Monday, January 14, 2019

Adam Online: Absolute Zero by Max Lagno



Adam Online: Absolute Zero 
by Max Lagno



Release March 18, 2019


Chapter 1. Death and Oblivion



A red message appeared on the projection screen:

Radiological hazard. K-coefficient — 20%%%%%
Assessing radiological environment...

At that the system froze, displaying a spinning wheel. Either the readings were too complex, or the on-board computer had failed.
My traveling companion put aside the tablet on which he had been watching idiotic stand-up shows for the flight. For a whole hour and a half, I'd been forced to listen to loud cackling and jokes in Tatar, Russian and Chinese. They were just as bad in every language. It even began to annoy me that the cabin's soundproofing shielded us from the sound of the rotors. Their rumbling would have been better than those attempts at humor.



My traveling companion stood up and opened a cupboard. “Size?”
I stood up too and grabbed a radiation suit for myself.
He smirked. “You soldiers give yourselves away with details like that.”
“I don't know what you mean.”
“The fact that you didn't trust me with the choice.”
I unfastened the suit. Within twenty seconds, exceeding the standard, I put on the suit and checked it was functioning.
“My dad taught me not to trust strangers. Sorry, but this is the first time I've seen you,” I sat back down, keeping the controls in view.
My traveling companion followed my gaze. “And you're always keeping an eye on the controls.”
“Maybe I’ve never seen a combat helicopter piloting itself.”
“You’ve seen it all.” He zipped up his costume (almost achieving the standard time). “And you know full well that if we’re shot down now, you’d be better off taking the controls.”
“Isn’t the chopper equipped with reactive defenses?”
“Of course, the defenses will shoot down a missile in flight, but that’s why they have gamma emitters built in. The EM pulse after the missile explodes will knock the computer out of action. It won’t be able to perform an emergency landing. That’s why you’re sitting there ready to jump into the pilot’s seat. Anyone who’s served knows that.”
By the last sentence, I listened through the earphones of my radiation suit. I wanted to answer that the on-board computer would crash even without a pulse, but I kept silent. The conversation was pointless enough as it was. We were swapping obvious facts, feeling each other out to find out who was hiding more about themselves.
He picked up the tablet and threw the map onto the projector panel. “Beginning descent.”
The symbol of our Mi-200 SU moved through an area crosshatched in yellow and black. Formally, the land belonged to Chinese Kazakhstan, an autonomous republic incorporated within China. In practice, it belonged to nobody. It had been several decades since the last nuclear bombing. The place would be highly radioactive for a couple of centuries to come.
There was no better place to set up an unrecorded access point to Adam Online. Even if they followed the signal, it would lead them to the edge of a deserted zone. Then no electronics would determine the precise location of the pod — too much interference.
The map disappeared from the projector panel and the lower camera came up. It showed the remains of a ruined town, with broken streets like cut veins. The sun had not yet risen, so the camera was in night mode, making the ruins seem even more lifeless.
“Don’t tell me the pod is on the surface.”
“Relax, brother,” answered my companion. “It’s so deep under the ground, you can hear Satan knocking from hell.”

#

The beginnings of dawn barely tinted the lifeless sky. The city ruins drowned in blue. I stood on the ground next to the helicopter’s open cargo hatch.
“Look over there, under the bricks,” said my companion from the depths of the cabin.
People like him were called “landlords”. They owned “landings”, buildings containing unregistered log-in systems for Adam Online. And people like me, who wanted to steal their way into the virtual world, were called “squatters”. Or, considering the quantum nature of the extranet — QUANTers.
Beneath the pile of bricks was the end of a hose with a fluid transfer mechanism. The hose pulled easily from a hole in the ground. The landlord brought a second, similar hose out of the cabin. We connected the ends to the two tanks of dissociative electrolytes occupying half the helicopter’s cargo compartment. On the sides of the tanks, apart from inscriptions in Tatar, Chinese and English, were stickers bearing the crest of the Kazan People’s Republic.
The contents of the tanks began to pump into underground vats.
“Grab your things and follow me,” the landlord said.
I took my backpack from the helicopter cabin and got my pistol from the side pocket.
“Who are you planning to shoot out here?” my escort said over the radio. “Everything’s under control.”
Hesitating a little, I put the pistol back. I placed my backpack in a protective bag. The backpack was shielded against radiation too, but I didn’t want to risk it. If my injection syringes took a dose of radiation, I’d never return from the teharration.
I threw the backpack onto my shoulders and hurried to the ruined store building. The helicopter remained on the town square, surrounded by an overgrowth of yellow thorns: its cargo doors wide open, the hoses stretching out like lines for an intensive care patient. No wonder it was such a mess inside.
The landlord and I climbed through broken windows. The store was completely overgrown inside with thorns and twisted trees reminiscent of saxaul. The scraps of an ancient coca cola advert hung limp. A cloud of insects rose into the air. There were no animals in the radioactive zone, but there were bugs, hornets and butterflies aplenty, pollinating who knows what and how.
Walking through a swarm of gnats as if through mist, we reached the wall. The landlord cleared away some creeping plants and opened a disintegrating door, revealing a stone wall. He grabbed a protruding stone and pulled at the wall. It opened like an ordinary door. Behind it — a dark corridor with steps leading down.
“Took me and my partners three months to build this landing,” the landlord said, walking down the stairs. “Then I lived here alone for a month with the building droids. Cobbled together the infrastructure for connecting to the extranet.
A bulb came on in the corridor, illuminating the cage of a lift. The landlord tapped the code to unlock the doors into a tablet.
I looked back. The insects had settled back down onto the branches. Pink clouds hung in the triangle of the broken storefront as if in a picture frame. My last glimpse of the real world for a long time. Even if it was a sad world with high background radiation, like these abandoned lands of Chinese Kazakhstan.
                                                                                                                           
#

We took off our suits and left them in the airlock after radiation scrubbing. The landlord walked into the dark emptiness and pulled a switch with a loud crash.
The lights came on slowly. Those that came on at all. Pumps and air vents kicked into action along with them. The air in the underground room filled with dust.
“See, brother, the air is filtered and purified...” He barely held back the urge to sneeze. “Ox... oxygen is made from water, which we get from a well. The hydrogen left over from producing oxygen goes to the power system. Like on a lunar station, brother.”
“What’s up with the electricity?” I pointed at the blinking lights. “My pod going to work like that?”
“Please. The computer and pod have a separate generator, and the battery can last two months in emergency mode.”
Along one wall stood two gyroscopic cameras: orbs of yellowed plastic three meters in diameter. The brand looked to be LG. Hmm. Who needed gyrorbs these days, apart from the underage and the crippled? And besides that, why keep them in a landing? Medical cupboards and valves for dissociative electrolytes lined the other walls. Building droids gathered dust in the corners.
There was a separate room at the room’s center. The landing itself. It stood out with its bleach-white cleanliness. Thick air ducts stretched up to the ceiling. I looked through the square window and examined the teharration pod covered in polyethylene. An old droid started crawling into the room. A message appeared on its screen: “Sterilization — 34%”.
“What do you think?”
“Pod looks great.”
The landlord approached the door of the landing. At its center was a projection screen. He waved his hand, opening the computer interface. I approached and called up the system information.

— NELLY —
Quantum computation platform.

20445 MgQ-bits (Last date checked: never)

Model Name: QCP.
Model Identifier: QCP 6.2
System Release: 100.07
(Server upgrade unavailable. Please check firewall settings. Reconnecting 3… 2… 1…)
 Hardware UUID: 8D9DBA65-21FA-5629-8A59-46ECF5708B77

“Six-two?” I exclaimed. “Seriously? This computer is ten years old.”
The landlord took offense as usual:
“Look here, brother. How old are you in standard years?”
“Thirty six.”
“Why were you sent for this, instead of a twenty-year old kid? Right, because you’re experienced. A major? A captain? Maybe even a general, huh? You guys in Moscow Rus reach general pretty quick.
“What are you driving at?”
“New doesn’t always mean better. And ‘reliable’ doesn’t mean ‘new’. Alice here has sent so many people to the other side that you have nothing to fear, she’s the most experienced around. She’s amassed so many human consciousnesses that...”
“Computers don’t keep binary arrays of human consciousness.”
“Eh, nah, brother, even the scientists that invented teharration technology can’t explain all that confusing quantum stuff.”
“They can, you just don’t understand it. No offense. Never mind, relax, six-two it is.”
I decided not to annoy the landlord. For the next few months, my body would be floating in a pod of dissociative fluid. If the landlord decides to throw it in the garbage, my consciousness would have nowhere to come back to.
The droid signaled the end of the sterilization process and exited the pod room. The landlord pointed out a cabin in the corner:
“It’s time, brother. There’s a shower and a changing room in there. I’ll prep the injection.”
I nodded toward the backpack:
“I have my own. In the pocket next to the pistol.
“See, that’s just what I’m talking about, brother... You won’t even trust me with the injections. Why do you guys — CIA, NSA, FSB, or whoever — even need a landlord’s services? Even such an expensive one as me.”
I shrugged, entered the cabin and started to get undressed. The landlord droned on behind the door, rummaging through my backpack:
“Why, I ask? When the details of the hundred-year story of the Mentors broke, you all bolted into the extranet to find them. That’s no secret. They talk about it in all the Rims. The one who finds the Mentors may be able to achieve digital immortality. So you hide from each other. Try to infiltrate the extranet under the guise of petty criminals. But you can’t fool me. I’m no tech support droid, heh.”
I turned the valves. The pipes coughed, spluttered out some dust onto me.
“Oh, that’s right, I forgot. There’s a pump on the wall there, pump the water yourself. Couldn’t make a normal water pipe. Like I said, was building on my own.”

#

Teharration, the copying of human consciousness, was a complex operation. The human body, immersed in a pod of dissociative electrolytes, was put into stasis. All life functions were frozen. The dissociative molecules melded into every cell of the body, creating its digital copy, which was then scanned by the QCP, the quantum computing platform. A virtual model of the individual, sometimes called a ‘binary array’ (although there was no binary code involved) was processed and forwarded to the extranet. Usually to Adam Online, the largest virtual world.
Adam Online was better than reality in all respects. The air, the food, the entertainment. The work paid better and was more fun. After all, a quest to seek out some item was more alluring than the manufacturing of real items at a real conveyor belt in a real factory.
According to the statistics, over seventy percent of the planet’s population was in stasis at any given time. They floated in pods or in their own homes, or in a district MTC department — a Municipal Teharration Cluster, a pathway to Adam Online for the poor. A building full of tightly packed torpedoes, a naked and bald human being in each.
People lived in a virtual reality, earning virtual millions, or roaming the endless zones of Adam Online, imitating trade, and earning billions through it. They traded user-made skins, upgrades, weaponry, and gear.
The place used fake money in a fake economy, creating real added value that could be used to produce an even greater number of artificial objects: new skins, new weapon modifications, new structures. The gigantic flywheel of the digital economy encompassed almost the entire population of the planet.
To return to reality, the QCP converted the consciousness again and rewrote it into the body via the dissociative electrolytes. The old consciousness was overwritten with the new version, the one that had lived in Adam Online.
Ordinary dissociative fluid preserved its conserving properties for between five and eight thousand hours, depending on its quality. If one failed to return to the body in that time, then the decay process began and prevented reintegration. High-quality dissociative fluid, such as the fluid in which my body now floated, could support stasis for almost a year.
But a year is an unattainable time.
The limitation was not in the electrolytes, or the powers of the QCP. It was in human consciousness itself.
It could not exist in a virtual world for an unlimited length of time. It could never truly let go of the fact that it once had a real body.
After eight thousand hours, people gradually began to lose themselves. Their consciousness was subjected to so-called informational entropy. All memories of life before entering the pod began to disappear. They would lose the ability to think logically, would confuse cause and effect. All the symptoms of schizophrenia began to set in.
Those subjected to this entropy ignored the fact that Adam Online was an artificial reality. They forgot everything that happened to them before teharration. They believed that they had always lived in Adam Online. They fought, died and were reborn in respawn towers. They refused to accept tales of the real world. Laughter was their only response to those that insisted that their bodies actually lay in some pod somewhere. In the end, the consciousness of these people decayed and melted away in the virtual universe.
Death reached humanity even in an attempt to trick it by hiding in a digital copy.
That’s what happened to my Emma. That’s what happened to all weaklings that feared true death. They preferred infinite virtual rebirths, which, in the end, all led to the same unavoidable point: death and oblivion.
You cannot cheat death by digitizing your life. But everyone wanted to.
As more and more people failed to return, QCP software was updated with a forced log-off mechanism. In addition, when the game session reached 7900 hours, the player received the strongest debuffs. Living in Adam Online became harder with each passing hour. Even a gust of strong wind could kill a max level character. The threat of losing all one’s accumulated resources and experience was stronger than the threat of losing one’s life. Adamites returned to their bodies before being forced to log off.
A pleasant side effect of teharration was an increased lifespan due to stasis. People basically aged roughly five months per year. The body’s expiry date was pushed back. This led to decreased birth rates, solving the problem of overpopulation and insufficient resources more effectively than the last nuclear war. Why hurry to create a child if you have two hundred years full of adventure ahead of you?
Living two hundred years is good. Living forever is better. But informational entropy prevented that. If the Mentors had truly found a way to neutralize it, then everything would change. For the sake of immortality, we would kill each other both online and off. Just like we once killed each other over land, over oil, over the neighboring tribe’s livestock.
Man has always been able to find a reason to strike his neighbor before his neighbor strikes first.
Don’t you think?

#

Completely naked, I sat on the edge of the pod. It was filled with a thick blue liquid. It was warm. The scent of pine overwhelmed the reek from the tub. My face and bald head were covered in a neurotransmitter net. The landlord’s tablet was on the chair in front of me, showing the progress of the scan. ALICE was calculating how much space and time the digitization of my existence would take up.
The landlord brought in the last bucket and poured it into the pod. Even the dissociative fluid had to be added manually! What was he even building for those three months?
“Done,” said the landlord, wiping sweat from his brow. “Gonna inject yourself too?”
“Nah, you do it.” I presented my arm. I had to show him that I did trust him.
He took the syringe from the box, put it against my vein, waited for the green light and pressed. I felt drowsy right away. I could barely move my lips:
“There’s a card in the other pocket in the backpack... Bring it, please.”
The landlord left. He returned, looking at the card:
“Wife, daughter, sister?”
“Not your business. No offense. Put it on the chair. Switch off the animation.”
The landlord placed the card next to the tablet. He switched the animation mode off. Emma froze, strolling to somewhere in the distance, above the lens.
ALICE blinked through the tablet:

Process complete. Ready to teharrate.

I turned, easing my legs sluggishly into the pod. The dissociative fluid gently cooled them. The landlord took the neurotransmitter net off my head:
“From here on, we do it like we agreed. I’ll stay here a week. If you show no signs of resurfacing, then I’ll pack my bags and head home. I’ll destroy the lift... and fill the shaft with sand. Haven’t changed your mind?”
“I need safety. Who knows who might be wandering around here? There could be nomads.
“I’ll launch the defense system here, in the hole. Three fully equipped Cassies will be in the building. They’ll be the ones that dig you out after the mission is over.”
“Which Cassies exactly?”
“CAS-4-M”, meaning modernized. Old machines, but again, reliable. One even has a flamethrower. So don’t you worry. They’re all already configured to detect your voice and appearance. In other words, they’ll recognize you, don’t fret. There’s a Cassie buried at the surface too. It’ll destroy the whole building if there’s a threat of infiltration. Then you’ll be really covered up, no digging you out. But how you’ll get out isn’t my problem, got it?”
“Okay.”
“Good luck, brother.”
I lowered myself into the pod silently. The dissociative fluid seeped into my lungs, sank into my stomach in a chilly cluster. I resisted the urge to come back up. I wasn’t used to sensations like this. For some time, I watched the world through a blue fog. The blurry face of the landlord flickered. Something loud struck the bottom of the pod, probably the droid checking the hermetic seal. It would do that every forty minutes for days, months...
The dissociative fluid flowed through my veins, working its way through my body. Its molecules seeped into every cell. My metabolism slowed, and my sense of time along with it. I saw one of the lights flicker — it slowly went out, turning red.
I went out with it.
Chapter 2. Good Time of Day
I opened my eyes. The blue haze quickly faded.
Another second and the force of gravity came crashing down. I stood on the ground. My ears filled with the noise of wind. The wind itself gently touched my cheek, bringing the freshness of rain. I stood in a field of bright green grass, almost up to my shoulders. The sun glowed softly behind a veil of cloud.
I wore a standard grey vest and jeans. I had a ten-shot Glock X5 in a holster and a knife at my belt. A lighter and a paper map in my left pocket. In my hands were three booklets: “Guidebook on Rim Zero of the Adam Online Universe”, an advert for the Tenshot weapon store, and “Adam Online Version 101.45 Update Information”.
I had a small uncomfortable bag on my shoulder. In it was a tablet, a flat box of rounds and a Small Medkit.
The standard set of the new character.
But since my spawn point wasn’t standard, and instead of a name there was a line, a message lit up before me, complete with a triangle with an exclamation mark:

Something went wrong, %Username%.
Please exit your account and log back in. If the problem persists, please contact tech support.
Error code: unknown.
Additional information...

I threw away the booklets and walked toward a semicircular white cottage, almost disappearing in the grass. The system message hung before my eyes. A second message layered on top of it:

How do you rate our tech support service?
������

I pressed five stars just to get the message out of the way. It wasn’t just annoying, it was alarming: would a tech support bot be closing in? There were no instructions about that.
I’d almost reached the white cottage when a booklet appeared in my hands again: “Information on Adam Online Interface Updates”. It looked like it wouldn’t disappear until I read it to the end. I quickly skimmed through the booklet and threw it into the grass. But then it rematerialized in my bag. Alright, fuck it.
I reached the cottage. Remembering forgotten skills, I gazed along the cottage walls, expecting to read its stats, but saw nothing. Oh, right. I’m at level zero. All the info is through that dumb tablet. I took it out, switched it on and aimed it at the tent. There it is:

Improved Tent.
Structure class: shelter.
Structure type: temporary accommodation.
Owner: %?????????%.
Access: public.

Level: 5.
Defense: 300,000/300,000.
Durability: 100,000/100,000.
Dimensions: %???% by %???% square meters.
Capacity: from 1 to %???% guests.

Effects:
Partisan Trap. The tent may disappear from other players’ field of view.
Effect range: 50 meters.
Unknown Effect. Requires 20 Knowledge.

Note: temporary dwellings can be created by a player in any area, regardless of ownership or permission for construction.

A hacked tent, too? Now I could definitely expect the tech support bots...
I put away the tablet, pushed the low door of the white cottage and went in. The system message disappeared immediately. I saw a figure in a bot’s overalls in the gloom. He stood with his back to me. Instinctively, I reached for my holster. The bot turned and I recognized Major General Makartsiev, my superior.
“Hello, Anton,” he said. “You should know that this is just my image uploaded into a bot. It’s programmed to only answer questions on the mission. If you want to find out what I’ve caught fishing and other trivialities, we’ll have to catch up in real life. As always, you can visit any time.”

#

The Major General imitated the habits of the original. From time to time he patted his chest where he normally kept cigarettes, but then remembered that there weren’t any here.
“You are aware of the primary goal,” he began. “Let me tell you what they didn’t tell you at your pre-flight briefing. The Mentors exist. That’s a fact. But more importantly, the consciousness of Nelly Valeeva exists too.”
“What? She digitized herself a hundred years ago.”
“Exactly. She exists in the extranet, fully conscious, not subject to informational entropy.
“Why are you so sure her consciousness hasn’t degraded?”
“We aren’t sure, but we suspect that somehow, her binary array was fully saved. That’s one of your intermediary goals: find Nelly Valeeva, or rather the digital copy of her consciousness, and learn her degree of entropy.”
The Major General called up a projection interface:
“Memorize her face.”
A video came up showing the presentation of the first teharration complex in the world. This video was just as momentous as the Moon landings or the surrender of the Chinese in their war against us.
“Look, it was almost a hundred years ago,” said Makartsiev. “And practically nothing has changed: a pod of dissociative fluid and a connection to a quantum computing platform.”
“Only it was crap, Mr. Major General. It was all jury-rigged, like the first exoskeletons.”
The speaker came into view. A beautiful, strict face. She was a little over thirty then. An aggressive twist of her lip showed that this legendary woman’s character was no rose. As far as I remembered, she even died alone, at her desk. She continued working on the teharration technology deep into her old age. A line of affordable quantum platforms was named after her — NELLY.
There’s something mystical about the fact that I was sent into the game through precisely one such platform.
“What’s the point of searching for her by her appearance, Major General? Was it really possible a hundred years ago to digitize an individual to the same detail as we can now? How do we know she looks like that? Does she show up at all in Adam Online? Doesn’t tech support wipe her, thinking she’s just another bug or hacking attempt?
“That too is a problem you’re going to have to solve.”
“Sorry, Major General, but the mission looks like I’m supposed to find something without knowing what it is. Adam Online has millions of users and trillions of NPCs at all difficulty levels. It takes half an hour just to go through the list of zones...
The Major General interrupted me:
“A year ago, during a random scan of Adam Online traffic, we caught something.”
He swept away the presentation video. Dragged in a new one.
Two washed-out female figures stood opposite each other. The image twitched, turned to static. Corrupted snatches of dialog came through:
“Who are you?”
“Just like you. A copy of a copy.”
“Who created the Darknet?”
“The Mentors from Do...”
The image blurred. It came together again and started over. I recognized Valeeva as one of the figures. The second was younger, in a vest bearing some kind of emblem, upon which the word Darknet was visible.
“We don’t know who she’s talking to,” said Makartsiev, anticipating my question. “This isn’t even a video, it’s a three-dimensional reconstruction of raw data caught at random in Adam Online game traffic.”
“Maybe it’s the start of some porn scene?”
“The fragment has a date field. The same day that Nelly Valeeva tested out teharration technology: she digitized her consciousness and sent it to the Adam Online version of that time.
I nodded:
“I agree, it’s an anomaly. What makes a hundred-year event in new traffic? On the other hand, what’s so special about it? Adam Online isn’t just on servers, it’s in the consciousness of the users connected to it. We could have caught anyone’s nonsense.”
“The analysis department concluded that Nelly’s companion was an avatar of the Mentors. That’s what we’re going on.
“I see, Major General. Now another question...”
A knock at the door interrupted me:

#

Good time of day, players!” said the tech support bot. Without waiting for permission, it opened the door and came in. A standard blue-eyed, broad-shouldered blond.

Arild 23-003.
Adam Online Asian Cluster Tech Support Bot.
<< Disclaimer: a majority of users in the Asian Cluster voted for the bot Arild’s appearance. If you consider that your race or gender has been discriminated against, please change the bot’s appearance in your account settings >>

I moved my hand to my holster, ready to draw my weapon.
Smiling broadly, Arild approached us:
“The dispatch station received a notice that there have been bugs in this zone. Will you allow me to begin a scan? Yes-No? In the meantime, please familiarize yourself with the new additions to the interface.”
Some of those idiotic booklets appeared in the hands of Makartsiev and myself. I didn’t throw them away, just skimmed through them and put them in my bag. The bot turned toward me. The smile changed to concern:
“We cannot fix the bugs in your account, Username. The error code reports that the reason is your teharration system. The location cannot be Unknown. Please contact your teharration service provider.
I shot him in the face. Having thoroughly coated the walls in blood, Arild fell to the floor.
“Hm, you couldn’t bump off tech support in Adam ten years ago.”
“The users voted for the ability,” chuckled Makartsiev. “You can even fuck them now.”
I searched the bot, but apart from a pack of booklets and a nametag with its serial number, I found nothing. The habits of a seasoned adamite were slowly returning to me. I put the bot’s nametag in my bag. Then the tablet beeped. I took it out and read:

Quest available: Fair-Haired Beasts.
The owner of the All-Seeing Eye chain of stores invites you to cull bots like Arild. Bring the bot’s nametag to any All-Seeing Eye store and you can swap it for money or upgrades.
Let’s show the fair-haired beasts who’s boss in the Asian Cluster!

Please note, each nametag reduces your Reputation with the authorities of Rim Zero: -1.

Makartsiev closed the tent door:
“In short, a piece of data containing Valeeva was captured from the traffic. We narrowed its source down to Rim Six. It was generated relatively recently. Players are only just starting to take those regions. Actually, they’re only just planning to take them. Nobody has opened a way there yet.
I whistled:
“I’ll need to level up a lot to get there.”
Makarstiev approached the wall of the tent and summoned a projection panel:
“It’s all been done for you. The bravest warriors of Adam Online have worked on leveling up this character. Meet your new virtual body. We used your old name.
The name Leonarm lit up on the panel, and a diagram of the character started building. Even in this form, it was clear that the character had been leveled to the max. The UniSu list of skills and upgrades took up most of the panel.
“Leonarm? I’d rather forget that name...”
A user of Adam Online could choose any name, whether it was already in use or not. The log-in system used a unique 1024-symbol identifier instead of the name. I remember Adam’s locations being full of Fire Demons, Crushers, Reality Distorters and Supernoobs. Even my Emma had the name Dark Angel. Along with millions of other Dark Angels.
“Alright, Leonarm is fine. How are the stats?”
“We chose the Human race for you,” interjected Makartsiev. “Not because you’ve always worked for them, but so that Nelly won’t be frightened at the sight of a bizoid or mechanodestructor.
“Um, I remember the mechanodestructors, but who are the bizoids? Even I’m scared.”
“One of the new races. In the years you lived in reality, a few things have changed here. Your achievements and skills are out of date, Anton, so try not to mess up with Leonarm in Rim One. But don’t worry, I’m going to be here for two more hours showing you what’s new in the world...”
“Why only two hours?”
“After that, the controllers will pry me out of this tech bot. They’re doing it right now, actually.”
“Who are controllers?”
“They’re designed to deal with hackers like me. If tech support bots are ordinary NPCs designed to fulfill one task — to eliminate bugs — then the controllers are here to neutralize cheating players.
The walls of the tent shook. A notification lit up on the panel. A missile strike had eaten through half the defenses. I couldn’t help but smile: I was unused to a tent withstanding a missile strike just because it had been upgraded with a force field. A tent! Not a bunker, a tent. I wasn’t at all used to these conventions.
“That’s it, Anton, they’ve found us. I’ll hold them off, you get elsewhere.”
Makartsiev waved the image of Leonarm onto me, confirmed the character transfer and fled the tent. As he ran, a heavy Nevsky infantry exoskeleton formed on his body, almost the same as the type used in real military theaters. The real military preferred realistic equipment even in a virtual world.
Then I felt myself changing. My vision flickered out and appeared again, now equipped with neurointerface data.

#

I opened up the character tab.
My head span from the abundance of data. To go from level zero to three hundred was stressful even for a digital conscious.

Name: Leonarm.
Player: %Username% (Error! Check teharration system settings).
Race: Human.
Level: 322.

Classes: gunner, technolord, stalker.

Why all these classes? Don’t they conflict with each other? It seems the people that leveled up Leonarm disagreed on what was most important for him. Or more likely, they didn’t know who they were leveling him up for and for what, so each went by their own opinions.
I didn’t even open the Skills tab. I could imagine what that list is like! I moved to the equipment description. Humans were capable of expanding their battle abilities via one method — UniSu upgrades.
The Universal Suit (UniSu) looked just like a level one or two suit after buying it in the store. After installing the right upgrade in one of the slots, the UniSu turned into both armor and neurosuit for controlling combat machines, and an exoskeleton like Makartsiev’s.
You could either buy the upgrades or make them yourself...
The number of slots depended on the UniSu’s level, and could be increased again by the upgrades themselves. A Multislot upgrade could fit in one slot without issue. After which you could put not one upgrade in it, but three or five. The upgrades themselves could be components too. They were made from the corresponding expansions. For example, radiation protection plus infrared, plus vision, plus perception upgrade. In other words, the range of combinations was huge. The UniSu of a single adamite was rarely similar to the UniSu of another.
I scrolled through the list mindlessly — most of the upgrades told me nothing. There was a time when I knew them all. Damn, what could “Defense Against Bizoid Seed” mean? Or “Leap into the Unknown”? Or “Angelic Shepherd”? Out of interest, I expanded the description of the last:

Angelic Shepherd.
Allows you to capture angels and bend them to your will as long as their level is lower than yours.
Duration: 5 minutes.
Cost: 1,500 energy per minute.

So much was new to me. What kind of race was the angels? Fallen ones too. Back in reality, I avoided news about Adam Online. And that was hard. Most people that are forced to spend time in their body to get back into a pod talk about nothing but Adam Online.
I was afraid that Makartsiev had entrusted this mission to the wrong guy. I was starting to doubt myself.
“Player Name Hidden is calling you. Action?” the voice of the personal assistant in my head rang out unexpectedly.
“Accept call.”
Chapter 3. First Damage
“Anton,” said Makartsiev’s voice. “It’s worse than I thought. Someone knows our plans. Used to your new body yet?”
The sounds of shots and explosions accompanied the question.
“Um... Ah.... Not quite...”
“There’s no time for a tutorial. You’ll figure it out in battle.”
I opened the inventory and selected a machine gun based on its size and fearsome appearance. I noticed that the UniSu was equipped with a ‘Stalker Dimensional Compression Backpack’. The number of items in it was off the scale. Apart from heaps of weapons, ammunition, medkits, expansions and upgrades, a box depicting an armored car came to my attention. A toy, or...
Not trusting my guess, I expanded the description. There it was:

Tiger.
Armored Vehicle.
Level: 69.

Speed: 55.
Acceleration: 14.
Maneuverability: 22.
Economy: 49.
Reliability: 102.

Durability: 102,000/102,000
Fuel Supply: 49,000/49,000
Fuel type: energy units.

Armament:
Left Side: Twin Nagata Machine Guns.
Right Side: Twin Nagata Machine Guns.
Turret: Arena Plasmagun.

Upgrades:
Toyota Transmission: +5 Maneuverability.
Gorilla Front Glass: +1 Perception.
...

And another dozen lines. But it was the backpack itself occupying one of the UniSu’s upgrade slots that interested me. From reading the description, I realized that it compresses items to an identical size and weight: within it, an armored car and a chocolate bar took up the same weight and linear size.
The past hit me like a punch in the gut: Emma invented a backpack like that many years ago. She even sent the idea to a contest for improving the Adam Online world...
I unfolded the map. It turned out that we were far from Town Zero, the starting point of all new players in Adam Online. Then I examined the weapon I’d chosen. The model was unfamiliar. The so-called “Automatic Salinger Rifle”. It used magazines with a capacity of ten eus. One eu (energy unit) was equal to one gold. I was basically shooting currency.
I didn’t have time to read the long list of this gun’s characteristics. After making sure I hadn’t forgotten anything, I ran out of the tent.

#

Makartsiev stood tall, blocking the entrance to the tent, and shot from the same Salinger rifle. So I made the right choice. To his right and left, fifty meters away, there were machine gun turrets. Spinning around, they emitted long volleys of covering fire, cooled down for a couple of seconds and opened fire on the enemy again.
Two huge spiderlike robots meandered through the tall grass. I aimed at the first and read:

Grisha, Mechanodestructor.
Guild: Black Wave.
Classes: Pilot, Defender.
Level: 332.
Health: 42,439/59,000
Armor: 7,865/9,000.

When a volley from the turret hit Grisha’s mechanodestructor, its protective field glowed blue, and blue damage numbers tumbled out into the air:

—230.
—106.
—643.

Grisha launched missiles at us in response. They tore away from the shoulder-mounted missile launcher and drew a complex trajectory in the air, dodging the anti-air defenses we didn’t have. They flew into the sky and turned back, dropping onto us from an unexpected angle. The explosion dissipated across the dome of the force field, reducing its power.
I aimed my sight at the second mechanodestructor:

Fortunado, Mechanodestructor.
Guild: Black Wave.
Classes: Engineer, Defender.
Level: 340.
Health: 40,000/40,000.
Armor: 2,336/16,000.

I addressed my personal assistant:
“Why are players of this level in Rim Zero? You can’t come back here after reaching level five.”
The assistant answered instantly: “Initialization err...” and cut out.
Fair enough. Strange to ask the game assistant about a non-game situation. I readdressed my question to Makartsiev:
“How did they get here?”
“Someone hacked the block, like we did,” replied Makartsiev. “That’s why you’re here, and these high-ranked players.”
“What’s the Black Wave guild?”
“A brigade of high-rank mercenaries. Their interests include: contract killing and fighting wars for other guilds. Their HQ is in Rim Four, at the Black Wave military base. Grisha and Fortunado are the guild leaders, twin brothers.”
Makartsiev sent two identical photos of men aged around twenty. Judging by their perfect appearance, the photos weren’t real.
“Handsome guys,” he continued. “They’ve headed up the leaderboard for the coolest adamites for two years now. Only you caught up to them sometimes. Or rather, the people that were leveling up your Leonarm.”
I summoned my personal assistant:
“Show leaderboard.”
“The leaderboard consists of three billion six hundred twenty million three hundred thousand entries. Estimated time to display list — eleven minutes. Continue?”
“Just show me the top ten.”

Adam Online Ranking Leaderboard (Asian Cluster)

1. Fortunado — 340 (Mechanodestructor, Guild: Black Wave).
2. Grisha — 332 (Mechanodestructor, Guild: Black Wave).
3. Jamilla — 329 (Fallen Angel).
4. Most Ancient Evil — 327 (Bizoid, Guild: Black Wave).
5. Leonarm — 322 (Human).
6. David Kronenberg — 319 (Bizoid).
7. Nika — 301 (Android, Guild: Black Wave).
8. Crusher — 292 (Angel, Guild: Black Wave).
9. HyperNoob — 284 (Mechanodestructor, Guild: Langoliers).
10. Evil Transformer — 277 (Mechanodestructor, Guild: Golden Horde).

An interesting spread. The mechanodestructors dominated in the top ten. One human and one android. Two bizoids. One angel and one fallen angel. I didn’t know the difference between them.
I had other things to deal with. Time to fight.
The turrets had torn up the entire field before them. The grass no longer hid the fact that apart from the two gigantic mechanodestructors, a dozen or more smaller enemies now approached us. A couple of tall, thin androids towered over us.
They were all player-controlled. There were no NPCs or procedurally generated soldiers. All of them were between level 200 and 300, and all from the Black Wave guild. I could see several red squares in the sky. That was my neurointerface marking air targets: one Eurofighter, two MiGs and one empty target, which my combat system stubbornly lit up, but didn’t describe.
My personal assistant came to my aid:
“That is an angel. They are invisible to the naked eye, but your level allows you to at least be aware of their presence.”
Strange that they brought androids onto the battlefield. That race stood out for the fact that it couldn’t attack or use weapons against any players or characters.
But I quickly remembered what androids did on the battlefield. One android approached the spiderlike mechanodestructor and placed its long fine fingers on its force field. The Defense scale instantly rose.
“Makartsiev!” I cried. “Switch the turret fire to the androids! They’re healing the spiders.”
“Take care of it yourself, son,” answered Makartsiev. “I know nothing about these games.”
A message appeared in front of me:

Obtained:
Automatic High-Caliber Ellen Turret (x2).
Damage: 200-600.
Cost: 1,000 eu per 10,000 shots.
Upgrades: barrel cooling (10 sec.), King force field generator (+2,000 Defense, 25 meters), intelligent target search.
Attention: second turret Durability at 450/5,000.

I opened my equipment and selected a Nanoid repair kit. I sent the nanobots to the turret — the device’s Durability scale crept upwards. Great, my skills as a seasoned adamite had almost returned. I was acting automatically, without having to waste time thinking.
The repair finished and a message popped up:

Urgent Repair skill increased: +10 XP.

Having given me time to get my bearings, Makartsiev rushed forward. Two missiles launched from his back and flew toward our enemies. But a beam of light came down from the sky, cutting the warheads in half. At the same time, quiet music descended from the sky and dispelled my doubts — this was an angel at work.
I opened the turret control interface and reconfigured the targeting to aim for androids. The first volley took down the android restoring the shield on Grisha’s mechanodestructor. The android exploded in a flurry of damage notifications, which instantly filled up my progress bar.

Leonarm (Human) killed Digerati (Android, Guild: Black Wave) using: Automatic High-Caliber Ellen Turret.

A second android lost both legs and fell into the grass. Damage numbers fell off him for a short while longer, but quickly stopped.

Congratulations, Leonarm, you leveled up!
Your level: 323.
Attention: you have unused stat points (1) and skill points (1). Spend them wisely!

“Keep it up!” encouraged Makartsiev. His Armor meter floated around two thousand. Health: around five thousand. Just as I was about to grab a medkit, he stopped me:
“Don’t waste it on me. The controllers are already here. Stay focused. They don’t meddle in player affairs unless they’re cheaters like me, hacking a bot or another account. That’s it, Leonarm, you’re on your own now. My advice: don’t try to take them all out. Break through and run to the respawn tower in Town Zero. You have more than enough money on your account to go straight to Rim Five. From there, move to the most distant and unexplored zones. The Mentors are somewhere where there are no players yet...”
Before I could speak, the Major General shut off the radio and ran at the enemies. The rain of fire cut through his defense. His health bar began to drop. Aside from the mechanodestructors, the angels were shooting at him too: fiery arrows fell from the sky with a piercing whistle, drowning out the angels’ song.
The figure in the exoskeleton was covered in a cloud of fire, columns of dust. But all the same, Makartsiev reached the enemy. He detonated a powerful explosive. The explosion threw tons of earth into the air. The Ellenok force field shuddered and rippled as if in fear.
Small explosions tore through the sky. The Eurofighter and the MiGs lost control and went down. They all exploded before hitting the ground, struck down by Makartsiev’s superweapon. It seemed to be a unique bomb assembled by an experienced and high-ranking weaponsmith.
The shockwave hit me. It knocked out the turrets and blew away the tent.

Damage taken: —945, shockwave from Wiper Swiper photon mine.

Automatic High-Caliber Ellen Turret (x2) destroyed, cannot be repaired.

A list of players killed by Makartsiev stretched out before my eyes. I didn’t know how they’d all gotten into Rim Zero, but I guessed that the fines for dying in such a low-level zone would be huge.
Two mechanodestructors remained among the enemy’s ground forces. Not only were their force fields destroyed, but their Armor had been halved. Their health bars also showed less than eighty percent. They were defenseless against the full-fledged power of Leonarm.
Chapter 4. Damned Angels

Leonarm calling Black Wave,” I said over an open frequency. “How’s it going? Hanging in there?”
“Get lost,” answered Grisha’s avatar.
Fortunado’s avatar just sent a picture of an ass.
“What do you want from me? How did you hack the protection in Rim Zero?”
Fortunado answered this time:
“Nothing personal, Leonarm. We got an order, we’re carrying it out.”
“As for how we got into Zero, that’s none of your business,” added Grisha. “Give up now. You can’t escape.”
Their words were booming, frightening, spoken through a speech modulator. I aimed down my sight: a few surviving soldiers stirred in the churned-up earth. A legless android crawled to them on his hands and began to heal them. I aimed for the android’s head and fired. The white-blue stroke of the energy charge took out half the skull. The burnt edges of the head’s remains glowed. A blue flame burned to the android’s shoulders. Damage numbers fell off it as it burned, adding to my XP bar.

Leonarm (Human) killed Nika (Android) using: Salinger Automatic Rifle.

Why was that so easy? These are top players. Why are they so slow, and why do they die so quickly? Maybe it’s because of the hacking?
The mechanodestructors continued toward me. Suspecting that they were attacking out of sheer stubbornness, I calmly picked off the remaining soldiers, gathering experience points. I tried to tease more information out of the brothers about their customer:
“You’re about to die and respawn fifty percent weaker. Want to make a deal?”
“It could be a hundred percent,” said Fortunado.
“We’re bored of being at the top all the time. We’ll level up again.”
Were they bluffing? I checked the contents of my Wallet. Wow! 5,345,700 g.
“Then I’m officially offering the Black Wave guild a job. I need bodyguards.”
“Don’t be an idiot, buddy,” said Grisha. “Firstly, there’s a conflict of interest.”
“Secondly, we were paid so much that you wouldn’t be able to save it up in a hundred years,” added Fortunado.
I aimed my sight at Grisha and shot out one of his left legs. The spiderlike mechanodestructor reeled. Another bunch of experience points flew into my progress bar.
Grisha opened fire with all his guns. My Armor slowly lost durability. But when Grisha’s guns quietened, cooling down, my automatic repair bots kicked in and my Armor rose just as slowly.
Fortunado’s mechanodestructor reared onto its hind legs. The upper section transformed into a turret. Now its four front legs turned into guns: two machine guns and two cannons.
I had to finish them off, I decided. Since I’m their target, they’ll keep getting in my way. After death, their level would be so low that they wouldn’t be able to follow me to Rim Five.
The earth shook, tossing the broken turrets around like toys. A few meters from me, the soil rose into a mound.
“What’s that?”
In answer to my question, the top of the mound broke, revealing a huge eyeless creature. A worm’s face with a round mouth that could consume ten Leonarms. The mouth was full of thick rows of teeth the size of two-handed swords.

Most Ancient Evil, Bizoid.
Guild: Black Wave.
Class: Slug.
DNA Modification: Earthly Tremble.
Level: 327.
Health: 67,000/67,000.

I had no idea what bizoids were capable of, or how best to fight them. They hadn’t existed in my day. Time to follow Makartsiev’s advice and escape. I decided to get out of the mechanodestructors’ fire and activate my armored vehicle. I’d barely made it ten meters before the earth around me rose in a ringed hill. How big was this bizoid?
Pretty big, as it turned out. I was surrounded by its long body.
Then I leapt up, activating the jet pack built into the lower part of my UniSu and flying over the bizoid. I’d almost gotten over him when a thick beam of light lanced down from the sky toward me.
That damned choral singing! Damned angels.
My jet pack cut out. Waving my arms and legs as if trying to fly like a bird, I spun head over heels in the air. The light beam pressed down from above. With a crash, I struck the ground, sliding several feet ahead.

Damage taken: —34,555, fall from height and strike from angel’s light beam.

Just like that, in a second, I’d lost half my Health.

Left arm injured. Gunner skill reduced by 50%.
Upgrade slot #4 destroyed. Urgent Repair skill lost.
Upgrade slot #6 destroyed. Sprint skill lost.
Upgrade slot #7 destroyed. Capacity of Stalker Dimensional Compression Backpack reduced by 70%.

A list of lost items stretched out after the message that my backpack was damaged. The first to go, of course, was the Tiger armored vehicle. Then I saw a message that I was bleeding, but it was quickly replaced by another:

Automatic healing in progress (upgrade slot #13).

I climbed out of my UniSu-shaped hole and looked skyward. The only air target remaining was the angel. But it was still impossible to determine its location. The highlighted target square just hung in place, showing the angel’s possible presence.
I opened the Character tab.

Angelic Shepherd skill increased to level 3.
I see angels, mom!
Now you can see the location of all angels whose level is below yours.

A name appeared above the empty square in the sky:

Crusher, Angel.
Guild: Black Wave.
Level: 292.

All this happened in mere seconds. Bullets continued to rain down on me from the mechanodestructors. My UniSu’s armor was now going down faster than it was recovering. The round face of the bizoid closed in on me from the left while the circle of his body tightened. The angel’s beam continued to press down on me, making it hard to move.
I switched from my rifle to a one-handed Uzi machine pistol and unloaded an entire clip into the bizoid’s round maw. Not the most fearsome weapon against the Most Ancient Evil. But it had an Electroshock upgrade. Each bullet hit the target with an extra electric shock, so the damage was high. A thick stream of numbers fell from the bizoid’s maw, along with blood and scraps of flesh.
The bizoid Most Ancient Evil turned and fled underground. For some time, I could track its movement using the damage notifications which continued to appear from the electricity.
That gave me time to concentrate on the angel. I had no time to read how Angelic Shepherd worked. I just activated it. To my left appeared the image of a man, holding the angel by the wings and shaking him from time to time.

Attempting to catch angel. Chance of success: 74%.

But a blinking red message covered up that hopeful sign.

Damage taken: —12,460.

I reeled.
The mechanodestructors were getting too close. I unloaded another magazine at Fortunado. It knocked out his cannons and machine guns. But the cannons weren’t even firing. Perhaps the artillery gear on both mechanodestructors had been damaged after Makartsiev’s suicide bombing.
The mechanodestructors retreated and took cover behind a mound left by the bizoid. All three would probably be healing up and repairing.

Link to angel established.
You have five minutes to play God.
Attention: not enough energy (need 4,500 more) to maintain connection. Time left: 25 seconds... 24...

Twenty five seconds? But the skill promised five minutes!
I immediately took the magazine out of my Salinger rifle, took out the energy rounds and converted them into energy units. That gave me more than enough. I took control of the angel.
I was dragged out of Leonarm’s body and thrust upward.



Chapter 5. From the Sky to the Earth


The entire world of Rim Zero spread out at my feet. Space contorted strangely to display its entire area. That said, it wasn’t large: at the center was Town Zero, and around it were familiar old zones. Firefly Swamp, Mercurian Ruins, Mechanodestructor Heap...
One of the angel’s skills was the ability to see every player. All I had to do was focus on a zone for it to expand, rotating before me like a globe. It seemed that angels didn’t fly. It was as if they hovered in place, turning the world beneath them. It was a stunning sensation of omnipotence.
I could see the name Amy McDonald roaming through the Mechanodestructor Heap. I could not only see her stats (human, level four) but also her current quest: Find the First Mechanodestructor Core. The piercing gaze even penetrated her equipment: a novice tablet with a couple of upgrades and booklets. No medkits left. She’d swapped her Glock X5 for a Lefaucheux revolver, the best weapon of all the pistols available in the Rim Zero stores.
Several mechanical spiderbots hid behind a hill in the girl’s path on the heap. They were the weak but numerous denizens of the heap. The girl hadn’t seen them. Alas, Amy, you won’t complete this quest without a medkit.
I examined the stats of the character I’d taken over:

Crusher, Angel.
Guild: Black Wave.
Class: Patron.
Level: 292.

Strength: 100.
Perception: 42.
Agility: 30.
Knowledge: 97.
Spirit: 65.
Luck: 23.

Reputation: 45 (Friendly).
Angelic Aura: 31,544/65,000.
Mana: 9,560/97,000.

Instead of Health, angels had Spirit, whose level determined the amount of their Angelic Aura. Crusher’s was lower than its initial value due to his getting involved in a battle as a soldier.
The mana value for angels was calculated the same as for magic characters: Knowledge multiplied by the player level, plus skills increasing mana. Crusher’s low mana level was because he’d spent it on creating a Blessing, a special buff that he gave to his guildmates. However, his mana was slowly rising.
I cast my gaze to the battlefield. My Leonarm was frozen in a strange pose: on his knees, hands clasped and raised to the sky as if in prayer. So that was how controlling angels worked?
The mechanodestructors and the bizoid still hid behind the cover of their mound. Their health and armor was continually increasing. A little longer and they’d begin their attack. I had to hurry while I had them in the palm of my hand. Or rather, an angelic hand.
Alright. Time to get back to earthly affairs.
I skimmed through the angel’s skills. Most of them, naturally, were meaningless in the current situation.

Angelic Patience, level 10.
The more you give, the more you receive.
You bestow Blessing upon all players on the ground:
+10 Stamina.
+10 Strength.
+10 Health.
In exchange, you receive an increase in Reputation.

Or:

Divine Messenger.
In a difficult situation, a player can summon the angel using a Prayer (prayers are obtained in Temples).
Attention: there is a fine for failing to answer a prayer:
 Angelic Aura: —10,000.
Reputation: —20.

That was the downside of angels: if you use your skills to harm another player, regardless of race, your Angelic Aura dropped. It dropped quickly and irrevocably. Nothing could restore the Angelic Aura bar. It was permanently reduced.
Since they had no Health, angels were immortal... How could they be destroyed?
Oh, right: once the Angelic Aura dropped to zero, the angel becomes a fallen angel. He fell from the sky to the earth, taking on physical form, transforming into a simple human with wings. Then he could be killed.
Hmm, this angel was an interesting character... But it wasn’t suitable for everything. Sex, alcohol and drugs made the Angelic Aura drop like a stone. Even bad language damaged the aura with every word. Having taken over the angel, I could drop its Angelic Aura to zero merely with a long stream of swearwords.
Angels fulfilled the role of scouts on the battlefield, and something like bards, supporting their allies with buffs. They were omniscient, capable of perceiving other players’ equipment, but were limited from directly interfering in earthly affairs.
Alright. What could I send down on my enemies? The beam of light that forced me to the ground turned out to be called Stairway to Heaven. It was actually intended for quickly moving a praying player from one zone to another. But it could also be used as a weak weapon.
The angel had few weapons: an angelic sword, a bow, something called Krishna’s Pistol, which didn’t kill, but fired a powerful blessing pulse, the Trumpet of Jericho, and Solar Pillar.
The timer counted down. Enough studying. Time to use this conquered angel for its purpose. I didn’t know whether my Angelic Shepherd skill would block the player completely, or if he could still talk to his guildmates. Even if it did block him, they’d quickly figure out that something had happened to their comrade if he stopped responding.
The symbol of the Solar Pillar spell had been hanging in front of the angel for a while. That meant that Crusher had been planning to use it against me.
I span the battlefield beneath me, focusing on the bizoid, Most Ancient Evil. I had no idea what the new race was capable of, so I feared the worm most of all.

#

I don’t know how it all looked from below, but from above the sight was magnificent. Clouds gathered around me. The airflows formed something like a pattern with bright yellow rays lancing through it. At the center, where I was, the blue sky disappeared and the vastness of space opened up. A vague flow of energy fell down onto the bizoid, filled with flashes of light reminiscent of human bodies.
The bizoid stopped crawling under the ground. The strength of the spell forced him to the surface, held him in the air for a moment. I looked at the gigantic worm’s body. It was as big as a train. Tentacles, legs and pincers grew across its entire body. The entire mass writhed, covered in mud and a yellowish slime, which probably helped it slither its way through the earth. I didn’t know which advantages the bizoid species had, but beauty certainly wasn’t one of them.
A white spot grew at the center of its ringed body, quickly absorbing its flesh. The damage increased as the spot grew. I checked — all the damage was attributed to me, meaning Leonarm, not Crusher, the angel’s owner.

Attention: you have attacked a creation of God.
Angelic Aura reduced to 21,544.

Attention: you have deliberately and treacherously attacked a member of your own guild.
Angelic Aura reduced to 16,544.
Reputation reduced to —32, disgust.
Good NPCs will try to avoid conversing with you, will ignore you, and if you are persistent — will call the police. High chance of refusal of service.

The effect of the Solar Pillar ended. The sky cleared. The bizoid transformed into a salted mummy and fell to the earth, covering the mounds with a white layer of salt.

Attention: you have taken a life that was not yours. God perceives that you are unworthy of the role of divine messenger.
Angelic Aura reduced to 6,544.
Reputation reduced to —44, strong disgust.
Only bandit NPCs will talk to you, or police during an arrest. Most legal merchants will refuse you service. No access to services of Projectoria and Respec-T stations. You will be automatically blacklisted.

My time was coming to an end. I had forty seconds until I was sent back.
“***** ****!” I cried in my trumpeting voice. “F…*** a…***!”

Angelic Aura reduced to 2,147.

Twenty five seconds. Did I have time? I couldn’t remember enough swearwords. Then it hit me:
“There is no God!”

Attention: you have crossed over to the path of evil. The heavens have never seen such an unworthy angel. Descend to where you belong.
Angelic Aura reduced to —7,853.
Special skill gained: Apostate.

I didn’t bother reading what the skill did. I leapt from the falling angel and returned toward Leonarm’s body in a dizzying fall. I cleared the warning messages from my view: while I was soaring through the skies, Leonarm had taken a dozen new hits, and his Health bar was dangerously low.
There was a flash in the sky. The outline of a man appeared. He started to fall, folding his scorched wings behind him.
I aimed down the sight of my Uzi and fired.

Leonarm (Human) killed Crusher (Fallen Angel) using: Uzi Machine Pistol.

#

While in the angel’s form, I’d memorized the location of the brothers behind the mound. I chose the most powerful grenades I still had left after my compression backpack broke, and asked my personal assistant to calculate the best angle to throw them.
After a few seconds, an overlay appeared in front of me. The height of the mound, wind speed, distance to the target and strength of throw. A crosshair appeared at the center of the overlay. By moving my head, I aimed the crosshair over the second one on the overlay. Swinging my arm, I threw the grenades one after another.
All four exploded on the other side of the mound. Numerous damage notifications flashed in the cloud of dust and salt left by the bizoid. During the battle, my experience bar had gone up by several hundred points at least. Various achievements popped up in the notification windows I’d moved to the edge of my vision.
Before the twin brothers had a chance to recover, I started limping toward them. I reloaded my Uzi on the way. But a new notification made me stop:

Fortunado (Mechanodestructor) killed Grisha (Mechanodestructor) bare-handed.

I switched to an open channel.
“Have you gone mad? Why the fratricide? Couldn’t wait for me to finish you both off? Think a little pre-death leveling will help you?”
“You’re way off the truth.”
“But I’m very close to you.” With those words, I climbed the mound and saw the two mechanodestructors. They lay awkwardly, covered in earth and salt, legs akimbo. And didn’t move. The fragment of leg that I’d shot off still moldered with a blue flame. Neither of the mechanodestructors moved as I approached.
Fortunado continued talking:
“We know that strong players leveled you up. But you’re not bad either. You almost finished us off alone. Although it’s all because of the hack. Players at our level aren’t meant to be here, so nothing works like it should.”
“Now I’ll deal with you once and for all...”
And I lowered my weapon.
Hexagonal holes yawned in the bodies of both mechanodestructors. Grishi and Fortunado both were already gone from the battlefield.
The lower level mechanodestructor was a small, hexagonal robot about the size of a nightstand. It moved on a wide monowheel. Instead of eyes, it had one black-and-white camera. At the sides of the nightstand were hands with clumsy claws that couldn’t even pick up a bottle without breaking it. All its equipment is kept in a body that opens to the front, like an ordinary oven. Or like a nightstand.
That little robot is called the ‘Mechanodestructor Core’, and serves as a base for further upgrades. The core is set inside a structure made specially for it. It transforms from a nightstand into a gigantic six-legged robot spider, a human-like transformer, a giant armored self-propelled gun, a flying machine... The mechanodestructor is the apparatus overlaid on the core. Without the core, it’s just a heap of scrap metal. By the same token, without the apparatus, the core is nothing but a harmless nightstand on a monowheel. A nightstand capable only of nipping at the enemy with its pincers.
From what I remembered, characters of the mechanodestructor race were the most expensive to maintain. They need a garage to keep an entire zooload of add-ons: for swimming, flying, walking and so on.
I examined the smoking mounds as if trying to glimpse a nightstand joyously rolling away from me on a monowheel.
“But why did you kill your brother?”
“His core was damaged. He couldn’t move on his own. Better I get the experience from killing him than you.”
“Little early to celebrate. I’ll easily catch up to you, pipsqueak.”
“Good luck, Leonarm,” continued Fortunado. “I don’t know who put a price on your head. But since the client gave us a nuclear bomb, you can come to your own conclusions.”
“A nuclear... What?”
A flash of white light filled the air. I had just enough time to notice a mushroom cloud rising behind my back, where the mechanodestructors’ frames had been left behind. Next I heard a mighty roar, and then darkness fell, with hundreds of scrolling lines:

Fortunado (Mechanodestructor Core) killed Leonarm (Human) using the 2.9 kiloton Big Pulowski atomic bomb.

The unfortunate facts followed:

Damage taken: —12,120,000.
Attention: you died in Rim Zero.
Penalties for dying in a low-level zone:
—50% to all achievements.
—75% capital.
Your new level: 161.

Not the end of the world. I could get back to level three hundred in two or three months. But a new message appeared:

Attention: the Big Pulowski nuclear bomb is a weapon of absolute destruction. You did not survive the explosion. All your achievements have been reset, all your skills have been reset, all your stats...

Little early to celebrate. I’d forgotten that the default Adam Online interface had an awful feature: it showed all messages, even those that had lost all meaning due to following messages.
“I got it, I got it!” I cried helplessly into the darkness.

How would you rate your gaming experience?
(All data are processed and stored in accordance with the rule Processing Confidential Data in Virtual Reality Extranet Systems adopted by the UN in 2099. Article 3, Paragraph 14-2. Please contact support if you have any questions).
������

I pressed five stars just to get the message out of the way.
The darkness faded. The sensation of a weightless body returned. All the parts of the neural interface that Leonarm’s UniSu generated had disappeared.
Gravity kicked in, and I fell into the center of a bright square.
Another second and I stood on the dusty stones of Town Zero’s central square.
I wore a standard grey vest and jeans. I had a ten-shot Glock X5 in a holster and a knife at my belt. A lighter and a paper map in my left pocket. In my hands were three booklets: “Guidebook on Rim Zero of the Adam Online Universe”, an advert for the Tenshot weapon store, and “Adam Online Version 101.45 Update Information”.
I had a small uncomfortable bag on my shoulder. In it was a tablet, a flat box of rounds and a Small Medkit.
The standard set of the new character. But no — the tablet in my bag showed a series of new notifications. New characters don’t usually get anything like that.


Chapter 6. All and Nothing


I took the tablet out of the bag. I also found the nametag of the bot I’d killed and the booklets that I’d received when I logged in to Adam Online. If things kept going like this, my bag would fill up with garbage.
A green indicator flashed on the tablet, and the dark screen showed a deliberately pixelated message: “New Achievement.” I pressed the on button and waited for Leonarm’s stats to load.
Using a tablet as the game interface was the heavy burden of every beginner. That was why those that wanted to level up a soldier made it their first concern to upgrade the interface. They at least upgraded from the tablet to augmented reality points. The end goal, of course, was to equip yourself with the same neurointerface that Leonarm had.
I read:

Achievement: All and Nothing.
You have lost everything. You are at absolute zero. You are nobody.
You had the luck of being in the epicenter of a nuclear explosion, Leonarm. To ease your task of full suicide from Adam Online, you have been given a complimentary Glock. Your choice: a bullet in the head or a new fight for the top of the leaderboard.

Obtained:
Complimentary Glock X5 pistol.

Radiation Resistance skill (level 1).

“I was there first” vest.
500 g.

I dragged the icon of the vest onto myself. Instead of a simple grey vest bearing a small Adam Online logo, I saw myself wearing a black vest with an image of a nuclear explosion and the phrase “I was there first.” It gave no bonuses and was designed a “Collectible Rarity”. It wasn’t worth much, somewhere around three thousand five hundred gold.
I opened the Weaponry tab. The tablet did its job of loading the data painfully slowly. I’d have to get used to its built-in lag:

Complimentary Glock X5 pistol.
A pistol that everyone has.

Ammunition: 10 mm round.
Magazine: 15 shots.
Damage: 40.

Rate of fire: 0.6.
Scatter: 0.5.
Weight: 2.
Value: 8,000 g.
Attention: you received this weapon as an achievement reward. Selling or losing the weapon will lower your Reputation by 1.

A great starter weapon. Compared to the default Glock, it held five more rounds in its magazine. It had heightened accuracy due to its low scatter. I drew the weapon from my holster and examined it. The handle was engraved: “Leonarm, for insanity and courage.”
I could get a bunch of money for it, but selling it would lower my Reputation.
Alright, onto real problems. Or virtual ones. I was stilling standing in Town Zero’s central square. It was a clear midday. The sun burned down on my head. A short blue shadow fell from the respawn tower.
Characters kept appearing all around me: some had only just logged into the game, others were respawning after dying during missions.
Little mechanodestructor cores scurried around my feet. Beginner angels fluttered a few feet above the ground. They looked like translucent figurines of little naked humans with wings.
The level one bizoids just looked like big clumps of white slime. They moved slowly, like legless cripples, tentacle-shaped growths emerging from their bodies. I wondered which advantages the bizoid species offered for people to be willing to play them. The mere sight of them turned my stomach.
Androids began the game in the form of pale, thin creatures. Their long arms hung at their sides, and they wore no clothing. This caused no embarrassment — they were genderless creatures. They had identical rounded pubic mounds instead of genitals. The lack of sex and any sensation at all from narcotics or food was the race’s main disadvantage, and what drove most players away from it.
On the other hand, high-level androids could install a Humanity Chip in their heads that allowed them to experience all the joys available to humanity, but at half the strength. The Humanity Chip also unlocked the Transformation process. Artificial hair could be grown on the android’s bald head, and it could take on secondary sex characteristics: barely noticeable breasts or an even less noticeable penis. Androgynous nature allowed no choice between genders, so androids had to get breasts and a penis at the same time. Also, androids couldn’t kill anyone, neither directly nor indirectly, which many would see as too negative a quality. In exchange, androids had almost an instantaneous learning ability, which was reflected in the fact that all their achievements and points were doubled, and in some skills even tripled. All they had to do was complete a couple of missions in Rim Zero to level up to five and go to Rim One. The real game started there, at One.
Humans, men and women, appeared in identical grey vests, with identical bags on their shoulders. They grabbed their tablets and aimed them at each other, or at objects, reading their characteristics. Some focused on my expensive vest and nodded respectfully. Many moved to the side, sitting on stone benches arranged around the edge of the area in several rows, and immersed themselves in their tablets, distributing stat points.
Time for me to do the same.

#

The system had already distributed all available points among my stats, all I had to do was press confirm. But the default values aren’t my style. I had to figure out my strategy.
I reset all the points and thought:

Leonarm, Human.
Class: not chosen.
Level: 0.

I opened the list of classes and scrolled to Tracker. My task was to find the Mentors, right? And find Nelly Valeeva, find an answer to the question — how did they manage to escape informational entropy?

Class: Tracker.
Your step is swift, your gaze sharp, and your movements accurate. You are a tracker.
You are capable of seeing more details in the environment. To others, trampled grass may just be trampled grass, but to you, it is a clear track left by a person. But not you.
The tracker leaves no tracks.

Attention, this class requires:
Strength of at least 3 (distributed automatically).
Perception of at least 5 (distributed automatically).
Agility of at least 4 (distributed automatically).
Knowledge of at least 2 (distributed automatically).
Rifles and Shotguns skill (selected automatically, 1 free skill remaining).

On the other hand, Stalker isn’t a bad class either. But best to be a Tracker at first. Most of the Stalker skills wouldn’t be available at low level. Although... Who knows what could have changed in all these years? I opened the Stalker sheet to check:

Class: Stalker.
You are the lone explorer of numerous zones. You heal radiation wounds with vodka and feed only on canned meat. Your backpack will hold a ton of one and a ton of the other. Unfussy and low-maintenance, you survive where the bizoid insects perish, the androids break down, and the mechanodestructors’ electronics fail to withstand the anomalies’ influence.
Your philosophy is simple: if it’s day, there’s food. What else do you need at night by the fire, when the crackle of the Geiger counter mixes with the crackle of burning logs? Except a guitar for a good song...

Attention, this class requires:
Perception of at least 8 (distributed automatically).
Agility of at least 8 (distributed automatically).
Knowledge of at least 4 (distributed automatically).
Strength of at least 8 (not enough points! Need 28. You cannot select this class).

Ooh, stricter than it was. The Stalker class was probably still one of the ‘easy’ classes. Everyone wanted to pick it, messing up the game balance. After selecting Tracker, I had five points left, and Leonarm’s stats looked like this:

Strength: 3.
Perception: 5.
Agility: 4.
Knowledge: 2.
Health: 1.
Luck: 1.

Knowledge was a strange and undefined stat in Adam Online.
Emma, being a fanatic adamite, read materials on the history of its creation. I learned from Emma that a long time ago, when gyrorbs had just been released in the virtual world, this stat was called Intellect.
The invention of teharration changed the fundamentals of character control. You became the character. The game character’s Intellect stopped influencing anything.
After all, people in a virtual world have their own intellect. It could not be modified by anything in the virtual world. A character’s body could change as much as you wanted, changing the signals sent to the digitized brain. You couldn’t forcibly write the ability to shoot, play the violin or successfully perform all the Kama Sutra poses into the binary array of the human consciousness. All you could do was give the virtual body more strength to lower spread when firing. Or more agility to move the bow faster. Or more health to complete all the sexual poses in one sex act.
The control systems could change only what they created: the parameters of weaponry, zone physics and item characteristics. This created equality between players. If you were a crack shot in real life, then in Adam, your knowledge didn’t exactly disappear, but was corrected by the guns. You could aim as well as you liked, but your accuracy would be the same as that shown in your character sheet. The weapons behaved accordingly. Low skill meant fewer hits. The fact that you could wing a fly in real life didn’t matter.
Knowledge was the main stat for people who wanted to craft their own weapons, equipment and other items. I usually put a few points into Knowledge when starting a character. But now I doubted myself. Did I really need it in the low levels? Fast leveling seemed more important right now, and Knowledge leveled up more slowly than anything else.
But that didn’t mean I’d completely ignore the stat. Leveling it up unlocked complex armaments and UniSu upgrades. Just right now, in the very beginning, Knowledge could be neglected.
I put all five points into Health, increasing it to six. I didn’t have to worry about the spiderbots at Mechanodestructor Heap killing me in the first few hits now.
I chose Automatic Weapons as my next skill, which included the Uzi machine pistol that I liked so much. I liked the fact that it had such a high rate of fire at a low level. It gave the enemy’s Armor no time to recover.
I got the Tenshot Weapons Store booklet out of my bag and found the Uzi. I didn’t delve into the upgrades yet. I made sure it was for sale in Rim Zero stores.
I decided that I’d limit Leonarm’s leveling to firearms. Energy weapons were expensive and slow. When I played for myself, that’s what I chose, but right now I didn’t have the time. I wasn’t playing for myself, I was playing for my country.
Actually — for all mankind.
I rose from the bench. I pressed Apply Changes on the tablet. The surrounding world froze for a couple of seconds, me along with it. Everything began to move again. I stopped feeling the weight of my bag and holster. My increased Strength was working.
“Shit! Shit Shiiit!” I heard next to me.
A girl appeared in the square. She wore a torn light armored vest on top of the standard vest. She held a Lefaucheux revolver, smoke still rising from the barrel.
“Shit fuck,” resumed the girl.
She opened the cylinder and shook out the smoking shells.

#

I didn’t have to look at her with the tablet to recognize Amy McDonald. I’d seen her from above when I was controlling the angel.
“You won’t survive a spiderbot ambush with gear like that,” I said.
“Fuck! How do you know where I was?”
“I guessed.”
“And what am I supposed to do, since you’re so clever, dickhead?”
“Stop swearing for one thing.”
“Fuck off, bitch.”
Amy haughtily walked by me. She stopped and turned:
“Sorry, I was an angel for so long that I really missed swearing.”
I looked at the girl. Like everyone in Rim Zero, she had a real appearance, slightly embellished by the control systems. For example, all blemishes like moles, pimples and scars had been removed from her skin. Changing your appearance completely was a perk reserved for players over level thirty. In the initial levels, only cosmetic corrections were possible: hair and eye color, skin tone. And three hairstyles to choose from. Long, short and bald. Everything else cost money. And not in-game gold, but real dollars and cents that had to be sent to the provider before immersion in the pod.
I didn’t know how bizoids could be changed. The number of tentacles, the color of the slime they left behind?
Amy had short hair dyed to a lilac color. Her face was round, with a sharp chin. She cast an appraising gaze on me as well:
“Awesome vest. That from the nuke mentioned on the radio?”
“Probably,” I answered evasively.
“Where’d you get it?”
“It’s second-hand.”
“Liar.”
“Of course I’m lying, Amy McDonald.”
Since I hadn’t pointed a tablet at her, she was surprised:
“How do you know my name?”
She took her tablet out of her bag. It was already upgraded with Processing Speed, shown by the large fan in the casing, lit with a lilac LED, the same color as her hair. She aimed it at me:
“Uh, Leonarm. So many Leonarms now, damn.”
“Want to complete the Heap together?”
“There’ll be less experience that way.”
“I’m at level one, every little helps. And for you, it’s a chance to finally get to level five.”
She thought a little:
“No, f-f-fu... Not worth it for me. I have an awesome revolver, armor, a tablet with an upgraded personal helper. I even have a backpack instead of a bag. I mean fuck, all you have is a cool vest. You’ll be killed at the entrance.”
I pointed to the graphic of the nuclear explosion on my vest:
“Look, I was at the epicenter. I can deal with spiderbots.”
She twigged it right away:
“A hidden achievement, right? Awesome. Which?
“Not telling. So are we going or what?”
“Alright. But don’t expect me to sacrifice myself to protect you. Dickhead.”
Why did I invite her along?
“Sonny,” Makartsiev had said to me. “You’re a former champion in the game, right? So please, act like a normal player. Socialize, accept duels and join groups. Your behavior shouldn’t differ from that of other players.”
Of course, the Major General hadn’t given me any instructions on how to behave after losing a character. Such a scenario probably wasn’t even considered. Who could have known that top players would attack me? And in the sandbox, no less!
In other words, if I had to socialize, then why not start right away?
Chapter 7. Collapse Shmollapse
The HQ of the Black Wave guild stopped being a simple military base a long time ago. After getting a geographical marker on the Adam Online world map, it became one of the zones of Rim Four. Fortunado even built a village around the base to promote it, calling it Shoreline, even though there was no sea or lake nearby. Although later, using the user location editor, he added a lake too.
Shoreline wasn’t just home to the NPCs designed to imitate normal life for added realism. Plenty of players bought homes there too.
At first people settled there who had business with Black Wave: merchants, crafting masters and new recruits wanting to join the guild. Since the brothers had a strict selection process, some new recruits lived here for four to six months of their game shift. They completed little errands and earned the experience necessary for initial selection into the guild. The neuronet generators noticed the increased number of players in this area and doubled the generation of quests and random events.
The village became a place where you could earn a good living. But thanks to the brothers’ elitism, it never turned into a large population: they couldn’t stand black marketeers, drug dens or public houses. And without them, any human village, even a virtual one, stayed a boring village.
Patrols from the Black Wave recruits regularly held raids to clear Shoreline of entertainment establishments, not caring who they belonged to, player or NPC. The verdict was the same for all: shoot on sight. Nobody knew why the brothers wanted it this way, and they weren’t talking.
Shoreline maintained a reputation as a place for serious combat characters.
Here you could outfit your UniSu with custom-made upgrades crafted by human master craftsmen. In contrast to the procedurally generated upgrades, custom-made goods had a more useful multiplier from expansion combinations.
For example, if you wanted to increase your Armor stat. In the Divine Armor or Human Factor store chains, you could get a set of upgrade expansions:

Chest armor upgrade + helmet upgrade + intricate skin (+10 to attractiveness to NPCs).

 One might be forgiven for wondering why the hell that skin was there. But the procedural algorithms stubbornly added something useless to all upgrades. If it wasn’t an Intricate Skin, it’d be something like Block Bizoid Tentacle Capture. An upgrade that might come in handy in one situation out of a thousand. Not every bizoid had tentacles. Not everyone using them tried to grab with them.
The human artisan, on the other hand, carefully assembled a set like this:

Chest armor upgrade + helmet upgrade + Strength upgrade.

Or filled all three expansions with the same Armor upgrade.
High-quality upgrades like that could be found for any race.
Mechanodestructors were served at the Depot. People worked there, not NPCs who could suddenly refuse a repair, asking you to take on some dumb quest first.
The Angel Temples were also staffed by angel players that knew exactly how to endow a spell with the greatest effect. Such rarities as Solar Pillar and the Trumpet of Jericho were made there.
The biolaboratories sold Nutrient Packs and DNI modifiers for bizoids, carefully crafted by other bizoid players.
Upgrades and items created by Shoreline’s artisans were highly priced, so only people who knew exactly what they wanted bought them.
All user zones in Adam Online had a respawn tower that also acted as a transition point from Rim to Rim.
Sentry mechanodestructors, humanoid robots with missile launchers and plasma guns instead of arms that protected the respawn point at Shoreline, were surprised to see the naked core of a mechanodestructor appear on the respawn point. Any level one hundred player could kill the defenseless nightstand just by poking it.
“Stop staring like idiots!” shouted the core, trying to scurry between the legs of the sentries. “Get out of my way!”
They were even more surprised when they read the player’s name:

Fortunado, Mechanodestructor.
Level: 165.

“Sorry, boss, didn’t recognize you in that setup... and with that ranking.”
Angrily spinning his monowheel, the nightstand careered clean across Shoreline and disappeared into the Depot building. Ten minutes later, Fortunado emerged, shrouded in a humanoid transformer — everything that his low level allowed.
Less than some of the new recruits that were trying to get into his guild.

#

The leading members of the Black Wave guild gathered in a meeting room: a tall domed building. It was large enough to fit huge mechanodestructors and the no less huge bizoids.
A hexagonal table occupied the center, with a gold statue of a mechanodestructor core sitting on it. A projector panel covered an entire wall. It showed events from all the Rims of Adam Online, news from the real world, news from the virtual world. Stock market data, the state of all guild members and the progress of all the guild’s operations on all levels.
Fortunado spent a lot of time leveling up his Architect skill to build that structure.
The android Nika sat on a sofa, legs up. She folded up her thin two-dimensional body dressed in a white jumpsuit. Pulling her sharp knees in to her chin, she gloomily scrolled through a projection of the Adam Online leaderboard in front of her. Tousled black hair like obsidian knives fell onto her face. She swept it back angrily, but the blades stubbornly fell down again.
The bizoid Most Ancient Evil had lost his Earthly Tremble DNA modification after he was transformed into a pillar of salt. He was no longer a colossal worm that could move under the ground, avoiding fees when moving from Rim to Rim. He was the only one that had no need of a respawn tower.
Now he looked like a three-meter hairy monster, half bear and half monkey. This DNA modification, called ‘primatebear’, had a few skills thanks to the player’s personal inventions. Most Ancient Evil once earned a decent amount from selling the DNA modification for 600,000 g per test tube. Now he felt he’d have to return to biocrafting.
Crossing his furry paws on his chest, the bizoid walked bowlegged from Nika’s chair to the giant screen. He stopped and wrinkled his monkey nose:
“The brothers are arguing again.”
“No wonder,” replied Crusher the fallen angel. “We won, but it feels more like we lost.”
Nika switched off the projection and stated:
“I went down to level one hundred fifty. I’m not even in the top hundred anymore. Five thousand hours of leveling down the drain.”
“You’re talking as if you didn’t get anything in exchange,” muttered Most Ancient Evil. “With money like that, we won’t have to worry about pod fees for a whole five years.”
“I lost my advertisement contracts because I fell off the leaderboard,” hissed Nika. “Who needs adverts from a player at level one fifty? I had a stable income from my ads.”
The bizoid turned his face toward a column casting a dark shadow:
“What about you, Crusher? Did you have corporate contracts?”
The fallen angel emerged from the shadow. He was shrouded in a chlamys, which he was unable to swap for anything else. His white wings with their scorched tips were folded behind him. He had a stately body, a beautiful pale face. His eyes were all black, with no whites. It gave him a demonic air.
“Yes, I worked for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But they don’t care what level I am as long as I give out their booklets.”
Slapping his bare feet on the hexagonal tiles, the fallen angel walked to the table and sat in an armchair. He had to lift his wings to sit down.
“You’re not angry because you lost your contracts, Nika. You’re angry because Leonarm killed us all solo,” he said.
“Oh, please,” blazed Nika. “That char is like a revolving door. One player in it one day, another the next.”
“No-o-o,” cried the bizoid. “Something tells me that Leonarm’s rightful owner is back. There was a champion under that name ten years ago.”
“You don’t remember anything that happened ten years ago.”
“Who needs memories when you can search?”
“God, you’re such a drag.” Nika slid out of the armchair.  She extended her wire-thin body: “One good thing, at least: the nuclear explosion took him back to zero.”
“By the way,” added Crusher the fallen angel, “why didn’t we use the nuke right away? Why were we sent into battle first?”
“Don’t you get it?” snorted Nika. “The twins were saving the a-bomb. They didn’t want to waste it. They hoped we could take care of it. And look how much we’ve lost to their frugality.”
The gate in the wall swung open, and Grisha and Fortunado entered. Grisha was in his core. The tiny robot was entirely lost against a backdrop of gigantic characters.
“What are you droning about?” asked Fortunado. “Are you dissatisfied?”
“We’re plenty satisfied, boss,” answered Crusher and Most Ancient Evil.
“I am dissatisfied,” said Nika. “As a temporary participant, I joined only for the raid to Rim Zero. I’m leaving the guild.”
“Are you sure?”
“Then scram, get out of here!” squealed the little Grisha. He began to roll toward the android. He nipped a thin leg with his claws: “We won’t call you again. Go complete some NPC quests.”
Nika carefully pushed Grisha back with her foot:
“Unlike you losers, I do real scientific work.”
 “Real scientific work is done outside, beyond the pods,” Fortunado replied skeptically. “This entire place is an imitation. Thank you for the help, Nika. The mission was more challenging than we initially expected. We have decided to give you an extra fifteen percent on your reward.”
“Oh, that’s good!” Most Ancient Evil roared.
“I wouldn’t have given her anything,” muttered Grisha, trying to get to Nika again to bite her.
After checking that the money had reached her account, Nika nodded:
“Thanks, Fortunado. Pleasure doing business with you.”
“Not with you, not at all!” said Grisha, waving his pincers and escorting her to the exit. But then he stopped and whispered to Nika: “I’ll come see you tonight.”
When the door closed behind her, Fortunado stood at the head of the table. Grisha rolled himself to a chair and stretched out his claw arms in expectation:
“Someone give me a lift, dammit.”
Carefully, knowing that he could critically harm the little thing just with a touch of his claw, the furry bizoid lifted him up and put him in the chair.
“Friends,” began Fortunado. “My brother and I have held counsel. We have decided that...”
“You decided, you did,” said Grisha, waving his pincers. “I was against it.”
“Very well. I have decided to inform you of our relationship with the client that commissioned us to kill Leonarm. After the losses we’ve suffered on the leaderboard, this is the least we can do for you.”
“Come on, boss,” answered Crusher, flapping his wings. “We earned a fair amount. But thanks for the trust.”
The primatebear growled in agreement.
“This isn’t just a question of trust,” continued Fortunado. “As the leading guild members, you must be informed of all events. And we need your advice.”
The bizoid Most Ancient Evil opened his maw in a grin:
“I do wonder what client could craft a nuclear bomb.”
Grisha tapped his pincers on the table. “We don’t know who our client is exactly. It could be the US government, or the Chinese, or ours, or the Russians, or even the Kazan People’s Republic. But there is no doubt that these people are all-powerful.”
The fallen angel shook his wings. “Are they the ones that gave us the passage to Rim Zero?”
Fortunado nodded. “But how did they do it? It should be impossible.”
“Why?” muttered the bizoid naively.

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