Friday, April 27, 2018

Reality Benders - 2: External Threat by Michael Atamanov

Reality Benders, book II
External Threat

by Michael Atamanov

Release - July 23, 2018
Pre-order: Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, Google

Introduction. Through Enemy Eyes

With my greatest thanks to Guillem León for all his support and inspiration!
Michael Atamanov

Pa-lin-thu, capital of the First Directory
Palace of the Ruling Council
Small Council Chamber

IN AN AUSTERE BLACK ceremonial toga, free of regalia or adornments, Thumor-Anhu La-Fin strode majestically up an illuminated path to a podium. From the corner of his eye, the old man could see rows of cold gazes radiating in the gloomy silent room. The Mage leader didn’t even need his psionic abilities to sense the tension. He already knew how eagerly these lower-rank rulers would devour him if he slipped up or demonstrated so much as a hint of weakness or timidity. All these mages feared and respected only one thing: strength. So, as Coruler Thumor-Anhu La-Fin walked through the room, he couldn’t allow a single muscle on his proud, majestic face to twitch.
And it was hard to maintain that composure because high Mage had to leave his usual staff at the entrance to the palace. Though flawlessly polite and decorous, the guards at the front door were unflappable, insisting that he surrender his magical implement. They allowed him to take a similar-looking if powerless replacement, though. And now, as he walked, Thumor-Anhu La-Fin was putting a bit of weight on that toothless pretense, that mere cane. Being separated from his trusty wizarding utensil got under the old mage’s skin and added fuel to the fire of anxiety inside him. It now seemed he was standing on the very edge of catastrophe. After all, never before in his forty years of power had he been asked to surrender his prized piece of knotted wood just to attend a meeting. Sometimes, when council sessions went on too long, it’s powerful magic provided much-needed support to his achy bones, so it wasn’t purely a question of defense, either.

Any other day, Thumor-Anhu La-Fin would have made a huge scene, demanding he be treated with respect as a noble Coruler and elder. He was one of humanity’s three highest overlords, so the insolent guards that dared make him part with his staff deserved nothing less. In fact, they should have been reduced to steaming puddles of protoplasm or carbonized statues. But today was not the day for stoking tensions. After all, this council session had been called to discuss Thumor-Anhu’s fitness to lead a faction in the game that bends reality. And after a recent string of misfortunes, his faction really was in a rough position, a fact which cast his competency and wisdom into grave doubt...
Ever since it was introduced, the game that bends reality had captivated the minds of the ruling aristocracy. It offered truly limitless possibilities and learning opportunities. Furthermore, if one’s magical power grew in the game, it increased in the real world as well. The game could also cure any disease and, with a few exceptions, grant absolute immortality. However, for now, the number of people that could enter and play the game was limited. In fact, there were so many more hopefuls than available openings that some had been contested by duels to the death. So, it came as no surprise that all three Corulers of humanity wanted to watch over and guide their society’s progress in the game, and were even participating directly, each at the head of their own faction.
By now, the virtual world had provided a good deal of astonishing discoveries and advanced science by centuries, so the ruling council made it a top priority. Just one word from a faction leader, and high-value real-world resources would be requisitioned to exchange for alien technology in the game. Whole institutes of analysts and diviners were working nonstop to determine the most effective strategies both for growth and dispatching neighboring factions. If a faction leader needed someone of a particular profession, they could recruit straight from the top of that field regardless of the draftee’s feelings on the matter. The need to dominate in the game had superseded all real-world problems. There was a famine in the Third Directory, for example, and an anti-mage uprising in the Sixth. Recently, the self-styled monarch of the Second Directory had even been allowed to join the ruling council. Sure, he was a successful and popular military commander, but he was the first person without magical abilities to sit on the council in eight hundred years.
Thumor-Anhu La-Fin was scheduled to speak third. The other two corulers had already finished their speeches, intelligently arguing their right to lead not only in the real world, but also in the game that bends reality. And now, the ruling council would hear from Leng Thumor-Anhu La-Fin. He knew they’d have lots of questions, so stepping up to the podium felt like going to the gallows.
Just before he reached the rostrum, Thumor-Anhu La-Fin slightly turned his head and glanced at the other two honorable Corulers. Anri-Huvi La-Shin was wearing a bright red ribbon on his toga, meaning he was going to chair this meeting. A good sign! Unlike Coruler Onuri-Unta La-Varrez, he did not harbor a personal disdain for Thumor-Anhu and would not try to make him look bad with trick questions and acrid remarks. Anri-Huvi La-Shin was almost a friend, at least, to the degree true camaraderie was possible between members of the upper aristocracy. And sure, Anri-Huvi La-Shin would probably want a political favor for his loyalty. Perhaps he would ask for his son to be put on the council, or for his newest wife to be handed a leadership position at the thermonuclear powerplant when it was up and running. None of that was impossible, though.
Just then, a huge screen lit up behind him, and the council went silent, hanging on his every word. Thumor-Anhu La-Fin confidently spouted off numbers and performance metrics, not even looking at the presentation behind him, demonstrating an excellent memory and sharp mind. His colony was growing vigorously. He had five hexagons, all with high development, and a further two neighboring ones were being prepared for colonization. The capital hexagon had reached development level four. His faction now had over three thousand seven hundred players and a burgeoning manufacturing sector, and they were fully self-sufficient in everything from food to high-tech weaponry. What was more, trade had been established with the Geckho overlords and a high-speed road to the Geckho spaceport was under construction. His group did find itself in a somewhat rough neighborhood, though... The Leng figured this would be the lynchpin of his speech, so he spent the lion’s share of his time on it. As an experienced politician, he knew not to try and sweep obvious problems under the rug. Much better to get out ahead of the issue, so the favorable framing would stick in the audience’s mind. First impressions and all that…
So, as he put it, his faction had been saddled with troublesome neighbors. And that was not to say there were problems with the primitive NPC harpies or other mythical creatures. But the nearby player faction was a bit more of a challenge. The H3 Faction was very warlike, and they had around fifteen hundred players. What was more, the majority of the enemy faction was made up of professional soldiers with tons of real-world combat experience. So, despite Thumor-Anhu’s superiority in numbers and technology, direct confrontation had not brought the desired result. Even still, after every skirmish, the factions just returned to their initial positions, so nothing was lost per se. But the H3 Faction had captured quite a bit of weaponry and equipment. And not only were they using it in battle, they were learning to reproduce it, which threatened to level out the technological imbalance.
But, Leng La-Fin had decided to change strategies, and was no longer trying to finish off his dangerous neighbors with a single decisive battle. All his projections showed that the H3 Faction was progressing slower than his. What was more, they didn’t have any mages, and thus lacked the ability to detect mind control or implanted thoughts. So, he was now going to try and infiltrate the enemy with magic, using active propaganda to defeat them indirectly. And that tactic had already borne fruit. One of the top leaders of the H3 Faction had been working for Leng La-Fin for a long time, providing valuable information right from the enemy headquarters. And just yesterday, he was successfully evacuated to La-Fin’s capital hexagon.
And Coruler Thumor-Anhu La-Fin calls that a victory?As the old mage feared, Coruler Onuri-Unta La-Varrez sunk his teeth into this weak spot. Essentially, his most valuable agent has been neutralized. How is that something to celebrate??? I call it an abject failure! Also, considering his technological superiority and three-fold numerical advantage, I have a hard time comprehending how he could possibly lose!!!
It took all Thumor-Anhu La-Fin’s patience to maintain a calm expression. In his report, he hadn’t said he had three times more players. Three thousand seven hundred versus fifteen hundred was nowhere near that. But his opponent was probably not merely mistaken. He was almost certainly trying to draw attention to the numbers issue. He must have known about yesterday’s bombardment of the grain hexagon. It had lost two development levels, forcing Thumor-Anhu La-Fin’s faction to thin its ranks by seven hundred. Before the battle, he did have a three-fold advantage, and Onuri-Unta La-Varrez must have wanted to make sure everyone knew that.
Gathering his thoughts and emotions, the elderly mage started answering in an even and unexpressive tone:
You mustn’t underestimate our opponent. Despite their ignorance of the magical arts, the H3 Faction has a counterintelligence service that runs like clockwork, and they have exposed several of our spies already. And an agent as valuable as this one, with access to top-secret plans, can be exposed easily by giving him specific information, and waiting to see if it falls into our hands. Our man came under suspicion, so we pulled him out ASAP. He will be provided everything he needs and can be used as proof that we keep our word. What’s more, after we established that players can move between our factions, entering one virtual reality pod and exiting another, it was time to test whether physical bodies can be brought from the parallel world into our own. Now we know they can, which will sway many hesitant H3 Faction members. And there will be more of them every day, because we have implanted thoughts to undermine their system of loyalty and mutual trust...
Based on the buzz of approval, the council was mostly in agreement with Thumor-Anhu La-Fin. What was more, help came just in time from the chairman:
Coruler Onuri-Unta La-Varrez is glossing over the geography and history of the parallel world, and so has neglected to mention that the H3 Faction is their largest country. On a number of occasions, they have defeated grand coalitions of the other factions we’ve encountered. And while Onuri-Unta wiped out the H11 Faction just after they entered the game, and vassalized the H8 Faction not long after, which were both campaigns of unquestioned valor, there is no comparison to what Thumor-Anhu is facing.
Such timely support would certainly have to be repaid... Honestly, Thumor-Anhu La-Fin himself didn’t even know these details and made a mental note to look into the history of the parallel world. The report continued. Thumor-Anhu was particularly afraid of mentioning the significant ransoms he had paid, and the temporary ceasefire, but the ruling council had basically no comment. As a matter of fact, there were no problems right up until the end of the speech, which was about yesterday’s battle.
“Aha, more evidence that Coruler Thumor-Anhu La-Fin has no aptitude as a military tactician or strategist!!!” Coruler Onuri-Unta La-Varrez said, taking the floor with statements that bordered on flagrantly insulting. “You’d have to be trying to fail with such a colossal advantage and the element of surprise! But fail you did, and now your whole faction is in dire straits!”
The council stayed silent in fear when the false staff in the great mage’s hands suddenly began to glow with summoned energy. However, it went dim just as quickly. Thumor-Anhu La-Fin overcame his emotions and stopped any nasty curses from accidentally spilling out. His opponent was not suicidal so, if he was blatantly provoking Thumor-Anhu, he had surely tended to his defense. He must have had some friends who would have his back if it came to a wizarding showdown.
Coruler Onuri-Unta La-Varrez should get his information from more reliable sources.Not a single hint of annoyance or any other feeling slipped through in the old mage’s calm voice. Because our attack achieved all its objectives. The enemy’s oil well and refinery in the swamp hexagon were destroyed. That strikes a heavy blow to their mobility and military strength. You see, the H3 Faction is just now beginning to incorporate antigravs, while their native transportation technology requires petrochemicals as fuel. They were beginning to expand into the rocky coast, but that is now all up in the air because it’s too hard to reach. Also, the H3 Faction currently cannot trade with the Geckho for the same reason. Restoring control over the swamp hexagon and repairing their citadel, demolished bridges, pontoons, dams, and defensive structures will take four days at least. And it will also take four days for them to rebuild their oil facilities. And ten days after that, the ceasefire will be over. Then we can just destroy it all over again...
But what about the heavy losses of manpower and forced retreat from the swamp hexagon? And the raiding party?Onuri-Unta La-Varrez just wouldn’t back down, but it was clear that was only still arguing out of inertia because his reasoning just kept getting weaker.
We weren’t trying to take control of the swamp hexagon. It is too hard to supply, and we’d have to place a disproportionately large garrison there because it’s so near the enemy heartland. Were our losses significant...? Sure, thousands of our players went to respawn. But I already mentioned that we were up against trained professional soldiers, and the average level of the H3 Faction is higher than ours. Whats more, we were facing the First Legion in the swamp hexagon. That’s the enemy’s highest-tier elite force, so it would be somewhat naive to expect our losses to be equal.”
Before continuing his speech, Thumor-Anhu held a short pause and took a sip of an energy elixir. His old legs were shaking treacherously in exhaustion, and the mage even had to lean on the false staff so he wouldn’t fall over in front of the whole council. What was more, he needed a pause to gather his thoughts because the biggest hump was now on the horizon. The enemy raiders had just waltzed into his territory! Then look at who they were led by! It was easy to see why this was a delicate topic. But he wouldn’t exactly be able to cover it up now. After a moment of consideration, the experienced politician decided to tell them everything.
So, the raiders... Yes, we were taken by complete surprise when they showed up behind our lines in the middle of pitched battles in the swamp hexagon and rocky coast. After all, we thought our spies would let us know about enemy combat operations in advance. But as our defector has already explained, even the H3 leadership was caught completely off guard. And the raid was more destructive than we ever could have imagined. It took some time to get forces back from the front, so the consequences were dire. The infrastructure of the grain hexagon was severely damaged, and it will take time to rebuild all they destroyed. What’s more, the experimental Sio-Mi-Dori antigrav crashed while trying to pursue the raiders. We still haven’t established the cause. There are qualified experts studying the wreckage now, but this accident will push back the timetable for putting such craft into serial production. As for the leader of the raid, it was a man named Gnat, a player I’m sure many of you have heard of...
The craftiest member of the H3 Faction? The one who has taken Coruler Thumor-Anhu La-Fin’s granddaughter prisoner two times? He also sent you to respawn once if memory serves.
That question came from the chairman himself and, most likely, it was for the best. Thumor-Anhu La-Fin knew that there had been rumors swirling about this Gnat’s behavior. They said he disrespected the Leng right to his face and had brought shame on the noble Minn-O La-Fin. He knew those facts were savored by his foes. But now, there was no incitement about insulting a Leng,or even dishonoring a noble lady. Coruler Anri-Huvi La-Shin was clearly formulating the question as delicately as possible and was probably hoping to reap the dividends of this in the future. And he deserved nothing less.
Yes, Coruler Anri-Huvi La-Shin, that’s the man. By the way, I advise all other rulers to look into this Gnat, because I am certain this won’t be the last you hear of him. Hes quite remarkable. I’ve had my eye on him for some time. He’s still a new player, and he has no respect for the law or authorities. In his world, he was a criminal. The H3 Faction mostly hates him because killed a beloved commander and is generally disobedient and defiant. That might make you think he’s just some hoodlum, and the best he could hope for is a lifetime of hard labor. But strangely, despite all that, Gnat has already achieved the rank of Gerd. And our Geckho suzerains are crazy for him. They take him with them into space and even, despite all their assurances that they will not interfere in our conflicts, just one word from Gnat and they flew down from space to evacuate him in the middle of battle!”
At these words, a buzz came over the chamber. The council was discussing heatedly, unable to hide their astonishment. Thumor-Anhu La-Fin, very satisfied with the effect, made a brief pause, allowing the audience to say their fill, then continued his speech:
And do you know what Gnat brought his scientists after his last voyage into outer space? An Annihilator of an ancient race, a functioning armored spacesuit of an unknown civilization and... this one’s a real doozy! A highly detailed diagram of a Geckho starship!
The audience started making a racket again. Some council members even jumped out of their seats. But this time, the old mage gestured for silence, so he could continue.
I see, honorable rulers, that you also appreciate the scale of the problem. Who knows what Gnat might bring back after his next journey into space? And who can guess what technologies that might provide our enemies? Potentially, this is a grave threat to our faction’s technological advantage!
He must be stopped!someone shouted, and Thumor-Anhu La-Fin was eager to agree:
Precisely! Honorable rulers, I know perfectly well that you have dragged my name through the mud in private and laughed at my doddering foolishness. You say that I, a respected Leng and faction leader, am paying too much heed to a common player and you mock the five-thousand-crystal bounty I’ve placed on his head. Well, I’m doubling it. What is more, I officially promise sanctuary to any member of the H3 Faction who helps us take Gnat prisoner or neutralizes him in the real world! My agents will try to spread this information as widely as possible, so that every member of the H3 Faction knows! I want Gnat to be constantly on edge, so he cannot sleep, so he sees everyone he meets as a potential murderer. He cannot be allowed to trust any of his allies. Even if I dont ever pay that bounty, no person can live under constant stress for long. Gnat will be forced to choose: either leave his home planet forever or join us of his own accord! And my intuition tells me he’ll choose the latter!
The end of the great mage’s speech was met with a standing ovation. From the corner of his eye, Thumor-Anhu La-Fin saw that both other Corulers were also applauding. Complete approval! He wouldn’t be losing his rank, title or fortune today. Now, he just had to keep his promises.

Chapter One. Back to Space!

THE FIRST CHANGE I noticed back aboard the Shiamiru was that not all the bunk rooms were full anymore! On my last flight, there were huge hairy Geckho sitting on every cot and pull-out seat. But now, walking down the corridor, I saw upper beds folded up and unoccupied. There were even a few empty ones down below.
Gnat, six crew members decided not to renew their contracts,Uline Tar whispered when I remarked on the change. “That has Captain Uraz Tukhsh very worried, though he wont show it. But let’s discuss that later. For now, buckle up. Were taking off.”
And what about my injured friend?I asked, worried about Dmitry Zheltov. After all, this was his first time on this shuttle and he didn’t understand a single word of Geckho. But Uline Tar reassured me:
There’s a medic working on him right now, so everything is fine. The human pilot was assigned to the second bunk, together with the Navigator and Senior Engineer. And, I’ll have you know, that’s a place of great honor!
And where are our bunkmates Vasha and Basha?The end of my question was drowned out by the roar of the engines, so she seemingly didn’t hear.
However, I had already spotted the two big twin brothers in the neighboring bunk. Both of them bared their teeth at me in greeting and seemingly said something, based on the way their lips were moving. I waved back, but the extreme G-forces made it a real undertaking. And that was just the beginning. We were still gradually accelerating. After some time, it became totally unbearable... My back was pressed into the seat so hard I thought I heard my bones crack. On our last takeoff, it was somewhat less severe. Seemingly, the blood was flowing out of my head because my eyes went dim. I was clinging to the edge of consciousness. The only sensory tether still holding me to reality was the sound of my heart pounding...
No, I couldn’t die like that! Before my faculties left me once and for all, I threw open the menu and brought up my statistics:

Gerd Gnat. Human. H3 Faction.
Level-38 Prospector
Luck modifier
817 of 998
Endurance points
140 of 580
Magic points
Carrying capacity
58 lbs.
Medium Armor
Eagle Eye
Danger Sense

I needed to put one point into Constitution right away! I felt slight relief, but it didn’t last long. I threw another point into Constitution, bringing it to 15.
The dizziness retreated. That was either my improved stats, or we reached our target velocity. I strained to catch my breath and turned my head to look at Uline, who was spitting mad:
I guess our brainless captain forgot to turn on the gravity compensators! Or maybe something broke again. He’s so inept, his arms might as well grow out of his ass!”
So, this was not normal. That put my mind slightly at ease. But, not wanting to think about stat and skill points anymore, I kept the window open and spent some time thinking over where to put my remaining points. What exactly did I need?
Strength? After raising Constitution, Strength had become my lowest statistic at just 13. It governed my carrying capacity, ability to use heavy weaponry, throwing range and damage in hand-to-hand combat... On the other hand, did a Prospector or Listener really need high Strength? The answer was not apparent.
Agility? The only statistic I had never improved. I knew it could unlock higher-quality weapons from the Rifles group, though. And even if that was my only motivation, it was enough. The Krechet carbine and Annihilator both took all the Agility I had, so I couldn’t ever wield a better one without improving it. Alright, I’d put one point there and bring it to sixteen. But I still had five of the eight stat points I’d gained from achieving the rank Gerd.
Intelligence? For a Prospector, working with complicated electronics, this was a very, very important statistic. I suspected my high Intelligence was a major factor in how quickly I was leveling Astrolinguistics and Cartography as well. I had no idea whether a Listener needed high Intelligence, though. But regardless, I was not planning to change class before the end of my contract with Captain Uraz Tukhsh. That could put me and my whole faction in an awkward position. After all, I wasn’t sure if a Listener could use a Prospector Scanner, which is what I’d been hired to do. At any rate, I’d just become aware I could change class, so there was no rush.
In the end, I decided to add one point to Intelligence, raising it to 20. And then... I spent a while batting my lashes. Another parameter also changed:
Magic points

Just then, a blue bar came up below my life bar. Did I now have mana?! Cool, sure, but also a bit scary. What could I do with it? What could I spend Magic Points on, and from a technical standpoint, how did I use them? I hadn’t gained any spells, so I was at a loss.
I was initially planning to invest just one point in Intelligence, but now I couldn’t hold back and added another just out of curiosity. My magic points immediately grew to 119. But what good was that?
Alright, enough monkeying around. I still had Perception, a Prospector’s most important stat. I was somewhat upset because, when I put on the new Listener suit, I had to remove my infantry helmet. And unfortunately the IR Lens, which raised my Perception by 2, was clipped to my old headgear. But that couldn’t be helped. It was either the armor suit or the helmet and lens... Or was I wrong? I’d have to ask the ship’s Mechanic if he could refit the IR Lens for the black Listener helmet. But that was for later. Now I had to spend my last three stat points.
I put another into Perception, bringing it from 21 to... why 23 not 22??? How? What made it go up by two? Luckily, a hint jumped in telling me that, for every point invested in a stat after 20, another was added as a specialization bonus. How nice!
But that put me at an impasse because I now wanted mutually exclusive things. What was best: invest the two remaining points in Perception, raising it to 26, or throw another into Intelligence, bringing it up to 23? But that would leave me with one more point... I thought for a long time, but concluded my main stat was Perception, not Intelligence, so I should improve that. So then, both remaining points into Perception, giving a mind-blowing 26!!! Now, I had freakish powers of observation! Nothing could hide from my all-seeing gaze!

* * *

I JUST HAPPENED to finish as Uline Tar undid her safety belts and stood up to her huge height:
“One of these days, the captain’s bad piloting is gonna kill us... I wouldn’t be surprised if we have only half a crew after this trip. Who wants to risk life and limb so some Aristocrat can play pilot?! The only plus is how much more room we’ve got. As the only woman on board, I even got my own bunk! Anyway, I need to get dressed!” With these words, the Trader lowered a metal curtain, closing the door and blocking off her bunk.
This was the first time I’d seen a bunk closed. Normally, they were all wide open. I thought I should probably leave, so I wouldn’t embarrass the furry lady while she changed. But Uline kept me on the bench, placing a heavy hand on my shoulder:
“Gnat, you can stay. You’re not a Geckho, so it doesn’t matter if you see.”
She was purposely speaking louder than necessary, clearly wanting the other Geckho to hear. At the same time, she showed me a familiar gesture, placing her hand to her lips. I used to think it meant, “we’ll talk about this later,” but it clearly had a somewhat different meaning: “keep mum.”
Astrolinguistics skill increased to level thirty-six!
Intrigued, I waited to see what came next. Uline Tar pulled a folding table out of the wall and, one after the other, set out sixteen specially-cut large red crystals.
“Gnat, this is your share of the licensing royalties from the footage of the Relict base,” she said barely audibly, just with her lips. “It’s sixteen thousand. Put it in your inventory and show no one. It’s a very hefty sum. Many in the galaxy would kill for less. Vasha and Basha got the same and, as far as I know, will be leaving the Shiamiru after the next voyage.”
I followed her sage advice and stashed the crystals in my inventory. Meanwhile, I asked the experienced Trader if a person like me could put my savings in a Geckho bank.
“The civilization of Shiharsa has just one bank: The Bank of Shiharsa. That’s all we need,” she answered bizarrely. “I know for sure that Miyelonians, Trillians, Meleyephatians and other space races are forbidden from using the Bank of Shiharsa, to keep potential enemies from damaging the Geckho financial system. But maybe a member of a vassal race could have an account... I’ll be honest, Gnat, I don’t know. I’d have to check the law. But these synthetic crystals were invented for Geckho to pay our vassals, so it is probably not allowed. And now, Gnat, please turn around. I am going to get changed and also need to do my makeup.”
I didn’t argue, sat cross-legged on the edge of the bench, turned toward the wall and opened my inventory. I had plenty to do. During the raid into Dark Faction territory, I filled my backpack with plunder nearly at random. I knew for certain I had some decent Medium Armor in there, a Dark Faction chameleon cloak and a futuristic laser rifle, which I could not use due to class restrictions. There were some other strange artifacts from the crashed antigrav as well. I could not determine their properties, but I stuck them in my inventory anyway. Now was the time to sort through all this junk because I was on the verge of over-encumbrance and it was getting uncomfortable.
First of all, I checked the Prospector scanner. The enemy antigrav was very nearby during my scan, so there was a chance... my heart aflutter, I opened the diagram. Yes! I had a highly detailed three-dimensional model of the Dark Faction’s Sio-Mi-Dori shock-landing antigrav. It would make an excellent gift for Gerd Ustinov and the other scientists!
After that, I got to the armor. It was a thick dark-colored jacket, made of two layers of dense synthetic fabric. It had protective inserts in the chest, back and shoulders, which were made of a material somewhere between ceramic and thick plastic. I had it at the site of the Sio-Mi-Dori crash for after I outgrew my kevlar jacket. Little did I know I would soon be receiving the Listener suit.
Dark Faction shock-division commander armor
Chemical defense +12, Radiation defense +12, Armor 34.
Statistic requirements: Constitution 14, Strength 14.
Skill requirements: Medium Armor 30.
Attention! Your character has insufficient Strength to equip this apparel.
The armor weighed nineteen pounds, which was a third of my carrying capacity. It was worse than the Listener armor in every way, so I had no reason to hold onto it. It would be a big shame to just throw it away, though, because it was superior to the armored jackets commonly used by my faction. But it was too bulky and heavy. Should I ask Zheltov if he wants it? I was sitting in thought when, just above my ear, I heard Uline Tar’s voice:
“By the way, Gnat... no, no, don’t turn around yet! I just wanted to make a suggestion. You should ask the captain to store your crystals. He can keep them in his safe. You would have to explain where you got it all from, though, which is best avoided! The problem is that Vasha, Basha and I haven’t told him about our little side hustle. I mean, it’s none of his business. So obviously, we did not give him our crystals.”
“But don’t the Geckho all use an electronic payment system?” I asked in surprise, to which the trader answered with a smirk:
“Usually, yes. But your home planet... don’t get offended... is such a backwater that half of the stuff available throughout the galaxy don’t work there, including electronic banking. So, they just sent us a code to enter in an automatic terminal to withdraw the money in physical crystals. Well, what about the safe?”
I thanked Uline for the suggestion but refused. I didn’t want to tangentially snitch on my friends, and I felt calmer knowing the money was with me. This way, I could use it at any time without having to ask permission.
“You know best. Anyway, you can turn around now! And help me hold the stencil on my shoulder. It’s hard to dye with just one hand.”
I turned around. Uline had removed her armored spacesuit and was now wearing a poufy robe with a tawdry picture on it. She was dying her thick black fur, holding geometric-patterned stencils tight against her body and dripping a liquid lightener from a little bottle, maybe even regular old hydrogen peroxide. So, this was how she made the fanciful patterns on her black fur.
Naturally, I helped Uline, and even did one stencil on her back all on my own. I didn’t see anything unusual or shameful in it, although the fashion-conscious furball was clearly embarrassed. According to her, the Geckho female grooming process was considered very intimate, and most Geckho women only trusted their best friend with such private matters. But there were no women in our crew, so Uline decided to ask an alien. She wasn’t sure I would agree, though. In return, Uline allowed me to store my things in her cabin and even use a few bags.
My conversation with the Geckho Trader was interrupted by the hall speaker blasting out a roar of dismay from Captain Uraz Tukhsh:
“Gnnnat, please come to the bridge! Your immediate assistance is required!!!”

Chapter Two. Copilot

THE SCENE ON THE captain’s bridge was frighteningly surreal. The room was strewn with overturned chairs and broken glass, and the senior engineer was lying on the ground growling in pain and rubbing his bloodied jaw. Starship Pilot Dmitry Zheltov, stark naked and smeared with something green, had his back pressed into a corner. In his shaking right hand, he was pointing a pistol back and forth from the captain to the navigator, shouting hysterically and demanding to be brought back to Earth. In his left hand, raised high above his head, he was squeezing the lever of an already pin-less fragmentation grenade.
Eagle Eye skill increased to level forty.
“Zheltov, what are you doing?!” I shouted in a voice not my own.
The cornered Dmitry turned his head, then pointed the loaded pistol at me. It seemed he didn’t recognize me in the new armor and was now only more riled up. I had no choice but to remove the helmet and show him my face.
“Gnat... uh... Gerd Gnat?!” Zheltov lowered his pistol and slid down the wall on his back, now totally incapacitated. I was afraid he might unclench his hand and drop the grenade, but Danger Sense wasn’t triggering, so there must have been no risk. And in fact, the professional soldier slowly returned his pistol to its holster, picked the grenade pin up off the floor and put it back in place.
“Where were you, Gnat?! And where are we?” The pilot’s voice was quavering, betraying an overpowering emotional tension.
Hmm... Weird questions, especially the second one. I asked Zheltov if he remembered being taken on as the Shiamiru’s copilot.
“I was hired to fly a spaceship?! I don’t remember that,” the Starship Pilot admitted. “The last thing in my memory is leaving the Dark Faction tower. There were bodies all around, everything went blurry and I nearly fell over. I was bleeding, my Health Points were almost drained, there was no first aid kit, and our medic was dead... And after that... I’m not so sure... the starship landed, you told me to wait and left... Then I was dragged by the armpits for a while and saw a black screen saying, ‘Your character is unconscious.’ I just kept lying there, but nothing changed. I even left the game. I wanted to ask how the battle was going, but everyone was still busy. I got back into my virt pod and suddenly came to my senses with the high G Forces. It was just like summer training sessions at the academy. So, I open my eyes and see that I’m lying on a table and some animal with big teeth is looking me over. In one hand, he’s holding a little knife and, in the other, he’s dripping some green sauce onto my body with a gravy boat. So of course, I kicked him away, jumped off the table and ran down the hallway. I couldn’t find you, there were just... these things,” Dmitry said, leading his hand over the captain, navigator and Geckho in the doorway. “And they’re all growling and baring their fangs!”
I probably should have reassured Dmitry and patiently explained the situation, but I... couldn’t hold back and broke down laughing! And I laughed until I cried, not able to stop for a long time, just falling victim to more and more fits of laughter. When I told the Geckho why the pilot was acting strange, the furballs all joined in and nearly rolled across the floor. I had never seen Geckho in such a state. The huge furry creatures were rumbling through tightly closed mouths, baring their teeth and contorting their faces into the most unbelievable grimaces.
If I didn’t know that was what their laughter looked like, I would probably have been very scared. So just in case, I warned my friend that these Geckho were laughing their heads off, not trying to scare him. Seemingly, Dmitry Zheltov became embarrassed:
“Yeaaaah... I bet they all think I’m a psycho now. My Fame even grew to four... Gnat, you’ve gotta apologize to those two Geckho I punched out.”
I walked up closer and reassuringly patted my friend on the shoulder:
“It’s nothing, don’t worry! The Geckho are forgiving by nature and, as far as I can see, are not mad at you. Last trip, I accidentally cut off the electricity on the whole ship and it was no big deal. The furballs forgot eventually and even hired me for another voyage. The main thing now is to prove you’re a good pilot and start learning Geckho. You have to at least be able to understand the captain’s commands. There’s no getting around that. And at level fifty, you should take Astrolinguistics. That way, there won’t be any problems with understanding.”

* * *

AND SO ZHELTOV, concentrating fully and wincing from the strain, was sitting in the copilot’s seat. It was just a bit too big for him. I was standing next to him and translating all the explanations of the screens, levers, buttons and other equipment in the starship command center.
“Move this little lever to the left to kill inertia in the fourth cycle of the left maneuver thruster. It’s used when turning the shuttle horizontally to the right to dock at a space station. The station’s gravity cranes take over from there. You just need to give them your vector. And make sure to remember: the lever should go opposite the way you want turn. Alright, that’s almost it! Well, Dmitry, I sure hope you’ve learned something.”
Astrolinguistics skill increased to level thirty-nine.
Electronics skill increased to level twenty-six.
The copilot placed his hand on the lever and moved it into position, attempting to form a muscle memory. Then he nodded in confirmation, although he was somewhat unconfident and even seemed afraid. Uraz Tukhsh gave a growl of satisfaction and continued his explanation. I got straight back to translation:
“Alright, now turning left and right in low gravity conditions. You’ll use this when flying near type-six satellites, comets and large asteroids. You push it up one from the fourth cycle to the fifth. Moving this stick gives turn direction, which also switches the second and first maneuver thrusters into neutral.”
“Alright, Gnat, I can’t take anymore,” Zheltov groaned. “My head is bursting with all this new information. It’s about to pop! First cycle, second, pull compensation, gravity thruster aberration... Too much new stuff! Tell the captain I need a break! I’ve leveled Starship Piloting to eight already!”
What a pity... After all, according to the captain’s plan, we were about to get to the ship’s scanners and radars. I was very interested in that because I was hoping to use the ship’s scanning equipment for prospecting and figured that would quickly level Cartography and Electronics. And I was just a tiny bit before level thirty-nine. My progress bar was already ninety-seven percent full, so I needed just ten more minutes of studying terminology to level up. But apparently, it was time to end our class. Zheltov had been learning the spaceship controls for three hours and had just about scrambled his brains. I myself wasn’t the least bit tired, just happy at the rare chance to absorb new information.
“Alright, Dmmmitry, get some rest!” Uraz Tukhsh agreed, letting the copilot free. “We’ll continue the lessons in half an ummi. And to give you a kick in the pants, let me warn you: you will be landing the Shiamiru on the asteroid yourself. If you are successful, you can join my crew!”
After I translated, true horror was reflected on Zheltov’s face:
“Is this guy sick in the head?! This is the first time I’ve been at the helm of any spacecraft. I can’t understand a single written word of their language, and he’s trusting me to land?! What if I wreck the shuttle? I’d never be able to pay off a ship like this! Hell, all humanity working together would have a hard time!”
I understood perfectly that the captain could take control of the starship at any moment and correct an error, so the risk was not particularly grave. Zheltov also knew that, and was only so upset because the captain was springing a pop quiz on him... But seemingly, Uraz Tukhsh managed to pluck the right strings in the pilot’s heart, because my friend asked me to tell the captain he would need only half as much break time.
“Now thats great news!” He bared his teeth in satisfaction and turned to me. “Dmmmitry is learning fast. He gained two levels in half an ummi, so he’ll be ready when we get to the asteroid belt. But you, Gerd Gnat, must also prove yourself. The asteroid belt is massive and contains billions of objects. Most of them are just worthless specks of ice, stone and nickel-iron composite, though. We made thirty voyages and two hundred landings before we found anything even remotely interesting. Your job as a Prospector is to improve our ratio and, in a voyage or two, find us an asteroid with valuable minerals. If you can do that, I will offer you a permanent position.”
Well, for the first time he was giving me a concrete set of conditions and, if I met them, an official promise of employment. I formulated the mission in my head. Considering the geological analyzers I’d bought at the space port, the ones given to me by Gerd Tamara, and the ones Uraz Tukhsh had purchased, I had a total of eight. And that gave me eight chances to find something of value and prove my worth.
I left the captain’s bridge and ran into Dmitry Zheltov, waiting for me in the corridor:
“Gnat, here’s what I’m worried about: we left the planet without getting approval, and leadership doesn’t know what became of us! They might think we’ve been taken prisoner or, even worse, defected to the Dark Faction!”
I tried to reassure my friend and told him I had radioed Ivan Lozovsky to say we both left with the Geckho ship. But the Starship Pilot just kept panicking:
“That isn’t how it’s done! We need approval for this expedition, even if it is post-factum. We also need a clear mission. So, I’ll exit the game right now and issue a report. One of us has to do things by the books!”
I realized it was pointless to argue. This rules-obsessed military man was accustomed to doing things as proscribed. To him, the very idea that one might act without orders was unthinkable and even blasphemous. I reminded Dmitry that he had just a quarter ummi before the captain wanted him back, one hour and twenty minutes. I asked him to also bring news about the cease-fire with the Dark Faction. What was the situation on the front? What were our losses? Did we manage to hold onto the Eastern Swamp? Did the Second Legion break the encirclement in Karelia? I wanted to know everything.
Dmitry nodded and... his character froze right in the corridor, blocking the already narrow passage. Ugh, damnit! Was it really so hard to realize he should go into his bunk before exiting the game??! Space was a red zone, so an avatar would never disappear here. But before the captain or anyone else got mad, I asked Vasha Tushihh to help me bring the heavy body into its bunk. The huge Geckho picked up the petrified body as if it were light as a feather and placed it on a free cot.
I was not about to leave the game to give some stupid report, though. Plus, it hadn’t been very long since I’d reentered the game, just six hours. So, I was afraid I would still have broken bones and unhealed wounds, which might make it hard to move. Also, I had business to attend to here. Taking advantage of the brief respite, I headed to the ship’s Mechanic.

* * *

AN HOUR LATER, my wallet was two thousand six hundred crystals lighter, and the lion’s share of those expenses went to attaching the IR Lens to the Listener armor’s helmet. I suspected the furry Mechanic had taken me for three times the going rate, because the job took ten minutes at most, and didn’t require any materials. On the other hand, I had nothing to compare it with and any work with a unique item carried greater risks, which demanded high skill. At any rate, the IR Lens was now fixed tight onto the helmet. If needed, I could lower it over my right eye, and it worked the same as before.
The mechanic also threw in some weapon modification work as a bonus. The biggest change was to the Krechet. He expanded its magazine to fourteen rounds, increased its damage by 15% and reduced its weight by almost a third. The experienced mechanic also made a couple modifications to the Dark Faction laser rifle, which I was not able to use due to a class limitation against automatic weaponry. But now, it fired only single pulses. He also gave it a more powerful battery and made it shoot quieter.
Dark Faction laser pulse rifle (modified)
Range: 1800 feet.
Damage: 1300-2800 HP.
Firing speed: 11 shots per minute.
Statistic requirements: Agility 15, Strength 13.
Skill requirements: Rifles 45, Sharpshooter 20.
Battery charge: 100%
Attention!!! Your character has insufficient Rifles and Sharpshooter skills to use this weapon.
Sure, I’d have to grow into it, but I’d taken a shine to this futuristic rifle, which could quietly fire over a third of a mile. A rifle like this could take down my character in two or three shots despite my Listener suit, so I was hoping I could frag similar-level enemies in two shots, maybe even one.
Finally, Dmitry Zheltov came back into the game and immediately found me. His alarmed expression led me to believe there was trouble. And I was right. I gave a shudder as the Starship Pilot began:
“Tyulenev defected to the Dark Faction! Once on enemy territory, he addressed our side over radio and said the whole mess in the Eastern Swamp was to distract our faction, so he could sneak across the border. He said our faction has already lost the war, and others should follow his example before it was too late. And that turncoat managed to get in their heads before our technicians figured out how to jam the signal.”
The news was not merely worrying, it left me gasping. Apparently, for the last several months, the Dark Faction had been privy to all our plans. They knew our strong and weak points, our passwords and codes, and where we had our minefields, supply lines, firing positions and buildings. And that was not all.
“But there’s good news, too. Three things, actually! The Eastern Swamp node held out, though it was tough going. When Gerd Tarasov reached the citadel with reinforcements, there were just five defenders left alive!!! Eventually, all the commanders died, and Nelly Svistunova led the defense. She is now celebrated as a hero! Also, in Karelia, the Second Legion wiped the floor with the Dark Faction. They took more than thirty darksiders prisoner! After interrogation, they’re being exchanged for resources and four of ours, who were captured in the Eastern Swamp. And most importantly, our voyage with the Geckho now has the official blessing of Radugin himself. He told me my mission is to gather intelligence about the mannerisms and culture of our suzerains, outer space in general, alien technology and so on. Also, Gnat, they really want you to go issue a report about the raid behind Dark Faction lines, becoming a Gerd, and your new armor.”
“Why about the raid? Didn’t you tell them?”
“Of course. But they want to hear your side.” With these words, Zheltov started staring at the floor. “It bothered Ivan Lozovsky to see how easily we crossed the Dark Faction border. Dozens of experienced recon groups tried before us both in the west from the Graveyard and Golden Plain where we crossed, and in the east from the Great Caves. But every time, it ended in failure... Obviously it’s bullshit to suspect us of working for the Dark Faction but I think that, since Tyulenev defected, the faction leaders are spooked and want to double check everyone...”
My mood collapsed. After all we’d done for the faction, I assumed us four raiders were immune to suspicion. What thanklessness! In many ways, we were the reason our faction hadn’t lost control over the Eastern Swamp node. After all, who could say how the situation might have turned out if we hadn’t diverted three hundred Dark Faction soldiers! Would the five last defenders of the citadel have managed to hold off an even stronger assault? I for one did not think so!

Chapter Three. Endless Asteroids

ANOTHER THREE and a half hours later, I was on the bridge of the Shiamiru hundreds of thousands of miles from a never-ending asteroid belt. On the screen, even the naked eye could see the plume of infinite dots. The ship’s locator could detect millions or even billions of heavenly bodies ranging in size from grains of dust to dozens of miles wide.
“Your conclusions, Gnat!” Captain Uraz Tukhsh sat back in the pilot’s seat looking stately with a glass of some bubbling purple drink in hand. His body language was very relaxed as if to say this was completely my call.
I spent a long time looking at the screen in thought, then asked the captain to filter out the dust particles and leave only the heavenly bodies large enough for our shuttle to land on. Uraz Tukhsh quickly changed the settings, but the image stayed roughly the same.
“Now run a gravity scan and overlay a density map.”
“Why don’t you do it, Gnat?” The Geckho unexpectedly suggested. “Just a bit ago, I explained all the locators and scanners for Dmmmitry, and you translated. Now, I want to see if you learned anything!”
Did he really think I had just been robotically translating without memorizing?! The scanners were of enormous interest to me and, over the captain’s explanation, my Electronics skill leveled five times to thirty-one! And that was saying nothing of my two Astrolinguistics improvements. Plus, my character was now level thirty-nine!
What could I say? I wanted the captain to see what my high Intelligence could do! I chuckled, walked over to the control panel and quickly changed the settings. I overlaid density, which changed the picture completely. Now, two colors dominated the map, one for iron-nickel composite asteroids, and another for those made of iron-magnesium silicates like olivine.
Scanning skill increased to level thirty-eight!
Cartography skill increased to level forty!
Electronics skill increased to level thirty-two!
Mineralogy skill increased to level fourteen!
You have reached level forty!
You have received three skill points! (total points accumulated: seven)
I filtered out the unremarkable asteroids, then zoomed in and showed Uraz Tukhsh the fifteen that remained:
“Here are the largest asteroids near the Shiamiru that have a somewhat unusual density. Some are too light, as if they have a hollow pocket and some are too heavy, which means they’re probably made of something other than iron, silicon or nickel. We could further constrict the search by running a radioactivity test. That would show heavy metals like thorium, uranium, actinium...”
The captain picked his jaw up off the floor and turned to the navigator, who was just as shocked. He had a frog stuck in his throat, and it took him a long time to respond.
“Can you really do that?” Uraz Tukhsh finally asked, astonished. His black eyes were squinting comically, and he was breathing heavily through his nose.
Clearly, I had done something unusual, because the Geckho were staring at me. I had to explain:
“It seemed like a good idea to combine the results of various scans. That does require Scanning, Cartography and Electronics though. This scanner has pretty high requirements. But now, we have a new dilemma: there are fifteen potentially interesting bodies, but I have only eight geological analyzers.”
Authority increased to negative 7.
Well, well, what an unusual message! For the first time since becoming a Gerd, I had impacted the authority parameter, raising it by one.
“And what do you suggest, Gerd Gnat?” Uraz Tukhsh set his glass aside and turned in my direction, listening attentively.
“If you don’t have any objections, I would recommend checking the nearest asteroid first,” I said, pointing at a large object just one hundred twenty thousand miles from the Shiamiru. “It is at the very edge of the asteroid belt, so it will be the fastest and easiest to reach. It has a suspiciously light core. It either contains a cavity, perhaps artificial, or water with heavy hydrogen isotopes. When we get closer, I could try and generate a 3D model of the asteroid with density gradients. Maybe that will clear things up. But failing that, one or two scans from the surface will be enough to determine the nature of the core. If there’s nothing good, we can check that huge rock over there. But it’s in a pretty dense cloud of small debris, so it might be hard to reach,” I said, removing the size filter and pointing at the millions of treacherous stones hurtling through space.
“So, let’s check the easy one first,” the captain agreed and pointed at the copilot. He was listening carefully to our conversation, but I doubt he got the idea. “Let’s just come right in for a landing, not stop to scan from space. I don’t want to lose any momentum, and that will make Dmmmitry’s first landing easier.”
I wished my friend luck and gave him the light spacesuit and Dark Faction armor. The copilot’s eyes went wide in astonishment, so I figured he appreciated my gifts. He even began mumbling something like, “I can’t accept this, it’s too expensive.”
“Take it, take it, don’t be shy!” I said, encouraging him. “The spacesuit doesn’t even belong to me. I got it from the captain. And as long as you’re working for Uraz Tukhsh, you can use it. Eventually, you might even be able to buy it off him.”
I left Dmitry to prepare for landing, hurrying to my spot in the bunk. I was now twenty-five pounds under my carry weight and nearly jumping for joy. It felt so great to walk around unencumbered!
In the bunk, I warned Uline Tar that this landing would be our copilot’s first ever, so she followed my example and buckled her safety belts. Ten minutes later, the engines changed tone and became louder but, much to my surprise, it was still quieter than past landings. And the thrusters weren’t humming in overdrive with screeching whistles and ear-splitting creaks, either. My Danger Sense didn’t even trigger. All that followed was a slight bump, and our shuttle touched down. It was actually the lightest landing I’d ever experienced.
“Everyone congratulate Dmmmitry on his first landing!” the captain’s voice rang out on the loudspeaker, and the whole crew gave a happy rumble.
Uline Tar also bared her teeth in satisfaction and quickly unbuckled, changing instantly out of the colorful robe back into her spacesuit.
“Tell your friend he made a good first impression. If he keeps that up, he can join the crew! Hell, that was so good he could be main pilot!”
The captain’s voice rang out on the loudspeaker:
“Technicians to the exit! Fasten down the shuttle, but do not open the cargo hold! Gnat and Uline come next! And Gnat, I hope you have enough sense not to run a scan right next to my ship! Take the third levitator and fly at least five hundred steps away, better a thousand! Everyone else, remain on board.”
I checked the Listener suit’s settings one more time. One tank of air would last six and a half hours, the magnetic soles could be turned on or off, and the miniature jet pack allowed me to pop over small crevasses in low gravity. I suspected this was nowhere near everything the Relict armor could do. There were complicated electronics in the chest and back, and I couldn’t believe they were only for the energy shield. But I didn’t have a clue how to activate the ancient suit’s hidden functions.
“Gnat, don’t sleep! The technicians have fastened down the shuttle. It’s time for us to go!”
I hurried down the corridor after the huge Geckho woman. This time, I didn’t mind being clipped to Uline Tar with the safety lash. It was nothing insulting, and I really shouldn’t have gotten so mad before. It was just a precautionary measure. Then the external door slid aside, and I saw a true winter wonderland. Cliffs covered with compressed ice reflected millions of sparkles both from the sun and the Shiamiru’s spotlights.
Without leaving the artificial gravitation zone around the shuttle, I crouched and pried loose a piece of ice with my knife, crumbling it between my gloved fingers. Just normal frozen water, even if it had borne millions of years of harsh radiation and thus contained a somewhat higher proportion of heavy hydrogen isotopes like deuterium and even trace amounts of tritium. Technically, it could be harvested for nuclear powerplants, but that would require heavy equipment, lots of time, and smooth logistics. We had none of that.
I found an exposed stone in a cliffside and broke it loose. On closer inspection, it was just chondrite. Composed of iron and magnesium silicates, it was the most common type of meteorite that fell on Earth. I already knew there wouldn’t be much here, and we could just leave.
Mineralogy skill increased to level fifteen!
Mineralogy skill increased to level sixteen!
So, the game algorithms agreed. But Uline Tar had already taken out the levitator and was waiting for me with clear impatience. So, knowing the Geckho lady’s passion for hoverboarding, I decided to indulge her. Also, flying through new areas on the levitator would quickly level my Cartography. It would have been dumb to pass that up.
I decided to tell Uline my conclusions anyway. With the tip of my boot, I wrote a phrase in Geckho on the crumbly ice: “There’s nothing of value here. But if you want, we could just go for a ride.” Uline spent a long time looking at the broken line, then silently erased it with her wide sole and pointed to the levitator.
“So, where are you gonna scan?” the Trader asked into the microphone, clearly for the captain and crew.
“Way over there, on top of that ice spire!” I said, pointing at a high peak of ice three miles away.
“Well Gnat, hold tight. Get ready to fly!” Uline warned me. Then she gunned it to breakneck speeds, making sharp turns and loops as she doubled around stones and spires of ice.
Cartography skill increased to level forty-one!
When we reached the summit, I could see the spooky dark side of the asteroid. In the ghostly dim starlight, I could see only the barely visible contours of steep gloomy cliffs.
Cartography skill increased to level forty-two!
Eagle Eye skill increased to level forty-one!
Fortunately, the Geckho speed-demon was not foolhardy enough to ride in the dark, and she stopped. After making sure we couldn’t be seen from the Shiamiru, Uline took the laser pistol off her belt, pointed it at the nearest stone surface and, setting it to constant beam, burned a bright red line reading:
“Thanks, Gnat! You’re the only one in the crew that understands me. If you ever become captain of your own ship, call me up. I’d join you no questions asked!”

* * *

AS I FIRST GUESSED, scanning didn’t reveal anything of value. It did confirm my observation about the stone and ice structure of the core, though. I also couldn’t call it a total waste because I raised Scanning to thirty-nine, and Mineralogy twice to eighteen. Also, this trip with Uline finally broke the ice between us. I now had a true friend among the Geckho, and the Trader’s unexpected confession made me think.
On the way back to the Shiamiru, to get a better idea of how this virtual Universe functioned, I asked Uline how much a starship would sell for. The Trader’s answer made me bite my lip. Ancient jalopy ships with minimal equipment and nearly dead thrusters went for around four million crystals. No one would agree to insure a wreck like that, though. Our Shiamiru had run the captain six and a half million. A speedy interceptor went from twelve million on up, and that was without weaponry. And cruisers like Leng Waid Shishish had cost at least four hundred million, if not half a billion. So, even the cheapest spaceship required such an unbelievable amount that I could only give a heavy sigh and change topic.
We told the crew the scan hadn’t turned anything up so, as soon as Uline and I were back inside, the shuttle started off from the asteroid and made for our next destination. It was four hundred thousand miles as the crow flies but trying to go straight through the asteroid belt would be suicidal. So, the captain was going to take a big dog-leg out into empty space, then return to the asteroid belt when we were closer. I explained the captain’s route to Dmitry Zheltov, who had already changed into his new armor was confidently piloting the shuttle.
We calculated that everyone who wasn’t busy on the bridge had around an hour and a half of free time. Uline locked herself in her bunk. So, not wanting to bother her, I went to hang out with Vasha and Basha. The twin brothers confirmed their intention to leave Uraz Tukhsh’s crew after the next voyage when their contracts were up. They didn’t want to keep working for some loser and were hoping to find another captain to take them on.
All the while, the brothers were playing a three-dimensional board game called “Na-Tikh-U.” It involved moving colored spaceship pieces around a glowing three-dimensional holographic board strewn with planets, minefields, space pirates and other hazards. What was more, they were playing for money. My interest was piqued, so after a round ended in Basha’s victory and Vasha set thirty crystals on the table, I asked the huge Geckho to teach me the game.
An hour later, I had a grasp on the rules of Na-Tikh-U. In fact, I had even more or less learned all the common tactics. It was like a hybrid of three-dimensional chess, backgammon and dice. Na-Tikh-U could be played by two, three or even more players at once, and temporary alliances against a common enemy were just as common as their sudden implosion and backstabbing former allies.
I eventually learned to beat Basha and Vasha, even though the brothers joined forces against my space fleet almost from the very beginning. It was hard, but I intuitively realized how to make a very effective defense with my remaining pieces and, at the most critical moments, luck was on my side, handing me the exact roll I needed. The large audience that crowded the bunk by the end, entertained by our lively discussion and colorful commentary, greeted my victory with a roar of approval.
Fame increased to 35.
Authority increased to negative 6.
You have reached level forty-one!
You have received three skill points! (total points accumulated: ten)
“So, you beat our loaders. But they can’t even count to four without their fingers! Let’s see how you fare against me!” Uline cut in acridly, having stepped out of her bunk to see what all the commotion was about.
I wasn’t opposed, but I didn’t have time to play Uline. An alarm came on over the starship intercom, warning the crew we’d be landing soon. We all had to go back to our places and buckle in. And again, the landing went so smoothly I didn’t even realize we’d set down. Dmitry Zheltov was beyond reproach and deserved all the applause coming his way.
Well, it was time for me to get to work. Unlike the last asteroid, this one gave me cause for hope. Its high density meant it probably contained something more interesting than iron or nickel. So, after placing three of my ten skill points into Sharpshooter, so I would at least meet the requirements for my pulse rifle, I put the remaining seven into Mineralogy, raising it to twenty-five.
Then, together with Uline, I left the Shiamiru. This asteroid looked utterly unlike the previous one. You might think two stones flying through space would be identical, all covered with glimmering ice, frozen plains and shooting spires. But this one was brownish red, and smooth like a huge piece of cast metal. It was shaped like a potato, and was two miles long, and one in diameter.
“That way!” I said, pointing at what looked like a crater formed by a meteorite slamming into the surface. I figured that would be the best place to scan the core.
Cartography skill increased to level forty-three!
Uline sped off on the levitator and was about to fly over the crater’s lip when, suddenly, a blast of colorful electrical sparks erupted around us. Everything was swimming. I was totally disoriented, and so was Uline. The light show startled her, and she lost balance.
Danger Sense skill increased to level sixteen!
I cannot say how, but I twisted my body, unclipped my bindings from the somersaulting levitator and, after flying off the board, slid ninety feet on my stomach, leaving a long deep trail on the dark and surprisingly fine-grained surface. But I didn’t bounce off and fly into open space. I just slid along the fine sand, as if this asteroid had its own gravity! I was even more surprised to see that everything abruptly grew brighter, as if there was suddenly artificial lighting!
I started getting up to look around the strange area, but the tether ran out of slack, giving me a sharp jerk and plonking me back onto my gut. Uline made a series of somersaults, then slammed into a building with her massive body... and it wasn’t really a building but something like a vehicle on folding supports. Her high-pitched shriek rang out in my headphones and her words were mixed with groans:
“I think I broke my front right arm! And the levitator is smashed to bits... It won’t even be good for parts now. Gnat, what is this place? Look up! I can’t see the stars!!!”

Chapter Four. Mysterious Development

I HAD JUST NOTICED that, instead of a dark sky with millions of stars, there was an opaque white dome overhead, which occasionally sparkled with electricity. What the heck?
I ran a scan (not with a geological analyzer, just the icon), and looked with curiosity at the objects depicted on the mini-map: “Meleyephatian Automatic Processer,” “Drill,” “Meleyephatian Small Robot Loader,” “Artificial Gravity Generator,” “Automatic Ore Enricher,” “Storage Containers,” “Distortion Field Generator...” Seemingly, while searching for valuable resources, we had hit upon a place where someone else, hiding from prying eyes, had already mined all the ore. I wonder what they were extracting here in such secrecy?
“Gnat, Uline, what happened?” Our friends on the Shiamiru were listening closely, so of course they noticed Uline shouting about the busted levitator and her broken arm.
The Trader wanted to answer and say what happened, but I gave an abrupt wave and placed my palm to my lips. Then I called her over to the automatic processor, went over to the nearest container, removed its lid and studied the contents.
Mineralogy skill increased to level twenty-six!
What is that?the Geckho woman asked in incomprehension and even disgust, seeing the gray powder that filled the small container almost to the top. “Gross... Is it radioactive?”
I fearlessly lowered my hand into the container and lifted out a handful of the fine gray powder. Even with the artificial gravity, which was just a fraction of what I was used to, I could feel how heavy it was. I practically immediately guessed what it was, and decided it was better not to share this news with the whole crew. Carefully pouring it back into the container, I took out my laser rifle and inscribed a long Geckho phrase on the ground.
“This is platinum sponge, the product created by chemically processing platinum ore. After this, it is generally purified and smelted into ingots. I’d guess the automatic processer has amassed around six hundred fifty pounds of platinum. We still need to figure out who this treasure belongs to, though.”
After finishing, I got worried that the Geckho lady wouldn’t understand how much a pound was. Although... the game algorithms had automatically translated measurement units for me many times before. Maybe it would be translated for Uline as well? The Trader lowered a glove into the heavy powder and thoughtfully let the precious metal slip between her fingers. After that, she asked for my laser rifle and engraved a response:
“Gnat, what difference does it make who it belongs to? I know our captain well and am sure that Uraz Tukhsh will not be bothered by such technicalities. In fact, I bet he’ll ask me to find a market where we can sell it all under the table. As for you, now is the time to take your share. As much platinum as you can carry.”
Seeing me looking closely and predatorily at the filled containers, Uline Tar hurried to clarify, scribbling another line:
“Keep in mind that your contract with the captain assumes normal gravitation, not local. So, don’t be a thief. After all, I know you. That’s a big backpack and, on this asteroid, you could carry out all the platinum by yourself, especially if you turn off the artificial gravity.”
After some thought, Uline Tar lowered the barrel and carved another couple sentences:
“Gnat, I’ve got an offer. I agree to temporarily hold some of your things, but only if we can split the extra platinum two ways.”
Astrolinguistics skill increased to level forty-two!
I met gazes with my friend and gave a distinct nod of agreement. And while I set all my things out of my inventory and handed them to her, Uline Tar quickly erased our writing with her foot, activated her radio and said:
“Captain, I have two pieces of news: one good and one bad. The bad: we broke the levitator. It’s shattered and cannot be repaired. The good: we found something, and you should come see it firsthand. I know you’re gonna like this!”

* * *

THE CAPTAIN CAME by heavy loader and brought his senior engineer with him. As I guessed, they had quite a jubilant reaction. Uraz Tukhsh walked around the whole area, sticking his nose everywhere and jumping with such joy that, at one point, he accidentally left the artificial gravity, jumped off the asteroid and nearly flew into open space. The safety tether pulled him back, though.
The Supercargo was called off the shuttle, and the captain asked him to bring the radio jammer. Their conversations were not intended for the rest of the crew. Still, the Trader and I were right next to the automatic processer the whole time. No one chased us off, and we heard everything they said. We were already aware of the valuable finding, so the captain simply saw no need to hide anything from us.
Uline guessed the captain’s reaction spot on. The question of whether to take the platinum or not was not even up for discussion. However, the captain and his helpers had a concern I didn’t expect. They wanted to take not only the ore, but also the Meleyephatian processer, drill, enricher, loader, gravity generator and distortion generator. The Supercargo was opposed, saying it would not fit in the Shiamiru’s cargo hold, especially given that our automatic processer already took up more than two-thirds of the space. All the same, the captain was taken with the idea and couldn’t be stopped:
“The equipment is worth too much to leave! That processer alone will get go for seven hundred thousand crystals, and the whole setup must be worth a million! Could we unload our stuff temporarily on a neighboring asteroid, hide it and cart this off to sell?”
“We shouldn’t hide it nearby...” the main engineer said dubiously. “Whoever owns this processer is not gonna be happy when they notice it’s gone. The first thing they’ll do is look for tracks here on the asteroid, then scan everything nearby. And who knows how good their search equipment is?”
Uline cut in to answer the seemingly rhetorical question:
“If they could afford this processer and the rest, they aren’t exactly poor. And seeing they found such a great deposit, they must have high-quality search equipment.”
“Looks that way,” the main engineer agreed. “A functioning processer can be detected practically from across a star system with good scanners. Sure, that may not apply if it’s well hidden, but you never know. Also, it would be a huge shame if we go off to hide our processer, and the owners of this one come back before we do. After all, who knows what kind of security systems they have here? You never know, maybe a signal has already been sent out and they know we’re here.”
After that, the arguments stopped for some time. The Geckho went silent, exchanging somewhat frightened glances. I even guessed the captain might be rethinking it and would leave the equipment. But I was wrong. The threat of exposure just steeled Uraz Tukhsh’s determination:
“So, here’s my decision! The equipment will be packed up and loaded into the cargo hold, then our processer will be tied down to the external fasteners...” The captain intercepted the main engineer and Supercargo’s objections with a gesture. “Yes, I am aware that we will not be able to land on a planet like that and would burn up in any atmosphere. I also understand that, if we try to dock at any normal station, we’ll be stopped, and the rumors about this incident will spread farther than we can allow. So, we’re going to a place that won’t care if our cargo is abnormal, and it won’t matter who we are or what we brought to sell.”
“I hope you are not referring to the pirate station Medu-Ro IV!” Uline Tar declared with clear alarm.
“That’s exactly right,” the captain answered. “And don’t turn your nose up, Uline. It isn’t a pirate station, it just belongs to captains who think more independently than most. Geckho laws don’t hold sway there, nor do those of any other spacefaring race. The owners just couldn’t bear the constraint! Sure, last time we ran into trouble, but that doesn’t mean this time will be the same. Medu-Ro IV is the largest independent trade hub in this part of the galaxy, and we can unload both the platinum and this whole drilling setup no problem. Also, we don’t have proper registration documents, so that’s just what we need. Think for yourselves, in a mere four ummi, we’ll all be rich! And not a word about the platinum when we get to the Shiamiru! The rest of our crew should be led to believe we found just an abandoned automatic processor. We have the legal right to take that. The equipment is of Meleyephatian origin, which means they should never have been in Geckho space in the first place!”

* * *

BACK IN THE SHUTTLE, I asked a burly Uline about the past problems on Medu-Ro IV. My bunkmate, even gloomier and less talkative than usual, first refused to answer. I figured it wasn’t worth pushing, and just got to my own business. But suddenly, the Trader had a change of heart and decided to bring me up to speed:
“It’s a nasty story that might come back to bite us in the ass... As you know, Uraz Tukhsh is from a well-known family of Geckho aristocrats. And his origins sometimes guide his behavior more than they should. In fact, believe it or not, the captain used to be even more arrogant. Anyway, the inhabitants of Medu-Ro IV don’t take kindly to such behavior. The station belongs to freebooters, and the majority are of Miyelonian origin. That means Miyelonian is the common tongue on the station, and all payments are made in the Miyelonian currency, crypto. To be honest, I was not aware of that and, in many ways, it was my fault we came to Medu-Ro IV for repair in the first place. It may be hard to believe, but Uraz Tukhsh used to be an even worse pilot and the ship had to be repaired on a regular basis. Anyway... the captain didn’t have any of their currency, even though he had more than enough crystals... Perhaps, if Uraz Tukhsh had been on better behavior with the Miyelonians, we could have come to an arrangement. But the captain’s noble instincts took over and he just couldn’t bring himself to act decent...”
Uline went silent midsentence, as if considering whether the story was worth continuing. But then she made up her mind:
“They accused him of bad faith, and Uraz Tukhsh threw a fit, even challenging the freebooting captains to a duel. But Miyelonians are famed for their skill in hand-to-hand combat. Our captain got his ass handed to him two times. His opponents weren’t even trying to kill him, they were just having fun, maiming him with their bare hands for all to see... Then, Uraz Tukhsh was thrown in prison and the Shiamiru was impounded until our captain’s influential relative Leng Waid Shishish came in and smoothed things over.”
Hmm... Quite the unpleasant story. The captain’s decision to come to Medu-Ro IV seemed even stranger now. I for one would have been ashamed to show my face there again. They made him look so pathetic! But I was no Aristocrat and perhaps I just didn’t understand what it was like to play that class. Maybe Uraz Tukhsh wanted to improve his Authority or something and was trying to prove he had become a respected and successful captain. Who could say? But another part of Uline’s story caught my interest:
“Say, what is the exchange rate from Geckho crystals to... what did you call the Miyelonian currency... cryptos or something?”
My bunkmate lowered the curtain to our room and bared her teeth predatorily... actually no, it was just a smile.
“Gnat, your question shows just how little experience you have. You could only ask something like that after just finding out about the spacefaring races. You see, any great civilization eventually reaches a point where they can easily exist on their market alone, without any outside investment or resources. For such a self-sufficient civilization, alien or foreign money is not only unnecessary, it’s a liability. Considering the huge size of the Universe, a financial system can only be stable with extreme protectionism.”
I did not understand and asked for a better explanation. Uline did her best to clear it up:
“If a free flow of cross-border investments were allowed, what would stop the Miyelonians from buying up strategically important resources and industries from the Geckho, and just closing them all down? It would be easy. At any time, they could just mint an infinite amount of their money, exchange it for crystals and, before the Geckho got wise, they’d legally own everything! Get it, Gnat? So, currency exchange is done centrally on the level of state banks, under the watchful eye of financial inspectors on both sides and in a very limited amount. Unauthorized currency exchange is a serious crime. The absolute minimum punishment is confiscation of property!” Here, Uline Tar lowered her voice to a whisper and continued. “Well, that’s the official story. In reality, the exchange rate on Medu-Ro IV is seven crystals to one crypto, and almost every trader offers the service, even though it isn’t discussed openly. But first-time buyers and other potentially unreliable merchants are almost sure to be refused. Trust must first be earned.”
“So Uline, are you in good standing on this station?” I asked. The Trader snarled, baring her sharp teeth:
“What a provocative question! Have I broken the law? No, Gnat, I haven’t. And it isn’t because of any deep respect for the institution, they just don’t know me, so they don’t trust me. But there’s nothing to stop traders from buying goods from one race and selling them to another. It’s hard to detect such trade, and no one really sees the point. As long as the volume stays relatively small, they prefer to close their eyes. Sure, I could exchange currency, but the rate would not be optimal. For those who have earned a trustworthy reputation, there are other ways as well: contraband, black-market currency traders, fictitious deals, money laundering and millions of other options... That is exactly what the freebooting captains engage in, and the Medu-Ro IV station is the largest trade hub in this sector of the galaxy where deals can be made between members of different races. Also, all kinds of fortune hunters unload their spoils there, and you can see really freaky ships from all corners of the Universe, including some belonging to space pirates wanted throughout the galaxy!”
What could I say? After this detailed explanation, I more or less understood what had drawn our captain to the station. I had one question left. I asked the experienced trader what the value of platinum was.
“Purified, in ingots with a stamp from a respectable trading houses — sixty-eight hundred crystals per pound. But in this cruder form, it’s about half that. By the way, I told Uraz Tukhsh that you took your share. He didn’t mind.”
As she said these words, I was watching the furry lady’s facial muscles carefully and would wager my head on the chopping block that, instead of “pound,” Uline had said a different word. It seemed she said a different number, too. And although I was already familiar with the Geckho measurement units, the algorithms of the game that bends reality were still translating them for me.
“I heard the captain doesn’t want to lose half the value of the precious metal, so he isn’t going to sell the platinum like this. He is going to find a person on the station to purify it, cast it and certify the bars. I suppose I’ll do the same. What about you?”
I had thirty-two pounds of metal in my backpack. The potential profit was over one hundred thousand crystals, even if I sold it without any further processing. Of course, I would have liked to purify it and double that, but I doubted Uraz Tukhsh could find honest business partners that wouldn’t throw him under the bus. So, I hadn’t made up my mind yet.

Chapter Five. Medu-Ro IV

A TWENTY-TWO-HOUR journey... As strange as it seemed, I had no problem keeping busy. First, I helped Dmitry Zheltov learn the control panel, translating the captain’s words. After that, I had a Geckho writing lesson, which was again given by the strict and quarrelsome navigator Ayukh. The short elderly Geckho was especially fierce today, giving more and more complicated tasks with more new words and an emphasis on mathematical and spacefaring terminology.
Elliptical plane... Back point traverse... Relative bearing... Sideslip angle... Mainstream speed vector... Ionic and gravitational thruster interlink system... Ship stress tensor... Adaptability of graph theory for the warp beacon system...
But there was a certain sense in how hard he was pushing me. My Astrolinguistics skill was leveling very fast, especially considering the bonuses from his Pedagogy skill. But the pace and volume were just frying my brains! After an hour, I was about to howl and climb up the wall, but I forced myself to concentrate, staring at the loops and broken lines on the tablet screen. At a certain point, Zheltov tried to join our Geckho lesson, but the Starship Pilot left the bunk fairly quickly with a look of traumatized shame and even fear.
By the end of the second hour, when I was about to give up, a double message jumped in:
Intelligence increased to 22.
Intelligence increased to 23.
What? I mean, I wasn’t especially surprised the stat had gone up two times. Any added point after twenty gave a bonus, as I’d recently become aware. But I’d heard from my faction that a stat would only increase for the second time after two or three weeks of use! Either I had been misled, or our trainers didn’t know, but a stat could grow much faster if it was practiced at extreme intensity. At any rate, that gave me a second wind, and I was again bursting with energy, soaking up new information like a sponge. Another half hour later, I earned another portion of messages:
Astrolinguistics skill increased to level forty-five!
You have reached level forty-two!
You have received three skill points!
Wow, awesome! And although I was willing to keep going, the old navigator was tired and gave up:
“Gnat, you’re young. You’re like some kind of computer, you could go all day! But I’m a living being... Let’s wrap it up, I can barely think...”
Authority increased to negative 5.
Uline was looking on, and her eyes squeezed into barely visible slits, while her breathing grew strained and raspy. When the old Navigator left the bunk, the Trader commented in astonishment:
“I never thought such a thing was possible! You wore out old Ayukh! By the way, Gnat, you missed a very funny scene! While you were studying, your friend was offered Geckho food for the first time. Naturally, our traditional spicy stew was the only thing on the menu. Well, Dmmmitry sat for a long time after the first spoonful, all red with his cheeks puffing out, then he said every curse word he knew in any language. He’s seemingly already learned around a dozen phrases in Geckho! But the funniest part was that Dmmmitry finished it all, then asked for seconds!”
I went off to look for Dmitry and discovered him asleep on a bench in the second bunk. Woah! The Starship Pilot, lying there in his armor, had already reached level forty-two just like me! I was reminded that, before the raid behind Dark Faction lines, Dmitry Zheltov was just level thirty-two. It had only been a day since then, but my friend had gained ten levels! What an appetite he had for his profession!!!
My attention was drawn by the senior engineer, Dmitry’s bunkmate:
“Gnat, tell Dmmmitry when you get the chance that he shouldn’t leave the game in space. This is a red zone and his body froze in a doorway. I dragged him to a cot, so he wouldn’t be in anyone’s way, but that is not how it should be done. According to the safety protocol, one must never go offline in space because surprises can sneak up on you, and a character stranded the game is vulnerable and useless to their crewmates. If he wanted to sleep, he should have done it in game. His real body would get all the rest he needs.”
Useful information. I’d take it into account! I promised to have a talk with my friend, then decided to follow the senior engineer’s sage advice and got some rest in my bunk before we reached the space station.

* * *

ULINE WOKE ME up. She was lying on the next cot in her short poufy robe reading something that must have been amusing, because she was rumbling happily through her teeth, like a purring kitten. When she saw me stir, my bunkmate covered the screen of her tablet with a hand, then turned it all the way off. I didn’t embarrass the furry lady and pretended I hadn’t noticed. I felt very well rested, beyond belief really. Looking at the clock, I discovered that nine hours had passed.
“We won’t make it to the Medu-Ro system for another ummi, so you woke up too soon!” Uline said.
I answered something like, “this world is full of so much interesting stuff, I can’t just sleep!” Uline rumbled back happily, unfolded the table and started setting up a game of Na-Tikh-U.
“Gnat, how about we play a round or two then? No one else on this ship is any match for me. Some don’t even know how to play, and the others are too stupid or unlucky.”
Sure, why not? I didn’t want to just waste the next few hours on mindless entertainment, though, so I added a condition:
“Before I went to sleep, you said I was a total newbie and sometimes ask stupid and weird questions that betray a deep ignorance. And you were right. I’ve got a million questions about this world, alien races, and the rules of the game that bends reality. But who can I ask without opening myself up to mockery? Heck, some of my questions could even cause trouble. I need someone I can trust! So, let’s do this: as we play Na-Tikh-U, you fill me in on things I don’t know. Sound good?”
The Trader agreed, and while she opened the game box and generated a map, I asked my first question:
“There are rumors that a player can change faction. And not just the tag next to the name on their clothing, but completely move their body from one place in the real world to another. Is that true? And how is it physically possible?”
Uline had already finished generating the game and suggested I go first. And while I thought over the placement of my pieces on the map, the Trader started to answer:
“Yes, that is true. I am not an electronics specialist and don’t know the finer details, but I can say for sure that, while playing, the physical body is somehow ‘cut out’ of the world. I read about one case that happened a hundred tongs ago during a war between Geckho clans. One group infiltrated another’s base, but found they were hiding in their virt pods. The attackers were pissed off and shot through all the pods, riddling them with holes, then smashed them to pieces in search of bodies. But, other than twisted metal and electronic chips, there was nothing there. Eventually, the Geckho hiding in the game made peace with the other clan, joined it and left the game through one of their former enemy’s virt pods. But how that happens, as I already said, I have absolutely no idea.”
Very interesting. But that meant the traitor Tyulenev could fully defect, not just joining the Dark Faction in the game, but moving his obese body into their dimension. How could he even get into a pod, the fat bastard!? So, when Minn-O La-Fin praised my blue eyes and said women in her world would like them, she knew that wasn’t strictly hypothetical.
Fame increased to 36.
Authority reduced to negative 6.
Authority reduced to negative 7.
What was that??? My game with Uline couldn’t have caused all those messages, so it must have been something in another place. It was probably something in the H3 Faction. Most likely, my name was put in a negative light. But what could it have been? I got distracted and made an obviously stupid move in Na-Tikh-U, which Uline immediately jumped on. I looked at the starships that had broken through my defenses and admitted defeat, suggesting we start a new game.
“Uline, why are there magic points in my character stats? What can I use them on and how?”
“Gnat, do you actually have magic points?” she answered with a question.
That’s the thing, I do! One hundred forty-four magic points. And I don’t even know if that’s a small or large amount.”
Uline thought for a long time before answering.
“There are some game classes that actively use magical abilities from the get-go like Shamans, Psionics, and conjurers of all kinds. There are other classes that are entirely barred from using magic: Traders, Mechanics, Scientists, Soldiers. But there are also classes in neither category, who can gain magic points under certain circumstances. One such example is Healers. They can heal with skills or medicine from first aid kits and get along without magic just fine. But some Healers do have magic and use it in their work. As far as I know, other than mana you need a skill to actually use magic. But you’d better talk to our ship’s healer. He knows much better than me and might actually be able to help.”
This game of Na-Tikh-U was still going and, at points, it seemed I might win. But eventually Uline came out on top due to her greater experience and extensive knowledge of winning strategies. I suggested we play again.
“One more question, Uline. How long can a player stay inside a virt pod? Basically, how long will a real body last, with only virtual rest, sleep and nourishment?”
“Those are dangerous questions,” the hairy lady responded. “I really hope you aren’t planning to test that! I do not recommend it! Anyway, a body can stay in the game perfectly well for a short time, three or four days at least. When our crew was under arrest on Medu-Ro IV, I spent four days in the game with no break. The prison cell there was a yellow zone, and I was with a bunch of suspicious guys, so I was wary of being robbed and stripped bare while my character was helpless and vulnerable. I’ve heard some mention of an eight-day maximum. But every race has a different physiology, so it can vary. At any rate, sooner or later, you hit a wall, and your body will die. And you really should not try to find out where it is!”
I won the next two rounds, and the last was a crushing defeat. Then Uline, clearly roused by my double victory, suggested we play one more for keeps. And this time, she wanted to bet something serious:
“Gnat, I bet my Annihilator! You have to bet something just as valuable, your Listener bracelet or some platinum!”
I really wanted the Annihilator, and I figured the odds were in my favor. I knew the rules of Na-Tikh-U now, and my high luck modifier gave me a leg-up. But still I refused.
“No matter who wins, the other will be upset. Uline, I really value our friendship and couldn’t stand to lose it, no matter how bad I want your Annihilator. But if its burning a hole in your inventory, name your price. Maybe I’ll have enough to buy it.”
Authority increased to negative 6.
Was it just me, or was Uline embarrassed? No, it was clearly embarrassment. The Geckho lady lowered her semi-transparent eyelids and pointed her snout at the floor.
“I was wrong, sorry... You guessed it, Gnat. I cannot use the Annihilator, because I don’t have the Rifles skill. Also, I’ve never engaged in combat before and don’t plan to, so the Relict weapon is worthless to me. What can I say? My price is one hundred thousand crystals. I’ll also take platinum at a fair rate.”
I set out sixteen large crystals on the table in silence, then poured out a handful of metal powder. It was half the platinum I had. I looked at Uline inquisitively, and the Trader mutely set the Annihilator on the table. After that, she waited a few seconds and... added her Na-Tikh-U box and a little remote control.
“This is a roll manipulator. It lets you fix a roll however you like,” my bunkmate told me. “You can figure out how it works on your own. Gnat, I have something to confess. I purposely lost to you in the last two rounds. I wanted to make you bet big. But I changed my mind after what you said. Just one more time, I was wrong. I’m sorry.”
Just then, Dmitry Zheltov walked in and stopped our chat. The copilot looked startled and, from the doorway, said that the faction was displeased with my prolonged absence and expected me to exit soon and give a report.
“Did something bad happen? Or is leadership just tugging on my leash to test its strength?”
“Both. Something bad happened and they’re mad you’re acting so independent,” my friend admitted. “Radugin has a new deputy, and it looks like he’s FSB[1]. He wants to talk to you. Radugin and Lozovsky are just as impatient. If I were you, I wouldn’t keep annoying the higher-ups. You should leave the game as soon as possible. They aren’t mad quite yet, but if you keep ignoring their commands, it might blow up in your face.”
I promised to leave the game right after the Shiamiru docked at the Medu-Ro IV station and I found a safe green zone. I also told Dmitry that space was a red zone, and the Geckho didn’t like him leaving the game here, because it violated their safety protocol. The copilot looked seriously embarrassed. Clearly, he didn’t know that. But he quickly came to his senses and said:
“Anyway, we’re already in the Medu-Ro system and the captain has set a course for the station. If I understood Uraz-Tukhsh correctly, he will be piloting as we dock, because he needs to talk with the dispatchers and follow their commands.”
“How did you understand such complicated Geckho without Astrolinguistics?” I asked in surprise.
With a happy smirk, Dmitry answered that he hadn’t. Instead, the captain put on a long and complicated pantomime to communicate. The Geckho aristocrat tapped his clawed fingers many times on his furry chest, then pointed at the control panel and imitated moving the levers. The, he pointed at the microphone and speakers, then his tongue and ears. Even the dumbest person could guess what that meant.
“I’m sad I missed it,” I laughed, imagining the amusing spectacle. But then I turned serious and said: “Dmitry, I’m leaving the game at the station as promised, but there is one little nuance. When I went into the virt pod a day ago, my knees were shattered, and my leg was broken. I have a hard time believing regeneration has healed me already and I would feel really stupid if I left the game but couldn’t get out of my virt pod. Plus, I’ll still have to walk down the corncob!”
“Don’t you worry about that, Gnat! I’ll leave a bit before you and come help. Plus, I’ve heard that cameras were added to the corncobs to keep tabs on all the kernels. I’m sure as soon as yours opens, someone will notice!”

Chapter Six. Under the Dome Again

I WANTED DESPERATELY to see the huge space station as we approached! I imagined its miles-long body extending into space and surrounded by swarms of death-dealing starships of every imaginable shape. It sounded unforgettable and fantastic. But the reality was anticlimactic. Nonessential personnel were strictly forbidden from being on the bridge during the difficult landing procedure. That had me crawling out of my skin, but hopefully this was not my last space flight, and I would eventually be able to take in every detail.
Uraz Tukhsh was at the helm and, as usual, his abilities were lacking. In fact, he didn’t even have a lot of the skills needed to be a decent pilot. Uline carefully buckled her safety belts and even suited up in full outer-space attire. She just kept moaning and groaning about Uraz Tukhsh’s bad piloting. But today, luck was on the captain’s side. Sure, the Shiamiru gave us a few jostles and spun around a bit but, in the end, we made it into dock, then got snatched up by the station’s gravity claws and placed gently in our hangar.
“I’ll lose my hair with all this stress!” Uline moaned in dismay. She then unbuckled, tossed a long attentive gaze over me and commented: “My advice to you, Gnat: change out that Energy Armor for something more basic. It’ll draw attention, and that is not what you want on a pirate station. The locals here are not exactly welcoming. In the blink of an eye, they’ll knock you out, strip you down, and rob you blind! And only leave the space port zone with a large group... even that’s no guarantee you’ll be safe, though.”
As if confirming Uline’s words, the captain’s voice thundered down the corridor:
“Attention! We have arrived at the Medu-Ro IV station. Let me remind you that this place is not exactly friendly. So, external hatches are to be kept closed at all times! An enhanced security force must always be keeping watch over the main airlock! Do not leave the space port zone unless absolutely necessary. The rest of the station is crawling with trouble, and there’s nothing to do there. Few of the locals understand Geckho, and they do not accept our crystals. But even in the space port zone, stay on guard! I don’t think I need to tell you about space pirates. Just keep your distance. Do not get into any scuffles! And anyone who plans on leaving the Shiamiru must set their respawn point in a safe area near our docking point. I will not be flying back through the galaxy to come get you! I understand that these rules may inconvenience you, but please try to be understanding. We’ll only spend a few days on Medu-Ro IV, no more, just enough time to arrange our trades.”
It was no surprise that, after such an unequivocal warning, almost all crew members opted to remain on the Shiamiru. Just Uraz Tukhsh, Uline and a couple big strong Geckho, who were serving as bodyguards, left the ship. I was also preparing to leave the shuttle, but a bit later. I didn’t want any crew members to see where I left the game because I was afraid they might take advantage of the brief period of vulnerability after I logged out but before I disappeared. I told Dmitry I was leaving and asked him to meet me under the Dome. He didn’t take the same precautions, and simply headed to his bunk, laid down on his cot and went offline. Lucky devil! He didn’t have anything valuable in his inventory to worry about. I couldn’t say the same...
I wasn’t planning to go far from the Shiamiru, but it was still a risk to show off the energy armor on the pirate station. So, following Uline’s sage advice, I changed into my old kevlar jacket. But that caused a small issue. There was no longer enough room in my inventory! The Relict suit had a large backpack and additional pockets for storing small items on the side and both legs. Now, I didn’t have that and had to store the bulky armor suit as well.
I took my Krechet, its ammo and five of the seven geological analyzers out of my inventory, then stuffed them into a bag under my bed. But every cloud has a silver lining. This meant I wouldn’t have to lug an extra fifteen pounds around, which was not bad. I threw all three skill points into Rifles, raising it to forty, then headed out of the starship. The twin brothers Basha and Vasha were armed to the teeth and wearing heavy armor as they kept watch over the airlock. Of course, they didn’t stop me, just wished me luck and advised me to be careful on the pirate station.
Then the airlock slid aside, and I took a look around. The ninety-foot long Shiamiru was hovering about three feet over the floor in the brightly lit boxy hangar. Its huge size made our ship look like a midge. Apparently, this place could host starships of much larger classes. Also, I couldn’t tell while inside the Shiamiru, but our shuttle was leaning pretty far to the left. Seemingly, our balance was thrown off by the automatic processer awkwardly clamped on the outside.
The gravity on the station was approximately equal to that of earth, so I jumped onto the metal floor without fear. First, I walked to the back wall out of curiosity. It housed a forcefield that shimmered with all the colors of the rainbow, separating our hangar from a colossal vertical shaft. Apparently, that was what we’d come from. Yes, exactly! Right before my eyes, automatic robotic loaders carried a small sleek starship up the seemingly endless tube. The ship had a long needle-shaped body that smoothly transitioned into a mono-wing. Very pretty! I sensed something predatory and dangerous in it. Much to my chagrin, I couldn’t identify the ship without my IR Lens. It was quite far away, and the forcefield made it look somewhat blurry. Although... my scanning icon was lit, so I could try that. While on board the Shiamiru, I had stopped using it regularly because, with nothing new to scan, it was not leveling. But here on the station, I had plenty of unfamiliar terrain.
Tiopeo-Myhh II Miyelonian Long-Distance Interceptor.
Eagle Eye skill increased to level forty-two.
Scanning skill increased to level forty.
Long-distance interceptor? It was clearly made for atmospheric flight; otherwise, why would it need such a sleek shape? But meanwhile, another ship came into view. Large and almost ball-shaped, it had no visible portholes, hatches or any other openings in its spherical body. The huge number of antennas (or some kind of stick-shaped objects) made it look like a sea urchin. It passed through the shaft just one hundred fifty feet away so, even without scanning, I managed to see the bulky giant in great detail.
Yaoo-Krom U. Miyelonian light cargo ship.
Eagle Eye skill increased to level forty-three.
Light?! The diameter of the Yaoo-Krom U was no less than three hundred feet. I was afraid to even imagine how huge a medium might be, much less a heavy! Also, my Eagle Eye skill had leveled two times in two minutes! Standing at this force field staring at all the ships passing by on the other side, I’d hit Eagle Eye one hundred in no time!
But as if refuting my optimistic hopes, I didn’t see a single starship for the next ten minutes. Oh well... Alright, the time had come to leave the game. There would probably be someone waiting for me under the Dome. After making sure this hangar was a green zone and placing my respawn point as the captain ordered, I chose the menu option “Exit Game.”
Would you like to review your statistics for this game session?
Sure, why not? I opened it.
Time in game: 32 hours 42 minutes. Your character leveled up 10 times, gained 11 statistics points and 82 skill levels.
Not bad, not bad at all! I noticed again that this game did have experience, though it wasn’t explicit, and that I had earned an earth-shattering 252730 points.
You killed 27 players and 11 NPCs. Your session ended due to: exited game.
Here I thought for a moment. I guess I had killed twenty-seven players. That would have been the crew of the Sio-Mi-Dori antigrav, and the Dark Faction commandos on board. Add to that the ones I’d shredded with the grenade while defending the comms tower, and it was obvious where I got all that experience! When had I managed to take down eleven mobs, though? I didn’t remember killing even one... Maybe there were pests in the fields I torched during the raid, and it was counting that? No other explanation came to mind, and I had no way of checking.
I opened my virt pod and shuddered in fear. There were dark figures looming over me again. Deja vu! Fortunately, my eyes quickly adapted to the change in light and I saw my friends. I was being greeted by Imran, Dmitry and Anya.
“Don’t move your right leg!” the medic warned immediately. “The fracture may not have healed yet, and the damaged meniscus could still be weak. Wait, Gnat, get your hand away from there. Let me take the bandage off your face! Woah! Your nose is good as new! The stitches can come out now, too.”
I couldn’t hold back and felt my nose, which I couldn’t even touch two days ago. There were no painful sensations now, but I could feel a certain tension. Must have been the stitches pulling at the edges of the wound. With my friends’ help, I left the virt pod, stood up and very carefully tried to put some weight on my right leg. I felt a pain and immediately decided against trying to walk. No, it was too soon. Whatever the healing effect of the game that bends reality, my broken leg and torn meniscus had not recovered in the past day and a half.
“Kirill, brace yourself on my shoulder!” Imran offered, and Dmitry Zheltov helped me from the other side.
And so, like that, all three of us started slowly down from corncob number fifteen. The guys mostly kept silent, but Anya was babbling away like a motormouth. Before we got to the bottom, she told me about Tyulenev’s defection, the widespread destruction in the Eastern Swamp, and Radugin’s new deputy. I asked her to tell me more about him.
“His name is Aleksandr Antipov. Some army guy, maybe a cop, that’s all I know.”
“He’s probably FSB,” Dmitry cut into the conversation, and Anya easily agreed, saying that she didn’t understand the distinction.
“He came under the Dome yesterday but, in one day, he managed to whip Gerd Tamara into a tizzy along with many other respected players. He talked with Imran and me too, but he obviously didn’t suspect us of anything. All his questions were about you.”
Anya sharply went silent, because we were already at the bottom of the spiral staircase and had come face to face with a group of players waiting there. I immediately recognized them all. Gerd Tamara, her second-in-command Roman Pavlovich and her two constant companions, a pair of tall muscular brutes.
“Gnat, we need to talk! Not for long, just three minutes. And everyone else, please leave us alone!” Once again, the short frail girl said this with such a surprisingly powerful intonation and boundless confidence in her right to give orders that none of my friends could object. “You too!” Tamara said, turning to the armed soldier guarding the entrance to the corncob, and he walked away unquestioningly.
It was uncomfortable to stand on my one good leg, so I sat down on the bottom step. The dark-haired girl lifted the hem of her long dress and sat down next to me.
“For starters, Gnat, I want to thank you! Your unexpected intervention changed the balance of forces in Karelia and allowed the Second Legion to go on the counterattack. Unfortunately, not everyone in the faction understands that, but I am acutely aware that our victory in Karelia was all thanks to you. And in many ways, we only kept the Eastern Swamp because of your raid as well. So, I wanted to ask: did you read my note?”
I confirmed that I found the sheet of paper in my radio just in time and read her warning. And that was why I didn’t inform the faction leaders about my raid, which kept the traitor Tyulenev from learning my intentions.
“Tell that word for word to Radugin and his underlings, that’ll handle two thirds of their concerns right off the bat!” she advised me. Then Anya abruptly shifted the topic: “Gnat, three hours ago, many sources informed us that the Dark Faction is offering a bounty of ten thousand crystals for your head.”
I just laughed carelessly and answered that Leng Thumor-Anhu La-Fin placed too high a value on sending me to respawn. For that kind money, I would agree to take a fifteen-minute break all on my own. But my jocular response stood in stark contrast to Tamara’s stone-cold face.
“You’re not getting it, Gnat. He’s offering ten thousand to kill you in the real world, not the game! Either that or kidnap you in the game and bring you alive to Dark Faction territory. Also, Leng Thumor-Anhu La-Fin has officially promised sanctuary to whoever kills or kidnaps you. He will even bring their body into his world!”
Aw hell... The smile crawled off my lips and was replaced by an expression of gloom and worry. This was quite the cause for worry. Two thirds of my allies hated me with a passion, and some of them would kill me even for no reward. What was more, the persistent darksider propaganda and speeches from the Tyulenev were leading many on our team to believe the H3 Faction’s days were numbered. Given that, there would surely be a few people to take them up on the offer.
By the way... was that what caused the recent boost of fame and fall in authority? The news about a bounty on my head? What was more, a reduction in authority, as far as I understood, could be caused by allies thinking worse of me. That meant I had gained some enemies, who were probably now willing to kill me for the Dark Faction’s reward!
“Gnat, this is more than a serious threat!” Tamara assured me, though I already understood that perfectly. “So, whether you like it or not, I am giving you two of my bodyguards! The will always accompany you under the Dome and subdue any person who even thinks of threatening you. They’re battle-tested soldiers and I have no doubt in their loyalty and skill.”
I didn’t resist or try to refuse. I sincerely thanked Tamara for the concern. Then she turned her head and happened to meet eyes with me. I wasn’t wearing dark glasses, and I was afraid I might accidentally read her thoughts as I had done before with Anya. But Tamara held steady, in fact locking gazes, and staring deep into my glowing blue eyes...
“Should I warn Gnat that Antipov is a federal agent? Probably not worth it. Gnat is a grown boy and can figure out how to talk with people like that on his own. In fact, he’d only get angry that some little squirt like me dared give him advice. Gnat clearly thinks I’m too young and inexperienced. Oh well. Should I tell him my seventeenth birthday is in a week? I’m already almost an adult. No, that’ll come across like I’m asking for a present. Better let him know but not directly, as if on accident. Then I’ll gauge his reaction. Why is Gnat looking at me so weird? Is there something wrong with my face? Maybe he noticed the scar under my lower lip. Or is my cheek twitching again? Oh! He’s smiling!”
Tamara unexpectedly smiled back, but it seemed somehow unconfident and tortured. No, it didn’t just seem that way! She told me why:
“I can see by your reaction that it didn’t look natural. Yeah, Gnat, I’m not used to smiling... Everyone thinks it’s so easy. Babies knows how to smile from birth. They laugh without thinking how to do it. But my facial muscles atrophied while I was in a coma, and I lost the ability to convey emotion. I’ve been practicing in front of a mirror but, so far, I can only make this predatory scowl, not a warm smile.”
“It looks just fine, Tamara. You have a pretty smile. I couldn’t see the scar under your lip either, and your cheek wasn’t twitching. I’ll give you a present next week, too! But don’t say a word to anyone about what you just learned! If it is the only way of exposing traitors, no one can know about it!”
Yes, I was taking a serious risk by revealing my ability to read thoughts to the leader of the Second Legion. But, I needed to entrust someone with my secret, and Gerd Tamara was definitely not working for the Dark Faction, so I figured she could be a very useful ally. Leaving the dumbstruck and blushing girl sitting on the step, I stood heavily and called over my friends and the two Second Legion bodyguards she’d assigned to me.
“Take me straight to headquarters! If the leaders are so desperate to see me, it would be wrong to keep them waiting!”

Chapter Seven. Claim to Fame

THEY WERE WAITING for me. All my bosses were gathered in Tyulenev’s former office: faction leader Radugin, Diplomat Ivan Lozovsky, and an unfamiliar chubby dark-haired man, clearly the “fed” Aleksandr Antipov, who my faction-mates all seemed to fear. I’m not sure what they found so intimidating about him, but the new deputy leader made no such impression on me. Maybe it was because of the stereotypical spy-hunter or agent from the movies. I was expecting an inconspicuous gray man with an attentive and tenacious gaze, and this plump dark-haired guy in a warm sweater just didn’t seem to fit the bill.
Imran and Dmitry helped me get in the seat, then hurried to leave the room.
“Tell me!” Radugin suggested, not even trying to greet me or introduce me to the new faction member.
“What, you don’t even offer coffee or a drink to a weary cosmonaut?” I asked, feigning surprise. “Sure, I’d help myself and not bother the mucky-mucks but I’ve still got this broken leg, so it might be a bit hard to hobble over.”
That took them aback. The leaders exchanged glances until Ivan Lozovsky said he’d make me a coffee. He even offered to add a strong infusion of taiga herbs, which he said would perk me up even better. I agreed with gratitude.
“Ah, that’s a lot better!” I declared with bliss after the first little sip of burning hot liquid. Beyond coffee, it smelled of wormwood, pine nuts and Saint John’s wort. “So, what do you want to know? What should I tell you?”
My bosses wanted to know everything! Why, despite my injuries, had I suddenly decided to enter the game? Who gave me the authority to allow newbies into the game before the introductory lecture and Labyrinth training? What made me think riding into Dark Faction territory would be so easy, and how did I know that there wouldn’t be serious resistance in the Golden Plain node? Why didn’t I inform leadership? What made us choose the communications tower to hole up in and why did I change artillery targets? How did I know the Geckho would come get me on the Shiamiru and evacuate me? Why had I brought another player into space?
Lots of them were trick questions. It was as if they implied I had committed some sin and were trying to get me to admit to it. But I tried to answer honestly and in detail, because I had nothing to hide. Hell, I considered my actions absolutely correct, and damn near heroic. Sure, I had to tell them about the warning note from Gerd Tamara, and even promise to show it to them when I got back from space. But the leader of the Second Legion had given me permission and even suggested I do it, so I wasn’t exactly betraying her.
I was worried leadership would have doubts about the downed Sio-Mi-Dori and the twenty-seven Dark Faction enemies I killed, but that part of my story went unquestioned. Either the upper leadership could see statistics on faction members, or that part of the story had already been told in full detail by Imran, Anya and Dmitry. What surprised and even offended me was that the leadership wasn’t interested in the detailed scan of the Dark Faction antigrav.
The questioning was primarily conducted by Ivan Lozovsky. The faction leader just asked a few clarifications, while the fed just kept silent and listened closely. When the first wave of questions was over, I finally heard a reaction from Radugin:
“What can I say? I’m totally satisfied with your answers. Gnat, your only real shortcoming was when you overstepped and sent seven newbies into the game without preparation. And it isn’t just that they didn’t bring any stuff in from the real world, even though we’re hurting for materials and they could have carried two hundred twenty pounds each. It’s more that our faction was counting on them and now six of their characters are handicapped, because they didn’t get any bonus stat points at the start. Now, we’re left with six weak Drivers, Miners and, by the way, another Prospector. In the end, the Prospector didn’t have enough stat points to take Eagle Eye and Rifles to copy your path and might even not be able to use the Prospector Scanner! So tell me, Gnat, was all that worth one decent Journalist?”
“A Journalist?! Is there even such a class in the game?” I didn’t answer Radugin’s provocative question, but still couldn’t hide my astonishment.
“As you see, there is. Her name is Lydia Vertyachikh, and she was the only one who got out of the Labyrinth within the allotted time. Also, the game only offered Lydia two professions: Journalist or Prostitute. She makes no secret of that and has told the whole faction. I don’t think anyone was surprised that Lydia ended up picking Journalist after hearing that. It seems unlikely that our faction will ever need a Prostitute. I find it even more dubious that she could find enough opportunities to level such a character... But we actually did need a Journalist, because shining a light on our successes will raise our overall morale. And Lydia found her rhythm quickly. Yesterday, she tied your record for day-one leveling!”
“She just got lucky,” Ivan Lozovsky said in a dismayed tone. “It just so happened that, on the day she entered the game, we had that epic battle with the Dark Faction. Tons of our players performed acts of heroism that day. All that was of massive interest to our players. They also wanted to know what was happening at different parts of the front, so it was all timing.”
I found that interesting but still tried to steer the discussion away from the lucky journalist. First of all, I asked about the scan of the Dark Faction antigrav. Why was their reaction so subdued and even ambivalent? It was a rare achievement! Was our faction really not interested in the design of enemy tech?!
“What makes you say that? Of course we’re interested,” Aleksandr Antipov spoke up for the first time. “But it is worth somewhat less than extraterrestrial technology.”
Antipov then fell silent, as if ashamed he’d said anything. His thought was finished by Ivan Lozovsky:
“Yes, Gnat. Dark Faction technology is somewhat better than ours. But all the darksider weapons, apparel and transport we’ve captured is an order of magnitude less impressive than our specimens of Geckho and Miyelonian technology. Dark Faction laser pistols and rifles are just a bit more powerful than our weaponry and are actually worse than our best, made-to-order real-world imports. But our firearms, like the Dark Faction guns, might as well be Christmas crackers in comparison with Geckho blasters and target-seeking pulse pistols.”
Well, dang... I lowered my head, feeling chastened. The hard-won model of the Sio-Mi-Dori was nowhere near as valuable as I’d guessed. Here, as if wanting to cheer me up, Ivan Lozovsky continued his speech:
“But that model of the Shiamiru is truly invaluable. In fact, we the curators of the Dome project thanked us officially. They say our rocket scientists shrieked in elation when they saw the highly-detailed model of a working space shuttle! Our scientists are studying away, but there is no certainty modern understanding will be enough to grasp all the technological principles. In any case, though, it is a huge step toward interstellar flight for all mankind!”
Radugin stopped his subordinate’s fiery speech, and made a gloomier comment:
“But there’s also another side of the coin... Now, the curators are asking us for more 3D models. They think we must have starships growing on trees! Gnat, it looks like you’re the only player in our faction who can possibly carry out this critical mission. So, from this minute forward, your main job is to get more blueprints of space technology from the great interstellar races! If you need more scanner supplies, just say the word. The faction can provide whatever you need. If you want anything at all, draw up a list and we’ll do our best to either bring it in from the real world or buy it from our suzerains. For every starship of a different model, we’ll pay you a five-hundred crystal bonus!”
Radugin spoke of the bonus with such a smug tone that I really had to strain not to break down laughing. How much now? Five hundred??? And that’s for a unique blueprint that will allow scientists and engineers to reproduce a genuine alien space ship? Was our faction really that hard up for Geckho currency? After buying the new gun from Uline, I was left with mere pocket change, three or four hundred crystals. I basically considered myself broke.
But I didn’t get on my high horse. And I definitely didn’t ask for more. I just told them I still had enough Scanner supplies, and the faction didn’t have to spend any of their obviously lacking Geckho currency on me.
Radugin nodded, as if he wasn’t expecting anything else, then sharply changed topic:
“So, now that we’ve covered your new mission, I suggest we discuss the biggest thorn in our side: your reputation in the Faction. Gnat, we regularly receive all sorts of complaints about you from all kinds of players. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. We can work with that. Just explain the situation to the players, and they calm down. It’s the underwater part of the iceberg that has me worried — the anger and discontent that are not voiced but end up stewing in players’ minds. I have to admit, it scares me. I mean, it doesn’t look like simple envy or small issues like missing border patrol shifts or flying off with the faction’s expensive stuff. You’re becoming something of a pariah!”
Ivan Lozovsky asked for the floor and, with his boss’s approval, continued:
“Our Geologist Mikhalych is managing just fine and I don’t think he has much need for help. So, sending Gnat there would just mean wasting valuable analyzers. And not showing up for patrols is an even more worthless complaint. Our faction has more than six hundred players that never patrol the border, but none of them have any issues! It’s like Gnat is just too big a deal. All anyone sees is you missing training sessions and patrols! And though earlier, the negativity could be chalked up to your conflict with the beloved Gerd Tamara, you two have made up now, so I don’t see a logical explanation anymore. But it is a clear problem, and it must be dealt with ASAP.”
“In my opinion, this hostility is being stoked and managed craftily by someone outside our faction,” said the taciturn agent. “It just stacks too conveniently with the Dark Faction’s huge bounty on his head. Seemingly, our enemies see Gnat as a threat. But they cannot touch him, so they’re trying to use someone else. What do the darksiders that we can’t? What makes them see Gnat as a threat?”
“Maybe it’s just personal?” Lozovsky suggested. “At any rate, Gnat lowered the Authority of their leader Thumor-Anhu La-Fin, put his granddaughter Minn-O La-Fin in a bad light and has basically just been a thorn in their ass ever since he started playing.”
“That doesn’t add up...” Antipov shook his head with doubt. “I have carefully familiarized myself with the Dark Faction Leng’s psychological portrait. Thumor-Anhu La-Fin might allow emotions to slip out sometimes, and in those moments his rage his fearsome. But overall, he’s restrained and a very clever player, who has demonstrated an ability to work through scenarios many moves in advance. According to our prisoners, many in the Leng’s world wish him harm. And actually... what’s stopping us from copying them and announcing a bounty for his head? How about ten thousand crystals just like theirs?”
A silence took hold. The faction leaders spent some time exchanging glances. Finally, Ivan Lozovsky answered:
“It isn’t a bad response. It will show our enemies they cannot make such threats against our faction. But we cannot take out the Leng himself. He’s a very strong Mage Psionic and would surely uncover the murderer by reading their thoughts before they even got close. But the old Mage has a weak point: we know he truly loves his granddaughter. He has shown it on a number of occasions. If we announce a reward for Minn-O La-Fin’s head, that will have a much stronger effect on the Dark Faction leaders.”
“Sure, we can announce it...” Radugin said in thought. “But how are we gonna pay?! Our faction coffers have only eighteen thousand crystals, and fifteen hundred of them are already going to rent a ferry to deliver supplies for rebuilding the oil refinery!”
I’ll admit, I was somewhat shaken by the breathtaking ease my leaders displayed when discussing paying for a murder. Sure, Minn-O La-Fin and her grandfather were enemies of our faction in the game, but I didn’t think it was right to kill them in the real world. However, our enemies had let that genie out of the bottle when they placed a bounty on my head, so it was technically equal retaliation. I kept silent and didn’t argue. Anyway, now that our faction’s lack of crystals was on the table, I couldn’t keep myself from touching the hot-button issue:
“Maybe I’m missing something, but I’m very surprised to hear we’re low on crystals! If the game that bends reality is so important to the government, what is stopping us from using the next batch of newbies to bring in something to sell? Like platinum, for example. Fifteen strong lads from the next group of beginners can bring in forty-five pounds each, and that’ll get us six hundred seventy-five pounds. In space, pure platinum goes for sixty-eight thousand crystals per pound. Sure we probably won’t be able to sell it at that price, and there will be some fees for delivery and certifying the bars with the Geckho marking system, but merchants will buy it for three and a half to five thousand crystals per pound easy! And that’s around three million monetary crystals, which would immediately solve all our financial problems! That’s a thousand good blasters for our army and two million crystals to spare! And if we use not just fifteen newbies but thirty, the Human-3 faction could buy its own starship! And once we have a starship, we won’t have to depend on Geckho middlemen with their ridiculous markups!”
My emotional outburst was met with dead silence. Then Ivan Lozovsky turned to Radugin and said with a smirk:
“So, now we know why Gnat is such a threat to the Dark Faction! What did Geckho Diplomat Kosta Dykhsh tell us about the value of platinoids in the Galaxy? Three hundred twenty crystals for a pound of palladium, three hundred eighty for osmium and two hundred thirty for platinum? And the Dark Faction gets in the way of us selling even at those draconian prices by cutting us off from the space port and thus our source of Geckho currency. Without money, we can’t import high-tech equipment, and without that, we can’t beat the Dark Faction. Everyone understands that perfectly. And then, Gnat comes on the scene. He speaks Geckho, knows a few of them and has even earned their respect. Hypothetically, he could help us smooth over the trade problem, and even bypass all these greedy middlemen in the space port! That’s what the Dark Faction is so afraid of!”
“Gnat, in th-that case there’s a new m-mission for you!” The faction leader was excited and even started hiccupping slightly. “Ask the captain if he could maybe serve as a middleman to sell our platinum and other precious metals. Get all the prices and financial conditions, too. If it’s all a-go, I’ll try and get Gokhran[2] to give up some precious metals for the Dome project. As for the faction having a negative reaction... we’ll work on that. First of all, we need all the players to know how much you’ve done for our whole faction. The most obvious option here is a big interview, because now we have a Journalist! As soon as Lydia leaves the game, I’ll send her to find you, so you can agree on a format and schedule a time.”
The federal agent took advantage of the faction leader’s pause and grabbed the thread of the conversation:
“Now that you’re an especially valuable player for our faction, we must assign you increased security. We can provide you with physical protection under the Dome for starters. As a high-profile player, you deserve a separate more comfortable room as well. For security, we’ll have you draw up a friends list, and only people on it will be allowed to come visit you without prior approval. We will assign you guards who have no connection with the game or the Dark Faction. And you must be accompanied by them at all times! As for in the game, this issue will be resolved before you return from space.”
And at that, the substantive part of the meeting came to an end. I was just asked approximately when I’d be back from space, how Dmitry Zheltov was doing as a pilot, and how he was getting along with the Geckho crew. Then they issued me a debit card for making purchases under the Dome and said I was free to go.
In the doorway, I asked Imran and Dmitry to wait and turned back around:
“I know there is audio and video surveillance everywhere under the Dome. For security reasons, of course. But I need an actually private room, where I can feel comfortable and relaxed without constantly looking for hidden cameras and microphones. “
Lozovsky and Radugin for some reason looked simultaneously at Antipov and, after a second of thought, the agent nodded:
“Alright, Gnat. Give us five minutes to remove our equipment and the room will be clean. We won’t have any kind of surveillance. You have my word as an officer!”

Chapter Eight. Big Interview

I HAD TO ADMIT, talking with the higher-ups left me with more questions than answers. All the measures they discussed looked more like moves of desperation than well-thought-out actions. Putting a bounty on Thumor-Anhu La-Fin and his daughter, spontaneously deciding to sell platinum for millions of crystals through an unvetted Geckho captain, refusing to study the Dark Faction vehicle in favor of more advanced alien designs and betting on buying weaponry rather than producing it ourselves — it just didn’t come together as a coherent plan.
I was forming the impression that the leadership was just bewildered and didn’t know how to get our faction back on track. Still though, they understood that changes were vitally necessary. The recent battle with the Dark Faction showed just how shaky our positions were and underlined our lack of resources and manpower. Sure, the faction got lucky, and we managed to keep the Eastern Swamp node but, without oil production, its swampy infertile land had no real use. As far as I understood, it was not going to be easy to get our oil extraction and refining facilities back online. After all, the faction had already spent a good chunk of our limited funds on replacement parts. And they were talking about having that transported via Geckho ferry, so there probably wasn’t enough gas for the Peresvets to do it. Maybe our vehicles were even seriously damaged and needed repair.
Overall, I was in a state of deep contemplation, even though my particular mission didn’t seem all that challenging. Captain Uraz Tukhsh would clearly be interested in reselling the platinum, I had no doubt about that. And starships came through the forcefield tunnel in the pirate station all the time, so getting data on a couple of them on my Prospector Scanner would be easy-peasy. I would just have to warn the Shiamiru crew to turn off our electronics first.
I was in such a deep state of thought I didn’t even notice it had grown dark under the Dome. Only the night lighting was still on. A street sweeper drove down an empty park path in the distance. First, my friends led me to the hospital building, where Anya took the brackets off my nose with a pair of tweezers and disinfected the remaining lacerations. The whole operation took two minutes at most, leaving nothing to remind me that, just three days ago, someone broke my nose.
After that, my friends and new bodyguards led me to a separate residential building concealed behind the tennis court and a thicket of trees. There were two buff guardsmen at the entrance, but our group was let inside without question. The pretty night receptionist smiled at me, displaying a row of flawless pearlescent teeth, and pointed at the elevator:
“Ah, Gerd Gnat, go up to the second floor and take the hallway to the right. Your room is the only one there. You won’t get lost.”
I thanked her for the information, then my friends took me under the arms and led me into the elevator. On the second floor, there was one short hallway to the left and another to the right, both with identical doors. I had no idea who I shared this floor with. Possibly, the other room was just empty.
My brand-new Dome debit card also opened the front door of my apartment. The light automatically turned on as soon as we entered, and I couldn’t hold back a whistle of surprise. This was a far cry from the spartan chamber I was originally stuck in with three other expelled students. Ornate furniture, expensive rugs, crystal chandeliers and stucco ceilings... everything around simply screamed luxury. What was more, there was an electric wheelchair and crutches at the door. That level of attention to detail deserved its own thanks!
“Breakfast lunch and dinner can be ordered directly to your room,” said the receptionist, who had come up the stairs instead of going up the elevator with the rest. And now, she was showing me around.
What a cool bathroom. The main room had a touch-screen on the wall where I could order whatever I wanted. The bar was stocked with all kinds of alcohol. The in-wall fridge next to it was pretty well filled, too. The bedroom had a bed big enough for ten. There were lots of electronics from a media center and gaming setup to a huge television that took up nearly a whole wall. Overall, I liked my new digs a lot.
The night receptionist drew my attention again and said:
“My name is Yana, by the way. The lady who works day shift is also named Yana, so it’s easy to remember. Gerd Gnat, we need your friends list by tomorrow morning to give to the guards. This is a secure building and we won’t let in anyone if they’re not on it. You can open and close the window blinds with this remote. You’ll find new sheets in that cabinet, and you can throw your dirty clothes in that basket. If you need anything else, call any time from the touch-screen.”
As soon as the door closed behind Yana, my friends also said goodbye. But why? I was hoping we could sit all together and talk about the game and stuff, maybe even take a peek at the bar and celebrate my housewarming...
Imran just threw up his arms at all my attempts to dissuade him:
“Sorry, Gnat. I don’t drink. And I’d love to sit and hang out, but it’s already two AM, and Anya and I have second shift in the Yellow Mountains, which is in four hours. Maybe we can celebrate tomorrow? Masha and the other guys could come too then.”
I thought Anya was hesitating and even thinking of staying but, in the end, she followed Imran with the excuse that it was late, and she had to work early.
“Gnat, I’m gonna sleep too,” Dmitry Zheltov apologized. “I haven’t slept for a day and a half because I spent all my downtime talking with the leadership. Tomorrow evening, I’ll come to your party if you’re ok with that.”
The door shut behind my friends and, much to my surprise, I was left alone. It was a strange feeling. Life had been bubbling up around me for the last few days. Things were happening everywhere I looked. But now, I had some time all to myself, I just didn’t know what to do with it.
I tested out the electric wheelchair. I studied the rooms and sampled the hastily made canapes. I turned on some background music just to keep me company. I started to draw a bath but looked at my leg cast and decided against it, limiting myself to a quick wash-up and change of underwear. I didn’t even have a moderate desire to sleep, despite the late hour. But what to do?
And then, as if answering my unasked question, a knock came at the door. Who had the deep night brought me? Well, no matter who it was, it would be a welcome distraction. I rolled up perkily to the front door, nearly overturning my wheelchair in a sharp pivot, and undid the lock. There was an unfamiliar lady standing in the doorway. She had a pleasant face, mascaraed eyes, slightly wavy chestnut hair that came to midway down her back, and a lithe figure. The woman was very tall, more than six foot two, and her legs were damn long. Based on her clothing, she’d just come from the tennis court. She was wearing a visor on her head, an athletic bag over her shoulder, a sleeveless vest with number 1555, short shorts, knee high socks and tennis shoes.
“Seeing those glowing blue eyes, I’m guessing I found the right door. You must be Gnat. I mean Kirill,” the stranger said instead of greeting me and, without asking permission, she walked around my wheelchair and into the room. “Well, well! I guess high-profile players live pretty well in our faction. Pretty damn well! When I become a Gerd, I’ll have to insist on a room no worse than this. By the way, in case you didn’t know, I’m Lydia Vertyachikh, the official faction Journalist.”
I had already guessed as much, but her introduction finally removed my last shreds of doubt. Lydia tossed off her shoes, fell back exhausted in an armchair and stretched her legs.
“I just got back from our recently-started fort in Karelia. Ten miles on foot each way, because there’s no vehicle transport to Karelia right now. And though I got some awesome material, you can’t even imagine how sick and tired I am! Today was endless! And as soon as I got out of the virt pod, I was called by leadership with an urgent mission to interview Gerd Gnat! Sure, if I was still in the game and leveling my Journalist skill or leveling my character, but in the real world... I’ll admit, I wanted to tell them to go to hell and just get some shut-eye. And if it was anyone other than you, I would’ve done just that. But you’re impossible to pin down. You can’t be found in the game, and it’s hard to catch you under the Dome as well...”
Lydia finished her exasperated speech, crossed her legs and scanned the room. The journalist’s eyes stopped on the mini-bar and refrigerator.
“A vermouth with ice and orange juice, plus a snack like a fruit or pastry and I’ll come to...” the lady said, sharply going silent and looking skeptically at my wheelchair and leg cast. “Alright, I’ll get it myself. And I can pour you something too, Gnat. What do you say? But before we start, I’d like to take a shower. I was urgently forced into the game today from the tennis court, and I can smell the sweat on me.”
So, I guess I wasn’t wrong about her sport of choice. I pointed Lydia to the bathroom door and promised to pour the wine and cut the fruit while she cleaned up. She kept me waiting a long time, forty minutes. If not for the sound of falling water and the occasional bout of singing from the bathroom, I’d have thought Lydia fell asleep in there. Finally, the door opened, and my new acquaintance came out wearing a pair of warm slippers, a bathrobe and a towel around her head like a turban.
“Wow, I feel amazing! It’s like I was born again! On the way to your door, I could barely crawl. Every muscle was aching.”
“I know the feeling,” I chuckled. “After my first day in the game, I was practically walking on all fours.”
“Oh! You already set the table! Then I suggest we hold the interview over a late dinner. And first let me give a toast — to new friends!”
We had a drink, then Lydia took a notepad, pen and voice recorder out of her bag. She opened the pad, wrote the date then started thinking and... set the pen aside.
“Gnat, I have to admit, I really don’t have any incentive to ask questions here in the real world. I don’t get anything out of it and, if it weren’t for a direct order from above, I’d have set all these questions aside until we met in the game. But you, on the other hand, need this to publicize your achievements and improve your reputation... So, I propose we play a little game. We’ll flip a coin. If it’s heads, I ask a question and you answer. If it’s tails... tails... what can I think up to keep you hooked? Hm, let’s say I remove one article of clothing!”
What?! My brows shot up in surprise. I’d been interviewed a few times before, but never under such unusual and intriguing circumstances. Then, before I managed to agree or refuse, Lydia clarified:
“We’ll flip the coin ten times, no more. I’m wearing five pieces of clothing now including this towel on my head, so I could easily run out of clothes before we’re out of tosses. Well, we’re both adults, so I think we’ll have an easy time figuring out what to do if it comes to that. Everything seems fair to me. I might get an interesting ten-question interview out of this, but we might also find a way to pass the time more pleasantly.”

* * *

BY SIX IN THE morning, our second bottle of vermouth was finished. All the juice and even a large box of liquor-filled chocolate candies, which I’d ordered from my touchscreen at three in the morning for urgent delivery, were also gone. The coin tosses stood four to four, and Lydia was blushing and giggling, sitting on my lap in just a pair of thin lacy underwear. The voice recorder and notebook had already been back in her bag for a while, however, the interview was surprisingly still ongoing. She was just asking me about Gnat’s adventures and carefully listening. The half-naked woman was not drunk at all and was in complete control of her faculties, even though she was consuming just as much as me. Clearly, she had plenty of experience partying in college. Also, she wasn’t exactly diminutive, so it probably took more to get her drunk than me.
“Hey now, don’t be naughty! Otherwise I’ll go back and sit on the couch! Win another coin toss or two, maybe then you can feel me up!” Lydia said, slapping my wandering hands as they reached for her breasts, which were heaving at eye level. “Don’t get it wrong. I’m a free spirit, not a slut!”
This was Lydia’s favorite topic, and she had already enlightened me on the difference more than once. According to her, being a free spirit was very useful for a journalist. It allowed her to feel comfortable in any environment. And so, the fact that she was sitting in a man’s room half-naked on his lap in the middle of the night didn’t seem the least bit shameful, because she wanted me to open up and speak my heart. But she still wasn’t going to let me cross a certain line.
All that was interesting and even looked authentic... but a few hours ago, after yet another toast to friendship, I accidentally met gazes with Lydia and read her thoughts, so I knew she was not against getting more intimate. It was actually why she’d come to my room. I also found out that this clever lady had two identical-looking trick coins in her bag, gifted to her by Antipov. One of them always fell tails up, and the other heads.
Naturally, this did not seem like a love story, just pure naked calculation. While carrying out a mission from faction leadership, the Journalist was also making a play for the vacant position of a freshly minted Gerd’s girlfriend. She figured that would boost her Fame in the video game and have significant material benefit in the real world. In return then, Gnat would get a whole series of glowing reports about his achievements and a fully loyal Journalist, who could help smooth over the faction’s negative opinion of him. Also the leadership, and more specifically Aleksandr Antipov, wanted us to date. He figured it would cement Gnat’s connection to the H3 Faction.
I had to admit, that made me very sad. After all, it was one thing to like a woman, try and find ways of spending time with her, pour over every little thing after dates... and another thing entirely to know her thoughts in advance. Totally different emotions. Also, I didn’t sense Lydia having any warm feelings toward me and didn’t see her as having the right qualities to make a steady girlfriend. But of course, I wasn’t going to tell her to leave, either. In any case, I was not some monk upholding a vow of celibacy, and I had never before refused good sex with a pretty woman. So for now, my goals and those of my faction aligned, and I was willing to play along.
“Let’s toss the coin again!” the journalist suggested, throwing the small coin into an empty shot glass, shaking it and turning it over on the table.
I didn’t even have to look to know the result. I had foreseen it. For the Journalist to bring her “big interview” to its logical conclusion and get us together once and for all, both of the next two flips would be coming up tails. And in fact, Lydia filled the room with a joyous cry:
“Tails! You’re lucky, Gnat! You wanna take off my underwear, or should I do it myself?”
Lydia, flushed red with alcohol, smiled at me with a cunning squint and looked me right in the eyes. \She really should not have done that... Now, the feeling of my hands started pulling the last piece of clothing off her seemingly endless legs was relegated to the back of my mind. I was concentrating on something else:
“Alright, the long runup is almost over, and this idiot still hasn’t guessed what I’m up to. It all actually came together brilliantly. I shouldn’t have worried. I guess I was wrong about him. He’s not a psychopath. I almost scared him off. I changed tactics just in time. I’m very lucky things didn’t go south. Although, if it really is true that Gnat hasn’t been with anyone for ten days, he’ll never tell me to leave now. Hell, he’d probably get aroused by a plastic doll! I can even feel how excited he is through his pants. We probably won’t be needing a tenth coin toss. I should make my move right now. What if he makes a wish and it’s something dumb like ‘dance naked on the table.’ He’s enough of a simpleton to do pull like that. No, I should take the bull by the horns and show Gnat how good I am in bed. Actually, should I even bother dragging him to bed? After all, his leg is broken. Might it be better right here in the wheelchair? The most important thing is that, during sex, I need to get him to agree to let me sleep over. Gnat definitely won’t say no. And in the next few days, I should build on my success a few times, then I can move in here for good. After that, I can tell the whole faction that I am Gerd Gnat’s girlfriend. My fame is sure to grow...”
“Hey, neighbor, just what is going on here?!”
A dismayed voice rang out right over my ear, tearing me rudely from my concentrated mindreading. I shuddered in fear and lost concentration. Together with that, I dropped the thin white underwear I had been pulling off my guest and gracefully twirling with the first finger of my right hand. Gerd Tamara?! What was she doing in my room?! How’d she get in? Had Lydia and I forgotten to close the door after the courier brought that chocolates?
Following Murphy’s law, the pair of underwear flew right at Tamara’s face, and the leader of the Second Legion peeled them off her shoulder using two fingers with a look of extreme disgust, then threw them right at Lydia’s face.
“You have fifteen seconds to get dressed and leave this room!” the severe paladin said with her famed bone-shaking voice. After that, she turned to her soldiers in the doorway: “Boys, this Journalist is lost, help her back to her room. If she doesn’t get dressed fast enough, just take her as she is, naked!”
Lydia Vertyachikh didn’t tempt fate and taunt the fearsome paladin. She wrapped herself in the bathrobe and somehow threw her things in her bag, then ran out barefoot. I had to admit, for some time I lost the gift of speech, so I didn’t intervene. It was just all too surreal.
But after the door closed behind Lydia and the Second Legion soldiers, and only Tamara was left in the room, I threw myself at her with reproach. Why the hell was she giving orders in my apartment?! I was an adult man, and I had the right to bring around whoever I liked whenever I wanted! And really, what was she doing here uninvited?!
I was expecting arguments, shouting and a big scene. But what came next left me completely astonished. The stern Gerd Tamara, a source of so much horror in the enemy ranks... covered her face with her hands and started bawling!
“I... don’t know what came over me! I’m sorry, Gnat, you’re right... I shouldn’t have done that... I lost control. My nerves got to me. I just got back from my night shift in Karelia, and it was hard going! There’s no fuel, no vehicles, and not enough people. Also, a giant man-eating constrictor has been attacking at night, abducting and devouring our sentries... The soldiers are losing their minds. I have to constantly be there to smooth over problems. My authority as a leader is splitting at the seams... And then, after I leave the game to relax, I notice that someone has moved into the apartment next to mine and they left the door cracked open. I couldn’t hold back and peeked in... And then I saw that vulgarity and it was like a fog came over me... A Gerd isn’t supposed to act that way! A Gerd should serve as an example to the players of his faction, envied by all... But you... you...”
Tamara started weeping even harder, wiping the abundant tears off both her cheeks. I slightly cooled my jets. I no longer wanted to strangle Tamara, but I was still very annoyed, so I had no tact:
“This looks more like the hysterics of a jealous underage idiot than genuine concern for a Gerd’s reputation. I feel like there’s a lot you aren’t saying. You ruined my night. I’m very mad at you and have the right to know why you did it! Come closer and look me in the eyes!”
The girl turned her head in fear and refused. But when I raised my voice in anger and even, unable to hold back, shouted rudely, Tamara turned and ran out of my room. What a bad kid! Angry as a devil, I rolled over to my front door and, standing up, picked up the crutches leaning next to it.
Oh, fu…! The sharp pain nearly made me fall when I put too much weight on my right leg. Colorful circles started dancing before my eyes. My mouth filled with the salty taste of blood from my bit-through lower lip. I readjusted the crutches, went out into the corridor and saw the two Second Legion soldiers Tamara had given me as bodyguards. Both of them looked plainly bewildered and stared inquisitively at me in hopes of getting some kind of explanation of what just happened. Clearly, the panicked exits of the Journalist, then the leader of their legion had the soldiers confused.
“I’ve had it up to here with those girls. They were catfighting in my room now... Help me get to my virt pod, I won’t be able to get to the fourteenth floor with a broken leg otherwise. I’m not gonna fall asleep right now anyway, so let me at least get some work done...”
The walk to corncob number fifteen and subsequent climb up it somehow passed by my conscious mind. I was still full of feelings, turning over the recent events in my head again and again and cursing my poorly behaved floormate. Also, my broken leg was in ferocious pain. I could barely hold back a howl. Finally, my kernel!
I thanked the Second Legion soldiers for their help, left the crutches on the floor, then got into my virt pod and closed the lid. I needed to get into the game right away! To the calm and predictable Geckho, to the starships and voyages to the distant cosmos. The real world and its people were driving me crazy!
But this was not my lucky day. I loaded up the game and immediately recognized the room I’d recently exited from. The hangar was a huge dim space. The only light was the dull pulsing forcefield at the far wall dividing this bay from the vertical shaft of the space station. I took a closer look. I was soon left with no doubt that this was that very same hangar I had been in before, watching starships through the forcefield. But the Shiamiru was nowhere to be found! The Geckho had flown off without me!

[1] The modern-day successor to the KGB.
[2] Translator’s note: the Russian equivalent of Fort Knox

Release - July 23, 2018
Pre-order: AmazoniTunesKoboGoogle