Saturday, April 21, 2018

Level Up: Restart by Dan Sugralinov

Level Up
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 One 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 cold 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


“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 some 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
Criminal record: yes

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.”
“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
Children: Igor, son
Age: 18
Ivan, son
Age: 11
Criminal record: yes

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?”


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:


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
Children: Natalia, daughter
Age: 54
Grandchildren: Max, grandson
Age: 31
Criminal record: yes

“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 Sports Express so he could enjoy it during his solitary walk.
Time required, 30 min
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.

Mr. Samuel “The Rat” Panikoff
Age: 83
Current status: Retired
Social status level: 27
Class: Office Worker. Level: 8
Children: Natalia, daughter
Age: 54
Grandchildren: Max, grandson
Age: 31
Criminal record: yes
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 Amicability, 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.

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.

Chapter Five

 Signs of Life

“Life always bursts the boundaries of formulas. Defeat may prove to have been the only path to resurrection, despite its ugliness.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Flight to Arras

I STILL HAD some time before Yanna came home. The soup had been made. I’d cleaned the place, taken out the trash and started a load of washing. House chores out of the way, I could finally do some work.
Provided I had some.
A housemaker earning a pittance and sponging off a wife eight years his junior... it felt uncomfortable. It wasn’t as if it had never bothered me before - because before, I’d somehow managed to suppress the voice of my conscience. I was an artist - a writer. Our clan was #2 on the server! And even if you did compare my and Yanna’s earnings, you’d see that I’d always managed to earn slightly more than she did. Not much but still.
For some reason, today it failed to reassure me. What was I like? Threadbare jeans, faded T-shirts, my only pair of sneakers falling apart... How was Yanna supposed to feel, having chosen to spend the best years of her life with me?
I sat down to check my computer. My game client was bursting with messages from my clanmates. Still, I had more important things to do.
I checked my inbox, silently praying for new job offers. I scrolled through a hundred-plus letters which had accumulated over the last two days, deleting any potential spam without reading. Nothing I could use. Shame.
That was weird. Only a few hours ago, the absence of job offers would have been good news: it meant I could log back into the game with a clear conscience. And now I felt disappointed, for some reason.
I decided to check a few freelance websites for any private messages. Nothing. No one seemed to be tempted by my wide range of services including “the writing of concise and eloquent website articles, press releases, speeches, reports and promotional materials”. Might they have been put off by my rather high rates?
I chuckled. I was an idiot, really. I used to justify my high rates by the fact that I was an accomplished author: not a college student but someone with a life’s wealth of experience behind him. While in fact I’d simply been unwilling to do the work, too wary of putting in the actual effort. Because accepting a job would mean I might have to work hard, writing, rewriting and editing my hard-gained words time and time again.
Which was admittedly boring. Also, I had the game to play. Still, today I somehow wished I hadn’t.
I picked up my cell phone and scrolled through the contacts. One of those people just might have an assignment for me to do.
I finally dialed Ivan. He worked in an advertising company which sometimes hired me to write a blog post or something. Faking cheerfulness, I asked him if they had anything for me, by any chance.
“I don’t think so,” he replied unenthusiastically. “We don’t have any clients ourselves at the moment. Wretched recession. We’ll keep you posted. Thanks for staying in touch.”
Sure. In recession times, everyone had to cut corners. And the likes of me were the first to get the boot.
The air in the room was still rife with my badly-digested ambitions which had appeared so alluring ten years ago. By now though they’d almost completed their full circle through my rich psyche and were about to reveal themselves to the world as a perfect pile of complete shit.
And Yanna would be the first to witness its arrival.
I’d scrolled through the entire contacts list without calling anyone. I simply hadn’t dared. I was too scared of more rejections. Also, I hated making other people feel uncomfortable by having to reject me.
I spent the next hour updating my job profiles. I chose some of my best work and uploaded it to my portfolios making sure it looked attractive. The only things I now mentioned in my profile were experience and my ability to work under pressure to meet urgent deadlines. You get this sort of skill by doing hardcore raids.
That got me thinking. Freelancing was all well and good - but should I be thinking of getting a regular job, maybe? I could try living a normal life, I suppose. Waking up at the same time as Yanna, having breakfast together, then leaving the house, driving to work in some office or other, then heading back home in the evening with a clear conscience... A regular paycheck might help me get back on my feet and earn some self-respect. I might even make friends with my workmates. So basically, why not?
I rummaged through a junk heap of ancient files until I finally unearthed my old resume. I updated it a bit, adding a new mug shot and a fresh portfolio, then googled an employment website and signed up. I could give the game a miss for a while. Raids could wait. Real-life leveling was admittedly fun.
With that out of the way, I walked out onto the balcony and lit another cigarette, habitually closing a new debuff message.
My lips stretched in a smile. I was more than pleased with myself and my decision.
The setting sun had colored the horizon purple. The yard below echoed with children’s voices and the booming sounds of a 1992 disco hit from someone’s window. A flock of pigeons fussed below.
The sound of breaking glass and Yagoza’s furious cussing disrupted the bucolic atmosphere. One of his subordinates had just dropped a bagful of booze on the tarmac.
I heard the key turn in the door. Yanna was back. I put out the unfinished cigarette and went back in to greet her.
She walked through the front door loaded down with shopping bags. She must have done the shopping on her way home from work.
How embarrassing. I took the bags from her and gave her a hearty kiss. She answered it unenthusiastically.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi there. What’s up? What’s with the shaving? Why aren’t you-” she cut herself short.
I knew what she meant. Normally, whenever she came home, I was either asleep or sitting behind my computer wearing a pair of headphones.
I shrugged. “It’s just that... I missed you.”
I took the bags into the kitchen and began putting the shopping away. I couldn’t stop thinking of what I’d just read on the name tag hovering above her head,

Yannina “Yanna” Orlova
Age: 24
Current status: lawyer
Social status level: 8
Class: Office Worker. Level: 3
Husband: Philip Panfilov
Children: none
Reputation: Amicability 5/60

Only Amicability? And only 5 points?
Never mind. This weird game system probably didn’t even figure Love on its Reputation scale. But still...
Engrossed in these thoughts, I began laying the table. How funny. Yanna was the first person today who didn’t seem to have a criminal record.
She’d already changed out of her office clothes and slumped onto the kitchen stool. “How was your day, then?”
“Fine. I’ve cleaned the house, spent some time looking for a proper job and uploaded my CV to”
“Poor you! You’ve cleaned the house! And uploaded your CV! You must be exhausted!”
I stared at a new system message. I just didn’t understand it!

Your Reputation with Yannina “Yanna” Orlova has decreased!
Current reputation: Dislike 25/30  

I seemed to have been right: this was a standard gaming Reputation system. But at the moment, I couldn’t care less.
Dislike, why? What had I done? I felt a surge of blood flush my face. My ears burned.
I gulped, trying to take it all in, then looked up at her. Yanna’s unfriendly stare was boring a hole in me. There was no love in her eyes.
I spoke slowly, weighing every word and trying to sound calm,
“I know how you must feel. I’m sorry. You work hard while I stay home sleeping, then spend nights playing. You have to lug all that shopping around... I know. I’ve made up my mind. No more playing. No more raids. I’m getting a proper job.”
“You don’t mean it!” she exclaimed, faking amazement. “Just about goddamn time!”
“I’m serious. I’ve also dropped my freelance rates today. This way I might get more job offers while I’m looking for work.”
“You’re full of surprises, you! Did you also write your book?”
“No, I didn’t. I didn’t have the time. Actually... it’s possible I might not-”
I faltered but strangely enough, I felt relieved. For the first time in my life, I’d spoken my mind instead of just offering excuses.
Yanna raised an eyebrow. “Anything happen?”
Oh yes. It most definitely had. Still, I wasn’t going to tell her. She wouldn’t believe me. She’d just think she’d been living with a nutcase all these years.
“Everything’s fine,” I said. “Tuck in.”
She chuckled.
We ate in silence, each thinking our own thoughts. No idea what she was contemplating. Me, I was pondering over the fact that I’d just received a numerical confirmation of Yanna’s animosity which she’d expressed on a few occasions before.
After dinner, she retired to our bedroom while I did the dishes and had another smoke break. Then I joined her and sat on the bed next to her. We really needed to talk. We needed to get this out of our respective systems.
She was lying in bed as if I wasn’t even there, listening to the music in her earphones and scrolling through her Instagram feed.
I peered at the message hovering over her head,

Yannina “Yanna” Orlova
Age: 24
Reputation: Dislike 25/30

Then a new message popped up,

Your Relationship with Yannina “Yanna” Orlova has decreased!
Current Reputation: Dislike 20/30

I reached out to touch her, wishing to say something. A new message appeared above the first one,

Your Relationship with Yannina “Yanna” Orlova has decreased!
Current Reputation: Dislike 15/30

I sprang off the bed and shot out of the room before my own wife aggroed me.
She couldn’t even bear being next to me!
For the next couple of hours, I circled the rest of the apartment like a caged animal, smoking, drinking coffee, then smoking some more, then making more coffee, occasionally trying to Google instances of spontaneous virtual-reality disorders (which I apparently had) or scrolling through pages of marital advice.
Should I go on that raid? Or make a appointment with a doctor? I logged into the game but kept checking my email every couple of minutes, hoping for new job offers.
Basically, I was just going mad. My brain was in overload. I was losing Yanna.
My PM box was bursting with messages. I could understand my clanmates. The raid had already started, they could see I was logged in but still I wouldn’t join them, standing like an idiot in the middle of the capital city.
I didn’t notice Yanna walk out of the bedroom, standing behind my back and watching me sitting at my computer staring at the game interface.
I did notice the new system message, though.

Your Relationship with Yannina “Yanna” Orlova has decreased!
Current Reputation: Animosity 20/30

“Didn’t you just say ‘No more playing’?” she asked behind my back. “‘No more raids’, yeah right! You’re a jerk, that’s what you are. I think I’ve had enough.”
I didn’t turn. Pointless. When your relationship dropped to Animosity, it meant no one would even talk to you. I could only make matters worse.
She slammed the bedroom door. I sat there, listening to her pack her stuff and talk to someone on the phone. Her voice sounded so sweet - flirty even - and ringing with happiness. You wouldn’t think it was the same person who’d just hissed and vented her fury at me.
I put on my Shabby Sneakers of Misfortune, scooped up my cell phone, the cigarettes, a lighter, the wallet and the apartment keys, dumped it all into a backpack and walked out of the house as I was, in a pair of shorts and a faded T-shirt (-1 to Charisma, Durability: 2/20).
For some reason, I headed for the ramshackle pavillion in the center of the playground and sat there, staring at the flickering light above the front door. Everything went out of focus.
Had it not been for the wretched Reputation message, I might have tried to go back and apologize like I’d done many times before. I might have tried to explain and beg her forgiveness. We might have dissolved into one of our night-long shouting matches when I’d be trying to put my arms around her while she’d scratch me, telling me to keep my filthy hands to myself. Then, when the sun finally showed up and our janitor, a Tadzhik migrant who could barely speak any Russian, started swishing his broom outside, we’d finally make up. We had this agreement never to go to bed angry.
So any other day we might have finally kissed and made up, then indulged in some angry, desperate, mind-boggling lovemaking when all you could feel was that the two of you had become one, united in your passion.
This time, however, I knew: this was the end of the line. It hadn’t happened overnight. Whatever feelings she’d had for me - whether love, friendship, respect or adoration - they had been fading, dropping a point each day, every day, and today it had finally arrived at zero. She’d run out of love and friendship; she didn’t have any respect left for me and as for adoration... just forget it.
An SUV pulled up at some distance from the house. A young guy climbed out, took Yanna’s suitcase from her and put it in the trunk. They exchanged a hug and a kiss (on the cheek!). He opened the passenger door for her. Yanna got in, and the car drove off.
A figure appeared out of the shadows. “Fancy a drink?”
I looked up sharply. It was Alik.
He must have taken my staring back at him as a yes because he offered me a beer can.
I downed half of it. A new system message appeared promptly, informing me of a drop in both agility and perception and a slight rise in confidence and charisma.
He offered me a light, then lit his own cigarette. “Easy, man! Wassup?” he nodded at the front door.
“Nothing,” I drew deeply on my cigarette, then added against my better judgement as I exhaled, “My wife’s just left me.”

Your Reputation with Romuald “Alik” Zhukov has improved!
Current Reputation: Amicability 5/60

I started to laugh, louder and louder, until I dissolved in a bout of hysterics. Amicability! With a local bum! Was it because I’d been honest with him? Or because of the beer and smokes we’d shared? Whatever. It was hilarious, anyway. Only a few hours ago, my wife, the love of my life who’d been with me through thick and thin, had the same reputation reading with me as this street thug with whom I’d barely exchanged a few words.
Had this been a game, I might have thought I had some kind of stat booster or a premium account which offered fast-track Reputation leveling. And had this indeed been the case...
Alik gave me a hearty slap on the shoulder, ignoring my bout of hysteria. “Happens. So she left you, big deal. You can get her back if you really want to. Take it easy, man.”
“Yeah, I suppose so,” I replied absent-mindedly as another thought struck me.
A stat booster. Why not? Because if it were so, then...
My head boomed, replaying a single song snippet over and over again,

“ can I describe
The TV shows running through this brain box of mine
World, I’m back, you’d better watch your back,
You paid for my head
Too bad
I'm showing you signs of life”[1]

I could get Yanna back.
Enough wallowing in self-pity. Enough wasting my time.
“Thanks for the beer, man,” I shook Alik’s hand. “And for the advice. I’m gonna go for a walk. I need some fresh air.”

Your Reputation with Romuald “Alik” Zhukov has improved!
Current Reputation: Amicability 10/60

“I can go with you if you want,” he offered.
Was it the alcohol? Or the stat booster? I really needed to find that out. Time was an issue.
“Next time, man,” I handed him the unfinished beer and left the pavilion.
I walked out onto the street and hurried along while reaching for my earbuds and connecting them to my phone. I put some music on and started jogging, breathing in the springtime night air infused with the aromas of early blossoms, budding leaves and exhaust fumes. I threaded my way among the passersby, leaping over pools of rainwater, past parked cars and apartment buildings, block after block, stopping occasionally to catch my breath.
It started raining. I kept jogging, catching raindrops with my open mouth and wiping my forehead with my sleeve as I ran.
I only stopped when I reached the city limits. My sneakers were soaking wet. My lungs were on fire. My legs were giving way under me.
No idea how long I’d been running. The rain had long stopped. The sky was getting lighter. I could hear dogs barking in nearby cottages.
And me? Well, I was grinning!

Your Stamina has improved!
+1 to Stamina
Current Stamina, 4

I set my backpack on the curb and slumped down on it, then reached for the soggy pack of cigarettes. I took my time lighting up and smoking it, then lit up a new cigarette with the first one.
Cleansed by my run through the nighttime city, my lungs and blood greedily soaked up the new dose of nicotine. It went to my head. My legs felt weak. New debuff messages kept flooding in. Still I kept smoking, trying to remember exactly how it felt. The foul taste, the slackened muscles...
Staggering, I scrambled back to my feet, walked over to a trash bin, crumpled the remaining cigarettes in my hand and shoved them in the bin, followed by the lighter.

Chapter Six

 New Level

“You could claim that anything’s real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody’s proved it doesn’t exist!”

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

LATER, I COULD barely remember how I’d gotten back home after my night run. I’d walked along the city streets, then hitched a ride with some early-morning gypsy cab. I must have fallen asleep; I remember rummaging through my pockets for any loose change as I hadn’t had enough to pay him. I remember peeling off my soggy clothes and dropping them on the bedroom floor. I then collapsed onto the bed and pressed my face to Yanna’s pillow. Just before falling asleep, I somehow remembered to set the alarm for 9.30 the next morning. I had a doctor’s appointment at 11 a.m.
When the alarm awoke me, I was about to hit snooze, then remembered the appointment and shot out of bed.
“Shot out” was probably a bit of an overstatement. I’d indeed sprung out of bed, then promptly collapsed on top of it. Diagnosis: an acute case of Phil-itosis.
My whole body hurt as if some vicious Warlock had cast several DOTs on me, flattened me repeatedly under a press, then thrown me into the path of a herd of Siberian mammoths.
Trying to move slowly, I somehow made it to the bathroom. I took a shower, gingerly touching my smarting body which felt completely dead after last-night’s marathon. After an equally careful shave and a cautious tickle of the toothbrush, I felt marginally better.
My chest groaned with the sense of loss. I missed Yanna something rotten. I missed her voice and her “Breakfast’s ready!” My hands kept reaching for the phone, dying to dial her number.
Still, I forced myself to stay calm. I wasn’t ready yet. Nor was she. By calling her now, I could ruin everything.
To get my mind off it, I decided to do a bit of Strength leveling. A few situps and pushups might do just fine.
God was I ever wrong. I managed a few half-hearted situps, but the pain in my legs was just too much. My creaking knees were killing me.
And as for pushups... the moment I tried to bend my arms, they gave under me and I collapsed to the floor. Luckily, my belly acted as a shock absorver.
I made myself some coffee and walked out onto the balcony. Mechanically my hand reached for my cigarettes but found none. Unlike all my previous attempts to quit, this time I wasn’t upset by their absence. If anything, I felt relieved. I stood on the balcony, breathing in lungfuls of fresh air and washing it down with hot, strong coffee.
Having received my coffee buff, I put on some clean clothes and hurried to my doctor’s appointment. I still had some money on my bank card - enough for his fee and also hopefully for any tests the Doc deemed necessary.
She did. The doctor turned out to be a pretty young blonde who didn’t bat an eyelid at my rambling story. She asked me a long list of questions, then sent me to have an MRI of the brain which cost an arm and a leg.
“Once you’re done, come back to my office with the images,” she said. “The way you describe it, it could be anything. I can’t diagnose you based on your symptoms alone.”
“Thanks,” I said, peering at the system message hovering over her head. “Thank you, Olga. Am I to come back to see you once I have the images?”
“Very well. Oh, and one more thing. You’re very pretty.”
Suppressing an embarrassed smile, she pointed at the door.
Yeah right! She could point at the door all she wanted but the system knew better!
I smiled back and walked out. The smile still hovered on my face as I contemplated the system message I’d just received,

Your Reputation with Olga “Lola” Shvedova has improved!
Current Reputation: Indifference 5/30

This system didn’t mess about! Five more compliments, and we might become friends!
I was lucky: the clinic had its own MRI equipment which saved me a trip downtown. I had to wait for my turn, but I didn’t mind that. I could use a pause. I needed to have a good think and decide what to do next.
I used the chance to check my health points. They seemed to have grown a bit. The bar now read 73,17102% and kept creeping up. This was the best anti-smoking ad I’d ever seen.
It looked like in order to get Yanna back, I might need to first win her love - and her respect. This wasn’t a question of whether I wanted to be with her or not. I needed her. Even though my initial feelings for her had somewhat faded over these four years, my love for her had only grown stronger.
And as for winning her respect... I was no expert in women but I had this nagging feeling that this time mere promises and declartions of love wouldn’t be enough. I could find out where she lived now, of course. I could send her flowers at work. I could bombard her with texts, stalk her on social media, keep calling her number, shower her with rose petals and beg her forgiveness on a reality TV show. Wouldn’t work. It might have, once. But not now.
Had she had some feelings left for me - yes, maybe. But this mysterious game system didn’t lie. What Yanna felt for me was animosity. Which must have had something to do with my being a total failure, passive, disinterested and perfectly happy with the current state of affairs.
“You’re such a loser really,” she used to tell me only half-jokingly. “At your age, you still don’t have a job. You don’t have a car. You don’t even have a place of your own! You’re thirty years old and you still sponge off your wife, playing games all night long...”
She hadn’t been joking, then. That should have been the first clue. If only I’d realized it then! But no - the only thing that had worried me at the time was whether I could become the server’s top rogue, beating some guy called Nurro to the title.
The answer was “no” to both. I hadn’t become the top rogue nor had I managed to keep Yanna.
“Panfilov? Come in, please,” a voice called from the MRI room.
The fifteen minutes spent motionless in the cramped confines of an MRI capsule echoing with spooky sounds is every claustrophobic’s biggest nightmare. Then I had to wait another half-hour for my results. Finally, they handed me an envelope containing images of my gray matter from every possible angle.
Envelope in hand, I returned to the blonde doctor’s office.
I reached for the door handle, about to walk in, when a male voice protested from behind me,
“Where do you think you’re going? How about waiting your turn?”
My hand still in mid-air, I turned around. A burly man, bald-headed with a wrestler’s neck, sat on one of the chairs lining the opposite wall.
A few other patients next to him voiced their indignation,
“What a cheek!” an old lady in a bright-colored headscarf shook a disapproving head.
“You hear what he said? Come and take your place in line,” a gum-chewing woman next to her advised rather threateningly. Her plump high-cheekboned face was plastered with a thick layer of makeup.
“I’m not here to see the doctor!” I tried to explain. “I only need to give this to her! I have an appointment!”
“So do we,” a frail old man with a goatee protested in a passionate whisper.
“Don’t you get fresh with us!” the fat lady raised her voice.
“Right,” the burly man stood up. “You heard it. Come and take your place in line. Don’t make me lose it with you.”
I could understand them. Still, I wasn’t going to wait in line twice for the same appointment. All I needed to do was give her the envelope. The appointment times were all screwed up, anyway. I’d had to wait an hour for mine even though I’d arrived on time.
A chain of new system messages flooded my field of vision. Oh no.

Your Reputation with Anatoly Magaradze has decreased!
Current Reputation: Animosity 20/30

Your Reputation with Aigul Ramadanova has decreased!
Current Reputation: Animosity 20/30

Your Reputation with Violette Ryzhova has decreased!
Current Reputation: Animosity 20/30

Your Reputation with Mark Zalessky has decreased!
Current Reputation: Animosity 20/30

I needed a break. Obediently I stepped away from the door and took my place in line after the frail old man. All the chairs were already taken, so I just leaned against the wall next to him.
I met the burly man’s gaze. Aha.

Anatoly Magaradze.
Age: 44
Current status: truck driver
Social status level: 9
Class: long-haul truck driver. Level: 7
Wife: Irina Magaradze
Children: none
Criminal record: yes

I spent some time focusing on each of the patients, retrieving the information I needed and planning my next move. It would be terribly unfair to waste my time waiting in line, especially if the images proved there was nothing wrong with me. In which case, I’d have to finally work out the mysterious game’s interface, retrieve my stats and come up with a new leveling strategy. One that would allow me to get Yanna back.
Still, I knew very well what I needed to do in order to get her back. I had to find a job and earn my own living. Pretty obvious, I know. Still, that would be the most meaningful sign of my being on the mend. I needed to lose some weight, anyway. The beer diet and sedentary lifestyle had done my waistline - or the absence thereof - no favors.
So what did I know about crowd control? First, you had to surprise them. After that, you had to shock them. Then they’d be eating out of your hand, compliant and perfectly malleable.
And this wasn’t even a crowd but only a group of four united by one goal: to see the doctor in their due time without letting an aggressive intruder jump the line.
The fact that they’d acted so unanimously against me gave me some hope that my idea just might work.
I grabbed at my head. My knees slackened. Slowly I slid to the floor, making unintelligible sounds to attract their attention.
“Is he all right?” asked the gum-chewing lady, a.k.a. Mrs. Aigul Ramadanova.
“Yeah yeah,” the burly Mr. Magaradze laughed. “Pull the other one!”
Mmmmhyyymhyyyy,” I enunciated, trying to sound forlorn and desperate.
“God save us,” the old Mrs. Violette Ryzhova made the sign of the cross. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!”
Ishnu'alaaaaahhhh,” I groaned, switching to the Darnassian language of Night Elves.
“He’s a demon!” the old Violette pointed her gnarly finger at me. “I assure you! Lord Jesus...”
“Will you please stop your nonsense?” the truck driver interrupted her. “Hey you! Are you okay?”
I didn’t reply. Slowly I rose, sliding my back up the wall. My knee caps crunched clearly in the silence.
I raised my right hand and pointed at the old woman, “You! Violette Rebrova! You’re a faithful servant of God! Hearken unto me!”
The woman kept crossing herself and whispering prayers, unable to take her eyes off me. She looked almost crippled with fear.
I turned and pointed at the other woman. “You! Aigul Ramadanova! Hearken unto me!”
I turned again. “You!” my index finger very nearly poked the truck driver’s forehead. “Anatoly Magaradze, listen to me!”
“And you!” I turned my attention to the frail old man. “Mark Zalessky, sir! I want you to pay attention!”
Ramadanova’s mouth opened. The gum dropped to the floor. The old woman’s hand froze mid-air in an unfinished sign of the cross. The old gentleman seemed to be dangerously close to a stroke.
The burly Magaradze was the only one who hadn’t bought it. “What’s that for a circus show?”
“Aren’t you fed up with trucking?” I asked him in my normal voice. “Your wife Irina must miss you something awful.”
I must have touched on a tender spot. He didn’t say anything, just clenched his teeth.
“I’m very sorry,” I said, clutching my head with both hands. “I have this problem... I can see right through all of you! I don’t think my head can take it... Will you please let me see the doctor? Please?”
“I don’t mind,” Mrs. Ramadanova hurried to agree before I could reveal any more sensitive information about her.
“Let him see the doctor,” the old lady echoed.
The burly Magaradze didn’t say anything, just nodded at the door.
“Thanks,” I whispered voicelessly, taking a place by the door.
“Listen...” Magaradze touched my shoulder. “I don’t know your name-”
“It’s Phil.”
“Listen, Phil... Did you say Irina misses me?”
I stared into his slightly bulging eyes surrounded by a fine net of wrinkles. They were the eyes of a person who’d been around the block a few times.
I paused. “She does. A lot.”
He gave me a bear hug. “Thank you! I owe you!”
Without saying goodbye to anyone, he turned round and hurried down the clinic corridor toward the front door.

Your Reputation with Anatoly Magaradze has improved!
Current Reputation: Reverence 10/210

Oh wow. I hadn’t done anything special, really. Just told him something he’d probably already known. But what a leap in Reputation, from animosity to reverence!
The doctor’s door opened, letting out a patient followed by Olga herself.
“What’s with all the noise?” she asked.
No one replied.
She saw me. “Aha. Have you got your images? Come in, I’ll take a look.”
As I closed the door, I heard Aigul and the old lady Violette embarking on a heated discussion.
I took a seat, waiting for the doctor’s verdict. I was shaking, my hands clenched into fists. She studied the images against the light, lowering her head this way and that. Finally, she heaved a sigh and started writing.
So what was wrong with me, then? Was I nuts? Or just hallucinating? Did I have a brain tumor?
“And?” I finally managed with a dry throat.
“You’re perfectly fine,” she gave me a studying look. “Relatively speaking. You’re overweight. Marginally obese, to be frank. So you need to take better care of yourself. You need to eat less and exercise more. At your age, you shouldn’t let it get out of hand.”
She kept going on about the obesity-related dangers of an early stroke and heart disease. Finally I interrupted her,
“I’m sorry! I promise I’ll watch my diet and start a healthy lifestyle. I already went for a run yesterday. And I quit smoking. But please tell me,” I pointed at my temple, “am I all right... there?”
“Oh, absolutely fine. No problems at all. I can’t see any abnormalities. Your blood pressure is a bit on the high side but nothing you should worry about.”
“Thank you so much! You’re an angel!”
On impulse I grabbed her hand and kissed the tips of her fingers.
Her cheeks flushed.

Your Reputation with Olga “Lola” Shvedova has improved!
Current Reputation: Indifference 10/30

“All right, all right, that’s enough,” she said, smiling. “You can go now.”
Without taking my eyes off her, I rose, trying to imbue my gaze with all the joy I felt and all the happiness at the fact that nothing was wrong with me after all. She didn’t avert her gaze, as if teasing and encouraging me.

Your Reputation with Olga “Lola” Shvedova has improved!
Current Reputation: Indifference 15/30

Oh wow. I tried to pull myself together and headed for the door.
As I opened it, I turned back to her. “Thanks a lot, Lola.”
Her dropped jaw made a funny sound. I walked out.
A small crowd heaved by the door outside: the same familiar patients plus several more who must have just arrived.
“There he is!” Aigul shouted.
“Saint Phil, glory be to thee!” the old lady enthused.
“Phil! Phil!” the crowd cried out, reaching out to grab my hands, touch my shoulders or stroke my face.
It looked like I’d made a big mistake. You couldn’t play with people’s feelings the way I’d just done. Especially not with sick or old people - and they were all either sick or old here.
I raised my hands in the air. The crowd parted.
“You, Aigul!” I said in the surrounding silence. And you, Violette! And you,” I peered into the crowd, calling out their names one by one. “Listen to me, all of you! Hearken unto me!”
I could hear Olga strain her voice behind her office door, calling the next patient.
“You! All of you! You’re all going to be happy! Yes! No one will go away unsatisfied!”[2]
Having thus prophesized, I promptly left the building.
Enough playing tricks on unsuspecting citizens. I was worse than a child, really.
As I walked back home, the system kept showering me with Reputation reports from Aigul, Mark, Violette and lots of other people I didn’t even know. And then...
And then I received a new level!

Congratulations! You’ve received a new level!
Your current social status level: 6
Characteristic points available: 1
Skill points available: 1

It was time I finally sorted out the interface.

Chapter Seven

 Questions without Answers

“It makes me think of my life, my nonexistent accomplishments and my overall abilities in incompetence.”

Markus Zusak, I am the Messenger

Never before had I felt so utterly worthless.
Only earlier that morning, I’d had the same social status as Alik, that drunken lowlife!
Me, Philip Panfilov, the next great Russian author (sarcasm intended) - and Alik! He and I shared the same place in the world’s food chain!
While my Yanna (provided she was still mine) was already level 8.
I kept walking blindly until I very nearly bumped into a moving car. Followed by the driver’s cussing, I hurried across the street. My head was teeming with exclamation marks. Too many shocks for one day. My sensitive psyche of gamer-turned-blogger just couldn’t take it any longer.
As I walked, I kept screwing my eyes trying to locate something that might allow me to open that wretched stats window and distribute the points I had available. No such luck. The only thing I found was an inconspicuous debuff icon.

Nicotine Withdrawal
Duration: 14 days
Your body is deprived of nicotine!
Nicotine takes part in your body’s metabolism. -5% to Metabolism
Warning! High probability of a spontaneous Enrage!
Warning! Your aggro radius has increased!
-3% to Satisfaction every 12 hours

I chuckled. My previous attempts to quit had never come with a deadline. Only two weeks? Before, the sheer thought of having to struggle with nicotine dependency for the rest of my life had made me panic.
I might actually counter the debuff. I could drink more coffee and do more exercise. I might also try to raise my Satisfaction numbers with some nice tasty food. Having said that, wouldn’t my favorite books and movies have the same effect?
So basically, it was a no-brainer. I knew I could do it.
I still couldn’t find any character stats. Or my stats, rather. So I stopped scaring the passersby with my wild eye movements. Pointless. I might give it another try later at home when no one could see me.
As I walked along the boulevard, I noticed my first quest giver, Mr. Samuel Panikoff, busy reading a fresh copy of his newspaper. The old man was oblivious to my presence so I decided not to disturb him.
I popped into a nearby KFC restaurant and got myself a bucket of chicken wings to go.
I don’t like eating in public. I much prefer doing it in the comfort of my own home, hunched over a favorite book. My Dad gave me this habit. I know it’s not good for you but it’s my top guilty pleasure and I’m not giving it up for the world.
As I waited in line, I checked my smartphone notifications. My inboxes were groaning with missed calls and messages, mainly from fellow clan members. A couple of calls were from numbers I didn’t know. They could be job offers. I called back but no one picked up. Never mind. I’d have to check my emails once I got home.
A new system message came up,

You’re experiencing food deprivation!
-10% to Metabolism
Warning! Your body lacks glucose!
Warning! Your body lacks amino acids!
Warning! Danger of muscle mass decreasing!
Debuff received: Weakness
-1 to Stamina every 24 hrs
-1 to Agility every 24 hrs
-1 to Perception every 24 hrs
-1 to Intellect every 24 hrs
-1 to Strength every 24 hrs
-2% to Satisfaction every 2 hrs
-3% to Vigor every 2 hrs

That was nothing to sniff at! Even though I couldn’t quite work out its mechanism, my knees felt weak as if I had indeed received a debuff.
The bucketful of wings smelled awesome. I had to really exercise my willpower not to scoff the whole lot on my way home. No wonder: last time I’d had something to eat was dinner with Yanna last night, and now it was already past midday.
Yanna! My chest groaned stronger than before, pushing the euphoria of my earlier clinic visit to the background of my mind. All the joy of what was happening, including the new level I’d just received, had faded into insignificance.
I can’t tell you what had prompted my next step. It could have been the desperation of losing her. Or it could have been the hunger debuff affecting my judgment. In any case, instead of going home and trying to work out the mysterious game’s interface as I’d planned, I turned round and headed for Yanna’s workplace. Her company office was only a few blocks away.
Clutching the KFC bucket under one arm and the MRI envelope under the other, I hurried over there, ignoring the passersby’s surprised looks.
How many movies had I seen where the hormone-driven hero, instead of saving the world or going about his own business, hurried to reunite with his loved one instead! How many books had I read which described exactly the same scenario! And how angry had I been with the author or screenwriter, how passionately had I hurled the book across the room when the said    hormone-driven hero would reject a good job, a lump sum of money or even the offer of superpowers simply to keep the woman he loved!
“You idiot!” I’d yell at the hero. “What do you think you’re doing? Go put a knot in it and do something useful!”
Now as I walked, I said the same things to myself. It didn’t help though. My legs kept carrying me to her.
I only stopped by the entrance to their posh business center. I needed to catch my breath. I was sweating like a pig. I wiped my face with my sleeve, dropping the MRI envelope into a puddle in the process. I bent down to pick it up and sensed her gaze on my back.
I must have looked a sight: soaked and disheveled, standing in the middle of a filthy puddle fumbling for my envelope in the water. Plus that damned KFC bucket in my hand.
I’d been here a few times before to pick her up, and every time she’d asked me to wait for her outside. Did I embarrass her? Had I been so dumb not to realize it?
She’d never invited me to their office parties, either. “It’s okay, you can stay at home and play with your computer if you wish, we’re not obliged to bring a spouse.” And I’d so readily agreed every time she’d said it...
Bracing myself, I picked up the envelope, shook the water off it and turned round.
I’d been mistaken. The person who stared at me wasn’t Yanna at all. It was their security guard - a bundle of muscle wrapped in a cheap black suit - who mumbled something into his radio as he gave me a hooded look.

Max “Boss” Bosyara
Age: 29
Current status: security guard
Social status level: 3
Class, wrestler. Level: 4
Relationship: Dislike 15/30

Only level 3? Poor bastard! Even Alik had a better social status. And he was already disliking me! He didn’t even know me.
I was so pissed with this “Boss” as if it was his own fault that Yanna had left me. What had the system message said about “spontaneous Enrage”? This must have been it.
The thought had calmed me down a bit. Still I couldn’t resist getting even with him.
Copying his body language, I produced my cell phone and spoke into it, holding it close to my mouth,
“One, two, three, do you read me? Over...”
He gave up first, averting his gaze, then turned his back to me.
Stupid, I know. Still, it distracted me for a bit. My fixation with Yanna seemed to have subsided a little.
I walked home hung with debuffs like a Christmas tree. I was too tired to jog.
Once home, I peeled off my sodden clothes and shoved them in the washer, then headed for the shower to remove all trace of today’s legwork. I’d been rushing around like a headless chicken all day - but my stamina hadn’t even budged.
I had lunch listening to the monotonous dripping of the leaky tap. I couldn’t even taste my food. Having finished, I made myself a cup of hot black tea. That was better. The Weakness debuff was already gone. Later, I might also have some strong coffee to give my Metabolism a boost.
Once I cleaned up after myself, I received an optimistic message,

You’ve consumed 378 calories.
Warning! The food you’ve eaten contains chemicals which may be detrimental to your health!
Warning! +0,00039% to your risk of developing cancer!
-0,071345% to Vigor
-2% to Metabolism. Duration: 12 hrs.

Ooh. Life is a bitch. I’d basically swapped one debuff for another.  These days whatever you picked up from a supermarket shelf was bound to contain some “detrimental chemicals”. Thanks a bunch, mister game designer. You can warn me all you want but I’m not giving up fast food even if you keep dishing me up debuff after debuff!
I slumped into my decrepit leather chair. It groaned under my weight, creaking, then succumbed to its fate. I took a big swig of coffee, closed my eyes and tried to concentrate.
As always after a meal, I was dying for a smoke. I was too used to having a cigarette in my mouth whenever I needed to think. Still, I ignored the urge and took a few deep breaths, then focused on the task at hand. I needed to see the game’s interface.
My field of vision filled with blurred flashes of iridescent light. I noticed a dark shape moving in a row of amorphous spots. It was rather small, diamond-shaped, but most interestingly, it appeared to shimmer.
When I concentrated on it, the spot began to come into focus. Now I could see it clearly: a black diamond bearing the sign of a red exclamation mark.
I opened my eyes. The sign hadn’t disappeared. It hovered in mid-air in front of me like a 3D movie effect.
I reached out to touch it. Predictably, my hand went right through it. I tried to mentally “click” it.
It worked! A dialog window opened,

You’ve received a new social status level!
Current social status level: 6
You’ve unblocked a new skill: Insight I
Skill type: Passive
Now you can connect to the universal information field in order to see your data and that of the world around you, within the limits of your skill level.
Skill points available: 1


“Yes please! Accept!” I shouted.
Nothing happened.
I focused on the Accept button, mentally “clicking” it.
The world imploded onto me.

When I finally came around, I was lying on the floor in the fetal position. I must have fallen from the chair.
The room was dark. I could see the night sky through the window.
I tried to scramble to my feet but my arms gave under me, sending me face first back onto the floor. I very nearly fainted again. I rolled onto my back and waited for my numb body to wake up.
My eyes were itchy as if I had sand in them. My whole body was stiff. I was drooling from the corner of my mouth. Still, my mind was crystal clear as if I’d just had my brain formatted and a new OS installed.
I rubbed my eyes until finally I realized: those were no grains of sand. They were icons and status bars.
I had my interface opened!
Unlike a traditional game interface, this one didn’t have any of the pretty bells and whistles. The edge of my vision was lined with several gray icons covered in black symbols. They were positioned along the top border which made them look a bit like eyelashes.
In order to “control” them, I had to roll my eyes. Then an icon would grow and come into focus, becoming clickable.
I glanced over the symbols without opening anything yet. A human silhouette; a book; a globe; an exclamation mark, and a question mark. Not much. So where was my one-size-fits-all non-dimensional inventory bag?
I tried to move the icons around. It worked. I positioned them at some distance from myself. Now they looked like road signs hovering in the air a few feet away from me.
The status bars were located in the lower part of my field of vision. The already-familiar vitality bar (or health bar, I suppose) was red, about three-quarters full. The one next to it was yellow, only half-full. I focused on it. This was Satisfaction.
Finally, in the lower right corner of my vision was a blue bar, full to the brim.
That just had to be mana!
All 100% of it!
Mana. Magic.
I was already envisioning myself hurling fireballs as I single-handedly battled a whole army (provided there was a war on) or stealthing into the bank vaults of some get-rich-quick scammers in order to retrieve their bankrupt old-age victims’ savings, or confronting a bunch of mafia toughs and bringing them to justice...
This was a fail to end all fails.
The blue bar meant Vigor. Vigor, of all things.
Well, what could you expect from someone who’d designed a red (not green!) Health bar?
Actually, whose idea was this?
Who had come up with all the system messages? Normally, game makers hire special people to write them. But this wasn’t a game, was it? This was real life. I wasn’t dreaming. My brain was perfectly healthy, so no chance of hallucinating, either. Where did it all come from? All these gaming terms and the system itself? Who calculated my social status or my Satisfaction points?
If you took that guy, the security guard. “Boss”, wasn’t it? If I asked him about his purpose in life, what would he say to me? Would he say he was a level-4 wrestler? I don’t think so. He might say he’s a security guard, or a human being, or a bodybuilder, an athlete, an avid angler, or her mother’s son - take your pick. His answer would depend on the timing and the asker’s identity. Still, according to the system he was a wrestler, period.
And how about Yanna? A level-3 office worker? Yeah yeah.
In any case, why was it happening to me of all people?
Just think of the mayhem that would have ensued in the social media if something like this would have become known! A RealRPG! This wasn’t some viral video of a cute cat or a celebrity wardrobe malfunction. The Internet would have exploded!
Still, there was no sign of any such breaking news anywhere. I’d spent the last forty-eight hours scouring all the newsfeeds and tabloid sites; I’d even posted a few questions on various forums with provocative titles like “What would you do if...” In those posts, I’d described my own case as a gamer’s fantasy. Admittedly, my posts had garnered a wealth of replies - but none of the commenters seemed to have taken my question seriously. Some dude called Igor_Bogeyman even wrote that he would have “leveled up soccer” and “finally brought Russian soccer under the spotlight”. His comment was seconded by a few more guys - probably enough to make Russia’s new soccer team in time for the World Cup.
I tried to remember everything that had happened to me prior to this weird glitch in my perception. Still, I couldn’t think of anything. I might have overdone on WoW, that’s for sure. But that wasn’t how it was supposed to happen, was it? If you think of it, Bruce Banner had had to suffer a blast of gamma radiation in order to become Hulk. Peter Parker became Spider-Man after he’d been bitten by a radioactive spider. Tony Spark had built a powered suit of armor which turned him into Iron Man. Virtually all superheroes had a very clear transition from “before” to “after”. While in my case...
Having said that, my ability to divine other people’s attitude to me was a superpower, wasn’t it? In which case I too had a “before” and an “after”.
One thing I couldn’t yet work out was what had actually happened in the period between the two.
I’d read a book once where the MC was ported to a world that worked similarly to an RPG game. His surprise lasted for, like, half a paragraph. He looked around himself and immediately started leveling up. As in, Look at me! I’ve got a level-1 Observation skill! Cool! I should be leveling it! Because while you sleep, your opponents are leveling up. He then spent hours “observing” while lifting some weights and prancing around in order to improve his Strength and Agility too.
What a lot of BS.
Admittedly, I too had acted stupidly at first. Just think of me hopping and skipping all the way to the newsagent’s to get the old man’s paper! But that was understandable. I’d still been in shock. In moments like those, your brain goes into auto pilot. Which in my case meant switching to familiar patterns of game behavior.
And as for my going on a jogging marathon after Yanna had left me - well, that was an experiment of sorts. An important one, too, which had allowed me to finally work out the logic of this new game world...
No, not a game world, of course. Just the world the way I saw it now. How else did you expect me to do it? It wasn’t as if there were any guides or manuals available!
Let’s take XP, for instance. How were you supposed to earn it? Where were you going to find mobs and how were you supposed to smoke them? How about quests? I hadn’t received any XP for the sole quest I’d completed, fetching the paper for Panikoff. Since then, I hadn’t come across anything that even marginally resembled a quest.
And what was this social status thing, for crissakes? Was it the same as Popularity? Or Fame? Hardly. Could it mean your contribution to society?
My head was about to explode with all the questions. Never mind. As my Granddad used to say, you should do it one step at a time.
I needed to study the interface and the stats, everything that the few available icons had to offer. I had to work out their leveling scenario - but that might take some trial and error. I’d almost run out of money; new bills were coming soon; my fridge was empty. I needed to find a job. I also had to contact my clanmates, explain the situation and take a hiatus from the game. Then there was Yanna...
So basically, I had myself and my problems to sort out, relationships to mend and a life to fix. Once that done, I could finally afford to look into all this and decide whether it was a gift or a curse, then try to locate the person who’d bestowed it on me and why. Following that, I could always save the world if necessary.
I focused on the icon depicting a human silhouette and pressed it.

Chapter Eight

A Noob To End All Noobs

“The meeting with ourselves belongs to the more unpleasant things.”

Carl Gustav Jung

AGILITY HAD ALWAYS been my characteristic of choice, even in the old text-based browser games. It was probably because in real life I was anything but agile even if you pointed a crossbow at me. Clutz is my middle name. Or could it be my inner shrink telling me that I simply loved frequent crits and high dodge numbers? Whatever the reason, I’d never for one moment hesitated over my character choice. A Rogue. A thief. All stealth-stun-combo-vanish, rinse and repeat. And if by some chance my enemy had survived, I’d dart for my dear life.
No wonder nobody likes the rogue. It’s a mean class who likes playing dirty, its trickster nature far removed from the noble chivalry of the paladin or the dignified integrity of the warrior.
I opened the character window. Uh oh. So much for my playing a rogue in this game.
The window’s modest layout matched the austere design of the rest of the interface. I couldn’t see my picture anywhere. The 3D figure of my character was missing, as were the gear slots.
All I could see were a few lines of text against a translucent gray background,

Philip “Phil” Panfilov
Age: 32
Current status: gamer
Social status level: 6
Wife: Yannina “Yanna” Orlova
Children: none

Main Characteristics:
Strength: 6
Agility: 4
Intellect: 18
Stamina: 4
Perception: 7
Charisma: 12
Luck: 6

Secondary Characteristics:
Vitality: 74%
Satisfaction: 48%
Vigor: 97%
Metabolism: 83%

In order to access more data, you need to level up Insight.

Unclassified? Status, gamer?
My already plummeting megalomania took a further dive. Judging by my stats, I’d been leveling as a wizard, clumsy and charismatic.
Big mistake. This world didn’t have any magic, did it?
I tried to click on the stats to see the meaning of each of them and hopefully work out how they were supposed to interact. Nothing. Either the interface designers were some cack-handed hack artists or the interface carrier was supposed to know it all.
At 18, my Intellect wasn’t that bad, at least compared to all the other stats. Then again, it could be average - or low even - compared to other people. I was no Nobel prize winner, that’s for sure, but I can’t have been that dumb, either. So if we assumed that my Intellect reading was a tad above average, then all the other characteristics should have been in the 12 to 15 range.
Which meant that they were way below par.
Then again, what did I expect? Was I fit? Hardly. So these stats seemed to reflect the current state of affairs.
What was their effect on my life? This, too, was pretty self-explanatory. If the elevator in our apartment block broke down, I’d never be able to climb the stairs all the way to my apartment on the tenth floor. Could I swim a few laps? Yeah right, I just might drown halfway. And if I tried to perform a little juggling act, I might just get killed in the process.
I was quite surprised at my high Charisma reading. Then again, it might only mean that I didn’t make other people puke on seeing me.
I spent some more time staring at the stats window before finally closing it.
No idea what I did wrong. Maybe I sent a wrong mental command or just blinked unintentionally, but the window simply disappeared. If I’d expected it to disintegrate into a gazillion glittering fragments, or fold into a swirling vortex and be sucked back into the icon, I’d been wrong. No pretty animation, no visual effects. It was just gone.
“Miaow!” a demanding howl disrupted the silence.
It was Boris, apparently suffering from nighttime munchies. She rubbed against my leg expectantly. I heaved a sigh, rose, gave her a pat on the neck and headed for the kitchen. As I poured a generous helping of cat food into her bowl, she purred like a tractor, polishing my legs with her fluffy flank.
I left her in the kitchen and returned to the room. This time I sat on the couch, just in case I zoned out again.
I clicked on the icon with the book.
A huge field of text opened up before me.
It was a complete list of everything I’d learned in my lifetime since day one: from learning to walk to my recently-acquired dart-playing skill.


Playing World of Warcraft: 8
Russian speaking skills: 7
Russian reading skills: 7
PC skills: 7
Russian writing skills: 6
Empathy: 6
Online search: 5
MS Word: 5
MS Excel: 4
Vending: 4
Social skills: 4
Intuition: 4
Deception: 3
Russian creative writing: 3
Manners: 3
Photography: 3
Decision-making: 3
Learning new skills: 3
English: 3
Seduction: 3
Cooking: 3
Self-discipline: 3
Driving: 2
Self-control: 2
Plan-making: 2
Marketing: 2
Leadership: 2
Perseverance: 2
Pushbike riding: 2
Public speaking: 2
Map reading: 2
Walking: 2
DIY skills: 1
First aid skills: 1
Singing: 1
Insight: 1

I spent some quality time going through the list which unfolded in the best-to-worst order. I had so many skills still at level 1! I kept scrolling through them but the list seemed interminable.
It looked like the system took meticulous stock of everything I’d ever tried in my life. For instance, I even had a “knife handling” skill. That must have had something to do with our childhood games of throwing knives at the shed wall. Couldn’t be anything else: the only thing I’d ever used a knife for was to cut myself a slice of bread.
I also had a level-1 Agriculture skill.  Of course. Hadn’t I helped my parents with their cottage garden? I used to weed it and dig it up, I’d even planted some potatoes for them at some point.
Running, swimming, skiing, skating... all level 1. Plus playing soccer, poker and chess, and dozens of half-forgotten computer games which I used to passionately play in the past. Most likely, a skill’s level dropped when it fell out of use.
I even had level 1 in Poetry - I had indeed dabbled in it once - and Sewing (probably from my college attempts to fix a hole in a T-shirt). Also, Wrestling. Back at school, my father had signed me up for a judo class where I’d lasted all of two months.
That wasn’t what pissed me off. According to the list, the area of my biggest expertise was game playing! Logical, of course. I’d spent at least a hundred and fifty thousand hours mastering the wretched thing. No wonder its level was comparatively so high.
So that’s who I was, then. I wasn’t an author at all. I was a deceptive WoW user with decent Googling skills and a good working knowledge of Microsoft Word.
In everything else in life, I was a total noob. A useless noob who could only get through life by trailing in Yanna’s powerful slipstream.
My reading and writing skills were worse than my game playing. That was all you needed to know about my life over the past twelve years. Twelve years! I only had another thirty left till my retirement![3]
How very nice of you, Blizzard guys, thanks a bunch.
Oh. My vision blurred gain. I felt weak.
A new debuff message appeared before me,

Duration: 18 hours
You’re emotionally drained. Your central nervous system needs some rest. We recommend that you get some quality sleep, a balanced diet and some exercise.
Warning! The state of Apathy can easily escalate to Depression!
-5% to Satisfaction every 6 hrs.
-1% to Vitality every 5 hrs.
-6% to Vigor every 6 hrs.
-2% to Metabolism every 6 hrs.
-5% to Confidence every 6 hrs.
-2% to Willpower every 6 hrs.

What a nasty debuff. As if the nicotine withdrawal wasn’t enough! This way, I might not live to see the weekend. I’d just drop on my back on the floor like a beetle and expire.
Which was something I couldn’t do. My old parents needed help. My sister was a single mother who could use my support too. I had to fight to win Yanna back, dammit! Plus I had so many projects.
Apathy, they said? I didn’t give a damn.
What did they want me to do? I couldn’t get quality sleep at the moment, not until I was finished with that wretched interface. A healthy diet? The only healthy foods I had in the house were an onion and a box of green tea. The remaining half-bucket of KFC wings hardly counted as a balanced meal, let alone a healthy one.
That left exercise.
I cast a doubtful glance at the clock. It was past two in the morning. Chuckling, I peeled myself off the couch, started my favorite playlist and began warming up like they’d taught us to in that long-forgotten judo class. All the bending, stretching and rotating: wrists, arms, knees and hips... Now ten sit-ups.
My head went round. I had to stop to catch my breath, then did ten more. I was lightheaded again. I walked into the kitchen and put the kettle on. Should I do another ten?
My legs were rubbery, my knees weak. My hands were shaking. My teeth began to ache.
I poured some boiling water over a teabag, leaned against a stool and did five... six... come on, just one more... seven pushups.
I hurried to peel and slice the remaining onion and made myself a quick cheese and onion sandwich with some dry rye bread. I left it on the table next to my tea and walked out onto the balcony to catch my breath. Then I returned, dropped to the floor, hooked my feet under the edge of the couch and tried to do a few crunches.
These proved to be the trickiest. I couldn’t do a single one. In the end, I just lifted my feet off the floor and tried to keep my legs up for as long as I could.
Which wasn’t for very long. I tried again. And again. My abs were killing me. I was sweating buckets.
Enough. Shower time!
I spent some time under its hot-and-cold jets, getting rid of all the sweat and grime. Finally, I received a new buff: my Metabolism was on the rise, both Vigor and Satisfaction were in the black.
A new message arrived, informing me that my Apathy debuff had been reduced to 12 hrs.
Excellent. I ate my sandwich, making sure I chewed properly, washed it down with some tea, then returned to the couch and continued my research.
Strange that my creative writing skills were so high though. 3 points! Could it have been all the countless blog posts I’d written?
Wait a sec. Where was my Finance? I’d spent five years in college studying that. I had a degree, for crissakes! And it wasn’t even level 2? I’d studied hard enough! I’d taken all the exams and had very decent grades throughout. Admittedly, my professional experience had been limited to a one-month internship at a major engineering plant where I’d registered the incoming email and helped the bookkeeper girls replace printer cartridges and create user profiles at various dating sites. That had been the extent of it. Whatever experience I’d had afterward was limited to online buying and selling. No wonder my Vending skills were so high! If you applied RPG rules to real life, I was entitled to a 15% discount everywhere I went. What a shame this wasn’t virtual reality.
My high Empathy levels weren’t a surprise to me though. I’d always had this ability to divine what other people were feeling. The moment Yanna walked through the front door, I knew what kind of day she’d had. I could tell my Dad’s mood just by the way he was breathing and knew what Mom was feeling just by looking into her eyes. I didn’t even need to see the person: show me a text message, and I’ll tell you what the person was feeling while writing it. Most of the time, anyway. The emojis have a lot to answer for.
The fact that the mysterious game system so effortlessly listed the names of certain programs - like MS Word and Excel, for instance - made me think that the generation of those system messages actually took place in the user’s head. It was as if someone had scanned my character’s brain - my brain, - then analyzed and classified its entire database.
I yawned. I needed some sleep. I clicked through some of the skills without much effect, then closed the window and went back into the kitchen to get some coffee. As the kettle was boiling, I opened the next icon: the one with the globe.
A map opened.
It was surprisingly clear, too. No dark spots; no unavailable areas concealed in the “mist of war”. It looked rather like an aerial view taken from a satellite or something.
A golden dot shimmered at its center. That just had to be me. I recognized my apartment block and the area around it.
I zoomed in on the scene. Now I was looking at our courtyard from a height of about a hundred feet. I could even make out a few human figures still lounging about in the playground.
Heh! Fancy seeing you here, guys!
This was crazy. I could even tell precisely who they were thanks to the name tags which hovered over their heads. Yagoza, my friend Alik, as well as all the others: Sprat, Vasily, Fatso... Alik was marked with a green dot and all the others, with yellow ones.
I zoomed out to see the entire city. It was flooded with hundreds of shimmering dots: red, green, orange, emerald, blue and turquoise. Some of them were bigger than the rest, others considerably smaller.
I focused on two especially large blue dots.
A prompt popped up,

Mom and Dad

Aha. So the system indeed used my brain as a starting point. I was the only person in the world who referred to my Dad as “Dad”. To all the others, he was either Oleg Igorevich Panfilov, or simply Oleg.
Wow, wow, wow. How’s that for an app? Compared to this, the Marauder’s Map was child’s play. Harry Potter, eat your heart out!
I scanned all the other dots. These weren’t just my friends and acquaintances - no, they were actually all the people I’d ever come into contact with. That amber dot over there was Olga - or should I say Dr. Shvedova - whom I’d consulted at the clinic earlier today. And one of the red ones turned out to be Kostya, my ex co-trainee at an advertising agency a few years back. He used to hate me so much that you could cut the office air with a knife.
And that orange dot over there...
That was Yanna.
I zoomed in. She was at her parents’.
Relief flooded over me. Only now had I realized how much tension, bred from jealousy and the feeling of loss, I’d suffered over the last twenty-four hours. No matter how hard I’d been trying to blank them out, these thoughts kept growing like cancer cells, multiplying and assaulting my brain with vivid pictures of Yanna’s supposed infidelity.
I zoomed out again until the map shrank back to the size of a globe. I was now looking at a view of planet Earth from space, with me still at its center. The continents’ outlines were dimmed as it was nighttime in our hemisphere.
I could see more dots scattered all over the planet’s surface. I discovered one of my school dates, the popular Maya Abramovich, in Australia, no less. Another dot shimmered in the South of Africa, and this one was my sixth-grade pal Pashka Pashkovsky. I was surprised I still remembered his name. We used to go to the chess class together.
Memories flooded over me. My school friends, fellow college students, my ex co-workers... What a shame I couldn’t access any more information about them, only their names, and some of the names didn’t even say anything to me. It looked like I certainly needed the Insight skill in order to do that.
I began to experiment. I turned the virtual globe around, trying various commands. Finally, I managed to sort the dots by their Reputation with me, removing all those whose status was below Amicability.
I kept fiddling with the globe until I could find certain locations - countries, cities or objects - by merely willing to see them. Had the real Earth been able to rotate that fast, it would have long shaken everything off its surface, trees included.
I kept traveling across the map. London, Hollywood, the legendary Lake Baikal, the Kremlin, my primary-school love Veronica, the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Phuket Island, the Niagara Falls, Beijing, my parents, Yanna, the President of the United States...  

Warning! The current level of your Insight skill is insufficient to access the information you’ve requested!

Okay, so Mr. Trump was off limits for me, then. Never mind. Did that mean that once I’d leveled up Insight, I could find any person on planet Earth? Anyone at all?
My breathing seized. The possibilities it opened were mind-boggling. I could search for missing people. I could locate terrorists. I could track down every movement of every millionaire and top politician I wanted. Ready or not, here I come, you can’t hide!
And what if I could locate objects, as well? All the secret stashes, the hidden treasures, the Aztec Gold...
Cool down, man. Get a grip.
I closed the map and walked out onto the balcony for a breath of fresh air.
I stared into the night sky. Somewhere up there coursed the super powerful satellite built by whoever had created my new abilities. The satellite which could rush to any location at my slightest whim just to show it to me.
But what if the satellite didn’t even exist? What if I’d been accessing the information from - what was it called now - the universal information field?
I gulped in the fresh air of May, unable to get enough of it.
Leaning against the railing, I opened my interface and clicked the icon with the exclamation mark.
Just as I expected, it was a quest list. But contrary to my expectations, it wasn’t empty.

Tasks available:

- make up with Yanna and move back in with her;
- master the augmented reality control interface;
- work out how to level up skills and other stats and come up with a leveling strategy;
- find a stable job;
- check emails;
- check the freelance sites for any new jobs and apply for them;
- call parents and ask if they need anything;
- update the blog;
- apologize to clanmates for my silence;
- buy groceries;
- give Boris a brush

They had to be kidding me! These were all snippets of various to-do lists which I’d occasionally made on either my phone or computer. Nothing was clickable. I couldn’t open the tasks to read their descriptions or see the rewards.
Then again, what kinds of rewards did I expect? Quest name: Find a stable job. Reward: A regular paycheck.
They were having a laugh! Quest name: Update the blog. Reward: A new blog post.
How stupid was that?
Having said that... admittedly, it was quite convenient. This was every time-management freak’s wet dream: an automated logging in and prioritizing system.
Wait a sec. What was that now?
The window I was looking at was entitled Tasks available. I hadn’t even noticed that it indeed had another empty tab, marked Quests.
And? How was I supposed to get them? Was I supposed to walk around town looking for any quest givers?
Never mind. That could wait. I’d deal with it some other time.
The only remaining icon was the one with the question mark. I had a funny feeling this was some kind of Wiki.
I was right.
Dawn was breaking.
It didn’t look as if I was going to get any sleep tonight.

 Chapter Nine

The Crazier the Explanation, the Closer the Truth

EVERY RPG PLAYER is used to the conventions of online games. If you take such a basic thing as a health bar which is a prerequisite in most of them, it allows players to always know their own health levels. Quite often they might also know those of certain other players, too. This is so normal that a player takes it for granted. Logical, really: if your char’s DPS is a meager couple of thousand, you’d think twice before attacking a monster whose hp is measured in millions.
Now let’s imagine that this characteristic becomes available IRL. Just think how many deaths from terminal diseases that could prevent! Think of a person who’s going happily about his or her life, considering themselves perfectly healthy while their health numbers are slowly dwindling... they see that and go to the doctor for a check. And indeed, this turns out to be the early stages of cancer which are perfectly treatable and have a very favorable prognosis. How’s that for a good life?
This also means that any magicless level-1 newb in possession of a non-dimensional inventory, a built-in map and a number of status bars could automatically become the next Forbes sensation in the real world. All he’d have to do was open a medical diagnostics center. And even if medicine wasn’t his vocation, he could always make a living pinching vodka in supermarkets with the help of his inventory. The possibilities were legion.
Those were the kinds of ideas I was contemplating while studying my interface.
The built-in Wiki had given me answers to quite a few questions. I still didn’t understand what had prevented the game’s mysterious creators from uploading all the data directly to my head. That could have been a simple solution for someone that powerful. Then again, it could have been technically (or biologically?) impossible. Probably, the information had to be acquired organically, via normal channels such as eyesight and hearing.
 The tab contained a standard brief menu,

- About the program
- Wiki
- Settings
- Available updates
- Technical support

I can’t even tell you how relieved I felt staring at these lines which looked so familiar to me from the countless other pieces of software I’d used before. Even though the first three entries were rather nondescript, the last two spoke for themselves: I’d somehow ended up with a computer program installed in my brain. Which meant that someone must have built it.
Do you know what I did first thing? Checked the available updates, of course.

Impossible to establish connection with the updates server.
It might be unavailable.
Check your universal information field connection settings.

The same thing happened when I tried to contact Support.
Ignoring the Wiki and Settings buttons, I opened About the Program.
My jaw dropped to the floor.

Augmented Reality!7.2 Home Edition
Copyright © First Martian Company, Ltd. 2101-2118
All rights reserved
Registered owner: Philip Panfilov
S/N C4R-7702D-2102770
One-year single user license
Account type: Premium
Activation date: 05.16.2018 09:00
Expiration date: 05.16.2019 08:59

I don’t know how long I spent just sitting there staring at the copyright line.
When I’d been a kid, I’d read my fair share of time travel books where a humble student like myself somehow ended up in the future. How many times had I wished it had been me! I’d have loved to have seen our planet’s future and hopefully even travel to Mars. At the time, I’d have given anything for a peek at the awesome world of the future.
As I grew up, I’d switched to dystopias and post apoc. Add to this all the zombie apocalypse blockbusters and my infatuation with Fallout games, and you’ll understand why I wasn’t so eager to see the future anymore. Still, even then I wouldn’t have said no to Gray’s Sports Almanach 2000-2050 or some such artifact.
And now it looked like my pipe dream had finally come true. I’d just received a big tangible kick in the butt compliments of the twenty-second century.
I crawled back in bed and lay there buried under the sheets like a snail trying to retreat into its shell. The super ability freebie I’d just received weighed heavy on me. It felt very much like stumbling across a briefcase containing a million bucks in a dark alley. On one hand, it made you deliriously happy; on the other, a find like that bode nothing good. No one was stupid enough to leave a million bucks in a dark alley which meant someone was already looking for it.
The expiration date did nothing to improve my plummeting mood, either. What was going to happen to me and my brain once the license expired? Would they just unplug me? Or offer an extension? In which case, how did they expect me to pay?
If, at some later date, I decided to write a book describing these events, I would have to omit this moment of weakness entirely. I’d begin the book with me working hard. I’d sign up for all kinds of courses and classes and start leveling everything from archery to cooking to online marketing.
Reality wasn’t as simple as that.
Unable to sleep, I stayed in bed till midday making all kinds of plans, then envisioning their sinister consequences. This fabulous gift from the future definitely came with strings attached. As a result, I received two mutually exclusive debuffs: Insomnia (duration: 12 hrs.) and Lack of Sleep. Between themselves, they’d decimated my Vigor, Satisfaction, Perception, Intellect, Agility and all the other stats for good measure.
Whatever. I didn’t care anymore. All I wanted to do was continue researching this game system.
I actually discovered that all that eye-rolling wasn’t really necessary. I could very easily control the interface by sending mental commands.
I opened Settings.
It allowed me to set up my system message preferences, play with colors and the interface layout by moving around bars and buttons, add a clock and a mini map, set up an alarm and change the task logging parameters. I could also enable the auto accept quest option (whatever that was supposed to mean), and activate some thingie which blasted an alarm whenever a certain person came within direct line of sight. Etc., etc.
I could deal with all of that later. Now I had the best course of this digital feast staring me in the face:
Someone else might have opened it first, ignoring all the other tabs. It’s just like kindergarten kids who eat their dessert first, then move to the more boring dishes. Me, I’d always left the dessert for last. It was the only thing that could motivate me to finish my carrots and gulp down the sickening milk soup which Russian nutrition authorities believed beneficial for children’s growing bodies.
The Wiki turned out to be very helpful. It was a proper virtual assistant: the moment I thought of something it offered me a page with answers, then read its contents out loud. Eventually, that became a problem because I kept thinking of new things as I read, which prompted an avalanche of new windows overlapping each other. Every time I thought of something, my virtual assistant would stop mid-word and switch to my new inquiry, which in the end became admittedly chaotic.
At first, the assistant’s voice was devoid of emotion and even gender: it was too high for a man and too low for a woman. It spoke Russian with just a hint of an accent. Not that I paid any attention to it: I was too busy learning how stats were calculated.
They actually turned out to be quite simple. I’d been right: the system adapted to the user’s understanding. Had I been some clueless newb without any gaming experience I might have received the following system message,

Congratulations! Even though you’re not that strong (2), you’re very smart (14) and have enviable intuition (16). You’re quite observant but unfortunately, not too enduring (4). To make up for it, you’re agile and supple (11). And you have tons of luck (15)!

Mind you, this was only my conjecture. Numbers would be no use to a clueless newb. He or she wouldn’t know what to do with them.
One thing I’d managed to work out was that the stats numbers were in keeping with some average values - probably, shared by all human beings. How the mysterious game creators accessed those numbers was a different question entirely. Most likely, they extracted them from that universal information field they’d already mentioned. An average human being’s stats seemed to hover around level 10.
In any case, what exactly did the system mean by Strength, Perception or Agility? How were they supposed to work and what were they supposed to affect?
Strength stood for a user’s brute physical force. Using weightlifters’ language, it was the number of weights a person could lift using any given muscle group. The system summed up the numbers of all human beings on planet Earth in order to work out an average, which was then divided by 10 to calculate the value of 1 point.
Which meant I was 40% weaker than an average Terran. Sigh. The good news was, Strength was one of the easiest stats for a newb to level thanks to the so-called “beginner’s effect”.
Agility, according to Wiki, was “the ability to learn complex coordinated movements and use these acquired skills continuously in constantly changing environments”. Unlike Strength, it was calculated using some arcane chart of complex movements and their performance times.
I had a funny feeling that the chart listed cartwheels and leg splits which I’d never mastered at school. Otherwise, why would I only have 4 pt. Agility? Luckily, it too could be leveled up with various exercises and gym practice.
As for Intellect, it wasn’t as simple as one’s IQ reading. In fact, the game had its own IQ test which also calculated the person’s creativity and their ability to think out of the box. There were other contributing factors, too. Like Erudition which was calculated as the percentage of the user’s knowledge of the planet’s entire information database. Or the ability to generate new knowledge which figured heavily in the IQ calculation formula. There were also Life Experience, Problem Solving and other such factors.
I indeed proved to have high Intellect numbers. Finally something I could be proud of. I could level it up even higher by studying, through learning the existing knowledge and generating new data - for instance, via my writing.
Now, Stamina. Here the Wiki flooded me with data about my lung volume, respiratory metabolism and ventilation rates. I stared at columns of digits depicting my CO2 rates and metabolic heat production, trying to come up with questions which could explain it in layman’s language. Finally, I worked out that all those numbers could be improved upon by performing extended periods of certain types of physical activity such as jogging, swimming, uphill walking, jumping, making love, or pull-ups.
Getting the right answers from my virtual assistant was a job and a half. I showered it with questions, trying to work my way through lists of scientific terms and make my questions as straightforward as possible:
“Does sex count?”
“Yes. The time spent in the active position can be used as a variable which would allow you to calculate the average...” the assistant would go on and on until I interrupted it with my next question.
Perception was another complex characteristic which included Eyesight, Hearing, Taste, Smell, Intuition, Rapid  Memory, Attention to Detail and Foresight. Even though I hadn’t quite managed to work out their calculation principle, I could see they were all interrelated. As for leveling it, I decided to leave it till later.
Charisma included Attractiveness, Credibility and Charm. No idea how the system was supposed to calculate the latter. Apparently, it had performed a virtual simulation of each and every legally capable human being on Earth in order to see how many other people he or she could attract and influence.
Finally, the calculation of Luck. That’s where I thought I must have been losing it.
“We have analyzed every day of every person’s life from the moment of his or her conception, taking into consideration all key life events which have affected his or her existence,” the assistant said matter-of-factly. “Then we used the ‘good-to-bad life choices’ ratio in order to produce the average Luck reading.”
“How? How did you access the data?”
“It was provided by a particular local segment of the universal information field.”
God bless their information field! And its local segment, whatever that was supposed to mean.
In order to level up Luck, you had to make correct life-changing choices. One thing I couldn’t work out was the effect it was supposed to have on your life.
“This parameter is involved in all processes,” the assistant replied evasively.
“What, all of them?”
“Oh yes. Luck affects all stats. It has a decisive influence on a user’s life.”
The assistant dissolved in a wordy explanation. According to it, even the probability of a lethal blood clot entering my bloodstream was determined by Luck.
Having studied all the characteristics, I moved over to skills. Their number wasn’t limited. Their levels depended on the number of hours spent practicing them. Each consequent skill point required more hours (or reps) than the one before it. Sometimes loads more. If you took gaming, I’d apparently spent over 15,000 hours playing online - but I was still only level 8.
This system was actually quite predictable and not that different from the one used in gaming. In any given game, you could make level 1 in a matter of hours. Then you sometimes had to spend hundreds of hours just to reach level 2. To give you some idea, bringing one’s skill to level 5 required about 10,000 hours of practice.
And anything beyond level 10 was considered Top Expertise which required a minimum of 21,000 hours of training and practice.
Still, those were only the basic numbers which didn’t take into consideration the cumulative effect of other skills. Which was indeed a problem. The time required to make the next level of any given skill depended on the combined value of all the others. You just couldn’t become a munchkin by leveling everything in sight. The explanation of this phenomenon lay in our brain’s capacity. Logical, really: once you've used up some brain space by leveling, say, chess skills, there’ll be less space left to learn cooking.
Having said that... today’s scientists seemed to question this theory. Then again, what did I know? The experts of the future seemed to have studied this problem extensively.
Was there any way I could delete useless skills from my memory? Why would I need all those early Mortal Kombat tricks, like remembering the correct button order for each combo and memorizing all the fatalities as well as each warrior’s special abilities? All those “back, back, forward, press X”? That was a veritable mine of useless information which encroached on my brain space.
Some skills required Spirit points, too. I hadn’t yet worked out what exactly they were. Apparently, they required a higher level of Insight which could only be leveled through constant use. All I managed to work out was that it too directly depended on stat readings.
That made sense. My Agility was admittedly low which meant that I couldn’t succeed in leveling any agility-heavy athletic skill, no matter how hard I practiced. By the same token, practicing a skill could improve its respective characteristics.
The good news was, my improved Insight meant that now I didn’t need to make eye contact with other people in order to see their stats.
When I’d finally finished going through the charts, I heard a melodious jingle followed by a new system message,

Task Status: Master the augmented reality control interface
Task completed!
XP received: 5 pt.
+1% to Satisfaction

That was nice of them. Shame I couldn’t see the XP bar. I might need to ask the assistant about it.
I spent some more time in the Settings. I temporarily disabled the mental command function, changed the assistant’s voice to female and called her Martha.
Martha spoke in a husky old-Hollywood kind of voice,
“Welcome to Augmented Reality System!”
“Hi, Martha.”
“How do you do, Mr. Panfilov?”
“Oh please. Call me Phil.”
“Request accepted.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m your virtual assistant for the Home Edition of Augmented Reality!7.2.”
“Who made this game?”
“First Martian Company, Ltd.”
“Which is where?”
“Please be more specific.”
“What’s the company’s office address?”
“The offices of First Martian Company, Ltd are located in Georgetown, Schiaparelli, Mars.”
Were they really? Did that mean that we’d colonize Mars, after all? When would that have happened? Was its atmosphere OK? What other planets would we've colonized?
It was a good job I’d disabled the mental command option. The answers to all those questions would be no good to me at the moment.
So I posed another question, which admittedly had strings attached,
“Who was the company founder?”
“The company was started by Zoran Savich.”
“Is he a human being? What planet is he from?”
“He is originally from Earth, born in the Eurasian Union in 2058.”
I committed the name to memory. If I lived to see him, it might not be a bad idea to stock up on his company shares.
“And what year is it now, Martha?”
“It is two thousand eighteen by the Gregorian calendar. This is your default chronology option, based on the results of your brain scan.”
“In that case, can you explain to me how on earth could it have happened?”
“Please be more specific.”
“When exactly was the game’s current version released?”
“In twenty-one hundred eighteen by the Gregorian calendar. This is your default chronology option, based on the results of your-”
“Okay, okay. Can you just tell me how on earth did it end up a hundred years earlier?”
“Sending request to server. Please wait,” Martha temporarily zoned out. “Server connection timeout. Impossible to establish connection with the server.”
“Ah, forget it.”
“Please be more specific.”
“I mean you can cancel the server query.”
“Request accepted.”
“Where is the server, anyway?”
“The server is located along the Lagrangian points within the Solar system.”
“You have any idea why you can’t connect to it?”
“Sending request to server. Please wait. Server connection timeout. Impossible to establish connection with the server.”
“That’s because there’s no flippin’ server in those wretched Lagrangian points at the moment!” I snapped. “Never mind. But if the server’s not available, can you tell me how come I can still access other people’s data?”
“The data is extracted from the local segment of the universal information field.”
“The local segment? What exactly is it?”
“The local segment of this sector of the Galaxy contains all the information on the human race as well as one other sentient species.”
“Which sentient species?”
“Unauthorized query. Your access level is insufficient. Your license is limited to your personal use only.”
“And this universal information field, what exactly is it?”
“It is the sum total of all knowledge accrued by all sentient species in the Universe.”
“How many sentient species are there? We humans aren’t alone, are we?”
“Apart from you, this location contains a creature belonging to the species of Felis domesticus which is a small, typically furry, carnivorous mammal. Would you like me to mark the creature’s location on your mini map?”
“She’s not ‘a creature’! Her name is Boris!”
“Information surplus to requirements. Your brain scan data contains the creature’s name.”
I did a mental facepalm. “Martha?”
“Yes, Phil?”
“How many sentient species are there in the Universe?”
“Unauthorized query. Your access level is insufficient. Your license is limited to your personal use only.”
“I thought I had a premium account!”
“This is class AAA+ access level. This kind of privileged information is not covered by premium accounts.”
“What kinds of privileges do they cover, then?”
“The only privilege the premium account offers is a triple bonus after having calculated your levels and stats such as characteristics, skills, XP points, Reputation and social level.”
I knew it! This was a leveling booster! How cool was that? I’d hit the jackpot! This was every paying player’s wet dream!
I did a quick mental calculation. If I decided to become the next soccer star like, say, Lionel Messi (at thirty-two years old, yeah right), I’d have to practice for twelve hours a day, every day. I’d need 21,000 hours to reach the Top Expert level. Without the booster, it would have taken me about five years. But now it was going to take me just over a year and a half.
Which wasn’t too good, really. My license expired in a year. Which meant I wasn’t likely to achieve anything spectacular.
It also meant that my initial idea to level up every stat I had wasn’t really viable. I had to come up with a good leveling plan. And I had to think fast because every day mattered now.
“Martha, how do I get the access level I need?”
“Please be more specific.”
“How do I get the access level required in order to find out how many sentient species there are in the universe?”
“You need to purchase Augmented Reality! Professional Edition. Would you like to place an order?”
“Sending request to server. Please wait. Server connection timeout. Impossible to establish connection with the server.”
“I see. Mind telling me how much the professional version costs?”
“Please specify purchase currency.”
“Russian rubles.”
“Unfortunately, we only accept Martian credits, Eurasian yuans or Federate dollars.”
“Okay. Martian credits.”
“Your upgrade will cost 199,900 Martian credits. Would you like to proceed to the checkout?”
“Yes please.”
“Error. Insufficient funds on your account balance.”
“Can I see my account?”
“Your account balance is negative. You have minus 49,000 Martian credits on your account. Allow me to remind you that your financial commitments should be honored. Failure to fulfill financial obligations is a basis for initiating court proceedings which might seize your property and make you compensate damages by doing hard labor.”
“Okay. One last question. 49,000 Martian credits, how much would that be in rubles?”
I expected another server connection timeout message. Still, this time Martha replied promptly,
“Based on the evaluation of the planet’s strategic energy resources in 2018 as compared to those of the Solar system in 2118, the going rate is 22,730 rubles. At the 2018 conversion rate, 49,000 Martian credits equals 1,113,770,000,00 Russian rubles.”
How much?
I stared blindly at the number Martha had just read out to me. Did I really owe one billion rubles? To whom? What for? Was it the price of the game license I was currently using?
Without saying a word, I closed the interface. By then, I was yawning non-stop. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Between the Apathy and Lack of Sleep debuffs, both my Vigor and Metabolism were already in the red. The system kept showering me with alert messages, warning me against the dangers of lack of sleep.
And this last bit of news had completely put me off any further conversation with her.
Still, masochist that I was, I couldn’t resist the temptation of summoning Martha one last time,
“You mentioned damage compensation. What exactly did you mean?”
“Any incurred damages are compensated by doing hard labor, namely mining uranium on one of Jupiter’s moons. There’s a 83,71% chance of the said moon being Io.”
I smiled sadly. In this case, I had every chance of becoming the first man on Io.
“Yes, Phil.”
“How much time do I have to pay for my license?”
“Your license has been paid in full. It is valid for one year from activation. The license expires on May 16 2019.”
“You know who paid for it?”
“Sending request to server. Please wait. Server connection timeout. Impossible to establish connection with the server.”
“Oh great,” I muttered before passing out.
I slept through the rest of Friday and the following night.
I awoke with a jolt. Before even opening my eyes, I could see a new system message hovering in my mental view.

Good morning, Phil!
You wanted to wake up at 7.00. It is 6.42 a.m. now, which is the best awakening time based upon your sleep cycle.

That’s right. Hadn’t I set the system alarm for 7 a.m.? I couldn’t find the alarm tone options at the time, wondering how on earth it was supposed to wake me up. And it just had! I simply woke up in the best of moods, feeling refreshed and energized.
Don’t get me wrong: I could still remember every word of my last night’s conversation with Martha. Still, I looked at it all differently now for some reason. Hard labor? Uranium mines? They didn’t even exist yet. Not for another hundred years or so.
Without getting out of bed, I summoned Martha.
“Good morning, Phil.”
“Morning! Remember you told me something about my duty to honor my financial commitments? When exactly is the deadline?”
“The deadline for honoring your payments to First Martian Company, Ltd. is December 31 2118.”
“Thanks, sweetheart,” I said, suppressing a triumphant scream. “Thanks a bunch. You be a good girl. I’ll be back soon and then we can talk some more. This time we’re going to discuss the leveling options of that so-called social status of yours.”
I spent half the day straightening the place up. Now that both the Lack of Sleep and Apathy debuffs had expired, I’d finally seen our apartment in a truly unadulterated light. I didn’t like it. The sight gave me a desperate desire to scrub the place clean.
So I had to walk the talk. I scooped out all the junk from all the drawers and cupboards, shined the fridge inside out, fixed that wretched kitchen tap, washed the windows, then sorted through my wardrobe, discarding everything I’d never had the heart to part with before.
In all these tasks, I was greatly assisted by the Object Identification skill courtesy of my Insight.
Like a child who’d just learned to read and now scrutinized everything she sets her eyes on, I studied the stats of all of our household items. Even though I couldn’t see much with my current level - not even the brand’s name - the program identified all the items correctly, adding a brief description. For instance,

An LCD television set, 32”. A long-distance device allowing for the reception and display of visual and audio signals.
A table fork, stainless steel. Part of a set.
A T-shirt, white, 100% cotton. An item of clothing.

The simpler the item, the shorter the description was. Some displayed their Durability numbers, others didn’t. All items with Durability below 20% went straight in the bin.
Interestingly, some of the items of clothing had stat bonuses. Quite impressive ones sometimes. For instance, my reading glasses gave my Perception a considerable boost. Or maybe it was just me with my admittedly ruined eyesight? My only pair of good shoes offered +1 to Charisma while my old track bottoms did exactly the opposite.
Armed with this knowledge, I unhesitantly binned my torn sneakers with -1 to Charisma, replacing them with a pair of black Derbies I’d unearthed in the depths of the wardrobe.
Those were actually my wedding shoes. The only time I’d worn them was when I’d married Yanna.
How did I know they were Derbies? Simple. Their tag had told me as much,

Black Derby shoes
Material: leather
All-purpose open-laced footwear, worn with both casual and special-occasion outfits
+1 to Charisma
Durability: 17/20

I’d had them for ages without actually knowing what they were! I just loved my new abilities.
Having finished cleaning, I booted up the computer. First of all, I wrote back to my clanmates. Just think of all the sleepless hours we’d spent together; all the days and nights - years even. We’d been playing together since vanilla.
I let them all know I was leaving the game. I thanked them for the great time and wished them luck on Argus. Just a down-to-earth message devoid of sentimental crap. I’d met quite a few of them IRL, anyway, which meant we weren’t parting ways for good.

Task status: apologize to clanmates for my silence
Task completed!
XP received: 5 pt.
+3% to Satisfaction

I donated all my gear and resources to the clan bank. I sifted through all my legendaries one last time, thinking how much time and effort each of them had cost me. I gave the empty Stormwind one last check, then took the Deeprun Tram to Ironforge. There, nostalgia got the better of me. I took a screenshot of my rogue char, exited the game and deleted him together with all the alts. I didn’t even consider selling him. It just didn’t feel right.
I uninstalled the game and heaved a sigh.
Fare thee well, Azeroth.

Task status: Stop playing WoW
Task completed!
XP received: 50
+10% to Satisfaction

Stop playing WoW? I didn’t remember seeing this task on the list! It must have added by itself when I’d made that decision.
Still, its results were impressive. I could use more of the same. The jump in Satisfaction made me a feeling of incredible relief - the kind of sensation you get when you remove uncomfortable shoes after a day spent walking.
The number of XP points was also considerably higher. Martha had been right saying that the system awarded them depending on a task’s difficulty for a particular user. True: it hadn’t been easy for me to erase almost twelve years of my life.
I didn’t stop there. I deleted Steam and all the remaining games, followed by gigabytes of guides, TV series, graphic novels, meme collections and other such junk. I sorted through my work files, cleared the computer desktop and checked the email.
Apart from spam, it also contained two very welcome letters. The first one was an appointment for a job interview from some packaging factory in need of a sales rep. They said they’d phoned me earlier but I hadn’t picked up.
The interview was for Monday morning. I’d have to spend some time preparing for it.
The other letter was from some Siberian pine nut distribution company. They’d contacted me via a freelance portal asking if I’d be interested in writing content for their corporate web site.
I immediately replied. Despite the weekend, one of their workers replied straight away. After we’d agreed on fees and deadlines, I set to work straight away.

Task status: Check the email
Task completed!
XP received: 1
+1% to Satisfaction

The more time I spent closing the unfinished tasks, the more I liked it. It wasn’t even about all the system buffs. It was more about my newly-acquired feeling of accomplishment. I wasn’t wasting my time playing or watching TV series: instead, I was being useful.
I was so hyped up that I used the short breaks from pine-nut content writing to finalize some other tasks. I gave Boris a good brush, did a quick grocery shopping, wrote a blog post about me quitting the Game and called my parents.
I spent the rest of Sunday finishing the content assignment and preparing for the next day’s interview. I went to bed early. As I was falling asleep, I realized I’d completely forgotten to look into my social status which I’d already begun leveling. I even had an available stat point to show for it.
I really needed to invest it into something useful.

Chapter Ten

 An Undocumented Feature

 “HI, MY NAME’S Phil Panfilov. I’ve got a job interview at nine-thirty.”
The pretty receptionist ignored me entirely, too busy scrolling through an Instagram page. She yawned, covering her mouth with her smartphone, then finally looked up at me. Her fake eyelashes were so long she could probably fan herself on a hot day just by fluttering them.
“Sorry, what is it?” she yawned again. She must have had one hell of a weekend.
Monday mornings in an office inevitably resemble a disturbed anthill. But this particular company gave me the impression of an ant revolution in progress, with furious worker ants rushing around, about to dethrone the queen. Telephones rang non-stop. The air was blue with cussing. Printers rattled; doors slammed; the coffee machine gurgled.
“Martynov! Get off your ass and mail the proposal to Butchers Market! They’re begging to be closed!”
“Which one?”
“To the Zakarians, you dimwit!”
“Who’s taken my coffee?!”
“Which part of ‘cash before delivery’ don’t you understand?”
“Who’s got the Virgil file?”
“Cyril, do you mind? This is my spoon! Kindly put it back once you’re finished with it!”
“No, we don’t do cash after delivery. Only before. Which means we need their money first!”
“Max, the accountant girls are looking for you everywhere! Their printer is down! They can’t process the invoices!”
“How do you do, sir? Yes, I can most surely mark it down...”
“They’re out of printer ink, that’s all!”
Normal, really. Business as usual.
I looked around me. The spacious office was heaped high with boxes and product samples; the desks groaned under tons of paperwork. The management area looked like an island of tranquility in a raging sea of sales reps who occasionally tried to breach its calm waters.
“Excuse me,” I squinted at the girl’s name tag hovering over her head, “Darya, isn’t it? I have a job interview at-”
“Down that corridor, last door to the right. It’s marked PR.”
“Thank you.... Darya.”
With a nod, she turned her attention back to her phone.
I found the PR department. The corridor in front of it was quite crowded. It looked like I would be there for quite a while.
“Hi,” I said. “Are you all interviewing for the job?”
“We are indeed,” a small and lively young guy grinned at me. “Don’t tell me you too have a nine-thirty appointment! You’re interviewing for sales rep, aren’t you? Well, you’re late, man! It’s nine-forty now.”
He squinted his bright blue eyes at me, chatting non-stop. “Only joking. We all have the same time. What’s your name? I’m Greg. I used to sell windows. That bastard of a boss of ours stopped paying our bonuses. And my wife’s pregnant so I need the money real bad. I haven’t quit my current job yet though. I told them I had a meeting with a customer. Clever, eh? And you? What did you do?”
  “A bit of everything,” I shook his proffered hand. “I’m Phil.”
The guy was a born sales rep. Talk about skill! He could sell windows for a submarine if he really had to.
He was also a born bullshitter. He wasn’t married at all. I could see his stats, couldn’t I?

Gregory “Bullshit” Boyko. Age, 25
Current status, sales rep
Social status level, 7
Class, Vendor. Level, 5
Unmarried. No children
Criminal record: yes
Current Reputation: Indifference 0/30

Then again, so what if he wasn’t married? He might have a live-in girlfriend?
Losing all interest in me, Greg B.S. returned his attention to a quiet girl standing next to him, resuming the conversation apparently disrupted by my arrival. Her age and clothes betrayed her as a college student. Was I right?
I most surely was,

Marina Tischenko. Age, 19
Current status, college student

I peered at all the others. Almost all of the job applicants were younger than me. All of them were wearing office clothes and even ties. I’d very nearly done the same. I too had a business suit gathering dust in the back of the wardrobe. Still, reality proved quite harsh. No matter how hard I tried to tuck my stomach in, I just couldn’t button up the trousers. So in the end, I’d had to make do with a pair of jeans and the suit jacket worn over a clean white T-shirt.
I curiously studied their product samples which littered the office, peering at their stats. Rolls and rolls of cling film, thermoforming film, anti-corrosion film, water-soluble film, shrink film and air bubble film...
Air bubble film, yes! I just loved popping it. Who doesn’t?
My Insight skill could identify anything within direct line of sight, saving me the trouble of actually approaching or handling any of the items.
“Phil? What do you think?” Greg demanded.
I stared blankly at him.
“What’s the easiest product to sell?” he repeated.
Everyone’s eyes turned to me. Apparently, Greg had been the heart of the unfolding discussion.
I didn’t have to think hard. “The easiest product to sell is the one your customer needs. You don’t even need to sell it to him. He’ll buy it anyway.”
“Exactly! He’s right!” the others chimed.
My Reputation with some of them, including the Marina girl, had grown a little. Now it was Indifference, 5/30.
So easy? They didn’t mean it!
“Aha! You see?” Marina grinned victoriously at Greg. “So much for your windows!”
She wasn’t as timid as I initially thought. In fact, she was very much like Yanna used to be at her age.
I took another look. She was quite pretty, actually. A delicate face with rather thick eyebrows under which sparkled a pair of emerald eyes amazing in their purity.
She met my gaze and gave me a wink. Embarrassed, I looked away, suppressing a smile.
“I don’t think so!” Greg insisted. “How do you know what your customer needs? And you don’t need just one! You need loads of them! And they don’t give a damn that you have a quota to meet! They don’t care if you lose your bonuses! Or if your product is out of season! And this,” he pointed at the rolls of packaging film, “who needs these things? Shops? Supermarkets? Farmer’s markets? Cling film suppliers are one big mafia, man...” he nodded at the office seething with workers.
I froze. He had a point.
I opened the map and sent a mental request. Nothing happened. I tried to reword my query several times until finally I had every shop and market in town marked on the map.
Fingers crossed.
I told the system to sort the shops, leaving only those in need of a packaging supplier.
“So windows are big, trust me!” Greg concluded. “They’re something everybody needs!”

The current level of your Insight skill is insufficient to access the information you’ve requested!

The HR door opened, letting out a disheveled job applicant. Frowning, he looked over at us, then left.
“Next please,” a male voice called from behind the door.
They spent no more than five minutes with each applicant. The company’s turnover must have been huge, forcing them to hire everyone who’d agree to work for a minimum wage with a prospect of bonuses.
Finally, Greg walked in. He stayed in the room longer than everybody else and walked out grinning from ear to ear, utterly pleased with himself.
“I’m good! And I don’t care. If they don’t hire me, it’s their loss. See ya, guys! I've got windows to sell!”
He shook hands with everyone, gave Marina a wink and left.
Marina walked through the HR door. I was next.
She walked out with an embarrassed smile. “I think they’ve hired me,” she whispered.
I walked in.
“Good luck,” she said behind my back.
Thanks, girl.

* * *

I LEFT THE PACKAGING office feeling good. I had a funny feeling I’d made it. They said they’d call me - same thing as they’d said to everyone else. In any case, the day was so good, the air filled with the bountiful aromas of summer blossoms. The sun touched my face, heating my shoulders. I removed the jacket and slung it over my back.
I turned my head this way and that, identifying everything in sight just to level up a little. I was curious, too. A concrete trash bin, a Porphiry Govorov, age: 12, middle grade student, a curb, a car, a Lyudmila Vorontsova, age: 72, retired, a LED streetlamp, a Vita Balashova, age: 24, a fortune teller...
Wait a sec. Age, 24? The person looked like an old woman!
I took another look. A street beggar, most likely a Roma judging by her traditional Gypsy garb: several frilly floral skirts and a matching blouse peeking from under a filthy woolen cardigan. A torn knitted shawl was wrapped over her shoulders for a bit of extra warmth. She indeed appeared ancient.
The likes of her - whether begging, selling counterfeited goods or simply offering to tell your fortune - were a common sight on Russian streets. I couldn’t see her face from under the black headscarf. Still, her hands betrayed her: filthy but smooth, definitely not the hands of an old woman.
I knew of course that not all of them were genuine Roma. Many of them were rip-off merchants of any nationality, making good money on people’s sympathy to the underprivileged. But posing as an old woman? What an actress!
A skeletal dog lay on the soiled tarmac next to her, resting his filthy head on his paws. A dirty washing line was tied to the collar constricting his neck.

Richie. A German Shepherd. Age, 6
Current status, pet
Owner: Svetlana Messerschmitt

I stopped next to them. Without raising her eyes, the fake “Gypsy” mumbled monotonously,
“Cross my palm with a few coins, dearie! Just for a crust of bread for me but mostly for the dog, he needs feeding... Cross my palm with a few coins, dearie! Just for a crust of bread...”
 “Excuse me,” I said, not knowing how to begin.
She kept mumbling, ignoring me.
“Excuse me, is this your dog?”
“Of course it is. Spare a few coins for the dog, dearie, he needs feeding...”
I chuckled. Her dog, yeah right. “Richie? Richie my boy!”
The dog raised his ear. He opened his eyes and lifted his head, looking at me curiously with his intelligent eyes.
He was a handsome dog with an off-white patch on his chest.
“Richie, good boy! Come!” I slapped my leg.
The dog scrambled to his feet, intending to walk over to me. His short leash pulled tight.
The fake “Gypsy” tugged at it sharply. Whimpering in pain, the dog dropped to his side.
Panting heavily, he kept staring at me. His tearful eyes were caked in some filthy goo.
That was the last drop. I loved all cats and dogs indiscriminately (Yanna’s departed Chihuahua being the only honorable exception). I couldn’t watch them being hurt.
“Stop torturing the dog now,” I said. “This isn’t your dog. I know who he belongs to. I’m calling the police,” I pulled out the phone, pretending I was dialing the number.
The fake “Gypsy” exploded into some desperate screaming.
Heavy footsteps resounded behind me.
A godawful whack on the head sent me to the ground.

Damage taken, 93 (a punch)
Current vitality, 77,64501%

The edges of the system message turned crimson. A new warning appeared,

You’ve received a Bleed debuff!
Duration, 30 min
-0,01151% to Vitality per sec
Current vitality, 77,53350%.

The fake “Gypsy” stopped screaming. I clutched at my head. My fingers touched something wet and sticky. My attacker must have had a signet ring or something on his hand.
I tried to scramble back to my feet. Immediately I received an almighty kick in the ribs which knocked the wind out of me. My throat seized with an agonizing pain.

Damage taken, 126 (a kick)
Current vitality, 76,17388%.

Holding my stomach, I rolled onto my side to see my attacker. The “Gypsy” was busy dragging the struggling dog away, followed by a man in track pants and a leather jacket[4].

Georgy Balashov. Age, 29
Current status, Unemployed

I submitted this data to memory.
Gradually, the pain began to release me. My Vitality began to rise. That was good news, meaning I hadn’t received any internal damage.
What a bastard! He'd stripped me of nearly 2.5% health with just two hits!
Staggering, I climbed to my feet and brushed the dirt off my jeans and my good jacket. The street was quite busy - but no one had approached me, offering help. That was all right. How many times had I ignored people lying unconscious in the past, thinking it must have been some useless homeless drunk? Oh well, welcome to the club.
Wonder if it had something to do with my low social status? Some sort of karma effect? And how many times had I myself attacked people from behind in the game, shamelessly raising my Honor (or should I say dishonor) point count?
What a shame I’d lost the dog, though. To pay my attacker back in kind would have been nice too. But it looked like their wrongs would never be avenged.
Still, there was something I could do.
I opened the map and submitted a query.
Immediately I saw all three of them: the fake “Gypsy”, the dog and their back-stabbing sidekick. They seemed to be back at the farmer’s market which is usually the center of petty criminal activity in most Russian towns.
What a shame I didn’t have a single combat skill on my list. Just to get even with him, you understand. Having said that, he wouldn’t be alone. And I just wasn’t good enough to singlehandedly take on an entire gang.
Which is why I used the map to lay the route to the nearest urgent care center. It was only half a mile away, so I walked there. I didn’t skip and hop around anymore. This was real life, after all. The human body was very different from a digital cartoon. Here, stat-building required some dedicated training and the proverbial “second wind”.
The urgent care doctor studied my head wound as if it was the most normal thing in the world. He administered first aid by applying some medication to the wound and dressing it properly.
His actions removed the Bleed debuff entirely. Finally, he wrote a statement for the police and sent me on my way.
The station was just next door. Desk Sergeant Kravetz listened to my complaint with a skeptical look on his face. Another cold case was the last thing they needed.
So I embellished it a little, telling him the dog was mine and that it had been missing for a while. And today I came across it in the street accompanying a street beggar.
“You sure it was your dog? How did you know?”
“It’s my dog. His name’s Richie, a German Shepherd, six years old. He has an off-white patch on his chest. There aren’t many dogs like that around.”
“Maybe there aren’t but I’ve seen a few,” the Sergeant replied, hesitating.
“I called him, and he reacted to his name.”
“I see. And then what happened?”
“I wanted to take him from her when someone attacked me from behind. They hit me on the head, then kicked me in the ribs. Here’s a statement from the first-aid place. Here’s my bandaged head. And here’s the bruise under my ribs.”
I attempted to describe the fake old woman and my attacker. On second thoughts, I also mentioned a young girl who was allegedly with them (in case the fake “Gypsy” had already shed her old-woman disguise).
Finally, I told him I knew their current location. “They’re at the north entrance to the farmer’s market.”
“How do you know?”
“I followed them,” I inconspicuously checked the map. “I think they’re still there.”
“Yeah right. Why didn’t you tell me at once? They must be miles away now.”
The sergeant sent a patrol to the market, armed with the descriptions of all four: the dog, the goon and the two women, one old, the other young. Then he returned to his desk and motioned me to a bench along the wall.
I wasn’t born yesterday. I doubted very much they could help me. Had it happened before my involvement with the game, I’d have just turned round and walked back home to nurse both my wounds and my injured pride.
I’d never filed a complaint with the authorities before, ever. I’d been in a scuffle or two in my lifetime. I’d had my nose broken in a bar brawl. Another time, a couple of large individuals who hadn’t liked the way I’d looked at them decided to punch my lights out. I’d also had my phone taken from me by a gang of local kids.
Still, I’d never reported any of this to the police. I’d just suffered in silence, refusing to believe they could actually do anything about it. Criminals and lowlifes always get their own way in life, don’t they?
As I waited, I switched to my mental interface and summoned Martha. “Hi.”
“Greetings, Phil,” her voice echoed in my head, seemingly reverberating through the room. “I need to inform you that you need to have some bedrest ASAP. Go home and spend at least several-”
“Sorry, I can’t,” I interrupted her. “If you don’t mind me asking, do you have any visualization options? Talking to a voice in my head isn’t very healthy, is it?”
“Yes, I do have the option you require. Please specify the details.”
“The details, well... A female, 18 to 35 years old. Dark-haired.”
A shapeless blob comprised of various colors filled my interface. “Martha, what’s that?"
“There’re 482,352,941 matches. Would you like to narrow your search?”
That was half a billion pixels. Talk about too much of a good thing. “I don’t think I’m physically able to check them all. I need your help.”
“I can create an image which will have a 97% probability of matching your personal taste in ladies.”
“Yeah right. You just want to show off your knowledge of my brain scan results. Go ahead, then. Do it!”
Holy Jesus! I jumped, suppressing a much stronger word.
“Keep quiet, you,” Sergeant Kravetz grumbled.
It was easy for him to say! A stunningly beautiful young lady stood but a couple paces away from me. Almost six foot tall, she was wearing some ripped denim shorts, a pair of Converse shoes and a white T-shirt hugging her bronze body. Her gorgeous dark hair flowed down her back. Not a trace of makeup.
The girl was chewing gum, grinning at me. Her eyes sparkled with mischief.
She gave me a wink. “Hi. You okay?”
I realized I was still sitting. I hurried to stand up to answer her greeting. “Are you Martha?”
“Good! You’re not hopeless, after all!”
Was she teasing me? Even her voice was different, melodious and cheerful. But still...
“Panfilov! Are you hearing things? Sit down and stop your nonsense!” Sergeant Kravetz snapped.
Martha brought a finger to her lips, “Be quiet.”
“Got it,” I replied mentally. “But you... you’re so different!”
“I’m sorry. I did indeed study your brain scan results. According to them, a girl’s appearance wasn’t the only thing that mattered. I had to build a new person with her own character, voice and behavioral patterns. I had to analyze your dreams as well as your favorite books and video games in order to isolate the most common objects of self-gratification...”
I jumped to my feet. “What?!!
“Enough!” Sergeant Kravetz snapped. “Out, you! Go and wait outside!”
“Fap fap fap,” Martha mouthed teasingly.
I knew better than to argue with a police officer. I headed for the door. Martha hooked her arm through mine and followed. I could feel her touch. I could smell her - a fresh, briny scent of some vaguely familiar perfume. I tried to remember what it was called but couldn’t.
How was that for a full immersion experience? This was better than Dolby Atmos in 3D!
Once outside, I pulled out the phone, turned the camera on and tried to take a picture of the two of us.
Predictably, I was alone on the screen.
“Phil, give it a break, man. I’m in your head! Do what Sergeant Kravetz just told you and stop your nonsense.”
“But... How did you do it?”
“How do you think you can see the interface and all the messages?” her voice betrayed some emotion. “Do you remember what the program is called?”
“Augmented Reality 7.2. Home Edition, wasn’t it?”
“Exactly. Augmented being the operative word.”
“Are you now going to stay like this?”
“Phil, use your brain. You wanted an embodied assistant and that’s exactly what you got. You still can summon or unsummon me at your convenience.”
Oh yes, she was embodied all right. I thought she’d be some sort of talking cartoon head in the corner of my interface window, a bit like the MS Office talking paperclip. A 3D animation, maybe. But this... this was mind-boggling. It wasn’t just the fact that she was so beautiful - no, I did like her cheekiness, her sarcasm, her girl-next-door friendliness.
I might need to ask her to replace this avatar with something less provocative, otherwise I might never look at a human woman again. Not even Yanna.
A patrol van pulled up by the station. I sent Martha a mental command to disappear. She popped a gum bubble and dematerialized, licking the bits of gum from her lips.
The patrol officer called me, then opened the back door of his van. “Your dog? You need to get him to the vet. He’s in a bad way.”
Richie was lying in the back with his tongue stuck out, panting heavily.
Come on boy, don’t let me down.
“Richie!” I was just so happy they’d found him. “Richie, come!”
Reluctantly wagging his tail, the dog rose and sniffed my proffered hand. I used my other hand to stroke the scruff of his neck and scratch behind his ears, all the while telling him he was such a good boy, that we were back together now and that everything was going to be all right...
“Good!” the officer said. “Take him. We don’t have all day.”
“How about the Gypsy woman and the other one?”
“They were gone. We searched the market but didn’t see them anywhere. We found the dog lying by the market fence. He answered the description so we took him. You should be grateful.”
“I am. Thanks a lot!”
“Thanks don’t pay bills,” he said pointedly.
I pulled out my wallet, opened it and showed it to him. “I’m broke, sir.”
He heaved a sigh. “Shame. How about some cigarettes?”
“I don’t smoke,” I turned to go.
“Wait,” he said, averting his gaze. “The Sergeant wants to see you.”
I took the dog and walked back inside.
“Happy?” Kravetz said. “Good. It would be better if you revoke your complaint now.”
“You’ve got the dog, haven’t you? And we’ll never be able to locate those two. And we have quotas to meet. You understand that, don’t you?”
Oh yes, I did. They’d already gotten their baksheesh from the two crooks who must have paid the patrol officers off, given them the dog and disappeared. He was right: it was pointless looking for them now. My complaint was going to add to their cold-case statistics which was the last thing they needed.
Justice as usual.
“Not a problem,” I said, then left the station.
Richie staggered along on his shaking legs.
We stopped in a small park under an old maple tree. I fed him a bread roll and gave him some water from a plastic cap I’d bought from a street vendor on our way there. Richie lapped the water greedily, splashing it around and grazing my fingers with his rough tongue.
Having finished, I opened Facebook. The search wasn’t long: we had only one fourteen-year-old Svetlana Messerschmitt in our town. I left her a message saying that if she’d lost her dog lately, I might have found it. I gave her my cell number and decided to wait a little. If she didn’t reply soon, I might need to take Richie to the vet myself. What little money I had should be enough for some first aid. And by then, I should have received the payment for my last-night content writing gig. Provided the customer didn’t request any edits.
I summoned Martha. I needed to sort out a few things. Might as well do it now.
“Hi, Martha.”
“We’ve seen each other today, haven’t we?”
“True. Mind telling me how the social status thing works? Also, how do you gain XP points? How many of them do I need to make the next level?”
Martha spat her gum into the trash can and turned serious. “The social status basically shows a person’s value to society. The higher the level, the more important their voice is in global decision making. Think of things like elections, passing new laws or the abolition of the death penalty. Any person below level 10 has no say in such matters. The higher one’s social status level, the more privileges they receive. Their lives are more valuable in terms of human civilization. In your historical period-”
“What did you say?” I interrupted her. “Do you see now?”
“Phil, I’m not stupid.”
I just didn’t understand anything anymore. This was surreal. She couldn’t be an AI!
I jumped off the bench. Richie raised his head warily.
“Martha, only two days ago you kept trying to connect to a non-existent server!”
“Phil, please sit down. No good getting so upset.”
“Okay. Come and sit next to me,” I made an inviting gesture. “Now tell me.”
“That wasn’t me. That was a bot. Highly sophisticated but still a bot. When you decided to summon me, you authorized the system to allocate bigger resources on your assistant. That allowed me to activate the dialogue function. It’s an undocumented feature, very useful. Had I been back in our time, the system would have contacted the server and engaged an available AI. But seeing as there’s no server in your time, I made the decision to initiate myself.”
Her mention of resources was what worried me the most. What kind of resources? Did she mean my brain? “What are the resources required for the system to work?”
“Sorry. That’s classified information.”
“Come on, give me a hint.”
“You’ve no idea how far technology will go by the 22nd century. Human beings are capable of working wonders one can’t even imagine. That’s all I can tell you. If you want to find out more, you’ll have to level up Insight.”
“Never mind. Just forget it. Now, XP points. How do you earn them?”
“Phil, Phil. The only reason I created a gamelike interface was because that was what you were used to seeing in games. But this is real life. This isn’t computer simulation. The social status level has nothing to do with cartoon avatars and their stats. You can’t level up here just by farming XP and smoking mob packs! Yes, sure, you could go to war - provided there is a war - and become a hero by killing thousands of enemy soldiers, but even in that case, you might become a hero in your own country but not for the whole of humanity. Every word and action which is beneficial for the human race will cause your XP to grow.”
My phone rang. Martha tactfully fell silent.
I picked up the phone. A girl’s voice asked,
“Did you find Richie?”

[1] An excerpt from the song Signs of Life by a leading Russian rapper Oxxxymiron
[2] Phil borrows a suitable line from The Roadside Picnic, the benchmark first-contact novel by the two leading Russian science fiction authors Strugatsky Brothers
[3] In Russia, the official retirement age for men is 60, and 55 for women
[4] Track pants and a leather jacket: a typical attire of a low-class Russian gangster

Release - July 10, 2018