Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Perimeter Defense, Book III: New contract

by Michael Atamanov

A Frank Conversation

As I was undergoing another set of rehab procedures at my neighborhood clinic­, a call came in to my cellphone from an unknown number. After my return from Perimeter Defense, the fact that I was addicted to drugs and alcohol had become blatantly obvious and, even three months later, I was still going to the medical center three times a week for a glucose and vitamin drip to cleanse the liver and blood and ward off other ill effects. I can't even imagine how many unflattering epithets I mentally flung at Mr. G. I. on those days, sitting there with a needle in my arm. He had really managed to put my body through the wringer in the six short months he’d spent in it! With all the drinking he must have been doing, I imagine he was just hiccupping constantly.
"Yes?" I said, pressing the “Accept” button on the cell phone with my free hand.
"Ruslan, I have a serious proposal for you."
So much time had passed, but I still could pick that voice out from among a million others. Miya! I had long been mentally preparing for a conversation with my former employer, and had even begun actively trying to bump into him in order to tell that piece of trash exactly what I thought about him, man-to-man. But I was not ready for a conversation with his close companion, and I slightly lost my place. I wasn’t able to think up anything smart to say to her, so I just switched the phone off.
Millions of thoughts were spinning around in my head. Why was it Miya, and not Mr. G.I.? Was he so afraid of meeting me that he’d sent his girlfriend out in his place? It’d been so long... I guess they did need me, in the end.
"You're right," the Truth Seeker's voice rang out in my head. "Mr. G.I. will be waiting for you in the same place as last time, forty minutes from now."
I was having mixed feelings. On the one hand, I desperately wanted to dive head-first back into the fantasy world of Perimeter Defense. What can I say? It was the first place I ever felt I could really take a proper, deep breath and truly say I'd found my calling. It was there that I'd first experienced the intoxicating aroma of fame and glory. I had made history. My fleet's many starships had blotted out stars and caused anyone who got in our way to quiver in fear. I could have become co-ruler over billions of insects. I could have become Head of the Orange House. I could have become anyone I wanted. But, the main thing was that, in Perimeter Defense, I felt that humanity needed me. I was looked on as the savior of our whole race...
On the other hand, going back brought at least as many negatives as it did positives. My last experience had come at too high a price. The money I got in the first contract had barely been enough to pay all the fees and fines that Mr. G. I. had left in his wake. My friends had turned away from me, I had quarreled with relatives, and the girl I had been dating on-and-off for some time had left me, saying I'd become a degenerate drug addict. What was worse, there was a kernel of truth in her words. After the contract, I felt that I was in a body addled by hard drugs and alcoholic binges. It was like I had aged ten years in those six months. That all made waking up from the magical dream of Perimeter Defense and coming back to the real world an extremely bitter experience.
"After what you did to me last time, I don't even know what you could say to make me want to go back into Perimeter Defense! You’d just keep ruining my body!"
My unseen interlocutor kept silent for a few seconds, then said:
"The Alien Queen, at the head of a fleet of three thousand ships, has captured Hnelle. Your capital, Unatari, has been cut off from the Empire and is preparing for a hopeless battle. There is no chance for victory whatsoever. Everything you worked so painstakingly to create could be destroyed in one fell swoop, and all those close to you will die."
I thought there was no way she could hook me back in, but I was proven wrong. Miya had articulated everything I had been so severely lacking as of late. People need me again. They believe I can protect them, and hope for my return. I felt a thirst for activity boiling up in me after many weeks of extended apathy.
"This time, the contract is on my terms!" I declared decisively.
"I agree," Miya said, for some reason not even asking her master's opinion on the matter.
"Alright, I'll be there in ten minutes," I said, tearing the needle from my vein and heading for the exit.
"Hello there, Ruslan. Just where do you think you're going?" grumbled the young bouncer standing watch over the restaurant entrance, as he jerked me back by the shoulder.
I strained to hold back a string of unprintable words that were just begging to be let out. It was the same story all over again... Another loose end from the first contract. I was sure I was seeing this man for the first time; however, he, beyond all shadow of a doubt, knew me well and thought me a scoundrel. This unfortunate notoriety I had gained after my contract with Mr. G. I. infuriated me even more than my drugged-out body. With addiction, there were severe health consequences to be sure, but it was at least easy to work out how to recover from, which was not something that could be said of this strange renown.
 I often found girls I had never met before making eyes and smiling at me as if we were very well acquainted. A random passerby might take one look at my face, grow sullen with rage and, from out of nowhere, sock me right in the ear. Sometimes, women working in grocery stores refused to scan my purchases and called security to have me escorted out. And then, there were the night visitors. I'd had it up to here with them! Especially in the very first weeks after returning from Perimeter Defense! When my doorbell rang, I never knew what to expect. It could be a good-time girl who knew her way around my apartment surprisingly well, assuring me that my membership was paid-up through the end of the year. It could just as easily be glum criminal types twirling baseball bats and brass knuckles, demanding that I pay back a debt, which always came saddled with a run-up interest that was nothing to sneeze at either.
On my way to the meeting with my employer, I was very intent on reminding him of every such episode I’d endured and demanding full compensation for the damage done to my health and reputation. I was also preparing to demand a point be added to the new contract saying that such incidents were not to be repeated, or I would refuse to help him a second time. Unfortunately, I would first have to get into the restaurant to actually see Mr. G. I.
"I'm meeting someone here. He reserved a table," I replied to the vigilant doorkeeper in a tranquil tone.
He let go of my arm, called one of the managers over and whispered something to him, pointing at me.
"Under whose name is the table reserved?" the restaurant employee inquired, opening a notepad and studying the guests on it.
"Georgiy Innokentievich... uhh... Mesfelle," I guessed, which turned out to have been wrong. They had no reservation under that name today.
"Like I said, throw him out by the neck!" the mean old bouncer exclaimed at my failure, but I made a second attempt.
"Look for Miya Mesfelle. The table might be under her name."
By the disappointed look now on the old man’s face, I could tell that my second guess had been correct.
"But no funny business this time, Ruslan. Last time you had to pay for a lot of damage and broken furniture. Next time you won't get off so easy!" the vigilant bouncer threatened, finally letting me inside.
My last visit to this establishment was on an early winter’s morning, and the room had been empty. This time, however, the restaurant was full of people. All the same, it was no problem to pick Miya out of the crowd. The fashionable young woman with long red hair in a bright orange, knee-length dress stood out from the crowd and attracted the eye like a flame in the night. The Truth Seeker was sitting alone at a table in the very center of the large room. Before her was some kind of fruit mousse and a glass of orange juice.
"Take a seat, Ruslan," she said instead of greeting me, pointing me to an empty chair. "You've come early. Mr. G.I. isn't here yet. You'll have to wait. For now, order whatever you'd like."
A waiter came up and handed me a menu, then took my order. At the same time, the young man was looking at me anxiously, as if afraid that I might bite him.
"You seem to have quite the reputation here, Ruslan," Miya commented, also having noticed our waiter’s strange expression.
"And why do you think that might be?" I quipped, not able to hold back. "Before the half-year contract in Perimeter Defense, even my neighbors didn't recognize me. Now, every other person in the neighborhood wants to punch me in the face..."
"I suppose that means you should have celebrated the end of your contract with a bit more modesty," retorted the red-headed she-devil, making a clear demonstration of the fact that she too could mock.
I started choking on indignation. Were they seriously going to try to convince me that I was at fault for all this?! The accusation was so unexpected and inappropriate that I even lost my place. Miya started smiling, watching my reaction with curiosity.
"Ruslan, let's set some boundaries for this conversation so we don't have any misunderstandings. Your personal life outside of Perimeter Defense is of absolutely no interest to either me or Mr. G.I. What you may or may not have done, or why this or that neighbor grew to dislike you is neither here nor there, and has nothing whatsoever to do with these negotiations..."
Here the Truth Seeker had to stop her speech, as a waiter approached our table and placed an unordered bottle of champagne in front of Miya.
"This is a gift to you from the courageous young lads at that table," the waiter stated, pointing to a group of men from the Caucasus who were sharing a meal, one of whom was smiling at Miya and blowing kisses.
I noticed that she took a quick look around the room, before her gaze stopped on a group of college girls at the neighboring table. Miya carelessly waved her left hand in their direction, and the glassy-eyed waiter took the bottle and set it on the girls' table. After telling them the same story about the feisty troublemakers, the girls gave a happy giggle. They were very favorably disposed to the gift.
"Not the best possible place to negotiate," Miya said in dismay. "But, it's too late to change. We don't have very much time. So then, Ruslan, I repeat. We are now discussing only the terms of the future contract, and all your discontent and grievances you can air to Mr. G.I. in person, as soon as he arrives."
"What’s next? Do I have to swim to the other side of the river for a life jacket?" I laughed from the side of my mouth. "No, Miya, that's not how this works. After the last contract, I have a huge number of problems, and I am not signing up for any new adventures until I’ve discussed them with Mr. G.I."
Miya set her finished glass of juice aside and looked me right in the eyes.
"Ruslan, for some reason, you seem to be of the opinion that your employer should be thankful to you. You are gravely mistaken. This was nothing but a business contract. You did your job, and we paid you. There's nothing left connecting you with your employer after that. Any problems with your previous contract are off the table now. And if you think that your success was so impressive that your employer is burning with desire to give you extra tokens of gratitude, I'm afraid I have to disenchant you once again. No, that is not the case. In fact, Mr. G.I. was not at all happy with your term in Perimeter Defense, and was in no way planning to continue his relationship with you. He only agreed to even meet with you at all as a personal favor to me, in light of present circumstances. Your supposedly great achievements and success had nothing to do with it. Nothing at all."
"So you're saying that what I accomplished was nothing special?!" I exclaimed, not believing it could be true. "I increased the size of the Sector Eight Fleet more than anyone was expecting, including Mr. G.I., you, the Head of the Orange House, and even the Emperor himself. At the beginning of the contract I had sixteen light ships. Their crews were demoralized, and included a large number of Great House spies in their ranks. When my contract ended, I handed you the greatest fleet in the Empire with six battleships, twenty heavy cruisers, and a terrifying mothership; five hundred ships in total! And that’s to say nothing of the training given to the veterans of my raid through Alien space. Their level of competence, effectiveness, and loyalty was incommensurably higher than that of the unorganized goat herd I was handed at the beginning."
"Ruslan, let's not distort reality here!" she said, frowning in anger before motioning for the waiter.
Miya ordered another juice and returned to the topic at hand:
"And now, I'll tell you the facts as they look to me and Mr. G. I. When the contract ended, half of your fleet was made up of Iseyek ships, all of which returned to Swarm space. So don’t go telling me about any five hundred ships. In the best case scenario, you left Mr. G.I. with two hundred. And five of them were battleships, not six. Also, there were just fifteen heavy assault cruisers. To make matters worse, all the heavy ships, in our new admiral's words, were equipped in ‘an idiotic way,’ so we had to change all our ships back to normal, wasting a huge amount of the money you left for us in the process. And the most shocking thing of all was that you, without even so much as asking your boss, sold the luxurious yacht Queen of Sin. The Crown Prince had to buy it back from Roben at a cost of four battleships and some of your cruisers. These are the real facts, not fairytales like the ones you're trying to peddle. There's actually just one battleship left in the fleet, Crown Princess Likanna, and five heavy assault cruisers. The rest were just temporary and didn't belong to you anyway."
I couldn't believe my ears. Bride of Chaos, Princess Astra, Master of Tesse and Indigo Beauty, which had just returned to the fleet after a complete overhaul and modernization I had paid out the nose for in Sector Nine, were all gone. These idiots had given up four brand new battleships and ten assault cruisers in exchange for one measly yacht! Miya though, ignored my internal suffering and continued:
"No one disputes the fact that the fleet really did grow in strength in the six months you were in game. We did get a battleship and several heavy cruisers, after all. The thing is that Mr. G.I. and I are quite sure that these improvements would have happened with or without you. The Emperor and the Orange House Head gave you the money for the ships, at the end of the day. I even suppose that if the real owner of the account had been playing, he could have avoided the dispute with Duke Paolo and the waste of money that useless conflict became. In that case, the fleet would have been much stronger and larger than it is now."
Her speech was fairly convincing. I suspect that she was making active use of hypnosis to get me to believe in her words. For a few seconds, I even almost believed that I was just some untalented schmo who had messed everything up. And, if I wasn't totally convinced of the opposite from the beginning, it might have even worked. I gave my head a shake to dispel the illusion.
"If you're telling me that some yacht was more important to Mr. G.I. than four battleships, fully modernized and equipped as lavishly as possible, then it's impossible to imagine the fleet getting stronger all on its own in six months. Your companion would simply have pissed the money to the wind as he normally does. Those four battleships and ten heavy cruisers were worth at least two billion credits without the trained crews that came with them... So then, he traded all these riches for a yacht worth three million, if I'm being charitable?"
"That's not for you to judge, Ruslan! This is an issue of principle: Queen of Sin was a gift Crown Prince Georg gave to me. Or, to be more accurate, to us both. It was our flying palace. We spent some fifteen years living in it together! In all those years, Georg accumulated many decorations for our home, gathering all kinds of rarities and masterpieces. It became his favorite hobby. There was so much effort, time and hundreds of millions of credits put into Queen of Sin that no combat starship could come close to its value, not to speak of its comfort level. There were at least seven hundred million credits on the yacht just in sculptures by the great Veron ton Gep! Beyond that, there is also my nearly complete collection of the numbered Sivalla Emeralds, which were trophies from the great war with the Swarm. Those are simply priceless! And you sold all that luxury to Roben for a measly billion! Your brother had you wrapped around his finger, and you didn't even know it!"
My food arrived, and Miya had to take another break. The redheaded beauty took a look at the dishes brought to me and said in surprise:
"What is this, Ruslan? Are you trying to lose weight? Salad, mineral water... Where's the meat and side dish, Where’s the grilled fish, and, well, booze? Last time, you did not limit yourself.”
"Last time, I had a young, healthy body. But, after Mr. G.I. had a run with it, I was left with a body that hadn’t spent a second dry in six months, judging by the number of empty vodka bottles in my room! My liver is failing, my blood pressure jumps around like I've got hypertension, and my veins are shot to hell. Three times every week, I go to a clinic for drug rehab. That was the price of my first contract with you. That is why I'll be sticking to mineral water, and nothing stronger."
Miya closed her eyes for a few seconds, then shook her head, somewhat exhausted:
"Ruslan, I thought we had agreed on limits to this conversation. I just want you to understand that your life outside of Perimeter Defense is of absolutely no interest to Mr. G.I. right now. During the contract, your body was in a virtual reality capsule. It was well cared for. So, your words about alcohol abuse and damaged veins are clear fantasies, just like your attempt to project guilt for a fight with your neighbors onto someone else. You have no evidence, and there’s no way you could."
I dug around in my pockets and took out something I'd picked up from home on my way here: a transparent box with a shiny ball inside. I set it down on the table in front of her. Miya took the box, turned it around in her hands with curiosity, and put it back down. I felt that I had her back against a wall of irrefutable evidence.
"Weird... I wonder if this is from Mr. G.I.'s personal stash or those packs of crystals you took from the pirate base on Unatari?"
The Truth Seeker smiled happily in reply:
"Ruslan. That isn't crystals. Don't you think I'd know? It's probably a plastic souvenir. You must have ordered it to remind yourself of Perimeter Defense."
"Hmmm... Let's say that's true. But tell me then, Miya, how did you get my phone number?"
"You've become a really bad guy, Ruslan. So suspicious! I spent some time living in your apartment last winter, remember? Mr. G.I. told you! I simply saw your number printed on a bill and called it to save the number in case I needed it."
"That could all be, Miya, and I might even have believed you, but I've changed my number since then. I was sick of receiving threatening phone calls in the middle of the night. I've had it for less than a week. I've only told it to my mother and best friend. And I want to note for the future: when you call someone, make sure you’re actually talking. Don't just send your thoughts right into a person’s head. It was unsettling when I kept hearing your voice after the phone turned off..."
"Ruslan, you're saying some very strange things," she said, pursing her lips, upset. "Hearing voices in your head, talking on phones that are off... Have you considered getting looked at by a psychiatrist?"
I pushed my plate away decisively and stood from the table.
"Alright then, Miya. It seems I was mistaken. Constructive dialog between us is impossible. Send my greetings to your boss and, when you do, tell him I never want to see him again. I swear, if I do, I'll give that low-life a smack in the face!"
I turned toward the exit, and made two whole steps before two burly, athletically-built men, who had been sitting quietly and talking at the neighboring table until that point, stood up and blocked my path. One of them put my arm behind my back in a professional maneuver and slammed my face down on the table in front of Miya.
"Boss-lady didn't say you could leave!" The brute whispered into my ear.
Everyone around kept eating, as if nothing was happening. A waiter was carrying a tray literally two feet from me but, for some reason, none of the many restaurant visitors were interested in what was happening at our table. It was as if we weren't really there. Maybe if I scream, I'll get someone's attention.
"It won't work, Ruslan. They won't be able to hear you," Miya said with a voice full of inhuman, icy detachment as she watched my futile attempts to get out of the hold. "Not a very good time for you to remind me of my abilities as a Truth Seeker. That reminds me of another thing: I promised to kill you if we ever met in the real world. I do not make such promises lightly. And, as you're not prepared to work with me..."
I noted with complete surprise, that the two brutes that had attacked me looked as alike as two drops of water. Twins? Or...
"Par to nek Tuki-tuka-de-sa! Pori-la-navi!" (Let me go! Obey your Elder Female! At once!)
It was complete instinct, but it turned out to have been the right move. Both of the meat-heads jumped back from me immediately, bowed down on one knee and lowered their heads. How useful it turned out to have been, listening in on my Chameleon bodyguards' conversations. Though I didn't actually know the Ravaash language, I had managed to memorize ten or twenty sentences.
Proud of my small triumph, I gave Miya a whimsical salute and set off to leave the restaurant. Well, tried to at least. After walking a couple steps from the table, I started noticing a growing resistance. Every step was significantly harder than the one that came before it. I had enough strength for six steps, but found I couldn't go even one millimeter further. Alright, I'm not dumb, I get it. I didn't start banging my head on the wall. I turned to the table and sat down opposite Miya.
 "I guess that puts the score at one-one," the powerful Truth Seeker cackled raucously. "Alright, Ruslan. Now we can really have a frank conversation." ­
Miya was staring at the clock. A look of discontent, and even slight anxiety had crawled out onto her face.
"For some reason, your employer is late... That’s odd. Usually, Georgiy is quite punctual. Alright, we'll try to get on without him. Ruslan, I suggest the following: I promise to answer any three questions you have with complete honesty. Then, after the answers, so as not to waste time, we can discuss the next contract. You tell me your desires point by point, and I will decide whether it would be possible to fulfill them. If any issues remain, we can wait for Mr. G.I. and consult him. Agreed?"
I thought and nodded. This option was perfectly fine by me. Miya then sighed with obvious relief. It seemed she was not at all sure I was going to agree. The red-headed beauty relaxed a bit, and an insanely beautiful woman emerged from behind the mask of this deadly predator. In fact, she was perhaps the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my life. Only Astra, with her well defined, yet frail beauty could rival this dangerous carnivore. I was reminded of a comparison once made by Florianna: "Astra is a snowflake, and Miya is a flame." A very astute observation. Miya suddenly began smiling for no apparent reason. She was probably reading my thoughts.
"It's unusual to see you without a huge belly. What'd you name the baby girl?" I asked, putting forth the first of the three questions allotted to me.
Miya looked at me in surprise, but quickly went back to smiling.
"That was the last question I was expecting you to ask, Ruslan. Though it is nice to hear, I won't hide that. Her name is Deia, Crown Princess Deianna royl Georg ton Mesfelle."
In that Miya's daughter had become a Crown Princess, it wasn't hard to guess that my substitute had already divorced Marta. I wonder what his ex-wife demanded in return for signing the divorce papers? Should I ask Miya about that? Alright, I shouldn't waste another question on this. I'll figure it out as the game goes on. All the more so, given that I had a much more interesting question to ask:
"After leaving Perimeter Defense, I spent a ton of time trying to find information on the game online. I also tried to find even one virtual reality capsule for sale that looked like the one I got out of. It was a wild goose chase. And though I could perhaps understand why a private game for the elite would want secrecy, why would anyone want to keep the virtual reality capsules a secret? Doesn't it make sense that the manufacturers would actually be doing everything in their power to advertise such a product? I’m getting the impression that this technology simply does not exist. Can you tell me about it?"
Miya gave another satisfied smile:
"You've finally started thinking with your head, not letting your emotions rule you. Great question, Ruslan. That's how you should have started this conversation, instead of wallowing in self-pity and complaining about rude neighbors. Everything you suppose is correct, but you have missed one important part. You saw a working virtual reality capsule in real life. That was a mass-produced model too, not some experimental prototype. I've given you enough hints. You can figure the rest out on your own. Let’s see if you have a working brain in that head of yours."
Miya sat back deep in the chair with a glass of juice in her hand, and began observing my intellectual strain, clearly not planning to help me or give any more information.
I tried feverishly to imagine how this could possibly be. Something mass-produced with nothing written about it? Some kind of strict military secret? Maybe for working out different scenarios in a virtual world instead of reality? Maybe for working in locations with high infectious disease rates, or under enemy fire. Or maybe it was to train soldiers to overcome fear of death. After a hundred virtual deaths, they wouldn’t be afraid anymore. Or perhaps it was for selecting the most suitable people for especially unusual missions, like a Mars landing or first contact with extraterrestrial life forms... Though that all sounded too outlandish.
"It is the right answer, though" Miya attested, clearly content. "It's good to see that you are not as closed-minded as the vast majority of people. You can think beyond what's common. Yes, it is for working out how to use future technology that is still under development. The game Perimeter Defense, and the equipment for it do really exist, though I am not aware of all the goals of this mass-scale experiment. And I also have no idea where former players go to after they get a game-over. Information about Perimeter Defense is not allowed to seep out beyond the laboratory walls. I hope very much that they are simply given new characters, though I cannot say I am sure of that. You have only one question left, Ruslan. Ask it, and we can get to work."
Easy for her to say... I was still in shock after getting an answer to the last question. Miya and Georgiy, it seemed, were participants in a mass-scale many-year experiment for an unknown secretive organization! Well I'll be damned! My thoughts started to get mixed up. The questions that seemed important just a minute earlier, now had utterly no purpose. Perimeter Defense is a future technology development simulator... Well, alright. Though it was hard to believe, it did explain a lot.
"And can I bring my own body into the game?" I wondered.
Miya's eyebrows curved inward in surprise and her lips puckered in dismay.
"A strange question, Ruslan. You have seriously let me down. You already know the answer to it. That would be impossible for a whole ton of reasons. How can you possibly imagine bringing a physical body into a computer game? It would be impossible to add even a single material object to the virtual world. Just as it would be impossible to remove anything material from Perimeter Defense. Only thoughts, minds, and knowledge. That thing there," she said, pointing at the box, "is nothing more than a Chinese souvenir. It is a plastic pearl. Georgiy saw it at a stand in the mall and bought it for me, because it really does look like the in-game object. All the rest are just illusions created by me. Perimeter Defense is used, among other things, for discovering and training people with latent psionic abilities. After many years of training, I learned to use these skills not only in the virtual world, but also outside of it."
Despite all my skepticism, I couldn't find any inconsistencies in the Truth Seeker's words. Although... I pointed to the two twins at the neighboring table.
"And who plays the nonhuman races and the Aliens? Why did they understand when I spoke Ravaash?"
Miya shook her head in reproach:
"Ruslan, that's no fair. You've already asked all three questions. Let's try to stay within the rules, as we agreed. I answered your three questions. I'm sure you'll find answers to the rest sooner or later. For now, I need a complete list of contract terms from you. Here's a pencil and a sheet of paper from my notebook. I'll give you a couple of minutes. I need to figure out why my companion is taking so long."
The red-headed beauty retrieved a miniscule cell phone inlaid with large shiny crystals, maybe even real gemstones, from her small purse and left the noisy room into the stairwell. My gaze was involuntarily drawn to the leather purse she had left behind. There was probably a ton of interesting stuff inside, maybe even some secret inventions that would cast some light on what was going on... But I shook my head, chasing off the criminal thoughts, and took the pencil. So, what do I want?
 Miya came back seven minutes later when my list of demands was already practically finished. The woman stood motionless for a few seconds, staring vacantly somewhere past me, then forcefully hurled her phone onto the floor. It broke into a great many pieces, and the precious stones scattered around the floor. You didn't have to have the wisdom of Solomon to figure out that she was very upset, and even enraged. I wonder who could have brought the Truth Seeker to such a state of white-hot fury?
"Mr. G.I. won't be coming to the meeting," Miya told me, somewhat coming back to her senses. "It seems that he, at the very last moment, had a change of heart and said that he doesn't want to meet with you personally because he suspects you might not be very happy to see him. What an egotistical narcissist!"
I could have been wrong, but it seemed I saw a deceitful glare in her teary eyes.
"Alright, Ruslan, seeing how Georgiy left me on the hook like this, I don't have any more reason to protect him. Yes, you're right. Georgiy was occupying your body the whole time you were playing Perimeter Defense. Don't act so surprised. One of the reasons the game was made was to improve human-consciousness-transfer technology. It can be done either via a special machine, or by strong human psionics like myself and Mr. G.I. If only you knew, Ruslan, how hard it will be for me to carry everything alone... If only I had the strength... There's no time. We're already seriously behind schedule. So, give me the paper. I'll take a look at what you wrote."
Miya practically ripped the piece of paper from my hands and quickly skimmed it.
"As far as the first point, sure, the money will be there. There definitely won't be a problem with that. But this one here is gonna be harder: 'While in my body, no drugs or alcohol.' For now, I can't give you a one-hundred-percent guarantee, but I'll definitely try to think something up. Same for the next point about antisocial behavior. Though... alright. We'll accept them both. I swear by my abilities and the life of my only daughter, that no one will commit antisocial acts or use narcotics while in your body. I hope that is good enough for you."
I nodded, somewhat shocked at the seriousness of what she had just sworn by. Miya then continued:
"The next points I don't get: 'Freedom to behave however I want in game. Guaranteed safety for all those close to me, etc.' Ruslan, let's put this in more concrete terms. What do you mean by freedom and safety here? And please hurry. Someone might notice that Mr. G.I. is missing from the game soon."
To be honest, I was expecting her to resist more forcefully on the last points, all the more so given that I had asked for a substantial amount of money, including a significant amount of moral and material compensation, both for the last contract, and as an advance for this one. That was why I was surprised and even somewhat confused by the levity with which my demands had been accepted. Also, the pressure Miya was putting on me to hurry was hampering my concentration.
"I don't want to make any reports on my activities in Perimeter Defense. I must have the ability to do what I consider right in a given situation. And I want a guarantee that no characters will suffer at your hands just because they have become important to me."
"Was there someone holding you back last time? And as for my actions... You can't seriously suppose that the third most powerful Truth Seeker has nothing more important to do than track down people close to you, right?" Miya asked, surprised.
"Remember when you paralyzed Florianna? Remember when you lashed out at Princess Astra in the submarine?"
Miya flared up in response:
"Ruslan, your relationship with these characters had no influence on my actions whatsoever! I simply had no choice but to shut that blabby little airhead up! I did that for both our sakes. If I hadn't, it would have been two days at most before the secret of your being in Mr. G.I.’s body was revealed, and everything ended in complete failure. I would also have seriously suffered. You can't even imagine how meticulous the administrators are about making sure that every Perimeter Defense character has only one player. A couple of misplaced sentences about the real world, and you're done. It's like the player was never even there! As for the second girl, it was just raw calculation. Her pregnancy got in the way of my plans. But you demanded I not touch her, and I agreed..."
"Miya, don't try to squirm out of answering. Your listing off things that already happened does nothing for me. I want a guarantee for the future."
Miya looked me right in the eyes and said, slowly and clearly:
"No one will hold you back, just as no one will forbid you from having friends, girlfriends, favorites and even lovers in Perimeter Defense. But the rules of the game remain as before: you cannot reveal the fact that you are in Crown Prince Georg's body, and you must hold out for six months while fighting back the Alien attacks. And another rule, just from me: you cannot divorce my character in game. You also cannot have more children, and you must defend the Unatari star system at any cost. These are crucial issues. Failing at any of them will result in in your contract being terminated with no pay. And, what's more, I would have no more reason to give even the tiniest shit about keeping you alive in the real world. Consider this both a warning and an official rule."
I frowned, though I did understand Miya’s reason for insisting on these demands. The last thing she needed was another player in a position to disrupt her schemes. Her demands were basically fair. I had nothing against them and only asked one clarification:
"Miya, I can easily understand the divorce part. In the game world, it would threaten the little Crown Princess Deia's position in society. I can also understand why no more children. Your daughter has no need for competition or other heirs. But what makes Unatari so special?"
Miya looked at me with something like pity, as if she was once again frustrated with my intellectual capabilities:
"Don't you know? Because, according to the game storyline, Deia should be sleeping soundly in her nursery on Unatari right now. And your mission is to protect your daughter from danger, no matter the price."
"Let's clarify the mission then. Do I need to protect Deia or the Unatari star system? If I take her out of Unatari to a safe location, will protecting Unatari remain a high-priority mission, as before?"
She considered it briefly, then said:
"Ruslan, of course, you are right to question this. The only problem is that, unfortunately, your bright idea came too late. You won't be able to get Deia out of Unatari. After all, I am not a normal player, but a Truth Seeker with terrifying abilities. The game admins trust me. My character can be away from Perimeter Defense for long stretches of time. For now, my daughter is serving as a beacon for me; I can always return to the game through her. That means I can slip into the game without the admins noticing. But there are technical nuances here that make doing that somewhat complex. I need that very exit point right where I left it. As briefly as possible, protecting the Unatari star system is of critical importance not only to me, but to you as well. If it is lost, you will not be able to leave Perimeter Defense and get back to the real world."
"Am I understanding correctly that you will not be with me in Perimeter Defense then?" I asked, clearing up an important point, which the redheaded beauty affirmed.
"Yes, that's true. In the game, I am too vulnerable to my master, so I don't want to risk being near you."
"You don't trust me?" I laughed.
"Of course not. I don't trust anyone at all. Not you, not Mr. G.I., and not the game admins. Do you think I could have lived this long in Perimeter Defense if I was the trusting type? I leave you the ability to call me three times for a short period, but only in extreme necessity. Making a jump between the game and the real world is very tiring, even to me. Do you understand my conditions?"
I responded with a silent nod.
"So then, we can consider the contract agreed upon. I see no reason to sign it. The last time that was done just for atmosphere, to make you sense the weight of your decision. You won't be able to take paper copies with you into the game anyway and, what's more, there's no time for such senselessness. Georgiy can barely wait. Alright then, you need to prepare your mind for the transfer."
"And how do I do that?" I wondered. Miya explained:
"You need to fall asleep or get very drunk. As we have very little time, I suggest the easy way: here's a sleeping pill. Take it."
Miya extended her hand, revealing a pair of unstamped pills in a yellow glossy packet. My whole life's experience, and all my cautious instincts were crying out at that moment that it was a bad idea to take unknown drugs from the hands of someone I barely knew, but I willed the voice of reason down to a dull whisper. I washed down the two semi-sweet pills with a swig of mineral water and started waiting.
I was already feeling it ten seconds later. The restaurant began swimming before my eyes. The two enforcers at the neighboring table took on the appearance of Ravaash soldiers. Miya's clothing changed from an orange dress into a set of brightly colored ribbons, and her straight red hair changed styles from down to up. I started feeling quite sure that I had just made the biggest mistake of my life.
"Pick up after us!" Miya said to the lizards in Imperial language, and both reptiles gave affirmative nods in reply.
The Truth Seeker looked at her watch, then at me.
"Ugh, Ruslan. Pray we won't be late, and that I have enough energy..."
The last thing I noticed, already losing consciousness, was Miya stretching out her hand to the Chinese souvenir lying on the table, carelessly popping the transparent package open and... tossing the "plastic pearl" right down her throat!
My body arched back in severe pain, and I pried open my eyes in horror. There was a blinding white light. There were some darkened figures bending over me. The voices were gurgling, as if speaking under water.
"His pulse is dropping again!"
I couldn't figure out what to even react to before another of the figures was bowing down over me. The defibrillator shock forced my body to buckle in again. I screamed. Actually, instead of a deafening scream, I was only able to squeeze out a barely audible whimper. There were tubes down my throat and an oxygen mask on my face getting in the way.
"We have a pulse!"
"His pupils are reacting to light!"
"I’m detecting brain activity!"
"Blood pressure: sixty over thirty and rising!"
"Give me two CC's of nanite-7. We need him to heal faster."
I felt a needle poke into my neck. I tried to concentrate and focus my eyes, but I couldn't. As before, I could only see the people as dark, blurry contours. My hearing, though, was stabilizing gradually.
"I’m seeing more arrhythmia," came a voice belonging to a young woman. "Pulse unstable: fifteen beats per minute. Should we give him another shock?"
"No, that won't be necessary. There should already be enough oxygen in the blood. His blood pressure is stabilizing,” replied another voice with a strange accent, sounding almost inhuman.
"Pulse is at twenty-eight and rising."
"Blood pressure is at seventy-five over forty. Brain activity is increasing."
"Patient conscious!" The joyful scream of the third figure rang in my ears.
One of them bent down over me. I tried to focus my vision and, with surprise, I saw Miya in surgeon's whites with a mask on her face. She was looking down at me with panic and suddenly locked eyes with mine.
"I can tell that you can hear and understand me. Ruslan, you scared the crap out of me! The transfer wasn't totally smooth. I don't really know why. Maybe, despite all my tricks, some automatic defense mechanisms from the admins detected the change in IP-address or ID-capsule. Your account was banned. In the game it looked like a sudden heart failure. You spent three minutes clinically dead. I spent practically all my energy trying to pull you back from the other side. But you were able to squeeze out. The character is unblocked, and that is all that matters.
Take care of yourself, get your strength back. For now, like I said, I'll have to leave you. There's no point in trying to call me into Perimeter Defense for the next month and a half or so. I just won't have the power for another jump. So, you'll have to deal on your own. The Unatari defense forces are waiting for you.
Good luck!"

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