Friday, February 8, 2019

Galactogon: In Search of the Uldans

Galactogon by Vasily Mahanenko
Book 2: In Search of the Uldans

Release - April 25, 2019

Chapter One

If you have ever been killed before—in real life, I mean—then you have my most sincere condolences. There is nothing pleasant about this procedure: It is frequently painful, unnerving and scary. Accordingly, if you are not partial to masochism, I recommend you avoid psychos and serial killers. Otherwise, my advice is grin and bear it and hope that if paradise awaits you after death, it will be like the one I’m currently in.
The sun in this, my personal paradise, is always at its zenith, but you don’t have to worry about heatstroke or sunburn. Comfort here is paramount. I blinked blissfully, staring straight into the disk of hot light and savored the sea breeze along my skin. Warm, emerald waves lapped at my feet and tickled them like a playful girl. The sweet chirping of exotic birds behind me mixed with the surf to form a tranquil music. Everything around me dispelled any possible cares and submerged me in nirvana—which is what I concentrated on, letting my mind enjoy a moment of peace. In precisely ten seconds I will give myself a mental kick and remind myself that these are nothing but illusions, digital decorations, plastered upon the walls of the medical diagnostic center. In precisely ten seconds—and not a second more. I have to remember who I am and why I am here.

My name is Alexis Panzer. I am a progamer who specializes in Galactogon, although at the moment, I’m in a therapeutic VR scene generated by my medical recovery capsule. The world around me is a projection created to deceive my mind. I have to feel whole and healthy. Only then, according to the doctors, can I recover from my surgeries.
Three days have passed since I regained consciousness and found myself on this beach. Since then my physician has dropped in to visit me as well as to check in on my psychological recovery and discuss my physical condition. And, the physician pointed out, my physical condition was pretty poor. My battle with the final boss, Constantine, cost me an arm and a leg, literally, and then some: I needed a heart transplant, three synth-tissue patches on my lungs, and prosthetics for my arm and leg. There is still no prognosis and all my questions receive the same boilerplate answer: ‘Your current state is satisfactory.’
But it’s the not knowing that hurts most. I don’t know how my struggle with Constantine ended, and I constantly ask myself: How did I end up in the capsule? How long was I unconscious? What happened with Eunice and our child? Every attempt to learn anything from the doctor ended in failure. Doc claimed he knew nothing and told me to shut up. I obediently kept quiet, followed his instructions and waited. The important thing was to live. I hadn’t the strength to do anything more.
My eyes began to ache from looking at the sun for a long time. Squinting, I brushed away the tears. The discomfort was pleasant, if only because it took my mind of my anxious thoughts. Suddenly I heard the rustle of sand, as if someone was walking along the strand, but I was not worried. My doctor always appeared like that, gradually, instead of materializing beside me so as not to scare me. Delighted by the company, I greeted him warmly without opening my eyes:
Guten Tag Herr Doktor! Buen dia! Buon giorno! I hope, Patient Panzer has managed to demonstrate a healthy spirit?”
“And then some, in my view,” answered an unfamiliar voice. “But I lack the medical expertise to declare it with any authority.” I opened my eyes and tried to look at the stranger through the dark spots and the sun’s blinding rays. From my position on the sand, all I could make out were some expensive leather shoes.
“Good afternoon, Alex. It is extremely inconvenient to speak when you are in this position. Could you stand up please?”
While I silently got up, my information-starved brain worked at a frantic pace. The doctor had always showed up casually: sandals, canvas shorts and a cheerful shirt covered in multi-colored pills like he was Dr. Mario, so as not to disturb me. This visitor though had appeared in his finest dress: A strict business suit, a leather case and name-brand accessories. Either this is a representative of the corporation’s legal department—people who tended to sleep in their suits and slacks—or he’s a junior detective who wants to frighten me. My intuition screamed that the second option was more likely, but my experience insisted that this man had some power behind him. His commanding demeanor did not suggest he was trying to make an impression on me.
“Thank you. Have a seat.” An office table and two chairs materialized right there on the sand. The man took off his sunglasses, opened the suitcase and, undoing the bottom button of his jacket, sank into one of the chairs. While I silently occupied the other chair, he took out several sheets of paper from a suitcase and arranged them on the table in a neat pile.
“My name is Reynard the Fox. My title and responsibilities do not matter at the moment. What is salient here is that I can help you resolve the difficult situation you find yourself in,” the man looked at me expectantly.
“Could you explain what that situation is?” I asked. “I’m a little detached from reality at the moment, for reasons of health.”
“I understand. The law enforcement investigation believes that you intentionally moved to a dwelling equipped with special security and hacking equipment. The owner of the house you rented has already been charged with illegal use of specialized equipment. You hacked the tracking system, tricked one of the competitors and killed him. Having made sure that Constantine was dead, you tried to get rid of Eunice, reckoning that she and her child were a burden. Thus, you faked an assault on yourself and falsified evidence in order to frame Constantine. This is currently the official theory of how the crime was committed. Do you have something to say?”
“Are you insane?!” I jumped to my feet from the madness I’d just heard. “It didn’t happen that way at all! He was the one who threatened us with a gun. He shot Eunice in her legs and arms! He threatened to kill her and then bring the child to term inside of her like…like she was some kind of incubator! I did what I did because I feared for our lives!”
“Please, take your seat! I understood you. The doctor does not want you to grow agitated. I agree that the official theory has some flaws. That is why I’m here. Tell me your version of events. According to official information, Constantine should have been in a coma under the supervision of doctors at the time of the crime, but instead he was found shot dead in your house. Cameras in the street have him coming to you independently and fully conscious. Is that so?”
“It is,” I agreed, taking my seat again and with a hollow voice asked, “Are Eunice and the child still alive?”
The sensible part of my mind quickly took hold of my emotions, isolating the important from what Reynard had said: ‘You tried to get rid of Eunice.’ This could mean different things.
“They are alive indeed, but they are in intensive care. She has lost a great deal of blood and the child’s life is in danger. The doctors are doing everything they can, though Eunice’s life is not in danger.” These words took a great weight from my soul. “She is being held in a medically-induced coma and no one is allowed to see her. Consequently, you are the only witness in the investigation at the moment. Let’s return to the purpose of my visit. I’m listening to you.”
Trying not to miss a single detail, I told Reynard about everything, starting with the exit from the game cocoon. Constantine’s appearance, his threats, the shooting, my desire to save my child—and me throwing the weight plate from my barbell. I had nothing to hide because I am a law-abiding citizen and was confident that the experts would draw the right conclusions. Thinking, I decided to add an important detail:
“He jammed my smart home system, but he couldn’t know that mine occupied only half of our resources. Eunice had control over the other half. She could have recorded a video. Here is the access key to the system. Check it out.”
Reynard nodded and disappeared into the air where he sat. A second later, his belongings disappeared along with his chair and table, leaving me sitting alone in the middle of the beach. I stroked the upholstery of my armrest and made sure that Reynard the Fox had not been a figment of my imagination. I felt a little bit of ease—my family was alive, so the rest was unimportant.
Once more time turned to molasses. An hour passed, another, a third, but no one was in a hurry to drop the charges against me. In the end, I got up and, with almost Olympic calmness, returned to my main activity, swimming laps along the waves.
Almost a day had elapsed before I finally received the long-awaited news. No matter how hard I tried to anticipate my guest’s reappearance, Reynard managed to catch me off guard, materializing right beside me.
“Good afternoon, Alex. On behalf of the corporation and law enforcement, thank you for your cooperation. The incident has been fully reconstructed. There was indeed a video. All the charges against you have been dropped.”
“Thank you,” I nodded, relieved.
“Certain decisions have been made and I have been tasked with acquainting you with them. Sit down, this conversation will be long and difficult.”
The desk and chair reappeared, once again recreating the seaside corporate office. I sat down in my old chair, which had remained after the last visit and therefore become my ‘seat of meditation’ over the last 24 hours.
“Let’s get right to the point. In view of the circumstances, it was decided to terminate the scenario you were involved in ahead of schedule. This was done pursuant to clause thirteen of the contract you signed, the ‘Force majeure’ clause. You may reacquaint yourself with it if you like.” Reynard handed me the signed document and I read over the standard force majeure boilerplate.
“You might agree that this is the only reasonable solution. All project participants have already been notified of the closure and…”
“What participants?” I stopped him. “Has Eunice woken up?”
“Not yet. Constantine killed only six,” Reynard replied. “Your friend, whom you asked us to take care of, is alive. Constantine was bluffing when he said that she and her family were dead.
Alonso and Lucille are alive! I even pumped my fist from joy. I had spent my time here tormenting myself for not being able to save them and here it turned out that it had all been in vain. They were alive!
“Permit me to go on. My…employers…have instructed me to destroy the prize planet and everything that is somehow connected with this scenario—so that human greed does not cause more people to suffer. Yet, it would be unfair to leave you without any reward, since you lost your opportunity to find the prize even as you were so close to finding it. As compensation for the loss of profits for reasons beyond your control, you have been allowed to retain all the rewards you received in the course of your attempt.”
“Rewards?” The word caught me off guard.
“You sound surprised…Why? Galactogon is a commercial project aimed at generating income. Maximum profit is possible only if the internal game balance is respected. No players may have an unfair advantage—or disadvantage—relative to the others. Everyone is equal, within limits. The exception are those individuals who spend their real money in Galactogon, but they are treated as a discrete playerbase that requires its own balance. In the case of the competition you took part in, the contestants were initially placed in conditions that were radically different from those faced by ordinary and commercial players. The corporation therefore instituted a reward and penalty system and applied it to the decisions you made in the course of your attempts. I could furnish some examples to explain better.”
I nodded, unable to hide my chagrin and trying to dampen the fire which had just incinerated all my professional self-esteem to a sad heap of ash. Stupid old me had assumed that I had earned what I had. I thought I was cool, smart, unique.
Reynard, meanwhile, took a document from the suitcase and read:
“If you care to examine this—here are all the rewards. Item: You received compensation for meeting the conditions for starting your search. Specifically, you could not know anything about the game, you could not prepare for it, and you had to make your choices based on your intuition. Item: You helped another player fulfill his long-cherished dream of becoming a pirate. You could have escaped from the Training Sector on your own, but took the player with you. For this, you received a frigate and engine prototypes. Item: You filed a formal complaint against the hacker Dan Cormak, as a consequence of which he was sentenced to twenty-two years and had his illegally-acquired property confiscated. For this, you received your own planet. Item: You tried to warn your fellow contestants and competitors about impending disaster, in particular, Lucille and Eunice. For this, you received an orbship with a full crew. Item: You agreed to marry Eunice, putting the interests of the child above yours. For this, you were granted access to the Zatrathi orbital station. Throughout, all your decisions and actions were considered by a special commission and found worthy of encouragement. Due to the project’s termination, this commission has been dissolved and there will be no more rewards. Now you are a regular player in Galactogon, but, as I said, you are allowed to retain all of the rewards listed above. And with them you have the chance of ensuring substantial profits for the owners of Galactogon.”
“If I return to Galactogon,” I muttered angrily. Keeping calm was proving difficult. My professional self-esteem had just suffered a significant blow. Everything was bubbling inside of me. It turned out that they had helped me out all along my way. I had played with a handicap. And now that their little betting game was done with, the mighty of this world had folded up the board and placed the pieces back in their case.
“There is little doubt that you will return. Your injuries require lengthy and expensive treatment. You must spend the next six months in a medical recovery capsule. And as luck would have it, your medical bills cost about as much as a couple high level spacecraft in Galactogon, while your current financial situation leaves much to be desired. Take a look.” Reynard handed me a sheet of paper. “This is your balance sheet: Your assets and accounts. That red number is the balance owed by you as of today, minus the costs of treatment and rehabilitation in the clinic for the current month. Do not forget that from now on you are responsible not only for yourself, but also for your spouse and child. Even if you liquidate all property, there is enough money for only two months, no more.”
“And you won’t help us? We didn’t end up here because of our own mistakes. We are here because two fat cats decided to have a little fun! They are liable for our condition and must pay for the treatment. It’s spare change for them.”
“Mr. Panzer…Mr. Panzer…” Reynard shook his head. “Be careful about what you say. I understand that you are upset now, and I will pretend that I have not heard anything, but keep in mind that I represent the legal interests of my clients. You are an intelligent man. It is foolish to blame anyone for the actions of a maniac. Do not take this as a threat, but no one except you is responsible for what happened. Let me remind you that you signed the contract voluntarily and, as a result, accepted all the risks and consequences. But…my employers are ready to tender you a helping hand. Your medical capsule will be connected to Galactogon, giving you the option of playing the game and therefore earning money to pay for your treatment. First, we will connect you. Later on, when she is feeling better, we will extend the same offer to Eunice.”
I pulled the document over to me dramatically and rubbed my nose. Treatment and rehabilitation in a private clinic really cost a lot.
“What about transferring us to an ordinary clinic?” There had to be some way of severing all ties with Galactogon.
“The choice is yours,” Reynard did not try to dissuade me and pulled out another sheet. This Fox character seemed loaded with boilerplate for any occasion. “Here are the findings from the medical commission. Without the current medical capsule supporting you, you have two days to live. Public clinics, unfortunately, are not equipped with such modules, and it’s not for me to tell you about the quality of their services.”
I felt like a hunted quarry which had only one way out—to surrender. And the truth was that I myself would customarily go to private doctors and clinics as soon as I felt under the weather. The public healthcare was free and very good, but it was twenty years behind the private sector in terms of medtech.
“So what is your decision?” Reynard hiked an eyebrow. He gave me next to no time to think.
“As if I have a choice…Very well. I agree to your terms.”
“I figured you would. I won’t occupy you any further. Rest assured that your oral consent is sufficient for your capsule to be hooked up to Galactogon. You’ll feel right at home—the weather’s quite hot in there too at the moment. All the best!”
Reynard vanished, taking his office furniture, documents and the still open briefcase with him. Caught off guard, I collapsed into the sand and swore long and hard, feeling even more angry and humiliated.
Will you just look and see how quickly the bettors pulled the plug on their entire wager as soon as the results had become clear! At least I can be happy that we got off so easy—along with the prize and the planet, they could’ve just as easily ‘pulled the plug’ on all the survivors as well.
“We need to run some tests, Alexis.” The doctor appeared immediately after Reynard left and seemed already up to date. “We must check to see how your time in Galactogon will affect your body. We will start with a few seconds and then gradually increase the interval. We’re connecting you to the test server now.”
The seascape around me drifted and reformed into a colorful spaceport. I managed to make out several docked frigates before I returned back to the beach. The doctor was nearby. The medical capsule gave him a full account of my physical condition, but the doctor himself wanted to monitor my emotional stability.
“Excellent. There is no adverse reaction. We will increase the immersion interval to a minute. If you feel sick, simply sit down on the ground. This will serve as a signal to stop the test.”
The interval kept increasing: first a minute, then five, ten, half an hour, an hour, three. The next two days for me turned into a series of spatial jumps from the beach to the unfamiliar spaceport in Galactogon. There were no other players on the test server and the NPCs offered few dialog options, so at first I wandered aimlessly amid the empty buildings. Then it occurred to me to take the opportunity and look for non-trivial ways to get into the control center. I figured that most of the Galactogon spaceports were created using the same templates, and as a pirate in training, it was useful for me to know the ways of getting into the planet’s holiest of holies.
“The tests have been concluded successfully, you are ready to enter Galactogon,” the doctor announced after the second day. “Any requests before we send you to the game?”
“Yeah. I want to connect the capsule to my smart home system.”
I would be lost without Stan to guide me along. Information analysis, web search, a sensible adviser—the personality matrix of my home AI suited me like a glove and I was not about to give it up. In addition, it was unwise to allow yourself to leave reality for half a year without maintaining your business IRL. Stan would be my eyes and ears in the real world.
“Our clinic does not have its own technicians, nor the capability to do this, but for an additional fee we can contact your home AI’s service department. Will that suit you?” It did not suit me one bit and in fact it annoyed me even more, but also there was nothing I could do about it. After a long and ornery conversation with a clinic representative, I felt like twisting the neck of the thin-necked extortionist. It should be legal to sign contracts with tears, as if to say: ‘I agree with the terms, but I ain’t happy about them.’ I was forced to pay an amount with five zeroes to expand the clinic and install extra broadband channels. The clinic director was unmovable: Either I pay the specified amount or I don’t get Stan. The bank terminal appeared as soon as I hollered my consent and kicked up a cloud of sand in exasperation. Those bastards. I don’t even want to imagine how much it costs to integrate a banking module into a medcapsule.
Good afternoon, Master, what are your instructions?” Stan could not speak, only write to the chat in the interface, but even this was enough for me to break into a wide grin. My heart immediately warmed up.
Saying goodbye to the doctor and agreeing to weekly check-ups, I found myself in complete darkness, barely diluted by a loading bar. Galactogon was slowly seeping into the medical capsule. The loading bar reached a hundred percent and the game opened its arms to accept me. I had been gone a mere six days, but it felt as if I had lived an entire life during my absence.
I spawned in the palace of the Precian Emperor, in one of its myriad guest rooms. I made a few familiar movements to check my new hardware’s performance and collapsed in my bed as I was. Now it was possible to relax and sleep—my own caring doctor had injected me with a mild tranquilizer. My last thought before shutting down was that I should forbid him from doing this the next time I saw him.

“Captain Surgeon, an official reception with the emperor will take place in four hours.” A soft knock and a polite voice broke through my sleep. A Precian noble stood in my room’s doorway. “Would you like to freshen up before the audience?”
This offer came in very handy. Having caught up on my sleep, I was ready to calmly figure out what had happened in the game since I left and where the hell my damn ship was. I could not contact my crew: The NPCs did not respond to my comm, and I still hadn’t gotten my marine armor back, so I started with the most important thing: integrating with Stan. There was no voice feature for communicating with third-party software in Galactogon. The only way to communicate was to chat through my avatar’s PDA. This turned out to be very inconvenient, and it was Stan who found a solution. He began our communication with several detailed reports about how he missed me, how he had waited for me, how little resources he had left, and how brazen, evil law enforcement officers had rummaged through his databanks. Listening to his litany of complaints, I made a mental note to lower his emotion settings. Stan seemed to be trying to match the behavior of a person, and forgot his main duty—to provide me with analytical data. At the first attempt to gain an answer, my patience failed. Stan came to the rescue. His next message contained instructions for setting up voice input and audio playback in the PDA interface. The only pity was that the PDA only had a loudspeaker option which everyone around me would hear. This would constrain what I could say to Stan.
“Home construction is currently at 70%, all systems are already connected. What are your instructions, Master?”
“All right. I need the following information…”
It took Stan some time to amass the data on the current state of my finances, the location and operation of my clinic, the recovery technologies in my medcapsule, the limitations and negative consequences of my six-month convalescence in it, as well as the cost of such a model for personal use. The problem had to be considered from all angles. Stan assured me that his data collection would be assigned the highest priority, wished me a speedy recovery, reminded me to do my morning workout and disconnected. I already felt like I was at home—a week without a loyal assistant was an eternity.
While I was dealing with urgent matters, two Precians drew a bath and waited to help me wash and then have a massage. Too bad that Galactogon had a 12+ age limit. Everything was by the book, decorous and noble, with no hint of eroticism, let alone happy endings. Eh…A pleasant languor spread through my body, and I had to force myself to look through my current list of missions:
The Imperial Gift: You have been given a unique opportunity to meet with the emperor of the Precian Empire and receive from him a reward for finding information about the KRIEG.
The Stork and the Fox: Notify Alviaan, First Councilor of the Delvian Emperor, that the princess and he have ‘made it.’
Meet Trid: Meet Trid, Hilvar’s contact, hand him the envelope and receive his instructions. Return to Hilvar with his message.
A Pirate I was Meant to Be. Part 1: Destroy 150 interceptors (12 of 150 destroyed) or 125 scouts (0 of 125), or 100 shuttles (0 of 100), or 75 monitors (0 of 75), or 50 frigates (0 of 50), or 20 albendas (0 of 20), or 10 cruisers (1 of 10).
Treasure Hunter: Find your way to the secret Uldan base, located on a moon of the planet Zalva. Required item: Orbship Warlock.
On top of this, I had earned two audiences with the emperor of any of Galactogon’s empires for earning the ‘First Defender’ and ‘Semper Fidelis’ achievements. In total, three meetings with the masters of this universe. Not bad, though it’ll go sour quick if the system decides that this one meeting with the Precian Empire counts for all three. Just in case, I better extract the utmost from this one, which means I need to thoroughly prepare and call my partner.
“Marina, how are you? This is Surgeon speaking. Do you have any interests in the Precian Empire?”
“What the hell, you weirdo! You just call me as if nothing’s happened?! Is this some way of making fun of me?” the girl yelled in response to my greeting. I was taken aback, not expecting such a turn. “Or is your nut sack too small to show up in person? ‘Cause if so, sew yourself a bigger one, you surgeon, and we can talk when you’ve made yourself a big boy!”
“Wow.” I couldn’t help appreciate the state that the typically-restrained captain of the Cruiser Alexandria was in. Most likely, Kiddo was pissed about the disappearance of my planet, which served as the homeworld for her cruiser. If that was the case, I’d better not keep the truth from my partner. “Marina, I’ve been away from the game for six days due to health problems. I almost swapped this metal box for a plush wooden one. I have no idea what happened during that time. You are the first person I called because I still assume we’re partners. Let’s not start fighting right away. What happened?”
A noisy exhalation in the mic and a long pause suggested that Marina had switched her mental tumbler from the ‘pissed’ to the ‘cogitating’ setting. After a short while, she managed to calm herself:
“Last night I attacked Shylak XIV, the Qualians’ trade planet, overwhelmed the Grand Arbiter and destroyed the planetary control center. Basically, the raid went off better than we could have expected. But then the aliens showed up out of nowhere and attacked Alexandria, destroying her. That is to say that they appeared on the opposite edge of the galaxy from where their invasion is supposed to be happening! The binding to your planet vanished and so did the planet itself. Hell even the star system, no longer exists! Without a homeworld, Alexandria respawned in Qualian space. And those buggers boarded and captured her. So what am I supposed to think, partner? I trusted you and now I am stranded without a cruiser! And what the hell did the devs get involved for?”
“The Zatrathi attacked only your ship or everyone in the system?” I frowned, hearing her account. As I had assumed, Marina’s troubles stemmed from the devs’ having moved Blood Island. If I understood Reynard correctly, the planet was still in Galactogon, but only Brainiac, my ship’s computer, would know its coordinates. But anyway, what were the Zatrathi doing in Qualian space? My many years spent playing Runlustia paid off—the plot twists remained similar. If the invaders attacked only Marina’s vessel and ignored everyone else, then the Galactogon playerbase had some merry times ahead of it.
“Is that all you care about?” came the indignant cry from the comm. “I lost my ship! What’s the difference who else the aliens attacked?”
“You haven’t lost anything yet!” I snapped back. “In a couple hours, I have an audience with the Precian Emperor, I will ask him for help. They are in the same alliance with the Qualians. Let me ask you one more time, did the Zatrathi attack only you or everyone?”
Kiddo did not hurry to reply, seemingly mulling the ambush over in her head.
“You’re right, they only attacked us. They didn’t bother with the other players raiding Shylak. What does this tell you?”
“What does it tell me?” My fears had been confirmed. “Do you have assets with the Qualians?”
“Oh only my legendary cruiser!”
“Aside from the ship. Other ships, mining facilities, valuables? Everything you can take with you.”
“Suppose I do. What’s it to you?”
“Get it all out. Logic dictates that within the next week, the Qualians will announce their withdrawal from the Alliance and join with the Zatrathi. First of all, the Qualians have lost their prince. Second of all, there is news that the KRIEG has been completed. Third, the players are being pushed to fight on two fronts, just the way the developers like it, and now there’s this Zatrathi ship ambushing you. All indications are that the Qualians are about to start a power struggle for mastery of Galactogon. I’ll figure out what happened to my planet and try to get your ship back. By the way, where are you now?”
“I’m in prison on Raydon, the Qualians’ second largest trading planet. I’m under arrest until the investigation runs its course.”
“So sit tight and wait quietly. What about your business in the Precian Empire? Don’t hold back. Consider it compensation for the loss of your ship. I have the audience with the emperor coming up and I don’t really have anything to ask him. Just some trifles. It would be foolish to waste such an opportunity.”
“Precians, you say? Yes, there is one piece of business. There is a trading combine called Hansa that’s based on the planet Belket in Precian space. Hansa specializes in weapons, ammunition and high-end ship weaponry. They are the best gunsmiths the Precians have and by extension the Alliance as a whole. Their services cost astronomical amounts of money, but their products are always singular. You can’t buy them from players, even after the latest update. It would simply be the bees’ knees if the Precian Emperor grants me permission to work with them and throws in a discount for the cooperation, of say, twenty percent. I know plenty of people who are ready to purchase Hansa products, but who don’t have the chance due to the current limitations. If we manage to set ourselves up as middlemen, the income will be modest but stable. We can go in fifty-fifty if you like. Galactogon’s accountants can generate the relevant reports. What do you say, partner?”
“I’ll say it’s a pleasure doing business with you, partner,” I replied. “You’ve got a deal. Do you know where Wally and the team are right now?”
“I don’t know for sure. I don’t keep track of them, but I think they’re out hunting small ships. All right, I have to go. They’re about to take me on my daily walk. Call me in about four hours and let me know how it went with the emperor.”
Marina disconnected and I grinned. Naturally, Kiddo had no reason to track my ship herself, since Wally would do that for her. Every chance he got, he sent reports about what was going on to his true boss.
“Mister Surgeon, it is time.” A Precian appeared next to me with clothes for me to wear. “You are already expected in the audience hall.”
Compared with its analogues in Runlustia, the emperor’s ceremonial hall in Galactogon could be called ascetic. I was used to the fact that every detail of the palace interior had its own history—everything had artistic and, most importantly, material value, which meant it could be stolen and sold for a profit. Here, however, the eye had nothing to latch onto. The place was like any other ordinary gray room that had been labeled the ceremonial hall and which had a psychedelic throne in its center. It was an odd approach on the part of the devs to the design of a location that many players wanted to get into. But it should be noted that the palace matched its owner. Outwardly, the emperor differed little from his subjects. He was a blue-skinned humanoid wrapped in a legendary suit of armor and therefore looked more like a space marine than one of the twelve most-influential NPCs in Galactogon. Only the hologram of a crown above his pointy-eared head and long, thin neck suggested his higher status.
There were about twenty attendees in total, but I was the only player among them. Standing last in line for my reward, I realized the reality of what was going on. Reynard warned me about this—there would be no more concessions. If I had met the emperor before Constantine’s attack, this reception would have been in my honor. Now I have to stand and wait for my turn. It was boring to watch the NPCs receive orders, titles or planets. Finally, the celebration reached my end of the woods.
“Outlaw of the Qualian Empire,” announced the court clerk, “gifted with the grace of our emperor, witness of the heroism of the Precian prince, the first to destroy the ship of the Zatrathi, the first to kill a Zatrathi in melee combat, who set forth upon the path of piracy, captain of the Orbship Warlock: Captain Surgeon!”
The emperor nodded, allowing me to approach.
“I’m glad you could recover from your disease, Surgeon,” said the head of the Precians, officially restating the reason for my five-day absence from the game. “You were able to obtain the orbship and showed that the Uldans are not a myth. I heard rumors about the search for this amazing civilization that lead people like you, but I thought it was a whim. I am overwhelmed with contradictory feelings. I am both unhappy and pleased that I was wrong. Tell us all about your adventures. How did you manage all this anyway?”
There were no other players around, so I freely recounted how I had received Warlock. I kept the drama to a minimum and emphasized my fortune. My professional self-esteem squealed from the effort. I had lucked out so many times that anyone with a modicum of humility should have put it together: Something was going on. Ordinary players don’t get their hands on special prototype engines while still in the tutorial.
“Now I understand how you learned about the KRIEG,” the emperor shook his head and said instructively: “Remember this lesson for the future, Surgeon, luck is a fickle mistress. Do not imagine that she will hold true.”
The developers had just used the emperor’s mouth to inform me that my walk in the park had brought me to uncharted waters. And I was yet to find out exactly what lay in store for me.
“The Precian Empire is grateful to you for the information about the KRIEG and my son’s actions,” the emperor continued. “The prince did the right thing in killing the traitor. Accept this gift as a reward for the news.”
One of the Precians gave me a small piece of paper on a golden platter.
“A check for two hundred tons of Raq,” the emperor solemnly declared. “You may redeem it in whole or in parts on any of the planets of my empire.”
I accepted the emperor’s first gift, bowing my head gratefully. Two hundred tons of Raq at a cost of fifty credits per kilogram made me the owner of ten million credits. My current balance barely exceeded one and a half, so this generous gift from Galactogon would be very useful. I guess they decided to finally give me some money.
“You were the first to destroy a Zatrathi ship, proving to the skeptics that such a feat was even possible. Accept this gift as a reward for your valor!”
Again a Precian with a golden tray approached me.
“A ship that has achieved such success should be rewarded. This is permission to contact the Hansa Trading Combine and an order to upgrade one of your vessel’s systems. Hansa shoud find something that will please even the owner of an orbship.
It’s a good thing that Kiddo had told me about Hansa, otherwise I would not have realized the value of the second reward. Happy, I bowed my head again, accepting the document.
“You were the first to kill a Zatrathi, demonstrating that the enemy may be killed not only in space, but also on the planets it has captured. Accept this gift as a reward for your courage!”
Instead of a golden tray, a cargo drone flew into the hall, hauling a sparkling suit of armor in its tractor beam. The properties of the gift were hidden, but one glance turned out to be enough to understand that the A-class Qualian marine armor that I had never received was an ancient prototype compared to the sleek killer in front of me.
“Armor and arms are the alpha and omega of any marine. This legendary marine armor and ranger’s blaster will allow you to more effectively vanquish our foes. Wield them with honor!”
A solemn fanfare followed, marking the end of the award ceremony. I took a step back to take my place, but a light tap on my back indicated that the emperor had not yet finished.
“Once you have visited Zalva’s moon and received your upgrade from Hansa, you shall be expelled from our empire. Pirates have no place in the Precian Empire! I cannot trust someone who voluntarily chose the path of piracy. From now on, and as long as you remain a pirate, you shall find no safe harbor in Precian space. Escort Surgeon to his ship and see that he leaves Zalva immediately.”
This marked the end of both my audience with the emperor and my walk in the park. Two armored marines appeared on both sides of me and unceremoniously turned me to the door. My eyes followed the drone with the armor suit, which turned around after the escorts. It looked like ‘the alpha and omega’ of any Precian marine would be delivered directly to my orbship.
Until I reached the spaceport, I still harbored some hope of secretly meeting the emperor. Things like that happened in Runlustia all the time—when it was possible to solve problems with the rulers behind the scenes, bypassing the officially announced political course, or even get non-trivial tasks. But this time, there was no miracle forthcoming. As the dock with the now-kindred Warlock loomed on the horizon, it became clear that the Precian Emperor did not entertain any intrigues. If I wanted to stay on Zalva, then I had to give up on Hilvar’s mission. It’s a shame that the issue with Kiddo’s ship remained unaddressed. My mission log appeared before my eyes and I cursed. It was impossible to cancel the mission. My choices were either to slink back to Hilvar and confess my inadequacy or wait a calendar year until the deadline expired. There were no other ways of quitting my path to piracy.
Yet the nearer I came to the dock, the calmer I became. The mere sight of Warlock dispelled my doubts. Come what may. I could of course, fly to Hilvar, abandon piracy and join the glorious horde of those fighting against the Zatrathi. But why not try to live the Pirate Dream? The Confederacy did not refuse admission to freelance privateers. If I joined them, there would be no obligations and, therefore, neither foreign allies, nor foreign rivals. I would be the only one to decide whether to attack a ship that came across my path or not. The more worrying question was how I was going to make my living. Although, on the whole, it wasn’t such a pressing one for the moment. There was even time to consider my other missions.
Thinking these thoughts, I stepped onto the dock. Thanks to my rhino marine, a desolate zone had formed around my Warlock. Watching the maintenance men cautiously skirt in an invisible circle around my ship, I realized that my cryptosaur had already become infamous on Zalva. I jumped off the platform and waved to the rhino. He roared menacingly and rushed straight towards me, paying no attention to the technicians and repair equipment in his way. It was petty, of course, but still nice to see the Precians jump out of the way at the last moment, abandoning their instruments in their flight. Oh, what a pity! I was not going to reimburse the cost of the equipment. That’s what you get for exiling me.
The cryptosaur rushed up to me like a locomotive at full steam and, ignoring all inertia, stopped dead in front of me, blasting me with hot air from his flared nostrils. I patted the marine on his nose and climbed onto his back, which had morphed into a comfortable saddle.
“Wait, Surgeon! We need to talk…” was all I heard before my mount brought me to my ship. I was in such a hurry to get back that I paid no attention to the voice.
“Our lost lamb has returned!” It may have seemed that the ship herself had greeted her captain in a deeply-buried voice, but this was really my engineer who dwelt in the vessel’s depths. Of the entire Warlock crew, he was the only one who could speak. I dismounted my rhino and waited for the engineer to crawl to the surface. “We thought you decided to settle here, Cap’n. To sprout roots, find yourself a blue wife and make some blue kids. You surrendered to the blue meanies without a struggle or a fight?”
“Don’t hold your breath,” I smiled, affably patting the head of the slizosaur who had bent down to my height. My engineer and permanent shieldsman was a huge and extremely snarky serpent. “Someone needs to captain this tub. You lot would grow rusty without me. Then I’ll have to go about sanding everything back to order.”
“Surgeon! We need to talk! Don’t leave!” sounded the voice again. The rhino marine snarled menacingly, cautioning the stranger from approaching. I turned around and saw a player in a typical suit of armor with Precian insignia. It was the kind of insignia you got for grinding rapport with the empire. The man was standing beside a tent, pitched right there on the dock as if he had been camping out waiting for me for a long time. Such perseverance should be rewarded, and I was curious to hear what he wanted from me.
“I’ll listen, but not for long,” I glanced over at the Precian guards. The marines’ postures suggested that they were ready to see their emperor’s orders performed to a T.
“Mr. Eine wishes to speak with you. If you could wait for a half hour—he is on his way here as we speak.”
“I don’t think I can spare even five minutes.” The guards had perked up noticeably. “At ease, fellas…I’m going, I’m going…”
Before entering my ship, I turned and yelled to the stranger:
“Sorry, if I don’t go now, these courageous fellas will destroy me. So take care and don’t hold it against me.”
“This man is under the protection of Mr. Eine!” The stranger turned to the guards and flashed a sparkling badge. “Leave him.”
“Emperor’s orders. The pirate must leave Zalva immediately!” One of the guards replied in a metallic voice and knocked the player away with a single blow.
I had no desire to get into a fight with the Precians, so I ordered:
“We are leaving! Everyone aboard! Space awaits us!”
This was mostly addressed to the cryptosaur, who had decided that the guards were posing a threat to the ship and was about to attack them. A platform extended from the bottom of Warlock, and the rhinoceros stalked inside with a business-like snort as if to say that if it hadn’t been for my orders, he would have wiped the entire dock clean with the Precians. The ship’s hull meanwhile wavered and parted, forming an entrance for me.
“Welcome back, Captain!” the ship computer greeted me.
“Hello, Brainiac! I need a full report on the current status of the ship, crew and equipment.”
“All systems are operating normally. Crew readiness is at 100%. The droid squadron is back at 100% as well. We have two suits of armor, one of which we received a few minutes ago. I am currently running diagnostics on it. There are ten tons of Elo reserves, forty tons of Raq and two tons of Tiron in our holds.”
“Send the new armor suit to the bridge and synchronize it to the ship. Anything important that I should know about before blast-off?”
“Unauthorized persons made twenty-eight attempts to breach the ship’s security perimeter. I dispatched the marine to protect the perimeter and hull integrity. In response, the enemy detachment set up a camp at the far end of the dock and engaged in intelligence gathering until you appeared. The guards were changed around the clock, every two hours. An enemy parliamentarian requested permission to speak with you several times. That is all. The new armor suit has been synched to the ship. I congratulate you on your new equipment.”
My curiosity subsided, sending a fiery farewell to the stranger picking himself up out on the dock: just another hunter of rarities, trying to get into my orbship. The hell with him. And yet…well, if he’s a potential buyer, I should sound him out just in case…
“Stan, I need information about a player named Eine. This process is high priority. Have you finished collecting data for the previous process?”
“I have. The information has been uploaded to your PDA. New process accepted. Getting started on it now.”
The handheld computer squeaked, displaying an incoming message icon. Reminding myself that I needed to take time to assess my situation out in reality, I turned my attention to the new armor. Its properties exceeded all my expectations. It was like the Christmas gift of a lifetime. The emperor’s generosity impressed me! The legendary class gave the armor 21 stats with the option of replacing or integrating blasters, active shielding, a jetpack and a bunch of extra components that basically made whoever donned the suit into a good old tank. With this kind of gear, I could calmly go toe to toe with a Zatrathi, without any fear of failure. Brainiac could project the ship’s control systems directly into the suit’s HUD, turning it into a kind of personal captain’s chair. I designated one of the screens as a channel to Brainiac and adjusted my captain’s chair to the suit’s dimensions.
“Brainiac, I ordered you to compile a list of the crew’s abilities. How are you doing with that?”
“The process has been completed. The compiled data has been sent to your armor’s computer.”
“Excellent. Let’s take off then. Set course for Zalva’s second moon.”
“This is Orbship Warlock requesting launch clearance,” Brainiac addressed the control tower.
“Launch clearance granted. Follow corridor 2-2-5 to rendezvous with Grand Arbiter Intrepid. Your ship must be inspected before leaving planetary orbit.”
This was unexpected but reasonable. What if I was about to smuggle some dangerous outlaw out with me? I’m a pirate, after all. It’s something I’d do. Just in case, Brainiac assured me that there was nothing illegal or prohibited aboard.
Warlock took off and a countdown timer appeared to indicate the time left before we docked with the Grand Arbiter. This was enough for me to read over Stan’s report.
Reynard hadn’t deceived me—there wasn’t much of a silver lining in our situation. We had been justifiably admitted to one of the most expensive clinics on Earth. It was a very private facility, yet Stan managed to dig up something about it. My personal assistant managed to download the data from the medical capsule directly. There had been no exaggeration—without constant stimulation of my heart muscles, I would be a dead man. The implant worked well, but it would take time for it to merge with my system. My prognosis was good on the assumption that I would spend four or five months in the medical capsule, and then another month for rehab. Eunice’s condition was stable, but she remained in the coma. Stan reassured me that the critical threat to the child had passed and now the doctors were just playing things as safe as possible. That was it for the good news. Even though Eunice and the baby were basically all right, I was still in deep trouble. There was no alternative, cheap treatment in my situation. My insurance payout for the destroyed house and the money that I had managed to earn during my search for the prize planet made it possible to pay the medical bills, but I would have nothing left. There was one loophole. Although there was no official system for converting Galactogon credits into real ones, there were quite a few third-party resources offering exchange services. The rate was naturally unprofitable, but, in an extreme case it would provide at least some money. So, I would need to increase the amount of Raq I had on board and periodically exchange it for loans of real money. Piracy was beginning to look better and better.
“We have docked, Cap’n,” the engineer notified me. There followed an unpleasant metallic sound. The docking mechanisms of the Grand Arbiter had grown rusty from disuse, the hatch in my orbship took shape, and a team of customs officers stepped on board. Having made a cursory inspection, the underlings lined up, waiting for management. After a minute or so, a Precian in rather elaborate armor appeared in the hatchway—an Imperial Adviser.
“According to regulations, the ship inspection should take five minutes, so we will not waste time. His Imperial Highness instructed me to accompany you to the moon, but only if you agree to take me with you.” I had no chance to respond to this because the adviser immediately raised his hand, calling for silence. “Do not rush to refuse! The palace is rotten with spies; the emperor made a public show of exiling you for their benefit. Consider your exile a guarantee of your safety and relative freedom in Galactogon. We suspect that the Qualians are collaborating with the Zatrathi. They plot to eliminate the ruling dynasties of all the empires, including the allied ones. Thus we are on the brink of hostilities with the Qualian Empire. The margin for error is very small. When the problem with the Qualians is resolved, the Precian Empire will show its appreciation for you. I am asking you to take me with you at the behest of the emperor. I am the keeper of knowledge about the Uldans and would very much like to enter their base.”
“Well, your words explain a lot, and it is possible that I don’t mind taking you along, but after searching the moon, I have to leave imperial space,” I clarified an important point. “What am I supposed to do with you then?”
“I would be quite happy if you set me down on Belket, where you will receive your reward from the Hansa. If that does not work, any other planet of the Confederation would do. The Precian Empire has consulates on all inhabited planets. I am not a pretentious person and when it comes to my life’s work and passion—the Uldans, that is—I can abide some inconvenience.”
“I bet,” I muttered to myself, thinking and watching the adviser’s small beady eyes scrupulously crawl over Warlock’s interior. Still, if the NPCs themselves decided to visit my ship, it means that they are ready to make concessions. “What will I get in return? I was kindly awarded an exile earlier. I would like something more beneficial to my person.”
“Oh! The emperor anticipated such a development.” The beads flashed knowingly in my direction. “People, especially pirates, rarely adhere to the principles of charity. The Precian Empire is prepared to share with you the Uldan technologies that it has. I’m sure your ship’s computer can figure out what to do with them.”
Brainiac drew my attention with a blinking message:
“I recommend we accept the offer! There is a critical dearth of information about the Uldan base. It is reliably known that it is located deep below the surface of the moon, and our ship serves as an access key. There are no exact coordinates. Let me remind you that the orbship is a reconnaissance vessel, not a research vessel. New information may be hard to come by and therefore very useful.”
“I see no reason to refuse, especially since we could use the help,” I agreed with my ship’s computer and nodded to the adviser, while swiping away the warning that had jumped out:

Mission updated: Treasure Hunter…

“Write in the inspection report: Orbship Warlock has no prohibited items for export,” the adviser ordered, and the customs officers left my ship. The inspection regulations had been executed immaculately.
“Brainiac, set course for Zalva’s second moon. Maximum acceleration. Adviser, we have a few minutes of flight ahead of us. Could you share with me what you know about the Uldans in the meantime?”
“Unfortunately, there’s not much to share. The technology employed by our winged ancestors strain the limits of our understanding, but you yourself no doubt already learned as much from your ship and crew. We don’t even know how they disappeared. There is a theory that a war broke out between the Uldans and an unknown race, and ninety thousand years ago one of the parties used forbidden weapons. Analogs of the KRIEG, only on the scale of Galactogon. Both sides of the conflict were destroyed, and other races took the leading positions in our world.”
“Hold on. The KRIEG. What can you tell me about it?” I seized an unexpected opportunity.
“I’m sorry, Surgeon, but I cannot reveal classified information. And the KRIEG is very classified.” The adviser spread his hands helplessly.
“I’ll trade you some info about the Uldans for some answers about the KRIEG,” I said, pushing the Precian’s sore point.
“It all depends on the question.” A transparent film descended over the adviser’s beady eyes and he began to thoughtfully stroke his long neck. “If I can answer it, without violating confidentiality, I will gladly exchange the information. I can say one thing right away, the aftermath of using the KRIEG shall be terrifying for everyone.”
“Yes, I already realized that the KRIEG is a weapon of mass destruction. What I am interested in is its area of effect. If the Qualians decide to use it, I’d like to know how far to jump from the epicenter.”
“Two hyper-minutes,” the adviser replied after a bit of thought, making me whistle in surprise. In two minutes you could fly through a dozen star systems and that’s only in one direction. If a KRIEG detonates in a sphere, then a vast region of Galactogon would be laid waste.
“The Uldans fought against the Vraxis,” I handed over the information I had received from Warlock ​​and now it was the turn of the adviser to show surprise by preening his neck in my direction.
“Is this information reliable? As far as I know, the Vraxis is a race of hypertrophic insects with a very rudimentary intelligence.”
“You could not find a more reliable source. I heard it directly from the last Uldan commander of this very ship. And, in my opinion, the intellect of the Vraxis is a bit higher than rudimentary, since their queen had a dangerous army which was guided by generals,” I replied.
“Yes you are right. It is likely that our information is not accurate,” the adviser muttered thoughtfully. “I was present at the audience where you told the emperor about how you acquired the orbship. It is unheard of and incredible, yet I both believe and envy you. You had a chance to see a living Uldan. Everyone else has had to content themselves with rare images.”
“I am picking up a weak distress signal,” Brainiac interrupted suddenly. “The signal is coming through in the Uldan language. Its transmitter seems to be located below the moon’s surface. ETA is thirty seconds.”
“Route the signal to the cabin speakers and ready the cryptosaur. We will land. Translate the signal into the common language.”
A noisy hiss sounded in the speakers and gradually gave way to a monotonous message in a foreign language:
“Mayday. Mayday. This is base 20-449. We are under attack and require assistance,” Brainiac translated out loud. “The message repeats. This is an emergency recording, Captain.”
But that was already clear. Neither the timbre nor the pitch of the voice has changed. No matter how incredible they are, it’s impossible to wait for help at the microphone for a hundred thousand years.
“That’s enough. Crew—any suggestions for where to look for the entrance? Any ideas are welcome.”
“Here is the location where the signal is strongest,” Brainiac poured forth new information like fuel onto the fire.
“So the entrance is in another place,” the snake remarked in a business-like tone.
“What? Why?” I was surprised at the engineer’s certainty.
“The first thing the enemy would do is target the transmitter, to prevent the defenders from calling reinforcements. Therefore, the transmitter must be able to withstand any bombardment and continue its transmission. That is, the best place to install a transmitter is where the crust is thickest, while the best place to enter the facility is where it’s thin. But I am assuming here, Cap’n. You should orbit the moon to make sure. The ship can track the signal and the base might react to our appearance and open the door itself. There are many possibilities to consider.”
After thirty minutes of flying around the moon, it became clear that neither the base nor the ship were about to enter into an intimate relationship without our encouragement. Zalva’s second moon proved to be a huge barren rock that was entirely unattractive to the mining corporations yet highly sought after by the Precian nobility. It was dotted with pompous palace architecture: The entire moon was like a gated community for the cream of the Precian Empire. Brainiac kept reporting that we were being tracked by ground batteries, but no one dared open fire. The Grand Arbiter Intrepid had guaranteed our security.
“I have discovered a large area that contains no settlements or buildings. Flora and fauna are likewise absent. The signal is reading the strongest from the center of the location. Transmitting the area to your visors now.” Brainiac modeled an excellent projection of the moon on the second lap and filled it with as much detail as possible.
“This is called the Barrens,” the adviser explained, having carefully studied the map. “It is a bit of a local natural reserve at the moment. At one time, various attempts were made to build on this territory, but for various reasons it was not possible to complete the work.”
“Candidate site number one,” I reasoned. “We’ll touch down in the center. Brainiac, send the cryptosaur to scout. We don’t need to run into any strangers right now.”
“Roger. Executing orders.” The orbship banked sharply and plummeted to the moon’s surface. A slight vibration of the floor indicated that the rhino had disembarked. One of the screens began to broadcast the surface through the eyes of a cryptosaur. Gray stone and dust as far as the eye could see. The atmosphere analysis showed a complete absence of oxygen. Nothing extraordinary or unusual.
“Landing zone is clear.” Brainiac reported after a minute. The marine was running around the wasteland in circles, looking for potential enemies. There was no one.
“Let’s go. Adviser, will you be joining us?”
“Indubitably! I would be happy to show you the places where I spent my youth. Every rock here is an old friend.” The desire to be useful vied with the Precian’s excitement and eagerness.
There was no particular reason to leave the ship, but I was impatient to try out the new armor suit. Brainiac did not land Warlock entirely, allowing me to glide down to the surface from a five-meter height. The adviser did not lag behind, but it was evident that he had a hard time, and this was alarming.
Recalling the pretentious castles of the local rich, I asked for the sake of interest:
“Do you have a ‘Xanadu’ here too?”
“Sorry, what?” the adviser did not understand my terrene vocabulary.
“I mean, a place to rest. A palace,” I explained, feeling uncomfortable.
“If you mean…an extra-planetary…residence, then…yes.” The adviser sounded short of breath. “But for the most part…only my mother lives here at the moment. She is…she is always throwing parties…living the high…life.”
“That is exactly what I meant,” I grunted, wishing to get away from the topic of someone else’s wealth. It seemed the Precian picked up on my embarrassment because a guffaw cut through his panting.
“You, Surgeon, are a human…and you see things from a human point of view. Humans boast and show off…their wealth, so you think…that this place is just a bunch of creatures competing in luxury. This is not true. The emperor cares…about the welfare of his people. For us to build a manor…and equip it with advanced innovations is not so expensive…Consequently, there is nothing to be proud of…The other factor is that not everyone is…allowed…to settle here. This…is a privilege that must be earned…Only the Precian…who can climb…to that point on his own, earns the…right to live on the moon…” The adviser nodded to the top of a nearby hill, catching his breath. “That is the ‘Peak of Valor,’ the central point of the Barrens…You need to climb up there…alone, using a lowly D-class suit. Do not think that it is easy for us…Even three hundred years ago…quite a few Precians would die…here…Now the test of valor takes place once a month…It is monitored and insured…Yet still, some…die. Those who are weak in spirit feel death…almost immediately…The strong have time to reach the peak.”
“Why?” I asked surprised. “What’s so deadly here?”
“No one knows.” The adviser was pausing ever more frequently, his movements slowing down. “The barrens…have an op…pressive effect on all the races. A team of our scientists surveyed the crust…throughout the territory at a depth of one…kilometer but never found anything. No…radiation, no emissions…no mys…terious fields. The Barrens do not tolerate the weak. They checked using members of other races…as well. Qualians, Vraxis, and even Anorxian synthoids all…experience the same symptoms—shortness of breath…dizziness, loss of consciousness and death. However, Pyrrhenians…Delvians and all the others are completely unaffected by the Barrens…Like humans…Such is the phen…ome..non…”
“Are you okay?” I grew worried. “Maybe you should return to the ship…” The last thing I needed was to have an Imperial Adviser die on my watch.
“Do not worry,” the adviser grinned with exertion. “I am here…because of my job. An imperial order: The weak…have no place in the management of the empire, all the advisers…are tested three…times a year. I can’t boast that I’m used to it—it is difficult every time…like the first…but there’s no cause for concern.”
“Your scientists are a bunch of lazy nerds!” Warlock’s engineer came on the comms. “There can be no enlightenment without sweat and perseverance! There is a void at a depth of 1.5 kilometers below the surface. My scanner’s power is not enough to establish its full dimensions but the area seems to have active protection. Nature is extremely creative, but it could not create this without sentient help.”
“Your ship and crew are…a true treasure,” the adviser almost whispered. “How lucky you are! The empire…thanks you for this vital information. We will…survey this area further.”
“Let’s go to the ‘Peak of Valor.’” I pointed to the hill. “We’ll see what’s up there.”
I was forced to help the adviser. The Precian tried his hardest, but the closer we came to the top of the hill the more jumbled his movements became and the more his step faltered. The cryptosaur kept watch over the perimeter of the Barrens, scaring away any real or potential witnesses, so I decided to solve the problem on my own. Despite the proud Precian’s objections, I grabbed him by his slender armpits and activated my thrusters hauling him straight to the top. As soon as I landed, my companion went limp, fainting. This was the last thing I needed!
“Brainiac, extract him!” I ordered, activating the recovery mode on the Precian’s armor. In the blink of an eye, Warlock appeared above our heads. The orbship descended smoothly and gradually until instead of setting down on the stony surface…it passed straight through and went on descending! Before my eyes, the vessel was submerging into the stone, as if there was nothing there! I stood gaping from a distance of one meter, the ground beneath my feet quite firm…
“Brainiac, ascend two meters and hover in position. Open the hatch!”
Grabbing the unconscious adviser in my arms, I jumped inside the orbship in one leap, having noticed that the stones under the ship did not differ from those anywhere else in the Barrens. Either this was some high-quality camouflage or this is what Brainiac was talking about when he said that the orbship was the key to entering the base. But there was no time to test this theory right now. We had to save the Precian. The last thing my pirate’s status needed was having a Precian adviser die while in my care. No one would bother one bit about the reasons he’d kicked the bucket on my ship. The hatch closed, and before I could even give the order to leave, the health indicator on the adviser’s suit changed from red to green…and after a few seconds went out completely. The Precian regained consciousness; he seemed perfectly fine. It did not take him much time to understand what had happened.
“It is time to tender my resignation,” the adviser remarked wryly and with an effort threw back his helmet. He was unable to move. Dark blue circles had formed under the eyes so that, with the rest of his Precian appearance, he looked a bit like a plucked turkey that had managed to escape death at the last moment. Brainiac took pity on our guest and without being ordered to, applied a restorative injection to the adviser’s neck. His eyes brightened, the dark circles disappeared, and his skin regained its healthy bluish tint.
Warlock’s hull insulates from the effects of this place,” I guessed the reason for the Precian’s quick recovery. “Brainiac, extract the cryptosaur. It is time for us to visit the Uldans. A kilogram of Raq to anyone who guesses where the entrance to the base is.”
“Cap’n, did you see how we passed through the stone?” The engineer dangled his head into the deck. “Wasn’t that a thing, eh?”
“I am being asked this question by a talking two-handed snake-engineer who works alongside a four-handed orangutan and transforming rhino onboard a flying balloon ship?” I asked sarcastically. “And yet, it’s not a bad question at all. The Uldans are a real fairy tale!”
“We are also Uldans,” Brainiac spoke up for his crew. “But the information available to us is not enough to scientifically explain how one solid body can pass through another without breaking the bonds of the molecular lattice. This cannot be camouflage either. I already ran a soil analysis.”
“You spent a hundred thousand years with Warlock on Blood Island. Much has changed during that time. Is the cryptosaur back on board? Excellent. Begin the descent. Start with a meter per second, then gradually increase the speed. Let’s see what these space fairies have in store for us.”
There was no objection. Warlock’s contact with the Peak of Valor went unnoticed in the ship. All of the systems went on functioning as usual and the hull sensors reported no pressure. Brainiac plunged the orbship halfway in, waited a few seconds, as if gathering his courage, and then plunged us into the stone completely. Descending the first hundred meters caused no problems whatsoever. It was as if the ship were moving through empty space. The only downside was that we were blind—the screens showed nothing but solid stone all around us.
We moved on in complete silence, afraid that a single word would jinx our luck. This game is a game and all, but my adrenaline and excitement from the descent into uncertainty grew steadily so that when a system notification popped up before me, I started from the tension…

Mission completed: Treasure Hunter. Reward: Next quest in chain.
New mission: Treasure Hunter. Part 2. Enter the base’s command center and gain access to the mainframe.

Our internment in the moon’s crust ended unexpectedly and was accompanied by a loud exhalation from the adviser. Before and below us stretched the Uldan base in all its glory. The lights had gone on working without a hitch during the intervening hundred millennia, so we could regard the panorama before us in full. From above, the base resembled an integrated circuit, beautifully precise in its layout, but as soon as we descended some more, the flat grid acquired an unimaginable verticality. Intricate designs intertwined, penetrating the space in all directions. The tall spires and steeples resembled the Zatrathi ships I had seen. They were just as ungainly, spiky and odd to the modern eye. Brainiac made several attempts to chart a route through the architectural jumble of glass and shiny metal, but was forced to give up. It would be impossible to navigate through this thicket.
“There is a dock a hundred meters below us. We’ll land there.” I ordered, deciding to act. I had already understood the most important thing—the base’s command center was located diametrically across from where we had entered. I imagine this was done to force the player to take in the designers’ work. My hunch was that it wouldn’t take more than 2–3 minutes to fly there in my armor suit—assuming I could pilot it well. And since I wasn’t sure I could pilot it that well, I decided to try and render a 3D map of the base first.
“Brainiac, is there a way to survey the full base? I’d like to have all the info we can get. If we can generate a map that includes as much detail as possible, our job will be a lot easier.”
“The orbship is equipped with four reconnaissance drones. They can fly around the base and survey it. We can use their data to render a 3D map. Shall I activate them?”
“Send two. Have them fly in a circle. Adviser, I’m afraid you will have to remain aboard Warlock. The local radiation can kill you.”
The Precian’s sour face was so eloquent that I felt like cheering him up:
“I will stream to the ship, so you will see everything that I see. The base will be studied.”
“Drones have been launched. Estimated time of flight…Warning! Attack detected!”
Warlock immediately readied her entire arsenal of beam cannons, but there were no targets to be found. The Uldan base remained below us in a deep slumber.
“Brainiac, project the drones’ video recordings to the screen,” I ordered. The two recordings were almost equally useless because they had been recorded from the drones themselves. They emerged from the orbship, made a pass around the ship calibrating their flight modes to the local environmental conditions, traveled a few meters from the ship and then the recordings broke off. One more recording was available from Warlock herself. Both drones were visible on the screen. After calibration, they scattered in different directions and crossed a trigger field that had remained utterly undetected until that point. The trigger field flickered, revealing its existence, and then went out having done its bit. Two plasma shots were fired from opposite sides of the base, aimed directly at the drones. The explosions that followed didn’t leave so much as a piece of plastic. Brainiac figured out where the fire came from and highlighted cannons all over the base. I couldn’t help but whistle—the chances of crossing the base and not catching several dozen salvos from those guns was about zero point zero.
“Cap’n, I have some bad news for you,” the engineer said pensively, assuming the role of Captain Obvious. “We can’t fly here.”
My frustrated sigh was also my answer to this. It looked like we had a fight ahead of us, and to say no would be equivalent to losing my reward.
“We have landed. Attention! The docking module has sent a connection request.”
“Accept it. Set the cryptosaur to battle readiness. Activate the droids. We’ll have to fight our way to the control center.”
“You are going to fight the Uldans?” the adviser gasped with surprise.
“No. I’m going to fight the ones who captured the base and have managed to survive here for the last hundred thousand years in hibernation. I assume they will be the best warriors that the Vraxis have.”

Chapter Two

The hull opened gently, forming an exit to the dock, which was well illuminated and ended after ten meters in an imposing steel door. Having learned my lesson by losing my recon drones, I sent a droid ahead this time. I could spare one easily. Fortunately, the droid reached the door without incident and stopped, waiting for further instructions.
“Brainiac, have you connected to the base’s local network?” I held a high opinion of my ship’s computer, but this time I was getting ahead of myself.
“Negative. There is no terminal in the dock. Attempts at establishing a remote connection have failed. The network has complex, multi-layered security which uses encryption algorithms that are unknown to me. I have not been able to detect any vulnerabilities.”
This was an unpleasant bit of news. It would be foolish to send out another reconnaissance drone. All the unexplored areas around us harbored the threat of respawn or total destruction. The developers had not created this base for robots and drones to go strolling around it. The earlier loss had taught me that much.
“Brainiac, recall the droid. I’ll go myself.”
“I’m coming with you,” said the adviser, his face a mask of determination. “And do not try to dissuade me. This is perhaps my one chance to touch eternity. Moreover, I am bound to the Planetary Sprit, so death for me will not be an obstacle. The emperor expects me to bring back information!”
“All right, but on one condition. If you lose consciousness, you will return to the ship.” It is foolish to argue with NPCs whose actions are subject to strict algorithms, but I didn’t want to have to drag him around either. “Brainiac, assign two droids to escort the adviser. Make sure they stick with him and protect him.”
Automatons #29 and #30 took up positions next to the adviser, and I mentally said goodbye to my property. There was no chance that they’d survive, but I had no other choice. I can buy more droids, whereas my rapport with the Precian had to be earned.
“Really, it isn’t worth the trouble. After all, you are not obliged,” the adviser complained sluggishly, but a notification told me that I had done the right thing.

Your rapport with the Third Adviser of the Precian Emperor has grown. Current Rapport: 3.

“Stay behind me. Heed my orders. Do not run ahead,” I ordered, arming my blaster. There’s no time for formalities during combat, my orders had to be executed immediately. Otherwise, even my desire to grind rapport with the adviser would not save him. I’d ‘accidentally’ shoot him while fighting off and enemy and continue the expedition without him.
The Precian seemed to understand everything and agreed without saying anything. I entered the docking area slowly expecting an attack any second, but nothing happened. After waiting another couple of seconds, I waved to the adviser. He hesitated before leaving the ship, perhaps worried like I was that he would faint, but after a second his boots touched the hard floor.
“Looks like there’s nothing to worry about, Captain Surgeon,” he said with a sigh of relief. “I believe that the walls of the base block the effects of the fatal fields.”
Delighted with the good news, the Precian rushed towards me, but I cautiously raised my hand:
“Maintain a distance of five meters. Get ready, I’m about to open the door.”
Without waiting any further, I crossed the docking area. Behind me came the noise of blasters being cocked. Brainiac unloaded the droids to provide fire support and now Warlock’s exit hatch looked like a bristling porcupine. I really hoped that there was nothing on the other side of the door because otherwise I’d be in the line of fire between the droids and the enemy. The massive door to the Uldan base opened smoothly, soaring upwards. I remained on the threshold, staring into the darkness. The light from the docking area ended abruptly at my feet, jealously guarding its every photon from the voracious darkness before me. It was odd—during our overflight, we could clearly see the panorama of the base and the lighting working fine all over it, but this building was entirely dark. Taking a step forward, I plunged into the viscous gloom. Before my eyes could adjust, the armored suit automatically snapped on its built-in floodlights and I involuntarily shut my eyes for a moment.
The lights turned out to be useless, however. Instead of illuminating the room, the cone of light encountered the darkness—and the darkness absorbed it. Squatting down, I shined the light flush against the floor and swallowed nervously. My spatial sensor managed to render a 3D model of the chamber we were in quite admirably: The floor, walls, and ceiling were covered with a thick carpet of organic matter. The spot I was staring at was an unpleasant brown color and covered with mucus, as if we were in the stomach of some leviathan. Above me, I could see tendrils or tentacles dangling from the ceiling, which, judging by every horror movie I had seen, meant trouble. I transmitted the picture of the room to the adviser still in the docking module.
“Any idea what this is?”
“None whatsoever. We know little about the Uldans, but I can say for certain that they were highly-organized and salubrious creatures. This…room…is not suitable for work. It is difficult to imagine that this is the product of one of their technologies.”
“Maybe this is all for show—to scare away uninvited guests?” I proposed a theory I didn’t believe in at all. “Brainiac? What do you say?”
“A visual inspection of the premises suggests a hypothetical approximation with a probability of sixty percent that, given the presence of…”
“Can we do this without the unnecessary jargon?! Clearly and to the point, please!”
“The organic layer covering the room resembles the uterine tissue. The data I have on hand indicate that the Uldans would not use living tissue as a construction material. This was entirely out of keeping with their worldview and as the adviser pointed out, they were extremely sensitive about cleanliness.”
“Cap’n, I have a bad feeling about this,” the engineer interrupted. “Maybe we should look for other options?”
Personally, I agreed with the snake. I suspected something was wrong the moment I saw this…this ‘creep’ (to borrow a term from an old classic) where it wasn’t supposed to be. But my excitement did not permit me to retreat. If this were reality, Zalva’s second moon would already be growing small in Warlock’s rearview mirrors. But this is a game where you just need to grit your teeth and try at least once.
I gently stepped onto the floor before me. It was indeed organic instead of the typical plastic. The creep did not react to my touch. Squatting again, I prodded the creep with the barrel of my blaster, pushing it a couple of centimeters into the organic carpet. Again nothing.
“Adviser, please step back to the ship,” I asked and fired a couple plasma shots at the floor. The armor suit’s sensors identified the ensuing smell as burning flesh, but I did not wait for the consequences. The organism was alive, but silent and still. Brainiac’s request and the next salvo of plasma at the floor, walls and ceiling, again had no effect—the base did not respond to my aggression.
“I’m going in!” I announced, more for my benefit than my crew’s. Standing on a living organism was unpleasant, like on a slimy, plush carpet. Wishing to feel a hard floor under my feet again, I stepped onto the spot that the plasma had scorched. It was a typical steel floor of all facilities in Galactogon. I allowed the adviser to return and as soon as he stepped into the room with me a system notification appeared:

You are the first player to visit the Nahami base.
Scenario activated: Uninvited Guest. Scenario requirements have been met.
Have a nice game!

“This is a historic event!” said the Precian reverently, sliding his flashlight along the walls. “Never before has a Precian been so close to…”
The adviser did not have time to finish.
“Cap’n, it’s a trap!” screamed my engineer. Fleshy tendrils dropped from the ceiling, closing the passage and entombing the adviser and me in the creep. I readied my blasters but didn’t have time to start shooting: The creep covering the floor began to move and I almost lost my balance. The suit’s inertial blockers helped me keep my feet, but my stomach sank from the feeling of free fall. Another wall of organic matter shot up between me and the adviser, blocking my sight of him.
“Brainiac, report!” I yelled, firing wildly with my blasters and causing a local mini-Armageddon. The bars forming my cage scattered in burnt lumps, but new ones immediately grew to fill their place. After the tenth time, it became clear that I wasn’t going to shoot my way out.
“The entire base is moving. Every part of is transforming and shifting in all three spatial axes. The purpose of the transformation is incomprehensible. I have launched Warlock. The dock is no more. This was an ambush!” If Brainiac weren’t a ship AI, he would no doubt be panicking by now.
“What is the adviser’s status?”
“He is alive. I am able to track his movement. You are moving in different directions. There seems to be no passage between you any longer. The sector you are in is surrounded by a forcefield with unknown characteristics. It prevents us from reaching you. Attention! The base has stopped moving.”
I felt this last observation myself, since the floor had suddenly stopped sliding beneath me. I fired another shot and the smell of burning meat again enveloped everything around me. This time my cage did not regrow, freeing me. It remained as pitch black as before around me, though I was comfortable in the armor suit. A 3D image of the room I was in appeared before me. This time there was an open corridor leading out of it—and in this corridor, there was a mob of living creatures heading in my direction. The suit’s sensors managed to render various details of the swarming mass: sharp, thin limbs, a thicket of antennae and jointed appendages. I had encountered the Vraxis before and now had no doubts—a horde of insects was coming to greet me. I snapped both blasters into combat mode and prepared to return the hospitality. Maybe it wouldn’t be as spectacular as the reception they had planned for me, but I’d do my best. As soon as I got a lock on a target, green pulsating plasma flew in the direction of the unexpected guests. Meanwhile, I felt a surge of adrenaline. This was the first time I had used the Legendary blasters that the Precian Emperor had gifted me. The power was unimaginable! Each shot unloaded two or three insects from the system resources, turning them into flickering crates of loot. There were no remains—only more and more lucre and the blasters’ slowly growing XP bar. A couple minutes of fire only increased the bar by a fraction of one percent. The insects had nowhere to go in the narrow corridor, so they surged forward to quickly get to me and crush me in their endless stream. There was neither counterfire, nor defensive maneuvers—just endless bodies barreling down on me. At the moment, my blasters were winning however.
I took a breath and changed powercells. The new suit had its blasters mounted on the shoulder pads, which freed my hands. The disadvantage was the limited aiming radius and activation time. Deactivating the built-in blasters, I removed the prize blaster I’d gotten from the Zatrathi. While the main ones are activated, I will have time to use it as a club. Plus, I feel better when my weapons are in my hands.
The torrent of insects temporarily dried up, and I contacted the ship:
“Brainiac, give me a sitrep.”
“We lost both of the droids assigned to guard the adviser. I’m sending you the recording now.”
“And the adviser himself?”
“He is alive but isolated by a forcefield. I cannot get in touch with him. I am sending you a recording of your movements which includes your current locations.”
The adviser had found himself in the same mess as me. His droid guards tried to hold back the insects, but their B-class blasters could not cope with the onslaught. The Vraxis had torn the iron guards to shreds and captured the Precian. Or that’s what I assumed. The recordings ended with the droids’ destruction.
The other file I received was no less interesting: Brainiac located me in a spire which was equally distant from the base’s center and the adviser. After I finish conferring with my crew, I’ll have to decide where to go: Rescue the adviser or head for the mainframe. Although, to continue on without the adviser was not an option. It was his appearance that launched the scenario.
“Brainiac, have you analyzed the forcefield around the ship? Can you disrupt it?”
“Oh we analyzed it all right, there’s just not much to say,” the engineer spoke up. “It’s holding us nice and tight. Its generator is in the base. We can’t bust through it with anything. I have already tried. So you’ll have to figure it out on your own somehow. You’ll help us out too in the process.”
I grinned. Whereas Brainiac bore this fiasco stoically, the snake spoke for everyone. Wishing the ship good luck, I scanned the room I was in one more time. Nothing. No niches, no doors, no windows—just the ubiquitous creep covering every surface with itself. After the firefight, the corridor remained clear and offered nothing of interest. For the hell of it, I shot at the walls of the room without much hope of finding a secret area. Everyone knows that the goodies aren’t located at the dungeon entrance. And this Uldan base is nothing other than ye olde dungeon of yore.
“Stan, I need a summary of the Vraxis race. Species, stats, abilities, weapons. Short and to the point please.”
“Understood. Regarding my search for the player named Eine: Please note, Master, that there are more than a thousand players with that name in Galactogon.”
“The player named Eine is a collector of rare Galactogon items. There shouldn’t be many like him.”
“You are correct, there is only one player named Eine that matches this profile. The search is complete. All available information has been sent to your PDA. I have started the next process. I hope you recovery continues well.”
I decided to acquaint myself with the collector trying to steal my ship at some later time. The first flickering box of loot dissolved in my hands, rewarding me with a bone token. An exact replica of a sheriff’s star from the ancient American Wild West. The Zatrathi dropped these kinds of tokens too, only metal ones. Even back at the orbital station, these tokens seemed strange to me: They came with no description, no system warning, no item counter. All they did was take up inventory slots and weight. And now, here again, I was staring at 250 or so bone tokens without any indication of what I could use them for. Stan ran a quick search through the fora, but found nothing. Either they were useless flair or they were so valuable that everyone stayed quiet about them.
I contacted my ship again.
“Brainiac, have you analyzed the information we downloaded from the Zatrathi? Did you find anything of value?”
“I received no such process request,” the ship replied predictably, assuming a defensive tone. Like any good crew, in the absence of direct orders, mine preferred to loiter and lollygag.
“In that case, get on it. As I recall, you downloaded the menu from the cafeteria, so systematize everything that you managed to collect about the Zatrathi. What they eat, what they drink, how they get sick, how long they live. If you find something useful for us, send it over to the engineer and see if he can do anything with it. Just because I’m not on board doesn’t mean that you can relax. I want everything organized and cataloged by the time I return. Any questions?”
“There are a couple,” spoke up the engineer. “If we don’t find anything useful, can I launch my prototypes?”
I took a deep breath, smothering my annoyance. What a Snorlax this snake! Without my orders, no one takes any initiative, and I got so carried away with the game that I completely forgot about updating the ship. I don’t know whom to thank for the hint, but this is just in time.
“I’m granting permission to upgrade the ship. You can use up to a third of the available Raq.”
“Any priorities? Weapons, defensive systems, speed, auxiliary functions, ergonomics? I have a lot of stuff in the works.”
“Speed. That’s the most important thing right now. The Zatrathi caught up with us as if we were standing still.”
“Roger that, Cap’n! I have a couple ideas. Once I’m done, we’ll win all the space race prizes. Over and out!”
The first twenty meters of my journey down the corridor brought an unpleasant discovery: My energy consumption was exceeding all imaginable calculations. Each meter of hallway came with great difficulty. Tentacles kept shooting out from the ceiling like tendrils of snot. One of them caught me and jerked me up like a feather, ignoring the weight of my armor. I had to constantly shoot back and dodge, dive to the ground, rise to my feet and move on to the next little bit of hallway. A complete sweep of the ceiling bought me some breathing room. The attacks stopped, but not for long. In exchange I got to watch as the creep grew back over its territory. It all started with the floor. It buckled, surged and sent a wave of organic matter shooting up the walls. Once the creep had covered the walls, it moved on to the ceiling. Tendrils of the stuff intertwined, united and filled in until the room’s fauna had returned to its original state. I calculated my energy reserves and decided to experiment. What if I completely cut the creep from the center? If I was in a spire, it would have no connection to the rest of the organism in the base. Maybe the creep will die and I’ll have some time before it grows back from inside the facility. No sooner said than done! I scorched a good two meters of the corridor, preventing the snotty organism from reuniting with the part I had cut off. As soon as the last clot of plasma severed the organic matter, the isolated part of it stopped. The mysterious organism in the rest of the base throbbed but didn’t start regrowing the cleared area. Perhaps it was gathering its strength. Meanwhile, the isolated creep began shrinking and curling into itself until at last it formed an ugly, pulsating cocoon. The cleared section of corridor had excellent lighting, and I saw with my own eyes how something stirred inside the cocoon. It seemed that I have just prodded the mysterious organism that had seized the base into reproducing itself.
The cocoon grew rapidly in size. By the time it came to term, I was ready. The cannons took their places on my shoulders, ready in one instant to turn the creature into a charred nugget. Were this IRL, I would not have waited long enough to acquaint myself with the newborn but in VR we were accustomed to dull the instinct of self-preservation for the sake of profit. Experience, loot, knowledge, quests. Everything that can be sold for real or in-game money, always keeping our daily bread in mind. All that remained us was the most valuable, but unsellable thing. Emotions. Strong and real, albeit generated by an artificial world.
The cocoon twitched one more time and opened like a flower, spitting something in my direction. My inertial dampeners howled, but withstood the impact of the warrior that came slamming into me. Quick and purposeful, he did not resemble a helpless newborn at all. Deftly dodging the plasma from my blasters, he began frenetically shredding my armor with his sharp claws—and quite effectively too. I had nothing to protect me from physical damage except for the armor suit itself, and with every passing second I felt more and more like the last Vienna sausage in a tin that a meth-head was trying to eat after a 48 hour binge. The creature attacked relentlessly with terrible purpose. Which was its downfall.
Having coped with my initial shock and realizing the uselessness of shooting the thing, I opened my inventory. Here they are. Their time has come. My first piece of loot in Galactogon. A present from the bettors for meeting their conditions—the suppressors, or simply replicas of police batons. The weight of the fighter turned out to be so small that the tractor beam from one of the suppressors was enough. Squealing amusingly and jerking its limbs helplessly, the creature hovered in the air, allowing me to examine it at my leisure.
I was utterly ignorant of insects, but even in my inexperienced view, this little critter didn’t have much in common with the current citizens of the Vraxis Empire. Stan sifted through the Galactogon insect reference wikis and found nothing like it. Four upper limbs with three elbow joints attached to an unnaturally thin body at an angle of ninety degrees to each other. Three legs provided stability and instantaneous movement in any direction, and a freely rotating head endowed the creature with frightening mobility and awareness.
“Can you talk?” I asked, already knowing the answer. Foot soldiers had no need of this ability. There was no use for it. All the Vraxis were ruled by their queen. And she saw and felt what was happening through each of her subjects. A convenient way to ensure social order, what can you say. The main benefit was that all orders were executed without questions or objections, no matter how suicidal.
Bringing the warrior closer to me, I said as clearly as I could:
“I am not your enemy. The war between the Uldans and the Vraxis ended ninety thousand years ago. My ship is a trophy. The Uldans are extinct, while the Vraxis thrive and prosper. There is no reason to fight. Allow me to reach the control center, pick up my Precian and leave the base. In exchange, I will report that you are alive to your current queen. She will send help. I am not an enemy.”
My blasters erupted and I lowered the suppressors—all that remained of the ancient creature was a flickering crate. I was talking to myself. All that time, the insect did not give up trying to escape from my tractor beam. Soldiers are not called upon to think, their job is to obey their orders. There are others who think for them.

Scenario update: Uninvited Guest.
You have cleared 0.01% of the base from its invaders.

I read the message with a grin. The base-clearing mission wasn’t meant for a lone player. Without a party and a ton of powercells there was nothing to do here. Frustrated, I reached out for the loot crate and picked up the golden token. The only difference to the ones I’d gotten from the Zatrathi was the dark border.
The creep did not dare try to seize the corridor again, and I was able to appreciate the devs’ plan. The walls, the floor and ceiling consisted of irregular segments, interlinked with clockwork precision. My spatial sensor did not detect boundaries between the segments and perceived the room as one whole. Visually, however, the segments had clear boundaries and differed from each other in their patterns, finish and even material. The strange organism that had occupied the base could reconfigure it at will, separating and recombining the facilities as it saw fit. Now I understood how I had been separated from the adviser: The dock we had landed in had been taken apart and reassembled. If so, then it was useless to search for armories or warehouses filled with outlandish items. The loot in them would have long since been mixed throughout the base.
I was about to get upset when an interesting detail attracted my attention. Before the transformation of the base, I had been in the landing dock. After the rearrangement, the segment in which I had been had moved along with its walls and ceiling. Now that I had cleared the creep from it, a barely noticeable inscription had appeared, scrawled hastily right there on the wall. I came closer. The symbols were unfamiliar, but this did not prevent me from understanding that they constituted only the end of the message. Someone had clumsily written this in a hurry and perhaps with multiple interruptions. Out of curiosity, I tried to scorch a furrow into the wall with my blaster, but nothing happened. Hoping that the inscription said something more substantial than ‘Phileros is a eunuch,’ I contacted my ship. I needed to know whether the first part of the message was located where the Precian had been.
“Brainiac, what’s the status of the adviser?”
“There have been no changes to his status. The data of his armor suit show that he has not moved since the base’s metamorphosis.”
“Keep monitoring him. And if anything changes, let me know.”
Now I sent an image of the strange inscription to Brainiac:
“Can you read what is written here?”
“You’re into graffiti?” the snake popped up. “This particular sequence of numbers does not make sense, Captain.”
“So these are numbers?”
“Yes, these are Uldan numbers. Uldans use a digital alphabet like this one. You humans are used to positional number systems. One, two, one hundred. It is frighteningly inconvenient. We prefer a non-positional adaptive system, tied to the position of the stars relative to each other. It is especially convenient when talking about galactic coordinates or information that must be kept secret. Every thousand years, the system is updated. New symbols are assigned to new meanings and everything started anew. To understand which millennium’s numbers are written here, you need to find the beginning of the message. This is but the end. This fragment may be translated as ‘3’ in your language as well as ‘10’ and even ‘98989.’”
“How interesting,” I said, fascinated. “The first half of the message should be where the adviser is right now.”
“Perhaps, but let’s not celebrate prematurely, Cap’n,” the serpent latched onto me. “Even if you find the beginning, we’re not sure that we can decrypt the data. A hundred thousand years have passed. The ship’s memory banks contain the key for its millennium. We downloaded the current coordinates of the planets from your ship and corrected our data. But if this inscription was made in an earlier millennium, then we will not be able to translate it without its key.”
“Why the hell would someone even come up with a system like that?” I objected.
“With all due respect the system is very convenient, but yes, requires one to get used to it and receive updated keys—once every thousand years. At small values, the positional form is good, but when it is necessary to calculate a distance of hundreds of thousands of light years to jump to a specific point in space without error, our system works much better.”
“So there’s no point in even trying to collect the full inscription?” My enthusiasm evaporated, replaced by another disappointment.
“Why? Once upon a time there were drives that automatically received updated keys. If the message is dated by to an earlier millennium than we have in the databases, there is always the chance to find a drive from that epoch and get the necessary data. You should look around the base if you get the chance. All I can say is that this inscription seems very much like some coordinates.”
“And what could be there?” I asked, referring to the encrypted location.
“Why anything at all! A ship, a planet or all the treasures of the galaxy! Use your imagination, Cap’n! Imagine a dying Uldan, with his last breath and at the cost of tremendous effort scrawling these symbols on the wall in the hope that we will uncover them…This must be something of worth at the very least…Anyway, Cap’n, you’re keeping me from my work. I am about to improve our ship’s speed by an order of magnitude and here you are with your archaeology.”
“Over and out,” I snapped. The snake was out of line naturally, but it really was silly to get distracted right now. I had photographed the inscription so it wouldn’t be going anywhere and who knew how much time I had to complete the scenario I was in. What if the adviser will be devoured in twenty minutes while I’m sitting here meditating on numbers?
Nevertheless, before moving on, I made sure to get my prize. Walking up to one of the walls of the hallway, I grabbed onto a thick segment of piping running along its length and tore it off. A pair of simple crimps with my hands and I became the proud owner of a weighty two-meter lance, suitable for stabbing enemies. In order to avoid wasting energy, I decided I’d play as a medieval knight for a bit. As soon as a tentacle appeared, I stuck it with my lance, piercing it. The wounded tentacle slithered out of sight, allowing me to move a couple meters down the hall.
Using this simple technique, I reached the next room. There were no significant differences from the first one here—the same creep carpeting the floor, the ceiling and the walls. The only difference was that it didn’t try to attack me. At the far side of the room, I saw two more corridors leading in opposite directions. I was drawn to them, figuring that they must lead to sweet loot and lucre, but overruling my desire to turn off my path I decided to keep moving forward. Ruthlessly scorching a broad swath in the organic matter, I separated the room from the main base. The separated creep acted as before: Once again it shrunk and shriveled into a cocoon, only this time one that was twice as large. The four-meter colossus rested against the ceiling, expanding with every beat of its pulse. I aimed at it with my blasters and fired. I wasn’t about to let this monster hatch when it was ready. Lumps of the cocoon scattered across the room, spitting out three warriors who were not quite ready to be born. Their transparent bodies had not yet acquired their chitinous armor and the light passed through them like x-rays. The heads of all three twitched more reflexively than consciously, but it seemed to me that this frenetic motion was their fighting spirit not allowing them to die in peace.
I didn’t get a chance to enjoy their death animations for long. The bits of creep that had scattered from the explosion began to slink back together. There was an unpleasant crunch as the congealing mass of organic matter crushed the warriors’ bodies. Less than a minute later, a huge pulsing cocoon stood in the room, whole and ready to spit horror at me.
I shot it again. The number of creatures produced was the same. A countdown counter appeared before my eyes marking 90 seconds. I used the time to rewatch the video of the first battle. Back then I hadn’t noticed where the warriors came from, and I needed to remedy that. The video showed how the cocoon had swelled, its upper part opened with a loud bang, catching the eye and distracting me from the important detail—the warriors had actually emerged from the cocoon’s lower portion. The end of the recording. Bunch of goddamn sleight of hand artists, those devs.
The third time around I didn’t rush things and studied the pulsating cocoon in detail. Three conspicuous spots darkened the segment near the floor. I walked around the cocoon. The spots followed after me. Either the cocoon or the creatures inside of it could sense me and were aggroing already. Well, let’s try it differently. I pointed my suppressor at the central hole, and aimed my blasters on either side and waited. A second. Another. The cocoon twitched for the last time, and out of the corner of my eye I noticed a bud beginning to open. I forced myself to keep my eyes fixed on the dark spots and ignore the fancy show above. Everything was decided in a split second, although it felt like time had stopped. The lower slit flashed like a camera’s shutter, firing three charged torpedoes to meet an inglorious death. I set my blasters to autofire and easily turned the two warriors into shimmering loot crates. The third one I caught with my suppressor. Born for valor and glory, the warrior squealed in protest. I slammed him into the ceiling several times for good measure. The insect went limp, but not dead, surprising me with its vitality. Taking the two golden stars, I decided not to kill the creature. He’ll make for some poor form of booty to make up for the lack of lucre on this base. He can eat flies in Warlock’s cargo holds until I sell him on the black market. Surely there are some entomologist-collectors here in Galactogon. I bet the same Eine would be interested in this specimen.
Summoning Warlock, I asked my crew to assess the viability of keeping our hostage. Brainiac meticulously examined the sharp limbs, but, in the end, reluctantly agreed that my idea was feasible enough. Having dealt with this question, I decided to explore the right corridor. It was very short and ended in a barren room, empty, like the head of its designer. No inscriptions, no secret compartments, nothing to plunder. My internal kleptomaniac, so carefully cultivated and nurtured over my gaming career, couldn’t help but feel a deep disappointment. What kind of game is this any way, if there’s no loot? I even considered becoming a slave trader and filling my holds with insect warriors.
By the time my captive came to and began struggling against the suppressor’s beam, I had managed to examine the entire left corridor. I didn’t knock the warrior out against the ceiling this time: I prefer to treat my possessions with a bit of care. Dangling the critter in front of me, I secured the suppressor to the front of my armor suit: This would keep the insect in my field of view and free my hands to do other stuff at the same time. Adjusting the distance to three meters, I moved into the corridor with the live weight and prepared for an attack from the air, but everything was quiet. The rabid warrior was waving his limbs frenetically and in the process severing all the tentacles that tried to descend from the ceiling. I took a few steps deep into the corridor and received a system message:

Scenario updated: Uninvited Guest.
You have cleared 0.04% of the base from its invaders.

A basic calculation suggested that the Uldan base contained about ten thousand such rooms. Each one spawned a warrior, which led me to the sad conclusion that I would not have enough energy to deal with all of them. Even if it takes one shot to kill one enemy, I’d only have enough to turn 70% of the enemies here into golden tokens. And that was the best case scenario. When I considered the worst case, I ordered my ship to self-destruct if it lost contact with me. The last thing I needed was to lose my ship here.
The amazing thing was that all it took was me accepting the reality of the matter and it was as if a mountain had fallen from my shoulders. Clearing the base was too much of a task for me.
I activated my suit’s thrusters and launched myself a half a meter into the air, getting used to moving along the corridors. It no longer made sense to save energy, but I still had to find the adviser. My captive insect did a good job of clearing my way and I calmly flew deep into the base. Soon the number of alternate paths began to increase and there were even corridors with their own adjacent areas. Unable to resist, I cleared one for the sake of experimentation. Having killed the warrior in there, I was informed that the base was now 0.05% clear. This told me that the percentages did not depend on the size of the room cleared, which was a bit surprising. Reaching the next in my path, I understood that I would need some help.
“Brainiac, where should I go next?”
“The beacon shows that you are here,” Brainiac sent me an updated map. The red dot indicating my location was in the main building, a couple minutes’ flight from the adviser’s blue marker. My blasters snapped to combat readiness—the demise of my droids told me that I shouldn’t expect a warm welcome. A few turns through a few small rooms—and I flew into a huge chamber, the size of a hall. My spatial sensor could hardly gauge its size. If all the rooms I had previously seen had a height of four meters, the ceiling here was no less than fifty meters overhead, while the rest of the hall stretched away like a football field. I opened the image broadcast by Brainiac. If the scale is correct, this hall occupied more than half of the central base complex. The prolonged squeal and rustle of many legs made me start up from the map: A swarm of insects was hurtling towards me from the other end of the hall. Before my arrival, the creatures were occupied with some kind of domed forcefield against the far wall. The adviser was nowhere to be seen, but his marker told me that he was located over there. I had not deactivated my thrusters and quickly soared upwards to look around. The first thing I noticed were two shimmering crates that served as my droid’s tombstones—the insects hadn’t left so much as a piece of metal. Turning on my floodlights, I flew over to the forcefield. The adviser! Two twisters of energy spiraled from the Precian’s hands channeling a protective dome. Brainiac, who was tracking me through my video stream, reported that the adviser’s strength was running out—in the few seconds it took me to assess the situation, his dome had shrunk by a couple of millimeters. He had no more than fifteen minutes left before his shield would collapse.
I took out the second suppressor and lifted the insect closest to me. It had a passing resemblance to a praying mantis with hypertrophied lower limbs and a disproportionately large head. As soon as I directed my floodlights at it to get a better look, the creature began to twitch and make unpleasant sounds. Then its compound eyes popped with a wet sound and the insect went limp. The suppressor entered standby mode while the creature was replaced by a loot crate.
The funniest thing was that my suit’s floodlights actually gained experience from this kill. An ordinary D-class lamp, which no one thought of upgrading, turned out to be a powerful weapon against the local fauna. Pulling up another mantis, I repeated the execution. From a distance of three meters my floodlights exterminated the next member of the ancient insectoid race in a flash. Delighted, I pulled out the third insect, lifted it and my earlier captive to the maximum height to keep them out of my way and descended to the floor. The bright light of my floodlights illuminated the room. The creatures struggled to absorb the rays of light without any luck. The morass of insects rushing onto me was mercilessly burned by my lamp. I felt like some paladin of the Holy Lamp.
“Adviser, you may remove the protective dome. I have cleared the premises!” I shouted, actively raking in the flickering loot crates. It looks like the bone tokens would be my only reward on this base. In total, this room yielded four hundred and twenty of them.
“Surgeon?” sounded the adviser’s frightened voice and another searchlight beam pierced the space.
“In the flesh. Turn off your searchlight. I’ve taken a prisoner here and the light kills them.”
“A prisoner? Where?” The Precian looked up swinging the beam with him. A shimmering crate instantly dropped to the floor from the dead mantis. Maybe this was the game telling me that these insects were not supposed to serve as my loot.
“I apologize on behalf of the Precian Empire and on my own part,” the adviser shrunk into himself and shut off the light. “We shall compensate you for your loss. Thank you for saving me from rebirth. It is not the most pleasant procedure.”
“What was that forcefield you used? I’ve never seen that before.”
“A protective barrier. It is issued to officials of the highest ranks. It is extremely power thirsty, but invaluable in a pinch when you need to wait for help. Unfortunately, it does not last very long.”
“You are lucky. Brainiac said you had about fifteen minutes of energy remaining.”
“Once the domestic problems of the empire have been resolved, I will be happy to welcome you and your crew on Zalva,” the adviser said. “You shall be my cherished guests! I look forward to our conversations about the Uldans.”
“Thank you, adviser, I will be glad of that too. And now I have a question for you, where were you when the base completed its metamorphosis? I need the exact location.”
“Does that mean that I was right and the base really did transform? Fascinating! Once more, Uldan technology exceeds all expectations!”
“These aren’t Uldans. These are their foes.” I kicked the living carpet of creep under my feet and nodded at the struggling warrior: “The base has been taken over by some mysterious organism, which spawns these insects. I’m afraid we won’t find anything here. Where were you when the metamorphosis began?”
“Let me think…The attack came swiftly. First I ran, then I fell and tumbled… The droids were shooting back as I was backing away and…It seems here, but I’m not sure.” The adviser pointed to a place located almost in the center of the room. But he was wrong. I remembered exactly: When the ambush began, the Precian had been standing next to a wall.
“Did the droids move?” I stepped over to my fighters’ remains. Two Elo powercells, one blaster and one piece of armor—that was all that was left from two A-class pieces of hardware.
“Yes, they were swept away in the onslaught. They were standing elsewhere initially.”
“Brainiac?” I had one last option available, but even this failed me. From the ship’s perspective, the adviser had not left his initial coordinates, since the distance between us and Warlock was too great. Giving the adviser two powercells, I gained some more rapport with him.
“We’ll have to clear the hall,” I said, assessing the work ahead of us with foreboding. I didn’t even want to imagine how big the cocoon in this place would be. It was like the devs had made the room incredibly huge to tell the players: If you want to get the first part of the inscription, you’ll have to fight for it. I didn’t want to shoot my blasters at the walls, for fear of destroying the inscription, and the creep grew back faster than I could finish. A flight around the giant hall uncovered a small corridor. Straight, long and no more than two meters wide. It was a perfect chokepoint for defending against the enemy’s onslaught. There could easily be over a dozen warriors and either they will have to attack one by one or at the same time interfering with each other. Both would suit me fine. The warriors would become excellent targets for two, no, for three blasters. I would hand the suppressor and my prisoner to the adviser. It is unlikely that an NPC of such a rank would fight alongside me.
I still had to decide the most important thing however: What happens if I start cutting off other rooms? Will the cocoons start spawning too? If so, will the warriors come running to me here or will they hang back where their cocoon spawned? Lacking any theory on the matter, I decided to turn to empiricism. The corridor allowed me to defend myself from either side.
“Adviser, I have an important mission for you. Do not lose this specimen. It must be delivered to the ship and studied. Aren’t you interested in the structure of these ancient warriors?”
I knew what buttons to push. The adviser grabbed the suppressor and prepared to guard the POW. I was sure that he would not have released the warrior even if faced with death. Freed of my captive, I got comfortable in the corridor and burned the first broad lane.
The blaster did not have time to return to its original position before the base started shaking all around us. We barely kept our feet as the floor trembled beneath us. The creep under our feet began to shrivel, contracting to the center of the room and dragging us along. An unpleasant loud rustling filled the whole space as the creep from the rooms I had passed through earlier began to draw into the new cocoon. Goose bumps ran down my back—the small corridor I had chosen seemed to be the link between the organism’s brain and body. I pursed my lips in displeasure, anticipating a quick outcome. The cocoon had already reached the ceiling and went on growing in mass and girth. I had no good arguments against such a giant.
“What is this?” whispered the adviser, dumbfounded, as I dragged him from the moving creep to the clean floor. Most of the premises had already been cleared and illuminated by an array of white lights.
“Get in the corridor this second!” I had to drag the adviser by force. Once he was safe, I activated my jet thrusters. I had one piece of business left. The first part of the inscription was to be found on the opposite side of the hall. Once I sent the photo to Brainiac, he announced that the inscription was now complete. I still had to locate the receiver, but I could easily accomplish this task in the outside world. Every little part of my body that had any knack for prophecy was screaming that I had completed my mission on the Uldan base and that I needed to get out of here. I flew back to the adviser as quickly as I could. He had remained exactly where I left him—immobilized either by his fear or his curiosity. Transfixed by the action, he neither moved nor heard me. The pulsating cocoon was already fully formed. We had no more than thirty seconds left.
“Adviser, wake up! We have to go!”
This did not jog the Precian from his strange stupor and I hadn’t time to be polite. Mentally saying goodbye to all my rapport with the Precian Empire, I snatched the suppressor from the adviser’s hands and threw the best right hook I could muster. Amplified by the suit’s servomotors, the blow knocked the adviser clean against the wall—where he slumped to the floor. Grabbing his limp body, I aimed the captive warrior down the corridor to clear the dangling creep and rushed in his wake. We did not get very far—the adviser turned out to be more resilient than I expected and came to after a couple of seconds. He twisted in my embrace, blocking my hand, and even my suit’s servomotors could not cope with him. Finally I dropped him to the floor and received a notification that I had lost rapport. I dismissed the message, set my blasters to combat mode, and looked at the adviser sternly. He looked quite peaceful.
“Don’t lose it!” I held the suppressor out to the Precian. Without arguing, he took the device and crawled aside. I guess he was starting to realize that I stunned him for a reason.
I managed to fly about half the corridor, which gave me the sliver of hope. I assigned the second suppressor as my primary weapon, abandoning the blaster—the creatures died of it instantly and without remains, which didn’t suit our position. My plan was to obstruct the passage with bodies, complicating the advance of the rest of the swarm.
The entire base began shaking once again, signaling that the fight was about to begin in earnest and I opened fire without having seen the enemy. By the time the plasma reached the end of the corridor, the first warrior appeared. He had no chance to react to the fatal shot with his companions pushing up behind him. One-zero in my favor. The adviser grunted in amazement at the impending avalanche, and my rapport with him returned to its previous value. The Precian had forgiven me my rude treatment.
“Fall back!” I ordered, still pumping plasma bolts down the corridor. The insects died one after another, yet their torrent did not let up. There were very many this time around. Two things, however, were working in my favor: the narrowness of the corridor and my constant use of the suppressor. Whatever insects made it through my blaze of plasma I would immobilize and hurl under the feet of the ones coming up behind. Since the suppressors would periodically gain XP, I figured that the swarm trampled these unlucky ones to death and slowed down as a result. One shot—one dead pest. One step back—minus a dozen pests. My powercells were running out at a breakneck pace—in effect the only thing I was really doing was switching them out between throwing the overzealous warriors under their fellows’ feet. My shoulder-mounted blasters did most of the work.

Scenario update: Uninvited Guest.
You have cleared 50.16% of the base from its invaders.
Launching second part of scenario.

I don’t even remember when the insects ended. There was nowhere to retreat, we have already reached the edge of the corridor. Exiting was tantamount to certain death, so the adviser and I dug in with all our limbs, firing at the warriors. At some point he joined me, armed with a blaster. We had just enough powercells to power one suppressor and three blasters long enough to manage an army of insects.
When the system notification popped up, the remaining creep under our feet suddenly began to flow deep into the base. Somewhere in there another giant cocoon was brewing. Whereas initially I had had to methodically and progressively clear the entire territory before releasing the adviser, this battle would surely be the last one. But I had neither the time nor the powercells, which meant that we had no way of fighting this next wave of chitinous assholes. I grabbed the adviser by the shoulders and took off, bouncing along the creep. In the next couple of seconds, it dissolved completely leaving us in front of an illuminated and pristine base. We both realized the inevitability of respawning.
“These trophies are rightfully yours. Collect as many as you can, while you have time. I will try to buy more time for you,” said the adviser and pointed to the flickering crates. I nodded my thanks and rushed to fill my inventory with golden tokens. I had at most a minute before the new army would be spawned and another thirty seconds before it tore us to shreds. The adviser would be good enough for a few moments, so I should collect as much of this loot as possible.
Four minutes passed, and I stopped listening for the rustling. A third of the corridor was empty, but no one hurried to meet us. After nine more minutes, I had collected all five thousand golden tokens and approached the adviser.
“They aren’t coming,” the Precian stated the obvious.
“Then let’s go take a walk,” I suggested. “Maybe we’ll make it to the ship. It’s stupid to stand here and there’s no help coming. Let’s at least go check out the Uldan base in its normal state. What if we find something interesting?”
“Only a pirate thinks about loot even as he ascends the scaffold. You have chosen the right profession,” the adviser laughed, returning the blaster to me.
I didn’t bother explaining to the NPC that every player was just as greedy as I was, pirate or not. We were the real swarm of locusts in this game. It didn’t matter if an object was misplaced or mishung or even just in its right place doing what it was supposed to be—if it looked somewhat valuable, we players would try to appropriate it to our inventories. Everything that could be filched would be filched. Everything that could be pawned would be pawned. Out in reality, such behavior was looked-down upon and punishable by law. In the game, however, it ensured success and profit. In this regard, the utterly barren Uldan base could be viewed as a bit of pure mockery on the part of the devs. But I had something to be proud of—I was going to sell my captured spear to Eine as an artifact of unprecedented rarity.
We walked on foot in order to avoid wasting powercells on my thrusters, paying attention to each dent in the hope of finding at least something sensible. Even the base in the test server that I had been sent to before being reconnected had not been this empty. There were always some objects or equipment lying around. The only thing here were bare walls. Even the lights could not be dismantled—I had checked.
So on we went, confidently to meet our destiny. We came to a turn and entered a narrow corridor, which turned again and ended unexpectedly. An enormous stadium stretched out before us. Or perhaps it was an amphitheater, judging by the round shape of the chamber.
“Now we know why the mountain didn’t come to Mohammed,” I said, stunned. The adviser made no response and I understood him. The horde of insects that the enormous cocoon in the center of the stadium could hatch would demoralize anyone. This time, however, our mysterious enemy bet on quality instead of quantity.
“Brainiac, are you seeing this?” I asked as the cocoon opened and the final boss emerged.
“Uh-huh. We are currently working on how to unsee it,” the snake replied in his stead. “We don’t know what it is and we don’t want to know, Cap’n. And anyway, isn’t it time we got out of here? Your blasters will be like cap guns against this thing.”
The engineer was right—my blasters might serve to tickle this monster—and I didn’t even have the powercells for that. It was ten meters tall with a barrel for a torso and completely covered with a brown layer of chitin. Its neck, half a meter in diameter, bore a funny and disproportionately small head, similar to a human one, which gave it a terrifyingly comic appearance. Its two, long, twisted horns looked just a silly. A broad tail and three lower limbs allowed the creature to keep itself in an upright position, ridiculously dangling its short arms like a T-Rex. And as if for the sake of contrast, two enormous, iridescent wings stuck out of the monster’s back. They flapped powerfully, washing us with gusts of air.
The monster butterfly rose into the air, shifted a meter to the side and collapsed again on the floor, leaving a rainbow egg in its earlier place. And there were many such eggs throughout the amphitheater.
Gazing at this mutant, I thought about genetic experiments. Had this monster spawned from the forbidden love of the Uldans and the Vraxis queen? It had the head and wings of an Uldan and the body and tail of a queen. Only its upper and lower limbs didn’t match my theory, but this could be attributed to the difficulties of symbiosis.
Hrsha anshta gring hrsha!” shrieked an unpleasant metallic voice. The creature had noticed us.
“It’s speaking in Uldan!” the snake’s voice sounded dumbfounded: “‘Your path ends here!’”
“I’m patching you through my speakers. Translate for me. Broadcast the translation to the adviser too,” I ordered. “The war is over! The Uldans were defeated.”
You couldn’t call the Uldan language melodious and in the snake’s hissing pronunciation, you could probably use it to torture a confession out of someone.
“The war will never end!” the creature responded angrily—and laid another egg. “It will go on until the last defender falls and I shall spawn them by the millions! The base will never surrender—neither to the Vraxis, nor to the humans, nor anyone else. I am the queen and I shall annihilate everyone!”
My conjecture no longer seemed so wild—the monster seemed to identify as Uldan. I decided to try and exploit the boss’s talkativeness and began asking questions:
“I am here because my ship picked up a distress signal. What happened here?”
“Distress? How would you—a human, the lowliest of races—help me in the unlikely circumstance that I even were in distress? By the time you people had evolved enough to pick up a stick, we had already conquered space and time! Why, we created your friend right there, next to you, the one who cannot understand the true speech. Precians, Qualians—they are all our creations. They were supposed to be the finest species the galaxy had known. Now we must rule Galactogon relying on their power!”
“The Vraxis turned out to be more powerful still. You Uldans lost the war. Your civilization is dead, as are all members of your race. The Uldans are an ancient myth, a fairy tale. If you do not need help here—then turn off the distress beacon. Galactogon has enough problems without false distress signals.”
“That is a lie! A lie as arrogant and stupid as you are, pathetic little human!” the creature did not take to the news calmly. “The Uldans shall prosper and multiply! You came here aboard an orbship and not in those ancient troughs that swarm this moon’s orbit! And if it weren’t for you orbship, you wouldn’t have gotten within a mile of this base.”
“One of your own, Warlock, gave me this orbship, ever heard of him? He was a guardian. His world was located far from the fighting, which is how Warlock survived for so long. He gave me the ship and faded into the ether. He was the last living Uldan. The rest are dead.”
“I am an Uldan! And I am alive!” A screech verging on ultrasound pierced my ears, but the armor suit’s sound system filtered it. “The war is not over yet! Look around, human, what do you see? Does it seem to you that the Vraxis has won? No! It was I who defeated them. They invaded the base, and the queen began to lay her cursed eggs, devouring my fellows. But I managed to swallow her! I merged my mind with the Vraxis queen and exterminated the invading army! I saved the base and began to wait, warding away the curious. What was I waiting for? I waited for the distress beacon to do its work and it did—it brought you. Now I have a ship. Now I can leave this place and continue my war.”
“Red alert, Cap’n! Brainiac is being hacked! Do something, Cap’n!”
“It is too late. I sense your bond to the Planetary Spirit and I have already rechanneled it.” The monster did not even consider hiding its cards. “From now on you shall be bound to this base! Your fate shall be to remain here as witnesses to my triumph.”
A shimmering field absorbed the salvo from my blasters. The dungeon boss was too well-protected. In response, the monster emitted a shockwave that knocked the adviser and me against the wall. This was immediately followed by an immobilizing field that pinned us in place and blocked both my blaster fire and the suppressor’s tractor beam. Next to us, my ‘Ultdathi’ POW sprawled against the wall in a field of his own. The game must have interpreted him to be my property.
“Adviser, I need your help!”
“What can I do? I am plastered to the wall just like you are!”
“The Grand Arbiter Intrepid is in orbit above us. One and a half kilometers of crust is nothing for its beam cannons. Order a barrage on our location. We have to kill this monster!”
“Did you hear what it said about the binding? This is our homeworld now!”
At this moment, the first terrible offspring of the Uldan in many millennia began to hatch from its egg. In its gaunt neck and skull, I could vaguely make out the features of my rhinoceros marine. The egg tumbled over with his knees half-hatched and the pup raised his horned head and uttered such a baritone groan that an animal fear stirred in my stomach. Twitching its head, the creature began breaking out of its egg. The shell cracked and warped and fell away in pieces as the marine hatchling grew in strength and armor.
“What is there to consider, adviser?! We are losing time. This thing is hacking my ship! Imagine what an ancient, evil monster that can spawn an entire army can do! Let me remind you that this moon is inhabited by Precians—and they will be eaten first! Either we destroy this damn mutant now or your own mother will become its breakfast! And if you’re not so fond of her, think of all the other Precians that will suffer and all the other star systems with all the other races!”
The adviser made no answer. He stared at the struggling Uldan hatchling and came to only when his brother began hatching beside him. A red light began blinking on the Precian’s armor—the encrypted comm indicator. The ugly, mutant butterfly no longer wanted to talk and began laying more eggs from a semi-transparent sack in its abdomen. Meanwhile, Brainiac was fighting with every byte he had and panicked pleas for help from Warlock filled the airwaves. The mutant had easily breached Brainiac’s IT defenses and was steadily making its way to the CPU. By his own estimate, Brainiac had no more than a minute left before he would lose all control over the vessel…But then nobody was about to let the mutant have its way. The heavens (if you could call the stadium’s slate gray ceiling the heavens) parted and a deadly downpour of artillery beams, columns of pure plasma miles tall, burst forth from above. A shield flickered on around the monster, refracting and splitting the plasma in every direction. If it weren’t for the forcefield that the Precian cast just in the nick of time, I would have instantly evaporated in the obliterating sunburst. The Vraxis warrior was less fortunate. The energy currents encaging us collapsed under the firestorm, the wall behind us evaporated, but we continued to hang in the air as if caught in a tractor beam. Our forcefield began giving way, shrinking, and I began rabidly shoveling my remaining powercells from my inventory to the adviser. The plasma did not let up, too blinding to look at, but the mutant somehow managed to hold on, a buckled silhouette amid the light. At least it didn’t have the strength to attack us anymore.
In the next instant, I saw a shadow flicker down among the white columns—and the white surged and I simply went blind. A sun detonated where the mutant had been and flooded everything in white light. When my vision returned, I found myself in my underwear standing alone in the middle of a huge molten pit. The base’s metal had melted to the surrounding crust. My respawn had taken ten minutes and the rock and the steel still glowed red around me. A timer labeled ‘invulnerability’ hung before my eyes, counting down the time I had to return to my suit—which hung a couple of meters ahead—and escape this lethal area. I dashed forward and the marine armor admitted its rightful owner. Unfortunately, it had lost one class. A quick review of the logs revealed that the Precians in the Grand Arbiter had taken the adviser’s orders very seriously. When they saw that their beam cannons could not kill the monster, they hit it (and us) with an orbital torpedo. There’s no arguing against a weapon like that, even if you are an ancient mutant butterfly. I looked in the direction where my ship had been. There were only traces of molten metal there. My chest grew tight and cold. Had Warlock really been destroyed? Was she really going to have to respawn?
“Cap’n, are you awake? If you hear this, say something! Come in!”
The happy message warmed my heart. My ship was alive!
“Yes! I’m okay. Brainiac, what the status of the adviser?”
“We picked him up a few minutes ago. Stay where you are, Cap’n. We’ll be there in a jiffy!”
There was a screech. The ship descended through the burned hole, continually clinging to the stone and metal. Soon enough, the orbship hung before me with its hatch open.
“We can’t fly through the crust any longer, so we’re back to the tried and true method of using holes or making them,” the snake explained, welcoming me aboard. “Do you know that we are being blamed for an attempt to destroy the moon? Let’s get out of here before it’s too late!”
I stopped right there in the hatch, perplexed. The snake laughed in response.
“Relax, the adviser is already on it. There are many casualties and the powers that be need a culprit. The nearby haciendas have been leveled, but outside a radius of five kilometers it’s not so bad. Everyone remembers seeing us flying around. You should listen to the radio—they are going to call the emperor to account for the atrocities of pirates. Basically, we are not welcome here.”
“How did you survive?”
“As soon as things started shifting and collapsing, I immediately understood that it was time to get out of here. You distracted the monster’s attention just in time. The blocking field vanished and we pulled up so hard that we made a click and a half in a couple seconds. If you’d been aboard, you’d have been turned into a pancake. Then came the explosion—and that was it. The passage down from the surface collapsed, but the beam cannon tore a crater so big you could call it the new main entrance. We doubled back carefully and picked up the adviser on our sensors. His forcefield had held out, barely. So we picked him up and began waiting for you. There is nothing more to do here. There is nothing left of the base.”
“So there’s nothing to plunder?” I asked, causing the adviser who had just approached to burst out in laughter.
“You are a true pirate indeed, Surgeon. We circled the entire base. There is nothing left. It’s a shame, but you were right: Such a monster has no place in our galaxy. Let the Uldans remain a myth. Pretty and harmless for us and our descendants.”
“I think I’d prefer to take a look myself. Where would you like us to drop you off? Here or on…Sorry, let me just answer this call. This is Surgeon!”
“Hi, this is Marina. How did your audience go?”
I looked at my watch. That’s right! I promised to call her in four hours. Six had passed since then and, tired of waiting, Marina had dialed me first.
“What’s up! The audience was a flop. They kicked me out of the empire without any discussion. It turns out that pirates have no place in the Precian Empire.”
“Damn. How do I get my ship back now?”
“Don’t you have some acquaintances that can make a deal with the Qualians?”
“You think I haven’t tried that? The Qualians flat out refuse to discuss me! I am now enemy number one. I destroyed their mission control center! Those imbeciles still have another four hours to rebuild it and get their Grand Arbiters to combat readiness.”
“The Grand Arbiters are incapacitated? Are you trying to say that the Qualian Empire is currently defenseless?”
“Discounting the protection provided by players—yes. Do you read the fora at all? There are such crazy things afoot. The fora are all flame wars and rustled jimmies. The emperor has ordered the guilds to block all approaches to the capital and trading planets. In short, read it for yourself! I have my own problems to solve. Luckily it isn’t the first time. Good luck!”
The PDA went blank as Marina hung up. I guess I wasn’t the only one having a bad day.
“How long will it take to fly from here to Raydon?” I asked the adviser pensively, rejecting one idea after another. I should find some way to help Kiddo. It wouldn’t do to abandon her. But how?
“About 30 minutes. But if you show up in Qualian space, they will immediately arrest you!” The adviser could see my utterly negative rapport with the Qualians.
“Technically, there is no one to arrest me at the moment. The planetary mission control center is down.”
“What do you want with the Qualians anyway?” the adviser asked, surprised.
“I think it’s the Qualians who want me. Yesterday, they captured a friend of mine. Because of those stupid Zatrathi, by the way. That’s right! A Zatrathi ship appeared out of nowhere in the Shylak system and focused entirely on the Cruiser Alexandria, my friend’s ship. That’s how the Qualians got her.”
“Your friend is Captain Kiddo?” the adviser asked flatly as if he knew the answer.
“The very one. She is currently sitting in the dungeon of the glorious planet of Raydon and awaiting her fate. Whatever you think about pirates, they don’t abandon their own. It is a matter of honor! I admit I don’t know how we’ll get her out yet, but I’ll think of something on our way.”
“The mere suggestion that the Qualians are working with the Zatrathi is a serious accusation. At the moment, absent any substantive evidence, these are but rumors. And if you are mistaken, the Precian Empire will be closed to you forever,” the adviser warned sternly. It seems that the conflict between the Precians and the Qualians had reached its peak and even high-born NPCs had grown interested in such an insignificant topic.
“Adviser, I have grown accustomed to trusting my partners. If I my partner tells me that a Zatrathi vessel appeared and attacked her cruiser and no other ship in the vicinity, then that is the way it is.”
“I need to contact the emperor. This information cannot wait.”
A few minutes of conversation and the adviser stunned me with the news:
“The Emperor offers to work with you. You must verify your claim.”

Mission: Deep Recon. Mission description: Travel to the Qualian Empire and investigate the collusion between the Qualians and the Zatrathi. Do you wish to accept this mission?

There was nothing to think about so I accepted immediately. The adviser continued:
“I’m going with you. The emperor ordered to personally verify the veracity of your words.”
“No problem,” I grinned, already forming a plan of how to infiltrate Qualian space. “Brainiac, lift off. Set course for Raydon.”

Release - April 25, 2019

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