Wednesday, October 17, 2018

New LitRPG - Level Up: The Knockout

Level Up: The Knockout
by Dan Sugralinov and Max Lagno

Release - January 9, 2019

Chapter One. The Hallucination.


I used to be an adventurer like you. Then I took an arrow in the knee.

EVEN THOUGH Mike Björnstad Hagen was partly of Scandinavian extraction, he resembled a Viking roughly the same way a Chihuahua resembles a Great Dane. He had a variety of nicknames such as Crybaby Mikey, Little Mikey, Mikey the Wimp, or even Hey, you cocksucker! No one has ever referred to him as Mr. Hagen.
The only time it almost happened was during a visit to a bank Mike had visited once in hope of getting a mortgage loan.I'm so sorry, Mr. Hagen, but your loan request has not been approved, said the man behind the counter without so much as trying to refrain from grinning smugly.
Mike would have smashed his face gladly if he only knew how to fight.
A home... A dream of a home of his own, one he could share with little Jessie, was all that had kept him going for three years. Then Jessica had deserted him for a trucker thug from Arizonaor was it Texas? At that point, it didn't really matter anymore.

What did matter, however, was that Hagen had dated no one for the following five years, and the reason certainly wasn't his pining for Jessicathere was none. It was just that no one ever found him interesting enough, including Sheila, a glum Goth girl covered in tattoos, who worked in the shop across the road. The shop sold comics, and Hagen would frequent it to buy fresh issues of Rat Queens and Extremity.
There was an occasion when Mike had had quite a few at Chuck's Bar and managed to get brave enough to invite her to see a movieanother installation of The Avengers. That was when Hagen had the temerity to declaim, feeling brave and cocksure, Girlfriend, how about taking that glorious body of yours out with the coolest guy in the neighborhood?”
Sheila was flabbergasted. Cool? You, of all people?” She then gave him the textbook phrase about him being the last man on the planet and her utter reluctance to spend any amount of time with him even in that scenario.
Mike didn't wait for her to finish the sentence. Hit by the realization of him having been rejected, his brain instantly launched the standard coping mechanism Hagen had developed back in grammar school whenever he’d been called a freak and gotten pelted by a barrage of leftovers at the school canteen: See no evil, hear no evil.”
He barely managed to move his legs, which seemed like foreign objects, as he left the comic shop never to return. Thenceforth, he had to order his comics online which isn't quite the same thing as everybody knows.
Hagen didn't bear any grudges against Sheila. But how could he ever visit her shop again? That would be the worst humiliation one could possibly think of.
Then there was the evening when he’d come home from worka Friday right after Thanksgiving. However, a family holiday seemed like any other day to Hagen. He'd never seen his father, and his mother had passed away a couple of years back.
Hagen's mother was the only person in his life he'd ever truly loved. Some might have called her love overbearing, but Baby Mickey could never even think of it like that. She was his mother, after allas well as his friend, and the most interesting person to talk to. Jessie tried to claim this partit seemed like a success for a whilebut then she walked out on him. When Hagen returned to his mother after his first life cruise, as his Uncle Pete had put it, mother was already deathly ill. The doctors said her treatment would have a thirty-percent chance of success, but there wasn't any money to pay the medical expenses, anyway. Another thing was that he'd have to go to Philadelphia. How could he possibly? His job and his home would never let him. Nor would anybody else.
Hagen's mother died in terrible pain, and he spent all her last days with herholding her hand unable to hold back his tears.
Mike spent the first year after her death as though he were trying to learn how to live again. He's gotten used to cooking, and tried to wash his own clothes and wake up on time, with varying success. The mother who had always taken care of her son was gone. There was no one to take her place, so it was the second time ever Hagen decided something for himself as an adult (the first one being moving in with Jessie).
He wouldn’t give up. He wouldn’t let himself crack under pressure. He would have no specific objectives; hed go with the flow, but he would definitely stay alive.
So he eventually managed to cope with it. Mother's cooking was replaced by Chinese takeaways. Once a week, Hagen would go to the Laundromat, and the alarm clock would wake him up every morning. Life seemed to have gotten back to normal but he still missed his mother a lot.
The only imaginable relative Hagen knew was Uncle Pete, Mom's elder brother. Uncle Pete used to be in the US Armed Forces. He'd been through campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan; the few times he’d visited Hagen and his mother, he did everything he could to be a male presence and help with his nephew's upbringing, but without any success. So Uncle Pete decided to skip the particulars and stick to enforce the three rules he considered important for every man: the ability to hold one's ground, to help one's mother, and to keep from whining, whatever the circumstances may be.
He failed in every case.
Hagen would get hysterical at any experience of physical pain, and preferred to give up or run away at once instead of holding his ground, even though he'd always dreamed of learning to fight like the famous Mighty MouseDemetrious Johnson, the UFC flyweight champion. Yes, the very wrestler that had managed to become a champion eleven times with his heightless than five foot three, and weighing under 126 pounds.
Poor puny Hagen often imagined himself as Johnson's true heir. Crybaby Hagen. Height, five foot two. Weight, just a little over 123 pounds. And a UFC champion nonetheless! Such an unfunny joke.
Helping his Mom? Oh, that was so boring. So much more fun playing video games or reading comics. Not that his mother ever demanded anything of the sort from her only child, anyway.
And as for keeping from whiningHagen tried as hard as he could, but without much success. What could he do if his first reaction to a hurtful comment had always been tears? Hagen was nearly thirty at that point but he would still sometimes find himself unable to hold them back. Just to think of that dumb customer with his damned laptop — a certain Mr. Goretsky. Hagen was the only person who’d any idea about computers in the shop selling digital devices where he worked. Each time Mr. Goretsky would have another virus infect his hard drive browsing through illegal adult sites, there'd be just a single person to sort it out. Namely, Baby Mikey. And Mr. Goretsky had gotten his Self-Importance and Asshole skills up to a level sufficient to blame Hagen for the infection each and every time.
So, the Friday Mr. Goretsky visited the shop again, he didn't guard his words in the least. Apart from the fact that he had onion and garlic on his breath, which almost made Hagen throw up, he erupted with expletives. The mildest expressions he used were dumb freak and pimply bastard, although there were plenty more epithets and characteristics. It must be fun to be as badass when you're six foot tall and your forearms are wider then my legs, thought Hagen, feeling the levee breaking and the tears running down his cheeks. It wasn't his best day all in all, Friday or no Friday.
Feeling utterly discombobulated, Hagen headed right for Chuck's Bar. His main objective was to get into a state of complete inebriation; the secondary one was fueled by the hope of picking up a chick against all odds. Anyone at all. Just someone moist enough for him to stick it in. He'd even managed to notice a likely candidate sitting on a bar stool and downing straight whiskey like there was no tomorrow. Still, he never gathered enough courage to approach her, although he was fully intending to. And once his ass finally left the chair, it was already too late. The lady in question guffawed at the stupid joke of some smug bastard wearing a suit and tie in the most vulgar manner.
So Hagen got fueled up with rotgut and headed homeward, wallowing in self-pity. He spent some time playing his favorite MMA fighter game on the PlayStation in his bachelor's lair imagining himself kicking seven shades of shit out of that bastard Goretsky, after which he watched a horror B-movie on his cable for a while, then just passed out.
He woke up almost at midnight to take a piss.
That was when everything started to happen.
The distance between the sofa and his bathroom would normally take some five stepsit was a cheap rented apartment, after allbut Mike still stumbled on his way. He never knew himself to be particularly agile, but crossing a completely level floor to reach the bathroom hadn't ever been a problem, no matter how drunk.
However, when he rose from the sofa and headed toward the can this time, the world seemed to blink. Hagen felt himself hanging in the nothingness of the universe for a few seconds, feeling no gravity, smells, sounds, lights, or air entering and leaving his lungs.
He didn't even have any awareness of his own existence. He felt enshrouded in utter darkness.
Once the world around him returned, his body continued with a series of panic-induced commands given by the brain: his diaphragm spasmed, his arms started to wave, and his legs eventually attempted to take one step after another. As a result, Hagen fell to the floor, bruising his chin rather badly in the process and almost biting his tongue.
It took him a while to decide to rise, feeling the kind of vertigo anyone who'd ever had more liquor than they could hold would recognize quite well. There were white dots in his vision which formed themselves into strange symbols resembling the runes from The Predator. Hagen went silent, trying to keep himself from throwing up. He lay down on his back and closed his eyes, waiting for the white dots to stop moving so chaotically, but to no avail.
He tried to blink until they went away, and then tried to rub them out with his hands, but the shining dots clearly weren't of a physical nature. They disappeared some ten minutes later.
Hagen managed to catch his breath. Then he got up gingerly and made a few slow, deliberate steps, trying to ensure his feet wouldn't fail him on his way to the business that had woken him up originally.
Then he went back to his room, got undressed, and fell asleep, leaving his clothes on the floor.

* * *

HE WOKE the next morning feeling parched as hell. It was Saturday, and he didn't have to go to work.
He cracked his joints as he stretched out, and headed toward the fridge. He polished off a carton of OJ in a few gulps and started to think about heading down to the supermarket for some supplies.
He sat down at his kitchen table, half of which was covered in computer parts such as video, RAM, and Ethernet cards. That’s when he realized something was wrong. And it wasn't the headache from the six pints of beer he’d drunk last night.
There was an object looking like a desktop icon in his field of vision, and it wouldn't go away. He’d noticed it after waking up, but his initial assumption had been that it was just something in his eye or on his eyelashesa bit of lint, perhaps.
Mike blinked, but the bit of lint didn't go away. If anything, it seemed to have gotten larger. He thought he needed to wash his face, so off to the bathroom he went.
As Mike splashed some water over his face, he decided to shave. He didn't do it oftenthere was no reason to waste time on scraping his face with a razor, after all. But why do it today? The very urge surprised him.
He rubbed some shaving gel on his hand and started applying it to his face, looking at himself in the mirror.
That was when it hit him. There were two lines of text hovering over his head with its thinning fair hair. It looked like the kind of stuff you'd expect to see in some damn computer game.

Mike “Crybaby” Hagen. Age: 29
Level 1

Hagen ran his hand through the space above his head, his face covered in foam. The hand passed through the text without feeling any resistance. Could this be a practical joke of some sort? He looked at the mirror carefully, but found no signs of anyone tampering with it.
What could it possibly be, then? A hallucination?
Suddenly Mike had a morbid idea that made him back away from the mirror. His legs buckled under him, causing him to collapse in a heap to the floor.
Could it be cancer? The kind his mother had?
And what would happen then? He wasn't even thirty yet. He hadn't really managed to get any worthy experience in his life and come to know the joys it could bring. He'd been thinking everything was still ahead of himthat he would have time enough to get as strong as Mighty Mouse.
And what about women? He's never had anyone but Jessie. The thought that his time had run out and that he'd never get to know anyone intimately until the end of what would be a very short life made Hagen cry without making a single sound.
Then he started to bawl uncontrollablybut his mother was no longer there to hug him and comfort him, and it felt like his very life poured out of him as tears went by. A dark depressive state came upon him. Hagen no longer had any wish to do anything anymore, so he just washed away his tears and the froth, rubbed his face with a towel, and went back to bed. He closed his eyes and stayed like that until evening came, unable either to fall asleep or get up.
Long after sundown, Hagen realized he could stay that way no more. His body felt numb; his muscles ached for some exercise, and his brain finally switched from thoughts about imminent death to the basic instinctsnamely, thirst, hunger, and sheer lust for life. His wish to stay alive made him grit his teeth, and he decided to find out what was really going on.
He got out of bed and stood up, staring into the darkness of his apartment. Still, no matter which way Hagen looked, some 3D object remained at the periphery of his vision. He seemed to be watching a movie in 3D, but he wasn't wearing any 3D glasses.
He focused his sight on the object and noticed its reaction. The icon, flat until then, started to rotate like a Christmas tree bauble spinning at the touch of a cat's paw, transforming into a cube with a human head silhouette at each side. Viewed from a certain angle, it actually resembled Hagen himself.
The young man reached for the cube. As if accepting his invitation, it floated towards his palm and became larger. Hagen touched it with his fingertips and felt some sort of tangible response. The cube blinked and turned into a window. Even if it was a hallucination, it was really top-drawer.
The window that appeared featured a topless Hagen in 3D wearing trunks. It was a ridiculous sight. He was thin, all ribs, but the expression on his face was one of pure malice. There was a text bar underneath Hagen. The active tab had two columns. The first one had the following written in it:

Mike Crybaby Hagen
Age: 29
Level: 1
Health: 4000 pt.
Battles/victories: 0/0
Weight: 123 lbs
Height: 5’2

Mike read through the text, studying every line. As he focused, he saw pop-ups with prompts explaining the meaning of each of them. There was also some extra info for the first linehis ethnicity, nationality, as well as place of birth and current residence.
The second prompt explained the process of leveling up. Experience grew in combat, no matter what kinda street fight or a training match would both count for something. The only condition was that the opponent could not be a minor. One had to have as many victories as one had on the current level to get to the next one. Defeats did not give any XP points, but nor did they take any away. Victory over a stronger opponent made the progress faster, but there were no details on just how much faster.
The second line appeared to reflect physical stats.

Main stats:
Strength: 1
Agility: 2
Stamina: 4
Hagen browsed the entire list, focusing his attention at each item as they came along.

The Strength stat equals 10% of the overall average for human strength.
It affects the damage one deals.

The Agility stat equals 10% of the overall average for human agility.
It affects the precision of your attacks and your chances to evade those of your opponent.

The Stamina stat equals 10% of the overall average for human stamina.
It affects health and its regeneration, as well as the fatigue rate during physical activity.

All of the above made it clear that Hagen was very weakten times weaker than any average human being, five times less agile, and had two and half times less agility. But he’d known this ever since he’d been a snotty kid. Tell me something I don't know, he thought.
The most important thing was that in order to get to Level 3, all he needed was a single victory over any opponent. Every level-up gave Hagen an ability point as well as a stat point which could be used to up his Strength, Agility, or Stamina.
Thus, ability levels could be leveled up in other ways but training, and upping Strength did not necessarily require a gym.
Once he managed to process that, he switched to the second tab.
It turned out to be inactive, with a silhouette of an attacking Hagen on it.
Mike tapped it without thinking and saw a series of icons with different abilities depicted on them. They were: Punch, Uppercut, Low Kick, Medium Kick, High Kick, Clinching, and Grappling. All the icons were gray with a lock displayed above them. The only one with color was Punch. It had the number 1 displayed in the bottom right corner over a green icon.
Hagen focused on it. A prompt bubble popped up over it.

Punch: Level 1.
Damage: 100.
You have to use the ability more often to level it up.

Below it was a progress bar at 2%.
Everything had too much detail to be a hallucination caused by an unquiet mind. The periphery of Hagen's consciousness registered the fact that he would have to see a doctor on Monday for a check. It wouldn't hurt, at any rate.
Hagen had a sudden brainwave and assumed what he considered to be a fighter's stance; then he started throwing punches at the air. His right hand, then his left, then the right, and then the left one again. He tried to imitate shadowboxing, made about a hundred punches, stumbled over a gamepad that lay under his feet, and got sweaty and exhausted as a result. However, it was worth it: the progress bar had reached the 3% mark.
Hagen kept punching the air until late at night, only making breaks for snacks and visits to the bathroom. His low Stamina stat revealed itself in fullhe would get tired easily. In the left corner of his vision, underneath the icon with his face showing his current level (which was 1), he also saw the HP and Vigor stats.
Vigor was the very thing he kept running out of. He grew so tired he was barely able to raise his fist. HP points were perfectly real, tooMichael found that out for himself as he punched the wall. His hand felt acute pain. The system message below told him he’d taken 100 damage points, and his HP bar had shrunk.
Hagen leveled his Punch ability up to 2 by midnight. Flame erupted from his fists. It may have been virtual, but it looked terrifyingly real. It made his hands warm, but it didn't burn, so Mike didn't even get any time to panic. He was sweating all over and looking at his hands with sheer delight. The flames were gradually dying down.
Then he saw a system message appear right before his eyes.

Congratulations! You’ve received a new skill level!
Skill name: Punch

Hagen opened the stat window to make sure the ability level had in fact grown.

Punch: Level 2
Damage: 200
You have to use the ability more often to level it up

Thus, the level-up allowed him to deal more damage.
That was incredible!
Mike was as excited as any gamer who'd ever leveled up their character in a video game. The rays of the rising sun were already peeking through the gap between his curtains, and there he stood, punching air obdurately, pissed off by the fact that he'd have to throw a hundred punches more to level up again. Two hundred punches amounted to one percent of his ability growth. The first level had taken just a hundred. The third one would take three times as much.
However, those weren't the only features of the System, which was the term Hagen had invented to describe the new guest in his mind. He’d woken up famished in the middle of the night. There were no nutritious items in his fridge, so he’d had to order a takeaway from a pizza joint open 24/7. His starved body was in urgent need of calories, after all. So Mike ordered two Mexicanas at once, and went at them like a cat finding a pot of cream as soon he’d shut the door after the delivery man.
Once he’d finished his meal (he’d polished off everything there was, including the bits of topping stuck to the bottom of the box, up to the very last slice of olive), the System gave him another notification,

Calories consumed: 2,536. Proteins: 7.4 oz. Fats: 6 oz. Carbohydrates: 12.6 oz.

The Hunger debuff that had been hovering somewhere on the upper right of his vision had now disappeared. However, he got a new one: Sleep Deprivation. That lowered his Vigor by 25%.
By the morning, the Sleep Deprivation debuff reached Level 2, lowering his Vigor by 50%. Mike started to get tired faster, and had to take more breaks to restore himself. By sunrise, when the Punch progress bar reached 67%, Sleep Deprivation suddenly reached Level 4, reducing Vigor by 99% and giving Hagen another debuff by the name of Fatigue. This debuff did not lower any stats. However, it stopped the regeneration of Vigor completely. Thus, he had to go to sleep eventually.
Hagen wasn't disappointed too much, at any rate. His whole body hurt, his arms felt numb, and his eyes felt full of sand. He fell asleep the instant his head touched the pillow.

Chapter Two. Good Afternoon, Mr. Goretsky!


The world is full of suffering, then you die.
GTA Vice City Stories

ON MONDAY Hagen went to the clinic to tell the doctor about his inexplicable hallucinations. The doctor hummed and hawed in a bewildered way for a while, and then told him to get an MRI. It didn’t find any pathological symptoms related to Hagen's brain. Therefore, the doctor's diagnosis was stress from overwork. He prescribed him a course of mild sedatives and recommended him to take a break from work.
His employers didn't mindit was the first vacation Mike had taken in three years, so he suddenly became free for three weeks. As Hagen was leaving the shop, he saw Mr. Goretsky looking for his notebook and not finding it. I really wouldn't advise you to visit any illegal sites within the next three weeks, he thought with pure Schadenfreude.
A system message popped up in the air right above Goretsky.

Gregor “Moose” Goretsky. Age: 38
Level 4
HP: 22000
Battles/victories: 9/6
Weight: 251 lbs
Height: 6’ 3”

Hell's bells! was the first thought to cross Mike's mind. Five times my HP!
Goretsky's Stamina equaled 16. However, Hagen didn't manage to check out any other stats. He tried to open the window with the big man's profile, but the system kept sending him the same incomprehensible message:

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

He had never come across this skill before but he decided to definitely sort it out later on.
Mike could already see he didn’t stand a chance against the man. Even given his double damage, he'd have to deal an opponent like this around eighty punches minimum, which was simply a non-option.
So there you are, shithead!
Hagen was so lost in his thoughts he missed the fact that Mr. Goretsky had finally found him. He loomed over Mike, who had hunched his back by sheer force of habit, grinning at him lopsidedly. Get your finger out and give my laptop back, you dumbass!
Hagen tried to make his face look as friendly as possible.
Good afternoon, Mr. Goretsky!
If you try my patience for another three minutes, it won't be as good for you! Get my laptop back at once! This time we'll examine it carefully to see just how well you fixed it!
I'm on vacation, Mr. Goretsky. Please address one of my colleagues with this issue.
Hagen kept thinking about how much he'd have to level up his Punch skill to knock out a giant like the Moose with a single blow. Math had always been a strong suit of Mike's, so he instantly made the calculation: he'd have to level up to 160, which would take him some ten years of daily twelve-hour practice. However, he was basing his calculations on his current level of Strength, which could be leveled up as well...
Hey, you little geek! Did your brain freeze? Do I have to punch your lights out to reboot you, slowpoke?
Hagen came back to his senses only to see Goretsky's face a few inches from his own. He was getting a full load of spittle on his nose alongside the barrage of expletives.
Hagen wiped his face automatically. Other sales personnel and a few customers came out as they heard the shouting, but no one made any effort to intervene even though they observed the tableau with some concern. Someone called the manager.
Mike gathered up what remained of his self-esteem and said, his voice quavering with hurt, I'm sorry, Mr. Goretsky, but you should stop giving me all that verbal abuse. I am technically not a DigiMart employee at the moment, since I am on vacation. Please try another colleague of mine.
Are you that dumb? I don't give a shit! Goretsky spat out. You work at the shop, I gave you my laptop. So you're the one who’s supposed to fix it, and you're the one responsible!
I am sorry, Mr. Goretsky, said Lexie, the senior sales executive. Allow me to serve you. She took the Moose by the arm. Just give me your receipt, and I'll fetch the appliance in question at once.
The Moose looked at Lexie with appreciation and grinned. He was certainly pleased by the replacement.
You're lucky to have such cute girls work at your store, you slug,” were the Moose's parting words to Hagen.
Lexa gave Mike a barely noticeable gesture as she turned her head around and led the boorish customer away, allowing him to leave. Mike nodded in response and headed toward the exit, feeling the blood rush to his face and ears.
None of this is ever, ever, ever likely to end well,” he kept muttering.
It was bad luck indeed for the peak of his humiliation to have coincided with the arrival of Lexiethe only co-worker who'd never treated Hagen like a piece of shit. She appreciated him for his ability to find any defect in any computer in a minimum amount of time, and always managed to find a kind word for him, praising him for his work. She was three years younger than him, after all, and already a senior sales executive. Really pretty, too. Such a pity he had no chance with her.
And still he forgot all about Lexie once he got outside. Hagen now had a goal, digitized and perfectly understandable.
His greatest desire ever was to learn to fight nowa desire even greater than that he'd felt for Jessie after their first date. Actually, it wasn't even fighting that he wanted. It would be painful, after all. What he'd ever really wanted was to knock out any opponent with a single punch without letting the fight go on for too long. Just like that Irish Traveler Mickey did in Guy Ritchie’s movie. His endurance wasn't that great, after all. Hagen imagined Goretsky punching him on the nose and shuddered.
After the night Mike spent leveling up his Punch ability, he only woke up in the late afternoon. He was completely exhausted, for every muscle in his untrained body ached. His mood, however, was unexpectedly good. He tried to level up the ability, but his body reacted with acute pain. Mike didn't know what to do, so he kept on studying the interface.
His eyes rolled maniacally when he noticed another couple of icons hed not seen before. He stared at them and dragged and dropped them onto the panel. One of them had the legend saying “Program Features. When Hagen opened it, he saw the following.

Augmented Reality!7.2 Home Edition
Copyright © First Martian Company, Ltd. 2101-2118
All rights reserved
Registered owner: Michael Björnstad Hagen.
S/N S2L-7702B-1412010
One-year single user license
Account type: Premium
Activation date: 04/24/2018, 09:00
Expiration date: 04/24/2019, 08:59

A Google search revealed nothing about either the First Martian Company or the Augmented Reality! platform. However, it didn't take Hagen long to figure things out. He'd read too many comics to be surprised by something like this. It was pretty obvious: he’d somehow acquired an augmented reality interface from the future. Just how it had happened didn't matter at the moment. Mike could easily imagine every Earthling having an interface of this sort in the twenty-second century. Judging by the name of the company that had developed it, every Martian would have them, too.
The main thing he realized was as follows: time, too, was at a premium. He'd have to make full use of each and every day to make his dream come true.
He spent about an hour exploring the Settings tab to configure the interface just the way he liked it. There were lots of cool little features, including a built-in alarm clock that would wake you gently during your lightest sleep stage when waking up would be the least stressful, as well as making all sorts of data visible in one's field of view. The latter included quite a few useful thingsthe time, one's heartbeat rate, the temperature outside, calories used up since awakening, and lots more that one could theoretically look up on one's smartphone, but the augmented reality interface made it so much easier.
Mike also brought the progress bars of the main stats into his field of visionnamely, Strength, Agility, and Stamina. He spent about half an hour shadowboxing, trying to disregard the pain, and noticed that they had grown as well. Not at the same rate as the Punch ability, but it was something nevertheless.
He had the most success with Stamina. Hagen noticed that it would build up the most rapidly when he trained when his staying power was at his lowestwhen he'd have to gasp for breath, trying to overcome the pain in his chest and the feeling of heaviness in his shoulders.
There were two more main iconsCheck for Updates and Tech Support, but whenever he'd tap on either, they'd give the following error message:

Impossible to establish connection with the updates server.
It appears to be unavailable.
Please check your Universal Infospace connection settings.

Universal infospace? For real? A future internet?
Once Hagen had finished exploring the interface, he got back to his training. He put on a music channel on the TV and went on with kicking seven shades of shit out of his invisible opponent, imagining it to be Goretsky. He kept at it until late night when he reached a state of complete exhaustion. He took a shower and slept through the day; he probably wouldn't wake even if someone set his bed on fire.
This was his Sunday. He visited the clinic on Monday, then kept on shadowboxing at home, trying to progress as fast as possible. Tuesday was spent in the exact same manner. Wednesday evening Hagen suddenly had a bright idea and made a discovery.
He used a pillow from his sofa to form a punch bag of sorts, hanging it on the hook to replace the rather tasteless painting portraying a female gorilla in an evening dress and a hat. The name of the painting was Sunset on the Atlantic Coast, but it was all tacky rectangles in psychedelic colors. Hagen could never see the sunsetjust the gorilla.
It turned out that the ability leveled up much faster if he punched the pillow instead of the air.
By the end of the same day, Hagen leveled up his Punch ability to Level 8 and became capable of dealing up to 1600 damage points, since his Power finally leveled up as well. That was when he realized that his best bet would be to train at a boxing gym. There was one just downed the street, owned by an old Mexican.

* * *

HAGEN TURNED UP at the Roosevelt Street boxing gym early on Sunday. Mr. Guillermo Ochoa didn't bat an eyelid when the puny lad arrived at his gym. In fact, Mr. Ochoa stayed as cool as a cucumber even when Hagen declared his intent to train at the gym. However, when this feeble hobbit whom you could pierce with a straw, with his pencil neck, messy fair hair, colorless fair eyebrows and eyelashes, made it clear he wished to train for at least twelve hours every day, it was too much for old Ochoa. He started to laugh out loud.
The young man didn't seem perturbed by it. He patiently waited for the boxing gym's owner to finish laughing, his cerulean blue eyes staring directly at Ochoa without one iota of irritation. He was irritated, though. The old man was seventy years old, and he could read people well enough. The Mexican laughed so hard that snot flew from his large broken nose. But the young man stayed perfectly calm, regardless.
Once the old man had stopped laughing, Hagen took a wad of crumpled dollar bills out of his back pocket.Would this be enough for the first month, Mr. Ochoa?
The old man got serious. He counted the money and nodded.This will be enough for three months. And if you help me with cleaning the gym every evening, you can train for half a year,” Ochoa offered him his hand. “Welcome to my boxing gym, kid... Eh, what's your name, then?
Mikey, said the young man as he shook the Mexican's hand. But you can call me Hagen, if you like.
So, it's Little Mikey, then? All right. When would you like to get started? If you think that-”
Could I start right now? Hagen interrupted him.
The old man chuckled. Right now?
Yes, right now, the hobbit repeated.
Ochoa scrutinized Mike from head to toe, gave a whistle, then swept his hand theatrically around the empty gym.The gym is all yours, young man! The locker room is that way.
Hagen may have imagined it, but it seemed like there was something respectful in the way the old man addressed him. That was the first time in his life someone's ever spoken to him that way, and he liked it.
Five minutes later, having changed, Hagen started throwing punches at the punch bag with enormous enthusiasm. The huge aloha shorts that hung below his knees revealed legs so thin one could circle one's fingers around them. The oversize tee sleeves reached all the way down to his elbows, and his clumsy punches couldn't move the bag an inch. Nothing but the sullen look in his fierce blue eyes could convince anyone that puny Little Mickey was really meaning it.
So, by the end of the day, Ochoa took pity of the lad and started to teach him how to punch for real.

* * *

BY THE END of the second week at the gym, Hagen's physical and mental condition had improved considerably. As it had turned out, his Premium account came with a triple leveling booster to all skills and stats. Mike found out about it in the Help section. The virtual helper was miles ahead of Siri. It had no problems with recognizing voice commands, and responded immediately. This is how Hagen found out that whenever a battle ability reached a level divisible by ten, he would get an extra skill. Punch, for example, would give him a 50% chance of canceling any of his opponent's blocks at Level 10. By level 30, this would be guaranteed.
At any rate, Hagen saw it for himself by the end of the first week of training, when his only ability finally reached Level 10.
Apart from the boxing ring and the boxing bag, Ochoa's gym turned out to have barbells and dumbbells. That's what the old man made him use on the second day, teaching him a few exercises that would develop different muscle groups. Aided by an intense workout routine with weights, this training made his Strength grow much faster and gave him an enormous appetite.
Hagen consumed huge amounts of meat, chicken, and fish; then it dawned on him that he could just buy an enormous jar of powdered protein. He'd been drinking at least three protein shakes every day since, not to mention eating regular food. Training made him hungry all the time, even at nighthe would wake up and make himself a shake which he'd gulp down and fall asleep again.
In two weeks, he gained a couple of pounds and even managed to grow taller, for whatever reason.
By the end of his leave, his stats were as follows:

Mike Crybaby” Hagen. Age: 29
Level 1

HP: 9000
Battles/victories: 0/0
Weight: 135 lbs
Height: 5 3

Main stats:
Strength: 5
Agility: 4
Stamina: 9

Hagen managed to level up all his stats and put on eleven pounds. He became stronger, and the beefed-up Stamina increased his chances to survive, giving him more time to throw a game-changing punch. The only stat that grew very slowly was Agility.
He didn't discover any new moves, so he decided to focus on leveling up Punch, the only ability in his arsenal. No matter how his opponent would dodge, Hagen's higher level would eventually let him throw lightning-fast punches no one could possibly escape.

Punch: Level 16
Damage: 8000
+50% to the probability of ignoring any block
You have to use the ability more often to level it up

This amazing ability to do damage was a direct result of his increased Strength. At Level 1, Hagen would only manage to deal 1600 points of damage (a hundred points for every level of the ability). But those 1600 points became multiplied by five, and eight thousand points were already something. He could knock himself out in a punch or two, regardless of his leveled-up Stamina. As for his older selfthe one that didn't have the interfacehe could swat it like a fly.
On the last day of his leave, Hagen approached the owner of the gym.My time off is about to end, Mr. Ochoa. I have to go back to work. As soon as I finish in the evening, I'll be right here.
The old man shrugged. You can come whenever you want, kid.
Thank you, Mr. Ochoa! I'm done for today...”
Hold on a second, kid, Guillermo interrupted him, pointing to the corner of the gym where a Latino guy with a nondescript face was shadowboxing. How about a match with Juan? He's a newbie, too, although he's been here for over half a year. But he doesn't do it the way you do. He comes around three times a week, and sometimes skips his training altogether. Everybody else I have here is tough as nails, and I can't find him a proper partner for the life of me.
We can try, said Hagen, shrugging.
He took a closer look at Juan and saw the following:

Juan Manuel Guerrero. Age: 26
Level 3

HP: 13000
Battles/victories: 7/5
Weight: 172 lbs
Height: 6 foot

All right. Wait, Ochoa said and went toward Mike's sparring-partner-to-be.
This guy won't be easy meat, thought Hagen to himself as he saw Juan Guerrero looking in his direction. Guerrero was strong, with long arms, and half as many HP as Hagen. But one had to start somewhere, after all. He couldn't just beat up old ladies in the street to level up, could he?
Once the ongoing bout was over, Ochoa told the sparring partners to leave the boxing ring and invited Guerrero and Hagen to take their place. They bumped their boxing gloves together. Guerrero nodded, and Hagen returned the nod.
Ready? Fight! Ochoa gave the command.
The training fight began.
Guerrero was circling around Hagen, trying to get on his left side but keeping his distance. Should he move closer? He might get hit. Should he wait for his opponent to attack? In that case, would it be possible to block or dodge the punch?
Hagen kept on circling and trying to stay face to face with his opponent who kept running around. He waited for his chance. A chance to deal a blow that might be his only opportunity in this fight.
“Come on!” shouted Ochoa, trying to motivate the fighters. “Fight! Get on with it!”
Hagen's opponent started to attack. He moved his body around a lot to confuse the other fighter. But then came the moment when Hagen realized he had to strike. He intuitively threw a punch at the face of the attacker without even realizing what he was doing, trying to block Guerrero's punch with his left hand at the same time. He nearly felt the other man's boxing glove touch his, but then the contact was lost.

You’ve dealt damage: 8,000 (Punch)
Your opponent’s block has been overridden

Later, Mike would see the next scene in his dreams in slo-mo for a couple of nights in a row. There's him throwing the punch; there's the fist that goes right through the poorly-executed counter-punch block and then proceeds to hit Guerrero right on the jawbone. His opponent's head comes upwards first, inertia making a trail of sweat drops in the air, and then the other man's feet leaves the floor as well.
That was how Hagen found out that if his strike dealt more damage than 50% of his opponent's HP, a knockout was guaranteed. That's exactly what happened to Guerrero. He was knocked out all right.
Hagen himself felt a rush of unbelievable pleasure. This was better than any orgasm. That was how the System reacted to his first level-up.
Hagen was standing inside a column of light invisible to anyone but himself. He didn't hear what Ochoa was saying. However, he could clearly see the following system message:

Congratulations! You’ve defeated your opponent in a fair fight!
Defeating an opponent whose level is higher than yours doubles the XP received!
You’ve received +2 to your level!
Current level: 3

New system points of main characteristics available: 2
New system points of combat skills available: 2

As he went to bed that night, Hagen consulted with the virtual assistant and distributed the system points between Strength and Agility. First he wanted to dump both into Strength, but it turned out that leveling up a stat by more than one point at once would be lethally dangerous. The system gave an absolutely clear warning about that.

Warning! We’ve detected an abnormal increase of your Strength characteristic: +1 pt.
Your body will be restructured in keeping with the new reading (6) to comply with your new metabolism and chronotropy values.

Changes required: accelerated growth of muscle tissue, sinews and ligaments.

There was also a lot of stuff about raising the levels of intramuscular phosphocreatine, glycogen, the internal mechanisms, intramuscular coordination, and so on. However, there was a very clear warning in bold at the very bottom:

The restructuring of your body functions requires a considerable amount of nutrients. In order to avoid danger to your life, you’re strongly encouraged to consume a minimum of 10 oz. animal protein, 3 lbs. of carbohydrates and 3 oz. of animal fats. A shortage of nutrients may result in body function failure.
Artificial characteristic boosting of more that 1 pt. at a time is strictly forbidden! Severe danger of fatality!

A similar system message and warning followed when he added an extra point to Agility:

Warning! We’ve detected an abnormal increase of your Agility characteristic: +1 pt.
Your body will be restructured in keeping with the new reading (5) to comply with your new motoric and coordination values.
Changes required: the restructuring of your central nervous system and the increase in elasticity of your muscle tissue, sinews, ligaments and joints.

The warning of a possible lethal outcome followed this, tooas well as advice to eat as much protein, fat, and carbohydrates as possible, accompanied by proper hydration.
So Hagen consumed an enormous amount of fried chicken and a few pizzas over the next two hours, washing them down with plenty of soda and water.
As he was eating, he suddenly realized he was no longer frightened of fighting Mr. Goretsky. As his Strength stat had grown, he could deal 9,600 points of damage which was more than enough to knock out the Moose, the required amount being 50% of the latter's HP.
Then he fell asleep, smiling all the way to the Land of Nod. Tomorrow would be the next daythe first day of the rest of his life.
He would keep on training and leveling up, and eventually take part in an MMA competition, and then... Who knows? Perhaps, one day he might hold his champion's belt proudly above his head.
But that would take time. And as for tomorrow...
Hagen smiled again. Tomorrow he’d finally ask Lexie to hang out with him.

Chapter Three. Goodbye, Mr. Goretsky


The assassin has overcome my final defense, and now he's come to murder me in the end, what separates a man from a slave? Money? Power? No. A man chooses. A slave obeys.

HAGEN SPENT all the tomorrow in question at his desk trying to fix some young guy's Xbox. Someone had spilled beer all over it but it took him a while to find out just which parts were defective. All his thoughts were focused on the promise he'd given to himselfnamely, to ask Lexie out; yet Mike would panic every time she'd pass him by.
How could he possibly break the ice? Hi there, fancy going out with me? Or, perhaps, Hey, baby, what are your plans for this evening? None seemed right to him. Baby would probably result in Lexa killing himor burning him through with that murderously derisive look girls adopt when they look at complete losers. Should that happen, any prospect of a date would become a definite non-option.
However, the girl seemed to have noticed his interest. Hagen could sense her throwing glances at him. He didn’t return them though, trying to hide behind the console instead. He realized perfectly well that he wouldn't be able to answer Lexa if she'd asked him a work-related question. Yesterday's confidence had evaporated without a trace. His tongue felt glued to his mouth. Hagen kept on drinking colahe was on his fifth canbut nothing seemed to help. The very idea he might be ridiculed and humiliated by a rejection made him feel he was dying inside, and he kept reliving that experience.
Mike read it once in some men's magazine that it was the natural reaction all men had to being rejected, and the reason why many of them feared to approach pretty girls, but this scientific observation did nothing to soothe his feelings.
He called up the interface a couple of times so as to get more confident, admiring his achievements. Then he would close it instantly. What kind of achievements were those, anyway? He was nowhere near the same league as Demetrious “Mighty Mouse Johnson. Or Dominick Cruz, or... the list could go on and on. All of them were way better than Crybaby Hagen.
Browsing through his stats gave him some comfort, but whenever Lexie would appear in one of the aisles, Hagen would try to shrink his head into his shoulders, afraid of starting a conversation with her.
That's how he spent the first part of the day. When lunch break came, he finally managed to crawl from behind his desk and rushed straight toward the restroom. He spent all of the break boxing with his reflection in the mirror. The ability didn't progress as quickly as it did in the gym, but he could still feel it. The progress bar eventually grew. Mike, who was feeling hot and sweaty, would exhale loudly every time he threw a punch.
He almost managed to get his Punch skill to the next level when someone knocked on the door. It was Lexie.
Hagen tried to slip out of the room, trying to avoid looking the girl in the eye. His DigiMart tee was stuck to his back, and his breathing was heavy as he clenched and unclenched his fists.
What's the matter with you? Were you...” Lexie grinned as she watched the young man shake his head desperately. Uh-huh. Well, it's none of my business, but...”
This evening... you... and me. Shall we?
Shall we what?
Well, like... How about going out for a dinner together?
Lexa laughed out loud.
You're quite something, Mike. Sorry, but it's not happening in this life. And I'm definitely not going anywhere with you.
Lexie almost repeated the tattooed Sheila's response word for word. Mike's mind raced, trying to come up with a response that would save his face, but the young woman already proceeded to enter one of the cabins. She locked the door loudly, and even checked whether it was locked properly to boot, as if she expected a sweaty and blabbering Mike to follow her.
He was so upset he forgot everything about food. He got a system message about a debuff called Slight Hunger, which lowered his overall satisfaction and metabolism, but he just brushed it off.
He sat despondent at his workplace, not knowing whether he could do anything about the situation, and, most importantly, whether he should try to in the first place. Then he managed to pull himself together and decided that he had to put some nutrients into his body if he ever wanted to become strong.
He only had ten minutes left until the end of his break. He had to go to the Tasty Dog joint that was just across the road. Its owners sold hot dogs that contained thin brown sprigs looking suspiciously like cockroach legs. Everybody was aware of that, and most people kept well away. The owners primarily used the joint as a front for pushing smack. However, the ever-present junkies that crowded at the entrance would devour hot dogs, their odd cockroach legs filling notwithstanding.
Hey, Masheer, Hagen nodded to a guy at the stall that he knew, giving him the money. I'd like a hot dog, please.
As usual, Mike? The vendor's face was cracked by what he considered a polite smile. Would you like more parsley?
Uh... Yeah, Hagen agreed. And go heavy on the ketchup and the mayo.
Masheer made him a hot dog, still smiling in the same way and staying absolutely cool, and wished him something, but Mike was already elsewhere.
He finished off his hot dog on the way back to work, trying not to get any sauce over himself.
He kept on digging through the innards of the damn Xbox until the evening, going through his conversation with Lexie in his mind. Why was it so hard to find the right words? He could talk to Jessie before, couldn't he? On the other hand... talking to her was like talking to a TV set. She’d never paid much attention to Hagen and mostly kept on prattling herself, giving little thought to whether or not Mike could hear her. She would just go on and on... The only thing she’d wanted him to do was to pay the bills. Oh, there was something else, too: she didn't want him to be jealous. Jessie kept on telling him, If you are jealous of me, you don't love me. And what kind of love can it be without trust? Mike would agree, still loving her, and trying to hide his jealousyto no avail.  
That's how he spent the daylost in gloomy thoughts, with the odd occasional flash of hope that things would change for the better soon, all the while trying to fix the console. He managed to do it eventually. He launched Injustice: Gods Among Us, chose Batman as his character and started fighting Superman.
One of the perks of working as an electronics repairman was that one could theoretically play all day long, claiming this to be necessary for testing the fixed console under heavy load.
Bye-bye, everyone! Lexie said as she was leaving.
Bye, Lexie. See you tomorrow! answered Wei Ming, the other assistanta small-framed Chinese guy with a slight accent.
Hagen raised his head, but the girl didn't even look in his direction. She hung her bag on her shoulder and left, swinging her car keys on her finger.
Hagen put away the Xbox gamepad and started to get ready as well.
Why did things always have to be this way? What if talking to girls was just like mastering new abilities? What if the necessary words had to be unlocked — just like Uppercut, Kick, Dodging, and everything else he would learn at the gym while leveling up his abilities?
Communicating with women must be the same. One must try to succeed.
The fact that Lexie wasn't around anymore made him more confident. Hagen grabbed his jacket and dashed out of the shop.
If he could level up by thrusting his fist through the air, why couldn't he make himself understood to Lexa by filling the same air with the right words?
One just had to try hard enough.

* * *

HAGEN SECRETLY HOPED he'd be late and Lexie would have already gone by then... Yet there she was in the parking lot, opening the door of her old beige Toyota. Hagen tried to keep himself from thinking and came up to her.
Lexie, hold on a moment. You didn't get me right.
Lexie opened the car, giving him a weary look.I got everything just right, Mike. You have mistaken my excessive kindness for a romantic interest, like the total loser you are.
But I thought...”
Get lost, Mike. Or I'll think you're stalking me.
Each of Lexie's words made Mike's head shrink ever deeper into his shoulders. He didn't even have it in him to turn around and run away, the way he’d done in his childhood when all the other children would gather and start pelting him with sand or soda cans.
Then he heard an engine roar behind him. A huge pick-up truck decorated with naked women and burning flames stopped right in front of Lexie's car. The door opened. Goretsky left the driver seat and approached Lexie with a swagger.
I've been waiting for you so long, baby,” he shut the door of his car and blocked her way with his arm. How about taking that glorious body of yours out with the coolest guy in the neighborhood?
Mr. Goretsky, I'm really tired. Why don't we do it some other day?
Hagen's jaw dropped to the floor. Goretsky was saying the very same thing that Mike had once said to Sheila. The effect, though, was different. Hagen started to back off, one step after another. The last thing he wanted was for this thug to switch his attention to him...
Lexie tried to get into the car and sweep Goretsky's arm aside. But he grabbed her by the waist and pulled her toward him.
Don't pretend you're a virgin, you bitch. I know all about the likes of you. You like bad guys.
Let me go!
Goretsky placed his hand on Lexie's crotch.I'm the baddest guy of them all. And you're already moist down there, you bitch.
Take your hands off of me!
Oh, resist all you can, baby. Isn't that what turns you on?
Hagen almost backed away from Lexie's car completely. Suddenly, it felt like a red filter was applied to his vision.

Righteous Anger
You’ve come across an injustice and are experiencing a fit of Fury!
+3 to all main characteristics
+100% to Vigor
+50% to Confidence
+75% to Willpower
+75% to Spirit
-50% off Self-Control
The effect will remain active until justice is restored and while you’re convinced of the righteousness of your cause

Yea-a-a-a-ah! Hagen cried out loud, clenching his fists.
Lexie and Goretsky both froze.
Did your mouth just fart something, you little shit? Goretsky's voice sounded mocking, but there were notes of bafflement there, too.
That was when Hagen realized that the gorilla hadn't even noticed him as he’d stepped out of his tacky pickup truck. As though Hagen didn't even exist.
This pissed him off a lot.
Hagen had felt anger before, of course, but up to then he could only express it mentally. In his dreams he had already beaten up all the people who’d ever mistreated him, starting with ginger Danny, who would regularly smear his boogers over the sandwiches Mike’s mother had packed into his lunch box with such care every morning, and ending with the dickhead who’d doused his Xbox in beer that morning.
It was the first time ever that Hagen realized that all his accumulated hatred could be pumped into his fists, and his fists could then be applied to the jaw of whoever treated him wrong.
The red mist before his eyes became thicker. Hagen took a fighting stance, imagining himself to be on an octagonal boxing ring. He crooked his finger at Goretsky, beckoning him to come closerjust like that character from UFC 2.
Goretsky took his hands off Lexie.Are you drunk, buttface?
Mike Crybaby Hagen crooked his finger at Gregor Moose Goretsky again.
The man waddled over to Mike.You little bastard. I'll stick that finger of yours right up your ass.
Mike, he'll kill you! I'm calling the police!” panicking, Lexie started to rummage through her handbag for her phone.
Better call the ambulance, Mike responded.
Yeah, buttface! They have a body bag waiting just for you.
Goretsky was completely confident of his superiority. He approached Hagen and tried to punch him in the side, assuming buttface would immediately double down, but Hagen dodged easily, outmaneuvering Goretsky.
Lexie put her phone down in bewilderment. She didn't call 911 yet.
Goretsky turned his bulky body around, just to have Hagen's fist meet his face. The last thing the Moose saw was the evening sky and a piece of a billboard... then he landed on the trunk of Lexie's car, making a noise like an overturned garbage can as he did so.

You’ve dealt damage: 14,400 (Punch)

The Righteous Anger had boosted Mike's stats, so his blow dealt a lot more damage than he’d originally expected. Goretsky couldn’t utter a single word. He stayed lying on his back as if paralyzed, his eyes bulging.

Congratulations! You’ve defeated an opponent in a fair fight!
XP points received: 1
XP points received on the current level (3): 1/3

Hagen ignored the system message. He stopped noticing anything but the opponent he had just defeated. A gormless mug with glassy eyes, a trickle of blood coming out of his smashed nose. All of those symbolized revenge for years of humiliation. To Mike, Goretsky's face represented everyoneginger Danny; the trucker that Jessie had run away with; the doctor who’d refused to treat his Mom with a mien of insincere compassion on his face; the bank manager who’d refused him his mortgage loan; and myriads of other facesall those who'd humiliated, ridiculed and beaten up Hagen throughout his life.
Hagen struck back at once! His enemy was defeated at last. At last...
Mike felt delicate female fingers shaking him by the shoulders. The pulsation of blood in his ears let through Lexie's voice.
Mike! Mike! Stop it! Oh, please, Mike!
The red mist went away. Mike found himself sitting atop Goretsky. The bigger man's face was a mess of blood. There were drops of red on the fender of Lexie's beige Toyota. Hagen rose, frightened.
Did I... Did I... Is he... dead?
Lexie crouched and took Goretsky's pulse. Then she rose again.He's alive. It takes some effort to kill a brute like him.
We'll have to call an ambulance...”
I already have,” the girl opened her car door.Let's scram.
B-b-but... he... Aren't we supposed to wait for them?
Lexie gave Hagen a measuring look.Dude, you're full of surprises. One moment you're a geeky little worm, the next, a cold-blooded fighter; then you're back to the worm stage again. I'd rather you chose one or another.
Hagen nodded. Then he dragged Goretsky to the curb. He placed him gently on the grass right next to the parking sign. The Moose came to his senses. He tried to mumble something through bubbles of blood.
Goodbye, Mr. Goretsky... Sorry about that...”
Hagen retreated with all due speed and sat down on the front seat of the Toyota.
As they were leaving the parking lot, the ambulance was already arriving, flashing red and blue lights, its siren loud enough for all the neighborhood to hear.

* * *

HAGEN WATCHED the ambulance go by, then reclined on his seat.
Lexie turned down the music. “Whereabouts are you headed?
Hagen gave her the address of Ochoa's boxing gym. Lexie nodded and turned into the street he had named.
Well, Mikey, how about telling me about what's just happened?” she asked. “Were you always able to fight like that?
I'd really wanted to all my life, but I've only started learning recently.
Hagen was surprised by the fact that he was no longer stuttering when he talked to Lexie. Could the buff still be active? Was that where his confidence and nonchalance came from?
Mike lowered the sun visor and looked at himself in the mirror. He flattened down his hair. Then he noticed that he had drops of blood on his face.
The tissues are in the glove compartment, Lexie said.
Hagen started to wipe his cheeks.
To say you surprise me would be a huge understatement, Lexie continued. How could anyone knock out a bull moose like that with a single punch? He's so much taller than you! I saw you had to stand on your tiptoes to reach his face.
Hagen chuckled. It's not a question of height; it's a question of skill.
One thing's for surewe won't see Goretsky’s shadow on the door of our shop for a while!
Hagen continued to feel his Confidence bolstered for the rest of their trip. He had no problem with talking and didn't have to hide his eyes. He really wished the buff could be permanent.
There we are, Lexie leaned over the wheel to read the sign over the door of the boxing gym. So this is your usual haunt, isn't it? You're a mystery wrapped in an enigma, Mike Hagen.
Yeah, I surprise myself sometimes. Incidentally, about that offer...”
Oh, it was an offer, after all? she smiled. Sounded like incomprehensible mumbling to me.
Hagen cleared his throat.How about hanging out together after we finish work?
Lexie shrugged.Why not? But I wouldn't want to go to any random place. Try to come up with something fun. Keep on surprising me. I... I rather enjoyed you doing that.
As Hagen was getting out of the car, she said,
Another thing: thanks for your help.
Mike already knew: the best answer to her thanks would be to shut up and give her a smile of encouragement.

Chapter Four. The Right Answer


Roman: Well, if you need some down time go hang out at the apartment and watch some American TV. It is much better than the shit we got back in the Old Country.
Niko: Most of the shit on TV in the Old Country was from America, don't you remember, Roman?
Roman: Then watch the TV here and get nostalgic, I don't know.

THE FIGHT WITH Juan Guerrero didn't go unnoticeda match between one of the local boys and a wimpy gringo had been seen by everyone present, and Hagen's victory was all the more surprising. The young man finally got noticed. Even as he was in the locker room, a few guys he'd never seen before came over to introduce themselves. Other fighters also tried to scrutinize Hagen, but without saying anythinghis puny body was the last thing they'd associate with a victory like that.
Mike could feel their disbelief and skepticism perfectly well. It appeared that everybody opined his victory had been nothing but an unlikely stroke of luck. But he concurred with them.
He changed into his old training gear, paying no attention to any hostile attention. The pants were too short, and his jacket had a hole underneath the armit had been patched by his Mom. But, right then, he didn't care. How one dressed was unimportant. It was all about what one did wearing those clothes. And what Hagen intended was to become stronger.
He started with a warm-up even though he believed that the fight with Goretsky was a warm-up all in itself and he hadn't had the opportunity to chill down yet. Then he tried the skipping rope but he lacked the agility, so he kept getting tripped up by it. The others would laugh but Hagen kept a calm expression. Rome wasn't built in a day.
After a few exercises, old Ochoa approached him wearing hook and jab pads. “We have to work on your arms' endurance. What I noticed yesterday was that you tend to lower them too quickly. If your opponent keeps evading your punches, they can just wear you out.
It's hard to dodge one of my punches, Hagen replied, recollecting the glassy eyes of the knocked-out Moose. And I won't need more than one.
The very next moment, the hook and jab pad struck him in the forehead rather painfully.

Damage received: 93 (Pad Jab)
Current HP: 8907

Don't get too cocky just because you got lucky yesterday, lad, Ochoa said calmly. Juan had underestimated you, so he ended up missing your punch. You were lucky to have knocked him out. But boxing isn't a casino. Either you train and throw everything else out of your head and win, or...” the old man grinned. “Or you consider yourself invincible and they show you where you belong real quick. So, what do you really want?
To train.
And what for exactly?
So that my victories wouldn't be random.
Hm... Well, that's the right answer, son. Let's get to it, then!
As he took his stance, Hagen thought about Lexie. Immediately the hook and jab pad hit him in the forehead again.
And wipe that silly dreamy look off your face, lad! Concentrate!
Ochoa frowned. Mike shook his head, trying to shake off all the unnecessary thoughts. He punched the pads listening to his coach talking to him monotonously,
The first thing to do to keep your arms less tired is to learn to relax. You don't relax at all. Once you get into the ring, you get so tense it feels like you're afraid of your opponent so much as looking at you. Let me tell you right away: once the match begins, he won't just look at you. He'll punch you, too. It will hurt, and he'll know just where to direct the punch. It goes without saying that you must be ready, but it doesn't mean you have to strain your every nerve and freeze. Don't hold your arms in a single position.
Hagen tried to relax but his punches instantly became less powerful.
Look what you're doing now, Ochoa continued. You keep your elbows far apart, holding your fists close to your face. I bet they're clenched as hard as can be. This exhausts you quickly. If you carry on like that, you'll be completely pooped by Round 2. And the only reason will be that you failed to give yourself enough rest.
Hagen kept punching the pads, relaxing and flexing his arms alternatively. Ochoa said they should be able to breathe. What could breathe possibly mean? Ochoa didn't give any explanations. He would just criticize, and, on a few occasions, he managed to utter a few praises.
Once the old man got tired, he took off the pads and pointed towards a punch bag.Get on with it. Remember: what you have to learn isn't to knock your opponent out at the first opportunity but prepare for your opponent to hold out longer than you. If you get exhausted before you throw your best punch, you'll lose.
So Hagen kept on punching. He would relax his muscles and try to let them breathe without realizing what it meant. Eventually, however, he noticed that he could throw a strong punch with his arms completely relaxed. It would happen rarely at first, but then he started to get the hang of it.
More anger! And more anger still! the old man repeated over and over again. How many rounds do you think a match takes? Three? That's bullshit! They only seem like three. You need two hundred or five hundred more to get to those three. And as much afterwards. Boxingjust like any other martial arthas no tolerance for weakness! The more aggressive and the stronger you are, the more likely you are to become a champion!
Hagen lost all track of time. He never noticed the gym emptying and the street lamp outside turn on. He fell onto the punch bag, breathing heavily and holding on to it to keep himself from falling.

Congratulations! You’ve received a new skill level!
Skill name: Punch
Current level: 17

Congratulations! You’ve received +1 to Strength!
Current Strength: 7

Mike smiled wearily. He was nearly collapsing, without being able to do so much as raise his arm, but it turned out the interface could be controlled by mental commands as well. Mike opened the tab with his only combat ability:

Punch: Level 17
Damage: 11,900
+50% to the probability of ignoring any block.
You have to use the ability more often to level it up.

He’d just become stronger. But a strong punch wasn't everythingafter all, his opponent wouldn't stay put, and landing a punch would become quite a challenge. Apart from that, his opponent would try hard to punch him, so it was just as important to be able to keep going until presented with a chance to land a critical blow. He'd have to think about upping his Stamina and Accuracy pretty soon.
Ochoa approached him. “Hey, lad, that'll do for today. The mop and pail are in the utility room; you know where that is. Get on with the cleaning.
Then the old man gave him an approving pat on the shoulder.

* * *

HAGEN TOOK a shower, changed, and headed toward the utility room where he steered the janitor's trolley with mops and detergents out into the gym hall. By then, he was already fond of these quiet hours when there was no one in the gymall that remained was the pungent smell of sweat and deodorant. The hall seemed to be growing still; only a few punch bags would keep swinging for whatever reason.
Old Ochoa was always on his way home. He trusted Hagen enough to have given him another key and the alarm codes.
It seemed like the perfect time for him to be on his own for a while. Mike took a cloth and got lost in his own thoughts, wiping the equipment automatically.
Hey, bro! somebody's voice brought him back to his senses. What did you say your name was?
Hagen was approached by one of the guys he'd met in the locker room, but he couldn't remember his name. He’d had too many people introduce themselves to him at the same time, so their names didn't stay in his mind. He hadn’t met new people all that often in the past, that’s for sure, so he’d never gotten the chance to develop a good memory for new names.
The guy looked like a stereotypical Latino wearing wide shorts, a red bandanna on a shaved head, a checkered shirt, and the inevitable tear tattoo under one of his eyes. Thus, either a minor member of a cholo gang or someone fronting. Hagen would always keep away from such types, even though there were lots of them in the neighborhood where he’d grown up. Mom had told him they were nothing but trouble. Baby Mikey wasn't even supposed to approach them, let alone engage in any communication. But they would invariably approach him, instantly seeing just which school kid could be relieved of a dollar or twoit must have been written all over his face. By the time he entered high school, he realized there were indeed a few truly cruel and psychotic characters among themthey wouldn't just beat you up; a lot of them carried knives. Some of them would carry guns tucked underneath their belts, covered by checkered shirts just like the one this guy was wearing...
Hagen instinctively got tense, his head shrinking into his shoulders.
Bro, that was a great fight! the guy spoke animatedly and even imitated the punch he threw the day before. I didn't see it myself, but some brothers of mine sent me a video. So, what was your name?
Mike. Mike Hagen.
I'm Gonzalo Herrera, the guy offered him his hand. You're really something, bro! Who could have thought Juan could be knocked out by a single punch? Haha!
Uh... Thanks...”
Hey, bro. How about making a quick buck?
The reply must have been so unexpected that the cholo froze for a moment like a Windows OS during an update. But Hagen could still hear his Mom's words in his mindshe used to watch FOX series and must have known everything about street gangs. She'd always say, Mikey, don't you ever accept any offers from thugs. They'll tell you about an opportunity to make a quick buck. If you agree and start selling meth, the DEA will come to get you sooner or later.
The reason why she’d suggested that a cholo stranger might ever offer him to sell meth wasn’t quite clear, but Hagen would still hate to disappoint his Mom. Even though she was no longer among the living.
Uh-h-h, bro?
Hagen dipped his mop into the pail, squeezed out the extra water, and drew it over the floor.I won't deal drugs.
The cholo froze for another moment, pondering over his response, then laughed out loud, slapping himself on the knees and unable to stop for quite a while.
In the meantime, Hagen nonchalantly mopped the floor. He'd managed to make the Latino laugh, after all. That was already a good sign.
Once Gonzalo was through with laughing, he said,What drugs, bro? I'm clean. I'm talking about fighting, hermano. Real fighting in a real ring. Are you interested? Eh? And anyway, man, what's up with all that stereotyping? Don't judge people by their appearance. It took one look at me for you to form an opinion, didn't it? A Mexican is automatically suspect? That's where you’re wrong, brother! I am a boxer! I don't take any drugs! I don't deal, either.”
Hagen stood silent for a moment.
The other guy took it as a sign of doubt.Hey, listen up! he waited for Hagen to put his mop aside. There's a closed club for MMA competitions in the Buckhead Island area. Anyone can participate but professionals — and they wouldn't want to be slumming with the likes of us, anyway. So everyone who fights there is an ordinary Joe just like you and me. Most of the folks are poor and come from the streets, but no fat cat would want to participatethey don't pay all that well down there. Juan used to fight, too. Until you knocked his lights out. Haha!
Without answering, Mike started to draw the already dry mop across the floor. He just hung his head and refused to meet the other guy's eye, wishing fervently for Gonzalo to leave. Mom's fear of TV series gangsters had left a deep mark on him.
Don't you worry, bro. The fights are real, but they're mostly an entertainment for the club's patrons. So you'll get paid even if you lose. If the public likes you, the club owners will offer you a contract. Then you can fight on a regular basis. A brother of mine is one of their top stars right now! He even gets his share from the bets. He's just bought some damn hot wheels. Do you believe me?
Mike nodded. It wasn't like he was in any doubt. To hell with this guy and with semi-legal fights in general. Fighting in a ring for hundreds of people to see? Always risking to take a blow, which would be painful and humiliating? No, thanks. He'd love to, but later. He just wasn't ready yet.
Hagen would always imagine himself winning a real match, but those were fantasies. Even Ochoa had told him that his victory over Juan had been a lucky accident. No way! He'd have to listen to Ochoa and train first.
So, what do you say, bro?
I'm sorry, but I'm not ready to fight, Hagen admitted.
Are you joking? Juan was a born fighter, and you just knocked him out like that.
It was just a freak victory...”
“A freak victory my ass! Look here, Mike: remember the address. Buckhead Island, Twelfth Street. The Dark Devil club sign is real huge, there's no chance you'll miss it. Once you're it, tell me I sent you. Gonzalo. Got it?
Mike nodded. The Mexican proffered his hand. Mike offered him his, and Gonzalo gave him a special handshake like one of the gangsters in the series his Mom used to like so much. Then he pressed his fist to his cheek, saying,
I sure hope to meet you in a fight someday, bro.
Hagen crossed himself mentally. God forbid!
He watched Gonzalo leave and gave a sigh of relief when the door closed. That Gonzalo Herrera wasn't that scary, after all. No gun, no knife... Nor did he offer him any drugs. Could his Mom have overestimated the danger?

Chapter 5. A Clean Victory


This is America, where a lying, cheating degenerate like myself can prosper.
Red Dead Redemption

Hagen was so eager to see Lexie he came to DigiMart earlier than usual. His colleague Wei Ming was the only other person present at the store. He was rearranging boxes with toasters on the shelves, attempting to make the display look more attractive.
The system interface scrolled the following information above the seller:

Wei Ming "The Cat" Xuan. Age: 29
Level: 22
HP: 25000
Battles/victories: 346/234
Weight: 170 pounds
Height: 5’ 4”

Hell's bells! Even Wei Ming was a fighter, let alone his amazing victory record. And Level 22, too!
Mike kept perusing his colleague's profile with amazement.
"Hi there, Mike," Wei Ming said without as much as bothering to turn around.
Wei Ming's hearing was quite extraordinary. He would sometimes freeze right in the middle of the shop, cupping his ear, and then grab a baseball bat and head toward the basement. His movements were silent and swift. Then he would return, wiping his bat with tissues.
"Got two of them today at once."
He meant rats.
Wei Ming would kill a few rodents infesting the warehouse with electronic devices on a daily basis. It's not that there was anything for them to feed on there. Yet they would nibble at the boxes and make the goods look unsellable as a result, destroying the packaging. Neither traps, nor rat poison would affect them. Thus, things got rather personal between the rats and Wei Ming. Mr. Howell, the owner of the shop, even made Wei Ming employee of the month in appreciation of his efforts.
Hagen wondered if destroying vermin counted as points in Wei Ming's battles and victories. If it had—why, it might be a cheat code.
He heard the sound of a crunch. It was Wei Ming snacking on a cucumber—a habit of his Mike had always found odd.
"Do you eat them all the time?"
"You cannot underestimate how good all that fiber is for you," Wei Ming said, pointing upwards with the remnants of the vegetable. "It keeps you regular."
That sounded bizarre to Mike. He grunted in response and went into his cubicle to put on his DigiMart shirt and get to work. His task that day was to fix a broken screen on a laptop. Hagen knew where he could find all the information he'd needed—a web forum where hardware repairmen would hang out.
He'd found the model in question and started reading the posts. Then he clicked on a YouTube link to see a video where another repairman explained how to dismantle and fix the same kind of laptop with the same kind of problem. He didn't even have to engage his brain—it would be easy enough to follow the instructions in the video.
The time kept passing by swiftly, but at some point Hagen noticed Wei Ming go tense and stiff. Having located the source of the sound, Wei Ming turned around, heading for the basement door—like a real cat trying to locate its prey. On his way, he grabbed the bat waiting for its owner ever-faithfully in the corner.
Having found out the kind of screen Hagen needed to replace the broken one with, he sat there waiting for Wei Ming to return. But time was at a premium. Mike had spent the previous day working on that damned Xbox. The customer with the laptop was supposed to arrive before noon.
He looked at the glass door at the entrance. No other colleagues were present yet. The security guide whose name Hagen didn't remember had gone to the nearby snack joint, as was his habit. The guy must have felt empowered by the very feeling that all the junkies would run away at the very presence of a cop. The old man needed some sort of confirmation of his own worth, after all.
Hagen came out from his cubicle and headed toward the basement. Once he descended the stairs, he saw Wei Ming in the middle of the room, holding a bat. There were two dead rats nearby. The tail of one of them was twitching.
Wei Ming took another swing. There was a thud and squeak. Hagen felt a gag reflex once his colleague crossed a couple of feet in a single leap and hit the floor with the bat again. Another rat squashed.
"Hey, that's a record," Wei Ming said, looking somewhat amazed. "Three in a single morning. The vermin have really been at it."
"Well, as long as Mr. Howell has you, you're saving him a lot—he'd have to pay the exterminator service otherwise."
Hagen approached the shelf with the screens and started to look for the right model.
"Hold on. Who's watching the main space? Wei Ming asked.
"Well, our cop is somewhere hereabouts . . ."
"Mr. Riggs goes to the snack shop every morning!"
Hagen looked at Wei Ming gormlessly. The latter froze, cupping his ear. Then he gave a start.
"Someone's rummaging through the store stuff! Come and have look!"
Both of them dashed upstairs and entered the main space.
It was just as they’d feared. The junkies scared away by the ex-cop must have been hanging around the shop. There were three guys that must have noticed the shop  empty inside. One was trying to break the till open, while the other two were stuffing their backpacks with cellphones torn straight off the display stand chargers.
"Ya-a-a-a-a-rgh!" Wei Ming shouted as he grabbed his bat as though it were a sword and rushed toward the nearest junkie.
The blow came just in time. The would-be robber fell to the floor,  cellphones scattering all over.
Mike rushed toward the one at the till.

Law and Order!
You feel irate once you encounter law-breakers.
+3 to all basic stats.
+50% to Vigor.
The effect of the buff lasts until justice is restored.

Mike bent over the counter and gave the thief a thoroughly satisfying uppercut. It was a slight cuff at best—his position had been rather awkward—but it sufficed to knock the junkie out completely.

You have dealt the following amount of damage: 5950 points (Punch).

Congratulations! You’ve defeated your opponent in a fair fight!
XP points received: 1.
XP points received on the current level (3): 2/3.

Hagen was happy to learn there were other people out there even weaker than him. Addicts or not—well, he cared little. He felt an adrenaline rush, the buff getting him going as he turned around to get the last one. He took a step toward the junkie when the latter pulled a piece out of his hoodie pocket, aiming it at Mike.
"Freeze, motherfucker! You don't freeze, I’ma gonna ice you, geddit? Ima fucking kill ya, motherfucker, geddit? Ima plug ya full of slugs!"
Hagen had never faced the barrel of a gun before. It took him a few instances to realize that this nondescript object in the sore-covered hand of the robber could take his life in a fraction of a second. Just like that. A fraction. A shot is fired. The body drops to the ground. There's nothing to follow but a goodbye message from the interface, then death. With no option to respawn.
"I’ma gonna pull the trigger on ya, motherfucker!" the junkie kept screaming haltingly. "Open the fucking till, motherfucker. The till. Ima ice you, bitch!"
Hagen felt a chill run down his spine. His knees felt like jelly; all the heroism and the outrage disappeared instantly. His only wish was to fall to his knees, crying and begging not to kill him.
He opened the till, but there was hardly any money in it—just a few dollars in small bills and a few dimes—typical for a morning.
The junkie pointed his piece at Wei Ming, who kept holding his bat as a two-handed sword.
"Drop your bat, you gook, or I'll put a slug in you!"
Wei Ming threw his bat away. The robber pointed the gun at Hagen again, his chin covered in spit as he kept yelling, "Hand over the money! What the fuck are you waiting for? You'll be dead meat, I swear!"
Hagen produced the bills and the coins, handing them over to the robber. "There you go, sir," he kept saying by sheer force of habit.
"Are you trying to fuck with me, bitch? Gonna put a slug in you, a slug, you hear me?"
Hagen felt a chill right in his marrow. He barely managed to see Wei Ming move. The Chinese leaped high into the air and kicked the junkie right into the temple. It happened in less than a blink of an eye. The robber's head twitched as the hood fell from his head, revealing a face covered in the same kind of sores as his hands and arms. Just a whooshing sound, and the druggie was down.
Wei Ming landed softly, muttering something in Chinese and spitting on the corpse of his unconscious enemy.
"Wh-what?" Hagen asked with a blank face.
"A flawless victory!" Wei Ming translated. "Fatality!"
Hagen couldn't stop the tremor in his arms and feet. He was still feeling like someone was trying to aim a gun at him. All he could do was stand frozen behind the till, unable to move a finger.
Wei Ming grabbed one of the junkies by the arms with a no-nonsense attitude. "I need help here."
"What would you like to do?"
"We should drag these creeps away before Riggs comes back."
Mike finally managed to recollect the name of the security guard. It was Mr. Riggs, indeed. He grabbed the junkie by his legs, finally moving away from the till. "Shouldn't we tell him? We should call the cops . . ."
"Look, it's our fault, after all. The main part of the compound was left unattended. Riggs will likely get reprimanded for abandoning his post, too."
One of the addicts came to his senses, pleading not to be  handed  over to the cops, the bubbles of blood on his face reminding Mike of the recent incident with Goretsky.
Wei Ming shook his fist at the junkie. "Then grab your friends by the arms and drag them outta here."
The man eagerly started to pull his partner-in-crime's body toward the glass doors of the main entrance.
"Hey," Wei Ming shouted. "Use the exit out  the back, dipshit."
"Sorry, sir!" the junkie proceeded to pull the body in the opposite direction.
While he was huffing and puffing, Wei Ming and Hagen collected the telephones and set the displays right. Wei Ming kept the gun. Hagen felt nauseous at the very sight of the weapon, wishing never to have nothing to do with this death-delivering machine.
The two friends proceeded to take to their mops and wipe the blood off the floor.
The front door opened. Riggs walked in, twisting his silvery mustachio. "Those goddammed drug-peddlers! The cops on patrol must be blind or something. I figured out which one of that crowd was a dealer in a minute. Cops were nothing like this in my days, I can tell you , boys. Back in my day, they were afraid to push so much as a tenth of bud. And watch them now! Selling heroin by the hundredweight! Ah, no. The cops ain't like they used to be anymore. The youngsters have no respect for their elders. Those pipsqueaks think they know it all. No respect for the experience of their elders and betters at all!"
Riggs assumed his usual post at the entrance, shaking his head and unfolding a newspaper. Wei Ming and Hagen exchanged well-understood glances: the old man would have had a stroke had he found out about what had happened during his short absence.
Hagen got back to repairing the laptop. Wei Ming assumed his post, as well—in his case, walking through the aisles, waiting for customers. The rest of the employees eventually appeared. Some would use the front gate; others, the back door. Lexie, however, would always come in through the front gate. Hagen kept getting distracted from his job, waiting for her to come near.
His heart skipped a beat when the girl turned up at the shop, her reflections in the glass doors preceding her. Hagen squared his shoulders, smiled, and waved a hand.
"Hey there, Lexie!"
Even Riggs raised his eyes above the newspaper, looking at Hagen and baffled by the fact that the usually quiet repairman had had the sheer temerity to raise his voice.
"Hey, all," Lexie's glance slid over Mike casually. It was as polite and bland as those she gave everybody else.
Mike felt his knees turn to jelly. It was just like staring down the barrel of a gun all over again.
On the other hand, why would she behave any different? He hadn’t turned into Prince Charming overnight, after all. Nor had he become taller or more handsome. Or richer, or more successful. None of that. He was still the same short featherweight loser who had once managed to surprise her by knocking out Goretsky; nothing more. No reason for a girl to get all starry-eyed, after all.
An hour later the laptop was done. Hagen gave it to the tech support department managers and started on his new job.
Nothing of any interest transpired until lunchtime. Hagen calculated it the same time as he had before—to get to meet Lexie at the parking lot, right next to the place where he had previously sent Goretsky to the Land of Nod with a well-placed punch.
He gathered up all his bluster and said, "Hey! I've been thinking, you know. How about  dinner?"
Lexie sighed. "Mike. I've already told you. I can have a dinner all by myself. Where's the fun in that? Movies are out of the question as well. I thought you had a secret. As in, a modest computer repairman during the office hours, and a superhero knocking out villains at night."
"Lexie . . ."
"But I get the idea you're just the same repairman after dusk."
That seemed to be it. Lexie would get into her car and drive away any second. Hagen looked around  listlessly, as though summoning a band of ruffians (low-level ones, preferably) to attack the girl so that he could save her again. Was there any other way of impressing her?
Lexie paused for a while, but, with no answer given, proceeded to open her car door.
"But I'd really like to invite you to . . ."
"Not interested, sorry. I have no time for petty stuff."
". . . an illegal MMA fight!" Hagen said, before realizing just what commitment he'd made.
Lexie stopped.
"The real McCoy?"
"Sure is."
"Will you be participating?"
"No . . . Not really sure. I might. At some point."
"That sounds more like something up my street, Mike Björnstad Hagen!"
Her words made Mike feel like a bull stomping the pavement with his hoof. Who could have imagined Lexie even knew his second name?
"See you in the evening, then?" he asked, his heart skipping a beat.
"OK," Lexie replied, getting back into her car.
When Hagen came back to the shop, Riggs eyed him with suspicion again. He gave him a hairy eyeball, then rose and approached the cashier. "This puny freak has been acting weird as of late. Did you notice? He's sad one second, happy the next, and then he locks himself up in the bathroom and spends a long time there. Look at him now, strutting with his shoulders squared and whistling."
The cashier nodded in acquiescence. "There is that, for sure. He's always been weird. However, what's so weird about a person whistling?
"I have noticed him favoring the hot dog joint a lot as of late. Is he using? It can't be the cockroach hot dogs, can it?"
"God, I hope he doesn't rob the shop."
Riggs grinned. "No worries. No scum will get away with anything here on my watch."
Hagen and Wei Ming had not communicated since the morning encounter, but their eyes would meet occasionally. Wei Ming would give a wink, and Hagen would reply with a nod of the head. He was reluctant to wink back, knowing full well it would make him look even more ridiculous.
Hagen approached Wei Ming, having decided to take a break from repairing the laptop.
"I just wanted to tell you I admired the way you knocked out that junkie. Was it Kung Fu?"
"Karate, actually. But Mortal Kombat was where it all began. I've played it since being a child, and then wanted to learn jumping and punching like that in real life. Like Li Kang, you know. That's why I've been training all along."
"I'd love to learn that myself," Hagen said musingly.
"Well, you gave that other junkie quite a punch yourself. I'd never have thought that such, uh . . . a calm person like you had it in you."
Hagen went red as a beetroot. "I ‘ve recently discovered certain resources in myself. I've been training a bit."
Hagen didn't know how to carry on with the conversation, so he turned away, about to leave. Wei Ming stopped him.
"Hey, about this morning. We have totally forgotten about the CCTV cams. It’s all on them, you know."
"So, what do we do now?"
"Nothing. Let's just cross our fingers and hope no one watches what they record. As far as I know, old videos get deleted eventually to free up the space.
"Don't you think we should tell someone, anyway? Lexie, at least?"
"Do you expect to get a reward for having left the shop unattended? It would be hard on Riggs, too. They'd fire him. Us, too. This is hardly a place for MMA, after all."
Hagen wanted to tell Wei Ming that he'd never cared much for Riggs. The former cop had treated him just like everybody else, after all—derision and jibes. Whenever the Moose would humiliate Hagen, Riggs would laugh and applaud what he called "Mr. Goretsky's great sense of humor."
So Hagen replied, "I don't mind him getting fired. What business did he have going to the hot dog joint and preening his feathers? He still believes that he's a real cop doing an investigation."
"What was that about the hot dog shop? What's with all those whispers?" Riggs asked, emerging from behind counters. "Aren't the two of you supposed to be working?"
Wei Ming exited stage left immediately. Hagen also headed toward his cubicle. He was followed by a litany of I'm-watching-you-punk-and-don't-you-think-of-doing-anything-for-I-will-get-you-at-once.
That's what you get for helping people, Hagen thought dejectedly. The old fart isn't even aware of us having saved his ass.
He spent the rest of the evening hunched over the laptop. He would occasionally raise his head, only for his eyes to meet Riggs' menacing stare. The ex-cop had been missing a real investigation so much he'd suspected everyone of criminal thoughts.
It was getting dark outside. Riggs' shift relief arrived—another ex-cop, but a younger one.
Hagen recollected his morning, thinking about what would happen if he got a few victories over animals rather than people under his belt. Wei Ming seemed to be doing well enough with the rats, after all. Would the system still count them? In that case, he could level up real quick. That would be the perfect cheat code. After all, he'd get stat points for every level-up.
Hagen decided to try it. When all of his colleagues left the store, he took Wei Ming's bat and descended the basement stairs, walking alongside the shelves where the goods had been stored and holding his weapon at the ready.
"Come out, you shit vermin. I'll give you a good seeing to."
Hagen was feeling gripped by an unprecedented elation. He finally felt he was capable of being a presence—as it had been the case with the junkie. He would turn from loser to winner. Anyone would laugh at Hagen's delight at victories over junkies or his intent to beat rats to a pulp with a bat, but any victory felt like an achievement to him.
Someone whose only victories had been imaginary would rejoice at the mere fact of having some sort of power, after all.
He heard something make a noise behind the boxes with the washing machines. Hagen froze, trying to see where the vermin would go, in imitation of Wei Ming. He approached the rat slowly and crouched. Then the little gray creature dashed past him, and he gave the bat a good swing and struck. The bat bounced from the floor, hitting him on the forehead.

Damage received: 396 points (bat hit).

He picked up the bat, rubbing the place that hurt. Then he stood quiet again. He'd have to calculate the damage done, after all . . .
Another rat dashed across the empty basement space. Hagen got to it and hit again. This time, the bat met soft flesh. The rat's body had become a bloody pulp. Inertia drove it further for a while, leaving a bloody mark on a box with some electronic device.
Hagen stared as hard as he could, but there was no system message to be seen.
Pity, that. Could have been a great way for cheating. After all, there were lots of games where a character would have to destroy all sorts of rodents. Apparently, those rules did not apply to Hagen's case. Victories over rats, birds, or dogs didn't count, after all. Or should he hit them with his fists?
Hagen laughed as he imagined himself chasing rats all across the basement, trying to knock them out, and then headed upstairs.

It was time to get home and prepare to meet Lexie.

Chapter 6. Let's Fight!


Since you know the rules, best play with Whites — they go first.
American McGee's Alice

Gonzalo—the cholo Hagen had talked to earlier—had been right. One would have to be blind to miss the Dark Devil club sign. The font looked like flames dancing on the roof of a low building. There were cars parked everywhere near the entrance, with a whole bunch of bikes parked nearby. The place nearly screamed "Hey, look! Everything here is absolutely illegal! You could arrest anyone here, and immediately get some evidence they were guilty of something."
The owners must have been in cahoots with the local PD—two patrol cars stood parked on the other side of the street. The cops lazily eyeballed the queue in front of the entrance, watching the raucous gang of bikers. It was obvious that they had been watching out for the club.
"Wow, what a place!" Lexie exclaimed. "I've never been anywhere like this!"
Hagen was watching her as she'd emerged from the car, his jaw dropping to the ground. Lexie wore a short dress, dark red. He couldn't quite get what she’d done about her hair, but it made her even more appealing. Her high heels made a scratching sound as they hit the pavement, which gave Hagen  butterflies in his stomach.
A sudden fear struck him—a paranoid idea he'd gone too far. Lexie didn’t even remotely resemble Sheila with her tattoos and misanthropy, or Jessica, who'd left him for the first guy she could. He felt the most banal associations fill his mind—a girl from an ad, or, at the very least, a weather report anchor... Top league indeed. And at least six inches taller than Hagen to boot. He'd have to think of something different to keep her interested, given the shortage of abusive Goretskys.
"Hey, what's with the thousand-yard stare? Take me inside already," she said in a commanding tone.
"Sure, sure," Hagen mumbled, throwing glances around himself. "Let's go in... uh-h-h..."
He took Lexie to the tail of a long queue. They took their places behind two bodybuilder types in tight shirts.
"Standing in a queue is such a drag," Lexie moaned.
"Give me a second," Mike muttered. He gathered up all his courage and went toward the head of the queue, paying no attention to the hostile looks of others. Lexie decided to jump the queue, too, and joined Mike.
Hagen froze as he got to the security guard. The guy was all muscle, and way over six foot. He also didn't so much as look in Mike's general direction.
"Uh... I'd like to see Gonzalo..."
There was no reaction whatsoever.
"I've been told... It would be here..."
The security guard moved him aside like an empty laundry basket, casually and without saying a word, as he let a girl in a white fur coat in.
However, Hagen faced the big thug again, saying in a louder voice, "Sir, I'm sorry, but... Gonzalo has told me to come here. Gonzalo Herrera."
The guard moved him aside again to let more visitors in, and hissed at Hagen through clenched teeth, "The next time you get near, I'll throw you out on your ass."
Hagen read the system message,

Enrique "Big Guy" Noel. Age: 29
Level: 21

HP: 50,000
Battles/victories: 402/214
Weight: 270 pounds
Height: 6’ 8”

Someone like that would not crumble from a single blow, for sure.
"But Gonzalo has told me..."
The big guy gave Hagen an ugly look. Mike took a step back in embarrassment, almost stepping on Lexie's foot. A right clusterfuck. He'd intended to make a good impression, but this seemed like just the opposite.
All of a sudden, Lexie stepped forward.
"Hey, you, musclehead. Are you deaf or something? Haven't you heard what Mr. Hagen just told you? We were invited by Gonzalo... uh, Herrera. Special invitation. So move that bulk of yours and let us in already!”
The big guy grinned, pointing his finger at Lexie. "You can come in." Then he directed his finger toward Hagen. "As for you, join the line outside."
"Are you deaf or just stupid? Or both, maybe? We are here to see Gonzalo Herrera.”
Hagen saw Gonzalo emerge from behind the guard’s enormous bulk.
"How come a beauty like this knows me and I don't know her? I'm expecting you, of course! Gonzalo Herrera's the name."
"I'm Lexie," the girl shook his hand.
Gonzalo noticed Hagen standing and looking forlorn. "Yo, bro! So nice to see you!" He turned to the guard. "Let them in. These are my guests."
However, Big Guy was only bothered about being courteous with Lexie. Once Hagen approached, the bouncer's frame was blocking the door again. The only indication he'd given that Mike could come in was a dismissive glance. So Hagen had to squeeze between him and the door frame, feeling like a total nobody.
"When my damage reaches 50,000 points, you'll be the first in line," he thought vengefully.


Gonzalo led them through the club, trying to make his voice heard above the music. "The ring is in the basement. What we have upstairs is just the dance hall, a few bar stands, and tables. Fighters get a discount.”
Lexie strode on side by side with Gonzalo, leaving Hagen behind. She would keep turning her head around and pointing her fingers. "Hey, isn't that CJ the rapper? And that Russian model who's his girlfriend right beside him?"
"Spot on," Gonzalo nodded. "There's the mayor's son right next to them, too. The guy at that table writes scripts for some Hollywood studio. And there's some film director from Europe further down the hall. The old guy at the table on the left is a UFC producer. I don't know him personally, and have no idea what he might be doing in a dive like this. However, all these celebrities have now developed a taste for places such as our club. So disregard the setup. We have to maintain the impression the place is illegal and run by the Mob, but we've actually had all the necessary permits and paperwork for ages."
"Why 'we'? Are you one of the founders?"
"You wish. I'm just a regular guy. But I've been fighting for a long time. I just help to organize fights. I organize the fight schedule and think up cool-sounding names for the fighters. That sort of stuff.”
"That must be so exciting!" Lexie exclaimed. "And here’s little me—nothing but a  store manager, common as muck."
Hagen kept looking at strangers morosely, trying to keep the pace  with Lexie. The fact that the girl had appeared to have forgotten him really hurt. She would listen to no one but Gonzalo and laugh at his jokes. Her general behavior didn't even account for Hagen's proximity.
Herrera took them to one of the bar stands, helped Lexie get perched comfortably on a tall stool, placing himself nearby. There weren't enough chairs to go, so Hagen was forced to stand, his chin almost level to the bar.
Gonzalo called the bartender. "What's everybody having?"
"A daiquiri," Lexie said.
Hagen opted for beer.
Gonzalo said he'd just go for water, since he would fight later on.
"I'll be rooting for you," Lexie said.
"What's the use of rooting for anyone, eh? Just bet a few bucks. Although if Mike had been fighting, I'd have placed a bet on him. The way he looks, no one would ever believe he is a serious fighter. Sorry, didn't mean to put you down, bro. You haven't changed your mind, have you?"
Hagen took a sip of his beer and shook his head. "I don't think I'm ready."
"Bro, if I hadn't seen you fight Juan, I'd be thinking you've just gone chicken."
Lexie agreed, surprisingly, "Yeah, if I hadn't seen you knock Goretsky out cold, I'd have suspected cowardice as well. What's wrong with you?"
Hagen shrugged, trying to avoid looking them in the eye. He couldn't confess to them everything was wrong with him, could he? To being an actual coward? To his fear so much as to imagine someone's fist smash his face, breaking his nose, making a bloody pulp of his lips, knocking out his teeth, and so on. He had a very vivid image of his blood upon the ring. He shook his head, hoping for the vision to go away.
Gonzalo glanced at someone over Hagen's head, then nodded and turned toward Lexie. "That's it. You're officially allowed to enter the basement. You've passed the check-up."
"The check-up?" Lexie looked surprised.
"Sure. Do you think anyone can just enter the hall with a fighting ring like that? The security guards at the door are just regular bouncers for the club folk. Whoever wishes to watch a fight has to go through an extra check. After all, the fights are not 100% legal. I mean, betting on the fighters is illegal. That's what the state law says. But as long as the mayor's junior gets his share, cops are not really a problem.
Hagen sat there, feeling gloomy. He'd never visited a club like this before. In fact, he'd never visited any clubs at all. It was nothing even remotely resembling Chuck's Bar where he could order a pint of cheap beer, sit on a chair in the corner and keep drinking it, watching the girls. Over here, all the visitors were someone—and the only regular folks were either fighters or pretty girls. Mingling with film directors, politicians' children, and fat cats of every sort.
Mike felt like an unentitled non-entity who'd just sneaked into the club. Any time now, Big Guy would appear, drag him by the scruff of his neck and throw him out on his ass.
Lexie and Gonzalo got off their bar stools and headed toward the entrance to the basement covered by a curtain wall. Hagen was a mere shadow accompanying them. He took a big gulp and followed them listlessly, leaving a bunch of bills on the bar to pay for his beer and Lexie's cocktail.


The doorway to the basement was guarded by a guy who could have been the twin of the one guarding the entrance: a pile of muscle well over six foot.
The place wasn't all that large. Half of it had been occupied by a ring—just like the one in Ochoa's gym, the standard boxing variety. The ring was surrounded by a low enclosure and about a dozen seats, placed somewhat higher. They screamed "VIP" without any specific notices required. The rest of the audience just stood around as though they were in a zoo. A man in a dinner jacket with a bow tie and a microphone was roaming the ring.
Gonzalo made his way through the audience, taking Lexie right to the enclosure.
Hagen found himself following them. As he noticed the brown spots on the fabric covering the enclosure, he tried to look away.
He had already seen Gonzalo's arm around Lexie's waist and him whispering something into her ear. Hagen felt the blood rush to his face. Did he bring the girl into a club just to have someone else hug her? He tried to wedge himself between the two. Lexie shouted in response, while Gonzalo asked him,
"Hey, bro, sorry. So, are you an item, after all? I'd never have thought."
Lexie hastened to interject, "We are definitely not an item! We just work together."
Hagen had barely managed to get a word in sideways before Gonzalo pushed him aside and started whispering in Lexie's ear again. She started to laugh, bending her head back. Her eyes were all aglow.
Hagen had already noticed that system messages would appear automatically over people who'd caused him grief or could potentially become opponents. Just like this time — a system message Hagen hadn't called for popped up:

Gonzalo "Killa" Herrera. Age: 26
Level: 6

HP: 37,000
Battles/victories: 25/20
Weight: 172 pounds
Height: 6‘ 1“

The system seemed to imply that his opponent had been right there in front of him, and that Mike should prepare himself for a fight. But Hagen felt rather reluctant to fight Gonzalo.
The crowd roared, just to make him shudder again. The audience started to gather around the ring, pushing Hagen farther and farther away from Lexie and Gonzalo. Male and female bodies kept on crowding him, but he'd had no chance of returning to his former place. Some old guy with a saintly schoolteacher's look had already been standing there, shouting something and shaking his fist.
Two fighters entered the ring. Their names had been announced, but Hagen didn't remember either. The fighters went to their corners, and the announcer nearly ripped the mic, saying, "Let's fight!" out loud.
There was a gong there, too, adding to the noise. The fighters had just touched gloves in the center of the ring. Both of them assumed battle stances. Hagen had involuntarily become curious as a die-hard fan of UFC matches on the TV. And it was live, and happening right in front of him.
He somehow managed to squeeze himself in between the old man and another member of the audience. Both were taller than him; Hagen felt like he only reached up to their elbows.
The fighters in the ring didn't rush to fight—rather, they circled around each other, throwing an odd occasional punch to check the other's defense. The announcer had been fully aware that the fight wouldn’t be much of a show, and kept shouting into the microphone for extra hype. Even Hagen got bored. He glanced toward Gonzalo and Lexie, and his vision got blurry. They were hugging in a very explicit way already. Lexie had been watching the fighters jumping all across the ring, and Gonzalo's hand reached almost all the way under her dress.
Could Goretsky have been right all along? Could Lexie have been one of those women favoring bad guys? In that case, he'd never be a match for Gonzalo. Hagen may have been better at repairing broken gaming consoles, but that wasn't a skill popular with girls.
The action in the ring started to get more interesting at last. The fighter in the blue trunks punched his opponent a few times, cornering him. The other one had gone into complete defense, holding his gloves up right in front of him. The crowd roared ecstatically, drowning out the announcer's words.
Hagen looked at Lexie again. A waiter approached Gonzalo and handed the girl a cocktail, telling him something Mike couldn't hear. Gonzalo nodded to Lexie and followed the waiter. Hagen started to elbow his wave through the crowd at once, disregarding the displeased audience. It didn't take him all that long to join the girl.
"Hey, Mikey! And here I am thinking you'd left the joint."
"I haven't, Lexie. I've been standing right here watching everything."
"Everything? Just what are you on about?" Lexie frowned in a puzzled way. Then her face lit up. "Thanks, Mikey! I really dig this place, and I'm grateful to you for bringing me here. Gonzalo has promised to reserve one of those VIP seats for me the next time."
"The next time..." Hagen echoed her morosely. "But weren't we—the two of us... Lexie, I'd like to talk to you."
The girl was no longer listening. She raised her fist and gave a loud yell. Hagen looked toward the ring. The guy in the blue shorts lay on the floor motionless. There was blood running all the way from his nose onto the floor, all covered in filth. The fighter who had been standing in the corner in a defensive stance just recently was jumping, raising his fists in the air, and shouting triumphantly.
The announcer said, "The first fight ends with the first knockout! Something to surprise y'all this evening! And there are more surprises in stock—we guarantee it!"
The announcer left the ring for a break. His voice was replaced by CJ's new hit blaring from the speakers.
Hagen looked at Lexie for what he had thought to be the last time that night and was just about to make his way out of the club. He was already coming to terms with the decision to quit his job at the shop, never to see her again. Then he stopped as he saw Gonzalo near the exit. The cholo was already dressed as a boxer and throwing punches into the air in preparation for the fight, with the announcer standing nearby.
The familiar red mist clouded Hagen's vision to make him familiar with a new debuff.

Jealousy Outburst (1 hour)
You are experiencing jealousy toward your object of desire!
Warning! High possibility of spontaneous enragement!
Warning! Your aggro range has just been extended!
–75% to Self-Control
–1 to Agility
+4 to Strength
+ 2 to Stamina

He shook his head in self-loathing. Why did he have to run away again? Why all the fear? Ochoa had told him a boxer cannot afford to be weak, after all. So how come the constant displays of weakness? Wasn't he given a mysterious augmented reality interface? He might have been the only one on the planet to have one, for chrissakes. Wouldn't that make him a superhero of some sort?
Hagen clenched his fists, approaching Gonzalo in a confident strut.
His mate gave him a friendly smile. "Yo, Mikey, bro. Sorry about the thing with the girl. Still, she'd been the one to start it. No grudges, I hope?"
"None at all."
"Yo, wassup, bro?"
"I want to fight in the ring."
"Sure, bro. A while later. I'll add you to the list. The first fight turned out to be absolute shit. That's the reason they'd asked me to do it earlier."
"Bro... that wasn't what I'd meant. I intend to fight you."
"But, hey, bro..."
The announcer wedged himself between them. "Just what we need! The audience loves surprises. But just one thing, Killa: please don't knock this weakling out at once. Chase him around the ring for a while. Give them time to enjoy the show."
Gonzalo turned toward the announcer. "This weakling managed to knock Juan Manuel out cold."
The announcer scrutinized Hagen with disbelief. "Uh... I just don't buy it, sorry. But it’s even more grist to the mill this way. So, your name was...? Mike, eh? Get your finger out, Mikey. You gotta run to the locker room. Someone will help you with finding the right gear and fitting your gloves. How do I announce you?"
Hagen stood silent for a second. The nickname given to him by the system was hardly flattering. Then he uttered it indecisively,
"Mike... 'Crybaby' Hagen."

Release - January 9, 2019

No comments :

Post a Comment