Saturday, April 21, 2018

Level Up: Restart by Dan Sugralinov



Level Up
Restart
by Dan Sugralinov



Release - July 10, 2018 




Chapter One


The Morning It All Started


Please, there's gotta be something else I can do. Like mow your lawn every week for two weeks? I can't do it next week.
(Homer Simpson, The Simpsons)

At first, the game had become my life. And later, life itself had become a game.
I’d failed at life. By my thirty-plus I had a wife, a string of one-off freelance gigs, a state-of-the-art computer, a level 110 rogue character in a popular RPG game and a beer gut.
I also wrote books. A book, rather. I hadn’t finished it yet.
Before, I used to feel flattered whenever someone called me a writer. But over the years, I’d finally forced myself to face the uncomfortable truth: I wasn’t a writer at all. The only reason they called me so was because I had no other social tag to describe me by.
So who was I, then? A failed albeit once-promising sales rep who’d been fired from a dozen workplaces? Big deal. These days, everyone and their dog called themselves online marketing gurus.
Me, I couldn’t sell anything. In order to promote a product, I had to believe in it. I just couldn’t do it knowing the customer had no more need for it than for a garbage can.





I used to sell extra-powerful vacuum cleaners to gullible senior citizens; I’d hawked the latest water filters to big-city geeks who lived on rehydrated foods; I marketed premade websites to wannabe startups who’d mortgaged their homes to open their first businesses. I’d sold online advertisement, package tours, weight loss supplements and vermifuge pills.
I couldn’t sell jack. I kept losing job after job after job. I also used to run a blog in my spare time (and admittedly during my work hours as well) where I published short stories to entertain whatever meager readership I could garner. That gave me enough ground to consider myself a decent Internet marketer.
Eventually, I’d even found a job with a company looking for someone to run their online store. Still, my very first meeting with their director had exposed my utter incompetence. He demanded to see their conversion rates, average order value, customer engagement levels, bounce rate, LTV and all the paraphernalia of stats I’d been supposed to present him with.
Apparently, running an online business had more to it than just keeping a witty blog peppered with comments and likes. Did you say trial period? They’d fired me before it had even run out.
Offended to the quick, I decided to finally learn the ropes. I downloaded a whole pile of courses, textbooks and video tutorials and even signed up for a few webinars.
I lasted exactly a week. For the first five days or so, I thoroughly enjoyed my new status. This wasn’t going to take long, after all. With my enthusiasm and application, I was going to grasp the science of online marketing in no time.
I already pictured myself as a popular expert with a customers’ list to match, someone who could charge top dollar for their knowledge of the market. I would finally buy myself a house and a decent car; I would take frequent vacations and enjoy all the perks of the four-hour workweek lifestyle.
Although admittedly euphoric, I wasn’t in a hurry to actually hit the books. Over the course of those five days, my enthusiasm had finally worn thin, leaving me in the same place as before. When finally I forced myself to sit down and actually study, I  quickly felt sad and bored. By the end of the second day, I realized I wasn’t cut out for this sort of thing.
I spent the next year scraping by on my meager blog advertising income and doing occasional freelance jobs. Yanna, my wife, still had faith in me and my supposed potential - but her patience was already dwindling. Eight years my junior, she was at an age when all her friends were discussing the best shopping and vacation destinations while the best she could do was accompany her blogger husband to an occasional closed movie preview. Anyone can lose faith under these circumstances.
Then again, take Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for instance. His wife had supported him and their children for many a long year while he technically did nothing but eat, make children and write A Hundred Years of Solitude. Had her faith in him worn out? Not that I know of.
Now Yanna, she was different. She was younger and child free. Which was probably why these days her voice rang with sarcasm whenever I mentioned my book.
In actual fact, as the months went by, her respect for me seemed to be fading. It showed in lots of little things I’d never paid any attention to at first.
And as far as my book was concerned... you see, there had been a moment when I realized that I would turn thirty pretty soon, with nothing to show for it really. My life was reaching its zenith; very soon it would begin its decline.
I still remember that moment very well. I awoke after the mother of all parties and decided to write a bestseller. With my talent, nothing could have been easier, I thought.
Funnily enough, writing proved rather hard. Either I’d overestimated the extent of my talent or maybe - just maybe - I hadn’t had the said talent to begin with. My brain struggled to produce words which my hands then duly deleted.
It had taken me three months to write the first page, all the while reporting my excellent writing progress in my blog according to which, I was already working on Chapter Twelve. My friends kept offering their services as beta readers. Still, I was pretty sure that even if I’d had something to show them, they wouldn’t have stuck with it. The fact remained, I had nothing to show them so I didn’t, explaining my decision by my unwillingness to make an unfinished draft public.
When finally I’d completed Chapter Three, I couldn’t resist the temptation any longer. I uploaded the whole thing to my blog, looking forward to a dose of comments, likes and other people’s opinions.
But before doing so, I asked Yanna to take a look. She refused.
“I want you to finish it first,” she said. “Then I’ll read it in its entirety. I don’t like works in progress, be it a book or a film.”
Much later, she would read the completed part of the novel, anyway. By then, she probably didn’t believe I’d ever finish the wretched thing.
I didn’t post the chapters in my blog though. Instead, I uploaded them to a popular writers’ portal under an assumed name.
That night, I went to bed excited. This was similar to how I used to feel as a child the night before going on a fishing trip with Dad, looking forward to a day of happiness, joy and eventual success. I imagined myself getting up in the morning, taking an unhurried shower, shaving and brushing my teeth, making myself a cup of extra strong coffee, lighting a cigarette and finally, opening the page with my first chapter, bursting with the readers’ praise and demands to post the rest of the book.
I awoke about lunchtime and hurried to open the computer before even brushing my teeth.
Two page reads. No likes. One comment:

I couldn’t finish this, sorry. I don’t think writing is for you.

At that particular moment, I decided I was going to finish the damn thing, even if only to piss that person off. I smoked half a packet of cigarettes, then began working on the next chapter.
Only I couldn’t. Neither that day nor the next. If the truth were known, I haven’t written a single line ever since.
It wasn’t just because I couldn’t think of anything to write about. I simply couldn’t concentrate. I was constantly being distracted by social media notifications, chatroom messages, our cat Boris (more about her later), the draft in the room, Yanna, the flies, the boiling kettle, my empty coffee mug, the articles and blog posts I needed to read, feeling sleepy, my favorite TV series coming on in five minutes’ time, feeling hungry, a craving for a cigarette, and the uncomfortable stool which I then replaced with an equally uncomfortable easy chair I’d gotten on a sale... You name it, it distracted me from writing.
And that’s not even mentioning the Game.
That’s right: the Game with a capital G. Because by then, it had long become my life.
It was in the Game that I’d met Yanna. It was there that I’d booked the biggest successes of my life (that’s not a joke LOL. I really think so.)
Our clan had even made it to #2 in the rankings. We were literally snowed under with new applications. We could have taken our pick of new players - and that was exactly what we did. We didn’t accept all and sundry.
As the clan leader’s deputy, I was responsible for lots of things - which put a considerable strain on my time. We used to offer all sorts of in-game services to loaded players, securing a small trickle of income both for the clan and its leadership. Still, if you converted those amounts to real-world money, it was laughable. 
Last night, we’d been busy exploring the new updates - which had turned into a non-stop frag fest of wipes and resurrections as we tried to complete the new dungeon. Its boss just didn’t want to die. The air in the voice chat was blue with our cussing. We kept wiping time and time again with no progress to show for it - but still we stood our ground and kept trying. Not that it helped us a lot.
For many of us, this was life. We were your typical hardcore nerd gamers who did all their socializing, living and achieving in VR.
In the game, your every action is immediately measured and rewarded - or not rewarded, as the case may be - with quite tangible payoffs such as XP points, gold, new achievements, Reputation, and quest awards. That makes your relationship with the game world perfectly square and correct.
Which was probably why I’d eventually become ambitious and motivated in the game but not IRL.
Which was also why we had to complete the new instance that same night before other clans got wind of it.
Only we hadn’t.
By the time we’d finally called it a day and disbanded, it was already early morning. I’d only just dosed off clutching the unfinished beer when Yanna got out of bed.
I used to know this guy who liked to point out the difference between the sympathy levels of the early birds and the night owls. The latter seem to be much more tactful with their early-riser friends, tucking them in and asking everyone to keep their voices down after 9 p.m.. The early birds didn’t seem to possess the same finesse of character. They loved nothing more than to drag a peacefully sleeping night owl out of bed before midday! Yanna was no exception.
 “Hey, time to wake up! Breakfast’s ready! You’ve been playing all night again, haven’t you?”
She turned the TV on, opened the windows and began rattling with something in the kitchen.
“Phil Panfilov, damn you! Get up now! I’ll be late for work!”
Having breakfast together was one of our rituals. It’d started at a time when we’d spent long sleepless nights together - either playing or making love. When Yanna had finally graduated and found a job, our daily schedules had become pretty incompatible. But still we always had breakfast together.
My mind struggled to blank out the annoying cheerful yapping of a washing powder commercial. I needed to mute the wretched thing before it blew up my brain.
Without opening my eyes, I groped for the remote and put the sound down. I staggered toward the bathroom, turned the tap on, scalded myself, swore, turned the cold tap on, splashed some water on my face, brushed my teeth and looked up in the mirror.
A rather worse-for-wear cross between a goblin and an orc which must have respawned one time too many stared back at me.
I really needed a shave. Maybe. One of these days.
We sat down to breakfast, facing each other at our tiny dining table in the corner. I unenthusiastically munched on my omelet. Yanna drank her coffee while expertly applying her makeup.
I remembered how I’d first met her. I’d been waiting for a raid to begin. Bored, I’d decided to let my phoenix mount stretch its wings for a while. We were flying over Kalimdor when I heard some low-level priestess begging for help in the local chat. Her name was Healiann. Apparently, she was being hurt by some nasty Tartar ganker. Naturally, I had to stop and teach him a lesson. She added me to her friend list. For a couple more months, I used to help her level up. Eventually we got talking in the voice chat. That’s when we’d found out we lived in the same city. I invited her to join our clan. It was during one of our clan’s drunken IRL meetups that we’d finally met face to face.
“Do you like blondes so much?” Yanna’s voice broke the silence.
What was I supposed to say to that? I did like blondes, true. Still, I also liked girls with dark hair as well as redheads and brunettes. Back in college I used to be in love with this girl who’d dyed her hair blue. Later, she’d shaved her head - but it didn’t make me love her less.
Yanna was a natural brunette going through a raven-black stage.
“Hair color doesn’t really matter to me,” I said. “Nor do other girls. You’re the only woman I’ve been in love with for the last, er, four years.”
Pretty stilted, I know.
“Yeah, right,” Yanna chuckled, apparently not too convinced. “Who’s that blonde in your book, then? At least you seem to remember how long we’ve been together.”
I choked on my ham and cheese sandwich. She was right. The main character in my book indeed fell in love with a blonde girl. But he wasn’t me, dammit!
I swallowed and cleared my throat. “I don’t like blondes. The guy in the book does. My main character.”
She squinted at me. “What’s so main about him?”
Her yet-unmascaraed eye reminded me of Gotham City Two-Face. She rocked her leg nervously until her fluffy slipper went flying across the room. That’s just a habit she had.
“Nothing,” I said. “He’s just a book character. It’s just that the book is written in the first-person POV. I find it easier to write this way.”
“Liar. You think I can’t see it? You’re blushing. Look at your hand, it’s shaking.”
The reason my hand was shaking was because I’d had too many beers the night before. Still, she had a point. I was lying.
“Very well, author,” she invested all her sarcasm into the word, “I must be off now.”
The heavy trail of her perfume hit me, arousing and sickly sweet. She gave me a peck on the lips and walked out.
The front door slammed.
I stared at the sandwich in my hand. I wasn’t hungry at all. I was sleepy.
I laid my head on my arms and studied the meager expanse of our kitchenette. The place reeked of frugal misery. The tiles above the sink were crumbling. The monotonous sound of the dripping tap was killing me. The broken oven door didn’t close anymore. The stove top was caked brown. The low ceiling, rusty gray from all the tobacco smoke, hung gloomily overhead.
The sight made me want to walk out onto the crumpled balcony of our one-bedroom apartment, climb its flaking wooden railings and just sit there dangling my feet in the air. Then just push myself off and jump down.
I got up, leaving the dirty plates on the kitchen table, and walked out onto the balcony.
The bright sunlight hurt my eyes. I squinted and stretched my stiff body, then reached into my pocket for some cigarettes.
The pack was empty. I swore and heaved a sigh. I was past caring. Must have been the nicotine withdrawal that did it to me.
I leant over the railing and stared at the eight-story drop. A deep puddle of rainwater glistened below, its steely surface reflecting a hasty procession of white fluffy clouds above.
The clouds parted momentarily, releasing a bright beam of sunshine.
It blinded me. I felt almost electrocuted.
The view swam before my eyes. My vision failed, then came back - sort of. It was now crowded with lots of little floating specks that looked suspiciously like some kinds of symbols and numbers.
I slumped onto a shaky old stool and wiped my eyes, trying to blink the illusion out of them.
Enough. Time to go and get some cigarettes. And coffee. And once I was back, I really needed to sit down and finish that wretched book.
I kept getting this nagging feeling that once that was out of the way, my problems would be over.
All I needed to do was finish the damn book.



Chapter Two

WTF?



“We can’t stop here, this is bat country!”
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

I walked gingerly, leaping over the rainwater puddles that lay in my way. My left sneaker was falling apart but I didn’t feel like fixing it. I couldn’t afford to have it fixed, either. A new pair would have to wait. We had too many bills to pay. The rent, the utilities, the Internet. We had groceries to buy. Me, I’d have bought new sneakers first — but luckily, Yanna had her hands firmly on our purse strings.
Our backyard didn’t differ much from the others in our district. A classic Russian disaster of dirt, mud and chipped curbs; a paraphernalia of mismatched windows and glazed flaky balconies; discarded plastic bags caught on tree branches and washing lines; garbage spilling out of industrial-size bins. A couple of winters ago, the council had had to do some emergency repairs on the burst waterworks (another Russian classic) so they’d bored through the frozen tarmac, fixed the leak, then covered everything with a layer of earth which now turned into a swamp every time it rained. Nothing to rest one’s eye on, really; the first dainty green of the budding trees was the area’s only redeeming feature, holding the long-forgotten schooltime promise of approaching summer vacations.
The dilapidated playground at the center had long become a meeting place for the local drunks. Some of them were my age, their development apparently arrested while still teenagers. Others were youngsters running their errands. They were presided over by Yagoza, a sinewy man of indeterminate age, his skin blue with prison tattoos, wearing shapeless track bottoms and a green Che Gevara T-shirt the size of a tent. He was sort of a criminal authority around here.
Yagoza was smoking a cigarette and sipping beer from a can.
They looked bored and down on their luck. Even from where I stood, I could see they were desperate for something stronger than beer. Beer was like water to them.
One of them was hanging on the kids’ monkey bars, apparently imagining himself a gymnast. Seeing me, he jumped down and rubbed his hands together. “Phil? Hi, man.”
The others looked up at me, then returned to their beers, disinterested.
Not good. I’d had problems with the guy before. Known under the moniker of Alik, he’d once followed me on my way back from the corner shop. At the time, I’d been in a good mood. I’d just received a nice check from a client so I’d done some grocery shopping to celebrate. Alik and I got talking. I gave him a beer. Once I got home, I promptly  forgot everything about our encounter.
He hadn’t. From then on, every time he saw me he tried to give me a bear hug and cadge a smoke or a beer.
“Hi, man,” I replied unenthusiastically.
He walked over to me and shook my hand while lacing his other arm around my shoulders and slapping my back. His hand brushed my jeans’ back pockets as if searching me.
My vision blurred again. I peered at his face but it appeared sort of out of focus.
“Jesus. You alright?” he asked matter-of-factly without a trace of compassion.
“Not really. Wait a sec,” I eased him away and rubbed my eyes, peering hard at him.
His face came back into focus. His eyes were framed with the thickest, longest eyelashes I’d ever seen. I’d never noticed them before. He must have been a very pretty child before life had had its way with him.
A pockmarked face with oily skin. A broken lopsided nose. Nicotine-yellow teeth. Greasy hair...
And what the hell was that?
I peered at him harder, rubbed my eyes and peered some more.
Alik startled and looked around him. “Wassup, man? You alright? Tell me! What the f-“
“No, wait,” I raised my hand and ran it above his head.
I couldn’t feel anything. Still, I could see it!
My breath seized. I couldn’t take my eyes off a big inscription in clear green letters hovering over his head.

 Romuald “Alik” Zhukov
Age, 28

Romuald? His parents had some sick sense of humor. Had my name been Romuald, I’d have probably turned to the bottle too. 
“Is your name Romuald?” I asked.
He startled again. “’xcuse me?”
“Your real name, it’s Romuald, right?”
“Well... Yeah but- wait. How do you know?”
I didn’t reply. My thoughts were racing like a herd of wild horses, trampling everything in sight.
This wasn’t real. Couldn’t be. A hungover hallucination, maybe. Drinking too much. Playing too much, sleeping too little.
I focused on the inscription which obligingly unraveled like a parchment scroll.

Romuald “Alik” Zhukov
Age, 28
Current status, Unemployed
Social status level, 4
Class, Unclassified
Unmarried
Has a history of petty offenses

The last line flashed red. I focused on it, hoping to unravel it as well. Didn’t work.
“Phil! Wake up, man! Hello!”
The message folded back in, its lone top line still glowing in the air.
“Sorry,” I said. “Surprised me, that’s all. Romuald is a real rare name, isn’t it?”
 He shrugged. “Dad’s idea. His grandfather was apparently Romuald. Why?”
“Just wondered. Never heard anything like it before.”
 “I don’t think you have,” he agreed with a suspicious ease. “Listen... I’ve got things to do. I’ll see you around.”
“Sure.”
“Spare a smoke?”
“I’ve run out, man.”
He heaved a sigh, then swung round and began to walk back.
“Alik, wait!”
He turned and stuck out a quizzical chin, “What now?”
“How old are you, twenty-eight?”
He nodded and walked off. The inscription continued to hover over his head, growing smaller in size as he moved away until it disappeared completely.
I didn’t risk following him even though I was dying to find out whether it might work with the others too. I could kill for a smoke. I crossed the backyard and walked out onto the street.
As I headed for the shop, I kept peering at everything in my way: shop windows, traffic signs, cars and occasional passersby. Nothing happened.
I’d been working too hard lately, that’s all.
But what about his name? I couldn’t possibly have known that! Nor his age! I didn’t even know the guy!
Still deep in thought, I entered the shop, walked over to the cash register and offered a handful of loose change to the woman, “A packet of Marlboros.”
The middle-aged saleswoman — a mutton dressed as lamb — was busy talking on her phone, cradling it between her ear and her shoulder. Without interrupting her conversation, she took my money, counted it, fished for some change and laid it next to the pack on the counter, momentarily locking her gaze with mine.
Holy shit! Yes!
With a shaking hand I scooped up the change and the smokes, shoved them in my pocket and barged out.
The moment she’d looked me in the eye, a system message had appeared over her head,

Valentina “Valya” Gashkina
Age, 38

Back in the street, I cussed. That had been really stupid of me. I walked back in and offered her some more money,
“Sorry, Valentina. I forgot to buy a lighter.”
“I’ll call you back,” the woman said into her phone. She peered at me, uncomprehending.
Then she visibly relaxed and reached for a lighter off the shelf. She probably decided that I was one of the local drunks who was on first-name terms with all the liquor vendors.
As she turned her back to me, I scrolled down the message,

Valentina “Valya” Gashkina
Age, 38
Current status: Salesperson
Social status level, 9
Class: Vendor. Level, 3
Widow
Children: Igor, son
Age, 18
Ivan, son
Age, 11
Has a history of petty offenses

Let’s try it again, then. “How are things, Val? How’s Igor and little Ivan?”
At this point it must have dawned on her. She stared at me, lighter still in hand, apparently trying to remember where she might have met me. Unwilling to admit she couldn’t remember someone who seemed to know her, she finally replied,
“Igor’s fine, thanks. He’s finishing his second year at uni. Ivan is nothing like him. He doesn’t want to study at all. Igor does his best to knock some sense into him but Ivan just won’t listen. He’s not been the same since his father died...”
She fell silent, apparently surprised at her own indiscretion. Heaving a sigh, she handed me the lighter. “If you don’t mind me asking, how do you know me?”
“We met at some friends once,” I mumbled, accepting the lighter, then walked out. 
I headed for a small boulevard, unwrapping the cigarettes as I walked. I lobbed the crumpled plastic wrapper into a bin and lit up, drawing in a lungful of smoke.
What kind of petty offenses could she have committed? Dipping into the till, maybe?
I finally reached the first bench and slumped down on it, sprawling my aching legs. I could sense the nicotine course my arteries, reaching my brain.
Something flickered in the corner of my eye. As I squinted at it, a message appeared, growing in size. This time it was about me.

Warning! You’ve received a minor dose of toxins!
Your Vitality has dropped 0,00018%.
Current Vitality: 69,31882%.

What did they mean, vitality? Was it supposed to be the same as hp?
I finished my cigarette, all the while imagining myself losing 0,00003% vitality with every draw. I didn’t enjoy it at all. My ingrained gaming habit had warned me against any behavior that could be classified as DOT or a debuff. I kept smoking purely out of principle.
Wait a sec. How much life did I actually have?
A red bar appeared in the lower left corner of my field of vision. It was 69% full.
Excuse me? Where were my remaining 30-plus percent vitality?
Had I just lost 30% health just by smoking a cigarette? Or was this supposed to be some kind of cumulative effect? What could I have possibly done to-
I knew very well what I’d done. That was all those sleepless nights, junk food, drinking, smoking, not to mention all the environmental problems. A no-brainer, really.
This I could understand.
What I couldn’t understand was, WTF was going on?!


Chapter Three

The First Quest


“Who are you and why should I care?”
Futurama

Careful as I’d been, I must have got a few sneakerfuls of rainwater as I’d walked. No system messages this time: apparently, I risked no hypothermia-related debuffs no matter how wet and miserable I felt.
My head swam with thoughts. Was I going mad? Could this be a brain tumor? Or some personality disorder? Should I see a doctor?
Sucking on my third cigarette, I tried to think of an appropriate clinic. Finally I gave up, Googled a list of local practitioners and made an appointment.
That felt a bit better. Having said that... how sure was I that the world around me was real? Crazy, I know. But what if there was nothing wrong with me? Could it be reality itself that was glitching?
The cigarette smoke, the group of drunks hanging around the kids’ playground, my own wet feet and a tiny ant crawling up my arm — everything around me was screaming its absolute authenticity.
But how about Amra and Mahan? Those were two of my favorite LitRPG heroes. Didn’t they feel the same when they’d found themselves transported — one to the Boundless Realm, the other to Barliona? At first, neither of them had even realized they were in VR, so real was everything around them. So my idea made sense, really.
I could in fact have been abducted by aliens — or some mysterious powerful corporation as the case might be — who must have placed my waning body into a VR capsule and sent me here. Why? No idea. I’d never considered myself special, even when I’d been elected class monitor back in grade school.
Still, I could try and test it, couldn’t I? I’d played enough games in my lifetime to be able to tell fact from fiction.
With my right hand, I reached into my pocket for the lighter while holding my left hand in front of me. I placed the lighter under my hand and clicked it a couple of times, casting Fire.
I lasted only a few seconds. I'd never been one of those masochistic types capable of self-mortification.
Ouch, that hurt!
A system message appeared out of nowhere, then faded just like some 3D movie picture,

Damage taken: 1 (Fire)

I blew on my scorched hand. Pain was a perfect proof of this world’s reality. So was my burned skin. But the system message... it glaringly contradicted both.
Also, what was it supposed to mean? Damage taken, 1 — one of what? How much hp did I have? Where could I see my stats? What skills did I have? What was my social status? Was it the same as a player’s level? And how was I supposed to earn XP here?
I rolled my eyes this way and that, searching for an interface but found none. I couldn’t see any icons, buttons or status bars. The health bar was the only thing still hovering in view.
I blinked. The health bar slid up and disappeared.
Wait a sec. I blinked again. Immediately the bar was back, as large as life and twice as ugly, sporting the number 69,31792%. Aha.
I focused on the number. Nothing happened.
I blinked again. Same result.
The number annoyed me. If only I could see the actual amount of my vitality points!
The figure promptly disappeared, replaced by a new stat:

6,238/9,000

What, just like that? All I had to do was think about it?
Never mind. I really needed to look into all of this. Skills, stats, that sort of thing. But first I needed to work out all those nasty debuffs I apparently had. How was I supposed to bring my life back to the required 9,000?
Then again, that too could wait. Life, XP, all that sort of shit. First I needed to determine whether this was real life or not.
The moment I thought this, a shadow lay on the tarmac by my feet.
“Excuse me?”
I looked up. An old man in funny-looking clothes and a fedora hat stood before me, staring down at the ground.
My good manners got the better of me. I jumped to my feet. “How can I help you? Would you like to sit down?”
As I spoke I looked over the boulevard. There were plenty of empty benches around as most people were still at work.
“Thank you,” the old man uttered in a weak, lispy voice. “That’s very kind of you. The reason I would like to speak to you is this. I have trouble walking. Still, I’m supposed to do some walking every day. So I come to this boulevard and I keep trotting up and down the lanes, up and down. Then I’m forced to sit down and read a paper. Because reading fresh newspapers is very benefici-“
He had a very funny, stilted way of speaking. Almost like a book character. I kept nodding my understanding, all the while trying to meet his gaze but he kept averting it, staring at the ground at my feet.
He was wearing light summer loafers, a shabby business jacket patched at the elbows and an enormous pair of baggy jeans reaching to his armpits and secured by a belt with a shiny steel buckle saying Jamiroquai, of all things. Which looked suspiciously like an Easter egg courtesy of the mysterious designers of this snazzy NPC character.
I suppressed a giggle. The old gentleman stopped and looked me right in the eye in surprise.

Mr. Samuel “The Rat” Panikoff
Age, 83

ROTFLOL! The Rat? I peered closely at him, triggering another dose of information,

Current status: Retired
Social status level, 27
Class: Office Worker. Level, 8
Widower.
Children: Natalia, daughter
Age, 54
Grandchildren: Max, grandson
Age, 31
Has a history of petty offenses

“Mr. Panikoff? If you don’t mind me asking...”
The old man averted his gaze and lisped, “You’re lucky this isn’t the year 1936, young man. At the time, when strange young men addressed you by name on the street, it could only mean one thing. Which promised nothing good. I was only a small child at the time, of course, but I heard my fair share of all those covert arrest stories. I, in my turn, apologize I can’t return your courtesy. I’m absolutely sure I don’t know you. I may be old but I have an excellent memory for both names and faces.”
Definitely a bot. They had absolute memory, didn’t they? Then again, an NPC would have never expressed surprise at my addressing him by name. But this one had. In fact, he appeared clearly uncomfortable.
“Mind if I take a seat?” he asked.
“I’m Philip,” I muttered. “But you can call me Phil.”
“Very well, Phil,” the old gentleman sat down, removed his hat and smoothed out his thinning hair. “So how do you know me? Wait a sec... I had the honor of teaching a course in Marxism in — when was it now? — nineteen... nineteen sixty-“
“Please, sir,” I interrupted him. “You really don’t know me. It’s just that I met Max — he’s your grandson, isn’t he? His mother Natalia told me a lot about you. I have a lot of respect for you and your achievements.”
I meant it. Compared to the alcoholic Alik with his measly level 4 and the presumably thieving saleswoman with her level 9, the old man was level 27! How awesome was that? He must have done some quality leveling in his lifetime.
I’d have loved to have known my own level too. But how was I supposed to do that?
The old man visibly relaxed, apparently happy with my explanation. “Oh, that’s nothing. I served my country, that’s all. We all did at the time. Not like the young people of today who’d love nothing better than to go and live abroad. My Max too thinks of emigrating! And when I was his age-”
“I agree entirely,” I shuffled my feet on the tarmac, lighting up a new cigarette. I needed to use the bathroom really badly. “I’m terribly sorry but I think I need to go now.”
“Of course... Phil. Absolutely,” he faltered, undecided, then continued. “The reason I approached you is because I have trouble walking. Still, I’m supposed to do some walking every day. So I come to this boulevard and I keep trotting up and down the lanes, up and down...”
Dammit. He was an NPC, after all. Even chat bots had more natural speech patterns. I needed to check it.
“Excuse me, sir,” I interrupted him. I knew it wasn’t polite but if this was VR, politeness would have to wait. I needed to work this out. “Who was President of the Soviet Union in 1941?”
He shook his head so hard that I was worried his scrawny neck might snap. “There was no President in 1941 in the USSR! The person who was in control of the country was Comrade Joseph Stalin, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party!”
Definitely a bot. And a very primitive one at that. Any other questions I could ask him?
I didn’t have the time to conduct a proper Turing test so I decided to adlib. “Mind if I ask you something else?”
“I’m not in a hurry, my dear Phil.”
“Is it brandy of vodka?”
“Water. And before that, I only used to drink the best brandy I could get.”
“Arsenal or Real Madrid?”
“What nonsense! The best soccer team this side of the Atlantic is Zenith! The finest club in Leningrad — or as you call it these days, St. Petersburg,” he enunciated the city’s name clearly, then burst into a happy childish laughter.
“Bingo,” I muttered.
He was real. No NPC was capable of such a quirky train of thought.
The old man stared at me. “Pardon me?”
I beamed back at him. This world was real, after all. Even more, I seemed to be the only one here in possession of a rare and useful ability. I really should help him. “It’s all right. I’m sorry I kept interrupting you. What was it you wanted me to do?”
“Just as I said, I have trouble walking. Still, I’m supposed to do some walking every day. So I come to this boulevard and I keep trotting up and down the lanes, up and down...”
What was that now? He’d said this twice already! He was repeating the same lines over and over again, just like a stuck record... or a glitchy script.
“Sorry I’m rambling,” he suddenly stopped himself. “I think I told you that already. To cut a long story short, sometimes I get tired so I’m forced to sit down and read a paper. Because reading fresh newspapers is very beneficial for one’s mind. Without them, I’d feel dead. What kind of life do you expect an old man like me to have? I read newspapers in order to stay on top of what’s going on in the world. I find sports events especially fascinating. Unfortunately, today of all days I forgot to buy the latest issue of Sports Express which I always do on my way here. Which also means that I can only buy it on my way back home because I don’t think I’ll be able to walk all the way to the newspaper stand and back here again. Which means-”
“Which means that you don’t have anything to read right now.”
“You’re quite insightful. So I’d really appreciate it if you could get me the latest issue of Sports Express. I’ll pay you back, of course.”
Immediately, a large system message blasted into my field of view, blocking out half the scene.

A quest!

Sport Brings the World Together
Mr. Samuel Panikoff, retired, is asking you to get him the latest issue of Sport Express so he could enjoy it during his solitary walk.
Time required, 30 min
Rewards,
XP, 10 pt.
Reputation with Mr. Panikoff, 5 pt.
Current Reputation, Indifference (0/30).

How was I supposed to accept it? Where was the wretched button? I looked all around the message but saw nothing.
So I just said, “No problem, sir. I’ll get it for you. You stay here.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” he replied with a mysterious smile.
The message faded away.
Quest accepted, a voice clicked in my head.
An exclamation mark began flashing somewhere in the periphery за my view. I focused on it. A quest list opened, containing only one quest — the one I’d just accepted.
I saluted the old man, turned round and hurried to get him his paper.
For the first time in years I felt in my element in the real world.



Chapter Four

The Alliance and Its Great Victory


""I may have somethin' for ya."" 
(Warcraft III)

I skipped and hopped all the way to the newsstand. What was the name of that game where I’d learned to move that way? Hopping and skipping made it harder for your enemy to sight in on you. That had been followed by Morrowind where you could level Acrobatics, so that finally I’d gotten into the habit of hopping, leaping and skipping everywhere I went in VR. And seeing as this was a game for me now — I could adopt this manner of walking IRL, why not? Provided this was IRL, of course. Provided I hadn’t lost my marbles.
I popped into a fast food joint on my way, used their restroom, received +2% to Satisfaction, then continued on my quest.
As I trotted along, threading my way past billboards and the preoccupied passersby crowding the sidewalk, I kept thinking. I could get 10 pt. XP for completing this quest. Which meant that in theory, I could level up too. I still couldn’t work out the correlation between real-world levels and statuses. Mr. Panikoff, this old-age pensioner, was much more advanced than the unemployed Alik — but by the same token, Alik was physically much stronger than the old man. Then again, I could be wrong and the social status could have had nothing to do with characters’ levels.
Did I just say “characters”? Sorry. I meant human beings, of course.
Halfway to the newsstand, reality dealt me a cruel and unexpected blow: I got out of breath. Gasping, I pressed on, hoping to eventually level up both stamina and athletics.
After two more minutes of a forced trot, my head began to ring. My teeth started aching; I had a burning sensation in my legs. I panted, struggling to catch my breath but unable to get enough air down my lungs.
This was madness. What the hell was I doing? Why did I have to run? This was real life, for crissakes! What was I talking about? There were no quests nor levels here! I was losing it...
I stopped, my lungs erupting in a bout of sickening viscous coughing. I leaned over a trash can. As I spat into it, my gaze alighted on its unsavory contents. I retched, leaving my entire breakfast — omelet, sandwich and all — in the can.
I glared furiously at a new system message which appeared before my eyes. Apparently, my Vigor had dropped to zero and I needed to get some rest!
The message was too appropriate to be a coincidence. Too well-timed to be a mere hallucination. Shit.
Ignoring all doubt, my mind gladly embraced the familiar world of gaming stats and characteristics.
My Stamina numbers must have been truly laughable — probably, worse than those of my new friend Mr. Panikoff. I might need to level up a bit, but how? Should I go jogging in the mornings? Oh no. Anything but that. I might just concentrate on leveling Intellect.
Having caught my breath and spat out the remains of my breakfast, I lit up a cigarette. Another system message promptly informed me of a toxic debuff I’d just received, illustrated by the slowly growing damage counter.
I didn’t care. I just needed to get rid of that sickening taste in my mouth.
I continued on my way, walking unhurriedly this time.
As soon as I’d bought the newspaper, a new message loomed into view about my receiving the quest item. I looked all through the paper but found nothing special about it. It was a good job he’d only asked me to get him one and not a dozen like NPC quest givers usually do.
I smirked as I thought about it. Mr. Panikoff would like you to bring him ten wisdom teeth from the local street thugs. Now that would be a quest!
I thanked the level-5 newsstand vendor (Mrs. Zinaida Nikolaeva, Age, 60), and returned to my old gentleman.
Mr. Panikoff was still there. He was sitting in the same pose as I’d left him, offering his squinting eyes to the sun and humming something. A small flock of cooing pigeons bustled nearby.
“Mr. Panikoff...”
“Ah! Phil, my friend!” the old man accepted the paper, brought it to his face and drew in a deep breath.
Shifting my feet, I patiently waited for the quest to close.
“I love the smell of fresh newspapers,” the old man explained. “There’s something enchanting about it. Here’s your money, thank you very much. I really appreciate your help!” he offered me the handful of small change he must have prepared as he’d waited for me.
I accepted the money and waited for the quest message. Nothing happened. I looked at the money in my hand, then at the old man with the paper. Nothing.
He opened the paper. “Holy Jesus! I just can’t believe it! Manchester City is full of surprises!”
“Why, what have they done?” I asked mechanically.
The absence of the quest message worried me a little. Could this be a glitch? I focused on the exclamation mark which obligingly opened, offering me an empty drop-down menu.
What was that now? The quest had been closed, hadn’t it? In which case, where were my XP points? Where was my hard-earned Reputation?
“What have they done?” he repeated. “They’ve just become English champions, that’s what they’ve done! That’s exactly what I said to Valiadis the other day! I told him Man City was a power to be reckoned with! Guardiola is a real brain. A tough cookie. I wouldn’t trifle with him. He’s commanding this parade!”
He pried himself away from his paper and cast me an expectant look. That triggered his name tag back into view, hovering over his head.
Yes!

Mr. Samuel “The Rat” Panikoff
Age, 83
Current status, Retired
Social status level, 27
Class: Office Worker. Level, 8
Widower.
Children: Natalia, daughter
Age, 54
Grandchildren: Max, grandson
Age, 31
Has a history of petty offenses
Reputation, Indifference 5/30

It worked! Our glorious Alliance had won another great battle!
If I’d received Rep points, it meant I must have had the XP too, stashed away somewhere. I really needed to find it and work out how to monitor it somehow.
I nodded to the man, “Absolutely, sir.”
“Actually, my friend,” the old man’s voice grew stronger. He didn’t lisp anymore. “I  suggest you remember the name. Valiadis. He’s a real brain. One day you might be happy you did.”
I nodded again, not quite understanding what he was going on about. A new message which I hadn’t noticed before had become clearer in my mind’s view.

Your reputation with Mr. Samuel “Rat” Panikoff has improved!
Current Reputation, Indifference 5/30

Aha. It looked like this gaming system followed the usual rules. Which meant that someone’s attitude to me could be calibrated on a scale from hatred to adoration. In this particular case, once I earned 30 Rep points, my relationship with Panikoff would change from Indifference to Amicality, followed by Respect, Reverence and Adoration. Each of those would have their own scales from zero to whatever points were necessary to make the next level. The higher the Reputation, the more points I’d need to earn in order to move on to the next one.
And if, by some chance, my Reputation with Panikoff somehow dropped below zero, it would turn negative, from Dislike to Animosity to Hatred.
Having said that, the gaming scale missed such real-world notions as Love and Friendship. Did they have calibrated bars of their own too?
Very well, Provided this wasn’t a hallucination born of my overwrought brain, I might have plenty of time to find that out.
I wanted to say goodbye to the old man but he was deaf to the world around him, consumed by the latest sports news. Never mind. I said goodbye to him anyway, then hurried back home.
I should have asked him about his moniker, really. The Rat! A prison nickname? Why not? He’d very possibly served time during Stalin’s post-war purges.
Once back home, I peeled off my soaked sneakers, the socks and even the pants which were wet to the knee. I shoved the clothes into the washing machine and set the sneakers out onto the balcony to dry in the sun.
There, I slumped onto a wobbly stool and lit another cigarette. I had this tendency to chain-smoke whenever I felt nervous or excited. That always made me feel totally sick the day after, giving me a strong incentive to quit smoking... which might even last a couple of days. Then, once my body got rid of all the nasty substances I’d inhaled the day before, the urge would inevitably come back.
I took a good tug on my cigarette, staring at my sneakers. If this were indeed a game... what kind of stats would my sneakers have?
It would probably go like this,

A Scandalous Pair of Shabby Sneakers of Misfortune
-9 to Attractiveness
-6 to Agility
Durability: 3/60

How stupid was that? Spending ten to twelve hours in the game just to upgrade a piece of virtual gear while having no desire to replace a very physical pair of shoes IRL!
I yawned. It was almost midday already. I really should clean the place and cook dinner by the time Yanna came back from work. Then I could rejoin the raid and finally complete the dungeon with a clear conscience.
I put out the cigarette, set the alarm clock to 4 p.m. and went to bed.
As I was falling asleep, I realized I wasn’t that interested in the raid, after all. I wasn’t in the mood for playing for some reason. I seemed to be developing munchkin tendencies IRL.
When the alarm awoke me, I was bathed in sweat. My whole body was aching. The taste in my mouth reminded me of a latrine in Orgrimmar. Boris the cat was pawing my chest, reminding me of her meal time.
I’d found Boris on the street during the era when the world’s top guilds were only beginning to tackle Illidan. I hadn’t even looked at him — her — properly. At the time, it was just a soggy ball of red hair. I’d brought it home, rolled it out on the kitchen floor and offered it a saucerful of milk. The kitten immediately stuck his little head in it. While he was feeding, I’d come up with a name for him: Boris.
After some time, a friend of mine kindly informed me that my Boris wasn’t a Boris at all.
“Hey, it’s a she!” he announced.
I still have no idea why he’d had to check its rear end. Did he have a cat fetish?
After all, what difference could a cat’s gender possibly make?
God was I wrong.
The next spring our Boris had gone mad. She screamed in a nasty screechy voice, demanding a partner, while moving around the apartment with her backside stuck high in the air. I’d had to have her fixed ASAP.
And once I’d met Yanna, the ultimate dog person, Boris’ life took a steep turn for the worse. Because Yanna had a Chihuahua. His name was Boy. Boy took an instant dislike to Boris — and the feeling was more than mutual.
For a long time, Yanna had been trying to talk me into getting rid of Boris. If you listened to her, cats were useless creatures. They shed, they cost you money in food and litter filler, and they didn’t even bother to catch mice these days, meaning they had no place in the house. When, in response, I dared question Boy’s potentially useful qualities — pointing out that in this day and age it was pretty unusual to expect pets to earn their keep — Yanna really took offense. That had been one of our first big arguments.
The problem had sorted itself out naturally. One day we went out, leaving both animals at home. Boris’ litter box was on the balcony, so we left the balcony door open.
No idea how it happened — but somehow the little Chihuahua managed to kill himself by falling to his death from our eighth floor. We found his broken body on the ground under the balcony. Yanna was heartbroken. I borrowed a toy shovel from some kids next door and buried Boy on an empty lot behind the row of communal garages.
Since then, Yanna hated Boris with abandon, refusing to do anything for her. Feeding and cleaning up after her was entirely my responsibility.
The cat must have noticed I was awake. She meowed, demanding attention. I climbed out of bed and stretched. My joints screeched their protest. Every muscle in my body hurt after my morning paper run.
The memory of the weird morning kicked back in. I struggled, unable to tell reality from the dream I’d just had.
I picked up Boris and stared hard into her feline eyes.
Yes!

Boris. A female cat
Age, 9
Current status, pet
Owner, Philip Panfilov

Wait a sec, what about her level? And social status? That didn’t make sense.
I tried to focus harder, expecting the message to unravel, but Boris struggled free from my grip, gave a hearty shake and began grooming herself, casting offended glances in my direction.
Finally, something must have clicked in the mysterious game system, adding another line to my pet’s stats,

Relationship: Adoration 10/10

Adoration? No way!
My lips stretched in a happy grin. I jumped off the bed. “Boris, I love you too!”
It hadn’t been a dream, after all. My Reputation with Boris was all maxed-out. How awesome was that?
I turned the TV on and switched it to a music channel, then picked up Boris and waltzed my way into the kitchen.
I measured out a generous helping of her dinner and went into the bathroom to make myself presentable. This wasn’t a game, Mr. Panfilov. People actually washed here.
I took a shower, brushed my teeth, had a shave, wiped myself dry, put some clean underwear on, then walked back into the kitchen.
I opened the fridge and studied its contents. I needed to decide what to make for dinner. We still had one raw chicken drumstick left, a few potatoes and a bunch of other veg. I might make some chicken soup. That way there’d be some left for tomorrow, as well. Time to do some shopping, really.
I put the chicken in a pot, added some water and set it on the stove just as the kettle began to boil. I spooned a generous dose of instant coffee into a mug, added some sugar, stirred it, then walked out onto the balcony.
By then, Boris had already finished her dinner and decided to keep me company.
I drank my coffee, smoking and thinking. The familiar system message informed me of the nicotine damage received. Still, my Vitality numbers seemed to have improved somewhat. It must have had something to do with getting a bit more sleep and the fact that my body must have gotten rid of some of the last day’s alcohol. And still my Vitality bar wasn’t full but hovering at 73%.
What was happening to me? Why? I really needed to find out what was going on. I had to work this crazy system out.
I came up with several theories but none seemed convincing enough. Undecided, I spent some time experimenting, trying to locate my own stats. That would have given me some starting point.
Finally I noticed a tiny little icon almost out of view, in the top right corner of my field of vision. Risking to dislocate my eyeballs, I somehow reached for it, locking it with my screwed gaze. 
It worked. Another icon appeared promptly next to it.
The first one seemed to list my buffs. Or debuffs, rather. It depicted a large red letter N enveloped in clouds of smoke.
A countdown above the first icon kept clocking down the seconds,

116:31... 116:30... 116:29...

A prompt hovered into view,

Nicotine Saturation
Your body is saturated with nicotine. Your metabolism is accelerated 15%.
Warning! Your blood contains high levels of carbon monoxide!
+3 to Satisfaction
+2% to Vigor
-1 to Stamina
-1 to Intellect
-1 to Perception

The second icon depicted a black letter C. It reported a caffeine buff received. It offered +2 to Satisfaction and +10 to Metabolism while slightly improving Vigor, Focus and Reaction Times.
The problem was, I had nothing to compare those numbers with. How much Stamina did I have in total? Because if it was 100, then -1 pt. wasn’t a big deal. But if it was 10, then my smoking habit did a lot of damage to my stats!
I returned to the kitchen deep in thought and began peeling some potatoes while the chicken was still cooking. I must have been mad all those years. Who in their sane mind would deliberately inflict a permanent debuff on themselves? Because that’s what I was doing with all that smoking.
I peeled the potatoes, finished my coffee and began cleaning the place.
It would probably be better not to tell Yanna anything... at least for the time being.



Release - July 10, 2018 

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