Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Adam Online: City of Freedom by Max Lagno



Adam Online - 2
City of Freedom
by Max Lagno



Release - June 20, 2019
Pre-order on Amazon - https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07Q72J7JX

In order to gain access to Adam Online's closed locations, Leonarm needs to max out his level pretty quick. Help comes from the most unexpected quarter: a human/NPC hybrid who has access to all of the game's items and is privy to its deepest secrets.

But Leonard is not alone in this race. The rumors of new locations packed to the brim with epic loot begin to spread among ordinary players. The only known transition point to the new map is being controlled by the Black Wave guild  - the very players who killed Leonarm with a mysterious weapon at the very start of the game. The guild now blocks every attempt to get to the new worlds.

This leads to the greatest clan war in the history of Adam Online: a single guild against all the other clans and players. And they won't hesitate to employ their mysterious weapon, the most destructive force in the entire game world.
Chapter 1. White Spots
I walked along a broad street in Liberty City, guided by a map on my tablet. I saw a multitude of NPCs and players along the way. Most of them were humans, supers and androids. Liberty City was their city. Mechanodestructors didn’t feel at home there. They had their own world in Rim One, the capital of which was the city Mechatron; an imposing conglomeration of highly advanced structures designed specially to support mechanicals.
I didn’t know what bizoids did in Liberty City. I knew little about the race — in my day, few would have thought of becoming such a strange, inhuman creature.



Angels also inhabited their own worlds. Possibly the same worlds people visited when they chose magic over technology. Those dreamers deserved each other.
This didn’t mean that there was racial segregation in Adam Online. Mechanodestructors could easily visit Liberty City and the surrounding zones. The question was more why they would need to — the quests and infrastructure linked with leveling up their characters were in other zones. You could buy or find all the same magical items and spellcasting consumables in Liberty City, but they weren’t as numerous or as good as they were in magic zones. By the same token, there was no point looking for UniSuits with fifty upgrade slots in the stalls and taverns of the magical worlds of Himmelbleu or Heroes of Magic.
That said, the grinning maws of some creatures did appear through the crowd from time to time — almost like gorillas or bipedal reptiles with dinosaur heads. I also saw mechanodestructors in the farm of small arachnid robots.
The security of Liberty City was uplifting after that spate of anarchy in Town Zero. Sure, I got punched in the face as soon as I got here, but at least I was alive. The local law-enforcement agencies were tough, and were always dozens of levels above people who just moved here. No matter how hard you tried to fight them, the cops still always won.
Rim Zero was a world around two thousand miles long by two thousand miles wide. Rim One consisted of another eight squares of that size surrounding Rim Zero. Eight worlds, all different from each other.
When Adam Online first came into existence, the worlds of Rim One were enough for everyone. Time passed and more and more players arrived. Those that had leveled up demanded changes, new worlds, new quests. And so appeared Rim Two: another sixteen squares. As the years went by, eventually all those worlds had been explored and settled as well, so Rim Three was added — twenty four squares of unclaimed virtual land. Then Rim Four added another thirty two cells to the already huge world. That was enough for a long time, but by the time Olga and I came to Adam Online, Rim Five had also been added. An entirely unimaginable extra forty squares, not counting their vast and numerous dungeons.
History repeated itself. The opening of new Rims caused a race between players. Not all the worlds of Rim Four had been explored, not all the zones had been discovered, but people were flocking to Rim Five. It seemed to us then that we could spend our whole lives exploring a world like this. Myself, Olga and millions of other young adamites greedily discovered new zones, named them after themselves, filled the world map with white spots.
Olga and I unlocked one of the unexplored squares; an entirely mountainous world with odd gravity effects. Parts of the ground had risen up into the sky. Some floated low, others soared above the clouds. We even staked our claim on a flying island with a whole lake at its center. The island had no monsters and no quests. It was a true virtual limbo. We liked that flying island so much that we built a home on the shore of the lake. Around it we built workshops where I crafted weapons and perfected my skills. That was the house where Olga spent her final days in Adam Online, before the i-entropy destroyed her mind completely.
Even all this wasn’t enough for people. They wanted new worlds and adventures. So Rim Six was launched, and from what I understood, something strange happened to it. It was if the virtual world itself was rising up against human greed. If you imagined the control systems as real characters, you could picture them crying out: “When will you finally eat so much that you burst, damn pests?!”
I wondered if our island and home were still there. I didn’t even remember which square they were in. I doubted that my search for Nelly Valeeva would take me to that world, but I wanted to visit it. I remember that I didn’t even sell the property, I just left Adam Online and promised myself I’d never return.
Well, ten years is long enough to break my promise.

#

My hearing slowly adapted to this noisy new world.
Rim Zero was intentionally made relatively ordinary — with deserts, junk heaps and half-destroyed buildings to remind players of the real world.
But Liberty City was too flashy for me, too overwhelming. And this city was nothing in comparison to Londinium, the capital of Rim Five.
A couple of players tried to catch my attention as I walked, offering to sell me stuff; a map to a supposedly secret zone, miracle pills that would restore ‘a thousand percent health’ or ‘the fastest jeep in Rim One.’ These shysters thought I was new. I tried not to upset them. I shot them a dumb smile and walked on.
The Lakeview Estates living complex was a group of two-story buildings on the shore of a small lake. A few people sailed on catamarans at its center. Hmm, a pretty good place to start with. It was strange that the driver and his family lived in some dump in Rim Zero when they had property like this in Liberty City. The lives of NPCs were full of logical flaws. You could go crazy if you thought about them too much.
I quickly found building 1884, and the right apartment on the second floor. An open staircase led up to it on the rear side of the building. Two stations stood in front of the apartment buildings in a square covered by an awning. They both looked like snack vending machines.
The first was a Projectoria station, a system for fast travel between zones in a Rim or city. To use a station, you first had to find it and then it appeared on your map. Each teleport cost money depending on the distance. These stations also fulfilled the role of respawn towers, where you could revive after death for ten thousand gold. If you didn’t have enough money, you’d go to an ordinary respawn tower.
The second station was a Respec-T system. It provided ‘respec-tification,’ which was a chance to redistribute your base stat and skill points. A useful procedure when you had to quickly strengthen a certain stat at the expense of others. It also had the ability to strengthen any stat or level up a skill for twenty four hours. Respec-T offered boosts for one, five and ten points.
These stations were usually close to each other, but were sometimes far apart — it all depended on the zone. Numerous vending machines for weapons and ammo often accompanied them. There were single-brand vending machines and multi-brand types too.
To refresh my memory of how all these systems worked, I approached the Projectoria station and selected a map. It lit up on the front of the machine. I had two teleport points available: this station itself, and another one between the respawn tower and Lakeview Estates. They were automatically added to the map when you walked within thirty feet of them. You often didn’t even notice. I’d have to walk around the town for a while before I’d be able to teleport everywhere. I could have invested in my tablet and bought maps with the Projectoria stations marked on them, but I needed the money to upgrade my weaponry and UniSuit.
I moved to the Respec-T station and saw that one respec cost two hundred and fifty thousand gold. An expensive pleasure. Boosting one stat by one point cost a hundred thousand, by five points — five hundred thousand. Ten points didn’t cost a million as you might expect, but ten million.
I left the stations alone and went up to the second floor, opened the door to room number four and entered an empty apartment full of sunlight.
Three large rooms with pristine white walls. Both large windows opened up over the lake. Next to one window was a white chair. That was all the furniture. I opened a window, sat on the chair, put my feet up on the windowsill and faced the morning sun. A warm breeze brought in the scents of the lake, a barely audible whisper of waves and birdsong.
It was pretty cool. How much would it cost to buy real estate in this district? Five hundred thousand at least. If it weren’t for the quest from the driver, I’d have had to get a room in some stinking hotel, in a stinking district with high criminal activity, which meant a high chance of some headhunter trying to cash in on the price on my head. That ‘Whitelist’ again. So much needs attention, so much to do...
Never mind. That was an insignificant question. Those were for people who afraid to think about the significant ones...

#

The longer I looked at the world through the window, the more afraid I got: how could I find Nelly Valeeva here? If she was a player, fine, I could have easily found her through a search. If it were as simple as that, the Moscow Security Bureau wouldn’t have set up a whole clandestine operation and spent a fortune in leveling up characters.
If she was an NPC, that would complicate the search a little, but it would still be possible. But she was an old binary array that the CSes never deleted for some reason. Although... Wasn’t the reason obvious? For them, Nelly was a player, an adamite that was outside the influence of their algorithms. And the fact that this player hasn’t left the game in a hundred years doesn’t bother them: the QCPs are responsible for kicking players off when their time runs out, not the game algorithms.
I jumped up off my chair; it seemed my laziness and idleness had provoked some thought. Nelly Valeeva was an anomaly. That’s exactly how the MSB detected her. They were the ones who said that since she’s an anomaly, she appeared in anomalous zones in the generation of new worlds. After all, it was the control systems that created them, and nobody knew what exactly happened at the moment of creation.
But all this could be wrong. If Nelly’s anomalous ghost existed in Adam Online, then it existed everywhere, or more precisely — could have existed everywhere.
Alright.
I rose from the chair and walked around the room, glancing at the lake shore where a group of girls lazed around in the sun. Some of them took off their swimsuit tops, exposing their breasts to the morning sun.
There was a possibility that the MSB agents weren’t the only ones to see Nelly Valeeva when deciphering a random chunk of code caught in the unimaginable ocean of traffic in Adam Online. Players might have seen her too. After all, adamites didn’t have to decode or convert anything — they just had to be in a zone where Nelly Valeeva might appear.
I had to search for messages from players about incomprehensible missions or strange phenomena that might originate from the conversation that Makartsiev showed me, the one between Nelly and an unknown stranger.
It was easier said than done. There were millions of players, and they generated millions of messages. Nearly a third of them kept blogs where they wrote about their travels, shared their leveling experience or just posted an endless stream of porn with various NPCs or players. There was no way to properly process such a torrent of information. You had to be a CS, and even the CSes only processed local information in the vicinity of the player or players.
The corridor of puzzles led to a dead end. I’d missed something or failed to understand something. But what?
I watched as two cops approached the naked girls and made them put their clothes back on.
Adam Online was a game, a form of human activity built on already defined conditions. How could I use those conditions to solve this problem? If, for example, I started randomly wandering the world and questioning players, there’d be a certain chance that I’d happen upon a description of something similar to Nelly Valeeva. It’d only take five to eight hundred years.
Even if I put up ads on all the noticeboards, few would reply. I couldn’t forget that millions of people had posted trillions of ads that nobody had ever looked at or read. People only read ads that offered some kind of reward: money, gear, weapons, maps to secret zones and quests.
If I put up a reward for the information, then the ad would get attention. And firstly, I’d be drowned in replies from all kinds of psychos, fraudsters and perverts. I’d spend my entire taharration rotation sorting through messages. Secondly, I’d draw attention from people I wouldn’t want attention from — competing security services.
No, looking to the community for help wouldn’t solve the problem, it would only make it worse. I returned to the window and leaned through it, looking at the lake. The girls, whether players or NPCs, looked nice even clothed. My Eagle Eye let me admire them in all their details.
I turned away from the window to keep my thoughts on track, but it was too late. I was tired of all this thinking. Yes, I’d felt out some kind of path, but it wasn’t a path to my goal, it was just a possible way out of the dead end of previous conclusions.
Chapter 2. Floating Range
My tablet had signalled me about events quite a while ago. I grabbed a Penny Packer bottle of whiskey from my backpack and took a swig. I’d probably gotten a debuff or buff for drinking, but my Knowledge was too low to see the details. I had to increase it. I had to level up everything, I had to hurry. I was too weak to find Nelly, who could be in places where even the grass or a frog could kill me. There are zones like that...
I switched on my tablet:

Welcome to your new home, Leonarm.
There is nothing here, but after all, a house is a reflection of its owner’s internal world. Is your internal world really so empty? Don’t you want to start some interior design?

Sure, I’d get right to it, sounds essential. Although... it actually was. I needed to buy wardrobes for my clothes, safes for weaponry. Where would I keep my loot? I could throw it on the floor, but I wasn’t some tramp.
I’d need to buy a bed too. What if I brought a girl home? I couldn’t expect her to indulge in the joys of sex on that chair. Although I’d be up for it. Life in reality wasn’t exactly full of dates with the opposite sex. Most of the women in my country brought all their fantasies to life in Adam Online, so I could only look for a partner among people who didn’t play Adam Online. That was a very small group. Very, very small.
The second message was more interesting:

From: Liberty City Police Department.
Dear Sir, our colleagues from Town Zero have reported that you provided assistance in the elimination of a gang of dangerous criminals. They have transferred 10,000g as a sign of their gratitude. We will transfer this sum to your account without delay as soon as we receive your bank details.
The department needs people like you, sir. Our door is always open to you. Liberty City is a fine place, but it has its flaws, one of which is a hydra of organized crime that rears its ugly head in certain districts of the city.
We believe that as a new resident of the city, you will respond to this call to fight against the criminal underworld. I have a special quest for you.

Yours truly, Detective Joshua Culkin,
Chief at PCPD Third Detective Department.

‘PCPD — preserving honor since 1877.’
You can find us at:
Central Park, 23rd Street, 105.
Open every day from 9 to 19.

Money in Adam Online could be stored digitally in your tablet or neurointerface, but that meant that you could be robbed after death and left with nothing. It was better to store large sums in one of the banks. Many of the banks in Adam Online were representatives of real banks. A player’s virtual and real accounts were synchronized when they left taharration. The local currency was converted into real dollars, and then into rubles or yuan. People in virtual reality earned money so they could pay off bills and loans for their pods and dissociative fluid in real life.
Considering that the only thing associating me with Leonarm was the nickname, I wondered where the money I earned would go after I emerged from the pod. Hmm, now that’s a question... What if I became a millionaire? I had to link Leonarm’s account to my bank account. But was it worth putting my bank details in the spotlight, transferring cash from the account of a player called %Username%, who entered Adam Online through an illegal landing?
The trouble was that until I opened an account in one of the banks or linked my real-life account to Leonarm, I wouldn’t get the reward from the Rim Zero cops.
My quest list opened:

True Detective.
You should visit Detective Culkin and find out what he needs.

I opened the map, found Central Park and put down a marker — it was a long way from me.
The other message read:

Furnishing Lakeview Estates Apartment.
All you have is a single chair. It’s shameful. What will your neighbors say?
Bonus: create the ideal combination of interior design items and get a bonus reward.

Completed:
Kitchen furniture — 0/5.
Weapon safe — 0/1.
Bed — 0/1.
Table — 0/1.
Chairs — 1/5.

And so on — there were another ten or so interior items, from pictures on the walls to paint for those same walls. After this, the tablet squawked a series of signals and I got over a hundred messages from furniture stores. Each of them offered ‘an exclusive choice of furniture to suit any taste.’
I tapped on an offer from the middle of the list at random. I was certainly not about to start studying trends in interior design.
On the other hand, since I was planning to woo NPCs to get at least someone into bed with me, that meant I’d need to buy the right bed. I had no plans to seduce players after my experiences with Amy McDonald and Vildana.
I examined the advertisements more closely, chose a store called Sensuality. Their vulgar pink and red tones caught the eye. The store immediately offered a bed called the Sexodrome, which was, of course, shaped like a heart. It was accompanied by a gleaming red sheet and all the trimmings. The Sexodrome cost 3999g.
I aimed my tablet art the wall and dragged the bed from the tablet screen. The Sexodrome appeared in the room and thudded against the floor, taking up most of the space. I aimed the tablet at the floor and chose a color — black. I dragged the skin of some furry animal off the screen and dropped it on the floor. I put heavy burgundy drapes on the windows. The bright apartment was immediately plunged into darkness.
I found a fireplace and put it opposite the bed. A soft light battled the darkness, but it was still gloomy. I placed red lamps in the corners. Candles on the mantelpiece, a painting of some virtuous Renaissance orgy above the bed. I couldn’t show too much obsession and scare off my guests.
These preparations reminded me of another game setting that I wouldn’t be able to change... I opened my settings to check it.

Sexual realism — [maximum]

Hmm, not quite what I wanted. The process would be recreated precisely, down to every last physiological detail. How could I have been dumb enough not to check the section in the MSB contract about control over settings?
I put a Belorussian-made wardrobe in a corner, a place for me to store civilian rags. I was done with the bedroom. I moved to the room that would be the kitchen. I decided not to flaunt my lack of taste here. I put in some light and cheerful furniture from Ikea. It all cost around three thousand gold. I moved nine bottles of whiskey into a cupboard and put one on the table, grabbed a glass and drank.
Ice wouldn’t hurt, but for that I’d need a refrigerator. Drinking and eating wasn’t essential in Adam Online, though many enjoyed the pleasure. The food here was far better than what we ate in real life, synthetic pasta and meat from soy and unknown animals. Food restored health a little. Some rare foods gave buffs, but you couldn’t rely on food in battle: eating a chocolate bar gave you plus one to health, but it took so much time to eat it that you could die three times over before you finished.
I drank some more whiskey and moved to the third room, which was marked Study on the tablet. I actually intended to turn it into something between an armory and a toolshed.
I approached my choice of a weapon safe a little more seriously, studying the offers on the market. But with my funds, my search was over quickly. I was limited to the cheaper options.
I had my eye on the Vault Slim Fit weapon safe with a built-in durability regenerator. It restored one durability per hour to weapons inside. Which wasn’t a lot. There was a safe from Tula manufacturers called the Old Master. It restored ten durability per hour, but cost ten times as much.
I aimed my tablet at the wall and dragged the safe onto it. It appeared in the room with the clang of metal, its doors invitingly open. It could store one of each type of weapon apart from heavy weaponry like grenade launchers and shoulder-held rocket launchers. Liberty City was a relatively quiet place, so I could get by with just a knife and a standard Glock.
Incidentally, when I got to Rim One, my booklets updated to ‘Guidebook on Rim One of the Adam Online Universe’ and another standard Glock appeared again. Phew, it’s a good thing the previous booklets updated. I was afraid that error would come back and make the booklets multiply and fill up my inventory.
I moved my Uzi, Marble sawn-off and Tesla revolver into the corresponding slots in the safe. They could restore durability and save me some money on repairs.
I picked up my tablet to keep decorating. I got the decoration progress bar up to seventy five percent, and a message popped up:

Decorator skill learned: +10 XP.
Keep leveling it up and people will ask you to arrange the furniture in their own homes!

One last interior item remained. I scrolled through the list and dragged a LockerDouble cupboard for special gear into a corner of the room. It had two sections for storing two UniSuits. One section was also equipped with a durability regenerator. I put my UniSuit in there right away.
The other section of the cupboard could store one helmet, a pair of gloves and a pair of shoes. There was a funny conditionality to it: if you put one helmet on the shelf, then you wouldn’t be able to fit another in even though there was plenty of space. An invisible wall just blocked the second one.
It wasn’t always easy for the CSes to combine maximum realism with maximum playability.

#

My decorating quest showed that it was ninety five percent complete. Strange. I thought I’d added all the items from the list. I probably had to figure out for myself which was the last missing item. I took a swig of whiskey.
I walked around all the rooms, looked at the walls. What was missing? A trash can? An ottoman, a nightstand, a table lamp? A pet? A statue? Loud neighbors?
A strange unevenness on the wall next to my crockery cupboard caught my eye. Hmm, what was that? I ordered paint for the walls, wasn’t leveling out the walls included in that service? I aimed the tablet at it:

There may have been a hole here that was poorly patched. It’s probably a hiding place.
Eagle Eye skill increased: +10 XP.

Naturally, I kicked the spot on the wall. A chunk fell off. I kept kicking until the hiding place was completely revealed. Inside was a metal box nearly four feet in length. I pulled it out, afraid that I might need lockpicking skills, but the locks on the box turned out to be simple latches.
Inside the box was a sword in a scabbard wrapped in rags. I took it out and read:

A beautiful sword of an unknown design.
Composition: iron and an unknown quantity of unknown components.
Slashing damage: 50 or 900.
Cutting damage: unknown.
Strike damage: unknown.
Block: 50 or unknown.
Durability: 500/100.

Enchantment: unknown.
Unknown property.
Unknown property.
Unknown property.
Unknown property.
Value: 250,000g or unknown.
There is a high chance that this item is a rare collectible. But this is not guaranteed.

At this point, the word ‘unknown’ was practically seared into my eyeballs. It indicated I didn’t have enough Knowledge. But the fact that Slashing Damage was still shown in a floating range was a result of my Blade Combat skill. The two-hundred and fifty thousand gold value was a nice surprise, but I still wasn’t sure that it was accurate, and not higher or lower.
You didn’t have to be an Adam Online veteran to know that there was a quest behind this sword. I unraveled the rags around it and found a scroll of paper attached to the round pommel. I unrolled it, but couldn’t read it. I waved my tablet over it to find out why.

A scroll of text in an unknown language. Maybe it’s Elvish?

Well, what next?
I could just palm off the find at the nearest Curiosity Store, a chain specializing in items like this. Considering that I knew nothing about the sword, I could sell it for half a million or for peanuts. There’d definitely be someone in that store who could read the scroll. If it was an NPC, I’d have to be certain that they wouldn’t take advantage of me. After all, my Reputation was only a few points higher than someone who should be taken advantage of. I could look for a player who could read the scroll. But since I’d be practically a stranger to them, they’d definitely trick me.
I decided to leave the mystery of the sword for later. Judging by the fact that my tablet had fallen silent, it was clear to me that I wouldn’t get a quest until I could read the letter.
I ordered some more paint for the walls to cover up the hole. More costs. And the quest to decorate the apartment still didn’t want to finish. What was going on? What was the problem?
I looked at the sword... what if...
I looked through the catalog and found a ‘Hanger for Paintings or Other Decorative Items.’
I placed it above the bed and put the sword on it in its scabbard. The tablet squawked in satisfaction.

A great detail! You appreciate the value in subconscious phallic symbols, Leonarm.
Sword above bed: +10% chance to seduce an NPC of any gender.
Decorator skill increased: +10 XP.

Quest complete: Furnishing Lakeview Estates Apartment!
Earned: +100 XP.

Congratulations, Leonarm, you leveled up!
Your current level: 12.
Obtained: stat points (1), skill points (1)

I decided not to spend the points for now. The future would let me know where best to invest them.

The Sensuality store appreciates the brazen lack of taste in your bedroom and has given you a Sixth Sense lamp. +10% chance to seduce an NPC of any gender.

The image of a lamp shaped like a person on their knees appeared on the tablet, with the option to choose between a man or a woman. I chose the woman and put the lamp on the nightstand by my bed. A dim pink light emanated from the girl’s open mouth.
I looked over my bedroom with satisfaction: like a real Lothario’s pad! Yes, I’d rather call myself a Lothario than desperate.
I drank the rest of my whiskey to celebrate my victory and got another message:

Achievement: Reveller.
Are you alone, with no family, job or friends? You’re in the perfect position to become an expert on alcoholic beverages.

Alcoholic brands tried:
Спирт: 0/1
Whiskey: 1/5
Vodka: 0/5
Cognac: 0/5
Wine: 0/5
Port: 0/5
Champagne: 0/5
Beer: 0/5

Achievements are something you’re better off not keeping track of. The idea was that they’d complete themselves as you lived in Adam Online. Anyway, it was time for me to go out. I was already starting to think that I could forget about my military skills and just live in Liberty City, enjoying all its pleasures, leveling up to level three hundred in peaceful professions and shipping off to Rim Six.
Of course, I didn’t seriously consider it. Interior decorating skills didn’t exactly mesh well with monster battles.
I left the apartment and walked down the stairs.
On the other hand, what if I leveled up a peaceful character? Did business, got into real estate, financial machinations. Selling the Lakeview Estates apartment would provide some starting capital. If I got rich, I wouldn’t need to fight. I’d have enough money to hire an army of powerleveled warriors of all races and creeds. I could even hire players or a whole clan.
Dreams, just dreams. I knew from past experience that I didn’t make a good capitalist. I remembered I tried to play the stock exchange once, even opened my own shops, sold crafted weapons. If it weren’t for Olga, I’d have ruined myself and been in debt. She managed all our finances, and thanks to her we only ever got richer.
I walked away from Lakeview Estates and looked around. The sun had already risen and it shone gently, rather than burning as it did in planes zones. Alright, where to first? To the detective or...
My gaze was drawn to the lake, where three times as many girls were already sunbathing. But no. I had to get myself tidied up, I couldn’t wander around this magnificent city in standard noob gear.
So first things first — I had to earn money. The Liberty City Police Department was the main goal of my outing. I’d check out some stores on the way.
Aside from clothes, it was also time I upgraded my tablet, got some augmented reality goggles or at least a voice assistant. I was sick of having to wave some prehistoric device over stuff to get information.
I threw a farewall glance at the naked NPCs and walked toward Central Park. It was a long way to go.


Chapter 3. Middle Class


You could buy clothing the same way I’d bought furniture, through special advertisements that materialized the items you ordered. But there were two advantages to buying them right in the stores: variety and social opportunity. Items from the stores were always better than from the ads. You only found rare items in the stores. And, of course, visiting a store was more fun than just scrolling through adverts.
It wasn’t as if I was desperate for a social life... but then why did I spend so much money on fitting out my bedroom?
That was why, when I found a whole street of stores, I turned onto it even though it wasn’t on the way to the police department. The Projectoria station flashed a soft green, marking itself on the map.
Centerline Avenue was a broad and long road street with people. On occasion, there were even almost as many players as NPCs.
I hadn’t been on this street before. I once knew Liberty City well, but Adam Online was a living world. Everything had changed here since my time. The city lived like a real city, constantly rebuilding and updating itself. Although the proportion of districts was the same as before. There had always been slums full of gangland mayhem, and elite districts guarded by the police or even the military.
And something else that hadn’t changed: Liberty City was an amalgamated image of a megapolis of the mid-twenty-first century, before the wars and cataclysms that made our world look more like the Mechanodestructor Heap. A happy time for humanity, when you could enjoy the pleasures of life and trips to real tropical islands. The architecture, car design and fashion in Liberty City fluctuated from 2007 to 2041.
Bars plays songs from that era, the cinemas showed its movies, the stores its games consoles so people could play archaic games. Liberty City conserved that era: many adamites were content to live in the city and never bother with other zones. Although in Rim One, there were a few more zones that recreated the life of that time.
Swiftville, for example, a place not far from Liberty City. It was a city zone where everything was built around racing with different forms of ground vehicles. Or the aeronaut city Aerial, where nobody walked on the surface, everyone flew, at the very least with jetpacks. Or other zones where historical battles were reconstructed such as the Siege of Saigon, the Germano-Russian Occupation, Ukrainian Secession or the Capture of Syria.
Needless to say, in the real world many of those historical places no longer existed. They’d burned up in atomic flame like Saigon and Beijing, or drowned like London, or they were in highly radioactive zones like Mecca and Jerusalem.

#

I walked past window displays, trying to choose a store.
I needed to make the right impression on the chief of the detective department, and I shouldn’t dress too smart. My choice fell on a store with the alluring name Middle Class.
A very cute salesgirl greeted me at the entrance, probably an NPC. It wasn’t that players couldn’t work in stores. There was plenty of opportunity for that, especially if you preferred to play a peaceful life simulator. You start as a simple sales rep, completing quests like ‘serve ten customers in an hour’ or ‘sell goods worth X amount.’
Something else gave away the fact that she was an NPC: the girl looked too good. To achieve such an appearance, a player would have to not only reach the required level, but also pay a large amount, and that means it’s unlikely they’d work in a store.
The salesgirl’s hair was tied back in a bob and she wore a humble uniform that looked a little like a maid’s outfit.
“Need any help?”
“I’m just browsing,” I said, glancing over her figure. “But you can help me.”
I wanted to add the question “What are you doing tonight?”, but thought better of it. Without the right skills, I doubted I’d achieve much except a drop in Reputation.
Instead, I said that I had a business meeting to go to, but I didn’t want business-style clothes.
“Alright, smart casual, it’s over here.”
She moved nimbly through the aisles and I followed her. I aimed the tablet at her at the same time.

Irene Laggan.
Level: 32
Class: unknown (requires 12 Knowledge).
Occupation: saleswoman in a Middle Class store.
Interests: unknown (requires Insight skill).

Irene stopped next to a clothes rack and pulled out a jacket, then grabbed some pants from a nearby stand.
“These go well together.”
I aimed my tablet and read the clothes’ stats. The saleswoman froze obligingly.

Furr Velvet Jacket.
Increases NPC trust by 20%.
Improves relationships with NPCs of the opposite sex by 30%.
Worsens relationships with NPCs wearing a cheaper jacket by 5%.
Unknown property (requires Seducer skill).
Unknown property (requires 12 Knowledge).
Price: 5,999g.

Gap Pants.
Increase openness of NPCs in conversations about their personal life by 10%.
Unknown feature (requires 15 Knowledge).
Unknown property (unknown requirements).
Price: 1,999g.

Hmm, that was a great jacket, but I wasn’t planning on seducing Joshua. He was most likely a brutal old cop that wouldn’t be very tolerant to same-sex love.
“Irene, the person I’m going to meet doesn’t care about fashion. I need something to make the impression of a good guy on him. I need to convince him that I can be trusted.”
Irene Laggan shook her bob teasingly and said,
“You don’t earn trust with clothes.”
Uh-huh, the CSes had got involved, activated their creative functions. The girl wasn’t just a bobblehead showing clothes to customers now.
“For sure, but clothes might help make a good first impression.”
The salesgirl put the jacket back.
“Alright, what kind of impression do you want to make, and who’re you meeting?”
“He’s a policeman. I need to get a job from him.”
“Oh!” the salesgirl cried. “Then this is what you need.”
She pulled out a long leather jacket that somehow looked worn. I raised my tablet uncertainly.

Max Payne Leather Overcoat.
+1 Agility.
+1 Strength.
+1 Pistols and Revolvers skill.
Improves relationships with military-type NPCs by 15%.
Improved relationships with quarrelsome NPCs by 5%.
Unknown property (requires 10 Knowledge).
Unknown property (unknown requirements).
Price: 4,999g.

I tried the overcoat on right away.
“Well done,” I praised the salesgirl. “Just what I need! And it looks awesome.”
The girl averted her gaze shyly.
“No problem, it’s my job. Although I actually have bigger dreams than being a salesgirl.”
“What would you rather be?”
Instead of answering, the salesgirl sighed and offered me a shirt that was so colorful it bordered on the obnoxious. I had my doubts, but Irene encouraged me.
“Don’t worry, you don’t want to look perfect. You need a flaw.”
Alright, why not listen to her? The overcoat almost completely hid the shirt anyway.

Bershka Shirt.
Worsens relationships with stylish NPCs by 25%.
Improves relationships with NPCs indifferent to fashion by 5%.
Price: 99g.

“You didn’t tell me about your dreams.” I said to Irene.
The girl offered me some thick-soled boots.
“I want to move to Swiftville.”
“The car city? Why?”
The girl answered with another sigh, indicating that she didn’t want to talk about it. I must have needed some higher skill to get her to talk.
I put on the shirt and the overcoat above it, then the boots.

Dr. Martens Boots.
+1 Agility.
Unknown property (requires 10 Knowledge).
Price: 1,999g.

I twirled in front of the mirror. Needed to change my haircut. Then I wondered, should I buy the velvet jacket too? It had a really good bonus to relations with the opposite sex. I counted my money and decided against it.
I paid, nodded to Irene and walked toward the exit.
“Wait!” the girl caught up to me at the door. “This will really complement that outfit.”
She rose up on her tiptoes, entwined her hands around me and clasped a medallion around my neck. I took it in my hand and pointed my tablet at it.

A simple medallion bearing the Middle Class store logo.
Provides a 15% durability boost to all clothes bought at the Middle Class chain.
Price: free.

“Although we give one to all customers who spend five thousand or over. Heh heh, and we tell them all it complements their outfit.”
The girl winked and went back into the store. Now it was my turn to shout “Wait!”. Irene turned.
I took a risk and asked,
“What are you doing tonight?”
“Getting ready for bed. See you later.”
The girl disappeared into the store, and I nervously checked my tablet, which had flashed after Irene’s words. I expected to see a Reputation drop, but instead:

Insight skill learned: +10 XP.
Now you can evaluate the mood of creatures around you.
Level up this skill to recognize other character features and learn to influence mood as a result.

Unlocked additional NPC stat: Character.
Unlocked additional NPC stat: Mood.
Attention: the accuracy of these measures depends on your Knowledge and Reputation in combination with your Insight skill and others.

At this stage, knowledge of an NPC’s character didn’t really help much. It was determined basically the same way as you figured it out with players, through behavior. But knowledge of tbheir current mood and influence on NPCs’ emotional behavior would come in handy. It wasn’t that I couldn’t influence them just by talking to them, but the influence wasn’t as extensive as I’d like.
The more the influence, the better the quests and the more generous the rewards.

Chapter 4. Hundreds of Fine Braids
Central Park was a little old park at the center of a business district of the same name. It was ringed by roads packed with cars on all sides.
I decided to cut across the park to the police department building. Surprisingly, there were plenty of players in the park.
They weren’t doing anything, just lying or sitting on the glass, watching the sky. Some drank beer or ate sandwiches out of picnic baskets. Probably the same hedonists that enjoyed the virtual world of Adam Online without chasing after levels, skills or other perks.
I wondered whether it was worth it for them to go into a virtual world just to fool themselves. The fact that they couldn’t see their stats or level didn’t mean they weren’t playing the game. Each of them probably had a bunch of achievements. Like ‘Beer Barrel’ — drink two hundred pints of beer. Or ‘Garfield’: eat a million calories.
As I walked past, one of the hedonists called out to me.
“Hey, dude, catch!”
I turned and just managed to catch a bottle of beer thrown at me. Damp and pleasantly cool.
“Thanks.”
“No worries, bro.”
I opened the beer and took a swig so as not to offend the player. He could be anyone. My encounter with the laughing gentleman in the top hat was enough to keep me wary. Nearly getting sent back to the respawn tower with one punch will do that.
I waved the bottle at the player and moved on. I liked the fact that there were places where you could just relax and keep your hand away from your holster. Where you could just live and play a simulator of real life. A beautiful version that you couldn’t get in the real world.
Another endless traffic jam blocked my path when I needed to cross the road at the other side. A bright blue race car came up to the back of it. I could tell from the style that it was a player’s personal car. Instead of numbers, the license plate was stamped Swiftville and bore the nickname Hasty. The car’s windows were black mirrors.
The player tried to get around the traffic jam. Violating the highway code and scaring passersby, the car rolled onto the pavement. I barely managed to jump back behind the protection of the park fence. The bottle slipped from my hands and smashed. Then I heard a police siren and saw cops on motorcycles appear from between the rows of cars. They chased after the lawbreaker.
The racer and the police disappeared around a bend in the street, spreading panic and destruction, but I had no doubt about it: the cops would catch him. A helicopter thrummed in the sky, and several police drones flew by overhead. Even the best racer in the world wouldn’t shake that tail. If that Hasty didn’t kill anyone on the road, he’d get away with a large fine. Otherwise he’d lose his Reputation and be hunted until he was killed or left Liberty City. He’d only be able to return to the slums, the gangster districts. In civilized districts, the cops would start tailing him again as soon as he got into their field of view, or the view of an upstanding NPC that would immediately call the police.
Even without the plate, it was clear that Hasty was from Swiftville. There everyone drove at ridiculous speeds, and the police didn’t chase them, they chased people who drove slow and got in the way of everyone else. This Hasty didn’t seem to be a man of great intellect, since he’d decided to test out his racing skills right in front of the Liberty City Police Department.

#

The department building was noticeable: tall, decorated with columns and a long broad staircase. Its facade was dark brown marble, but that made it look solid rather than gloomy. You could see it right away — this reliable institution stands up for law and order in Liberty City. At least in those districts where there are no criminal gangs to stand up for lawlessness and disorder.
I ran up the long staircase and pushed through one of the heavy wooden doors. I found myself in a big hall, part of it cordoned off by a barrier. The floor was covered with plastic sheeting. Several workers stood on gantries and painted the walls. Repairs?
A police robot stopped me. It was a ten foot tall machina standing on two legs. Its knee joints were bent backwards as if the robot was preparing to leap at any moment. Its arms ended in two machine guns fitted with silencers.
“Purpose of visit?” the thing squawked.
“I’m here by invitation of Detective Culkin. He sen...”
Some small police drones descended on me from the ceiling, scanning and checking me. One started flashing in alarm and exuded a red projection of my Glock, Lefaucheux musket and knife.
“You must surrender your weapons.” the robot clattered backwards from me and aimed its machine guns.
I took out all my weapons. The drones grabbed them and carried them off.
“Proceed to the registration desk,” the robot ordered, waving its machine guns toward a row of windows with police officers sat behind them.
I approached a window with a cute black policewoman behind it. Her nametag read Heylia Grant.
“You got some serious security here.”
The girl took off her cap. Her hair was woven into hundreds of fine braids.
“Sorry for the inconvenience,” she smiled. “Ever since someone brought a bomb in here, we’ve been forced to take precautions.”
“Woah!”
Now I saw why they were repairing the hall.
“Several officers and civilians died. Mayor Weinhardt even declared a time of mourning. You new to Liberty City?”
“Arrived today. Who was the bomb from?”
“It was an act of vengeance by the Golden Piranhas syndicate. We arrested their leader’s chief assistant recently. Incidentally, it was Detective Joshua Culkin who led that investigation. You’re here to see him?”
I nodded.
The girl closed the window and stood up.
“I’ll show you the way.”
“I can find it myself.”
“All visitors have to be accompanied by police officers. But if you prefer, I can send him,” she nodded at the police mech.
The robot clicked its paws in readiness.
“Civilian, walk ahead of me at a range of no more than ten feet. Do not turn or make any sudden movements. I will shoot to kill.”
I turned back to the window.
“No, I think I’d prefer you.”
Heylia left the booth and walked ahead of me, not only showing me the way, but also showing that her police uniform did a great job outlining her alluring curves. We walked along a corridor and began to climb some stairs. I couldn’t take my eyes off her back and legs. Eh, no guts, no glory!
“What are you doing tonight?”
“What do you mean?” the girl said in surprise. “Getting ready for bed.”
I sighed helplessly, but then she suddenly helped me out.
“On the other hand, why sleep when the weather is so good in the evenings now?”
The Max Payne jacket had an effect on military-type NPCs. Now I had to continue the conversation and not mess it up. If I let on that I’d built a whole love den, Heylia would be unlikely to agree to come home and see it. She mentioned the weather, which meant she’d rather take a stroll in the great outdoors.
If I’d had skills for deeper discussions with NPCs, I’d have known exactly what kind of exercise she wanted to get. I’d have to guess.
“Want to meet in Central Park after work?”
Heylia stopped smiling.
“In the park? What would we do there? Drink beer? Feed the birds?”
“We’ll just meet, then I’ll tell you where we’ll go next. I promise you’ll get to enjoy the weather in full.”
Heylia Grant shook out her thousand braids.
“Alright then.”
The tablet gave off a signal:

Insight skill increased: +5 XP.
So uniforms do it for you, huh? Or do you just like the handcuffs that Heylia Grant must have?
Reputation with Heylia Grant increased: +1.

Then a second signal:

Seducer skill learned: +10 XP.
Want to crush the shards of broken hearts beneath your feet? Careful, someone might break your heart too.

And a third:

Congratulations, Leonarm, you leveled up!
Your level: 13.
Attention: you have unused stat points (2) and skill points (2). Spend them wisely!

It was odd that I didn’t get a quest like Seduce Heylia Grant. I probably hadn’t met some condition or other just yet. But I’m sure the quest will appear when we meet in the park.
Heylia led me through several large rooms full of tables covered in the transparent screens of old computers, from back in the days of Nelly Valeeva and gyrorbs. The decor here underlined Liberty City’s association with those times.
Police employees scurried back and forth, spoke on the phone or on video links, opened maps of the city on the screen and marked something. One closed door was marked Police Archive. I even stopped for a second. Here it was — a way to find information on Nelly Valeeva. There was a small chance that she might have left a trace in some archived cases. I didn’t know yet whether my guess was right, but all the same, it was a lead. What if...
“Why’re you standing there?” Heylia asked. “You can’t just hang around, come on.” We moved on.
We entered an empty corridor with a row of doors. We stopped by one of them and Heylia turned to me.
“Josh will meet you soon, please wait here.”
“So see you tonight?”
“Yep, see you tonight.”
Heylia flashed me another gleaming smile and walked leisurely back down the corridor. A police drone flew into the corridor and hovered above me. Safety measures, I guess.

Chapter 5. Stimulation of Choice
At first, I patiently waited five minutes. Then I pulled at the door to the office... It was locked! I listened: I could hear someone speaking quickly and quietly behind the door.
“Mr. Culkin, sir?” I knocked. “It’s Leonarm, you invited me...”
Silence. Then I realized that it wasn’t a conversation I could hear behind the door — it was just the Free Adamite radio. I recognized the intro music.
I frowned.I frowned. Why did I fly into radioactive zones in Chinese Kazakhstan and risk my life? Why did I pull my body out of my consciousness and put it into Adam Online, where I’d told myself I’d never go back? Was it really to wait around for some virtual police official? What was this, a bureaucracy simulator?
I pulled on the door one last time and decided to go back to Heylia. I’d rather flirt with her than hang around here. The door at the end of the corridor opened, and a heavyset middle-aged man in a white shirt with suspenders came through it. He pulled up his zipper as he walked. I read:

Joshua Culkin.
Level: 102.
Class: Defender.
Occupation: Chief at PCPD Third Detective Department.
Character: unknown (requires level 102).
Mood: unpredictable, positive and several other unknown configurations (requires Insight level 3).

The detective walked along the corridor, taking it up with his body. He reminded me of the NPCs in the Minecraft zone: square head, a cubic torso and legs like two blocks.
“Are you Leonarm?” he asked.
I just nodded, hinting that his absence had annoyed me.
The detective opened the office door and went inside first. It was gloomy, stank of coffee and cigarettes. Joshua Culkin walked to a table by the wall, poured a coffee from a filter coffee machine and put the cup in front of me. Then he poured his own, sat at the desk, and gestured for me to sit opposite.
I took a swallow, gagged and put the cup back down. Disgusting.
Joshua noticed my grimace and chuckled.
“Our coffee is just like our budget. Shitty.”

Coffee Break.
The detective can find criminals, but can’t find good coffee. Will you help?

Joshua Culkin picked up a pack of cigarettes from the table and lit one.
“Listen here, Leonarm, I don’t want you to get the wrong impression about me. Sure, I was polite in the message and I assured you that you’d done a good deed. But here’s my personal opinion: you’re an ass. Just like everyone who hasn’t proved otherwise.
Joshua paused, judging by reaction. When I kept a stony expression on my face, he continued.
“Want to work for me? The money’s good.”
“You said you had a shitty budget. Not enough for decent coffee.”
“Paying professionals is different.”
“O-kay, keep going.”
Joshua sat back in his chair, stuck his thumbs behind his suspenders and clicked his tongue.
“That’s all. Like I said, you’re an ass until proven otherwise. How do I know if you’re a professional or not? Villagers from Town Zero think any punk with a pistol is a hero if he shoots the bad guys. First you have to convince me that you’re capable of real work.”
“Hmm, you’re the real ass here. No point is trying to prove otherwise.”
“Well now, don’t forget that I’m a cop. I can insult people. You’re nobody yet.”
Strangely enough, my tablet squawked in response to this squabble.

Insight skill increased: +5 XP.
Your new boss doesn’t like asskissers? Or does he just need to be kissed a certain way? You found that special way, Leonarm!
Reputation with Joshua Culkin increased: +1
Your overall Reputation: 6.

So Joshua likes cocky subordinates? The main thing was not to get too cocky.
I nodded. The quests would start now: kill this many members of that gang, arrest a black marketeer, bring in ten illegal guns, chase streetwalkers...
Joshua took a folder of papers out of his desk drawer and threw it across to me.
“Get up to speed. This is your first case. It’ll decide if you stop being an ass or not.”
I skimmed through the case materials: suspect photographs, interrogation protocols, stills from security cameras during the shooting. This was a little more interesting than playing fetch.

#

Did you know that the Luxor District is the safest place in Liberty City?” the detective asked. “It’s a weapon-free zone. You have to hand over your weapons are checkpoints, and hundreds of autonomous police boats patrol the water around the island, intercepting any attempts to smuggle in weapons.”
“Yes, sir, that’s why L.D. has the highest property prices and all the bank headquarters.”
Joshua leaned across the table and tapped the crime scene photo I was looking at: criminals in masks aiming assault rifles at the hostages, making them lie on the floor.
“Trouble is, kid, things have changed recently. These shots are from the Liberty City Exchequer bank. It’s in the center of our city’s safest district.”
There’s a gang of armed bank robbers operating in the Luxor District?”
“Well armed. Not just assault rifles, but explosives and weapons for taking out helicopters and police drones.”
“Who are they and how’d they get the weapons?”
“At first we suspected the Yellow Piranhas, even went and pointlessly arrested one of their higher-ups. But the interrogation revealed he knew nothing about the gang. We don’t know who is organizing the attacks. Each new assault has new members from the Blacklist. Whatever’s going on, we’ve sent an agent to infiltrate the group of raiders, who seem to be preparing to rob another bank in the Luxor District. The agent got in touch with us recently and told us where and when the next raid would be.”
“What’s my job?”
“Be in the bank when the robbery takes place and get some information from our agent.”
I was puzzled.
“Why not just catch the whole gang?”
Joshua Culkin sat back in his chair.
“We don’t need the contractors! We need the organizers, we need to find out the delivery channels to L.D. Don’t let me down, kid.”
My tablet got involved with the detective’s displeasure:

Ugh, Leonarm, did you forget that dumb questions get you dumb answers? Watch what you say.
Reputation with Joshua Culkin reduced: -1.

I continued nonetheless.
“Why can’t the agent convey his information the same way he informed you about the time and place of the raid?”
Joshua Culkin sighed.
“You don’t think we asked him? The group members are getting their weapons right before the raid. Until then, they’ll have no contact with the outside world. We aren’t even sure what kind of info our agent is going to give us during the robbery. If we’re lucky, we’ll get a hint about where they got the guns. Of course, I’m sure the weapons go through a middleman. But if we find out who that is, that’s progress.”
The tablet gave off a signal:

I have no words... And you have too many to keep your mouth shut when you need to.
Reputation with Joshua Culkin reduced: -1.

Slowing as if giving me time to read my messages, the detective pulled a detective badge out of his desk drawer and unwillingly passed it to me across the desk.
“I don’t even know whether I should trust you with this.”
“Don’t worry, you made the right choice.”
I picked up the weighty badge and admired it. There was a big star at its center surrounded by a ring of smaller stars. At the top of the badge was the crest of Liberty City, and in the lower half it said Special Detective.
I moved my gaze to my tablet.

LCPD Detective Badge received.
Rare item.
+3 Perception.
+5 Insight, allowing you to see not only NPC moods, but much more besides.
+2 Pistols and Revolvers skill.
+75% to receiving information from positive NPCs.
Reputation with criminal NPCs lowered to 95%.

Unlocks the Communicative skill.
Sometimes you’ll know what to ask an NPC, instead of talking nonsense like usual.

Badge bonuses:
Ability to summon police reinforcements: one car.
Receive data from police drones within 1600 feet.
Use of LCPD armory: one UniSuit upgrade, any weapon, any ammunition.
Use of LCPD gunshop: prices for repairing weapons and equipment reduced by 50%.
Use of LCPD hospital: medicine and healing prices reduced by 50%.
Use of LCPD garage: police car Improve your reputation to unlock other vehicles.
Improve your reputation to unlock other LCPD capabilities.

These bonuses are only available in Liberty City. Improve your reputation for your badge to carry weight in other cities in Rim One.
Improve your reputation to unlock new bonuses.

Now that’s what I’m talking about! This I understood — encouraging people to choose the right side of the law. As I was about to put the badge in my pocket, the detective shouted.
“What’re you doing? Had a good look? Now give it back.”
“But...”
“Don’t ‘but’ me. We don’t give badges to just anyone. Complete the job first. We’ll see how that goes and then decide if you can be any use to me.”
I unwillingly returned the badge. Some logic: it wasn’t like I’d stop being just anyone after completing the quest, or at least just someone who completed the driver’s quest.
Joshua Culkin tossed the badge into a desk drawer, cast a condescending glance my way and stood up from his chair.
“By the way, about the money from Rim Zero: open an account at Liberty City Exchequer. The more believable your presence at the robbery is, the better.”
“When is the operation?”
“I’ll let you know. Don’t leave town.”
“But can I...”
Then Detective Culkin jumped, fell into his seat and rolled into the wall. I barely kept my feet too: the floor was shaking like an old washing machine. Cupboard doors slammed open and folders of documents fell to the floor. The windows shattered, showering us with shards.
Only then did I hear the explosion. The sound traveled through all the walls, reached my body and shook it with a low-frequency power.
The detective jumped out of his seat and ran past me.
“Follow me!”
Chapter 6. Double Strike
The square Joshua Culkin fit into the square corridor perfectly. He ran with unusual speed for his size, sweeping away all in his path. The corridors were littered with broken doors, smashed cupboards and pieces of fallen walls. It was like running behind a bulldozer clearing the road.
We ran into some officers along the way, carrying several injured people.
“Where’d it happen?” Joshua asked shortly.
“In the hall again...”
“Damn stupid bastards!”
It wasn’t clear who the detective meant. The bandits that dared to repeat their sabotage, or his colleagues who failed to keep the building secure?
A police drone appeared above me. Part of its hull was crumpled, baring broken and sparking wires. The machine held itself in the air at an angle due to its damage. Nonetheless, it returned my weapons. Unfortunately, it didn’t put them into my waiting hands, it just threw them out in random directions. Then it dived, hit the floor and went silent.
I caught up to Joshua only at the entrance to the hall. Smoke poured out of the hall, we heard screams and shots. The detective pressed himself against a wall, clutching a silver revolver. Three cops stood nearby in dust-marred uniforms. One of them had a wound in his leg. He babbled.
“There was a hacker attack on the building control systems at the same time as the explosion. We’re locked out of the armory. The security cameras aren’t working, pulse interference took out all the drones.”
“Bastards,” Joshua spat. “Alright, we need to get these assholes out of the hall. How many are there?”
“We don’t know exactly. Judging by the shots, maybe seven, armed with assault rifles.”
“Any hostages?”
“Unknown, sir. I doubt any employees or visitors survived the explosion in the hall.”
Joshua Culkin ordered the injured cop to give me his armored vest.
“You get to the hospital.”
“But it’s closed.”
“Just leave, you’re wounded.”

Obtained: Police Armored Vest (compatible with UniSuit)
+2,000 armor.
Durability: 44/100.

The cop limped away. Three more officers joined us, running from the same part of the building as we did. They said the hackers locked all the doors, so we wouldn’t get reinforcements for a while.
We could hear frequent bursts from automatic rifles in the hall, with rare pistol shots echoing out in response. That meant someone was resisting the attackers.
Joshua split us up into two groups and gave me an order.
“Stay behind me and don’t go anywhere.”
Bossy guy. But I still stood behind Joshua’s back.
At a silent command from the detective, we moved into the hall as two units. I stopped sticking with the boss and ran to where the registration windows should have been. A single image span in my head: Heylia Grant. What happened to her cute smile and thousand braids?
The hall was full of smoke and dust. I tripped over piles of bricks and civilian corpses, slipped on spent shell casings. The figure of a man emerged from the smoke before me. He wore an armored vest over a yellow jumpsuit. Since I was in civilian clothes, the bandit didn’t realize right away that I wasn’t a member of the public trying to escape. He rose his assault rifle, but the bullet aimed at his forehead from my Glock was faster. Two more yellow figures appeared in the smoke. Annoyed that I couldn’t loot the assault rifle, I dropped and rolled behind a pile of bricks with part of the registration window wall sticking out of it.
I looked through the window and watched as the bandits examined their dead comrade. They quickly split up and moved toward me, approaching from the right and left. Damn, I should have listened to Joshua... I heard screams and shots from our cops, but it was all too far away. Shouting for help would mean giving away my position.
Once again, I decided if I was going to die, I’d die well.
I leaned out of the registration window and aimed at a bandit. I shot a few times and he fell down on his back, but then rose and fired a long burst from his rifle. The other bandit crouched behind a fallen locker and joined in on the firing. I pressed myself into the floor for a while, felt shards of broken brickwork shower down around me. A bullet found its way into my left shoulder.
I rose my head and looked around. The smoke had dispersed enough for me to see that the wall had collapsed. I saw a policeman crouching behind some overturned filing cabinets, he was shooting. Opposite him, close to the outside exit, two bandits lay. Not far behind them I saw Joshua and two cops slowly approaching the bandits.
The assault rifle fire stopped. Both bandits were reloading. I rose slightly and started crawling away. I had time to see one of the bandits frozen in the characteristic pose of a man throwing a grenade...
It landed exactly where I’d just moved from. I stopped trying to hide, rose all the way up and ran. The grenade exploded and I felt a rush of air at my back, felt as if I was running on rails trying to outrun a train. I didn’t outrun it.
I flew ten feet, fell down near the collapsed wall of the registration section. Pain overcame me, the armored vest hung off me in rags and slipped down to the floor. One of the bandits aimed an assault rifle at me, but I didn’t even have the energy to crawl away, let alone lift my Glock.
At that moment, someone grabbed me by the shoulder, dragged me across the floor and roughly pulled me behind some metal columns. It turned out the surviving cop had saved me. After I collected my wits, I grabbed a medkit, injected myself with a painkiller and took a pill to recover some health. If I survived, I’d go to the police hospital and buy some stronger health boosters. Then I helped my savior and remembered to say thanks.
He nodded silently. After the injection, the cop’s white face reddened slightly, his sagging body lifted. He continued firing on the bandits with renewed energy.
I crouched and joined in. The bandits were between a rock and a hard place. We took out two, and the other two ran toward the exit. But Joshua Culkin ran after them, shouting.
“Where you goin’?! Stop!”
The huge square detective made an incredible jump — the kind I could make in an upgraded UniSuit — and crashed down on the fugitives. First he pressed them down with his body, took away their guns. Then he stood up, holding them by the scruffs of their necks. One of them got the guts to pull a knife. He found himself pressed against a wall.
“You guys, get outside!” the mighty detective ordered.
The cops and I ran over and jumped through the broken doors. It was chaos at the entrance to the police department: burning cars, damaged drones colliding and clattering to the ground. And in front of the stairs... That same bright blue car belonging to the player Hasty, that almost knocked me down by the park. The license plate was covered up, but I was no police drone. I had brains. I could easily remember a car. How could he have escaped that chase?
A bandit stood guard by the car’s open door, in a yellow jumpsuit with a grenade launcher held atilt. When he saw that cops were running out of the door instead of his brothers, he got the picture. He put away the grenade launcher and jumped into the front seat. The engines roared and Hasty’s car careered away. The cops started shooting while I took out my tablet and aimed it at the departing car.

Chrysler Turbine Car.
Class: Streetracer.
Owner: Hasty Torpedo.
Speed: unknown.

And a bunch of unknown parameters that required special skills for auto enthusiasts, mechanics and who knew what else.
After the attack on the police, the traffic jam had instantly cleared up. Several abandoned cars with open doors stood on the road, but none of them could have caught up to the bright-blue car of the Swiftville player.
Only the players in Central Park were enjoying beer and sandwiches, lazily watching another bout of mayhem.
I returned to the hall.

#

A draught cleared the smoke: the doors in the building were finally unlocked. Policemen and doctors walked among the ruins. They stacked the bodies they found against the wall. Joshua Culkin barked out orders, squads of well armed cops ran around in single file, taking up positions... What for? The horse had bolted.
Death in Adam Online looked terrible... when you had the right settings for it. Unfortunately, I did. And I couldn’t change them. I passed by the bodies of the dead and saw all their death grimaces.
It’s one thing when you fire an awesome headshot with an Uzi and your opponent’s head explodes in a shower of blood like in a cartoon. With the violence settings on maximum, it even looked funny and grotesque.
Corpses were another matter.
The knowledge that they were NPCs didn’t help much. Nobody needed realism like this... But I stubbornly walked by the rows of bodies until I stopped opposite one. Even death hadn’t marred Heylia Grant’s beauty. She lay half covered by a white sheet, her eyes closed and her full lips pursed.
A police medic pushed me away and covered Heylia’s face. Nurses took the stretcher and lifted it. Thousands of braids fell from under the sheet.
So much for our stroll in the great outdoors.
I turned away.
Of course, the dead police officers were replaced by others. Police academy graduates. But the trouble was, only players were revived in Adam Online. Dead NPCs disappeared forever. Sure, if it was Heylia Grant’s appearance that I needed, I could find a whore that would look just like her. All I had to do was visit an expensive brothel. Those places have all the equipment required to create a perfectly match.
But Heylia had something the whore wouldn’t have: a personality prototype. Heylia knew me, the CSes had already activated creative functions for her. The longer I’d have spoken with her, the more complex her behavior would have become. She’d have become less like an NPC, emulated human behavior more and more. It would have been more fun to spend time with her.
In the great outdoors.
“Ugh,” I said, approaching Joshua Culkin.
The tireless detective sat quietly on a heap of bricks, himself looking like a giant brick, and smoked. He lifted his gaze to me.
“What did I tell you, rookie? Is that what you call staying behind me?”
“I couldn’t hide behind your back, sir.”
Joshua stretched, discarded his cigarette butt and rose.
“If I give you an order, you follow it. I won’t forgive you next time.”
We approached a damaged police robot. It looked somehow sad. Its machine gun arms lay along its body, and its knees bent back in gave it a comical appearance. The robot’s entire hull was riddled with bullet holes.
Joshua pulled a panel off the hull and looked inside.
“Full ammo. It didn’t take a single shot.”
I touched some familiar blue shards littered all around with my foot.
“Pulse grenades.”
Joshua Culkin lit another cigarette.
“What’s going on in Liberty City? Where did all these guns come from?”
I barely held back a smile. There were plenty of weapons in every kiosk. But memories of Heylia’s corpse snapped me back to seriousness.
“This means our investigation is even more important.”
“That’s right... But I doubt that the yellow piranhas have anything to do with weapon deliveries to the Luxor District.”
“Why not?”
Joshua chewed his cigarette.
“They’re a powerful criminal syndicate, but they’re still criminals. They control the slums. Being outside the law is more important to them than just being. You saw for yourself that they’re willing to die just to avenge a single arrest of one of theirs.
The detective went quiet, giving me time to voice a suggestion.
“You think the criminal syndicates aren’t the ones delivering weapons to the Luxor District?”
“That’s right, rookie.”
“If someone from outside the criminal world is doing this, then the question is...”
“Come on, rookie, surprise me.”
“Why is this respectable person...”
“Or organization.”
“Or organization, why are they robbing banks? Nobody at the height of society needs stolen money.”
The detective laughed. Even his smile was square.
“You have too high an opinion of capitalists. They created jurors and the banking system for robbery.”
It hit me.
“What if the bankers are robbing themselves?”
“But why?”
“Insurance? Covering up financial machinations?”
The detective put out his cigarette on the robot, took out another one, put it in his mouth, but didn’t light it.
“Well done, Leo. But we’ve already considered that. The bankers are clean. But how clean can their dirty consciences be? They steal more than any syndicate, but in this case the bankers are the victims. Dig more. But your train of thought impresses me.
My tablet beeped.

See? When you talk about important things, people like it.
Reputation with Joshua Culkin increased: +3.

“Happy to try, sir. Will you give me a badge?”
“Don’t test my patience, kid.” The square smile disappeared. “I told you, you have to earn the right to wave around an license to do anything.”
To change the subject and maintain my reputation, I pointed at the corpses on the stretchers. The nurses were picking them up and quickly carrying them off somewhere.
“We can’t leave this unpunished.”
“That’s not your business, rookie. Don’t worry, we know how to respond and when. Actually, rookie, you should head home. I’ll call you when I need you.”
Joshua Culkin lit his cigarette and headed toward a fallen coffee machine. It had taken a few bullets, but it was working. The square detective picked the machine up with a mighty heave and ordered himself a coffee.

#

I left the police building and my tablet squawked a series of signals.

Two Golden Piranhas gang members killed: +10 XP.
You have continued your activities in ridding the community of criminal elements. Your reputation with the authorities of all Rims has increased: +1.
The criminal elements consider your activities somewhat damaging to their own community. Your reputation with the Yellow Piranhas gang has dropped: -1.
You helped the police deal with a bandit attack. Reputation with LCPD increased: +1.
Your current Reputation: 8.

Yep, negative reputation with criminals was counted into the total amount. The more you helped good people, the less happy the bad ones got. So you couldn’t reach the status of Saint, which was given when reputation reached one hundred or more, just by killing bad guys. Balance will be maintained.
In addition, the generosity of Rim Zero was all gone in Rim One. In the former, you got ten points for killing a player. Now it was only five. And if the player or NPC was very low in level, then you’d take a hit to your reputation and get the Degenerate achievement for killing the weak.

Quest True Detective updated.
You visited Detective Culkin. Well done, that wasn’t hard enough to merit a reward.
Here is something a little tougher:

1. Take part in the operation to get information from the agent infiltrating the thieves’ gang.
2. Get a special detective badge.
3. Find out who is behind the weapon deliveries to the Luxor District.
4. Find out the thieves’ organization’s hidden goal.
That’s all for now. Or is that not enough for you?

I tapped on the line with the dots.

Can’t do it without hints? Can’t think on your own? Here’s another task:
5. Avenge Heylia Grant’s murder (optional).
...

I pressed on the three dots again.

6. Coffee... Don’t forget about coffee (optional).

I put the tablet away.
Heylia... I understood, of course, that she wasn’t alive, wasn’t a person. She was just a complex imitation of what I, the player, wanted to hear and see. I even understood that her affection for me and her instantaneous death were among the hooks the CSes were using to affect me.
And it worked.
I hadn’t spoken to such a cute and nice... person as Heylia in a long time. The saleswoman Irene was nice too, but I’d have to go to quite some effort to get her.
That was the whole point of the game. To make us try to achieve something. In Adam Online as in the real world.
We spend our whole lives trying to achieve things, then we die. Kind of like NPCs.
But NPCs existed for us. Who do we exist for?

Chapter 7. Company Secret
I didn’t have very much money left, so I could forget about the Apple store. I found the nearest All-Seeing Eye and started looking at the goods on offer. A salesman approached me.
“Need any help?”
“Just browsing.”
There wasn’t much to browse. All I could afford were the Oculus One virtual-reality glasses. Ordinary glasses that connected to your tablet and showed some stats. It had no interactive functions, just static information. Those glasses were very unreliable in battle, they had to be adjusted constantly. There was also a primitive upgrade for sale, Elastic for Holding Glasses.
If you tried to attach a string or some elastic you found yourself to the glasses, it would fall off in a couple of seconds. Want to upgrade items? Learn the right skills. Yep, even for something as simple as attaching a string. It was probably part of some skill.
Next to the glasses were some Oculus Tactics: they were broad, covering half the face. They attached to the head with a comfortable strap or straight to the UniSuit helmet. But they cost a ridiculous amount.
I sighed and confirmed the purchase.

Obtained Oculus One virtual reality glasses.
+1 Perception.
-50% to attractiveness with NPCs of a quarrelsome, joking or aggressive character.
Price: 1,999g.

The elastic also gave minus ten percent attractiveness with all NPCs. In other words, I’d better take them off before trying to play with anyone. So what was the point of the glasses? Shit. I was getting real sick of virtual poverty. Maybe I should just give up and become a bandit? Rob a bank, work for the mafia bosses. I remembered the sophisticated armor and spells that Vildana had. And Banshee and her gang had pretty good gear. Her katana alone was worth all I had.
I left the store with those thoughts. No, unfortunately my plan contradicted the idea of becoming a rich mafioso. I had to become a detective so I could use all the power of the police department in my search for Nelly Valeeva.
Makartsiev would sure be surprised when he found out that I’d found her without searching through the mist of Rim Five or Six, and far quicker than if I had. That would prove that the major general wasn’t mistaken when he chose me for this mission.
True, one thing concerned me: what would I do when I found Valeeva? I had no instructions for that. Nobody knew what condition her binary massive would be in. What if she wasn’t capable of speech? What if... Never mind. I’d have to find her first. Then I could figure it out.

#

With those thoughts, I walked into some store with the unassuming name ‘Johnny Lane: We Buy and Sell Weapons.’ It was squeezed between a jewelry store and a specialist furniture store. Johnny Lane himself stood behind the counter, a wrinkled and hunched old man wrapped up in some kind of cotton waistcoat. No doubt about it — an NPC. No player would decide to look like an old man.
His stats didn’t show anything except his name and employment. All the rest required at least fifty Knowledge. In other words, he was a trading final boss.
The wall behind the old man was covered in unusual weapons. A saber combined with a machine gun. A machine gun combined with a saw. An electric chainsaw whose chain, judging by the blue shimmer, had an extra Plasmashock effect. And much more that made my armorer’s heart swell with joy.
“Hello, young man,” the grandpa wheezed. “Looking for a fun way to get even with your enemies?”
“Firearms combined with bladed weapons? Sorry, gramps, that ain’t my idea of a good time.”
“So the young man is, as it were, a professional?”
Johnny Lane walked out from behind the counter, touched a column with his hand. The walls parted, revealing a hidden store room. The old coot took a wide-barreled pistol off the wall. It looked like a flare gun. He passed it to me.
“Here’s something new for you, an incredible weapon. It doesn’t kill, but it turns enemies into obedient allies.”

Obtained knowledge: Parasite Pistol.
Magazine: 1 shot.
Ammunition: container housing bizoid telepath larvae.
Damage: none.
Optimal range: 10-160 feet.
Price: 50,000g.

When the bizoid telepath larvae hits your opponent, it turns them into an ally that will fight on your side. The lifespan of the larvae depends on your current Health. Each point of health adds one second to the larvae’s lifespan. (Current duration: 8 seconds).
Bonus: when active, the larva steals one enemy health every second and transfers it to you.
Bonus: with level of Knowledge at 10, the larva is capable of retrieving random items from the enemy’s inventory.
Bonus: with level of... (required 10 Knowledge).
Bonus: unknown (requires 50 Knowledge).
Bonus: unknown (requires 100 Knowledge).

Attention: the bizoid telepath larva does not affect creatures with the Bizoid Seed Protection upgrade.
Attention: the larva does not affect mechanodestructors or angels.

My eyes lit up. What a gun. We didn’t have guns like this in my time, like we didn’t have bizoids. The combination of biocrafting and weaponcrafting was something new to me. I didn’t know why I might need the gun, what I’d do with it, but I wanted to have it in my collection.
I mentally shook myself, then returned the weapon carelessly.
“Sounds fun. But I came to sell, not to buy.”
Johnny Lane’s mood noticeably dropped.
“Are you sure? I’ll give you a discount.”
Instead of answering, I laid the Lefaucheux musket that I’d found at Three Bucks’s camp on the counter. Johnny Lane turned the musket in his hands, took out a magnifying glass and examined the frame.
“Ooh! One of the Three Types of Death muskets. The gunsmith Lefaucheux gave each of these muskets an ability that could guarantee the opponent’s death.
“Yeah? What ability does this one have?”
“Unfortunately, my dear man, the features of the muskets remain unknown and do not work until the owner has all the muskets of the series.”
“Will you buy it?”
“On two conditions. I’ll exchange this musket for the parasite pistol. And I’ll promise to buy the other muskets at the highest price when you find them and bring them to me.”
Hmm, suspicious. Why did the old man want to get rid of this pistol so bad? What was wrong with it? I showed confusion on my face.
“Gramps, your sign says ‘We Buy and Sell Weapons’, not ‘We Trade Bad for Worse.’ If you want it, buy it, if you don’t, I’ll go somewhere else.”

Trading skill learned: +10 XP.
You are crude, shortsighted and treacherous. Excellent characteristics for a trader. Oh, and don’t forget, this skill only works on NPCs. Other players may be cruder, shorter sighted and more treacherous than you.

Johnny Lane smiled.
“You’ll be conned anywhere else. I run an honest business. As it happens, I like ya, I’ll give you the pistol for twenty thousand and the musket. And the offer on the other guns in the series stays.”
I took the musket.
“I don’t have twenty thousand. And if I did, I wouldn’t buy it.”
Johnny Lane grabbed the musket at the other end.
“I can do credit.”
I pulled the musket back.
“Credit so I can pay money I don’t have yet for a gun I don’t need?”
Johnny pulled the musket toward him.
“Payment by installments then?”
“I came to your store to get money for a gun. What does that mean, gramps?”
“That you robbed and killed someone?”
“Or that I need money.”
Johnny Lane released the musket.
“How about this... I’ll give you the pistol and two thousand, you give me the musket and sign a contract to search for the others.”
“Or better, you give me the pistol and five thousand, I’ll give you the musket and no promise to search for the others.”
Johnny Lane frowned.
“Now I see for sure that you’re a murderer and a thief. Really think you can treat me like this when I’m being so kind to you?”
“Yep.”
The old man faked a sigh.
“Deal. But remember, I’m willing to pay more for the muskets than other people. Bring them only to me.”

Three Types of Death.
Find and bring Johnny Lane all three Lefaucheux muskets.
Musket #1: not found.
Musket #2: completed.
Musket #3: not found.

#

The musket found a new home on the wall in the spot previously occupied by the parasite pistol, which was now in my inventory. Along with five thousand gold. I checked how much ammo I had for the pistol, but it was at zero.
“Hey, gramps, what baout ammo?”
“Ammo wasn’t part of the deal, young man,” Johnny replied calmly. “If you want to buy telepath larva, they’re one hundred gold a piece.”
“Alright, how many do you have?”
Johnny placed seven glass vials on the counter. A semi-transparent creature floated in green liquid within each vial. They looked like fetuses. The creatures stirred their fins weakly. One pressed a dull eyeball against the glass and opened its mouth.
I got the vials and the old man got seven hundred gold.

Obtained: vials of bizoid telepath larva.
Ammunition for the parasite pistol.
Unknown property (requires 50 Knowledge).
Unknown property (requires Biocrafting skill).

Another message appeared above that one.

Eagle Eye skill increased: +5 XP.
These bizoid telepaths look a little the worse for wear, don’t you think?

I shook a vial in front of the old man.
“What’s wrong with them?”
“They’re fine.”
Johnny Lane didn’t even blink when the bizoid in the vial I shook floated to the top, its belly up. The interface confirmed that the ammunition was no good.
“This one... This one is dead.”
“The expiry date is near,” the old man answered coolly. “They’ll all be dead in a week.”
I took a deep breath, preparing to give him a piece of my mind, but the old man spoke calmly.
“You wanted the pistol? You have it. You can get fresh ammo at Haldane Lake, they make these vials there.”

Marker added to map: Rim Four, Haldane Lake.

I just helplessly dropped my hands.
“Can I find them in Liberty City?”
“I doubt it, young man. I have the rarest goods in town. Nobody else has them. It’s not my fault the vials are perishable, is it?”
I got a grip on myself. What could I expect from a person... um, from an NPC that looked like a conman? A crystal-clear conscience? That I had to earn by increasing my reputation.

Trading skill increased: +5 XP.
No con, no sell. Learn how to sell spoiled goods to rookies like yourself.

I put some other items on the counter: powder and bullets for the musket, AK ammo, the upgrades: Autolooter, Stabbing and Cutting Strike, the ‘Activity’ Bidirectional Sexual Pleasure Booster. Johnny Lane cast a hypercritical glance on each of them. He shook his head at the pleasure booster.
“Pointless. Who wants to make love in a UniSuit?”
I looked away.
“Each to their own. Some wouldn’t mind doing it on a chair, or in a bus.”
“Out of respect for you, I’ll give you four thousand for all this garbage.”
“Ten.”
There must have been something in my voice. Johnny cringed and nodded.
“Sure, sure. But... Nine.”
I nodded sternly. I decided I’d earn money off some side quests until Joshua Culkin called me. Although I wasn’t sure that working with this crook Johnny Lane would make me much gold.
I stopped before leaving the store.
“Any ideas where I can find those muskets?”
“You’re the tracker, you find ‘em.”
“So far the tracks only led to you. Tell me, why do you need these muskets so bad?”
Johnny Lane scratched his nose.
“Heh, trackers these days. Look around, tell me what you see. That’s right, a store that trades in unusual weapons. And the muskets are unusual. But they have to be with each other to work properly. Look... I can tell you aren’t much of a tracker. Might need some help. Here, take this.”

Obtained: Old Map.

The yellowed old piece of paper was a hand-drawn diagram of streets. At its center was a figure reminiscent of breasts... Or did everything remind me of breasts these days? In the corner of the page was the monogram of the gunsmith Lefaucheux. And a heading:

Evil itself hides beneath the ground.
But only the good can reveal the truth.

That was clear enough; the musket was buried in some kind of treasure trove. But where? And what did ‘the good’ mean? Maybe only players with high reputation could find the trove? But how high?
I suddenly remembered how the landlord bragged about his bunker, saying it was so deep under the ground you could hear the devil knocking. Kind of a creepy coincidence.

#

No matter how much I studied the map and span it around to look from different perspectives, I found nothing new. It looked like I just had to find the place on the map and dig up the damn musket. But there was a problem with the search; most of the city was shrouded in cloud on my map, which meant it was unexplored territory. Even if I got a complete map, I’d go crazy trying to match this paper up to it. And the boob-like squiggles didn’t clarify much.
I started puzzling it out step by step.
I left the Central Park district and the police department a while back. There were lots of restaurants and bars there. The signs blinked, span and did all they could to draw in customers. Hmm, maybe I should spend the rest of the money on food? I hadn’t eaten for several days. My consciousness hadn’t yet adapted to the fact that I could just not eat. I kept getting hunger pangs.
I was dreaming of a well cooked steak and a glass of cold beer. In reality, a lunch like that with real steak would have cost a quarter of my monthly paycheck. But thanks to Adam Online, nobody in the world had to feel financially strangled. Everyone could eat virtual steak that was like the real thing.
Only someone who tried meat in real life could tell the difference. Here Adam Online definitely matched up to the expression “Better than in the real world.” Real meat, which I’d eaten plenty of in kebabs at Makarov’s manor, was too sinewy, or too fatty, too bony. In other words, it had flaws. Like everything in the real world.
My glance fell on a cafe sign that read ‘Star Buck.’ On the sign was an astronaut who had raised his helmet visor to enjoy a cup of hot coffee. А слоган «Вкус Земли» наводил на странные аналогии. Скорее всего — кривой перевод на русский фразы Taste of Earth. Она обозначала, что кофе здесь самый натуральный, вкусный, чистый и прочее.
I went into the cafe and picked up a pack of the most expensive coffee at the counter. Then I went out, called a taxi.
“Police department, please.”
“They say there was another explosion there today,” the driver said. “The Yellow Piranhas are mighty upset. It’s a war, bro.”
“Uh-huh.”
I took out my tablet and opened my stats. I put two points into Knowledge, taking it up to ten, and two points into Insight, increasing it to level two. I needed to improve my skills of communicating with NPCs.

Insight skill increased to level 1.
Unlocked additional NPC stat: Interests.
Now you can find out what an NPC is looking for in life.

Insight skill increased to level 2.
Суфлёр. Even more hints for the correct use of the previous hints.

I was missing one point of Knowledge before I could unlock the unknown property of my Max Payne leather jacket.
Concrete blocks surrounded the front entrance to the LCPD building. Central Park was similarly protected. Police mechs and armored transports guarded the entrances and exits. Three helicopters circled above the district, and countless drones swarmed at the height of the street lamps. The street had been cleared of burnt out cars, the crime scene investigators had studied the evidence, gathered up the shell casings and picked things up from the asphalt with pincers.
The police mechs categorically refused to let me inside the building. Reminding them of my acquaintance with Joshua Culkin didn’t help. If they’d been people, my Insight skill might have helped a little. But how could you influence mechanodestructors whose character line read ‘Strict’ and whose interests were ‘Serve the interests of the LCPD.’
“Did you mishear me again, rookie?” Joshua Culkin growled, splitting off from a group of investigators. “What do you need?”
I waved the coffee packet.
“Not here for you, I want your coffee machine.”
“My coffee machine doesn’t give just anyone coffee,” the detective frowned. “Come on, I’ll make sure you don’t break it.”
Joshua’s office had been tidied up a little. The furniture was clear of dust, the shards of glass were in a pile, and two workers stood by the windows, installing glass in the frames. Police drones watched them from outside the window.
The detective brushed away the dust caked on the coffee machine. When the coffee was ready, he poured two cups. We sat down just as we had the last time. Him in the armchair, me on the chair opposite.
“Ah, rookie...” Joshua took a sip and closed his eyes. “You know how to be an asshole and a good guy at the same time.”
I took a sip too. Tasty. Some messages about coffee buffs lit up in my glasses, but I quickly cleared them. They were meaningless. What was the point of seeing that I’d gotten plus one to Agility for a few minutes? I was just sitting in a chair, not running.

Coffee Break.
Well done, good job, the boss is happy.
Reputation with Joshua Culkin increased: +1.

The detective leaned back in his chair and took out a cigarette.
“So what’ve you barged in here for?”
I took out the map and put it in front of him.
“I need to find this place in Liberty City.”
The detective looked at the doodle in the center of the map.
“What’s this? Tits?”
“Possibly.”
“How do you plan to find this place?”
“Using the departmental database. I need access to your system so the computer can analyze the drawing and find matches with the city map.”
Joshua lit his cigarette and blew out a puff of smoke.
“You gone cuckoo? Who’ll give you access to our system? You don’t even have a badge.”
It was a good thing the detective didn’t ask what I was looking for.
“Maybe you will?”
The detective took a long look at me, then sipped his coffee, stretched. More coffee, another stretch. I held his gaze, but tried to look calm and untroubled. The detective scooped up the map and rose.
“Make some more coffee, I’ll be back soon.”
Chapter 8. Two in the Dark
The taxi driver barely waited for me to get out of the car. He shot right off. The taxi careered away, splashing through puddles until it was too far for me to hear. I stood in a gap between two old buildings. Dimpled red bricks, abyssal black windows, doors and fire escapes banging and screeching in the wind.
The LCPD computer had identified this street junction on the map. As for the figure that looked like tits, they were the tops of garbage heaps in the Stanton District, those slums in Liberty City where few lived except players and NPCs with a negative ranking.
Even the taxi driver doubled his price to get me here.
The place was empty of people. The only signs of life I saw were unusually large rats darting along the walls of houses. One froze, rose up on its hind legs and twitched its whiskers, sniffing me.

Liberat.
Level: 7.
Giant mutant rats that live in the sewers of Liberty City. Judging by the color of their teeth, the liberat was poisonous.

A second liberat stopped nearby, then a third. Their legs looked like muscular human arms. As I walked, a few more popped up. Then I took out my Tesla revolver. The clever creatures knew that gesture. They all went into hiding at once.
Before I came to the slums, I went home to grab my UniSuit, Uzi and revolver. But I’d decided not to activate the UniSuit just yet. I doubted there would be bandits in the slums as heavily armed as those in the deserts of Rim Zero. And high-level mobs like the soldiers of the Yellow Piranhas didn’t hang around here. On top of that, I’d bought a spade. I had treasure to dig up, after all.
I walked along the alleyway between the buildings. The rats’ squeaks and clicking claws followed me all the way. Thick shade fell from the buildings. It was noticeably colder than in the more respectable parts of the city. The sun refused to shine here. The liberats would bite it. The temple was meant to be at the end of the street, after a right turn. That was if I believed the map piece that Joshua Culkin gave me.
The street was covered in garnage. Bottles, boxes, food packages and beer cans. My Eagle Eye signalled some discoveries: ammo, rusty scissors, rotting weaponry. None of it interested me. An item hung off the remains of a rusty car: Vagrant’s Rags. It gave plus fifteen percent to stealth during the day, upgraded the lockpicking skill, and allowed you to tame liberats. The number of liberats you could tame was equal to your Knowledge.
God knows who would want to be a vagrant, but it still seemed a better choice than a bizoid to me.
I heard a familiar chirp from above. A police drone quickly descended to me.
“Dear citizen, the police department asks you to refrain from taking strolls in this city district. In spite of our events to prevent crime, we cannot currently guarantee your safety.”
I nodded and kept going. The drone hovered above me for a while.
“Dear citizen, the police department warns you: this district is unsafe due to aggressive creatures and damaged infrastructure. Walking in this area may lead to injury or death. Are you sure you wish to continue?”
“I am, thanks.”
The drone flew on a few moments longer, then quickly rose above the roofs and disappeared. Such a caring police force.

#

The farther I went down the street, the darker it got. The liberats got bolder. One ran across the road just a few feet from me. I aimed and fired. The Tesla revolver charge lit up the walls of the houses. I watched in the gloom as the blue stream of energy reached the liberat and bored a hole in its body.
The drums span, the air around the revolver shimmered again, and I shot a second creature hiding behind a garbage can. The liberats didn’t stop following me, but they got more careful. Stopped running around in the open. I’d taken out seven more before I reached the turn. Each gave me one XP.
The abandoned temple stood in an empty lot. It was gloomy and cold. But a ray of light fell on the temple itself, making it stand out from the other structures. I started to cross an obstacle course of holes full of dim water swarming with worms. The liberats made themselves known again. I had to kill a couple before they left me alone. It was a good thing the Tesla revolver was quiet. I didn’t want to make much noise in this abandoned place. Who knew what monsters I might wake up?

Achievement Liberator completed: +50 XP.
Kill 10 liberats.
Completed: 10/10.

Achievement unlocked: Liberator II.
Kill 100 liberats.
Completed: 10/100.

I was still around sixty feet from the temple when I saw a flash of light in the dark windows of the temple. I immediately ducked behind a pile of bricks and hid. There, the light flashed again. This time it was in another window, as if someone was walking around with a flashlight!
I took out my tablet and activated my UniSuit. Swapped my Tesla revolver for the Uzi. Then I waited until the flashes of light weakened, which meant that the person with the flashlight had gone deeper into the building. I ran from my pile of bricks to another, splashing in worm-ridden water.
Soon I reached the entrance. The ramshackle door barely held on its hinge. The temple wasn’t Christian, it belonged to one of the made-up religions. Even in virtual reality, I didn’t want to defile a church by running around it and shooting. Although it was a little annoying that the domes that everyone thought looked like tits looked a lot like the domes of Eastern Orthodox churches.
I spent a few minutes thinking about which CS algorithms were responsible for not offending religious beliefs, or not discriminating by sex or race. It must take an incredible amount of resources to calculate all that. And for what? To create a setting for completing missions.
The floor in the temple was wooden in places, stone in others. I felt garbage beneath my feet, but I made no sound. Silent movement was one of the class bonuses of the tracker. However, the silence didn’t extend to fast walking or running.
I kept walking through the temple’s rooms. Sometimes I ran into statues of deities, sometimes got tangled in drapes covering niches containing other statues. I had to walk around big holes in the floor. My Night Vision adapted to the darkness, but unfortunately, the farther I went, the less I could make out the outlines of items. My Night Vision didn’t let me see in the pitch darkness, of course. Night Vision required at least some weak light. Seeing the dark wasn’t available to people directly, they had to get it through upgrades.
I saw the outlines of a door ahead, then suddenly saw light. I hid in a niche in the wall covered by ragged drapes. I heard footsteps and saw an orb of light float out of the door. Behind the orb walked a familiar figure in armor.

#

Vildana didn’t look from side to side, she just stared at the palm of her hand where Three Bucks’s amulet lay. The stone at the amulet’s core flashed red sometimes, with long delays in between.

Vildana, Warmage
Level: 24.
Health: 5,000/5,000.
Armor: 745/12,000.
Other types of defense: unknown (requires 15 Knowledge).
Childkiller, Degenerate, Enemy of Society, Poisoner, Destroyer, Thief, Anti-Social Element.
Warning: Vildana’s Reputation is -68! The authorities will be grateful if this villain is killed or delivered to the police.

Vildana cast her gaze around the room. It held for a second on the spot where I hid. She turned and left, keeping her eyes on the amulet. The orb of light floated behind her. I waited for it to get farther away, jumped out of cover and followed. Vildana moved faster; I had to tread carefully. Soon she disappeared in the maze of corridors.
I wondered how she’d gotten there. I thought she’d have gone to a magic zone, somewhere in the worlds of Goldivar and Himmelbleu, a separate fantasy universe with several different kingdoms, continents and an ocean.
I sped up to a fast walk, listening carefully. I heard a rumble, then it sounded as if a heap of sand was falling in from somewhere. I followed the sound and reached the entrance to the prayer hall.
It was brighter here. The sunlight illuminating the temple from outside fell through a hole in the roof. At the center of the hall stood a statue of a two-headed and six-armed creature. Dust glinted in the rays of light, and multicolored butterflies darted around, alarmed by Vildana’s activities. The creature was a god. It defeated the forces of evil and drove them underground. A vanquished snake or dragon twisted between the six-armed god’s feet. I recalled the message on the map: “Evil itself hides beneath the ground.” It was easy to figure out where to dig.
The girl dropped the amulet, which now burned an unceasing red. She took out another of her spell scrolls, muttered something. The scroll turned to vapor in her hand. Vildana extended her hand, closed her fingers and jerked her hand up as if pulling someone out of water.
The floor began to heave and bulge under the influence of magical forces. Bricks flew to the side, a heap of earth and stones flew up and hung in the air. Vildana shook her closed fist and the clump of earth quickly crumbled, revealing a chest. Vildana drew the chest toward her in the air and unclenched her fist. The chest fell at her feet with a crash. She took out her sword and cut off the lock.
Damn. I was the one that gave her the amulet that could find treasure. And abandoned historical or religious buildings were the best places for that. But even taking that into account, the chance of us coincidentally meeting on a treasure hunt was too small to look like anything but an absurd set-up. Liberty City had dozens of abandoned places. Even just in the slums.
What was I to do? Openly talk to her? She’d cut me down without a second thought. Just like I fought for my good reputation, she’d fought for a bad one. And had far more success than me.
Dropping down to her knees, Vildana opened the lid of the chest. No matter how I stretched my neck, I couldn’t see what was inside. But Vildana herself made it clear enough.
“Shit, just garbage...” With those words, she started throwing item after item out of the chest. A joyful exclamation told me that she’d found something useful.
She took off her helmet and equipped a tiara that immediately began to gleam under the rays of sunlight. The girl rose and jabbed the chest with her foot. Adjusting her tiara, she began to walk around the hall.


Release - June 20, 2019
Pre-order on Amazon - https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07Q72J7JX


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