll be able to hold out until the First or Second Legion arrive!

***

The next hour and a half we exercised. An obstacle course, strength training, push-ups and pull-ups. But above all, running with weights. Everyones character had a weight calculated for them depending on their Strength and Endurance. It was hell
Silent in exhaustion, with a heavy log on my shoulders, I made lap after lap on the tarmac track. The worst part was that I could never say: I cant, it's too heavy.Svetlana was a sadist and knew perfectly well what I was capable of. What was more, she put us all into a group and, as its leader, she could see everyone’s health and endurance bars.
The system suggested I take new skills with my free slots several times: Survival, Loader, Athlete, Long-Distance Runner and, for some reason, Meteorologist. But I read all their descriptions and didn’t take any of them. They just weren’t for me. It was a good idea to take two more skills, but not just because. I needed to weight all the plusses and minuses, along with their potential benefit.
After all, who was my character going to be? A Surveyor’s job was to work with electronic scanning devices and find things of value. So, I arrived at two conclusions at once. First, I needed to pick new skills to help me with my primary ones. Anything that could help me discover better things, farther away, or scan more often. Second, it was important that I be able to sell what I found for as much as possible. Trading those pearls for crystals had proven that, without the Trading skill and knowledge of average prices, I could end up with a lot less.
My endurance reached zero and I was falling over in exhaustion, so I had to take a breather. Using the time, I asked the experienced instructor what skills might allow me to discover hidden enemies, traps and items.
Are you picking your two new skills at level ten?Svetlana immediately guessed. What can I say? Youre not wasting any time. The classes Sentry and Spy as well as Assasin have the primary skills Danger Sense, Eagle Eye and Sharp Hearing. I bet one of those would be of use to a Surveyor. But overall, I advise all my students to level Sharpshooter. It works for any long-distance weapon, reducing scatter and increasing chance of critical hits.
I thanked the instructor for her help, put the log back on my shoulders and shuffled off for another lap. At the same time, I called up explanations of the skills Svetlana had suggested. I especially liked Eagle Eye:

Eagle Eye. This skill lets you see farther and have a higher chance of discovering items and creatures in adverse conditions (fog, smoke, darkness, camouflage etc.). As this skill improves, you will be able to see farther, and have a better chance of discovering hidden objects. Minimum statistics: Perception 18, Intelligence 15.

Exactly what I was looking for!

You have taken the skill Eagle Eye level 1.

After prolonged consideration, I followed the experienced mentor's advice again and filled the other slot with Sharpshooter. Sure, Trading would be nice, but I needed to I’d need to be able to take down enemies and other dangerous creatures to get and keep anything worth selling. After all, Gnats combat abilities clearly needed work. The example of my recent encounter with a swarm of field pests had shown that clearly.

You have taken the skill Sharpshooter level 1.

Sure, Sharpshooter may not have been the best possible choice to beat the one-day record. However, in the longer perspective, it had clear plusses, especially considering the overlap between Sharpshooter and my high Luck Modifier, which gave a higher chance of crits.
I was in a mental fog for the next half hour of training. I was immeasurably tired. If not for my desire to break the faction record, my only thought would have been collapsing on the grass and lying there for a few hours. But instead, I was keeping careful track of time and planning my next moves. Just ten minutes before I finished my exercises, I got a double message:

Medium Armor skill increased to level five!
Scanning skill increased to level seventeen!

Finally... Although it was quite little for an hour and a half running myself ragged! There was just four hours left until sunset, and my progress bar to level eleven had reached just a quarter of the scale. Not enough, not at all. I placed the three skill points I got at level ten into Scanning just like the last time, raising it to level 20.
I thought up a clear plan of action for the rest of the day and, just as Svetlana told me exercise was over, I ran back to base.
Gnat, wait! Where are you going?Imran called out to me, overheated and soaked in sweat.
The level-8 Gladiator was very happy after working out and, based on his present level, had grown quite a bit. But now, Imran was seemingly counting on all of us going somewhere together as a group. But I had totally different plans for this evening:
I need to find our Geologist right away to discuss our partnership. Some guy named Mikhalych. They say he can be hard to track down.
Wait, why are you still working?! On the schedule, we have free time! You can find Mikhalych tomorrow. But now we can do whatever we want! I say we should zip down to the Firing Range. Its right nearby! We’ll train up and get ourselves some better weapons!
But I didn’t let him talk me out of my plans. Hurriedly bidding my friend farewell, I ran to the Capital. I was, of course, not looking for Mikhalych. I wanted to find Starship Pilot Zheltov and his fast-moving vehicle. Hopefully they were on base!

***

I got lucky. Zheltov was in the hanger. He was painting his bumper green, trying to once again cover up the gnarled word “Starship.” Based on the mocking smirks on the soldiers nearby, a fresh set of scratches would appear as soon as Zheltov finished painting and walked away.
What do you want, Gnat?The pilot could also see the soldiers standing stock still, and probably realized his work was pointless, so he was upset.
Here,I showed him eight red Geckho crystals in my hand. I’ve got a job for you. How long of a ride will this get me?
I dont run a taxi service! And as you can see, I'm busy!Zheltov groaned in dismay, although his gaze was transfixed by the crystals.
I immediately realized we would come to an agreement despite his grumbling. But I didn’t persuade or pressure him, just stood in silence, letting Zheltov make up his own mind.
I have to pick up a group from a distant sentry tower at six in the evening,the pilot said, thoughtfully stroking the back of his head.
So, until ten to six?I forwarded and, not waiting for an answer, sat down in the front passenger seat. You manage to charge up those pancakes? Or are we gonna crawl along like last time?
What do you mean crawl along? This thing's a speed demon!The pilot objected fairly, getting in the driver's seat and putting on his old-fashioned motorcycle helmet. Don’t forget to put on your helmet, big talker. These pancakes are one hundred percent charged and we can push them to the limit. Where are we going?
First along the outer border of our faction, but stay in our nodes. We dont need to cause problems with our neighbors. Then, I’d like to see all main and secondary roads. After that, we could drive around the main ridges and mountaintops. I’m trying to build up a complete map.
We cant do all that before six...the pilot answered doubtfully, taking out a tablet, calling up a map and marking out a suggested route. Also, let me warn you, I wont go far into the Yellow Mountains node. My racer cannot make it along those steep cliffs... So... I guess, we’ll finish the excursion either in the Eastern Swamp near the new base on the central island, or in the central node at a hot sulfur spring near a ridge.
The sulfur spring is better! Exactly what I need!
From there, the talking ended and the race began. Seemingly, Zheltov was seriously offended by my disparaging remarks, and the former student of the Military Space Academy did everything in his power to prove the opposite. We raced at a mad speed, at times making such sharp turns that my eyes went dim. I had read that a normal untrained person would lose consciousness in a Formula-1 race car by the second or third turn, and I could tell this was near that. I suspect that, if I hadn’t invested in Constitution after going through the Labyrinth, I'd have already passed out.
Yes, it was hard, but it was worth it! The progress bar was filling up right before my eyes. I was leveling Cartography and Eagle Eye with enviable regularity. My character had reached level eleven in just ten minutes! And Id hit twelve soon...
We flew into the swamp, spooking frogs and other creatures. A wave of muddy water rolled over me, then I was forced to lurch forward when we came to an abrupt stop in some deep muck. I couldn’t see anything, I even had to remove my mud-caked glasses to see.
Why are you still sitting?! Get out and help pull us out before we get totally stuck!Zheltov yelled, also caked head-to-toe in mud.
I would have gladly unbuckled and gone to help, but I was so exhausted my body wouldn’t obey. Every muscle was screaming in pain. Also, the seatbelt was too tight, and I couldn’t move my arm, which was squeezed against my torso. The pilot had to help me out of the safety belt, then the both of us pulled the ooze-caked starship onto dry land.
I usually go through here at speed when I am alone in the vehicle. Sorry, I didn’t think wed get stuck together,Zheltov started justifying himself, but I just waved a hand:
I don’t mind. These things happen. We don’t have much time, let's keep going. Plus, I can see a bunch of red markers on the mini-map. It seems dangerous to stay here.
Yeah, this place is full of swamp creatures, and a bunch of them are poisonous. Lets go!
And our mad race continued. Through forest and field, down nice roads and through untamed wilderness, the starship sped confidently onward. Zheltov told me about the local scenery, defensive structures and places where especially fierce battles had taken place. I was only half listening, but still answered sometimes. By the end of the two-hour excursion, I found the speed, turns and buzzing past trees positively exhilarating.
At ten to six, Dmitry Zheltov let me out near a small pond of cloudy green water that smelled like rotten eggs.
Alright, we’ve done what we agreed on. I hope you aren’t mad at me for the accident in the swamp. Anyway, you can wash the mud off your clothes here,the pilot pointed at the sulfurous spring.
But I, staggering in exhaustion and barely able to stand, didn’t have a care in the world other than my level: fifteen. Despite the aching pain in my joints, I wanted to sing and dance for joy. It worked!
How could I be mad?! Dmitry, you helped me a ton. I owe you a bottle of good brandy in real life... well, if I can figure out how to buy one under the Dome. And when I’ll get more crystals, maybe we can do some more stunt driving!
Zheltov started smiling, squeezed my hand farewell and pointed to the northeast:
The central base is that way, just one mile. There havent been any dangerous creatures here in the central node for a long time. But if you see anything, shout on the radio, our guys will quickly come help!
I dont know why he told me the direction to the Capital. My map already had every structure of any significance in our faction’s territory. I certainly wouldn’t get lost as long as I had that and a compass. I bid the pilot farewell, sat down on the shore of the lake and opened my statistics.
So, how was I doing?

Gnat. Human. Faction H3
Level-15 Surveyor
Statistics:
Strength
12
Agility
15
Intelligence
18
Perception
20
Constitution
12
Luck modifier
+3
Parameters:
Hitpoints
480
Endurance points
80 of 285
Magic points
0
Carrying capacity
24 kg
Fame
4
Skills:
Electronics
6
Scanning
20
Cartography
26
Astrolinguistics
10
Break-in
6
Rifles
16
Medium armor
6
Mineralogy
11
Eagle Eye
19
Sharpshooter
1

Not bad at all! And I had fifteen skill points just sitting there! What a great ride! The idea to take Eagle Eye had justified itself one hundred percent. If my view was obstructed by branches, mud spatter, fog or smoke, it skill leveled even faster than Cartography.
I’d already beaten the faction record, and by two whole levels. What was more, I had two and a half hours to go. I was not planning to just kick back and be satisfied. While I had the time, I needed to build on my success! But what should I do to earn accolades and avoid criticism? I wanted my allies to shake their heads in shock when they saw my achievements!
The upcoming conversation with the leadership no longer seemed so frightening and unpleasant because my record breaking leveling served as proof I was on the right track. I filled my lungs with fresh forest air, although it was somewhat tainted by the smell of the sulfur pond. I lied down in the tall grass. How awesome! I love this game!

Successful Perception check

I seemed to hear voices, and not so far away. Without raising my head, I carelessly moved the grass aside to see who it was. There were three strangers, and all of them were wearing strange dark-gray uniforms that looked to be made of small scales, and chameleon camouflage cloaks on their shoulders. Without a doubt they were people, and they were in our capital node very near the central base. But I was thrown off by several inconsistencies. First, their skin was an unusual ashen gray color. Second, they were walking hunched over, as if sneaking. People normally dont walk like that in their own lands.
Not yet totally believing my guesses, but still trying not to make any sharp movements, I tried to read the information about the nearest unfamiliar person:

Bey-O Tu-Leen. Human. Dark Faction. Level-32 Warrior

Dark Faction!!! A second later, all three markers on the mini-map turned bright red. The game system classified them as enemies!!! They were no more than ninety feet away, and they were coming in my direction. I froze in fear, trying to press myself against the ground. But then I began to crawl up the slope very slowly into the bushes on the edge of the sulfur lake.

Chapter Seventeen. Observation Post


My heart started pounding against my ribcage in fear. My thoughts scattered in panic. What to do? It was most likely too late to run. As soon as I got up from the grass, I would be seen. Fight? That wasn’t even funny. I had just one shotgun cartridge left, and it was sitting in my inventory, not even loaded into the double-barrel. I had unloaded the gun for safety before the trip with Zheltov. And I couldn’t load it now. The sound of a barrel clicking would draw attention. It would be very dumb to put any hope in my weak little air gun, too. It hadn’t pierced the shell of a level-4 bug, so it wouldn’t even scratch the scaly armor of the Dark Faction soldiers. All that remained was the knife, and I squeezed it tight in my right hand.
Another alarmed thought flickered about my fifteen free skill points. But my progress bar to level sixteen was not empty. I'd managed to fill it to twenty percent. What was more, twenty-four hours had not yet passed since I'd earned them. So, in theory, dying wouldn’t be catastrophic. I wouldn’t lose the fifteen skill points, my progress bar would just fall to zero.
But death was not the most frightening possibility. It was actually probably the best way this could end. For some reason, I was reminded of the Assassin Svetlana. During our lesson, she was standing pretty far away from her students, yet she managed to get next to them in the blink of an eye and bash them in the chest so hard they couldn’t even move. I also remembered hearing that the Dark Faction took two Second Legion soldiers prisoner in the last battle.
From what I’d heard, enemy factions could keep a player captive for an unlimited time. They just had to make sure they stayed alive, so they’d never respawn. It was really the most damage that could be done to a faction. Take an active player out of their ranks and lock in a dungeon for many months or even years. What was more, this was not our world. Different rules applied here, and the Dark Faction hadn’t exactly signed the Geneva Convention, so there was no guarantee I'd be treated with dignity. So, as a prisoner of war, I would be broken physically and mentally. And that was truly frightening.
At that very moment, my mind filled with horror stories, a Dark Faction player appeared on the shore of the forest lake just five steps from me. It took me enormous effort to not scream or move in the grass and sedge.

Minn-O La-Fin. Human. Dark Faction. Level-48 Cartographer.

She was a tall thin girl with ashen gray skin and short silver hair. Clearly of the human race, but I’d never seen anyone that looked like her before. My fear and her enemy status did not stop me from noticing her uncanny beauty. Now, from up close, I could see that she was not wearing armor at all. The thin form-fitting suit, perfectly outlining the alluring curves of her young feminine body was covered with an innumerable collection of tiny ceramic scales.
I had once seen a clip on the internet about future technology describing a suit like this. If I was right, every scale would heat up or cool down to match the temperature of her surroundings, making her totally invisible to infrared sensors and heat-seeking weaponry. The chameleon cloak on her shoulders made her visibly blend in with the grass, stones, trees and surrounding environment. In fact, to a distant observer, she would be entirely invisible as soon as she stopped moving.
Rosg in kuwi unt ik,the cartographer girl called her companions after her with a shockingly normal wave of the hand, calling her companions and pointing to some tracks on the ground.
Oni in kuwi staasheep,’” said a man, straining to pronounce the foreign word, and all three laughed.
Apparently, the name of Zheltovs fast-moving craft was funny to them as well. I was in no mood to laugh, though. They noticed my tracks! And now, as soon as they looked down to the water’s edge, they would see me!
I had to make sure they wouldn’t take me alive!!! With some doubt, I touched my finger with the blade of the knife. I didn’t have the Blades skill, so I was in serious doubt it could kill me, even if I slit my throat. After all, I was at level fifteen and had four hundred eighty hitpoints... If I didn’t kill myself quickly, the bleeding could be stopped, and they could bring me back from the brink.
So, the knife would not do. I couldn’t kill myself in one blow, and they wouldn’t allow me to make a second or third. What then? Quickly load a cartridge into the shotgun and shoot myself in the head? Also not instantaneous, and they might not give me time. But if I didn’t manage, the lake was behind me and, apparently quite deep. What had Kisly said today? The game rules are pretty strict there. If you don’t have the Swimming skill, you’ll just drown as soon as you get into deeper water.Not a bad option.
But for now, the enemies were stalling. Based on the mini-map, two of them were trying to track Zheltovs starship. The cartographer girl was still standing on the shore, though. She took out something that looked like a monocle and investigated the distant forest more closely. As my enemies hadn’t yet discovered me yet, I felt no need to take my life. So, this seemed like a good opportunity to spend my skill points. I opened my character window and hurriedly placed them all: five in Rifles, five in Sharpshooter, five in Medium Armor. Now, I was mad I hadn’t taken Stealth. If I could place fifteen whole points there, there would be a decent chance no one would see me.
But I didn’t need Stealth. The men called the girl from far away demandingly and Minn-O La-Fin placed the monocle back in a case on her belt. She took one final look into the forest through her dark glasses, then threw the hood of her invisibility cloak over her pretty head and hurried off. I concluded the two men must have been her personal guards, because they were of a much higher level, thirty-two and thirty-six. She must have been an important person. Now, they were hurrying the cartographer girl on, telling her to quickly get off the hill because it made her too visible.

Astrolinguistics skill increased to level eleven!

Tracking the red markers on the mini-map, and giving them a forty-yard head start, I slunk after them up the slope. I was no longer considering suicide. My priority was not letting the enemy spies out of view. And by the way, where were they? Lying down flat in the grass, I looked into the leafy forest on the slope of the hill.

Successful Perception check
Eagle Eye skill increased to level twenty!

They were going up the stream jumping from stone to stone. I placed that point and my location on my map. Letting the enemies go a bit farther away, I activated my radio:
Come in, anyone! This is Gnat, number fourteen-seventy. I'm tracking three members of the Dark Faction in the central node near the sulfur lake.
...ar ...bonehead... frequency... tique beach!Despite the interference, I recognized Kislys voice, but he was immediately interrupted by another voice:
This i... ...post One! Gnat, I... cant hear, ple... repeat, over.
I repeated everything, gave my map coordinates, the enemys trajectory and even their classes and levels. I also said the members of the Dark Faction were going up the stream, jumping on stones in order not to leave tracks on the wet ground.
The raid ...roup will be handled by the Sec... Legion! Communication on thi... frequency immediately... cease! Everyone switch to chan... seventeen, turn on encoding, over!
I may have been mistaken due to the distortion, but the last voice seemed to be Gerd Tamara. But I couldn’t hear them anymore. I turned the simple radio over in my hands and looked at it: microphone, speaker, talk button and volume knob, well and an on/off switch. How could I even turn this to another channel? It seemed that my primitive radio simply did not have that function. It didn’t have encoding either. Damn!
And meanwhile, the three red markers were going quite far away and nearing the border of my mini-map. Considering the high-tech chameleon cloaks the raiders were wearing, I had serious risk of losing sight of them. So, I went after the enemies, trying to keep them at the very edge of my vision. A few times, one of the trio turned and looked back, but I managed to remain unseen, taking shelter behind a rock or tree trunk.

Eagle Eye skill increased to level twenty-two!

I kept up pursuit for seven minutes. We were going further and further up the hill. The forest was getting sparser all the time. There was less and less cover, but I didn’t stop tracking them. Suddenly, all three of them stopped. Either I had failed a Perception check, or their cloaks turned on, but all three of them instantly disappeared. I quickly placed a marker on the map where I had last seen them.
What to do now? I didn’t want to keep going, because the forest was ending, and the enemies would probably notice me if I came too close. There just wasn’t enough cover. After waiting a few minutes for my scanning skill to reload, I activated the icon. But no, even with scanning, the enemies were undetectable. I had to go back to the sulfur lake.

***

I had gone almost all the way back down the stream to the lake when I was heard someone call my name. Immediately, several bulky figures in camouflage uniforms appeared from behind the nearest bushes and rocks. I nearly got scared but saw the Second Legion emblem and H3 code on their uniform, as well as the fact that they had green markers on the mini-map, meaning ally.
The high-level soldiers immediately started telling me off:
Where'd you run off to, Gnat? Why weren’t you answering your radio?
I unclipped my radio from my belt and showed them:
If any of you can explain which of the two buttons on this thing change channel or turn on encoding, Id be very grateful. I couldn’t figure it out.
And where are the enemies? Or was that a joke about the Dark Faction? And why is your uniform so dirty?An armored anthropomorphic robot ten feet in height appeared from invisibility three steps away. I looked through its darkened helmet visor with strain and saw the face of a dark-haired girl frowning in dismay.
So, I hadn’t been wrong last night. It wasn’t just some hallucination. Gerd Tamara or her exoskeleton suit could become invisible. I wanted to make a sarcastic quip in reply to her foolish question, but I held back. I remembered the last time I'd spoken with the leader of the Second Legion. It didn’t last long and ended very tragically for me, so I decided not to repeat my error.
I took a ride on Zheltovs starship, and didn’t have time to clean my uniform before I saw enemies. I had no way to get in touch, and they were walking away. So, I tracked them through the forest along the stream, then up a slope. There, they must have taken cover, because I lost them. I didn’t go any closer so I wouldn’t give myself up. Here are the coordinates where I saw them.
I rattled off the coordinates I'd marked on the map. Gerd Tamara gave an untrusting snort, but after a five second pause, pointed at four of her subjects a level-70 Commando, a level-65 Scout and two Assassins above level 60. Seemingly, the commander had chosen everyone who could move in stealth.
Check this intel! If you do find enemies, do not engage. Wait for the rest of the group.
They were all wearing chameleon cloaks, while the Commando even had a scaled thermoregulating suit just like the Dark Faction players. They walked in the direction I indicated. After a minute, the towering Gerd Tamara disappeared without a sound but, based on the flattened grass made by her heavy steel feet, I determined that she had gone after the first group. The other soldiers of the Second Legion, and there were thirty of them, followed their commander.
What should I do?I asked the soldiers as they moved out.
They all ignored my question, as if I didn’t exist. Finally, the level-55 Shock Trooper bringing up the rear of the column with the strange name Rupor, turned to me and answered:
Well, you must have been doing something here, so just get back to that. I dont advise you to follow us. A serious battle is no place for newbies. What's more, I cannot say for certain how you earned our commanders distrust, but little Tamara will throw you under the bus if anything goes wrong.
Harsh, but fair. Thanks for that. I stood on the bank of the lake, catching my breath and deciding where to go next. The bubbles of hydrogen sulfide coming up from the bottom and the yellowish gray residue on the stones and plants drew my attention. It looked like a sulfur hot spring. Id have to comb through the nearby hills with our Geologist in search of sulfide metals. It would also be interesting to study the chemical composition of this lake.
But, no matter how I spun it, I was most interested in the stream. Somewhere up the slope, water was flowing out of a cliff. If I had a standard geologist's kit to study water composition, I could learn a lot about the local mineral deposits very quickly. But that was the only place I coudln’t go now...
And then my radio started buzzing:
Come in, Gnat. This is Rupor. You done good, kid! It was all confirmed. The radio won’t pick up from over the hill, so call two transports to that green lake from the central base. And, if youd like to see it all with your own eyes, get up to the spot you pointed us to. It’s really worth a look.
But Gerd Tamara,I started but fumbled, not knowing how to formulate my thought that the leader of the Second Legion was not too fond of me and would not want me there.
You have my permission!
Fame increased to 5.
I couldn’t believe my ears. The voice, beyond all doubt, belonged to Gerd Tamara! The harsh Second Legion commander had an unexpectedly sweet tone. Before she changed her mind, I called the base and, giving my coordinates, gave an order to send two transports to the lake in the hills. Then, jumping on stones, I raced up the stream and scrambled up the steep slope.
Wow!!! From this stony platform, I had an excellent view of the whole node, even though the Capital itself was blocked by a higher neighboring hill. I could see all the main roads and distant buildings in the Yellow Mountains, Jungles, even the Eastern Swamp.

Cartography skill increased to level twenty-seven!
Cartography skill increased to level twenty-eight!
Cartography skill increased to level twenty-nine!
Eagle Eye skill increased to level twenty-two!
Eagle Eye skill increased to level twenty-three!
You have reached level sixteen!
You have received three skill points!

All those messages made me stumble, then I came to a very important conclusion. Leveling Cartography and Eagle Eye could be done not only from fast vehicles, but also by climbing up to good vantage points. A nice place for some spies. There was nothing surprising in the fact that the Dark Faction had taken advantage of it.
There was a small tent for three or four people, sheltered from view by thick bushes and boulders. Before it was a pot on a gas burner. Nearby they had a powerful radio station with a tall antenna, hidden in the thick foliage of a tree. A tripod stood next to it with a huge telescope practically six feet in length, which also had a laser distance measurer and another couple modifications.
The spies were lying next to their camp on the grass with their faces down. Their naked bodies were spread-eagled with their arms and legs tied to stakes in the earth. The Dark Faction players were only wearing dark impenetrable blindfolds, and thick rubber ball gags, held firmly by a strap around their head.
Right next to them on a flat stone, there were some things the Second Legion had confiscated: chameleon cloaks, dark scaled suits, boots, helmets, strange-looking firearms and clips, radios, grenades, coils of rope and wire, a first-aid kit, thermal underwear and plenty of personal items.
Gerd Tamara was standing next to the sophisticated telescope and carefully studying it. After that, she crouched down in her exoskeleton armor, twisted a few settings and turned the optical device to the northwest.
Holy crap! What a powerful telescope! I can see First Legion at Border Post Four playing cards instead of keeping watch. By the way, Roman Pavlovich, write down their names, so we can punish them: Headquarters Pen_Pusher, Shoot_To_Kill, Nelly Svistunova and... crap, I can't see the fourth, there’s a slab of reinforced concrete in the way.”
The fourth is most likely Gurbin, the group sniper,answered a tall muscular level-72 Grenadier by the name Roman Pavlovich.
Most likely it is Gurbin, but I cant see him for certain. And as I am not one-hundred-percent sure, do not put Gurbin on the list. Hey, get away from her!!!
The cry of rage tore itself from Gerd Tamara after she peeled herself from the telescope. It was directed at a group of soldiers at the feet of the naked Minn-O La-Fin, who were discussing the amusing spectacle. The soldiers obeyed unquestioningly. The leader of the Second Legion then stood up, searched for me and called me closer with a gesture:
Gnat, I’ll admit I do not know how you did that. And when I do not understand something, I get mad and untrusting. I do not know these two,the paladin nodded her massive helmet carelessly at two of the captive soldiers, but as for Minn-O La-Fin, this is not our first encounter. She has excellent intuition, with her Perception far beyond twenty and a well leveled Danger Sense skill. Usually, you cannot even raise a weapon at Minn-O La-Fin before she’s out of firing range or behind cover. How did she not detect you?!
I simply didn’t think of pointing a weapon at her, because I understood the senselessness of fighting three high-level enemies at once. And I was close to her, and totally covered in wet mud when she looked over the area through that thing,I pointed at the unusual monocle lying on a stone among the trophies.
That is an infrared lens, and a very good one at that. You got very lucky, Gnat, twice. But in any case, you were a great help to the faction. Plus, you helped the Second Legion and me personally. Minn-O La-Fin is a valuable prisoner, and the Dark Faction is sure to want to trade for her. I heard you had a dispute with Lozovsky and Tyulenev. I’ll put in a good word for you.

Release - April 23, 2018



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