Friday, March 20, 2020

Reality Benders: Aces High by Michael Atamanov

Reality Benders - 6
Aces High
by Michael Atamanov

Release - June 9, 2020

Introduction. Long-Term Plans

Planet Urmi II, ancestral homeworld of the Miyelonian race
Star City, capital of the Union of Miyelonian Prides
Western Shrine of the Great First Female

"All leaders are present, the assembly may commence," the maidservant whispered to her preoccupied mistress and, after she finished combing the magnificent pure white fur of the Great Priestess, gathered her implements and swiftly departed.
Amiru U-Mayaoo, who Miyelonian society believed embodied an incarnation of their Great First Female with her wisdom and flawless feminine beauty, stood unhurriedly from her chair with dignity. She took a long attentive look over the traditional meeting place of Miyelonian rulers as to personally make certain all twenty-seven glowing holograms were in position around the perimeter of the round platform. Yes, all participating rulers were where they should have been.
"Respected pride leaders, I called this assembly to discuss two important topics, which directly pertain to the interests of our Miyelonian race," Amiru U-Mayaoo started her speech with the well composed voice of an experienced orator. "First of all, via official diplomatic channels, I have received a message from the leaders of the Meleyephatians, our enemies in this war. Basically, the message consists of an ultimatum with a healthy dose of threats mixed in. The Meleyephatian Horde is saying that it will cease interstellar expansion in all directions and transfer all its combat starships to the zone of military conflict with the Miyelonian and Geckho races."

The Great Priestess listened as her audience gasped in surprise. Yes, something truly unbelievable had taken place: for the first time in the entirety of known history, the Meleyephatian Horde had stopped expanding through the stars and returned its main combat fleet from the edge of known space to deal with problems occurring far behind its back lines. And after all, ceaseless territorial expansion and constant subjugation of more and more new races, whose vital and productive resources were merged into the Horde, were the very essence of the Meleyephatian philosophy. And thus something truly unbelievable must have occurred to make the ghastly arachnid space invaders deviate from centuries' old tradition.
"Have our troopers outdone our ancient nemesis with recent prominent victories and dealt them an unacceptable blow?" suggested Ayvi U-Mawoo, a pure white graceful Miyelonian woman, the youngest of the three currently living incarnations of the Great First Female.
"As far as I know, no. The war was conducted strictly according to a plan approved by our strategists," came the commander of the Fourth Star Fleet Keetsie-Myau, the most popular military leader among the rank-and-file. "Taking advantage of the fact that all of the Horde's forces in the nearest sectors of space were tied up with the Geckho, all four of our fleets entered the war suddenly. The First Fleet captured twenty Meleyephatian stations and planets in its zone of responsibility without encountering particular resistance. The Second Fleet took sixteen. The Third twenty-two. Mine has taken another thirty-three stations from the Horde. For the Meleyephatian Horde, which controls forty-percent of known space and thousands of star systems, such territorial losses are unpleasant but not exactly critical. We still have some margin before we reach the red line our analysts determined should draw elevated attention from the Horde to our Union of Miyelonian Prides, which is one hundred thirty inhabitable planets. Obviously, the true reason for the return of the Meleyephatian Horde’s main fleet must lie somewhere else entirely. Any suggestions?"
The Great Priestess was lost in admiration for the Fourth Fleet Commander's speech. Keetsie-Myau is growing! As an orator, wise strategist, capable fleet commander and above all else as the ruler of one of the most powerful Miyelonian prides in the galaxy. Not all that long ago she was still young and naive, in no way distinguished other than her extraordinary appearance and exorbitant ambition. But now Keetsie had become an experienced politician. The fact she had recently been promoted to Kung in the game that bends reality confirmed these observations. This young female had solved the problem of her surging hormones and then some, reined in her boy-craziness, the subject of gossip throughout the galaxy, and got a handle on her innumerable male admirers. Kung Keetsie-Myau was on the verge of being elevated to Krong – the sole absolute ruler of the whole Miyelonian race.
And meanwhile, a cautious answer to the commander's question came from the middle-aged Teerr-Miauss, sagacious head of the Miyelonian archive service:
"Perhaps the true reason for the return of the Meleyephatian main fleets is that they have sustained heavy losses? Rumors have been circulating that they were totally eviscerated in the Aysar Cluster three tongs ago..."
"That is no longer rumor," the Great Priestess hurried to cut in. "That information, which has given rise to so many questions, has been proven accurate. A recent dispatch transmitted by a deeply embedded Miyelonian agent contained detailed data on the state of affairs in the Meleyephatian Horde. And in it we discovered evidence of a grand battle in the Aysar Cluster star system three tongs ago, which the Meleyephatians lost. And they suffered a no less gruesome defeat when they attempted a second attack."
"Do we know who was able to stop the triumphant march of the arthropod invaders?" that question belonged to the commander of the First Star Fleet.
Amiru U-Mayaoo could have answered herself, but she redirected the question to the usually taciturn head of Miyelonian intelligence Kung Wauu-Miaoo, who was the best informed about the state of affairs in deep space. The gray-haired Miyelonian, who was known for his dislike of public speaking, bristled his whiskers in dismay, but nevertheless gave a detailed answer to the assembled rulers:
"Yes, we do. It was humans. A branch of that widely scattered race we were previously unaware of. As a matter of fact, we know extremely little for certain. The only definitive thing that has reached us was the identity of the fleet commander who blasted the Meleyephatian Horde's interstellar armada to atoms: a human woman named Admiral Nicole ton Savoia. We also know the title and name of their ruler: Emperor Georg the First, although that is still unconfirmed. In one way or another, the leaders of the Horde are seriously frightened by the encounter with such a fearsome power and have ceased all active operations in that attack vector and all neighboring sectors. All Meleyephatian ships that were not destroyed have been recalled from the border and redeployed elsewhere. And that includes the ongoing war with the Union of Miyelonian Prides and the Geckho race."
A long silence took hold. Everyone present understood perfectly that even after sustaining significant losses, the Meleyephatian fleet was still a very, very fearsome power. The coming of an enemy armada numbering in the thousands of starships to the local theater of combat would change the balance of power in an instant. The easy fast-paced war the Union of Miyelonian Prides thought it was engaged in, would instantly transform into a bloodbath involving starship flotillas numbering in the thousands. Perhaps the very survival of the Miyelonian race would be at stake. No one wanted to let that happen.
"What is the Meleyephatian ultimatum in a nutshell?" Ayvi U-Mawoo inquired. "Are they demanding we return the star systems we have captured?"
The Great Priestess, who was better versed in military and political questions actually winced at her younger associate's preposterous suggestion:
"Not at all. And who would voluntarily give up such rich spoils? The Meleyephatians understand that perfectly and do not demand the impossible. They ask us to relinquish just the comet Un-Tau – it is a place of religious pilgrimage for several nests of Meleyephatian renegades. They also want to conclude an official peace treaty with us for a duration of nine tongs. The Meleyephatian Horde will await our reply until end of  day today."
Everyone fell silent for a minute, thinking over what had been said. Finally, the commander of the Second Star Fleet Leng Raoo-Miayawoo – one of the most experienced and respected commanders of the Union of Miyelonian Prides – put in his word.
"Our race initially looked on this war as a convenient opportunity to 'take a bite' out of a historic enemy's territories unchallenged, slightly weakening the Meleyephatian Horde by the same token. We never saw it as a fully-fledged drawn-out conflict in which we would encounter large Meleyephatian forces. That would increase our side's losses by many orders of magnitude. My opinion: our objectives for this military campaign have been accomplished. We should exit the war."
"That is my position as well," Keetsie-Myau declared, after which the din among the other rulers fell silent instantly. "The Miyelonians are famed for our speedy decision-making and flexible galactic politics. We saw the chance to grow stronger and we took it. But the naive straightforward Geckho... to be honest, I actually feel a bit sorry for them!" the delighted eyes of commander Keetsie-Myau made for a sharp contrast with the meaning behind her words. "Our predictable allies acted exactly the way we thought they would. They declared war, tied up the Meleyephatian forces and cleared a path for us. And now it is the Geckho precisely who will bear the brunt of the war with the Meleyephatian Horde, which is now rallying after the surprise attack. And on top of that, as we are now finding out, the Horde will be sending the bulk of its forces to the front."
Great Priestess Amiru U-Mayaoo was again taken with admiration for Keetsie-Myau's speech. How the head of the Pride of the Sharp Claw had grown into a wise politician and earned the respect of the other rulers! Must be why the Commander of the Fourth Star Fleet was already officially known as the Great even though, under Miyelonian law, that honorific was still technically beyond the war leader's grasp due to her young age. Leng Amiru spent a bit more time waiting, but none of the assembled rulers voiced a viewpoint that contradicted the Great One's position.
"Okay. Then I will answer the leaders of the Horde today that we accept their offer of peace unconditionally. The Union of Miyelonian Prides shall exit the war and sign a peace treaty for a duration of nine tongs. Miyelonian troops shall depart the Un-Tau comet in the next two or three ummi, while the remaining captured planets, stations and space settlements shall become the legal territory of our race."
Having wrapped up the first issue of the day's agenda, Amiru U-Mayaoo moved on to the second point:
"A reliable source has informed me of the discovery of a well-camouflaged mobile laboratory in space belonging to the ancient Relict race. What's more, the laboratory is in working condition, is in fact still operating and is chalk full of ancient devices, artifacts and technologies. I think none of you will have to be convinced that this laboratory represents a huge interest to Miyelonian science and must be delivered to territory under control of the Union of Miyelonian Prides at any cost."
"So, what’s the catch?" the head of the Miyelonian archive service inquired. "What is so hard about towing the laboratory to any of our scientific stations and examining it there?"
"The difficulty consists in the fact, esteemed Teerr-Miauss, that this discovery in the words of MY source," Keetsie-Myau emphasized the penultimate word, "was initially located in Meleyephatian territory in the uninhabitable H9045/WE star system then, by some inconceivable method, was instantly transported to a neighboring galaxy!"
The commander of the Fourth Star Fleet demonstrated an excellent awareness of the issue. Even the Great Priestess herself didn't know all those details.
"Holy cow, zero-transport!" came the struck Azari Ur-Maya, head of the department of scientific research, who had been standing in silence and was joining the discussion for the first time. "Our scientists predicted such a form of transport would be possible three hundred tongs ago, but no one has yet been able to actually pull it off. And after all, whichever race is first to adopt such a technology will come to dominate the cosmos!"
"One other difficulty," the great Priestess rejoined the discussion, "is that the lost laboratory of the ancient race was not discovered by one of our research groups, but a mixed team under a Free Captain. It contains members of all kinds of different races, and Miyelonians form a minority of the crew. Among the races present are Geckho, Meleyephatians, Humans, and even a Jarg. So I suspect all interested parties are already aware of the discovery. And soon, if we do not move first, the captain who discovered the valuable asset will be receiving offers from other players in galactic politics."
"Move? By that do you mean purchasing the whole ancient scientific base before the captain has recognized its true value? Or..." the commander of the First Star Fleet made an evocative gesture imitating slitting his throat with a sharp blade.
Both Amiru U-Mayaoo and Keetsie-Myau snorted derisively. The commander of the Fourth Star Fleet explained her skepticism:
"I have interacted with that Free Captain before. And so I can say in no uncertain terms: it's no use consoling ourselves with illusions that the captain might not be aware just what a treasure he has landed himself. He is aware, he is aware for certain. And attacking such an experienced psionic discreetly, given his well-developed danger sense, will not be possible. And another thing, if this assassination attempt does succeed, what is to be done with the Relict scientific base then? Its security system's artificial intelligence will only communicate with Relicts. And as far as I have been told, communication requires a rank of two or higher in the Pyramid hierarchy. Kill Leng Gnat and the security system won't listen to anyone, forever stranding the priceless scientific station in a distant galaxy. And to have the envenomated Leng Gnat as a personal enemy after he respawns without his precious discovery... at the very least that would irrational, given his Morphian has demonstrated an ability to reach so far as even Leng Amiru U-Mayaoo despite her innumerable guards."
The Great Priestess shuddered at the unpleasant memory. Yes, the assassination plan had been pre-agreed with her, but nevertheless what happened came as a true shock to the experienced Miyelonian. Being gutted alive is extremely nasty!
"So the Free Captain who found the laboratory is Leng Gnat? Yes, we have heard much about that lucky maverick..." the head of the Miyelonian archive service stroked the bridge of his nose thoughtfully with a clawed paw. "That captain is quite the extraordinary person! He works for the commander of the Geckho Third Strike Fleet of Kung Waid Shishish and has already done very much for him. Leng Gnat’s sympathies for the Miyelonian race have been noted as well, and he has helped us on several occasions. Furthermore, he is an official enemy of the Meleyephatian Horde. My personal opinion: we must maintain amicable relations with the Free Captain, then Gnat will bring the sought-after Relict laboratory right into our paws on his own. I have also laid eyes on a statement that a human by the name of Leng Gnat has transferred his physical body to the Miyelonian station Kasti-Utsh III. That seems like a convenient excuse to have a heart-to-heart with him in the real world and come to an agreement on everything."
Before any of the assembled rulers could react, Keetsie-Myau shuddered:
"I'll speak with Leng Gnat myself! In one way or another, he is my marriage dance partner. Furthermore, I have publicly promised him a personal meeting, which I still owe him. This is the perfect time for me to come through on that promise!"

Chapter One. In an Alien Galaxy

"Ayukh, you reset only your age, not your mastery and experience! You are one of the greatest Navigators of modern times! What do you mean you 'don't know where we are?!'"
Yes, I was putting on pressure and demanding that my underling perform his duties – that was exactly how, to my eye, a true captain should behave in a difficult situation. But it hurt to look at Ayukh. The rejuvenated Geckho looked impotent and desperate:
"But Leng Gnat, I really cannot do a thing! The on-board navigation system freezes up when it attempts to determine our coordinates!"
I winced involuntarily. My frigate’s navigation system is freezing up? That's the last thing I need... On top of all the damage sustained by its hull, the air leaking from three sectors, loss of hyperspace drive and two laser cannons as well as the death of five team members, we were now having a problem with the navigation programs? Well, maybe we could fix the computer glitch then? Reboot the system, reinstall some programs or something... I asked the Navigator what the instructions proscribed for this type of situation.
"Well you see, captain..." the Geckho inhaled a bit more air, fell silent and decisively squeezed out: "there is nothing in the instructions about this scenario! The starship navigation system tests all possible methods of determining coordinates in parallel. From sending common long-distance queries to the nearest beacons to estimating gravitational displacement, or calculating the nearest spatial extremes and neutrino stream vectors. And the first thing it does is to search all visible stars for unique characteristics in terms of light spectrum, class and mass and compares that with reference data! And none of the hundreds of thousands of visible stars," Ayukh said pointing his furry clawed paw at the screen, "can be found in the Geckho navigation reference guide! And even the data we downloaded from the more complete Meleyephatian maps is no help! I tried looking for quasar vectors, even though it is considered an extremely inaccurate and outdated method of space navigation, but the result that generated was not the least bit comforting. We are very far from known space, and most likely are in a different galaxy altogether!!!"
The Geckho basically shouted the last part, and I could hear distinct notes of panic in my senior officer's voice. After the Navigator's explanation, I must admit, I somewhat lost courage. I guess only I, with my astonishing ability to land myself in all kinds of hot water, could step in a pile of shit this deep: to be in a different galaxy on a starship with no hyperspace drive! Although... even if my frigate's hyperdrive was repairable, what good did that do us now? If a journey to a distant star within our same galaxy could take years, then returning home from a different galaxy altogether would take thousands, and maybe even millions of years! Or if things got truly dire, we could have the whole crew die and respawn at our respawn point on Kasti-Utsh III. But we would be without the magnificent twinbody frigate and the invaluable mobile laboratory. We stood to everything, crushing our hopes. And I risked a severe blow to my Authority and reputation as a lucky captain...
No, I needed to try something else. To figure out the hardware on the mobile laboratory that just warped us into another galaxy, study the Relict navigation maps and coordinate system then calculate a jump back. Or demand the laboratory's security system cast Tamara the Paladin somewhere closer to a Geckho or Miyelonian station so we could move out from there using our surviving main and maneuver thrusters. However, the problem was that I had not been in contact with the station since the jump, and the laboratory's security system would not respond to any of my attempts to reestablish contact.
Dmitry Zheltov, who I'd sent to the medical bay, returned to the bridge – our main Starship Pilot's left shoulder was badly injured, and after I ran a scan on him I started to suspect a fracture. But Dmitry stubbornly denied it – he said it was a just a little sore, it would go away on its own. But based on the sling, my suspicion was on the mark.
"You were right captain, bone fracture," Dmitry told me with an embarrassed smile. "Our Medic Mauu-La ran a quick screen, injected healing nanites into my forearm and pushed me out the door saying to be careful with my arm for the next three days. I am actually surprised the Medic treated me though. He's very busy with the operation on our Miyelonian Translator. And it looks to be a complicated one, because he even took a Kirsan repair bot as an assistant. Gerd Ayni has been seriously wounded, I even heard a ghastly utterance to the Kirsan: 'if we can't get her vein's working again, we'll have to amputate both arms.'"
Yes, I knew the orange Miyelonian beauty had suffered very badly – after her sector was damaged in an explosion and depressurized, she was carried out by Gerd Mauu-La himself. Amputating both arms... The thought made my skin crawl... If the healer's frightening diagnosis were confirmed, if I were in Ayni's place I'd prefer to be reborn in a healthy body at my respawn point on Kasti-Utsh III. By the way... I should send instructions to my four crew members waiting there. My business partner Trader Gerd Uline Tar, Shocktroop Gerd T'yu-Pan, Machinegunners Timka-Vu and Kisly, as well as Supercargo Avan Toi did not survive the space battle with the Meleyephatian flotilla and should have respawned on the Miyelonian space station by now. I turned to the Navigator, who was still pulling his hair out and pronounced in a clear commanding voice:
"Ayukh, quit your whining. Get yourself together and get back to work! Exit into the real world and get in touch with my first mate. Tell Uline Tar that she and the other respawned crew members should take the next freight-passenger Shiamiru headed for Earth. She needs to get ready for her wedding there, and the two interceptors that have arrived have to be fixed up and processed by the local spaceport. And anyway, why should she be wasting time puttering around on a Miyelonian station? We won't be going back to the Kasti-Utsh system. We'll fly straight for Earth... If of course, we can figure out how to get there..." I said the last part extremely quiet, more for myself so the other players on the captain's bridge couldn't hear.
Authority increased to 84!
Yes, I did everything right! My team still believed in their captain and were counting on me to pull them out of the difficult situation without them having to do something as unpleasant as committing suicide to get back to the known part of the Universe. I was a bit perked up and used the radio to get in touch with our Engineer Orun Va-Mart who was leading the first repair brigade of eight players, who were currently working in spacesuits on the outside of the frigate and stomping around like elephants as they did. I was able to watch them from the cameras of the two Small Guard Drones, which were bustling around in the "bubble" under the laboratory's forcefield.
The second brigade was led by Princess Gerd Minn-O La-Fin, and its objective was to clear debris from the damaged corridor near the cargo hold and make sure all residential berths again were filled with breathable atmosphere. And among the second repair brigade workers I had included Nefertiti. Yes! I was surprised to see it, but the NPC Dryad had not disappeared from the ship after the death of her husband Kisly the Machinegunner and, as if nothing had happened, at the very least for now, was continuing to exist independently. I had one possible explanation for the phenomenon, but I was in no rush to tell the others just yet.
Orun Va-Mart answered instantly as if all he was doing was awaiting my call:
"Captain, our examination of the damage to the frigate’s hull has uncovered several breaches. So far, we've counted eight holes, all in the right fuselage. That is not counting the dislodged cargo hold and half of the right stabilizer. It will be possible to fix them with sealant, and we're already doing so. But there won't be enough tiles to repair the whole hull, I've already done the math. And the cargo hold will have to be fully detached – it's nothing but a mess of twisted metal and not fit for further exploitation."
"Uh..." I decided to clarify the important aspect. "Am I understanding correctly that this will throw our balance off, and we won't be able to land on any planet with an atmosphere?"
I heard bitter laughter from the engineer in my headphones:
"Captain, with such serious damage to the fuselage and missing stabilizers, you can forget about landing on any planets for now. We're better off thinking of ways to get the starship more or less fit to travel..."
"I see," I cut off the Engineer mid-word, not letting him spoil the mood of everyone listening to the common channel. "Is the shuttle in the hangar in good shape? I am planning to fly to the Relict laboratory. I need to go check things out over there."
"The shuttle is fine," Orun Va-Mart gave me hope, "although the station is just sixty-eight meters away. You could just ride a levitator or even take a jetpack."
The Miyelonian was obviously giving different numbers and units, but the game system was translating everything for me into units more familiar to the human ear. I just couldn't get used to the amusing "autotranslations." Every time they rang hollow. It was just so awkward to hear an alien mentioning terrestrial units. In any case, the ancient laboratory was at an arm’s reach, and my priority mission was none other than visiting the ancient site and figuring out how it was running – my very chances of returning home were directly dependent on that.
Actually no... there was a more important mission than visiting the ancient laboratory: to choose three new skills for my Gnat, given my character had just hit level one hundred. I opened the game menu and navigated to my statistics:
Leng Gnat. Human. Relict Faction.
Level-100 Listener
33 + +5
29 + 2
Luck modifier
Controlled drones
2 of 3
Attention!!! You are entitled to a new Large Drone since yours was destroyed
2178 of 2244
Endurance points
1305 of 1639
Magic points
1380 of 2061
Carrying capacity
62 lbs.
100 * First specialization taken
Medium Armor
Eagle Eye
Danger Sense
110 * First specialization taken
Mental Fortitude
109 * First specialization taken
Machine Control
105 * First specialization taken
Attention!!! You have three unspent skill points.
Attention!!! You may learn three new skills.

I absorbed the fact that I could get a new Large Relict Guard Drone to replace the one destroyed in battle with the Meleyephatian flotilla, although I didn't yet understand how or where I could place the order. But as for the first of the possible new skills, I had made up my mind a while ago: Telekinesis! A very useful ability for a character that possesses magic, it allows distant objects to be moved around with Magic Points. How many times had I run a scan and seen on the mini-map some lever or switch I needed to flip on the other side of a wall or other insurmountable obstacle, and not been able to do anything! Now I would have a way to solve any missions such as that!
You have taken the skill Telekinesis level 1.
Great! As a test, I tried to remotely turn on the tablet the Navigator had left on his desk when he left the game into the real world. Got it, it worked! Now to unscrew the seat of the unsuspecting second pilot. Oh, what a surprised and even frightened face on San-Doon! Shouldn't have been sleeping on the job!
Telekinesis skill increased to level two!
Yes, the first levels of all skills were quite easy. I'd have to work on Telekinesis today and get it up to ten at least, which should be no problem if I make active use of it. For the second of three possible skills then I chose Training:
Training. This skill gives accelerated experience gain for any action a character performs (+1% experience received for every skill level). Minimum statistics: Intelligence 20, Perception 15.
Some might object and ask something like why fill an invaluable slot with a skill that doesn't do anything on its own and doesn't add any new abilities to the character? And that may well be, but I was alarmed and forced to think seriously by a tale told by my Meleyephatian Gunner Gerd Eeeezzz 777 about how difficult it is for high-level players to keep levelling. Wasting two to three years of my life to get from, let's say, 190 to 191... that's unbearably long, and any death in that time would zero-out progress and make me have to start over again from zero.
That was the very reason I deliberately and consciously chose the Training skill for my Leng Gnat. Yes, you might think at level one hundred I was nowhere near still a beginner in this game, and that ideally I should have taken that skill much earlier – way back at my Gnat's first few levels. Maybe that was so. But I had different priorities and objectives back then, and levels were coming fairly fast without much additional effort and skill. But by level one hundred, the situation had become completely different and every new level was coming harder and harder. I was making plans that went several years into the future, and thus I needed to ensure forward motion and character progress throughout that time.
You have taken the skill Training level 1.
And as for the last skill, I wasn't yet sure. There were lots of interesting possibilities. I'd have to weigh and calculate every possible consequence of my various options. But I was not allowed to just think things through calmly.
The big furry Geckho Ayukh, frozen motionless in the Navigator's seat... suddenly disappeared! The surprise even made me shudder. What the crap?! This is open space, a dangerous "red" zone even inside the spaceship, and avatars wouldn’t disappear when they exited to the real world. Or... was this in fact no longer a red zone? When I opened the game interface options, I did in fact find that the category of this location had been changed to "green," for safe! I didn't yet understand what could have caused that, but the consequences of the changes had already started rolling in. Our Medic’s voice, alarmed and even terrified, rang out over the loudspeaker:
"Captain, my patient has disappeared right from the operating table! I wasn't done with her yet!" Gerd Mauu-La Mya-Ssa was in a near-panic.
"Say, Gerd Mauu-La, was Ayni in the game or had she exited into the real?" I clarified, and the healer answered that back at the very beginning of the operation he gave the girl leave into the real world – her game avatar should have stayed in the game regardless, while it would be both boring and senseless for a living player to spend an ummi lying on an operating table.
"I see. The game zone just changed to 'green.' That's why your patient's body disappeared."
"That is very, very bad!" the Medic was horrified. "Her body was hooked up to an artificial breathing apparatus, her chest was open, and a portion of her large veins and arteries had medical clamps on them. I'm afraid Gerd Ayni might not survive when she comes back into the game..."
My discussion with the Medic was interrupted by a surprised cry from Space Commando Eduard Boyko, who was among those working on the frigate hull in space:
"Captain! The Relict laboratory is opening!"
Every player on the bridge nestled up closer to their monitors, which were transmitting feeds from the frigate's external cameras and the two Small Relict Guard Drones. And as a matter of fact, something strange was happening to the station: in the middle, very widest part, a few metal panels of the hull were coming apart to reveal seven apertures each five feet in diameter. From those seven deep tunnels there emerged long telescopic antennae-like outgrowths going in different directions. After that, the whole surface, which so recently seemed to be a monolithic thousand-foot-long spindle, went into motion, while all over the station hull panels started spinning around on their axes, flipping color from silver to black.
"What is happening?" I asked the security system, not particularly expecting a response because the station had been blatantly ignoring me for the last twenty minutes.
But this time I did get an answer, and it was fairly detailed. A few columns of text ran before my eyes:
"Listener, our transport was completed successfully and was not traced by the enemy's automatic security systems. The new location has been deemed safe. Station exiting prolonged (here was a symbol I wasn't familiar with, maybe 'conservation' or 'dormancy') mode and returning to operation. Area beneath forcefield filling with (here another incomprehensible word, but the meaning was 'suitable') air for breathing. Personnel temporal capsule deactivation procedure initiated. Listener, prepare to appear before the station director!"

Chapter Two. Ancient Laboratory

The message had long since disappeared from the screen, leaving me to stand and digest the information. I was about to meet a living member of the Relict race, awoken now after many long centuries of slumber! To be honest, I was feeling very anxious deep inside. After all, I didn't know how the ancient and probably very powerful entity would react when they realized that a member of a totally different race had taken it upon himself to refit a Listener Energy Armor Suit for himself with no authorization and was now posing as a Relict himself. The station director would almost certainly not be pleased with the impostor. Although... who really knew the psychology of this long-extinct race? Perhaps the Relict would in fact be so happy at the chance to return to active life after many thousands of years dormant that they would even reward me with the knowledge and technologies of their kind? I'd like to believe that...
"Captain, it's no longer a vacuum out here!" Space Commando Eduard Boyko's voice tore me from my pensive state. "My barometer is reading zero point seven nine PSI and rising fast!"
"And so it should be," I reassured Eduard and all the others. "A message just came from the Relict base saying that all the space beneath the forcefield is going to be filled with a breathable air mixture before the laboratory personnel awaken. That seems to also be the reason we now have a 'green' zone here on the frigate. But don't get ahead of yourselves, let your guard down and take off your helmets just yet. For starters we have to check that the composition of that air mixture will be breathable to creatures other than Relicts."
"Already checked, captain!" Gerd Mauu-La Mya-Ssa the Medic reacted at once. "The gas analyzer is showing oxygen twenty-five percent, nitrogen seventy-five percent. No toxic admixtures detected. That is just right for Miyelonians but people and especially Geckho might experience slight oxygen intoxication!"
I think the healer was being overcautious, because slightly high oxygen concentrations were not the least bit critical to humans. The main thing was that it would be possible to breathe. If, of course, the station didn’t stop filling the space with the air mixture too soon. We needed the pressure fifteen times higher at least. But when the atmosphere in the station and beneath the forcefield did become breathable, and the temporal capsules with the awoken personnel opened, I'd have a more serious problem on my hands: the station director and my required visit with him. I would not be able to refuse, I had to go. The shuttle could fit six players, and the right thing to do would be to show the Relicts right off the bat that I had a mixed crew containing various races.
"Attention, team! The following crewmembers will be coming with me to the station: the Jarg, Eduard Boyko, Basha Tushihh, Tini and Eeeezzz 777. Do not bring heavy weaponry and overall, you are to behave with extreme courtesy – we will be guests on the station, and uninvited ones at that. We meet at the shuttle."
"You wouldn't happen to have any valuable advice before this important meeting?" I asked my spiny Analyst hopefully. But the Jarg answered through the Universal Translator that, for the time being, he had insufficient information about Relict society to come to any conclusions. And at that (here I'm quoting the Jarg word-for-word):
"Nearest planet to us. Can be reached on thruster. Mass good for to live. Humans. Miyelonians. Geckho. Meleyephatian. Jarg. Construction colony under dome without atmosphere and get replacement part frigate. Suitable star. Lots of light. Plants can be grown. From emergency seed kit."
I still hadn't understood whether the Analyst was being fully serious in his suggestion, or if that was just Jarg humor. In any case I told him that colonizing distant planets was of course a challenging and honorable endeavor, but for whatever reason I imagined my path in the game that bends reality somewhat differently.
Training skill increased to level two!
The pop-up message reminded me that I had yet to take my last possible new skill. It was of course a pity, but I would have to figure that out after meeting the director of the science lab.
My Gunner piloted the shuttle, and the Meleyephatian's confident and professional actions immediately made it clear he had massive experience operating small flying vehicles. I might have managed as well, because I didn't see any challenges with steering the shuttle – it had just a steering yoke and one lone button to turn on the antigravity thruster. But I'd have spent three times as long turning and flying around all the "spindles" sticking out of the station that were now blocking our way. By the way, the laboratory itself had completed its transformation and was now three large spinning rings five hundred feet in diameter, "strung" onto a long thousand-foot axis. The station now was very reminiscent in shape of the Mechanoid Spatial Cutter, even if it was about fifty times larger.
"Over there! Look, they're opening an airlock for us!" Basha Tushihh pointed to a triangular gap that had just appeared in the station's hull.
Eeeezzz 777 turned the yoke rakishly which made the shuttle spin on its axis while it made the turn, fitting snugly into the little hole that opened for us.
"Internal airlock 4. Before opening door to laboratory interior, make sure the pressure has equalized!" read a faintly visible message on the metal wall in Relict symbols.
I didn't recognize all the hieroglyphs, but I guessed the unknown ones practically immediately. Maybe my Relict language level was high enough already, or maybe it was evidence of my first perk in Astrolinguistics, which let me read written text at an accelerated rate.
Scanning skill increased to level sixty-eight!
Also, I had activated the Scanning icon automatically so I would know what my group should expect behind the still closed doors. There was a short corridor there, and behind it something like a hub from which you could enter the central tunnel that pierced straight through the whole station.
"Artificial gravitation has turned on," Tini said aloud, although every one of us could already feel it.
We came out of the shuttle and stopped in front of a locked door. A minute passed, then another. Nothing changed the whole time. Then I saw a message on the internal surface of my helmet:
"Listener, a technical glitch has occurred. One of the power circuits has failed to activate. You may enter the station through airlock 3 or wait until the technician awakens to correct the malfunction and open the door from the inside."
What? The Relicts, who my contemporaries considered just about the height of technological sophistication, also suffered technical problems just like people? I couldn't hold back the smirk and told my companions:
"The station security system is saying it's having some kind of malfunction, the doors aren't opening. It's suggesting we either wait for the technicians to awaken or take a detour. I don't want to get back in the shuttle and fly away... Tini, try to open the door with your usual methods. Actually... Wait a second! I see the problem."
Telekinesis skill increased to level three!
Machine Control skill increased to level one hundred six!
I didn't even know which of my abilities had forced the button on the other side of the wall to go down, stuck after thousands of years of inactivity. Maybe a combination of Telekinesis and Machine Control, given the game system gave them both a boost. In one way or another, the metal door slid silently downward and we stopped in the doorway, peering into the dark and illuminating the wall with our flashlights. Seemingly the station personnel had yet to emerge from their slumber, given the lights weren't even on.
And then I felt the floor go out from under me! I had to suddenly turn on my magnetic boot soles, but that didn't help one bit – as it turned out the floor was ceramic or plastic, and my spacesuit boots wouldn't stick to it whatsoever. I was saved from an awkward flight in weightlessness by Eduard Boyko, who managed to grab his floating captain by the foot. The Space Commando himself had turned on his antigravity jetpack and was using it to control his own position in space.
"No lighting. Artificial gravity has failed. Is this how it's supposed to be?I asked the local artificial intelligence, already expecting a negative response.
"Listener, problem with power supply. Not all circuits are receiving power. Opening the station has discharged the batteries, which turned out to have critically low power. Below projected figures. There is not enough power to turn on the subatomic reactor. Possible reason: long downtime or long-distance jump. Finding solution."
For the second time in a short while, my opinion of the Relict race's technological sophistication had taken a serious blow. Although it was probably naive to expect all the equipment to work perfectly after tens of thousands of years' downtime. By the way, I caught a familiar term in the security program's response – "subatomic energy reactor." Was that not the same kind of power supply required by the Mechanoid Spatial Cutter?
Just to be safe, I asked:
"Should I wait for a technician? Or can I fix it myself?"
But no answer followed. We stood around for a bit and headed down the corridor, trying to walk cautiously because the gravitation was kicking on and off repeatedly. Soon we reached the distribution hub I'd seen on the diagram. The beams of our flashlights pierced through the darkness, revealing Relict hieroglyphs covering the walls. I read closer and immediately translated the scrawling for my companions:
"Residential unit two... Exit to first circle... Space viewing hall... Pyramid contact hall... Long-term meditation room. I wonder what that could be? Archive? Office?"
"Maybe bathroom?" Eduard Boyko suggested an option, and the nonstandard explanation really made me laugh.
The gravitation flipped off yet again, and for a second the lights even flickered – seemingly the program servicing the station was trying to get the power supply back online. But again, no success. But a new message came in right after that:
"Listener, your location on the map is not being accurately assessed. Seeking possible cause of positioning error."
"No, it's correct!" I assured the security system. "I opened the locked door of airlock number four and have entered the station."
Danger Sense skill increased to level ninety!
A premonition of terrible misfortune pricked my chest. Looks like I had just made some crude error, instantly losing the security system’s trust. It must have been extremely out of character for Relicts to break into places and enter restricted facilities without asking. A worrying pulsating message appeared on my helmet screen:
"Listener, state your hexadecimal identification code immediately or you will be terminated! Seven. Six. Five. Four..."
Well god damn! I didn't wait for the countdown to end. I didn't want to know the potential consequences for disobeying the order. Instead I quickly took my Prospector Scanner out of my inventory. Not fussing with the settings (I just couldn't be asked), I took out the tripod of a Geological Analyzer and unfolded the metal legs just as the countdown reached "two."
Scanning skill increased to level sixty-eight!
Another bout of weightlessness and awkward tumbling down the dark corridor. But this time everyone took off other than the Meleyephatian Gunner, who had splayed his appendages and propped himself up on the walls. The Jarg clumsily somersaulted right in front of me, something of a six-legged armadillo in a space suit, glimmering in the beams of our flashlights. After that, the Space Commando slammed into me in his heavy exoskeleton armor – Eduard's flying jetpack must have had poor electromagnetic shielding.
All tense inside, I was waiting for the end of the countdown and my subsequent extermination. But a few seconds passed, then ten more, and nothing terrible came to pass. And the feeling of impending doom gradually receded. Seemingly, I had managed to knock out the mobile laboratory's automatic security system. I couldn't say whether it would restart soon and demand I identify myself again, or if the crisis had passed. But now I needed to explain myself to my group. And especially to the part of the crew back on Tamara the Paladin – a combat alarm had sounded on the starship, because the on-board computer interpreted the powerful EMP as an attack, and they were all lost in guesses, polluting the airwaves with discussion and guesses about what caused the alarm, all of which were very far from the truth.
I grabbed onto a ledge on the wall, finally stopping my somersaulting and fixed my position in space. After that I started to explain what had happened to my crew, not hiding the truth one bit: the program in control of the ancient laboratory had first let us inside, then unexpectedly demanded I tell it some identification code, threatening to kill me otherwise. When suddenly...
Help! I'm suffocating!
A voice full of despair and suffering rang out in my head. Based on the way Gunner Eeeezzz 777 froze and started listening, I could tell the Meleyephatian also heard the mental cry for help. By the way, my Gunner had never told me he had the psionic gift. Seemingly, I had received confirmation of the commonly held opinion that most Meleyephatians were capable of psionics.
"My husband, someone on the station is calling for help," the voice in my headphones belonged to Minn-O La-Fin, my wife had also heard the rescue request.
Help! I'm completely exhausted. There's no air. I am in a locked temporal capsule... I cannot escape... My consciousness is fading due to lack of air...
"Knock on the wall of your capsule so the rescue group can find you and come help!" the Gunner suggested, but I had a more reliable method.
I opened my Prospector Scanner and looked at what it had just detected, trying to find markers for living beings. So, there is a big group of markers. That must be my frigate. By the way, the level-107 Miyelonian could only have been Ayni, she must have come back into the game. But the Medic had claimed Gerd Ayni would die after entering the game. He must have been mistaken. Although I couldn't think about her now. Here on the diagram is my group inside the station. But then what is this lone marker on the map?
Relict. Level-209 Technician.
The alien marker was the only one – apparently, on the whole ancient station. Its sole remaining inhabitant. Seemingly, they were the one the security system was exaggeratedly referring to as "station director." Now if only I could figure out where they are.
Cartography skill increased to level eighty-six!
A nasty idea jumped to mind that we should "not get there in time," and thus avoid a difficult conversation with the station director. But I quickly dismissed it, oriented myself in the confusing diagram of corridors and pointed my companions down a long dark tunnel:
"That way! Second corridor on the left. There’s a living Relict there! We need to hurry! There’s still time to save them!"

Chapter Three. Witness of the Past

How unusual it was to move around without stable footing beneath me. I was floating awkwardly in weightlessness, constantly bashing my limbs on the metal walls, crossbars and things of unknown purpose sticking out of the walls. Latching onto these ledges, I would pull myself and send my body on a short flight. Next to me, Space Commando Eduard Boyko was learning to move in a similar fashion and cursing softly. He had nearly put the Jarg in the grave, first colliding with our Analyst twice in midair, then also slamming the space armadillo into a wall with his heavy exoskeleton armor. Only on first glance might one think mass had no meaning in zero gravity. You better believe it did! We all in fact weighed nothing, but mass defines kinetic energy and momentum. And when the little Jarg collided with an object fifty times heavier than him, in full accordance with the law of conservation of momentum, the "armadillo" was sent flying violently! A second "center of mass" was Basha Tushihh – in the limited space, his chaotically shifting carcass stuffed into the half-ton exoskeleton suit threatened huge problems for anyone that got in the Geckho's way.
After covering myself in bruises and lumps (and with good armor on!), I calmed down slightly and decided to think with my head. Why the hell was I trying to imitate some tightrope-walking clown with my low Agility? I needed to use my character's strong suits! After all, my new Telekinesis skill basically would allow me to move objects with my mind. Could I move myself? As it turned out, not directly. But at that, I was able to order immobile well-anchored ship elements (for example, a loop handle or a metal wall tile) to come my way. Of course, that didn't tear the items from their mooring and they didn't come my way. I was instead "pulled" to them. So you might say I was nevertheless moving relative to that fixed object.  
Telekinesis skill increased to level four!
Telekinesis skill increased to level five!
Great! Two skill-ups in a row! I had finally thought up a way of moving relatively quickly in these unusual circumstances. Although Tini was already a hundred and thirty feet ahead of me, and I was of course still pretty far from his speed. The kitten had adapted fairly quickly to the zero-G conditions and had broken out in front. But we were all behind the eight-legged Meleyephatian, so gracefully pushing from wall to wall in weightlessness, as if it was the natural way he'd gotten around since birth. Eeeezzz 777 was first to reach the second branch off the corridor and disappear around the corner.
"Locked door here!" came our Gunner's whistling voice. "No keyhole. And no panel nearby that might open a door. Captain, what should I do? Break it down?"
Most of the group, including myself, was lagging hopelessly behind Eeeezzz 777, so we couldn't see the obstacle the Meleyephatian was describing. Only Tini was even close. He would soon reach the second turn in the corridor, but nevertheless the kitten would need about thirty more seconds. And that half minute delay could easily cost the Relict his life.
"Break it down!" I ordered the Gunner, not exactly having an idea for how the Meleyephatian was planning to open the metal door. It probably couldn't be done with brute force. Although... I did really have a poor understanding of the physical capabilities of the huge space "spiders." Earthbound arthropods could get through armored glass and lift loads three times heavier than their own bodies. So perhaps the somewhat similar Meleyephatian really would be capable of extreme enough exertion to break down an armored door.
Far in front of me, something gave a flicker. The boom of an explosion rolled down the shaft. What, did Eeeezzz 777 blow the obstacle away with explosives? I had completely forgotten that the main difference between Meleyephatians and terrestrial spiders and insects was high Intelligence, no lower than the average human's and most likely surpassing it.
"Finished, captain," the utterly calm and matter-of-fact voice of my arachnid subordinate rang out in my headphones. This clearly was not the experienced mercenary's first time using explosives. "I'm going in. It's a small berth, almost the entire thing is taken up by a semi-transparent sphere. Something is moving inside. It's very large. I'm trying to figure out how to open the sphere."
Help me... I'm fainti...
The very weak mental signal ringing out in my head trailed off before it was even over.
"Master Gnat, I am here," my ward Tini had also reached the room with the Relict. "There's a big plastic ball. It's slightly open, the crack is as wide as my paw. Inside is a large creature with a lot of limbs. It is sticking its limbs into the narrow crack and quaking. Seems the air is too thin, it cannot breathe and is dying."
"Break the ball open at once!" I ordered, but Eeeezzz 777 unexpectedly contradicted his direct superior:
"Captain, it's no use. The Relict will perish even if we get the ball open. I have made the decision to give it my oxygen mask and tanks. That is the only way to save the Relict. It may be the last one in the Universe. Leng Gnat, it has been a great pleasure to work under your command!"
Authority increased to 86!
"What are you doing?!" my kitten screamed out in fear. "Don't take off your helmet! There must be another way!"
"No, little fluff-ball, there is no other way. Pick me up on Kasti-Utsh III when you get back to our galaxy..."
I shouted into the microphone, demanding the Meleyephatian not do anything rash and remove his helmet in low pressure. The Meleyephatians had a physiological quality I had read about in the guide on galactic races. The space spiders didn't breathe using lungs like people or Geckho, but instead absorbed oxygen through a layer of laminated crinkled skin layer beneath their armor, a very distant analogue of the gills of terrestrial fish. And if for some reason the pressure fell drastically, that multi-layered skin would be irreparably glommed together, after which the creature would lose the ability to absorb oxygen and would die in a matter of seconds.
And in fact, ten seconds later, the icon depicting Eeeezzz in the group changed color to gray – my team member had died. He sent himself to respawn, saving a member of the ancient Relict race at the cost of his own life. Okay, it was a conscious choice on the part of Eeeezzz 777 and I greatly hoped the self-sacrifice of a member of my team would not be in vain.
A minute later, I finally got to the door, which was half torn out of its housing by the explosion. I looked at the traces of the explosion with interest. The Meleyephatian had used something like plastic explosive, professionally placed in a few spots in small quantities. When exactly had the Gunner found the time to calculate and apply all that? By the way, I didn't know my crewmember had powerful explosives on his person.
Eagle Eye skill increased to level ninety-six!
Training skill increased to level three!
I slipped through the crack. Okay, this was approximately the picture I was expecting to see: the body of the Gunner floating in weightlessness, the air tank and front part of his helmet detached from his spacesuit. The ceramic tank was hovering, but the air tube coming off it was going into the crack opening of the temporal capsule. As far as I could see, the creature inside the spherical capsule was greedily sucking at the oxygen mask and breathing quickly, inflating and deflating the mobile sheets of its cephalothorax, intensively pumping salutary air into its body.
Urgeh Pu-Pu Urgeh. Relict. Level-209 Technician.
Level two-hundred nine... Pretty respectable, needless to say. Although it is weird that, given that, they are not a Leng, or even Gerd. How impressive were the "high-profile" Relicts, if a level two hundred and nine was just a "normal player" by comparison?
I stared curiously at the member of the ancient race, which was thought to be extinct. This one had miraculously made it down to our days. Its elongated head had huge eyes covered with cloudy whitish film on the sides of the skull. No teeth in its slightly open mouth, instead sheets of bone for pulverizing food. Clearly not a predator – with jaws like that, there was no way to hold down and tear at prey. Wet with slime covering its rough skin or maybe chitin. There was steam coming off the creature's body – due to the low pressure here on the station, moisture evaporated quickly. Three pairs of limbs on the cephalothorax. A long abdomen. Yes, this really was a Relict – it was exactly the way I imagined them based on the skull I had seen in my Listener Energy Armor before it was refit for a human.
"Do you know how to open the chamber?" I couldn't speak aloud in Relict tongue because I didn't know the sounds for all the written symbols I knew, so I transmitted my question mentally.
But the creature understood me and answered instantly, and mentally as well:
"The capsule is governed by an automatic system and was supposed to open by itself. I don't know why it has failed. But... who are you? You don't look like the replacement the Pyramid was sending. I am waiting for a replacement, because my shift is over. My replacement is late. There's a war on, so it could take him anywhere from one ummi to ten tongs. I couldn't get an exact timeframe from the Pyramid. There's a war on, so communication is hampered. But that doesn't matter. I have preserved the station and put myself into stasis. But I was forced out of stasis, my capsule won't open and now you're here. What is happening?"
The creature was looking at Tini and the dead Meleyephatian with measured interest but, for some reason, my Gnat elicited the most curiosity. I had a sense that's hard to put into just a few words, like a cautious poke to my head from the inside. It was approximately the same way I felt when communicating with the Miyelonian Truth Seeker.
Mental Fortitude skill increased to level one hundred ten!
"Uhh..." I was having a hard time figuring out where to even start my explanation. "Urgeh Pu-Pu Urgeh, the ancient war ended around ten thousand tongs ago. Your replacement never came."
I figured he (and my mental probing had proven this was a male) might be mistrusting – after all, to the newly awakened Relict, all that had basically just taken place and it would be extremely difficult for him to believe some thirty-five thousand years had passed. But Urgeh's reaction to my words surpassed my greatest fears:
Danger Sense skill increased to level ninety-one!
Mental Fortitude skill increased to level one hundred eleven!
"You're lying! You thought I wouldn't recognize you in that disguise, devious Precursor! You will never get your hands on our codes and maps! I'd sooner die than be a traitor!"
Next to me, he howled out in a deranged voice and grabbed at Tini's head. A second later, I was also taken dead to rights. The tiny berth and plastic ball disappeared. All around me was only endless emptiness and absolute darkness. And terrible pain. It felt like my head was being shredded. The unbearable torment made me want to scream and run-fly-crawl as far from here as I could. My Life Points and Endurance Points both started flooding out of their respective bars all of a sudden – my energy and health were draining before my very eyes. What sort of strange magic is this? And more importantly - how to stand up against it? I couldn't see my enemy and couldn't hit back. Run a Scan immediately! The skill’s icon had long since reloaded.
Scanning skill increased to level sixty-nine!
Yes, that made things a bit easier. Although I still couldn't see anything, on the mini-map I could get my bearings in space and determine the position of the plastic ball the dangerous Technician was sitting inside of. From five feet away, I'd never miss such a large target with the Annihilator. But still I rejected the idea of killing the mad Relict. Instead, again on the mini-map I determined the position of the air tank flying around the little room, extended a hand to it, felt for the valve and slowly closed it. How do you like that, Urgeh Pu? How long can you attack me without oxygen?
Mental Fortitude skill increased to level one hundred twelve!
Because my life bar had barely even a third left, I had to urgently drink a restorative cocktail because thankfully in the game I didn't have to take off my helmet to do so. My Life Points and Energy Points didn't start going up, but at the very least their fall was seriously impeded.
I got messages from Princess Minn-O and Valeri at almost the exact same time. They couldn't help me with defense, but they asked me to point to the enemy and were ready to join me in a mental attack. Good of course, but no longer necessary. My vision abruptly returned to normal. In the light of the bright flashlights, I saw the plastic ball blown to smithereens, its debris floating around the room, and the Relict convulsing in fits. And most importantly, Basha Tushihh was squeezing the aggressive Technician tight in his powerful arms – by all appearances the Geckho didn't overthink it when he finally reached this little room, ripped the door away once and for all and quite simply knocked the Relict out with a blow to the head.
His arms were still shaking, he had almost no strength left. And so I asked the powerful Geckho to put the oxygen mask back on the fainted Relict's nose before he died.
"And if he gets uppity, pop him another one! And keep going until the Relict smartens up and figures out we're not enemies," I said the last part in Geckho tongue, doubling it mentally for the dense Technician.
Authority increased to 87!
"No need. I figured it all out the first time. I'm prepared to speak peaceably. I just ask that you turn on the air unit. The moisture is evaporating from my skin. I'm drying out and might die."
The ancient Technician pleaded.
"Of course. But would you mind showing me where and how to do that? I asked the millennia-old lab worker and was replied to favorably by the Relict, who'd changed his tune on a dime.

Chapter Four. Discipline Lesson

Getting the air supply back on turned out to be quite the simple task. The Relict pointed to the proper room, Tini opened its locked door in one minute, and the valve to the huge reservoir of liquified oxygen nitrogen mix could be unscrewed manually. But for the time being we were only able to refill the atmosphere inside the station – when I used the geological analyzer, I had caused a total blackout in the ancient laboratory, including taking down the forcefield, so all the air outside the hermetically sealed station instantly leaked out into space.
"Strange. Very strange," the Technician muttered in surprise, trying unsuccessfully to get back control over the inactive equipment. "This situation is simply not covered in the instructions! The distortion forcefield is always supposed to be surrounding the laboratory. It cannot be otherwise! Or else the Precursors, who constantly scan the cosmos, will very quickly find and destroy us! What could have happened to the power supply? Unless the reactor was turned off and the batteries were down to zero. But the batteries should have had enough energy to last a hundred tongs while operating autonomously!"
I didn't explain to the ancient Technician that I was the reason the hardware had failed. I just brought it back to what I said before – that it had been far longer than a hundred tongs since he was put into stasis, around two orders of magnitude longer in fact. The batteries in fact could have discharged over such a long time. The Relict again didn't seem to believe me, but this time at least behaved peacefully and didn't rush to attack.
For starters, Urgeh Pu turned on the energy supply from the solar arrays – as it turned out the whole huge hull of the laboratory was covered in photoelectric panels. They didn't exactly provide gasp-worthy power – the nearest star was still quite distant, but the Technician was at the very least able to turn on the lights and activate the artificial gravitation unit, setting it to power-saving mode – barely even one one-hundredth of terrestrial gravitation, just enough so we wouldn't be floating through the halls, and could walk normally. The Relict tried to turn on the laboratory's defensive camouflage screen, but it didn't work – there wasn't enough power.
"Now we need to turn on the reactor!" the laboratory director lit up with a new idea, but I cooled his enthusiasm, telling him that when we got to the station the system informed us there was not enough energy to start the subatomic reactor.
The Relict ran some calculations on the terminal and was noticeably disheartened. There was in fact not enough energy. Furthermore, based on the Technician's calculations, with the solar arrays alone, we would need a VERY long time before there would be enough power to start the reactor. And to be more accurate, we would need around sixteen and a half tongs, which was fifty-nine years in earth time. But we simply would not have that kind of time because the laboratory would be detected and destroyed by Precursors long before that. After such upsetting conclusions, the Technician sank into thought for a long time, then suddenly asked about the Annihilator on my belt:
"Can I see it?"
With a certain apprehension, I unclipped the ancient weapon and, mentally telling Tini, Eduard Boyko and Basha Tushihh to get ready for action and be ready to twist the Relicts arms if he tried to shoot, I handed my Annihilator to Urgeh Pu-Pu Urgeh. My apprehensions turned out to be unfounded – the Relict, seeing the players observing him tensely, markedly slowly unclipped the Annihilator grip which had been refit for human fingers. Clearly knowing what he was doing, he opened the weapon and... in a sign of disappointment crossed two limbs on his chest, looking at the homebrew battery the Kirsan repair bot had whipped up:
"This won't do! We need a native nuclear battery. It would have enough power to start the reactor."
 A little ray of hope glimmered in my consciousness, because I did have real batteries – fortunately I had bought some recently on Kasti-Utsh III. However, before I was going to share the enormously rare objects with the Technician, I decided to dot all the i's and clarify what we were going to do next. What did Urgeh Pu-Pu Urgeh intend to do after the reactor turned back on?
"The instructions state that, in case of threat of detection, we must change the laboratory's location as quickly as possible. The station has no camouflage screen now, and so it's just a matter of time before automatic Precursor hunters start showing up. So we will turn on the camouflage and get away from this compromised position at once. Even if we have to stay in this same star system."
Hmmm... I'm not sure such safety rules were still strictly necessary in these times, tens of thousands of years after the great war between the ancient races had ended, but I didn't argue. I just asked the Relict whether he would transport my nearby frigate together with the laboratory. He hesitated for a second, then assured me the starship would be transported along with the station.
Danger Sense skill increased to level ninety-two!
Mental Fortitude skill increased to level one hundred thirteen!
I do not appreciate being lied to so flagrantly and ineptly! I needed to explain that to the Relict so he would understand. I mentally asked Valeri and Minn-O to be ready to join my attack if I couldn't manage on my own (the Technician's level 209 inspired respect regardless), and I turned decisively toward Urgeh Pu-Pu Urgeh. Because there was already enough pressure inside the station, I raised the face guard of my helmet to make close eye contact. I must have had a very serious Intelligence advantage over the Technician, because I didn't sense the least bit of resistance and was immediately flooded with a stream of alien thoughts:
"Gnat has sensed something and is on guard. I must have slipped up somewhere. But where exactly? Did I inadvertently think about the automatic activation of the security system when the reactor is started up? Most likely. Yes, the squadron of combat drones would have destroyed the intruders quickly and their starship next to the laboratory to boot. But now I'll have to do it on my own. Oh well, a new conflict was inevitable regardless. The six outsiders on the station must be terminated. I've learned a bitter lesson, I'll keep the giant Geckho at a distance. I can turn the rest against one another and suck them dry. Before killing Gnat, I need to take the battery from his inventory. But the nerve of that Gnat! He's trying to read me. He dared challenge me! No matter, I'll teach him another lesson by jamming his sense organs again! How do you like that, human? Ow! Yeesh... That hurts! How is he doing that? How is he flinging me around like that? Woah! He shouldn't be... Hey! Broke an arm... Shell cracked... Magic Points running out... Life Points in the red zone... Okay, okay. I give up!"
I immediately released the Relict, who was curled up in a ball with his limbs pressed up to his chest in pain. I wasn't expecting how effective the new combat tactic would be – before the blackness descended in my eyes, I grabbed my opponent with Telekinesis and tossed him against the walls, every time making the throws more abrupt and impacts more forceful. By the way, it's strange that a Technician at the extreme level of 209 would run out of mana that quickly, and his psionic attack against me was nullified almost immediately. I even had two thirds of my Magic Points left. Maybe the Relict hadn't yet restored his mana after our previous dust-up. Or maybe the Technician class didn't have a ton of Magic Points to begin with. After all, I was reminded that my Prospector once upon a time also had much less Magic Points than a similar level Listener.
Psionic skill increased to level one hundred eleven!
Telekinesis skill increased to level six!
Telekinesis skill increased to level seven!
Training skill increased to level four!
You have reached level one hundred one!
You have received three skill points (total points accumulated: six).
Level one hundred and one! Not bad, not bad! All six free points I immediately invested into Medium Armor, bringing it up to 93, all the while tracking my previously chosen course to see if I could use the Tachyon Deflector. Then I walked up to the hunched up and painfully shivering Relict. With the fingers of my left armored glove, I grabbed my vanquished opponent by the lower jaw and raised his head so I could see his eyes. And meanwhile I was using my right hand to hold the Annihilator to the Relict's head:
"Urgeh Pu-Pu Urgeh, I've had enough of your stubbornness and stupidity! This is the last time I'll be explaining and if you don't understand this time – it's on you! The war between the Relicts and Precursors ended a very long time ago. All that's left of the once mighty Precursor race are scattered embers on remote planets throughout the galaxy, and their technological level has universally been set back by millennia. Civilization on my planet was all the way back to primitive level and not even the slightest memories of our once great majesty remained. Your race meanwhile, was thought to be extinct right up until my ship discovered this hidden dormant laboratory. A member of my crew sacrificed his own life to save yours because you are perhaps the last Relict in the Universe. And my gratitude for what my Gunner did is the only thing keeping me from killing you, although I cannot stand this kind of guile and villainy. Got it?"
Based on the fragmentary thoughts that slipped through to me, I could sense that the Relict had finally started to consider it and was even allowing for the possibility that a ton of time really may have passed. Urgeh Pu-Pu Urgeh covered both of his eyes with cloudy film, then opened them again. That must have meant "yes." Okay, let's keep talking.
 "It just so happens that we can help one another. Without your laboratory, my damaged starship will never be able to return home. I then know where the ship of the Relict Hierarch is located. I believe that there are more living members of your race on it in stasis as well. And so I offer you a choice. You can be completely open and help a Listener and your senior in the Pyramid hierarchy. In that case, I will help you bring your race back. Or I could act alone without your help. Yes, it would take much longer, but I have enough Intelligence and knowledge to figure out all the equipment here on the station. So the choice is yours!"
Urgeh Pu-Pu Urgeh's response came instantly:
"Listener, I recognize your authority until the point we meet the Hierarch of my race, who will have the authority to overrule your orders! I won't cause any more trouble, I swear by the Pyramid!"
There it is! I lowered the Annihilator wearily. My arms were shaking. I was out of Magic Points. Over the last few seconds I had practically spent up my Endurance Points as well. Eduard Boyko had to hold me up, because my vision was getting blurry in exhaustion. I just about fell over. But that was a small matter. The main thing was that my objective was achieved! I knew that from now on Urgeh Pu-Pu Urgeh would obey me implicitly no matter what. And it would remain that way right up until we met with the Relict Hierarch. And after that (this I also read in the ancient Technician's thoughts) Urgeh Pu-Pu Urgeh would advise the Hierarch to kill me because I knew too many of the Relict race's secrets, and thus was dangerous. He would even help the Hierarch do so. Alarming information, but still it was for the distant future. I didn't have to worry about the member of the ancient race doing anything rash for the time being.
Psionic skill increased to level one hundred twelve!
Authority increased to 88!
I stashed my Annihilator, turned on my radio and called the Medic and both Engineers here from the frigate. One of the Relict's four upper appendages was hanging lifeless, so the Technician clearly needed a doctor. My Medic Gerd Mauu-La Mya-Ssa would also just find it interesting and helpful for skill leveling to examine a member of a previously unknown race. It would similarly aid the professional development of Orun Va-Mart and San-Sano to familiarize themselves with the ancient laboratory's systems. But where the Mechanics were guaranteed a few levels from working with the ancient artifacts, the functioning Relict station promised a colossal boost to my Engineers' skills and levels!
After that I took a nuclear battery from my inventory and extended it to the Technician:
"Urgeh Pu-Pu Urgeh, go turn on the subatomic reactor and camouflage screen! And immediately after that, transfer complete control over all laboratory systems to me. Including the security program – the last thing I need is another incident with the artificial intelligence! After that, together with my Pilots, Navigator and Engineers we'll bring the laboratory closer to the local star given it is dangerous to spend too long at these coordinates. When we're done with first-order business, we'll fly together to my frigate. I'll familiarize you with the rest of the crew and give you a berth to sleep in. I suppose that communicating with members of other races will help you not feel alone and quickly adapt to this new world, which has changed so much in the thousands of tongs since you were last around. And when you do adapt, and consider yourself ready for a serious conversation, along with the Navigators and other officers we can think up the best way to use this 'ace up my sleeve,' which can instantly move throughout the Universe."

Release - June 9, 2020

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