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 whole flight. For a full 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. I even started getting annoyed that the cabin's soundproofing shielded us from the sound of the rotors. Their whirring 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 time requirement, I’d put it on and checked it was functioning.
“My dad taught me not to trust strangers. Sorry, but this is the first time I’ve met you,” I sat back down, keeping the controls in view.
My traveling companion followed my gaze. “And you always keep an eye on the controls.”
“Maybe I’ve never seen a combat helicopter piloting itself.”
“You’ve seen it all,” he zipped up his suit (almost making the standard time). “And you know full well that if we’re shot down now, your best bet is 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. After the missile explodes, the EM pulse knocks 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 was listening through the earphones of my radiation suit. I wanted to answer that the on-board computer would crash even without an EM 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 a tablet and brought up the map on 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 centuries to come.
There was no better place to set up an unregistered 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 on the screen. 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, bro,” my companion replied. “It’s so deep underground, 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 by the helicopter’s open cargo hatch.
“Look over there, under the bricks,” my companion said 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 told me.
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 asked 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 taharration.
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[1]. 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 a code into a tablet to unlock the doors.
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 we went through the radiation scrubber. 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 spluttered 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. “We... we refine oxygen from water we get from a well. The hydrogen left over from producing oxygen goes to the power system. Like on a lunar station, bro.”
“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 cells; 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 cabin 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 taharration pod covered in a plastic sheet. 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.

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?”
“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 Moscovian Rus rank up pretty quick.”
“What are you driving at?”
“New doesn’t always mean better. And ‘new’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘reliable.’ 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, bro, even the scientists that invented taharration 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 decided 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 us landlords? Even ones as high-class 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.”

* * *

Taharration[2], the copying of human consciousness, was a complex operation. The human body was immersed in a pod of dissociative electrolytes and 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 Taharration Cluster, a pathway to Adam Online for the poor. A building full of tightly packed torpedoes, in each a naked and bald human being.
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 bring it back to reality, the QCP converted the consciousness back 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 the 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 taharration. 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 Olga. That’s what happened to all those too weak to face ultimate annihilation. 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 debilitating debuffs. Living in Adam Online became harder with each passing hour. Even a gust of strong wind could kill a character at the maximum level. 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 taharration was an increased lifespan due to stasis. People 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 have kids 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 stench 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 did he even build in those three months?
“Done,” the landlord said, 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 after all.
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 here, please.”
The landlord left, then returned looking at the card. “Wife, daughter, sister?”
“None of 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. Olga froze, strolling to somewhere in the distance, above the lens.
ALICE blinked through the tablet.

Process complete. Ready to taharrate.

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, the M is for 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?”
“Good luck, brother.”
I lowered myself into the pod silently. The dissociative fluid seeped into my lungs, sank into my stomach in a chilly blob. 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 above me. 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, seeping 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.

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 Makarov, 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 hear about my fishing trips 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 don’t know exactly how, but we suspect that her binary array was fully saved somehow. 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 taharration 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,” Makarov said. “And practically nothing has changed: a pod of dissociative fluid and a connection to a quantum computing platform.”
“Only it was crap, Sir. 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 was no rose. As far as I remembered, she even died alone, at her desk. She continued working on the taharration 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, Sir? 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, Sir, 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 and 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,” Makarov said, 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 taharration 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, Sir. Now another question...”
A knock at the door interrupted me.

* * *

“Good time of day, players!” the tech support bot said. 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 Makarov 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 your taharration system is the cause. Your location cannot be Unknown. Please contact your taharration service provider.”
I shot him in the face. After thoroughly coating 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,” Makarov chuckled. “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.

Makarov 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.”
Makarov 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 loading. Even in this form, it was clear that the character had been leveled to the max. The UniSuit 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 Olga 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,” Makarov said. “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? Sounds scary even to me.”
“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 to show 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 the 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 the way things were here.
“That’s it, Anton, they’ve found us. I’ll hold them off, you get elsewhere.”
Makarov 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 taharration 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 was like! I moved to the equipment description. Humans were capable of expanding their battle abilities via one method: UniSuit upgrades.
The Universal Suit (UniSuit) 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 UniSuit turned into both armor and neurosuit for controlling combat machines, and an exoskeleton like Makarov’s.
You could either buy the upgrades or make them yourself...
The number of slots depended on the UniSuit’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 UniSuit of a single adamite was rarely similar to the UniSuit 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 were 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 Makarov 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, Makarov’s voice said. 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 UniSuit 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:

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.

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

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

And another dozen lines. But it was the backpack itself occupying one of the UniSuit’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: Olga 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.

* * *

Makarov 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:


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 Makarov:
“How did they get here?”
“Someone hacked the block, like we did,” Makarov replied. “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[3] and Fortunado are the guild leaders, twin brothers.”
Makarov 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.
“Makarov!” I yelled. “Switch the turret fire to the androids! They’re healing the spiders.”
“Take care of it yourself, son,” Makarov replied. “I know nothing about these games.”
A message appeared in front of me:

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, Makarov 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!” Makarov encouraged. 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, Makarov reached the enemy. He detonated a powerful explosive. The explosion threw tons of earth into the air. The turrets’ 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 Makarov’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 Makarov 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,” Grisha’s avatar replied.
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,” Grisha added. “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,” Fortunado said.
“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,” Grisha said. “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,” Fortunado added.
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 Makarov’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 UniSuit 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 UniSuit-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 UniSuit’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 Makarov’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 were 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.


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, they 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, then asked my personal assistant to calculate the best angle to throw them.
Wait a bit, it replied.
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...” Then I lowered my weapon.
Hexagonal holes yawned in the bodies of both mechanodestructors. Both Grisha and Fortunado 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,” Fortunado continued. “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 shouted 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 UniSuit 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.

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.
Olga, being a fanatic adamite, read materials on the history of its creation. I learned from Olga that a long time ago, when gyrorbs had just been released in the virtual world, this stat was called Intellect.
The invention of taharration 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 UniSuit 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,” the girl summarized.
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.”
“Of course I’m lying, Amy McDonald.”
 “How do you know my name?” she sounded surprised as I hadn’t pointed a tablet at her.
She took her own 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,” Makarov 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 UniSuit 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 DNA 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. “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,” Nika hissed. “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.”
“Oh, please,” Nika rolled her eyes. “That char is like a revolving door. One player in it one day, another the next.”
“No-o-o,” the bizoid cried. “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 and stretched 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?” Nika snorted. “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, letting in Grisha and Fortunado. Grisha was in his core. The tiny robot was entirely lost against a backdrop of gigantic characters.
“What are you droning about?” Fortunado asked. “Are you dissatisfied?”
“We’re plenty satisfied, boss,” answered Crusher and Most Ancient Evil.
“I am dissatisfied,” Nika said. “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!” the little Grisha squealed. 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 thundered.
“I wouldn’t have given her anything,” Grisha muttered, 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!” Grisha said, 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,” Fortunado began. “My brother and I have held counsel. We have decided that...”
“You decided, you did,” Grisha said, 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,” Crusher said, 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,” Fortunado continued. “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?” the bizoid muttered.
“You can hack individual objects, weapons, even characters... and the controllers will come down on you and kick you off the game. But the game itself doesn’t just exist on the servers. It exists in the players’ heads as well.”
“Woah, crazy...” the bizoid scratched his head. “Right inside my noodle?”
“Yours, mine, his, everyone’s,” continued the fallen angel. “Take at least a little interest in science. Read some books on quantum consciousness theory.”
“You read ‘em.”
“Adam Online isn’t just a server cluster, it’s a kind of imagined reality that is being created by the players themselves.”
“But there are servers, right?” Grisha asked.
“They’re used to store data that hasn’t yet been perceived by any Adam Online players. Damn, how am I supposed to explain this kind of thing to people that don’t even know what a wave function collapse is...”
“Collapse? Huh?” the bizoid clenched a clawed fist. “Don’t make fun of me. Collapse shmollapse. Explain things properly before I collapse you down to your glands.”
“Well, imagine that we all got together in real life in one big room and started imagining a virtual world. While we’re imagining it, while we’re involved in it, it exists. I’m looking at you, you’re looking at me. It’s as if we’re both creating each other.”
“So why the servers?”
“The servers store information about us in case we stop perceiving each other. Nika just left the zone, but she didn’t disappear into thin air, right? The servers are the room where we’re imagining this virtual world. The CSes, the control systems, generate new maps and quests, then insert them into the consciousness of the player that requested them.
“Ugh. I don’t feel like playing after hearing all that.”
“The servers also store data about NPCs, gear, weapons, zones, number of players...”
“Right!” Grisha exclaimed. “The zones are on the servers after all. So they can be hacked?”
“No. The game rules can’t be violated. We all agreed to them. That’s what the voting system is for, changing the rules. All adamites decide whether it’s possible to do this or that in the game. Think about it, why do you think there’s a ban on returning to Rim Zero?”
“Well, so that high-level players don’t waste scrubs.”
“Exactly. That’s just common sense. We all agreed to that. In the same way, you can’t go from Rim Five to Rim One without lowering your level. The game couldn’t exist without basic rules. And while all three billion of us believe that high-level players shouldn’t be messing around near noobs, that’s how it’ll be.”
“Wait,” The Most Ancient Evil frowned. “Theoretically, I could imagine myself up to level one thousand?”
“Theoretically? Hell, to level one million. Practically, of course not.”
“Why not?”
“Your will alone isn’t enough to become a level one-thousand player. The other players also have to agree to it. And they won’t. So you have to level up in the same conditions as everyone else. Up to four hundred and no higher.”
“Shame. Then tell me why...”
 “Friends, whoever wants to familiarize themselves with the theory of Adam Online’s functioning should read the manuals,” Fortunado interrupted. “I... We gathered you here to talk to the client. She’s already on the line.”
A video chat window opened on the projection panel. A girl appeared on the screen with blonde hair gathered into a ponytail. Her blue eyes literally smoldered on her face like two little flames. She was wearing a vest with a graphic of the word Darknet.
“Hello, Fortunado. Why are these people here?”
She spoke without emotion, making an emphasis only on the word “people”, which was also strangely unemotional. It was hard to tell whether she was indignant or surprised.
“Where do you see people?” grumbled Grisha the mechanodestructor.
The bizoid and the fallen angel giggled warily.
“Hello, Mariam,” Fortunado said. “We won’t be able to continue the operation without them.”
Mariam held her blue eyes on Most Ancient Evil and Crusher for precisely one second each. “Very well.”

Chapter 8. New Victim Leaderboard

MARIAM SPOKE unhurriedly. The pauses between her sentences could have been measured with a stopwatch.
“You failed to kill Leonarm without attracting attention. But we are satisfied with the result. No, we are not entirely satisfied with the result.”
Fortunado listened carefully, while Grisha clicked his pincers thinking: A nuclear explosion in Rim Zero sure does draw attention.
“We have analyzed the course of the operation,” Mariam continued. “We cannot give you another nuclear bomb.”
“Shame,” Grisha said, clicking his pincers.
Fortunado nodded. “I understand. Too much noise. The explosion is the talk of the town. The atomic bomb was an urban legend in Adam Online, but now everyone knows that they actually exist.”
“We cannot give you another nuclear bomb,” Mariam repeated for some unknown reason.
It wasn’t that she had no facial expressions, but it was as if she was following a certain rhythm.
Crusher couldn’t help himself. He messaged Most Ancient Evil privately: This girl bothers me.
She scares me too, the bizoid answered.
Grisha tapped his pincers on the table, demanding attention.
“Then we’ll have to increase our fee, Mariam. Killing high-level players costs a lot in ranking points. Sometimes those players take us out, after all. Our guild is already off the top ten.
Fortunado nodded his agreement with his brother.
After a pause that seemed unnecessary, as if the girl was imitating a pause for thought, she asked,
“How much?”
Fortunado examined his guildmates inquiringly, then turned to the screen. “Another five hundred million.”
Holy shit, Crusher and Most Ancient Evil said to each other.
Now there’s a demand.
“The world of real business and big bucks.”
Mariam shook her head. “Too much. We are forced to request services from the Golden Horde and Langoliers guilds. Thank you for your collaboration...”
Grisha waved his pincers. “Hey, hey, ain’t ya heard of haggling?”
“Haggling?” Mariam said pensively. It seemed to everyone as if something like arrogance appeared in her blue eyes. “We already pay a lot.”
Fortunado stretched his mechanical mouth into a smile. “No harm in trying. Alright, Mariam. How much extra can you give us?”
“Another hundred million for every level three hundred player. The amount will reduce in direct proportion to reduced level.”
Grisha and Fortunado exchanged glances. Still a hell of a lot, Crusher messaged Most Ancient Evil privately.
Yep. We’re rich. Even in real life, after converting it into money.
What’s the exchange rate right now?
Sixty-two thousand gold per buck.
Fortunado brought a document up on the projection panel. “Agreed. Who’s next?”
“Any player from the leaderboard with an obvious intention to explore the borders of Rim Five,” Mariam signed the contract. “Or even if he’s trying to approach it.”
“What are our orders for Leonarm?”
“But he’ll level up again. Wouldn’t it be simpler to camp him in Rim Zero?”
Mariam took another artificial pause, then finally explained,
“He would simply exit his pod, wait another rotation and enter a new ranked character. The MSB constantly levels them up for their purposes. We do not need that. We cannot give you another nuclear bomb. Any questions?”
The guildmates exchanged glances. “I don’t think so,” Fortunado said.
“Get started, then.”
Mariam disappeared.
Grisha gleefully rattled his pincers on the table. “Five hundred million!”
Even Fortunado smiled indulgently. “Don’t take it for granted. We need to level back up to three hundred. And keep others from doing the same. First let’s figure out what to do with the people at the top of the leaderboard right now.”

* * *

Fortunado pulled up the current leaderboard on the projector panel. The top ten now looked like this:

Adam Online Ranking Leaderboard (Asian Cluster)

1. Jamilla — 331 (Fallen Angel).
2. David Kronenberg — 322 (Bizoid).
3. HyperNoob — 290 (Mechanodestructor, Guild: Langoliers).
4. Evil Transformer — 280 (Mechanodestructor, Guild: Golden Horde).
5. Knight_Ivan — 266 (Human, Guild: Viatichi[4]).
6. Your Mom — 253 (Super).
7. Slippery Joe — 250 (Bizoid, Guild: Golden Horde).
8. Blondie Lee — 245 (Fallen Angel).
9. Henrich Saidullaev — 240 (Mechanodestructor).
10. Alan Kachmazov — 231 (Super, Guild: Langoliers).

Crusher the fallen angel skimmed through the champions’ profiles. “Boss, the trouble is...”
“Yeah, I know,” Fortunado said, shaking his mechanical head.
“I don’t,” admitted Most Ancient Evil. “Why’s everyone so down?”
Grisha pointed at the leaderboard. “To knock down at least Jamilla, we need at least five of us.”
“And even then, it might be tough,” Crusher said.
The bizoid retracted his head and snarled. “I’ll tear her apart right now for five hundred million. I don’t care about the levels. I need cash.”
“So does everyone,” Crusher replied. “But that’s not the only problem.”
“What else?”
“The ranked players are in some guild. What do you think will happen when we start knocking them out?”
“Guild wars? Haven’t had those in a while. The Black Wave will show who rules Adam.”
Fortunado and Grisha were silent. The mechanodestructors’ facial expressions were primitive: their smile was grimace-like, and an attempt to knit their brows (or what they had in place of them) lead to such a deformation of the head (or what they had in place of it) that it was hard to follow what was going on.
“Nobody is tearing up anybody!” Fortunado snapped. “We’re too weak to start a war against the other guilds. We need to prepare.”
“Agreed,” Crusher said.
“What if this Jamilla heads out to the border with Rim Six, to get into unexplored zones?” Grisha objected. “That’s exactly what Mariam is afraid of, as I understand it.”
“That’s why we need to be as fast and level-headed as possible.” Fortunado brought up a list of Black Wave guild members on the projection panel. “Let’s plan our work for the next five days. We need to bring in all members above level two hundred.”
Fortunado, Grisha and Crusher looked at the cards, noting the zones with the highest level black wavers in. Most Ancient Evil was the only one that didn’t understand the tables. He just opened the description of the Jamilla character, thinking that he’d need to level up to destroy the super-strong fallen angel.
 “As commanders, we have to not only get back to level two hundred, but also strengthen our battle skill leveling,” Fortunado summarized. “If you see strong upgrades, DNA modifications or spells for sale, buy them all up, don’t haggle. The more we buy, the less the people we have to kill can buy. We have plenty of money. Buy it all up. You’ll have access to the guild budget.”
Most Ancient Evil grunted contentedly.
“Each of you will create a group of ten of the best warriors,” continued Fortunado. “Each group will pick a target from the leaderboard. We’ll figure out who gets who as we go along. Make the groups based on who complements who. Meaning you, Crusher, shouldn’t just pick angels or fallen angels. You should have a couple of each race...”
 “But nonetheless, put an emphasis on mechanodestructors,” Grisha interrupted. “They’re expensive to maintain, but effective. Also, our guild Depot will maintain them for free.”
“Question,” Most Ancient Evil raised a paw. “Do we accept anyone, or only guild members?”
“Anyone. Moreover, I’ll start by trying to lure the best warriors from other guilds to our side. Then we won’t have to kill them. The main thing is not to mess around with Rim Six or any zones after Rim Five. I’ll also increase recruitment. We need to expand the guild and help our warriors level up.”
The bizoid scratched his furry chin. “Hey boss, what’s in those secret zones? And who is this Mariam person anyway?”
Crusher also pricked up his wings waiting for Fortunado’s answer.
“I don’t know who she is or what her endgame is.”
“Right, but all the same...” the bizoid said, lowering his voice. “What if she’s one of those... what do you call ‘em, Tutors?”
“Mentors,” corrected Crusher.
 “I don’t believe in the Mentors,” Fortunado spoke decisively. “More likely the special forces of Moscovian Rus and the Kazan People’s Republic are plotting against each other again. Or China against India. Or the south against the north.”
“But don’t you wonder what’s in those new zones? What if...”
“It’s irrelevant to our commission,” Fortunado interrupted. “Let’s get to work, boys. I’ll expect lists of your group candidates in twelve hours. In twenty hours, we need to drop Jamilla down to level one hundred.”
Grisha pointed his pincers at the map. “Hmm, she’s heading straight for Rim Five...”
Fortunado gestured for Crusher and Most Ancient Evil to leave. “Good luck. Keep in touch.”

* * *

After the newly promoted guild bosses left, Fortunado turned to Grisha. “How long you planning to walk around naked?”
“Patience, bro. Nika is making me a mechanodestructor body the like of which nobody in Adam Online has ever seen. We’re going to crack players like nuts.”
“All the same, put yourself in a tank or a mech at least. Anything could happen, someone might step on you. And by the way, the group stuff applies to you too.”
“But not you?”
“No. I’m overseeing all of you. Or do you think you could do better than me?”
Grisha leapt off his chair, clanging his monowheel. “Nah, bro, I’m a bad organizer.”
Fortunado approached the projection panel and brought up a log of the battle in Rim Zero.
“Can’t get Leonarm out of your head either?” Grisha asked.
“He’s a dangerous enemy. He fights as if barely thinking about it.”
“So? He still went down.”
“Anyone would have gone down to a nuclear blast. It’s as if Leonarm doesn’t take Adam Online seriously. That ease is what makes him dangerous. We need to keep an eye on him.”
“But we don’t have anyone in Rim Zero, or even in Rim Three. Nothing but scrubs there.”
Fortunado turned. “Alright, I’ll do it. You fulfil your duty.”
Grisha rolled to the exit. “Then I’ll head over to see Nika. I’ll try to convince her to rejoin the guild.”
“Don’t forget to get changed!” shouted Fortunado at his retreating back. “You’re tempting fate to take you out.”

Chapter 9. Teenagers Online

THE TWINS Grisha and Fortunado were humble citizens in real life. And not because they were anti-social jerks. Unsociability became the norm of reality, to compensate for excessive socialization in the virtual world.
Life was such that the majority of the planet’s population had no employment in life. There was no work that demanded full attendance, or even real-life entertainment. Robots did all the work, and the wealthy people of the west had all the fun. They owned all the land that wasn’t irradiated. They invented, did research, built factories where robots manufactured new robots. They sailed the oceans, flew into space. They risked their real lives to build a station on the Moon. It was them, the heirs of rich families, who died in the first landing on Mars. And the second, and the third, before attempts to colonize the planet were finally abandoned.
At least, that’s what the news said.
The rest of the population had been forced to sit in grey apartments, first donning a virtual reality helmet and then stepping onto a gyroscopic sphere. Rotating under the user’s feet, the gyrosphere imitated bodily movement across virtual worlds, conveying other information through the neuronet on the body. On gyrospheres, people felt real sensations in a virtual world: pain, orgasm and a thirst to kill others.
Living in virtual reality had become the norm even then.
The invention of taharration didn’t wipe out the border between reality and invented fantasy. On the contrary, the difference between grey, narrow reality and the beautiful, endless virtual worlds became even more glaring.
Integration into virtual reality began in school. Sometimes the schools themselves were virtual, accessible through a headset or a gyrosphere. It was called Klein-Method Distance Learning. It was used in regions with dangerous environmental factors. This tuition method was the only way onto the social elevator created by rich western society to add to their supply of lackeys.
Talented children were sent to special schools built after the manner of classical schools. There they wore a school uniform, took gym classes and read plenty of high-brow literature. There were also certain special classes about which little was known. The citizens that finished this special school were sent to universities that took up most of Australia — a continent that had completely avoided the ravages of nuclear war. None of them ever left Australia again. Fewer and fewer of them even maintained a connection to their parents, affording them only sparing messages.
The remainder of the young students had a choice to make after finishing school: continue their studies in a college or begin their ‘adult life’. Which means: get a certificate of adulthood, settle down in a grey new build and take on the millstone of debt to buy a standard Ocean-3S taharration pod connected to the municipal QCP mainframe. They paid off the debt using money earned in Adam Online. But although gold, the currency of Adam Online, had high purchasing power in the virtual world, when converted to dollars it turned into a paltry sum.
The system worked without fail. Ninety percent of graduates wanted one thing: to plunge into a taharration pod as soon as possible and leave the drab real world behind.
Grisha and Fortunado studied in an ordinary school in the city of Omsk. Siberia was considered a relatively safe region of the planet, so the students attended school in real life, not resorting to Klein’s crippling methods. But all their studies were focused on preparing for a life in virtual reality.
Taharration had a detrimental effect on growth, so underage players entered Adam Online through a gyroscopic sphere. The user’s movements were transformed into movements in the virtual world. The neural connection network provided a rough, but accessible method of conveying signals created in virtual reality to the human brain.
The twins Grisha and Fortunado, as so often happens, were very different in their characters. It wasn’t that one was better than the other, or that they had a jealous rivalry. They added to their outward similarity with their internal contradictions.
The brothers became stars of virtual duels even as children, defeating opponents in gyrosphere games. With age, their differences shone through even stronger. Grisha preferred fast-paced shooters and beat-em-ups. Fortunado liked strategy games or worlds that had the player build competing virtual states, like Civilization.
When the twins united in a game that required both action and thoughtful strategy, then they had no equal. The Black Wave guild began back in the world of DotA 5, the most popular game among the underage.

* * *

The twins were fourteen when their dreams came true and they made it into the incredible and forbidden world of Adam Online, not through a gyrosphere, but through a taharration pod. Like adults.
After waiting for their mother and father to go on their rotation in Adam Online, Grisha and Fortunado fled the boarding school that housed the children of such parents. They converted their virtual funds earned in DotA 5 into dollars and bought a two-month pass from a landlord for a pod in one of the underground landings on the outskirts of Omsk. One for two.
Their rotation in the game was short, but the brothers not only reached level 90, they also earned enough money to cover the landlord’s rent. Before leaving the pod, they transferred their capital to the control of a credit organization in Liberty City, the capital of Rim One. The organization lent money to players who wanted to buy expensive weaponry and equipment.
When they returned to the boarding school, the twins were met with punishment and a penalty from their parents, but glory among their peers. Along with sweet calculations that by the time they came of age, their investment would grow by six hundred percent.
Aside from the fruits of fate, they also took a blow. There was a reason that it was forbidden for the underage to enter a taharration pod. The dissociative electrolytes blocked the growth spurt that normally occurs in teenagers during puberty. The brothers stayed scrawny and small, and their skin was blue as if the dissociative material had stained it forever. They both likely experienced some other issues too, but neither spoken of it.
Grisha and Fortunado weren’t unique cases. Many teenagers used black market landings. It was this that made the authorities step up their fight against the landlords. They forced them to move their pods from cities to radioactive zones, making it much harder for simple citizens to access the landings. And the landlords, for their part, had found a reason to raise their fee.
On the day they came of age, Grisha and Fortunado, like everyone, got apartments and Ocean-3S pods on loan. In their first rotation, the twins visited an organization in Liberty City and learned some sad news: the outfit was controlled by some NPC playing the role of a mafioso. Of course, as the years went on, this NPC had become a central figure of certain quests. Players regularly robbed his organization, fulfilling requests from the city authorities in the fight against bandits. The honest NPC sent investors regular notifications about the need to urgently withdraw funds, but since the brothers didn’t log into the game anymore, they couldn’t read them.
When they logged into Adam Online on the day they came of age, they found no increase on their investment, only mere remnants of their initial sum.
The brothers had to start from nothing. They worked their way up to the required level and created the Black Wave guild, recruiting some of their friends from the boarding school. Nika was among them.
Time went by, rotation after rotation. The guild grew significantly, got its own headquarters and moved it to Rim Four. Fortunado grew the economy in the town of Shoreline, enjoying his hobby of strategic construction and development. Grisha arranged the continuous completion of NPC quests. Neither of them was rushing anywhere. Both knew that after the dissociative material became part of their bodies, their place was here, in Adam Online. Exiting the pod was an inconvenience that had to be weathered.
In reality, the twins lived in different homes, in different parts of the city. Grisha worked as an operator on a production line for synthetic soy sausages, and Fortunado as a manager of some warehouse at a nuclear power plant. The roles were not difficult, as they consisted in regulating the operation of systems that worked just fine even without human regulation. Fortunado didn’t even know what it was that the warehouse stored. But he remembered perfectly what was in the Black Wave guild vault.
Grisha used his real name in Adam, but Fortunado chose a nickname that ended up replacing his name even in real life. It was even on his ID papers: Fortunado Ivashin.
In real life, the brothers met only before their rotation began. They rented a special office in Omsk where they set up the very best taharration pods, controlled by the latest QCP technology. The money they earned in Adam was enough to buy medical droids that kept an eye on the twins while they were in stasis. They also bought the very best dissociative material, allowing them to spend eight thousand hours in Adam Online.
Nike logged into Adam Online in the same office. She was the best and only friend of both brothers.

* * *

They became an inseparable trio back in the boarding school. Nika helped the brothers find a black market landing. According to the plan, Nika was supposed to go with them to occupy the second pod, but after the winter exams, an unexpected message informed Nika that she was being sent to a special school. Even then, she was an outstanding student.
However, after a few months she was sent back from the special school to ordinary school. Even her parents weren’t told why, and Nika herself was so full of obviously imagined stories that she was immediately dubbed a ‘crazy girl’.
Nika spent all her years in Adam Online solo, on and off at least. She entered a guild to complete profitable quests, then left without explaining herself. This annoyed the brothers, but Nika was almost a sister to them.
Their crazy sister, to put it simply.
In addition, she was one of the most skilled manufacturers of handmade weapons, upgrades and add-ons. Always better to be friends with such people than enemies. Even if that friendship is accompanied with regular messages like “Player Nika has joined the Black Wave guild”, followed by “Player Nika has left the Black Wave guild” the very next day.
Fortunado treated her with professionalism when she joined the guild, as if she were any other guild member, and with even greater professionalism when she left the Black Wave.
Grisha spoke to her with the same ease as he had in his school years. Even though Nika had returned from special school a little touched, it didn’t change their friendship, which stood on a strong foundation of sarcasm and jokes.
In Adam Online, the path of Nika and the twins diverged because she permanently chose the path of the android. A creature completely independent of humanity. Mechanodestructors, oddly enough, experienced all the joys and sensations of life. According to Adam Online legend, they were a ‘mechanical form of life’ born in the depths of space as an alternative to biological life. Moreover, some mechanodestructor sensors allowed the human consciousness to experience feelings that cannot be experienced in the real world.
Instead of warring against other players, Nika leveled up boring skills like Armorer, Android Expert, Mechanomaster and others. Everything linked to crafting weaponry, items and upgrades. These crafts took up a great deal of time. Having chosen to level these skills, the player spent entire days creating weapon parts from components, then tediously attaching one piece to another. Success depended on the number of attempts. One could spend an entire game day (eight hours) assembling just the frame for a Plasmashock pistol attachment. The other ninety-six parts of the attachment took no less time. It took a long time of effort to level up Knowledge, too, the stat that allowed you to see exactly which parts had to be pieced together. It was the same story for Luck, which slightly reduced the number of fruitless attempts.
But all the same, even after finally assembling an item or upgrade, there was a chance that the item simply... wouldn’t work. Strict though the limitations in the crafting process were, items crafted by players were also very powerful. This meant they demanded a high price.
Nika earned enough to buy her own zone in Rim Three. Using the Terraform skill, she created an unassailable territory surrounded by cliffs. Above it, she placed a magnetic anomaly that disabled all means of flight, except flying bizoids. For them, she had a flak cannon.
The zone became known as Dimension X.
Dimension X became a kind of challenge for adamites. Everyone tried to attack it, testing the fortress’s defenses. The space around the zone was littered with the corpses of the permanently dead: Nika’s turrets had a random chance of absolute annihilation. Although rare, there was a chance that an attacker would lose their character after death.
The graveyard of brave souls served as the best possible advertisement for Nika’s weaponry.
Cutting herself off from the whole world, she continued to hammer together weapons and upgrades, outfitting entire guilds, not even giving a discount to Black Wave. She gave discounts to no one. There were few people in Adam Online willing to devote thousands of hours of play time to crafting.
Nika left the guild as soon as she sniffed out a big opportunity to sell upgrades to an enemy guild. Knowing this, the twins tried to buy up everything she produced before anyone else. Her weapons, add-ons and upgrades weren’t the main reason for Black Wave’s domination, but they made a significant contribution to maintaining the status quo.
Nika knew better than anyone that no known resource in Adam Online had in its description “required for the creation of a nuclear bomb.”

Chapter 10. Foul Insinuations

FIRST OFF, Amy McDonald and I added each other as friends in the Adam Online social network.

Amy McDonald, Human.
Player name: Hidden.
Class: None.
Level: 4.

Age: 25 standard years (total years hidden).
Hometown: Guangzhou.
Political views: Socialist.
Religious views: Indifferent, i.e. — Buddhism.
Studied theoretical automation at Guangzhou University.
Personal motto: “I will find you and kill you.”

Interestingly, Amy didn’t seem like your average Chinese girl. An Asian girl, yes, but clearly one born of assimilated Russians in Kazakhstan or Siberia.
“Hey, that’s not fair,” she said. “You haven’t filled out anything in your profile. First time on Adam?”
“Just haven’t been here in a long time.”
I opened my profile and filled it out.

Leonarm, Human.
Player name: Anton Brulov.
Class: Tracker.
Level: 0.

Age: 36 standard years (total years hidden).
Hometown: Bryansk.
Political views: Russian patriot.
Religious views: Orthodox.
Studied programming for quantum computing platforms at Moscow State University.
Personal motto: “In search of digital immortality.”

As I was wondering whether that motto was too cliché, a message covered the page:

New achievement: Open Book. +10 XP.
You filled out more than half of your personal information. Keep up the good work and make sure everyone knows everything about you. Especially scammers. Don’t forget to enter your bank account PIN.

A growing progress bar flashed up in the corner of the screen. This was Rim Zero, where you got progress points every time you farted. All to make players level up faster. A second message appeared as if to confirm the above:

New achievement: Open Book. +10 XP.
You have a new (and only) friend. Don’t lose her.

“Strange motto. What does it mean?” Amy McDonald asked.
“Nothing special. Just have to put something there.”
I opened my map and found the nearest All-Seeing Eye store. “How much money do you have?”
Amy hesitated. “Twenty-five gold.”
“I have six hundred. Let’s go check out the electronics store first, then go to Tenshot. We’ll upgrade your armored vest and get some ammo while we’re at it.”
“Thanks. Shit, those spiderbots killed me so many times that all my savings went on penalties. I also got Radiation Exposure. Minus one to Health. Had to buy pills.”
We left the zone and walked onto one of Town Zero’s streets.

* * *

Town Zero was deliberately built in an antique style. Stone bridges, dilapidated buildings made of stone covered in moss. The architecture was reminiscent of the advanced Medieval period common in fantasy.
As far as I remembered, one could find some useful things in those artificial ruins. But that would take too much time. And it would be boring. The basements were full of rats that you could shoot for experience. The upper floors were home to rare NPCs that could give you a quest: they’d ask you to shoot X number of rats in the basements, or take out another NPC for made-up personal reasons.
A reflection on the paving stones drew my attention. I bent down and picked up a 10 mm round. My tablet beeped.
I read:

Eagle Eye skill increased to level 1: +50 XP.
Get used to seeing things that others don’t want to see.

That’s what boosted leveling on the tracking skill meant, a full level right away.
I immediately saw a new light a few feet away. This time I picked up a 5g coin. Another twenty feet and I found a second coin, 10g this time. On the way to the store, I found: four .44 rounds (I gave them to Amy), another 2g, three 10 mm rounds and a strange tool that looked like a bottle opener. No matter how many times I scanned it with the tablet, the description never changed:

Some sort of metal item that looks like a bottle opener. Maybe it’s a bottle opener?

“Amy, I don’t have enough Knowledge. Will you take a look at this description?”
She took out her tablet but covered the screen with her hand. “We might be friends, but I don’t want you to see all my stats.”
She aimed the tablet and read,
“Cortaperillas. A device for cutting the ends off cigars. Worth five gold.”
I put the cigar cutter into my bag. While I had space, I could store any old garbage.

* * *

The All-Seeing Eye store was on the first floor of a temple. There was an angel statue on the roof. Wings outspread, he extended his hands, blessing those below. Anyone who entered the store passed through its rays, getting free health.
The temple was dilapidated, like all the buildings in Town Zero, but it was active. Tiny angels flew into it. There was probably a spell store there for them.
“Did you say you were an angel?” I asked Amy. “Why did you switch to human?”
“I want to become a super.”
The supers were another species in Adam Online. You could only become one by leveling up special human skills that transformed you into a superperson. Incidentally, that wouldn’t be a bad option for me. Supers had lower sensitivity to pleasure, but advanced battle skills. I wasn’t interested in sex and drugs in the virtual world. I wasn’t there for that.
“What happened to your angel?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“We’re friends, aren’t we?”
“For clearing the heap.”
“As you wish, friend.”
I pushed open the door to the store.
Several humans walked along the long half-empty counters, as did one sad-looking android. His bald head reflected the dim light of the yellow bulbs. Salesmen stood on the other side of the counters, dressed in identical checkered shirts.
One poster advertisement stood out more than the others. It showed a dead tech support bot like Arild — with crosses instead of eyes — and the header ‘Fair-Haired Beasts’.
“Holy shit,” Amy said, reading the quest conditions. “Why haven’t I heard about this? I’d take out those bots with pleasure.”
I pulled out the bot nametag and put it on the counter. The salesman turned it in his fingers and threw it into a basket under the table.
“Thanks for taking advantage of our special offer. For your first tag, you get one free tablet upgrade or the equivalent value in gold. The next stage is to bring five nametags.”
The tablet beeped about a few messages.
I walked away from the counter and Amy unceremoniously looked over my shoulder, but I covered up the tablet screen like she had:
“You said it yourself, we’re only temporary friends.”
She walked away, and I read:

Fair-Haired Beasts: +10 XP.
Murdering defenseless tech support bots pays well. It’s their own fault, they should work better.

+1 Reputation with the All-Seeing Eye store chain. They won’t give you discounts, but they’ll let you jump the queue. Maybe.

I closed the window and saw a second under it:

Class: Hired Killer.
No qualms with killing for money? That feeling when every shot counts. For your bank account.

This class provided a few interesting skills. Cold-blooded Precision improved firing from weapons equipped with any kind of sight: optical, thermal or a laser sight. A great compliment to Eagle Eye. There was also Target Localization — the ability to mark your target in a crowd from a great distance. If Nelly Valeeva still had a human form, this skill would be a lot of help. The class lowered my Reputation by one with the legal authorities in all zones, but increased it among the criminal authorities. I finally had access to the Blacklist, a kind of notice board where hit orders were placed against players or NPCs.
Unfortunately, all that required a UniSuit, which I didn’t have yet.
I saved the class selection to my notebook, then expanded the list of available tablet upgrades. I chose three of the ones I found most important.

Processing Speed.
Is your tablet freezing? Tabs opening slowly? Personal helper crashing halfway through a sentence? This powerful 3000RPM cooler from LG will cool your graphical and central processors. Your tablet will open windows at the speed of thought.
The fan comes with a red and highly necessary LED which will give away your position in the darkness.
Price: 1,000g.

A good upgrade, it would save time. But the LED! What moron thought of putting LEDs on gear to make it shine like a Christmas tree? On the other hand, not everyone in Adam Online wanted to fight. The peaceful population liked electronics to glow with all the colors of the rainbow. Things like that hadn’t been made in the real world for a long time. It wasted resources.

Lightweight Apple Battery
The tablet should weigh no more than a handgun. Replace the heavy standard battery with the lightweight revolutionary Apple Long Life battery. Forget about recharging for 48 hours.
The tablet’s weight is reduced to 300 grams.
Price: 1,400g.

Now that’s news! In my day, tablets didn’t have to be charged. Nobody wanted that level of realism. I still didn’t. I checked the tablet data. It still had eight hours of charge left.
My choice narrowed to the battery. I didn’t plan on hanging around in Rim Zero to find places to charge my tablet.
I thought a little on the third option.

Application: Google Maps.
All Adam Online in your tablet. Place markers, set routes, swap location coordinates with other players. All this in the Google Maps application.
Please note, this application contains premium content.
Price: 900g.

After reading that the ‘premium content’ were Google Maps advertising functions, I chose the lightweight Apple battery and pressed confirm. The tablet disappeared for a second. When it appeared again, it no longer weighed down my hand.

* * *

We walked to the weaponry store in silence.
Amy McDonald wasn’t as talkative as me. I felt an urge to ask her about angels, about their hidden abilities. But talking doesn’t just mean asking questions, it means answering them. Which I didn’t want to do.
The Tenshot weaponry store was in a building just as dilapidated as the All-Seeing Eye. It was light inside. I heard dull shots behind the wall: someone was practicing target shooting on a range.
My mood fell when I examined what was on offer. In my head, everything cost just as much as it did ten years before. Back then, my seven hundred gold would have made me a rich man in Rim Zero. Of course, it still meant something now, but not as much as I expected.
An android stood behind the counter. He was painted in the Tenshot livery.
We started by buying two Light Armored Vests. The one Amy had equipped could have been repaired, but neither of us wanted to go to the outskirts of Rim Zero in search of a We Fix It! workshop, where they could fix everything from torn vests to stuck grenade launchers. So we sold Amy’s armored vest for two gold.
I chose the option that gave plus one to Agility.
Then I bought myself a Simple Backpack. It couldn’t connect to the UniSuit, which meant it was an unrecoverable expense. But I was sick of carrying a bag on my shoulder. We planned to fight spiderbots, and a knapsack hanging at your side only got in the way.
I moved all my items into my backpack and then threw the bag in a trash can full to the brim with the same bags.
I pulled my complimentary Glock from my holster and handed it over to the android. He placed it on the surface of a scanning table. The projection panel on the wall lit up with the available upgrades.
There were many, but I only had enough money for Double Magazine. Now I had a whole thirty shots instead of fifteen. Of course, against spiderbots it would have been better to get a Plasmashock attachment. It provided bonus damage against all races and double the bonus damage against mechanodestructors.
I tore myself away from the upgrade descriptions with some difficulty. Making my own weapon modifications used to my favorite hobby back in the day. But I had no time to learn the required skills for crafting weapon components. I’d have to rely on money for everything. It’s always quicker to buy something than make it yourself.
I bought one pulse grenade using what I had left. They were designed for knocking out mechanodestructor electronics and reducing the processing speed of android brains. I also took a few boxes of ammunition for myself and Amy.
“I have nothing in my account,” I said.
“I have enough money for two bus tickets to the Mechanodestructor Heap,” said Amy. “If we hurry, we’ll get there before the next batch of players sets off.”
We left the store. The tablet emitted an alarm signal. I took it out of my backpack’s special side pocket and read:

Open Book: +10 XP.
Generous Spirit. Thanks to you, your friend isn’t in rags. Maybe you’ll start carrying her around everywhere too? So that her shoes don’t get dirty.

A little further and I’d reach level one. What should I do? Amy looked at me expectantly.
“Undress,” I ordered her.
“What?! I might have been a sexless angel for years, but you can’t be so forward.”
“You like my vest? We can swap.”
Amy pulled off her grey vest right away and gave it to me. Female characters weren’t given a bra, so she covered her breasts with her arm.
The android salesman came out of the store and shook his head.
“You are behaving improperly. I will call the police.”
 “You guys leveling up Sex in Public?” a player shouted from the end of the street. “You have two minutes before the police come. I checked.”
 “If I join in, the Group Sex skill will unlock,” another player echoed him. “The more people, the more XP.”
Amy turned to the wall and put my vest on. She turned back. She looked so pleased that I doubted whether it was the vest or the other players’ suggestions.

Open Book: +10 XP.
Those who have nothing are always willing to share with their friends. Are you so close to death, Leonarm, that you’ve decided to give all your stuff away?

Congratulations, Leonarm, you leveled up!
Your level: 1.
Attention: you have unused stat points (1) and skill points (1). Spend them wisely! Not like you’re doing now, giving away collectible rares to anyone you meet.

“Are you sure you can spare it?” Amy asked.
I pulled her narrow vest over my head. It quickly took on my size.
“Not really. But I have bad memories of that gear.”
I actually wanted to get rid of an item that would make passersby curious. The later the Black Wave notices me, the better.
Amy’s tablet squawked. She took it out and looked at the screen, then at me.
“Since we’re friends, I’ll tell you. I unlocked the Collector skill. If I collect another five rares like this, I’ll get a reward. Do you not have that skill?”
“No... Probably because of my low Knowledge. And it’s not a skill, it’s an achievement. You’re confusing two concepts.”
“What’s a shame?”
“That you’re such a bore. What damn difference does it make whether it’s a skill or an achievement?”
I didn’t bother answering my aggressive companion. I was only trying to be social.

Chapter 11. Cortaperillas

AMY MCDONALD and I bounced along in the bus. Leaving a trail of dust behind, it careered across the steppe separating Town Zero from the zone known as Mechanodestructor Heap.
There were five people in the bus apart from us. Three people, one bizoid who had already found himself the Shell DNA modification. Now he looked less like a defenseless ball of slime and more like a bipedal turtle. His tentacles had turned into hands with three fingers. The humanoid turtle was armed with a katana that he constantly spun around, cutting the air with a whistle. A mechanodestructor core sat next to him, equipped with a small laser cannon bolted onto his hexagonal body.
Everyone on the bus was at least level four. The Mechanodestructor Heap was a hard zone, so people leveled up a little before visiting it.
A fat NPC sat in the driver’s seat, dressed in a worn vest soaked in sweat. His fat body wobbled over the bumps. Rolling a cigar butt in his mouth, he pontificated endlessly.
“Those spiderbots gonna kick your ass soon, darlins. Especially you, Leonarm. Where do you think you’re going, weakling? You should go shoot some rats like the other noobs. Or fumble around in the Mercurian Planes and find a couple of artifacts. ‘Cos damn, you’re gonna get into a lather in the Heap.”
 The driver — an old acquaintance of mine — hadn’t changed in ten years. The same cigar butt, the same vest. The same muffled radio station, Free Adamite, blaring out music through broken speakers.
I chuckled. “Say, why do you always have a cigar butt in your mouth instead of a whole cigar?”
The question made the NPC “Mechanodestructor Heap Bus Driver” glitch out. He froze, continuing to turn the wheel. After calculating all his dialog options, the so-called creative circuit kicked in. All NPCs in Adam Online had it, apart from mindless beasts.
“Because you only see me on the bus. In the morning I wake up at home, eat my eggs, drink my coffee and walk to work. On the way I smoke my first cigar of the day.”
Of course, the NPC had no home, no bed to wake up in, no breakfast or coffee. The creative circuit helped them appear more human. It generated a biography, memories, new behavioral features. When necessary, it added ‘internal conflict’, a certain life-changing event in the past that supposedly formed the NPC’s character: the death of a loved one, a psychological trauma, unrequited love and other things in the same vein.
Naturally, if I’d asked the driver where he lived, and visited the place in the morning, I’d find that he does have a house and coffee. The life of an entire person would have been generated specially to satisfy my passing curiosity. And that life would exist for only as long as I was observing it. As soon as I left the “Driver’s Home” zone, it would disappear, moving to archival storage on one of the servers.
My tablet squawked.

Sometimes it’s better to be quiet than speak. Your Reputation with the bus driver has gone down: -10 (Suspicion).

 That’s what I got for playing a seasoned adamite. I’d set an important NPC against me! I tried to fix the situation.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you. It’s just that your cigar smells so nice that I’d like to know what kind it is. Cuban? Vietnamese, Brazilian?”
The driver puffed on the foul-smelling cigar. He took it out of his mouth, opened the window and spat into the eddying dust. He put the cigar butt back to his mouth.
“You know, Leonarm, I’ve been driving passengers to the Heap for years. But I never recall meeting an asshole like you.”
“What’s your beef with my cigar? I’m just a driver. I’m poor. I can’t smoke Cuban or Brazilian cigars. I’ve been chewing on this butt for three days now. Ordinary Chinese shit.”
My tablet beeped again.

“The most important thing for a young man is to establish a credit — a reputation, character.” — John D. Rockefeller.
Your Reputation with the bus driver has gone down: -20 (Alarm).
The driver will now drop you off at the farthest entry to the Mechanodestructor Heap. Keep your nose out of other people’s business and you won’t harm your own, Leonarm.

I panicked a little. How did that happen? Was I really so out of practice at living in Adam? Would this put the whole mission in jeopardy? I had to do something, and fast. I wanted to prove to myself that I hadn’t lost my skills...
I stuck my hand into my bag and grabbed the cortaperillas, the cigar cutter I’d found on the bridge in Town Zero.
I stood up and, holding the handrails, walked toward the driver.
“Sorry, my bad. I want to give you something useful to apologize. It’s called a cota... corta... perillas. It’s designed for cutting the ends of cigars...”
The driver shot a glance at my hand.
“You’re a real piece of work, aintcha? Get away from me, asshole. I don’t need your handouts! Stick your perillas up your ass. I’m poor, but I have my pride.”
I was struck dumb. I went back to my seat and grabbed my tablet nervously.

Okay, Leonarm, you really don’t know when to stop and accept life for what it is without trying to fix what is irrevocably broken.
Your Reputation with the bus driver has gone down: -25.
The driver will now not only drop you off at the farthest entry to the Mechanodestructor Heap, but also at the most dangerous. Keep your nose out of other people’s business and... actually, there’s no point repeating myself. You’re incorrigible.

I quickly closed the message so that Amy wouldn’t notice. I tried to look relaxed. I glanced at her sidelong.
She was looking at her tablet. She kept replaying the intro to the quest Find the First Mechanodestructor Core. The video clip was sent to your tablet when you got on the bus. But nobody watched it. Everyone was sure they’d find the core quickly.
The video showed a rusty old mechanodestructor with a white chin stylized as a beard. It stood with the Heap at its back and spoke.
“Many, many years ago when I was still a new and shiny core, I had an older brother. He was the legendary First Mechanodestructor, the progenitor of our species, our model range. I am just the second. But my brother was lost in the Heap, and since then I have heard nothing of him. My operating life is coming to an end, but unfinished business prevents me from pulling the plug. Therefore I will give all my fortune to the one who brings me my brother’s core.”
“Why are you watching that?” I asked.
“The intro has a clue about where to look.”
“Did it help?”
“Yes, actually. Last time I almost got there, but I died from a spiderbot hit and a radiation injury.”
“What’s the clue?”
“You see those rags hanging on the ruins sticking out?”
“The wind changes direction and the rags point to one side, then the other.”
“Every third time, they show the same direction. That’s where we need to go.”
“But shh. I figured this out myself.”
“Well done,” I whispered. “But haven’t you completed the Heap before, don’t you know that you have to search the south side? The algorithm always hides it there.”
“Umm, no... I was an angel, remember? All we have to do is hover over the Heap and send Blessings to players. We leveled up Reputation and got the levels we needed without fighting the spiderbots.”
“The biggest threat in the Heap isn’t the spiderbots.”
“Then what is it?”
“Other players. If we find the core first, then all these people...” I pointed at the other passengers. “...will be our enemies.”

* * *

We’re here. The southern entrance to the Heap!” the driver shouted. “Everyone off. Apart from you two, you’re going further.”
“Shit, why?”
The driver closed the door behind the departing passengers and spat out of the open window. “Because I say so.”
“Dickhead,” Amy grabbed her revolver.
The driver quickly pressed a button on his instrument panel. A shield of bulletproof glass came down over the driver’s seat. At the same time, all the bus’s windows went down and locked. The driver hit the gas and Amy and I were thrown back in our seats. Iron restraints sprang out of the seat backs and held us fast. Amy dropped her revolver.
“What the fuck is happening?”
I avoided her gaze.
“Maybe it’s... a random quest? It happens.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Amy frowned in realization. “This is your fault. You pissed him off somehow.”
“I lost a little Reputation with him. Not on purpose. It just kind of happened.”
Though bound to her chair, Amy McDonald somehow managed to turn away from me pointedly and face the window. The bus carried on at great speed, careering even harder over the bumps than before. The driver was doing it on purpose.
The high concrete fence of the Heap stretched out beyond the windows. Piles of compressed technological garbage slowly drifted by behind them. Amy stared wistfully at those rags hanging off the ruins that she’d seen in the intro. The bus took us further and further to the west.
“Sorry, Amy, my bad.”
“Why did you talk to him at all?”
“He started it.”
“Dumb excuse.”
“I haven’t played for a long time. I didn’t think an NPC that tries to troll every other passenger would have a creative circuit supported by a whole cluster, not just a neuronet node. He was analyzing my behavior and coming up with a way to entertain me.”
Amy McDonald looked at me curiously.
“I have no idea what you’re saying.”
“The neuronet control system algorithm works roughly like this: since I started a conversation, that means I was bored. As in, time to add some excitement to things.”
“Huh, so these neuronets analyze our actions?”
“Something like that. The CS, the control systems, react to player action and inaction. Try going to a deserted part of any zone and standing still. See what happens.”
“What would happen?” Amy asked. “I’ve never thought to do that.”
“Stuff will start happening around you after a while. Maybe a rat will run up to you, or an NPC will appear and ask you for help, or some other creature roughly around your level will turn up.”
The bus braked suddenly. The iron restraints dug into my body. Amy cried out as well.
“Damn it, take it easy or I’ll shoot you!”
We stopped by the northern entrance: a huge gate with a smaller door at its base. It was gloomy. Occasional rain drops fell onto the windows.
The driver lifted the glass shield and stood up. He walked toward us, puffing on his cigar and scratching his crotch.
“Overload your circuit,” Amy snapped, “And untie us, fast.”
I watched the NPC’s actions in silence, unable to help but admire the precision of the character’s engineering. While we were driving, the control systems likely recreated his life down to the smallest details. Right down to the childhood memories and psychological inclinations that made the driver stare in lust at the tied-up Amy.
“Ah, what a woman.”
At the same time, keeping his gaze fixed on her, he began to feel me up. That was too much... But he stopped at reaching a hand into my bag and pulling out the cortaperillas:
“This is for the emotional distress.”
He returned to the driver’s seat and lowered the protective glass. Then the restraints came off and slid back behind the seats. The first thing Amy did was draw her revolver and shoot at the glass. The ricocheting bullet ended up in my seat’s headrest.
“Sorry,” Amy put the revolver away.
“Final stop, Mechanodestructor Heap,” said the driver dully. “We’re here.”
Walking past the glass shield, Amy jabbed a finger at it. “I will find you and kill you.”
The driver chuckled in response.
While getting off the bus, the dashboard caught my eye. It had a photo stuck to it: a woman and a boy smiling and waving at the camera. Behind them I could see an angel statue, the same one that was above the All-Seeing Eye store.
I didn’t notice that detail when I’d approached the driver before. Crazy. NPCs even had families invented for them.
The bus doors clanged shut, catching my elbow. The driver laughed. The bus turned and left, spraying up a cloud of dust. My tablet beeped insistently.

Eagle Eye skill increased: +10 XP.
Eagle Eye skill increased to level 2.
Get used to seeing things you haven’t seen before.

And then a second message:

Quest available: All My Children.
That bus driver was a strangely nervous type, right? Don’t you want to find out the dark secrets in his soul?

I thoughtfully moved the quest to my logbook.
If I were an adamaddict, I’d have immediately started investigating the character’s plot line. But my interest in the virtual world had faded... Right? It had, hadn’t it?
A measured knock pulled me out of my revery. Amy was already standing at the doorway and was hitting the rusty lock with the handle of her revolver.
“Get back!” I shouted. “Don’t open it.”
Too late. The lock broke off and Amy stared at me dumbly.
“What’s wrong now?”
That’s when the trouble started.

Chapter 12. All Thumbs

THE DOOR FLEW OPEN from a strike from within and fell down on one hinge. The front of a hairy spiderbot appeared in the gap. It was much larger than an ordinary spiderbot — twice the size — and was covered in fine gleaming metallic spikes reminiscent of hair.
“Run to the side!” I shouted at the girl, drawing my pistol.
The ends of the creature’s spikes crackled with electricity: it was planning to attack. Amy, still holding her revolver by the barrel, ran to the left of the gates.
“Get down now, get down!”
She hesitated but complied. She fell hard into the withered grass and dust. I did the same. A crack rang out and I pressed my face into the dust. The wave of an electrical discharge pulsed from the spiderbot. My hair stood on end. I stood up at once and began to shoot before the enemy could regain strength for a second strike.
Since I was standing quite close, none of my bullets missed. I aimed right at its flat head covered in its short spikes. Those didn’t gleam: they were rusted from blood. He’d gored more than a few players on those spikes.
The enemy desperately pulled with its body, shaking the gate. In trying to chase after Amy, he’d dumbly got himself caught in the door. Only the front of its body with its two thick paws stuck out. He waved them, clawing the ground, thrashing around like a dog trying to get out of its collar. But he was stuck firmly.
The spiderbot must have taken significant damage. All the data was now displayed in full detail on the tablet I’d dropped before I fell. A squeak came from the spot where it lay, notifying me of achievements. I’d most likely leveled up my Pistols and Revolvers skill, one of the default Human skills.
My pistol clicked fruitlessly.
I pulled out the magazine and put in a second. Amy’s haste meant that we’d had no time to prepare. My magazines were filled for the ordinary Glock, meaning 15 shots, not 30. I’d need to hurry and get a UniSuit, which solved the problem of filling magazines with rounds.
While changing the magazine, I looked around for my companion. Her hair stood up on end from the electricity too. The girl’s head stuck out of the grass like the back of a purple porcupine.
“He’s stuck,” laughed Amy, standing up. “He got stuck, the idiot. Dickhead.”
“Shoot, what are you waiting for? He’ll put the second charge through the earth, then we’re toast.”
Amy aimed, holding her gun with both hands. The Lefaucheux revolver shots were loud, low-frequency. The girl’s hands went up with the recoil after every shot, and she was pushed a step or two back.
“I see you economized on Strength,” I said.
Only two of the six shots hit the target. One of them tore off part of the spiderbot’s head, the second pierced and immobilized one leg. The mechanical monster had now clearly decided to crawl backwards, but it couldn’t.
“Hehe, can’t get out, can’t get in.” Amy emptied her revolver’s chamber, grabbed a clip and loaded in the rounds.
“Shoot on my command!” I shouted.
“Alright, commander.”
“Go in from the left, get twelve steps closer.”
I myself approached from the right. I had a perfect view of the blue sparks gathering on the ends of the beast’s spines.
“Aim carefully. If you hit the head even once, we’re saved. Ready. Aim... Fi...
Bang bang bang! Amy was nearly thrown onto her back.
“Fire...” I muttered pointlessly.
This time Amy broke her previous record: not a single hit. She looked at her revolver’s barrel in amazement.
“Is it broken or something?”
I pulled my trigger with the speed of a sewing machine. I had to fire for two. I don’t know what rate of fire I had, but it felt at least as fast as an automatic Uzi. At first, the furry spiderbot’s head smashed into pieces. Then the scraps still hanging off its neck attachment fell off.
The spiderbot emitted a weak charge, making our hair stand on end again, and then — it died.

* * *

We approached the defeated spiderbot.
It stank of machine oil, warm metal and burnt plastic. Amy kicked a battered leg.
“How do you wanna share the loot?”
“First we need to talk. Have you ever fought in a group? You need to coordinate your actions, not rush straight in.”
Amy frowned.
“Look who’s talking. Remember whose fault it is that we’re here, instead of at the south entrance?”
“That’s not what I’m talking about.”
“It’s what I’m talking about. Dickhead.”
“Let’s agree not to do anything without talking about it first, alright?”
I returned to my tablet and quickly viewed my messages: the Pistols and Revolvers skill had leveled up, as I thought. I’d earned ten points for killing the furry spider.
I aimed my tablet at it:

Furry Spiderbot, Mechanodestructor.
Class: Scavenger.
Level: 5.

Knowledge. Rare beasts for the Mechanodestructor Heap in Rim Zero. It is unclear how it got here. But if there’s one, maybe there’s a second? Or a third? Or even a hundred? Who knows.
Unknown property (requires Knowledge 5).

We didn’t get anything particularly special from the spiderbot. I picked its corpse open with a knife and found ten energy charges. We split them equally.
Amy wasn’t happy. “I heard that spiderbot corpses are full of useful UniSuit mods.”
“Our Knowledge level is too low to extract them.”
The spiderbot hull had a special compartment, its ‘belly’, or synthesis chamber. If I were leveling up weapon crafting, the chamber would be a useful find, since it served as a basis for building a primitive weaponsmithing machine. The spiderbots themselves kept swallowed objects in the chamber: garbage, the debris of other spiderbots, even stones and grass. They disassembled them into components and synthesized parts for their structure, replacing damaged parts.
However, even if I didn’t need the chamber, someone else would. I could sell it. I tried to unscrew it from the frame with my knife, but I broke both the knife and the fragile chamber connectors. Without them, it was useless.
My tablet bleeped.

Achievement All Thumbs completed: +5 XP.
Completed: 1/1.
Break a few more mechanodestructors when opening them up to get a consolation prize. Although... would you even be able to hold it with your butterfingers?

“Time to move on.” I rose from my heels. “But let’s get ready first.”
I grabbed a box of rounds and filled all three magazines. Amy, of course, didn’t bother getting ready. She was tugging the spiderbot by a leg.
“How will we get through the door with this thing blocking it?”
We tried to pull it together, but it was useless; the corpse was stuck fast in the narrow doorway. The gap above it was too narrow to get through.
“We’ll have to walk to the western entrance.”
“God dammit.”
But as so often happens in life, our problem was solved by a still greater problem. The frame of the dead spiderbot shuddered and moved a few inches forward. Then a little more, and more. Someone was shoving it from behind.
“What’s happening?”
The pushes sped up, making the huge gate shake.
“Nothing good,” I sighed. I drew a pulse grenade.
The corpse of the furry spiderbot was pushing through the doorway faster and faster. I signaled to Amy to get back. I switched off my tablet and put it in my backpack.
“You switch off yours too.”

* * *

The corpse of the furry spiderbot popped out of the doorway like a champagne cork. Behind it stretched out a line of standard spiderbots. They all had identical bodies, flaring out to their bellies with the synthesis chamber inside. They varied from six to ten feet tall. In contrast to the furry spiderbots, they had no eyes. Their heads contained mandibles that they constantly clicked, creating a monotonous cracking.
A few spiderbots descended on the furry spiderbot’s corpse. After a minute they divided, leaving a few parts and a tangle of wires. Having sated themselves on the parts of the furry spiderbot, four spiderbots stood up and pressed their bellies against each other, forming a cross. That’s how they multiplied. In a few minutes, the four spiderbots had produced a fifth.
“What are you waiting for? “Fuck... Mess ‘em up with that grenade.”
“I know when to throw it, thanks. And enough swearing, okay?”
I looked at the crowd, trying to identify the leader, the spiderbot that took decisions for the whole cluster. That Target Localization skill would come in handy right now.
I couldn’t figure out which was the leader, but I noticed that a few of the ones at the front had wounds from bullets and laser burns. Considering the spiderbots repaired minor damage quite quickly, I had no doubt: they’d recently been in a skirmish with our fellow passengers from the bus. Which meant that they’d made a lot of progress through the Heap before we’d even gotten inside!
Amy couldn’t wait. She started shooting. The spiderbots hadn’t shown us any interest yet, but now they changed their mind. Since they were standing in a crowd, all six of Amy’s shots landed. She even tore an arm off one spiderbot, launching it over the fence of the Heap.
“Oh, Amy, what about coordinating actions, strategy, the guerilla tactics of small groups, all that good stuff?”
“I got scared,” she answered, reloading her revolver efficiently.
I tried to adjust to her fire to avoid us both having to reload at the same time. Our Pistols and Revolvers skill was still low, making reloading a tortuous process.
But there was no point trying to teach Amy. She went from shooting all six of her rounds in ten seconds and hitting whatever she hit, to aiming carefully... and missing completely.
The blind mechanodestructors reacted to sound and surface vibrations. It didn’t take long for them to triangulate our position and begin to surround us. By then, our shots (mostly mine) had thinned their ranks a little. Several spiderbots stood in a group of four, joining together to birth reinforcements. Others surrounded them to protect them against bullets, and still more rushed toward us, forcing us to redirect our fire.
Waiting for Amy to reload her revolver, I threw my grenade into the center of the reproducing cluster. The pulse charge worked as usual: a bang, a flash. Lightning-like charges emanated from the epicenter. The spiderbots it hit fell onto their backs, fitfully and chaotically clenching and unclenching their arms. They cowered in convulsions like drug addicts in withdrawal. Their mandibles cracked even louder.
Soon all was quiet.
“Are they dead?” Amy McDonald asked.
“No, they’re disabled for a while. Now we start the genocide.”
Amy and I began to walk among the twitching spiderbots, finishing them off.
“Don’t shoot them in the head,” I said. “Aim center mass, where the belly connects to the chest.”
“That’s where the core is.”
“Then why did you tell me to shoot them in the head before?”
“Because they were standing on four legs. It would have been hard to hit the core. Now they’re lying belly up.”
The spiderbots began to come round. One stirred, then another, then a third. True, there were only a few left. We’d exterminated the rest. I shot one in the belly while it was trying to turn onto its legs, then turned to Amy...
Just in time.
The girl sat in front of the shell of a dead spiderbot, trying to work it open with her knife. Just as one of the rising beasts loomed over her, drunkenly staggering on its shaking legs. Opening its mandibles, it aimed at Amy’s neck.
“Look out!”
Amy turned around in fear. She aimed her revolver ahead.
I shot several times in a row. The spiderbot dodged, grabbing the girl’s arm in its mandibles. Amy dropped her revolver and screamed.
Walking quickly, I shot on the move. The spiderbot shut down but didn’t release its mandibles. It fell, dragging Amy down with it.
“Oh fuck, it hurts.”
I reached her and rammed in my last magazine. Three more were already shuffling toward us: the last survivors of the cluster.
Sitting on the ground, Amy tried to kick the mandibles off with the heels of her boots. I reloaded and carefully took out the rest of the spiderbots.
I picked up Amy’s knife, put the blade in the hinged joint of the spiderbot’s jaw and twisted.
Amy rose, holding her arm. She was covered in blood: it dripped onto her armored vest, the grass, the spiderbot’s corpse.
“Ugh, it hurts so bad... But my kicking skill leveled up.”
“Stand up straight,” I ordered.
I turned her back to me and jerked at the lock of her backpack.
“Hey, don’t rummage through my stuff.”
“Heal yourself then.”
“There’s a medkit in the side pocket. I’m not an idiot, I read the Survival Manual. I keep it close specially.
I got the medkit. It contained the same syringe that the landlord had used to inject me with dissociative fluid, and two packs of bandages.
The injection stopped the bleeding and reduced the pain by fifty percent. While waiting for me to bandage her wound, Amy stubbornly took the knife and sat in front of the spiderbot.
“Why does it hurt anyway? We’re in a game, damn it.”
“Firstly, it’s not a game, it’s virtual reality. Adam is only as much a game as you want it to be.”
“You’re so damn clever, ain’t ya? And secondly?”
“Secondly, if there were real pain here, you’d have already lost consciousness.”
“Still, why the pain?”
“Pain, sex, narcotic highs, adrenaline, fear, laughter — all these are feelings. They’re the reason we come to Adam Online. Switch off pain and you switch off sex too. Sense of taste. The feeling of joy you get when you smell a sea breeze.”
“How poetic.”
“Without sensation, there’s no point in virtual reality. Actually, virtual reality is nothing but pure sensation.”
While I was talking, Amy continued to take apart the spiderbot, hoping to get the energy charges inside. She finally took the cover off the belly and spoke with disappointment.
“Empty. Fuck.”
“You could have asked me. There’s nothing for us in the little spiderbots. You have to have the right skills.”
I’d already stopped getting annoyed at Amy. She was clearly no warrior. It was strange that a former angel had decided to become a super. Her true nature didn’t match her chosen race.

Chapter 13. Arachnophilia

AMY LEARNED from her mistakes. She stopped running off headlong to God knows where.
Before we entered the Heap, she reloaded, straightened her backpack. She gave herself another injection. She even retied her shoelaces and fixed her hair.
Then we took out our tablets and spent a couple of minutes reading messages.

Achievement Arachnophilia completed: +5 XP.
In some countries, people believe that spiders bring luck and should not be killed. You’re clearly not from any of them.
Kill 5 spiderbots.

Unlocked achievement Arachnophilia I.
Kill 50 spiderbots.
Completed: 11/50.

Battlefield Surgery skill increased: +10 XP.
You won’t always tell a fracture from a nervous breakdown, but you can stick someone with a needle and sort of bind a wound.

Open Book: +10 XP.
A friend helped a friend. Thanks to your courage, your friend is alive and you don’t have to tend her gravestone every year, crying drunken tears and blaming yourself for her death.

On top of everything, I’d killed eleven spiderbots, earning a point for each. Not bad for someone ten years out of the game.
Stepping carefully, we walked through the door. A labyrinth of mostly metal compressed garbage spread out before us. Amy took out her tablet and swallowed.
“The radiation here is high.”
“I have radiation resistance. Only level one, but that’s enough.”
“By the way, aren’t you going to tell me what that nuclear explosion was?”
“No clue.”
“What were you doing at the epicenter?”
“Wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Are you lying to me?”
“Of course.”
We walked along the paths among the scrap metal for ten minutes. We found dead ends, sidestepped puddles of chemicals, climbed over small trashdrifts.
From time to time, my improved perception identified lone spiderbots amid the metal. They didn’t rush to attack. It seemed we’d destroyed the cluster that controlled this part of the Heap. It’d take some time for them to form another and pick a leader.
Of course, it was a shame that I’d spent a pulse grenade. It would have come in handy for the time after we found the core. A flood of spiderbots would come then. Any experienced adamite starting with a new character took a pulse grenade into the Heap.
The deeper we went into the labyrinth, the more distant shots we heard. Our competitors weren’t wasting time.
“Haven’t you thought about going back?” Amy asked.
I sighed. It seemed she’d figured out that I was no simple player, and that I was in Adam Online illegally... Almost failing my mission by losing my boosted character. Going back to real life, leaving the pod — that would be the logical decision.
“Where to?”
“To Town Zero, where else? Don’t you think we’re already behind the others?”
“What do you think?”
“I’m stubborn. I won’t go back until I reach the core.”
“What if someone gets to it first?”
Amy waved her gun. “My Pistols and Revolvers skill is up to level two. I’ll find them and kill them.”
“I’m stubborn too.”
“That’s good. Our friendship works well.”
“Sure, but you’re a re-e-ally bad team player.”
“That your way of complimenting my distinctive personality?”
We ran into the remains of a second furry spiderbot. The damage told us that it had been hit with a laser and ran off, and was then devoured by the small spiderbots. Their leader decided that disassembling a senior ally for spare parts was better than repairing it.
“If there’s a leader, that means we’re in the territory of another cluster. Stay sharp.” I looked around and pointed to a heap of garbage. “Let’s try walking along the top.”
“The radiation is higher up there, I could die.”
“You have around ten minutes with the tablets before you get any irreversible changes. We’ll be able to skip a few turns of this maze.”
I climbed up first, examining every edge of the garbage heaps. I gave Amy a hand up from time to time. Due to her low Strength stat, she got tired quickly and slowed down.
During my climb, I noticed two ammo boxes. One had .44 caliber rounds, and the second, unfortunately, had .416 rounds for a sniper rifle like the Barnes. Amy stopped at the top of the hill, unwound the bandage on her hand a little and checked which way the wind was blowing. She checked some numbers that only she could see and pointed confidently.
“That way.”
We’d just started to descend when I noticed movement below. Two spiderbots were scurrying around, stretching their blind heads upward and clicking their mandibles. Another five joined them.
A new cluster. And they knew we were there.

* * *

“Do we fire?” Amy whispered.
“Thanks for asking. No, we don’t. Let’s try to get away quietly.”
As slow as if I was stoned, I shifted my feet, helping with my arms to push myself up higher. I crept a few feet back, toward the top. I expected to learn the Stealth skill, but it didn’t happen. That means I wasn’t moving stealthily enough. Amy tried to follow suit, but some scrap iron soon slipped out from beneath her foot. Crashing loudly, it skittered down the pile and fell with a crash onto a spiderbot’s head.
“Damn, Amy, how’d you manage that?”
“I don’t know... Maybe it’s a side effect of high Luck?”
We stood up and started running along the top of the pile. The spiderbots detected our location and split into two groups: the first climbed upwards, the second followed us from the ground.
The beasts approached interminably. They deftly gripped the parts protruding from the piles of garbage with their feet. Like monkeys on branches, they bobbed along one ledge and swung to the next.
Amy suddenly fell onto all fours. “I feel sick.”
I lifted her up by the arm and dragged her along. “There’s no time be sick.”
“Need to go... down...”
“No. We need to go higher.”
“I’ll die.”
I dragged her to the rusty cabin of a truck crowning the garbage pile. My Eagle Eye stubbornly told me that something was shining in the cabin. It could have been some more useless ammunition or another cigar cutter. But I knew the game — there should be unusual things to find at such a dangerous height.
I pulled open the rusty cabin door and put Amy on a seat... next to the skeleton of a man dressed in the silver UniSuit of a scientist. Paying no attention to this discovery, Amy moved across to the opposite door and bent out the window like a drunken college grad on the way home in a taxi. Wiping her mouth, she muttered,
“Fuck... this realism.”
“It’s alright,” I said, trying to calm her. “The sickness will pass soon, and you’ll get covered in radiation sores. Now pull yourself together, girl... And give me your revolver.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Look around the cabin, check the skeleton. He has a UniSuit!”
Amy handed over her revolver and several magazines. Then she took out her tablet and aimed it at the dead man.
The first spiderbot appeared on the edge of the heap. A shot from the Lefaucheux took its head clean off. The second shot pierced its breast. The spiderbot’s legs collapsed and it clattered its way down the heap.
“How much Knowledge do you have?” Amy asked.
“Sucks to be you. The UniSuit needs at least five.”
“Any upgrades?”
“One. With the alluring name Arachnophilia. There’s also a pack of radiation and chemical poisoning meds, a shielded tablet with a Geiger counter... that’s the second piece of bad news. The radiation...”
Two more spiderbots appeared.
They climbed onto the platform our cabin was on and quickly split off in different directions. I managed to shoot a leg off one — it teetered and then fell face first into the iron. It tried to dodge my second shot, but its mandibles had snagged on some scrap. The spiderbot turned onto its back. I pinned it down with a shot to keep it there.
The second managed to approach me and grabbed me by the leg. I put two bullets into its hull. Fortunately, one made it to the core. The spiderbot begrudgingly unclenched its jaw and fell at my feet as if asking forgiveness. I kicked it away.
“Well? You were saying? What’s the other news?”
I turned and saw Amy’s naked back. Gathering her purple hair, she zipped up the UniSuit.
“The background radiation here is so high that we need at least three Radiation Resistance. So you’re the one that’ll be covered in sores. My new UniSuit can withstand it. That’s all the news.”
Amy stuck her tongue out, put the clear glass helmet on her head and fastened it.
“Is the Arachnophilia upgrade what I think it is?”
Amy became absorbed in her tablet. “I don’t know what you think it is, but yeah. It lets you tame a spiderbot and ride it. It takes on the status of a means of transport. Mechanodestructors can use a trained spiderbot as a sexual partner. People can too, actually. You can upgrade it... Ugh, wow. The main thing is... Watch out!”
I turned around, grabbing my pistol with my right hand. Five spiderbots at once had climbed onto our platform.
“Hurry, into the truck,” Amy swung the door open.
I climbed into the cabin, kicking the skeleton out behind me.
“The truck didn’t save that guy.”
The spiderbots hesitated, looking for their lost target. They started combing the whole platform, feeling every outcrop and part with their mandibles.

* * *

“I think I get how it works,” Amy whispered, her voice barely audible through her helmet.
She crawled across me and I swapped places with her. Amy aimed her tablet and I saw the unfamiliar Arachnophilia interface. Capturing first one spiderbot in the square brackets, then another, the tablet displayed some data. Some percentages stood out: 62%, 47% and so on.
I grabbed my medkit and bandaged my leg.
“Looks like that blueish one is the most vulnerable to taming,” Amy whispered.
“They all look gray to me.”
“I can see the colors in their hulls now. That one over there at the edge has a beautiful swirly pattern on it.”
“Must be the leader. Would be nice to tame that one.”
“Fifty two percent. Not a high chance.”
“What’s the cooldown on the upgrade?”
“Thirty minutes.”
“I’ll die from the radiation. Got any pills?”
Amy hesitated, then begrudgingly handed me a pill from her pack.”
“I need them too. Or will. Later. Probably.”
“Greedy. I gave you my collectible vest.”
“Not greedy, just careful. If you’re going to die from radiation anyway, why waste expensive medicine?”
We silently observed the spiderbots shuffling around the platform. One, probably the blueish one, approached the cabin and thoroughly investigated it with its mandibles, pushing them through the broken glass. We backed off, sinking into our seats, sucking in our stomachs. It was a purely instinctive reaction; the hitbox of a human player took up the same space regardless. You could pull in your tummy all you liked — your volume in the game didn’t reduce.
“How high is your Luck?” I whispered to Amy after bluey left.
“I don’t remember the multiplier, but I think it increases your taming chance by a few percent. Come on, try taming the leader.”
“Why that one?”
“I have an idea... Let’s see how right it is.”
Amy picked out the spiderbot standing at the edge of the platform and not taking part in the search. The tablet magnified the spiderbot and showed an indicator to confirm the action. Amy looked at me. I nodded. She pressed ‘Yes’. A progress indicator appeared above the image of the lead spiderbot. The 52% started dropping quickly. Already 43%... 37%... If it reached zero, that meant we’d fail to tame the spiderbot — we’d have lost.
My gaze locked on the leader. At first, it didn’t react at all. Then it raised its head as if sniffing something out.
33% — it made a few steps toward us, then hurriedly turned back.
29% — it ran chaotically along the side of the platform, knocking into the other spiderbots. It extended its legs down, then backed off like a dog afraid to leap into a pool after its master.
21% — it ran toward us confidently. I aimed my pistol...
18% — it hit the cabin with its legs at a run, knocking out the remainder of the glass. The cabin shook, almost overturning. The remaining spiderbots, bowing to the will of their leader, also rushed the cabin.
11% — the leader stuck its head into the cabin and grabbed my shoulder in its mandibles, but somehow uncertainly. I threw my pistol into my left hand and was almost ready to take off the leader’s head when Amy shouted,
“Done, it worked!”
A victorious signal from the tablet confirmed it.
The leader carefully released my shoulder, dropped off the cabin and stood nearby. The other spiderbots dispersed across the platform and froze. Their task — seek and destroy — was canceled.
I climbed out first. “How long does the taming effect last?”
“It doesn’t say.”
“That means until it dies.”
Amy looked at her tablet. “He’s my pet now.”
I chuckled. “Not just him — the whole cluster.”
“Ooh, so that’s why you chose the leader for taming? Clever Leonarm.”
Amy approached the spiderbot and stroked his square head, tickled its mandibles rusty with dried blood. “I’ll call you Swirl.”

Chapter 14. The Dichotomy of Luck

THE SPIDERBOT’S smooth hull made an uncomfortable seat. The slight forward lean made me slide down to the neck flange, which threatened to pinch my testicles in the clanking space between the hull and the head. I managed to find a comfortable hold on the stationary sections of the legs starting at the body. Our iron horses strode quickly along. They leapt and skidded, but their gyroscopes corrected their body position and we barely felt any jolts.
The cooling processor in the spiderbots’ core made their hull temperature lower than the surrounding air. They were even more comfortable to ride than horses, which I’d ridden on the Bryansk estate belonging to Major General Makarov.
Amy rode Swirl at the head of the cluster. I was somewhere in the center. Amy said that my spiderbot was the selfsame Bluey. I took her word for it. Before she rode forward, she said that one of her pet’s perks was the ability to find the shortest paths in any zone. She showed me her tablet with a map of the Heap. It had a circle marked on it.
“This will take us to the core before anyone else gets there. We don’t even need to search for it ourselves.”
And so it was. The spiderbots not only confidently ran into inconspicuous alleyways in the labyrinth, they also often climbed up onto hills, cutting the path short along the peaks. That was the hardest part. Not only did the background radiation increase, but it also became difficult to hold on to the slippery hulls.
The cluster suddenly stopped next to a pile of fresh electronic waste and fanned out. After investigating the veins of electronic garbage, they started gulping down the components they needed to repair and recharge. Amy and I dismounted to stretch our legs.
“We got pretty lucky, right?” Amy asked.
“The fact that we got a fancy UniSuit isn’t luck, it’s ‘game balance’.”
“What do you mean?”
“We began the quest with unfavorable conditions. Those difficulties have to be balanced out with benefits. The balance is that there are dangerous enemies and high radiation at the northern entrance. The CSes are kind of giving us a choice: either go where it’s easier, but there’s high competition between players, or go where there’s a high chance of death, but lots of perks.”
“Hmm, I get that. It’s the same in life.”
“Only life doesn’t have CSes that give you a choice.”
“Who knows, who knows...” Amy responded mysteriously.
My vision darkened and I felt that I was just about to fall. I shook my head.
“Give me another pill. Must have gotten too much radiation while we were riding on the mounds.
This time Amy gave me the whole pack. I swallowed two pills and watched the spiderbots grazing peacefully.
“I’m sure there are a lot more options for progressing through the Heap that we don’t know about.”
“There was no trigger for starting additional scenarios.”
Amy laughed.
“You’re trying to make excuses for your fuck-up with the bus driver. Trigger, choice options... don’t try to bullshit me.”
“Not bullshitting you. Something will happen soon and you’ll see for yourself.”
“I don’t know what. But we’ve been standing here and chatting for a while now.”
“That bother you?”
“Of course. When we don’t act, it’s like we’re handing our fate over to the control systems. You never know what they could throw at us.”
Amy thought for a moment.
“But when we do act, then our fate still depends on the damn control systems, right?”
I scratched my head. “Strictly speaking, yes. Action and inaction on the part of the player are two different states that the CSes react to differently.”
Amy took out her revolver and checked that the cylinder was full. She did that all the time now. As if hinting at me: look how fast I learn. Always on guard! It seemed my words about her inability to work as a team had had an effect on her.
“I guess Adam Online bores you when you know how it works, huh?”
“You can’t be completely sure of any of it. Most of the code for the QCPs is generated automatically by the QCPs themselves. And the code has been continually generated for hundreds of years now. Humanity can no longer figure out even a single line of it. In fact, there aren’t even actual lines.”
“Then what is there?”
I waved my hand at the environment around us. “This. An imitation of reality in which we’re forced to live so that we don’t see the horror beyond the comfort of our pods.”
The spiderbots suddenly stopped chowing down on electronic garbage and froze. Another second and they went into a battle formation, backs to each other, ready at any moment to create reinforcements.

* * *

Swirl ran to Amy, helping her mount him. I had to find Bluey myself. Since they all looked the same to me, I tried to mount the wrong spiderbot a few times. They threw me off until I climbed onto the right one, which had been waiting patiently.
“What happened?” Amy shouted at me. “One of your damn triggers?”
“We’re in another cluster’s territory. Its owners have arrived...”
Several spiderbots emerged from cracks in the compressed garbage as if to confirm my words. Another dozen or more descended from a hill. I had another opportunity to appreciate how thoroughly the control systems produced such scenarios. The Heap was split between clusters that punished their rivals for trespassing. They may even fight wars for dominion over the Heap. Of course, all this happened only when a player appeared who was capable of understanding what was going on.
And this is what happened.
Swirl left the defensive ring of his cluster. Amy sat astride him cowboy-style, holding her revolver barrel-up. Another spiderbot separated from the enemy cluster. Both leaders slowly approached each other, clicking their mandibles.
“What are they doing?” Amy asked.
“How should I know?”
“You’re a programmer.”
“So? The spiderbots are just doing what they do.”
“God dammit.”
Both leaders approached and touched mandibles.
“How cute. They kissing or what?” Amy lowered her revolver.
“Maybe it’s a type of handshake.”
The leaders continued to feel each other with their mandibles. Too long for a handshake. Finally they stopped scratching and disentangled from each other. I felt Bluey’s hull relax.
“I think they’ve agreed to let our cluster through their territory.”
“Clever boys.”
Then, when Swirl turned around to come back to us, the enemy leader jumped and latched onto his belly. Amy fell to the ground, swearing worse than ever.
Our spidersbots and the enemies rushed toward each other. I barely held onto Bluey’s back. And immediately regretted it; it would have been better to fall. Now I was in the center of the skirmish. Identical spiderbots crowded around, grabbing each other with their mandibles, striking with their legs. A rusty dust rose. Shards of hulls and broken limbs rained down around me.
“Shoot, shoot them!” Amy shouted.
Pulling up my legs to escape bites, I reeled on the hull. “They all look the same!”
Through a haze of dust, I saw another spiderbot grab my own by the neck. I felt Bluey’s the junction of Bluey’s neck crack behind my back. I held on and fired several shots. The enemy fell back. I heard the deep rumble of the Lefaucheux revolver, along with Amy’s “die, bitch”.
The enemy spiderbots were too busy with the battle to pay us any attention.
Every time Bluey grappled with another spiderbot, I supported him with my fire. I heard my tablet beeping through the rumble and scraping. Even if we lost, we’d level up a little.
But our fire support helped Swirl’s cluster withstand the foe, even outnumbered. The sudden attack subsided, we started to steadily push the enemy back toward the garbage piles. Then the dust settled. The crowd of attackers quickly thinned out. Some sank away into crevices, others scrambled up mounds, where our shots quickly brought them back down.
The battle ended as quickly as it began. All the spiderbots froze as if processing information on the outcome of the skirmish. Bluey’s hull, which had overheated during the battle, quickly cooled down.
Swirl victoriously dropped the bitten-off head of his enemy from his maw, then latched onto its chest. Covering himself in drops of oil and sparks, he tore out and victoriously swallowed the enemy’s core, which then immediately fell through the broken synthesis chamber in his belly.

* * *

Our spiderbots, those still able, descended on the enemy corpses. After consuming one, they approached a damaged comrade and begin to repair him. They resynthesized broken limbs, replaced smashed mandibles, reset neck joints and screwed heads back on. The newly repaired spiderbots joined in with repairing the rest.
In some cases, the repair involved taking a whole part off an enemy and using it to replace an ally’s damaged part.
Swirl was missing two legs. He hobbled up to Amy.
“Poor thing, did that traitor hurt you?”
Swirl was quickly equipped with new legs, and a synthesis chamber from the enemy leader.
I climbed off Bluey and sat on one of the corpses. I picked up a piece of mandible. Using it instead of a knife, I cracked open the belly. I tried to pull out the synthesis chamber. It was damaged — the controller was at it again. I moved to the next one and repeated the procedure. Nothing, of course. I moved to another, pushing away a spiderbot trying to repair an ally. I unscrewed the panel on the belly. Without even trying to be careful, I began to unscrew the synthesis chamber.
Like in life, in Adam Online luck came unexpectedly and right on time. I’d wanted to upgrade my All Thumbs achievement, hoping for a reward. Instead, the chamber easily separated and fell into the sand.
I aimed the tablet at it.

Synthesis Chamber.
A valuable item for people who, unlike you, Leonarm, have arms that grow from their shoulders. The main component for building a CAM (Component Adaptation Machine).
Value: upwards of 7,000g.
Weight: 10 kg.

CAM... I felt a rush of memories that I’d suppressed in real life. I remembered how Olga and I had built our first adaptation machine. We’d spent whole days and nights trying to craft weapons. The first pistols we made would hit anything but the target. Sometimes they rewarded the shooter by falling apart at random. We gradually gained experience and increased our Knowledge. The pistols got better. People bought them willingly, and we got rich. Life seemed great (even if it was virtual). Dozens of years of enjoyment in the worlds of Adam Online stretched out before us...
I tapped on the image of the synthesis chamber and it moved into my backpack, significantly increasing its weight. I checked my Carrying Capacity, which for a human was set at Strength multiplied by ten. Of course, if I picked up a little more than my Carrying Capacity allowed, I wouldn’t be stuck in place, but I’d move a lot slower.
Trying not to think of the past, I took apart a few more hulls. I found another synthesis chamber and gave it to Amy. I hoped I’d get a reward for Open Book, but my tablet remained silent. I’d need to try harder.
After breaking another chamber, I got a new message.

Achievement All Thumbs: +10 XP.
Keep up the good work.

Is that it? Where were the goodies that everyone in Rim Zero gets? Either my memories were corrupt, or the game was harder now... or maybe I’d really lost all my skills as an adamite.
On the other hand, all this got me to level two. After a moment’s thought, I put plus one into Strength. I needed to make sure I had space to put loot.
“Had enough playtime?” Amy asked impatiently. “Time to move on.”
She was already sitting astride Swirl. Bluey grazed nearby, eating scraps of devices in the compressed garbage.
“Have you ever thought that the Luck stat is a very strange one?” I asked, climbing onto the spiderbot.
“All our adventures are the result of my low Luck. That’s what lowered my Reputation with the driver. But at the same time, it was our bad luck that gave us so many unexpected finds. You got the rare UniSuit and an ability. You ended up controlling a whole cluster of pets. With allies like this, we’re a force to be reckoned with.”
Amy laughed woodenly in her helmet. “You mean your low Luck value is helping my high one?”
“Something like that. Everything I do leads to problems, but those problems turn into advantages for you. And indirectly, for me, since we’re a team. Luck is like a dichotomy of two mutually exclusive factors.
“Cool. Now I see a point in teaming up with you.” Amy paused, then added: “And I’ll make like I understand what a dichotomy is.”
She dug her heels into Swirl’s sides, and we started careering across the Heap again. After half an hour of wild riding across the hills, skidding down narrow alleyways and crossing high radiation zones, we arrived at a structure that looked like the remains of a huge spaceship.
It was usually in decorations like this that the algorithm hid the core.
As soon as we dismounted from our iron horses, a pulse grenade landed at my feet. The flash blinded me. One of the electrical discharges swirled around me like a tentacle and went into my backpack. My tablet squawked.
That was that... now it would be knocked out for twenty-four hours... It’s a good thing I hadn’t spent any money on that Google Maps upgrade. An EMP returned the tablets to their factory settings, wiping out all their software upgrades. Good bye, loyal personal assistant. You were alright.
Surrounded by lashes of electricity, our spiderbots contorted and fell onto the backs Bluey reared, fell and pinned me to the ground. Amy managed to leap off Swirl as he fell. A rain of bullets fell down on us, along with the flashes of lasers.
It turned out we weren’t the first to find the crashed spaceship.

Chapter 15. Numbers After the Decimal

I LAY ON THE GROUND, pressed against the spiderbot’s hull. I had already freed my leg from underneath it, but I didn’t risk standing up. An unseen enemy followed us, punishing any attempt to act with shots. Bluey’s hull throbbed weakly with electricity, shuddered from the effects of the pulse explosion, sometimes twitched when a bullet hit, or heated up from a laser beam. Even if Bluey woke up, he wouldn’t live long: the damage was too great.
Amy lay not far from me. She was in the same situation, the only difference being that around the girl — or rather, around the fallen Swirl — was a crowd of spiderbots that had avoided the explosion. But without the leader, they didn’t know what to do. They passively took shots to their sides and aimlessly span around, trying to connect to each other, but then separating. Without the command of the leader, they couldn’t reproduce.
First one and then another reeled, falling onto their tucked front legs; they were taking critical hits. Two had already fallen with their cores shot to ribbons.
“What do we do?!” Amy shouted.
“We wait.”
“What for?”
“Until the enemy runs out of ammo. Or until they flank us and shoot us. Or until the spiderbots pick a new leader, if we aren’t all dead by then.”
“And what then?”
“Then they’ll attack us first, as their closest target.”
“Did you forget? I have the Arachnophilia skill.”
“Did you forget? The pulse grenade knocks out all active electronics. Our tablets are dead for twenty-four hours. Or until we die and respawn.”
“I don’t feel like dying.”
“There are two options in any fight: retreat or attack. You can also hold your current position, but that always leads to a choice: attack or retreat.”
“God dammit, Leonarm, why are you so tedious? Let’s attack, what are we waiting for?”
“Sure. But do you see the enemy?”
“Me neither. Judging by the fire, there are two of them. One is a mechanodestructor with a laser cannon in its belly. The other is a human armed with twin standard Glocks.”
“They’ve teamed up?”
“And very successfully. While the human fires, the mechanodestructor can fill magazines for him. His hands are free after all.”
The fire thinned out noticeably. The enemies no longer shot at us, hidden behind the spiderbot hulls. Instead they switched their attention to the living spiderbots and the ones that were gradually coming round.
My Bluey twitched, trying to turn over onto its legs. But Swirl still wasn’t moving. That meant his core was shot. The living spiderbots froze. A sign that they’d begun to choose a new leader.
Amy lifted the glass in her helmet... I caught her bewildered gaze. The helmet... The UniSuit...
“We’re both idiots,” I shouted. “You have a second tablet you got from the scientist.”
Amy hurriedly took it out of her backpack and switched it on.
“Yes! It works. The battery is low. Enough for a couple of minutes...” She performed the necessary actions to add another user to the tablet. “Done. Now it’s my tablet.”
“Wait for the leader to be selected and tame him.”
Amy lifted the tablet over the spiderbot’s frame. Bullets cracked around her, preventing her from aiming it properly.
“Wait. I’ll distract them.”
I stood up from cover and ran behind the frame of another dead spiderbot. I saw a stirring by the remains of the starship’s engine. The stirring was accompanied by a laser flash. The mechanodestructor! That meant the human was somewhere nearby too. My Eagle Eye tracking skill was fully operational.
Around thirty feet away, a giant piece of metal from the starship stuck out of the sand. After measuring the distance, I made a second run. This time shots fired my way. The human was obviously a bad shot: the bullets landed a long way behind me. But the mechanodestructor’s laser hit me in the leg. Twice.
Screaming in pain, I rolled under a piece of metal and held my burning wound. Even my jeans were on fire. I beat out the flames and grabbed my medkit.
Injection. Injection. Bandage. Injection. Injection.
The sharp pain subsided, turned into an annoying itch.
Even without the tablet, I knew that my Battlefield Surgery skill had leveled up. I threw away the empty medkit. All gone. Now I had no way to heal. The next wound would lead to bleeding out and dying.
However I sliced it, I had to increase my Luck. Otherwise every skirmish would leave me maimed.

* * *

Now the enemy was forced to divide their fire between me, Amy and the spiderbots. There were six remaining. Two were so badly damaged that they couldn’t stand properly. They leaned to one side as if drunk. As soon as they finished choosing a new leader, they’d quickly escape to cover or repair each other in place without running... I hoped that Amy would be able to tame the new leader faster than she tamed Swirl.
I assessed my condition: due to my injury, my Agility had probably fallen a point, and my Perception had likely gone down due to the large amount of painkillers in my system. Although a tracker’s skills should compensate for that, right? All this knowledge had faded so quickly.
I shot a quick glance around the corner. The enemies changed their strategy. Now they stood next to each other. The human slowly moved toward Amy, hiding behind debris and shooting. Amy answered him once or twice with her Lefaucheux. She missed both times. These two were a perfect match in marksmanship.
The mechanodestructor had more cunning. He started focusing his laser beam on the spiderbots’ legs. A few seconds and a leg fell off. The spiderbot tried to correct for it, balancing poorly on the remaining legs.
I stopped firing, calculating that Amy would soon take control over the remainder of the cluster. Plucking up my courage, I ran straight to the starship’s entrance, to the position my enemies had left.
They saw me halfway there. Many make a mistake in such situations: they start to weave in the hope of being difficult to hit. But that doesn’t work with mechanodestructor lasers. They can set their firing mode; instead of a concentrated beam of energy, the ray turns into an uninterrupted line, burning all in its path. The more advanced the laser cannon, the longer it can support an uninterrupted beam. If I’d started to weave, my Speed would have gone down. The laser would have caught up and cut my legs off, just like the spiderbots.
All hope was on the agility of my virtual body.
I even forgot that Adam Online is a collective illusion created by its participants out of despair and an inability to live in the real world. I was a living creature trying to save myself from a deadly beam, not a binary array sent to the abyss of the QCP. My non-existent muscles were working as hard as they could. My imaginary legs dug into imaginary burning sad. The illusory radiation pierced my body, smashing against my Radiation Resistance (I dearly hoped)... The bright sun cast a short blue shadow ahead as I ran, as if encouraging me: “Run, Leonarm, run...”
If none of this was reality, then what was reality anyway? A lifeless body immersed in dissociative fluid?
I ran onto the starship’s entry platform and rolled behind some containers. It seemed the aliens were trying to unload cargo, and something got in their way. The laser beam hit the containers and burned right through them. What was going on? Did this mechanodestructor have infinite energy? As soon as the thought came to me, the beam flickered out. There, now the mechanodestructor would need time to recharge his energy banks.
I took a breath and looked out from behind the containers. The human stood over Amy, aiming both Glocks at her. He said something. I heard fragments of malicious laughter. Amy sat on the ground, covering herself with the tablet. The idiot was savoring his victory. Which, as everyone knows, is the beginning of defeat.
I raised my pistol and took careful aim. Don’t let me down now, Eagle Eye. And you, increased critical chance on the complimentary Glock. And you, Luck, sorry for neglecting you. I promise to level you up to ten.
One dull shot from my Glock combined with the twin shots of my enemy’s pistols. At that moment, Amy rolled to the side, knocking the tablet with her fist. I wondered whether her high Luck had helped me with my precise shot. Actually, how did Adam Online solve for things like that? If the opponent had the same Luck as Amy, would that help him dodge my tracker’s accuracy?
Whatever the case may be, the human dropped his pistols along with bright red chunks of flesh. He fell face down in the sand, his head shot clean through. It was a shame I had no tablet. I couldn’t see the name of the player I’d sent back to the spawn point, nor how much experience I’d earned. I should have received more for a player than for an NPC.
Amy put her tablet aside and reached out to search the corpse. The spiderbots stopped passively awaiting execution and rushed at the mechanodestructor. He hopelessly tried to escape from them. Thirty feet later, his monowheel stuck fast in the sand. The cluster descended on him, covering him completely, then moved off again, leaving a monowheel in the sand alongside the remains of a black hose, like a mourning ribbon on a grave.

* * *

I approached Amy.
She threw the tablet she’d found on the enemy. “Catch. Your reward for saving me.”
I pulled my old tablet out of my backpack and threw it away. It was a shame to lose the lightweight battery. But such was life. Or rather, such was Adam Online.
My regret passed quickly. I added a user to make the tablet mine and noticed that the device was better than mine had been. It not only had a lightweight battery and the High Speed cooler, but also two applications: Google Maps with the option to set routes to quest locations in Rim Zero, and the Adam Online Wikipedia.
When I pressed the button, nothing appeared but a description window:

Adam Online Wikipedia.
+1 Knowledge.
Why think for yourself when you can look it up on Wikipedia? Your tablet has a full and detailed guide for rims One, Two and Zero. (Purchased separately.) In addition, by spending just 100,000g, you will unlock a closed section with a list of secret locations. (Each list purchased separately.)
Buy Wikipedia addons?

No thanks.
Alright, time to check out the rewards. Under the protection of the spiderbots, which had managed to bulk their number up to ten, we were safe.

Leonarm (Human) killed IOI655321 (Human) with a complimentary Glock.
+10 XP.

Open Book: +50 XP.
Are you sure you chose the right character? You should have been an angelic protector. You saved your girlfriend again.

It was funny how Adam Online found character traits in players that they never knew they had. There was a reason that some politicians and journalists said that Adam Online was a reflection of ourselves, without the distortion that our own egotism creates.

Battlefield Surgery skill increased: +10 XP.
You’ve fixed yourself up so much that you can now heal others. Although after your treatment they’d better go see a real doctor.

My old tablet didn’t show achievement levels. It was probably disabled by default. The deceased IOI655321 didn’t have time to configure it. The captured tablet didn’t even show the level progress as a whole number, but as 3.79. And I thought I was a dork once.
The thought came again: had I become another person? There was a time when I’d have spent hours configuring a tablet. I used to install nice fonts, change the color scheme, change the mode for displaying stats. Now I couldn’t care less. As long as it showed me what I needed to see. I couldn’t give a damn how many fractions of a percentage I’d progressed in some imaginary achievement.
That’s what it means to have a specific goal. You focus, you stop noticing the numbers after the decimal point.
Of course, Pistols and Revolvers and Eagle Eye had leveled up. All together, I had one stat point and I’d reached level three. Just as I’d promised to who knows who, I put it into Luck.
I found a medkit with two syringes and a bandage among the dead man’s things. I took them. Along with a box of ammo. I gave one Glock to Amy and kept the other myself. IOI655321’s armored vest was in good condition, but in contrast to mine, which gave me plus one to Agility, his gave plus one to Strength. I read Agility. I could have sold it to second-hand merchants in Zero Town, of course, but I didn’t want to fill up my backpack.
After all, we had a whole spaceship to loot.

[1] Saxaul: a desert shrub common in Kazakhstan
[2] Taharration: from the Arabic word Tahara, the ritual cleansing of body and soul

[3] Grisha is a pet form of the Russian male name Grigory
[4] The Viatichi: a Dark-Age kingdom of Eastern Slavs, predecessors of the Russians

Release March 18, 2019

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